By Filip Wiltgren
When Raphael was born his mother took him to church. His father, not being inclined to such things, held the boy in his lap and read him the newspaper.
When Raphael was five, his mother took him to choir, and his father took him to play-school.
“Such voice,” said the priest.
“Such brilliance,” said the teacher.
“It is clear he has a calling,” said the priest.
“It is clear he has a gift,” said the teacher.
And Raphael’s mother and father smiled, and congratulated themselves, and basked in the radiance of their offspring.
When Raphael was ten he was a soloist in the diocese choir, where the old, soberly dressed matrons cried at the sound of his voice and kissed his mother on both cheeks.
“He is blessed by the Lord,” they told her, and Raphael’s mother nodded and smiled.
Raphael’s father looked upon his son and employed on his behalf a tutor to school him in the art of mathematics, a subject his son had taken a liking to.
“Your son,” said the tutor, “is blessed with a rare mind.” And Raphael’s father nodded, and polished the small prizes he had won in science fairs as a child, and Raphael strove to excel at what he did.
But his mother was not happy.
“Must you always sit with those books?” she said. “Here, put them away and sing a hymn for your mama.”
Neither was Raphael’s father happy.
“Must you always go to church?” he said. “Here, take your notes with you so you don’t waste your time.”
And Raphael read, and sang, and prayed, and his parents fought about him. When Raphael was fifteen his parents separated.
Raphael’s father blamed his mother, and God. Raphael’s mother blamed his father, and physics. Raphael blamed them both, and refused to go along.
When he was at his mother’s house he put his textbooks on the table, leaned back in his chair, and talked about quarks and supernovae.
“Stop that,” said his mother. “Why don’t you choose God like a decent young man?”
“God,” said Raphael, “does not exist.”
At this Raphael’s mother twisted the tiny hairs that grew by the side of his ear, and screamed that he would go to hell like his father. And Raphael screamed in pain, and refused to go to church.
When he was at his father’s house he spoke of God, Jesus, and Salvation.
“Stop that,” said his father. “Why don’t you choose physics like a clever young lad?”
“Physics,” said Raphael, “is a poor man’s attempt to deny the Divine.”
And his father yelled, and locked him in his room, and forbade him to go to church. And Raphael yelled back, and climbed out his window, and was the most devout 15-year-old in the entire city.
At twenty Raphael fried burgers in a joint too small to be worthy of being gobbled up by a chain. He’d sing Love me tender by the grill and look up at the night sky, naming the constellations while hiding a cigarette in a half-cupped palm. That’s when he met the girl.
“You’ve got a great voice,” she said. She was short, and a bit overweight. Her black hair was spiked and she wore a pair of sterling silver hydrogen atoms as earrings. Raphael pulled out his heart and served it with her burger.
“Thanks,” he said.
The girl came back, and ate bad burgers, and they talked about singing, and studying, and parents. In time they talked about life, and God, and physics, and when they moved in together they hung a silver crucifix beside a beautiful hand-drawn periodic table.
“Stop dating that lesbian,” said Raphael’s mother.
“Stop dating that Luddite,” said Raphael’s father.
And Raphael nodded, and smiled, and invited them to the wedding.
When Raphael was twenty-five he submitted his doctorate thesis. “On the Harmonics of Lepton Chirality” became an underground hit within the scientific community. Raphael’s father pestered him for free copies to give to his friends. Raphael’s mother stopped talking to him. Raphael’s wife hugged him and said that everything was going to be fine.
“I know,” said Raphael, and smiled.
When Raphael turned thirty he accepted the position of cantor at his church. He also became a post-doctorate fellow at the university, and fell into the realm of superstring theory.
“What do you need that for?” said his mother, fingering her rosary. “You have a good job at the church. Why don’t you choose God?”
“I do,” said Raphael.
“Why don’t you focus on your studies?” said his father, pushing his reading glasses onto his nose. “Imagine what you could do for the world if you chose knowledge.”
“I do,” said Raphael.
When Raphael was thirty-five he took his daughter to be baptized. Having the keys, he came early to church, put his child on a blanket before the altar and sat down with a sheaf of papers.
“What are you doing?” asked his mother, looking over Raphael’s shoulder, hoping to catch a glimpse of the hymns to be sung.
“What are you doing?” asked his father, looking over Raphael’s shoulder, fearing to catch a glimpse of the hymns to be sung.
Raphael tickled his daughter, kissed his wife on the cheek, and fanned his papers like a magician, showing them the theorems describing quantum matter, resonant frequencies, harmonics, and fundamental particles.
“I,” he said, pointing to the equations, “am listening for the echoes of the symphony of God.”
By Belinda Whitney
She skips to school alongside her mother, holding hands, three quick steps to her mother’s two. Her clothes are new, and the scratchy tag inside her blouse irritates the back of her neck. Her sneakers are softer, more buoyant than any she’s ever worn, her pants are clean and pressed. As she bounces along, her pink backpack bounces up and down. Her favorite cartoon, a dinosaur named Purple Patty, is splayed across the flap.
Her mother has been issuing a steady stream of instructions, cautions, for the entire eight-block walk. The girl wonders why her mother isn’t as excited as she is, and feels almost sorry for her. When they reach the schoolyard, the girl pauses to hug her, patting her mother’s back with her small hands. Then she turns and runs into the waiting arms of her new adventure, full of giggling and chatter. She does not notice her mother’s long stare or the tissue she pulls from her pocket as she hurries away.
She is a sociable, open child. She makes friends almost immediately. Another little girl has a backpack almost like hers with the same purple dinosaur, but it is blue, with more pockets and a fancy tassel on the zipper clasp. By the time the bell rings to enter the building, they have been best friends forever.
They are partners for games at gym. At lunch they swap halves of their sandwiches: she, offering peanut butter and jelly, and receiving sliced roast beef with swiss cheese in return. They think of nicknames for each other—Purple Patty Pink and Purple Patty Blue, after the colors of backpacks. Every time one whispers the other’s nickname, they both collapse in laughter.
The girl is happy.
After the school day is over, the two hold hands outside as mothers pick up their children. They pass the time by taking turns seeing who can say Purple Patty Pink the most times without making a mistake. The girl could easily win but she pretends to make mistakes so her friend won’t be embarrassed because she cannot say it as quickly.
The friend’s mother arrives first. She wears high narrow heels and carries the shiniest purse the little girl has ever seen. The girl wonders if she will be surprised that her daughter has already found a best friend. When the friend’s mother sees them, she stops at a distance and stares. She rushes to her daughter. The friend begins to talk excitedly, but her mother yanks her hand, dragging her away, bending down to whisper as they hurry away. When the friend turns and looks back, stumbling, her glare is a mixture of surprise and confusion, almost like an accusation.
The girl recognizes her own mother approaching from a block away. Her mother looks different somehow, although the girl cannot tell why. Her woolen plaid brown coat hangs differently, shapeless and bulky. Her shoes seem wide and flat and worn. The little girl wonders why she has never noticed these things before.
When her mother reaches her, she bends down, smiling, asking how was the first day. The girl wipes her nose with her sleeve and says okay. Her mother puts her hand on her shoulder and leads her home, occasionally stroking her hair. The girl feels a vague resentment at this wordless understanding. She walks home in silence, picking at this new hurt, a scab already forming.
It feels almost like a friend.
By Quinn Forlini
We were watching a video of chemists making meth in a parking lot. They wore yellow body suits and masks like beekeepers. They left out one key step so we couldn’t try it at home.
We were fifteen. Health Class was mandatory. The basement classroom had no windows. We sat in rows facing each other with a middle aisle, and Mr. Trout paced up and down as he spoke about condoms, tampons, hormonal acne. We’d seen videos of anorexic girls drawing bloated pictures of themselves as they stared at their breakable waists in a dance studio mirror. My STD group had made a baby mobile about syphilis that still drooped from the ceiling by Mr. Trout’s desk like an un-watered plant.
I kept waiting to learn the thing that would make me older, even if it was the look in a boy’s eyes across the aisle.
The meth video featured a slideshow of mug shots with dates stamped at the bottom, the users appearing to age decades in a few weeks. Missing teeth, stringy hair.
“Don’t you want to stay young?” Mr. Trout asked. Another brown-haired beauty turned bag-lady ticked by on the projector. “Are you okay?” Mr. Trout asked.
It was Gary, a wiry kid across the aisle who looked like he hadn’t hit puberty.
“I feel really weird,” he squeaked.
“Why don’t you get some water?”Mr. Trout said.
“I feel really weird,” Gary said, his words slurring. As he stood he gripped the edge of the whiteboard, then stumbled forward.
Everyone whispered. Mr. Trout called the front office. The meth video kept going, a parade of shriveling skin.
Gary was on the floor, his body suddenly helpless, his legs fluttering like leaves. He looked like a wind-up toy turned on its side, trapped in its own vibration. The loudspeaker announced that classes would be held until further notice. The nurse came with a wheelchair and fastened Gary into it. We watched with longing as the door opened and closed slowly behind them. “He’s so lucky,” someone mumbled.
“Guys, come on,” Mr. Trout said. “You don’t want to be Gary.”
We looked at him. Why not? our blank eyes said.
“He’s having a seizure.”
“So, he’ll probably miss a bunch more school, right?” someone asked.
Mr. Trout gave us a crossword puzzle about overdosing, then sat at his desk and didn’t look up.
The bell rang. Nobody did the crossword. We stared at each other, wanting to leave. The syphilis baby mobile spun in a sluggish circle.
Mr. Trout was right—I didn’t want to be Gary. I’d known him since third grade and he looked just as wiry now. Still, I felt something like envy as I pictured his dad rushing into the school, whipping off his sunglasses, demanding his son. I pictured him signing Gary out in the little book at the front desk, the lunch aides holding open the double front doors, Gary wheeled by his father like a newborn into the light.
The God Next Door
By Cade Hagen
When I was eight, she moved into the house next to mine. Her family unpacked the truck late at night, all clank and clang, which made them forever my mom’s enemy. But they brought us brownies the next day, neatly arranged on a paper plate wrapped in green cellophane, which made them forever my dad’s friend. I ate so many that I threw up on my pajamas the next morning, but I got to miss school. It wasn’t until I was older and learned the word “ambivalent” that I understood how I felt about them.
When I was eleven, she switched into my class. I’d only seen her a few times—she’d managed to avoid new friends and tended to stay inside. My dad tried to convince me to go over there, get to know her. His lifted eyebrows and grin both repulsed and intrigued me. But I was just a boy, and repulsion won. I stayed home.
When I was twelve, she picked me to be her three-legged-race partner. I’d already begun to notice her in new ways, but when the rope cinched our legs together, the intrigue that once cowed before repulsion pulsed and grew. Our thighs rubbed, all friction and fire, and even though we tumbled into earth less than halfway to the finish line, I knew that I’d won.
When I was thirteen, she told me that she created the universe. I told her that made sense because I worshipped her, and we laughed and we kissed. I didn’t believe her, but I did wonder if there was enough power in that kiss to create our own universe.
When I was fifteen, she did a two-week stint in juvie for selling oxys in a church parking lot. To explain her absence, I told my parents she was staying with her aunt in Scottsdale. When she returned to school a month later, she had a teardrop Sharpied beneath her right eye, and she joked that she’d found God in the clink.
When I was sixteen, she told me she loved me. In my bedroom, while she doodled symbols and skulls on my forearm—us bathed in a setting sun squeezing through shut blinds and parental shouts to shut off the damn music—she whispered in my ear, so quiet the voice might have come from inside me. I love you. By then, I’d learned the word ambivalent, learned that paradoxes exist beyond comprehension. I said I love you, too.
When I was seventeen, she took my hand in hers and we pressed upward, past sky and stars and galaxies. She poked her chewed fingernail through a small seam in the silk screen at the edge of existence, and together we ripped the thing open like a tent flap. We stepped through into her bedroom, even messier than the one in the house next to mine, far away. On her computer, she showed me how she etched the jagged lines of mountain peaks along horizons. She read from her scripts, prewritten for tattered beggars and Armani brokers. She showed me the binary behind cancer cells and the physics engine for molasses crawling down a mason jar.
I told her she didn’t have to do all of it.
She asked me if I’d rather she’d done none of it.
At my request, she made me three inches taller and ten pounds lighter before she pocketed a flash drive, and we returned through the flap at the edge of existence. We sealed it forever shut and raced home, riding the constellations. On the way, we both looked back.
When I was eighteen, we sat side by side at my computer. She cranked her favorite album by Bomb the Music Industry, plugged in her flash drive, and turned to me.
“Let’s make something new.”
By Martin Penman
When the church is forced to shut its doors, he rummages through the musty innards of his sideboard and finds the set of votive candles his mother gave him years ago, burned down to stumps in the service of bygone dinner parties. He forms them into a regiment of squat milky-hearted soldiers on top of the old upright piano they used to play together. He considers propping her picture behind them, but it looks too much like a memorial, and he bends to superstitions.
He was going to wait until Sunday, but after mention of the ventilator on their Saturday evening call he lights them in a rush and watches the flames dance. The words don’t come to him in any logical order; they too dance around in his head without landing. They don’t need to be perfect, she used to say to him, but if he’s going to go through with it he might as well form the kind of articulations a divinity would listen to. He kneels on a couch cushion, his hands clasped upon the edge of the padded bench, similar to the way he used to mold himself in the pew during the Lord’s Prayer when all he thought about was cigarettes in the parking lot or the wispy fabric of the girl’s skirt beside him. It was all for the good of his mother’s soul, never his. Thirty years on and she still believes he is saved—or at least applying for salvation—but how far he’s wandered in that time; he shields her from his cynicism and perverted thoughts and drinking, ever ready to dash back through the vaulted doors of God’s love if she gets suspicious.
But who needs God when you have a mother? As far as he knows, she created this world and gave it life. He fears her wrath, not His. He seeks her forgiveness and girds himself with her unconditional love. He never feels more adrift and alone than when they argue. He sat with her on this same bench and synchronized the movement of his hands with hers until they were making music and he felt closer to godliness than he ever had in church. In the absence of music, the next best thing is this boyhood charade in which he convinces himself that she is watching, and growing stronger with the vision.
He bows his head and concentrates, but after a moment one finger sneaks up and plunks the middle C. The piano will need tuning if he’s ever going to take it up again. Does she still play? She is in the hand bell choir at St. Michael’s, but he’s only ever seen the jittery video his father recorded last Easter. He would go and watch her perform as soon as possible. He’d attend Midnight Mass this year, as he’s been saying he’d do for so long. He’d sit with her again, sing with her, walk up to the altar and kneel with her. He might even start to believe in something.
He hears a gurgling noise, and opens his eyes to see one of the flames drowning in wax, another one starting to flicker. It is the gentlest sound of extinguishment. This was the God of his youth, all murmurs and flickers and weighted silence, the ominous counterpoint to his mother’s vitality and presence. He longs to feel her slap his wrist or to draw her irate sideways glance, but he can no more do this than he can relive a life of devotion or even throw one less candlelit dinner party. So many hours spent in oblivion as these little things burned with urgency! He stands and with one arm clears the top of the piano, sending them across the room like shooting stars. He sinks onto the bench and watches for errant blazes, signs of damnation seeping up through the rug to claim whatever is left of his soul. He would gladly take it and traipse around the seedier parts of hell to make a deal for her life. After a while he picks up the ones that have not broken and sets them back in place, straightening the wicks with his wet thumb and forefinger until they’re ready to receive the light.
Bones of You
By Sage Tyrtle
You lean on the kitchen doorframe, wearing the oversized hound’s tooth coat you’ve had since Mom was little. We look up from our gin rummy game. You’re carrying your hiking pack and you say you’re going for a walk.
I put down my cards. Nana, I say, I’ll go with you.
Mom gets up and shakes her head at me. You look at Mom, your face etched with pain. You look at Mom for so long that I try to hear what you’re saying, but all I can hear is the silence of the snow drifting down outside. Mom opens the fridge and gets out a couple of oranges. Then stands there with the fridge door open and her forehead against the freezer door until I stand up too. She turns and tucks the oranges into your backpack, zips it up. Then puts her arms around you and you are so small in her arms. And the two of you are still talking but I can’t hear anything.
It’s just a walk, I laugh, what’s everyone so teary for? But no one smiles.
The tallest, the youngest, I put my arms around both of you. We become a Matryoshka doll, you, Mom, me, warm and soft, until you unlock our arms and we hear the front door click closed.
Mom sits down at the table after you leave. I pick up a three of clubs and discard the queen of hearts. I wait for Mom to take her next turn. I wait for a long time.
We find you in the spring, high in the hills by the biggest cedar tree. You must have been able to see your house. You must have been able to see the wood smoke curling. You must have imagined us sitting at the worn kitchen table, letting you go.
EVP Session #454
By T.J. Fier
Alice parked outside the cemetery and yawned. Driving several hours to the middle of nowhere had better be worth it. She cracked an energy drink and grabbed her black backpack full of ghost hunting paraphernalia.
The cemetery was appropriately creepy with a rusting iron front gate and moss-riddled grave markers. Even the oak trees were of the leafless, twisting type. Maybe she would find evidence of a ghost or two after all.
She finished her energy drink, belched, and pushed through the creaking gates. A fall-chilled breeze buffeted her light jacket. She tugged the zipper under her chin and scanned the landscape. According to Dave, her ghost hunting guild leader, the mausoleum at the cemetery’s center was “super haunted.” Alice had jumped at the assignment. If she wanted to move up through the guild’s ranks, capturing paranormal evidence was necessary. Especially after her fellow apprentice, Neil, showed up with a remarkable EVP last week.
“Fucking Neil.” Alice drew her K-II EMF meter from the backpack. She couldn’t stand Neil with his know-it-all attitude and expensive ghost hunting gadgets. He was the type to rattle on for hours about the differences between ghost boxes and the exceptional quality of his binary response device because blah, blah blah. Some people had too much money to waste.
The decrepit mausoleum was easy to spot. Between the thick layers of moss, water stains dripping down the stone eaves, and the encroaching fog, the building screamed, “Find ghosts here.” A thrill trickled down her spine. “All right, Mr. Dead Guy, here I come.”
She fired up her EMF meter and cleared her throat. “Hi, I’m Alice. A paranormal investigator. You’re probably scared or frustrated because no one listens to you. But I’m here to listen.”
Unlike the men in her guild, Alice preferred a gentler, more conversational approach. Let the ghosts get to know her before she pumped them for information. Neil loved to provoke. He would say outrageous things to the dead because “An angry ghost is gonna wanna show off.” Neil was such an obnoxious ass.
“I heard an unfortunate story about the person who haunts this place.” Alice circled to the back of the mausoleum, swallowing a squeak of surprise when a mouse scurried past. She wasn’t squeamish about vermin. However, she startled easily, which worked against her as a ghost hunter. The guys were always trying to scare her during investigations. Jerks.
“The story was about a young man named John Alexander.” Alice stood in front of the mausoleum entrance, her EMF meter stuck at zero. “He fell in love with the wrong woman. She married a rich guy with a big house. John Alexander was so heartbroken he ate some lye and died. Are you here, John?”
The trees created frightful silhouettes in the swirling fog, branches like twisting claws against the fading sky. Her EMF flickered, moving up to five volts per meter, then returned to zero.
“Is that you?” The hairs on the back of her neck stood on end. “Do you know you’re dead, John Alexander?”
Her EMF detector hit 10 V/m. She tugged out her digital voice recorder from her backpack. If she could catch something, then maybe her guild would—
“Yeah, who the hell is it this time?” A deep voice tickled her ear.
Alice screamed, dropping her EMF detector.
“Jesus, you’ve got a set of pipes.”
A presence hovered behind her right shoulder, no more substantial than the fog.
Alice thrust her recorder toward the presence. “Who am I speaking to?”
“Take a wild guess.” The voice laughed.
“John Alexander?” She turned her head, but the figure disappeared.
“Bingo.” The voice whispered in her other ear. “Who said I ate lye? Who eats lye? Yuck.”
“How did you die?” Alice’s hand quivered, and she almost dropped the recorder. Neil was going to eat his hat when he heard this.
“I had a bad can of tomatoes and died of botulism. Not the worst way to go, actually.”
“So, you didn’t kill yourself?” Alice tried one more time to catch a clear visual of the ghost. Once again, he dissolved into the fog.
“Nope. Died of plain old bad luck.”
“What’s it like being dead?”
“Eh, not so bad. I haven’t been too lonely since Jack joined me a few decades ago. Say hi to the nice lady, Jack.”
“Hi to the nice lady,” a voice sniggered in Alice’s face.
“Fucking shit!” Alice almost dropped the digital recorder.
“This one’s gotta mouth on ‘er,” Jack chuckled.
“Well, you scared the poor woman. Anyway, nice to meet you, Alice. Jack and I are heading to the next cemetery over to hang out with the Gibson sisters. Hope you got what you needed.”
“Thanks,” Alice laughed. The look on Neil’s face when he heard the dead men’s voices would be priceless. “You have a nice evening too.”
Alice sensed the two figures leave. She switched on her cell phone’s flashlight, hands trembling from the unexpected encounter. They would have to move her up to journeyman after—
“You’ve got to be fucking kidding me.” Alice turned the voice recorder in her hands. It was off the whole time. She let out a long, calming breath. No reason to panic. She could fix this. All she had to do was find the next cemetery over and two grave markers labeled “Gibson.”
Alice turned on her heel, praying the Gibson sisters were as talkative as Alexander and Jack.
By Jonathan Worlde
John drove through the south gate, Andrews Air Force Base Hospital at 11th Medical Group. He found his sister Katie waiting for him in the lobby, speaking with one of the medical assistants for the donor program. The young Asian woman, dressed in white lab coat, wearing Navajo-style turquoise earrings, shared a look of sympathy between John and his sister.
“Hi, I’m Lisa Xu and I’ll be your guide for the transition. I’m so sorry for your loss. We really appreciate your brother’s participation in the Body Donor program. Now if you could please follow me, the Others will be arriving any minute.”
Double glass doors opened onto a patio area the size of a basketball court with Southwestern-style earthen tile work. Hand-woven Navajo rugs hung on the white adobe walls. Images of Kokopelli, the flute player, were artfully inscribed on the walls, and the plaintive sound of an Indian flute wafted from hidden speakers. It felt like a resort John had once visited in Sedona, Arizona. Technicians and officials in uniform stood around making small talk in tense anticipation. On the far side of the patio was an adjoining space resembling a helipad.
Lisa: “NASA’s culture consultants thought it was a good idea to present an example of our Native American culture to the Others. So they’d see some of the beauty in the human condition, you know, that we’re not all about competition and warfare.”
Katie nodded her head in agreement. “I like that, don’t you, Johnny?”
“I guess that’s a good idea.”
Lisa, nodded toward the bar. “Would you like some refreshment?”
“I don’t know—you want something, Katie?”
“Sure, I guess a little orange juice with champagne wouldn’t hurt.”
John stood to the side with his sister, anxious to be done with the whole ordeal. He felt compelled to say something nice about the program for Katie’s sake.
“They’ve really done a nice job out here. I’m surprised.”
His sister squeezed his arm reassuringly, nodding, wearing a forced smile.
“David really believed in the contribution he could make by doing this.”
John grasped her shoulder. “I’m glad he’s finally at peace.”
David had volunteered for the Body Donor program a couple years before, after being diagnosed with terminal leukemia. A computer programmer for NIH, he had always been a science and space travel enthusiast. NASA had paid for all his medical expenses. John was ambivalent about the program, but it was his brother’s decision to make. His sister, the youngest of the three, had always been closer to David and supported his decision.
An adjoining door was pushed open and their brother’s body was wheeled out on a gurney, covered in a red-and-blue patterned Navajo rug. An Air Force chaplain accompanied him, with two other technicians who wore ultra-light hazmat suits and masks. They came to rest thirty yards from the building at the edge of the landing pad. Simultaneously the morning mist was illuminated by a yellowish-red glow emanating from above. John raised his eyes to see a hovering orb bearing down upon the waiting group. He didn’t detect any sound coming from the object.
Lisa whispered, “The chaplain will now present the last rites. It’s part of the protocol. Your brother approved the chaplain’s words.”
She bowed her head. John and Katie followed suit, but then they both glanced back up at the approaching sphere.
The middle-aged bespectacled chaplain began reciting: “Oh Lord, let this body of David Witherspoon be accepted into the great beyond, where his spirit has already joined with your love and grace.”
A silver-colored saucer straight out of the campy ’50s movies landed just a field-goal distance away.
Lisa: “The Others use a powerful stealth technology which none of our optics or sensors can penetrate. They throw up this camouflage holo-replication of an old science fiction ship so that psychologically we can relate.”
John: “So the image is like a place-holder. No photos of the real deal?”
“I’m afraid not—and it’s not as if we haven’t tried. All that you’d get is what you’re seeing now.”
The two technicians, pulling blackened goggles over their masks, wheeled David’s body toward the waiting saucer, into the glare where they disappeared momentarily from sight. They returned wheeling a black cube the size of a basketball on the gurney.
Lisa: “The Others deliver a shipment of anti-gravity with each exchange. NASA considers it a fair trade. The Others take the human body for their own scientific experimentation, and the anti-gravity is delivered to the Jet Propulsion Lab East, here on the base, where our physicists can continue to work toward achieving something like their level of space travel.”
“Any clue why they’re conducting all these human experiments?” John asked.
“No real explanation. NASA only knows they’re conveying the specimens back to their world so their astrobiologists can work with them.”
“Specimens?” John felt a rush of anger.
Lisa blushed. “I’m sorry, that’s how they refer to them. After a few years with the program you kind of grow insensitive, forget that … ”
“ … it’s a real human being you’re talking about?” John’s anger broke the tension he’d been feeling since his sister’s call that morning, and tears flowed at last.
Katie took his arm. “John, please, lower your voice. I’m sure she didn’t mean it that way. Besides, David’s spirit has already joined his Maker.”
A blast of white luminescence enveloped the attendants, and with a blink the saucer was gone. John’s face was caressed by the most delicate disturbance of air. He turned back to Lisa.
“So how often do you guys … make a transfer like this?”
“It’s just about once a month, and that’s been pretty steady since the program started. Thankfully it’s eliminated all of the alien abductions people used to complain so much about.”
“I guess that’s a relief.”
The Rise of the Mariner’s Star
By Lisa Fox
Of everything she’d lost, Polara missed starlight the most.
Black sea washed into ebony sky, mist delineating heaven from the vast waters upon which the Warship Fenrir bobbed and slumbered.
Polara was a good deckhand, but she had no choice. The only alternative to servitude was death.
Ragged clothing clung to her; bare feet shuffled over the knotted wooden boards she swabbed. She preferred to work by lamplight, grateful for silence after days and nights bombarded by the arrows of flying trolls and crashing waves from the fists of giants offshore.
The Captain’s war was, at first, well intended, the fleet pursuing a band of ravenous goblins who had plucked human children from their homes. But his victory had awakened a hunger, insatiable as a voracious god, and the Captain pillaged the magical realm in his quest to ensure human domination. Dissenters were conscripted to ship-life or killed; followers on the mainland fattened by the spoils of his conquests.
It was then that the stars blinked away. One by one, they closed their eyes to the living world, as if ashamed to look upon the evil that consumed it.
As Polara dipped her mop into the bucket, she heard a similar splash outside the ship. She tiptoed to the railing, peered over the side. Light flailed in the water.
A Sea Elf.
Polara had never seen one with her own eyes; she’d thought they only existed in children’s tales. Wish-granters with a penchant for mischief, they were quick to anger, thought to breathe fire into the seas when provoked.
The struggling Elf was no larger than Polara’s forearm, with skin and hair shimmering silver.
Droplets of elfin blood pooled on the water’s surface as two large marauder-fish flanked the creature, stabbing his arms with needle-like pincers.
“Shoo!” Polara whispered. “Leave him be!”
The tickle in her belly stretched chilly tentacles through her body; hot breath caressed the back of her neck. She glanced over her shoulder. Only the breeze and her fear accompanied her on deck.
Polara couldn’t bear watching another magical light snuffed out. Turning away from the Elf would make her complicit to the Captain’s ambitions.
She leaned over the railing, poking at the fishes’ shining red eyes with her mop handle. She hit one dead-on. Glowing goo oozed into the sea as it swam off, opening and closing its mouth in protest. The remaining predator tightened its grip; the Elf’s shine fading. Polara bashed the mop down, connecting with the fish’s skull. With a shudder, it turned belly-up, and the Elf drifted free.
The Elf floated on his back. His sparse hair flowed like seaweed as the water lapped around him. Fluttering his lashes, he gazed at Polara with rheumy green eyes.
“Take hold.” Polara leaned over the rail as she extended the mop. The Elf wrapped gnarled fingers around the handle. She yanked him from the water; they both fell to the deck. Wonder pushed a gasp from Polara’s lungs as the creature shook his head and sat upright. He squeezed a gaping wound on his shoulder. Glitter floated from his fingertips, manifesting a golden bandage.
“Rescued by the ship that seeks to destroy all creatures magical. Did you save me now to kill me later?”
“No,” Polara said. “I’m not a killer.”
“Will you sacrifice me to your Captain? To win his favor?”
She shook her head. The Elf’s mesmerizing stare pulled at her earnestness.
“Kindness begets kindness.” He took Polara’s hand. “I will grant you two wishes.”
“Two? Aren’t there usually three?”
“Dearest, you already used your first wish.” The Elf chuckled. “I’m still alive.”
“But how did you—”
“Your silent prayer resounded within my elfin ears.”
Polara tugged at a loose thread on her shabby clothing. Could it be possible? “I wish to be free, Sea Elf. Free to bring light to this dark world.”
The Elf kissed her hand. A silvery stamp in the shape of a star remained where his lips had been.
“Soon,” he said.
Polara’s mind buzzed with awe as the Elf rose high above deck, plunging into the interminable line between night and sea.
From behind, beefy hands grasped her by the elbows. Polara thrashed against the Captain’s watchman, all the way to the brig.
Sunlight through a small porthole burned slumber from Polara’s eyes. She bolted up and glanced outside—Mer Island in her sightline.
Merpeople. The Captain’s next conquest.
Had she dreamed the Sea Elf? The doubt smarted. She wrung her hands, more a prisoner now than she’d ever been.
Yet still she searched, waiting. Hoping.
And then, a glowing silver serpent rose from the sea. Polara thought she saw it wink before it swung its massive tail over the top of the warship, slicing it in two. Water rushed in, stifling Polara’s screams as it pushed her into the depths. Before the sea crushed Polara’s last vestiges of consciousness, the stamp from the Elf’s kiss shimmered, forming a protective bubble around her.
Amid the debris, the fallen Captain floundered, trapped in the murky water. Polara gaped as the serpent snatched him, charring him to ash with a puff of seafire.
Crewmen floated around her, lifeless as the shattered ship.
“No!” Polara shouted. “They’re captives, like me. I wish them to live!”
With a blink of its eye, the serpent shrank to the form of the Sea Elf.
“Please,” she begged.
The Elf pushed Polara’s bubble to the water’s surface, raising a glowing finger into the air. Day shifted to a starless night.
“Kindness is the light that shines through this darkness,” he said. “But these crewmen, and all who seek to sail these seas, will need a beacon to guide them. Your final wish comes with a price. A life for a life. Nothing less, nothing more.”
“Anything,” she said.
Thus, Polaris, the Mariner’s Star, was born that night, in that dark sky. She is True North, bringing hope and bearing light for all.