Desiree’s Baby

by Kate Chopin

As the day was pleasant, Madame Valmondé drove over to L’Abri to see Désirée and the baby. It made her laugh to think of Désirée with a baby. Why, it seemed but yesterday that Désirée was little more than a baby herself; when Monsieur in riding through the gateway of Valmondé had found her lying asleep in the shadow of the big
stone pillar.

The little one awoke in his arms and began to cry for “Dada.” That was as much as she could do or say. Some people thought she might have strayed there of her own accord,
for she was of the toddling age. The prevailing belief was that she had been purposely left by a party of Texans, whose canvas-covered wagon, late in the day, had crossed the ferry that Coton Maïs kept, just below the plantation. In time Madame Valmondé abandoned every speculation but the one that Désirée had been sent to her by a beneficent Providence to be the child of her affection, seeing that she was without child of
the flesh. For the girl grew to be beautiful and gentle, affectionate and sincere,—the idol of Valmondé.

It was no wonder, when she stood one day against the stone pillar in whose shadow she had lain asleep, eighteen years before, that Armand Aubigny riding by and seeing her
there, had fallen in love with her. That was the way all the Aubignys fell in love, as if struck by a pistol shot. The wonder was that he had not loved her before; for he had known her
since his father brought him home from Paris, a boy of eight, after his mother died there. The passion that awoke in him that day, when he saw her at the gate, swept along like an
avalanche, or like a prairie fire, or like anything that drives headlong over all obstacles.
Monsieur Valmondé grew practical and wanted things well considered: that is, the girl’s obscure origin.

Armand looked into her eyes and did not care. He was reminded that she was nameless. What did it matter about a name when he could give her one of the oldest and proudest in Louisiana? He ordered the corbeille from Paris, and contained himself with what patience he could until it arrived; then they were married.

Madame Valmondé had not seen Désirée and the baby for four weeks. When she reached L’Abri she shuddered at the first sight of it, as she always did. It was a sad looking place,
which for many years had not known the gentle presence of a mistress, old Monsieur Aubigny having married and buried his wife in France, and she having loved her own land too well ever to leave it. The roof came down steep and black like a cowl, reaching out beyond the wide galleries that encircled the yellow stuccoed house. Big, solemn oaks grew close to it, and their thick-leaved, far-reaching branches shadowed it like a pall. Young Aubigny’s rule was a strict one, too, and under it his negroes had forgotten how to be gay, as they had been during the old master’s easy-going and indulgent lifetime. The young mother was recovering slowly, and lay full length, in her soft white muslins and laces, upon a couch.

The baby was beside her, upon her arm, where he had fallen asleep, at her breast. The yellow nurse woman sat beside a window fanning herself.

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The Adventure of Wisteria Lodge

by Arthur Conan Doyle

1. The Singular Experience of Mr. John Scott Eccles

I find it recorded in my notebook that it was a bleak and windy day towards the end of March in the year 1892. Holmes had received a telegram while we sat at our lunch, and he had scribbled a reply. He made no remark, but the matter remained in his thoughts, for he stood in front of the fire afterwards with a thoughtful face, smoking his pipe, and casting an occasional glance at the message. Suddenly he turned upon me with a mischievous twinkle in his eyes.

“I suppose, Watson, we must look upon you as a man of letters,” said he. “How do you define the word ‘grotesque’?”

“Strange—remarkable,” I suggested.

He shook his head at my definition.

“There is surely something more than that,” said he; “some underlying suggestion of the tragic and the terrible. If you cast your mind back to some of those narratives with which you have afflicted a long-suffering public, you will recognise how often the grotesque has deepened into the criminal. Think of that little affair of the red-headed men. That was grotesque enough in the outset, and yet it ended in a desperate attempt at robbery. Or, again, there was that most grotesque affair of the five orange pips, which led straight to a murderous conspiracy. The word puts me on the alert.”

“Have you it there?” I asked.

He read the telegram aloud.

“Have just had most incredible and grotesque experience. May I consult you?

“Scott Eccles,
“Post Office, Charing Cross.”

“Man or woman?” I asked.

“Oh, man, of course. No woman would ever send a reply-paid telegram. She would have come.”

“Will you see him?”

“My dear Watson, you know how bored I have been since we locked up Colonel Carruthers. My mind is like a racing engine, tearing itself to pieces because it is not connected up with the work for which it was built. Life is commonplace, the papers are sterile; audacity and romance seem to have passed forever from the criminal world. Can you ask me, then, whether I am ready to look into any new problem, however trivial it may prove? But here, unless I am mistaken, is our client.”

A measured step was heard upon the stairs, and a moment later a stout, tall, grey-whiskered and solemnly respectable person was ushered into the room. His life history was written in his heavy features and pompous manner. From his spats to his gold-rimmed spectacles he was a Conservative, a churchman, a good citizen, orthodox and conventional to the last degree. But some amazing experience had disturbed his native composure and left its traces in his bristling hair, his flushed, angry cheeks, and his flurried, excited manner. He plunged instantly into his business.

“I have had a most singular and unpleasant experience, Mr. Holmes,” said he. “Never in my life have I been placed in such a situation. It is most improper—most outrageous. I must insist upon some explanation.” He swelled and puffed in his anger.

“Pray sit down, Mr. Scott Eccles,” said Holmes in a soothing voice. “May I ask, in the first place, why you came to me at all?”

“Well, sir, it did not appear to be a matter which concerned the police, and yet, when you have heard the facts, you must admit that I could not leave it where it was. Private detectives are a class with whom I have absolutely no sympathy, but none the less, having heard your name—”

“Quite so. But, in the second place, why did you not come at once?”

Holmes glanced at his watch.

“It is a quarter-past two,” he said. “Your telegram was dispatched about one. But no one can glance at your toilet and attire without seeing that your disturbance dates from the moment of your waking.”

Our client smoothed down his unbrushed hair and felt his unshaven chin.

“You are right, Mr. Holmes. I never gave a thought to my toilet. I was only too glad to get out of such a house. But I have been running round making inquiries before I came to you. I went to the house agents, you know, and they said that Mr. Garcia’s rent was paid up all right and that everything was in order at Wisteria Lodge.”

“Come, come, sir,” said Holmes, laughing. “You are like my friend, Dr. Watson, who has a bad habit of telling his stories wrong end foremost. Please arrange your thoughts and let me know, in their due sequence, exactly what those events are which have sent you out unbrushed and unkempt, with dress boots and waistcoat buttoned awry, in search of advice and assistance.”

Our client looked down with a rueful face at his own unconventional appearance.

“I’m sure it must look very bad, Mr. Holmes, and I am not aware that in my whole life such a thing has ever happened before. But I will tell you the whole queer business, and when I have done so you will admit, I am sure, that there has been enough to excuse me.”

But his narrative was nipped in the bud. There was a bustle outside, and Mrs. Hudson opened the door to usher in two robust and official-looking individuals, one of whom was well known to us as Inspector Gregson of Scotland Yard, an energetic, gallant, and, within his limitations, a capable officer. He shook hands with Holmes and introduced his comrade as Inspector Baynes, of the Surrey Constabulary.

“We are hunting together, Mr. Holmes, and our trail lay in this direction.” He turned his bulldog eyes upon our visitor. “Are you Mr. John Scott Eccles, of Popham House, Lee?”

“I am.”

“We have been following you about all the morning.”

“You traced him through the telegram, no doubt,” said Holmes.

“Exactly, Mr. Holmes. We picked up the scent at Charing Cross Post-Office and came on here.”

“But why do you follow me? What do you want?”

“We wish a statement, Mr. Scott Eccles, as to the events which led up to the death last night of Mr. Aloysius Garcia, of Wisteria Lodge, near Esher.”

Our client had sat up with staring eyes and every tinge of colour struck from his astonished face.

“Dead? Did you say he was dead?”

“Yes, sir, he is dead.”

“But how? An accident?”

“Murder, if ever there was one upon earth.”

“Good God! This is awful! You don’t mean—you don’t mean that I am suspected?”

“A letter of yours was found in the dead man’s pocket, and we know by it that you had planned to pass last night at his house.”

“So I did.”

“Oh, you did, did you?”

Out came the official notebook.

“Wait a bit, Gregson,” said Sherlock Holmes. “All you desire is a plain statement, is it not?”

“And it is my duty to warn Mr. Scott Eccles that it may be used against him.”

“Mr. Eccles was going to tell us about it when you entered the room. I think, Watson, a brandy and soda would do him no harm. Now, sir, I suggest that you take no notice of this addition to your audience, and that you proceed with your narrative exactly as you would have done had you never been interrupted.”

Our visitor had gulped off the brandy and the colour had returned to his face. With a dubious glance at the inspector’s notebook, he plunged at once into his extraordinary statement.

“I am a bachelor,” said he, “and being of a sociable turn I cultivate a large number of friends. Among these are the family of a retired brewer called Melville, living at Abermarle Mansion, Kensington. It was at his table that I met some weeks ago a young fellow named Garcia. He was, I understood, of Spanish descent and connected in some way with the embassy. He spoke perfect English, was pleasing in his manners, and as good-looking a man as ever I saw in my life.

“In some way we struck up quite a friendship, this young fellow and I. He seemed to take a fancy to me from the first, and within two days of our meeting he came to see me at Lee. One thing led to another, and it ended in his inviting me out to spend a few days at his house, Wisteria Lodge, between Esher and Oxshott. Yesterday evening I went to Esher to fulfil this engagement.

“He had described his household to me before I went there. He lived with a faithful servant, a countryman of his own, who looked after all his needs. This fellow could speak English and did his housekeeping for him. Then there was a wonderful cook, he said, a half-breed whom he had picked up in his travels, who could serve an excellent dinner. I remember that he remarked what a queer household it was to find in the heart of Surrey, and that I agreed with him, though it has proved a good deal queerer than I thought.

“I drove to the place—about two miles on the south side of Esher. The house was a fair-sized one, standing back from the road, with a curving drive which was banked with high evergreen shrubs. It was an old, tumbledown building in a crazy state of disrepair. When the trap pulled up on the grass-grown drive in front of the blotched and weather-stained door, I had doubts as to my wisdom in visiting a man whom I knew so slightly. He opened the door himself, however, and greeted me with a great show of cordiality. I was handed over to the manservant, a melancholy, swarthy individual, who led the way, my bag in his hand, to my bedroom. The whole place was depressing. Our dinner was tête-à-tête, and though my host did his best to be entertaining, his thoughts seemed to continually wander, and he talked so vaguely and wildly that I could hardly understand him. He continually drummed his fingers on the table, gnawed his nails, and gave other signs of nervous impatience. The dinner itself was neither well served nor well cooked, and the gloomy presence of the taciturn servant did not help to enliven us. I can assure you that many times in the course of the evening I wished that I could invent some excuse which would take me back to Lee.

“One thing comes back to my memory which may have a bearing upon the business that you two gentlemen are investigating. I thought nothing of it at the time. Near the end of dinner a note was handed in by the servant. I noticed that after my host had read it he seemed even more distrait and strange than before. He gave up all pretence at conversation and sat, smoking endless cigarettes, lost in his own thoughts, but he made no remark as to the contents. About eleven I was glad to go to bed. Some time later Garcia looked in at my door—the room was dark at the time—and asked me if I had rung. I said that I had not. He apologised for having disturbed me so late, saying that it was nearly one o’clock. I dropped off after this and slept soundly all night.

“And now I come to the amazing part of my tale. When I woke it was broad daylight. I glanced at my watch, and the time was nearly nine. I had particularly asked to be called at eight, so I was very much astonished at this forgetfulness. I sprang up and rang for the servant. There was no response. I rang again and again, with the same result. Then I came to the conclusion that the bell was out of order. I huddled on my clothes and hurried downstairs in an exceedingly bad temper to order some hot water. You can imagine my surprise when I found that there was no one there. I shouted in the hall. There was no answer. Then I ran from room to room. All were deserted. My host had shown me which was his bedroom the night before, so I knocked at the door. No reply. I turned the handle and walked in. The room was empty, and the bed had never been slept in. He had gone with the rest. The foreign host, the foreign footman, the foreign cook, all had vanished in the night! That was the end of my visit to Wisteria Lodge.”

Sherlock Holmes was rubbing his hands and chuckling as he added this bizarre incident to his collection of strange episodes.

“Your experience is, so far as I know, perfectly unique,” said he. “May I ask, sir, what you did then?”

“I was furious. My first idea was that I had been the victim of some absurd practical joke. I packed my things, banged the hall door behind me, and set off for Esher, with my bag in my hand. I called at Allan Brothers’, the chief land agents in the village, and found that it was from this firm that the villa had been rented. It struck me that the whole proceeding could hardly be for the purpose of making a fool of me, and that the main object must be to get out of the rent. It is late in March, so quarter-day is at hand. But this theory would not work. The agent was obliged to me for my warning, but told me that the rent had been paid in advance. Then I made my way to town and called at the Spanish embassy. The man was unknown there. After this I went to see Melville, at whose house I had first met Garcia, but I found that he really knew rather less about him than I did. Finally when I got your reply to my wire I came out to you, since I gather that you are a person who gives advice in difficult cases. But now, Mr. Inspector, I understand, from what you said when you entered the room, that you can carry the story on, and that some tragedy had occurred. I can assure you that every word I have said is the truth, and that, outside of what I have told you, I know absolutely nothing about the fate of this man. My only desire is to help the law in every possible way.”

“I am sure of it, Mr. Scott Eccles—I am sure of it,” said Inspector Gregson in a very amiable tone. “I am bound to say that everything which you have said agrees very closely with the facts as they have come to our notice. For example, there was that note which arrived during dinner. Did you chance to observe what became of it?”

“Yes, I did. Garcia rolled it up and threw it into the fire.”

“What do you say to that, Mr. Baynes?”

The country detective was a stout, puffy, red man, whose face was only redeemed from grossness by two extraordinarily bright eyes, almost hidden behind the heavy creases of cheek and brow. With a slow smile he drew a folded and discoloured scrap of paper from his pocket.

“It was a dog-grate, Mr. Holmes, and he overpitched it. I picked this out unburned from the back of it.”

Holmes smiled his appreciation.

“You must have examined the house very carefully to find a single pellet of paper.”

“I did, Mr. Holmes. It’s my way. Shall I read it, Mr. Gregson?”

The Londoner nodded.

“The note is written upon ordinary cream-laid paper without watermark. It is a quarter-sheet. The paper is cut off in two snips with a short-bladed scissors. It has been folded over three times and sealed with purple wax, put on hurriedly and pressed down with some flat oval object. It is addressed to Mr. Garcia, Wisteria Lodge. It says:

“Our own colours, green and white. Green open, white shut. Main stair, first corridor, seventh right, green baize. Godspeed. D.

“It is a woman’s writing, done with a sharp-pointed pen, but the address is either done with another pen or by someone else. It is thicker and bolder, as you see.”

“A very remarkable note,” said Holmes, glancing it over. “I must compliment you, Mr. Baynes, upon your attention to detail in your examination of it. A few trifling points might perhaps be added. The oval seal is undoubtedly a plain sleeve-link—what else is of such a shape? The scissors were bent nail scissors. Short as the two snips are, you can distinctly see the same slight curve in each.”

The country detective chuckled.

“I thought I had squeezed all the juice out of it, but I see there was a little over,” he said. “I’m bound to say that I make nothing of the note except that there was something on hand, and that a woman, as usual was at the bottom of it.”

Mr. Scott Eccles had fidgeted in his seat during this conversation.

“I am glad you found the note, since it corroborates my story,” said he. “But I beg to point out that I have not yet heard what has happened to Mr. Garcia, nor what has become of his household.”

“As to Garcia,” said Gregson, “that is easily answered. He was found dead this morning upon Oxshott Common, nearly a mile from his home. His head had been smashed to pulp by heavy blows of a sandbag or some such instrument, which had crushed rather than wounded. It is a lonely corner, and there is no house within a quarter of a mile of the spot. He had apparently been struck down first from behind, but his assailant had gone on beating him long after he was dead. It was a most furious assault. There are no footsteps nor any clue to the criminals.”


“No, there was no attempt at robbery.”

“This is very painful—very painful and terrible,” said Mr. Scott Eccles in a querulous voice, “but it is really uncommonly hard on me. I had nothing to do with my host going off upon a nocturnal excursion and meeting so sad an end. How do I come to be mixed up with the case?”

“Very simply, sir,” Inspector Baynes answered. “The only document found in the pocket of the deceased was a letter from you saying that you would be with him on the night of his death. It was the envelope of this letter which gave us the dead man’s name and address. It was after nine this morning when we reached his house and found neither you nor anyone else inside it. I wired to Mr. Gregson to run you down in London while I examined Wisteria Lodge. Then I came into town, joined Mr. Gregson, and here we are.”

“I think now,” said Gregson, rising, “we had best put this matter into an official shape. You will come round with us to the station, Mr. Scott Eccles, and let us have your statement in writing.”

“Certainly, I will come at once. But I retain your services, Mr. Holmes. I desire you to spare no expense and no pains to get at the truth.”

My friend turned to the country inspector.

“I suppose that you have no objection to my collaborating with you, Mr. Baynes?”

“Highly honoured, sir, I am sure.”

“You appear to have been very prompt and businesslike in all that you have done. Was there any clue, may I ask, as to the exact hour that the man met his death?”

“He had been there since one o’clock. There was rain about that time, and his death had certainly been before the rain.”

“But that is perfectly impossible, Mr. Baynes,” cried our client. “His voice is unmistakable. I could swear to it that it was he who addressed me in my bedroom at that very hour.”

“Remarkable, but by no means impossible,” said Holmes, smiling.

“You have a clue?” asked Gregson.

“On the face of it the case is not a very complex one, though it certainly presents some novel and interesting features. A further knowledge of facts is necessary before I would venture to give a final and definite opinion. By the way, Mr. Baynes, did you find anything remarkable besides this note in your examination of the house?”

The detective looked at my friend in a singular way.

“There were,” said he, “one or two very remarkable things. Perhaps when I have finished at the police-station you would care to come out and give me your opinion of them.”

“I am entirely at your service,” said Sherlock Holmes, ringing the bell. “You will show these gentlemen out, Mrs. Hudson, and kindly send the boy with this telegram. He is to pay a five-shilling reply.”

We sat for some time in silence after our visitors had left. Holmes smoked hard, with his brows drawn down over his keen eyes, and his head thrust forward in the eager way characteristic of the man.

“Well, Watson,” he asked, turning suddenly upon me, “what do you make of it?”

“I can make nothing of this mystification of Scott Eccles.”

“But the crime?”

“Well, taken with the disappearance of the man’s companions, I should say that they were in some way concerned in the murder and had fled from justice.”

“That is certainly a possible point of view. On the face of it you must admit, however, that it is very strange that his two servants should have been in a conspiracy against him and should have attacked him on the one night when he had a guest. They had him alone at their mercy every other night in the week.”

“Then why did they fly?”

“Quite so. Why did they fly? There is a big fact. Another big fact is the remarkable experience of our client, Scott Eccles. Now, my dear Watson, is it beyond the limits of human ingenuity to furnish an explanation which would cover both of these big facts? If it were one which would also admit of the mysterious note with its very curious phraseology, why, then it would be worth accepting as a temporary hypothesis. If the fresh facts which come to our knowledge all fit themselves into the scheme, then our hypothesis may gradually become a solution.”

“But what is our hypothesis?”

Holmes leaned back in his chair with half-closed eyes.

“You must admit, my dear Watson, that the idea of a joke is impossible. There were grave events afoot, as the sequel showed, and the coaxing of Scott Eccles to Wisteria Lodge had some connection with them.”

“But what possible connection?”

“Let us take it link by link. There is, on the face of it, something unnatural about this strange and sudden friendship between the young Spaniard and Scott Eccles. It was the former who forced the pace. He called upon Eccles at the other end of London on the very day after he first met him, and he kept in close touch with him until he got him down to Esher. Now, what did he want with Eccles? What could Eccles supply? I see no charm in the man. He is not particularly intelligent—not a man likely to be congenial to a quick-witted Latin. Why, then, was he picked out from all the other people whom Garcia met as particularly suited to his purpose? Has he any one outstanding quality? I say that he has. He is the very type of conventional British respectability, and the very man as a witness to impress another Briton. You saw yourself how neither of the inspectors dreamed of questioning his statement, extraordinary as it was.”

“But what was he to witness?”

“Nothing, as things turned out, but everything had they gone another way. That is how I read the matter.”

“I see, he might have proved an alibi.”

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By Tonny Wandella

Should I come to you or nay?
I had a subtle patience but now it is naught.
Can you come to me, or will I be eschewed again?
There is no gentle place in time;
Not in the waiting and it’s open noose.
I am doomed all over again.
To think of you and being stuck in dejection.
A part of me is at war with another part of me.
One is aloof and says ‘let her drift to you.
The other is devoid of selfishness and it beckons me to reach out.
Should I reach out my hand or should you?
What should be done to goad you to a stand?
When these nifty words fail and I lay here chagrined.
Can you come to me, or will I be eschewed again?


By Chiara Cavaglieri

“When life gives you lemons, make lemonade.” This may sound like a tired old cliche but hey – why shouldn’t you turn a negative experience into something positive? Whatever the case may be, your unique set of circumstances might just have the makings of a bestseller – or, at the very least, a blog post that goes viral.

As anyone who’s ever read an inspiring real-life tale will know, there’s power in telling your real life story. In some cases, there’s even money.

While it may not work for everyone, it’s quite possible to use a difficult or unusual life experience to make some well-deserved cash. So, have you got an interesting tale that others might find relatable? If the answer is yes, here are a few ideas…

Almost every newspaper or magazine you pick up will feature at least one real-life story – often tragic, absurd or moving.

Driven by the ‘human interest’ angle, publications are always on the lookout for something either really unusual or highly relatable to draw the eye.

So, if you have an experience that fits the bill, there is every chance you can tell your real-life story in exchange for a few hundred (or sometimes even a few thousand) pounds. Whether your life experience is outrageous, inspiring, tragic, or even comic, it’s likely that you have something unique to offer.

It could be your husband’s affair, bankruptcy, a heart-warming reunion, an illness… or even something less serious, like a dodgy bikini wax. Yes, really!


Before you even think about picking up the phone or drafting an email to sell your story, make sure you are completely comfortable with having your life in the public domain.

Remember your friends, family and random strangers you may still meet are likely to read or hear about your story. So you need to be sure that you can cope with the possibility of negative reactions.

You need to remember that anyone else involved in your story will likely have an opinion on you sharing it, too. It might be a good idea to speak to those you’re likely to mention first. That way, you can discuss any objections that they have before the fact.

Here are a few things to consider:

  • How much are you willing to disclose? Are there things you don’t want to discuss that are central to the story? If so, not including them might be a problem.
  • Do you have photographs? This increases the amount publications are willing to pay. It might also be the clincher in sealing the deal. Make sure you own the copyright before you commit to sharing photographs with the publication.
  • Do you have legal representation? If your story is of a sensitive nature, involving other parties, this is important.
  • How organised are you? Should you ever be embroiled in legal battles over the story, you need to be able to provide a record of all conversations with potential buyers.


Once you’ve decided that you’re okay with facing any repercussions, it’s time to decide which publication/s to approach.

Here are some things to consider:

  • What kind of story do you have to tell?
  • Who are the people that you want to tell your story to?
  • Do magazines feature these sorts of stories?
  • Is it better to approach a newspaper?
  • Who is the audience for your story, and what publications do they read?


Different magazines obviously have different types of readership, so take some time reading various ones to see where your real-life story might work best.

Pay close attention to the adverts, as the kind of products they feature offer a good idea of who they’re trying to attract. This should give you an idea of the target audience. Will they be interested in your story?

Magazines with a teenage readership may find stories about bullying, family drama and friendship feuds fascinating. Remember, you’ll need to be a similar age or not much older to sell stories to this audience.

Take A BreakWoman’s Own and Chat, on the other hand, often feature sensational stories such as medical horrors or amazing weight loss.

An upmarket glossy like Marie Claire may feature completely different kinds of stories, such as those concerning travel experiences, mental health or careers.

Remember, all these publications have websites too. You might have a better chance of selling your story this way, as print space is always at a premium. Don’t dismiss online-only publications, either.


If your story touches upon contemporary issues and has widespread appeal – perhaps a failed operation or how you had to sell the family home to pay off debts – it may be more appropriate for a newspaper feature article.

Think about the kind of real-life stories you’ve read in the press and have a good look at a variety of newspapers to see which ones are most likely to want a story like yours.


Some national newspapers like The Sun and The Mirror have phone numbers and email addresses specifically for if you want to sell your real life story.

Similarly, magazines like Take A Break have a separate section on their website to help you sell them your story.

If you can’t find a dedicated email address for the paper or magazine you have in mind, simply call the switchboard and ask to be put through to the features desk.

For an alphabetical list of all the newspapers and magazines in the UK along with contact details go to the website.

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By Tonny Wandella

Two bats search the mighty night.
With their echoes of equal might,
And just like a lantern for light;
They follow their echoes: their only sight.
Curiosity comes and grows and the night they fight.
They avoid the succulent and wilt,
But sleepy ants are victims of this plight.
Whoever is spared cowers and wait,
While two bats reign tonight.
For no eagle no sparrow is in flight.
And yes its dawn: gone is the night.
Two bats dangle shyly out of sight,
From twigs, whilst ants trod on them without fright

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The Pyramid of Krakow

By Michael Swanwick

The man who got off the coach from Bern—never an easy trip but made doubly uncomfortable thanks to the rigors and delays of war—had a harsh and at first sight intimidating face. But once one took in his small black-glass spectacles and realized he was blind, pity bestowed upon him a softer cast. Until the coachman brought around his seeing-eye animal and it turned out to be a wolf.

The blind Swiss commercial agent took the wolf by the leash, placed a coin in the coachman’s hand, and then, accepting the leather tote containing toiletries, two changes of clothing, and not much else, strode into the cold and wintry streets of Krakow. On the rooftops, the gargoyles which the city tolerated because they kept down the rat population squinted and peered down at him, as if sensing something out of the ordinary. He did not, of course, look up at them.

Unassisted, the man made his way to a small hotel on Kanonicza Street, under the Royal Palace, where a modest room awaited him. There, after performing his ablutions, he got out his dip pen and a bottle of ink and composed a note on the hotel stationery:


I have arrived in Krakow and await your pleasure.

Respectfully yours,

Hr. Mstz. Johann Fleischer

A modest bribe of a few copper coins sent the hotelier’s boy running out into the streets. Then Franz-Karl Ritter returned to his room to wait. Because the consequences of being discovered as an imposter and a spy were so dire, he did not take off his opaque glasses but remained in character. At a mental nudge, however, Freki put both paws on the sill of the lone window and stared intently into the smoky sky. Looking through his wolf’s eyes across the rooftops of the city, Ritter saw in the distance a cluster of smokestacks and, among them, the very top of a stepped pyramid.

There was an odd taint to the air but, try though they did, neither the wolf nor his master could identify it.


The next morning, by appointment, Ritter waited in the anteroom of an office whose appointments were of the finest, Freki lying by his feet, alert and patient.

A door opened and someone said, “Herr Fleischer.”

Ritter rose and, turning in the direction of the voice, said mildly, “Herr Meisterzauberer Fleischer, please. The title of archmage cost me years of my life and all of my vision, so I am afraid that I must insist upon its use.”

“Of course, Herr Meisterzauberer, of course. Józef Bannik, at your service. I am the Under Assistant Minister of Industry for the new government.”

“Ah, yes. The man who sent my superiors the remarkable request.”

“The very same. We shall talk in the carriage, assuming it is ready.” He raised his voice. “Kaśka! Have the preparations been made?”

A mousy brunette appeared in a side doorway, murmured, “All is as you required, Minister,” and withdrew, quietly closing the door behind her.

“My secretary,” Bannik said. “Quite efficient, considering. But not very personable. Well! Shall we go, then? To the carriage? I can offer you my arm if that would—”

“I will have no difficulty seeing my own way. That is what my animal is for.”

Outside, a carriage did indeed await them. Out of consideration for his host, Ritter took the center seat, so that Bannik would not have to sit next to his wolf. Freki studied the Under Assistant Minister of Industry with unblinking orange eyes. The man himself barked an order to the driver and the coach clattered off down the cobbled streets.

After some time it became obvious that Bannik was reluctant to resume their discussion, so Ritter said, “Your letter spoke of a pest problem, and also of a need for great quantities of a chemical for dealing with it. I presume you mean rat poison.”

Bannik cleared his throat. “Rat poison will not do. The animals we wish killed are considerably larger than that.”

“Farm animals? I should caution you that there are reasons why abattoirs do not employ chemicals. Reasons of safety for both the workers and, ultimately, the consumers of the meat.”

“Oh, no one will be eating the flesh of these animals—no, no, no,” the minister said with a chuckle so obviously false as to be alarming. “The very thought is laughable.”

Ritter responded to this sally with the smallest of noncommittal nods and once again an uncomfortable silence filled the cabin.

The carriage left the city and entered the countryside. When Ritter judged that enough time had passed for a master sorcerer to feel that he could utter such words without any loss of gravitas, he said, “I think I understand the sort of animal you mean. The kind that often troubles new governments.” Ritter could see nothing through his black eyeglasses of course. But looking through Freki’s eyes, he could see that Bannik was relieved not to have to put the thing into explicit words.

The minister tapped the side of his nose and winked. “I perceive that you are a man of the world. Yes, exactly so. Now, as to the qualities and quantities—”

Ritter held up a hand. “Before I could answer such questions, I would have to examine the facilities where the chemical is to be employed. In technical applications, context is all.”

“That is exactly what we are doing at this very moment. We are going to the site itself. The Great Pyramid,” Under Assistant Minister Bannik said, “of Krakow. In fact, we are arriving at the compound now.”

Indeed, the carriage was passing into what in Ritter’s experienced judgment must surely be an internment camp. Overhead floated a gateway with a banal and uplifting slogan spelled out in metal letters. Through the coach windows flooded an effluvium of misery and sickness, of excreta and vomit and pus, overlaid with coal smoke strongly flavored with the same unidentifiable smell that in lesser concentration permeated the air of Krakow. Only now, Ritter feared that the odor was not unidentifiable at all.

The carriage rattled by long rows of windowless barracks, triangular in cross section, each with a single padlocked door. “The pyramid is hollow, of course,” Bannik said, “supported by internal buttresses. We did not have decades in which to build it, as the ancient Egyptians did. Even then, tremendous amounts of labor were required but—ha! ha!—we do not lack for idle hands, do we?” He nodded at the barracks, acknowledging them for the first time.

The carriage lurched to a stop.

“Ah,” Bannik said. “We are here.”


Freki did not like climbing the pyramid. Nor, for that matter, did Ritter. Nothing was visible but lifeless stone, not even sky, so that it was as if the stairs led up a tremendous cliff face, and since the pyramid was new the air was raw with rock dust. Going up the steps was like ascending a mountain, but without the physical challenge or the mental exultation. All that remained was the drudgery and a wearying dread of what might be discovered at the top.

“This is the Way of Magisters and Acolytes,” Bannik commented.

“Eh?” Ritter said distractedly.

“The west face of the pyramid is reserved exclusively for officers and government officials—of which class you are an honorary member—and those brought up for special training. Inmates must ascend the east face. These steps remain unsullied.”


There was a hypnotic quality to their ascent. The steady tedium of the climb, combined with the unvarying sameness of stone before him, soothed Ritter’s mind into a sort of dull quietude, as if he had stepped outside of his own body and were watching it from the outside, no longer fully invested in its welfare. He pictured a captive working upward on the other side, chained and shackled and guarded, falling into a similar bleak unthinkingness. He imagined it would be something of a blessing for the poor soul. Though naturally the pyramid’s designers would not have intended it as a mercy but rather as a means to promote docility.

Again Bannik spoke. “The acolytes’ ascent is made in ceremonial garments, to the accompaniment of music, the emotional and intellectual effect of which can well be imagined. Every possible detail has been carefully thought through.”

Ritter barely heard the man. The face of the pyramid lurched monotonously downward, one step following another. He found himself thinking back to when he was last in London.


“The Mongolian Wizard’s provisional government have made a fortress of Krakow,” Sir Toby had said. “It is what the Russians call a ‘closed city,’ where one requires official permission to enter or to leave. Nobody knows why—though of course there are many conflicting theories, all presented as solemn fact. Of them, the report you brought back from the Polish wizard is the most alarming.”

“It is nonsense,” Ritter said. “I say this as the man who was captured, tortured, and almost driven mad in the course of retrieving that report and consequently would prefer to believe that all my suffering was to some purpose. But it was not. Our source was deluded, or else an agent of the Polish underground feeding us misinformation in order to promote our enthusiasm for the liberation of his country. There is no third possibility.”

Sir Toby looked, as he so often did, pained. “It must be wonderful to live inside so certain a place as that thick skull of yours. Tell me, exactly what facts did you base your conclusion upon?”

“Surely the absurdity of the charges is self-evident. We are talking about Europe, after all, not some benighted heathen continent. Necromancy and human sacrifice! Those are exactly the sorts of slanders a nation levels against its enemy as propaganda. We may be at war, but we are still civilized peoples—and that includes the Russians. I’ve known several officers of the deposed tsar’s army and they were literate fellows with excellent manners who would never involve themselves in such actions.”

“Oh, Ritter. One would think that I would not have to lecture an officer in the Werewolf Corps on what evils men are capable of.” Sir Toby began lifting stacks of documents from his desk and depositing them atop other stacks, knocking an ashtray to the floor in the process. “Wherever did I put . . . ? Ah!” He produced a leather portfolio and then slapped down upon it three books, two fat and one lean, from his shelves. “Here is your documentation and a biography of the man you will be pretending to be. Two of the books cover the basics of chemistry and the third is A. G. Alchimie’s industrial catalog for chemicals in bulk. Memorize as much as you can and make sure you can bluff your way through the rest. You leave for the continent in the morning.”

Ritter eyed the books with distaste. “I was never very good at natural philosophy in school.”

“Well, now you’re being given a second chance. A great deal of bother and expense went into putting together your cover identity, so it is important that you determine as much as you can by the evidence of your own senses. Hearsay will not suffice. Also, I would appreciate it if you refrained from squandering our efforts by getting yourself killed.”

“I am certain,” Ritter said, “that I will not be confronted with anything I cannot handle.”


Neither Ritter nor Bannik spoke on the way down the pyramid. Ritter was silent in part because that was how his assumed character would behave, but mostly because he could not trust himself to speak. Bannik had his own reasons, apparently, which was fortunate for him. Ritter prided himself on his iron control; nevertheless, had the Under Assistant Minister said a word, he would surely have strangled the man.

Their carriage passed the barracks and then the tall chimneys of the crematoria at the edge of the camp. The smell of charred human flesh was almost unbearable there and, though it lessened as they passed through the countryside and back into town, it never quite dwindled to nothing. Freki, sensitive to his master’s mood, whined unhappily. Ritter laid a hand on the wolf’s back but did not touch his mind. By slow degrees, his resolve was returning. He had seen what he had come to see; now all that mattered was that he reported it to his superiors.


The bulk of the provisional government’s offices were, naturally, in the Royal Palace. However, the Ministry of Industry occupied overspill rooms in the Collegium Maius, the oldest building in the newly-closed university and one where, centuries before, the archmage Copernicus had been a student. The carriage pulled up in the courtyard and, once they had gotten by the plentiful and suspicious guards, Bannik led them back to his suite.

In the hallway, a young man rushed forward. “Herr Minister! I have a letter of commendation from—”

“Yes, yes,” Bannik said with a weary wave. “Czesław, isn’t it? I know your father. Take your letter to the mailroom and one of our fine lads will deliver it to Kaśka, who will know what to do with it.”

“But I—”

Bannik shut the door in the petitioner’s face. “The scion of a noble family,” he explained. “He wants to be a magician—a pyromancer, no doubt, or a levitator—but despite his lineage he has not the slightest talent for it. He thinks we can make a turnip out of a stone.” He continued into his office and sat down behind his desk. “Like so many of the young today, he’ll believe in any sort of rubbish.”

“He is not the only one,” Ritter said harshly.

Bannik raised an eyebrow. “Oh? You do not approve of what you saw atop the Great Pyramid? You think, perhaps, that we are returning to the Dark Ages?”

“I am a man of science,” Ritter said, because that was what his character would have said. “What I saw has no possible practical purpose whatsoever. None!”

“On the contrary, it is the very source of the empire’s power.” A small, moist smile blossomed on the Under Assistant Minister’s lips. “I see I have your attention.” He rang a small silver bell, and his secretary appeared. “Tea, Kaśka, if you please. For two.” Returning to his narration, he said, “It is not for nothing that our leader”—he meant the Mongolian Wizard—“is known as the Great Alienist. In his native land, there are no hereditary bloodlines of magicians as there are here, you see. Individuals with potential are taken under the care of shamans specially trained to the task and, through a combination of drugs and tantric techniques, have their talents opened for them. The process is slow and difficult, however. Our leader discovered that if trained alienists entered into the mind of an acolyte at the same time that it experienced great trauma—and now you know why the executions were so brutal—they could break the entrenched thought-habits of a lifetime, and impose new structures upon the brain. If one has the potential to be a magician, then the combination of a few atrocities and skilled mental surgery will in short order do the job.”

“It . . . seems impossible.”

“It is why our empire has so many more magicians than the decadent European nations. And why, ultimately, nobody is capable of standing against the Mongolian Wizard.” Bannik patted Ritter’s hand. “It was hard on all of us the first time. But one grows used to it.”

There were voices in the anteroom, all but inaudible through the heavy wooden door. They ceased and, shortly after, Kaśka reentered with the tea service on a silver tray.

“Who was that in the front office?” Bannik asked.

“A self-important nobody who wanted to see you. I sent him away with a flea in his ear.” Kaśka poured a cup of tea and presented it to Ritter. “Sugar? Milk?” When Ritter shook his head, she prepared a cup for Bannik, stirring in extra milk and sugar. He took a sip.

“Let’s get back to the topic of chemicals.” Bannik put down his cup in its saucer and said no more.


The man did not speak. Nor did he move.

“Herr Bannik?”

“He’s dead,” Kaśka said. “And you are in terrible danger, Kapitänleutnant Franz-Karl Ritter.”

“Who are you?” Ritter asked.

“Someone who does not love the Mongolian Wizard. The man I sent away was a Hexenjäger—a witch finder—and he was looking for you. I told him you had gone back to your hotel. My deceit will not buy us much time.” Slamming open file cabinets, she swiftly assembled a thick bundle of papers. “These will document what you have seen.” There were heavy drapes before the window and a medieval hanging on one wall. Kaśka opened her superior’s desk, removed a box of matches, and set fire to both, as well as to a fringed sofa and a stack of papers she dropped onto the carpet. “And this should provide us with some distraction.”

“Give me the matches,” Ritter said. Kaśka looked at him curiously, but did as he said. They stepped out into the hall, closing the door firmly behind them.

As Ritter had expected, the fool outside hurried forward the instant they emerged. “Miss Kaśka, you must speak to the minister for me. From earliest childhood it has been my dream to be a magic-worker—”

“Then this is your lucky day,” Ritter said without stopping, “for I am the Director of Recruitment and Training of a new program that will transform you from a nobody into somebody useful to our cause.” Elated, the young man fell into step alongside him. “We are in need of fresh blood, and I believe you will do quite nicely.”

“Sir, I am . . . that is, thank you! You cannot imagine how much this means to me. I will do everything possible to justify your faith in me. I . . . Do I smell smoke?”

“You do not,” Ritter said, and saw Czesław automatically nod in agreement. The lad was as eager as a puppy and twice as guileless. He reminded Ritter of his younger self: idealistic, ambitious, and so eager to embrace his future that he’d swallow any lie, however transparent, that promised to get him there.

Now, however, there were shouts, and clerks began peering out of doorways and abandoning their offices. As they approached the main doors, Ritter could see the guards calmly ushering people out. As he’d feared, even as ministers and their underlings trotted down the halls toward freedom and somebody began hammering on the fire gong outside, they had kept their heads and were stopping and questioning all those carrying portfolios or papers.

Ritter slid his mind inside Freki’s and then tucked away his black-glass spectacles in a pocket. “Hold this,” he said, thrusting the box of matches at the startled Czesław.

Then he launched the wolf, snarling and snapping, directly at the young man’s crotch.

Understandably enough, Czesław ran from the animal, terrified, and was thus driven out the front door, matches in hand.

Stop that man!” Ritter bellowed, simultaneously calling Freki to heel. “He is the arsonist!”

Smoke darkened the air and fleeing functionaries shoved past Ritter and Kaśka as they stepped briskly but without panic into the open and down the street. Behind them, the guards converged upon the hapless Czesław and began beating him senseless.

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A Kippled Meal

By Daniel Polansky and Lawrence M. Schoen

The night was dark, and the storm as fierce and hard as you would ever hope to watch from inside the comfort of your bedroom, lying beneath something warm with someone warm beside you. The rain fell in bowls, in basins, in buckets, in old-fashioned claw-footed bird baths. Though it was neither the time nor, sad to say, the weather, which was keeping the customers away, Dog thought sadly. Even on sunny summer Sundays the cafe was quiet, a product presumably of the location, which was inconvenient, and the décor, which was unpleasant, and the food, which was…well, the less said about the food, the better. He’d inherited the place from a well-intentioned but shortsighted uncle. The disgruntled staff had abandoned him, and his lack of business acumen and utter void of culinary ability had yielded predictable consequences.

The sole occupant at the moment was the fat mole, sitting at the overlarge round table for the better part of an hour. The menu was a single sheet of yellowed paper with three hand written entries, though he perused it as if it were the length and complexity of a bible. Twice he opened his mouth to order; twice he shut it without speaking.

A crash of lightning and the door swung open, followed swiftly thereafter by a tawny cat of the lap variety. Once his fur had been sleek and well groomed, and perhaps there had even been a ribbon in it. But that had been a long time ago, years perhaps, and the interim had not treated him well. Still, he retained some vestige of his arrogance, sniffing at the surroundings, and at the dog awaiting his order, and at the mole who looked up with nervous kindness, before deigning finally to take an open seat.

Dog rustled over slowly, dropped a second menu on the table.

“Do you have any escargot?” Cat asked without looking at the menu.

The dog shook his head. The cat huffed. The door opened a second time, hanging as if the rain and wind both sought admission, only to be followed by a slow-moving fellow as soaked and bedraggled as the others. A sloth. He eased deeper into the cafe at a glacier’s pace, and well before he had reached his seat a stoat appeared in the doorway and moved swiftly past, slapping the water from her fur as she aimed herself the promise of a hot meal. As the dog’s back turned, an instant before the door finally closed, a prairie dog slipped inside and took up position alongside the cafe’s entrance.

“I’ll take the soup,” Cat said finally.

Dog shook his head. “No soup.”

“The fish?”

“No fish.”

“What do you have?”


“Meat it will be, then.”

Having discovered that his time spent looking over the menu to be wasted, Mole managed to squeak out, “meat for me as well, th…th…thanks.”

The rest of the occupants, bowing to the inevitable, ordered the same. The meal came quickly, though that was the absolute best that could be said about it, slices of graying flesh arranged haphazardly on a tarnished serving dish. What the meat had been before it had been meat, what creature had once inhabited it, and whether it had come from torso, or thigh, or some other, less prepossessing area, none among the assembled could say.

Dog walked the serving dish around, even carrying it to the door when it became clear the prairie dog had no intention of venturing further into the room.

The mole took a small piece, cut off a smaller one, brought it to his mouth, masticated a long time before speaking. “I…I…It’s not so bad,” he said very softly.

Though the cat heard, and took offense. “Not so bad!” he hissed, as if the observation were direct insult. “Not so bad!”

“I’ve h…had worse,” the mole added in his diffident manner.

“No doubt you have! To think that it’s come to this! Once I sat on pillows of down and silk, and nibbled crudites and drank champagne from fine crystal, and now, and now…” Cat shook his head miserably.

“Wh…wh…what would you rather be eating?” Mole asked.

This was exactly what the cat had hoped he would be asked, though he took a moment before answering. “Oh, to think of the lost pleasures of my youth! Garden parties over long summer evenings, goose pate atop toasted ginger bread, fresh, briny oysters caught fresh from the sea, a dash of horse radish and only a dash. And the company! More important even than the food is the conversation which surrounds it, the bon mot and the double entendre, witticisms as succulent even as the dish themselves!”

The stoat’s fur was mottled, and her eyes were cagey, and her laugh was long and cruel. After a moment the mole joined her, unclear on the particulars of the joke but not wanting to be left out.

“Something funny?” asked Cat, though not aggressively, his self-regard exceeded, if barely, by his sense of self-preservation, and the knowledge that stoats were dangerous creatures, and untrustworthy.

“Garden parties! Pate! Such meager pleasures of which you dream!”

“And what would be your meal of choice, then?” asked Sloth, drawing out the vowels of each syllable. “Your last meal, if you thought to die at the end of it?”

“A peculiar question, though appropriate to one who has filled his belly without knowing if he would have time to digest the meal.” The stoat laughed again, longer and nastier, and this time the mole did not think to match her. “The feline can keep his pate and his champagne and his soft pillow on which to sit. It is not comfort which gives a meal its flavor. In fact, quite the opposite.”

Against himself, and displaying the curiosity of his species, the cat could not help but show interest. “What do you mean?”

“The finest thing one can eat is not given, but stolen,” the stoat began. “A dark night. Darker than tonight, without even the flash of lightning to illuminate it. And you darker still, clad only in shadows. She sleeps soundly atop a bed of white, tightly coiled, certain in her wariness and her menace. A step forward. Another step, the treasure so close you can all but taste it. That first nip, so soft as to crack the shell without making a sound.” The stoat showed her teeth. “There will be weeping in the morning, and the gnashing of her rattled-tail. But for now there is only the creamy yellow yolk, thick and rich as sunshine.”

No one spoke for a while. The cat licked his lips. The mole looked left and right and ventured to fill the silence.

“The b..b…best meal I ever had–”

With a strident bark, Prairie Dog cut the mole off before he could continue, calling out from her position by the door.

“You completely miss the point of what makes a meal great. It’s not how you come by it, but rather with whom you share it. A truly fine meal is impossible without community. Once, when I was just a pup, the weather had turned, as if all the season’s rain had been stolen for later use, perhaps as we see tonight. The grass was brown, seeds barely existent, and while we had plenty of dust for bathing it’s hard to take pleasure even in such simple things when your belly is empty. But what little we had we offered to one another, each taking a fair portion. And if all in the colony went hungry, the sharing of that meager repast created a fullness that no sentry eating alone could ever know.” She looked like she wanted to say more, but instead jerked to alertness, cracking the door a smidge and peered out into the storm.

“Ahhhhh,” said Sloth at such length that it caused the others to wonder if he was voicing an opinion or releasing gas. “What nonsense. A fine meal is not the food, not the taking, not the sharing. These things end too quickly. A meal, a great meal, must be savored, not simply in the moment it slips into the mouth, but through the entirety of its journey. Contemplate not merely the flavor of shoots and buds, but the nourishment they impart each step of the way through the alimentary canal. It’s an appreciation that cannot be rushed. Even a snack deserves a fortnight, and a full meal a month of consideration.” The sloth stopped, panting faintly with emotion after what was perhaps the longest speech of his life.

“I…I…If it was to me…” interrupted the mole finally, but failed to finish, as if unable to believe he had gotten that far.

“Well?” asked Stoat, rather cross. “You’ve got your chance, then – what’s the best meal?”

“Worms,” Mole continued. “Juicy worms, from claw straight to mouth.”

“Worms? Did you say worms?” gasped the prairie dog, staggering a step from her post at the door.

“Um,” said Dog, pausing in mid-motion, serving plate poised to pass another portion of meat to the mole.

“Warm, fresh, wriggly on the tongue, chewy to the teeth–”

“That’s quite enough–” Cat said.

But having finally had his say, Mole proved loathe to relinquish the spotlight. “…still squiggling when you swallow it, and even hours after you can feel the swirl in your tummy…”

“I think I’m going to be sick,” said Sloth.

Stoat did more than think about it, leaning low over her plate and upchucking the full quantity of the unidentified meat she had only just consumed.

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Lullaby for a Lost World

By Aliette de Bodard

Charlotte died to shore up her master’s house. Her bones grew into the foundation and pushed up through the walls, feeding his power and continuing the cycle. As time passes and the ones she loved fade away, the house and the master remain, and she yearns ever more deeply for vengeance.

They bury you at the bottom of the gardens—what’s left of you, pathetic and small and twisted so out of shape it hardly seems human anymore. The river, dark and oily, licks at the ruin of your flesh—at your broken bones—and sings you to sleep in a soft, gentle language like a mother’s lullabies, whispering of rest and forgiveness, of a place where it is forever light, forever safe.

You do not rest. You cannot forgive. You are not safe—you never were.

After your friends have gone, scattering their meager offerings of flowers, after the other archivists have left, it’s just your mother and your master, standing over your grave. Your mother looks years and years older, hollowed out by grief, but your master stands unchanged—tall and dark, with light shining beneath the planes of his face, his skin so thin it might be porcelain.

“Was . . . was there pain?” your mother asks. She clutches your favorite doll—so well-worn it’s going to pieces in her hands. She doesn’t want to let go because, when she’s knelt in the blood-spattered mud of the gardens, she will have to get up, she will have to go back, to move on, as though everything she does from now on does not stand in the shadow of your death.

Your master’s smile is a hollow thing, too; white and quick, perfunctory. “No,” he says. “We gave her poppy. She felt nothing.”

It’s a lie, of course. There was poppy; there were opiates, but nothing could alleviate the pain of being torn apart—of the house gnawing at your innards; of claws teasing open your chest, splitting ribs in their hurry to lick at your heart’s blood—of struggling to breathe through liquid-filled lungs, lifting broken arms and hands to defend yourself against something you couldn’t reach, couldn’t touch.

“I see.” Your mother looks at the earth again; hovers uncertainly on the edge of your burial place. At length she lays down the doll, her hands lingering on it, a prayer on her lips—and you ache to rise up, to comfort her as she’d always comforted you—to find the words that would keep the darkness at bay.

You are dead, and there are no words left; and no lies that will hold.

And then it’s just you and your master. You thought he would leave, too, but instead he kneels, slow and stately, as if bowing to a queen—and remains for a while, staring at the overturned earth. “I’m sorry, Charlotte,” he says at last. His voice is melodious, grave, as impeccably courteous as always—the same one he had when he told you what needed to be done—that it was all for the good of the house. “Better the weak and the sick than all of us. I know it doesn’t excuse anything.”

It doesn’t. It never will. Beneath the earth, you struggle to push at what holds you down—to gather shattered flesh and glistening bones, to rise up like the dead at the resurrection, raging and weeping and demanding justice, but nothing happens. Just a faint bulge on the grave, a slight yielding of the mud. Voiceless, bodiless, you have no power to move anything.

“You keep us safe,” your master says. He looks . . . tired, for a moment, wan and drained of color in the sunlight, his eyes shot with blood. But then he rises, and it’s as if a curtain had been drawn across his face, casting everything in a sharper, merciless light; and once more he is the dapper, effortlessly elegant master of the house, the man who keeps it all together by sheer strength of will. He stares at the blackened water of the river, at the city beyond the boundaries of the house—the smoke of skirmishes and riots, the distant sound of fighting in the streets. “Your blood, your pain is the power we rely on. Remember this, if nothing else.”

You do; but it has no hold on you, not anymore.

He walks away, his swallow-tailed jacket shining like obsidian in the greenness of the gardens.

Time passes—months flipped forward like the pages of the books you used to love so much. Your master sits behind the gleaming windowpanes of the house, smiling and sipping fine wines, ageless and fattened on the blood of his sacrifices. Your mother dies, and your friends move on—your name becomes like you; buried, broken, and forgotten; your place long since taken in the library and, in the depths of the house, the circle where you died grows faint and bloodless, every scrap of pain long since absorbed to feed the magic that keeps the world at bay. Outside, the city is burning, tearing itself apart over polluted water, over grit-filled rice and rotten fish. Inside—green, verdant gardens; food on the plates; and music and love and laughter, all the things you used to take for granted, when you lived.

Time passes—there is a girl who comes to sit by the river’s edge. Who steals books out of the library and knots red ribbons into the raven curls of her hair, unaware of what lies beneath her. Who runs, laughing, with her friends—except that you hear the slight catch of breath—feel the slight stumble as, just for a moment, her heart misses a beat and her feet become unsteady on the ground.


“I’m fine,” the girl says, pulling herself together. She looks down, then, at the slight bulge of the earth. “That’s funny. What is—”

“Ssh,” the other, older woman says, shaking her head. “Don’t speak of it. It’s bad luck.”

Beyond the gardens, the house waits—walls of golden stone, paneled doors with intricate carvings that seem to come alive at night and, in the cellar underneath, the circle, almost faded to nothing now, the growing hunger of the house’s magic, the price that must be paid, again and again, by those who cannot be allowed to live.

I’m sorry, Charlotte.


When Isaure comes back, she is paler; and unsteady on her feet; and red has bloomed on her cheeks like blood. “I know you’re here,” she says, standing over your grave.

You feel something shift within you—some indefinable rearrangement of your self—a femur, poking upwards, jellied muscles suddenly finding consistency, hair strands spreading farther and farther away from your remains, like tendrils extended toward the house. But you’re still here, still held fast by the earth, by the river’s endless song, the lullaby that offers no solace or appeasement.

“The others won’t talk about it, but I need to know.” Isaure sits, for a while—no red ribbons in her hair, which tumbles thick and unruly in her lap. “I—I don’t even know what happens.”

You could tell her, if you still had a voice—of the day they will come for her, two footmen and a butler and the master behind them, solemn and unsmiling, and as grave as if this were her first communion—of how they will bring her to a part of the house she’s never been to, a place of embroidered carpets and silk curtains and wide, airy rooms—of how they will comb her hair, doing it up with fine silver pins in the shape of butterflies, and give her clothes—a red dress, or a red suit, whichever she prefers—delicate, luxurious confections embroidered with birds and flowers—brand-new, for your own clothes were torn and stained when you died, and were as unrecognizable as your body was, a mess of stiffened lace and slashed cotton that they buried with you, not finding the heart to separate it from your mangled remains.

And then the slow descent into the cellar—that tightness rising in her chest, as if the air she’s breathing was being taken away from her—and the circle, and the altar, and—and a last draught of poppy, an illusory comfort that will not hold when the darkness at the heart of the house rises and she strains against the shackles, trying to stifle the scream that’s tearing its way out of her . . .

Isaure—don’t— you whisper. The earth shifts above you, and your bones push upward, as sharp as razor blades, the tip of one femur barely breaking the surface—and Isaure bends, as if she could hear you.

“Please,” she says.

Don’t, you say, but she’s already gone—her breath coming in short, sharp gasps, her heartbeat irregular, feeling as though it might be snuffed out at any time. You wonder how much time she has—how much time you had, when they came for you and your rotten, consumptive lungs, how much life the house and your master stole from you as it will steal from this child. You’re dead, and the dead cannot intervene, but if only you could—

When Isaure comes next, your master is with her. He looks as he always did—as if time passed him by, leaving him only slightly paler, only slightly thinner—and he moves with the grace and elegance you remember from your own lifetime—you remember him, pausing down the stairs halfway to the cellar and waiting for you as you struggled with the unfamiliar train of the dress, a reassuring presence in this oppressive place—a comfort you could cling to, even if it was a lie.

“There’s not much time left,” your master says. “Isaure—”

Isaure shakes her head. She’s scarecrow-thin, as if a breath of wind would tumble her, her face pale except for her blood-red cheeks; and her legs wobble, sometimes; she keeps herself upright only through strength of will. “It’s too short.”

Your master doesn’t say anything for a while. “It’s always too short. I can’t heal you—I can’t prolong your life—”

“Liar,” Isaure says. “You’ve lived forever.”

Your master grimaces. “It’s not life,” he says at last. “Just . . . a continuation—a stretching of time.”

“I would take that,” Isaure says, slowly, fiercely.

“Don’t be so sure.” His smile is bleak; the mask lifts again, and for a moment he’s nothing more than a skull beneath stretched, paper-thin skin, with eyes shriveling in their orbits, and a heart that keeps beating only because the house stands. “Eternity is a long time.”

“More than I’ve got.”

“Yes,” your master says. “I’m sorry.”

“You’re not.” Isaure watches him, for a while, stares at the river again. Today the sounds of fighting are distant: Outside, most people have died, and the sky is dark with poisoned storms and acid rain. There is little to salvage in the city—perhaps in the entire world. “Are you?”

His eyes are dry; his face expressionless, with not an ounce of compassion. “I do what I have to. So that I survive. So that we all survive. And no.” He shakes his head, slowly, gently. “The house will only take you one way, and it’s not the way it took me.”

Isaure shivers. “I see.” And, turning slightly away from him, kneeling on the grass, one hand inches from the edge of your exposed bone—“Will . . . will there be pain?”

He pauses then; and time seems to hang suspended, for a moment; it flows backward until he’s standing at your grave again, and your mother asks that same question, slowly and fearfully—and he could change the course of things, he could speak truth, instead of lying as he’s always lied, but he merely shakes his head. “No. We’ll give you poppy and opiates. It will be like going to sleep.”

Liar. You want to scream the words, to let the winds carry them all the way around the house, so that they know the price they pay for their safety, the price you paid for their sakes, only to lie unremembered and broken beneath the gardens, the only ones who still come a betrayer and a doomed girl—but you have no voice, and the earth chokes you, and you cannot . . .

Above you, Isaure rises, smiles—cautiously, reassured by words, by the presence she’s known all her life.

“It’s time,” your master whispers, and she’s turning toward him to follow him meekly, back into the house, to the wreck of her body and another grave at the bottom of the gardens, and soon they’ll both be gone, beyond your reach until it’s too late for anything but futile grieving—


You push—with broken bones, with decayed hands and arms and legs—and your body twists and shifts as the earth presses against it, and your muscles shiver and coalesce again, and butterfly hairpins melt as if within a furnace—and you turn and turn and change—and rise, bloody-mouthed, four-legged, from the earth.

Your horn is the yellow, gleaming bone of your femur, sharpened to a killing point; your mane is your blood-matted, earth-clogged hair, dragging worms and flies’ eggs from the shadowed rest of your grave; and your skin is scraps of red, blood-drenched cotton, knitted and patched over the rawness of muscles bunched to leap.

Isaure watches you, her mouth open—the flames of your eyes reflected in her own—and your master is watching, too, but—unlike her—he knows.

“Charlotte . . .”

Isaure jerks, as if something had pulled on strings at her back. “No,” she whispers, as you paw at the ground with silver hooves.

You run her through, before she can say another word—her blood splatters, warm and red—the same hue as your skin, drenching the grass in vivid, obscene colors—a crunching of bones beneath you, and then you’ve leapt over her remains, and there is only you and your master.

He has not moved. He stands, watching you—no expression on his face, his blue eyes dry and fearless. “You know I do not lie,” he says. He stands as if rooted within the earth, his swallow-tailed jacket billowing in the wind, his face alight with that same strange, fey radiance. “There is always a price to be paid for safety. Don’t you know this, Charlotte?”

You know this. You have always known this. Blood and pain and sacrifice and the power of the house—the only true things in a dying world, and what does it matter if not everyone pays them? Only the sick and the weak, or the innocent, or the powerless?

There is no rest. There is no forgiveness. And never, ever, any safety.

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The Weather

By Caighlan Smith

In the middle of a barren wasteland, a small town goes through the motions as if nothing’s changed. Lolly has school, a part time job, a senile grandmother that needs looking after. But everything has changed, and Lolly’s always one storm away from facing that.

The convenience store smells like Solarcaine and orange soda. Lolly’s bubble pops and gum plasters over her mouth while the delivery man smooths a Band-Aid in place on his elbow. The door rattles shut behind him and the mini cathedral bell from the dollar store clinks. Lolly picks the waxlike bubble gum off her chin. She remembers she needs to get a new razor, because in a week or so she’ll have to shave her legs.

A woman comes in, her skin the color of caramelized onions and her hair a dark cocoa pulsing with yellow highlights. The flesh of her face is stretched taut, as if she’s pinned all the wrinkles back behind her ears, except for the crow’s feet at her eyes, which are more like sparrow’s feet. She’s wearing a billowing coat of brown leather, lined with mustard yellow fur, that doesn’t particularly match her slinky turquoise scarf.

Lolly doesn’t realize the woman’s brought the boy until he pops out from behind her cavernous coat. His skin is a shade lighter than his mother’s, his hair a shade darker, his sunglasses framed in orange, hers, leopard print.

Lolly scrapes the gum off her upper lip so roughly it tears off a few overgrown hairs. The woman goes to the cooler in the back of the store, where they keep the alcohol. Lolly can just see the green of her scarf between the bags of tortilla chips on the chip rack. The boy shuffles over to the counter, gaze scanning the rows of colorful lotto tickets he’s too young to buy. He puts a candy bar on the counter and Lolly waves it under the bar-code scanner once, twice, staring blindly at the image of milk chocolate pieces with white chocolate centers. A streak of fluorescent light catches across the metallic candy wrapper, cutting the chocolate image in half and blurring the bar’s name.

Beep. A price flashes on the cash register in bright green.

Lolly drops the bar back on the counter, and the boy hesitantly tugs it toward him by the end flap of the wrapper, which crinkles between his fingers. More crinkling as he uncovers the chocolate. More beeping as Lolly voids the item from the cash register, using the manager code. The first time the woman and the boy came in Lolly charged them and almost got fired. Ever since then, she’s been tempted to charge them again.

Through the radio static that crackles around the store, an announcer starts to deliver the weather. Lolly fishes the remote out from under the cash register and changes to a station playing bluegrass. The boy winces and the woman opens the cooler so sharply it slams against the wall. Lolly knows the woman doesn’t like country or hip-hop or classical. She adds bluegrass to her mental list and returns the remote to its resting place next to the dusty medical kit. It hasn’t been opened since Lolly started working at the corner store. Whenever someone gets a scratch or a cut they just crack open a new box of Band-Aids, fresh off the household necessities shelf.

The woman’s boots squeak aggressively as she marches to the front of the store, six packs clenched in both hands. Her engagement ring flashes in the store lights like a dewdrop dangling from the tip of a weed.

Lolly can’t make out the woman’s eyes through the sunglasses; she never can, but she knows when the woman pauses like this, in front of the counter, she’s glaring at Lolly. Or maybe she isn’t, but she’s definitely staring, and it’s definitely a dare. “Gonna charge me again, bitch?” It’s what the woman said the second time she came into the store, and she hasn’t said a word to Lolly since.

The woman leaves and the door clatters. Lolly breathes out a gum bubble to critical mass and lets it hover, blotting out all of the boy except for the stray hairs of his bedhead. Alone like that, the hairs almost look black. As black as his eyes look through the sunglasses.

Lolly’s bubble pops and the boy is gone, the citadel bell echoing as the door beats itself back into place. There’s a little origami heart covering the top prize for a stack of cheap lotto tickets: $200, in big, bold gold, as if that were enough to keep someone comfortable for more than half a year. The heart is metallic and, on its left bump, sports the cleaved image of a milk chocolate candy bar.

Lolly throws the heart in the garbage under the cash register, then changes the radio back to its usual station. The weather forecast’s long over.

Every patch of Granny Ma’s flesh is crusty scales, sketched by raw red skin so paper thin it’s about to break, or already has. Sometimes, on a very hot day when Granny Ma walks to the mailbox and says “But where do I enter my password?” she leaves bloody smears on the fence gate and her butterfly-print smock.

Lolly sits behind Granny Ma in the kitchen, where she’s coaxed the elderly woman to their old spinning bar chair. Lolly is on the counter, feet braced under the stool to keep Granny Ma from spinning around. The kitchen is filled with feeble squeaking and Granny Ma’s wheezy mouth breathing.

Lolly rubs the ointment into Granny Ma’s back. The ointment used to smell like baby powder and Vaseline but now it just smells like Granny Ma. Stray dry flakes of her stick to the cream in the bottle every time Lolly dips her hand in, so that the upper rim is crusted with bits of dead skin.

Granny Ma is muttering something either vulgar or about a poodle. The fuzzy, neon-pink bath towel Lolly wrapped around the elderly woman fell to the floor immediately after it was situated. Sometimes Granny Ma tries to reach for it with her toes, even though it’s around a meter away. The light coming through the kitchen blinds goes straight through the tips of Granny Ma’s overgrown, chipped, and yellow toenails.

Granny Ma starts trying to climb off the chair. “I’ve gotta see if Froggie messaged me back. I can’t make the post until Froggie lets me know.”

Lolly stretches out her legs so far her feet hit the kitchen island, boxing in Granny Ma. “You can’t, Granny. The wifi’s down.”

Lolly doesn’t understand what she herself is saying, just repeats what her mother’s told her to say in these situations.

Granny Ma freezes. She starts shaking and before she can crumple to the floor, Lolly adds, “Uncle AJ’s rebooting the modem.”

“Oh, that’s all right then.”

Granny Ma climbs back on the stool. Lolly begins on her flaky shoulders as the elderly woman starts talking about changing her “URL” and “annoying anons.” It’s normal, nonsensical Granny Ma talk and Lolly pays it no mind. When she’s done with the skin ointment, she hooks Granny Ma’s smock over her head and releases her. Too late Lolly realizes she put the smock on backward—not the first time she’s made this mistake—but Granny Ma’s already shuffled to her spot in the living room. She pulls out her thin metal book with the half-eaten fruit on the back and opens it sideways, immediately bashing away at the array of buttons on the last page. Granny Ma calls it her “notebook” and Lolly really doesn’t know—or care—much about it beyond that.

After soaping her hands to near extinction, Lolly opens a tin of chickpeas and grabs a plastic fork from the kitchen drawer. On the back deck she can still hear Granny Ma’s insistent clicking through the screen door. Moths are flitting around the bug zapper, its red light showing through their wings in a way that make the wings look invisible, like the moths are just bodies. Little maggot bodies, levitating worms, ticks, gnats crawling through the air.

A fly buzzes and Lolly smacks her neck even though the sound is closer to her brow.

Sitting in the broken green lawn chair, next to the bug zapper, Lolly digs into her chickpeas and ignores the hum of a dying engine out front. A minute later and her mother comes around the back, face and neck and arms bright pink. When she flaps the neck of her palm tree graphic T-shirt, Lolly sees that her shoulders are a blinding white next to the burned flesh.

“Ma done up?” her mother asks, and Lolly nods, and her mother rubs her neck and watches the bug zapper. She says, “Tucker’s truck broke down halfway from the farm, load of cows in the trailer. Didn’t make a sound. Like they weren’t there at all. Asked Tucker, after it was done, fixed the engine, changed his tire to boot, ran it over a nail he said. Where’d he find a nail strong enough to break that kinda muscle? Asked Tucker, what’s back in the trailer? Tucker said: cows. Not one moo. Not a single moo. Coulda been an empty trailer, or they coulda all been dead. Said, Tucker, you outta check they ain’t all dead back there.”

“Where was he taking ’em?”

“Macy’s Burgers. He wanted one fifty for ’em, each, but he said Macy sweet-talked him down to one oh five. That Macy.”

“Yeah. That Macy.”

Lolly’s mother sits on the back steps and leans her head against the porch, still watching the zapper. “Did you catch the forecast?”

Lolly shakes her head.

“S’posed to be a storm. This Saturday.”

Lolly’s starting to find it really hard not to look down at the base of the bug zapper, where the ground that’s dry and cracked as Granny Ma’s skin is covered in blackened bug husks.

Friday afternoon Lolly ties up her hair off her neck with an elastic band that’s lost most of its elasticity. Her messy bun flops down off her head the moment she lets it go, unraveling just like the elastic band, but Lolly’s used to it. The sweaty stickiness of her half-undone bun against her neck has gotten to be something of a comfort.

On her way out back, Lolly finds Granny Ma leaning against the windowsill, glaring outside.

“I hate the desert background,” Granny Ma says. “Why won’t it change to the waterfall? I’ve changed it three times already but it never saves. And my screensaver, that’s broken for sure. It just falls asleep eventually instead. No shooting stars. I need to go to Future Shop.”

Lolly leaves Granny Ma to fuss over their view of the barren landscape. Thunderous hammering fills the house, making the faded family photographs swing sideways on the wall. Lolly doesn’t fix any of them, or even pick up the one that falls. It’s Granny Ma’s wedding picture, featuring a beaming fat-faced girl with a hot pink veil slung back over her brown and purple curls. She’s holding up a shinier version of her battered notebook, and the blank page opposite the keyboard shows the pixelated face of Lolly’s late grandpa. The quality of his image is so bad Lolly can’t make out the color of his eyes, but somehow she can still make out the abundance of pimples on his forehead.

Lolly doesn’t like looking at Granny Ma’s wedding picture, but then she doesn’t like looking at any of the family pictures. They’re full of weird objects and gestures and clothing, and only ever feature people who are dead or three-quarters of the way there.

Lolly finds her mother on the front deck, wearing her vaulting stallion graphic tee, which already has sweat stains at the back and armpits. There are two rusted nails sticking out of her lips like she’s some kind of bucktoothed vampire. Spotting Lolly, she pauses in hammering and tilts her head to the other end of the board she’s nailing over the porch window. Taking the cue, Lolly goes to hold up the board as her mother plucks out a fang.

They’ve got half the front of the house boarded up before Lolly’s mother says, “No school today, huh?”

“Storm tomorrow,” Lolly replies, and her mother just nods. A half hour later, when the only working school bus in town trundles past Lolly’s house, she and her mother both ignore it.

“No calls today?” Lolly asks as they grab their gear and head around back.

“Plenty. Couldn’t take ’em all. Had to get this done. Folks getting out of town, y’know?”

“No point in that,” Lolly mutters.

“Plenty o’ point. With a storm coming—”

“How many calls didya take?”

Lolly’s mother drops the toolbox on the back porch with a rattle and a bang. Inside, Granny Ma shrieks, “Keep it down! This doesn’t have subtitles and the accents are heavy!”

Lolly and her mother go to the shed for more boards. They carry two apiece, one under each arm, and Lolly can feel the splinters planting in her flesh. She starts to count them, then starts to count the number of hammer swings it takes to get in a nail, then starts to count the more violent bzzzts of the zapper. Anything but counting the numbers of boards and windows.

“Macy’s gone,” Lolly’s mother says. “Left early this morning, ’fore Burgers was supposed to open. Angry line of folk who didn’t know. Saw ’em on my way back from my second job. Macy packed up, left town, gonna give it a go somewhere else. Somewhere more lucrative.”

“Sounds like a Macy word. You talked to her?”

“She had me look at her truck this morning. Early call, first one. She couldn’t hide it, what she was doing, with a truck that size. She told me, matter-of-fact-like. She told me, ‘You should leave too, before the escape window closes. Take that nice daughter of yours and get out.’”

“Macy didn’t call me ‘nice.’”

Lolly’s mother steps back to assess the house, pursing her lips as she eyes the windows and boards. When they return to work, they start spacing out the boards a bit more, using one fewer for each window, though Lolly’s mother never says that’s what they’re doing, and Lolly doesn’t ask.

“Tucker’s gone too,” Lolly’s mother says. “Dropped by his farm to get the other half I’m due for the tire. He cleared out. Left half the animals. Didn’t feed them or nothing. Took most of the food, or maybe someone else did. Wouldn’t be surprised that the looting’s started. He and Macy, they probably went together, I was thinking. I thought, maybe there really weren’t any cows in that truck. Maybe he was takin’ Macy’s stuff for her, gettin’ ready to clear out. Wouldn’t be surprised. Bet Macy hooked him into it. Tucker’s always been a soft one for a savvy business lady, and no one ’round here was ever much savvier than that Macy. Oh boy, that Macy.”

“That Macy,” Lolly agrees.

That night, Lolly tucks Granny Ma into bed and gets a claw around the wrist for her troubles.

“I lost four followers today,” Granny Ma hisses, eyes round as the cap of her ointment jar.

“You’ll find ’em.”

“But I just posted the regular stuff. Unless . . . could it be the giraffe I reblogged? But Froggie told me that was funny.”

“It’s funny.” Lolly makes the motion of patting Granny Ma’s head reassuringly, but doesn’t actually do it. She’s already rinsed her hands and she doesn’t want to get them all flaky again.

Granny Ma’s still mumbling into the darkness when Lolly crawls into her own bed. She falls asleep to whispers of “Maybe I shouldn’t put her on my Follow Forever list.”

The next morning the wind whips the sand and grit about more than normal. Lolly puts on a pair of red-rimmed sunglasses to keep the flying bits from getting in her eyes.

The screen door snaps open behind her and her mother hollers, “What’re you doing?!”

“Going to work,” Lolly calls back. “Boss’ll dock me if I don’t.”

“There’s a storm! Store’ll be closed!”

Lolly keeps on walking down the drive. She hears her mother running, rubber sandals slapping on the packed dirt. “Lolly!”

“Forecast’s usually wrong anyway. Haven’t had a storm for years. Boss’ll expect me to be there.”

“Just stay home today, Lolly. Please. If the storm does come, if it does you won’t want to be out in it. I don’t want you out in it. Couldn’t bear that.”

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David D. Levine

The Wild Cards universe has been thrilling readers for over 25 years. David D. Levine’s “Discards” introduces Tiago Gonçalves, a teenager who scrapes collecting recyclables from the landfills of Rio de Janeiro. But after the Wild Card virus infects him, he learns to build something more.

In a dark, stinking room on the outskirts of Rio de Janeiro, its discolored cinder-block walls scarred with generations of graffiti, Tiago Gonçalves lay sweating and thrashing, delirious with fever.

For a bed, Tiago had the box spring from a child’s crib, stained and torn, over which was thrown a threadbare sheet that had perhaps once been pink. A battered plastic milk crate nearby held one pair of jelly shoes, three shirts too big for his skinny frame, two pair of shorts, some underwear, a plastic mug and spoon, a toothbrush, and half a cake of soap. That was all. But his most treasured possessions sat proudly atop the crate: an oil lamp assembled from discarded cans and bottles, using braided electrical insulation as a wick; a Swiss Army knife, its long-vanished plastic side panels replaced with scraps of teak painstakingly shaped to fit the hand and polished to silky smoothness; and a bouquet of flowers he had made by twisting together bits of colorful plastic bags.

All of these things Tiago had rescued from the landfill. But there was no one to rescue Tiago. He had lain here for . . . he didn’t know how long, days maybe, without anyone to care for him. The other three catadores—“collectors” of recycled materials— who shared this twenty-reais-a-week room had lives and problems of their own. At least João had shared some of his water and fried manioc cakes.

Tiago shivered in his sweat-soaked sheet, which clung to him like it was his own skin. He ached all over; he could barely raise his head. He wondered if he might be dying.

He knew death. He had seen death far too often in his fifteen years. Every time there was a war between the gangs of drug traficantes that ruled the favelas, bodies turned up in the dump. Sometimes they were headless and handless, oozing black blood from the severed stumps. Once Tiago had unearthed a tiny newborn baby, the umbilical cord still attached, from a bag of rotten food scraps. Rats had eaten its ears. At seven he had seen his father gunned down by the police while stepping from his own shower, during a drug raid based on mistaken information.

His mother, too, was dead, or at least that was what he assumed. Two years ago she had gone off to look for work and never come back. Most likely she had been unlucky enough to catch a stray bullet from some traficantes’ battle, never identified, and buried anonymously in a public cemetery. But deep inside he harbored the fear that she had tired of him, of the strain of caring for a hungry, curious boy as an unemployed single mother, and had run away, back to the countryside from which she had come before he’d been born.

He should never have been born. Just by existing, Tiago made things worse.

João poked his head around the tattered bath curtain that separated Tiago’s space from the rest of the room. It must be the end of his work shift; time passed strangely in this delirious room without windows. “Oi, Tiago! Just checking to . . . Nossa Senhora!” Even in the near darkness, Tiago could see the shock in João’s eyes, sudden wide white circles in his dark face.

“Wha . . . ?” Tiago struggled to sit up. “What’s wrong?”

“Have you seen your face?”

“No . . .”

João vanished, the curtain falling back, leaving Tiago blinking in dazed concern, heart pounding with fever and dread. João returned a moment later with the mirror from the men’s washroom, a shining triangular scrap with a deadly point. Without a word he held it up so Tiago could see himself.

At first he thought that what he was seeing was just an effect of the fractured mirror. Then, as he continued to stare and the mirror shifted slightly in João’s hands, he realized it was reality.

His face, formerly an ordinary but unlovely dark brown, had changed. It was now a dramatic hard-edged jigsaw of black, brown, and pink. One eye was still brown; the other, the one whose surrounding skin was lighter, was now hazel. His nose was divided down the middle—the left side had dark skin and a broad African nostril, the right was tawny, a slim Tupi Indian beak. Neither side matched the nose he remembered.

With wonder he touched his cheek. It was his own skin, not a mask—he could feel his fingertips lightly brushing his face—and its texture varied slightly, the pale skin smoother and the darker skin having a more waxy feel. The line between the two was distinct, but didn’t feel like a seam or a scar. He rubbed at it, first in concern and then in panic, but though both sides reddened and warmed, the color did not come off.

His hands were the same patchwork of colors.

Suddenly alarmed, he sat up and pulled his shirt open. Triangles and rectangles of a half dozen different shades ran all the way down his chest and stomach and into his pants. Legs and arms too. His own hands on the parti-colored skin felt like ice.

He realized he was making noises—ah, ah, ah—frightened, animal sounds. He clamped his mouth and eyes shut, hugged himself with his arms, and rocked, trying to calm himself.

“You got the virus, man,” came João’s voice through the keening in Tiago’s head. “The wild card.” He sounded half-terrified and half-awed.

“No!” Tiago moaned into his knees. But he knew it was true. What else could cause such a change to happen overnight?

The curtain rattled and Tiago opened his eyes. It was Eduardo, the oldest of the four and the one who collected the rent. “Que diabo!”

“He got the wild card,” João said, helpfully.

Eduardo clapped one hand over his nose and mouth and backed slowly away. “You can’t stay here,” he said, muffled. “You take your things and go, right now.”

“But it’s almost dark!” João protested.

Eduardo glared at João. “You wanna end up like him? Or worse, like some kind of fungus glob?” He shook his head, turned back to Tiago. “No. You go, now. Take your germy stuff, too. We’ll have to burn your mattress.”

João looked back and forth from Eduardo to Tiago. Tiago—still trembling, chilled, disoriented—just sat and stared back at him. Then Flavio, the fourth boy sharing the room, came in.

Flavio took one look at Tiago, shrieked, and fled.

“That’s it!” said Eduardo. He yanked down the curtain and threw it out the door. “Cai fora!” Beat it!

Tiago looked to João, but the younger boy just shook his head slightly, blinking in stunned incomprehension. He would find no support there.

Shuddering, barely able to stand, Tiago dragged himself out of bed. The Swiss Army knife he put in his zippered shorts pocket, along with his few bills and coins; the lamp and flowers would have to remain. The remaining contents of the milk crate he dumped onto the sheet, gathered up into a bundle, and slung over his shoulder.

He couldn’t even manage a good-bye. He just glared at the two other boys as he dragged himself out the door.

As he trudged down the street—really just a dirt track between houses assembled from cinder block, scrap lumber, and discarded doors, illuminated only by the flickering light of methane fires from the dump—he considered that he didn’t have enough money for even a shared room, and no one he knew had any extra space, even for one skinny little boy. Too late, he realized that he should have asked Eduardo for his share of the weekly rent back. But then again, Eduardo had probably already paid it to the landlord, or would claim to have done so.

The catadores worked around the clock. If he hurried, he might make the late shift, where he could pick up a few reais—if anyone would work with him. He turned his feet toward the Catadores’ Association yard, where the pickers received the fluorescent vests that showed their authorization to work and caught a truck to the landfill.

But when he arrived, he found the yard empty, with stacks of sorted plastics, papers, and metals sitting silently beneath the buzzing floodlights. The last truck had already departed. Only old Vitor, guardian of the cash box, remained, sitting on an upturned plastic bucket and smoking.

As he approached, Vitor looked up lazily, then jerked to his feet. “Porra!” he swore, the bucket rattling away behind him.

“It’s just me, Vitor. Tiago. The one who always brings the nice clean PET bottles.” But his hopes were already fading.

“Curinga!” the old man replied, crossing himself and backing away.

Tiago’s lip curled and he prepared to spit back a matching insult at the weak, shabby old man. But then he realized that Vitor’s slur, curinga, was just the literal truth.

Tiago had become a curinga—a joker. A twisted, pathetic victim of the wild card virus.

He didn’t belong here, not anymore. Not even the catadores, the lowest of the low, would associate with him. He was diseased, abased, offensive. There was only one place for him to go.

“I just need some money, man,” he said. He realized that tears were leaking slowly down his cheeks. He ignored them. “I need to get to Bairro dos Curingas.” Everyone knew Rio’s Jokertown—the neighborhood where the virus’s most unsightly sufferers gathered. There, at least, he would fit in. But Rio was a long way from the landfill, and he would need bus fare. “Can you give me an advance on tomorrow?”

Advances were strictly against the rules, and they both knew that Tiago would not be working tomorrow. Nonetheless, Vitor went into his little shack and returned with a small wad of money, which he flung at Tiago. The bills landed on the ground halfway between them.

Tiago sighed and took a step forward, reaching for the money. But before he could touch the bills, they fluttered up, seemingly of their own accord, to his outstretched fingers . . . and stuck there.

He blinked, shooting Vitor a glance that said Did you see that? But the old man just stood there trembling, clearly just wishing the scary curinga would go away.

“Thanks, man,” Tiago said. He pulled the bills off his fingers—they came away easily—and stuffed them into his pocket without looking.

As he trudged away toward the bus, Tiago wondered what the hell had just happened. Probably it was just a breeze that had moved the bills, and as for the sticking to his fingers . . . Well, what was there here at the dump that wasn’t sticky? Anyway, he was still feverish. Maybe he’d imagined the whole thing.

The few other people at the bus stop kept their distance, muttering and casting glances, and the driver eyed him warily. But he accepted Tiago’s fare—it was almost all of what he’d gotten from Vitor—and Tiago found a seat way at the back of the nearly empty bus.

Hours passed in diesel-scented, lurching motion. People got on, people got off; no one sat near Tiago. From the occasional muttered “Curinga!” he knew that it wasn’t just the stink of the landfill on him.

The last time he had traveled this route had been a couple of months after his mother had disappeared. He’d spent the first month in a series of wretched little homes, handed from one to the next; there was no government assistance for abandoned children, he had no relatives that he knew of, and none of his mother’s friends had the space or the money to house a hungry teenaged boy for more than a few days. But then the boyfriend of a woman who’d taken him in had tried to take Tiago’s clothes off. He’d kicked the man in the nuts and fled with only the clothes on his back.

After that he had lived on the street, becoming increasingly hungry and filthy, until one of the other street kids had let him in on a scheme: she had heard that the landfill at Jardim Gramacho was a place where you could make money by picking through the garbage for recyclable metals and plastics. It was smelly, difficult work, she said, but an honest living, and she knew someone who would give them a ride . . .

Weak, skinny, and ignorant, he’d barely survived his first few weeks as a catador. But eventually he had learned the ropes: where to go for a vest and a ride, how to be the first to a fresh load without getting run over, how to identify the plastics that paid the most per kilo, which of the buyers would cheat you. Eventually he had gotten good at it, even begun to take pride in his work—taking people’s discards and helping to recycle them into something useful. He’d stayed alive, if not prosperous, for two years; he’d even made a few friends.

Now all that was gone—taken by the virus.

He leaned his head against the chill darkness of the bus window and wept.

“Bairro dos Curingas!” called the driver. Tiago roused himself, shook his head to clear it, collected his bundle of belongings, and stumbled out the back door just before the bus roared off.

He stood, blinking and shivering, on the black-and-white pavement. He was sick and weak and hungry, and with three changes of bus he had barely slept; it must be past midnight. But now he stood at the gate of Rio’s Jokertown.

It was not what he had expected.

Curingas there were, to be sure. A man with writhing snakes for hair stood on a corner handing out leaflets. A grossly fat woman, wider than she was tall and with warty red skin, sat at the entrance of a club, calling out to passersby in multiple languages. Two scantily clad women, both with attractive bodies but hideous faces, danced on a balcony illuminated by spotlights.

But it was not what Tiago would consider a bairro—a neighborhood—at all. It was a commercial district, bright with neon and brash with music and chatter even at this late hour. People thronged the sidewalks, most of them normal looking and almost all of them white or light skinned. Tiago supposed that many of them were turistas rather than cariocas—Rio natives.

A man bumped into Tiago from behind, making him drop his bundle. As Tiago bent to pick it up, the man slurred a drunken apology and stooped to assist him.

The man stank of alcohol, with shabby clothes and gray hair. His eyes were red and bleary . . . and extended on stalks from his face.

Tiago swallowed, but he would need to learn to accept curingas if he was to be accepted himself. “Hey,” he said. “I’m new here. I’m looking for something to eat, and a place to stay.”

“Plenty to eat here,” said the eye-stalk man, waving down the street. Doorway after doorway gleamed brightly, and enticing smells mingled in the air.

But every one of those brightly illuminated doorways had a sentinel. Some of them were guarded by large, no-nonsense men in tuxedoes; others had only a friendly-looking attractive woman in evening dress, but Tiago suspected that those women had burly men backing them up. And although a few of them had mild deformities, none were frightening or disgusting.

The whole place stank of money. And Tiago . . . simply stank. “I don’t have a lot of cash,” he told the eye-stalk man. The few remaining reais in his pocket probably wouldn’t buy a packet of peanuts at a fancy restaurant like these.

The man’s eyes wavered and literally crossed, making Tiago slightly queasy. “Santa Teresa’s gone to hell anyway,” he muttered. “Just a tourist trap, anymore. The real curingas have gotten pushed out to the favelas.” To some people, favela meant neighborhood or community; others sneered it to mean slum. The difference depended on where you stood: on the morros, or hills, with the poor, or on the asfalto, or pavement, with the rich.

The black-and-white pavement of this place was hard beneath Tiago’s jelly shoes.

One of the burly tuxedo-clad men—his skin was black as night and white ram’s horns curled from his forehead—was keeping a wary eye on Tiago. Tiago knew that look; he’d seen it plenty of times while he was living on the street, before he’d gone to the landfill. It was a look that said I know you’re just waiting for an opportunity to zip in here and take some of those hot empadas off the bar, but I’ve got my eye on you.

Above the neighborhood gateway, a huge neon sign of a burly man in priest’s garb, with tentacles where his mouth should be, waved a welcome to the crowd below. The shadows shifted in the moving light from his waving arm, but the neon curinga’s welcome was not for Tiago.

“Where do the real curingas live?” he asked the eye-stalk man.

“Up there,” he replied, gesturing vaguely toward the hills.

Tiago shouldered his bundle and began to walk.

He walked for hours, asking directions of passersby as he went. Most gave him a cold glance, or even less acknowledgment than that, and breezed past without stopping. Some spat at or threatened him. One or two threw coins, and though he had not asked for money he was not too proud to scramble after them. And a few, a very few, tried to help. The consensus was that the curingas were mostly to be found in Complexo do Alemão, a large complex of favelas in the hills of the city’s North Zone—three hours’ walk or more away. Even if he had had enough money for the bus, none were running at that hour. Finally, too tired to go any farther, he hid himself beneath a heap of trash bags, arms and legs wrapped around his small bundle of possessions, and slept.

He woke at dawn to the sniffing noses of rats, and breakfasted on stale pão de queijo rolls rescued from the garbage behind a café just setting up for the day.

He knew he was approaching the complexo as the graffiti got denser and more elaborate. The ones that were executed entirely in black paint, he knew, were gang tags— they indicated which group of drug bandidos controlled this territory, though he did not understand their code. A further, more definitive sign was the rising terrain, as the wide, straight, paved streets of the asfalto gave way to the steep, curving, narrow streets of the morro. Eventually he found himself at a high concrete wall, plastered with graffiti and topped with an iron fence: the boundary of Nova Brasília. Of all the complexo’s favelas, this was—or so he’d been told—the largest, poorest, most dangerous, and densest with curingas.

He followed the wall until he came to a gateway, where two muscular young men lounged on folding chairs. One had bat-like wings, too small to be functional; the other had a shaven head crowned by a circle of white lumps—molar teeth—and was drinking a Coke.

Both men carried machine guns.

The man with the teeth wiped his mouth and tossed the can, rattling, into the gutter. That made Tiago wince—back at the landfill, aluminum cans fetched almost two reais per kilo. “Welcome to Nova Brasília,” he said. “What’s your business?”

“I’m a curinga,” Tiago replied, gesturing to his face. “I need a place to stay.”

“He’s a curinga,” the man replied, smiling at his partner, who smiled back. The man with the teeth dropped the smile and glared at Tiago. “We don’t care what you look like, you don’t come into this favela unless you’re on approved business.”

“Approved by who?” Tiago replied. These men wore civilian clothes and carried no identification.

“Comando Curinga,” the man with the teeth replied—Joker Command. It was a name Tiago hadn’t heard before, but it echoed the names of the drug gangs Comando Vermelho and Terceiro Comando—Red Command and Third Command—which were all over the radio. “We took over this favela from the Amigos dos Amigos back in March. And no one goes in or out without our say-so.”

The bat-winged man shrugged. “Nothing personal, kid.”

By reflex, Tiago snagged the Coke can from the gutter as he walked away. But half a block later he stopped.

He had walked all night. His belly rumbled. He had no money and nowhere else to go.

The man with the wings was, at least, not actively hostile.

He looked at the can in his hand.

Then he sat on the curb and took out his Swiss Army knife. Using the can opener, small blade, and corkscrew, he cut and carved and shaped the can’s soft aluminum until it was a bird—a stupid-looking cartoon bird with big round eyes and a spray of shredded aluminum feathers on its head. It was ugly, fragile, and covered with dangerous edges, but kind of adorable.

He went back to the gateway and presented the thing to the bat-winged man. “Here,” he said, “I made this for you.”

“Did you now?” said the bat-winged man, with no visible emotion, but he put out his hand and took it. The one with the teeth frowned at him, but said nothing.

The man turned the stupid little bird over, poked at its beak, and considered it at arm’s length while Tiago’s heart stood still. He expected the man to crush it in his fist and toss it away.

But instead he just grunted, “It’s cute. My girlfriend will like it.”

“So . . . can I come in?”

“All right,” the bat-winged man said, ignoring his partner’s glare. “And did you say you needed a place to stay?”

Tiago swallowed. “I did.”

The man eyed Tiago for a moment, considering, then scribbled on a scrap of paper. “This is my cousin Luiza’s address. Tell her Felipe sent you.”

Tiago tucked the paper in his pocket. “I don’t know my way around. Can you tell me how to find it?”

Luiza lived at the top of a “street” so steep, narrow, and twisty that not even a bicycle could traverse it. Tiago’s heart pounded from the climb as much as his nervousness as he rapped on the rusted metal door.

The door was pocked with bullet holes.

“Yeah?” came a voice from within, over the thumping funk music.

“I’m looking for Luiza.”

The door creaked open a finger’s width. One eye peered through the gap. “I’m Luiza.”

“My name’s Tiago. Your cousin Felipe sent me.” He briefly described the circumstances.

The eye regarded him for a moment, then the door closed. There was an extended rattling sound, then it reopened more fully, letting out a blast of music and a sweet whiff of maconha.

Luiza was a girl not much older than Tiago. Thin, with the black hair, medium-dark skin, and prominent cheekbones of one with a lot of indigenous heritage, she looked nearly normal except that her eyebrows were made of feathers—long, black, and shiny like a raven’s. They made her dark eyes look fierce and predatory. She wore a white sleeveless top and camouflage pants, and her belt and pockets were heavy with cell phones, pagers, beepers, and media players.

“That’s a lot of gadgets,” Tiago said.

“Cool, huh?” Luiza uncrossed her arms and looked admiringly down at her array of devices.

“Why do you need three cell phones?”

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