The Dentist’s House

Our pillowcases are already heavy with candy by the time we reach the stucco house on the corner. Candace and I exchange glances beneath our cat masks – this is a house we need to skip.

We try to be subtle, continuing past the house’s inflatable jack-o’-lantern and plastic headstones as if no one was home.

Of course, Dad notices. “Honey? You missed one.”

We stop, my heart sinking.

“We don’t want to go to that one.”

“Why not? Look at all the decorations they have!”

“We just don’t.”

Candace’s dad studies the house. “Who lives there?” He uses a lower pitch, the tone that tells me that just because I can hear him, it doesn’t mean he was asking me. He leans toward my dad. “Are they…weird?”

My dad rolls his eyes. “A dentist lives there.”

“Ah. Sugar-free gum?”

“Sugar-free gum.”

Dad raises an eyebrow at me. I’ve been trying to get my eyebrow to do that so I can make that face back at him sometimes, but it doesn’t work yet. It wouldn’t matter, anyway – he wouldn’t be able to see it under my mask.

“Every house, Bella. Unless you’re ready to go home?”

I sigh. Now I’m glad he can’t see the face I’m making, or he would definitely take me home. “No…”

“Then go do your thing.”

I nod my cat-eared head in agreement and walk with Candace up the cracked concrete steps to the dentist’s house. The only other kids are at least three houses away. Everyone knows to skip Dr. Ferris’ house. Either their parents don’t let them trick-or-treat here, or they don’t care if their kids skip it.

I wish my dad didn’t care.

The door opens and there’s Dr. Ferris, wearing his scrubs like it’s a costume, smiling widely. His teeth are weirdly white.

“Well, hello, girls.” He picks up the neon green plastic bowl full of gum and holds it out to us.

“Trick-or-treat,” we say obediently.

“Your costumes look great.” He curls the fingers of his free hand into claws and meows at us.

Candace snatches a piece of gum and backs away. There’s only room for one of us at a time, so I can’t leave yet, I have to be polite and reach in and grab some gum, but when I do Dr. Ferris grabs my hand.

“You don’t want that flavor,” he says quietly. “There’s some bubblegum in there. You just gotta dig for it.”

I pull my hand away. “This is fine.”

And we run down the walkway. We usually run – trick-or-treating takes way too long if you don’t – but I’m running faster than Candace now, and the back of my neck feels prickly, like I’m an actual cat with my fur standing up.

“What did you get?” Dad knows we only get gum here, and I’m mad at him for not letting us skip it, for Dr. Ferris’ weird smile, for not coming up the walkway with us, for not seeing.

My face is hot under my mask. I fish the gum out of my pillowcase and shove it at him.

“Bubblegum? I thought you liked bubblegum.”

“I don’t want it.”


Aunt Paula and I were having breakfast when the Administrator summoned me. My first thought was that I was in trouble, maybe for the unsanctioned mural I’d done in the Bunker’s generator room. We looked at each other over spoonfuls of oatmeal, the Administrator’s message blinking blue on the wall screen.

“Fighting the Coulson brothers again, Miri?” she asked.

“They were teasing Britney!” I hesitated. “Do you think…with my birthday, could it be aptitude testing?”

“There was a backlog.” Aunt Paula was a test proctor. “Maybe it’s just finally your turn.”

I jumped up and squeezed around the table, hurrying to my room. I’d decorated it like the other Bunker girls did: photos from antique fashion magazines, papers I’d scored well on, sketches of my friends. I’d also hung up my paper targets – firearms champion in my age bracket three years running. I liked to think my parents would be proud.

I frowned at my reflection and pulled my hair into a bun. If I still had pimples on my forehead, at least my hair could look grown-up.

Aunt Paula was pacing the tiny kitchen. She smiled when she saw me, but it was a tight, forced smile. The summons on the screen was gone, replaced by a faux view of a sunny meadow.

“Is something wrong?” I asked.

“Everything’s fine.” She held up a small black tube.

“Wow – lipstick?” I’d never worn it before. Britney’s brother had brought her one from Outside, the expedition before he disappeared. All the girls coveted it.

“Special occasion.” She helped me apply it, a wine color that made me feel worldly and pretty. “Now, please be polite to the Administrator. And come straight home when you’re done, understand?”

I was already out the door. “Okay!”


I paced the Administrator’s office while I waited for his receptionist to find him. The walls bore paintings of long-lost landscapes: tropics, mountain forests, deserts more colorful than the one my dad had died in. Aunt Paula, having already lost her sister, formally protested when they sent him Out on expedition: I was five  years old at the time, already motherless, what were they thinking?

The Administrator sent him anyway. Their best guess was that he got caught in a radiation storm, but no one ever found a body.

I sat on a threadbare green couch and instead daydreamed about my work placement. Maybe I could work in Hydroponics, or – I hardly dared dream it since I was so young – maybe my marksmanship scores were good enough that I could teach firearms classes.

“Miss Skye?” The Administrator emerged at last. “Thank you for coming on such short notice.” He looked busy, distracted – maybe he was remembering my dad – but he made eye contact and shook my hand. The receptionist stood behind him.

“I’m looking forward to taking the aptitude tests, sir.”

His handshake stopped. “Aptitude? Of course – you’ve just had your sixteenth birthday. Well, that isn’t why I called you here today.”

My wisp of a wish to teach marksmanship vanished.

“The truth is, we already know your greatest attribute, don’t we?” He clicked a remote and his wall screen displayed footage of me, eyes focused behind safety glasses as I emptied a rifle clip into the center of the target 300 yards away.

“You’re going Out.”

He said it like I should be proud. Other kids dreamed of going Out – maybe they’d find fuel, or fresh water, or some little luxury like makeup and be Bunker heroes – but my dad had gone on expeditions. I knew the most likely things you’d find Outside were sand and death.

“Your expedition leaves tomorrow morning,” he was saying. The receptionist handed me a requisition chip for my gear. Her smile was tight, like Aunt Paula’s had been.

“What about my test?” I whispered. I could feel the stupid lipstick flaking. “My aunt said there’s a backlog.”

The Administrator shifted. “Yes, there’s…well, the truth is our greatest need is explorers, like you. The Bunker requires some very specialized equipment, and we’re sending many explorers Out to find it. Think you’re up to the challenge?”

The fighting. The graffiti. My mind raced: Britney’s brother had gotten caught distilling alcohol. And Sarah’s mom had gone Out after those rumors of hoarding rations…

“You’ll do our Bunker proud, Miss Skye.”

The requisition chip cut into my palm as I clenched my fists. There would be no argument; the best revenge I could get would be to come back alive.

“Yes, sir.”


Shiyako and the Golden Cloth

By the third night of her captivity, Shiyako’s weaving had begun to attract crowds. She was working in a tower room in the Imperial palace, and for two nights now its window had overflowed with yards and yards of shining goldweve.

The prince had brought Shiyako back with him after his visit to the regional governor. He’d overheard her father, a porter, boasting about her marvelous weaving. Like her kin, Shiyako was indeed a skilled weaver, coaxing lengths of fine gold cloth from ordinary silkworms using spells passed down through generations. Had she married a village boy, she would have the amended her spells with syllables from her mother-in-law’s family – but instead, she’d become indentured in the governor’s house.

The prince had promised to marry her if she could produce such a quantity for three nights – as if she, whose conquered people lived and died at the Summer Empire’s whim, had any desire to marry him. Still she wove all through the night, though her fingers cramped and her voice rasped, for if she failed, the prince would raze her village.

“You’re quiet tonight.” The forest imp had followed her here and set to work weaving. At first, she’d been grateful for his help – how else could she have possibly produced the amount of goldweve she was supposedly capable of? But the third morning was upon them. Shiyako had no doubt that their goldweve would reach the ground, as promised, but then she’d have to marry the prince – and no doubt pay a price to the imp.

“I’m tired,” she said. Outside, cheering: their golden cloth had reached the third story.

“You know he won’t let you stop. You’ll have to keep weaving every night of your life.”

“There are worse ways to spend a night with a prince.”

“And oh, how many nights you’ll spend.” The imp bared his pointed brown teeth. His fingers darted over the silk threads. “I can still save you…”


“You need only guess my name, and I swear I’ll free you from this tower, and save your dear village.”

“I didn’t ask your help, and I don’t know your name,” Shiyako snapped. “Be quiet; let me work.”

The imp settled. Another handspan of goldweve unrolled at his feet. Shiyako began to sing, a lilting chant that transformed the silk and kept pace with her fingers.

The imp yawned. Shiyako changed tunes: a lullaby her mother had sung to all six of her children. The imp’s head dropped, recovered, dropped again. He snored. Shiyako sang another verse, just to be sure, then cast off the length of goldweve. She needed to work quickly – she had only her own spells now, and dawn was coming.


At sunrise, a crowd gathered at the base of her tower. They muttered to themselves – the goldweve ended just out of arm’s reach.

Shiyako clapped. “Hear that, imp? It’s morning.”

He grunted and tried to sit up, but found himself rolled up in the goldweve she’d spun in the early dawn.

“Is this the thanks I get?” he hissed.

“You wanted me to guess your name, but yours is irrelevant since it was another’s that got us both here: Hamul.”

He scowled, writhing in his golden shroud. “Never heard of it.”

“I believe you have. You see, Hamul was my father, and considering he died eight years ago, the only way the prince could have heard him boasting was if you’d been doing the boasting yourself.”

The imp froze.

Shiyako gestured to their weaving. “I couldn’t guess your purpose initially, but…this isn’t gold, is it?”

“No.” He grinned. “It’ll turn to rotten rattan at the next full moon.”

“Which is, what, twelve days away?”

He giggled. “More than enough time for our creation to be dispersed as gifts among the High Houses. How embarrassing for His Grace, eh?”

“Embarrassing enough to get me executed, certainly – unless I kept you as my evidence.” She smirked. “You need little food, right?”

That took the smile off his face. “What do you want?”

“Make him forget about me. I’ll tell no one your secret. You’ll embarrass the Empire, I’ll save myself and my village – we both win.”

He cackled, rocking back and forth in his golden wrapper. “You weave bargains as skillfully as silk! Unspool me, and we have a deal.”

The prince couldn’t remember why he’d climbed to the tower room and he was inexplicably angry. It must have been for this goldweve, he thought, and ordered it rolled up.



Death These Days

Death went into the city, though she did not have an appointment. She rarely bothered with appointments these days; anywhere she went, there was work for her. Why, just last week, there was that little boy in – but never mind.

It’s so easy for them, these days; Death wonders if they take it for granted. They have as many options as there are stars, and the threat of consequence dwindles. Their concerns are few: How many bullets are desired? How fast shall they tear? How loud?

So it was these thoughts that distracted Death when she arrived in the city. She could taste its hate like stinging citrus, and its fear like ice. But she could also taste Love. She stopped and wrinkled her nose.

“Making progress, then?”

“Slowly.” Love stepped out of the shadows. “You’ll find there are fewer for you today.”

“Still, there are some. You can’t keep me from all of them.”

“No,” admitted Love. “There will always be some determined to hate. There will always be a handful lost to fear. They drown in it, or they let it eat them, complaining and justifying all the while. But there are many more who reach for me, who find their footing, and then show others how to stand. Even you used to know the worth of lives; did you forget, like they have?”

Death didn’t appreciate being made to feel she’d done something wrong. This was her job, her purpose. Hatred wasn’t her responsibility. So what if it made her job easier? Wasn’t that everyone’s goal – to work less for greater reward? And Death’s rewards flowed like red rivers these days. She was in demand, her and the strengthening Hatred with his vice grip and his wilful ears and his mocking words.

Even now, she realized, he was shadowing her, watching where she walked, scattering his fetid seeds in her wake, sowing them ahead of her. She hadn’t realized how frequently they collaborated these days.

As for Love – well, Death could see the appeal. Love tasted like aching sweetness: the last late summer peach, the final sip of the toast to a friend who is going far away, the fleeting fragrance of an embrace. Death was lonely, and Hatred very lonely, but Love was loneliest of all – and strongest, and bravest, because Love didn’t mind the loneliness. Her work was too important. Hatred minded; that, thank heavens, kept him weak.

Death didn’t mind. She would go back to setting appointments, like she did in the old days. If that meant letting Love win, well – Death was not proud.

“You can’t keep me from them forever,” Death said.

“Of course not – but you can wait your damn turn.”


We race against the sinking sun.
While stars are glinting into light,
still dimmed by blinking traffic’s run,
we race. Against the sinking sun,
erasing stress in brilliance: one
star falling through the deepening night.
We race against the sinking sun,
while stars are glinting into light.

(Trying out a triolet.)

Two Hundred Seconds

I store new songs – more accurately, I hoard them. Before I’ve even heard a song all the way through, if I like it, I’ve catalogued its most distinctive lyrics so I can look them up later and add the song to my collection. I have a note in my phone full of phrases from songs I’ve wanted to collect:

hold back the river

take Jackson out of me

what kind of man loves like this

I’m driving and listening to NPR. I’m not usually driving during this particular program, so the music I hear is an unexpected surprise. I like this band’s sound, whoever they are, so I turn up the volume and listen closely. I wait to catch lyrics or the band’s name, waiting like a hawk to snatch my prey from the air and go on with my day.

“This next song, we’ve never recorded,” she says during a break. “We play it very rarely, so we hope you’ll enjoy.”

I’ve been to concerts. I know the magic of a favorite song performed live, familiar but achingly different, comfortable but ephemeral. I’ve been to shows where the band came onstage for their encore and waited patiently, silently, for the audience to go quiet enough for them to perform their final song completely acoustic – no mics at all. The room held its breath. We could barely hear them singing and it was beautiful.

I’ve only been half paying attention to the experience of a new song because I spend the time anticipating experiencing it again. All the new songs that I’ve collected phrases from, I may as well have been talking over, for all the thought I gave them after I had what I wanted from them. Anywhere I have Internet, I can listen to any song I want immediately – but if this particular song was never recorded, that means I can’t buy it, or even hear it ever again.

That isn’t why I turn off my mental recorder, though. It’s peaceful to realize there is no gratification, delayed or instant or otherwise, beyond the next two hundred seconds of music. I and a few thousand listeners are the only people who will ever hear this song, performed this way. I’ve let many countless seconds slip past without realizing how unique they were, so I focus on these and what they have to offer. I narrow my world down to the now, and the music.

In my car, I hold my breath.