The Women

I could try to bring you back. Your ghost I mean. Like the boy who conjured his father’s ghost in that scary little book Dad used to read us. Since you’re dead, and your memory’s all fucked up, you probably can’t picture it. Dad only pulled it out at night by the campfire. I’m pretty sure the cover said “THE WOMEN” in capital letters, and I know it was small enough to fit in his jacket pocket. There were lots of stories in there, for a skinny book. Each one started the same: “Not every Woman is a Witch, but every Witch is a Woman.”

You never liked to talk about growing up, but according to that book, “Remembering is the trick to Conjuring.” I’ve been blessed and cursed with a good memory, and now I’m going to use it, and the Spirit, whatever that is, to conjure you, Falk, big brother by six minutes, my one and only friend. TALK TO ME.

I’m not conjuring Dad. Never want to see or hear Henry again. Ever. Even if he did spend his life trying to save us. Even if he was right. I blame him for what happened to you, as much as I blame them. Stay away old man!

I bet you’re laughing. I must look pathetic—poking ghosts, tearing up Dad’s office with nothing but candles and kerosene for light. Still not used to life without lights, or a fridge that works, or AC. But I had to shut the power off. I couldn’t take the noise.

I know you were hearing it, months before I did, before Mina even showed up. For you, it was different. More gradual. It came on suddenly for me—wires in the walls buzzing, lights stuttering. Then Dad’s radio went satanic, and for a moment I thought it was Mina, and you two were back from New Mexico. But it was just me. The buzzing got loud. A swarm of buzz saws cutting, splintering. Sixty cycles per second, rippling my eardrums, my bones, my teeth. Chewed off my lips, almost. Christ, it got louder and louder ‘til it blocked out everything.

With no juice coming in, it’s a lot quieter. I hear things I never could before: ants in the backyard, current pulsing in the Markham’s house down the road, cell tower signal hash. There’s an owl flying between the hickory trees out front. The witches in that book heard heartbeats through walls. They heard apples rotting, milk turning sour. Their eyes were shiny like mirrors, and they saw things invisible—dreams and secrets. They did a lot with mirrors. That’s how they changed shape, turning into owls and wildcats. They changed boys using mirrors too. They raised thunderstorms, made crops die and people sick. They made young men grow old.

Dad was scary when he did the witches’ voices. One night you asked him to stop, said the book was crazy. You made him real mad. He hated “that word.” Must be why he never told us the straight truth. He only spat out little clues, in his drunk, side-of-the-mouth, “you didn’t really hear that” way. Christ, those camping trips—five-hours from Delphi down to Ayahwasi Lake. He’d drive right through, wouldn’t stop to let us pee. One of us pissed our pants once. I want to think it was you, but it was probably me. You were always tougher, braver.

You asked Dad what happened to our mother. “They killed her,” he said. I started crying, but you shouted, “Who are THEY?” He whispered, “Hush. Or they’ll hear you. I’ll tell you when it’s time.” That time came too late. You were off with Mina, and I thought he was just being crazy old Dad, made crazier by a brain tumor.

Falk, I don’t want to believe he was right about them. He was wrong about everything else. Insanely wrong about girls. He must’ve read us that line, “Not every woman is a witch,” a thousand times, but he didn’t see a shiver of difference between “The Women” and just women. He thought all women were evil. Remember back in third grade, you brought Heather Felton over? She wanted to meet Cassius ‘cause she liked that picture of him you drew in art class. He was a real cute puppy. Cassius didn’t like Heather one bit. He barked and snapped, nearly took a chunk of her cheek. Dad hadn’t opened the place in town yet, so he heard her screaming. “You piece of trash!” he stormed. I was scared he was going to break off her little arm when he threw her out. “Don’t come near my boys again!”

Then Dad tore up your drawing, turned your backpack upside down, dumped your crayons everywhere. And he found the photo. Just a small sample print. You’re smiling, like some normal, happy kid. Dad shook it at us, like it was a bag of meth. “No goddamned photographs!” His ears went purple. “Do you want them to find you? Do to you what they did to your mother?” He cupped it in his big hand. Looked like he was going to shred it too, but he couldn’t tear apart your face.

You would’ve been that normal happy kid in the picture, if it wasn’t for Dad. Other kids liked you. Girls liked you a lot. It didn’t matter much for me. Girls thought I was weird, which was is true. Boys didn’t like me. No one but you and Cassius, and Dad, I guess. I want to believe Mina cares about me, and that she cared about you. Then I hear Dad—“Don’t trust her.” I hear that lawyer on the phone saying you’re dead.

When Dad was in the hospital, he said he wished he’d homeschooled us. But he couldn’t look at us all day, every day. We look too much like our mother. That’s why he sent us to Calvary after Heather and the photo. The tour answered his prayers (if Dad ever prayed, which I doubt)—girls in ankle-length skirts, boys in button-downs and khaki trousers. When Headmaster Hasselman said, “We don’t have any computers, not for the students,” I thought Dad was going to hug him.

We barely knew what a computer was, we were so deep in Dad’s bunker, living “the way men are supposed to.” All we knew about the rest of the world came from that portable radio he carried around, droning day and night. He kept it so low it was hard to make out what anybody was saying. Now I understand he wasn’t listening for the news. He was on alert for interference, breaks in the signal.

Unlike you, I wanted to go to Calvary. I thought I might make friends there. That didn’t happen. The teachers said I was “distracted and uncooperative.” Dad said my problem was that I spent too much time reading in my room, not enough out in the sunshine. That was why I didn’t grow as tall as you, like we were trees or stalks of corn.

Dad stopped worrying about me after a few months. By then, you were making far more trouble. You were doing so well you stood out. Mrs. Gaither wanted you for the musical. Coach Finley begged you to try out for basketball and track. You pleaded with Dad to let you, you cried. It never mattered. Dad flushed so many permission slips we had to stop using the downstairs toilet. “No teams, no theatricals, no extracurriculars.” Later he added, “No goddamned parties!” That proscription only applied to you. No one invited me anywhere. Even during the summer, kids asked you to barbecues (and Dad said no). After he opened the office in town, you just told them you were too busy. Which was true. If we weren’t in school, we were working on the house—so Dad could show it off—or other people’s houses.

The only time we weren’t covered in sawdust was when we were down at Ayahwasi Lake. During that last trip, I sensed cracks in Dad’s bunker. You were real quiet, wouldn’t laugh at his jokes. I remember he was giving us his “old-man wisdom” by the fire—“Schoolgirls seem nice now, but soon they’ll be grown women. Women want one thing: power over men.”—you kept looking away, rolling your eyes. “There’s no trick they won’t pull to get it,” he went on. “A certain kind will do worse than trick you. She’ll destroy you. And this one won’t only be pretty. She’ll be the girl you’ve been dreaming of.” He drank a deep swig of Gosden’s bourbon and stared hard at you, and then me. “Just don’t look her in the eyes,” he said, still staring. “That’s how she’ll trap you.” The stare was weird. It was like he didn’t know us. Like we were strangers.

Then when we got home, and Dad bought the new truck, your attitude seemed to shift, like 180 degrees. We called it “the new truck,” but it was as old as the one we already had. I asked Dad why we needed another relic in the front yard. “You get something made after 1980, it’ll have all kinds of circuitry and computer systems. That’ll be a problem for you boys. This will last years and years. Anything goes wrong, you fix it yourselves.” He liked watching you work on it—polishing the trim, tapping smooth dents, cleaning the engine block. You put on a good show. Dad was convinced you were ready to live like he wanted. I can see him now, sitting in his wicker chair on the porch with Cassius at his feet. He’s looking over the Sunday paper at you bent under the hood, and a big smile is spreading across his face.

He was real happy. When you asked permission for that after-school shop class, he agreed instantly. Started talking about making us official partners—“Newell *and Sons* Quality Construction.” You were happy too and I knew why. You had a secret. Gabrielle. Remember her? You wouldn’t shut up about her soft skin and her cute nose. You said she called you “Angel Eyes” ‘cause of the gold rings—she called them “halos”—around your irises. My eyes have those same rings. Dad said we got them from our mother. Aside from Dad, no one ever noticed mine.

You and Gabrielle might’ve stayed together if you’d kept it under wraps ‘til we graduated. Dad promised we could make our own choices then. But she wanted to go to the prom. And since Dad was such an easy sell for the carpentry class, you thought he’d changed. You were wrong. Dad blew his stack. He wanted the name of the SLUT you were FUCKING. You told him to forget it. You should’ve known he wouldn’t forget it for one second. He called the school the next day and found out you weren’t in the shop. You’d never even signed up.

He exploded at me. I refused to tell him where you were, and he knocked me to the floor. I tried to yell, warn you when we pulled into the lot behind Crown Food. But my jaw was swollen shut. Dad walked right up to the truck, just as you and Gabrielle were really getting into it. He dragged you out. “You got yourself a big girl!” he shouted. Gabrielle tumbled from the passenger side—blouse open, face crunched, flinging tears. “I didn’t know you liked ‘em big, son. You want a brood of pups with that FAT BITCH? ‘Stead of the life I made for you?”

I think Dad realized he’d shaken the foundations more than he should’ve, but he did not understand he’d opened fissures that could never be sealed. He said he did it to help us. “You boys are men now, legally. I always wanted you to be pure, to be better than me. I’m just a man. You two are different. You might not see what I mean for some years. But if you marry one of these Delphi girls, she’ll see it.” He reached for you. “It’ll break her heart. Break yours too.”

You shook him off. “What the fuck made you hate women so much? Do you wish we were gay? Are you trying to make us gay?”

“Falk, you can’t make a man what he’s not, or a woman, or anybody. That’s where I went wrong. You’re boys, not angels. You can’t help it. You got half my nature in you, and I’m a very human man.”

“I wish you were a dead man,” you said. A loud stab blurted from the radio. I followed Dad’s eyes and saw the dial-light was dark. He hadn’t turned it on yet. Then a scream came through, the kitchen lights blazed, and I know Dad saw what I did when I looked at you—those halos around your irises were shining.

You tried to make up with Gabrielle, but she wouldn’t talk to you. Hisses of “Devil Eyes” followed you down the hall. It wasn’t just the end of your high-school Romeo career, it pretty much ended Dad’s contracting business. Gabrielle’s family were good church people, and they talked to other good folks. Suspicion had surrounded Dad since he first came to Delphi. No one had ever seen him at a Sunday service, or a food drive, or a town meeting. Whatever his reasons were for keeping to himself, for not letting his sons play basketball or socialize, they couldn’t be good ones. Soon, nobody wanted Henry Newell and his creepy boys fixing up their kitchens and bathrooms, building their decks, or repairing their roofs.

We graduated but didn’t go to the ceremony. We didn’t think about college. Dad needed us for the business, even though there was no business. He told us, “You boys got to work with your hands.” Seemed like our only choice. Beyond Delphi and Dad was a blank. We didn’t know anybody. We had limited skills. And sitting around Newell Quality Construction all day beat working fast food or retail.

By fall, the future had shrunk to a slit. Felt like the walls and the ceiling were contracting. Dad started getting headaches that his usual remedy—aspirin and a shot of Gosden’s—couldn’t cure. His hands shook so bad, he’d smash his thumb whenever he tried to hammer a nail. His vision got weird too. “Darkness is closing in,” he’d say. One night, he was parking the truck and hit Cassius. I thanked Christ the old dog lived. And that Dad was scared enough to see an eye doctor.

Which brings us back to Mina.

Dad thought she’d been watching us for years, maybe from the day we were born, waiting for the right time to enter our lives. We were alone in the shop, feet on desks—you reading gearhead motor mags, me reading James M. Cain. We had Dad’s radio on, the college station he hated. When she came in, the signal flipped and shrieked. The lights flickered. Cassius, who’d been nothing more than a heap on the floor since the vet prescribed painkiller treats for his hip fracture, suddenly woke and started barking. I grabbed his collar before he could lunge. She took off her sunglasses and smiled.

At first, I thought her eyes were just brown. Then sunlight coming through the window hit them and they went amber, ringed with gold. I must’ve looked like an idiot, ‘cause I stood and stared while Cassius strained my hold. I was so amazed—the color’s different, but otherwise her eyes are so much like ours, so unlike anybody else’s. It’s the halo at the edge of the iris. It glimmers.

Cassius snarled and drooled. Jesus, he wanted to kill her. “Your dog doesn’t seem to like me,” she said. She was so cool, not a note of fear.

“He’s old, and he’s never liked anyone, other than us,” I said while I dragged him into the storeroom.

You walked up and asked what we could do for her.

“I’m converting the old mill on Minosa Creek, and my contractor has moved on,” she said.

“We know the place. Used to hike up there.”

“Most of the work is done. Only the floors need finishing.”

“We can do that.”

She wanted us to start immediately ‘cause her furniture was coming from New Mexico. You told her we just needed to drive out and have a look—so we could give her an estimate—and we’d be on the job in the morning.

I picked up the keys to the truck. “I’m ready.”

“Lev, I’ll go.” You took the keys from my hand. “You got to meet Dad at the doctor’s.”

When you said that, it felt like you’d slugged me in the gut. I admit, I’d envied you some, wished I was the tall, good-looking one. But I’d never really been jealous before. I’d never wanted the attention you got. I didn’t care about Gabrielle or any of those girls at Calvary. I was fine hooking up with Raymond Chandler and Henry Miller. Mina was different. I wanted her attention. Being with her—that was who I wanted to be.

The doctor said there was nothing wrong with Dad’s eyes. The problem might be in his brain. Back at the shop, Dad didn’t want to talk about it. He was too worried you weren’t there. I told him you were on-site with a client. He knew it was a woman. “I can smell her.”

“I can’t smell anything,” I said.

“There’s a charge in the air . . . like before a storm.”

He asked where the dog was. I’d forgotten about Cassius. I turned the knob to open the storeroom and felt a weight against the door. I pushed and looked in. My throat closed up. Cassius was dead. His fur swept the floor as I shoved him aside. Made me think of a dirty mop. I put him in a garbage bag and laid him in the back of Dad’s truck just as you were driving up. You didn’t notice my eyes were red, or that Dad was slumped in the passenger seat, covering his face. “We got a job!” You held up your hand to slap mine, then lowered it when you finally looked at me and saw the bag. “That Cassius?”

We dug a grave in the backyard, and Dad poured us each a shot of bourbon to say goodbye to our old friend. When we went inside, we didn’t talk about the dog, or Dad’s vision, just our new client. You tried not to show how excited you were, but Dad and I could see it. You beamed as you described how Mina had converted the old mill into a self-sufficient-home-slash-ceramics-studio. She’d knocked out walls, exposed rafters, installed a new high-tech waterwheel, built a wood-fire kiln that doubled as a hearth. We were lucky the former owner had poured concrete on the oak floors, so Mina could hire us to remove it.

Dad didn’t like the job. “Tell that woman she can find someone else.”

You said it was too late. She’d written out a check.

Dad said he’d return it, and it wasn’t up to you.

“It is up to me!” you shouted. “I don’t need your stupid business. If you send back the check, I’ll go right to her, offer my services on my own. Then I’ll get paid, get my own place, and get the fuck away from you!”

The kitchen lights burst. The floorboards heaved under our feet. I caught Dad before he fell. Watching you stomp into the hall, I realized Dad’s bunker had crumbled like rotten fiberboard.

“Lev, tell me what she looks like.” Dad gripped my arm as I walked him to bed.

“Tall. Dark hair.” I lowered him onto the mattress. “Nice clothes.”

“What about her eyes?”

“They’re brown.”

“Just brown?”

I wasn’t going to mention the halos, but that slug you gave me still ached. “At the edges, they’re gold.”

Dad breathed deep. “I know about this woman, and I’m telling you she could be the end.”

“Come on, Dad, you haven’t even seen her.”

“She’ll destroy us.”

“I’m tired. I got to get to sleep.”

“Falk won’t listen, but Lev, you got to hear me. Don’t trust her.”

Before we drove up to the mill, I thought you were stretching the truth. Last I saw, the waterwheel was missing half its spokes. The creek flowed through without a single turn. I never could’ve imagined cypress and steel, churning day and night, metal blades flashing. “Hydroelectricity. Provides all the energy she needs,” you said, like you knew what you were talking about. I asked why we had to rent a generator for the sander to do the floors if the wheel was running. “It’s a non-conventional current, and this place isn’t wired like a regular house.”

The mill’s no regular house, that’s for certain. When I think of the fancy homes we worked on before, they all seem graceless in comparison. I like how the shadow of the floating staircase spreads like fingers across the floor as the sun passes over the skylight. I like the sound of the wheel turning and the water rushing past the rocks.

Neither of us wanted the job to end. After we finished the floors, we helped move in her things. I put away books—pottery sherd studies, illustrations of herbs and roots, grammar-dictionaries for Hopi, Amharic, Occitan—and dusted off old gramophone records—“Danza De La Hoguera,” “Death Sting Me Blues.” I wanted to stay there forever. Study all those weird books. Play every record.

On our last day, she asked us to stay for dinner. While I was out picking mushrooms, peeling belvoirs off a poplar, she came up and touched my shoulder. You’d told me what it was like when you shook her hand, but it was different feeling it myself. Pinprick pulses rushed up my neck, flickered under my skin. I smelled salt and fire. I turned and saw her eyes were shining.

We roasted the mushrooms with brook trout fillets on hickory planks. She served them over rice with a spicy red sauce in those iridescent ceramic bowls she makes. We had wine that night too. We’d never had any before. The clean taste brought out the sweetness of the spices and didn’t burn my throat like Dad’s bourbon. Light quavered in the sconces on the walls, making bright hexagons dance on my arms. My head felt fizzy, but good. We were all laughing. Everything was funny. Even I was, in a good way. Through the skylight, I saw the stars were bright, beautiful. Mina saw it too. “Let’s go outside,” she said.

We walked out the glass doors onto the rock ledge over the creek. The night sky seemed close, a ceiling above the Earth. The blackness was substance, pecked with countless perforations. Like a madman had drilled a billion holes through tar paper to reveal the light beyond.

Mina went up to the edge. “The stars make me think about time.”

“‘Cause they don’t change?” you asked.

“Everything changes. But those lights are very old and very far away, so change happens very slowly.”

“I want my life to change fast,” you said.

She looked at you. “It has. Already.”

The next morning, I stretched out my arms, and it seemed like I could reach farther than ever. Then I clutched at my gut. I felt a sudden churning, an emptiness, like a hole burning inside. A sour taste came up. I knew I was going to be cut out.

The night of the severing started sweet. A chill had set in, and Mina built a hickory fire in the hearth with herbs between the logs. I stretched out on the pillows and watched the flames. There were strange colors . . . blues and pinks. Smoke curled into floating spirals. The wine she said was real old felt heavy on my tongue, like liquid silver. But it didn’t slide thick down my throat. Just heat, brightness, lifting me.

Scratchy old jazz beats cut the smoke curls into sickles. I turned and saw you and Mina standing in front of the antique mirror by the phonograph. Mina asked you what you saw. “I look different,” you said. I saw it too. In the mirror, you seemed older. Not a kid. A man. I heard a clarinet, then a fiddle and a slapping guitar. The music sounded skinny but strong, like spider silk. You two started dancing. I’d never seen you dance. She showed you steps. You spun her around. Laughter and smoke stirred in the air, chords spread like waves. You and Mina twirled, almost swimming, wound in a whirlpool.

I felt pressure building. Lightning burst. Rain pounded hammerheads on the skylight. Anger shot me to the doors. Jealousy threw them open. I fell, sprawling onto the ledge. Around my fingers, rain splintered crystal, faceted, each drop a thousand eyes.

Mina came to me, halos piercing bright. She pulled me up. “Take the storm. Feel it rise.” There was red in her black hair. She took my hand and yours. Your eyes burned like hers, like mine. We rose, a circle of fire, liquid shards shooting off our charged skin.

I smelled the bolt before it split the sky. It hovered, crackling, suspended. The light that fills all living things.

Then you and Mina severed the circle, cut me out, and pulled each other close.

I woke up by the hearth. There was knocking on the front door. I looked out the window and saw Dad. It paralyzed me for a moment. He was the last person I wanted to see, but I figured I’d better let him in. Before I could, Mina came downstairs, looking freshly showered, and opened the door.

Dad had on his senior-style orange sunglasses and was shivering in the bright sun. “I’m here for my boys, Falk and Lev.” He winced as he spoke, like the words were cutting his gums.

Mina looked sorry for him. “Please come in.”

“Henry Newell.” He held out a shaky hand.

She took it. “Mina Wallis.”

Dad flinched and snapped it back. “Would’ve called first. Couldn’t find a number.”

“There’s no phone here.”

I was about to say something when you yelled from the top of the stairs, “What the fuck, Dad? How’d you get here?”

“Cob Markham gave me a ride.”

“Why? It’s Saturday. What do you need us for?” You seemed so relaxed coming down, though you were only wearing a towel around your waist.

“I have to get to Fairfax in an hour and a half,” Dad creaked. “Can’t see well enough to drive myself anymore.”

I’d blanked on his MRI scan. “Sorry. I forgot. I’ll take you.”

While I buttoned my shirt, you went over to the phonograph. “You ever see one of these, Dad?”

Dad stepped closer and squinted as you fingered the silver crank on the side. “Been a long while,” he said. “That’s a Gharinique.”

Mina joined you. “Built to last.”

“You know this music?” You put on the record you’d danced to. “From back when you were young?”

“Long before my time. How old do you think I am?” He glared at Mina. “A hundred?”

On the way to Fairfax, he asked me if you were sleeping with her. I told him to drop it. He wouldn’t. “I felt her power, Lev, I saw it in her eyes . . . She’s one of them!”

“Dad, who are they?”

“The Women!” he shouted. “The women who murdered your mother! If we don’t get him away, she’ll kill him!”

When we got home that afternoon, you were coming downstairs with a duffle bag. “I’m moving to Mina’s,” you said. “I can’t stand it here anymore. Can’t hear myself think.”

Dad collapsed on the couch. “Falk, give me a minute, please.”

“You got one second.”

“I see why you like her. She’s real pretty, sophisticated. Reminds me of your mother some. But, do you ever wonder why she’s here? Why come to Delphi? She doesn’t have family here. Doesn’t go to church—”

“She got sick of living in a desert. Thought she’d try somewhere green.”

“Son, you don’t know many secular young folks with their phones and their hookups, but think of yourself. If you had the money and freedom this young lady does, would you choose to live single in the backwoods of Virginia?”

“I would if I knew I’d meet her.”

“How did she know she’d meet you?”

“She didn’t!”

“Think, Falk! What’s a woman like her doing with a simple boy like you?”

“I’ve thought a lot. I know it doesn’t make sense. Mina could have anyone. I don’t know shit. You sent me to a school that wouldn’t allow computers. You wouldn’t let me play sports. I got no future worth anything, thank you very much. Despite that, for whatever reason, she likes me. We’re happy. And this time YOU CAN’T TAKE IT AWAY!”

A day or two later, the MRI results came back and they weren’t good. The images showed a ghostly corona in the right lobe of Dad’s cerebral cortex. He had a malignant brain tumor. If he wanted to fight, he was looking at multiple surgeries, immunotherapy, radiation, chemo. I didn’t think fighting was worth it. But I couldn’t sway him. He went in for surgery, which did more harm than good. Most of the growth couldn’t be removed without killing him, and in recovery, he contracted an intracranial staph infection. Spent his final weeks shuttling between the ICU and a rehab center that stank of piss.

I saw him every day. Sometimes he was angry, ranting—Mina was “evil to the core,” they had planted the tumor in his head. Other times he was calm, simply happy I was there. Near the end, he’d forget where he was, what year it was. He’d squint and ask, “How’d you get so big?”

You never showed up. It broke his heart. “Where’s Falk?” he kept asking. “Why isn’t he back from school?” I had to lie. “He’ll be here real soon.” The only visitor besides me was the pastor from Calvary, and Dad wouldn’t let him in the room. “Never liked preachers. You boys are what I believe in.”

He just wanted you and me by his side when he left this world. Right before his last seizure, he gripped my hand. “I know I made mistakes. But everything I did, I did to protect you.”

You and I never talked about it. That’s when the walls rose between us. We scattered Dad’s ashes in silence—half over Cassius’s grave in the backyard, the rest in the Shenandoah.

Then we got a surprise. We’d inherited money. Dad was from an old, rich family—the Gosdens of Kentucky (like the bourbon). He’d changed our last name to Newell back when we were infants. On the petition he filed, we saw our mother listed as “Barbara Saylor, Deceased.” Dad had never told us her name. Don’t know why, but from the moment I read it, “Barbara Saylor” didn’t seem genuine.

I went out and bought everything Dad forbade—cell phone, laptop, ultra-high-def TV, game console. I bought a phone for you too, since Mina didn’t have one, and you wanted to “stay in touch.” The old you would’ve really liked all that stuff. We would’ve watched movies and shows together, played games for hours and days. You would’ve helped me figure out dating apps. But while you packed one last load to take to Mina’s, I played Grimoire Assassin alone.

Mina drove over that night in her 1966 Gharinique coupe. (I think you were as hot for that old sportscar as you were for her.) I’d left Dad’s radio by the front door and before she even knocked, it was screaming. “Why’d you bring that piece of junk back from the hospital?” you shouted.

“Might want to hear the news!” I shouted back. The radio had been making little bleeps all morning (every time you walked past), but now sawed up, spiraling shrieks were coming through.

“Turn it off!”

“It is off!” I took it down to the cellar and yanked out the batteries, but it hollered on. So I muted it as best I could—wrapped it in a blanket, shut it deep in the cedar chest.

Back upstairs, the ceiling lamps were strobing. I heard stabs ripping through the TV speakers. You and Mina were in the living room, looking at Grimoire Assassin. The visuals and the sounds were all distorted—bands warped the screen, shredded howls echoed off the walls. Mina turned away. “I don’t like video games.”

Games or Mina. Though I would’ve made the same choice, it still made me mad. Playing with strangers online was fun, but I wanted to play with you. You tried to make up for it some, invited me to the mill a few times. Neither you nor Mina liked coming here. Too much noise. I regret that I kept to myself. I was trying to get my bearings. Everything had changed so much, so fast. I felt like I was falling, even when I was standing still.

I should’ve gone with you to New Mexico when you asked. Maybe I could’ve stopped you from going to the desert. There just didn’t seem to be room for a third in Mina’s coupe. “I got to stay and watch the shop,” I said. We both knew it wasn’t true.

“We’ll talk when Mina and I get back. I really want to talk to you, Lev.”

That was the last thing I heard you say.

It was a little over a month after you left that I woke up in the wrong house. I was here, this place I know better than anywhere, only it was wrong. The walls and the lights throbbed. Silver wrinkles broke when I touched them, then reformed—ripples, arcing around my fingers. Grimoire Assassin was all fucked up, just weird fractal patterns. Then shrieks came up from the cellar. It was Dad’s radio. I checked outside for Mina, for you, and saw nothing. I ran downstairs, pulled the radio from the chest, tore off the back. The batteries were gone, of course. But the thing kept blaring. I took it outside and grabbed the ax. Had to hack it to bits to make it stop.

I didn’t understand what was happening. I needed to talk to you. So I texted, I called. Got nothing ‘cept your voicemail. I started thinking I’d drive out West, surprise you and Mina. But I had no idea where in New Mexico you were going. I tried searching for “Mina Wallis” on the laptop, but the internet died and the keyboard got hot and the screen went black. Never came on again. My cell crashed before I got through to tech support.

It seemed the only way to find Mina, and you, was to break into the mill. So I drove there late at night. Just past the old rail bridge over Minosa Creek, the dashboard lights in the truck flickered out, the engine cut, and the wheels slowed to a stop. I got out and walked up the gravel road in darkness. Hot, heavy air stuck like syrup to my skin. Reminded me how long it’d been since you left. The nights were still cool then.

I grasped the handle to the front door, felt the lock catch and the bolt resist. But I wasn’t going to give up. I had to get in there. I thought of all the doors we’d installed, saw the lock mechanism in my mind. A bright coil whirled inside me, the hair on my arms rose, heat welled up ‘til my brain burned. Then the lock sprung, the bolt shunted back and the door swung open.

Inside, the air was cool. I smelled hickory ash, clay, dried herbs, old books. There were no buzzing wires or shrieking radios, just the soft lull of the creek and the waterwheel. I understood what you and Mina meant about our place being loud. I went over to the wall sconces, and before I could wonder how to turn them on, the filaments flickered up by themselves. Curving letters limned by the light spelled “Gharinique”—same as the phonograph, and the coupe, and I’m guessing, a whole other world of stuff.

Glinting hexagons scaled the walls and rafters as I searched closets, shelves, drawers, her desk. I found tins of tree sap, drawings of scary, spiky plants, but no IDs, address books, or letters. Not a single photograph. Aside from her pottery and some winter clothes, nobody would know who lived there. Just as I figured there was no point in staying any longer and was heading for the door, I heard a voice, whispering.

You don’t have to go.

It sounded like Mina.

This is your home, too.

Then it sounded like you.

I knuckled tears from my eyes as I slipped out. Felt like rising from the cool waters of Ayahwasi Lake into a steaming mosquito cloud. By the time I got back to the truck, any tears had boiled away. I was white-hot angry. How could you abandon me? Disappear for weeks when you knew what I was going to go through?

The truck started right up the moment I turned the key, as if my rage had jolted it back to life. On Route 50, I stomped on the gas. The headlights flared as I sped past 80 mph. Then I pulled into the Winchester police station. I was thinking they could get the New Mexico State Police to put out an APB or something. There were bright lights inside, though it must’ve been 4 a.m. Before I got out, I sensed the current. It was huge, saw-toothed, pulsing. Vomit filled my throat. I knew I couldn’t stand it in there for thirty seconds. And what was I going to tell them? You took off with your girlfriend and wouldn’t call me? I’d have to say I thought you’d been kidnapped, or worse. And they wouldn’t believe me. They’d think I was high and lock me up. I’d be raking my skull under those lights, losing it ‘fore they’d buy a word.

I drove home, went behind the house and shut down the main electric breaker. It was nasty hot without the air-conditioning, but it was much quieter. I slept in my sweat for eight hours. First decent sleep in days. When I got up, I tried using my cell to call you again. It was fried, no use. The landline still worked (I guess old phones don’t need current coming in), though the connection was bad. Your voicemail sounded crackly, like a recording from a hundred years ago. I left message after message. You never called back.

I hate that old land phone now. It’s cursed. If I just look at it, I hear hiss, crunched-up-words. A lawyer calling from Santa Fe regrets to inform me you are deceased. You had a cardiac arrest way out in the desert. Your body was medevacked to a hospital, but you didn’t make it. Though no known substances were found in your blood, an autopsy convinced the coroner that use of stimulants combined with a congenital heart defect caused your death. “Mina Wallis requests your permission to transport the cremains.”

I should’ve told that man his story didn’t make sense. I never saw you take any stimulants. If you did take drugs, why weren’t there traces in your blood? And how the fucking hell could you have been such a good athlete with a defective heart? Coach Finley said you were the best he’d ever seen.

It happened so fast. I heard myself say, “I grant permission,” before I knew what I was doing. If I hadn’t shut down the breaker, and the wires were still buzzing, I would’ve loaded the shotgun and sprayed my brains on the couch. Instead, I mourned the way Dad taught us. I went through the bottle of Gosden’s in the pantry in a day. Then I moved on to the case in the cellar. I slowed down by day four ‘cause it wasn’t helping me feel better. And I got freaked when I took off my shirt and it smelled like Dad had been wearing it. He was drunk a lot, I guess. But after that call from Santa Fe, his ideas about Mina and the Women didn’t seem crazy anymore.

Yesterday, I was sober enough to think. I started thinking about finding that book. Dad never allowed us in his office, so I figured it was the most likely place. When I opened the door, it was like he just left it. An insulation catalog lay open on the desk, next to a sticky shot glass. Not much inside the desk, only dried-up pens and an empty Gosden’s bottle. The filing cabinets had the real hoard. Dad kept our finger paintings, macaroni art, reports, even that third-grade photo of you that made him so mad. The rest was just old invoices and contracts, and porn. By sunset, I was going to give up. It’s hard to search in the dark. Then, in the far corner bottom drawer, under a stack of roofing brochures, I discovered some fascinating material—research papers on old religious sects, like the Shakers and Millennialists, plus a few describing Native American beliefs. All of them written by guess who?

Dad.

In the 1990s, he was Henry Gosden, graduate student of Cultural Anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. Shocking, right? I got out the storm lamp and some candles and thumbed through a couple papers. I read in this one, “Spirit Transference: Breaking Boundaries Between the Living and the Dead,” that a ghost world exists just beneath our feet.

It gave me the idea to take the whole file drawer out of the cabinet. Underneath, I found a snapshot of a young woman and a theater program. The photo’s scratched up and scorched around the edges. Can’t make out the face very well—her eyes are scratched out—but her hair’s reddish-brown, same as ours. The program is for a performance of “The Women,” a play by Clare Boothe Luce. Dad was the director. Didn’t see a Barbara Saylor in the cast or crew, and the one picture is no help—a black-and-white beauty parlor scene with everybody in helmet-hairdryers. Still, I believe our mother was one of the actors, or worked backstage. That’s how they met.

Back at Calvary, Mrs. Gaither never wanted me for her productions, but I remember the Drama Shelf in her classroom. I picked up a play called HARVEY once. I’d never read it, yet it looked familiar—thin paper cover, title in all caps, just like THE WOMEN. Dad didn’t read us scenes from a play though. There were no stage directions, or talk about hair salons, or much dialogue at all. He must’ve made up those witch stories, and used the play like a prop, to make us believe them more.

I was still searching this morning when I sensed a pressure change. The air smelled like salt and smoke. I looked out the front window and there was Mina, sitting on the porch in Dad’s wicker chair. I wanted to hit her. Crack her pretty skull. But I just opened the door.

“It’s quiet now,” she said, getting up.

“I shut off the power.”

Her fingers brushed my face. “The Spirit grows inside you.” Shocks went through my jaw. “I’m sorry about Falk.” She hugged me. I wanted to pull away, but the light was flowing between us. I needed to feel that.

She set your ashes on the counter in the kitchen and said, “No thanks,” when I offered Gosden’s. I poured a shot for myself. “Tell me what happened,” I said, staring out at Cassius’s grave in the backyard.

“I can’t.”

That’s when I swung.

She caught my fist before I knew I’d thrown it. My knuckles shimmered in her grip. Current raced up my arm, shot through my chest. Freezing, burning . . . I couldn’t move.

Her eyes shone like they did that night on the ledge in the rain. “I can’t tell you because I wasn’t there.” Then the halos dimmed. She let me go.

“How can you do that?” I was shaking.

She took my wrist and pressed. “Do you know why my finger doesn’t go right through your skin?” Sparks popped as she traced the inside of my arm. “It’s energy that separates us. Electrons winking on and off, binding molecules, lighting galaxies. There and not there.”

My blood turned hot fire. Light poured from my eyes.

“This is the Spirit. Everywhere and nowhere.” Her voice broke into harmonies, a song beneath her words. “All creatures have a spark, but in us, she is alive, bright and strong. Too strong for some . . .”

I jerked away. “You want to melt my brain too? Fry my heart? Like Falk?”

“No. I loved him.”

I held my arm. “Then why did you let him die?”

“It was his choice.”

“To do what?”

“To learn who he was! To face his legacy, our legacy, yours. It has been so for millennia, from mothers to daughters—”

“What about sons?”

“Sons are very rare.” She clasped my shoulder. The light curled and pulsed. “Lev, it’s time for you to learn who you are.”

“Don’t you mean what I am? What are we, Mina?”

She let go and stepped back. “I’ll return tomorrow morning. If you want the truth, you’ll come with me. Someone has been waiting to meet you. She’ll answer all your questions.”

I think “someone” is our mother. She’s alive. Maybe Dad lied to protect us, or ‘cause the truth was too strange, too painful. I guess it’s possible he didn’t know. She made him believe she was dead. Was she there in New Mexico when the Spirit cooked your heart? How the fuck am I going to make it, if you’re dust?

WHAT SHOULD I DO, FALK?

Sunshine’s coming in. I’m out of time. I hear Mina’s Gharinique on the main road. Think you hear that engine whirring too. You tuned it ‘til it sang to you.

You’re here. I feel it. No more walls between us.

Go with her. Face what you are. Then find your own way.

So that’s your answer. Risk everything, face the truth. You think, if I do it, and survive, they will let me find my own way to live? Not Dad’s way or theirs? If I die . . . That might be okay. We’ll both be ghosts.

I really wish I could find that book. Those words—“Every Witch is a Woman”—keep winding ‘round my head. I think I understand now why Dad wanted us to believe that. It was hard for him to accept his boys were what we are, and he didn’t want to leave it up to the Women whether we live to become men.

Three Poems

I tell him I’m dating a man.He asks if I’m lonelyand need him to moveacross the country.He reminds me I amhis only son. Himself oneof seven; half his familydied in migration.On a trip to Vietnam, we foundhis sister’s photo in a templeand the monk refused usthe copy, said her spiritwas home. My dadnever says if...
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My Son

I love my son. No one can tell me otherwise. If I am hard on my boy, it’s only to let him know that I am his Baba. In short, I am not his friend. This is because I only ever want the best for him, and because my son doesn’t know better, it falls upon my broader shoulders to show him the way. I emigrated from Taipei. I went to Florida State in Tallahassee. I learned to appreciate the delights of football. I once worked the night shift at a Dunkin’ Donuts, which is why I know firsthand, that one should always avoid the Bavarian Crème.

I am a food chemist. I work in Amityville, Long Island. Once a year, I’ll attend the company picnic. It’ll usually be held in a park, in the middle of the woods, and during the summer. Think frisbees and baseball under a bright, blinding sunshine. Think short-sleeved shirts and Bermuda shorts, a buffet of hotdogs and burgers. Almost always, there is a company raffle. Everyone in the company participates. It is supposed to be a bonding experience. The prize last year was a car. But I am a reasonable man. What I mean is that I know the raffle’s been rigged so that guys like me in mid-management won’t win. It’ll usually go to someone on the supply line. The raffle gives off the illusion of equal opportunity and something like the undoing of an injustice. But the real winners are those who are at the top.

Still, everyone leaves the picnic feeling good. The point is that I get to be there and that I get to bring my son for all the burgers and potato salad that he can eat. It’s so he can see me at my finest hour—so that he might gain a better sense of all that I’ve done for him, all that I’ve provided. When the time comes to think of his own future, here are the footsteps he might want to follow. Here is the person who he might want to emulate. Perhaps he might thank me, though I wouldn’t need him to. And for me, such things will be winning enough.

And yet, my son tells me that the fathers of his classmates take them to the museum. They attend their music recitals. They test their kids on spelling. In such cases, I have to remind my boy that I put food on the table and a roof over his head. Otherwise, he’d be out in the streets. Otherwise, come the winter, he’d freeze to death. Knowing my son, his chances of survival are next to naught. And the fact that I have to remind him is problematic. For one, he’s developed too much of an appetite for the comforts of life. He already gets piano lessons. He already takes taekwondo. He has a pet hamster. He’s named it Cody.

Furthermore, I have to remind my son that when I come home from work, I do not need to hear him tinkering away at the piano. Or see him out of the corner of my eye practicing his taekwondo movements. I would like to read the Chinese newspaper. I would like to watch the evening news. It’s not like he’s very good anyway, and I am not afraid to tell him so.

“It’s called practice,” my son tries to rationalize to me.

I wave my hand. I remind him that if he doesn’t shut his mouth, I can easily do so for him.

“Is that a threat?”

Okay, my son doesn’t actually say this. Of course, he doesn’t have to. But I imagine that one day, he’ll ask me outright and I’d better have my answer prepared: “Is that a threat? Well, if you want your Baba to show you, I will. After all, I’ve been showing you everything else, haven’t I?”

In Taiwan, I was in the army. Back then, everyone was obligated to do their two years of service. It was a hangover from the Chinese Civil War. I had been sent to the mountains where it was cold and damp. I was made to stay there for months. At night, I could barely sleep. There were dark days that I never thought would end. The point is, such an experience made me a man. I had to train, hard. I had to know what to do in case of any emergency. I put out fake fires with a long hose. I had to go through the motions of saving the injured, of saving lives. My own Baba was a colonel. During the Communist Revolution, he had served on the side of the Nationalists, the Kuomintang under Chiang Kai-shek. It was the side that lost. My mother and father were forced to flee Shanghai on the mainland. We left behind a home, our relatives, so many of our belongings. But that was how we ended up in Taiwan. My mother was already pregnant with me. The year was 1949. It was the year I was born—the year of the ox. There used to be a running joke in the family. I was already in my mother’s belly in China, but I was born in Taiwan. When my Baba told it, no one really laughed. But we understood that it was supposed to be funny.

I myself am the eldest of four ambitious brothers. When we were kids, my brothers looked up to me. I was the first, so I made the mistakes in order so that they could fare better. What I mean is, where I made errors, my brothers only improved. This was why they were able to advance further. It was the sacrifice I made for being the first. Eventually, my brothers thought that they were better than me. And that was their mistake. My own Baba called me “stupid.” He’d call me “stupid” before my brothers at the dinner table. We didn’t say what it was then, but the man was depressed. He knew that he would never see his home again in Shanghai, nor would he ever see his family in Henan. He would never see his own siblings. But my father felt that he was on the right side of history, and in the end, that was what mattered most, for a time. I, however, knew that it was a punishment from the Heavens, and another part of me believed that he deserved it.

And yet, there are instances when I find myself moved by self-reflection. I’ll finally come to understand my own father a bit more. I don’t call my son “stupid” at the dinner table, even though admittedly, there are times when I think that he should hear it. In return, I expect my son to sit there, to eat the food that his mother has so carefully prepared, and to listen to me talk about my day at the lab. I might tell him about my discoveries—or more often than not, what I don’t discover but hope one day that I will. If I’m in a foul mood, I might not speak altogether. Nevertheless, I still require my son’s presence, his utmost attention. I’d rather not allow him to excuse himself. For if he does it once, I know that he’ll think he can do it again, and one never knows what such diversions might lead to. If he goes to his room to watch TV, or to listen to music from his stereo, it will fill me with such a blinding rage, and I know that ultimately such things will only prove to be counterproductive.

But when I watch him eat, it’s almost as if he’s eating from my very hand. At the age of thirteen, he is a growing boy. Still, I know that he will not be taller than me. Not yet.

My son is of a sensitive disposition. It is another problem that I foresee. He likes the art museum in the city. He likes the music of Beethoven. When he is bullied in school, he doesn’t fight back. He’d rather get punched one day and hold out hope that later on he still might be able to form a friendship with his bullies. In short, I know that there will be other lessons that I will have to impart on the boy. Some of these lessons, I will have to wait on. I have to pick my battles.

But I do drive my son to the park by the bay. When we get there, I shove a basketball into his hands. We find a near-empty court. There, I make him shoot two-pointers for an hour or so. One hundred points. Two hundred. I tell him about my brothers. “This is what we used to do back in Taiwan.” “This was how we bonded when we used to bond.” “We loved it. We loved each other too.”

On this day, my son and I go on for another hour. A dreaded dusk descends. I try to ignore the fact that other boys would love the chance to play against their fathers, but not my son. I can see that he is afraid of a little competition. My hunch is that he hates to lose. Only it’s worse. He’s willing to give up before we even end the game. And on this day, my son decides to be difficult. He wants to go home, he says. It’s cold, he says. He looks up at me with his dark eyes, full of daggers, as they say.

It’s okay, I tell him. I can be difficult too.

The next day, my son brings home an additional hamster. I can’t help but take this as one more example of how oblivious my boy has become to all that I’ve done for him. As I’ve already mentioned, he had begged me to get him the first hamster from the basement of Woolworths. And as I have already mentioned, he had named it “Cody.” I had bought the pet for him in a moment of weakness. I thought that having a hamster might teach my son something about responsibility, and even appreciation. In the end, I’m the one who feeds it and cleans its cage. Cody is golden and bright-eyed. It is energetic and bites the bars on the cage. One can even hear the metallic rattle all throughout the night, and more often than not, it keeps me up into the early morning hours.

The new hamster isn’t golden, nor is it bright-eyed. It is actually quite ugly with its messy gray fur and its pink snout like a pig’s. My son explains. It was given to him by a classmate from school, or so he says.

I refuse to shell out the money for another cage. But my son says that it’s okay; he’s already saved up enough for another. It doesn’t matter that I tell him that it’s a waste of money. The next day, he will take the bus to the Petland on Main Street. Stock up on supplies. It isn’t exactly music to my ears. For now, the rodent lives in a shoebox.

At the dinner table, I tell my son about my day at the lab, about the experiment that went nowhere so we have to try again. And how I’m willing to try again and again until I get it right. He holds up a finger and stops me mid-sentence.

“Excuse me,” he says. Before I can oblige, he adds, “I should go check on Teddy.”

“Who’s Teddy?”

Later that night, Teddy escapes from the shoebox. It somehow finds its way to my room, down the hall. Then it is in my bed. Now I wake with a start. My senses clarify. Moments later, I find my fingers dripping with blood. I must have startled the rodent and so it bit me. In retaliation, I fling it across the room. It hits the wall, plops to the floor. But as I am trying to wipe the blood from my fingers, I see the little thing make its uneven way back toward my bed like a winded beggar. I consider killing it right then and there. In the army, we used to kill rats. We used to shoot birds for target practice. Still, I think to bring the hamster back to my son’s room.

The commotion wakes him. I see my son through the darkness as he rubs his eyes. At first, he’s too groggy to understand, no matter how much I try to tell him. But when he sees me with the hamster, pressed facedown against the floor, he gets the message. Then I watch my son cry.

“No, don’t do it,” he whimpers. “Please, Baba, don’t.”

Now I am no monster. But the fact that my son thinks me capable of such an act only upsets me further, and I am already upset. So I say to him, “Calm down.” I feel the thing squirm beneath me. “It’s alive and well.”

And yet, my son cannot stop his tears. I can hear him plead and plead, but for what? I’m the one who’s still bleeding. I’m the one who’s still in pain. But does my son care?

I leave the hamster be. A bit stunned, it doesn’t go very far. No doubt my blood is still on its teeth.

And then I hear my son say it, “I hate you.” Somehow his voice is even higher than ever. “I really hate you,” he says again.

“Don’t be stupid, boy. Go back to sleep.” Outside the window, I can just make out the beginnings of a twilight.

“No, actually,” my son then says. “You’re the stupid one.”

At the door, I pause. “Oh, really?”

In the morning, the neighbors ring the bell. They come with concerned faces. They want to know what happened. “Is everything okay?” one neighbor asks. She is a woman in her mid-sixties. Her name is Minnie. Indeed, she’s been our neighbor for close to ten years, and she’s never once come to the house. Now she’s shaking her head at me.

I smile the best I can. It’s the smile that I reserve for white people. “Of course. Everything’s okay. Nothing to worry about.”

“But I heard yelling last night. I heard crying.” Then, “I was about to call the police.”

“Everything’s all right. Don’t you worry.” I want to add that she should mind her own business. But instead, I wave. I nod. I smile some more. I smile harder.

Then I close the door on Minnie. I look out the window. She is a full-figured woman in a pink muumuu and slippers. I watch as she makes her way up her driveway and then back inside her house and through the side door. I take in the quietude around me. I realize that I don’t know where my son is. But I know he’s gone out. For once, he had been up before me. I don’t think he slept a wink.

It doesn’t matter if my boy doesn’t speak to me for a week. I will not call after him. He will have to learn that I can hold my breath for just as long as he can, even longer. He’s mistaken if he thinks he knows me at all. I can hold it until it hurts, until I’m black and blue.

Then, of course, there is the trip to New Orleans. In fact, I’ve not been to the city since my days at Florida State. I had once gone by myself, as a little getaway. It was a big deal for me, as I’m not one to take trips. But my son and I are there for the Chemistry Food Expo at the convention center. We sample the food at the different booths. We try tuna fish ice cream and pigeon stir fry and dragon fruit cake. It is crowded. People are making connections left and right, exchanging business cards. I pass out a few myself and collect handfuls. In the evenings, we dine at restaurants that we normally wouldn’t have the chance to go to. I’m no fan of eating out. Too much oil, and not to mention, too expensive. But here, we will have no other choice. I don’t even know how we can eat anymore after a day of sampling food at the Expo, but we do. Oysters, muffulettas, gumbo, beignets for dessert and the chicory flavored café au lait at Café du Monde. I like beans and rice because it reminds me of the food from Taiwan. But my favorite is the crawfish because it also feels most like I’m getting my money’s worth when I eat it, and I swear, it only enhances the flavor. As a food chemist, I can say that there is no chemical formula that can do it any better.

The next afternoon, I go to the Food Expo myself. I have to say that it isn’t the same without my son. Still, I try some samples. Still, I dole out business cards and collect even more. But when I return to the hotel, I find a bag of crawfish sitting on the air conditioner. Our room doesn’t have a refrigerator. I know that my son had had to walk from our hotel to the French Quarter in order to get it from the fish market. He might even have had to ride the streetcar. My heart swells with pride. “My boy,” I say. After a day of sampling food, I shouldn’t be hungry. But I devour the bag. My son doesn’t eat any of the crawfish. He doesn’t want to eat something with eyes, he says. He doesn’t want to eat something with so many legs. But it doesn’t bother me, not in the least.

It’s the first trip that we’ve taken together. And we actually talk. I get to see another side of the boy. He doesn’t say a lot to me, but it’s in his actions. Like the crawfish. Like our evening walks through the French Quarter after the Food Expo. He likes it. I like it, too. I think that this is what it can be. In fact, this is what it should be.

My son’s favorite street is Royal Street. He likes to look at the paintings and the antiques in the shop windows, and the crystal chandeliers and hand-carved wood furniture and silverware. My favorite street is Bourbon Street. I like the bright lights and the vividness of it all, a feast for the senses. Everyone seems happy. But also, I like to walk along the riverfront and gaze upon the Mississippi River and see the steamboats and listen to the jazz music that seems to flow from them and carry over the water in the still of the night. It’s there that I get to tell my son about how I couldn’t compete with my brothers in Taiwan. Not at school. Not even in the army. Eventually, they were even able to outplay me in basketball. Instead of food chemistry, they all went into computer programming. It was the 1990s. It was the rise before the fall. For a time, my brothers lived it up. Houses in the suburbs. Fancy cars. A Gateway 2000 computer in practically every room. They already had the advantage of confidence, which counted for a lot. And yet, like Icarus, they flew too close to the sun. I only know of Icarus from my studies in high school. This was back in Taipei. My teacher then, Lim Tai Tai, had had a passion for Greek mythology. And because we were in Taiwan and not the mainland where the Cultural Revolution raged, we could read such things like The Odyssey. The point is, there is always more to the story.

“That was how they lost their fortunes,” I add. “I’m not saying I’m happy about it. I’m saying that they wanted too much. The Chinese word for it is ‘tan xin.’ It means ‘greedy heart.’ They thought they could be like white people. So you see? Greedy heart.” Then I say, “So who is the stupid one now?”

My son doesn’t like the hotel we are staying at. The bed is too hard, he says. The TV doesn’t work. So we move a little further down the street to another hotel. We check in. The bellboy takes our bags. The room is far better than I expect and almost worth the price. There is a living area with a couch. There is a bathtub. The TV has HBO.

The next afternoon, I decide to leave the expo early. Enough free samples, enough business cards. My son and I visit a swamp in the bayou. We buy tickets for the tour. On it, the guide tells us about his family. He has two daughters. He even passes around a photo album. “This is my old man,” he says. He points to a photograph of a wrinkled man in a red cap and wearing jeans, smoking a long pipe. Then he takes us to see the alligators. He feeds them whole chickens, and the gators devour the raw meat. The guide gives my son one of the baby alligators to hold. At first, I think that my son will be too afraid. But he isn’t. Outside the boat, the air is muggy. There is not a single cloud in the blue sky. After the tour, I leave the guide a twenty, even though I know he’s been angling the whole time for tips.

Later still, my son and I are back in the city. There is the jostling of tourists. We push our way through to see a brass band play. We are on Frenchmen Street. There is something in the air, something like cinnamon. We’re drawn to an outdoor market. At a stand, a woman sells us homemade soaps. They smell of jasmine. I end up buying two, which I already know I’ll never use.

Okay, none of this has actually happened. Not the swamp tour, nor the Food Expo. Not the splurge on the jasmine soaps. At least, not yet. But I can already see it all in my mind’s eye as if it’s yesterday. I know that it is only a matter of time. And there’s nothing wrong with having high hopes.

The warmest of evenings, a sky filled with stars. The sun-filled days that almost never end. Light so bright that it sparkles over the Mississippi River.

At this year’s company picnic, it rains like hell. It is the middle of July. We all have to crowd under several tents in order to hide from the downpour. It’s a pain. There are barely any seats left at the long wooden tables. We’re packed like what some might say are sardines. Despite all this, the festivities are in full swing. Children can be heard laughing around us. There is music and even dancing. For a moment I think of how it says something about the power of the human spirit—its unrelenting ability to persevere. Once again, there is the lottery. The prize this time is an all-expenses-paid trip to Tahiti at a five-star resort.

As expected, I lose.

But I am here with my son. We are in line for the buffet. When we get to the trays of food, I grab a paper plate. Have a burger, I urge. Have a hotdog. “Don’t have just one, have two. Have three.”

It’s then that my son tells me the news: he’s now a vegetarian. I can’t help but scoff.

When we find a seat at the corner of a table, I tell him that being a vegetarian is nothing short of wasteful. I tell him to think of all the people who are starving around the world. I tell him that when I was growing up in Taiwan, my brothers and I didn’t get a chance to pick and choose what we wanted to eat. There were always shortages, not to mention inflation, which made it all the more difficult to get what was already not enough.

“Baba, why do you hate me?” my son then says.

“What do you mean? I don’t hate you.”

“Then how come you never say that you love me?”

“Why do I have to say it?”

“I guess you don’t.”

I see my boss. I wave to him. He waves back. I see several of my colleagues in mid-management. I say hello to them too. I shake their hands. I introduce them to my son. My son says hello. Me and the rest of mid-management talk of how we still have to get that beer and watch football. We’ve been saying it for years now, but I still like to keep the door open, just in case. After all, I am one of the few Chinese people here, and among all the faces that aren’t like mine, it somehow feels like an accomplishment. My son is having his potato salad. He’s having coleslaw. I am on my fourth burger, and I am already thinking of getting another.

I get my fifth burger. When I return to the table, I say to my son, “Eat something more, I’m begging you, please.”

“I can’t.”

I then point to all the food on display, cakes and strudels too. I know most of it will soon be thrown away, which is a shame. “Literally everything you could ever want to eat at your fingertips, and all you can say is no.”

“Well, what else can I say? I’m full.”

“What about dessert?”

“Dessert? No more dessert.”

And then I know what to say. In fact, I’ve prepared for it. “New Orleans.”

“New Orleans?” my son reiterates.

I tell him about the Chemistry Food Expo later that summer. I tell him that I am willing to splurge on the decent hotel. I tell him about the French Quarter and the swamp tour. A stroll along the Mississippi River. I tell him about the first time I was there as a student at Florida State.

But he shakes his head. “No way.”

“What do you mean no way?”

“I can’t go with you to New Orleans.”

“And why not?”

“Because I’m not going to have any fun.”

“But it’s not about having fun. It’s about spending time with your Baba.” When my son is quiet, I feel the need to add, “Do you think that I ever needed your grandfather to say that he loved me? No, and do you know why? Because I listened to him. Because I read between the lines. Because he was a colonel during World War II. Because he had served under Chiang Kai-shek, and therefore he had to leave everything behind in order to save our lives. Because you wouldn’t even be here if it weren’t for him. Because he could barely provide enough milk and eggs for me and my brothers. But still, we were able to survive. We were able to make something out of nothing and more importantly, make something of ourselves. So don’t speak to me of love, because you don’t even know the half of it.”

“I’m still not going to New Orleans.”

“You’re going and that’s final.” Then I say, “Because I’ve already bought the plane tickets.”

My son looks up, flabbergasted. He knows me well enough to know that there’s no chance that I’ll make the effort for a refund. In short, what’s done is done.

“Well? What do you say? A ‘thank you’ would be nice for a change.” And then, “Don’t make me make you go.”

“Is that a threat?”

“Yes. It is.”

At first, I think that my son is speechless, too much emotion, too much to wrap his head around. I sit back. I wipe my mouth with a paper napkin. I brace myself for possible tears. Then he says, “I know why none of your brothers talk to you anymore.”

My son and I don’t talk on the ride home. I pretend not to mind. Outside, I present a cool and calm exterior. Inside, I fume with a rage and angst that doesn’t seem to dilute itself in the solution of time and space. I play music in the car, turn up the oldies station. I look out the window. On the highway, I speed by other cars as if it’s a race—and I’m the one who’s winning. It is no longer raining, though the sky is still overcast. There is still a pervasive sense of gloom.

We don’t go home yet. By this time, my son has fallen asleep. But when he wakes, he looks out the window and he says to me, “What are we doing here?”

“Get out of the car,” I reply. In the trunk, I get out the basketball. I lead him to the court. There are puddles of rainwater everywhere; neither of us are dressed properly in polos and khaki pants, but I don’t care. I say to him, “You’re going to shoot two-pointers until you reach a thousand.”

I shove the basketball in his hands. “Start counting,” I say.

He dribbles. He begins to shoot. I watch him miss, again and again.

By the time we get home, it is already late. I can see that my son is exhausted. But I am too. He says that it’s his arms and legs; they hurt. He says that his head hurts. I tell him good. I tell him it’s how one builds stamina, and not to mention muscle, and not to mention character, and not to mention . . .

Before I can even finish, my son manages to stomp up the stairs. Then I hear him slam the door to his room. I think of how it isn’t the first time that he’s done this. And then I think once again how one has to pick their battles, and this is another that I’ll have to keep in mind for later. Only I hear the door to his room open. And then I hear him make his way across the hall. He can’t even obscure the tiptoeing. When he’s in the bathroom, he closes the door. I hear it lock. I wait fifteen minutes. When it’s half an hour, I knock on the door. “What’s going on in there?”

I grow impatient. I then say that I need to use the bathroom, and if this is some attempt at revenge, I’m not afraid to take apart the door.

“Well?” I say.

When the door unlocks, I open it. I see my son. He is on the floor. Beside him, the tiny body—golden brown, Cody. The hamster is laying on its back over the carpet, paws against its belly. There are bits of green bedding clinging to its fur.

“Not that you care,” my son says. “But he’s dying.”

I watch my son. He looks gutted. He looks absolutely miserable.

“Move aside,” I say as I kick off my slippers.

“What are you doing! No freakin’ way!”

And it’s then that I feel it, smack right across the face. In fact, my son hits me so hard, he knocks off my glasses.

“What the hell are you doing?” I say. “I’m trying to help. Don’t be stupid.”

I rub my cheek, pick up my glasses off the floor. I actually feel pain. I know that I’ll need an ice pack later on. I can’t help but be surprised by the boy though. Maybe he’s like his Baba after all—stronger than he looks. Maybe there’s some hope for him yet. And maybe by the time this bruise heals, my son will have a better sense of what it means to be like his Baba. He’s standing there before me, fists raised as if he’s about to do it again. This time, I move gingerly towards him, my palms, open. It’s not quite surrender, but it is a compromise. “Let me see what I can do, okay?”

As I watch my son relent, I try to tap back into my army training from Taiwan. I kneel before the hamster. Its eyes are closed. Its little teeth, protruding from its mouth. Its breaths are deep, and they are slow in between. I use my index finger, touch its stomach. I try to feel its little heartbeat. Then I try something that resembles CPR. Behind me, I can hear my son saying, “please, please, please,” to no one in particular. And then I hear him actually praying. I wonder where he even learned how to pray like that.

In an effort to revive Cody, I pet its body a little more. I feel its fur, still soft, still warm. Only none of what I do seems to work. And soon enough, the inevitable becomes the inevitable.

“Is there anything else that you can do?” I hear my son say. His voice, high. We wait for the miracle that doesn’t come. I watch the thing take its last bit of breath, and see its life leave the small body like an evaporation of the spirit. Then I shake my head. I don’t know what else to say. Neither of us do. For a while, we can only stare at the body. Eventually, my son picks it up. Now it looks like a rag doll, limp, lifeless. Still, he cradles the creature in his arm as if it’s a newborn baby.

I can’t bear to watch though. I know that I’ve disappointed the boy, failed him again somehow. In the years after, it’ll be another thing that he’ll come to hold against me. I find myself saying, “Tomorrow we go to Woolworths. I’ll buy you another one. We can buy two. We can even buy three. We’ll buy them young so they can live the longest.”

“It doesn’t work like that,” my son says. I see him wipe the tears from his face with the back of one hand. “It’s all right, okay? You did the best that you could.”

I shake my head. “Look son, we both did.”

Taiwan, dawn in Taipei. We are already at the park, on the basketball court. The court is empty; it’s as if we have the entire place to ourselves. I am there with my three brothers. We dribble the ball, pass it between us, back and forth. One at a time, we take shots at the hoop, play for what feels like hours. I can hear the scuff of our sneakers, the panting of our breaths. Naturally, I score more points than the three of my brothers combined. It’s a single-handed feat. They are amazed. I think that I can luxuriate a little longer in such victories. But I don’t. Instead, I cave, I fold. One by one, I teach each brother my trick. I show them how to shoot at the backboard so that the ball bounces into the net. I watch as my brothers try it. They each give it their best shot. They try until they get it perfect. I can’t help but think that we will be the greatest team ever, undefeatable, and that it can’t get any better than this.

Only it does. Because there, at the fence, I spot the familiar tall and dark figure. We all see it—our Baba. He’s come to watch us. He’s come to spend some time. It’s like our hopes being heard and felt all at once. How long has the man been standing there? It doesn’t matter. We show off what we can do. We shoot hard. We dribble fast. We run faster.

All of us do so with the hope that our Baba will join us for just one game. But of course, he doesn’t.

Breaking Through Borders: A Pioneering Writer Feature with Silvia Moreno-Garcia

From short fiction to long form, Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s work wins awards, bends genres, and subverts expectations. She is the bestselling author of the novels Mexican Gothic, Gods of Jade and Shadow, Certain Dark Things, Untamed Shore, and several other books. She has also edited multiple anthologies, including the World Fantasy Award-winning She Walks in Shadows...
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The Love Song of the Mexican Free-Tailed Bat

By the time you have finished in your father’s study, it is almost 4 p.m. in the afternoon. Texas is experiencing an unseasonably cold snap this November, and you are shivering while you tie up old newspapers and water-rippled editions of Time Magazine and National Geographic for the recycling bins outside. You have been wearing...
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Kangaroo

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Grief is the Bird

My father died from a gunshot when I was in second grade. My first day back at school after the funeral, my classmates shot rubber bands from finger guns and I vomited behind the soccer net.

When my mother came and picked me up at lunch, she was in her blue sporty car instead of the gray family minivan with the car seat for the baby that was supposed to come before Christmas. If a baby did come someday and my mother put it in the car seat in the gray family minivan, that baby would be half my mother and half someone I did not know yet, and I would only have half a sibling when I really wanted a whole one.

“Still feel sick?” she asked when I slid into the front seat. She didn’t roll her eyes like usual or say, okay, just this once, and I figured it was because my father was underground and so I was an adult and could do adult things such as sitting in the front seat.

“No,” I said and picked at the nail on my thumb. “I feel better now.”

“What’d I tell you about doing that?” She often said that if I kept picking my nails, soon I would have nothing left there except wrinkled, red skin and that the kids at school would say I was gross or strange, and I didn’t want to be gross or strange, now did I? I wanted to tell her that I had lost a toenail on the playground once—picked it right out from the nail bed in two separate pieces like I was playing Operation—and that all the boys in my class had wanted to touch the place where it had been. I didn’t tell her, though, and instead I put my hands between my thighs and pressed them together so tightly that I felt something like television static in my fingertips. She turned up the stereo and I asked her to play the song where the man sang my name, but she said she had left that CD in the minivan.

When we arrived home, there was a bird on the front porch. It was black and the feathers on its face were wet and standing straight up as if it had been licked by a cat. My mother was still in the driveway with the car running, so I stood on my toes and knocked on her window with the side of my fist. She rolled it down and I could see that even behind her sunglasses her face was puffed up and ugly pink, like it was made of gum.

“There’s a bird on the porch,” I said. “He looks cold.”

She breathed in and blew air out between her teeth. She said, “I need to go back to work.”

“Can I bring him inside?”

“No. Don’t touch it,” she said. “You can put a towel around it. A little one from the laundry room. But that’s it.”

When she left the driveway, I stood in the car smoke left behind because it felt warm and a little wet. Then I went to the laundry room through the garage and picked out one of my mother’s paint towels from the pile on top of the machine. It was rough with dry paint and stained the same purple as my bedroom walls. I went through the house and opened the front door.

The bird puffed its chest out when I sat down next to him. Even though I wasn’t supposed to touch, I put my fingers up against his beak because that’s what my father told me to do when meeting a dog. Something like: let it smell your hand until its tail wags, and then you can touch him on top of the head. I knew birds’ tails didn’t wag, so I waited until my fingers grew stiff and rubbery and I could feel the frost melting wet into the back of my jeans. Then I put the towel over him, but it slid down his rounded back.

When I scooped the bird and the towel up, he felt like a cold rock in my palm. I was thinking that he could be mine. That my mother couldn’t be mad if I brought the bird inside and warmed him and took care of him on my own. She wouldn’t have to know. I’d keep him in my bedroom. Let him fly in the mosquito net around my bed that my father had called a “princess canopy.”

And if she found out that I had touched him when she had said not to and that I was keeping him in my room, I would tell her that I’d rather have a bird than a new father or half of a sibling because I knew that I could love a bird, and that this bird would have to love me back because I saved him with my own hands and let him fly in my room.

I brought the bird to my room and put him under my winter comforter, which was yellow fabric with white stitching that matched the yellow house with white shutters that my mother had painted on my purple wall. I laid him down on the pillow and pulled my comforter over him until only his shiny, black beak stuck out.

I turned off the lights and said, “Goodnight, darling,” which is what my father would’ve said to me if I was the bird and he was me.

When I checked on my bird when my mother started making dinner, his beak was still sticking out. I touched it with the tip of my finger, but he didn’t move. Under the comforter, his body had grown longer, and his toes curled tight together like thorny weeds. His beak was open like he had been screaming.

I brought him to my mother, and she threw the bird and the towel into the garbage can at the end of the driveway.

Towels

The day before she left Hayward, California, Gina studied the checklist from Georgetown University. It was August, 1977, and she was leaving home for the first time, terrified of arriving at college unprepared. Or maybe she was terrified by her mother’s loud, stinging voice as she approached Gina’s bedroom door. “You won’t return,” her mother...
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Old Man Miller

Julie has never had any friends, so when the popular girls in the debate club dare her to sneak into Old Man Miller’s farmhouse, she accepts. The girls persuade Julie to steal the old butcher’s slaughtering knife, or maybe the ashes of his dead wife, or possibly a lock of his hair—cut fresh while he sleeps. And in return, they’ll teach her how to debate boys into driving her out to You-Know-Where Lane to steam up the car windows. And how is Julie to argue? If it works for them, it will work for her: a maiore ad minus. Everyone will finally stop making fun of her mayonnaise-based brown bag lunches. So that night, she waits until her fully-trusting mother is asleep and simply walks out the front door.

Julie does not return.

The debate girls giggle amongst themselves the next day. They pass lip liners, flashcards, and their mothers’ prescription medicines. They spin stories of Julie locked behind bars for trespassing; Julie holding her forehead to the radiator to feign a fever, too embarrassed to show her mayo-eating chicken face; Julie trapped inside Old Man Miller’s, huddled in a puddle of spilled bleach under the sink.

When Julie’s mother reports her missing, the stories stop and the girls say nothing. Such well-liked model students must finish school and go to Ivy League universities. They must become doctors and lawyers and marketing executives and marry rich and powerful men who will give them socially maladjusted children, like their parents before them. Argumentum ad captandum.

Many of them do. And, eventually, they all die—though not because of the war.

One hundred years later, a married couple finds that the world has grown too thick with data, the electronic eyes of a million and a half drones oppressing them as much as the suffocating smog of their ancestors’ metropolii. So they purchase the dilapidated Miller farm in order to recreate the mistakes of their homesteading ancestors and disconnect from society. To live self-sufficiently in a place where the delivery drones cannot venture—at least not roundtrip.

And how hard could it be? Granny and Pop Pop and Weipo and Saba and Yaya and Opa did it, and those idiots nuked the planet.

The wife maintains her job as an archivist. Only a link to the planet’s satellite ring is needed to trawl through the deceased’s social media accounts in order to construct a digital shrine. Meanwhile, the husband renovates their new paradise, learning all he can from public domain DIY GIFs. Together, the couple makes themselves a home considerably larger than their four-hundred square foot asmartment.

Hand in hand, they rip out the mutant weeds, apply anti-radiation fertilizer, and sow the seeds of their independence. They work hard and play hard, much as they believe their ancestors did. The sweat and toil of the day makes way for romantic nutricorn picnic dinners under the stars-and-satellites sky.

They even buy themselves a cow—and they do so without permits or licenses.

Out here, the couple is free to do as they please. Every night, though their bodies are sore and bruised, they let their minds race with possibilities. Their fields of hyper oats will grow strong and they will make oatmeal cookies and oat loafs and oat milk better than the automated factories ever could. Spooned together, the couple cannot help but wiggle their toes against the other’s in excitement.

Perhaps, the wife suggests with a twinkle in her eye, they could even flip the bird to the Department of Reproduction and their damnable certification process. The husband is happy to oblige, repeatedly, and as loud as they both can muster, for there are no neighbors to consider, no awkward shoulder-to-shoulder rides on the commutube the next day.

And for a time, all is as was promised to them by the homestead dark web and its costly, clandestine design courses. Their fields grow, their cow frolics, and their dream takes shape. The couple spends many warm nights relaxing in their hazmat porch swing imagining the wonderful life that awaits them. Their child—no, children!—will grow up without genetic massages and microchip vaccines. No facial recognition database in the world will be able to identify them, and targeted ad bots will short-circuit for lack of data, as if they had divided by zero.

But as the couple works to weave a new life, things begin to fray. The husband is neither a builder nor a media historian, and between the jump cuts and bizarre materials lists, he finds the DIY GIFs mostly uninterpretable. His creative renovations crack and peel, letting in the tainted countryside air, and before long, his repairs need repairs. All the while, the couple’s credit account creeps closer and closer to zero.

And as ion season starts, the polarized winds of change blow for the wife as well. What should be a simple demagnetizing of the clocks by an hour becomes, instead, a series of missed deadlines. Her digital line to the city is muffled beyond recognition by the magnetic storms that blanket the sky. Most days, she sits in silence hoping for understanding from her employer, for mercy. Until a notice of termination manages to find its way through the ion clouds above and shatter all misunderstanding.

Worse still, the frequent storms force the couple inside, allowing the mutant weeds to invade their unkempt fields and choke out their crops. The cow grows a set of three eye-like lumps on its udders.

The covert homesteading courses had not prepared the couple for this. They were taught that anti-rad fertilizer would restore Mother Nature to a place of balance. That in no time at all, they would be milking cows, processing chickens, and turning compost. How could they be failing, being the intelligent, modern sophisticates that they are? The couple’s late-night bedtime chatter turns to stretches of dreaded silence, and there are times when they feel that the inches apart in bed might as well be the space between here and what’s left of the moon.

The husband, needing reassurance from his failures, and the wife, finding herself with an uncomfortable amount of free time, turn to each other for a failproof activity. It is during one of their tantric sessions that the husband happens to pin the wife against a wall in the dining room, causing it to spin away like in a turn-of-the-century Saturday morning cartoon. The couple tumbles, half naked, into a dark hallway that leads into the damp underground.

How fun, they think. Their minds still intentionally set on their previous activity, they wonder what lascivious secrets await them. Finally, a turn in their fortune.

The room at the end is a cold and gray concrete bunker. Stainless steel countertops and rusted metal tool lockers line the walls, and a single metal chair sits in the center of the room, bolted to the floor. The husband is first to find it: a conspicuous painting of proto-pooches playing cards that hides a shelf of rotted film tapes and iridescent optical discs.

The wife squeezes her husband around the waist and cannot contain her mirth. To think that ancient couples in the rural countryside could be so sex positive and progressive! Because surely that is what this is; they tuck their thoughts of crumbling foundations, ruined careers, and overrun fields away.

It doesn’t take long for the couple to track down the correct video equipment. Settling in for a fun night, they set the proper mood with candles, fuzzy pillows, and silken sheets.

We must share this with our friends back home, the wife teases.

The husband agrees, though he no longer thinks of the city as home.

But they must prove they made the right decision. That they are not crazy. They are not undesirables.

They strip naked and press play.


The old video flickers to life and Julie appears.

She is weeping, bound to the metal chair in the hidden bunker. Dirty and soiled, she looks into the camera, pleading, and then to an old man who walks into frame holding a pair of pliers in one hand, a scalpel in the other.

The couple cannot look away. They both realize what they have actually discovered, but like watching the suicide streams of people running through train tunnels or protesting in the streets, they are mesmerized.

Only after the video ends, when Julie, again, has died, faded into the blackness of forgotten history, can time once again move.

The couple sits in absolute silence, their breaths shallow. The wife feels a sharp throb in her belly and doubles over. The husband consoles her, though he is utterly unequipped. There is a weight to what they have just witnessed, heavier than any tumor growing on their cow. In Julie, they see the final reality of their imagined life.

Filled with a nervous energy, the husband traces the peaks and valleys of the wife’s hands. And the wife is thinking the same, exact thing.

The abandonment is subtle at first. With the end of ion season, the couple’s connection to the city is reestablished, but there does not seem much to connect to. Queries take ages and their connection is constantly dropped. Old friends at first do not answer and then later block the couple entirely. Even the homestead dark web has seemingly uprooted itself and moved to a different black corner of cyberspace.

Meanwhile, the couple’s first harvest comes in: a bushel of oats that more closely resembles grubs than grain and then manages to escape in the night. In the paddock, the weeds have assumed dominance over the cow, and the writhing, tangled mass pulsates at night with an eerie, pink glow. Life, it would appear, is a tricky concept, one the couple finds themselves inept at both on the farm and in the bedroom.

Pushing the mutant horrors to the backs of their minds, the couple’s thoughts turn to the city they had left behind. Had it really been that bad? They missed the national anthem karaoke booths, the robot sex parlors, and the processed food products that tasted nothing like the nutricorn rations they’ve been eating for months. The husband jokes that he even misses the museums, though you only ever went there as a punishment for thoughtcrime.

And that is when the wife has the idea. One that will save them and preserve their way of life, all at the same time. They could not go back to the city, but they could bring the city to them. They could start their very own museum, make it a cautionary shrine of a barbaric time featuring Julie and the other victims of the sadistic old man who filmed them. She can do the research, and he can write the grant applications. They kiss—for what feels like the first time in their lives.

The wife finds it easy to use her skills as an archivist for historical research instead, but pulling a narrative thread out of the chaos of pre-war artifacts proves to be more complicated than scrubbing a deceased CEO’s private messages. For the CEO, there is always a friend, an acquaintance, a work colleague. Someone who will vouch for exactly the opposite of what you’re trying to hide.

But Julie had no friends. No mentions in the newspaper, no accolades in community center newsletters, and not even a holiday e-card. Only a mother who claimed her to be a sweet angel—and debate club teammates who vouched for exactly the opposite.

So the wife constructs her first exhibit around—rather than on—Julie, pulling information from local residents, classmates, and debate team newsletters. She treats each corrupted data file of the past, each fragmented digital conversation, and declassified government document as a cowlick to be massaged back into its place of beauty.

From this, she weaves a narrative of a quiet girl, a shy wallflower, who was too insecure in her own self-worth to make much of an impact on the world. A girl who was doomed to have what little of a life she had cut short by a prolific local serial killer.

But the National Endowment for the Truth rejects the initial application. To date, there are already two-hundred-and-forty-seven museums dedicated to serial killers of the past, each more mind-numbing than the last. Thought criminals have literally been dying of boredom. The truth, they write, needs to be spicy. It needs to be as engaging as any daytime holosoap or webplay. And it needs to be open to the public, as per their new, progressive minister’s mandate. Ninety-eight per cent survival rate.

Then perhaps, the wife thinks, Julie’s debate club teammates were on to something. After all, they went on to Ivy League universities and married historically significant men. Combing through old interviews surrounding Julie’s disappearance, the wife finds videos and newspaper quotes from the debate team. Not to speak ill of the dead, they said, but Julie was something of a tyrant.

Maybe, the wife hypothesizes, Julie and the other victims weren’t victims at all. The grant office’s rejection letter creeps into her mind like the weeds strangling their cow. Spice. The likes of which even the Supreme Minister has never seen. The wife feels the flames of her old archivist passion rekindle. The real story is in the space between the data. Teen pregnancies, vandalism, joyrides, political activism—maybe Old Man Miller was just a citizen concerned with the corruption of his society’s youth. So the couple’s museum is to be an exhibit, not of the corruption of the past, but the purification of it.

The grant money begins to trickle in, and Julie rises as the star exhibit.

The museum becomes the wife’s entire world, and the husband is happy to continue writing grants and overseeing professional contractors. Though the two are as happy as when they first arrived in the countryside, there persists, still, an empty space, a dark vacuum, between them. When they embrace, each reaches with their hand to the empty space beside them and paws at the air. They think of the victims in their museum—especially of Julie—and realize what’s missing.

They decide to adopt.

The adoption agencies, though government-run, are at least competent enough to deny the application of a penniless couple living in the boonies. This much the couple understands through the laughing faces on the other end of the holovid—but they are determined.

The husband continues overseeing the renovations, and each morning, the wife practices her tour speeches in the mirror. Did you know, she says, that Julie was a sociopathic force of evil? This was before the government did genetic screening. You can see from these declassified documents that Julie was an undesirable destined for murder and/or rebellion.

Every night, the wife adds more red yarn to her conspiracy web exhibit connecting Julie to slashed tires, graffiti, and mutilated animals. One timeline shows a trend of suicides and teen pregnancies at Julie’s school miraculously stopping the moment she disappeared.

The grant money continues to flow, and the adoption agencies are now sending personalized rejection notes. The politicians are in love with the idea, a snapshot of a barbaric time when individuals were allowed to ruin society (and not the other way around). One official notes that their great-great-grandmother used to be on the debate team with Julie and could they please include that in one of the exhibits?

The birth of the museum consumes the couple, and, as the work nears completion, old friends from the city come out of the woodwork to offer their congratulations. These friends always had faith in the couple.

This museum is going to be the greatest thing since injectable bread, they say. They’re glad to be allowed to talk to the couple again.

On opening day, the line to get in trails past the safety barriers surrounding the pulsating oat-cow-weed enclosure and extends to the parking lot half a mile away. The gift shop is stocked full of holovids of Julie’s final moments, novelty coffee mugs of Julie’s tired, tear-soaked face, and T-shirts printed with the phrase: “I had a screaming good time at Old Man Miller’s!”

Before the couple opens the doors, they hold each other close and take stock of all they have managed to build for themselves outside the corruption of the city. They finally understand their Opas and Pop Pops: the draw of a simple life, pure and honest.

Even the security cameras seem to wink in recognition of their achievements.

The weight of the city, the cold darkness between them, it all melts away in that moment. The husband is happy; the wife is happy. The holovid caller chirps.

It’s the adoption agency.

Footprints Ahead: A Community Feature with the Octavia Project

The Octavia Project Summer Institute is a free program that uses speculative fiction as a lens through which to envision new futures and greater possibilities for our world. Bringing together young women, and trans, gender non-conforming, or non-binary youth ages 14–18, teens explore how the world around them is a series of choices that can...
Flaming fiddles, it looks like there’s a roadblock here! If you’d like to finish reading this piece, please buy a subscription—you’ll get access to the entire online archive of F(r)iction.

First Cry

I have a complicated relationship with crying.As a kid growing up in the 80s and 90s, my exposure to pop culture consisted of a heavy dose of Schwarzenegger, Metallica, and Pro Wrestling. Which meant that amongst my friends, if you expressed any sort of emotion or thought that was less than macho, you became a...
Flaming fiddles, it looks like there’s a roadblock here! If you’d like to finish reading this piece, please buy a subscription—you’ll get access to the entire online archive of F(r)iction.

Cursed

Flaming fiddles, it looks like there’s a roadblock here! If you’d like to finish reading this piece, please buy a subscription—you’ll get access to the entire online archive of F(r)iction.