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Archive for the ‘Fiction’ Category

Ever since I announced that I want to publish a third fiction collection, Lost Angels, sometime next year, my Muse of Fiction appears to have regained some interest in me.  I’ve been rolling one idea over in my head for about a month now, and then I woke up on Saturday the 15th from a dream that I was compelled to turn into a story before I slept again.  I’m not going to release it separately from the book, but I will tease a little of it here.  And if you’re a subscriber, gift-giver or client, and you’d like to read it before then, please just email me and I’ll send you a PDF copy.  The story begins with the director of a nursing home talking to an attendant about a recently-deceased patient…

…”It seems strange an educated man only had those two books; I don’t see a reader here. That phone screen seems very small for old eyes,” she said, rubbing hers as if to emphasize the statement.

“Oh, he spent most of his waking hours using the VR headset. Barely ever turned on the TV.”

“This?” Dr. Sprague picked the headset out of the box.  “I used to have one when I was in graduate school, back in the twenties.  But as I got older I just found it too overwhelming.  After my children grew up I never bought another one.”

“Oh, they’re a lot better than they were when I was young.  They used to make me sick and give me a headache, but not any more. Now it’s almost like the real thing, smell and all. The only thing they can’t seem to get right is the feel,” she said, gesticulating with her fingers.  “But my son says they’ll have that licked any time now.”

“Where are all his movies and games?  I just see the one that’s in the set now.”

“You know, I never gave that much thought.  I think that’s the only one he had.”

“Thank you, Jessica.  Would you mind if I sent for you when the family arrives?  If they indicate they’d like to speak to you, I mean.”

“No ma’am, I don’t mind at all.  And I won’t even tell ’em what he thought of ’em.”

Dr. Sprague laughed and saw the attendant out, then returned to her desk and picked up the headset.  In the absence of permission, it wasn’t entirely ethical to peek at what had kept a formerly-active old man busy for four years without leaving his room.  But a phrase came to her, from a 20th-century book she had often read to her children when they were young:  “When a mystery is too overpowering, one dare not disobey.”  The indicator LED was orange; there was certainly enough charge left for a quick look around whatever virtual world had been so fascinating, and she could easily pull it off and pretend she had never looked if it turned out to be something embarrassing.  So she held down the power button to start it, and placed the set on her head…

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Long-time readers know that I’m scornful of the notion that greatly-extended human lifespans would be a boon, and every year on this day – the Day of the Dead – I write about the goodness and inevitability of death.  But this year I thought to myself: what would a society of near-immortals look like?  And how would creatures who were essentially immortal (unless killed by mischance) face the prospect of impending death?

When both I and the world were much younger, I believed I would know when I had become old; I thought there would be some clear line of demarcation, at least as obvious as rooting, and that when I crossed it I would be able to say, “Now I am no longer young”.  But though the differences between unrooted youth and rooted adult are obvious, the difference between relatively young adults and old adults are not so at all.  We slowly grow larger, and wiser, and less active, and communicate more slowly and deliberately.  But at every point in my long, long life when I have considered the issue, there were some adults in the community who were younger than I, and others older; and though I can now definitively state “I am very old” without fear of contradiction, I cannot tell you at which point in my many millions of years I crossed over into that territory.

If I were pressed to choose such a line, I reckon it would have to be when I awoke from my first hibernation.  The young are far too busy and energetic for such pastimes; they have so much to see and do and learn and think about, so many worlds to explore, so many mysteries to solve and wonders to marvel at, that the notion of spending a few thousand years asleep is quite beyond their comprehension.  Moreover, it isn’t even possible to enter such a state without putting down roots, and few who do that ever get around to pulling them up again without mighty provocation.  And yet there is no set age at which one must root, nor any determinate length before hibernation; I’ve awoken to find individuals who were not yet sprouted when I fell asleep securely rooted within sensory range when I again became conscious, and heard news of others from my own season who were still flitting about the cosmos long after I had settled down to spawn.  And while I took my first hibernation some fifty thousand years after rooting, I’ve known others to go for hundreds of thousands before seeking the peace of slumber.  But when one awakens from that first deep, long sleep, one soon finds oneself the center of attention, pressed on all sides by eager, yet reverent queries from young ones enthralled by the miracle of actually being able to converse with a time-traveler just arrived from an epoch before they even existed.  Sometimes they actually want to touch, reaching out their tendrils in awe as if they could absorb the knowledge of a bygone era by osmosis.  And that experience of being a stranger in one’s own community, of being treated like a living oracle, like a weird visitor back from the underworld with divine wisdom to share…that, I think, is the experience which defines the old.

I remember the first time I as a green youth conversed with such an individual, one of the very first settlers on this world, who arrived so long ago the gentle hills to the south of that land had then been a jagged range of mighty crags, appealing to the romantic sense of a youngster who had journeyed across vast gulfs of space and visited hundreds of worlds in search of just such a wild, beautiful place to settle.  I listened almost in disbelief as we were told that at that time there was a clear demarcation of night and day, and the myriad stars were clearly visible in the sky when the world had turned so that the then-younger sun no longer was.  I was frightened by the depth of the abysses this most ancient of elders had crossed; I myself had always been a homebody, content with the occasional short foray out into space, never going far enough that my native sun was not clearly larger and brighter than the other stars.  And so, perhaps foolishly, I used the narrative as justification for my decision to remain on this world, to root and spawn here and never face the dangers of the vast unknown which swallows up so many wanderers before they find a place to call home.  If this world was so beautiful and clement that it had won the loyalty of so courageous an explorer, so perfect that it stood out among multitudes, what were the chances I would find its like before being lost forever or destroyed by one of the countless dangers of deep space?  Very low, I thought, and so I lingered there, learning all I could from that elder and many others, conversing with visitors and reaching outward with my mind to hear the faint songs of other spheres echoing against our shores from across the fathomless void.  Eventually my teacher passed again into hibernation, and I set out to find the perfect spot in which to spend the rest of my years.

I was not in a hurry; I flew slowly from pole to pole, lazily taking in the terrain below, until at long last I had returned to the place where the ancient one slept.  And then I carefully considered my observations, weighing the advantages and disadvantages of each memorable locale, until I at last decided upon the one in which I still reside all these long ages later.  At that time I was alone here, and the nearest other was at the outer limit of comfortable communication; all who reside in the area now are my descendants, except for a few who settled from elsewhere.  I have hibernated so many times I long ago lost count; after one of those, perhaps thirty or forty million years ago, I awoke to the news that my ancient teacher was gone, drowned mercifully in sleep when that land had been swallowed up by the sea in a mighty earthquake.  Some say that I am now the eldest resident of this world, and I can well believe that is so; it has been a very long time since I conversed with anyone who can recall the time before I rooted, nor even received word of any others of my season who still reside elsewhere.  Even beings as long-lived as ourselves must eventually succumb to misfortune as my teacher did; given long enough, even the most unlikely event becomes a certainty.  And though my aversion to risk has kept me alive far longer than most, my time also must come at last.

I do not believe it will be a great deal longer; though worlds and suns are considerably longer-lived than we, they too must eventually perish in the fullness of time.  The conditions on this once-perfect world are no longer what they were; it has grown distinctly hotter and drier, and my raiment, matching the sun, is far redder than the images in my oldest recollections.  The population has aged remarkably, and no young have sprouted here in a very long time; the only mobile individuals are the occasional visitors from elsewhere, and even many of the younger adults have undertaken the monumental task of de-rooting and shedding enough mass to undertake the migration to some younger orb.  But I shall not be joining them; I am far too tired, far too massive, and far too feeble to even contemplate such a tremendous effort, and my roots are so inextricably intertwined with the soil not even I can guess how far they go.  I sprouted on this world, and came of age here, and spawned here, and grew old along with it, and I am content to perish with it as well; as the songs and stories and teachings of the ancient one have lived in me far beyond the physical existence of their source, so will mine live on in countless students long after I myself am gone.  At long last I will explore the great unknown I have shunned since my youth; after ages of daylight and an eon of twilight, I am no longer afraid to face the dark.

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It’s been three years since I stopped publishing “fictional interludes” on a monthly basis, and more than six years since I stopped doing “My Favorite __________” columns.  And yet last week I started deeply missing that feature, and wishing that I could produce them as often as I used to.  That mood inspired me to pull out my own copies of Ladies of the Night and The Forms of Things Unknown, browse through them, and reread a few of them, and that in turn inspired me to make a list of my own favorites from both collections (and a couple which will be included in my next collection, Lost Angels, which I’ll probably compile in another year or so).  So without further ado (except to encourage you to support my work by buying them if you don’t already own them, and reviewing them if you like them), I hereby present my own personal top 10, in order of publication, with a short comment on each.

1) Pearls Before Swine

Perceptive readers have certainly noticed my love of mythology in general and Greek mythology in particular; a number of my stories have themes, titles, settings or characters borrowed from it.  This one has only the last, and yet its title is scriptural and its themes eternal.  And its Southern Gothic setting is, in many ways, one that fits the character almost as well as the one she’s usually associated with.

2) Bad News

While it’s not uncommon for my stories to feature dry humor, I have difficulty performing this one at book readings without giggling.  Even if I were restricted to five selections, I think this one would still make the cut.

3) Visions of Sugarplums

As befits a Christmas story, this is certainly the lightest, most sentimental, and most optimistic tale on this list.  And the protagonist is one of my favorite characters I’ve ever (literally) dreamed up, partly because rather than being a goddess, witch, villainess or femme fatale, she’s just an escort of rather nervous temperament who finds herself in well over her head.

4) Rose

This isn’t my only story which treats seriously a topic I usually make fun of in my non-fiction, nor my only story based on a poem, nor the only one featuring very dark humor.  And did I ever tell you that the unreliable narrator is one of my favorite literary devices?  Because it is.  Read this one and maybe you’ll understand why.

5) Millennium

A tale of First Contact seen through an extremely cynical lens.  You’ve probably never seen aliens portrayed quite like this before, and the fact that you probably haven’t may tell you just how cynical.

6) The Sum of Its Parts

I’m not really very good with pastiche; the only author whose style I can reasonably approximate is Maggie McNeill.  And that’s probably why I like this one so much; it reads very much like a pulp tale from the 1930s, and the characters and dialogue are, in my own admittedly-biased opinion, some of the best I ever wrote.

7) Knock, Knock, Knock

I’ve written scarier things than this, and more personal things than this, but none both scarier and more personal.  And I still don’t like thinking about it when I’m alone late at night.

8) Lost Angel

This is not a tale of horror, at least not the usual kind of horror; it is, in fact, pretty squarely in the genre generally known as “science fiction”.  Nobody dies violently or suffers some other awful fate…so why do I always experience a pronounced frisson when thinking about the ending?

9) Trust Exercise

Many of the stories in The Forms of Things Unknown are, in a way, autobiographical, but none more so than this one.  It’s about love, trust and other scary things, but it can’t possibly scare you as much as it scares me because I know what it all means.  I still think you’ll enjoy it.

10) Wheels

While “Trust Exercise” is a scary story about love, it’s not the love that’s scary; that is definitely not true in “Wheels”, the distillation of some themes that have haunted me for almost four decades and finally demanded I explore them in a more traditional narrative form.

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Once in a while I write something while under the influence that reveals some murky river flowing through caverns measureless to Man, down to the sunless sea deep in my brain.  A couple of weeks ago I replied (while sober) to some moralistic prattle about how the “sin” of homosexuality is still a choice even if it’s an innate predilection, with the following:  “Most humans are born with the inclination toward mindless submission to authority; they not only let it rule them and ruin their lives, but also foist that violent authority upon the virtuous others who are not inclined to that sin, ruining their lives as well.”  But then later in the evening, when I was already well on my way to my secret Garden of The Unknown, one of my regular readers replied with a comment on the concept of sin, and my inebriated brain responded with the following, which you may find interesting (or not):

That depends entirely on how one defines “sin”; it’s not as cut-and-dried as most people think.  Did you ever read this?  It’s one the 10 scariest short stories I’ve ever read.  Now, a lot of people don’t think it’s frightening at all, and maybe even boring; this is because it’s all suggestion and nuance and shadows and no “the house is haunted because slave children were tortured there” modern pat origin BS.  If you don’t have the kind of dark, shuttered rooms and bottomless abysses in your skull that I do, this tale may not take your imagination to the kind of utterly horrifying place that it takes mine.  But if you’re a fan of Poe, Lovecraft, Benson, Blackwood, et al, you might find it at least creepy and worth your time, if not in your personal top ten.  And if you do like it, here are my other nine; PDFs of 13 more tales are included.

No, we aren’t to Halloween season yet, but IMHO it’s never a bad time for tales of the macabre.

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This story is an exploration of some ideas that have haunted me since the year in which the story takes place, and have occupied an important place in my consciousness for most of this year.  As with “Bird of Prey”, I’m just going to tease you with a selection; if you want a copy, you can either buy it on Kindle or get a PDF copy by becoming a patron of my blog.  If you’re already a patron, you should’ve received a copy over the weekend; if you didn’t, please let me know.

The windows in the mural room faced west and south, and the reddish hue of the sunlight accentuated the predominant crimson, amber and bronze hues of the painting, making it look almost as though it were on fire.  He saw many more faces than he had on the first visit, and the feathers of the multiplicity of wings seemed to rustle and shimmer; he also saw hands where he hadn’t before, peeking out from the wings and juxtaposed with legs and horns and teeth.  In this light the eyes – hundreds of them of every shape and size, peering or glaring or watching from every part of the mural – seemed to all be looking back at him, glinting in various colors like gemstones.  But of all the odd features of the design, the most horrifying were the wheels.  Every other recognizable part of the painting was part of some living creature or another, whether bird or beast or human, but except for the eyes all around their rims, the wheels were most definitely not.  And while the way in which the various biological features related to each other made little anatomical sense, the way the wheels were depicted made no sense at all.  They were like things from an Escher woodcut, objects which could not have existed in three-dimensional reality, with spokes and rims that turned at crazy angles to one another and sometimes seemed to project outward from the wall.  Their perspective was maddening; from some angles they seemed close to the living figures, while from others they seemed far away, and when viewed obliquely they were both at the same time.  And somehow, at least in this hazy light shining through dingy windowpanes across dusty air, the ones in his peripheral vision seemed to be turning on themselves, rotating out of the plane of the design entirely.

A few minutes in that room was more than enough, and though he was a sophisticated and urbane man Bert decided to head back to the motel and to stay away from this room until he had both human company and the psychological comfort of full morning sun.  He locked the door and returned the key to its hiding place in the woodshed as the caretaker had instructed, then drove back to the motel at a rather higher rate of speed than was strictly prudent on a rutty backroad in a pine barrens.  He then proceeded to drink most of a bottle of cheap bourbon over the next few hours while not really paying attention to the television, and fell into a fitful sleep haunted by nightmares of huge wheels covered in eyes, slowly rotating toward him…

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It’s been over a year since I wrote a new story, but this one has been slowly growing in my head since late autumn of 2014, and it finally came forth week before last.  I’m just going to tease you with the beginning; if you want a copy, you can either buy it on Kindle or get a PDF copy by becoming a patron of my blog.  If you’re already a patron, you should’ve received a copy one week ago today; if you didn’t, please let me know.

Dane retrieved his knife from the body of the dog and began to carve as many choice cuts from the carcass of the wild cow as he thought he could eat before they spoiled; it wasn’t that much, but he figured he’d be in Korneg within a few days anyhow, and then he could buy all the food he wanted with the gold & furs he’d taken from that trader he ambushed last week.  The job was easier than he had expected; he congratulated himself on having had the good sense to let the dog pack do most of the work of butchery before he started picking them off from the top of the ruined tower.  He knew they’d be back soon, once hunger overcame fear of the rifle; still, half a dozen precious rounds were a good trade for an equal number of big, thick steaks.  It had been a long time since he’d had beef, since that excellent roast in Westover; maybe he should’ve stayed there longer.  But Dane was a cautious man, and he figured it probably wasn’t wise to stay in any city after he’d killed, even though she was just a whore; sooner or later the local warlord’s peacekeepers would’ve figured out which of the transients currently in town had done it, and his career would’ve come to an abrupt halt at the end of a rope.  Or something both much worse and much slower, if the harlots’ guild had caught him first.

Still, it had been a good stay while it lasted, and a profitable one; besides the rifle and ammo belt, some fairly-new boots and a little gold, he’d managed to steal a good horse on the way out.  That put Korneg within reach; though he was a strong walker, no human could outrun a hungry wild dog pack.  And since it was high time he left the Valley, that was now a necessity rather than just a preference.  He’d heard talk of Korneg for years…of its wealth, of the succulence of its foods, of the impregnability of its walls…and of the powerful queen who ruled it.  He had always wanted to see it for himself, but though Dane was no coward, he was also no fool; he knew that no matter how soft its beds or its women, he could not stay in Korneg long before his way of life put a price on his head.  Still, it guarded the only known safe pass to the Cities of the East, and that meant he had little choice but to visit it if he wished to remain free and alive.

The next few days were unremarkable except for the rain, but even that was a blessing because it meant plenty of water for both him and the horse in a season when good water was usually a concern.  It also meant he’d be that much harder to follow, in the event some bounty hunter had picked up his trail.  So all in all, he was in an unusually good mood when on the next clear day he spotted the stone pillars marking the edge of Korneg’s territory, despite the fact that they made him vaguely uneasy.  They were unlike anything he’d ever seen in his three decades of life:  five times as tall as a man they were, carved in the likeness of two huge serpents which coiled around and around until they ended in heads whose baleful eyes stared down at him, glinting like purple gems in the early afternoon sun.  It was obvious that they were intended as a show of power, and the display was a successful one; even in the heart of Ghezhel, mightiest city of the Valley, there were no comparable monuments.  There was an engraved tablet at the foot of the one on the right, but that was of no help to Dane since he had never learned to read.  However, the road beyond was well-built and well-maintained; he knew he couldn’t be more than a few days from the city wall, and he might even reach a trading post before nightfall.  So he set aside his disquiet and rode on, steadfastly resisting the gnawing urge to look back to see if the stone guardians were watching him…

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No matter how many times I explain it, police-state defenders keep popping up in my timeline to defend prohibition, cops and state violence.  So I thought that perhaps my language was too complex for them; however, I have trouble with simple language, so I decided to enlist the help of the late, great Theodore Geisel to rephrase my feelings on the matter.

Cops are glam
I’m a fan!

Police-state fans!
Police-state fans!
I do not like police-state fans!

Don’t you like the smell of ham?
I do not like it, Fan-I-am.
I do not like those thugs of ham.

Would you like them here or there?

I would not like them here or there.
I would not like them anywhere.

I do not like police-state fans.
I do not like them, Fan-I-am.

Would you like them in a house?
Would you like them with a mouse?

I do not like them in a house.
I do not like them with a mouse.
I do not like them here or there.
I do not like them anywhere.
I do not like police-state fans!
I do not like them, Fan-I-am.

Would you like them in a box?
Would you like them with a fox?

Not in a box.
Not with a fox.
Not in a house.
Not with a mouse.
I do not like them here or there.
I do not like them anywhere.
I do not like police-state fans.
I do not like them, Fan-I-am.

Would you?  Could you?  In their car?
Lick their nice boots!  Here they are.
I would not, could not, in a car.

You may like them.  You will see.
You may like them in a tree!

I would not, could not in a tree.
Not in a car!  You let me be.

I do not like them in a box.
I do not like them with a fox.
I do not like them in a house.
I do not like them with a mouse.
I do not like them here or there.
I do not like them anywhere.
I do not like police-state fans.
I do not like them, Fan-I-am.

A camp-bound train!
A camp-bound train!
Could you, would you, on a train?

Not in a train!  Not in a tree!
Not in a car!  Fan!  Let me be!

I would not, could not, in a box.
I could not, would not, with a fox.
I do not like them with a mouse.
I do not like them in a house.
I do not like them here or there.
I do not like them anywhere.
I do not like police-state fans.
I do not like them, Fan-I-am.

Say!  In the dark?
In a cell so dark?
Would you, could you, in the dark?

I would not, could not, in the dark.

Would you, could you, in the rain?

I would not, could not, in the rain.
Not in the dark.  Not on a train.
Not in a car.  Not in a tree.
I do not like them, Fan, you see.
Not in a house.  Not in a box.
Not with a mouse.  Not with a fox.
I do not like them here or there.
I do not like them anywhere!

You do not like men made of ham?
I do not like them, Fan-I-am.

Could you, would you, with a goat?

I would not, could not, with a goat!

Would you, could you, on a boat?

I could not, would not, on a boat.
I will not, will not, with a goat.

I do not like them in the rain.
I do not like them on a train.
Not in the dark!  Not in a tree!
Not in a car!  You let me be!
I do not like them in a box.
I do not like them with a fox.
I do not like them in a house.
I do not like them with a mouse.
I do not like them here or there.
I do not like them anywhere!
I do not like police-state fans!
I do not like them, Fan-I-am.

You do not like them.  So you say.
But I will hound you anyway.
I will not respect your “nay”.

Fan!  Since you won’t let me be,
I will mute you.  You will see.

I do not like states, threats and ham!
I do not like their spineless fans!
I still avoid them in a boat.
I still avoid them with a goat…

And I still hate them in the rain.
And in the dark.  And on a train.
And in a car.  And in a tree.
They are so bad, so bad, you see!

So I will mute them in a box.
And I will mute them with a fox.
And I will mute them in a house.
And I will mute them with a mouse.
And I will mute them here and there.
Yep, I will mute them anywhere!
I always mute police-state fans!
Fuck you! Fuck you, Fan-I-am!

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Around the Block

It’s been a while since my Muse of Fiction went back to her old sulky self, but I recently came up with a plot for a set of images I’ve been wanting to use in a story for several years now.  I haven’t actually written the story yet, but it’ll probably be in the next few weeks.  I suspect it may end up being a little longer than most of my tales, and I’m going to share it in a different way than usual.  For a while now it has bugged me that I don’t give my subscribers any special privileges as I really should, so once I get that story written I’ll package it as a stand-alone for Kindle for like 99¢, but I’ll send all my subscribers, regular clients and donors a coupon code to get it for free.  Then once I’m ready to put together my next fiction collection, it’ll be in there.  I’m also going to offer my patrons a special deal on The Essential Maggie McNeill when I manage to put that together, which I’m rather hoping to manage before the end of summer (no promises, because those haven’t worked out well for this long-delayed project).  And in the meantime, if you haven’t bought and read The Forms of Things Unknown I’d really, really appreciate it if you did, and reviewed it as well; I’m not sure what the exact threshold is for Amazon’s algorithms to start recommending the book to people who aren’t specifically looking for it, but the only way to find out is to get a LOT more reviews on it than I already have.  And needless to say, more attention to my books will not only result in more money in my purse (always a good thing, especially since I haven’t caught up from paying for the move yet), but will also draw more eyes to this blog and maybe open those eyes to the absolute necessity for freeing consensual adult sexual activity from the list of things our culture allows state thugs to ruin people’s lives over.

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Whenever I use the toilet, all the horses break down my door and rush into my bathroom so they can intently watch me.

In this video, members of the band The Academic take advantage of a flaw in Facebook’s livestreaming software to record a song with their own past selves; it’s really quite interesting.  The video was contributed by Kevin Wilson, as was “horror”; the other links above the video were provided by Radley Balko (“pigs” and “together”), Conner Habib (“promises”), Jesse Walker (“books”), and Clarissa (“surprise”).

From the Archives

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I asked Brooke for a quick introduction to her new book, and she wrote: “You Don’t Know Me is a follow-up to The Turning Tide, though you don’t have to have read that book to read this one.  It’s set in the same universe: a medium-sized town in the Highlands called Cameron Bridge.  It all starts (as so many crime novels do) with the disappearance and death of a call girl.  However that is only the beginning.  As the investigation unfolds in the here and now, her best friend’s flashbacks reveal a woman who is anything but the expected ‘dead sex worker’ trope.  It’s a story about sex and secrets, but also about women and passionate friendships.  How far would you go to avenge your best friend and soulmate?  That’s the question one woman will have to answer.”

It is the second half of her master’s course in Newcastle.  Her first spring in the city, after a winter of freezing rain and baffling lectures.  Denise’s cheap coat, good enough for the London cold, is insufficient here and beginning to come apart at the seams.

She logs her hours in the computer lab, turns in every piece of work on time, and phones her parents twice a week whether they answer or not.  Usually they do not.  She waits for the answerphone, leaves a message as if everything is the same as it was before.  Before she moved to Newcastle to start a master’s course in genetic epidemiology.  Before her brother died.

There is money in her account, far too much.  One hundred and fifty thousand pounds.  The number glares at her every time she has to use the cash point.  She can’t spend it and she doesn’t want to keep it.  But giving it away is no good either; it would be like giving away the last photograph of a loved one.  It would be unthinkable.

Denise throws herself into her master’s project.  She analyses single nucleotide polymorphisms in genetic samples of families with a history of colon cancer.  A text-based program calculates risk predictions for future generations in those families.  She tweaks the code, pleased when she shaves microseconds off the runtime of each simulation.  It is like the swimming practices she and Darwin did as teens.  Working over weeks, months, even an entire season to prune down their personal bests.

One night Denise is at the bus stop when she sees some of her course mates in a pub.  It looks warm inside, the bus is almost 20 minutes late, and she has five pounds in her pocket she forgot to spend on lunch.  She crosses the rain-slicked road and goes in.

“Denise!” a man at the bar waves.  “I’m getting a round in.  What are you having?”

“Hi, Jack.”  Denise smiles.  “That’s very kind, thank you.  Diet coke and lemon, please.”  Jack has blue eyes and wears his hair long but it suits him.  His smile is kind and his eyes seek her out in lectures, exchanging a look that seems to indicate they are in on some kind of secret together.

He always seems so nice, at ease in any group, charming and smart.  She realises she has probably had a crush on him for some time now.

A crush she can never act on.  Because he has a girlfriend.  This girlfriend is called Miriam.  His eyes go soft whenever he mentions her, as if the sound of her name has a sort of power.  Denise has never met this woman, but the others have, and they agree she is wonderful.  She is not sure what to imagine.  A petite and serious brunette, perhaps, the kind of studious woman who is primly perfect when she takes her glasses off?  Or else a tight-bodied, hockey-playing blonde, the sort of country girl already settled into Jack’s family, accompanying his parents on weekend trips to the garden centre?

The other students are dressed more formally than usual, a woman in a short purple satin frock, the men in trousers and jackets.  Is there something on she has forgotten about?

“Didn’t think you’d be out tonight.”  The woman’s teeth look dull yellow next to her lipstick.  “Or did you get a ticket in the end?”

Denise accepts a glass from Jack at the bar.  “A ticket to what?”

The group erupts in a peal of laughter.  “To the Medics Ball?  At City Hall?”  A hot redness blooms on her cheeks.  The epidemiology students aren’t medics even if they are in the medical school; why would it occur to her to go?

“I wouldn’t worry about it,” Jack says.  “I went last year.  It’s not all that.  Terrible meal.  The disco is dire.  You’re not missing anything.”

“Are we ready or are we ready?” a voice calls out behind them.  Denise follows the others’ eyes as they look to the door.

“Miri!” Jack says.  “Finally.”

The woman in the green velvet dress enters the pub.  It is a cold night, but she is wearing no coat.  Probably local to the area, then – one of the first things Denise noticed about Newcastle was that the rumours were correct:  true Geordies went out in all weather without jackets or hats.  Her hair has the colour and movement of fire.  The crushed velvet clings to her pear-shaped body and reveals plainly that she is wearing nothing underneath.  A long string of garnets, dark as the shadows in her hair, is looped once around her neck and hangs almost to her waist.  She is wearing the kind of strappy sandals Denise often looks at in shop windows but can never bring herself to buy:  too impractical, too showy.  But the black patent straps look just right around her narrow ankles, not too showy at all.

Her only concession to the cold is a pair of black satin gloves that come past her elbows.  Denise looks away but not before she notices Miri slip an arm around Jack’s neck and his twist to kiss her on the cheek.

“Who’s this?” she asks, meaning Denise.  “I don’t think we’ve met.”  Miri’s voice is smoky and deep, a surprising contrast to her pink cheeks and baby skin.  She detaches her arm from where it is snaked around Jack to offer a hand.  Denise mumbles her name, first and last.  “Are you coming?” Miri smiles.  Her smile is a sweet tiny bow, the face of a Victorian valentine.

“I was on my way home,” Denise says.  “I don’t have a ticket…”

Miri laughs, full throated like a goose.  “You shouldn’t let a thing like that stop you!” she says.  “Come with me.”  She grabs Denise’s elbow and leads her to the toilets, shouting to the rest of the group to go on ahead, they will catch up.

Inside are two toilet stalls, one missing a door.  Miri indicates for Denise to take off her coat, which she does.  Miri folds it and stuffs it into Denise’s bag.  Suddenly Miri is peeling off her dress.  “You can wear mine,” she says.  “You can’t walk in there dressed like that.  Give me your clothes.”

Denise hesitates.  As she suspected Miri is wearing nothing underneath.  Miri tilts her head and smiles, slinky green fabric in her gloved hand.  The dress looks smaller off her body, hardly more material than a swimsuit.  “Go on, it’s stretch, it fits everyone,” she says.  “You’re almost as flat up top as I am.”

“But what will you wear?”

Miri smiles.  “Your clothes, obviously.  Don’t worry.  I know the doormen, it won’t be a problem for me to walk in.”

Denise doesn’t know what to do.  It is impossible to look at the girl standing in front of her wearing nothing but gloves, a long necklace, and heels.  It is almost as hard not to stare.  Miri is slim up top and heavier below.  She has the kind of seal-like limbs, smooth, that Denise often thinks of as boneless.  Her legs taper from firm round thighs to tiny narrow ankles.  It is not the type of body that is fashionable now, not the body celebrated in haute couture shows and women’s magazines.  But the way she is standing tells her that Miri is more comfortable in her skin than she with her angular limbs and narrow hips ever will be.

Denise doesn’t want Miri to laugh at her for being a prude.  She does not want to have to see Jack and the others later, tomorrow or the next day or next week, in the library or in an exam, and explain what happened.  She closes her eyes and begins unbuttoning her shirt.  The hands feel as if they belong to someone else, as if all of this is something she is watching in a film.  Miri pulls the velvet dress over her head.  To Denise’s surprise the dress does indeed shrink and stretch in the right places to fit.

“Hair,” Miri says, and reaches forward, her arms encircling Denise’s neck.  Her eyes, which looked blue at a distance, are green and violet close up, flecked with yellow, the fire of opals in her pale face.  The scent of her is sweet and sharp, sweat and vanilla.  Miri’s small hands untangle Denise’s pigtail, arrange the strands over shoulders.  “Not bad,” she pronounces.  “Do you have makeup?”  Denise shakes her head.

“That’s OK, we’ll make do.”  Her face suddenly darts forward, and she plants a firm kiss on the lips.  She leans back and examines Denise’s surprised face.  “Perfect,” she declares.  “Now you have some of my lippy.”

She tells Denise to look in the mirror.  Denise’s cheeks are flushed as if she has been running and her lips are a bright pink like Miri’s.  The ends of her hair graze her collarbones, now exposed by the low neckline of the dress.  Denise stares at her reflection as if she is looking at someone else entirely, someone who resembles her but not quite.  A close relative, perhaps.  A twin.  She had a twin once.  Then her twin was lost and she has been alone ever since.  If the mirror can be her twin, perhaps she isn’t alone after all.

She glances down at her watch.  “We should hurry,” she says.  “We don’t want to be too late.”

“Is being on time important to you?” Miri says.

“I guess so.”  Denise hesitates.  Wasn’t being on time important to everyone?  “It’s rude to be late, isn’t it?  Like, you would get in trouble if you were late for work—”

Miri’s throaty laugh cuts her off.  “There are only two kinds of people who are paid to be on time,” she says.  “Train drivers and call girls.  Anyway, what’s the rush?  Let’s have a drink, get to know each other a little better.  Jack tells me nothing about his friends.  I want to find out more about you.”

“What’s to find out?  I’m very boring.”  But Miri is standing there, expecting something.  “OK, my name is Denise Ang.  My family is from Macau, I was born in London.  My parents have a chip shop.”  She is about to mention Darwin but stops herself.  She looks at the mirror again, it is almost impossible not to.  Twin-Denise moves her mouth when Denise does, but she is different somehow.  Both her and not-her.  She has a thrilling, guilty feeling of looking at herself too long, as if someone has caught her staring at them.  She clears her throat and looks away again.  “I have a degree in maths.  So I guess I’m kind of a walking cliché.”

Miri tilts her head.  “How so?” she says.

Denise is confused.  Is she taking the piss, or does she really not know?  “I’m very boring,” she repeats.

“Nonsense,” Miri says, and her reflection smiles at Denise’s.  “In my experience, it’s the quiet ones you have to watch out for.”

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