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art by Jonathan Westbrook

Maps

Beth Cato is an active member of the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America, with stories in Flash Fiction Online, Daily Science Fiction, Stupefying Stories, and many other publications. She's originally from Hanford, California, but now resides in Buckeye, Arizona, with her husband and son. Despite how often her husband's co-workers beg, she will not quit writing to bake cookies all day long. Information regarding current projects can always be found at bethcato.com. Sometimes those projects do include cookies.
Christina drew her first map at age five, nubby red crayon in her fist. She thrust the sheet into her grandmother's lap, warring for attention against four squalling cousins.
"What's this?" asked her grandmother, her smooth, ripe lips pursing in a frown.
"That's where you'll die," said Christina.
The maps continued, etched only for herself or loved ones, though not all were dire:
"This is where I'll have my first kiss."
"This is where Jimmy'll fall from a tree and break both legs."
"This is where the jasmine will bloom, even though you don't plant it."
None bore a timeline, only saying where, not when. Her fingers preferred drawing in dirt most of all. No sticks, no rocks--nails and flesh furrowing through dust.
The social workers, the therapists, each noted it in her case file: "A manifestation of a turbulent youth, a desire to seize control over aspects of her chaotic life." Christina already showed strong anti-social tendencies, running away to the woods for hours at a time. A consulted magi theorized that maybe she contracted something there, but if so, it was impossible to tell; she was like a fly flitting through the undergrowth, still for mere seconds at a time.
Christina's grandmother died where depicted, despite her strong avoidance of that intersection. Cousin Jimmy broke his legs. Jasmine bloomed, fragrant as heaven.
Christina didn't want to draw her maps. She screamed and fought against the compulsion of her left fingers. Her hand, bound in bandages, would writhe its way free. In the night, her nails gouged pathways and words onto the headboard as she slept. In a way, foster care was a blessing, distancing her from attachments and love, as that love seemed requisite for a map.
At age nine, on a rare visit to her mother, she battled against her fingers as they jabbed through the rock bed of the apartment landscaping to find dirt beneath.
"This is where you'll get AIDS," Christina said, hating the words, the way the knowledge trickled from her fingertips and up her arm, the sensation warm as pee. The map showed the apartment complex itself, an X on the residence of her mother's boyfriend, a man she had never met or known about.
Doctors, psychiatrists, and magi examined her, trying to determine what magic graced her. When one told her she was blessed, Christina screamed and lunged for the shrink's eyes, her right fingers curved as claws.
She embraced her role as a rebellious teenager, discarding friends as a cat sheds fur, with no discretion, no attachment--or so she tried. Christina ached for companionship the way an early spring seedling ached for the sun, but at the first realization that she cared for someone, she made herself sever contact. She didn't want to know where the cancer would grow, where their brother would die in Afghanistan, where they would lose Jesus.
Withdrawing to her bedroom and online high school courses, her predictions focused on herself.
"This is where I'll fall in love."
"This is where I'll buy my first cigarette."
"This is where I'll be when I find out he cheated on me."
She broke her fingers after that--not for the first time--yet still they quivered out their diagrams, agony dappling her eyesight. She had tried to slice them off, only to lose a fight against her left hand.
Christina graduated from the foster system and acquired her case file, a disk drive loaded with encyclopedias of data. She skimmed for any clue of what caused her fingers to rebel, what made the words travel up her arm and escape her lips. There were no answers, only theories--a rare disease, a blessing, a curse, all of the above.
She shunned the city and escaped to the Sierras. Alone and isolated, the compulsion lessened, but when maps did come her independent fingers shivered in ecstasy.
At the fleshy distal points, her fingers began to turn as brown as the soil they loved.
The joints stiffened like twigs as the coloration spread. She perfected the use of her right hand for everyday tasks, her tapping on a cell phone or the flick of her lighter. Christina hiked through meadows and clambered across plutons, ignoring humanity and showers in her quest for an answer to her curse.
Her left fingers became useless husks, the bones within rattling like seeds in a gourd. Still, the messages came to her, written by nerveless flesh.
"This is where I'll catch a glimpse of God in the stars."
"This is where I'll see twin fawns graze."
"This is where my fingers will leave me."
She followed that map with urgency in her stride and stood at the edge of a swampy meadow, far, far from civilization. Christina stared at her fingers, feeling strangely devoid of emotion. The left hand didn't fight now. The pocket knife sliced through the base of her pointer finger as though cutting into crusty bread. No blood, no pain. The finger plopped into the water. A sprout emerged and bloomed a dazzling red flower, velvety petals begging to be touched.
She stepped back, suddenly understanding. Like poison ivy, this plant spread poison premonitions. If her right hand touched the bloom, the curse would spread again.
Christina sliced off her other fingers onto a nearby boulder, and with an expert flick of her lighter, she burned them. The seeds writhed as fire claimed them, but she didn't feel happy. She felt nothing at all.
She smacked down the bloom with a branch, herded the petals from the water and crushed them beneath her boots, pounded at the seedling until she could not breathe.
Her distorted reflection wavered in the dark water.
All her life she had run from love, run from the maps it evoked. Now she could visit her mother in the hospice, get a job, go to college--live. Now she had no excuse. Christina blinked at her maimed hand.
She was utterly lost.
The End
This story was first published on Thursday, February 14th, 2013


This story came together surprisingly fast for me, I think because my own personal experience factored in. I've been stuck on maps of my own creation for years at a time, where life looked like an old-school, dungeon-crawler video game. Go left, right, straight. Find treasure. Monsters can attack the front or flank. Go on. But real life--fully lived life--is scarier and much more vulnerable. There's a lot more treasure to be found, but those monsters can attack from every which way.

- Beth Cato

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