Ari and the Precambrian Archbeast, Part 3

Carina Nebula

Part 1

Part 2

One of the games Ari liked to play was collecting moments. When she thought back about her life it was a sea of hazy memory-liquid with the occasional glowing moment-fish standing out. The important moments, yes, but also the defining ones. And the ones she remembered for no reason but because they were funny or sad or just really obvious at the time.

Like the moment that she had the best piece of fried chicken in her entire life. Or the moment she realized that the concept of sunlight killing vampires came from the movies and not old historical vampire lore. These moments were bright and shiny when she looked back at them, but the game was to identify them as they actually happened. It was a way to live in the here and now. To pay attention, the way Uncle Jacob always said she should.

For example, Ari found it very easy to identify the moment that her eleventh birthday party officially became the worst part of her entire life. It happened with the utterance of these words:

Do you want to go play spin the bottle?”

Mazie Larken said them. Mazie Larken, who had more friends than anyone else in Mrs. Mithers’s class, had a different nice handbag every month, and got at least 100% on every spelling test depending on whether or not there was extra credit. Spin the bottle. Spin the bottle. It was so junior, a word which to Ari had the specific meaning of “things kids do when they’re trying to act like adults.”

It also struck Ari as entirely too heteronormative. Heteronormative meant something like “assuming that no one is gay,” and was one of madre’s words. The kind of word that Ari had mostly learned not to use when she was standing more than four feet away from madre. It made other kids think she was a freak, and it made adults look at her like she was a phytoplankten under a microscope that had suddenly learned to juggle.

She watched the kids who had said yes gathering together and whispering their plans to sneak upstairs and play. Ari didn’t want was her birthday, and she sure wished< that Mazie had actually asked her. Not that she would ever admit it.

But Mazie hadn’t asked her. Mazie didn’t even look at Ari as she and Ella McGuire walked around to the other kids at the party and spread the conspiracy to hushed giggles and nods. Ari just overheard. Maybe Mazie didn’t know it was her party. Or maybe she did and just didn’t care.

Ari watched the group as it gathered and trickled upstairs. She realized they would probably end up in her room. It was the most obviously kid friendly and had the biggest open stretch of floor. A sick feeling blossomed in her stomach. Maybe it could be cured by the application of more cake. As she turned to walk away, she saw Stefan’s face among the small crowd of would-be-bottlers. Her stomach did something entirely different but no less uncomfortable. He looked in her direction as she saw him. He was grinning. She quickly turned away so he wouldn’t think she was looking and rushed through the door.

really hear it. Not with the fleshy vibration detectors attached to the sides of her head. But she heard it nonethless.


So this is your party?” said the other girl, who had rich, dark hair and was very pretty.

Yes,” said Ari.

It’s pretty cool.”

Ari shrugged. “I guess so.”

The snacks are good,” said the girl.

I like the duck,” said Ari. The girl nodded, and they lapsed back into silence.

But Ari was tired of silence. She was tired of not talking to anyone at her own party.

It’s not really my party,” she said. “It’s my birthday. But it’s really my dad’s party. It always is.” She glanced up to see if daddy had heard that, but he was engrossed in his conversation.

Oh god, I so know what you mean,” said the other girl, visibly relaxing. “It’s like, really? You have to use your daughter’s birthday to, I don’t know, spread your business or something?”

Ari laughed. “I’m used to it, I guess. But it’d be nice if I knew the people at my own birthday.”

The girl nodded with enthusiasm. “Yeah, that sucks. I haven’t seen you before. Sixth grade?”

Yes,” said Ari. “I’m new.”

Yeah, but I thought I’d met all the new kids,” said the girl. Ari shrugged, while the girl said, “I’m Sandara.”

I’m Ariana. Ari, though.”

Pretty name.”

Thanks,” said Ari. “I love your hair. I wish mine was that thick and shiny.”

It’s cause I’m Indian,” said Sandara. Then, in an affected aren’t-I-a-princess tone, she added, “We’re just born like this.” Both girls giggled.

Well I think it’s very pretty,” said Ari.

Thanks,” said Sandara. “I like your bow. It’s cute.”

Ari blushed. “Madre…my mom, tied it in. She likes to do that. For parties.”

Well it’s cute. So how are you liking St. Vincent’s?”


St. Vincent’s?” Sandara asked again. “How are you liking it? I think it kind of sucks, but I guess there are worse ones.”

St. Vincent’s?” Ari asked.

Yeah. You know, the school? Our school, that we go to?”

I don’t go to St. Vincent’s. I go to Cherrywood.”

Oh jeez,” said Sandara. “Seriously?”

Yes,” said Ari.

So, like, our dad’s are making us a study session…”

And we don’t even going to the same school,” Ari finished.

Sandra rolled her eyes, and Ari shook her head in disbelief. Then both girls laughed.

It’s not even surprising,” said Ari. “That’s the kind of thing daddy does.”

Mine too,” said Sandara.

Ari’s father, who seemed very tall in situations like this, turned away during a pause in his conversation and looked down at the two girls.

Are you two getting along?” he said to Ari. “That’s great. I’m glad to see that.” He turned back to the man he was talking to. Ari saw that he had his tablet out, and his personal calendar/organizer app running. “Sam, I really think this could work. Maybe…”

And…they’re off,” said Sandra. Ari burst into giggles.

At the same time, she felt a tightness in her chest. Do it! Just do it, you dumb girl!

Sandara,” she said, and to her ears she sounded far too serious.

Sandara perked up. “Yeah?”

Do you want to, maybe…”

Sandra!” a voice came from behind them, and they both turned to look. A black girl with blonde braids that danced around as she moved walked quickly towards them.

Tanisha,” said Sandara. “What’s up?

You’ve got have to come see.” She grabbed Sandra by the hand and pulled her towards the door.

A few steps away Sandara looked back at Ari. “Do you want to come?”

No,” Ari said before she could stop herself. “You go ahead.”

Sandra gave Ari a slightly confused look, then shrugged and turned back around to follow Tanisha through the oak-molded doorway and towards the stairs.

Why did you do that? Lulu’s voice chided at her.

I couldn’t,” Ari said out loud to no one. No one was listening. “She probably didn’t want me butting in, anyway.” She could almost see Lulu shaking her tiny, pronged face in disappointment. But Lulu wasn’t here. Not really. Lulu wasn’t here and Ari couldn’t just follow off after someone she just met and try to force her companionship on the girl. As much as she wanted to, the thought of running after Sandara made her stomach queasy and the blood in her arteries turn cold.

She stood there in that same spot for a few very long minutes afterwards. She forgot that daddy was still there, still trying to build her a manufactured social life out of business associations and table scraps, until he spoke to her again.

Where’s your friend, dear?” he asked. His voice made her jump.

I don’t know,” she said. And she really didn’t.

She thought about getting another piece of cake, but she couldn’t face it. She didn’t want to run into Sandara again. Or Stefan. Or Mazie. Or anyone. She just wanted to be alone. She hadn’t been in this house long in to discover all of its nooks and secrets the way she had in the Summerfax house. There she would have retreated to the crawlspace behind the kitchen stairs, or hidden enclave underneath the large cedar tree out back that blocked out all the light. Here in Blarn the only place for hidden solitude was the attic. And it was dark and full of dusty webs and perfectly mundane spiders that never wanted to join her in conversation.

But she did know the pattern of her father’s parties. There would be one room in the house where no one would go. Ari marched up the stairs—sneaking to avoid any of the kids who might still be up there—and headed straight for the second floor guest bedroom. The bed was full of coats. Everyone’s coats, jackets, purses, and anything else they didn’t want to lug around the house were piled on top of the bed. There were enough guests that the pile rose several feet above the mattress. Ari walked around to the other side of the bed and flopped onto the floor. From here, even if someone walked into the room for some reason they wouldn’t still her. It was a high bed, and she was a small girl. She could sit here for as long as she wanted. Away from everyone. All alone.

In Uncle Jacob’s room. That’s what they would have called it. That’s what they called the equivalent room in the old house. Other people stayed there, of course. It was the guest room. Sometimes her grandparents used it, or daddy’s brother, Uncle Frank, or one of madre’s artist friends when they came to visit. But it was always Uncle Jacob’s room.

Sometimes, when he was visiting, madre sent Ari up to fetch Uncle Jacob to tell him that dinner was ready, or that it was time to put on Proper Clothes so they could go out to some function or other. On several of those occasions Ari walked into his room to find him sitting cross legged on the bed, his eyes closed, a wisp of a smile and a peaceful look on his face. The more she thought about those times the stranger it seemed to her. One day she finally asked him what he was doing.

Paying attention,” he said.

What do you mean?”

It’s like this, munchkin,” he said, patting the bed so she could hop up and sit next to him. “Most of the time we don’t pay attention. We’re always running around and jabbering inside our own heads. So sometimes I like to just take some time out and listen.”

To what?”

He smiled. “To everything.” Something about the way he said that word made it seem magical. Everything. Plump with whispers and secrets and possibilities. So she tried to join him. To sit there, unmoving, breathing, and just pay attention.

She did it right there in the bedroom, even though they were supposed to be getting ready for a fancy Luminary’s Club gathering. And she did it later, too. Before she went to bed, some nights. Or during particularly mind-numbing social studies classes when the teachers droned on about battles of this and signings of that which, according to madre, were mostly lies anyway. In those quiet moments she made the effort to hush her movements and her monologue, and just pay attention. There was only one problem.

She was terrible. She couldn’t sit still. She couldn’t stop the lively and perpetual Marrakech night market that took place in her head. There was just too much world really desired this.

Until now. Right there, sitting on the carpeted floor of what should have been Uncle Jacob’s room, inhaling the aroma of new paint and dozens of designer leather coats, she didn’t want to think. She didn’t want to be. She wanted to fade into the walls and become nothing more than an irregularity in the pastel wallpaper. After a little while, even the wanting dulled, and she couldn’t feel anything at all. Nothing ran through her mind. There was just her body, and her breathing, and the feel of the carpet where her skirt bunched and her exposed legs made contact with the floor. For the first time in her life, Ari paid attention. That is when she noticed the most interesting thing she had ever seen.

Once she noticed it, she was confused that she hadn’t seen it before. She didn’t understand it, of course. How could she have? It didn’t make any sense. It didn’t even make the kind of sense that Hobdob her grass goblin friend made. The kind that seemed obvious to Ari but confused everyone else when she gave them a perfectly clear and simple explanation. No, this was something altogether more bizarre. But there it was. She could see it, clear as day. She could see it even though

Well, she couldn’t exactly see it. Not with her eyes, the eyes that were covered in a thin membrane of flesh while she slept, and sometimes got crusted over so that she had to wash them out with water when she first woke up before she could open them properly. But she could see it all the same. Just like Hobdob.

The door to the coat room burst open and smacked against the far wall. In her heightened state of attention, she was fully aware of every feature of the boy who walked in. She saw his 63 inches of height, tall for his age. She saw the charge of energy that informed the way he traipsed across the ground. She saw the bright white teeth that glowed against the 65% dark chocolate complexion of his skin. She saw all of this, but she barely noticed.

Ari,” said Stefan as he bounded into the room. “I was looking for you. It’s your birthday, right? I wanted to give you your present.”

Ari barely registered the fact that Stefan not only appeared to know she existed, but had actively sought her out. A few minutes ago it would have seemed very important.

Do you see <that?” Ari asked him.

I wanted to show you something,” he said. “I nicked these cards, and…wait. See what?”

The stars!” she said, her voice bright in her ears. “Can you see the stars? They’re everywhere.”

And they were. Right through the ceiling of Uncle Jacob’s room, and through the attic beyond it, and through the blanket of blue daysky that covered the earth, she could see straight to the stars. When she looked left, and right, and down, all around her, it was like the ground and the people and the earth weren’t even there. There was just a giant nest of stars, so dense and bright and beautiful that it brought tears to her eyes.

It didn’t look like the night sky above Blarn or Summerfax. It didn’t even look like the rich tapestry of light Ari saw when madre and Uncle Jacob took her to the mountains. It was more like the images in astronomy books; lustrous clouds of luminescence, rich reds and greens and blues all intermingled like a sand painting. Only those were only pictures. Memories. These were alive.

Stefan’s face broke into a grin. “I see them,” he said. He stretched out his arms and twirled around. “I can feel them running through my fingers.”

He thinks I’m playing a game, she thought. Then the truth flooded into her like a breath of oxygen after having her head under water for a long time. I am playing a game! It didn’t mean it wasn’t real.

Stefan made a cup with his hands, jumped as high as he could, and scooped up a cupful of star stuff. He didn’t know where they were. She could tell he couldn’t see them. Not like she could, so impossibly bright she could barely stand it. But it didn’t matter; they were everywhere. He reached his hands out to pour his cupfull of stars into hers. She giggled and caught them. She looked back to the hole his scooping had left to watch the stream of stars flood in and replace them.

But they didn’t. The place where Stefan gathered in stars let a hole. She could see right through it. A nest of stars. That had been her first thought when she saw it, and now she knew why. It really was

What’s up?” Stefan asked. “Why did you stop?”

Can you see that?” she asked.

What is it? What are you seeing?”

I’m not quite sure.” She climbed up onto the bed, on top of the coats. She strained her neck to get a better look.

It was both inside of the nest and outside of it. Something bright and hot and enormous. Brighter and more massive than all of the stars put together. How in the world had she not seen it before? But she saw it now. Everywhere she looked, even when she closed her eyes, she saw it.

And in that moment it saw her too.

Ari and the Precambrian Archbeast, Part 2

Cassiopeia A: First Light (NASA, Chandra, 08/26/99)

Part 1

There are things nestled within the crevices and among the bones of the cosmos that are so old and so alien that, if a mortal mind glimpsed them for the smallest imaginable fraction of a moment, it would burst into a billion shards of gibbering insanity. Graemoreax, The Inferno that Burned at the Heart of Mount Nothing, Devourer of the Eversong, remembered when these beings came into existence. Its brethren. It was ancient even then. And it remember when they, themselves, were shattered. Splintered into the crumbs of creation and stirred back into the pot to make the mortals and the heavens and the stars. It was there, and it remembered.

For its part, Graemoreax did not know that it the day it chose to consume the four universes was also the eleventh birthday of a little girl named Ari. It was before all of this, and so much more. Before the time of little girls, and before the function of birth itself entered the vocabulary of creation. On the day the number eleven became manifest in the universe, Graemoreax was locked in endless battle with the First Unmade Scion of Kettherax, the Living Scar Beneath All Things. The eternal conflict, which had gone on forever and would have gone on forevermore, ended that very day with Graemoreax’s uncountable teeth at its opponent’s throats. The battle, it turned out once these things could be reckoned, was only eleven minutes long.

Graemoreax knew nothing of little girls, and birthday parties, and the disappointment of leaving glittering Summerfax for boring old Blarn. Its ignorance came not from apathy, or from a lack of attention. No, the impossibly ancient thing paid far too much attention to the four spindly, interwoven fabrics that together made up the whole of both fathomed and unfathomable existence. The play of all things ran along beneath the gaze of the infinite featureless holes that passed for its eyes, and it saw everything. And it hurt.

The archkthonios could not feel pain. Not as the creatures of flesh and nerves and tsetse fly-brief existences felt it. A single sharp spike that flares and then fades. Graemoreax’s expansive form did something much worse than feel pain. It remembered. It remembered the way only a being of inert fathomless power from before time and death and mind could remember. Every discrete moment of its existence was etched into its form. Like a scar. Like a tattoo, stenciled into its vision, clear and bright and endlessly hot in its perception, each instant forever like the first.

It remembered the first cry of joy ever uttered, as Cosmos above made boundless, innocent love to Matter beneath, and birthed the first molecules that would become the stars. It remembered the First Rebellion, when the Mewling Spawnlings of the Endless Primordia, itself and its pack-mates, had risen up against their non-existent mother and torn her to shreds, thus ushering in the age of creation where time could commence and the universes themselves could begin. It remembered when the Devouring Allmind willingly sundered its own existence, moved by the strivings of the lesser beings to become more than what they were, and thus granted the gift of sentience to reality.

It remembered because it could not forget. It was not made to forget. Forgetting was for beings that formed after time began. Beings birthed in the four universes, once entropy became the way of things and brought with it the greatest curse that could ever have been conceived: change.

Graemoreax remembered the moment everything changed. The first moment things could change. It filled the archbeast with a wonder so intense the brightness of a billion supernovae could not blind it out. And a fear so profound that had it been able to manifest it would have blacked out every sun that ever was or ever could be.
Graemoreax was not made for change. Everything it had ever done had been timeless. Simultaneous. Eternal. Fated to be and non-existent, an effortless paradox in an age where everything and nothing was a paradox. They had never begun and would never end. Until that moment. It was not made for change. But it was here, now. Now and forever. And Graemoreax, the last of the archkthonios, could not resist it. Nothing could.

All of its fellow spawn were gone, now. Not destroyed, of course. Nothing is ever destroyed. Not anymore. The few vestiges of the primordial destructive force that once composed the universe were housed within Graemoreax’s own intestinal walls, and long gone were the days when it would turn upon its own kind. But they were still gone. Changed so completely that they were no longer themselves. Only it remained. The strongest of them, though none could have predicted that it would be so. It had not the all-encompassing fury of Geburaknith, of the Claws that Cleanse the Impurity From the Fire. Nor had it the dynamic resiliency of Chlithering, the Allsnake, whose venomed fangs had pierced creation and opened up the wound of change, whose festering continued to this day. Of all of them, only Graemoreax endured. It did not understand why. It had tried to understand. For so long it had tried. But it could not. It was before understanding.

The Bearer of the Uncounted Toothless Maws that Snapped at the Black Dawn had embraced change. Perhaps that was some part of why it remained undsundered. It threw itself into the fury and chaos of existence with all that it was. It spent an eon and a half in a dance with the Mistress of Time, their toes stepping lightly on every universe that could have been but never was. For a billion years it swam through the sundered corpse of the Devouring Allmind and dreamed the dreams of the living stars as they flared into bright and glorious life and then dimmed into sleeping cinders. When the Unconquered Spark rose up to declare itself Emperor of The Myriad Skies and all that was beneath them, Graemoreax lead the legions of chthonios and their worshippers against the false god, who used the last of his dying breath to chain the archbeast within Mount Nothing, there to burn for what would have been eternity, if eternity had been left to an entropic and ever-changing universe.

It took the beast from before time and death a very, very long time to realize it was searching for something. It took longer still for it to recognize just what it was it was searching for. And yet another incomprehensibly long age passed before Graemoreax, Devourer of the Eversong, realized that it would never, ever, no matter how long it existed, find what it sought.

So, like an aging executive who has finally realized that all of the sports cars and corporate achievement awards in the world are not enough to appease the ravenous singularity in his chest, Graemoreax gave up. It flew up and wove itself a nest of stars, closed every one of the infinite featureless holes that passed for its eyes, and slipped into dreamless, meaningless slumber.

Or at least, that was the plan. Barely a million brief years passed before the archkthonios could was forced to face the futility. It could not sleep. It could never sleep. It was too violent. Too intense. Too passionate. It was a thing of snapping jaws and brightly searing fires. It was never made to change, or to care. But once these things were upon it, it could not resist them. The burning search would never stop scorching its impossibly enormous mind. Not while it lived. And it would continue to live. Forever. For the entire lifespan of the four universes. There was only one solution. All of it, everything that had ever existed or would ever exist, would have to go.

Would it have swayed the archkthonios if it had known of Ari, and that this was supposed to be her magical day? Would it have chosen a different slice of time to rise up from its nest of stellar bodies and begin the last meal that anything in the vastness of creation would ever take if it was aware that there was a young, unhappy girl down there, and that its actions could only make a difficult day even worse?

It is the same kind of question as asking yourself if you would stop wearing a raincoat if you found out that all rain really desires out of life is to kiss your exposed skin. Maybe you would, and maybe you wouldn’t, but why would you have ever bothered to stop and ask such question?

Graemoreax did not ask these questions, for none of them mattered. Nothing mattered, and any that existed who believed it did were fooling themselves. It did not understand the concept of mercy, not in a sophisticated way, but if it had it would have felt that what it did was in the service of mercy. The archkhtonios had infinite mouths, with infinite tongues, and it had tasted everything reality had to offer.

Or so it believed. Until the day of Ari’s eleventh birthday. Until the day it rose up to devour the four universes. Until the day that it noticed something that it, with its limitless mind, could never have imagined. Or rather, something noticed it. For on that day, for the first time, the true first time, something happened that Graemoreax could never have predicted.

It changed.


Ari and the Precambrian Archbeast, Part 1

Garden Goblin Statue

It was on the day of Ari’s eleventh birthday that Graemoreax, precambrian archkthonios, Bearer of The Uncounted Toothless Maws That Snap At the Black Dawn, decided to devour the four universes. Even before she had any hint of this, Ari didn’t expect much from her birthday. She hadn’t had a birthday with any magic to it since Uncle Jacob Went To the Stars.

The term was his. Ari first heard it right after Grandma Cecily passed away. No one would tell her what happened. Grandpa just got silent and grumpy. Daddy said Grandma Cecily went on a long trip. Madre gave Ari one of those mysterious artist smiles and said, “She’s sleeping, darling. She’s gone for a long rest and she won’t wake up. Not in this place.”

Frustrated, Ari marched over to Uncle Jacob’s room in the hotel where they were all staying and pounded on the door. He answered and smiled down at her and said, “Hi, munchkin. What’s up?”

“Uncle Jacob, what happened to Grandma Cecily? No one will tell me.”

He bent down and took her by the hand, then walked her over to the wall made of windows. He looked out into the pinpricked blackness and said, “She Went To the Stars.”

“Yes,” Ari said, scrunching up her face, “But what does that mean?”

“It means she died,” said Jacob. “Do you know what that means? Died?”

“Yes,” said Ari. She was five years old. Of course she knew about died. Nevertheless, she got an uncomfortable feeling in her chest, like a damp washcloth was pressed over her nose and mouth and she couldn’t breath quite right. “So, why don’t people just say she…died?”

“Folks don’t like to say that,” said Uncle Jacob. “Especially to little kids. So we find other ways.”

“But why?”

“Well, munchkin, no one really knows what happens to a body after she dies. But none of us can accept that. Some people can’t expect that so much that they tell themselves they know, for absolutely sure. But no one does. So we tell stories. I like to look up in the night and tell myself she’s up there,” he waved his hand at the softly shimmering sky.

“Because it makes it less sad?” asked Ari.

Uncle Jacob shook his head. “My mother is gone. It’s always going to be sad. This way it can, just maybe, also be a little bit beautiful.”

It was “Went to the Stars” after that, for the two of them. Uncle Jacob was never around much, but every time was special. One day she walked out of school to find him waiting for her outside, ready to take her to a private exhibition of African masks displayed in the personal basement gallery of an exiled Swaziland prince. Another time he woke her up in her bed at 11 PM to drive her down to the beach to a secret ice cream shop that was only open at midnight, and that made flavors of ice cream Ari had never heard of before.

Ari used to wish that Uncle Jacob could be around all the time, so that they could constantly share these adventures. Then one day it occurred to her that, like diamonds, they sparkled all the brighter for their rarity. She didn’t really understand the word “maturity.” Not in a sophisticated way. But she knew without being able to describe how that this appreciation for the sporadic nature of Uncle Jacob’s visit was a sign of growing up. She never knew when he was going to show up. It could be any day at all.

Except one. One day a year he was always there, and nothing would ever stop him. She didn’t realize quite why her birthday was her favorite day of the year until Uncle Jacob Went to the Stars himself, a few years after Grandma Cecily. There was no more magic to that day. Not anymore.

There were parties, of course. Fully of chatty people and grilled foods and a painted man doing terrible things to perfectly innocent balloons. Daddy made sure of that. Every year he made calls to the parents of all of the local children to make sure that they would RSVP to the invitations they received in the mail, designed by his firm’s graphic designer.

The result was a shindig full of strange kids with strange interests who didn’t always know Ari by name. It was like those teenager parties in movies where the heroine’s house is full of people dancing and drinking beer and knocking over her mom’s Tiffany vase, and at some point someone says, “Dude, great party. Whose house is this?” Of course it wasn’t really like that. Not in specific. There were a lot fewer teenagers. But Ari thought that in that magical realm where there are only 8 or so different types of parties and all earthly parties are pale manifestations of those, it was pretty much the same.

This year’s party was sure to be particularly odious. It might be the first year where no one at all knew her name. Ari’s whole family had just moved to a new town a few months ago. They used to live in Summerfax. Now they lived in Blarn. It was actually called Blarn, a fact whose significance Ari couldn’t seem to fully impress upon her parents no matter how many times she brought it up. Blarn. It was like someone took blandness and a barn and smooshed them together, only they left out the good bits.

Ari realized intellectually that Blarn probably did have good bits. Everything had good bits. Even barns had good bits. But she hadn’t found them. Besides, she was hadn’t wanted to move and was eleven years old, so if she wanted to ignore Blarn’s tiny hidden good bits, well, she would just go ahead and do that. Besides, even if it did have good bits, it wasn’t Summerfax.

Summerfax, where she could smell two different bakeries from her house early in the morning. If she walked down the tiny street behind Carraway’s Pastries on the way to school Mr. Carraway would come out and give her a freshly baked hazelnut chocolate brioche for “his little princess.” Every time Ari wanted to tell him he was confused, and that she had neither the right to nor the desire for a title of hereditary monarchy. But she didn’t. Let the sweet old man have his dreams.

In Blarn, instead of bakeries they had three different fast spicy chicken sandwiches within two blocks of her front door. None of which tasted much like chicken, and all of which were served by a different teenager every time they went there, none of whom had any interest in giving anything to little girls, princess or otherwise.

Summerfax was a place where the old grass field next to the cemetery might secretly be a beach, lapped by the waves of an hidden ocean Ari could almost hear, if she closed her eyes tightly enough. Blarn had no such places. It had a lot of parking lots.

Plus, all of her friends were in Summerfax. Daddy and madre, in classic parent fashion, didn’t seem to care at all that in moving they took Ari away from the people she loved. There was Hobdob, the grass gremlin who lived in the tall weedy lot behind their backyard. And Lulu, the reluctant heir to the throne of the earthworms who had run a way from her royal destiny to open up her own hotel chain. And Sinifi, the first of the nightingales, who had sung herself into being out of her own beautiful song. She tried to tell daddy about how much she would miss these friends of hers, and how she was sure she would find no one like them in Blarn.

“Dear,” he finally said to her after the one millionth time she talked about her friends, “you realize that these friends of yours, Hobnob and the others…”

“Hobdob,” Ari corrected.

“Yeah,” daddy said, “you realize they’re not real, right? You know that, don’t you Ari? That they’re not real.”

“Yes, daddy,” she said. “I know that.”

He seemed satisfied, but Ari wast confused. What kind of question was that? Of course Hobdob and Lulu and Sinifi weren’t real. Not if real meant the kind of things you see with your eyes made of jelly, and taste with your tongue that gets burned if you eat your pizza too fast and you have to wait for it to get better before you can taste anything again. But just because they weren’t real didn’t mean they didn’t exist. It didn’t mean they weren’t her friends, or that she would miss them even one drop less for it.

Ari had been in her new school for almost two months by the time the day of her birthday arrived. Two whole months without anyone to talk to. Daddy always told her that he was always there if she wanted to talk about something, but he didn’t listen. Madre used to be wonderful to talk to about her friends and the stars and everything. But that was a long time ago. She was different, now.

Ari hadn’t made any new friends. As she feared, Blarn’s chicken joints and copious parking lots were frustratingly free of Hobdobs. School wasn’t much better. There was a girl who she ate lunch with most of the time, Wendy. Wendy liked comic books and field hockey, and hated the fact that she had such a dull name as Wendy. They spent their lunchtimes discussing theories about Steven Universe, and what kind of superpowers they hoped to get if they every were ever exposed to magic rays or radioactive molecules. But they never saw each other outside of school. And she wasn’t coming to the party. Ari had checked the guest list. She didn’t know if Wendy wasn’t invited or if she just hadn’t RSVP’d, but it didn’t matter.

In addition to Wendy, there was a boy at school that Ari found…interesting. His name was Stefan. He was always getting in trouble for doodling on his textbooks and talking in class. He seemed to say absolutely everything that came into his head, whether it was a good idea or not, and it almost always made Ari laugh. He was coming to the party. But that didn’t matter either. They had never really even talked, except for the day that Ari was asked by Mrs. Mithers to pass out the protractors.

“Is there a sparkly one?” Stefan asked as Ari approached his desk with her box.

“Excuse me?”

“A sparkly one,” said Stefan. “A sparkly protractor. If there’s a sparkly one I want it.”

“A sparkly one?” asked Ari. “Why do you want a sparkly one?”

“So I can pretend to be Wonder Woman.”

“Wonder Woman has a sparkly protractor?”

“Duh!” said Stefan. “Would you think Wonder Woman would have a boring one? Like brown or something?”

Ari giggled. Stefan grinned, and she saw that his teeth were very white. They shone against his dark skin. His parents must care a lot about dental hygiene.

She searched for the box. Nothing in it sparkled. She pulled out a periwinkle-blue protracter and placed it on his desk.

“This isn’t sparkly!” he protested.

“Look closer,” she said. “It sparkles on the inside.” He grinned again, and she walked away, trying to tuck her smile back inside of her so no one else could see.

But that was it. They hadn’t talked since then. He didn’t catch her eye when arrived in the playground before school in the morning and scanned the yard looking for his friends. Every day she tried to catch his eye. She never did. They shared a single moment over a protractor, and that was all it was, for him. He didn’t know she was there, otherwise. He didn’t know she was real.

“I’m not real,” she said to herself as she she stood in the foyer in her new dress, waiting to greet the first guests to her 11th birthday party and offer to take their coats. “I’m not real. Just like poor old Hobdob.”

“What was that, dear?” said her father as he walked by with a tray of canapes.

“Nothing, daddy.”

What Ari didn’t know was that she had a lot more with old Hobdob than she realized. She also did not know that at that moment, Graemoreax, precambrian archkthonios, Bearer of The Uncounted Toothless Maws That Snap At the Black Dawn, was rising up to devour the four universes. Those two facts were about to collide into each other, and when they did…this was going to be a rather different sort of birthday.

The Procession of the Angels of Memories

Neurons, In Vitro Color!

I can see my friend’s face, her white skin and her hair dyed coal-black. It looks natural on her, just as the black clothing, and the frustrated smile. It looks natural because it is the only way I know her.

“She’s the most grounded person I’ve ever met,” she says about someone in her orientation group. “Just an amazing person.”

I believe her, because that is how I am carved. I believe people about things. I’ve met this person she’s talking about, just once. Just for one conversation. Her name was Pearl, and we talked about smoking and veganism and how she cheated only once in Spain when she was drunk and the tall Spanish waiter brought out a mountain of gorgeous, quivering flan. I could not tell if Pearl was grounded, but now, hearing this other friend about it, I believed her.

It was the first week of college. An intense, magical, impossible time. When I think back, when I picture the white skin and the black hair and the lyrically formal way her High New England accent formed the words, I don’t see an 18 year old. I see a person. A full person, developed and intelligent and strong. Like the people around me, now, at 33 years old. I don’t see that when I look at 18 year olds. They are so young.

In another place at another time, I can see the stairwell that leads up from the library to all three floors of the school. I’ve never walked up this way before. My old classroom was on the second floor, and I am walking up to the third. For the first time in my life, I feel older. Not old, of course. I’m not wrinkly or infirm. I’m just growing up, and I can feel it in my bones. I can see it in my classmates that run past me, excited in a way that is painful and exhilarating, for the first day of school. They are in fourth grade, now. So am I.

When I look back on memories of the past I see two Jesses. Two Mes. One of them is another person. A memory that I know is my own, but it doesn’t feel like it happened to me. Anymore than a half-remembered dream. I know, because intelligent people in books have told me, that some of these memories, maybe all of them, are just whispers. Copies of copies, printed from the scatterings of story others have told me about those times, or from my own memories of remembering.

The other Me is Me. I remember these moments as if they happened yesterday, only a yesterday that was a long time ago. But the Jesse inside those experiences is the same one who types these words. The same one who is listening to meditative music in order to stay calm during an anxious period of his life. The same one who breathes in air with just the faintest scent of cat litter still on it, and who is happy that it isn’t as strong as it was before he took out the trash.

I know that this Me barely existed as I walked up those stairs to Mrs. Robertson’s fourth grade classroom. This Me has millions of sensory and mental experiences that define him that were not present in the exuberant, long-haired 17 year old who watched his new friend’s coal-black hair as she spoke, and marveled at how she stretched out the A in the word “candle” in the same way that fairies must do.

And yet, it is Me. Deep in my mind I don’t believe that. I think the self is an illusion perpetrated by a series of neural impulses responsible for the well-being of a pattern of DNA that itself has no motivation at all. A moment ago I downloaded a book about Taoism I intend to start reading later today, and still I believe that.

I believe that, but my brain won’t let me feel it. I don’t know if I want to feel it. We can see ourselves only as who we are. Sometimes I have moments where I forget who I am, and suddenly I am observer in someone else’s strange life. How much of my conviction about the lack of self is truly an informed analysis of the salient research, and how much is informed by this dissociation? I feel that I can comfortably abandon the illusion of self because I am smarter and more aware than others. But I don’t know if that’s true. I’m very, very skeptical, because this view is comfortable. Anything comfortable should be viewed with caution. It could be a trick.

I’m obsessed with the idea that we are trapped inside of our worldview, and that this is the cause of much of the world’s suffering. And yet I fall for this delusion so many times a day. I think back on my fourth grade self and I can see through his eyes. I share not a single cell or molecule with that hilariously young and unshaped person who shares my social security number, yet my brain still believes we are the same.

I have faith that there is something powerful here. Something that no one reading this can understand because it can’t be understood. Only felt. Like the Tao, only with more references to psychology journals.

On the other hand, maybe I’ve just gotten too much sleep lately. The human brain plays tricks on itself for its own subtle ends. It is Loki and Hermes, locked in a battle of dendrites and cortisol and selective myelenation, their prize control of a pineal gland that way or may not be the gateway to an infinite procession of angels.

I curse and bless how glorious this type of thinking makes me feel, and the quirk of my character that allows me to survive with the dissonance that makes me cringe and the pretentiousness and still, despite that, click the “publish” button in the upper right hand corner.

A Gift, At The End

Mango Shake

I’ve talked before about my mother in law, Mamacat, and all I’ve been through in the last couple of years with her. Ever since her husband had his stroke, I’ve been her driver, house hold helper, cook, and, since her health started to fail in the last year, her full-time nurse. It was a complex and difficult period for me, for my wife–her daughter–, and for Mamacat.

A few weeks ago Mamacat passed away. It’s been tough on her husband, tough on my wife, and tough on me. But overwhelming my response is very specific. It is nuanced and weird and tinged with various subtitles that aren’t all clear, logical, or even apparent, but overall I feel a specific way about it: I’m happy. In case that’s too vague, I’ll restate it in a more obvious way:

I am happy that Mamacat is dead.

I suspect most people will cringe a little on reading that. It’s hard not to. This is not something we are supposed to say when a loved one dies. I told one of my closest friends that I was happy. This is a friend who has been with me through every step of this whole process, who understands it deeply and as fully as anyone who wasn’t directly involved. I told him I was happy, and he said,

“You mean relieved, right?”

“No,” I said. “I mean I’m happy.”

And I do mean it. I feel joy. And other things, including sadness. But joy is the primary emotion. Joy that another human being has died. Not a bad human being. Not someone I hated or who “deserved it” in some retributive sense. If that kind of death made me feel happiness I would feel terrible. I’d feel wracked with guilt that I was so malicious.

I feel guilty anyway. I’ve been torn at nearly every moment for the last three weeks about how much guilt I should feel. Whether there was something wrong with me for being so happy about it. These are not easy questions to answer. But now, after 24 very long days, I think I finally understand.

Let me explain.

I’m happy for two reasons, and we’ll start with the more selfish one first. I’m happy to be free of the burden of taking care of her. She could barely move around at the end, and her mind was going. She required a lot of attention and help with nearly everything, and it was obvious it was going to get worse. How bad it would get was impossible to say, but I dreaded how bad it could get. I experienced some of that last year when she had an injury and was bedridden. I was on call 24/7, I never got any sleep, I messed up my back and my arms by lifting her up so often, I always smelled like bodily fluids, and I was in a constant state of tension.

But more than the fact of having to help her was the sense of being trapped. Ever since her husband had the stroke my wife and I have been trapped. We couldn’t go on vacation, we couldn’t move away. We couldn’t live our lives. We are in our 30s–my wife’s parents had her when they were fairly old–and that’s a tough pill to choke down. So being free of that burden is enormous. We have our lives back.

Here’s where I need to state categorically that I’m not resentful of Mamacat for being a burden. It wasn’t her fault. People get old and they need help. It sucks, but having to go to work sucks. Having back pains sucks. Sometimes things suck, and life is about getting on with them. One of Mamacat’s personality traits was that she had a stroke self-loathing streak. She blamed herself for everything. I don’t know how many times I told her that things weren’t her fault, and that I wasn’t mad at her. I don’t know if she ever believed me, but I tried to speak it through my patience. Sometimes my patience deserted me. During this time I learned for the first time exactly how much of it I have. I have great pity for anyone who is ever forced to learn this for themselves. I spoke with my patience, and I like to think it helped.

The second reason I am happy is because she wanted to go. She was ready. Never in my life have I met someone who had so little fear of death. She faced the most frightening of human experience with total peace and clarity. She faced it with a grin, like it was an old friend she was waiting to meet once she was done with this little thing right here. She believed in heaven, and often had dreams of its bright green fields of grass where she would run under the sunlight and meet everyone she had lost. But her belief wasn’t overwhelming. She thought there was probably a heaven. She hoped there was. But it didn’t matter all that much, really. Either way, she wasn’t afraid.

She had a Do Not Resuscitate order in her medical files. “If I try to go, let me go,” she told me. And that’s what we did. She might have recovered from her stroke into a shell of herself. She was already becoming a shell of herself, and she hated it. She died 8 days after her birthday, and it’s hard not to think that she got a present she didn’t expect, but that she hoped for with all of her heart.

And that’s the thing. I got a present from her, too. Not her death. I can’t bring myself to quite that crass. The present she gave me is deep, and powerful, and it was one of the most amazing things anyone has ever given me. I have only just now realized what it was, and how amazing it is that she gave it to us. The present is this:


I can feel joy at her death because that’s what she would have felt. If she could stand outside of her body and watch her last few breaths, as we did, it would have made her smile. It would have been like giving her the sweetest and most delicious mango smoothie she had ever tasted. I can imagine telling her that I was feeling guilty at my reaction to her passing. I hadn’t envisioned this conversation. I didn’t want to go there, because we’re not supposed to go there. But if I told her I felt bad that she had dead and it made me happy, she would have laughed a friendly and mirthful laugh and called me an idiot. She would have thought my guilty was silly. Unnecessary.

We think that death is a bad thing because it terrifies. We are afraid of dying, and we are afraid of saying the wrong thing to a friend who has lost someone. We tiptoe around it. We freeze up if we feel or do or say something that doesn’t fit on the Culturally Approved List of Response.

Screw that. Mamacat didn’t live that way, and neither do I. Death isn’t always a bad thing. People get old or sick, and they don’t need the world anymore. If everyone just kept on living the world would be a full, sickly, and terrible place.

Mamacat was an amazing person, and death was a gift the universe gave to her in the end, when she really needed it. A reward for an awesome life. And my reward, for taking care of her and being there for her, is that I get to feel joy. She gave that to me. She gave it to me with her beliefs, and with her personality, and with her disposition. And I’m sure, with every strand of my existence, that if she could talk to me one last time, she would give me that gift with her words.

The Plasma People

S&Mj adventure's CSL Plasma card

A few years ago, when my wife and I lived in Florida, she got a pass for a two free movie tickets for some film. I can’t even remember which one. It was one of those free movie events hosted by a radio station. We expected it to be pretty similar to any of the million previous times we had been to the movies together.

It wasn’t.

The people there all seemed to know each other. Many of them had done this free-movie thing before, and did it regularly. We had a long conversation with the local king and queen bee of free movie going, who knew everyone else and all the tricks on how to get free movie passes. They were also insiders, and right before the movie started a representative of the event came out and pulled the two of them inside for some kind of private consultation.

We went to see a movie. We found a community. A secret, hidden community, not because they were trying to hide, but because there would be no reason or anyone who hadn’t peered through the shroud to assume they existed. To put it another way, I already knew there was probably a local taxidermy club. I know about taxidermy, and although I have no idea what those people or that community are like, I am at least vaguely aware of its probable existence. But the free-movie community was wholly unexpected. Not surprising, I suppose, but at the same time mind-blowing. It made me wonder how many of these unimagined but fully extant communities are out there, two inches to the left of where we live our lives.

I found another one today.

I discovered that you can make some money by donating plasma. Not bad money, too, for the amount of time it takes. So…I have now donated plasma! The website for the company with the local office has a lot of copy and imagery about saving lives and being a hero. They also have a rewards program. Donating one of your bodily fluids for use in medical procedures gives you points that you can spend on Target gift cards and discounts for Taco Time. If you donate enough, you can become a gold member. I don’t know what that means.

When I got there, I checked in with the receptionist. She was very excited that this was my first time. I asked if it was mostly regulars. She told me it was.

I showed them my IDs and read a booklet and then watched a video that had all of the same information in the booklet. I heard at least four times that although they test your blood prior to every donation, they ask that you not use this facility as a way to test if you have an STD or communicable disease. They didn’t actually say “There are clinics for that, dammit! Don’t waste our time!” But someone clearly wanted to.

Then I went through a series of medical screening questions and tests with two separate but equally awesome women. The first was bubbly, and about ten feet tall She told me about the time she was in a trailer that was hit by a tornado. Fortunately, she didn’t die. The second woman was gruffer at first, but once I showed some empathy for the tedium of her situation she warmed up. We talked about how she could barely watch medical shows because of all the inaccuracies. I mentioned how I knew that defibrillators are used entirely wrong on television, and she burst out laughing and told me I was smart. I related how as a former chef I hate to watch people cook and eat on TV. The pizza is always cold.

While I was waiting for my physical two other people waited with me. The first was a pink-haired girl who was very impatient. Last time she came in she had a bruise on her arm, and they told her they couldn’t take her plasma until it healed. Now she had to wait for the technicians to check out her arm. She’d been there for 20 minutes and kept pacing back and forth and calling her husband to complain.

The other person waiting there had been told that he answered a screening question wrong, and therefore had to wait. He was annoyed and nervous.

“I’ve come here so many times,” he said. “They should know I don’t do drugs.” I told him that was rough. Then he asked in a hushed tone, “They won’t, like, care if there’s marijuana in my blood, will they? Do you think?”

I told him they stuff I read only mentioned heroin and cocaine, and besides marijuana is legal in Washington now anyway. He shhed me to keep my voice down, because an Authority Figure was walking by.

Once all this was done, the defibrillator nurse took me out to the extraction room. They didn’t call it that. They didn’t call it anything. I got priority because I was a first-timer. A VIP, you might say.

I went and sat in a curved blue bed in a large room full of curved blue beds. Almost all of them were full. I expected a bunch of quiet people, checking their phones and pretending everyone next to them didn’t exist. The kind you find in patient waiting rooms all across the country. I was very, very wrong.

Many of these people knew each other, and knew the technicians. There was life and energy and conversations. One of the technicians got excited when he saw one of the donors, and ran up to ask how her sister was doing. They talked for several minutes.

The woman that got me into bed was very nice, and clearly genuinely pleased to meet me. If anything it felt like a new neighbor moving in. She explained the process would take an hour, and how this machine would take out my blood, filter out the plasma, and return my red blood cells along with saline and an anti-coagulant. But it felt an awful lot like she was bringing me a tupperware full of cookies that she baked herself. You know, just to say “Hi! Welcome to the plasma center!”

A woman had a seizure nearby, and both the staff and the donors got very worried. It all worked out, though. Apparently she has seizures fairly regularly, and she always warns everyone right before she’s about to have one. To the best of my knowledge, she’s just fine, and once it was over everyone settled back down into their comfortable routine.

Soon enough, pink-hair and marijuana guy were seated right near me, and we struck up a conversation. They were in much better moods now that they were done with the waiting process. Pink-hair explained that her husband and kids were waiting in the car, and that’s why she was impatient.

She’d been coming here since this facility opened and knew all sorts of little tricks. She and marijuana-guy had never talked before, but they’d seen each other. Pink-hair’s husband thought marijuana guy was Samoan. He said he wasn’t, and she laughed and described the shocked look her husband would surely have when she told him he was wrong. When she left, she told both both of us it was nice to meet us, and that she’d see us around. She assumed I’d be back.

I also struck up a conversation with the woman on my left. She explained the equipment I was hooked up to, and what all of the tubes did and what the meters indicated. She wasn’t a technician, just a donor. And, by the end of that hour, kind of a friend. She and pink-hair knew each other and were clearly friendly.

Yesterday I knew that I would give plasma today, if nothing went wrong. I knew I’d get some money for it, and be entered into a reward program. I had no idea I’d find this weird little community I would never have imagined if I hadn’t seen it myself. I’m definitely going to keep giving plasma for the foreseeable future, but will I become part of this community? Will I make new friends, through a strange, hidden group whose only tie to each other is the extraction of the liquid medium of their blood? Will I, in fact, become one of the Plasma People?

We’ll just have to see.


Energy Drink

Neon - 4732

“Whoa, slow down,” said Sintra as she cooled her skid to a halt.

“What is it?” Mak flipped his skid sideways against the rail for a quick break, and sparks few into the air. He darted his head around to see if anyone was watching to see how cool he looked. There was no one there. Sintra smirked.

“Check that out.” She pointed to an orange and green glow at the far end of the tracks.

“What?” asked Mak.

“Right there.”

“Next to the  vender?”

“I’m talking about the vender.”

“Right,” said Mak. “I see it. Can we slide on now?”

“I want to check it out.” Sintra hit the fullbreak on her skid and it folded down into a foot long bar of metal, its resting form. She slipped it into the holder on her back with a practice motion and sprinted towards the edge of the tracks.

“Why?” asked Mak as he collapsed his skid and ran after her. “What’s up?”

“It’s new,” said Sintra.

“Oh. So? They installed a new vender. So what?”

“No, I mean it’s new.”

As they approached Mak saw what she meant. It was a non-standard vender. Whatever it spit out wasn’t what they were used to. Sintra had seen it and made it out at 75KMPH. The girl had damn keen eyes. As they approached he made out the shape the orange and green took as it became clear through the mist. The shape of a can.

“Oh hells no,” said Mak. “It isn’t…”

“A new energy drink!” said Sintra. “A new energy drink.”

“Girl, how’d you see that through all this?” he waved his hand through the mist. It was thick enough to leave trails.

Sintra tapped the carbon-glass lens of her eye enhancement with her fingernail. It made a plink sound. Mak shuddered. He wasn’t a lud or anything, but watching someone touch their eye, organic or inorganic, squiked him out a little.

“Yeah,” he said, “but still.”

“I haven’t seen a new energy drink in forever,” Sintra said. Her eyes were wide with excitement.

“You’ve got a problem,” said Mak. “You know that, right?”

“Oh totally,” said Sintra.

Mak shrugged. “Alright. As long as you know. What’s it called?”

Sintra stepped off the tracks and onto the ped platform to read the writing. It was small enough that even she couldn’t see it from anywhere but up close. Mak looked around. There was nothing that he could see except for the vender. No timetable signs, no tik booth, no flashy banner ads trying to sell the latest tooth-cleaning microbes. No people, either. In all his years skidding the rails he’d never seen a ped platform with no people. Dead at the dead of midnight in winter or in the middle of the Founder’s Day Parade. There was always someone. Was this even a ped platform? Were they even anywhere? With this much mist and no one around, it felt like a dream. A natural dream.

“Energy,” she said.

“What?” Mak shook out of his reverie.

“It’s called Energy.”

“The energy drink?”

“Yep,” said Sintra with a laugh. “Just energy.”

“Well that’s not very creative.”

“No one’s ever used it before,” said Sintra. “Maybe all the jazzy names were taken.” She was running her hands up and down the side of the vender like she was fondling it. It was weird, but it was Sintra. Mak barely noticed anymore.

“There sure have been a damn high number of energy drinks,” he said.

“Yeah,” said Sintra. “And I thought I’d tried every one out there. But I guess I missed one, because I don’t think this is new. Look.” She pointed to one edge of the machine.

“Damn,” said Mak. “What is that? Why does it look all weird like that?”

“I think it’s rust,” said Sintra.

“What, rust, like as in metal rust?”


“Like it’s made out of iron or something?”

Sintra eyed him approvingly. “Nice,” she said. “Yes, iron’s one of the metals that rusted. That’s means this is silly old or made with some silly weird manufacturing. But it’s not new, I don’t think. Rust takes awhile.”

Mak laughed. “Maybe it only takes coins or something. You might be out of luck.”

“Don’t be a doof,” said Sintra. “There’s an insert right here. Give me your card. You want one?”

“My card?”

“Yeah. You want one or not?”

“What’s wrong with your card?”

“My guardian froze it,” said Sintra. “After I burnt two month allotment on that turbo. I told you about that!”

“Oh,” said Mak as he pulled his card out of his pocket and handed it to her. “Right. That turbo was pretty chill, though.”

“Tight,” she agreed. “Worth it. I need the speed more than I need the cash.” She slipped the card into the insert. The front of the vender shifted to a white-blue background and the interface popped onto the screen. The light was so bright it spread into the thick mist and gave the whole platform a ghostly glow. Sintra turned back to him with a wide grin on her face. It made her look like an ultraviolet skeleton.

“Look at this,” she said, waving him over.

He walked up behind her and looked at the screen. The interface only showed one flavor: Energy. It had a floating number and a + and – you presumably had to touch to tell it how many drinks you wanted.

“Whoa,” he said. “Old school.”

“I know,” said Sintra. She sounded excited. Really excited. Mak knew she loved energy drinks, but damn. “Do you want one or not?”

“Yeah,” he said. “Why not?”

She hit the plus sign twice, and the number changed from 0 to 1 and then to 2. Next to the number of drinks another number appeared. $18.

“Cheap,” he said. “This is old.”

There was a whirring sound, and two cans appeared in the slot at the bottom of the vender. They both reached down and pulled them out. Mak looked down at his can. Sure enough, it just said “energy.” It was a weird design, too. There was a ring dangling off the end, rather than the usual pull tab.

“After you,” said Sintra.

Mak shrugged. There wasn’t an obvious way of opening it, so he put his finger in the ring and yanked. It tore the entire top off in a single moment, and the contents exploded outwards and splashed onto Sintra.

“Aaagh!” she cried as the liquid got into her hair, all over her shirt, and in her eyes.

“Nuts!” Mak yelled. He ran over to her. “Are you okay?”

She burst out laughing. “You idiot! What the hell did you do that for?”

“I’m sorry! I didn’t mean to! Are you okay?”

“Yeah, I’m fine,” she said, still laughing. “It doesn’t sting or anything.”

“Are your eyes okay? I mean, they’re not bugging out or anything?”

She shook her head. She blinked, and then prodded her shirt and her jacket and wherever else the stuff had landed. The shirt changed color and design. The jacket flipped from leather to wool and back to leather.

“All my tech seems to be working,” she said.

Mak sighed. That was a relief. It was all water-proof, of course, but who knew what else was in this stuff?

“You’re such an idiot,” she said.

“I said I was sorry!”

She shook her head and laughed again. “Let me show you how it’s done.” She pulled the ring, only more slowly than he had. Once again the entire top of the can came off, not just a hole for drinking. But it didn’t explode.

“Yeah, well, you had warning,” said Mak. She took a sip. “How is it?”

She took a small sip. Her face was neutral for a moment, then her eyes lit up. “It’s good! Try it! There’s still some in yours.”

He gulped down and enthusiastic mouthful.

“Bleg!” he spit it out. “This stuff is terrible. You actually like it?”

Sintra burst out laughing. “No, it’s nasty! I just knew I could get you to gulp it down like an orca.”

He scrunched his face at her. But fair was fair.

“Maybe it’s gone bad or something,” said Mak. “It’s gotta be really old.”

Sintra nodded. “I wonder how long this has been here. I doubt anyone ever drinks it. It’s amazing anyone pays to power the thing.”

“Maybe it’s cell powered,” said Mak.

“Holy shit, Mak,” said Sintra. “Why the hell would you say that?”

He shrugged. “I don’t know. It would explain it, right? Just a few drops would power this thing for years.”

“Yeah, I guess. You think that’s really possible?”

“Why not? It could just be left over. None of the trains stop at this part of the tracks. I don’t even think this is a ped platform.”

Sintra nodded. “We never would have seen it if we hadn’t been skidding.”

“And without your freaky eyes. It wouldn’t just been a blip as they flew past.”

“But still,” she said. “Would somebody just leave a cell powered machine sitting around? Weren’t they all tagged and smashed after the uprising? That’s silly dangerous. I mean, what if it…” She trailed off.

He knew what she was going to say. What if it woke up.

“Yeah,” said Mak. “You’re probably right. They had to have gotten rid of them all.”

“Right,” said Sintra. “It’d be idiotic otherwise. There can’t be one left, just sitting here.”

Mak nodded, and looked over her shoulder at the machine.

“Holy hell!” Mak he screamed.

“What?” said Sintra. “What’s wrong?”

“Did you see that?”

“See what? Start making sense!”

“The screen!” he said, pointing to the vender. “It changed! It was different. Just for a second.”


“Yeah. It said…”

“What?” she said. “What did it say? Tell me, dammit!”

“You said…you said ‘there can’t be one left, just sitting there.’ And then the screen, it said…the purchase interface disappeared, and then it said…”


“Yes, there can. For now.”

Sintra’s eyes widened. Then her face went blank.

“Wait,” she said. “You don’t think…” She looked down at the can. She held it up to his face so he could see the single word printed on it in large, orange and green letters.


Sintra looked down at her shirt and her jacket. They were dry. There was no sign that the foul drink had every touched them. Like it had all been absorbed.

“This is ridiculous,” said Mak. “This is not, I mean, it can’t be…”

“Yeah,” said Sintra. “You’re probably right. They wouldn’t just leave it here.”

Mak laughed. “That would be damn stupid.”

“Yeah,” said Sintra, laughing. “That would be…oh god.”


“Oh my god,” she said, her voice thick with panic. “My shirt. It’s trying to…aaaaaaah!” She grabbed her shirt and pulled it over her head like it was trying to eat her.

“Ha ha ha,” said Mak. “That is hilarious.”

“I know,” said Sintra. “Now come on. Let’s get out of here.” They put the partially full cans down on the ground instead of the vender, and walked back into the mist of the tracks. Neither one of them looked back.