Restoration

“I’ve got the grimoire.”

He’d been waiting so long for those words that he almost couldn’t believe he’d heard them. He watched, tail twitching, as she opened the crackling pages and began to read.

As fur fell away, he started to hope; as human limbs returned, he began to believe.

He spoke his long-planned words into her embrace: “I knew you could do it.”

Annie Spratt

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Still Living

Three weekends ago, I was walking on the beach with my mother, talking about history, which means we were talking about politics.

I’d just read an article about a team from women’s college Agnes Scott pulling off a trivia bowl upset against Princeton in 1966. It wasn’t the buzzer-beater upset that stayed with me (though you should read about it, because it’s enthralling) – it was a pair of lines about Princeton’s admissions policy:

“In 1966, Princeton was still an all-male institution. It would take another three years before the university opened its doors to women.”

So. 1969. My mother was in junior high. Schools were being ordered to desegregate “at once” after ten years of basically just getting to it whenever they felt like it. African Americans had only fully received the right to vote four years earlier. The statistic also made me think about Ruby Bridges, who was 15 in 1969.

We’re walking along the tide line, my mom and I. “Someone had to push to get Princeton to admit women,” I say. “It wasn’t just going to happen on its own.”

It’s a gorgeous, sunny morning on the coast, the kind you’re unlikely to get in July, let alone October. I’m trying to mesh my thoughts with the still-running algorithm in my brain that’s forever seeking an answer to the 2016 election. I’m trying to reconcile this beautiful day with how much I feel like screaming.

“Those black-and-white photos of Ruby Bridges going to school, they’re in all our history books, and they made it feel so set in stone.” The sun is shining on the waves. Lots of people are out walking, collecting shells, sipping their morning coffee. Do any of them feel like screaming? “But Ruby Bridges is only in her 60s. It wasn’t that long ago.”

I would never have said my mom was politically active, though she was involved in women’s organizations before I was born. But my sister has been volunteering with Nashville candidates while she’s getting a master’s in some kind of field that will help save the world, and I called myself a feminist from the minute I first heard the word, so whatever my mom did raising us, it worked.

“The women my age are all horrified at what’s going on,” she says as we walk. “We never got to take it for granted. We saw the marches. I thought we’d have taught you better.”

“You taught us just fine!” And I try to tell her we don’t take their work for granted, that we do vote – and that may be true for me and my sister, but we, collectively, have taken it for granted. Otherwise we wouldn’t have a president who doesn’t mind being endorsed by the KKK. Otherwise the record turnout for 18- to 29-year-old midterm voters would be something less miserable than 30%.

In an episode of “Parts Unknown,” Anthony Bourdain says, “Democracy, as it turns out, requires regular maintenance.” Forty-nine percent of eligible voters participated in yesterday’s midterm election, the highest turnout since the 1960s. (Around 60% vote in presidential elections.) Maybe we’ve finally had a wake-up call; maybe we slowed the sled down. But it’s so much easier to look at the black-and-white photos in our history books and tell ourselves the fight was already won, by other people, so it’s nothing we need to worry about. Conversely, it’s also easy to watch the news and doubt that one voice can make a difference.

I’m still learning to see my privilege. I know that my tendency to see civil rights movements as relics from before I was born is because I’ve never had to live those struggles myself. Everything from the job I work to the birth control I can use to the bank account I manage to the clothing I feel free to wear has been fought for me by women who came before.

But history doesn’t end when the textbook closes. Ruby Bridges is still alive. Three of the four women on that trivia bowl team are still alive. John Lewis is still alive. Ruth Bader Ginsberg is still alive.

Democracy is living, and the opposite isn’t death – it’s stagnancy. The ocean I walked beside never goes still, and neither can we. There’s no buzzer-beater, once-and-for-all victory – not even on the Supreme Court. We can find solace and strength in history, but we can’t close the book, because it’s still in progress.

We’re just history that hasn’t been written down yet.


Red Petra’s Pledge

For the third day in a row, Sahala’s sister brought a her basket of food. Sahala had buried Pahel four day ago, and ever since she’d been trying to care for their two young children, with Shena’s help. The town was keeping them all well-fed, too. Shena accepted their generosity at face value; Sahala thought it was to assuage their guilt after letting Pahel’s killers gain strength for so many years.

Shena barged through Sahala’s unlocked door. “You summoned Red Petra?” she gasped.

The children stared up at their aunt from their cushions at the table. Sahala, unfazed, wiped a fleck of tomato from Jiral’s cheek and came to Shena.

“You noticed the door,” she replied calmly, taking the basket.

“Hard to miss!” Shena hissed. “Huge red circle, one black dot per kill?”

Sahala nodded. “I made the blood pledge this morning, at sunrise, like—”

“Like you’re supposed to – I know how Red Petra works!” Shena dragged her fingers through her hair. “Sahala, Red Petra takes one, maybe two lives at a time. She can’t take out the entire cadre at once.”

“She’s never been asked to.” Sahala finished unloading the basket’s contents into the cupboard and folded her arms. “And gods know the guard never will, so why not try it?”

Shena looked like she was about to argue, but reconsidered. Why shouldn’t Sahala pursue vengeance, anyway? “The city leadership will never push for justice,” Sahala pressed. “Half of them are in the cadre’s pocket and the other half are too terrified of – of what happened to Pahel.”

Shena looked away. Pahel was not the first to be killed for refusing a bribe.

“And if she doesn’t come?” Shena asked quietly.

“She will.” Sahala nodded, staring straight ahead. Her days of weeping were over. She’d shed no more tears for Pahel; she’d show him only strength now.

“Mama!” Jiral started wailing; Alari had taken his share of rice. Sahala swooped down on them, swatting Alari’s arm and returning Jiral’s bowl of rice.

“If Red Petra really is coming,” Shena said quietly, “she’ll come at sundown.”

“I know.”

“I can stay with you, until it’s fulfilled. If you want.”

Her brave baby sister. Shena would even face demons for her. “I’d like that.”

#

Sahala had always thought that the stories of Red Petra were vague because the teller was trying to be mysterious, but after Red Petra came, she found she couldn’t recall many details. The sky turned blood-red just as the last sliver of sun dipped beneath the plains, and then she was there, draped in a thick traveling cloak the color of old blood and dragging two swords at her sides. They left gouges in the road that oozed red.

Sahala spoke; Red Petra responded. Sahala couldn’t recall anything that was said. She remembered Shena’s hand, clammy in hers. Then Red Petra was gone, and when Sahala tried to follow the twin trails of blood, she found the road unmarked.

The next morning, Sahala’s memories were even more blurred. Only faint traces of the red circle remained on the door, now singed as if the circle had burned. For all Sahala knew, maybe it had.

#

When the bodies of eight of the cadre’s ringleaders were found, a city official came to ask Sahala questions. She made him tea, as was polite, and they sat on cushions in the parlor. The official’s questioning seemed perfunctory, and Sahala said as much.

He scratched under his boxy felt hat. “The…manner in which the men were killed raises certain suspicions,” he said. Sahala noticed he was sweating, and wondered how many bribes this man had taken during his career; how many times he’d looked the other way; if he, too, felt Red Petra’s shadow looming over him.

“Oh? What suspicions?” she asked over the rim of her teacup.

“Certain – rumors – It doesn’t concern you,” he stammered, flushing. “Official business.”

“Of course,” Sahala said lightly.

The official stood, handing her a carved wooden token. “If you think of anything, you can find me at the address on this coin. Show it at the door and you’ll be granted an appointment. If you can recall anything of use from that night…”

He trailed off, hopeful for any answer beside the truth he dreaded.

“Nothing,” Sahala said, shrugging. “Not that I can remember.”

photo by Aaron Burden

Thin Ice

“This is safe, right?”

Liam and I were latched onto each other’s elbows, shuffling the soles of our boots across the frozen surface of the pond. Colin waved at us as he glided past on the only pair of skates that still fit anyone.

“I’ve skated on this pond since I was seven,” he called. “It’s fine!”

“Bet he weighs a bit more than he did when he was seven, yeah?” Liam muttered.

I grinned. “It’s nice out, though, isn’t it? Lovely moon and all.”

“It’s freezing.”

“Hence the ice.”

Colin had invited us out to spend part of the winter holiday at his family home in the Highlands. It was, in fact, freezing, but it was a nice break from the board games and Doctor Who marathons that had eaten up most of our time. I wasn’t active enough to want to join Mel on her morning runs, nor introverted enough to read a book per day like Rachel did, nor hedonistic enough to drink the day away like Colin. When he suggested we try skating on the frozen pond, I agreed mainly for the excuse to do something, anything, different – and to keep an eye on Colin.

“I want to go back in and drink more hot toddies,” Liam grumbled. “Let Colin stay out here and show off.”

“You’re just grumpy there weren’t skates that fit – otherwise you’d be challenging him to a race.”

Liam snorted. “I’d win, anyway.”

Rachel and Mel, who’d dared to go out on the ice first (after Colin proved we wouldn’t all immediately fall through), made their way further out onto the pond, Rachel in her long black coat like something from a Dickens adaptation, Mel with her fleece runner’s headband practically glowing pink in the dark.

“Come on, you two!” Colin circled around them. “One two three, one two three!”

“It looks thin out there,” Rachel said, ignoring him. “Is it thinner out there?”

“It’s hard to tell.” Mel released Rachel’s arm and scooted forwards a few steps, bending slightly to try to see through the ice in the moonlight.

“Just don’t go too far out,” Colin called from where he was skating figure-eights.

“How far is ‘too far?'” Mel shouted back.

“I underestimated this cold,” Rachel lamented. “Why didn’t we think to bring the hot toddies out with us?”

Colin glided up behind Rachel, one finger to his lips. He yelled and jabbed her sides – and Rachel screamed.

With a squeal so quiet it would have otherwise been cute, Mel wobbled and fell, hard, straight through the ice like it was paper.

“Mel!” Liam and I skidded forward, frustratingly slow. I thought of every dream I’d ever had where I was running to escape something and moving like dripping honey; now I needed to run to something, and panic made me feel even slower.

Colin got there first, his skates kicking up icy spray as he arrived at the spot where Mel had fallen. But she was already struggling to her feet; the water only came up to her waist. Rachel had taken off her coat and she shuffled over to throw one end to Mel. I don’t know how any of us managed it, slipping and skidding the way we were, but soon Mel was out of the water and we were all sprawled across the ice, catching our breath.

Colin turned on Rachel. “Why did you scream like that?” he snapped.

“Why did you grab me?” Rachel retorted, teeth chattering. “You knew I’d scream, because you always do shit like that just to make me scream, since you think it’s so funny – ”

“Well, I didn’t think – ”

“Shut up!” Liam had wrapped his coat and Rachel’s around Mel, who was shaking so badly she couldn’t speak. “She needs to get indoors, now.”

“Rachel’s the one – ”

“Colin, utter one more word and I will push you through that hole.” The two of us helped Mel to her feet and began the slow shuffle back to the pond’s edge. Rachel followed, jaw clenched against both Colin and the cold. Colin stopped at the edge to take off his skates. No one waited for him.

I could feel Mel’s chill through both coats and my own sleeve. She muttered something as we walked. I leaned closer to hear her better. “Sorry?”

Her lips formed a shaky smile. “Don’t know about you, but I could go for a hot toddy.”

Tom Barrett

Dark Spaces

It was the right time to leave. The monster under the girl’s bed knew this, but he was having trouble accepting it. The monster outside the window left two years ago; the monster in the closet left just last month. The monster under the bed wished them well in their hunt for new positions. He was not yet ready to face the uncertainty of unemployment, but in truth, the monsters were becoming redundant.

The girl was seven years old. She talked to her teddy bear about the boy who was mean to her at school. The monster under the bed gathered that the boy had been reprimanded. No doubt the adults thought one stern lecture would be sufficient, but no one knows better than the monsters under the bed the enormous reach of small traumas, not to mention the expansive hurt that can be inflicted by one uncorrected heart.

The monster under the bed can hear the news from all the rooms with screens, which is every room but the girl’s. It speculates on and rehashes pain, both past (which is to say current, because no pain stays behind) and forthcoming, both known and hypothetical, while offering few explanations and fewer solutions. The girl hears it, and even if she doesn’t quite understand all of it, she understands that something in the world is wrong. The light of day is less reassuring; the darkness in her room at night is more frightening.

The monster under the bed began to make preparations. One more week.

The girl arrived home from school in a rush of running footsteps, a thunk onto the mattress, and sobbing barely muffled by the loyal teddy bear. The mother arrived; between sobs, the story came out. The girl had had to hide under her desk to practice what to do in case someone came to the school to hurt them.

The monster under the bed can’t compete with the monsters out there. He doesn’t even want to. The girl needs a refuge. The other monsters figured that out long ago.

At sunset, the monster under the bed left. When the girl wakes up crying, at least it won’t be because of him.

The Ashcliffe Party

(I couldn’t get this under the word limit by the deadline, so here I am for the YW Weekend Showcase! There were two prompts for #382: a character who is conceited, and answering the question, what if humans had no sight?)

The hall rang with laughter and the musical hum of guide suits. Hundreds of varieties of fine perfumes enveloped Mina and Tess as they entered one of London’s most talked-about social scenes. Mina felt her sister’s arm tremble under her gloved hand.

“What’s wrong?”

“Captain Wu is here,” Tess whispered. “I can hear his suit.”

“Well, stay calm – I’m sure Mrs. Ashcliffe can introduce you.”

A series of flute notes, increasing in pitch and frequency, announced the arrival of their brother, Felix. Mina felt her nose wrinkle.

“Felix, you’re wearing way too much cologne.”

“What? I want people to know I’m here.”

Tess’ voice was muffled; Mina guessed she was covering her nose with her hand. “There might be some people three floors away who missed your arrival.”

“Well, I had better go inform them,” he responded cheerfully.

Mina reached up to touch his face and felt him do the same to her. They both wore a mix of inherited and fashion jewelry: Mina wore three thin rings in each eyebrow, along with etched silver plates, formerly their mother’s, that adhered along her cheekbones. Felix’s cheekbones were accented with a lattice of brushed metal (borrowed from Father) and he’d decorated his beard with strings of tinny bells.

“Oh, Felix, not your eyebrows, too,” she sighed. His brow piercings, all ten of them, also jingled with bells.

“I’m told Watson Carr himself wears them!”

“Well, he’s a pop star – he can pull them off, can’t he?”

She felt him draw himself up in not-entirely-feigned indignation. “Just what are you trying to say?”

“Never mind. Did you hear Captain Wu is here?”

“That pilot? I thought he was off in the Gobi desert doing something insane like breaking land speed records.”

“He was, and he did, and now Tess is ready for her introduction.” Mina squeezed her sister’s arm; Tess tried to say “yes,” but it came out in a nervous whisper.

She felt Felix take her other arm. “Shall we, then?”

He set them on their way through the crowd of pinging guide suits and clouds of perfume. Mina picked up Mrs. Rosmund’s aggressively spiced scent and Mr. Theron’s notes of subdued leather. Mr. Theron was also arguing loudly with two others about the benefits of the latest echolocating gadgets, apparently intended to interface directly with the brain. Mr. Theron was opposed; his citrus- and tobacco-scented companions were in favor. Mina got the impression one of them was a neuroscientist of some sort before their argument was lost amid party conversations and chiming suits.

“You know, I could’ve been a pilot,” Felix said. “My hearing’s excellent and I ranked in the top percentile for reflexes.”

“Top what percentile?” Mina said with a laugh.

“Thirtieth,” he muttered. “Besides, with the all recent advancements in echolocating, those things practically fly themselves.”

“Do you think Alaric remembers me?” Tess interrupted, squeezing Mina’s hand. “We were in such different circles at school –”

“Regardless, he’s sure to be impressed by you now.”

“Wait, what do you mean, regardless?”

Felix hushed them. “We’re close.”

From a few feet ahead of them came a chorus of chimes and violin notes: they were approaching their hostess, Mrs. Ashcliffe, and her no doubt eminent friends. Mrs. Ashcliffe’s perfume greeted them, carrying notes of ambergris and sandalwood – all genuine, not artificial, of course. Mina heard Tess’ breath turn quick and shallow and gave her arm another reassuring squeeze.

Felix, as usual, was unfazed. “Mrs. Ashcliffe. Spectacular party, thank you so much for including us.”

“Felix.” Mrs. Ashcliffe’s age-worn baritone was warm. “And your sisters, I assume.”

Mina felt the old woman’s hands on her face and shyly returned the greeting: Mrs. Ashcliffe’s cheekbones were decorated with intricate cloisonné plates and her forehead was draped in a net of tiny bells. Their elegance made Mina self-conscious even of her own fine jewelry.

Their hostess soon pronounced them all “lovely” and stood back in a wave of silvery suit chimes. “Have you had a chance to meet Lizbet Freeman? She’s composing the most lovely soundscapes.”

“Actually, we were hoping to meet Captain Wu,” Felix said. “Tess went to school with him.”

“I don’t want to take up his time,” Tess added breathlessly. “I know he’s very busy–“

“Oh, I’d be delighted to introduce you. John, go and fetch Alaric, would you?”

Mrs. Ashcliffe plied Tess for anecdotes about the captain’s school days. Mina listened with pride as her sister’s posture relaxed and her voice grew more confident.  A new, woodsy scent soon arrived accompanied by proximity chimes.

“Tess, Mina, Felix,” Mrs. Ashcliffe announced, “may I introduce – or perhaps reintroduce – Captain Alaric Wu.”

The usual greetings were exchanged. Mina heard Tess gasp, and soon found out why: Wu was not wearing any jewelry, so her hands met his bare, and appealingly sculpted, face.

“Tess has been telling everyone what you were like at Gildeheath,” Mina said.

“Wait, Tess Sherborne?” Mina was relieved to hear delight in his voice. “From the Recitation Club?”

“You remember me?”

And just like that, the captain and Tess were chatting like old friends. Mrs. Ashcliffe excused herself; Mina felt Felix try to direct them towards Tess and the captain, but she held her ground.

“I want to meet him, too,” Felix hissed.

“Not now,” she hissed back.

“I’ve done some flying in my time, surely he’d be interested–”

“Later. Let them talk.”

“Oh. Oh.”

“God, you’re dense.”

And together they melted back into the swirl of chimes and perfume.