Category Archives: Fiction

Anchors

The porch light is off, and for a minute I think maybe they thought I wasn’t coming home tonight. But then I hear the soft plucked notes of Inay’s guitar. She’s sitting on the porch swing in the near-dark. Between the living room window and the streetlamp, there’s just enough light to make out her face and the half-empty whiskey bottle beside her.

“I always wanted a porch swing, growing up,” she says, not looking up from the guitar. “A house with a yard and a porch swing and a wood fence, not chain-link.” She shifts on the swing, making room even though there’s plenty of space. I take it as an invitation. The swing creaks a little under our combined weight, but it always does that. It’s plenty strong.

“Where’s Mom?” I ask.

“Down at Holly’s. She needed an evening out.” Inay sets the guitar aside and reaches for the whiskey. It’s the good stuff, the stuff she usually saves for when Uncle Jack comes over. She raises the bottle to her lips, hesitates, and sticks her other hand inside her jacket, bringing a glass out from nowhere, from hammerspace. She blows into the glass, like it’s dusty or something, wipes off a smudge with her shirttail. Splashes about an inch of whiskey into it. Then she hands it to me.

Surprised, I take it.

“Go on,” she says. “It’s not gonna kill you, is it?”

“No. No, I guess it won’t.”

She doesn’t say anything. She’s already guessed where I was today. What I was doing. That makes it easier, actually. I don’t want to tell her that I died today, even if it didn’t stick. Immortal. I take a sip of whiskey and try not to cough at the way it burns.

We sit there in companionable silence for a while, me with my glass and Inay with the bottle, rocking back and forth. It’s one of the things I love about my Inay: we don’t have to talk to understand each other. In fact, it’s when we talk that we understand each other the least.

“I got a favor to ask,” she says abruptly. Her voice is… not slurred, exactly, but imprecise.

She let herself get drunk, I think. Another surprise.

“Someday, when I’m gone.” She raises the bottle, drinks. Her face is turned into the shadows now, and I can’t see what she’s thinking. “When I’m gone,” she repeats, “and your Mom’s gone, and your Aunt Kyna and Seamus and… when we’re all gone, promise me you’ll look after Uncle Jack. Make sure he doesn’t do anything… stupid.” She laughs, and lifts the bottle again in a kind of salute. “Stupid’s my gig. Don’t let him…” She doesn’t finish.

I look into my glass, into the thin film of whiskey covering the bottom. “He’s got Katie,” I offer. “And Angus. He’ll be all right.”

She’s already shaking her head. “’S not enough,” she says. “He promised me he’d take care of you, before you—“ She gestures with the bottle. “But you’ve got Kate now, and Bronagh. And they’ve got you. He’ll have no one. I dunno what he’ll do, without Kyna.”

“All right,” I say slowly. I’ve made so many promises today. What’s another? “I’ll keep an eye on him. But really, I dunno what I can do that they can’t.”

Inay relaxes. Considers the bottle and sets it down. Picks up the guitar instead. “I know how I’d feel, your Mom goes first.” Her voice is steadier now, way steadier than I’d expect, considering. “But I got anchors. He needs anchors, Jack does. All immortals do.” She nods, like something’s been decided, and starts fiddling with the tuning pegs.

“Go on up to bed,” she says, like I’m twelve again. Like I’m still her baby girl, and she didn’t just give me two fingers of the good whiskey.

“Okay.” I drain the last sip from my glass and stand up. My head’s a little spinny, and it’s only partly the booze. “Don’t stay up too late.” It’s the kind of thing she’d say to me. If I were twelve.

“Just till your mom gets home.” She starts to play. “Turn the porch light on?”

“Sure.” I take the glass with me. No point in sticking it back into hammerspace all sticky. “‘Night, Inay.”

She nods, but she’s paying more attention to the guitar than to me.

Up in my room, I crack the window open a little, just to hear her sing.


Immortal

I was seventeen the first time I died. It was gentle, like the dying of a star. My heart stopped, you said, for fifteen minutes.

I died a thousand times between then and now. I died again at nineteen and twenty-two and thirty-seven and a hundred and three; I died in war and in bed, with valor and in obscurity, alone and in your arms. All I remember is the dark and the shape of my name, how it fluttered against the wind: a kite tugging on a string.

Next time, I think, next time I will bring a knife.


Star-crossed

I traded minutes for kisses, hours for the slide of your skin against mine. I drew out every second, unwound them one by one: my fingers, your hair.

In that perfect moment when time no longer mattered, the lark began to sing.


The Lark

It started out as a lark. God knows, we needed a laugh or two. Someone had found a bottle of liquor, gin or vodka or something. I don’t know; I don’t drink. Paulie climbed up on the fire escape and pulled the ladder after him.

“Chicken fight,” he said, grinning. “Take turns. First one up gets a drink. No one gets up, I drink it myself.” He took a swig to show us he was serious. There was a chorus of protests, but in seconds John was up on Andre’s shoulders, his brother Will on Junior’s, and they were off, shoving each other around the alley.

Martin and I stood in the middle of the crowd and watched. I wasn’t any good at chicken fights, not against the boys, no matter how much Martin wanted that drink. Besides, we had an agreement: he wasn’t about to leave me alone, not with these boys. We barely knew them. So we stood together in the middle: not so close to the front that we’d draw attention, but not so far back that they’d think we didn’t trust them. Josie crouched by the wall in the back, pulling petals off a plastic flower she’d picked up somewhere.

The whole match took place in near silence. No one wanted to bring the Rovers down on us. The only sounds were the scraping of rubber on gravel, the panting of the fighters, and occasional insults from Paulie. Even those were hushed.

The boys started laying bets. John was bigger than Will, but Andre was taller than Junior. Junior, though, he was smart. He didn’t just rush at Andre; he danced around, dodging broken boards and bits of rubble, trying to get Andre to trip. Finally Andre stumbled over a chunk of concrete, flailing one arm while holding onto John’s leg with the other. John leaned back, trying to keep his balance. They stayed upright, but in those few seconds Junior dashed for the fire escape.

Andre pelted after him. Will had one hand on the railing and Junior was trying to lift him up. John grabbed his brother’s arm and hung on. They stood there like that straining and pulling, while the boys egged them on in harsh, laughing whispers. It was all pretty funny.

“What the fuck’s wrong with you, anyway?” I heard a voice behind me. I turned to look, and froze. A couple of the boys had pinned Josie against the wall, and a hard-eyed boy had her chin in his hand. Her eyes were squeezed shut. Her mouth, too.

“She’s like a little bird,” he said to one of his friends. “All fear and hollow bones. Don’t gimme that deaf-mute act, birdie, I heard you talk before. All I asked was your name. Be polite and answer me, huh?”

A sudden, deafening wail split the air. The bottle shattered in Paulie’s hand. He stared at the blood and the spilled liquor for a long moment before dropping to his knees and covering his ears with his forearms. Junior and Andre were already down. John must have hit his head when he fell; there was blood, and he wasn’t moving. The boys were all shouting now.

I grabbed Martin’s hand. “We’ve got to get her out of here,” I hissed between gritted teeth. “Listen!”

Underneath Josie’s keening and the confused yelling of the boys, there was a muffled howling noise. The Rovers. The boys heard it a split second after I did, and the alley erupted into chaos. Paulie swung down from the fire escape and grabbed John, slinging him over one shoulder.

“Fucking freaks,” he spat, glaring at us. “If I’d’a known, I’d’a killed you. Fuck it. Let the Rovers do it.” He staggered off down the alley. Will stumbled after him. The rest of the boys bolted in opposite directions. Best bet is always to split up.

We never split up, though, me and Martin and Josie. I kicked the hard-eyed boy aside. He whimpered and covered his head. Let the Rovers have him, I thought without sympathy.

“C’mon, honey, it’s okay, we got you.” I tugged Josie’s arm gently, pulling her after me. “Hush now, we gotta run.” She blinked at me. The shrill noise stopped, which only made the Rovers’ howls that much more terrifying.

“She never even opened her mouth,” Martin said as we ran. “Did you see? She never did.”

I nodded. It’s not like I hadn’t been expecting it. Like calls to like, after all.


This story is mainly an experiment in trying out a new voice and is related to two other pieces:

A Shifting Wind

Emmic wipes the sweat from his forehead with his cuff and glares at his companion. Jonath never seems to mind the heat. He is Old Blood, of course, born on Loess, and the Old Blood families have acclimated to the desert over the generations. So too will Emmic’s children, should he ever have any.

Jonath leans against his sandskiff. “Shouldn’t be long,” he says. “Sun’ll hit its peak in an hour or so, and that’ll give us about seven hours to reach the bunker before full dark. We made good time from Cinder.”

The rest of the caravan is moored in a crooked line deep in the shadow of a broad mesa: four twin-hulled sandcats, sails lowered and whisker-vanes furled. Some of the crewfolk lounge in the shade, sipping sweetwater from drink pouches or smoking long, narrow pipes. None of them had balked at the chance to rest in the shade during the hottest part of the day.

“The new ‘cats are faster than I expected,” Emmic agrees. “Even laden, they ought to make it back from Lode in five days instead of six. Anna been tinkering with the steering?” He glances sideways at Jonath.

“Didn’t figure you’d mind.” Jonath runs a hand over the hull of his skiff, checking it for scrapes. “She’s a bright girl, your sister. And she likes to feel useful.”

“She’s getting bored.”

“I gathered,” Jonath says dryly. “Didn’t actually expect her to give the ring back. She’s not usually so unpredictable.”

Emmic gives him a long searching look. “You don’t seem worried. She’s quite stubborn, you know.”

Jonath shrugs. “So she changed her mind; she’ll change it back, once she’s had some time to think about it. I can be pretty hard to resist.” He grins, a bright, broad smile.

“I know.” Emmic stoops, picks up a handful of sand-scoured pebbles and starts lobbing them, one by one, out of the shadows into the dunes.

“Hey.” Jonath catches Emmic’s wrist, stopping him mid-toss. “We talked about this. It’ll be fine. This is where it all really begins. Right?” He takes the stone from Emmic’s palm, throws it. It arcs past the broken line of Emmic’s pebbles and smacks into the side of the dune. The sand shifts and a skate skids down the slope, startled by the impact, before burying itself again.

“Of course.” Dropping the last stone, Emmic brushes his hands off and shades his eyes, looking out toward the anchor pylon.

“It would be easier,” Jonath says, “If you’d tell her the whole story. Or let me.”

It’s an old argument. “No. She doesn’t need to know any of it, not until I can paint her the whole picture.”

“It’s just a matter of time before she figures it out. Before someone lets something slip.” A note of entreaty slips into Jonath’s voice. “It should come from you, Emmic. She’ll see that the ends justify the means. That’s something your sister would understand. It’s logical.” He uses one of Anna’s favorite words. “She could be very useful.”

“No. Let this be mine. On me. On us,” Emmic revises, and touches Jonath’s elbow. “My father should not have betrayed the cause. Not with the War still raging out there.” He gestures to the sky, to the invisible worlds beyond it. “And as for our deal with the Prophet…” He grimaces. “What could Anna know of war and means and ends? She is too much of Loess.”

“Look.” Jonath nods at the pylon. A cloud of dust and sand trails behind the ‘cat speeding toward us, its whisker-vanes bristling as they comb electricity from the air. “There’s my ride. You sure you can handle her alone?” He lays a hand affectionately on his skiff.

“Please.” Emmic rolls his eyes. “How many races have I won?”

“None that really matter,” Jonath needles. “And this one does. The Prophet is counting on you to make it to Lode and back to Cinder before we bring the ship in. Tell Anna I’ll be home soon. I’ll bring her something new to tinker with.”

The incoming boat slows. One man is furling the sail, another leans on the brake-lever. Their faces are hidden behind heavy goggles and tightly wrapped neckcloths, but they each bear the Prophet’s insignia on their jackets: a red-leafed olive branch on a field of grey.

The ‘cat halts with a heavy scraping noise. Jonath turns to Emmic. “Wish me luck?”

Emmic nods, embraces him. “Wind to your sails, brother,” he says, and lets go.


A little side trip into the world of the Jade Dragon.