Monthly Archives: March 2017

All Things In Time

When they opened the time capsule, there was a body inside.

Simon dropped his shovel in the red clay and fell to his knees. Kate shrieked, muffling it with her hand. Beside her, Ryan let out the response they had all thought but been unable to voice.

“Goddamn,” he gasped, “who is that? Who the hell is that?”

The body was a milk-fair girl in her teens. Her skin was so clear and white it almost seemed like her irises were visible behind her lids. Her hair was white blonde. Simon struggled to place her with any of the faces he’d ever seen in highschool, but his mind was a panicked blank.

Terry shook his head as he backed away from the hole. “We need to call the cops.”

Becky grabbed his elbow. “Are you nuts? We’re not even supposed to be out here.”

“I think the little matter of trespassing is kind of insignificant now, Beck,” Ryan said, looping an arm around Kate. “She wasn’t there when we buried the time capsule, was she?”

“No,” Kate blurted, “and that means someone dug our capsule up and re-buried it with her in it.”

Terry rolled his eyes. “No they didn’t. Disturbing packed earth would leave too much of a mound.”

“Really? That sounds like bullshit.”

“It’s not.”

“Really? Then I’m looking it up.” Kate brought out her smartphone.

Terry hit it down. “No.”

“What the f—you fucking psycho!”

Ryan got physically in-between the two. “Look, it’s not important right now. We need to call the cops sooner rather than later, it’ll make it look worse if we don’t.”

“Oh, and who’s calling them? This asshole?” Kate thumbed at Terry. “He’ll probably get into an argument with the cops about whether they’re allowed to pat us down.”

“The constitution says—”

“Fuck it!” Ryan held up his hands. “I’m going to the school, find somebody. I’ll say we’re old friends, we wanted to meet somewhere nostalgic, we stumbled on a body.”

“Oh yeah, and how will you explain the shovels?” Becky asked.

“I’ll cross that bridge when we come to it,” Ryan said smoothly. “Look, I want everybody to stay cool while I’m gone, okay?”

Simon shot him a feeble thumbs-up. The others mumbled vaguely agreeing noises. Ryan set off over the field to their old high school, dodging chattering sprinklers.

“Look at her,” Becky mumbled reverently, “she’s so young.”

Becky had filled out a bit since high school, her hair chopped to jaw-level and dyed a bright red. In her high school ID, which nestled just above the girl’s shoulder, Becky smiled awkwardly at the camera in glasses and a forest of dark brown hair that sprouted from her head like sargassum.

The girl wore a plain white dress that bore no recognizable style. It could easily have been made in the 1980’s or the 1880’s. Though she was a few feet from his face, Simon was having trouble believing she was actually real. He could touch her, that might prove things conclusively, but he felt like the oil from his fingertips would stain her.

“Notice anything?” Kate asked. “She doesn’t smell.”

Simon dared to lean forward and flare his nostrils. That was right. All he could smell was the astringent odor of packed earth.

Becky frowned. “That’s…weird. People who had been dead even a little while should smell.”

“Who says she’s dead?”

Both women looked at Terry silently and then back to the hole.

“Holy hell, the ground was packed when we started digging,” Kate said, getting in close to the hole, “she would have had to be in there for a while at least.”

“Well, hermetically sealed—”

Kate stuck her hand back at Terry and made a quacking motion with it. “The ground was hard when you dug into it, wasn’t it?”

Simon realized he was being put on the spot. “Um, yeah.”

Becky sidled away from the hole it was getting harder and harder not to call a grave, rubbing her upper arms as if she was cold. “This is all really weird.”

Terry crouched beside Becky. “How’d they fit her in there, anyway? Did they take stuff out?”

Kate frowned. “They better not have taken out my judo trophy, I will be majorly fucking pissed.”

“Your trophy? That’s what you’re worried about?”

“Oh sorry, am I supposed to get gooshy over a letter my tenth grade boyfriend wrote me?” Kate snapped. “He was gay anyway.”

Becky arched her brows. “Does Ryan know you two slept together?”

Kate and Terry flushed. “Whatever. That was years ago! We don’t need to dig up the past.”

“Dig up the past,” Simon said, “ha.”

It was amazing how they could still fight over these things when they had the mystery of the century at their feet. But hadn’t that been the way, even from the beginning? The time capsule had no real significance, Kate had learned about the bicentennial capsule in the next town over and bent Ryan’s ear until he convinced the rest of them. Even now, in this heat that made everything seem slightly unreal, Simon could not even be sure of their friendship. Did he truly know these people? One of them could have been easily replaced by a stranger who had done their homework and he’d be none the wiser. None of them looked like they had in highschool, not really.

Simon looked down at the girl, puzzling. Yes he had known a truly pale blonde in high school, Becky had gone around calling her an albino until the girl crushed her in dodgeball. But she had been plumper and nearly six feet tall. This girl was a whisp, a perfectly formed doll that would have barely come up to Simon’s shoulder if she stood. The soles of her feet were perfect and clean, as they had never touched the ground.

Ryan legged it back over the  soccer field shimmering with heat.

“No one’s around,” he said, leaning on his knees. Kate got to her feet and hewed to his side, giving insistent little murmurs.

“Well, that’s not a shock.” Terry stood and dusted off his pants, not looking at Ryan. “We chose this day because no one would be here.”

“So what do we do?” Becky asked, “do we…do we just call them?”

Ryan held up his hands. “Look, I have an idea and it may not be the best thing…we re-bury it.”

Shoulders of the whole group relaxed.

“But the body,” Terry protested, not very hard.

Ryan shook his head. “It’s beyond us, guys.”

Kate hunched her shoulders. “But what about the time capsule? Can we take it out?”

Ryan threw an arm around her shoulders. “Can’t, babe. That would leave a cavity. We re-bury it as is and the groundskeeper thinks some dog was screwing around up here.”

“Or burying beer,” Becky joked. They were all resetting to the people they had been before the hole. Simon felt that he was the only one stuck. He could not wrench his mind from the girl in the hole, so he faked it like he always did.

“Guess I’ll go first,” he joked thinly, grabbing up the shovel.

The first shovel-load fell like blasphemy. Simon watched the earth rattle down on the girl’s white dress and wondered if it would stain. He looked back at the group and saw them eagerly looking at him.

He kept shoveling.

The girl’s face was the last to be covered, it shone out like the bone of some extinct creature exposed by the very elements that would wear it away. Simon winced as dirt fell on her eyes. Finally there was nothing for it, and he gently laid dirt across the last remaining piece of the girl. Kate sighed behind him. They were sliding back into place like building blocks, taking shapes that were familiar and easy. Could he have gone against it? Planted his feet and refused to let it lie?

No, Simon thought, this was his place. The gap left by the four of them fitting in with each other.

They took turns stepping on the soil, pressing it out flat. The tension brought on by the girl had evaporated in the sun.

Becky almost danced out to the cars, linking arms with Kate and trying to run in step. Terry joked with Ryan as if nothing had ever been amiss. And Simon reverted to his natural place at the back of the group.

Becky hopped into her Jeep without so much as a wave. Terry took his sweet time getting into his Miata, he even sat as if it was part of a ritual. Kate had already squeezed into the passenger side of the Escape and Ryan was standing at the open driver’s door. It was now or never.

“Tell me,” Simon murmured, bending close, “you didn’t look for anyone, did you?”

Ryan looked surprised for a minute, then laughed. His laugh was infectious.

“Ya got me. Sometimes you have to bend the truth for people’s own good, you know?”

Simon glanced past him at Kate, who was busy scrolling through her phone.

“I hear that,” he said. Ryan slapped him on the back.

“Going to Paddy’s later,” Ryan said as he eased himself in, “see you there?”

Simon smiled tightlipped.

“Got work,” he lied, “I have to go clean up now anyway.”

Ryan did not press him, just threw the car into reverse and sped away. Simon was left holding the shovel, gripping it tightly.

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Mulberry Leaves

There is a nameless shrine on a mountaintop somewhere in the Nanpo islands of japan. Maps do not list it, and the torii crowning the entrance has been buried. A single red lacquer horn is all that exists to show the way to this shrine, which lies up a difficult incline of 108 steps.

The body of the shrine itself was constructed of driftwood and fitted together without nails. The only adornment of the shrine is a hemp rope bearing two ragged rice paper shide.

In this shrine is a mulberry tree. No matter how many years pass, this tree remains exactly eight inches in diameter. Instead of fruit, the tree bears silk strands.

There is a village at the foot of this mountain. They have no record of any shrine, only that the village once produced fabrics of the finest caliber during the Tokugawa shogunate. Villagers will blithely say the silk was imported, that no mulberry has ever grown on island soil. Invite them to the mountain, they will decline. There is nothing up there, why bother?

The mulberry silk strands are unusually tough and course, many magnitudes thicker than that produced by Bombyx mori. Coring the trunk is inexact, for the wood had a plasticity not common in the mulberry family. The only factor restraining regular harvest is that the silk, once plucked, takes many weeks to grow back.

In the village of this island, there were five founding families. Five homes producing silk. This is evident in the tax records of the Edo merchant who imported the fabric. Then, suddenly, there were four families. Why? Where did they go? Modern villagers will shrug their shoulders. Lots of things happen in a few years. Battles are found or lost. Ships crash. Why bother digging up the past?

Examination of the tree roots will turn up another anomaly. At the end of each root is a peculiar oblong scale. Tests of these scales show that they are not wood but a protein structure unique to the tree. Attempted removal only results in an excess of sap flowing from the point of injury.

Tax records from mainland Honshu tell of a time of unrest on the island. A dip in both quality and quantity. A peculiar red, unique to the island, vanished from the shipment forever. A note of usury from the silk supplier, demanding to know the whereabouts of a third of the raw materials. And then…nothing. The next year shows a slight uptick in production, minus the red fabric. The village no longer produces silk, getting by on subsistence farming and fishing in the modern day.

There is a matsuri unique to the island, taking place at the end of spring. Thirteen square holes are dug, and straw dummies that have been beaten with farm implements are places in the holes and set alight “to salt the ground.” Minor excavation of the festival grounds have turned up roof tiles, indicating there was once a house on the land.

Every spring, as matsuri lanterns light up the village at night, the tree weeps sap.

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The End of the Hunt

The painting hung in his supervisor’s office above the desk. Milo would toe up to the edge of the carpet and stare at it when he was being reprimanded. A lot was crammed into the canvas. Medieval hounds, painted with little care given to proper anatomy, dominated the scene. Snarls distorted their snouts. They had the eyes of men. The unlucky goose hung like an afterthought from the muzzle of the lead dog. The artist hadn’t even bothered to fill in detail on the bird’s head, leaving only a thin cyan oval to suggest a skull. The meaning of the name had escaped him until the day he spied the hunters, dressed in the same earthen tones as the surrounding vegetation. Two of them held up a theater backdrop, a painted sky that had presumably lured the bird to its doom.

“Do you see what I’m saying?” Nealy looked over the rims of his glasses.

“Yes, sir.” Milo had long ago memorized a stock set of phrases designed to appease. “I hope I can live up to your expectations.”

Nealy sighed through his nose. “Well, I guess I do too, Milo.”

Milo nodded. There was a tension in him that did not ease until he closed the door behind him. He disliked scrutiny, even in the most harmless of forms. The secretary Janet’s once-over of his body rankled, her unfocused eyes woke a nameless hunger in him. The weekend could not come soon enough.

Milo wedged his body in an aisle of the warehouse. Nearby, the guys were huddled in a rough circle, talking over styofoam coffee cups and vending machine snacks.

“…Moscone county killer.”

Milo had developed a trick wherein he appeared very absorbed in a meaningless task, but was really focused intently on something nearby. He sorted order envelopes and listened.

“I mean, really? This guy broke into five houses?”

“Always comes from the place you suspect the least, am I right?”

“Yeah. I mean, the unabomber was literally the most unassuming guy in the world.”

“The guy in the sketch was.”

“I’m just saying, Caramina’s a rich county. Nothing but rent-a-cops. I wouldn’t trust ’em to arrest the Hamburglar.”

Janet walked up, pink receipt pages in her hand.

“They’re really treating you today, aren’t they?” she said, fanning herself. Her perfume was too sweet and sat like a blanket long after she left a room.

Milo mumbled a reply. The weather was hot and damp, neither condition was relieved by the swamp cooler running behind him. He actually preferred this weather, it made his skin feel tight. It was a secret kind of excitement, kept him going despite the people around him. They looked past him, unsuspecting. He had an urge, deep and pathological, to tell them what he really did when he wasn’t at work, to watch their faces change.

“We should really do something about it,” Janet said, tucking the paper into a folder on the top of a box. Milo did not reply. He had learned that people mostly talked at him and not to him. Replies broke the rhythym of office talk. Replies brought him to their attention. He didn’t want that.

Nealy walked up, arm around a younger, shorter man. “Milo, this is Bill.”

Milo gave him a damp handshake.

The three of them stood awkwardly.

“…you know, that thing I was talking about?” Nealy prompted.

Milo assumed a look of recognition. “Of course, sir. It’s just this heat…”

Nealy nodded. “I get ya. We really need a proper AC unit.” He turned and pushed the young man forward. “Just show Bill the ins and outs. Whip him if you need to.”

Bill stumbled in mock horror. Milo donned noncommital work smile #4 and gestured out to the warehouse floor. The quicker he accomplished the task, the sooner he could be left to his own devices.

Bill was good. Too good. He asked too many questions. About the office. About Milo.

Milo began to wonder. Was he training a replacement? He didn’t mind being fired, he had been fired from many jobs, but being replaced rankled.

“So what do you do for the big weekend?” Bill was never less than a step behind, always full of bright energy.

“Erm, biking.” Milo tossed an answer off the top of his brain.

“No shit. You train for the M.E.C.? Because I’ve been looking for a partner—”

“Not professionally.” Damn. He’d gone on autopilot and dropped an order form behind a shelf. Milo scrambled to retrieve it before Bill could see the other files he’d “lost” over the course of a few months.

“Whoa, nervous there big guy?” Bill smiled. Milo hated how white it was.

“No, I’m just—I’m off my routine.”

The radio in the loading dock was on as Milo showed Bill how to fill out order reports. Blue went to the supervisor, pink was logged in the order, white—

“—was captured earlier this morning. Martin David Howe was living in a secluded shelter just off the West Jefferson trail. He had a history of stalking behavior and was diagnosed with schizophrenia in 1997. Police say he was the main suspect in the Moscone county killings for some time, it was the nature of the terrain that made the investigation drag on so long.

Milo stopped, forgetting what he was doing. His eardrums grew taught, his whole body stiffening like a receiving antenna.

Earl, at his station, nudged the radio dial. Through static, the speaker changed to a twangy country ballad. Milo stood up, perspiration cascading from his face and neck. He felt like he was peeling, like his skin was coming off in layers. He had seen it happen to a frog he’d touched against the neighbor’s electric fence in third grade. He’d savored the animal’s tense flailing at the time. Now he was afraid he might do that, lose control of himself. And he must never, ever do that where people could see.

“You okay, big guy?” Bill had his hands in his pockets, still crisp and dry, still smiling. He probably was there to replace Milo. Why not? Nothing he did mattered.

Milo bent, hands to his knees. “Sorry, I think I need to go.”

The bathroom smelled like swamp. Everywhere smelled like swamp. Milo spit in the toilet and examined the whites of his eyes. It wasn’t fair. He knew he wasn’t the smartest or best looking. But a man had to have something.

When he came out, Bill was over at the office door. He was facing out at the windows, hands in his pockets as he spoke to Nealy. So casual after a single day. Milo wished for one savage second that he could quit. Throw the coffee pot in Nealy’s face, see the glass shatter and watch red mix in with the dark brown of the coffee.

Instead, he slithered over like a slug. Bill turned around before he got to them, smile flawless as always.

“There he is! Feel better?”

“Actually, sir,” Milo made a point of adressing Nealy, “I think I have food poisoning. You think I can go home?”

“Again? It’s been two days—” Nealy began, but Bill interrupted him.

“I saw him earlier, Ken, he was pretty white. I’d hate to get chunked on, my first day.”

First name basis already? Milo decided not to bother coming back after he went home. There were other jobs like this. There were always other jobs.

Nealy gave his weary nod. Bill grinned.

“Hey, it’s nearly lunch. I’ll take you.”

“Oh it’s really—”

“Milo, you can’t get on the bus with food poisoning, just let him take you,” Nealy snapped, taking a shop towel to his perspiring neck. He would not look at Milo. Milo gave a one-shoulder shrug.

“I really appreciate you showing me around like this,” Bill said as Milo buckled in, “real stand-up of you. Ken says you’ve been sick a lot lately.”

Milo sank into his seat and grunted. Bill made no motion to start the car.

“Boy, I tell you, it has to be this weather. Food won’t stay good a single minute in this air. I had a hoagie, turned around to grab the salt, I swear it was moldy when I turned back.”

Milo nodded, closing his eyes and leaning his forehead against the cool window glass. The AC wasn’t on. The air in the car was still and hot.

“Lemme, guess, you got sick around the 4th, am I right?”

Milo nodded again.

“Knew it, knew it. No one cooks their meat all the way that day, too busy looking at fireworks. Then you were sick on the 14th, right? Coming back from Caramina?”

Milo nodded, drifting away. If he only had to nod, this was a good conversation.

“Must’ve had the crawfish. I hate those things, but I love ’em, y’know? More than five and my guts come up. You must’ve puked on the way back, right? They said someone cleaned the truck bed with caustics.”

Milo nodded dreamily. The car still wasn’t moving. Maybe the guy was just delaying going back to work. He hadn’t asked where Milo lived yet.

“So that was you? Whew, must’ve been some big job. Stayed out three days. Slip said you were scheduled two. You see the promenade?”

Milo nodded.

“Stuck around, see the sights? Do a little tourism? Don’t blame you, the way you’ve been working. They say they can never figure out what you’ve been doing. Making yourself indispensable, smart move. This is a good job, flexible hours. Not a lot of questions.

Milo was descending into a blissful mire. The shock of loss was beginning to wear off, and he was already planning for the future. He could find another job, another low-effort slog where they looked past him.

“I can see you’re tired, big guy. Just one thing I have to tell you.”

A metallic click. Something cold on Milo’s wrist.

“You’re under arrest.”

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The Marshes of Time and Space

Mr. Wenjing stood at the edge of the cold, dark water.

“You have one hour,” he said in clipped, nearly accentless English, “you are authorized to use only the ammunition we have given you. Anything and everything can be hunted. The trees with yellow bands—” he turned to imitate a hemlock behind him bearing a canary-colored sash, “—indicate you are nearing the limits of our territory. They are your warning. If you see the trees with red bands you must turn back. We are absolved of all responsibility if you do not.”

The man standing next to Miriam clicked his tongue, doing a little dance with his eyebrows. He held a shotgun. Pink ammo lined his belt.

The man turned suddenly to Miriam and extended his hand. “Pike Walsh,” he said, “Australian.”

Miriam nodded but did not extend her own hand. Her arms were hidden beneath the grey shawl that swathed her whole torso, hair gathered beneath a dark brown beret.

Walsh smiled, showing a dimple high in his cheek. “Don’t see many Sheilas here, forgive me. This’ll be my third time, how about you?”

A rotund man who employed a young boy to carry his guns and ammo answered without looking up. “First time. I was recommended by an associate. I’m all safaried out, you see.”

Walsh nodded, slightly irked.

“Fifth time,” said a man to Walsh’s other side. He hefted a large gun with ease. An intricate design of swirls was shaved into the side of his head. “I collect for this really upscale restaurant. They don’t even take reservations. You have to know someone. I couldn’t even eat there.”

Walsh chuckled, digging in the soft peat with his toes. The dents he made filled up with brown water.

Mr. Wenjing raised his left arm. The gathered group spread out in a horizontal line. Aside from a frightening old biddy lugging an elephant gun, Miriam was the only woman.

“Pardon my asking,” Walsh murmured out the corner of his mouth, “but you do have a gun, don’t you?”

Miriam slid her pistol out from under her shawl.

“A bit small, isn’t it?”

“I only need one shot.”

“Thatta girl.” Walsh grinned.

Mr. Wenjing dropped his arm. Galoshes and hip boots churned the freezing water into mud. The rotund man got stuck and began wailing. The others pad no mind and pressed deeper.

Miriam focused on walking, lifting one foot and finding a good place to put it down again. Visions of snapping turtles kept plaguing her, no matter how she banished them.

Walsh turned suddenly. “There!” The pink cartridge made a flash and a lot of smoke. Walsh swore, “missed!” and turned to reload.

In the beam of the flashlight taped to his gun, the restaurant hunter found an ancient yellow eye with diamond pupils. Quick as a flash, the old woman’s gun went off. The men laughed.

“All right granny,” the large man crowed.

The old woman planted a neon orange flag by her kill.

Besides sporadic sightings, the animals fell away. Their only company was the sucking sound their feet made in the muck.

“So how’d you hear about this?” Walsh said, eyes up to the treetops.

Miriam could not get out of answering this time. “It was a present. I’m a biologist.”

“No kidding?” Walsh shot her a humored look. “You know they don’t accept specimens from this place?”

“It was more about seeing them. In the flesh.” Miriam pretended to look around, blinking away the tears that were rapidly accumulating. “He knew that much was important to me.” Damn, her voice was getting thick. She coughed to cover it up.

Walsh nodded. “I was—” This time he fired without preamble. Something yelped once in the dark. Walsh struggled with his light, flickering on and off, before he trained the beam on his kill.

A thylacine sat on a raft made of dead branches. The bullet hole at its shoulder was leaking red. It breathed erratically as Walsh sloshed closer. He looked at the dead animal reverently as he gently brushed the fur of its ears with his fingertips.

Miriam crept away while he was distracted, pressing deeper into the marsh. The pros were reaching their kill quota. The first-timers were running out of ammo.

A dragon-like lizard with a bright crest reared in front of her. The rotund man sloshed up beside her, yanking his gun from the boy at his side.

“Banzai,” he cried. His gun did not flash and smoke, there was a definite bang. The other hunters zeroed in on him.

The restaurant hunter marched over and grabbed the gun from his trembling hands. “Real shells. Quentin, you asshole.”

“I’m worth more money than your entire home country, don’t lecture me,” the rotund man yelped, digging out a handkerchief to blot his trembling forehead.

“Money don’t mean jack here. You broke the rules. You’re gone. I’ll make sure you’re banned from my place, too.”

“You can’t do that, I’m on the list for July!”

“I’ll make sure they know that, strike all of your guests from the registry too.”

“Know your place, you—tradesman!” Quentin’s rage grew faint as Miriam snuck away from the scuffle. “You wouldn’t even be here if it weren’t for people like me….”

The cold seeped into every crack, every exposed bit of flesh. Miriam’s teeth chattered as she pressed on. An old, dead cottonwood loomed before her, yellow band shining like an eye in the night. Miriam gave thanks under her breath and pressed on. Soon the red bands appeared. Theses were not tied high like the yellow bands, instead they were laced between trees to form a sort of fence. Miriam stepped over them and continued onward. Her ears felt pressure, like she was ascending up a mountain.

It was a long, cold, difficult slog. This side had water weeds that slowed her steps. Miriam’s breath steamed as she grew closer to turning back. The worst they could do was ban her. Out here—

Something disturbed the water to the north of her. Miriam clicked her tiny penlight on.

Miriam caught sight of a grey shawl and a hunched back before the person straightened, holding a hand over her eyes. Miriam was looking at herself.

The other Miriam looked puzzled, then broke into a smile. “Mir—”

Like a gunfighter, Miriam’s piece flashed from underneath her shawl and drilled a neat hole in the other Miriam’s chest. She gasped and fell face-forward into the water.

Heart pounding, Miriam made her way over. The other Miriam was wearing the same grey shawl and—dammit! Her hat was a bright burgundy. Miriam took her own hat off and sank it in the water. Too late to look at the boots, she could just say she lost hers and took a pair that she’d found abandoned.

Miriam drew a deep breath and walked forward.

The torchlight was the same as the place she’d left. The faces were different or rearranged. Wenjing had a t-shaped scar on his forehead. An old man who could have twinned for the old woman sat on a pile of his kills. And by the refreshment cart—

“Michael!” Miriam flung her arms out, nearly tripping in her eagerness to get to shore.

Michael met her on the way, warm blanket in hand. The smell that enveloped her with his hug was the same. His touch, the same. His warm eyes were still brown when he pulled away to examine her for wounds.

“I only shot once,” Miriam confessed, “I nearly—I nearly—”

Michael hugged her again. “I understand. Did you have fun?”

Miriam dug her nose into his shoulder. “No. Better than that.”

Wenjing gave her a once-over. Miriam could feel it through her shawl. She drew away from Michael.

“I’m frozen half to death,” she said, “can we continue this in the lodge?”

Michael grinned and the air around her grew a few degrees warmer. “Of course.”

The fireplace was big enough to hold a dining table and hosted a fire made of whole trees. Above the mantel were a collection of tusks from various elephant antecessors. The floor was a cave bear skin rug. Michael fetched her a hot toddy and took her boots off, easing her feet into a bucket of hot water. The other hunters trickled in, comparing kills, slapping each other on the back. Wenjing was the last to enter, face inscrutable as always.

Miriam’s heart beat faster as he approached. He wouldn’t. He didn’t.

“I believe you mislaid this,” he said politely, and dropped a mud-crusted red beret into her foot bath.

Miriam whitened.

Wenjing gave her a long look before turning and walking away.

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Amy on the Train

Amy was thirteen, and had been thirteen for a very long time. The train car she sat in was an overnighter, meant for people who couldn’t afford a sleeper car. The night dimmed the windows to opacity, so Amy used the glass as a mirror to watch the compartment door open. A nicely-dressed man and three children hustled in, chattering before they even got the door open. There was a teenage girl, a boy with glasses who looked a few years younger, and a little red-faced boy in a sailor suit who immediately set to kicking the seat opposite his.

“Jack,” said the man without much heat or conviction, “stop that.”

The boy made no such motion. The family immediately spread out, capturing so much of the seating Amy was forced to press against the window. Her breath didn’t steam the glass.

“I don’t see why we couldn’t get a sleeper,” said the girl, tossing her hair. It was quite voluminous and chased with ribbons so that it looked almost like a cake.

“Amelia, dear, I have explained this,” said the father, not looking up from his papers, “we will be in at your grandmother’s stop within a few hours. It would be a waste of money.”

“But we have to share compartments with any dirty old stranger!”

Not once did any of them look over at Amy. The little boy bored with kicking the seat and began bumping the makeshift desk his father held on his lap with his knees.

“Jack, stop that,” said the man, pulling away. Jack turned his heels up to his sister Amelia, who gave him a withering glare.

“Father,” said the glasses-wearing boy, “Amelia’s right, to a certain degree. These compartments are made to fit four comfortably. By rights we shouldn’t have to share.”

“I suppose you’re right, Thomas.” The father turned to Amy, not looking at her but in a direction that happened to hold her. “Would you mind getting out, terribly? We’re all very tired.”

Amy looked the group over once. “Yes, I see.”

The older boy slammed the door behind her with a loud snap. Amy stepped slightly to the side and leaned her back against the wall, listening.

“Well I don’t see why I have to mind the smelly little beast, he’s old enough to—”

“Amelia, please stop arguing with me. If you don’t learn now what will you do when you have children?”

“I’ll have nannies and maids to look after them. Really, daddy. You think I’m as malleable as that silly girl who trespassed in our car. Dirty little thing. She’s probably one of those war orphans.”

“Now Amelia, children can’t help how they appear. It’s the fault of the parents, most of the time.”

“So who can we blame that hair on, eh Ames?”

“Shut up, Thomas.”

Amy crept off. Not to another compartment, but to a quiet place where she could conceal herself. She had boarded without a ticket or bags, because she was not traveling but looking. And the family had looked quite promising.

 

11:30. The little boy Jack had escaped the compartment, or been allowed to escape to give his father some measure of peace. He throttled the external door like a pet bird’s neck, kicking the bottom panel with his heels. Amy watched the scenery pass by indifferently, gauging their speed. They were on a flat plain. Soon there would be a hill.

“Shouldn’t you be in bed?” she asked.

The boy jumped, then his face turned mean when he saw she wasn’t an adult. He sneered at her and resumed kicking at the door. Amy watched the restraining bolt as it rattled in its hinge. Too much force would make it vibrate free.

“I don’t believe that’s safe.”

“I don’t believe that’s safe,” the boy repeated back in a mocking tone. He reared back and gave a mighty kick, edging the bolt a millimeter. Amy could feel as the train slowed, starting up an incline.

“Are you traveling on holiday? Perhaps we’re going the same way.”

The boy kicked faster, eyes gleaming from his red face like bits of bottle glass. The bolt did not move.

“Does your sister have any friends where she’s going? Perhaps we could become acquainted.”

At mention of his sister, the boy doubled his force. Amy could feel their assent slowing. Soon they would be at the peak. The bolt was only halfway loose.

“Shall I tell your father you’re here?”

Shall I tell your father you’re here?” Kick. Throttle. Kick. The train was beginning to pick up speed.

“I only worry, because you’ve been left unsupervised.”

“Stupid girl.” Kick. Throttle. The train slipped faster down the incline.

“Something terrible could happen to a small child left alone.”

“Ugly girl.” Kick. Throttle. They were nearing the end of the slope, hitting the pinnacle of the train’s speed.

“I don’t believe this door is safe at all,’ Amy said, letting her eyes flick to the bolt. Jack followed her gaze and crowed in triumph. He yanked the bolt back and gave a final kick. The door bowed open from the force of the kick and Jack went with it, disappearing into the rushing night air. As the door bounced back, Amy caught it and latched it securely again.

 

12am. On her way down the hall, Amy ran into the older boy, Thomas, waiting in her path with a smug expression.

“Are you lost?” he asked.

“Not particularly,” Amy said. Thomas tapped the thin book in his hands.

“I’ve been reading the train regulations. Father says I’m to take over his business one day, so I read everything I get my hands on.”

“How nice for you,” Amy said.

“It says that those without fare can be charged with up to five years in debtor’s prison.” Thomas tapped the book again. “Tell me, do you have train fare?”

Amy slowly looked him up and down.

“I read all sorts of books,” Thomas bragged, having departed the real world for his own head, “read one recently that revealed the poorer classes have no choice but to continue to be poor. Bad breeding, you see. I’m sure you can’t help your lowbrow criminal behavior, but it is my duty as a paragon of good breeding to correct you. I’m going to tell the conductor and he’s going to throw you off the train. Seeing as you’re a lady, he might be tempted to go easy. But I will remind him of the rules and regulations.” Thomas tapped the book again.

Amy smiled at him, so long that he began to shift uneasily.

“Tell me,” she said suddenly, “have you ever read the riddle of the Sphinx?”

The boy colored slightly. Apparently he had skimped on the classics.

“The sphinx of greek legend sat outside a city and asked a riddle of every passer-by. If any of them got it wrong, she would tear them to pieces. Want to hear a riddle?” Amy asked sweetly.

Thomas turned slightly pale. The train ride had become bumpy, the lamps in the corridor were flickering.

Amy smiled wide and white as she leaned forward until their faces were inches apart.

“What’s black. And white. And red all over?” she whispered.

Thomas trembled. “The financial times?”

Amy laughed as the lights flickered and then went out. “No,” she said.

 

1 in the morning. The girl Amelia was in the lavatory, petting her own face listlessly. She gave a little scream when she turned around and found Amy standing very close behind her.

“You startled me,” she said, fanning her face.

Amy clustered in, preventing her from turning back to the mirror. “Oh dear. How sorry I must be. What’s keeping you up so late?”

Amelia donned a haughty look. “Looking for my horrid little brothers. You haven’t seen either of them?”

“Not recently” Amy said truthfully.

Amelia sighed and then daintily pushed her out of the way. “Then you’re of no use to me.”

“Amelia.”

The girl stopped part-way down the hall. Amy had shut the lavatory door, so the car was lit only by what little light bled from outside.

“Do you know my name is Amy? It’s quite like yours, isn’t it?”

Amelia wrinkled her nose. “Amy is cheap substitute for a real name. Is it short for something?”

“Several things.”

Amelia shook her head, which made her hair flap like a circus tent in a breeze. “A cheap name for gutter trash. I told daddy to book us a sleeper, nothing good comes from interacting with common folk.”

“Wait.”

Amelia’s hand was on the door latch. Amy walked closer, pitching her voice so that Amelia had to lean forward to hear it.

“Your brothers are dead. They died while under your watch.”

Amelia, disturbed, took her hand off the latch. As Amy drew closer, she backed away.

“There was nothing you could have done to prevent it,” Amy whispered, drawing her feet along the carpet so her steps made no sound, “but more importantly, nothing you did prevented it. You feel that your father’s money affords you a comfortable measure of safety? But that measure means nothing if it’s not enforced.”

Amy paced, slowly chasing her to the end of the car.

“You feel that if anything happened to you, it would raise a mighty furor,” Amy continued, “and you think that guards against misfortune. But it doesn’t. Collaring the burglar does not fill the safe back up. Damming the river does not un-drown the flooded. An ounce of prevention is worth much more than a pound of cure, wouldn’t you agree Ames?”

Amelia’s back hit the connecting door. She pressed her lips together so they turned white.

“Daddy,” she whispered, barely loud enough that Amy heard her over the train.

“He’s not here,” Amy said, petting her head like one would a dog, “but I am.”

 

2 and a bit. Amy closed the compartment door snugly behind her. The man(she never had gotten his name, had she?) dozed in the corner. Amy shook his arm, looking deeply into his eyes as he woke.

“Your children are dead,” she said.

“Yes, I see,” he said back.

“You no longer have any reason to travel to your original destination.”

“Yes.”

“Shall you accompany me, then? I’m getting off at the city.”

“Seems only logical,” the man said.

 

The passengers disembarked around five in the morning, which was still dark at this time of year. Amy stepped confidently off the train, looking like a girl who knew exactly where she was and where she was going. Still, she waited until a blank-eyed gentleman stepped off the train, linking arms with her so that it looked like he was escorting her and not the other way around.

Because Amy was thirteen, and would continue to be thirteen for the foreseeable future.

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