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art by Jeffrey Redmond

Bone and Ash and Butterflies

Julia Rios writes speculative prose and poetry, hosts the Outer Alliance Podcast (celebrating QUILTBAG speculative fiction), and is part of the fiction editing team at Strange Horizons. To find out more about her work, visit juliarios.com.

"How do you create a memory? With craft and skill, and the right supplies, anyone can learn." Rena smiled, panning her head from one side of the room to the other, catching every client's eyes along the way.
The first spread was on vacations. "A little sand, some colorful papers, and a whimsical plastic flip-flop make this piece really shine." Rena pointed to the happy couple, hands entwined as they strolled along a beach at sunset. "Yes, you too can have this experience. It's not as expensive as you might think."
She turned the page: a wedding. After that, a birthday, an A+ report card, and a beloved pet. The class lined up to empty their wallets, and Rena spent the next two hours helping them arrange their spreads.
Only one did nothing. She was a mousy blonde with an overbite, and a sweater three sizes too large. She should have been the perfect mark. Rena stood beside her table and set the demo book down. "Nothing to tempt you, dear?"
The client shook her head, mute.
Rena patted the demo book. "I'll leave this here for you. Just in case."
When the class wrapped up, everyone packed their pages away, and Rena saw them out one by one. Half were already repeat customers. The other half would be soon.
The mousy blonde stayed behind.
Rena picked up the leftover scraps: paper, ribbons, and glitter scattered everywhere. The inevitable detritus of wishes.
"Something I can help you with?" Rena didn't look up when she asked. She'd seen this type before, the shy ones. They wanted coaxing, but too much scared them right off.
A rustle. A clearing of the throat.
"I want to bring my mother back."
Rena's hands went still, inches above the waste bin. Not another one.
"I don't do necromancy," she said. She kept her voice light. "Wouldn't you like a nice pet? We've got a lovely golden retriever package, not too expensive at all."
Rena looked up and into intense grey eyes.
"I don't want a dog. I want my mother."
"I'll sell the packages we have here, but nothing else," Rena said. Her gaze, steady as her voice, implored the woman--girl, really; she couldn't be more than 17--to let it go.
"I know you can help. I brought bone and ash and butterflies. I have some living and some dead. I even brought some in the larval stage. I wasn't sure which was best." The girl's eyes and voice spoke hope. Horrible, painful, beautiful hope.
Rena shook her head. "She won't be the same. I promise."
"I don't care," said the girl. "I'll do it anyway. I'll modify the vacation package. That will work, won't it?"
Rena sighed. "She'll die at the end of the trip. She won't thank you."
The girl folded her arms, stubborn and unyielding. "I can't let her last days be stuck in that hospice. You can help me."
"Are you really ready to let her go?" Rena asked.
"She's already gone."
"That's not what I mean."
"I know," said the girl. "Yes."
"Then let her go." Rena dumped a handful of scraps in the bin for emphasis.
"That's why I brought the butterflies, so she could fly away." This last, a whisper. Rena knew it meant the girl wouldn't rest until she'd achieved her goal.
"I won't be a part of it," Rena said. "But use the larval ones if you don't want a zombie. I'm not promising anything, and I still think you shouldn't do it at all."
"How much do I owe you?"
"No money," said Rena. "Just come back in a week or two. I've got a girl's night package I think we'll both need."
The girl frowned. "I don't understand."
"Do you think you're the only person who's ever lost someone?"
Neither of them spoke for a full minute. Then the girl collected her bag and walked out into the night, leaving the door's string of fairy bells to chime merrily in her wake.
Rena cut the lights, and went through to the living quarters in the back of the shop.
"Mama, I'm home," she called.
The parody of a person strapped to the recliner drooled and hissed.
At least, Rena thought, the girl wasn't using a cat.
The End
This story was first published on Thursday, August 9th, 2012

Author Comments

I love to make things with colorful paper, which means I spend a lot of time looking at scrapbooking supplies (even though I have never made a scrapbook). One of the things that fascinates me about the papercrafts industry is that the marketing is all about capturing memories, preserving life events, etc. I wondered what would happen if people could take that to a more extreme level, and that's how this story came to exist.

- Julia Rios
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