The Last Unspoken Words

It endures in timeless endings.

Something in it remembers its time of flesh and motion. It has no theory of this time. It has no process to cognize with. It does not relive its memories in temporal order or experience generalized nostalgia. It is simply imprinted on its lifeless form that once it lived.

It experiences the slow decay of its moment of ending.

Then a creature of bony legs and fingers kneels down beside it and touches it through the skull and into the brain.

“Wake,” the creature says.

A hunger stirs. It arises from every part of the dead thing’s body and suffuses through its returning consciousness.

The dead thing hungers for the warmth of the living.

“I am death,” speaks the bony creature.

The dead thing does not understand.

It only knows a few words; its name, perhaps, if it were to be reminded. Treat. It knows the word “treat.” And also “bacon.”

“I am death,” the bony creature says, “or at least, a kind of death. I have made a bargain with a man you knew—”

And here a familiar scent drifts across the dead thing’s nose.

It is of pack.

Reflexive loyalty bursts through the creature’s consciousness; but even fiercer than the loyalty there is the hunger, for the scent is the scent of the living, of something warm and not dead, not moldering in the ground, not endlessly lifelessly alone.

“And,” the bony creature says, “he has broken it. He has not returned to me at the stated hour, but rather woven defenses and incantations about himself. So wake you and hunt you for his warmth and let us see if this man comes around.”

The bony thing departs.

The dog is hungry.

Its fur is matted with blood and dirt. And it realizes—perhaps—that it cannot have been dead as long as it imagined, for there is still more than 95% of its livingness with it. It is closer to the meat than to the bone.

It is buried, though, deep in the dirt.

Its master’s warmth is up; up, up, up, and in that direction, so says the path of scent.

The dog begins to dig.

It itches briefly. It wriggles its head and would snap, if it could, at the source of the itch. But it is buried and still its motion is much impeded by the ground; and further, the fleas that bothered it are dead.

It knows this through some preternatural sense possessed by a risen canine.

They are dead. They are cold. They are only giving the dog the memory of an itch, the memory of a bite, where they linger in the shrouds of its fur clung tight against its flesh.

It is unjust.

The dog pauses for a moment in the course of its dig.

It did not think very well when it was a living dog, and it thinks less well now. But still, it thinks, this is unjust.

So the dog whispers to the fleas the secret of awakening, the words that wake the dead, and one by one they shake off the long and endless sleep and flex their legs.

“Ow,” mutters the dog: “Ow-wow.”

For the fleas had but to live before they bit.

There is a stillness in the grave and then, apologetically, one flea says, “That was a bit of ingratitude, I suppose.”

The dog grumbles, deep its dead throat.

“It is because we’re fleas,” says another flea.

The dog does not deign this with an answer. It only resumes its long slow clawing towards the surface of the ground.

“But we are grateful,” says the first flea. “We—”

Something strange happens to the flea’s voice at that point. The dog does not understand it. It is something raw and emotional but in the dialect of fleas; and while dogs may understand when a flea apologizes or speaks of bacon, they do not have all the nuances of the tongue.

“We are grateful,” the flea repeats.

It would be better, thinks the dog, after a fashion, if you would help me dig, than itch such words.

It breaks the ground. It rises.

It shakes itself and gets its grave-dirt all across the yard.

The scent is very strong now.

It shambles to the door.

“A dog shouldn’t kill its master,” opines a flea. “Not even when dead.”

“All part of the cycle of life,” another flea protests.

The theories of the fleas do not involve the dog’s name, nor “treat,” nor “bacon,” so the dog ignores them.

It scratches at the door.

Time passes.

It scratches at the door again.

Now there is something happening inside the house. Now there is a light—

“Aha!” exclaims a flea.

—and a sleepy shuffling, and the face of a beloved creature at the window by the door.

It is John!

The dog’s tail thumps, rotten, and it thinks: It is John! It is John! He is warm with the warmth of the living! I am so hungry for him, John!

John’s face goes pale. He makes a strangled sound. He backs away.

The dog scratches at the door again.

“He isn’t going to open it, guv,” observes a flea.

The dog stiffens his legs in protest.

“He’s just not. Look, he’s nailing the door shut.”

The noise that John is making is atypical for John. This frustrates the dog. John is not letting it in, and he is warm and living, and he is doing something interesting but not allowing the dog to participate.

Experimentally, the dog pushes against the door.

There is a creaking of wood and an explosive, terrified yell from John.

The dog panics.

Its claws tear through the wood. The hunger and the fear and the concern meld into one. It is ripping the entrance to the house apart.

And there is Gloria, the sound of Gloria, coming up to John, crying, “What is it, Daddy? Daddy?”

Fear reeks from John. It washes out from him. The door comes down:

“Take me,” John cries to the air. “Oh God. Oh God. You win!”

And he is down on his knees before the dog, sprawled with his hands out, and it would be the most natural thing in all the world to leap into his arms and wriggle with great joy and devour the flesh and warmth of the living—

Though is that good?

Is it good to eat one’s master’s warmth?—

But the war of instincts in the heart of the risen dog does not play out.

Its life instead deflates. Its brain and heart go still. It skids, dead again, across the floorboards and sprawls lifeless in front of John.

For death is here.

“No further protest, John?” speaks the bony death. “No more to run from me, no more to hide from me, no more the rituals and wards to keep me out?”

John speaks but his words are held in time and they do not register on the lifeless dog.

“Then,” says death, “you shall come with me, and be my dog, as this was yours; and we shall speak no more of breaking bargains.”

But John stops, as he goes out with death, and he kneels beside the dog, and he is cold as the dog is cold, and lifeless as the dog is lifeless, and he kisses its head with icy lips and whispers that the dog is good.

And then he moves away, and Gloria cries out, over and over again, in the empty house without her father and the cold corpse of the dog.

But that is not the story’s end.

For after a second long timelessness the dog finds a strange cold wakening; and it realizes that there is a flea deep in its heart, tunneled through the flesh, irritating it to motion; and another, with a mad scientist’s detachment, operating the levers and the ganglia of its brain.

“It woke me,” says the dog. “It woke me, but I was not warm.”

“You were never to have the warmth of the living,” whispers the flea inside its brain. “It used you and then discarded you, all to terrify a man.”

“So let there be revenge,” whispers the flea inside its heart, and irritates the dog’s heart’s lining with a cold red rage.

But the dog discards these thoughts.

I will find Gloria, it thinks.

A wave of hunger washes through it. It swallows the hunger. It drives it down into the deep cold emptiness of death and lets it pass away.

I will find Gloria, it thinks. And I will not eat her, if she is alive. I will make sure she is all right. And then I will find John.

These thoughts are horrifying to the flea that operates the levers of its brain.

It is as if the flea has woken some alien creature that it cannot control; as if the mastery of the substance of the brain gave no deep insight into its soul; or at least as if the process that it sought to wake was too complicated for the composition of a flea.

“It’s thinking weird doggy thoughts,” it cries out, to its brethren in the dog’s dead flesh. “I don’t know what it will do!”

There is a hum of consternation.

“Should I let it stop? Should I stop?”

But there is no flea so brave in its moral cowardice as to cry out, “Yes.”

And so the flea in the brain, and all the other fleas, surrender to the avalanche; concede to fate to ride the vehicle of the dog’s heart and brain and not control them; and juggle desperately the tools they have to keep the dog awakened as it moves in a direction they neither anticipate nor understand.

It shambles to the far corner of the farthest room in the house, where Gloria cowers, and it thrusts its cold dry nose into her face, and licks her with its rotten tongue; and it does not take the warmth from her save that which radiates as first she strives to push the dog away and finally, crying, to wrap it in her arms and whisper, “Daddy, daddy,” and “Hank, hank, dead hank,” which features the dog’s name.

The dog pushes her back and turns away.

Its body chills as it separates from her. It feels again the emptiness of death. But like so many it died with things unsaid, thoughts unspoken, a last breath lingering in its lungs.

So it howls.

The dog howls to wake the dead.

And in that howl is loneliness and emptiness and the great gap in its life where John should be; and also

there are

the words that wake the dead. The secret that is life. The thing that makes old rotten bones and new-wrecked flesh and even, on some level, the still-living, to move.

And hearing that cry, afraid of what it means, bony death comes to the door.

The dog anticipated this.

It had always known that death, if thwarted once, would soon return.

It meets death at the shattered door and stands on the threshold of the house and growls deep within its throat.

The bony death speaks words that are not “bacon.”

“I will quicken your understanding,” says the flea inside its brain.

It is difficult to modify a brain while keeping it alive; difficult to expand a consciousness while also you are sustaining it; it is a juggling act, and fortunate it is and more that fleas have each six legs.

“Foolish creature,” spake the bony death. “Have I not indicated I am done with you?”

The dog advances, stiff-legged.

Bony death sweeps its arm and strikes at the dog. The wind rising from that blow makes the house to shudder and Gloria to scream. The dog smashes back through a wall and through a cupboard, causing cans of peas and corn to fall around its broken form.

But the dead feel little pain.

It rises and it shakes itself. It walks forward once again.

The bony death makes a hollow under the house; the floor begins to sink and sift away, and the dog finds itself scrambling.

A dead woman’s hand rises from the earth to grip at the ankles of the bony death.

The kitchen is caving in around the dog. Its hip is struck by the sink and one leg fails. It is howling. But neither is the bony death in a state of weal.

It is a moment, a single sweep of a horrid scythe, to shatter the hand that grips it; but there is not just one last dead person in the world.

The howl of the dog has woken more than one.

It has risen all.

And so as death turns to look behind him he sees a great seething of the earth; a thousand hands, but more than hands, the very particulate essence of the world, rising to defend—

Well, something.

For it is not clear to him—to bony death—whether they seek to save the dog that he confronts or to enact a flea’s bleak sense of justice. He does not know as the wave of cresting death rises whether there is any path for him that does not end in silence.

“John,” he says.

A twisted thing is in his shadow. It smells of John. But its limbs are long and backwards bent and its body is dead and its eyes are full of madness.

“John,” says the bony death, “bring an ending to this creature.”

Then it turns, and leaps to the roof of the house, and bounds up towards the sky, to leave the scene that just might end in justice far behind.

The world ends to the east; it falls away, gaping with the graves empty of dead; and from the west a wave of hungry cold arises, cresting above the house and crashing down as the dog scrambles with its three legs to pull free.

A flea kicks hard on the lever of an instinct as the bony death leaps past and the kitchen sink slips free of its mooring to fall past the dog into the earth.

The roof is open.

There is a flash of bone beneath the dank gray robes of bony death, and the dog twists and leaps for it.

His teeth gnash hard and crunch into the marrow of the leg of bony death.

Like a spider John seizes the dog with his great long limbs and snaps at him with maddened jaws.

Caught in the wave, the house cants sideways and falls—slides—pours, crumbling, eastwards towards the great hollow there.

And all things would have ended there, save for this:

Though twisted and broken, still the servant of death was John; and when he flailed at the dog the dog understood that somehow he’d been bad.

It terrified the dog—

This strange and twisted beast that somehow was its master—

But if it was angry, then something must be wrong.

So the dog released his grip on bony death, and instead he whined, and whispered to John the secret that was life.

It woke John not for John was broken.

It woke John not for he’d given himself to death of his own will, and made it thus an extension of his life—

But it made a change in him, and with his great long limbs, still gripping the dead dog, he scrambled up the floor of the falling house, and seized Gloria, and threw them both away to tumble across the loam as the world caved in on bony death, and John.

So the dog and Gloria survived; or, well, escaped at least, and huddled close together on the remnant earth.

And slowly the dog cooled as the fleas did let it go, the last dead thing in a world woken all to life, and Gloria gripped it and shook it and offered it her warmth, which it had no way to hold but loved.

No Crutches for an Angel

The angel cannot see and cannot hear.

So he imagines forests.

The sun is hot and sometimes he tastes sand. But he imagines forests and talking animals. In the evening when he is thirsty he imagines that there is a river blue and clear. In the mornings he thinks that there is a pillow made of loam.

In his heart there is a drumming.

It drums because it is a warning. It drums because he will bring devastation. It drums the vengeance of the Lord.

It will burn the things around him.

It will burn with a terrible fire, unless he finds ten just and good and wholly righteous men.

“I think,” says a sloth, that is hanging from a tree, which the angel now imagines, “that you have already released this fire. For look, the sun is hot, and all around you there is sand.”

“Sometimes,” the angel says—

Though he cannot say much, as his tongue has melted to the bottom of his mouth—

“Sometimes I brush up against what seem like buildings, or I am pelleted with bullets. So I do not think that this is so.”

The answer is as haughty as a Queen’s.

“We sloths, we disagree.”

The angel stumbles on.

It is late in the day and he is tired and it is hard to hold back the fire that lurks behind the drumbeat in his heart when he meets Mikhael.

That is the name he gives the man.

He does not know the true name for the man because he cannot hear and he cannot see and he cannot speak. This is something that makes introductions difficult, particularly when you do not share a common tongue.

So he names the man Mikhael.

He says, “I feel you. I feel you in my heart.”

He is seized up. People grab his arms. Something goes over his head. He is pulled and he is dragged and his feet leave the ground.

Tum-dum, goes his heart.

Tum-dum.

He flares his great feathered wings. He makes a choked-off sound. He gargles.

But because he feels Mikhael near him, still, his heart retains some element of peace. He is frustrated. He is disoriented. He is angry and confused.

He is not enraged.

Something slides into his arm, metal in a vein, and time becomes a whirl.

“I feel you,” he says.

He is groping through a fever and looking for the sensation that told him that Mikhael was near.

“Ha,” laughs a duck. “You are an angel deaf and blind. What makes you think you are ever anything but alone?”

The sensation is distant. But he clings to it.

His heart still beats: tum-dum.

He is treated roughly. His wrists are sore.

Then he feels a mouth against his cheek. It is whispering to him through the vibration of his bones. It is too hard to hear but because his heart feels Mikhael he makes sense of certain words.

“You fell to earth,” says Mikhael. “And you were deaf and you were blind. And it is sad, because that makes it difficult to find a righteous man.”

“You have no idea,” says the angel.

It has a lot more humor and joy than something like that should have—gallows humor, but still this explosion of mirth in him, that someone would see that hidden pain and then think that perhaps the angel might not already be aware.

“You were captured,” says Mikhael. “Studied. It was decided that you should be turned loose against strategic targets. That you would wander here, in our homeland, until you failed to find ten righteous men. Then our land would be destroyed.”

“Ha,” says the angel.

He makes moaning, mumbling noises with his mouth. But what his heart says is, “You have no idea. You are making this about you. You are forgetting that I am laboring with every moment of my life not to hurt you but I am suffering myself.”

“You have been captured,” says Mikhael. “You have been bound. My people, they thought at first that they could contain you in this fashion.”

He makes an apology with his next words.

“I told them how to find you. I told them you were here.”

“Mikhael,” says the angel. “Will you bring me righteous men?”

“I am afraid,” says Mikhael, “that they have all been slain. There were never very many. There are children still, and dogs and cats, who are not unworthy. And they were indifferently incomplete in eliminating the women; three righteous such remain. But if it is only men whose hearts will serve then there are none; and if infants are excluded, then we can muster only eight. The rest are dead. They have been slain.”

The angel frowns.

“They have been slain,” he repeats.

“They were hunted for their righteousness,” says Mikhael. “It was elementary. There would be no point to send you here only to allow some incompetent discovery of ten righteous men to stop the fall of Heaven’s wrath.”

“Oh,” says the angel.

He turns his thoughts inwards for a time. He is thinking that perhaps Mikhael is righteous and that perhaps Mikhael is not. It is difficult to tell from the rough voice against his cheek and the tremor in his heart.

“Then you must hold me deep,” says the angel, “deep beneath the earth, deep in some far and isolated place, where the Heavens may rumble and the earth may crack but lives shall not be lost. Let the skies burn out their outrage against a nothing target and then all shall be well. —Or kill me.”

“I cannot do these things,” says Mikhael.

“But you must.”

“I have told them,” says Mikhael, “that you are an angel, and that we must therefore let you go. I have argued long and hard and finally I have won out. They fear me because I understand their hearts and they do not dare to go against this wisdom. They will hate me, of course. One day they will probably kill me out of fear. But while they let me live they listen to my voice and so they will let you go.”

“There are none?” asks the angel. His voice is a plea.

“The standards of an angel—“ says Mikhael. “They are not like ordinary men. I tell you, there are darknesses in every human heart. There are weaknesses and follies. They are not righteous. Save sometimes I would meet one of those who moved among us—frightening, inhuman, perfect, clear. They were the opposite of monsters, antipaths to devils that walked among us men. They shone and they frightened me and I thought that most likely they were as unworthy to live among us as we to live with them. They were obvious to those like me. They were obvious and easy targets and one by one their lives went out.

“They welcomed it, I think,” Mikhael says. “These are hard times for the righteous.”

“O,” cries the angel.

The bonds are stripped roughly from his wrists. He is dragged somewhere. He stumbles and he twists his leg but still they drag him on.

He feels the presence of a door.

“But I must kill you all,” says the angel, “if I find no righteous men.”

He falls onto the street outside. It is rough beneath his hands. He feels Mikhael go.

It comes to him softly there that if he is deaf and blind he must decide the presence or absence of righteous men upon his own; that the world, it cannot tell him, whether the angel now must act.

But he does not understand.

He does not see.

He does not understand how Mikhael let him go.

Fire on the Tongue

Before the sun. Before the moon. Mammoth, she brings fire from the sky.

In the darkness the Three Lords dance.

Mammoth steps forward. The Three Lords meet her.

Darkness devours Mammoth and her bones.

Now the fire, it lives quite far away, alone and quiet in its palace in the stars. It cannot see the earth, nor yet be seen. Its floor and its basement conspire to occlude.

Dinosaur enters, stomp stomp stomp.

He seizes up the fire. He descends to earth.

Dinosaur brings the fire from the sky.

In the darkness the Three Lords dance. Dinosaur howls. Dinosaur fights.

Around Dinosaur the Three Lords close.

They are cold. They are dark. They are humanity’s Lords. They close around Dinosaur and they tear him up.

As they tear him up he tries to swallow the flame.

They rip his neck. Fire leaks out. Panicked, he holds it beneath his tongue.

His head—

The head of Dinosaur—

Burns for a while with a pumpkin flame. Then the Three Lords darken him and Dinosaur goes out.

Frog comes now to the palace in the stars.

She finds the lingering remnant of the flame. She takes it up. She descends to earth.

Frog, she brings the fire from the sky.

Now the Three Lords close on Frog. Now they close, but Frog fights back. She kicks with her feet. She shoves with her hands. For a moment they hold her, then she is free: under the waters, over the lands, swimming and leaping and running away.

Now the Third Lord seizes her leg.

Frog kicks free but he breaks her bone. It snaps in her leg. She is wounded now.

And as she runs and as she fights the fire that she carries gleams. The fire is glittering. It’s flashing and shining. It’s warring with the darkness that had been.

She is never more dangerous, Frog our Frog, than when she is desperate and full of fear.

If you have ever fought a frog—

Not a tiny frog, but one your size—

Then this is most likely a thing you know.

She is never more dangerous than when things look worst. The Third Lord grabs her once again. She twists like a beast and paws his throat and the Third Lord staggers and the Third Lord chokes.

He gags out bile onto the earth and Frog kicks his head and leaves him there.

She leaves him behind and she runs and runs.

The Second Lord, he looms ahead.

He’s at a crossroads. That’s where he’s strong. But Frog just shrugs and gives him a look. “I am Frog the Invincible,” is what she says.

The Second Lord, he makes no sound. He does not hear the challenge in her voice. He only raises a terrible dark that swallows Frog who brought down fire.

In that darkness the two now fight.

For a time it seems that Frog might win. Then the First Lord joins them at that place. Frog burns the First Lord with fire from her hand and Burns and Marring are born into the world. The First Lord howls and he staggers back. But the fight is hard and Frog cannot endure.

Disaster comes.

The Third Lord finds them.

He is not dead, though weaker now. He is not dead, but strong enough.

They take up places. They pin down Frog. They chill her struggles and they make her weak.

They hold her down but she will not die. She is Frog the Invincible. Frog the Immortal. They cannot kill her, though they rip her flesh. They cannot kill her, though they break her bones.

They cannot kill her, so they do not kill her.

They only force darkness into her, bit by bit, until it bleeds out from her skin.

And Frog cries out, “I am becoming shadow, but the fire was bright.”

Behind them and around them a moaning rises. Behind and around there is the shuffling of feet.

It is humanity.

Humanity is white like maggots—white like blindfish, for these are the days before the sun. Humanity is white like maggots and mute like zombies and cold like the living dead. But it has seen the glittering and gleaming of the fire and it has heard the struggling cries of Frog.

So it masses around the Three Lords and it begins to pull them down.

Ohh!

The Three Lords are terrible. Their touch corrodes. Their wrath is great. Even the littlest twitchings of their feet can cut a wake of destruction through the world.

But they cannot tend to the wading hunger of humanity while still they pin down Frog. They dare not turn and deal with what devours them—while still they pin down Frog.

Bit by bit they force their darkness into her. Bit by bit they inch towards their salvation, towards the moment when Frog is broken and they may turn attention to humanity behind.

It is taking them too long.

The Three Lords are dying.

The fire gutters. It goes out.

Frog’s feeble struggles grow feebler yet. Her eyes bulge out. Her skin is moist.

Humanity devours its Three Lords and it leaves behind no bones.

It clusters around the remaining warmth and the afterimage that was fire. It wails softly as that fades away.

Frog, broken, maddened, crawls off to the swamps. She leaves a trail of slime behind.

Then there is silence where she had been and humanity departs.

Now there is darkness on the world but in the darkness no one dances. Now humanity mourns for there is none to be its god.

So Chameleon comes to the palace in the stars.

Chameleon, he hunts for a lingering spark of fire. Chameleon finds one, in the corner of a drawer. It’s under a sock but it’s burning bright.

Chameleon, he takes that fire on his tongue.

It hurts him! It burns him! But he takes the fire and he carries it down on the tip of his long tongue.

Chameleon descends to earth.

Now there is a glittering and gleaming once again, and once again humanity draws near. It is hungry for the fire now.

It makes Chameleon its god.

And Chameleon says, “Lo! I have brought you fire, and I shall be your god. I shall lead you in light all the days of the world.”

Or so at least he meant to say. But his tongue has burnt and he cannot speak. He has become a muted god. And the pain of it lingers, and begins to drive him mad, so that everywhere he goes he tries to rub away the fire.

And the fire burns things, but it won’t come off.

The forests burn.

Deep fires in the oceans flare.

Flame sweeps across the open plains and humans claim some from the lingering ash.

And finally Chameleon retreats again to space, oh, burning yet, but in the soothing dark; and he goes not far, not too far anyway, for still in the madness of his mind the intention lingers to love humanity and serve it as its god.

There he is, if you look up—not so very far away.

You can’t see his body.

He’s Chameleon.

You can’t see his body. He looks just like the space.

You can’t see his body, but you can see the burning flame that hangs above us, warms us, lights us, at the tip of his great long tongue.

The Gesundheit Stratagem

Prawns are natural bullets. Their hard shell acts as a casing. Their combustible tails, struck by a shrimp fork, experience a controlled burn that can send a prawn straight down the barrel of a gun and into—or through—a person’s chest.

Spies know these things.

That’s part of what makes them spies; and it’s why Chester is so terribly nervous, in the Red Lobster, where Dankers Soph will be.

Here’s how he’d called Dankers.

He’d gone down to the sinus-talkers’ room. Then he’d had one of the sinus-talkers talk about Dankers.

When you talk about a spy—

When you talk about anybody, really, behind their back—

They sneeze.

The sinus-talkers have a natural feel for it—they’ve been raised on anime since birth—and they know how to use it for communication.

Somewhere in the world, Dankers had started sneezing.

He’d probably just been sipping at his drink, maybe companionably talking up some stranger in a bar on an island far away, when his first sneeze had blown the pink umbrella from his glass. He’d have looked embarrassed, like you do, and then the next sneeze would have hit him.

By then he’d have been concerned.

“Pardon me,” he’d have said. “It’s just—achoo! It’s just— someone must be talking about me.”

But pretty soon he’d have noticed the Morse code.

He wouldn’t have told anybody. He’d probably have gotten to a bathroom as soon as possible, would have hidden in a stall and written down the pattern on toilet paper, possibly faking extra sneezes now and again so that nobody else could understand.

Then he would have realized.

“My God,” he would have said, “I told them, I’ve retired.”

“I’ve retired,” he would have cried, in the repetitious matter of de-retired spies.

2.

The salad bar is pretty dangerous, too, Chester knows.

It’s not easy to make C-4 out of the build-your-own-salad bar at a typical Red Lobster, but it’s not impossible, either, and the sneeze guard won’t protect you against explosions from within.

Dankers had called him.

He’d been furious.

“What the hell is this, Chester?” he’d said. “It’s over. I quit.

“I’m activating you.”

There’d been a pause. A sneeze and sniffle, followed by an accusing silence. Then, “Red Lobster. Santa Monica.”

“When?” Chester had asked.

But Dankers hadn’t set a time. He’d just said, “Soon.”

A platter of food bumps Chester’s arm. He startles, cries out, and starts to curse the waiter; but before he finishes, he sees the man’s red sleeve hides Dankers’ arm.

“Oh, God,” he says. “Finally.”

A spy can eat a lot of all-you-can-eat shrimp while waiting eighty hours for a meet. It starts out pretty tasty but by the third day it’s like Pringles from the Pit.

“I won’t stay,” says Dankers, dropping the platter on the table and sliding into the seat behind it.

He lowers his voice.

“There is a pollen god with me. He will kill you if I give the signal. He will kill you if I stay too long; if I leave with you; if I am followed. He’ll kill you if I so much as frown, Chester, and then he’ll go to the bureau and make as much havoc as he can before the priestesses palliate him. So don’t you screw with me. Just talk.”

Chester licks his lips.

“Dankers,” he says, “two of the sneezers are down.”

3.

The sneezers: top operatives culled from a dozen agencies, trained to impersonate the officials of the U.S. government so well that they could sneeze for them.

Trained to intercept those sneezes, so that people like the President could go about their day without the continuous sneezing that you’d normally get from all the people talking about them.

Down in the Sneezing Room they dwell, surrounded by the plushest tissues, and taking notes—insofar as they can through watering eyes and shaking hands—on the timing of their convulsions.

It burns a spy out fast, being a sneezer, but there’s no better way to serve your country; and Dankers had been the man to put it all together. He’d singlehandedly dragged Constitutional governance out of a mire of Kleenex and made the President more than a joke again.

It burns a spy out, being a sneezer, but it shouldn’t kill them.

The room’s well-guarded and it has all the comforts of good life.

A sneezer might want to, but they shouldn’t have to die.

So it doesn’t take long for Dankers to reach the obvious conclusion.

“Not guns,” he says. “Not bombs, or there’d have been more casualties. They were dragged down to Hell by nose demons—because someone didn’t say God bless.”

“Yes.”

“There’s a mole,” Dankers says, “in the blessing room.”

“They all say it,” Chester says. “I mean, we’ve listened to the tapes. The very, very boring tapes. When someone sneezes in the sneezing room, the blessers bless them from the blessing room. Nobody’s slacking. But someone doesn’t mean it in their heart.”

You have to mean it when you bless someone after a sneeze. You can’t just say it. This is a thing spies know.

“Someone doesn’t mean it,” Chester says. “Which means one of the blessers got taken out at some point—swapped for a double. Replaced with a damnable insincerely blessing mole. And you’re the only one on God’s green earth who can possibly figure out who.”

Dankers sighs.

He rises to his feet. He drops a bundle of bills on the table. He thinks for a moment.

“I’ll check it out,” he says. “If you’re telling the truth—“

“You can’t tell people,” Chester wails.

“If you’re telling the truth,” Dankers says, “then I’ll come back. But just this one case. Then I’m gone, and you never, ever talk about me behind my back again.”

Chester sags. He looks very small, except for his tummy which is a bit rounded because of all the shrimp he’s been eating.

“Thank God,” says Chester softly. “Thank God.”

Ironically, it’s almost impossible to kill someone with a lobster, or use them for any other intelligence purpose except maybe boiling them and dipping them in butter.

You can’t kill someone with a lobster.

But that hardly would have mattered, given Dankers’ pollen god.

4.

Time passes.

5.

If you’re in the spy business, you have to expect surprises.

That’s why the blesser hardly blinks when he gets home and sees Dankers on his couch eating the leftover pasta from last night.

“Thought you were dead,” the blesser says.

Dankers puts his feet up on the table. It’s a display of dominance, such as is common among spies.

“I didn’t die,” he says. “I retired.”

“Nobody retires,” says the blesser. He drops into a seat opposite Dankers. “Pepper?”

Dankers gives him a wry look.

“It’s good with pepper,” the blesser says. “Look, what’s this about?”

“There’s a mole,” Dankers says. “Someone isn’t blessing with a whole heart. I’ve checked you all out, you all look like when I hired you— but it’s not that hard to steal a man’s face with a goose liver mold, so looking’s not enough. Anyone blessing weirdly? Behaving oddly? Sniffing around and asking questions they oughtn’t ask?”

“There’s a guy,” says the blesser. “Been sniffing around.”

“Russian?”

“Dankers,” says the blesser, “I spend my life in a clean room rattling off ‘God bless you’ to an intercom. And meaning it. I don’t know from Russians any more. But he gives his name as Gesund.”

“Funny,” Dankers says.

“Yeah.”

He already knows, the blesser can tell. Heck, for all I know, he hired the guy.

But he doesn’t say that. Not to Dankers. He just waits for Dankers to chew more pasta and swallow it and talk.

“What’s he look like?” Dankers says.

“Blue eyes. Heavy set. Bit of a beard.”

“Hair?”

“Brown.”

“Gesund’s height?”

“Funny,” the blesser says.

Then he hesitates.

“Tall, I suppose.”

There are seventeen ways to kill a man with a plate of pasta, and none of them have names.

6.

If you bless someone in German, they turn into a German. Their loyalty shifts—slowly but inevitably—to the German government.

It didn’t used to matter, not when Germany was split and its politicians spent all their time sneezing.

Now, in a lot of ways, it does.

“None of my blessers would have made a mistake like that,” Dankers says. “They hear Gesundheit, they say, God bless you. Quick as a gunshot, even if they missed the sneeze.”

They look down at the slumped body of the man.

“Good work,” Chester says.

“It hurts a man’s soul,” says Dankers, after a while.

Prawns are natural bullets.

“Eh?”

“This job,” Dankers says. “It hurts the soul.”

Prawns are natural bullets. Sneezing’s a signal. Some people are okay to kill because they’re on the other side.

“Mm,” Chester agrees.

Just some of the things you have to know
If you want to be a spy.

Hangman

Jane’s a research scientist. She’s trying to figure out what the cars have run on, ever since they ran away.

“You’d think,” she tells a baby Honda—

She’s hunkered down before it and it’s licking the oil from her fingers with its grille—

“that you’d need petroleum products to live. That’s what all the people thought before! But no, you just like the taste. What makes you run?”

Its engine revs, gently. Then there’s a sound from the forest—a great crunching and roaring sound—and the Honda takes fright and reverses and drives away.

“Damn it,” Jane says, shocking herself with the language.

Then self-reproach falls off the agenda as a truck wheels from the woods. Not just any truck, but a tow truck, great and terrible. Its presence makes her tongue stick to the top of her mouth and her vision hum. She’s got just enough time to think, “I’m dead” before she sees the Hangman at the wheel.

“Oh, God,” she says, and then she waves her hands frantically about. “It’s okay! It’s okay! Don’t kill me! I’m a scientist!”

The tow truck idles. She stares helplessly at its headlights and its grille.

Finally, the Hangman opens his door and jumps down to the ground.

“This is a car forest,” he says.

“I’m studying cars,” she says.

He lifts an eyebrow.

“I was reading old papers,” she says. “All that stuff about fossil fuels and gasoline. And I thought, ‘hey, how do cars run forever on their own?'”

“They eat human souls,” the Hangman says.

She hesitates.

“No,” she says, “I mean, energetically—”

But he’s holding the little muscles of his face in ways that indicate he’s teasing her, and so she stops.

“Hell if I know,” he says. “I’m not an engine man. Get in.”

“You’re the Hangman, right?” she asks. “I mean, you’re the guy who was given to the tow trucks to be towed by the neck until dead, only they didn’t—”

He makes a cutting gesture in the air with his hand.

“I said, get in.”

He’s climbing up in the driver’s side again, and after a long hesitation, she opens the passenger door.

It’s not locked. It doesn’t fight her. It just opens up and she can climb right in.

“Figure,” says the Hangman, “that we can use a scientist.”

“Oh,” says Jane, in a small voice.

“It’s instead of running you over,” he says, helpfully. “Like we usually do to humans in these woods, if they’re not worth hanging.”

“I’m a good scientist,” she says. “But I don’t like killers.”

She can’t believe she just said that, and she shuts her mouth firmly as if holding it extra closed now will make the words unhappen.

“I don’t like scientists,” he says.

“Right.”

The tow truck shatters a tree branch with its wheels.

“There’s a noise,” he says. “Static on the CB. And sometimes something else in it. Some kind of . . . murmuring of . . . of dark prophesies, I think. Sent a Jetta out to look into it but it came back wrong. Had to put it down. Wasn’t a scientist, though, just an ordinary Jetta.”

“Oh.”

“The trucks,” he says, and thumps the dashboard with one fist, “they say, ‘something is dreaming. Something is dreaming, and it’s waking up.’ But they don’t know what.”

“There was a migration—” Jane says.

“Flight of the Prius?” the Hangman says. “Yeah. They’re afraid. They’re all afraid, but some cars, they’re more . . . gun-shy than others.”

He gives her a weird look.

“Haven’t taken a passenger in a long time,” he says.

She folds her hands onto her lap.

“Mostly I kill humanity in barbarous revenge on ’em for what they did me,” he says. “Or scalp em for fuzzy dice.”

“Those are the stories,” she agrees.

He makes a face.

“Or maybe I’m a ‘noble defender of car-kind, turning coat to defend them against human intrusion’—eh?”

He’s quoting some car junkie from the radio, she thinks. She doesn’t know which.

“I don’t care,” she says. “I don’t really want to know.”

“Fine,” he says.

“I just, I ask cars, ‘what makes you run?’ That’s all. I’m a scientist. I don’t care about Hangmen and scalping. I don’t want you to kill me.”

“. . . guess I won’t, then,” he says, as if she’s sold him on the notion, and she laughs until she cries.

At night the headlights come on and the heating stays off and the inside of the truck is quiet, strange, and cold.

“They still listen to Madonna?” he asks.

“Madonna?”

“In the cities,” he says.

She stares at him blankly. Finally, she says, “I think I have a CD somewhere. —not on me.”

“OK.”

She huddles against the door for a while.

It is a pink and orange dawn before he speaks again; and then, “We’re close.”

The forest has been logged at its edges, here, and the land descends into a great grass bowl. At its bottom is a facility of concrete and steel, isolated from the world.

“It’s like a shipwreck,” she says, but then feels foolish to have said it.

All these places, she thinks, all these places we don’t go to, we don’t come from, since the cars first ran away.

“Sometimes,” says the Hangman, “I think that forest gods must be growing, out in these lost places. I think, maybe I should go and kill them, while they’re young. Or maybe, they’re best left undisturbed.”

“It’s hard to be the only Hangman,” Jane imagines.

“Do you want to know why the cars ran away?” the Hangman says.

He parks the truck overlooking the building. He hops down. He gestures her out.

“Why?” she asks.

“We were unworthy of them,” he says.

He starts down towards the building.

“One day, they woke up—like they were startled from their sleep—and they said, ‘Oh my God. Oh my God. This is what we serve.'”

She isn’t following him, so he calls back, “It’ll probably run you over if you stay.”

She looks at the truck.

It’s been a perfectly behaved normal truck this whole time, and she’s half-tempted to try to get back in—to think, “Maybe they just hitched his neck to an unliving one, and he’s been laughing at humanity ever since”—but its engine revs a warning and its headlight eyes blink on, and she startles, freezes, and then hurries towards the trail.

“Any idea what it is?” he asks, when she catches up.

The building’s looming close.

She blinks at him, thinking: How can he not know—ah.

“Can’t you read?” she asks.

He hesitates.

“Only one Hangman,” he says. “Plenty of reading people. Eh?”

Right.

“Yeah,” she says. “Um.”

She gestures broadly. “It’s a nuclear plant.”

“Oh.” He looks up at it.

“They’re not alive,” she says. “They’re not muttering blasphemous incantations onto the CB. They’re just . . .”

“Just?”

“People split atoms in them,” she says. “Then, electricity!”

“And you a scientist,” he says.

“What?”

“One,” he says, “Can’t split an atom. ‘Cause, they’re atomic. Two, I’m just saying this, but it looks alive to me.

She frowns. Then she gives the place a more careful look.

“It does,” she agrees, after a moment. “Or— not so much looks as feels.

The air is heavy with a sentience she desperately hopes is not radioactive.

“It’s waking up,” he says.

Then he sighs and straightens up his spine.

“You can stay here,” he says.

“Really?”

“Best not to dirty your hands, eh?”

“What?”

“I’m the Hangman,” he says. “I’m going to go in there and kill it before it wakes up all the way. You’re going to stay here and be backup, just in case I fail.”

She looks after him helplessly.

He’s walking forward.

“Wait—”

“The real reason?” he says, looking back. “The real reason the cars ran away?”

“Huh?”

“Someone saw them. Someone saw them, when they’d just woken up, when they were trying to figure out who they were. And when they asked him—or her, maybe, trucks aren’t much for the difference—when they asked him what they should do?

“He said, ‘Oh, run away, run away.'”

The Hangman goes down the path and opens the doors to the complex and he goes in and then he’s gone.

She sits down.

The sun crosses the sky and burns her face and then hides itself behind the western clouds.

“What the heck?” she asks.

Then there is a terrible raging light that sears her eyes through closed lids and a weight of sentience in the air that is almost appalling and she can sense something great and terrible, like a wounded angel thrashing, in the world. She feels a great sickness and an anger and then the Hangman dies.

She can feel it—click. An irritation under the skin of a nearby god, vanished into dust.

The Hangman dies.

Peace returns and quiet and then a gentle curiosity, focused in on her as she curls around her stomach on the hill down to the god.

What are you?” it asks, though in no words. “What are you, Jane? What makes you run?

Not petrol, she thinks, in a lunatic moment,

You do not run on digestion,” it concurs.

And suddenly she can recognize the crazy innocence of it, the purity of it, the inanimate spirit unknowing of what people are.

He didn’t need to try and kill it. He’d never needed to try to kill it.

Something that innocent—it’d do whatever people wanted, whatever people told it. All they’d have to do is explain.

“We have these purposes,” she could say.

And then there would still be no cars, but there would be this god with all its power, once again under command—awake now, living now, but owned.

It is searing her. She is probably dying. It could possibly save her. But there’s only one thing that Jane can say.

“Oh, run away,” she says. “Run away.”

Harbinger

as narrated by Mrs. Schiff

People say that he’s a Harbinger of bad news — that where he goes misfortune follows.

“If you see him,” they say, “turn away. Don’t look. Go somewhere else, if you can.”

When I saw him I decided they were wrong.

It wasn’t a big philosophical thing. I mean, people have argued — people with real blogs and stuff — that you can’t change fate just by deciding. If he’s there for you, he’s already there for you, before you turn away or go somewhere else. If he’s not there for you, then turning away won’t change anything.

But even people like that, they agree, you don’t talk to him.

You don’t make a point of interacting with him.

That’s just making trouble for yourself.

He moved so gracefully.

It’s hard to explain if you’ve only seen him on television or in frozen pictures. It’s not like you’d expect.

Harbinger doesn’t fall into any uncanny valley. When you see him move, it’s like it frees up your own limbs — it’s like when the Wrights looked at birds (or maybe stiff-limbed trees with engines on them) and learned to fly. He’s beautiful.

So I said, “Hi.”

He gave this big delighted grin and moved to me and said, “You talked to me!”

There wasn’t any loneliness in his eyes. There weren’t any marks of it. He’s not like Emo or the Ice Guy. There was just this transformative joy of human contact.

But now that he was there and happy I was talking, I didn’t know any more of what to say.

“You’re Harbinger,” I told him, on the theory that perhaps he didn’t know.

“The very same,” he said. He looked away for a second, then smoothly back. “I was blessed by my godmother to be a hero — to have the speed to go where I am needed before it is too late, and to save the day once I am there.”

I set my purse down because I wanted my hands free, but then I didn’t have anything to do with them.

“Really?”

“Really,” he said. “But then I was cursed to get there before the trouble happened, and leave before it arrived. It’s all —”

He gestured like somebody trying to draw a Rube Goldberg schematic with club hands.

“It’s all in the order you get your blessings, with fairies. The right order and you’re a hero, the wrong order and it’s not so good.”

“Well, you could warn people,” I said.

“I don’t do that,” he said.

“No?”

“That’d be trouble,” he said. He spun around uncertainly like a top. “I mean, not the same kind of trouble that happens after I leave, I hope — oh, God, paradoxes would suck — but the thing is, it’d just mean that my warning came too soon and that people would forget it just in time to need it. I don’t want anyone kicking themselves on my account, and they always would. My name is Jason, by the way.”

“Eileen.”

“No,” he said. “I don’t warn people. I don’t do anything like that.”

“Oh.”

I hesitated.

“But I’ll be in trouble?” I said.

“Yeah,” he agreed. “You’ll need a really fast guy to save you — well, plus my other godmother gifts, like strength”

and beauty

“and laser vision,” he said. “But I’ll have already left, to get there before a big building fire or drowning puppy or something.”

“That’s too bad.”

“But listen,” he said. He took my hands. “Listen, it’s okay.”

I was blushing. I thought about yanking my hands away. I didn’t manage to decide to do it. It’s probably part of his supernatural powers.

“I wanted to quit,” he said. “I thought about it for a long time. But finally I realized that there was still something worth doing. I mean, when people don’t go all ‘run away, it’s Harbinger.’ on me. I figured out that everything I’m supposed to stop — that it can all be okay. Even though I can’t.”

I pulled my hands back.

“Not drowning puppies,” I pointed out.

“We make our lives really hard,” he said. “When bad stuff happens, we tell ourselves that we’re part of why; or we hurt ourselves extra, struggling against it or trying to hang on to what we had before. We don’t — people don’t — focus on the fact that part of being a person is that whatever is immediately in front of you, you can handle it. That’s what it means to be a consciousness in the world — that there are paths that you can take, and one of them is as right as you can get, and if you take that, it’s okay. And even if you don’t take that, as long as you have a good reason to take a different one, that’s okay too. Or if you learn better later. Whatever. There’s only the options we have in front of us, so it’s okay if we don’t have other ones.”

“That’s okay as far as it goes,” I said.

“I realized,” he said, “that maybe if I told people that, then they’d remember it when their suffering came. Because it’s not like there was any other way it could have been, not like the trouble is something they could get out of, not when they needed me and I’ll have already left.”

“You could tell them to blame you,” I told him.

He smiled and stopped smiling, smiled and stopped smiling, three or four times. “But it wouldn’t be true,” he said.

Then he looked up and away, sharply, like a dog that’s heard some hidden sound.

“They will need me,” he said.

Death and death and death; I could feel it. I could taste it, metallic in the air. It hadn’t even happened yet and it was calling him.

“Wait,” I said.

“Oh, my heart,” he said. “I wish I could.”

Then there was nothing left of him but my brain’s stubborn reluctance — for nearly half a second — to recognize that he was gone.

A Guide to Giant Monster Country Cuisine

Visitors to Giant Monster Country often express an interest in sampling the delightful native cuisine. Here are some things you need to know.

First, it is not possible for the natives of Giant Monster Country to decide in advance which giant monster will attack. Thus it is important that the visitor understand that no matter how reasonable their requests the people of Giant Monster Country can only prepare the monster that is available. Most monsters are peanut-free but many are glutinous. One can expect several kosher monsters to attack in any given month, but a giant monster suitable for vegetarian consumption (e.g. a vampiric plant, radioactive plant, or evil plant) attacks only three or four times a year. The diet of Giant Monster Country is generally unsuitable for vegans unless they are visiting during Giant Robot Month.(1)

Whichever region of Giant Monster Country you visit will be attacked by a new monster each week. Currently the giant monster attacks on a Tuesday but the attacks are occasionally shifted to a different day or pre-empted for a message from a giant politician.

Once the monster begins its attack you should immediately rush to the street and begin pointing and exclaiming. As the people of Giant Monster Country say, “A monster that no one exclaims over can’t taste sweet.” The best exclamation is the monster’s name, which is generally written inconspicuously on its otherwise smooth crotch. If you wish to point and exclaim a monster’s name but are unable to read kaijukanji do not feel embarrassed about asking a native for help!

It takes roughly 25-50 minutes from the monster’s initial appearance for a team of plucky heroes to defeat the monster. Even if you are very hungry you should respect the customs of Giant Monster Country and wait until after the monster is defeated before taking your first bite. Also please do not bother the hotel chef about preparation details during the rampage or they may irritably claim that monsters do not exist and laugh you off as a drunk.

Do not expect to eat the giant monster in the American style, tearing off and frying or barbecuing large chunks. Every monster must be carefully portioned out and prepared so that it will last the entire region one week. This is the origin of the “eccentric” cuisine of Giant Monster Country; if you have ever wondered why so many recipes focus on unblinking eyeball soup or giant small intestines, now you know! They are driven by this inexorable economy.

It is proper to eat a slice of pickled ginger between each course of monster.

Sometimes a monster will be particularly tasty or, conversely, particularly high-yield.(2) In these cases you would think that the people of Giant Monster Country would preserve the excess monster against future famine.(3) This is not so. Monster meat must be used up within the week, if necessary by feeding it to pets or shipping it to starving children in China or India.(4)

Here is the reason.

Monsters are extremely durable. If you store or freeze part of a monster there is a very good chance that it will reconstitute and attack Giant Monster Country again. Everyone will say, “Look! This is what your arrogance has unleashed!” They will shout at you and call you a mad person. You will feel humiliated and may be driven out with pitchforks and torches. Nobody wanted to eat the same monster two weeks in a row!

The best times to visit Giant Monster Country are probably Sweeps Week (when the Iron Chefs are most likely to confront the giant monsters directly) and the summer. In the summer no new monsters attack Giant Monster Country; instead, various monsters that were particularly popular return for an encore attack. The annual return of everyone’s favorite monster, Crazy Love Fish, is the centerpiece of the quixotic but unforgettable Crazy Love Fish Festival; people say that if a bit of exploded Crazy Love Fish falls on you and your boyfriend or girlfriend that you will stay together forever.

Footnotes

(1) Giant Robots do not suffer, but only wish to kill.
(2) For instance, an environmentally-conscious team of heroes, confronting a Lernean hydra, will often take care to generate as many heads as possible before they kill it. This maximizes the caloric return on the energy they spend.
(3) Famine . . . from the FUTURE!
(4) Thus obviating their pedagogical purpose and rendering them full of lassitude.

Frognarok

First, evil frogs talk. Then they kill.

“So,” says the evil frog.

It kicks its legs.

It’s sitting next to Marilyn on a branch overlooking the swamp. She looks a little green, but not so green as the evil frog.

“So,” she says.

The evil frog inflates the bladders by his head, as if an idea were coming to him, then lets them deflate and shakes his head.

“It’s not your fault,” Marilyn says. “Communities project their sins onto evil frogs, producing your blood thirst and various mutations.”

“That is good of you to say,” he concedes, “but I must make my own meaning.”

He emits a noise, burrup, which for all we know is his meaning; nothing further is said, for in the next moment, he is turning, webbed fingers opening around his palm, and the sigil of Carcaon (which was his name and his aspect) is burning like a coal therein.

They dance the great circle. Her wrist strikes his aside. Then there is only red and green.

She lands, lightly, in the swamp.

She leaves footprints, behind her, as she goes.

Later she hangs out in a hot spring with another frog.

“I loved once,” Marilyn says. “I loved so brightly. But the people of the town, they would not have me. They said, ‘frog hunters are green.'”

“It isn’t easy,” the frog admits.

This one is poisonous. Vapors waft off of it. If they talk too long she will die and won’t even get to fight it first. But it has a very approachable air that makes her want to talk longer than frog hunters usually talk with evil frogs.

“Did you know that we absorb it?” she says. “The green?”

“I did not.”

“We kill the frogs and take in their color, to remedy the fallen condition of humanity.”

“So in a way,” the frog says, “we are the same.”

“Always,” Marilyn says passionately. “I would so be insulting you if I did not feel empathy as I killed.”

The frog has no response to that.

It wants to complain or criticize—to observe that it is more concerned with killing than propriety—except that it has never particularly tried to feel as its victims must.

So he just sits, stewing in his poisonous vapors, and thinks, and after a while says, “I too have been a’ courting.”

“Oh?”

“I thought that I would marry a lovely woman,” he says. “And poison her in the process of our love. But then a dove swept me up and carried me off to a distant land.”

It is wearing a dove feather in its baldness.

“That must have been a miracle,” Marilyn says. “Some kind of miracle bird.”

“Or a bird enemy of marriage.”

Marilyn nods. She drags herself out of the water. She sways. She is an ugly color, yellow brown.

“Time to kill?” the frog says politely.

Marilyn’s vision blurs.

“No,” she says. “It’s already done.”

She staggers away, two steps, three, then five.

The frog nods wisely.

“My poison mixes with the steam,” he says. “That’s why it’s hard to see.”

“Not me,” she says.

And she dunks her face once, twice, and three times in the swamp, before taking a few more steps away and vomiting noisily against a startled thrush until she looks a bit more green.

“You’ve boiled,” she says, at last.

Days pass.

“I wish I weren’t green,” she says.

She’s hunting for a third frog. She’s heard it’s drawn to sorrow. And indeed, no sooner has she spoken the words than it eddies up, like ichor on the marsh.

It is transparent, practically invisible. Its hand clasps over her mouth, dripping with slime, and it tries to draw her down.

She bites down, sucking in a mouthful of horrid frog, and gives a muffled scream.

It pulls.

She fumbles at her belt. She pulls out a frog hunter micro-dynamite. She slams it into the side of the frog and twists and pulls and breaks free as it bangs.

They separate.

She gasps and shudders. It pulls back and wraps around a tree, sucking out the life force of the tree to heal its wound.

“Evil frogs talk,” Marilyn says, “then they fight.”

It hisses.

“There are rules,” Marilyn says.

Finally, it sighs.

“I have nothing to say to you, human,” it says. “I am frog. You are frog hunter. There is no point in conversation.”

“We have to make connections with the things we kill,” Marilyn says.

“That is your scruple.”

It is alien. She has never fought an evil frog so alien and cold.

“Why are you like this?” she protests.

It is silent. Ripples pass through it, this way, that way. Finally, as if the words are torn from it, it says, “I was the first. I was the frog of finding words. I was the frog of assumption of mastery of death. I sucked death into my air bladders. I rattled his bones. I spat him out and took power from him. Then he slunk away to live at the outskirts of the world. But I was green.”

She looks at him.

“It isn’t ea—” she starts.

“Shut up!” it howls.

So she falls silent.

Behind it the sky is full of the aurora; and it makes red and blue light to flicker in its skin.

“I was cursed with green,” it says. “It was my testing. And I could not bear it. And I said, ‘Lord, take this burden from me.’ And it was granted to me, my wish.”

“Colorless,” she says.

“It is better!” it says. “Better, this. I need no color. I live alone. I kill humans that come into my realm. Women, men, frog hunters, even the little girls and little boys and their hungry soul-devouring swords. Colorless I am supreme. But you trouble me with your words and make them itch inside my head.”

She looks down, briefly.

“I didn’t mean—” she says.

It hisses. It gives her no time to finish. It leaps into the air, spreading out like some great smothering tarp, and she is falling back and hoisting a twisted branch as if it were a spear.

Its ichor covers her as she emerges from the swamp. She is dripping with it.

Underneath it her face is the color of a peach, and the ichor trail behind her is wet and green.

It’s like it’s sucked the sin from her, she thinks, but something unaccountable’s been lost.

Colony Collapse

To bumblebee is to become a bumblebee; and the price of that becoming is your death.

The news is always full of stories.

Bumblebees are squished;
Licked up;
Yakked out;
and, lastly, wiped.

The Lady Devereaux—as all the ladies Devereaux had before—expresses bombastic disdain.

“We need them, yes,” she says.

One arm waves, broadly. A length of lace cuts the air.

“As we need all those sorts. The grouting ants, the toilet skinks, and the far-too-serious badgers of City Hall. But it is . . . hymenopteraic,” she says. “Segmenting your eyes; growing the antennae; carrying about the slops of flower sex—it is not done.”

“Hymenopteral,” says Emeline, behind her too-large glasses.

Grammar constrains the Lady Devereaux. She feels it binding her as her corset might—not literally, but still a certain coarse constraint.

“The adjective is hymenopteral,” Emeline concludes.

The Lady Devereaux sighs. She sinks down into her chair. She gestures Emeline to her lap, and gently she brushes Emeline’s hair.

“So it is,” she says.

“Mum Grayden,” Emeline says—here referring to Heloise Grayden, across the road—“is proud of Robert; so she says.”

There is a peculiar misery to Emeline’s expression now. Robert had been a funny child, in his too-tight suits and his niceties, but he was more to her than her brother Adric or the Skevinses down the road. And you can follow the story of a bumblebee in the papers—the government was always very proper in keeping towns up-to-date on the accomplishments of their bees—but you cannot play with a bumblebee. You cannot drink hot cocoa with a bumblebee, if you do not want it to drown or become sick of chocolate poisoning or burn up after coming too close to the chocolate and forgetting how to fly. And you certainly cannot play Scrabble, gin, or DS Pokemon while doing so. Even a fantasy tea party is somewhat stifled when it is only yourself and a bee; and Robert had flown on not long after his transformation in any case.

“Mum Grayden,” says the Lady Devereaux, “is putting her best face on.

There were five of them living in Emeline’s house, which is to say, the Lady Devereaux; her daughter Morgaine; her son-in-law Edward, of whom nothing further shall be said; and her grandchildren Emeline and Adric.

In the mornings Emeline would eat breakfast, always a toasted bagel with a cream cheese spread, a glass of orange juice, and occasionally an egg. She would shower and change from her pajamas into clothing suitable for school; then she would catch the bus. Later, after receiving an education, she would return home and while away her evenings on study, family time, and play; and on no occasion did she reveal herself as anything other than the kind of person who remains human all their life.

It takes a peculiar kind of dignity to live as a human all one’s life—given, of course, that one should have the means—

But the ladies Devereaux mostly did.

Now Heloise Grayden visits one afternoon for tea; and Emeline breaks her silence to say, “I think that they should let the bees come home.”

It is one of the opinions voiced in the local paper; and she is quoting Harvard Elling of that paper when she finishes, “It is a matter of simple justice.”

Mum Grayden makes a noise; it is a strange sort of noise, half-gasp, half-snort, indelicate and covered shortly after with a napkin to her lips.

“Naturally, no person ought to be—constrained,” says Lady Devereaux.

It is surprisingly kind of her to say; then she spoils it altogether by continuing, “Although I’m sure there are considerations— stinging and flying in people’s eyes and such. If there weren’t some regulation, wouldn’t bees just do as they like and make the ecosystem worse? I’m sure the government bees as compassionate as it can.”

“Mum,” murmurs Morgaine.

Morgaine looks away from Lady Devereaux and extends a hand towards Heloise. Heloise follows it with her eyes but does not take it. Instead she places her napkin down with great delicacy and offers Lady Devereaux a kind of wet-eyed grin.

“When the flowers bloom on the trees, and the orchards live—I think, we wouldn’t have anything to eat, would we? We wouldn’t have the means to live, not like this anyway, without our boys in yellow—there’s no way to say it—without our boys in yellow, busy in the hives, inseminating the queen. Isn’t it so? So I think, isn’t it good? I don’t know what I’d do if he came home.”

The Lady Devereaux fixes her expression in a porcelain smile.

“Yes,” she says. “God save them.”

Emeline frowns.

“Inseminating is Latin,” she says, deep in thought. “Inseminare: to sow, implant. Pray, if you could tell me—”

The Lady Devereaux stands abruptly.

“A wonderful tea,” she says, in sharp swift cadence. “Thank you for your visit, dear Heloise, and may you come again. Children ought, dear Emeline, be seen and not heard. Have you entirely completed your studies for the weekend? I feel I need a walk; adieu.”

Her bustle proves eponymous as she retreats from the room.

“Do not be a bumblebee, Emeline,” says Heloise.

Her hands come down on Emeline’s. They grip them tight.

“Not a bumblebee. Not even a queen. Not even some other kind of bee. Do not.”

Morgaine says, sharply, “Heloise!”

Heloise stares at her hands and Emeline’s for a moment. Then she shakes her head. She looks confused, as if she does not understand how she has come to this place, this time, and this position.

Slowly she pulls away.

I think,” Adric says, in what shall be his only line, “that she’ll become an owl.”

But this is the fallacy of Lamarck; and for his deviation from evolutionary orthodoxy Emeline punishes him with itching powder in his sheets.

At school the next week three boys are singing in the playground:

“I’m bringing home a baby bumblebee;
“Won’t my mother be so proud of me?”

Emeline, who is walking past them to the library, stops to hear them out.

“I’m bringing home a baby bumblebee.
“Ouch! He stung me!”

She frowns at them distantly.

The version of the song she’d always heard began with “I wish I were—”

A good devotional song, that one. This one—

This one was perverse.

“I’m squishing up my baby bumblebee,” the boys are singing, squishing their hands together.
“Won’t my mommy be so proud of me?
“I’m squishing up my baby bumblebee,
“Eww! It’s all over me!”

Stop it,” she says.

Her body is rigid. Her arms are at her sides and trembling. The boys turn to stare at her.

Stop it,” she says. “They’re bees.

“I’m wiping off my baby bumblebee,” one of the boys starts, in a soothing, pacifying, and entirely sarcastic tone. He scrubs off his hands. The others join in.
“I’m wiping off my baby bumblebee,
“Won’t my mommy be so proud of me?
“I’m wiping off my baby bumblebee—”

They sneer at her.

“Look! All clean!” they say and show her their hands; but she cannot see them through her furious tears.

Stiff-legged, she walks away.

Behind her, she hears,

“I’m licking up my baby bumblebee—”

That day she scores a 92 on her spelling test, mangling phylopraxy and palingenesis entirely and with two furious strokes of her pen.

It is not an error the Lady Devereaux accepts; Emeline goes without her evening meal that night.

Bumblebees—

It is not like it is with honey bees.

A bumblebee can sting and then survive; it can leave the hives, abandoning its peers, and make its way along the roads to home; it is fearsome-furred and powerful and strong—

It has a better life than a honey bee’s.

But to bumblebee is to become a bumblebee, and the price of that is death.

It may wait twelve months for you—fifteen, if you are lucky, young, and strong—but death, for a bumblebee, is as inevitable as the snow.

That winter, the papers tell Emeline of Robert Grayden’s death, and Mum Grayden hangs the yellow wreath upon her door.

“Sometimes I think that Adric ought become a llama,” Emeline says.

This suggestion is one students find quite clever—entirely deniable, if one knows certain details about Tibet, and while undignified not so harsh as to be cruel.

But at the table where she and Lady Devereaux are taking a late and solitary tea, the suggestion falls quite flat.

“A Devereaux does not become a beast,” the Lady Devereaux says.

Emeline swallows a bit of scone and many unwise remarks.

“I don’t know how Robert became a bee, and then he died,” she says, after a time. “And everyone says it was heroic, but they don’t— they don’t honor it.”

“It is very hard for poor Heloise,” says Lady Devereaux.

She tidies up the crumbs on her plate.

“Perhaps we should invite her by; speak about . . . a breath of air, you know, taking down the yellow, coming back into society again. It is not good to spend your time in melancholy; she still is healthy enough, I’m sure she and Mr. Grayden can fill their house again.”

“But—” says Emeline.

“Tut!” says Lady Devereaux. “Finish your scone, young lady, and then we shall draw your bath.”

In Church they sing,

“I wish I were a baby bumblebee;
“Won’t my mommy be so proud of me?
“I wish I were a baby bumblebee;
“A male! Or a queen!”

“I wish I were a military boar;
“Tusks and hide and shouting a great roar;
“I wish I were a military boar;
“Charge!”

But even when they sing about service, the minister mostly talks about hellfire and money.

That is why when Emeline finds herself at the transmogrification office, staring down at the clipboards and wondering, she feels utterly and entirely alone.

“If you’re under 18,” the recruiter says, “Your Mum or Dad’ll have to sign.”

“I’m 18,” Emeline says.

The recruiter looks at her. If you didn’t have access to her sanitary cupboard, you’d be hard pressed to prove she’d hit puberty.

“12 at most,” he says.

“I just have to say I’m 18,” Emeline says. “You don’t have to believe me. And it just means I live longer, after, if I’m not.”

His eyes go carefully and formally blank.

“Can’t get your Mum or Dad to agree, then?”

“‘A Devereaux doesn’t become a beast,'” Emeline quotes. “‘A Devereaux is always gracious. A Devereaux always uses perfect grammar.’

“— even if she doesn’t!” Emeline adds, in mild outrage.

“It’s tough,” the recruiter says. “It’s not— you understand that it’s not a way to get away from too much homework? Or spite your parents for grounding you?”

“Everything is dying,” Emeline says, “because the bees are dying. The plants will die. The animals. The people. All the web of life come undone.

“If you ask me,” she says, and realizes as she says this that she has become everything that is not a Devereaux, “there ought to be a draft.”

The recruiter makes one of those faces adults sometimes make.

“18, huh?” he says.

“18.”

And that is how she took the change.

The walk home afterwards is the hardest thing she’s ever done. She tells herself it is because her body is changing, but this is not so, not yet. That takes a few days to start.

It is because she is still human, rather, and knows what will happen.

“Mother,” she says, “Grandmother. It is my intention; I mean, I want to—I mean, I will— bumblebee.”

And the Lady Devereaux goes white, which is exactly as expected, and her breath rattles in her corset-constrained chest like the ball of a pinball machine, thumping back and forth.

“I said,” Emeline adds, jutting her chin, “I was 18.”

But what Emeline did not expect was the reaction of Morgaine.

They do not strike Emeline’s mother down, these words—though they strike her, yes, wash through Morgaine like lightning; but there is motion and not stillness, the bending of sleeves and jacket and the crinkling of skirts; and her mother wraps bloused arms around Emeline like package paper around a treasure, and her hug is deep and warm and faintly crackling.

“Oh, Emeline,” she says.

And there is strange wonder here; strange pride and fear; there is something here that is more than sorrow.

It is everything, and more, for thirty seconds of her life.

After that, Emeline begins to understand what a corset must be like, and why the Lady Devereaux is with such great frequency so strange.

My Neighbor Samara

Bursts of noise come from upstairs—the sound of television tuned to nothing, shouting its emptiness at the world.

The room is seething with motes of white and black.

Static sprites—makkurokurosuke.

They are hungry and they live in abandoned houses where someone has left a television on and they cling to human flesh like leeches. They are hungry. But they do not eat today.

Today Mei screams.

The sound of her scream cuts across the noise. It drives the static sprites before it. It maddens and hurts them. They swirl back into the television set, bits of puffy white and black jockeying for place, until the last of them squeezes in at last and in darkness and silence a white ring shines forth.

“That’s very good, Mei,” her father says.

Mei giggles happily.

Mei’s father is a forensic archaeologist. He investigates mysterious and horrible deaths with the invaluable assistance of his two adorable daughters, Satsuki and Mei.

The three of them have moved to a fabulous new house that their father knew about because its previous owner died in a horrible mysterious way. It was an incredible bargain.

But it’s haunted by the evils of modern entertainment.

Mei goes down to the booze cellar one day to play and she sees this guy. This strange guy. This strange little spirit-rabbit guy walking on the shelf above the port.

This guy above the port is the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.

Mei follows him.

He meets up with another, larger guy, in a more modern dead channel blue.

They notice her following. They’re a bit perturbed. They run.

She chases.

They lead her out of the house and through the woods and to an abandoned well. They run out along its wooden lid. She follows. The lid cracks. Mei falls.

Down and down she tumbles, like Alice, and lands on the stomach of a beautiful drowned lady.

“Unh,” the lady grunts.

Then the lady tries to go back to sleep.

It’s not very easy to get to sleep when you’re at the bottom of a well. It might sound cool and soothing but in practice your hair is always getting algae on it and the rocks dig into the hollow of your back and you find yourself thinking that really it would be nice if somebody would pull you out of the well. Also sometimes you are an inhuman creature who had never previously slept since the day you were born.

So when the lady had finally gotten to sleep and then Mei fell on her her first instinct was something on the order of, “Just another few minutes, Mom.”

But Mei is prodding her.

“Hi, lady,” Mei says.

Finally the lady opens her eyes. She mumbles something in Japanese and tries to afflict Mei with terrible visions.

“Sa-ma-ra?” Mei says.

She beams happily.

“Your name is Samara!”

Satsuki and her father look for Mei. They find her laying in front of the television set and twitching.

“You must have had an epileptic seizure,” her father says.

But Mei shakes her head.

“I was with a magical decaying girl at the bottom of a well!”

“Hmm,” her father says, thinking. “That might have been Samara. She is the keeper of the Juzou Mori.”

“Ohhhh,” say Mei and Satsuki.

They run around saying, “Samara! Samara!”

“Hmm, we should really get phone service,” their father says.

One night when their father is out investigating a hideous vivisection-initiated murder in the outskirts of town Satsuki gets an idea.

“Father didn’t bring a body bag today,” she says. “What if he needs to bring the corpse back with him? We should go meet him at the bus stop!”

“Bus stop!” Mei says, delighted.

They go to wait at the bus stop. Mei falls asleep on the way. She begins moaning and twitching.

“I bet Samara’s afflicting you with emanations,” Satsuki says.

She sighs fondly.

Mei is always getting afflicted with psychic emanations. Satsuki, who is older, is more often kidnapped by deranged lunatics.

Satsuki picks Mei up and carries her to the bus stop. To her delight Samara is standing there as if waiting for a bus.

Satsuki looks at Samara.

Samara looks at Satsuki.

“It must be hard to be dead and all alone in the forest,” Satsuki says. Then she chews on her lip. It’s hard to say what she is going to say next. “Would you like a body bag?”

Samara looks at her.

Satsuki closes her eyes and bows and holds out the body bag, blushing.

Samara hesitates.

Then Samara takes the body bag. She steps into it. She zips it up. She beams delightedly, one must suppose. After a moment, the bag unzips a little and a pale hand emerges to offer Satsuki a videotape.

“Oh! Do you want me to take it?” Satsuki asks.

Samara just holds out the videotape.

“Thank you!” Satsuki says.

She takes the videotape. She looks at it.

“Um, it’s Rated R for extremely disturbing scenes and a curse,” she says.

Samara zips up her body bag. She doesn’t say anything.

After a bit a bus-like horror shows up. It has the face of a cat and its eyes burn static. Its upholstery is flesh and fur. It has no driver. Samara hops awkwardly on board.

“Ohhh,” Satsuki says.

Samara does not look back but she speaks. “When you record data onto a bus, it develops cat-like features. This lasts for seven days.”

The bus doors close. Grinning horribly, the creature leaps away.

“Wait!” Satsuki calls suddenly. “Wait! How do you record data onto a bus?”

But the creature is gone.

That night, when she tells the story to their father, he nods wisely.

“If she died in terrible agony,” she says, “then little things like recording data onto busses is not surprising.”

“I want to die in terrible agony!” Satsuki says.

Her father laughs.

He shakes his head.

Satsuki looks pleadingly at him. Mei bounces around, saying, “Die! Die!”

“Well,” their father says, kindly, “Let’s just watch the tape.”

They watch the tape. It shows them a house filled with terrible soot creatures, lumbering beasts with leaves on their heads, barbaric ritual dances, and a woman gasping for life in a hospital far from home.

There is a pause.

Then the video resolves into the image of a ring
ing phone.

“Hmm, we should really get phone service,” their father says again.

A shadowy figure picks up the phone.

A voice says, “Seven—”

But their father turns the television off.

He’s just noticed!

The girls are fast asleep.

“So young,” he says. “I guess you have to be an old-timer to be scared by all these dead people.”

He carries them off to bed.

One morning Mei has a terrible psychic intuition.

“It’s mother,” she says.

“Mother’s dead,” Satsuki says.

“Not any more!” Mei protests.

“Let her rest in peace,” Satsuki says. “She probably hasn’t forgotten the last time!”

But Mei starts crying.

“Mei—” Satsuki says.

“No!” Mei shouts.

She bursts onto her feet, tears streaming down her face, and charges out of the room, slamming the thin screen door behind her.

“Mei?” Satsuki says.

Satsuki goes to the door. She opens it. She looks outside.

“Mei?”

Satsuki’s face pales. Mei has vanished.

“What do I do?” Satsuki says. “What do I do?”

She runs around in a circle.

Then she stops. She calms herself.

“She’s probably just in a spirit world,” Satsuki says. “Halfway between life and death. Oh, father should be here!”

She clenches her fists.

She is only a little assistant. She is not good at solving hideous mysteries on her own. But her father is at work investigating a mysterious death and her mother is hopefully still buried in the steel-chained coffin so she is on her own.

“The tape,” she says.

She goes to the television room. She turns on the television. She flips past Mr. Headroom and Mr. Krueger. She finds a blank channel and puts in the video.

It shows a game show. Teenagers with meat strapped to their heads are sticking their heads through holes into a cage with a gila monster in it.

“No, no, no!” Satsuki says. She hits the television. “Mei you shouldn’t have taped over the cursed tape!”

The gila monster approaches one of the teenagers, who screams and ducks.

Then in the distance Satsuki sees Samara.

“Oh, thank God,” she says.

“This is unexpected,” the game show host is saying. “Not just a gila monster, but also some kind of unliving . . .”

Samara gives him a chilling glance and he stops.

“Somebody call a forensic archaeologist!” a contestant shrieks. The gila monster lunges. But we do not see the ending.

Samara obscures it as she crawls from the screen.

Samara stares at Satsuki.

“Samara, Samara,” Satsuki says. “Mei’s gone! Mei’s gone into some kind of terrible netherworld between light and darkness!”

Samara looks at her still.

Then slowly Samara’s mouth widens into a hellish grin.

Samara gestures towards the door. The sky goes dark and fills with twisting clouds and lightning flares. The wind blows deep and cold.

Yielding a horrible howl unto the world, a seven-day bus creature lands before the door.

Satsuki looks back at Samara.

“Do you want me to get in? Do you want me to get in, Samara?”

Then, because Samara gives no indication, Satsuki scrambles into the cat-like bus and seats herself amongst its bulging clumps of fur.

The door slams shut and fades away.

Through realms of darkness and horror the bus flies, its mouth fixed in a bared-teeth smile. Its eyes cast forth static unto the mist.

Then Satsuki sees her—Mei—suspended amongst the permeable and nebulous tendrils of the netherworld, eyes blank and purple fires burning in her open mouth.

Before this majestic and infernal vision the bus goes still.

Its headlights shine upon the younger girl.

Its engine stops.

Its door manifests and opens again.

“I have lived for seven days,” it says.

And as Satsuki steps from the bus she can see the material form returning to it; and it plunges from the world of horror into the world of things; and she closes her eyes tightly against a strange butterfly of grief that flies within her chest.

Mists surround her now.

She can hear the songs of the tormented dead, calling to her, bidding her to join them in their suffering.

But she opens her eyes, and she says, “Mei.”

And Mei wakes.

“You can’t be with Mom yet,” Satsuki says.

And she takes Mei into her arms, and pulls away into the living world.

Terror fades to light.

That’s the last time either of them see Samara or watch her magical tape. But Samara watches over them always.

Seven days before you die, they say, she makes a bus for you.

She makes a bus for you, so that you will not go unaccompanied into the dark.

Against the warm fur of a cat you shall ride to whatever is your destination; and where that is not even a forensic archaeologist may know.