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A Crown of Woven Nails

Caroline M. Yoachim is a writer and photographer living in Seattle, Washington. Her fiction has appeared in Asimov's, Lightspeed, and Interzone, among other places. This is Caroline's seventh appearance in Daily Science Fiction. For more about Caroline, check out her website at carolineyoachim.com.

My best friend growing up was a Splitter named Cobalt. She was nicer than the human kids--they called me Stump because my left hand has no fingers, or Puddle-lover because I spent so much time with Cobalt. Splitters are shape-shifters, but they come from a world with low gravity, so on Earth they get squashed flat to the ground, like puddles. Cobalt got her name because no matter what color the rest of her was, her edges were always blue. She was embarrassed about it, but I thought the blue was pretty.
I remember the last time I played with Cobalt. We were hanging out in the debris from a collapsed building. I collected nails and dropped them into her puddle, and she stretched them into thin strands and wove them together to make a crown. We were going to play at being royalty, but my mother called me in for dinner. Cobalt let me take the crown. I wore it to bed that night, and dreamed I was a queen.
While I slept, soldiers rounded up all the Splitters and put them into camps.
Everyone assumed the camps were temporary, but weeks stretched into months, and months stretched into years. I made friends with human kids, and eventually they stopped teasing me about my hand. We talked about Splitters sometimes, and I was surprised at how many kids thought they were dangerous and actually belonged in camps. I felt it was wrong to keep them locked up, especially after all they'd done for us.
The Splitters came to Earth after the Last Atomic War, and with their help we avoided an apocalypse and suffered only a momentary lapse in civilization. They could manipulate all types of matter as easily as we sculpt clay, and they absorbed the radioactive material left over from the war and made it inert.
We should have been grateful, but instead we were frightened by their abilities. We locked them away in camps, deep pits with high walls. It was a stupid thing to do, since nothing humans have ever built could hold a Splitter, but they didn't get angry. When we declared them dangerous, the Splitters simply waited in the camps for us to change our minds.
I tried to find Cobalt once, a few years after the soldiers had taken her away. I figured she'd be in the closest camp, and I snuck out of the house one night and walked over to the highway. My plan was to hitchhike. It was a terrible plan. Most of the vehicles on the road were military trucks, and the very first one picked me up and took me straight back home.
In retrospect, it was a lucky trip. I hadn't gotten close enough to the camp to get into any real trouble, and--five years later--I married one of the soldiers I'd met while riding home. We had a baby girl and adopted a stray dog and mostly I was content. But I kept the crown that Cobalt made, and sometimes I would trace the woven metal with my fingers, and wonder what had happened to my friend.
We call the aliens Splitters because at adolescence they split in half. Then each half combines with a mate, and they split off blobby little children.
When the pits were finally opened, half of Cobalt came back to our neighborhood. I wondered if she was still my friend, now that she was mixed with another Splitter. I tucked our crown into my backpack and went to visit her. Her edges were tinged with cobalt blue, just as I remembered, but she'd changed her name to Shimmer.
She was teaching her children how to deconstruct water. One of them separated a droplet into hydrogen and oxygen, and the other one recombined the molecules to make water again. I stayed well back from the tiny explosions.
I looped the straps of my backpack over my left arm and started to pull out the crown, but I was startled by the loud pop of an explosion, and the backpack slipped off and fell to the floor. Shimmer turned her full attention to me for the first time since I'd arrived, and she told me she could teach my hand to grow new fingers. She meant well, but I was so unprepared for her offer that all I could say was that I would think about it. It had never occurred to Cobalt that I was broken, but it was the only thing Shimmer noticed about me.
Eager to change the subject, I mentioned the crown we'd made, and Shimmer replied that children play such silly games. I felt foolish for bringing the crown with me, and relieved that I hadn't pulled it out of my backpack. I'm not sure what I'd thought would happen--I certainly didn't expect to wear the crown and become a queen, we were too old to play at such things--but her dismissal of the memory stung.
When I got home, I gave the crown to my daughter. She squealed with excitement, put it on, and ran outside to play. I complained to my husband that the friend I remembered was gone, but he just shrugged and told me I was different, too. After all these years, what did I expect?
At dusk, I went out looking for my daughter. I found her playing in the abandoned lot down the street. She was perched upon a concrete block with the crown of nails gleaming on her head. On the ground beside her was one of Shimmer's children, who had shaped herself as royalty, with a purple gown and a crown that matched the one my daughter wore. They were arguing over which one of them was the queen and which one was the princess.
It was time for dinner, but instead I let them play. Cobalt was gone, but I heard the echo of our friendship in the laughter of our children.
The End
This story was first published on Monday, August 26th, 2013
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