Ten Outstanding Short Stories to Read in 2022

By LongReads

Starting with Kevin Barry’s “That Old Country Music” from Electric Lit to Aleksandar Hemon’s “Blind Jozef Pronek and Dead Souls” from The Baffler, I posted 276 stories in 2021. Here are the ten I most enjoyed reading.

“Prophets” by Brandon Taylor (Joyland)

Brandon Taylor’s Real Life was shortlisted for The Booker Prize in 2020. He followed it with the short story collection Filthy Animals, published in June, 2021. The following story is set in the world of academia — Brandon Taylor’s Macondo.

The famous black writer was in town to give a reading, and Coleman was not sure if he would go. He had known the famous black writer for a few years, but only indirectly. They had many friends in common and had gone to the same university, though years apart. The famous black writer had a kind of totally useless fame, which was to say that he was notable among a small group of people interested in highly experimental fiction that was really memoir but also a poem. The famous black writer had built a reputation for pyrotechnic readings that sometimes included slideshows of brutalized slave bodies and sometimes involved moan-singing. Coleman had watched videos of the famous black writer and had felt a nauseating secondhand embarrassment, thinking Is this how people see me?

The famous black writer was handsome—tall, with striking bone structure, and a real classic elegance. He looked like an adult, like a finished version of an expensive product. His hair was quite architectural. The night of the reading, he wore a mohair coat and slim-cut, all-black ensemble right out of a photograph from the 1950s.

“Muscle” by Daniyal Mueenuddin (The New Yorker)

Daniyal Mueenuddin’s In Other Rooms, Other Wonders was a sensational debut collection of short stories. Since reading it, I have been looking forward to his next work. The following story appeared in The New Yorker.

Back in the nineteen-fifties, when old Mian Abdullah Abdalah rose to serve as Pakistan’s Federal Secretary Establishment, a knee-bending district administration metalled the road leading from the Cawnapur railway station to his Dunyapur estate. They also pushed out a telephone line to his farmhouse, the first phone on any farm in the district. Even now, thirty years later, there was no other line nearby. A single wire ran many forlorn miles from Cawnapur city through the flat tan landscape of South Punjab, there on the edge of the Great Indian Desert, then alongside the packed-dirt farm tracks laid out in geometric lines, and finally entered the grounds of a small, handsome residence built in the style of a British colonial dak bungalow.

Now, for the second time in a month, the Chandios had stolen a section of the telephone wire, which served for all the area as a symbol of the Dunyapur estate’s preëminence. The Chandio village sat far from the road at the back end of the estate, buried in an expanse of reeds and derelict land, dunes that had never been cleared. Testing Mian Abdalah’s grandson, Sohel, who had returned from college in America six months earlier and moved onto the estate, they had been amusing themselves and bearding him by cutting out lengths of the wire that passed near their village and selling them for copper somewhere across the Indus.

“The Great Escape” by Hilma Wolitzer (Electric Lit)

The current pandemic has changed our lives; I am one of those who felt that 2021 was tougher than 2020. Hilma Wolitzer’s story, published in her collection, Today a Woman Went Mad in the Supermarket tells a tender but sweeping story of a decades-long marriage.

I used to look at Howard first thing in the morning to see if he was awake, too, and if he wanted to get something going before one of the kids crashed into the room and plopped down between us like an Amish bundling board. Lately, though, with the children long grown and gone to their own marriage beds, I found myself glancing over to see if Howard was still alive, holding my breath while I watched for the shallow rise and fall of his, the way I had once watched for a promising rise in the bedclothes.

Whenever I saw that he was breathing and that the weather waited just behind the blinds to be let in, I felt an irrational surge of happiness. Another day! And then another and another and another. Breakfast, vitamins, bills, argument, blood pressure pills, lunch, doctor, cholesterol medicine, the telephone, supper, TV, sleeping pills, sleep, waking. It seemed as if it would all go on forever in that exquisitely boring and beautiful way. But of course it wouldn’t; everyone knows that.

“Witness” by Jamel Brinkley (Lithub)

This story was selected as an O. Henry Prize winner in 2021.

My sister threw upon the door so that it banged against the little console table she kept by the entrance. “Silas,” she said breathlessly, before even removing her coat, “I have to tell you something.” Which was enough to make me feel trapped, as though the words out of her mouth were expanding and filling up the space in her tiny apartment. I told her to calm down and apologized, and then I began making excuses for myself. I had assumed she would be angry at me because of the previous night, so I was primed for what she might say when she got home from work.

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By Susan Palwick

Two women who have been friends since they were children—one a recovering alcoholic brought up by parents who believe they’re alien abductees, the other an orphan with an eating disorder—contend with a secret that might doom their friendship.

So here’s the thing. You’re scared shitless, because you know something heavy’s going down tonight, and you may be the only one who can stop it, but that will be dangerous in ways you can’t stand to think about. Your friend Vanessa—your best and oldest friend—is all about patterns, and today’s a doozy. It’s her twenty-eighth birthday, and also the tenth anniversary of her parents’ disappearence, and also her first anniversary of sobriety or anyway of not drinking, and also—not at all coincidentally—the day when, at midnight, her parole will end.

Vanessa plans to drink again no later than thirty seconds after twelve. You can see it in her scowl; you can smell it on her. You know that her AA sponsor, Minta, knows it too. Vanessa hasn’t said so, of course, but this isn’t Minta’s first rodeo with angry alkies, and it’s not your first rodeo with Vanessa.

So Minta, who has the kind of money you and Vanessa can only dream about, invites both of you out to dinner, her treat, to celebrate Vanessa’s birthday. She chooses a trendy vegan place on the Upper West Side that serves neither alcohol nor anything that Vanessa, who always calls herself the ultimate carnivore because her parents were exactly the opposite, would ever want to eat. You’re the vegan; animal products do very bad things to you. If Vanessa had her way, she’d be at a steakhouse tearing into a filet mignon. With scotch.

The restaurant’s all glass and chrome and blond wood, and the patrons are self-consciously beautiful: men with neatly trimmed beards and Birkenstocks, women with black pencil skirts and Tevas, everybody wearing that expression that says, I work out more than you do, and I’m more enlightened, and I have more money. A side salad costs half your weekly food budget.

“Vanessa, you want to drink right now, don’t you?” Minta swirls her fork to capture a clump of sprouts, as if they’re spaghetti. She has to shout to be heard, even across the tiny table, and you think this has to be some kind of breach of anonymity, but it’s doubtful anyone at the other tables can hear, or would care if they could. They’re probably all in twelve-step groups too.

“I always want to drink.” Vanessa pokes cautiously at her own dish, a tofu stir-fry with unidentifiable vegetables. You’re choking down one of those exorbitant salads, another in an endless series of meals that won’t satisfy you, that will give you only enough to keep going. As soon as you’ve absorbed what you need, you’ll lose the rest in the bathroom. “I know I’m supposed to be over it by now.”

“Some people never get over it. Dry drunk’s better than wet drunk, girl. Take what you can get. Anyway, a year is about when most people fall off the cloud-nine newly sober high.”

“Which I never had.”

Minta laughs. “Maybe you have something to look forward to, then. Vanessa, you have to admit that this is better than where you were a year ago.” You nod vigorously around one of the recalcitrant lettuce leaves.

A year ago, on her twenty-seventh birthday, Vanessa woke up in a jail cell with a bandaged head, the great-grandmother of all hangovers, and no memory of the night before. Her boyfriend was pressing assault charges because she’d thrown dishes at him. The judge gave her a year’s probation with mandatory AA meetings. “Flying saucers,” Vanessa says now, and you wince. “This is another anniversary, you know.”

Minta nods. “I know. But don’t use it as an excuse to drink.”

You swallow the lump of lettuce, wondering how long it will stay down. “How often have we talked about this?” you ask Vanessa. “It’s not like they were there for you even before they left.”

Vanessa’s nostrils flare, and her gaze goes steely. “I want dessert.” Alcohol converts to sugar in the bloodstream; for the past year, sugar has been Vanessa’s drug of choice. She’s put on seventeen pounds.

“Cake at the meeting.” Minta checks her watch. “In half an hour.”

Vanessa groans. “No. Please? Let me go home. Kat will keep me safe.”

“Meeting. I know that Kat is the world’s best roommate, but you need to be with your tribe right now. It’s not fair to dump all of this on Kat.”

You and Vanessa are each other’s tribe, or at least the closest either of you has ever found. You gnaw more lettuce. “Is it an open meeting? I’ll come, you want.”

Vanessa grimaces. “Why would you want to sit through one of those?” You’ve told her that you love meetings, all those stories of misery and rebirth—stories about how to be human—but Vanessa’s always and only bored. “Hell, Kat, why are you here? Why do you even put up with me?”

You wonder that yourself, but you don’t feel like feeding Vanessa’s endless hunger for sympathy, and you need to lay the groundwork for what you may need to do later. Your backpack, with its secret weapon, hangs on the back of your chair. “I was abandoned too, Van, remember? And I’m not exactly easy to live with either.”

After everything fell apart a year ago—Vanessa’s boyfriend fleeing in a storm of fury and boxes—you packed up your tiny tenement apartment and moved your books and your ragged collection of all-black clothing into Vanessa’s minute condo. You even fork over a chunk of rent when you can, although the place is paid for from the sale of Vanessa’s old house; or, more properly, from the sale of the three-acre lot it sits on, which is as desirable now—to beautiful people with BMWs—as it was isolated and inconvenient when you and Vanessa were kids. For all her rage and self-pity and endless self-sabotage, Vanessa has never complained about your own oddities: the green shakes and protein powders crowding the fridge and counters, the fad-diet books piled everywhere next to stacks of anthropology and folklore, the hours you spend puking in the bathroom.

You know Minta thinks you have an eating disorder. She has no idea.

On Vanessa’s fourteenth birthday, she tells her parents she won’t go to AA meetings with them anymore. She won’t know anything about the First Step for another thirteen years: this AA stands for Alien Abductees. Vanessa’s parents are notably humor deprived, and this is about as close to a joke as they ever get. Anything normal people consider funny just makes them stare in bafflement. Their weirdness might be taken as evidence that they really have been kidnapped by aliens, but Vanessa thinks they’re just jerks. You aren’t so sure.

They bought their house, on its bucolic three acres, when Vanessa was seven, right after her father inherited a shitload of money from her grandfather, who’d invested in oil. Vanessa thinks it’s the worst thing that ever happened to them. That’s when they dragged her out of the suburbs, away from birthday parties and swimming pools and sleepovers. She tells you long, involved stories about these things, about cake and ice cream and balloons, diving boards and giggling in sleeping bags. She’s as nostalgic as the elderly people one of your former foster families made you visit in nursing homes.

Vanessa’s parents bought the house both because it was cheap and because this area is an epicenter of supernormal activity, a hotbed of chakras and auras, hippies and get-rich-quick gurus. Everybody’s got some secret to eternal life; the entire county’s awash in crystals, cleansing enemas, and detox diets. Vanessa’s back porch looks out over a meadow, facing away from town and any risk of light pollution. Every night, in all weather, her parents go outside to hold hands and stare up at the heavens with the other AAs, nearly as diverse and improbable a group as the one Vanessa will be court-ordered to join as an adult. Either people come to her parents’ house or her parents go to someone else’s. They don’t talk much. They all know each other’s stories, because it’s the same story: the searing light, the levitation, the anal probes. Denial and government coverups. Massive conspiracies. The only ideological differences revolve around whether the aliens are benevolent or evil, but this bunch believes that the abductions enlightened them, that even the anal probes are healing interventions.

You aren’t so sure about that, either.

Vanessa’s parents have always made her attend these gatherings, but this morning—after they sang “Happy Birthday” and gave her a hundred bucks, because they never ask her what she wants and don’t have a clue what she likes—she told them she’s had enough. If aliens come, let them walk upstairs and knock on her bedroom door while she’s doing homework. If they can fly across the universe, they can find their way into the house.

She tells you about this while you sit on your log in the woods, where you come to have important conversations. “They didn’t yell at me,” Vanessa says, and you laugh. Vanessa’s biggest complaint about her parents is that they never yell at her.

“Let me guess,” you say. “Your mom told you that everything you need to know is already inside you.” This is wisdom Vanessa’s mother claims to have gotten from the aliens, but it never helps. It just makes Vanessa feel crazier. You know how much she hates her mother’s hushed, reverent Abductee Voice, how much she hates not having chores or a curfew, like the kids at school. As far as either of you can tell, Vanessa has no special New Age knowledge of how to talk to boys or solve algebra problems or write English papers. Her parents have delegated their parental responsibilities to the aliens, who don’t seem to be coming.

Because the house is so far from the nearest school district, your social life is each other. Getting to school means a forty-five minute bus ride each morning. It’s not a school bus—there aren’t enough other kids out here for the district to send one—but an ancient county commuter bus. You know Vanessa’s ashamed for other kids to meet her parents or see her house, which is full of star charts and posters about ley lines and magical pyramids. You—the girl who lives up the road with her seventh set of foster parents—are Vanessa’s only friend out here. She doesn’t have to be ashamed of her parents with you, although you know she’s ashamed of you at school, where the two of you ignore each other. Vanessa tries to ingratiate herself with the cool kids, which never works because they can smell her desperation. You hang out with the other geeks and nerds, the kids who are as fascinated as you are with those new personal computers none of you can afford. Your crowd talks about Commodores the way the cool kids talk about Corvettes.

You’ve only recently started going to school again, after years of homeschooling. You don’t do well with doctors, which means you don’t do well with immunizations. You’ve gone through six previous foster families because whenever they tried to take you to the doctor, you ran away. The current set is lenient about rules, willing to lie to CPS and the social workers. They’ve cooked up a deal with a local doctor who forges immunization records, and supplies pain pills to your foster mom, in return for a modest cut of what the state pays to people who take in particularly difficult foster children.

“Difficult?” Vanessa says when you tell her this. “You’re a total brainiac and goody-two-shoes. All the teachers love you. Anyway, maybe you should see a real doctor about that eating problem.”

“I hate doctors, Van. I’m scared of them.”

“That was when you were a baby. How can you even remember it? And they won’t give you shots if they think you’ve already had them.”

“I’m good,” you say.

You and Vanessa are both fourteen, but you look older—or, rather, look so odd that no one’s quite sure how old you are—and the latest foster dad just scored a fake driver’s license for you “because in the old days, kids were driving when they were twelve” and he doesn’t want to bother taking you places. The evening of Vanessa’s birthday, while her parents and the other AAs stare up into cloud cover, the two of you drive the twenty miles to the mall and split the birthday money. You buy a book of fairy tales and a pricy computer programming manual at Barnes & Noble. Vanessa, in her endless quest to get a rise out of her parents, buys makeup and sexy clothing and pigs out on burgers and fries and ice cream at the food court while you nibble a fruit salad. You get about halfway through it before you have to rush to the restroom.

The two of you stay at the mall, window browsing and people watching, until it closes at ten. On the way home, Vanessa asks you to stop at a 7-Eleven and buy some beer. “We still have money, and I’ve never had beer. Do you think my parents will notice if I come home drunk?”

“No.” This plan strikes you as fifty-eight kinds of terrible. “Don’t get drunk just to be rebellious, Van. That’s stupid. You already bought all that slutwear.”

Vanessa pouts. “That feels like playing dress-up. Beer’s real. And you’ve got the ID. I’ll drink while you drive, so we’ll be safe.”

“You’re not supposed to drink in the car. Open-bottle laws.” You swallow panic. You don’t think the police have any records from all those foster families, but who knows? “Vanessa, I really can’t afford trouble with cops.”

Vanessa scowls. “Do you have to take the fun out of everything?”

“I drove you out here, didn’t I?”

“Come on, Kat. It’s my birthday. All the kids at school drink.”

“Not the ones I know.”

“The ones you know are freaks.” She’s angry enough to be mean now. Then her voice softens into wheedling, and she says, “It’s, like, an initiation rite. You’re into those, right? Like all that folklore crap you read?”

She’s not going to let you talk her out of it. “Okay,” you say. If she can tell how miserable you are, she doesn’t care.

You go inside, and Vanessa picks out a sixpack. “You could buy a single bottle,” you say, and she pouts again.

“It’s my birthday.”

The guy behind the counter squints hard, but shrugs at your fake ID and lets you pay. Back out in the car, you check the road for cops, and then—coast clear—Vanessa uses her house key as a bottle opener and sips, narrating like this is some kind of nature documentary. “It’s fizzy. Kinda yeasty. It tastes okay, but I’m not feeling anything.” She finishes the first beer, too quickly, and reaches for another.

Halfway through the second bottle, she lets out a whoop. “Peace! Joy! All’s well with the world! Kat, you gotta try this.” Giggling, she props the bottle between her legs and reaches to hug you. “Best. Birthday. Ever.”

Your hands are clenched on the wheel, and your stomach’s threatening to empty again even though there’s nothing left in it. “Vanessa, don’t do that when I’m driving!”

Vanessa frowns. You never snap at her. But she’s drunk and magnanimous. “Aw, poor Kat. You feel left out. You gotta have some beer too! Three of these are for you.”

“I’m driving.” You stare straight ahead, your entire body aching with anger and hunger and loneliness.

“Well, when we get home. We’ll sit on the log.”

She sips her third beer all the way home. You see her eyeing the other three and know she’s trying to save some for you. At her parents’ house, you turn off the headlights and cut the engine to coast to a gentle stop—although Vanessa’s parents probably aren’t here, and wouldn’t pay attention if they were—and then you grab the flashlight from the glove box, and Vanessa grabs the remaining beer, and you make your way into the woods. Vanessa has to lean on you even though it’s a clear path; you walk it a lot, and so do deer and stray dogs and the raccoons who raid the trash.

The log’s in a glade, eerie in moonlight. You hear owls, wind rustling in the trees. Vanessa thumps down on the log, and you fold yourself cross-legged on the damp ground. Vanessa laughs. “Man, you look skinny. You look like a stick insect with huge eyes. Why do you look so sad, Kat?”

“I’m just tired. Okay. Give me that.”

Vanessa opens the fourth bottle for herself. “You’ll only need two, because you’re so skinny.” You doubt you’ll get that far. She gives you the fifth bottle and sighs at the sixth, alone in its cardboard case. “Gotta get more.”

“I don’t think that’s a good idea.” You carefully remove the top, sniff at the opening, and take the tiniest of sips. “Ugh.”

Vanessa laughs. “Drink more! Drink enough for it to work!”

Anger surges in you. You’re tired of being bossed around, tired of being used, tired of being careful. You make a face, hold your nose, and chug down the entire bottle. Vanessa blinks. “Damn! How’d you do that? I want to be able to do that.”

And then she stares at you. You watch your hand, resting on your knee, turn green and mottled, feel your limbs assuming strange, painful shapes. Your vision has changed, which means your eyes probably have too. You’re acutely aware of every small rustle in the woods, every heartbeat, the warm smell of Vanessa’s flesh a few feet away. Hunger grips your entire body. It’s hard to think clearly.

But you do. You force yourself to. You shove your green, serrated fingers down your throat and turn to vomit the beer into the darkness of the woods. Your hands resume their old shape; your vision’s normal again. You shove the bottle back at Vanessa, although it’s almost empty, and tell her, “I don’t want any more.”

The AA meeting’s a blur, permeated with the smell of coffee combined with church-basement mildew that Vanessa always says should be packaged as AA Air Freshener. Hang one in your car and voila, instant meeting. The first speaker’s a dreary drunkalogue, listing every bar he ever went to. Vanessa, who’s heaped a paper plate with cookies and cake—sheet cake slathered with frosting, so sweet that you wonder how even she can eat the stuff—keeps her head bent over her food. The second speaker’s a sarcastic marketing exec who wears chunky silver jewelry and curses every other word. She gets the room roaring; you laugh so hard your face hurts. You whisper to Vanessa, “This is better than cable. I should come to meetings with you more often.”

Vanessa scowls. You wonder if she’s heard a word the woman’s said. “This is fucking field research for you, isn’t it?”

You took courses from the Electronic University Network, paid for with your programming and graphic-arts skills. You couldn’t go to a real college, because you’d have needed immunizations there, too, and the crooked doctor was in prison by then. You took every class you could afford in computer science and anthropology. You aced all of them, and Vanessa—who never went to college at all, who may have gotten through high school only because she was having a very suspect relationship with her math teacher—resents the hell out of it.

But she’s right. This is field research.

The advertising exec is telling a hilarious story about one of her blackouts. That’s one of the AA staples, like vomiting and DTs. All alkies worth their salt have blackouts, periods of amnesia from which they emerge to discover that they’ve done horrible things. Vanessa’s had a ton herself. Identify, don’t compare, people always say at meetings, and on this point, you know that Vanessa’s happy to comply. She hates blackouts. She hates not knowing what she’s done.

The morning after Vanessa’s fourteenth birthday, you wake up with a pounding headache and stabbing dread. You changed; you barely kept yourself from doing more. Vanessa will never talk to you again. She must hate you now.

Read more https://www.tor.com/2018/06/20/recoveries-susan-palwick/

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The Song

By Erinn L. Kemper

A powerful near future story about two people on a whale-processing rig: one a researcher, the other a worker—and the discovery they make by listening to whale song.

Whale song echoed through the water in long, wistful moans. A pod calling to one another, repeating the same refrain.

Dan paused in his inspection of the pier and floated at the ten-meter mark. A slight chill filtered through his wet suit and he tucked his gloved hands into his armpits to keep them warm.

Beyond the steel lattice that supported the oil rig—repurposed and renamed SeaRanch 18—ranged the twilight murk of open sea. No hulking shadows drifted along the edges of visibility. If the whales came within eyesight, their song would give him one bitch of an earache.

Pods rarely ventured near the rig. Some orcas had been acting up, but that was in a distant feeding ground. And sharks only circled in when the cowboys harvested a whale to process and package for transport. With no active orders, it was a good time for Dan to do a round of maintenance.

Whale music had a weight to it, a ponderous, profound theme. The deeper notes resonated in his tissue and filled him with sweet nostalgia. A stuttering creak swept through—the slow rocking of a porch swing, a patio door caught in a summer draft. Then, the soft groan of settling into freshly laundered sheets for a long, long sleep.

Bright chirps punctuated the song today. Humpback calves, perhaps, learning to sing like their fathers.

Dan ran his hand along one of the steel legs that anchored the rig to the ocean floor. Bits of metal sloughed from the surface and drifted off in ashy motes. A few taps with his dive knife made a dull thud, rather than the cheerful ping of healthy steel.

“Good thing I didn’t wait ’til the scheduled check. We’ve got evidence of corrosion. Might be time to replace the magnesium.” He spoke into his headset.

Crackling static came back as Marge from maintenance replied. “Corrosion on Support One, got it.”

He’d already inspected the lower docks that floated around the rig like tentacles. A bit of scraping and painting would get them up to snuff.

Then the whales had started to sing, drawing him deeper into the water where the music compelled him to stay.

“If the block of sacrificial metal has failed, it’s earlier than usual. Probably not pure enough magnesium. Or the connection to the legs is failing. I’ll check the other three, see if there’s any deterioration there.”

He swam to the next leg. Solid. Same as the last two.

“Looks like the problem is with the connection to the first. Easy fix. Lucky we caught it early.” He pictured Marge up there in her blue coveralls, pen clutched in her paint-stained fingers, adding to her list of things to keep her team busy.

The whale song drifted away as he ascended.

At five meters, he paused for a decompression stop—nothing but the click and puff of his own breathing to keep him company. He continued up, swallowing and wiggling his jaw back and forth until his eardrums popped, relieving pressure before the ache turned to pain.

Norwegian-based High North Alliance claims the carbon footprint resulting from eating whale meat is substantially lower than that of beef. One serving of whale meat contains 181% of your daily intake of iron, and 55% of your daily intake of B12. It is low in fat and cholesterol. As of 2010, fluke meat cost up to two hundred dollars per kilogram, more than triple the price of belly meat.

—Dr. Suzanne Anderson, How Do You Like Your Whale?

Dan stopped to grab some lunch in the mess before heading to his quarters for a shower.

Swimming always made him hungry. When he was a kid in tadpole class, he wouldn’t get out of the water until the very last minute. Floating on his back, he’d relish the weightlessness, the other children’s splash and chatter bubbling around him. His mother’s frowning face would appear over him, her mouth moving, words muted. She’d always bring a big bag of snacks for his post-swim refueling. In his teens, a round of fevers and ear infections kept him out of the water until he thought he’d dry up. Alien voices strained toward him, as though rising from aquatic depths. He spent solitary days in his room writing lines for poems he never completed, words that filtered through his muddied thoughts but never merged.

Alone, alone, alone, alone.

Adrift, adrift, alone, alone.

When he first started diving he’d worried the scarring on his eardrums would keep him from deep-sea work, limit his earning potential. Luck was on his side there. Only once, after his wife died, had his ears started buzzing, sounds fading in and out. Stress-related deafness, the doctors said when they suspended his dive license and sent him to the company shrink. He was relieved when his hearing came back after her funeral.

Mess tray in hand, he walked the line. Baked beans, mac and cheese, chicken strips, pickled beets, mushy peas. Comfort food from the freezer or a can. Three weeks since they’d seen any fresh produce. Two weeks since they’d brought in relief staff.

Save-the-whale extremists had bombed the last transport before it even left dock, no survivors. The Free Willy and Hear Their Cry, Don’t Let Them Die! signs hadn’t done much to dissuade SeaRanch staff. Equipment sabotage and bombings were another story. SeaRanch was having trouble finding workers willing to risk the trip. Nobody knew when the next transport of relief staff would come.

Not that Dan was complaining. The money was good, his account climbing into seven figures now. He was no longer saving for a house with room to grow, away from the city, where a kid could actually play outside—his wife’s dream, not his. But he continued saving, mostly out of habit. Maybe he’d think of something to do with the money. A dream of his own. And, really, he had nothing calling him back to land—just an empty apartment with a half-eaten box of cereal in the cupboard and the TV remote perched on the arm of his foldout sofa. Better than the mess he’d had to clean up when his wife took permanent leave. He’d already forgotten the exact color of her eyes and the way her skin smelled after they’d made love. Almost.

A bump from behind and Dan’s lunch plate skidded close to the tray’s curved edge.

“Shit, sorry. I thought…” One of the new scientists, easily identified by her green coveralls, caught the dinner roll that tumbled from Dan’s tray. “I assumed you’d moved along. I’m a total klutz.”

“No worries, doc. Just daydreaming. You can have that one.” Dan grabbed another dinner roll and moved off in search of an empty table. He picked one in the far corner of the room and set his glass and utensils in their proper spots around his plate. Knife blade-in, bottom of the fork in line with the rest.

“Mind if I join you?” The scientist had followed him to the table. She bit her lip as she waited for him to swallow his first bite of pickled beet.

Dan nodded and cleared his throat. “Be my guest. Mi mesa es su mesa.”

“Cheers. Seems like most of you guys prefer to eat alone. Really, everyone here is pretty antisocial. I expected a lot more, you know, camaraderie.” She dragged her fork through her beans, leaving a winding river behind. “My name’s Suzanne.”


Suzanne with the youthful face

And winter-grey hair.

Suzanne who smiles shyly,

Gazes at me with hazel eyes

Awaiting my reply.

“Dan.” He resumed sawing at a chunk of stew meat on his plate.

“You think that’s whale?” Suzanne pointed with her fork at his meal.

Dan gagged on the mouthful he’d just taken, then washed it down with vitamin water. “Good lord, no. We don’t eat that here. This stuff’s a protein substitute. Tough as leather for some reason.”

“Interesting. I’ve been catching up on the rules. You’re not supposed to give the whales names, individualize them. And yet you don’t eat them. Kind of a mixed message.”

Dan shrugged. “Whale meat’s too valuable for us lowly types. That’s part of it. The rules are there for a reason. Like we’re not supposed to call the processing area the ‘kill floor,’ but what the hell else ya gonna call it? It’s not like we tickle the whales until they turn into steak.”

Suzanne blew a soft gust of air out her nose. Not quite a laugh.

I bet she has a great laugh.

“How ’bout you? A fan of whale meat?”

“I have eaten it.”

Not really an answer. Dan pushed the lumpy stew around his plate, appetite gone. “So, you on whale-food production, or the plastic filtering project? I heard they managed to extract a hundred pounds of particles yesterday.”

“I heard that, too. Nope. I’m an animal behaviorist. Here to assess recent changes in communication patterns. You in whale processing?”

“Welder. Mostly underwater. Used to work the oil rigs all over the Pacific until that work dried up.” He tore up his bun and dipped it in some beet juice. “Now it’s just the SeaRanch rotation. But since we’re stuck here they’ve got me working topside, too. How’d they get you in?”

“Snuck me over on a chopper from a research station down near Chile. I was there for a few months. The chopper never made it back to base.”

Dan prodded the stew with his bun and the beet stain turned brown. “The military’s out hunting, I heard. Until they wipe out that ecowarrior cell, you’re probably stuck here with the rest of us.”

“Okay by me. You guys have a decent brain-scan lab; a few tweaks and I’ll have it set up right. Going to interview the survivors from the whale attack last week when they get back from patrol—see what they think instigated the attack. I can’t believe they’ve sent those guys out already.”

“We’re in an all-hands-on-deck situation. A bit of roughhousing from one of the pods shouldn’t keep anyone from work.”

“Is that what they’re telling you?” Frown lines gathered between Suzanne’s eyes. “Roughhousing?”

Dan nodded. A needle of unease pricked his spine.

The shower head sprayed Dan with a fine mist. Another thing that the rig lacked—decent pressure.

Water, water, everywhere,

But nothing from the sink.

At least it was hot. His feet tingled and turned red as they warmed up. Dan scrubbed mint shampoo into his scalp. The pipes pinged and gurgled. Then from somewhere deep in the plumbing came a foghorn cry. Dan stopped scrubbing and strained his scarred ears to listen.

Nothing. Just the hiss of the showerhead.

Read more https://www.tor.com/2019/02/13/the-song-erinn-kemper/

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A Forest, or A Tree

By Tegan Moore

Four young women go on a camping trip. Things slowly begin to go wrong.

It was just the four of them, four girls alone in the forest.

“Everything is dicks,” Elizabeth said. She gestured at the gnarled gray trunks rising bare-limbed into the shade of their own canopy. “I mean, look around. Dicks, dicks, dicks.”

“You’re so insightful,” said May. She unwedged a water bottle from the side of her pack. “And so foul-mouthed.” Elizabeth had talked most of the way up the mountain. May was pretending she didn’t mind.

Birds muttered in the trees. Piper plodded back from looking over the ravine’s embankment to where the river pounded below. “I’m done walking,” she said. She dropped her bag and flopped to the ground. “This is a stupid hobby. Don’t tell Ailey.”

“Flowers.” Elizabeth pointed to the daisy Piper was tucking into her hair. “Flowers are actually fancy, colorful penises. I mean, how weird is it that we smell them? On purpose?”

Piper scrunched her face and let the flower fall from her hand. “You’re messed up.”

“Nature is evil,” Elizabeth said. “It’s not my fault.”

“Nature is not evil,” May said. She soaked a bandana with her water bottle. “Nature is nature. Evil is just a story.”

“Duck rape,” Elizabeth said. “Ducks rape other ducks all the time. That’s not evil?”

“Oh my god,” Piper said, “this is the worst conversation. I don’t want to know any of this stuff. Can we have the trees and flowers and nature and whatever without the ruining-it-all part? And also no more walking?”

May wrapped the wet bandana around her neck. “We have to sleep in these woods tonight, Elizabeth. Under all your penises.” The other girls were pink with exertion and sun, but May’s skin didn’t pinken adorably. She was dark, unfreckled, and felt slimy with perspiration. She wondered how the white girls stayed looking so pert.

“Don’t even get me started on fruit.”

“Nobody said fruit,” May said. “We aren’t getting you started.”

“Oh my god, don’t,” Piper said.

Ailey traipsed down from a rise, GPS held talismanically before her. “Guys,” she called.

“Here we go,” Piper said. “Anyone else on my side? No more walking?”

May shrugged and sank to the ground next to Piper.

“It’s weird,” Ailey said, trotting down the slope to them. “We aren’t where I thought we were.” She studied the GPS’s minuscule screen, then looked up as though the forest might offer advice.

“It’s pretty here,” Piper said. “I bet it’s a good place to camp.” She raised her eyebrows at May.

“Yeah,” May said obediently. It was pretty. The undergrowth was leafless, sparse, dry twigs and branches hatching together and turning the forest hazy. Ancient cedars pillared into the sky. There was something awful, May thought, awful in the original sense of the word, about looking up. Something about the stature and the patience of the old trees made her feel small, just one story in an endless cycle of nearly identical, pointless stories.

“I thought we’d go upriver,” Ailey said, fiddling with the GPS. “There’s a peak pretty close. Seriously, this thing is being weird.”

Peak, Piper mouthed at May, eyes wide with horror.

Elizabeth approached the ravine’s edge. She held on to a sapling to lean out over the void. Piper squealed, “Don’t, oh my god!”

“We’re not lost, are we?” May asked.

“No,” Ailey said, “it’s . . . wrong. Like, it says we’re . . . well, it doesn’t matter. We’re in the right place. We found the river. We know how to get back.” She gestured at the other girls. “Let’s go.”

Elizabeth scrambled a few steps down toward the river. Piper and May exchanged dubious glances.

“Why not camp here?” Piper said.

Ailey stared. “We’re almost there.” She crossed her arms.

Ailey was in the Mountaineers. Ailey was In Charge.

“Almost where?” Elizabeth called from her perch over the river. “We’re in the middle of nowhere. That part of the middle of nowhere is probably not much different from this part.” Something loosed under her shoe and she slipped, cursed. The sapling bent but held.

Elizabeth was Ailey’s best friend from high school. Elizabeth had provided a running commentary all day of potential disaster, mishap, and urban legend seemingly designed to prevent any possibility of peace.

Piper, Elizabeth’s current roommate, had taken responsibility for  worrying about snakes, worrying about voiding her bowels outdoors, and worrying about potential overlap between the two. Piper had shown up at Ailey’s apartment that morning wearing Converse sneakers. Ailey made her buy boots at a Wal-Mart on the way out of the city.

May wasn’t sure why she’d been invited. She liked Ailey. They’d met at a mutual TA’s awful kegger. The TA was drunk and getting creepy, and May had noticed and dragged Ailey away for a made-up emergency that required both of them to hide in the downstairs bathroom and then leave out the window. They’d been lab partners the following semester. Ailey had told the story about the window escape on the morning’s long drive, and made it seem like something they’d done for fun. Like a joke or something. Maybe only May had noticed the TA’s weird intensity, how he had cornered Ailey in his cheerless, abandoned dining room with a hard, intentional look. Maybe May’s compulsion to push the dining room door all the way open and rescue Ailey had been misguided. Maybe Ailey really did think the two of them had snuck out of the party because why not? Anyway, they hadn’t exactly been besties or anything. Only the shared, strange night, and then a semester sharing a lab bench.

Maybe May was just there for color.

Nobody except Ailey had ever been backpacking before. But probably they’d all be fine.

Eventually Ailey capitulated and they pitched two tents in a ring of enormous cedars. Elizabeth stretched her arms toward their crowns. “Nature’s glorious phalluses.”

“You have dick on the brain,” Ailey said. “Go find firewood.”

Piper spread out on the ground between the two tents. “My tummy hurts,” she said.

May and Elizabeth dragged armloads of sticks into camp and Ailey sorted the pile, snapping branches against her knee. The sun hadn’t begun to set, but their little camp in the trees was dusky and cool. There was plenty of firewood, so they started a fire early. The river noise mortared the empty space between the trees.

“We should tell scary stories,” Elizabeth said.

“No we should not.” Piper lay next to the fire, head on her pack. “We definitely should not do that.”

“You’re right.” Elizabeth eyed the sky. “We’ll wait till dark.”

“Also nope.”

“Okay, what about, like, creepy stories?”

May unlaced her boots. God, it felt good. “Aren’t scary stories a requirement when you’re camping?”

“They are not,” Piper said. “There’s no requirement.”

Ailey patted Piper’s shoulder. “Okay, the rule is: If Piper says stop you have to stop.”

“No means no,” said Elizabeth.

“I already said no,” said Piper. “No clearly does not mean anything to you assholes.”

“Oh come on, Pip,” Elizabeth said. “We’ll be nice.”

“What I do,” Ailey said, “is I figure out why the story can’t happen to me. Like, the Babadook doesn’t live in my basement because both my parents are alive. See? You neutralize it. You can basically always find a reason why you’re okay.”

Piper crossed her arms over her chest, an angry sorority sarcophagus. “I’m covering my ears.” She made no move to do it.

There was a pause to allow Piper’s disapproval to smoke away. A breeze clattered long fingers of underbrush, a quiet tick-tick-ticking over the river’s constant rumble. Overhead, high in the canopy, leaves hissed.

“So, I heard this story,” Elizabeth said, leaning forward. “About some kids out in the woods. They kept hearing—”

May groaned. “I saw that subreddit last week too. It was stupid. Why would a rapist hide in the woods? It doesn’t make any sense. If he’s looking for victims, he’d be better off . . . anywhere, pretty much. The internet is a liar.”

“Just cause it’s on the internet doesn’t mean it’s automatically untrue,” Ailey said. “It must come from somewhere.”

“Yeah,” Elizabeth said, “like the girl who was playing the elevator game in that hotel in LA, and then they found her dead in the water tower. Like the game worked or something.”

“Stupid stories,” May consoled Piper. “They’re just memes.”

“You’re memes,” Piper said. “What does ‘meme’ even mean.”

“Like, cultural ideas.”

Ailey scoffed and leaned back on her palms. “Every idea is a cultural idea.”

“Memes are cat pictures,” Piper said.

“They’re supposed to be an idea that, like, hits something primal. It’s important to people, somehow. Cat pictures or whatever,” said May.

“So they’re basically just good ideas,” Ailey said. “That’s what you mean.”

“Maybe it’s how we do mythology now,” May said.

Piper waved a hand at the canopy. “What is it about cat pictures? What’s the primal idea there? Cute cats?”

May sniffed and rolled her eyes. “I don’t pretend to understand white people.”

“Ooh, reverse racism,” Elizabeth said. “Plus I know for a fact you liked those pictures I posted of my mom’s kitten, so.”

Piper groaned. “I think all the turkey jerky gave me gas.”

“My condolences,” said Ailey to May, who was Piper’s tentmate.

They sat in the quiet, the rhythm of the river holding them.

“So I saw this story,” Elizabeth said, and Piper groaned again. “No, no, it’s not scary. Not really. It’s just some legend. It seemed like it might have been made up, but I couldn’t tell, and I ended up doing a bunch of research.”

“By research,” Ailey said, “do you mean going down a click-hole?”

“That’s not research?”

“I think it’s interesting,” May said, “how stories get changed around on the internet. People making up legends. Like Slender Man—people got obsessed with it, and that made it almost true. It didn’t matter that it wasn’t an old story. People got into it and that made it as real as, I don’t know, Santa or the Virgin Mary. It makes me think all stories are real at some point. There’s something that’s so compelling we have to tell the story over and over again. Like we’re trying to refine it.”

“Right,” Elizabeth said. “Exactly. I wanted to know where this one came from. Have you heard of Stick Indians?”

“That sounds racist,” Ailey said.

“Stick Native Americans,” Piper said. A trace of sunlight flickered over her closed eyes.

“They call it Stick Indians. I didn’t make it up.”

“Repeating things doesn’t make them not racist,” May said. She hadn’t meant to say it so vehemently. She glanced around their circle to see if anyone had flinched, and relaxed her shoulders.

“Okay, so,” Elizabeth said. “Someone posted this story—it was obviously a story, it had characters and a plot and whatever; real stories aren’t that well organized. A bunch of kids were out camping and were hassled by this tree monster. Whatever, it was dumb, but I hadn’t heard about Stick Indians before.”

Now Piper watched Elizabeth, interested. Ailey poked at the fire.

“Anyway. I looked around and there wasn’t much info. A couple old websites with Yakama Indian legends, but all the sites had basically the same story, and you could tell it was copy-pasted. That first site I saw referenced some books I couldn’t find on Amazon, but I later I saw the same titles in a couple different places. Enough to make me think the books might at least be real.”

“You could try a library,” Ailey said. “Like, where actual research is done.”

May snorted. “You’re such a snob. You just said like five minutes ago that the internet isn’t automatically false.”

“I’m a tactile-experience snob,” Ailey said. “I like the real world. I don’t hate the internet.”

“You definitely don’t hate Instagram,” Elizabeth said.

“See? I don’t hate Insta.”

“Aww,” Piper said, “she has a cute nickname for her BFF.”

“My cousin has a dog named Hashtag,” Elizabeth said. “But guys: Stick Indians—that’s what the Yakama people say, apparently, so it’s not racist and don’t yell at me—they’re, like, leprechauns or sasquatches or fairies—”

“Um, vague?” Ailey said.

Read more https://www.tor.com/2019/06/26/a-forest-or-a-tree-tegan-moore/

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Seonag and the Seawolves

By M. Evan MacGriogair

A clan storyteller unfolds the tale of Seonag and the wolves, and the wolves and the waves.

I know you’ve heard the story of An Duine Aonarach, who one day walked into the sea and never returned. And likely you have at least heard of Seonag as well, who did the same thing but to less collective memory.

It’s been a long time since I’ve told a story, a ghràidh. It’s been a long time since I was our clan’s storyteller, but I think I’ve got one more in me, and I think it’s Seonag’s, because I remember her, and I’m the last one who does.

The rest forgot, mostly because they wanted to.

This is the story of Seonag and the wolves, and the wolves and the waves.

She came to me, not so very long ago. She carried no bother on her about whether her people had forgotten her or not (they have), and she took no worries from her brief visit. But she did bring with her a warning.

“Thoir an aire,” she said. “Thoir an aire a-rithist.”

The simplest of warnings, really. Beware and beware again.

I knew it was she the moment I saw her, even though what she has become is beyond what she once was. But that is for you to discover as I did.

So let us begin. Come closer, for my voice weakens and soon will not be here at all.

Seonag is born on a day where the clouds race each other across the sky. They pile up, layer upon layer, like a stampede of red deer in the glen. Like the deer, the clouds that day kick mist into the air, only down and not up, and the mist falls lightly upon Beinn Ruigh Choinnich.

It is low tide. The sea has drawn its breath to wait for her.

Seonag is born on Là Buidhe Bealltainn as the women go out into the mist under that jumble of clouds to wash their faces in the morning dew.

It is not dew that covers Seonag at her birth. It is more alive than that.

And yet the midwife brings in a sprig of heather, flicking a tick from the sprig into the fire. The wind through the open door dries the sweat on Seonag’s mother’s brow. The midwife lets the winter-aged and browned bells dust their dew across the newborn’s, melding with the blood and the birth fluids, a shock of cool water after the heat of the womb and the birth canal and the smoldering peat fire, and Seonag opens her eyes wide.

Somewhere the cuthag begins to call its gù-gù, gù-gù, and the midwife hurriedly dips a finger in ewe’s milk and places it against the lips of the baby to break Seonag’s fast before the bird can finish delivering its news of ill luck.

This is a lot for Seonag’s first moments.

Upon seeing the place she has just been thrust into, Seonag looks around. And then she goes to sleep.

It is as if this world has already shown her all its faces, and she is just born and tired of it.

This doesn’t change as Seonag grows older. Where the clouds raced each other on the morning of her birth, whispers race each other through the villages, from Loch Baghasdail to Dalabrog to Cill Donnain as she grows into an infant, and then a child, and then an adolescent.

She is peculiar, they say.

They think she does not hear them, because she is out of earshot.

Seonag is beautiful the way the each-uisge is beautiful. She has no rosy cheeks or hardiness in her features, though she is hardy enough (she has to be, to survive on our island). But some say that that first touch of dew meant to bring beauty came at the wrong moment, or at the wrong hands, or at the wrong time. It is the early dawn of early summer when she is born, the sky lightening after only just having darkened—it was the in-between time, and Seonag becomes an in-between person. Like the water-horse, the people fear she will lure them off to drown.

Sometimes Seonag sings when she is cutting peat in the springtime. Her voice unnerves the crofters and the fisherfolk who lift their own at the cèilidhean. Seonag never sings at a cèilidh.

For all that, you will think that Seonag is not of this world, and I must assure you: she is.

She feels those whispers even when she does not hear them. She wants to sing at the cèilidhean. Seonag wants to build a house for herself and cut peats with her own hands and work the machair like her father and mother. As Seonag grows into an adult, she learns the waterways of Uibhist the way she learns the waterways of her own body, and she loves this land.

Remember that.

When Seonag has just passed her twenty-fifth year, her parents board a ship to Canada.

Seonag is meant to go with them. They can no longer afford their rent for their croft.

Instead, Seonag hides in the cleft of the glen, weeping softly as her tears drip into the bog under a sharp bright sky.

After she has dried her face with the folds of her dress, she comes to visit my father.

My father is Tormod Mòr, Tormod Mac Raghnaill ’ic Aois ’ic Dhòmhnaill, Tormod the Bard, Tormod Ruadh—sometimes I think my father collected a name for every year he lived.

I see Seonag coming that day. I am some few years younger than her, and I’ve only ever really seen her in glimpses. I tell my father she’s coming when I see her crest the rise in the road.

“Tha Seonag Bhàn a’ tighinn,” I say.

My father leaves the Gaelic where I put it and answers in English, because he is trying to teach me. “Don’t call her that.”

My father is a big man (hence that first name), but Seonag came to her far-ainm in a way I often forget. Bàn means fair, and while she is pale, her hair is black like a crow’s feathers and shines like them besides. It is a small cruel joke, one at the behest of Dòmhnall Geur (who is known for small cruel jokes throughout our island) and one I still don’t understand. I am a wee bit infatuated with Seonag. I also don’t quite understand that.

“I thought she was gone,” I say softly. English feels wrong in my mouth. It lives in a different part of it.

My father understands both my infatuation and my words even if I do not. He also looks out the window and understands Seonag.

He opens the door before she can raise her hand to knock. He speaks Gaelic to her, even if he only speaks English to me.

“Madainn mhath, a Sheonag,” he greets her.

“Madainn mhath, a Thormoid,” she says as if she did not just let her parents sail across an ocean without her. “Ciamar a tha sibh?”

“Tha i teth,” Father says. “Fosgail an uinneag, a Chaluim.”

This last is to me, and it is a dismissal. I open the window as he asked, letting in the cooler air. And then I set myself in the corner to mend a net and listen, pushing their Gaelic words into English so I can prove to my father that I’m doing two useful things instead of one, if he asks (he won’t).

“I had no expectation of seeing you here still,” Father says.

“I had the expectation of leaving,” says Seonag.

She sits on a small stool by the peat fire. Her eyes are the color of that mòine, of that peat, and she does not use them to look at me. She looks at the peat instead.

Seonag puts her head in her hands.

“The ship has gone to its sailing already,” my father tells her softly.

“That is why I am here.” Seonag looks up.

Read more https://www.tor.com/2019/08/21/seonag-and-the-seawolves-m-evan-macgriogair/

Cosmic Crust

By Alex Sherman

In an apocalyptic, depopulated city, a young man named Bhu struggles to feed his ailing dog Lucy. Phan, the local pizza parlor owner, takes pity on Bhu and provides the meat Lucy needs so she can survive. But what exactly is in the meat? And how far is Bhu willing to go to save his dog?

Bhu walked his dog five times a day and this demanded his full attention. An overweight bulldog crossbreed, she spent much of her time splayed sluglike on a small leopard-print pillow, breathing in and out in shallow, gulping snorts. Always he needed to be careful not to overexert her when he lifted her onto the wheeled prosthesis that supported her back legs.

Her name was Lucy.

There was no need to keep her leashed as she squeaked up and down the cracked sidewalk, though Bhu kept a vigilant watch for the black dogs that roamed his street, aggressive strays that worked in packs and barked with intelligent diction. They stood in the grass of vacant lots between boarded buildings, in the shadowed awnings of long-shuttered storefronts. They followed Lucy with their eyes and muzzles as she worked her way to a place that suited her refined olfactory palate—never the same place twice—where she relieved herself, at length, and with difficulty.

Bhu had to make sure that the door closed securely. Sometimes it hung open, and Bhu didn’t feel safe knowing anyone—or even the dogs—could walk right in.

The beef gave off no odor; instead the kitchen smelled perpetually of the wax that he used to make candles in case the power went out.

Bhu lived on the first floor of a now mostly-empty co-op. The last thing the super told him, before she went on an indefinite sabbatical, was that Bhu could take any apartment that he wanted, if it was empty. Eventually he relocated to a place on the first floor because he got sick of carrying Lucy up and down the stairs. No one else lived on the first floor. All the shuffling old ladies who took great care to avoid him went up and down the stairs without complaint.

Most of the lights in the hall had burned out. Every time Bhu changed one, another would go dark the next day.

Bhu’s cough worsened. Five-foot-two and always wiry, his cheeks hollowed and his hair fell out in tufts. Bhu often ran his fingers along a patchy goatee which was the only place that his facial hair grew at all, reduced to the essentials, much like his life. Work, sustenance, personal hygiene. The care and comfort of Lucy, above all. He spoke to her at length about his days, his thoughts, the things he saw in this festering city. He did often not think about what he would do when she died. It hurt too much. He liked to think, given the state of things, that the world would end long before she did.

Famous Signoretti’s Italian Bistro had operated without a single day off for seventy-five years. No catastrophe of any scale had ever kept its shutters from opening, and this slow-looming cultural decay that Bhu felt in his marrow didn’t seem likely to be the first. Customers still trickled in throughout each day and filled the tables during the dinner rush.

It was not unusual for a cough or sneeze to slip out unexpectedly, drenching a plate as it went out to a customer, or even a whole pie that Bhu pulled steaming out of the wood-fire oven. Bhu found ways not to care, ways to justify his lack of caring, but one reason won out easily over the rest: Bhu wasn’t going to get anyone sick, because everyone was already sick. He saw the symptoms everywhere. In the customers’ heavy, bloodshot eyes, in their puffy lips and cheeks, the swelling in their necks and fingers, the sweat that coated their hands and the damp bills that they passed to him when he worked the register. He wore blue gloves for when he handled the bills, and at the end of his shift the fingers were stained and corroded, the latex pocked with small blisters. He told this to Phan, his boss, who took the gloves in his own hands, touched them, sniffed them, and told Bhu that there was nothing to worry about. People got sick because of bad energy, Phan said. Phan had never been sick a day in his life. As he said this he coughed and raised a bent cigarette to his lips. Phan’s eyes bulged anxiously. The thick crescent lines of his fingernails were stained a nicotine yellow.

Bhu researched contagion and sanitation. Temperatures higher than 140 degrees slow or stop bacterial growth. He stood near the oven and bathed in its purifying heat. Phan noticed this pattern of behavior and took this to be an intellectual interest in its workings. He spoke to Bhu about it at length. The mystical aspects of its form and structure, the temple shape of the dome, the holy vortex of the internal flame. An engineer by trade, if not philosophy, Phan married into an Italian restaurant family. When his wife inherited it, he took it over, replacing the smaller and more efficient gas oven with the bulky and inconvenient wood-fire oven. He did this largely on his own, using simple tools and materials, what he called the methods of the ancients.

Phan talked about energy and sickness in his slurred Chicago growl. He had designed the oven to be a generator of positive, healing energies. On the wood-fired bricks that he shaped and baked with his own hands he had inscribed a lexicon of powerful signs and sigils: harvest prayers from ancient Slavic carvings, healing passages from Babylonian tablets, Greek hexes that predated Homer by three thousand years. Buddhist prayers in a dozen languages, Chinese ideograms, his favorite mathematical figures, the names of all the players on the 2016 World Series–winning Chicago Cubs.

“It’s a universal lexicon,” he said one day. “You take the sides of all those bricks, you unfold them like so”—he demonstrated with his hands, turning them back and forth—“and it all fits together. I planned it for years, the placement of every mark in perfect, universal harmony. I thought it might help. I thought that this oven might change things for the better. Refocus the world’s energy, just a little bit.”

As Phan spoke a customer doubled over in a fit of violent coughs on the other side of the fiberglass panel that separated the checkout line from the kitchen. Bhu and Phan turned to watch. The coughing man fell to the ground and spat up a mouthful of blood and bile. Phan shook his head.

“And now, look.”

Made confident by Phan’s attention, Bhu worked his lips in a silent question, then repeated it out loud. He asked if Phan had any raw meat that he might be willing to sell cheaply. Bhu thought that Phan didn’t hear him because the spry old man rushed away, vaulting clean over the register to attend to the sick customer, who now held his hands to his throat, choking.

But Phan heard, and he didn’t forget. He called Bhu over at the end of his shift and asked what his question was. Bhu had to think for a moment, to center himself, before answering.

Bhu wanted meat. Raw meat, as fresh as possible, the cost of which would be taken out of his wages, whatever the cost may be.

Read more https://www.tor.com/2020/04/01/cosmic-crust-alex-sherman/

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Of Roses and Kings

By Melissa Marr

In this dark, skewed take on Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Alice is now the Red Queen, and her maid must tread the fine line between favor and blame in this strange world.

“To the dungeon.” Those were the last words she said to me, and the reasons for them should be what I ponder. Instead all I can think about is the way her mouth curved, the tip of her tongue between her parted lips as she spoke.

The Red Queen controls everything. Such is the power of money, of influence, of her lovely, lying lips.

“It’s not my fault,” I protest, even as I step outside the palace into the dusk.

My escort, one lone guard, glances at me curiously.

“It’s not my fault,” I repeat.

He shoves me, hand between my shoulder blades. “Keep moving.”

“I’m not guilty.”

He doesn’t answer. I could kill him if I had a mind to, but I don’t. He’s just doing his job. It’s not personal. I’m accused of . . . well, honestly, I don’t know the list of charges this time. All I know is that I was in the Red Queen’s chambers, and now I’m in custody.

“I’m not innocent, but neither am I guilty,” I explain, more to myself than him.

He keeps silent as I follow him through the garden. My shoes are gone, and the road we follow is anything but soft. Knowing her, I wouldn’t be shocked if she had extra rocks or shards of glass carted in to cover the path. She’s always quick to remind me she’s in charge.

I lift my gaze from the path at a soft chuff of laughter to my left. The guard doesn’t notice the sound, but he’s not paid enough to notice. Or maybe he’s simply one of the rare Wonderland-born people. They never find the oddities worth noting, not the way those of us who came from the Original World do.

I stare into the wild foliage. There, nestled among rose blossoms as big as a child’s head, is Tom. With his dark skin, the garden, and the flowers, all I see is his eerily wide smile. No one else has such a grin, though, so there’s no mistaking him.

“Who goes there?” he calls out, official-like, as if he has the authority to question my transportation. Perhaps he might. Politics are a peculiar thing in any world, including this one.

The guard halts and peers into the greenery. “Guard 39, sir.”

Tom steps out with a bit of a pounce. He always gives the impression of something feral, grinning as he does, popping out of unexpected shadows more often than not.

If I were to like a man, I suspect it would be him.

“Ahhh, you have Rose.” Tom looks me up and down.

“Beatrice,” the guard corrects.

“But a rose by any other name is . . . If you are not a rose, what does that make you?”

The guard scrunches up his face in a most unflattering way. “This is Beatrice, the Red Queen’s maid.”

“Today.” Tom’s grin vanishes. “There are tomorrows and yesterdays, though. Are any of us both who were then and now?”

The guard nods as if this makes sense. I suppose, in a manner of speaking, it does. Once, a very long while ago, my name was not Beatrice. Before that, in the Original World, it was something else entirely.

Tom sidles up next to the guard and takes the keys from where they hang at the guard’s hip. The guard watches him, as do I. Who can resist such a being? Tom moves the way the loveliest music comes into being, as if it’s suddenly woven from nothing into something remarkable. Tom is like that—except he knows things in a way that makes me suspect he’s sometimes here when he’s not.

“I shall take Rose,” he pronounces.

Guard 39 looks perplexed at this. “Did the queen change the orders?”

Tom’s wide grin flashes back into being, and we all three undoubtedly know that whatever comes next is not the whole truth.

“Ah, does she ever not change them?” Tom asks.

The guard hands me over with no more than a cursory glance at the castle. Tom, for all his deceits, is trusted as few beings ever are in Wonderland. He is not in her employ, but he is not her enemy. Truthfully, I think he’s as much in charge as she is.

As the guard leaves, I feel Tom beside me, nearly vibrating with the difficulty of stillness. We stand there, watching Guard 39 return along the path we’ve traveled. I’m not sure if he’s going to the castle to ask for clarity or simply resuming whatever task he should’ve been attending if not for my sudden arrest.

Once the guard turns a bend in the garden path, Tom extends an elbow to me. “Come, my dear Rose. We shall walk a while.”

He doesn’t unshackle me, so linking my arm with his is not possible. I rattle my restraints slightly in answer.

“I see.”

Instead of removing the manacles, he twines his arm around mine, and we perambulate through the jungle-like growth. Tendrils seemingly reach out, snagging my hair and skirt. There’s a wildness here that suits me.

After several quiet moments, I tell him, “I never lied to her. I need you to believe me. I need someone to trust me.”

Tom’s toothy grin flashes in the dark. “Shall I admit I don’t care, dear Rose?”

“Why did you stop him from taking me to the dungeon, then?”

“That, my dear one, is a fine question.” He pats my arm as if I have earned a point in a game I didn’t realize we’d begun. Unlike me, unlike Alice, Tom is a native of this peculiar world. In the best of moods, he seems to consider if you’re worth toying with for a while or if you’re beneath his notice. Neither seems particularly pleasant.

“Do you believe me?” I ask.

He laughs, mouth stretching wider than human mouths ought to stretch.

“Alice would not like it if I believed you,” he says, bluntly getting to the lone truth of things. “Of course, she would not like it if I doubted you either.”

“I serve her best interests,” I tell him. “Whatever name you call me, or she calls me, I serve Alice.”

This is the truth that has left me here, chained in the garden, plucked from her room. It is also, apparently, the answer Tom sought. He peers at me, and then he reaches out. I don’t flinch—although any man reaching toward me is cause for discomfort. The side of his hand grazes my face as he plucks a dripping rose from a wild tangle of vines and thorns. A good third of the petals rain over me as he frees the blossom and weaves it into my hair.

“I serve Wonderland, Rose. Not this Red Queen. Not the last. Not the one before her . . . or the one who will follow Alice some day.”

“She trusts you.” It’s all I can say as we follow the sinuous path toward the dungeon—where, apparently, I am still going.

Read more https://www.tor.com/2020/04/27/of-roses-and-kings-melissa-marr/

We Come as Gods 

By Suyi Davies Okungbowa

In honor of Black Speculative Fiction Month, eight SFF authors share stories that honor forebearers and memories of the past, fight the legacies that underpin the brutalities of the present, and demand a future that’s freer than today.

The stories publish on Tor.com all throughout the morning of October 19. They are collected here.

First, we come as servants. Who we were before this is not important: not the wars we may have fought in or ran from; not the academies we may have attended or not; not if we were once master or slave. All that matters, in the beginning, is that we are a people’s people, that we may stand in the midst of a crowd and be indistinguishable. On our heads lie the same hair as theirs, and on our feet the same sandals. We are simply one and the same, isn’t it obvious?

Next, we come as heroes. Shining armour, arms unafraid to swing, tools of mass destruction that fit in the palm of our hands. We invoke the gods of our people, and they descend and stand beside us. The people see their hands outstretched upon our shoulders, their eyes shut in blessing. Godly garments turned inside out so that all of the bloodstains they bear, vestiges of their pasts—we can smell the red wetness of them, this close—may stain their skins, but the fore of their garments, that which is in view of the people, glisten white. That is not for us to judge—these bloodstains were earned in battles like this, after all, long, long ago. Too long, faded from common memory. Of what use is such old knowledge to today’s people? Let them worry about today’s problems. So we keep the eyes of those before us from straying too far, keep them on today’s prize. For our freedoms! we scream, and we strike down mercilessly, bolstered by the bloodthirsty cheers of our kin.

Then, we come as saviours. People line up in the streets to cheer our victory. They bear our names and battle cries on their banners, on their tunics, on their hats, in their hearts. They radiate a hope not long witnessed in this land. There are more hopes, too, clung to by others, but those are distractions. Some hopes are more important than others. We let the songs of praise wash over us, drown out any voices of discord. Today is a day of victory, and there will be room for nothing but that.

Afterwards, we come as merchants. The people need a firm hand to represent their interests, to protect them from alien forces of disrepute. We rip what we can from the land for collective gain, but first, we must shell it out to whoever will fork out the most. We must do this to satiate the endless pits. No, not of our bellies—there are no pits in our bellies; who would think such?—but in the hearts of those we serve. Pits so endless they have become an abyss. But no matter. There will always be something to be sold, something to feed back into that abyss. There will also be enemies, within and without, who remain unsatisfied with this good work, but again—no matter. We shall hunt them down and remand them. They shall rot alive until they call out to their gods. Our gods. And yes, they do answer, our gods, and they descend again—not with outstretched hands of blessing this time, but with questions we cannot answer. We tell them just so, and they understand because they, too, did not have answers in their time. So they leave us be, and we continue to fight for the people. We decree laws. We impound, incarcerate, protect. Their cries are hysterical, but we silence them with the good solutions we know are best. We keep our people safe and secure. We keep our people. We keep.

In time, we come as ghosts. In the moments after we bite off the final poisoned apple—that which banishes us to a life outside of this one—we are besieged by Death’s messenger. He comes to our door in our moment of failing and stands there, staff in hand. Silent, watching.

Read more https://www.tor.com/2020/10/19/we-come-as-gods-suyi-davies-okungbowa/

Masquerade Season

By Pemi Aguda

Pauly is a good son. When he brings home three beautiful Masquerades, he’s expecting that his mother will be proud of him. But when his mother begins asking favors of his Masquerades, he realizes that being a good son sometimes means disobeying.

Pauly should stick to the major roads when walking home from his cousins’ house. That’s what his mother warns, abstractly, routinely, every morning of this summer holiday when she drops him off. He always nods yes, but in this one thing, he is a disobedient son. He’s tried to take the major roads home, but they are so noisy with the grumbling trucks and the plaintive honks from all the cars competing to get ahead. Pauly knows more scenic routes home, less noisy paths that wind between large houses they’ll never afford and parks his mother has no time to take him to. And when Pauly doesn’t want to take this leisurely walk home, there is a shortcut. If he dips behind the mosque down the street from his cousins’ house, scurries across the gutter bridge made of two wooden planks, slashes through some distance of overgrown bush, then hops over the abandoned rusty back gate of Alele Estate, he will burst out two streets away from home. The security guards at Alele’s main gate never question his passage; they wave at his sweaty forehead and smile at the grass stains he’s accumulated on the shorts his mother makes for him.

Pauly is trying to get home quickly today. He stayed too long, playing ball with his cousins, Ekene and John, in their huge backyard bordered by coconut trees. Behind the mosque, he startles a man at his prayers. The man stills, following Pauly’s path through the backyard as his head hovers inches above the mat. Pauly whispers an apology, not slowing down. He doesn’t doubt that the rotting planks will hold his weight, and across the makeshift bridge he goes. But today, a few steps into the bush, he stalls, almost tripping, because here are three masquerades swaying in front of him, blocking his path. Pauly is not aware of any masquerade festivals at this time of the year; he takes a small step back, contemplating the out-of-context figures.

“Excuse me, please,” he says, because his mother has taught him to be polite.

The masquerades don’t respond. They stand there, moving left to right, then left, like backup singers at church. Pauly has to tilt his head all the way back to see the tops of their heads. The first masquerade is the tallest, even taller than his science teacher, who is a very tall 6’4” – —a detail the man crows at his short students. The tall masquerade has a body of long raffia threads layered over each other—like someone has stacked fifty-six brooms and topped them all with a brown cowboy hat, the kind Woody in Toy Story wears. It has no face. The second masquerade is just a little taller than Pauly’s mother. It is draped in rich aso-oke, the bloodiest of reds. Pauly gawks at the twinkling beads sewn into the cloth, dangling and scattering light, but his attention cannot stay long away from its square silver face with twin black elliptical slits above three gashes of tribal marks on each cheek. Though the head of the third masquerade is a solid dark wood that takes up half its body length (with a chiseled triangle nose, engraved circles for eyes, carved zigzags for teeth), there is an explosion of colorful feathers around it. The feathers are blue and purple and red and yellow and pink and they are long and different, as if all the birds of the world have donated feathers for this purpose. Its skirt is made of several panels of cloth, each with an elaborate embroidered pattern.

When they keep shifting with the wind, not responding, Pauly moves to go around them. They don’t stop him. How strange, he thinks, and keeps running; but isn’t that a rustling following him? Pauly swings around and the masquerades halt, only a few steps behind.

“Why are you following me?” Pauly asks.

It is the feathered masquerade that speaks; the voice is a whispery, susurrating sound, as if the feathers themselves are speaking. The masquerade says, “Because we are your masquerades.”

In the middle of this bush path, a shortcut to Pauly’s home, he thinks how he has never owned anything so special and vivid and big. His mother will be proud. His cousins will be impressed.

“Okay,” Pauly says, and takes them home, checking over his shoulder at every corner to make sure they are still there, tall and conspicuous and all his.

The masquerades are swooshing in the corner of the living room, between the old TV with the crooked antennae and the heat-trapping velvet curtains that Pauly’s mother keeps forgetting to replace. The masquerades are so bright, too bright maybe, for the otherwise dim apartment, and Pauly, seated on the edge of the sofa, sometimes has to look away, afraid his eyes will rupture from color.

It wasn’t hard getting the masquerades home. They moved through the bush without problems, hopped over the gate gracefully—as if they were featherlight; when the Alele security guards had seen Pauly and the masquerades approaching, they waved and asked: “And what do we have here?” To which Pauly replied, “These are my masquerades,” and the masquerades had swayed and Pauly liked the way the guards nodded, touched their cap visors to show they were impressed.

His mother has warned him not to bring strangers home, yes. So, in this second thing, he is a disobedient son. But Pauly is sure she will understand that masquerades aren’t things you pass up, especially when they belong to you. And isn’t it his mother who always says never to leave his belongings lying around? Never to lose them?

Pauly doesn’t know what appropriate conversation with masquerades sounds like. Should he ask where they have come from? Would that be impolite? Would that be looking a gift horse in the mouth? Or should he ask what they do for fun? They don’t look like they’d want to play football, staining their materials, which have somehow stayed clean through that bush passage. But maybe he shouldn’t presume. Are they similar to pets he has to feed?

He finally speaks up. “Can I offer you biscuit and water?”

The red aso-oke masquerade bends forward, cloth rippling like a wave, then straightens. This voice is soft too, but more slippery, silkier than the feathered masquerade’s. “Palm oil,” the masquerade says from behind its silver mask.

“You want palm oil?”

“Yes,” it says, the slinking out, drawing long. “Only palm oil.”

Pauly’s mother arrives from her seamstress job in the middle of this conversation.

“Oh,” she says when she steps into the room, lugging bags of vegetables and fish for dinner in one hand and bolts of fabric in the other. She stands there for a long moment, looking at the masquerades, her body not quite in or out. “Oh,” she repeats. “We have company?”

“These are my masquerades,” Pauly announces. He stands tall, all of his ten-year-old height. He spreads his hands toward them, as if they are an art project of his making. He waits for his mother to be impressed.

Read more https://www.tor.com/2021/03/24/masquerade-season-pemi-aguda/


By Jasmin Kirkbride

When Suzy was born, her parents filled her mouth with sand. But this is normal and natural and the way things are always done.
And if she finds it uncomfortable to keep it there, to eat with it there, to talk with it there, she’s just going to have to learn to live with it.

“Sand” is a heart-wrenching tale about generational trauma and healing.

When I close my eyes, I can conjure the feeling – a smooth gum, wrinkling up as grit scours it. It’s so clear I can almost convince myself it’s a real memory, that I can really recall those rough grains steadily filling my mouth. I can’t. Of course. But the edge of the memory is there, as if the tendrils of my neurons were stretching out to each other across my fresh, pink brain. As if they knew that act would become my bedrock.

In that moment just after I was born, my parents filled my mouth with sand. They inserted a funnel between my lips and tipped it through. The sand trickled into the back of my throat, muffling my squeals, clustering over my tongue and toothless gums.

In this half-imagined memory, Mum clamped me still so the funnel’s sharp base wouldn’t cut my lips. She watched me watching her, and her eyelids fluttered uncertainly. She hesitated, slowing the stream of sand. I took a deep breath through my nose and tried to cry through the grains in my mouth.

My grandparents urged her on, ‘It’s as it should be. Come on now.’ Dad told me that’s how it went.

The doctor paused stitching Mum’s parts back together to watch the sand being poured into me. Mum told me that. Mum glanced at the midwife, who shrugged, holding up a bloodied, gloved hand.

Dad snorted impatiently and tapped the side of the funnel, making the last grains fall into my mouth and turning my cries into a nasal hum that made the sand vibrate.

Mum held me close to feed me, and I imagine the comfort of her warm skin quietened me. ‘Now, just hold the sand in your mouth, darling.’ Her version, again. ‘Don’t swallow it or try to chew it, or it’ll damage your gums.’ I concentrated on straining her breast milk through the granules.

I suppose I became used to the sand quite quickly. After all, there had not been much time before it: my dark gestation (during which my body had changed daily anyway); the flood of birth; scant minutes of air before my parents pushed the funnel into my mouth.

Even so, teething was nightmarish. Ivory spikes punctured my gums and the tiny sand grains got caught in the gaps between them, or in the indents of my fresh molars, causing a low-level, thunder-like grinding when I moved my jaw. When I moaned about it, Mum only rocked me, and told me to just keep holding the sand. I know this is true because it happened again when I lost my baby teeth.

That was when I really began to hate the sand. Around six years old, when childhood amnesia gave way to memory, my conceptual horizons expanded enough for me to understand that the sand hadn’t always been there. I’d spend hours watching my goldfish opening and closing its hollow mouth against the crisp tank water, dwelling on what my first, uncongested inhalations must have been like – what it was like for the air to rush over the roof of my mouth and into my lungs; whether I had been allowed to drink my mother’s milk before the procedure, without straining.

‘What are you thinking about there, Suzy?’ Mum always checked in on me when I stared at the fish tank.

At first, I didn’t respond because talking was too much effort, but she asked me so often eventually I sighed through my nose, tucked the sand into my cheeks, and told her.

She put down her book and flicked her reading glasses off her face into her hair. ‘The sand in your mouth? That’s what you’re thinking about?’

I nodded and hopped off our copy of The Yellow Pages, which I’d been using to boost myself up to the tank. I approached her seriously. ‘I don’t like it. I want to spit it out.’

‘You can try,’ Mum said. ‘But it’ll come back and there’ll be more of it next time. Anyway, it’s bad manners to talk about your sand. People might start thinking things about us. Keep it to yourself, now.’

That afternoon, I slipped into the courtyard that was our garden and tried spitting the sand into one of Mum’s potted ferns, but within an hour it had returned, and my cheeks bulged, fuller than ever.

Dad got wind of my obsession – I don’t remember how, maybe Mum told him, maybe I was stupid enough to let on – and he took it upon himself to advise me.

‘Got to chew it up and swallow it.’ He instructed me over dinner. ‘Here, your mum’s cooking will help – like taking a spoonful of sugar with your medicine. Like Mary Poppins, right? It’s easy.’ He demonstrated with a head of broccoli.

I tried following his example with some of Mum’s signature mustard mash, scooping it into my mouth with my Mr Happy plastic fork. It was not easy. The sand grated all the way down my throat and Mum had to feed me hollyhock syrup before bed. During the night, I sicked the sand back up into my mouth, where it stuck, covered in a foul acidic bile.

‘Didn’t do it properly,’ Dad said in the morning. He remained adamant that I must try again, and it went on – in my memory, though not in anyone else’s – for weeks. The harder I tried, the faster I gagged the sand back up, with a sound like a plunged drain.

Read more https://www.tor.com/2021/10/13/sand-jasmin-kirkbride/#more-664862