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2016
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ChiZine Publications
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Series:
The Imaginarium
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Praise for the Imaginarium series



“Crammed with short stories, poetry and longer stories that range from fantasy, horror, supernatural and science fiction, [Imaginarium 2012] is the sort of book you would have on your keeper shelf.”

			—SF Site


“The strength of speculative fiction is often that it’s so delightfully self-aware, testing the boundaries of tradition and re-imagining old tropes. Imaginarium 4 really shines when its stories get a little weird and question their own nature. These are the stories that are offered up shaken, not stirred, from some bottom-of-the-ocean sleep: they are having out-of-body experiences and living not just as stories but as answers to the question “What if?””

			—Strange Horizons





Previous Imaginarium Editions


		 			Imaginarium 2012: Edited by Sandra Kasturi & Halli Villegas

				Imaginarium 2013: Edited by Samantha Beiko & Sandra Kasturi

				Imaginarium 3: Edited by Sandra Kasturi & Helen Marshall





			FIRST EDITION

			Imaginarium 4: The Best Canadian Speculative Writing © 2016 ChiZine Publications

Introduction © 2016 by Margaret Atwood

Cover artwork © 2016 by Kailey Lang

Cover design © 2016 by Samantha Beiko

Interior design © 2016 Jared Shapiro & Samantha Beiko

			All Rights Reserved.

			This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are either a product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

			 				 					 					 				 				 					 						 							Distributed in Canada by

Publishers Group Canada

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Toronto, Ontario, M6J 2S1

Toll Free: 800-747-8147

e-mail: info@pgcbooks.ca

						 						 							Distributed in the U.S. by

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				 			 			CHIZINE PUBLICATIONS

Toronto, Canada

www.chizinepub.com

info@chizinepub.com

			; Edited by Sandra Kasturi & Jerome Stueart

Proofread by Megan Kearns



We acknowledge the support of the Canada Council for the Arts which last year invested $20.1 million in writing and publishing throughout Canada.



Published with the generous assistance of the Ontario Arts Council.





Table of Contents



Introduction: Don’t Be Alarmed

			Margaret Atwood


The Exorcist: A Love Story

			David Nickle


Tushuguan

			Eric Choi


The Lark, The Peat, The Star, and Our Time

			Neile Graham


Bamboozled

			Kelley Armstrong


From Stone and Bone, From Earth and Sky

			A.C. Wise


Left Foot, Right

			Nalo Hopkinson


Self-Portrait as Bilbo Baggins

			Ada Hoffmann


The Inn of the Seven Blessings

			Matthew Hughes


The Full Lazenby

			Jeremy Butler


The God of Lost Things

			Neile Graham


The Beat that Billie Bore

			Lisa L. Hannett


Outside Heavenly

			Rio Youers


Brains, Brains, Brains

			Puneet Dutt


The Colour of Paradox

			A.M. Dellamonica


A Wish from a Bone

			Gemma Files


A Spell for Rebuilding Your Lover Out of Snow

			Peter Chiykowski


Man in Blue Overcoat

			Silvia Moreno-Garcia


What You Couldn’t Leave Behind

			Matthew Johnson


Return to Bear Creek

			Louisa Howerow


The Lonely Sea in the Sky

			Amal El-Mohtar


Jelly and the D-Machine

			Suzanne Church


We Be Naked

			Zsuzsi Gartner


The Parable of the Supervillain

			Ada Hoffmann


The Tun

			Trevor Shikaze


Aversions

			Helen Marshall


Wendigo Nights

			Siobhan Carroll


The Smut Story

			Greg Bechtel


Witch I

			Courtney Bates-Hardy


Hollywood North

			Michael Libling


Witch II

			Courtney Bates-Hardy


Sideshow

			Catherine MacLeod


The Marotte

			Tony Pi


The Snows of Yesteryear

			Jean-Louis Trudel


The Mermaid at Sea World

			Ada Hoffmann


The Trial of the Beekeeper

			Shivaun Hoad


The Man Who Sold the Moon

			Cory Doctorow


Hereditary Delusions

			Rhonda Parrish


Demoted

			Kate Story


You’re A Winner!

			Matt Moore


Chant for Summer Darkness in Northwest Climes

			Neile Graham


Charlemagne and Florent

			Ranylt Richildis


Standard Deviant

			Holly Schofield


Kafka’s Notebooks

			Jocko Benoit


Giants

			Peter Watts


Death and the Girl from Pi Delta Zeta

			Helen Marshall


The Perfect Library

			David Clink


Honourable Mentions


Copyright Acknowledgements


About the Editors





Introduction: Don’t Be Alarmed


			Margaret Atwood





It’s my very great pleasure to be your Imaginarium Introducer. Thank you for inviting me. I will now take off my ordinary head and replace it with the other one. Don’t be alarmed.

			Since we’re told the development of software that enables the automatic generation of texts that sound more or less human is well underway—many corporate reports and political speeches are already generated by robotic thinking, one way or another—I may well be the last of your meatbrain introducers. On the other hand, those who write the kinds of stories you will find herein are a quirky bunch, and might possibly prefer to retain the shambling, uneven services of protein-and-starch-enabled troglodytes such as I, rather than switch over to the more modern and efficient digital model of introducer. A robot, for instance, would probably not use a word such as “herein.” Or even a word such as “troglodyte.” Nor would it have an extra head. But we shall see.

			The overall label chosen by the Imaginarium editors as a designation for the wordwares set forth herein is “Speculative Fiction,” a term that has been much disputed. I myself have used it to designate the kind of dystopia/utopia that takes place on Planet Earth, somewhere near now, with technology and conditions that are not only plausible but possible, as opposed to fantasy—not possible, may include magic and dragons—and science fiction (spaceships, planets far, far away and in another time, may contain talking squid or other such intelligent life forms). I got my knuckles rapped by Ursula K. Le Guin for the talking squid reference, as she thought it was just me being a disrespectful smarty-pants about scifi. But I protest! I grew up with talking squid, and am very fond of them, and see nothing inherently ridiculous about them, and would be loath to see them banished from Outer Space. (Though maybe it was the talking cabbages she objected to. But surely there is nothing wrong with that. Such a being would only look like a cabbage anyway; as witness the concretely imagined space fictions of China Miéville.)

			Point being that terminology such as “speculative fiction” can snarl us up, especially in the Imaginarium playing field, which is extensive. Inside these pages you may find some “speculative fiction” in my terms—something along the lines of Jules Verne’s submarine epic, Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, or Orwell’s 1984, or Huxley’s Brave New World—but you will find many other sorts of things as well: stories that might be called “science fiction,” stories that might be called “horror,” stories that mix and match their memes and forms, stories that don’t fit any easy definition. Bruce Sterling invented the term “slipstream” for fiction that didn’t fit neatly onto labelled bookstore shelves, but was very odd and gave you an uncanny feeling, uncanny being derived from canny, and thus from “ken,” to know. We do get very creeped out by things and especially by people that resemble things and people we know, but that are not really them—like the false mother with button eyes in Neil Gaiman’s classic kids’ novel, Coraline.

			The most frightening thing in the old stories about people who were stolen away by fairies was not the fairyland they were taken to. It was their return to our world, and their discovery that they’d been away not for days but for decades, and that their former home was dark and vacant, and that all those they had known and loved were long since dead. Though to be really uncanny, the strange home would need to contain some people that were almost dead ringers for their relatives, but not quite; which is why Ray Bradbury’s story about the Martians who create an illusion of the American hometown of the astronauts they intend to kill is so effective. We have dreams like that, from which we wake up shaking.

			I grew up reading everything, and everything included pulp scifi and horror magazines and comic books, and Ray Bradbury and John Wyndham, and otherworld stories like Conan Doyle’s The Lost World, and slipstream fictions like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and The Island of Dr. Moreau, and horror classics like Dracula and Frankenstein and Sheridan LeFanu’s Carmilla, and the hair-raising fables of M.R. James, and ghost classics like Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw and “The Jolly Corner” and Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, and, yes, Wuthering Heights, which is a ghost story among other things; and more, much more. This kind of reading in no way diminished my appreciation for Pride and Prejudice and Thomas Hardy and Hemingway and Katherine Mansfield. It is a fallacy that most readers confine themselves to limited corners of the world of stories—they “only read” detective stories, they “only read” realism. It’s another fallacy that “highbrow” readers read only “highbrow” fiction, and so forth. There may be some readers who are like that; we must pity them, and light candles for them, and slip copies of Imaginarium into their mailboxes. But young readers in particular, if left untethered, are likely to explore hither and thither in the world of books, as, indeed, they explore hither and thither in life.

			What you’re holding in your hand is “speculative,” then, whatever may be meant by that term. Let’s call these stories and poems “wonder tales.” They contain wonders, and they cause you to wonder. You wonder many things. Could it happen? What would things be like if it did? Or, for the more visceral kind of tale: what’s under the bed?


Now for the Canadian part.

			Many years ago, in 1977—long before there was an Imaginarium, or much “genre” fiction of any sort written by Canadians, or even an internet—I wrote a piece called “Canadian Monsters: Some Aspects of the Supernatural in Canadian Fiction.” It was for a volume titled The Canadian Imagination, and it was published in the United States. I was making a case for the Canadian Imagination not being as bland and lacking in lurid layers of weirdness as the literary commentators of that time would have us believe. I managed to come up with a wendigo, and a mystical coyote-god, and a mythical yellow-haired Indian who disappears into the earth, and a magician or two, and some wabenos, and assorted ghostly odds and ends, not to mention a woman who has an affair with a bear, thus doing Goldilocks one better.

			In these pursuits, I was following up not only on some of my own earlier preferences, but also on a hint dropped by Robertson Davies, who said, “I know the dark folkways of my people,” and who pointed out that Canada was led for many years by Mackenzie King, a man considered featureless to the point of nullity, but who all the time, as his diaries later revealed, was taking political advice from the spirit of his dead mother as incarnated in his dog. “Mackenzie King rules Canada because he is himself the embodiment of Canada,” says a Davies character in The Manticore. “Cold and cautious on the outside . . . But inside a mass of intuition and dark intimations.” How pleased Davies would have been to see Imaginarium! He loved to tell ghost stories at Christmas (which is a good time for them, as the solstice door opens on the 21st of December, allowing entities to pass from the unseen world to the seen).


We now have a proliferation of “speculative fiction” writers of many different kinds in Canada. Boundaries dissolve, memes are exchanged, literary genetic material turns up in curious hybrids. And writing “genre” is no longer accepted as an excuse for not writing well.

			Still, lingering doubts remain in the minds of some. Can writing that is transparently so much fun possibly be good for you, let alone good literature? Reading such tales is an undeniable pleasure, but must it always be a guilty one? Put simply: why is it that human beings like stories about the strange, the macabre, the unknown, the uncanny, the impossible? Because they obviously do.

			Wayne Grady’s charming anthology, Night: A Literary Companion, contains a selection by A. Roger Ekirch entitled “Navigating the Nightscape,” taken from his book, At Day’s Close, a history of nighttime. In this chapter, Ekirch first describes the universal fear of darkness that arises in children around the age of two. He continues: “In early modern times, youthful fears, in parents’ eyes, often served a salutary purpose. Rather than soothe children’s anxieties, adults routinely reinforced them through tales of the supernatural. . . .” This reinforcing has two functions. First, there were places and situations that were genuinely dangerous, and children needed to be warned against them. But second, through such tales, children could learn to face their own exaggerated terrors, and overcome them.

			Is that why we like these stories of the dark, and of the dark side of the universe, and of the dark sides of ourselves? So we can face down the darkness—all kinds of darkness—at least in our imaginations? Or perhaps such tales bear witness to a very simple truth, though it’s one we seldom consider: most of the universe is unknown.

			But read on. And enjoy. As you will.


Now I will resume my ordinary head. Don’t be alarmed.





The Exorcist: A Love Story


			David Nickle



McGill smoked in the yard. They wouldn’t let him smoke inside. There was a baby there after all. McGill said he understood, but he seemed pissed off about it. He stood by the barbecue, squinting at the tree line, calculating the hour, tapping ashes through the grill top. They were pissed off about that. The next round of burgers would have a subtle flavour of McGill and probably the round after those too.

			But they would put up with it. Oh yes.

			They would bloody well put up with it.


One of them had gone to high school with McGill. But she didn’t know him then. He had a bit of acne trouble, did McGill—quite a bit. A Biblical plague of pimples, one might say. Horrific, seeping boils from his forehead down to his neck. One over his lip, round and gleaming and red, like a billiard ball.

			An outgoing personality, some athletic talent, a fancy car—any one of these might have saved him. But McGill had none of that. So there he was.

			She had no idea that McGill went to the same school. She got his name through another chain of acquaintances. When she contacted him, he did not offer up any hint of their own acquaintance with one another. He did not let the recognition creep into his voice.

			It would be generous to say that McGill handled the interview professionally. Because McGill has never been much of a professional.

			I wish I could have heard his side of it. But I could guess—McGill and I go way back.

			“We’re not Catholic,” she’d said, and paused, and laughed nervously. “You’re not either.” Pause. “Yes, Mr. McGill, I guess that is something we have in common.” Another pause. “He’s six months old. Born February 12.” Pause. “Yes. Aquarius.” What’s your sign, baby? Really? “So explain to me how this non-demon—erm, non-denominational business works.” And a long silence, as McGill went through the litany:

			First, he must come by and meet the child. What if it’s not a child? It’s always a child, dear. Of course, if it happens to be Gran or Uncle Terry who’s afflicted . . . well, McGill would try and adapt. But one way or another, in the course of a conversation, he would try and draw it out. McGill explains this part of his process as very simple—non-invasive—but he’s not being completely honest.

			He spends a lot of time staring, so intensely that sometimes he brings about tears. He mumbles nonsense words in a made-up language. He takes a photograph using a specially treated lens. And finally, under the parents’ supervision, he lays a hand on the child’s skull—leaving the impression with their parents that he is reading the aura. He is not. He is looking for a soft spot, a tiny hole in the skull—often no bigger than a baby’s thumb. That is really the only thing that he’s looking for in that first visit. Because if it’s there . . . well, that’s how we get in, isn’t it?

			And that is also how he can tell. If he jams his finger into it—with just the right force—well, even if we’re reticent to start it up again with old McGill, we have no choice. It starts the real conversation.

			And once that gets going, things become, shall we say, fluid.


McGill really needed three cigarettes, given everything—but well-brought-up lad that he is, he cut himself off at just one.

			“You finally ready?” Her man was a testy one. He had never met McGill, had attended a different high school, had no earthly reason to suspect. And yet.

			“Sure,” said McGill. He started to meet his eyes, but didn’t get far. McGill looking her man in the eye would have been a challenge. And McGill hadn’t the balls for that.

			She smiled uneasily, and shared a glance with her man. Don’t fuck this up, darling, that glance said. He was not easy about bringing McGill, or anyone outside the family physician’s circle, in on what he called “the postpartum thing.” He didn’t entirely buy in to what was going on. And in one sense, he couldn’t be blamed. When the door in the basement slammed again and again, seemingly of its own accord, he was already on his way to an early meeting. He had been asleep the whole night, when the business with the hall mirror had transpired. He was at work the day the seven crows got into the nursery, and pecked one another to death as baby laughed.

			He was always away, out of earshot, when baby spoke.

			“My wife tells me that you’re going to go have a conversation now,” he said. McGill nodded.

			“That’s the first part.”

			He huffed. “Well, good luck. Little Simon’s not too verbal. Except around Shelly here. That right, babe?”

			“I understand,” said McGill. “Maybe I’ll have better luck.”

			“Right. Do they all talk to you?”

			“Often they do, that’s right.” McGill stepped toward the nursery. Her man stepped into his way, but didn’t stop him either.

			“You’re for real,” he said.

			“He’s for real,” she said. “Please, Dave, just let him do his work.”

			McGill wanted to say something reassuring—he knew that he should. Couldn’t quite muster it, though; he just hunched his shoulders in half a shrug, smiled in what amounted to an ambiguous shrug, and made another try for the nursery. The man put his hand on McGill’s shoulder.

			“Hang on there, buddy. This is my boy in there. You won’t touch him, will you?”

			“I’ll put my hand on his head,” said McGill. “No more than that.”

			(McGill stammered when he said that. But it’s mean to mimic a stammer.)

			“No more than that.” The man put his hand on McGill’s arm—around McGill’s arm, really. “You’re gonna wash that hand, then, brother.”

			“Dave!”

			“Shelly.” He kept hold of McGill. His tone was one that he thought was reasonable, but that she had told him more than once was a tone that was “goddamn scary.” Which was all right, she said; it made her feel safe, she said. Protected.

			His grip tightened on McGill’s arm. “This is bullshit.”

			McGill drew in a breath. His arm was hurting, and he was doing his best not to show it. But he wasn’t doing it very well, because she pointed out that he was hurting McGill and shamed him into letting go.

			“It’s all right,” McGill lied. “Your husband—Dave’s right. That is his boy in there, and it’s your boy too. If parents are okay with it, it’s better if it’s just me and the baby. But we can do this with one or both of you in there too. Or I could come back—”

			“No!” she said, too loudly, and then, too softly: “Don’t go, Mr. McGill.”

			Did McGill’s heart melt then? Did more than a decade of hope, of prayer, of dirty, dirty moments alone in his bed at the break of dawn . . . did all that draw together now, at the broken, pleading tone of her voice? Oh, how could it not? Was this not his dream, here before him, made flesh?

			If it didn’t melt—might it not soon shatter?

			“I’ll go in with you,” she said. “Dave will wait here in the kitchen. Right, Dave?”

			“I don’t—”

			“Dave. You promised.”

			And he had, and he knew it, and so that was that.


When I arrived, the nursery was a cheery space. She had painted the walls little-boy blue, and dangled a mobile of friendly looking farm animals. The changing table was an antique in a tawdry way; it had been a little sheet-metal desk, just the size for a typewriter, an “In” box and a sheaf of paper. This she had painted a bright yellow, covered in terrycloth and stacked diapers and baby powder and a box of wipes. There was a toy box, filled with bric-a-brac from the baby shower, and a chest of drawers, stuffed with more shower swag: jumpers and bonnets and a little denim jacket for baby to wear, eventually. Adorable.

			McGill saw none of that.

			They had stripped the place bare, but for the bassinet. Nothing sharp, nothing heavy. Nothing that could suffocate, and nothing flammable.

			“That’s him,” he said, peering in.

			“That’s my baby.” She said it jauntily enough but she finished on the edge of bitter laughter.

			All business for the moment, McGill took no notice of it.

			He reached into his coat, and pulled out his Pentax, with its smeary lens and etched-in F-stops. He snapped two pictures through that vile instrument, and set it down on the floor. “Don’t touch it,” he said as she leaned to get it. “Please.”

			“All right,” she said.

			He leaned farther over the edge and stared at me. I didn’t look away. He shifted down to his knees and calmed his breathing. He blinked when I blinked. He breathed when I breathed. This went on for a while. How long? I can’t honestly say; this part of things, it’s easy to lose track of time, looking into the pale infinity of McGill’s baby-blues. . . .

			A girl could lose herself in there, don’t you think?

			“Aka Manah,” he said finally.

			“What?” She had been hovering by the door, and now she came closer. He just shook his head and continued—“Vassago . . . Furtur . . . Focalor . . .”—shaking his head again after each name.

			“Simon,” she said.

			“I know,” said McGill. “That’s the boy’s name. Looking for the . . . other one’s name.”

			“Do you just guess?”

			“Something like that,” said McGill. “Vepar. Mammon . . . Räum?”

			“Okay.”

			“Not that,” said McGill, “not him. Are you?”

			No, McGill, I’m not Räum.

			“Ah,” he said, and leaned away from the bassinet. He rubbed his hands together, and blew air out through his cheeks. Just what he was afraid of.

			“Gremory.”

			Aha!

			“He snapped his fingers!”

			“Did he?” said McGill. He was looking away.

			“He did,” she said. “Like a little Dean Martin.” She thought about that for a second. “Is it Gremory? Is that the right name?”

			“Think so.”

			A long breath. “How’d you guess it so fast?”

			“Lucky.” McGill came back and looked at me. His lips were drawn thin. His eyelids were too. He reached out with his right hand, fingers spread. They trembled as they rested on the baby’s skull.

			“What’re you going to do?” she asked, and he brought his left forefinger to his lips. “Okay, I’ll hush,” she said, and his right hand tightened, at the little finger and thumb, like forceps behind the ears. His middle finger danced over the back of the skull, until it stopped, and dithered. It didn’t last long, though; like a wedding ring spinning round a sink drain, it soon disappeared inside.

			I had him to the second knuckle.


What does McGill see? What I wouldn’t give to know. I know what I see; his eyelids, flickering like a hummingbird’s wings, his mouth hanging open as he mumbles commands, sweat running down the side of his nose, staining his collar. But him? When he looks on me, does he see an obsidian woman, naked and shining, breasts suckling six crows, wormy cunny dripping amarone-scented menses into the deathly loam of Golgotha? Does he cower at my magnificent obscenity?

			Does he wish for his mummy?

			I cannot tell. All the times we have met, he has never said.


“You need to leave the baby.”

			No, McGill. I don’t.

			He said the baby’s name.

			That means shit to me, McGill.

			“It is the owner of that form.”

			No. It’s nothing. Unbaptized. Belongs to me.

			“You got no claim. You are Gremory. You trespass here. Go on back to where you dwell.”

			I am who I am. I dwell where I am and I am here. You go back.

			“I cast you out. I cast you out.” He said some of those words that his mummy taught him. I let him go on for a dozen of them before I said anything.

			Your heart’s not in it, McGill. What’s the matter now?

			“You got to leave.” He uttered another stanza.

			You have to want it. You don’t want it, do you?

			“Git. Go on.” He paused. His hand gripped the baby’s skull tighter. If it were a baseball, he’d have been making ready to throw a curve. “Fuck out of here, you.”

			You’re in such a hurry, McGill. You’re missing steps; really, you’re far from your usual professional self. Your mother would never have stood for that kind of thing. Never mind the language.

			Oh, that got him. McGill’s mother . . . what of her, hey? I hear she has been out of the game for some eight years now. She taught him everything he knows, and now everything she knows rests in McGill’s unlovely skull. And she and her knowledge were formidable. Truly. None of us could best her like the Alzheimer’s did. Now . . . she wouldn’t know herself reflected in a mirror, would she?

			He told me to fuck right off and called me hell-spawn. He told me I had “no fucking right.” Me? I squirted moist feces into my diaper and chortled.

			Mothers get them every time.

			Eventually he ran himself down. I waited to make sure before continuing.

			You haven’t asked me what I want.

			“You want to leave.”

			You haven’t asked me why I chose this one.

			He paused. “Why did you choose this one?”

			The answer to both is the same. McGill, I want you to be happy.

			His pause stretched into a silence. I let it sit. I didn’t wish to insult McGill’s intelligence.

			She was so lovely, still; it had been less than a decade since he’d first seen her in Grade 10’s History of Europe class. She was a mother now, a wife—but did her skin still not glow with the light of youth? She was a freckle-faced girl then, and those freckles had faded over the years, as they do sometimes. But wasn’t her mouth just as thick with girlish eroticism now, as it was as he watched her laugh by her locker in the G-section downstairs—the locker that McGill made a point of passing by, even when his next class was at the far end of the school. . . .

			“You knew,” he said finally.

			I knew. You wear it on your sleeve, McGill.

			And of course, that was when he gathered the last of his strength. “You can’t tempt me,” he said. “Begone!”

			Oh, McGill. I know I can’t tempt you. That’s why I think I’ll stay here for now. You begone, for a little while. Think about what I said.


He staggered back, ectoplasm dribbling from his middle finger to make a stain down his pant leg, that had she not been standing there, watching, staring, working it out herself, he would never have been able to explain.

			The baby started to cry. I did nothing to calm it.

			Its mother looked at it in wonder. Did she think she could tell—that her child was returned to her, that the miraculous laying-on-of-hands by McGill had done the trick? Oh, why even ask the question. Of course she did. A mother can tell when her child is wailing, and when something else—some otherworldly thing, perhaps—is manipulating its tiny larynx, making it gargle out blasphemes that only she can hear. . . .

			She scooped the child up in her arms, and held it close. Its tears subsided, and it began to coo. McGill, meanwhile, steadied himself against the doorjamb. He wasn’t in a position to do much else; I’d cast him out, good and proper. A man doesn’t just walk away from something like that.

			She looked at McGill, and he looked back at her. There was something different in her look, and McGill picked up on it. A hint of recognition, perhaps? Gratitude, certainly. Yes, certainly that—McGill could see it in her eye.

			After all, I had put it there.

			He drew a shaking breath, and nodded, and might have summoned the will to say something. He scarcely had a chance to, though, because as he straightened, her husband was in the doorway with him. He stood staring at her, hands in unconscious fists—a question in his eye too.

			“He’s back,” she said, wonderingly. “Simon’s back, Dave. Whatever he did—worked.”

			Her husband looked at McGill, at that trouser-stain, at McGill’s face, pale and drawn.

			“That so, mister?” he asked.

			McGill had not yet recovered his words. He gulped air and nodded. Her husband clapped him on the shoulder, and strode into the nursery. He leaned over me—over the baby—and reached out with a tentative finger, to touch its chin. She let him take the baby. It clung to him, as I cooed in his ear.

			“It’s . . . too soon,” said McGill finally, and gasped again, “to say . . . for

sure.”


Eventually, even a specimen like McGill gets his wind back.

			When he did, she saw him to the door, while her husband put the baby down. They paused in the kitchen. She put a hand on his arm. This time, McGill didn’t try to worm away. She said something softly to him. A question, yes. Do I know you, from elsewhere? I feel . . . I don’t know, it’s silly.

			That’s the question. I can tell by the way he shuffled, and looked away before looking back.

			She glanced away too—to the nursery, where she saw that her husband was properly distracted. Then she looked back, and leaned closer, and whispered something else.

			McGill nodded, and looked to the nursery himself where he saw the baby, head at its father’s shoulder, looking right back at him.

			“Keep in touch, Mrs. Reesor,” he said, finally loud enough for all to hear. “In case . . . you know.”

			She looked at him with such intensity then—turning away only as her husband turned.

			“So he’s fine?” he said.

			McGill nodded, and chin down, headed for the door.

			“I gave him the cheque,” she said when McGill had left, and her husband tried to look her in the eye.

			“As long as you’re okay now,” he said.


Oh, she was fine. Better than the day that I arrived in that house, that’s for certain. She had been such a melancholic one, that day that I crawled from the dishwater, and slithered on my belly across the kitchen and up and around her leg, to the breast where the infant fussed and suckled. He would not sleep. He kicked and squalled. She was chained to him, that’s how she felt. And when I entered him, through the pinhole door in his skull, and had him bite down—he made her shriek. Might she’ve killed him? Mothers do, sometimes. Their hearts harden. They see the lay of the barren years ahead, serving hand and foot to their child, and its father now grown cold to the touch.

			How many times have I been called up by a neglected husband who’d found my name in a grimoire, and begged me on the strength of my reputation, to irrigate the drying slits of their fading brides?

			Ah, it would have been the easiest thing for me, to turn her pearl as she looked on her husband—to whisper and suggest—to indicate and to remind her, of what joys the old hunger brings.

			But that wasn’t why I came to that house. So I held my peace, until McGill came. His aching hunger was nothing I had to tweak.

			All I had to do was lay her before him, and reaching into her as McGill reached into me, tweak her heart so, and set her on her course.


Her husband made her dinner.

			It involved shrimp and couscous and dried fruit, some curry flakes and fish stock to round it out. He understood it to be a favourite of hers. She did nothing to correct the misapprehension. She washed up, and saw to the baby, and joined him in bed. When he asked if everything was all right, she said yes. When he touched her, she made a noise that he understood to mean no.

			In the deep night, I awoke to find her over my crib.

			The next morning, after he left for work, she took me out for the second outdoor excursion since I arrived. As she had that first time, she installed me in a great blue stroller, with thick rubber tires, multiple straps to hold me tight and a pouch behind my head filled with the mysterious tools of the mothering trade. It was warmer out of doors than that first time. She wore a red-and-white cotton dress; I, a tiny blue terrycloth jumper.

			We made it quite a way—well past the bank building at the corner of the street where things had gone so badly that last time—along past a filling station—and across another street, to a park with a playground and some benches in the shade of thick, blossoming maple trees. She stopped in front of one of these benches, and looked at me and it, and finally she did sit, and turned the stroller around so that I faced her, and she looked at me again—and it dawned on me that she wasn’t looking at me . . . she was searching for me, in the empty stare of her little son’s eye.

			Searching for some pretext, perhaps, to call?


Six days she searched in vain. On the morning of the seventh, she picked up the phone.

			I could tell it was not McGill she called by her bright and easy tone. “Hey, you!” she said, and after a pause, “Yeah, things are better now.” And another pause, as the phone chirped brightly in her ear. “I know!” And more chirping. “Yeah! Right?” She nodded, her smile brighter than I believe I’d ever seen it. “So it’s okay if I come? You sure?”

			And finally: “Great!”

			She switched off her phone and leaned over the bassinet.

			“Guess where we’re going, Simon?” she cooed. “Can you say ‘Brannigan’s’?”

			The infant blew a snot bubble out its nose and giggled. I kept my peace.


Brannigan’s was a little pub a few blocks past the park. Nice and murky inside, it suited my tastes. But we didn’t stay there long. She manoeuvred the stroller around the bar to a door to a back patio. There, in the combined shelter of a maple tree and a great red umbrella, gathered two more strollers, and the mothers who pushed them.

			“Hey, Shell!” shouted one of the mothers, standing up with her own baby in one arm and extending the other for a hug. The baby—a big bruiser, flabby and blond like its mother—regarded me with dull hostility from its perch. The other infant—a little girl, judging by the pink—stayed in her stroller seat for the second hug and would not meet my eye. Her mother was a wiry one, with enormous white teeth. She smelled of lawn cuttings.

			“How you been?” that one asked, and without leaving time for an answer, turned to me. “Look at him! He’s so big!”

			“Keep feeding ’em, bound to happen.”

			The two mothers laughed and laughed, and the flabby one pointed to an empty chair. She sat there, after tucking my stroller in between her and the blond baby’s stroller. Its mother set the infant back into its seat, and launched into a description of how big it was, and then a long talk about nutrition. I stopped paying attention.

			Her baby wouldn’t look away.

			It sat high in its seat, fidgeting with a little blue pacifier in its hands. It stared at me, an expression that might have been indignation on its face. I looked away, and when I looked back, it hadn’t moved.

			Did it see what she could not? That hidden in the soft skull of this one, was a being older than any here? That McGill’s exorcism had failed, and the thing inside was waiting like a barely irradiated tumour to re-emerge?

			Did it think there was something it could do about that?

			The waitress arrived, and it disappeared for a moment behind her muscular legs and tartan skirt as she took lunch orders. It took longer than it needed to, of course.

			“Hey,” she said when the waitress finally stepped away, “you remember a kid called McGill?”

			“Who?” said the skinny one, but the other waved a hand over the table: “McGill. From high school?” and the skinny one said, “Oh, with the . . .” and waved her hand over her face.

			She nodded, reaching down to ruffle my hair. “With the acne,” she said, “that’s him.”

			“Weird kid.”

			“Yeah, wasn’t he always wearing black—”

			“—kind of goth—”

			“—but without the style.”

			“Right.”

			“I thought he was going to shoot the school up.”

			“Columbine our asses.”

			“Would have served us right.”

			“Shell!”

			“Well, we were total bitches.”

			“Speak for yourself, Shelly.”

			“Yeah. Speak for yourself. So what about McGill?”

			“He—came back into my life,” she said. In spite of myself, I grinned and bounced in my seat. She withdrew her hand, brought it into her lap.

			“Ooo,” said the flabby one, “that’s creepy.”

			“Not really. We hired him. To help with Simon.”

			“What, as a babysitter?”

			She shook her head. “He’s . . . a therapist now. Really, you wouldn’t recognize him. From before. His skin’s cleared up. He dresses better. And it’s like . . . he’s found purpose.”

			“A therapist? For Simon? Shell, is he okay?”

			“He’s fine now. McGill fixed him right up.”

			“Wow. McGill. A therapist.”

			She laughed, a little too lightly. “A behavioural therapist, yeah. Little Simon here . . . he was a handful.”

			I cooed. Under the table, she crossed her ankles, and uncrossed them. She was fidgeting—the way they do as the feelings take hold. She took a sip from a glass of spring water.

			“I gotta say, I’m surprised to hear that about McGill. He was such a mess back then.”

			“Teenage boys are a mess. They grow out of it.”

			“He had a lot to grow out of. Did you ever see his mom?”

			“I don’t remember.”

			“Yeah, you wouldn’t have seen her much. You never went on that trip to Ottawa.”

			“I had the flu. Did McGill’s mother go on that?”

			“Not exactly. McGill was going to go. He made it all the way to the bus. He had this suit jacket, and this crazy old trunk with him that was way too big. He got it into the luggage compartment somehow—I think Mr. Evans had to help him with it. And just before we were going to leave, she pulls up.”

			“His mother?”

			“His mother. Bat-shit crazy. She was driving this old Lincoln or something like it. Pulled it up right in front of the bus, so it was blocked in. She got out—huge woman. Not fat—but big like a linebacker. Her hair was white—she wore a big black fake-fur coat like it was winter. She climbed onto the bus, and pointed at McGill, and she yelled: ‘I Revoke my Permission! Return my Son to me!’”

			“Jesus.”

			“Poor McGill.”

			“Yeah, well he knew what was good for him. He got up and said he couldn’t go to Ottawa any more, and got off the bus. Into his mom’s car. Didn’t even stop to get his trunk out of the luggage area. Had to collect it when we got back.”

			“That sucks.”

			“Yeah. But you know something, Shell?” The flabby blonde leaned across the table. “I think he was kind of relieved.”

			“How’s that?”

			“You weren’t there,” she said. “And it was pretty easy to tell . . . McGill was more interested in you than he was in the Houses of Parliament.”

			Quiet for just a moment, before the three of them broke into a braying round of laughter. The waitress returned with some salads, drinks, and a plate of fried yams. Trickier job this time; she had to sneak in between strollers and the two rattan chairs that’d been displaced to make room for us. She didn’t quite pull it off, and several pieces of cutlery slid off her tray. She promised to get more, bent to grab the ones she could find, and hurried off back into the bar.

			“I barely knew he was alive,” she said.

			“Well, he sure knew you were alive.”

			“Stop fucking—messing with Shelly’s head. Stop messing with her head.”

			“One for the swear jar?”

			“No, really. He was a sweet, quiet kid. With, you know, unfortunate skin. If he had a crush on Shelly—well, everybody had a crush on Shelly. Look—” the skinny one with the teeth pointed at her with her fork “—you’re making her blush.”

			She laughed. “Well, he’s turned out all right now.”

			“It’s nice to know that boys turn into men, eh?”

			“To boys turning into men!” The blonde one raised a glass of spring water, and the others joined the toast. I let myself giggle and clap, and looked right at her as she glanced down. Things were going well, I thought. And at first, I had no idea why her face fell the way it did.

			She nearly dropped her glass as she bent and lunged over me, filling my face for a moment with her sweet-smelling tit. To my side, there was a scream—and I looked over just in time to see her pluck a gleaming blade from the big baby’s little hand.

			He had gotten out of his stroller. He had crawled around beneath the table unseen—by any of us—and he had located a steak-knife the waitress had dropped. And then, the little worm . . . he found his legs.

			He had carried the knife three glorious steps, from his mother’s feet to the edge of my stroller. It appeared as though the fat little tyke had been about to plunge the knife deep into my left eye.


This kind of event is rare; usually, it happens with a family pet . . . dogs, to be sure, but more perilously, cats. They’ve a fine sense of smell, they do. And that’s why, when I arrive in a new vessel, that’s the first thing I do.

			I make sure the cat is dead.


But you know all about that.

			The first time McGill and I met after all was over the carcass of a cat.

			Remember that place? Squalid little rooms near the very top of a crumbling old apartment building filled with whores and addicts and murderers. Cheap wallpaper peeling off the entry hall. No doors on the kitchen cabinets. No father either. What was it that McGill’s mother had said when she first visited the little girl and her overwhelmed, demon-beset mother?

			Slattern?

			It hadn’t gone over well with the mother. I watched from the back of the sofa, where I made the brat I inhabited squat and growl. What, she wanted to know, did McGill’s mother have over her, to pass judgement? Could McGill’s mother keep a man any better, who didn’t want to stay? By the empty divot in her ring finger, she guessed not. That hit a nerve, it did. And so it was that she turned on her heel and strode out of there, and left the poor woman to me.

			McGill was the one who finally faced me. His mother had no idea. He came up the next day, on his own, in uniform: a tatty old Nirvana T-shirt, too-loose black jeans and that pustule of a face. He wasn’t ready. That was obvious. But for whatever reason, he didn’t feel right about disturbing his mother with the contrite phone message, begging her to return because My God, it’s killed the cat!

			I’d done more than that. I’d smashed windows in the bedroom, caved in the ceiling over the door to the balcony, overturned the sofa and caused the television tube to implode. I caused the slattern’s neighbour, a man who carried a gun in his trouser-band and dabbled in the narcotics trade to, if not love, then lust for her in an overly solicitous way.

			I was, I admit, not pleased when McGill’s mother left in such a rage. I wanted her back. To finish things.

			McGill found me in the bathtub. The cat, who had been the child’s dearest friend, was there too—laid out in the doorframe, its head turned hard back, so it looked at its own tail. I saw to it that it wasn’t moved. I wanted McGill’s mother to see it. So she’d know who she was dealing with.

			It had a different effect on McGill. He didn’t know me, then. His mother had left him at home when she met me at the schoolhouse. He’d waited in the car when we danced at the shopping plaza, and she vanquished me again. She obviously didn’t tell him about me—about the things I could do, to the world . . . to the hearts and heads of men and women. How formidable I was.

			He saw that cat, and he saw me, in the tub smeared with feces and vomit and blood, and there was no fear. All that came up was anger.

			“Let that little girl go, you fuckin’ cocksucker,” he said, and made fists. The camera he’d brought fell to the floor. His eyes filled with tears. And like a stupid, tantruming child, he stepped up to the fight.


That was the first time we met, and the only time I came close to besting McGill. I don’t know how his mother taught him . . . what talent he might have simply inherited . . . But even new to the game, blinded by stupid rage . . .

			He was a chip off the block.


She was giddy when we got home. She set my stroller in the living room, in front of the TV, and I sat there alone for a time, watching some colourful cartoon show about dinosaurs and science, while she scoured the basement.

			She returned with a stack of slim, hard-covered books. Four of them. She settled on the floor in front of the sofa. Opened one of them. The inside flaps were covered in scribbles, notes like a greeting card. She pored over those for a few minutes, then flipped through the pages. It was filled with photographs.

			“This is a yearbook, baby,” she said, as she noticed me looking over her shoulder. She scudded nearer me, and flipped through it. “This is Mummy when she was a lot younger,” she said, stopping at a page filled with faces. Hers grinned out at me. She flipped a few more pages, and there she was, among a crowd of other girls wearing shorts and tank-tops. “This was the girl’s track and field team. That’s Mummy.” And finally, she flipped back, to another of those face-filled pages. There, stuck in the middle like a dried piece of chewing gum, was McGill’s grinning face.

			“And this is the man who brought you back, baby.”

			I grinned and waved my hands, and she laughed.

			“He’s our hero,” she said, and when I giggled in what I was sure then to be my triumph, she said, “Yes he is. I wish he was here too.”


One more day—an awful, interminable day, filled with tears and silences after questions and accusations—and we were in the car.

			She had been fiddling around on her computer, looking things up, putting it together in the morning, after he left, silent and stiff-backed. Oh, how it must have stung him, those words: You didn’t do anything to help! McGill saved our baby, and the best you could do was sulk!

			He hadn’t said anything to her, but he came to see me in the night, clutching the waistband of his pajama bottoms, damp-eyed and snuffling, declaring his love for me. “I hope you’ll remember that, no matter what happens,” he said, and touched my cheek.

			She strapped me into the child seat behind her. It offered a terrible view, and that made me fussy. After all these years, I must admit that I was acutely curious as to where precisely McGill bedded down at night. In all of our transactions, the McGill family only ever came to me. Never had I had occasion or opportunity to play the visitor.

			We sped along blacktop. She braked three times—the last time hard enough to leave skid-marks—before the surface under the wheels grew rougher, and gravel popped up against the underside. The brilliant blue sky above me disappeared behind a canopy of leaves, and soon after that, the car slowed and lurched to one side as she negotiated a narrow turn, onto an even rougher surface. And then we came to a stop and she climbed out.

			“Wish me luck,” she said, and kissed my forehead before unbuckling me and lifting me out of the seat, and the car.

			We were in a small clearing in the middle of the woods. In the middle of that, was a house that I could only guess belonged to McGill.

			It was made of wood, its walls shingled in rough, dark cedar, and happily, it had but a single storey to it. The shadow of the trees all around kept grass from growing, but there had been some attempt at a little garden underneath the living room window. The nose of an old Lincoln poked out from underneath a carport. There was a metal shed behind that.

			Although it was the middle of summer, the space here had a chill to it. I fussed, and she held me close, and she fussed too, in her way. She took a step toward the house, and another one—then stepped back. She looked back at the car, and shook her head, and said, “damn” in almost a sob. She might have gotten into it, too, if she’d been left to her devices.

			But—lucky her—she was rescued.

			“Mrs. Reesor?”

			McGill stood at the door. He was wearing an old bathrobe. A cigarette dangled between thumb and forefinger, and he flicked ash away onto the steps. His hair stood up on one side—no doubt where he’d slept.

			She turned to him, holding me close. “Hey, you,” she said.

			“How—” he frowned. “How did you find me here?”

			“Online,” she said. “I looked up your address online.”

			“It’s not under my name.”

			“It’s not. But it is under your mother’s.”

			He didn’t say anything to that.

			“Look,” she said finally. “I’m sorry for coming here like this. I . . . I hoped it would be okay, but maybe it’s not.”

			“It’s okay.” He dropped the cigarette to the steps, and put it out with the heel of one bare foot. “Is Simon all right?”

			She nodded. “He’s fine.” And she held me up, jiggling me like a carnival prize. I giggled appropriately. “See?”

			“He looks good.” McGill set his head forward and squinted at her. “Really good. So you’re here . . . why?”

			She giggled, inappropriately. She let her bangs fall over her eyes. She smiled at him through them. “I remember now,” she said softly.

			McGill’s mouth hung open stupidly for a second. “Mrs. Reesor?”

			“Shelly,” she said, and with that, found her courage. She strode across the stony yard, and up the steps, and holding me in one arm, wrapped an arm around his neck, and drew him into a kiss.

			It wouldn’t be as simple as that soon enough. But for the moment, it was.


McGill’s house stank of old smoke and urine. The living room was a shadowy place. Dishes from a recent meal spread across a coffee table. Random-seeming pieces of clothing, yellowing paperbacks and empty bottles and cans clotted its shadowed corners. A large box of adult diapers sat near the doorway to the kitchen. She noticed none of it, of course—love sees, or smells, only what it wishes—but McGill was still ashamed.

			“I . . . apologize for the state of things,” he said.

			“It’s okay,” she said. “You probably can’t afford a housekeeper. You don’t charge enough for what you do.”

			“It’s not right.”

			“You saved my baby. It’s right to charge fairly for that.”

			Of course, that was not what McGill meant. He meant that this wasn’t right, that there was no natural way that she would arrive at his door, and kiss him so . . .

			How was it for him these past days? I can only guess. When he watched her sashay past his locker those years ago, didn’t he dream of this day? When he could grow into and harness the talents of his mother, and use them to rescue that pale princess—to possess her, even as he drove the demons from her? Then, might he not have slipped his finger into the moist caverns of her mind, and communed with her as does my kind? And in so doing, truly possess her?

			Shameful thoughts, for men of McGill’s avocation. Shameful, but once entertained, so difficult to dismiss.

			“Don’t worry,” she said, standing near him now. Her heart was pounding—I could feel it as she held me to her breast. “I’m not going to try and give you more money. Come on with me.”

			And she led us all, down a hallway, past a shut door—where the stink of piss seemed strongest—and through an open door.

			McGill whispered an apology for the state of his bedroom. She told him she didn’t care—that she remembered now . . . that she wished she could undo the years and that she should apologize for not being able to.

			There was an ache, she said, a hollowness in her that she had dismissed as ennui, until she saw him again. McGill might have said: that is how it feels, when a demon tweaks a heart, and turns it to another direction. He might have made fists, and turned to me, and said, “Let that woman go, you fuckin’ cocksucker.”

			But our McGill . . . in spite of his vow, in spite of his avocation . . . in spite of his other responsibilities . . . he said nothing.

			She took the pillows stacked at one end of his sagging bed, and made a small nest for me on the floor beside the bed.

			Then she whispered an apology to me, and set me in it. “Mummy’s right here,” she said, and turned away.

			And McGill . . . precious McGill . . . your McGill, he took her in his arms, and ran his hands over the soft skin of her waist, the curve of her buttock. For that moment, he forgot everything . . . transformed forever, by his awful dream made flesh.


And so, I crawled.

			It was a strain—the infant wasn’t really ready for crawling. But such as we know nothing so well as the bending of sinew, the diversion of will. And off I went—out the door, back to the hallway, past the lavatory, and to your door. It opened for me without protest: any wards McGill had ever bothered to place on it had long ago faded.

			You smell of piss. I wonder if you know that? I wonder how much you know, locked in that skull of yours? I can see you now, in your old hospital bed.

			I can see the leather straps that McGill uses to keep you still . . . to keep you from harming yourself, or burning the place down, or harming him. You could still do a lot of harm—you were always a big girl. I remember how you held down that boy I took, down south, as you slid your thick thumb into his skull and sent me back to hell.

			Even then you stank.

			Are you in hell now? Trapped in that confused swamp of shit that fills your skull these days? Is there any hope you have left?

			I’m on your bed now. You can feel me clambering over your fat leg. It’s not easy—I’m pushing this little one to its limits to make my way up your torso, over your sagging, spent teats, to your face—your rheumy, drooping eyes.

			I want to make sure that you know. McGill is lost. You have no son. Really, as I’ve proven, you never fully did.

			Now, my dear old friend, all the world is only you, and I.





			Eric Choi



Fénshū carefully studied the boy with the book.

			The youth looked to be in his early teens, but it was difficult to tell. Contemporary Běiměizhōu children always looked much older than their years. This one resembled a skeleton, more bone than flesh, with grimy bug-bitten skin, laddered ribs, twig-thin arms and legs, and bloodied, swollen feet. His face was gaunt, topped by a tangled, greasy mess of long black hair. He also stank, reeking like an oily, salty fish.

			Fénshū looked into the boy’s green eyes, and while it was impossible to get a sense of the boy’s soul, she could discern a certain fire—perhaps of intelligence, certainly of strength.

			“Nǐ jiào shén ma míng zì?” she asked. The boy was silent.

			“Nǐ míngbái ma?”

			Still no response.

			“What is your name?” she said at last in English.

			“Wu,” the boy said. His yellowish-brown teeth were chipped and twisted.

			“Hello Wu, I am Dr. Fénshū Zhèng,” she continued. “I am . . . an historical archaeologist. Do you know what that is?”

			The boy fell silent again.

			“How are you, Wu?”

			The boy did not answer, looking instead at his inquisitor and returning the question. “How are you?”

			Definitely intelligence. The boy’s verbal language skills, at least in English, were excellent. Fénshū was quite impressed.

			“I am sixty years old!” Fénshū cackled in a high-pitched voice, trying to smile.

			Wu simply stared.

			“Do you have something for me?”

			Wu nodded, his calloused hands reverently handing over the book.

			“Thank you, Wu.” Fénshū gestured to the floor of the tent. “Please, sit down. My colleague will be back for you shortly.”

			Wu hesitated for a moment, then sat on the ground as instructed.

			Fénshū pushed her spectacles up the bridge of her nose and examined the book. It was a brownish-black hardcover, about sixteen by twenty-four centimetres and perhaps three centimetres thick, enclosed within a clear sealable plastic bag of the type that had once been a common means of storing food in pre-Fall Běiměizhōu civilization. The book was in fairly good condition, except for a serrated gash that penetrated the pages from cover to cover. Also inside the plastic bag, collected mostly along the spine, were clumps of a white powdery residue. She held the book up to her nose and sniffed. Through the punctured plastic, it smelled faintly of camphor and another odd odour she could not immediately identify.

			“Where did this come from?” Fénshū asked. “Where did you find this?”

			The boy looked up.

			“Where did you find this?” she repeated.

			“In the old shit and piss!”


Over and over again, Wu’s mother would ask him the same thing.

			“What do you do if you see a Jiangshi?”

			“Run,” Wu would answer.

			“Why?”

			Sometimes Wu would hesitate, and his mother would insist.

			“Come on. Why?” she would repeat.

			“Because a Jiangshi will hurt you, kill you, eat you.”


The road upon which Wu walked was wrinkled and cracked like the skin of an old man. Weeds and wild flowers sprouted from every fissure, heaving apart the decaying asphalt. With slow certainty over the long years since the Fall, the pavement was being reduced to the constituent stone, gravel and bitumen from which it had been formed.

			For much of this day, Wu had been fortunate in his solitude. It was not to last.

			Wu stopped in his tracks and squinted. In the far distance, a Jiangshi came into view. He recognized the brainfrizzed monster immediately, a stained and filthy figure slowly shambling in his direction with that distinctive jerky, unsteady gait.

			He didn’t think he had been spotted, but he wasn’t about to stick around to find out.

			Wu ran off the road, through the tall grasses, into the trees. Twigs and branches lashed his body and stones cut his bare feet, but neither slowed his flight. Deeper and deeper into the woods he ran, until his lungs heaved and his heart felt like it would burst from his chest.

			Finally, he stopped . . . and stared.

			Before him was a ruin of the old world. A house had once stood here, but it had long ago collapsed and been assimilated by the living woods. Only the chimney remained standing, but Wu could see that its bricks were dropping and breaking, little by little, as the mortar crumbled and powdered. Some kind of vine grew everywhere, climbing through the broken windows and up the bars and grillwork.

			Wu circled about the stone tower, fascinated.

			There was a shallow hill across from the remnants of the foundation. He walked to the hill and climbed. Suddenly, he stopped and looked down.

			He had run over something.

			Tracing back a few steps, he spotted a patch of dead leaves and twigs collected within a rough square. Resting on his knees, Wu swept away the detritus with his hands. A grey slab with a square metal handle imbedded on top appeared before him.

			Wu stared in wonder, uncertain of what to do next. Finally, he reached down and grasped the handle with his small, bony hands.

			Nothing happened.

			He extended his legs and dug in his feet for leverage, pulling harder with all his strength, but still it did not budge. Exhausted, he released the handle and fell backwards, his legs splayed.

			Something moved in the bushes.

			Wu turned in the direction of the rustling noise, his eyes wide. He pulled a slingshot out of his pouch, his other hand frantically sweeping the ground for a suitable projectile. Grasping a stone, he loaded the pocket and pulled back the bands with trembling hands.

			The leaves rustled again.

			Wu drew back the bands a little further, then released.


The happiest times were when his mother told him stories about the things from before, the old world prior to the Fall.

			“People flew?”

			“Yes. In flying machines. Anywhere in the world, without fear.”

			And she would tell him about the music that came from a box smaller than your hand, and the heat and light and clean water that came with a touch, and the pictures that moved, and the buildings as high as mountains, and the places with piles of fresh food, and the artificial stars that let people talk to one another across the world, and most wonderful of all, the bound volumes upon whose pages were recorded the knowledge and beauty of Běiměizhōu civilization at its height.

			“Books.”

			“Books,” Wu repeated.


The boy emerged from the bushes a split second after Wu launched the projectile. Eyes wide, he instinctively ducked. The stone whizzed over his head, striking the trunk of a tree just behind him.

			“What are you doing?” shouted the boy indignantly.

			Wu grabbed another stone and reloaded his slingshot, drawing back the band and keeping it trained on the stranger.

			The pale, skinny boy looked to be about Wu’s age. With the exception of his short curly brown hair, Wu could have been looking at a reflection.

			“What are you doing?” Wu challenged. He studied the stranger. The boy, though as emaciated as he was, did not slur his words, and he stood firm without the jerky twitches that were the stigmata of those who consumed the flesh of others.

			“Are you a Jiangshi?” Wu asked rhetorically.

			“Are you a Jiangshi?” the boy echoed in retort.

			Slowly, Wu lowered his slingshot. “I am Wu.”

			“I’m Vancott,” the boy said. He pointed at the crumbling chimney. “What’s that ruin?”

			Vancott walked up the shallow hill to join Wu, and the boys found themselves looking at the slab and handle in the ground. They took hold of the handle together and managed to lift the grey slab. Putting the lid aside, they went to the opening and peered down into the darkness.

			Wu squinted. “Something’s in there!”

			A very faint odour wafted out of the opening. Vancott sniffed.

			Recognition came to both of them at the same time.

			“Stupid!” Vancott shoved Wu, sending him sprawling to the ground. “This is—”

			“Old shit and piss,” Wu said. He remembered his mother’s words. “Skeptic tank.”

			The two boys sat silently, pondering their next move.

			Suddenly, a flock of dark birds took flight from the trees, swirling noisily into the sky. Wu and Vancott turned.

			There was a rustling in the bushes.

			Vancott grabbed Wu’s arm. “I saw a Jiangshi today!”

			Wu shot Vancott a fearful glance. “I saw a Jiangshi too,” he hissed. “On the road.”

			The boys looked about, knowing they were badly exposed atop the shallow hill. At once, the same desperate idea occurred to both. They got up quickly.

			Vancott slid the concrete lid partially over the opening, while Wu gathered up some dead leaves and twigs and piled them on top. It wasn’t much in the way of camouflage, but it was better than nothing. Vancott squeezed inside first, followed by Wu. With great effort, they managed to get the lid almost closed except for a thin sliver.

			Wu peered through the narrow slit, and before long saw the monster stumble out of the woods. The gangly, twitching figure, no longer really human, was the same one Wu had seen on the road.

			Quietly, the boys drew the lid fully closed, and darkness enveloped them.


Wu and Vancott waited silently in the musty dark, for a sound, a voice, a sign . . . something.

			They were sitting on a pile of flat rectangular objects. Wu felt around with his hands. The objects were all roughly the same shape but in different sizes. He remembered seeing something when they first opened the lid, but without light he could do nothing to identify the objects even whilst sitting amongst them.

			Breathing was difficult, and the boys were getting sleepy. The stale air would not sustain them much longer.

			Cautiously, they pushed the lid and opened up a small crack to look around. The brief inrush of fresh air hit their lungs with an almost icy sharpness, and it took all of Wu’s willpower to not dash out right away.

			Finally, they pushed the lid all the way open and climbed out. Wu moved to follow, but on sudden impulse grabbed one of the rectangular objects on his way up. Outside, the boys collapsed onto the sweet long grass of the shallow hill, lying on their backs, lungs heaving as they gulped fresh air, their mouths open and trembling like those of fish out of water.

			After a long moment of rest, Wu rolled onto his side and saw the flat rectangular object lying on the grass. He sat up and took it with both hands, bringing it up to his eyes.

			Wu stared at the object for a moment before recognizing it. “A book!”

			“What?” Vancott asked.

			Wu turned the book about, examining it from all sides.

			It was brownish-black in colour and sealed in a transparent pouch, probably made of the material that Wu’s mother had called plastic. A hard seam ran along one side. Wu examined the seam and eventually figured out how to pull the pouch open. There was a faint medicinal smell, and clumps of a white powder fell out.

			With deliberate care, Wu reverently extracted the book from the plastic pouch. There were symbols on the cover that he recognized as words, but like all contemporary teenagers he didn’t read. He slowly flipped through the yellowish pages, each dense with indecipherable text.

			“What is it?” Vancott asked again.

			“A book,” Wu repeated. “From the old world, before the Fall.”

			Vancott’s eyes widened.

			Wu was illiterate, not stupid. He had the sense to know, on an instinctive level, the importance of what he and Vancott had found. Somebody had done this on purpose, creating an improvised library—a túshūguăn—either before or shortly after the Fall, in the hope that someone like Wu might find the treasure.

			Wu put the book back into the pouch and resealed it. The boys covered up the hatch again with leaves and twigs before setting off. They would need to find a person who could read.


Wu and Vancott wandered aimlessly for days. Sometimes, they would walk for hours in one direction when Vancott would suddenly change his mind, and then they would turn about and retrace their steps. On other occasions, they seemed to be walking in circles. Wu began to doubt whether Vancott had any idea where they were going.

			Beside him, Wu heard Vancott’s stomach growl. His companion always seemed to be hungry. For such a thin little guy, he ate an awful lot. Not for the first time, Wu wondered how Vancott had managed to survive on his own for this long.

			A feral rakunk bounded out of some shrubbery a short distance ahead. Vancott had seen the black masked fluffy tailed animal first, putting out his hand to stop Wu and signaling for silence. If nothing else, Wu was grateful for Vancott’s sharp eyes. His companion may eat too much food, but at least he was good at spotting it.

			Wu slowly knelt to pick up a rock, quietly pulling out his slingshot at the same time. He steadied himself, drew back the band, took aim, and fired.

			Killing the game turned out to be the easy part. Starting the fire to cook it proved much more difficult. It had rained earlier in the day, and the boys had trouble finding dry grass and leaves for tinder. More than once, Wu saw Vancott eyeing the book. He pulled it closer.

			Night had fallen by the time they got the fire going and cooked the rakunk. In the chilly dark, Wu and Vancott managed to find some comfort in the warming flames and meat. When they had finished eating, they lay on their backs and gazed up at the twinkling tapestry of stars above. Wu thought about his mother’s stories of people in flying machines, soaring amongst the clouds and even out to the dark heavens beyond.

			Wu closed his eyes, and as sleep came, the book slipped quietly from his arms and fell to the ground.


He dreamed.

			It was a strange dream, the kind Wu knew was only a dream even while he was dreaming it, because he was seeing things that he could not possibly have known or remembered. He was in a vast cavern, within which were rows upon rows of shelves, each packed end-to-end with books. The volumes were all of different sizes, thicknesses and colours, with incomprehensible words along the spines. There must have been hundreds, if not thousands of books, stretching further into the depths of the cavern than Wu could see.

			He reached out to a book at random and tried to take it off the shelf. The book came out about two-thirds of the way and then abruptly jammed.

			Wu pulled harder, to no effect. He grabbed the book with both hands and yanked with all his strength.

			The entire bookshelf began to fall towards him.

			Wu let go of the book and stepped back. The bookshelf was still falling.

			Walking backwards, he tried to quicken his pace. He looked up, and saw that the bookshelf appeared to be of infinite height, stretching upwards without end. There was nothing he could do to avoid getting crushed.

			The bookshelf came down.

			There was a scream.

			Wu woke with a start. The scream had not been his.

			Beside the smoldering remnants of the fire, Vancott was locked in a desperate struggle with a monster. His attacker had pinned him to the ground. Vancott squirmed, kicked, and punched, frantically trying to free himself. The Jiangshi was as emaciated as the boys, but he was taller and armed with two lethal weapons—madness and a knife.

			Wu was frozen in momentary fear. He tried to yell, but no words came.

			The Jiangshi brought the knife down—once, twice . . .

			Before there was a third stroke, Wu sprang forth and launched himself at the monster. He ran into the Jiangshi’s back and pounded the smelly, sore-ridden flesh with both fists. The Jiangshi grunted and took a swing, sending Wu sprawling to the ground.

			Lying on his back, Wu looked up at the looming monster’s gnarled, weathered face with its long, filthy tangled hair, twitching unfocused eyes and rotting yellow-brown teeth. Wu backed away on his elbows like a crab.

			He hit something on the ground.

			The Jiangshi raised his knife to strike.

			Wu grabbed the rectangular object and brought it up with both hands. The knife plunged into the book, piercing it from cover to cover, its point protruding out the back.

			Grunting, the Jiangshi twisted and pulled on the knife, finally extracting it from the book but stumbling backwards a few steps.

			Wu threw the damaged book at the Jiangshi, hitting the monster on the side of the head. Already off balance, the Jiangshi fell onto his haunches. It didn’t take long for the monster to get up again, but the delay gave Wu just enough time to load his slingshot and fire.

			The mote scored a direct hit into the Jiangshi’s left eye.

			Screaming and clutching the bleeding eye with both hands, the Jiangshi dropped to the ground. The monster rolled side to side, shrieking and twitching uncontrollably as blood and vitreous fluid oozed between his fingers.

			Wu got up and walked over to where Vancott’s lifeless body lay in a pool of his own blood. Vancott was on his back, mouth and eyes still wide open. In silence, Wu simply stared at his dead companion with a lack of emotion that would have shocked his pre-Fall ancestors. He left Vancott where he lay, picked up the book, and simply walked away.

			Behind him, the Jiangshi’s screams went on and on, the cries of a wounded animal. Wu kept walking, book in hand, until he could not hear the inhuman noises anymore.


“I am sorry about your friend,” Fénshū said when Wu finished his story.

			Wu said nothing more.

			“You are a brave young man,” she continued, “and extremely lucky as well. We are the first expedition to work in the Vancouver ruins for years, and it is only possible because we were able afford the armed guards to protect us from the Jiangshis.” She put the book on the ground. “Did you see anything else down in that . . . um, ‘skeptic’ tank?”

			The boy fell unhelpfully silent, once again.

			A young woman entered the tent, carrying a small bundle of clothes.

			Fénshū pointed. “Wu, please go with my colleague. She will give you some food. You need to rest, and when you are better, we will need you to take us back to this place you found. Do you understand?”

			Wu nodded.

			“Gēn wǒ lái,” the young woman said, taking Wu’s hand and leading him out of the tent.

			Fénshū waited a moment, then picked up the book and took it outside. Near the centre of the expedition encampment, a small fire burned. She walked towards the campfire, and without a second thought, casually tossed the book into the flames.

			The plastic wrap melted quickly, evaporating like water on a hot plate. Then the flames attacked the book itself, consuming it from the outside edges in. The words on the cover—A Novel, Oryx and Crake, Margaret Atwood—were legible for a few moments until the dust jacket blackened and crumbled away. Acrid smoke billowed briefly when the white residue ignited, causing Fénshū to cough and blink. The spine was the last to endure, but eventually it too yielded to the flames.

			When the book had been reduced to ash, Fénshū returned to the tent and settled back in her chair. Pre-Fall Běiměizhōu texts were of academic interest and had some nominal value on the antiquities market, but her backers in Běijīng and Clavius had little interest in them. Excavating the Vancouver II site was a costly and very risky venture. Her expedition would need to find something of much greater value, and soon. The boy would take them back to the other site. For her sake—and to some degree, the boy’s—she truly hoped that artifacts of real value were still out there, somewhere in the ruins of the old shit and piss.





The Lark, The Peat, The Star, and Our Time


			Neile Graham


			And a lark flashed a needle across the west

			And we spread a thousand peats

			Between one summer star

			And the black chaos of fire at the earth’s centre.

			—George Mackay Brown

			It was the year of no summer,

			when it hid under banks of rain, ducked

			behind fog, dashed across the road

			in front of us, rolled under a car and out

			the other side, its face a flash in a side mirror,

			flirting for our notice, as though a test

			of our worthiness. We weren’t. Worthy that is.

			We gave up on it, threw ourselves on autumn’s

			mercies, deciding the metallic hint of frost was best.

			And a lark flashed a needle across the west.

			We froze in place. It was the sign we needed:

			a sunrise bird, sewing the sky, sowing winter

			like a seed in our hearts where it might sprout

			and flourish, thicken and keep us chilled

			through all the long and glorious nights.

			We weren’t heroes, we were cheats:

			we thought we were big enough to revel in it.

			We thought we were brave and brazen.

			We weren’t. We huddled in our solstice retreats

			And we spread a thousand peats



to warm our hearts. And they did. We admitted it.

			So spring took pity on us. Raised its head above

			our bleak horizon. Thawed playgrounds into blossoming.

			Warmed us into fields worth plowing, planting,

			all the works of hope, made us truly brave.

			Rained and shone into us. Our courages are

			more humble now, but no less than the first leaf

			tenderly unfurling, spreading its fingers to reach

			the first glinting bar of summer sun, just that far

			Between one summer star



and the next, the next, and the next, how we

			learned to flourish, to abound, to be unbound,

			to stop counting each minute and to hold our hands

			out to the sun, letting it dry and freckle our skins.

			Allowing ourselves touch the minutes like ball bearings

			we could let fall one by one, so we could enter

			each day and leave it tasted, noted, changed

			by our passage. Enjoy that our explorations were

			no longer those of children, time was our mentor

			And the black chaos of fire at the earth’s centre.





Bamboozled


			Kelley Armstrong



Dakota Territory, 1877


“Are you sure she can do it?” the boy asked Nate as he watered their trio of horses.

			Lily could have pointed out that she was standing right beside him and had both a name and ears. But she knew the boy—Will—wasn’t trying to be rude; he was simply like most of the young men they recruited: rarely set foot off his family homestead, rarely seen womenfolk other than his momma and sisters. And frontier mommas and sisters did not look like Lily.

			Even now, as Will talked about her, he couldn’t look her way—as if merely to glimpse her might damn his mortal soul. Lily could point out that his soul ought to be a lot more worried about the thieving that was coming, but to a boy like Will, that was part of life. Pretty girls with painted faces were not.

			Lily’s face was, of course, not painted right now. She was dressed in breeches, boots, and an overcoat, with her hair pushed up under her hat. It didn’t matter. Will still wouldn’t look.

			“Can she do it?” he asked again. “I mean no offense—”

			“Then stop giving it,” Nate growled.

			Lily noticed a cloud of dust cresting the rise beside them. “I do believe my wardrobe has arrived.”

			Emmett and Levi rode up, their horses run hard, flanks heaving. They had arranged to meet at midday and the sun had passed its zenith a while back.

			“Had some difficulties,” Emmett said as he nudged his horse to water.

			“That it?” Nate pointed at the wrapped parcel behind Levi’s saddle. When Levi nodded, Nate took it and said to Lily, “Come on.”


Lily let Nate lead her behind an outcropping of rock. Emmett and Levi knew better than to sneak a look while she was dressing, and Lily was quite certain Will wouldn’t dare, but Nate believed in coppering his bets. Otherwise, things would get messy. Nate didn’t take kindly to trespass of any sort.

			“We cutting the boy loose after the job?” he asked as they walked.

			She nodded. “That’s best. It’s not working out. You promised Wilcox you’d try him. You did.”

			Nate grunted and handed her the parcel. As she untied it, she snuck a peek at him. Six feet tall. Well built. Rough featured, but not in a way that was displeasing, at least not to her. What she noticed most, though, was what she’d noticed about Nate from the start: the uncanny way he carried himself. When he moved, he was like a catamount on the prowl. Yet most of the time he wasn’t moving at all, standing so still he seemed a statue, his gaze scanning the landscape.

			It wasn’t natural, that complete stillness, that constant alertness. She wondered why others never thought it peculiar. She had right from that first time, seeing him across the saloon. He’d noticed her, too, but not in the way men usually did. He’d only stared, no expression, no reaction. Yet his gaze hadn’t left her as she’d taken a table with the rest of her acting troupe.

			The trouble had begun later that evening, when a gambler made the mistake of equating actresses with whores. It was a common misconception. Lily couldn’t even properly blame the man, considering that her two companions had already accepted paid invitations. The acting life required a second income; Lily made hers with light fingers.

			She’d told the gambler she wasn’t for sale, but he’d thought she was only haggling. That was when Nate had come over. He’d asked the gambler to let Lily be. When the man laughed, Nate fixed him with a stare as cold as a Nebraska winter. It hadn’t taken long for the gambler’s nerve to crack. He’d gone for his Colt; Nate broke his arm. Just like that. Lily saw the gambler reach for his piece and then he was screaming like a banshee, his arm snapped, bone sticking out, blood gushing. That’s when she realized Nate wasn’t quite human.

			Now Nate turned his gaze on Lily as she undressed. Lily was used to men staring at her. They’d been doing it since she was fourteen, which was when she discovered it was so much easier to pick a man’s pocket if he was gaping at her bosom. Nate wasn’t like that. He gazed at her with what seemed like his usual expressionless stare, but Lily had learned to read deeper, and what she saw there now was hunger. He didn’t move, though, not until she adjusted the dress and twirled around.

			“How do I look?” she asked.

			Nate growled an answer and, before she could blink, he was on her, one hand behind her head, the other at her rear as he pulled her into a deep kiss.

			“I really ought not to have bothered putting on the dress,” she said as she broke for air.

			Nate chuckled and hoisted her onto the nearby rocks.


They rode into town after sundown. That was best. There were many variations on their game, but in each they’d learned the value of a late approach. By morning, the town would be buzzing with rumours of the party that arrived under the cover of night. A slip of a girl, bundled in an overcoat but riding a fine horse and wearing a fine dress. A proper young lady, escorted by a surly uncle and three young gunmen.

			As the day passed, the story grew. The girl’s uncle kept her under close watch at the inn, but they’d had to venture out, as she was in need of a new dress. And what a pretty thing she was, with yellow hair, green eyes, and the sweetest French accent.

			The girl was shy, the uncle taciturn, and no one in town learned much from either, but the young fellows with them were far more talkative, especially after a drink or two. They said the girl came from New Orleans. Her parents were in California, expanding their empire. Shipping or railroad, no one was quite sure which, but they were powerfully flush. A suitor waited in California, too. A rich man. Very old, nearing sixty. The uncle was taking the girl to her parents and her fiancé and her new life. They’d been diverted here by news of Indian trouble and were waiting until the army had it in hand. Until then, the party would pass the time in their little town.


Lily’s mark came at dinner. It was earlier than they’d expected—most men didn’t like to seem eager. But it was said that John Anderson was keen to wed. Or wed again, having recently lost his young wife in a tragic accident. It was also said that “accident” might not have been quite the proper word to use. Anderson hadn’t been as pleased with his bride as he’d hoped. Her daguerreotype had sorely misrepresented her and she had not cared for ranch life. She’d also objected to her husband’s ongoing association with the town’s whores and his penchant for bringing them home. Women could be quite unreasonable about such things. So Mrs. Anderson had perished and her grieving husband was impatient for a new bride.

			Lily and Nate were dining at the inn. They’d barely taken their seats when Nate made a noise deep in his throat, too low for others to hear. He kept his attention on the wall-posted menu while Lily glanced over to watch their mark stroll through the door. They said John Anderson was a handsome man, but she couldn’t see it. Or perhaps it was simply everything else she’d heard about him that tarnished her opinion. She did, however, watch him until he looked squarely in her direction. Then her gaze darted away as she clutched her napkin and cast nervous glances at her “uncle.”

			Anderson stopped at their table, took off his hat with a flourish and introduced himself. Gaze lowered, Lily waited for her uncle to reciprocate. He didn’t.

			“I see that you have not yet begun to dine,” Anderson said after an awkward silence. “May I invite you both to join me at my table?”

			“No,” Nate said.

			“Does that mean I may not ask or you will not join me?”

			Anderson’s lips curved in the kind of smile that would warn another man off. Nate only stared at him.

			“No.”

			“All right then. May I ask—?”

			“No.”

			Lily simpered and shot looks at Anderson, her eyes pleading with him to excuse her uncle’s behaviour.

			“I see,” Anderson said. “Well, then, perhaps I’ll have the pleasure of seeing you both around town.”

			Nate’s answering snort said, “The hell you will.” Anderson nodded stiffly and retreated to his table.

			They had been in town for nearly a fortnight. During the course of it, Lily found increasingly more opportunities to see John Anderson. It was a difficult wooing with her uncle so determined to keep the rancher away, but they met in furtive assignations that grew ever more daring until Anderson finally extended the required invitation to visit him at home. Not that he was quite so forward. He simply said he had a hound dog with pups that would surely delight Lily and he wished for her to see them. Naturally, it would have to be at night—late at night, after her uncle was abed. But Anderson would send his foreman to accompany her so she would be safe. At least until she arrived.

			And so the foreman—a man named Stewart—arrived at the appointed hour of midnight. Lily informed him that her uncle was deeply asleep, having been aided by a draught of laudanum. They set off into the night.

			Nate and the boys followed.


Lily slowed outside the big ranch house and looked about nervously.

			“It is dreadfully dark, monsieur,” she said.

			“Mr. Anderson is right there, miss.” Stewart pointed at the lit front window. “Waiting in the parlour.”

			She gave a sheepish smile. “I am sorry to be such a child. I have not visited a man’s home without an escort.” She dipped her gaze. “And I have never visited at night.”

			“There’s nothing to worry about, miss. Mr. Anderson is a proper gentleman. You have my word on that.”

			Lily continued to stall. Nate insisted on scouting before she ventured inside. Finally, she caught sight of Nate’s distant figure, poised in the side yard, gazing about, face lifting slightly to sniff the breeze. He motioned to say that he’d circled the homestead and all was well.

			“I am ready to go in, monsieur,” she murmured to Stewart, and he took her up to the front door.


An hour later, Anderson lay passed out on the parlour settee. He looked very peaceful, Lily thought as she knelt beside him. He would not be nearly so happy when he woke, but even without his odious reputation, Lily would not have regretted bamboozling him. Men like Anderson were no better than bunko artists themselves—seducing young women in the expectation the ruined girl would be rejected by her suitor and then she, and her inheritance, would be handed to him by parents hoping to make the best of a bad situation. It proved such men were not as worldly as they believed or they would know it was a ruse unlikely to succeed. This was not English society where one eager bride could easily be exchanged for another. Out on the frontier, a good woman was like a fine horse or pair of boots: you hoped they’d be pleasing and well-formed, but you expected they’d been used a time or two, which only saved the fuss of breaking them in.

			Anderson hadn’t even won a flash of bared ankle. Lily was adept at the art of the tease, a skill she’d learned as an actress. In cities, she was expected to perform in actual plays, but out in the Territories, men just came to see pretty girls in pretty dresses teasing and dancing and warbling on stage.

			Other women who worked this game would be required to lie with the mark, even if she had a beau in the gang. Out here, a girl was lucky if her lover didn’t toss her garter onto the poker table and give her away for a night when his luck soured. With Nate, Lily didn’t need to worry about that.

			 Once she’d confirmed that Anderson was out cold, she dashed through the house to be sure it was empty. When she’d arrived, she had Anderson take her on a tour of his “lovely home.” He’d dismissed the help, as men usually did. She still checked, in case a maid or hired hand had snuck in the back. The house was clear.

			Lily brought Nate and the boys in and gave them quick instructions on where to find the best goods. Emmett and Levi needed little guidance and Will would simply follow them. The five worked together on the parlour and adjoining rooms. Then Nate told the boys he was taking Lily outside to “scout for trouble.” Will looked confused. Levi smiled and shook his head. Emmett winked and told Nate to have fun. Nate grabbed a parcel he’d left by the door and off they went.


Naturally, Nate and Lily were not heading outside to scout. This, too, was part of the routine, and Emmett and Levi seemed to think it was quite reasonable that the boss would whisk his girl off mid-job for a roll in the hay barn. After all, they’d been forced to sleep apart for a fortnight now. Could anyone blame him? Well, yes, they could, but the boys never seemed to realize it was the least peculiar. With Nate, they were accustomed to peculiar.

			“Did it go all right?” he asked as they slipped around the house.

			Obviously it had, if Anderson was asleep and the boys were emptying the home, but Lily knew that wasn’t what Nate meant. “He didn’t lay a finger on me.”

			“Good.”

			As Lily walked, she unfastened her dress, keeping to the shadows of the house. That took a while, and she didn’t stop moving until she had to wriggle out of it. She glanced over to see Nate watching her.

			“No,” she said, waggling her finger.

			He growled deep in his throat. She laughed and took the parcel from his arm.

			“Don’t grumble,” she said. “You know it’s better if we wait.”

			Another soft growl, this one less complaint than agreement. She laughed again and tugged on her breeches, shirt, and boots. Her pistol was there, too—a little derringer that tucked neatly under a shirt or a dress.

			“Did you find him?” she asked when she’d finished.

			“Out back. Farthest building from the house.”

			She smiled. “That ought to make it easy.”


Lily peered through the open window. Stewart was at his kitchen table, playing solitaire while drinking whiskey straight from the bottle.

			Growing up in New Orleans, Lily had been subjected to more church-going than any child ought to be, which had much to do with her running off at fourteen. Too many gospel mill lessons pounded in with a strap. From what she’d learned there, the nature of demons was quite clear. They were hideous beasts with wings and scales and horns. They did not, in short, look like Theodore Stewart. But as she’d come to understand, most church lessons were less than useful in the real world.

			Stewart was a demon. Or a half-demon, fathered by one of those unholy beasts whom, Lily was quite sure, hadn’t borne scales and horns when he seduced Stewart’s momma. Stewart had, however, inherited his father’s predilection for hell-raising, which was why they were there.

			While their thieving provided a handsome income, it was merely a front. The real prize sat at that table, drinking himself to sleep. This was the world Nate had introduced her to, one filled with creatures that the church deemed “monstrous aberrations.” Half-demons, witches, sorcerers, vampires, werewolves, and others. Monsters? Perhaps. Monstrous? She glanced at Nate, peering through the window, sharp gaze assessing his prey. No, not always. But they did cause trouble with somewhat more regularity than average folk, which meant there were plenty with a price on their heads, like Stewart.

			Nate leaned over and whispered into her ear, so Stewart couldn’t hear through the open window.

			“I’ll go in here. Can you take the front?”

			She nodded.

			“Be careful,” he murmured.

			She nodded again, but there was rarely any need for her to be overly cautious. While she had starred in the opening acts of this performance, Nate took that part now. Like the understudy for an actor who never took sick, Lily’s new role was rather dull. In all their jobs together, only once had a mark even noticed Nate, and that was only due to an unfortunately placed looking glass. Even then, Nate had taken their mark down before he reached the door.

			Lily still undertook her role with caution, derringer in hand as she crept around the tiny house to the front door. There she found a suitably shadowy place to wait.

			When she heard a faint noise to her left, she wheeled and swung her pistol up, her eyes narrowing as she strained to see—

			Cold metal touched the back of her neck. “Don’t move.”

			She calmly assessed the voice. Did it sound firm? Confident? Or did it waver slightly, suggesting a man uncomfortable with pointing a gun at a girl of twenty? And perhaps even less comfortable with the prospect of pulling the trigger.

			“Lower the gun,” he said.

			She recognized the voice now, though the tone was not one she’d ever heard him use. She cursed herself—and Nate—under her breath.

			“Will?” she said.

			“I told you to lower—”

			“Please don’t hurt me, Will.” She raised her voice a little, knowing Nate’s ace hearing would pick it up. “If you want a bigger share, I’m sure we can manage it. P-please don’t—”

			He kicked her legs out from under her. She tried to twist as she fell, but he’d caught her by surprise. Will grabbed her gun arm. Before she could throw him off, his fingers burned so hot she gasped as agony ripped through her forearm and Will plucked the derringer from her grasp.

			So Will was a fire demon, like Stewart. They’d been euchred.

			“William!” a voice called from the cabin. “Bring her in.”

			Will grabbed Lily by the hair and dragged her to the cabin door. He pulled it open and shoved her through, his gun at her neck.

			Nate and Stewart faced off inside. Nate glanced at Lily. Then he looked away.

			“Seems we have your girl,” Stewart said.

			Nate grunted.

			“William here tells me you’re fond of her,” Stewart continued. “That you would, I presume, not wish to see any harm befall her.”

			Another grunt.

			“I’ll take that as a yes. Now, as I’m sure you know, there’s many a man who’d pay handsomely to mount Nathaniel Cooper’s head on his wall. But I have a buyer who’d prefer you alive. He’s quite interested in your special skills. There aren’t nearly enough of your kind out here. So here’s what I’ll do. You come with me and we’ll take the girl, too. None of my men will harm her. And, yes, I have men. Or half-men, half-demon.” Stewart raised his voice. “Bob? Jesse?”

			Two answering shouts came from outside. Nate took advantage of the pause to glance at Lily again. She held his gaze before he turned away.

			Stewart continued, “As you see, there is little sense in running, although I’m quite certain you won’t attempt it, so long as we have your pretty mate—”

			Nate spun and fired . . . right at Lily’s chest. She managed only a strangled gasp of shock before slumping to the floor.


Theodore Stewart stared down at the girl’s body, her shirt bloody, limbs akimbo, sightless eyes staring up.

			In the world of supernaturals, it was generally accepted that Nathaniel Cooper was a bastard. That was true of most of his breed—violent, unsociable loners. But even among them, Cooper was renowned as a heartless son of a whore. Still, William had said he was fond of the girl. Very fond of her.

			Apparently, William had been mistaken.

			Stewart crouched to close the girl’s eyes. He ought to have foreseen this. William was but a boy and didn’t understand the ways of men. And yet Stewart had still been caught unaware by Cooper’s move, which was exactly what the bastard intended. He’d killed the girl and then fired off a second round at Stewart as he bolted out the door.

			As Stewart rose, the door banged open and William strode in.

			“You get him?” Stewart asked.

			“Not yet. Jesse and Bob are tracking him. I reckoned I ought to make sure he didn’t circle back and try to collect on his bounty.” William walked to the girl. “Damnation. She was a pretty painted cat. I was really hoping to get a poke.” He nudged the girl’s arm with his boot. Then he bent and touched it. “She’s still warm.” His gaze traveled over the body. “You think it’d be all right if I—”

			“No. Get outside and scout.”

			Stewart waited until William left. Then he looked down at the girl. The boy was right. She was finer than anything he’d seen in a while.

			He fingered the bottom of her shirt. He wouldn’t do that, of course. That was disgusting. But there was nothing wrong with taking a look.

			Stewart unfastened her bottom button and then the next one, slowly peeling back her shirt. Out of the corner of his eyes, he caught a movement, but before he could lift his head, a hand grabbed him by the throat and threw him across the room.


Lily reflected that this was perhaps not the most opportune moment to end her performance. Yet she wasn’t about to play dead while he disrobed her.

			Her side blazed as she sprang to her feet. Bullets hurt, no matter how good a shot Nate was and how careful he’d been to hit her where there wasn’t risk of serious injury. Her eyes stung, too, from staring at the ceiling until Stewart had done the Christian thing and closed her eyelids. She supposed she ought to have shut them herself, but she knew that open eyes would be the most damning proof of her death, and she was a fine enough actress to manage it.

			Stewart was still lying on the floor, dazed, trying to figure out how he’d arrived there, clear across the room. When he saw Lily coming at him, he only gaped.

			Lily yanked Stewart’s gun from his holster and tossed it aside. Only then did Stewart snap out of it. He caught her by the arm, his fingers flaring red-hot, fresh pain scorching through her already-burned arm. She ignored it and grabbed him by the neck. His eyes bulged as she squeezed. They bulged even more as her hand began to change, palm roughening, nails turning into thick claws.

			“You didn’t expect this?” she said as she lifted him from the floor. “You did call me his mate.”

			“No. You can’t be—”

			“Do you smell that?” Lily turned her face, nose lifting. “I do believe we’re about to have company.”

			The door flew open and Will stumbled in.

			“Cooper,” he said, panting. “It’s Cooper. He’s . . .”

			He saw them, her hand around Stewart’s throat. His mouth worked. He had one hand still on the door. Then it crashed open, sending Will scrambling out of the way as a massive wolf charged in. The beast’s nostrils flared. Its gaze swung to Lily. Then, with a grunt, the beast tore after Will as he dashed for Stewart’s gun, his own obviously lost.

			Will made it halfway across the room before the wolf leaped on him. He hit the floor and rolled onto his back. His hands shot up, fingers blazing. The wolf’s jaws swung down and ripped out his throat.

			“No,” Stewart whispered as Will’s life’s blood spurted onto the floorboards. His gaze shifted to Lily. “I have money.”

			“And so will we, when we collect the bounty on you.”

			“Whatever they said I did, it isn’t true. I have enemies. Lying sons of whores—”

			“A Kansas wagon train two years back,” she said. “A train full of settlers massacred and left for the buzzards, after your gang had some sport with the womenfolk.”

			“I . . . Wagon train? No. That wasn’t . . .” He trailed off. “I have money. More than any bounty—”

			“I’ll take the bounty,” she said and snapped his neck.


“Stop grumbling,” Lily said as Nate daubed her bullet wound with a wet cloth. “I told you to shoot me.”

			Which she had, mouthing it when he’d glanced at her during the standoff. That did not, she understood, make him feel any better about the situation.

			“It passed clean through,” she said. “We heal quickly. I won’t want to shift for a few days, but I’ll be fine otherwise.”

			He still grumbled. She leaned forward and brushed her lips across his forehead.

			“I need to be more careful,” he said.

			“We both will be.”

			“That boy . . .” A growl as he glanced at Will’s body. “I ought not to have been duped.”

			“We both were. We’ll have a talk with Wilcox about this. He was the one who asked us to take the boy. And he was the one who set us on Stewart.”

			Another growl.

			“We’ll have satisfaction,” Lily murmured. “In the meantime, presuming those half-demons were from Stewart’s old gang, we ought to be able to collect bounties on them, too.”

			Nate grunted. The prospect, she knew, did not cheer him immediately, but it would, after she’d recovered and he’d finished chastising himself for letting them be bamboozled.

			“You did well,” he said as he dressed her wound.

			“I’ve not forgotten how to act,” she said with a smile. “And you gave me all the other skills I required.”

			It had taken work to convince him to share his curse with her. Eventually, he’d come to realize that the only way a werewolf’s mate could be safe was if she was truly his mate. The process, as he’d warned, had not been easy. The life, too, was not easy. But she would never regret it. Lily knew what she wanted—the man, the life, the person she wanted to be. And she had it. All of it.

			“We ought to hurry,” she said. “The boys will be waiting back at the inn by now.” She paused. “Do you think they heard anything before they left?”

			Nate snorted.

			Lily laughed. “Yes, they’re not the cleverest of lads. Which is the way we like them.” She got to her feet. “Let me find a clean shirt.”

			She looked at him, still naked after shifting back from wolf form. “And we’d best find your clothing. Although . . .” Her gaze traveled down his body. “The boys are very patient. I suppose they wouldn’t mind waiting a mite longer.”





From Stone and Bone, From Earth and Sky


			A.C. Wise




I. The Magician



“What do you think?” the Old Man asks, turning my question back at me. He taps the tarot card with one finger, nail tobacco-yellow and tipped in a crescent moon of dirt. “Sacred or profane? Sinner or Saint?”

			He pushes the card closer as if I haven’t already looked my fill. The photograph pasted to the board shows the woman whose story I’ve come to gather—Erzebetta, no last name—the Carnival Queen. Feathers ring her collar and rise from her hair. There are shadows around her head, what could be smudges on the photograph, but distinctly in the shape of feathers, beaks, and the blur of wings.

			The photograph is worn, edges made velvet-soft from handling, lightning-struck with pale creases. Even faded, Erzebetta’s expres