Welcome to today. But wait, it's different.
The platform beneath my shoes vibrates with the approach of a train, though none is scheduled for the next three minutes. Curious, I lean forward to look down the track; the other occupants of the platform are too absorbed in their cell phones to notice. A cold breeze stirs the pleated hem of my skirt and chills my knees.
Two lights appear around the bend, strangely dim and greenish. The roar intensifies, breeze flashing from cold to hot and smelling faintly of tea and spices. Max had the worst malady any middle school kid could have: he was different. Not different in a visible way; teachers at least tried to quash that kind of teasing. They were less proactive about protecting students that could see into the future, even a mere ten seconds.
Ten seconds of precognition was hardly the most useful gift in the world. Max could predict the answers to questions the teacher asked during class, but not on tests. Knowing where the kickball was going didn't keep him from being picked last every time. And being innately difficult to prank only made him a favorite target. I twist the tiny cog into place, my old-too-soon fingers gnarled, golden brown and cracked, but true. Complete, I turn the miniature dog over in my hands, the brass and copper of its construction shining in the late afternoon sun. I lift it to my lips, breathe softly into its mechanized heart and it stirs, shifts, and wags.
The girl reaches out a greedy hand, eyes alight with wonder and I smile, place the wriggling clockwork puppy on her palm. She hugs it to herself, teeth white in a smile of innocence and immediate love. "I'm so sorry."
As the words slipped from Jane's mouth, another blue Line of Apology on her arm disappeared in a searing--but brief--slice of pain. She only had ten Apology Lines left. Most people her age had blue streaks marking their arms all the way to shoulder. I have three uncles, but one of them is dead.
He's the funny one. The cloud dragon ate red balloons and was angry. That a beast of his stature should have to rend paltry rubber when soccer fields everywhere rolled with earnest boys... the dragon itself roiled in anguish. His very substance was forever buoyed above the morsel heads he craved, perpetually positioned with an excellent view of the denied buffet--the cloud dragon would hover over playgrounds and eviscerate himself into a thousand white feathers as blithe boys monkeyed on swings, obliviously competing to place their sandy toes within his ephemeral jaws. The wispy shards of his being would scatter in frustration to reconvene elsewhere, someplace principled and resolutely unpeopled, usually far above frosty seas or sober Alps. High in the stratosphere the cloud dragon would assemble the shifting flakes of his scales. Drifting back toward land, coiling and uncoiling the mist of his long, reptilian shape in mute hostility, whiskers steaming, the dragon wished again for the weight of silver teeth.
I was working on a still-life when I discovered the paint in my veins.
The first time you got lost, I thought you were just light-headed with the heat. We laughed it off as I drove you home. When you forgot our neighbor's name, I just shrugged. Wasn't it hard for a man your age to keep track of the names of everyone he knew? When you forgot our son's, I said it was nothing. But we both knew we couldn't keep lying.
Anthony Nance glares at me like my hair is on fire and I've got worms coming out of my ears. I toss him a smug grin, then stir my finger around the stale ice cube melting in my glass of Bombay Sapphire and Diet Orange Shasta.
"That's an abomination," he says. I looked up from my bio notes to see some blonde girl grinning at me.
"Yo, Moria!" she said. "Fancy meeting you here." It started with a sudden surge of emergency-room visits: broken collarbones, severe abrasions to faces, knees, and elbows. Media attention became acute when the Prime Minister of Australia, a man both fit and environmentally aware, was flung to the bike path after his pants cuff became snarled in the chain of his mountain bike as he rode to work. Freakishly, the cuff was released at exactly the right moment to allow his momentum to carry him into the chilly July waters of Lake Burley Griffin.
The conflict quickly escalated. Cars were found dented and scratched, headlights broken, the tracks of thin tires making mocking patterns across windscreens and bonnets. Packs of feral bicycles rose from landfills and creek beds and rolled, lawless, through suburban towns, terrorizing pedestrians and turning rush-hour commutes into battlegrounds. Every family has a secret magic tucked away in a dusty attic or hidden between the words of a handed-down story. This box is ours. It doesn't look like much, but it's been in our family for a long time. After my mother's death, I found it in her attic with a notebook inside. Now I'll leave the box for Rebecca. I hope she won't just think it an old woman's fancy.
My mother kept scraps of fabric. I was surprised to see neither a trace of fading nor a moth hole. The tiny bits could have been snipped free from their dresses yesterday. I will confess. I didn't believe her words, until I touched one of the pieces. I won't tell Rebecca what I saw. I'll let her discover that herself. Hope grabbed at the railing as the surge of people pushed her off-balance. She hung on as she made her way down the rain-slick subway stairs, exhaling with relief at the bottom. The crowd carried her into the station, where she stuck her token in the turnstile and headed toward the A-train track.
Another dull, tedious cubicle day, another nasty bit in a crowd of smelly strangers--and the same commute back to that boring old apartment. Hope sighed as her thoughts spun. The train thundered in with a rush of stale air, and she stepped through the doors as they shushed open. Greta sat cross-legged on the attic floor, the pink balloon tugging upward at her wrist as she stared slit-eyed at the age-grayed wooden door. Per the regulations, it was barred from the outside by a beam no less than three inches thick, held in place with a shiny gray combination lock. Her clock, the one from her bedroom that was shaped like an elephant, carved away seconds with almost-silent ticks. In thirteen hours and thirty-two minutes, Greta's birthday would be over and she would be allowed to leave.
Late morning light yawned between the bars over the attic's tiny window, throwing narrow slats across the carpet, over a pile of books Greta had read long ago, against the face of a refrigerator filled with snacks and drinks. The refrigerator didn't contain any cake. It didn't contain any candles. It certainly didn't contain any matches. The living room had the usual appearance of Christmas aftermath, as though a herd of many-trunked elephants had rushed through, grabbed anything wrapped in paper, ripped the paper off, tossed it on the floor, then stomped on it. The multi-colored twinkly lights on the Christmas tree reflected from scraps of foil paper and the firework bursts of discarded metallic ribbon.
Emma's older sister Alice had carried her new supply of glam clothes and trending devices up to her room. Emma's younger brothers Oliver and Lowell had raced outside with their new Razor electric scooters, leaving the rest of their gifts in staggering stacks by the couch where they had unwrapped them. As I was sailing the Wine-Faced Sea, I found myself passing an island which appeared on no charts. I asked a woman who sat on the beach where I was.
"This is the Isle of the Ones that Got Away," she told me. "Whenever anyone thinks of an old flame, and wonders what that old flame is doing now, the answer is that they have ended up here, and are living a life of bliss." When the Sandman returns, Susan knows it. On Tuesday night, after she puts Liam to bed and slips under the duvet beside Neil (already snoring, bless him), she dreams of a swan. The bird's feathers are silver-bright, and it glides down a current of crystal-clear water, and in the distance a boat is waiting.
She wakes in the morning with an ache in her heart, and dust in the corners of her eyes. I figured the new boy would have trouble making friends. He sat alone on a swing, holding his open sketchbook and chewing on a yellow pencil. Around him, other children played tag, climbed on the jungle gym, or scrambled aboard the school's pride--an elaborate wooden fort with towers, rope ladders, and a playhouse. The whole community had built the fort with locally donated funds, and it still smelled like new wood. The boy squinted, looked at the fort, and started drawing. He reminded me of myself years ago, on other playgrounds in dozens of places.
I wasn't usually a playground monitor. The art teacher was out with chicken pox, of all things, so I'd volunteered for her shift. I felt awkward with older kids. The fifth and sixth graders grew up a lot faster than I remembered. Three of the girls wore mascara, and I'd already stopped a bra-snapping incident involving ten-year-olds. When the game of tag turned into tackle, I broke it up, wishing for the safety of my kindergartners' finger painting. I unscrewed the bulb from the lamp. It rattled. "It's dead."
"What's dead?" my daughter asked. She sits in a dusty corner of the glass and chrome spaceport, offering solace to everyone. Beings of all shapes and sizes bustle past. Most are tired, lonely. All have need of what she offers.
She holds solace in a delicate porcelain bowl, fine and fragile between her palms. The sweet, clear liquid steams. It smells different to everyone. To her, it smells like roses and chocolate and cool spring rain. He twitches when she sets the tip of her pen against his naked flesh, almost as if he knows what she's about to do to him. But of course that's impossible. She has never told anyone about this. About how she looks at a person, looks at him, and all she can see are words. Right there. Right under the skin. His skin, which she scratches with a long, slow line until her pen hooks the end of the word she's after. She writes it, one looping letter at a time, pulling it right out of him and onto his shoulder. Just the one word. It has been stuck in him for a long time, in a place where he had probably thought he could hide it.
She doesn't mean to go on. From the very start, when she first suggested she would like to write on him, it had always been about finding that one single word and showing it to him, proving she knew it had been there all along, like a secret self. One word that defined him completely, encompassing every aspect of his being. But the first word pulls a second behind it, a partner, no less meaningful than its companion, no less pertinent to who he is, so she writes it as well. Then the two bear a third. She can't ignore it. She adds it. She doesn't even have to lift the pen. We knew the witch was dead when her cat showed up on our doorstep. Mom found him sitting patiently beside the morning's milk delivery, like he was waiting for his share of the cream. She only called to Dad, but the tone of her voice got us both up from the breakfast table until we all stood in the entryway to stare at the cat.
"You poor thing," Mom said, wrapping both the cat and his former mistress up in one expression of pity. "Won't you come in?" The cat took the invitation and stepped over the threshold of our house, weaving between Mom's ankles in a figure eight of appreciation. My father leaned down to pet him, and I heard the murmur of his voice as he spoke to the cat. Whatever he said seemed to satisfy the cat, who then made his way to me. I reached down and ran my hand along his back, which struck up a low, deep purr from his chest. Mom gathered up the milk bottles, Dad closed the front door, and the two of them shared a look. Bobby is the first off the school bus. He always sits in the front seat on the right; first, because the driver can offer some protection, and second, because he can get out quickly.
He does not look behind him. He can feel their gazes. Charlie picked up a pencil and drew a tree. The tree spread wide over a desert and Charlie sensed that animals off the edge of the page craved that shade. So he made them. Not just sketched their shapes but created them. He reached down to that part of him that tweaked each time he grabbed a pen and drew the animals into animation, actual moving beings with a motivation all their own. Pencil elephants, cheetahs--and there, a lizard--trampled the hard ground, padded across hot sand, skittered over flat rocks. The boy watched, fascinated, as they hurried across his notebook paper to huddle under the tree. The tree that he drew, that he imagined.
In an adjacent room with a thick glass window, the boy's parents stood. They were like bees at the honeycomb, vibrating and crowding each other. The mother put her hand on the father's arm and he looked at her through his glasses. Simon regarded the present his Gran had sent him for his fifteenth birthday. The little jar was filled with a sticky-looking grayish paste. He twisted the lid hard to get it off, and took a tentative sniff. The stuff smelled of old-person, although running underneath that was something faintly sweet, like lily perhaps. It reminded him of Laura--the lily part, not the old-person part.
Foot cream? That would be a new low in the present stakes even for Gran. Gran never forgot a birthday, and a parcel always turned up from wherever in the world she happened to be (this one was postmarked Patagonia), but her presents had become increasingly bizarre. Last year it had been a box of tissues, beautifully wrapped. Awesome. The year before she'd sent matchbox cars, obviously forgetting how old Simon really was. Gran was a hundred and five now, so Simon guessed it was par for the geriatric course. Maybe it was pimple-cream? Unfortunately, that at least would be a useful present. Public Alley 434 hides secrets. Boxes full of former lives guard the entrance, cloaking magic in the mundane. It is here the Magician of Words plies his trade, hidden between the back walls of the old brownstones, behind the facades of things that are what they seem to be.
You think to seek him out, be other than you are? Beware what he can do--you cannot know what you will get, where the spell will take you. Are you not content with your lot? But contentment has nothing to do with it; it is the spell itself which draws you, the magic of illusion. My first total eclipse, Munich International Airport. A fortunate layover on a hectic business trip to Europe.
The moon has already carved an enormous black bite from the disc of the sun, leaving a thin, white crescent that slowly shrinks as I watch. Just before the crescent vanishes completely, it flares up in four bright dots--Bailey's Beads--which wink out, one by one, in quick succession. The last spills a hot circle of light around the silhouette of the moon before it, too, sputters out and the corona appears, dancing and flickering like the ghost of the sun. Before he was The Great Bellini he was just plain old Malcolm Bell. He had a knack for magic tricks--illusions, he called them--and what had been a hobby became a profession. He met Patricia when he selected her from the audience to assist with a trick, married her within a month, and remained passionately in love with her until the auto accident took her from him a decade later.
It was when Mordecai the Magnificent came over from England and began drawing huge audiences--audiences that used to pay to see Bellini--that he reconstructed Mordecai's greatest illusions, performed them on television, and then, ostensibly to prove that there was truly nothing magical about them, showed the viewers exactly how they worked. This is what everybody knows about the Midnight Knock:
It doesn't always come at midnight. We call it the Midnight Knock out of tradition. Or laziness, which amounts to the same thing. He flinches at the touch of sharp, cool metal against his shoulder. Only once and then he stills, holding himself motionless for her. She begins slowly, dragging the nib over his skin, leaving tracks that chill him as the ink dries. He shuts his eyes and focuses on the movement of the pen upon his flesh, but he can't be sure of the letters she's writing.
A shudder runs down his spine as she finishes the first word with a flourish, a strange sensation of relief like the purging of a wound as she pulls it from him and lays it out on his skin. "This is your problem, right here." The plumber's deep voice resounded from beneath the maintenance hatch by the main pool at Cascade Reef waterpark. "You've only got one troll left. For a pool this big, you need fifty minimum, seventy-five if you want everything to run smoothly."
"Pardon?" shouted Anita Westegard, the owner. "I only have one of what left?" Across the tracks from the train platform, a dog barked into a cell phone lying on the sidewalk, a small brown dog that might have had some Cocker Spaniel in its lineage, but was otherwise undistinguished. My briefcase hung heavily, and I was afraid to shift it to the other hand. I had already smacked the woman's shins beside me once. So many commuters stood on the platform that I couldn't move away. In her grey pantsuit and severe expression, she looked ready to chop me off at the knees for breathing too loud.
She spoke suddenly. "We're not letting them off the hook with that interest rate." Grant drove. Mel had the back seat and Hart took shotgun.
Mel snorted. "Sign looks like a coat-of-arms." Natasha needed new things to grow on, like the fertilizer she spread in her garden.
She and Curtis had an old place in a hip and trendy neighborhood, being hip and trendy themselves; Curtis needed a big house for his studio and to accommodate his band.
Welcome to today. But wait, it's different.
by Rachael Acks
Published on Jul 23, 2013
by Scott W. Baker
Published on Dec 26, 2011
by Michael Banker
***Editor's Note: Adult Language appears in this story. You've been warned.***
Alyssa held out her hand and watched the sunlight leak through her fingers. Not ordinary sunlight; certainly not like anything she had ever gleaned from a Physics textbook. It looked like faintly iridescent, golden foam, and she could clearly see it drifting onto her palm like snow and then dripping through the cracks of her fingers. The air glowed with it. Pockets of congealed light collected on the pavement before evaporating or melting away. The effect was subtle enough that if Alyssa tilted her head just so, it would disappear, like rain viewed against a dark backdrop. But even in those moments, the air still sparkled as if concealing a secret.
Published on Mar 6, 2012
by Alan Baxter
Published on Dec 25, 2012
by Kathryn Felice Board
Published on Aug 1, 2013
by Story Boyle
***Editor's Warning: Mature language and situations in the story that follows***
"Look sideways to see 'em, Ben. You can't catch 'em straight on. Like this," India lowered her head, eyes drifting groundward.
Published on Jul 3, 2012
by Stephanie Burgis
Published on May 4, 2012
by Tom Cardamone
Published on Mar 14, 2011
by Gwendolyn Clare
Published on Mar 22, 2011
by Cécile Cristofari
Published on Jul 2, 2013
by Nicky Drayden
Published on Mar 29, 2013
by Jasmine Fahmy
Her eleventh birthday came and went, with no sign of a Hogwarts letter. But that was okay. Hogwarts was in the UK, so why would they send her a letter? There must be another magical school in America, and they probably took older students.
Published on May 21, 2012
by Shannon Fay
Published on Apr 18, 2012
by Laura E. Goodin
Published on Nov 22, 2011
by Damien Walters Grintalis
Published on Jun 28, 2013
by Lee Hallison
Published on Apr 26, 2011
by Erin M. Hartshorn
I sat on the green bench watching the kids at the playground. Not mine. Never mine. But my niece and my two nephews ran up slides and jumped down stairs and raced across bridges and climbed up the outside of equipment that had surely never been meant for that. "I don't know how you manage," I said softly to Geena, my sister-in-law. "I knew your family could hear the Call. Knew it when I married Ash. It didn't surprise me when he got up and walked out in the middle of dinner. I just hope he's all right, wherever he is."
Published on May 14, 2012
by Michael Haynes
and thinks about what she's seen.
Kelly signs for possession of the fireproof box and wonders what her mother had felt the need to protect. No jewelry, that all would have been hocked years ago--cigarette money. Back when they still talked, Kelly always told her mom the cigarettes would kill her.
Published on Oct 4, 2012
by Jeffrey John Hemenway
Published on Sep 20, 2013
by Nina Kiriki Hoffman
Published on Jul 19, 2012
by Nina Kiriki Hoffman
***Editor's Note: One incident of mature language in the following tale***
My best friend, Ben, is dead. We still hang. Not too many other people can see or hear him--just little kids and animals, and an occasional weirdo, so Ben is kind of stuck with me, which works for me. We do most things together.
Published on Oct 30, 2012
by James Hutchings
Published on Feb 3, 2011
by Jess Hyslop
Published on Apr 4, 2013
by Vylar Kaftan
Published on Jan 24, 2014
by Andrew Kaye
Published on Mar 1, 2012
by Mary Robinette Kowal
Even though her parents had always told her they'd come to the mortal world for the sole purpose of conceiving her, even though her childhood had been filled with fairy tales in which she was the chosen one, even seeing their glamour, Kim had never fully believed them. Because the alternative, that she was the first fairy born into the mortal world since the gate closed, was crazy. She gestured at the parchment. "Can I see it?"
Published on Sep 17, 2010
by Jamie Lackey
Published on Mar 29, 2012
by Terra LeMay
***Editor's Warning: Not for the faint of heart***
The unicorn hunters looked like addicts. Like Shay's brother Eddie and Eddie's friends. Not the way Eddie and his friends looked when they were high, but sketchy and haggard, the way they looked when Eddie's hook-up fell through or when nobody had any cash or when cops were watching the house. They huddled around a campfire, a few yards away from the tent where Shay was supposed to be learning how to do his new job.
Published on Apr 26, 2013
by Terra LeMay
Published on Mar 29, 2011
by Terra LeMay
Published on Nov 1, 2011
by Kalisa Ann Lessnau
Published on Sep 5, 2013
by Ken Liu
Published on Jun 12, 2013
by Henry Lu
My hand is in the firm clutch of my mother's, my steps timid alongside her sure stride. I am almost as tall as her shoulders. "Caroline, keep your head up," my mother reminds me.
Published on Oct 29, 2012
by Brynn MacNab
***Editor's Note: Adult language and adult story***
He stood momentarily lost in the heavy beat of the club, lights and bass line pulsing together. On stage longhaired boys screamed and writhed and clutched their guitars, while a mass of bodies bounced before them. Nearer Rob, by the bar, a few sweaty lonely folks had peeled off from the crowd to converse in shouts and homemade sign language.
Published on Feb 14, 2014
by Sadie Mattox
Published on Dec 27, 2011
by Samantha Murray
Published on Jun 10, 2013
by Ruth Nestvold
Published on Jun 14, 2012
by Shannon Peavey
***Editor's Note: Mature themes lie within these walls***
The baby in the north-side wall of Laura's apartment never cries during the earthquakes. Other times it will scream and wail loud enough to keep her up at night, even with a pillow over her ears--but when the shaking starts it quiets. Like it's being rocked to sleep.
Published on May 30, 2013
by Tony Pisculli
Published on Dec 19, 2013
by Cat Rambo
Published on Feb 10, 2011
by Mike Resnick & Jordan Ellinger
Published on Mar 8, 2013
by Patricia Russo
Published on Jun 22, 2012
by Allison Starkweather
Published on Mar 28, 2011
by David Steffen
Published on Nov 13, 2012
by Lavie Tidhar
There were two sea stars in the rubbish that morning. They lay on the ground alongside an opened tin of pickled gherkins, two paperback books with the covers torn off, a bunched-up newspaper with last week's headlines, an empty box of tampons, and a chair missing two of its legs.
Published on Jan 10, 2011
by James Van Pelt
Published on May 6, 2011
by Sean Vivier
Published on Sep 28, 2011
by Pam L. Wallace
It was time to let him go. She did him no favors by clinging. He'd made her promise to remember their joy and not dwell on the sorrow. They'd made more than enough memories to last her until they were together again.
Published on Oct 21, 2010
by M.O. Walsh
The truth, these people claim, is much simpler: They say we’ve merely been living like dolts down here all these centuries, down here at ground level, because there’s magic up there in the Strat.
Published on Oct 5, 2010
by Brian Winfrey
High overhead, thick smog commingled with harsh California sunlight, staining the horizon the dull brown of a broken heart. In the hundred-degree heat, sightseers abandoned their searches for the pink terrazzo stars of cinema giants like Lassie and Erik Estrada and fled gasping into the climate-controlled comfort of the Hollywood & Highland shopping complex. I checked my watch. Less than a minute to spare. The blonde in the crème pantsuit was nearly to the curb before I caught up to her. I reached into the box and offered what I found there.
Published on Nov 12, 2010
by Jill Zeller
Published on Dec 30, 2010