Mama Said

Julie hadn’t minded working late until autumn began. As long as she’d arrived home in the daylight, there was nothing to worry about in the walk from her car to the front door. Now that the sun was setting earlier, though, she arrived well after dark, and Mama always said to hustle inside on autumn nights after dark.

She’d never really believed it, just like she’d never really believed in the monster under the bed, but there were still nights when she had to get up during the witching hour and you can be sure she pulled her feet up into bed real quick, and pulled the covers over her head, too. Just in case.

Julie drove slowly down the driveway, ignoring what may or may not have been eyes gleaming from the fields. At the end of the drive, she gathered her bag and jacket, turned off the car, got her house key ready, and marched at a near jog to her front door. Something rustled in the grass, but she didn’t look. Mama always said not to look.

She closed and locked the door swiftly behind her. Inside, all was normal – in fact, better than normal: Todd had gotten the kids to bed and was washing dishes. A game show was on, and all the curtains were drawn.

“Hi, sweetie,” she called, hanging her jacket in the hallway.

“Hey,” he called back. “You just missed it – this guy only had one letter left and he blew it.”

She kissed him on the cheek. “What was the answer?”

“Eh, I forgot already.”

Julie did a double take at the contents of the sink. “Did they eat any of their vegetables?”

“Aiden did. Andrew threw a fit, though.”

One set of blinds in the living room had been left open. Julie tugged them closed, trying to avoid looking beyond the warm reflection of her living room into the dark Georgia night.

“The cat is in, right?”

“Oh, shoot – sorry, I was trying to get Andrew to bed –”

“Todd, it’s after dark!”

“I know, sweetie, I’m so sorry – I’ll go out and help you look –”

“Don’t be ridiculous.” She went to the pantry and pulled out Magnolia’s bag of treats. “She’ll come running for these – ain’t no need for anyone to go outside.”

Though she could practically hear Mama’s ghost yelling at her not to do it, Julie unlocked the back door and opened it just wide enough to stick her arm through and rattle the bag. She tried to ignore Todd standing just behind her – he was probably trying to be comforting, but having her escape route blocked just made her more nervous.

The fields whispered in the night breeze; the dark forest beyond was only a jagged line below which there were no stars. Aiden had seen the ghost of a soldier walking there last spring; Todd had chalked it up to too much TV, but Julie believed him. She believed, like her mama before her, that every Southerner had seen a ghost at least once, it was just a question of how willing they were to admit it.

“Here, Magnolia…” Her halfhearted cry could barely be heard beyond the porch. Luckily, Magnolia heard the rattle of her favorite treats: she leapt onto the porch railing, practically giving Julie a heart attack, and trotted inside, meowing.

Julie stepped back, already breathing a sigh of relief that the door would soon be closed and the night shut out, when she saw eyes in the grass.

She froze, locked between curiosity and dread, staring out at the glowing eyes.

“What is it?” Todd whispered. He was much taller than her; he could easily see what had caught her attention. “Coyote?”

“Sure.” Julie backed away slowly, edging Todd back with her. The eyes had drawn closer. Julie closed the door and threw the deadbolt.

“It was just a coyote, right?” Todd’s eyes kept shifting to the blinds, as if he wanted to look outside but knew better.

“Ain’t it always just a coyote?” Julie rubbed the back of her neck; her heart was still racing. “I’m going to call the Parks, make sure their cats aren’t out.”

“Yeah.” Todd still looked distracted. She wondered if he would try to go scare it off with the shotgun, or if his mama had told him, like Julie’s had told her, that these things were always better off left alone. “Maybe I should call the Wrights. Just in case.”

“Yeah – just in case.”

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Neurotransmitting

They almost saw me during the reception. We were dancing. I smiled wrong; I couldn’t remember the right smile, so I displayed a fake, scrounged from clouded memories of expressions. I’m empty where emotions were, so I impersonate. Sometimes I even wish they would notice.

The Carson Girls

Bee found Beth sitting on the front steps, looking up at the night sky even though there were no stars. She was smoking; she must have stolen a cigarette from Wholenuther. Hortense, their host, looked as though only the purest of water and food had been allowed in her body during the sixteen hundred years she’d been on Earth, so there was no way the cigarette came from her. Wholenother, on the other hand, wouldn’t have missed one smelly cigarette if it disappeared from his jacket.

“You smoke?” Bee asked, sitting down gingerly on the step.

Beth tapped the ashes into Hortense’s rosemary and shot her a glare. Bee shivered. She still wasn’t used to seeing her eyes in another girl’s face. “Since I was your age. Maybe even younger.”

“Why?”

Why?” Beth repeated. “Our parents have been running around the world our whole lives, hunting down magical whatsits and getting into fights with ancient magical beings, and you need to ask why I smoke?” She took a long drag. “Oh, yeah: because you actually saw them occasionally.”

“They never told me about you.” Yet another question to add to Bee’s growing list of things her – their – missing parents never told her. “If I knew, I would have wanted to meet you.”

“They never even told me they had you. I guess I would’ve been, what, four?” She flicked more ashes into the garden. “Let’s see: from age four to six, I was in seven different foster homes; then I ran away and was in an orphanage for a while. Maybe they just couldn’t find me. We’ll go with that.”

Bee knew exactly where she was at that age: with Grandma Susan, before she died, then the Allens. Then her parents had gotten an apartment in Boston when Bee was seven. They’d lived there together, all three of them, for almost a whole year. Then her parents got a lead for another expedition, and it was back to the Allens. Bee had cried for a week.

But she didn’t tell Beth any of this – she suspected it wouldn’t help. “I’d be mad, too,” she said. “It’s not fair.”

Beth grunted and stubbed the cigarette out on the flagstone step. Slowly the icy breeze began to clear the air around them.

“How did you know they were missing?” Bee asked eventually. “Mom stopped writing to me, so that’s how I knew, but if you weren’t in contact – ”

“I overheard some Remnants bragging that the Carsons had finally been ‘brought in.'” Beth pulled her coat tighter around her shoulders. “I questioned them, but they didn’t know much, so I started checking out the Markets. That’s when I ran into you.”

Bee decided not to ask what Beth meant by “questioned.”

“Don’t take this the wrong way, but…why did you come looking for them?”

“You mean, since they clearly don’t give a damn about me?”

“They do, too,” Bee said stubbornly. “You’re their daughter.” They had to care, didn’t they? They must have had their reasons for separating their children, for keeping each other secret. But Beth was starting to annoy her – she was twenty, an adult, and here was Bee trying to comfort her when it ought to be the other way around. Even Wholenuther had been more sympathetic, and Bee’d had to pay him to help her.

“Guess we’ll find out when I find them.” Beth stood and stretched. “Hortense is probably gonna be mad that I got ash all over her garden, huh.”

“Probably.”

“Ah well. I’ll be out of her hair soon.”

Bee jumped up. “You’re making it sound like you’re going to keep looking alone.”

“Yeah. Duh. No offense, but you’re new to this, and Hortense may be Remnant but she’s just a gardener.”

“But Wholenuther-”

“Wholenuther might be good at tracking his kind, but he’s only going to stick around as long as he’s contracted. I’ve been on my own for a while; I can handle this.”

She started to go back up the steps.

“What about me?” Bee cried. Beth froze, her hand on the doorknob. “We could find them together. We could start to be a family.”

Beth looked back, her expression obscured by the shadows of the porch. “I don’t know what that is.”

She pulled open the door, bathing them both in cozy golden lamplight. Sighing, Bee sank back to the steps.

Beth hesitated again, framed in the doorway. “But I guess I’d like to find out.”

The Monster Hunters’ Daughter

Bee’s final memory of her parents was of them silhouetted in the cracked doorframe, Dad standing, Mom kneeling and holding Bee’s hands. In the dim room behind her waited the family Bee was going to live with: Aunt Val, Uncle Greg, and Grandma Margaret. None of them had greeted her – Uncle Greg was watching news and Aunt Val was knitting. At least Grandma Margaret smiled a little, though she didn’t seem to be smiling at anything in particular.

Mom whispered her last words to Bee: “Don’t trust them. We’ll come for you.”

Then Bee was alone, staring at the people who Mom had said were family but who stared back at her with haughtiness that didn’t feel like family. Besides, who could you trust if not family?

But she still trusted Mom, so Bee waited for the day her parents would come back for her, like they promised. Mom and Dad were treasure hunters, and no matter what Aunt Val and Uncle Greg said, Bee never doubted her parents’ love: she’d seen the kinds of dangerous artifacts they recovered. They refused to take her on their expeditions, though. “Not ’til you’re 16,” Mom always said, usually over the top of a sealed and warded crate she and Dad were hauling.

Her aunt and uncle didn’t believe Bee’s stories – they supposed Bee’s parents just wanted to travel the world without their child. This attitude did not result in them showing Bee anything resembling love, though.

So Bee turned 16 uneventfully. Her only card was from Grandma Margaret, who wrote “Happy Birthday Beatrice” in shaky cursive. Her parents didn’t send anything, not even a message in Mom’s mirror-journal. Her notations of their finds – “Tier-4 cryptid remains, CD ~250/260” – appeared in Bee’s copy of the journal. It told Bee they were still alive, and Bee could tell from the frequency of notes that they were not only alive, but they’d found something huge.

Huge enough to make them forget her birthday, apparently.

She stayed up late reading the journal, hoping for a last-minute birthday message. They’d found three more high-level cryptids and encountered a Remnant, which fled when it saw them. Bee hoped they’d find another, maybe speak to it.

Finally, more lines appeared. Her heart leapt, but the words were boring – just cataloging relics. Still, Bee watched, just to know Mom was there. Then:

2nd Con relic, steel-?? alloy, Abyssal? CD ~18

Bee waited for the rest to appear. The Second Conjunction had been over a thousand years ago and its artifacts were incredibly rare, usually grouped where the Conjunction had flared strongest: France’s northern coast. The magic in the artifacts soured and strengthened over time – was that why Mom stopped writing? Had the artifact hurt her somehow?

She waited: three breaths, four. The date remained incomplete. Something had definitely happened to them.

Bee didn’t hesitate. She stuffed her backpack with water bottles, her dig tools, and food from the kitchen. Only when turned to leave did she realize Grandma Margaret was sitting at the table, alone in the dark kitchen.

“Where you headin’, kiddo?”

Bee stood straighter. “I’m going to find my parents.”

“What for?”

“They’re in trouble! They didn’t wish me a happy birthday, which – fine, whatever – but Mom’s been writing about cryptids, big ones, and then her sentence ended half-finished and I have to go!

Margaret flicked on the lights. She was squinting up at Bee. “What tier cryptids?”

How did she know about the tiers? “Four and five. And they found some…old artifacts.”

“How old?”

“Second Conjunction.”

“Hmm. All this is in that journal of hers?”

Bee nodded, stupefied.

“Let me see.”

Bee hesitantly handed over the journal. Margaret flipped through the pages, frowning, occasionally muttering “reckless” and “fool girl.”

“Well,” she said finally, handing the journal back, “that’s a Wholenuther problem.”

Something about the inflection confused Bee. Margaret smirked at her expression. “I don’t recommend him often,” she said. “He’s craftier than the other Remnants your folks deal with. But he’s good at what he does – when you’ve got a real complicated problem, well, that’s a whole ‘nother thing.”

“He calls himself Wholenuther?”

“And his price is puzzles. Get him something to wear his brain out on, he’ll help find your parents.”

“How do you know – ”

“Who do you think gave your mom that journal?” Grandma tossed her her sweatshirt. “Now get movin’ – Wholenuther likes flowing water, so start at the creek.”

“And Bee,” she called as Bee reached for the doorknob, “happy birthday.”

Hours of Hell and Hope

The rain returns Saturday night. I wake to the smell of it as the first drops fall late at night: the scent of creekbeds, of unfurling grass, of cool stone.

Across the continent, Heather Heyer is already dead.

*

We planted a new rhododendron in May. It hasn’t bloomed yet, but its tag promises delicate pale pink ruffled flowers. It’s a double; when it blooms, it’ll be especially beautiful.

But the summer has been hot. Seattle breaks its record for days without rain. The rhododendron turns brown, dries up.

What has happened since May, anyway? Events whip past like slaps; people with more grit than I have are cataloguing them. I look it up: Yates testified, the House voted 217-213 in favor of repealing the ACA, Comey was removed.

Tiring, isn’t it?

That was all before May 10th. The rhododendron was still green, content.

*

Sunday morning is cool and gray. The rhododendron looks stronger. Its leaves are no longer limp, though many are still worryingly brown.

I see #HeatherHeyer in my Twitter notifications and I know without having to click who she is and why she died. I’d like to go to church, but I’d also like to never have to speak to another human again. To force a smile and say everything is fine, I’m great, how are you? feels like a crime.

I don’t go to church. I get coffee with my sister. We talk about everything but.

I spend the rest of the day feeling anxiety, something I’m usually spared. It feels like a tangible thing that’s crawled inside me and steadily inhales my hope, leaving me hollow. It sits heavily in my gut, making my heart race, layering over my vision with a veil of nihilism. How often can we stand up and push against this rotten, creeping wall of hate? What’s the point?

*

Would there be such an outcry if Heather Heyer had been black, asks my friend on Monday. We’d already wondered that ourselves, and we already knew the answer was a whispered no.

It’s very easy to condemn hate when it makes itself obvious. There’s no gray area when men with Confederate and swastika flags are shouting “Heil Trump” and that’s the mildest of their slogans. How much convincing will it take to stir up this sympathy next time a black person’s name becomes a hashtag?

How are there still people who need to be talked through the concept of humanity?

*

We go to a vigil Sunday evening. Around 70 people are there, some older, some with young children. Their signs are written with everything from “F*** Nazis” to Bible verses. I brought a candle in a jar. The organizers brought candles for the end of the vigil, but for the majority of that hour, I’m the only one with a candle instead of a sign. The gusting wind catches at the flame; twice it needs to be relit.

A few people speak. A representative from the NAACP says, “It’s time to start talking to each other.” I know he’s begging us to finally start listening.

A boy on his father’s shoulders leans down toward me. “What’s the candle for?”

“It’s for hope.”

The only other time I’ve ever carried a candle is for Christmas Eve. When I bend to blow out the candle at the end of the vigil, I remember the verse that always closed those services: The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”

I always thought that particular translation was interesting: “has not,” compared to “couldn’t” or “can never.” It’s not particularly inspiring, the way it reminds us that the wall of darkness is ever-present, but it is comforting: the light still shines, vulnerable but unyielding.

Maybe it’s the size of the crowd, or the presence of children who are learning a better way, but the thing in my gut fades away. The only way we force that wall back is by keeping pressure on it, and we take turns pushing. We aren’t alone.

*

Monday morning is cool and gray. There’s dew in the grass when I walk the dog. The rhododendron is surviving.

We dig deeper. We relight our candles. We grow, upward and outward, until the day the wall erodes, falls, and is forgotten.

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Last Night in Nuevos Angeles

The beach that night was noisy and drowning in the billboards’ neon glare. Makoto and his friends arrived first; Willow arrived alone.

“Where’s Padma?” I asked, catching the burger box she tossed my way.

“Stuck at work. She texted from the print shop – a big job came in and she has to stay late.”

“What kind of job?”

Willow shrugged. “She doesn’t tell me that stuff. She just said she’d get here when she could.”

We set up the tiny grill on a patch of undesirable, rocky beach, the only area where we could get more than ten feet from the nearest cluster of teenage boys taking shots of their older brothers’ moonshine. Out here, the glare from the billboards wasn’t so irritating; if you turned your back on them and looked out to sea, you could see the vibrant flashing lights illuminating the waves and the sunken glassy spires of Old LA.

“Carmen? You want a burger?” Willow held out a napkin-wrapped burger. “Makoto forgot the buns.”

“Thanks. Hey, have you heard from Padma?”

“Nope.”

“She must be really busy.” Padma was vocal about her inconveniences: the group chat we all hung out in was flooded by funny and often wildly inappropriate images whenever Padma was stuck on a crowded train, kept late by work, or irritated by the latest political news.

“I’ll send her a pic of that sunset,” Willow decided, raising her phone. “Maybe that’ll inspire her to hustle.”

The sunset was pretty spectacular – gold and fuschia clouds gleaming under the cool white and blue flashes of the billboards – but Padma’s absence was nagging at me. Something felt wrong.

Under the pretext of taking my own photo, I checked the other group chat, the secure one Padma and I were in.

The feed wouldn’t open.

I tried to stay calm. Reception got spotty out here, especially on crowded nights like this. There were plenty of harmless reasons for the chat go down.

“Oh, Olivia’s here!” Willow jogged away, leaving me gripping my phone and the rapidly cooling burger I could not stomach. I set it down on the shell of a rusted-out car.

The feed finally refreshed. A single message from Padma appeared, almost two hours old.

It was a single skull icon.

With shaking fingers, I powered down my phone and pried it apart. The casing would go unnoticed among all the other litter on this beach; the card I’d have to destroy and dispose of somewhere safer. I scooped up a couple large rocks and threw them out into the darkening waves, one at a time, so it wouldn’t look suspicious when I hurled my phone, too, so far that it almost struck one of the old skyscrapers. The nearby boys kept hollering, oblivious.

The single skull was a relief, but that relief was a well of hot shame. Two skulls would have meant our whole group was compromised; three would have meant that most of us had probably already been taken or killed, and whoever was left to see those skulls should run.

One skull meant one agent down: Padma. She’d had enough time to erase her tracks and protect the rest of us, then signed off with that single skull.

The waves around me were washed in red as a new message appeared on the billboards.

“Carmen!” Willow was pale, her hand shaking as she pointed up at the huge screens. Padma’s defiant face smirked down at us from the glowing red arrest notice.

“Terrorist? Anti-capitalist? Padma?” Willow stared, horrified, at the announcement. “I know she had her opinions, but…”

Everyone hated the skyrocketing costs and labor abuses that markets and governments permitted worldwide, but Padma did something about it: she’d run materials for activist groups after-hours at the print shop. And if “terrorism” included protesting the collapse of a state-run apartment tower by shattering a Nuevos Angeles billboard with shoddy rebar from the wreckage, Padma and I were both terrorists. She remained full of love and hope; I was amazed at her mountainous courage.

And she’d given herself up so the rest of the agents could be safe.

Willow was crying; everyone else looked stunned. They’d never know the risks Padma had taken to defend them.

It was never about keeping our network safe, I realized – it was about protecting everyone else, even the ones who’d never know it.

I picked up another rock. “She wasn’t alone.”

I took three steps closer to the billboard, brought my arm back, and let fly.