Category Archives: Guest Blogger

Dark Shadows on the Earth

For this year’s Giftmas blog tour has an advent theme each participant has donated a story — one each day between now and Christmas Eve, with a special surprise on Christmas Day. Not every participant has an active blog, however, and so for those couple who do not it is my pleasure to host them here. Cat Rambo has a blog, but today it is full of announcements about her end of the year sale at her writing academy. If you’re a writer, definitely check that out here –> http://www.kittywumpus.net/blog/about/ . So, anyway, since her blog is busy and my blog is not, I get the pleasure of sharing her story here 🙂

Before we get to the story, however, a quick word about the tour, if I may. The purpose of the blog tour is to fundraise for the Edmonton Food Bank. We do that by collecting donations through our Canada Helps page which you can find right here. We use Canada Helps because it’s easy, and also because then you can give with confidence knowing that the money is going exactly where it’s intended — to help struggling people. Also, by using Canada Helps it means Canadian contributors will be able to get a tax receipt. Oh, and American donors? You get some awesome value for your money because donations are all in Canadian dollars so the exchange rate will definitely work in our favour here 😉

Finally, in addition to offering a story a day to everyone who’d like to read them, we like to reward those people who do what they can to help out. However they help out. Whether that be by making an actual donation, helping to boost our signal or just leaving encouraging comments on the stories themselves. They all help. So we’ve got a rafflecopter with tonnes of prizes. You can read the full list here but they include loads of books, critiques, a magazine subscription, dice and more.

Enter to win here:

a Rafflecopter giveaway

(If the widget doesn’t load for you click here, it will take you to the page so you can enter directly)

And now, without further adieu…


Dark Shadows on the Earth

Cat Rambo

I loved Christmas lights till I knew better. Loved to look out my kitchen window, down the hill, and see the lights twinkling, sparkling, lines going off and on, leading the eye in complicated cuneiform, punctuated with glowing candles and the faces of luminous angels.

When the new guy first moved in, three years ago, that Christmas was downright subdued by the standards he’d come to set, but even then everyone said Gaudy in whispers or sometimes not whispers, conversations on the street or at the bus stop, in the grocery checkout while buying tasteful pine wreaths and poinsettias in red and white and marbled pink.

No one said anything that first year, but in October they started talking about nipping it in the bud, gathering conscripts for a delegation sent the Sunday before Thanksgiving to ask him to tone it down that season. Do something a little more in fitting with the overall atmosphere of the neighborhood.

No one expected someone so dedicated to Christmas cheer to meet them wearing a dilapidated Santa suit with Kevlar showing underneath split seams, bedraggled red velvet. He was hostile, he was obdurate. He shouted, “Atmosphere? Just wait till you’re breathing methane!” And then he laughed and laughed, just before he punched Mr. Takenada from 830 Park Avenue in the face.

He would not explain his ways, let alone change them.

I mentioned something about it to my brother-in-law Arturo in Denver, and he said, “There’s one in every neighborhood, isn’t there? We have one, moved in a couple of years ago, and you wouldn’t believethe problems we’ve had.”

Even then, see, the clues were there. How could I have been such a fool?

I don’t know, but I was — even when Willa at work mentioned her own homeowner’s association having problems.

I wasn’t the only stupid one. You would have thought that someone in a satellite would have noticed the overall patterns. The pictograms formed by the display locations. Even if no one could read them. Even if no one realized they said, Almost ready.

And so we the neighborhood didn’t grasp the larger picture. We took that year’s display as war, not realizing it was literal. He expanded the gnome village, had them all over his lawn and garden, each one carrying a lantern. There were choirs of angels perched on the roof, in the garden, everywhere, even a big golden one next to his mailbox. And five Santas, each in a different location, with herds of reindeer and elves capering around him. Christmas carols blaring whenever it was legally possible. And the lights, all night, bright and twinkling and illuminating his display and the dark shadows it cast on the snow.

This year we thought we were prepared. Takenada had figured out the power lines: exactly where to snip, long enough to get in close and do additional snipping. Cut those wires enough times that he’d take a thousand years to splice them all back, he cackled. Takenada has always been one to hold a grudge. It was a rainy season, and we didn’t even have snow yet, just rhododendrons with leaves curling against the cold and dry leaves scrabbling at the ground as the wind scraped them away.

Rudolph and all the other reindeer had a feral look to them, and the candles the angels were holding looked more like laser pistols. We waited until a half hour before the dark, when the lights would snap on. We figured that was the closest to dark we’d get.

His defense system was in full working order. The gnomes swiveled, the lanterns flickering to life. The angels on the roof peered down and revealed fanged smiles. The Santas let out ear-splitting whoops, a discordant version of Jingle Bells.

We pushed forward, not understanding until it was too late.

They landed when all the lights across the city came on and unleashed the hunting robots. All those other Christmas figures came to life and joined them. By then Takenada had gone down screaming when that big golden angel sliced his throat with a razor-edged wing tip. I barely got away with my life; I was in no shape to resist when a patrol of elves rounded me up with some other resisters.

Did they pick that scheme because they thought we’d be vulnerable, filled with love and the spirit of the season and therefore unable to understand the attack until it was too late? Or was there some special humiliation, a particular way to score points in some enigmatic alien game we had no chance of understanding, scoring points for despoiling our childhood loves and turning the holiday into horror?

I do not know. Nowadays we toil in their factories, under the eyes of wise men and security Santas. Walking home at night, I see the angels swooping overhead, watching us, their lasers in their hands. They glow, the angels, and as they move, they cast dark shadows on the earth, and the shadows make their horrible glow all the stronger.

 


Originally published at Every Day Fiction, December 30, 2015

 

Cat Rambo lives, writes, and teaches by the shores of an eagle-haunted lake in the Pacific Northwest. Her 150+ fiction publications include stories in Asimov’s, Clarkesworld Magazine, and Tor.com. Her short story, “Five Ways to Fall in Love on Planet Porcelain,” from her story collection Near + Far (Hydra House Books), was a 2012 Nebula nominee. Her editorship of Fantasy Magazine earned her a World Fantasy Award nomination in 2012 and her first novel, Beasts of Tabat, appeared in 2015. She is the current President of SFWA (the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America). For more about her, as well as links to her fiction, see www.kittywumpus.net.

Eight Precious Spiced Jewels

For this year’s Giftmas blog tour has an advent theme each participant has donated a story — one each day between now and Christmas Eve, with a special surprise on Christmas Day. Not every participant has an active blog, however, and so for those couple who do not it is my pleasure to host them here. Kevin Cockle is one of those people. I first met Kevin when I accepted his story, “Strange Attractor” for Fire: Demons, Dragons and Djinns. I later got the opportunity to meet him in person to launch that book… and totally forgot to ask him to sign my copy. Because of course I did LOL

Before we get to the story, however, a quick word about the tour, if I may. The purpose of the blog tour is to fundraise for the Edmonton Food Bank. We do that by collecting donations through our Canada Helps page which you can find right here. We use Canada Helps because it’s easy, and also because then you can give with confidence knowing that the money is going exactly where it’s intended — to help struggling people. Also, by using Canada Helps it means Canadian contributors will be able to get a tax receipt. Oh, and American donors? You get some awesome value for your money because donations are all in Canadian dollars so the exchange rate will definitely work in our favour here 😉

Finally, in addition to offering a story a day to everyone who’d like to read them, we like to reward those people who do what they can to help out. However they help out. Whether that be by making an actual donation, helping to boost our signal or just leaving encouraging comments on the stories themselves. They all help. So we’ve got a rafflecopter with tonnes of prizes. You can read the full list here but they include loads of books, critiques, a magazine subscription, dice and more.

Enter to win here:

a Rafflecopter giveaway

(If the widget doesn’t load for you click here, it will take you to the page so you can enter directly)

And now, without further adieu…


Eight Precious Spiced Jewels

Kevin Cockle

It’s a typical Szechuan restaurant, the Dragon Palace: low overhead in terms of décor; clean, but crippling, teal-coloured booths; tables topped with brown I-Can’t-Believe-It’s-Not-Wood surfaces; sizzling hot-plate noises erupting whenever the kitchen doors open; spicy aromas triggering glandular reactions in your mouth.  I love the joint – the neighbourhood’s lucky to have it.  I’ve had one of everything on the menu in the ten years I’ve lived just a few blocks away.  Through a process of Darwinian selection, I’ve whittled the list of edibles down to a few chosen favourites.

That’s my style: experiment at the start, then settle in for the long haul.

“That guy is SO not into her,” Anne says, cutting her eyes to a couple directly across the room from us.  I glance: learn nothing.  They seem perfectly happy: he a balding, fortyish, be-sweatered university prof type; she a grey haired, be-braided force of nature type, doing most of the talking.  They’re in a window-booth: large, soft flakes of snow drift down in backdrop to the scene.  “He’s thinking of some hottie in his Middle English survey course,” Anne continues, mock scandalized.  “Ooh, Tom, you’d love her – this hottie – second row, three chairs in.  She’s totally your type.”

“He’s at the university?” I smile.  See, you don’t have to be psychic to read people.  I got that one all on my own.

“Yep.”  Her green eyes flicker from table to table like hummingbirds: sampling, eavesdropping.  I’m used to it: you can’t expect to hold Annie’s attention – not with everything she’s got coming in.  She leans forward over her dumplings, clicking her chopsticks together as she watches.

It’s easy to block her – been doing it for years – ever since we met at university.  Once I knew what she was doing, there’s a Heisenberg principle involved: the thing under observation changes and becomes opaque to her.  You just need to narrate to yourself – be aware of your own thoughts and state them to yourself as though you were addressing someone else.  She can only think-in on you if you free-wheel up there, let yourself ramble because you think nobody can hear; because you believe yourself to be omniscient within your own confines.  Omniscience is like a neon ‘welcome’ mat to Annie – practically an invitation to come on in and rummage around.

Suun brings the dishes: Homestyle Fish; Eight Precious Spiced Jewels; Hot and Spicy Soup; rice bucket for two.  Anne smiles up at Suun and thanks her: only I know that Annie’s nabbing some secret or other, just because she can.  It’s like having an opposable thumb to her: go ahead and turn that doorknob, or manipulate that tool – that’s what thumbs are for.

I remember how we met – thinking at the time that this was easily the most forward chick I’d ever seen.  I was sitting in the university smoking lounge – a kind of time-capsule holdover from the seventies, complete with black vinyl mod chairs and a sunken fire pit/chimney deal.  I’m reading my Organic Chemistry text and suddenly, this body flops down into the chair beside me – the person practically leaning over into my ear.  I look up and there she is – still glowing from a swim and a steam, dressed in green sweatshirt and black dance pants, smelling faintly of strawberries.  And grinning like she’s getting ready to unleash her favourite joke on me.

I’ve seen her around, I do recognize her face.  If you’re a young hetero lad at university, and you see a girl like Annie bounce past, you make a point of remembering her.  She’s way out of my league, although university had seen some appreciation of my value over the nervy drought years of high school.  “You wanna know a secret?”  She says – I mean – she opens with The Secret.  She hits me with a ten on the Richter scale – right then and there, before I even know her name.

“You’ve been watching me,” she says, smirking with certainty.  I could have sworn I hadn’t been caught.  “Relax.  I take it as a compliment.  From you, anyway.  It matters, you know – who’s doing the looking.  I don’t appreciate stares from everyone.”

“Thanks,” I manage.  Heart.  Pounding.  This sort of thing really doesn’t happen to me, but I’m determined to play it as James-freaking-Bond as I possibly can.  “I’m flattered.”

“I know.”

“Oh, you do?  You really should work on this low self-esteem thing of yours.”

“So.  Do you?”

“Do I what?”

“Wanna know a secret?”

“Who doesn’t?”

“I can read minds.”

“You can read minds.  I’m afraid I’m going to have to ask you to prove that one.”

“Oh Tom,” she says, as though she’s known me forever, “it’ll be my pleasure.”  That smile of hers: I feel an honest-to-God tremor run up and down my spine at the sight of it.  Oddly enough, it’s the same quiver I get every time I hear La Marsellaise sung in Casablanca.

She goes ahead and proves up her claim with a few embarrassing revelations I’d prefer to forget.

The world tilts.  Everything that’s not bolted down tumbles figuratively onto one wall of the room.

And that was it – I mean, there was more talking and introducing, so on and so forth – but basically, after The Secret, I was reeling and not processing many of the subsequent details.  It probably took me a month to fall in love with her, and I was proud of myself for holding out that long.  But scared of her?  I was scared seconds in, and haven’t really ever shaken the chill.  That’s one of Annie’s favourite paradoxes: it’s the fear she counts on, she says, because that lets her know the love is genuine.

I’ve come to understand that she told me her secret because she’d read me and knew that I wouldn’t tell anyone else if I promised not to.  And she knew I’d promise.  And she also knew that once I knew, she wouldn’t be able to drop in on me anytime she wanted, and she knew she’d be able to trust me anyway.

I take a moment to look at her working her curious left-handed grip on the chopsticks – fumbling with a piece of baby-corn.  Long bottle-blonde hair with dark roots: makes me think of casinos, late nights, bright lights.  “Obsession” perfume: on her, it smells like chocolate.  Large, expressive eyes and delicate, arching brows.  High, prominent cheekbones and a too-cute nose: I used to tease her about technically being “cute” rather than “beautiful” – at 5’3” she’s always railing about her lack of length.  True, she lacks elegance, but her curves could warp time.  I never, ever get used to the way she looks for some reason – can never completely get past the wonder of her.

She looks up, catches me staring.  She smiles.  “Happy anniversary,” she says.

We’re not married, although we do co-habitate, and we’re not into formalitites: the anniversary dinner at our favourite joint was my idea, but there won’t be a big deal made otherwise.  I buy her something the month-of her birthday, not the day-of.  Christmas is right around the corner: we may pool funds and go somewhere.  Probably won’t shop for each other, unless whimsy strikes.

Because, the truth is, she’s not around much.  Her job – which has no title other than “consultant” – takes her around the country.  She’s like a professional networker –  again, this is essentially an opposable-thumb effect.  What else would she do?  She’s a brilliant communicator and fixer, putting people together and achieving unheard of synergies.  She works only as hard as she wants to – which winds up being somewhere in the low six figures – and the rest of the time she plays.  But don’t kid yourself: she’s not playing with me during her downtime.  She’s still got that Caribbean tan from her last adventure – a trip with someone she can think-in on, and do things to she’s chosen not do to with me.

I should be grateful I guess: Annie plays hard and she plays for keeps.  There’s that side of her that she closed off to me in the moment of honesty that defined us at the start, but it’s still a big part of her – a part I can’t access.  It’s who she is in the most fundamental sense of the concept.  And yet, I know who she is, and as far as I know, I’m the only one she’s ever told.  “We need to shut each other out,” she’ll often tease, “if we’re ever gonna have a chance to really connect.”

She loves her paradoxes, Annie does.  All part of her charm.

“Hey,” I say, suddenly tuning into a thought I’ve never had before concerning her.  Which is weird, because I thought I’d gone over and over all of them.  “Not reading me: does that mean you fear me?  I mean, not because of what I might do, but just because you can’t read me.  You’ve chosen not to.  Is that part of it?”

She smiles: thin lips; cute.  But she doesn’t answer.

Something’s off with the Eight Precious Spiced Jewels.  Not bad per-se, but different.  Like they hit it with the wrong shaker in the back.  It’s fine – really it is – but when you’ve been having the same thing for a decade, you know right away when something’s awry, and this place doesn’t miss often.

“Something’s off with this,” Anne says, frowning slightly, smacking her lips as though multiple smacks just might identify the problem.

“You read my mind,” I quip.

In university, even though she couldn’t think-in on me, Anne would do things to unnerve me.  Like the way she’d write essays.  The first time I saw this, we were in the library, sharing a table for six between the two of us.  I was hung over and didn’t need to be suffering the harsh fluorescent glare of the overhead lights, but Annie wanted company, so that was that.  She counted out ten pages of ruled 8X11 paper, all blank, onto the table.  And then – little brow furrowed, tongue pink between her lips – she flipped three pages in and wrote a word somewhere in the middle of the page.  Then she flipped back to the front and jotted down a punctuation mark, then skipped to the back to plug in a word.  On and on like that – left hand clutching weirdly and too tightly at her pen, eyes never looking up from the paper – she composed this perfectly cogent ten page argument like she was taking dictation.  No re-writes.  And when she was done, she glanced up at me with this look, knowing she’d just shared another secret with me; gauging  my reaction with relish.

I don’t know what the hell to call this ability of hers – it’s not mind reading – it’s like a tracing of how her mind is wired, and it’s not wired like yours and mine.  It’s way beyond thumbs.  It’s like a whole extra hand, growing out of her neck.

It’s hard sometimes, because my friends do not, repeat do NOT like Anne, and the more vocal among them haven’t been shy about expressing that fact.  “Jesus, Tom,” Mary O’Connor almost always gets around to saying to me, at some point in our monthly coffee get-togethers, “what are you still doing with her?”

I usually shrug or something – give a sheepish smile.  There’s nothing I can say.  To them, it looks like I’m wrapped around Annie’s little finger, quietly cuckolded, and too afraid to leave. Partially true, let’s be honest.  But we also have something unique that I can’t let go of, which my friends would understand, IF I could tell them.  And in her own way, Anne needs me – my lack of threat; my unvarying routines; my unreasoning faithfulness.  She’s the most dangerous woman in the world, hooked up with – as she’ll sometimes label me – Mr. Slippers.  Yes, I do get cold feet for some reason, and no, it’s not psychological.

Then there’s the matter of protecting my friends, which always makes me nervous.  I cringe every time one of my friends is “nice” to Anne, thinking that they’re putting one over on her.  Especially Mary, I mean – Christ – you don’t have to be a mind reader to know what she thinks of Anne.  Naturally, I try to do my visiting when Annie’s out of town, because really – who knows what the hell she’d do, if she got in the mood to do something?  If she ever had it in for you – you’d hurt.  You’d hurt in ways you never dreamed possible, from wounds that would never heal.

Suun comes to collect the dishes, asking how everything was.

“Hen Hao,” I say putting 50% of my Mandarin vocabulary out there like I’m laying a full house down on a table in Vegas.  I get a little thrill from speaking Chinese – it’s hard to explain.  “But you know,” I continue, “there was something a little different about the Spiced Jewels.”

“Whaaat?  No good?”

“No no – perfectly good,” I nod at Anne to get her agreement: she nods back.  “But it was really different – have you changed the dish at all, or…?”

“New cook,” Suun says, lips pursing like it’s just become “former cook” and I immediately regret bringing it up at all.  “I speak to him.”

“Well, but – it was good Suun…”  Too late, she’s off to the kitchen.  Seconds later we hear a burst of Cantonese like machine gun fire, and I wince.  We’re regulars – we’ve got a lot of power here.  I should’ve been more careful, but right away, I come up with a plan to fix things.

Suun comes back, finishes cleaning up: “Anything else for you folks?”

“You know,” I say, “how about two Baileys?  Annie?”

Anne looks confused.  Ten years I’ve been coming here and never ordered anything other than green tea.  “It’s Christmas,” I shrug, “or near enough, anyway.”

That’s good enough for Annie.  “Yes, Suun, that would be great.”

Suun nods, leaves.  Anne wriggles her nose: “Look at you, all unpredictable.”

“There’s a method to my madness,” I say, putting my mysterious face on.  Anne smiles because she doesn’t know what I’m thinking and she’s intrigued.

“What do you mean?” She asks, narrowing her eyes.

“You’ll see.”

Anne glances across to a foursome, smirks: I see that tell-tale light in her eyes as she picks up on somebody’s porn proclivity, or criminal alter-ego, or wife-beating temper.  Opposable thumb effect: Anne never judges anything she reads – nothing bothers her.  I’ve come to believe that’s part and parcel with the ability: if you did care, you wouldn’t – you couldn’t – have the power.  It’s either/or.  It’s another indication of how she’s wired, that lack of empathy.  She’s not psychotic, I mean, you wouldn’t call a leopard psychotic exactly, but it’s certainly right up there with that essay-writing trick of hers for eeriness.  Does it keep me up nights, when she’s asleep beside me, and I think about that aspect of her?  Of course it does.  Every once in a while.

I should leave her – even Annie knows that – though it’s one of the few things she refuses to discuss.  I know my friends are right – not for the reasons they think, but for reasons just as valid.  Another ten years and it’ll be too late for another grand romance.  The kind of romance where you’re still able to say things you’ve never said before, maybe still able to feel things you’ve never felt.  The kind of romance where you’re not only surprising the other person, but you’re surprising yourself as well.  Another ten years, and she’ll have gotten it all – all I have to give.

If I leave right now, it’s still not too late.

Did she tell me her secret, because she knows I won’t leave?

Or did she tell me her secret, because she knows I might?

Suun brings the drinks, inclining her head, smiling.  I lift my glass and gently tink it against Anne’s.  I can never get used to the sight of her.  Her green eyes hold my blue-eyed gaze and we sit in comfortable silence for a moment.

“The drinks,” I saw with a prestidigitator’s flare, “will be on the house.”

“How do you know?” Anne says, grin revealing those small, perfect, chemically-whitened teeth.

“I can predict the future,” I say.  “I’m like a human fortune cookie.”

When Suun brings the bill, Annie reaches for it and scans the list.  Sure enough the drinks have been comped.  I didn’t order the drinks for us: I ordered them for Suun, knowing she needed the opportunity to make up for the misfire on the Spiced Jewels.

Anne is absolutely delighted.  I’ve done what she could have done, only I did it blindfolded, drawing on ten years of experience and familiarity with this place.  Drawing on the empathy she lacks, and maybe needs in some curious way.  And I did it for her, as well as for Suun, and that matters to Anne.

“You’re spooky, boy,” Annie chuckles – almost a purr.

“You have no idea,” I bluff, knowing I’ve got nothing else up my sleeve tonight.


Originally published: On Spec Magazine, Winter 2006, #67, vol 18, no. 4.

 

Kevin Cockle is a Calgary based, Aurora-nominated, speculative-fiction author of over thirty short stories, whose work has appeared in a variety of genre-related magazines and anthologies. In addition to screenplays, boxing-related articles and various technical writing credits, Kevin’s debut novel “Spawning Ground” was published by Tyche Books in 2016. “Knuckleball”, a feature-film for which Kevin shares the writing credit, is in theatres now and on-demand.

 

The blog tour continues tomorrow at Cat Rambo’s website with her story, “Dark Shadows on the Earth”, and in case you missed it, yesterday’s story was “Never Too Late” by Cassandra Weir.

Souls on Display

For this year’s Giftmas blog tour has an advent theme each participant has donated a story — one each day between now and Christmas Eve, with a special surprise on Christmas Day. Not every participant has an active blog, however, and so for those couple who do not it is my pleasure to host them here. Kurt Kirchmeier is one of those people. I first met Kurt waaaay back in the day when I had the pleasure of including one of his stories in Niteblade, so it’s a joy to share this one with you here.

Before we get to the story, however, a quick word about the tour, if I may. The purpose of the blog tour is to fundraise for the Edmonton Food Bank. We do that by collecting donations through our Canada Helps page which you can find right here. We use Canada Helps because it’s easy, and also because then you can give with confidence knowing that the money is going exactly where it’s intended — to help struggling people. Also, by using Canada Helps it means Canadian contributors will be able to get a tax receipt. Oh, and American donors? You get some awesome value for your money because donations are all in Canadian dollars so the exchange rate will definitely work in our favour here 😉

Finally, in addition to offering a story a day to everyone who’d like to read them, we like to reward those people who do what they can to help out. However they help out. Whether that be by making an actual donation, helping to boost our signal or just leaving encouraging comments on the stories themselves. They all help. So we’ve got a rafflecopter with tonnes and tonnes of prizes. You can read the full list here but they include loads of books, critiques, a magazine subscription, dice and more.

Enter to win here:

a Rafflecopter giveaway

(If the widget doesn’t load for you click here, it will take you to the page so you can enter directly)

And now, without further adieu…


Souls on Display

Kurt Kirchmeier

We were playing road hockey when I broke Mr. Mandoka’s soul. It had been hanging in his living room window, strung from the curtain rod as though it were a sun-catcher. Which, I suppose, it sort of was; it certainly shattered like glass.

I’d known it was there, of course; we all did. In fact, we often joked about accidentally breaking it, about how bad we would feel if we did—robbing him of the afterlife and all. Still, I never imagined it would actually happen. Hard as my slap shots were, they were generally pretty accurate.

My friends just stared in the seconds that followed, their eyes wide with disbelief. Billy’s mouth dropped open, his huge wad of gum falling to the street. Billy was always chewing gum, and never just one piece, either. It was the whole pack or none at all.

“Old Man Mandoka’s gonna kill you,” he said. Chris and Evan nodded sagely behind him, the graphite shafts of their hockey sticks gleaming under the cold winter sun.

“Old Man Mandoka couldn’t kill a fly,” Evan’s little brother piped in. “He can hardly even walk.”

It was true; Mr. Mandoka was pretty old. However, having seen the size of the head on his cane, I couldn’t help but feel a little bit anxious. Jenna—the only girl on the block brave enough to play with us—shook her head. “Stupid,” she remarked. “Why’d he have it hanging in the window anyway?”

It was a question we’d been asking both each other and ourselves for as long as I could remember. Why would anyone hang their soul in their window? Not only was it risky in the extreme but scandalous as well.

Everyone knew that.

Well, everyone but Mr. Mandoka, it seemed.

I left the others to ponder the question and ambled on up the driveway, unable to avert my gaze from the small bit of soul still hanging from the rod, spinning around and around on its string like the broken tip of a Christmas bulb.

Mr. Mandoka wasn’t home; we’d paused our game about a half-hour before to let his Caddy through. Nevertheless, my stomach sank as I sidled up to the window and peered in.

It was worse than I’d feared.

The soul (what was left of it) was scattered all across the living room floor, some in chunks the size of my fist, others in fragments no bigger than a marble—roughly the size that the entire thing would have been at birth, or so my mother often told me. I hated when she said that. The last image I wanted was that of my soul covered in afterbirth. I pushed the thought away and continued surveying the damage.

Though I’d seen it in its entirety many times, albeit from a distance, I’d never realized just how pretty Mr. Mandoka’s soul had been, color-wise, I mean: frosted lilac. Mine was green, and a putrid shade at that. I’d always hated it.

Fat Sam (he was actually a bean-pole) joined me at the window, followed immediately thereafter by the others. Jenna whistled low, and then loudly smacked her gum (Billy had a crush on her, so sometimes he would share).

“What’re you gonna do?” asked Shamus, who was the oldest of our crew.

I shrugged. Given the circumstances, I was pretty sure a simple “I’m sorry” wasn’t going to cut it.

“Wait, I guess,” I replied. What else was I supposed to do, run? It wasn’t as if I’d stolen a crab apple from the guy’s tree (that was the day before); I’d broken his soul for crying out loud, his one and only connection to the afterlife, his boarding ticket to paradise. The least I could do was stick around and explain to him how it happened, that it wasn’t on purpose.

“We still gonna play hockey?” Evan asked after a moment of awkward silence.

Jenna gave him a shove and called him an idiot, then stood there shaking her head. Evan had never been the sharpest knife in the drawer. More like a spoon, actually.

The eight of us milled around for a while on the snow-dusted lawn, none of us really knowing what to say. I could sense that the others wanted to leave but didn’t have the heart to let me take the blame alone.

“It’s okay guys,” I finally said, tossing them a bone. “You can go. I’m the one who broke it.”

“You sure?” asked Billy. I nodded. He shrugged, then immediately turned to Jenna, sensing an opportunity now that his afternoon had just freed up. “Wanna come over for hot chocolate?” he asked her.

She moved her head from side to side, as though weighing her options.

“Okay,” she finally agreed. I think Billy was beginning to win her over.

The others took their leave shortly thereafter, wishing me luck before filing away one by one. Fat Sam was the last to go. He gave me a reassuring punch on the shoulder and told me he would look on eBay when he got home.

I nodded and smiled, knowing that we could never afford to buy Mr. Mandoka a new one. Besides, there was really no proof that someone else’s soul—even if they’d willingly signed it over—could grant you passage to the afterlife. The general consensus was that it wouldn’t. Fat Sam, of course, knew all this himself; he was just trying to make me feel better. He stopped at the end of the drive and looked back over his shoulder.

“Chin up,” he said. Fat Sam always said that. I smiled again. I really was lucky to have such good friends.

Mr. Mandoka arrived home a short time later, his freshly washed Caddy shining brilliantly as it meandered up the drive. I swallowed hard and got up from the step, my hands shaking, my knees weak.

He sat there in his car for a moment, giving me a suspicious look. Then, as though he’d sensed it rather than seen it, his gaze shifted to the shattered living room window, where it remained for several long seconds. Finally he got out of the car, leaning on his cane as he stood.

“It was an accident,” I quickly said and motioned toward the net on the curb. “We were playing hockey and, well, I kinda missed.” I was speaking fast, sort of a half stutter.

He stood staring at the window. “Missed, huh?”

I immediately regretted my choice of words. I looked down at my shoes, my cheeks burning in spite of the wintry air. “I’ll pay for it,” I finally said. “The window, I mean.” It was a poor excuse for restitution, I knew, but I didn’t really have anything else to offer.

Mr. Mandoka nodded, jowls bouncing like miniature saddlebags. He joined me at the bottom of the steps, his face expressionless. “You know how to use a staple-gun?” he said.

A staple-gun? Confusion tied my tongue in a temporary knot, so I merely nodded like the idiot I felt.

“Well, c’mon then,” he replied, motioning for me to follow.

He led me down to his basement and, after a short search through a cluttered storage room, handed me a roll of clear plastic wrap, the sort often used to cut down on draft. He then set me to work, saying not a word about his soul.

Plastic wrap for the inside, quarter-inch plywood for the outside: my fingers were freezing by the time I finished, my gloves offering little in the way of insulation against the cold steel of the staple-gun. Mr. Mandoka inspected my work with wordless scrutiny.

Apparently satisfied that it would stand the test, he invited me back inside. He’d taken a shop-vac to the living room carpet while I was working, sucking up his soul as though it were soil from an overturned plant. He sat me down at his kitchen table in front of a steaming mug of hot cocoa, which I immediately wrapped my hands around.

“I appreciate you sticking around like you did,” he said as he took a chair opposite me. “Most boys would’ve run off.”

I smiled somewhat guiltily, for it wasn’t like I hadn’t thought about it, albeit only briefly. “You probably would have found out anyway.”

“Even so,” he said, “it shows responsibility. You’ve a heck of a work ethic, too.” He gestured vaguely toward the living room.

“I help my dad in the shop sometimes.”

“Is that so?” he said and looked at me strangely then, as if struck by a sudden thought. His eyes narrowed in silent appraisal, though what exactly he might be appraising me for, I hadn’t the faintest idea. I shifted uncomfortably in my chair, pretending like I didn’t notice.

“So is there anything else I can do?” I asked him. The one simple task he’d set before me, while not at all pleasant, did little to assuage my guilt. And the fact that the old man was being so nice to me didn’t help, either. Part of me wanted him to rage, to get it all out in one shot and have done with it.

That’s what my dad would have done.

“Hmm,” he said, again with the hard look of consideration. “Perhaps there is. Tell me, have you ever had a job?”

“I had a paper route once,” I said. “Does that count?”

“I’d say so,” he replied. “Did you like it?”

I shrugged. “It was okay, I guess.”

He rubbed his chin thoughtfully. “Well, what would you say if I offered you a different sort of job?” He held up his cane. “Can’t move around like I used to. Could use me an assistant.”

“Assistant?” I said. “For what?”

He smiled. “C’mon, I’ll show you.”

I followed him out the back door, inwardly reeling at the strange turn of events. I’d just broken his soul, and now he was offering me a job?

We stopped at the side of his garage, whereupon he drew a giant set of keys from his pocket and fumbled through them one by one, mumbling all the while about how they all looked the same.

“Here we are,” he finally said. “Get ready now, this might seem a little odd at first glance.” That said, he opened the door and then reached around the corner to turn on a light.

“Odd” could not have been more of an understatement.

The entire side of the far wall was covered with souls in sizes ranging from baseballs to breadboxes. They were hanging from hooks and sitting on shelves. A couple of them, the bigger ones, were dangling from the rafters above. The shapes and colors were as varied as the sizes. Some of them were round and blue, some triangular and fiery red. Others were similar to my
own: bulbous and misshapen, like pillow lava hardened beneath the sea. There was one in the corner so dark a purple it looked almost black.

I stood gaping on the threshold.

Mr. Mandoka chuckled. “It isn’t what you think,” he said and motioned towards the souls with his chin. “I made these. They’re replicas.”

“Replicas?”

“Indeed,” he said, and then with a wink, “and so was the one you broke, so you needn’t fret about it any longer. I regret to say that my real one’s been gone for quite some time. Took a tumble down the stairs, must have been, oh, twenty years back now.”

I stared at him, unblinking, stunned, and relieved all at once.

“But how?” I finally managed. “What’re they made of?”

“Glass,” Mr. Mandoka said.

I took a step inside, only then noticing the furnace in the corner, along with all the tools strewn about the place, most of which in no way resembled anything I’d ever seen my dad use. I glanced at Mr. Mandoka, who was now standing in the center of the workshop, leaning on his cane.

“What do you do with them?” I asked.

“Sell them,” he said. “Most of the time, anyway. Some are just practice pieces.”

“Sell them to who?”

He shrugged. “People like myself. Those who’ve broken their own. Happens more often than you think, you know. Broken souls, I mean. You just don’t hear about it is all. Heck, there’s probably a half-dozen on this street alone.”

I raised an eyebrow in surprise. I often eavesdropped on my mother and her friends as they gossiped over tea, so I was always up on things as far as the neighborhood was concerned. I couldn’t recall anyone having ever mentioned a broken soul before, much less a half dozen.

“But why?” I asked. “What good is a fake one?”

“Peace of mind,” he replied. “You ever been to a funeral?”

I nodded. “My aunt Mary died two months ago.”

“So you saw her soul, then, at the front of the church?”

Barring wishes to the contrary, a soul was always displayed during a funeral and then placed in the coffin just prior to burial, where it would continue to shrink until finally there was no trace of it whatsoever. Only then would the spirit have fully moved on.

I nodded again. I remembered my aunt’s soul well. It looked like something out of a Picasso painting.

“And was it her real soul, or just a replica?”

I made as if to speak, but then stopped myself. “Beats me,” I said after a momentary pause. “I never really thought about it.”

“Exactly,” Mr. Mandoka replied. “Most people wouldn’t. That’s why I sell them, so families don’t end up worrying needlessly. Like I said, peace of mind.”

“So they don’t tell their families? About them being broken?”

Mr. Mandoka shook his head. “Not usually, no.”

“Isn’t that dishonest, letting them think that they’re going to heaven when they’re not?”

“How do you know they don’t go to heaven?”

“How could they?”

Mr. Mandoka smiled. I got the distinct impression that he’d had this conversation before.

“What do you think heaven is?” he said.

“I don’t know. Whatever I want it to be, I guess.”

“Precisely,” he said. “Whatever you want it to be. Now let’s assume that your best friend. . . .” He waited for me to fill in the name.

“Billy,” I provided.

“Okay. Now let’s assume that Billy ends up breaking his soul and that you don’t; so you carry on up to heaven, and he goes to . . . wherever it is he goes to. If heaven really is whatever you want it to be, then wouldn’t you want Billy to be there with you?”

I turned the notion over a few times before replying. “I never thought about it like that before.”

“Not many people do,” Mr. Mandoka replied. “Not many people do.”

“So it doesn’t matter?” I asked. “Whether it gets broken?” It pretty much went against everything I’d ever been taught, both in church as well as school. Strangely enough, though, it made sense. At least to me it did.

Mr. Mandoka shrugged. “Maybe, maybe not. Perhaps we’re just born with them so that we know that something else exists. Something to base our faith on, I guess you could say. Then again, perhaps it’s just God’s way of telling us that life is fragile and that we should make the best of it while we have it.” He shrugged again. “It’s a mystery. The way I figure it, as long as you’ve lived a moral life, and as long as you’ve got people around who want you by their side after it ends, you’ll always have a place in heaven. It just might not be your own.”

I began my apprenticeship three days later, starting with the easy stuff: sorting cullet (raw glass), heating pipes, making newspaper pads, and preparing tools. Mr. Mandoka, meanwhile, explained to me the various techniques and finer points of the trade. Glass blowing, some might have called it, but Mr. Mandoka referred to it as “soul-forging.”

By and large, the work was tedious. I often spent hours on end with the customers beforehand, meticulously reconstructing their souls from whatever fragments and shards he or she had brought with them to the shop—can’t very well make a replica without seeing the original, after all.

It was during this time that Mr. Mandoka usually imparted his philosophy regarding the afterlife to the clients: “The Many Heavens Theory,” as he called it. I soon discovered he was as much a counsellor as he was a journeyman.

I also discovered why he’d had his own soul hanging in the window. It was a calling card of sorts, a mark of the trade. Only a privileged few knew of its meaning, and it was they who directed others to the shop. I continued playing hockey with the gang on the weekends, attributing my evening absences to a restoration project that Mr. Mandoka had me helping him with in restitution for my blunder. I told them the old man and I were rebuilding a Model-T roadster. None of them were the wiser. Not at first, at least.

It was only months later, after Fat Sam confided to me that he had accidentally shattered his own soul while taking it down from his closet, that I began to let my friends in on my secret. By this time, I had graduated from general shop duties and was learning about some of the more advanced aspects of the job, such as thread-wrapping and color application.

In light of my newfound skills, I took it upon myself to make Fat Sam’s my first solo project. Mr. Mandoka coached me, of course, but only by verbal means. As far as hands-on labor was concerned, it was all me. When I presented the finished creation to Sam a couple weeks later, he couldn’t even tell the difference.

Nor, for that matter, could Billy, several weeks after that.

He arrived on my doorstep on a sunny Sunday morning, garbage bag in hand, chagrin on his face.

“What happened?” I said.

He looked embarrassed at the thought of relating the tale.

Nevertheless, after persistent prodding on my part, he finally coughed it up.

“I dropped it in the bathtub,” he said.

I narrowed my eyes. “Why did you have it in the bathtub?”

He shrugged. “I was cleaning it.”

“Why?” Although I dusted my own from time to time, I’d never really given any consideration to actually scrubbing it spotless. Why bother? It wasn’t like I ever showed it to anyone. Billy looked the other way, his cheeks flushed. It was then that it hit me.

“You dog!” I said. “You were gonna show it to Jenna, weren’t you?”

They had become an item during the initial phase of my apprenticeship and had since been making the rest of us sick with all their “honey” this and “sweetie” that. I was happy for them, though—perhaps even a little bit jealous.

“I gotta know,” he replied. “You know?”

I nodded and left it at that. We’d all heard stories about soul mates.

Billy’s soul proved quite a challenge, one that I couldn’t help but laugh over. I might have guessed it would resemble a giant wad of well chewed bubblegum.

In the months and years that followed—fulfilling ones, for the most part—Mr. Mandoka became somewhat of a second father to me, so when he finally passed away—just days after my high school graduation—I found myself left with not only a cozy little bungalow and garage/soul-forge but also a profound sense of sadness. Long since estranged from whatever family he had left in the world (the reason, I’ll never know), Mr. Mandoka had bequeathed almost all of his worldly possessions to me, his only stipulation being that I continue with the work.

And so I did.

By the time I turned twenty-eight, I had replaced not only Fat Sam’s and Billy’s souls but also my own. I still worry from time to time, but then I find myself surrounded by those I love and can’t help but believe that we’ll all have our place in heaven. It just might not be our own.

In the meantime, I’ve got my new soul hanging in my window, strung from the curtain rod as though it were a sun-catcher.

 


“Souls on Display” originally appeared in GlassFire Anthology (PegLeg Publishing) in December 2007 and was later reprinted in Triangulation: Dark Glass (Parsec Ink.) in July 2009.

Kurt Kirchmeier lives and writes in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. His stories and poems have appeared in Abyss & Apex, Shimmer, Tesseracts 15, Weird Tales, and elsewhere. Keep an eye out for his debut novel, THE ABSENCE OF SPARROWS, which will be hitting bookshelves in May, 2019, courtesy of Little, Brown Books for Young Readers. Visit Kurt online at www.kurtkirchmeier.net.

 

The blog tour continues tomorrow at Tiffany Michelle Brown‘s website with her story, “Anything But Plain”, and in case you missed it, yesterday’s story was “The Last” by Premee Mohamed.

 

Dear John

For this year’s Giftmas blog tour has an advent theme each participant has donated a story — one each day between now and Christmas Eve, with a special surprise on Christmas Day. Not every participant has an active blog, however, and so for those couple who do not it is my pleasure to host them here. Julie E. Czerneda is one of those people, and so it is my honour to share her story here on my blog.

Before we get to the story, however, a quick word about the tour, if I may. The purpose of the blog tour is to fundraise for the Edmonton Food Bank. We do that by collecting donations through our Canada Helps page which you can find right here. We use Canada Helps because it’s easy, and also because then you can give with confidence knowing that the money is going exactly where it’s intended — to help struggling people. Also, by using Canada Helps it means Canadian contributors will be able to get a tax receipt. Oh, and American donors? You get some awesome value for your money because donations are all in Canadian dollars so the exchange rate will definitely work in our favour here 😉

Finally, in addition to offering a story a day to everyone who’d like to read them, we like to reward those people who do what they can to help out. However they help out. Whether that be by making an actual donation, helping to boost our signal or just leaving encouraging comments on the stories themselves. They all help. So we’ve got a rafflecopter with tonnes and tonnes of prizes. You can read the full list here but they include loads of books, critiques, a magazine subscription, dice and more.

Enter to win here:

a Rafflecopter giveaway

(If the widget doesn’t load for you click here, it will take you to the page so you can enter directly)

And now, without further adieu…


Dear John

Julie E. Czerneda

Dear John:

<as the opening line to a letter destined for a being of indeterminate sex and nomenclature, it would likely tickle his sense of the ridiculous. Still one should follow customary form in these matters…>

Dear John:

<definitely should scratch that, however traditional. Haven’t covered formal or informal modes of address – stylized or otherwise. And what kind of name is “John” to identify a 3 metre animated piece of chitinous tupperware…>

I am writing this to say…

<nix that line too. Who writes these days? By the time this vocalization makes it through the translator, it will consist of quantified photons and resonances with an occasional catchy rhythm…>

I’ve met someone else…

<technically? Well, now’s not the time for details…>

This someone can satisfy me in ways, frankly, you can’t…

<not being equipped by nature or imagination, dear…>

It’s best that I leave…

<we’ll ignore the fact that you’ve already flown the coop. The saucer-like, quaint, crater your ship left in my yard will generate enough tourist dollars for my retirement, thank you very much…>

It’s been fun…

<except for the incident with my mother. You really never grasped our prohibition against consuming ancestors, did you?>

And while I wish we could have been together always…

<actually, while I can imagine a dimension in which you – or I – were less relatively ugly, in truth, we both know that’s unlikely…>

We both realize forever can never be…

<though I do have concerns about those glowing pods in my cellar. They seem new, John. Have you left something behind?>

I will carry your memory in my heart always…

<right above the 16 stitches you gave me before we both realized that taking our relationship to the, ahem, next level, could be a fatal mistake at this – or any – time…>

So, I wish you the best in your future, John…

<a feeling not shared by the rest of the inhabitants of my planet, unfortunately, given the regrettable results following your experiments with those harmless-looking gnats>

And hope you can find it in your heart to understand and forgive me…

<and if you ever show up here again, buster, have I got a bug-spray for you!>

Love,

Barbara

P.S. Just kidding about the pods. I can assure you they aren’t yours…

<strike that. Not a nice thing to bring up – which could be truer than I’d like to think.>


An original SF story by Julie E. Czerneda first published in Odyssey Magazine Volume 6, 1998, London.

 

For over twenty years, Canadian author/ former biologist Julie E. Czerneda has shared her curiosity about living things through her science fiction, published by DAW Books. Julie writes fantasy too, her Night’s Edge novels (DAW) A Turn of Light and A Play of Shadow, winning consecutive Aurora Awards (Canada’s Hugo). Her Clan Chronicles series concluded in To Guard Against the Dark, Julie’s latest SF is Search Image, #1 of The Web Shifter’s Library. Next out is Clan Chronicles: Tales from Plexis. This winter she’ll be busy with her new fantasy standalone, The Gossamer Mage, out August 2019. www.czerneda.com.

 

 

The blog tour continues tomorrow at Steve Toase’s website with his story, “Seeing with Pollen”, and in case you missed it, yesterday’s story was “The Fool and the Wise Men” by JB Riley.

Bright Spot — Alison McBain

When Brian Hades and I were discussing themes for Nevertheless (Tesseracts Twenty-one) one of the possibilities he suggested was optimistic speculative fiction. I pounced on that idea for two reasons. First, because I’d just recently become aware of solarpunk (largely through Sarena Ulibarri) and was excited to work on an anthology that might include some and second because I’d become convinced that we were living in the darkest timeline.

That was in 2016. I had no idea how much darker it could become.

Still, despite a very difficult couple of years, I manage to find reasons for optimism. Lights in the darkness. And I’m not alone in that.

In the coming weeks I will be hosting a series of blog posts I’m calling “Bright Spots in the Darkest Timeline”. Each will be written by a Nevertheless (Tesseracts Twenty-one) contributor and I think they will serve the dual purpose of giving me an excuse to talk about the anthology, and shining a bit of light into people’s lives.

This post from Alison McBain talks about something that’s all too easily forgotten and taking steps in the right direction…

NEVERTHELESS BLOG POST

by Alison McBain

I think the most important lesson I’ve learned in my writing journey is there is no down without an up, too. Writers talk a lot about harsh critiques, bad reviews, and rejections, rejections, rejections—but there’s also the opposite. Those days where you not only get one acceptance, but you get FIVE. Or when you get your story into your dream journal or magazine or anthology. When someone emails you and says, “Hey, I like your writing.” Or the best yet, when you get another writer saying, “You’ve inspired MY writing journey.”

Now, how cool is that? I had that happen to me this year, and when the person said it to my face, I wanted to turn around and look behind me to see who the person must be talking to, because it couldn’t be me. MY words were an inspiration to someone else who wanted to write? That just blew me away.

This year was a great one for me for a number of reasons—I had a lot of “firsts.” While I’ve had a number of short stories and poems published over the past five years, 2018 was when my debut YA novel, The Rose Queen, hit shelves in July. It’s a gender-inverted retelling of Beauty and the Beast and the first of a trilogy, and people seem to be enjoying it so far. In fact, I’ve had several readers ask when the next in the series will come out (answer: 2019).

Also this year, I became lead editor for the first time and helped put together a very awesome time travel anthology containing stories by a number of award-winning authors from around the world. It’s called When to Now and will be available for sale on October 1st. I was also “promoted” at Bewildering Stories, so I’m a coordinating editor and a member of the Review Board, and get to help choose the quarterly and annual awards to celebrate the best writing the magazine publishes each year.

I feel that now is the best time to be a woman, a POC, and a speculative fiction writer. Every day I hear /read about another anthology or another award that is going to an author in one of these aforementioned categories, to say nothing about the growing popularity of speculative fiction writers from many other marginalized communities and groups. For example, in the Fairfield Scribes’ soon-to-be-released anthology that I’m editing, When to Now, ten out of the eighteen stories are penned by women. And for the second year in a row, the Hugo Awards were dominated by women writers. I can’t say how inspiring this is to me.

I’m not blind to a number of ongoing trends around the world, however—and sometimes it’s hard to stay optimistic when I’m writing science fiction stories, since it seems like perhaps there won’t be a world as we would like to imagine it in 1000—or even 500—years. And perhaps, despite focusing on an optimistic outlook, things could change for the worse sooner than that.

I’ve written dystopian. I know how that line of reasoning goes.

On the other hand, I’d like to think that for every step backward, we’re taking two steps forward. Not just me, personally, but in all the realms of technology, society, and culture. We’re a global community of writers, now more than ever, and it’s a great time to celebrate how far we’ve come. And to look forward to where we have yet to go, and how we can get there together.


Alison McBain was born in Alberta, grew up in California and received her B.A. in African history and classical literature at U.C. Santa Cruz. After her nomadic twenties, she settled in Fairfield, Connecticut, where she is raising three girls and her husband.

She is an award-winning author with more than 70 short stories and poems published, and her YA fantasy novel, The Rose Queen, was released at the end of July. She is also an editor for an awesome time travel anthology coming out October 1st called When to Now. It has contributions from more than ten local authors, in addition to stories penned from around the world, including writers from India, New Zealand, Britain, and Canada.

When not writing, she practices origami meditation and draws all over the walls of her house with the enthusiastic help of her kids. Once in a while, she puts on her editor hat for the magazine Bewildering Stories, or interviews authors and artists at her website www.alisonmcbain.com.


Get your copy now!

Bright Spot — Kate Heartfield

When Brian Hades and I were discussing themes for Nevertheless (Tesseracts Twenty-one) one of the possibilities he suggested was optimistic speculative fiction. I pounced on that idea for two reasons. First, because I’d just recently become aware of solarpunk (largely through Sarena Ulibarri) and was excited to work on an anthology that might include some and second because I’d become convinced that we were living in the darkest timeline.

That was in 2016. I had no idea how much darker it could become.

Still, despite a very difficult couple of years, I manage to find reasons for optimism. Lights in the darkness. And I’m not alone in that.

In the coming weeks I will be hosting a series of blog posts I’m calling “Bright Spots in the Darkest Timeline”. Each will be written by a Nevertheless (Tesseracts Twenty-one) contributor and I think they will serve the dual purpose of giving me an excuse to talk about the anthology, and shining a bit of light into people’s lives.

This post, by Kate Heartfield, is one I can relate two on several levels. I kind of want to talk about them, but that could diminish the impact of what she has to say, so we’re just going to dive right in 🙂

Optimism blog post

By Kate Heartfield

 

Soon after Anne arrives at Green Gables, Marilla Cuthbert chides her for not eating.

*

“I can’t. I’m in the depths of despair. Can you eat when you are in the depths of despair?”

“I’ve never been in the depths of despair, so I can’t say,” responded Marilla.

“Weren’t you? Well, did you ever try to imagine you were in the depths of despair?”

“No, I didn’t.”

*

The first few times I read L.M. Montgomery’s novel, I was very young, and I saw Marilla’s curt responses merely as a failure of empathy, a sign that she has a lot to learn about raising a child. And indeed, all of that is true. But now that I’m closer to Marilla’s age than Anne’s, I understand Marilla’s perspective more.

We talk about “youthful optimism”, as though it’s a quality that fades with time. But I don’t think that’s quite right. Youthful optimism is ephemeral, and it turns into despair all too easily. The optimism of old women is steady. It hardens under pressure, like carbon turning into diamond. The optimism of old women is quiet but stern. It doesn’t demand to be catered to, but it doesn’t back down, either.

The optimism of my grandmothers was Marilla’s brand of optimism. Both of them had been through hardships I could barely imagine when I was young, even the ones I knew about. They were, above all, practical. They woke up every morning and did the work that needed to be done, because someone had to do it.

There’s a strength that comes from carrying on not because you hope everything will be OK, but because you know that nothing will be OK unless someone does the hard and unending work to make it OK. A strength from knowing that you have it in you to do your share of that work. From refusing to give in to cynicism despite knowing all too well that humanity falters, that life is sad and unfair, that easy answers are lies. From knowing that you and joy have both survived, and some things can get better, when people make them get better.

Old women are too tired to give a damn about the things that don’t matter, and too fierce to stop giving a damn about the people who do.

Those are the women who people most of my stories, these days.

 


Kate Heartfield is a former journalist in Ottawa, Canada. Her novel Armed in Her Fashion was published in spring 2018 by ChiZine Publications, and she has a time-travel novella, Alice Payne Arrives, coming in November 2018 from Tor.com Publishing.

Her interactive novel, The Road to Canterbury, is now available from Choice of Games. She’s on Twitter as @kateheartfield and her website is heartfieldfiction.com.


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Bright Spot — Michael Milne

When Brian Hades and I were discussing themes for Nevertheless (Tesseracts Twenty-one) one of the possibilities he suggested was optimistic speculative fiction. I pounced on that idea for two reasons. First, because I’d just recently become aware of solarpunk (largely through Sarena Ulibarri) and was excited to work on an anthology that might include some and second because I’d become convinced that we were living in the darkest timeline.

That was in 2016. I had no idea how much darker it could become.

Still, despite a very difficult couple of years, I manage to find reasons for optimism. Lights in the darkness. And I’m not alone in that.

In the coming weeks I will be hosting a series of blog posts I’m calling “Bright Spots in the Darkest Timeline”. Each will be written by a Nevertheless (Tesseracts Twenty-one) contributor and I think they will serve the dual purpose of giving me an excuse to talk about the anthology, and shining a bit of light into people’s lives.

Today’s contribution comes from Michael Milne who is talking about humanity and optimism.

 

Smiling Happy Killer Robot Land: Optimism Through Imaginary Futures, Even The Bad Ones

by Michael Milne

 

It feels easy to write dystopian fiction. Looking around at how the world as it is today, it’s not hard to extrapolate to an imagined future where things look bleak. Take current climate trends and blow them out a few decades or centuries and you’ve got a dieselpunk wasteland. Think about rising tides of fascism and you’ve got yourself a YA fantasy government percolating in your brain. Consider how much of your data has been stored, copied, aggregated, and used against you and suddenly you can imagine a digital you gestating in a Silicon Valley tech lab.

But when I really think about speculative fiction, even those most dire and sad and gruelling adventures through whatever we’ve done to ourselves and the planet, there’s always the kernels of optimism. Even when a story is unrelentingly dark or pessimistic, there’s still usually somebody, somewhere in there, trying to do good.

Even beyond the big, rebellious adventures against the autocratic robot governments, there’s the tiny human stories. Under heavy oppression or acid rains or terrible laserwar, there’s characters being people. They might be the protagonist, or they might be someone in the background, but I always notice these people in the future. People having kids, and hoping those children will have a better life than the parents led. People falling in love, despite whatever in the world is trying to keep them apart. People working at their jobs, but dreaming of something more.

Even outside of optimistic stories like those in Nevertheless, it’s these human qualities in otherwise dark stories that can give me a sense of hope. They remind me that even over human history, where we’ve done pretty terrible things to each other, there were always still people striving to make things better. Bravery, compassion, empathy, and love have lived through some of the darkest eras of humanity, and no matter how dire we write our futures, those qualities seem to live out.

The seeds of humanity in these situations are still being planted and growing, even if the soil is irradiated by nuclear space monsters, or if we don’t even have soil anymore. If those characters can imagine a better future for themselves, if they can be faced with all the weight and horrors that their writers through at them and still hope, then I think I can too.

 


Michael Milne is an author and teacher originally from Canada. He writes and annoys barristas worldwide, but mainly in coffee shops in Korea, China, and Switzerland. His website is www.michaelmilne.ca and you can find him on Twitter @ironcardigan.

 


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Bright Spot — Lisa Timpf

When Brian Hades and I were discussing themes for Nevertheless (Tesseracts Twenty-one) one of the possibilities he suggested was optimistic speculative fiction. I pounced on that idea for two reasons. First, because I’d just recently become aware of solarpunk (largely through Sarena Ulibarri) and was excited to work on an anthology that might include some and second because I’d become convinced that we were living in the darkest timeline.

That was in 2016. I had no idea how much darker it could become.

Still, despite a very difficult couple of years, I manage to find reasons for optimism. Lights in the darkness. And I’m not alone in that.

In the coming weeks I will be hosting a series of blog posts I’m calling “Bright Spots in the Darkest Timeline”. Each will be written by a Nevertheless (Tesseracts Twenty-one) contributor and I think they will serve the dual purpose of giving me an excuse to talk about the anthology, and shining a bit of light into people’s lives.

Today we continue with this contribution from Lisa Timpf about, well, keepin’ on.

 

One Step at a Time

By Lisa Timpf

Step with non-operative leg, swing cane in rhythm with operated leg. Step, swing, step, swing. In the weeks since my total knee replacement operation, the mechanics of walking with a cane had become automatic. Maybe I didn’t move as fast as I had in my twenties, but I managed to get to my destination, one step at a time.

The temperature was warm on this May afternoon. Spring had been long in coming this year, but it appeared to have arrived at last. After weeks of being cooped up indoors, reluctant to risk wiping out on ice or slipping on snow, it felt liberating to be outdoors. To celebrate the return of more clement weather, we’d decided to work on the vegetable garden.

But being less than ten weeks recovered from knee surgery, I was in to no condition to operate the tiller or bend over to plant seeds. Those tasks would fall to my partner, instead. Never one to enjoy watching others work, I leaned against a tree and looked around for something I could do.

And that’s when I noticed the asparagus patch, a legacy left by the property’s former owners. Asparagus doesn’t like weeds, I reminded myself as I studied the three small, roughly circular beds. There were no signs, as yet, of asparagus spears poking through the earth, but it wouldn’t be long. Meanwhile, clumps of grass, wild violets, and other interlopers were insinuating themselves into the open patches of soil.

With the aid of my cane, I lurched up the eight-inch step into the garden shed. I grabbed my gardening stool and a hand-held cultivator with my free hand, then made my way to the asparagus patch. It took me a couple of tries to figure out the best way to lower myself onto the stool. My ultimate method of choice would likely have made my physiotherapist cringe, but I managed to get settled into place nonetheless, my still-healing left leg stretched out as I carefully tugged weeds out of the soil to make room for the coming crop.

The nature of the work left my mind free to wander, and I found myself thinking back on the past few weeks. Sometimes, battling against stiffness in my knee as I performed the exercises designed to improve flexion and extension, I’d wondered whether recovery would ever come. And yet, that day, warmed by the ever-strengthening sun, the simple act of digging my fingers into the soil helped restore my faith. Surrounded by new growth and fortified by the spring air, I finally felt certain that the frustrating stiffness and lack of mobility would become a thing of the past, and I would once again be able to perform some of the tasks I’d had to leave to other family members this year.

Maybe I wasn’t the picture of speed as I painstakingly moved from a completed section of the bed to the next area needing attention, but I was making progress, albeit one step at a time.

And sometimes, that’s enough.


Lisa Timpf is a retired Human Resources and communications professional who lives in Simcoe, Ontario. Her writing has appeared in a number of venues, including New Myths, Third
Flatiron, Star*Line, Liquid Imagination, and The Martian Wave. When not writing, Lisa enjoys bird-watching, golf, organic gardening, and spending outdoor time with her border collie,
Emma


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Bright Spots — Dorianne Emmerton

When Brian Hades and I were discussing themes for Nevertheless (Tesseracts Twenty-one) one of the possibilities he suggested was optimistic speculative fiction. I pounced on that idea for two reasons. First, because I’d just recently become aware of solarpunk (largely through Sarena Ulibarri) and was excited to work on an anthology that might include some and second because I’d become convinced that we were living in the darkest timeline.

That was in 2016. I had no idea how much darker it could become.

Still, despite a very difficult couple of years, I manage to find reasons for optimism. Lights in the darkness. And I’m not alone in that.

In the coming weeks I will be hosting a series of blog posts I’m calling “Bright Spots in the Darkest Timeline”. Each will be written by a Nevertheless (Tesseracts Twenty-one) contributor and I think they will serve the dual purpose of giving me an excuse to talk about the anthology, and shining a bit of light into people’s lives.

Today we continue with this contribution from Dorianne Emmerton about how today’s youth keep her optimistic.

 

Optimism

By Dorianne Emmerton

Optimism does not come easily to me. It’s possible I did this to myself, reading dystopian science fiction from my parents’ book shelves when I was young and impressionable. I’ve been worried about environmental devastation since I read The Sheep Look Up at some sort of tender age, and that concern has certainly not lessened over the years, as climate change becomes an increasingly clear and immediate danger. And there is no dearth of other things to worry about, on either side of the personal-political coin.

As an anxious kid, and an insecure teen, I felt powerless in the face of everything awful on earth. I wasn’t smart enough, rich enough, or politically influential enough to save the world. As a hard-partying twentysomething I had my period of youthful idealism, showing up at protests to shout slogans in a voice hoarse from cigarettes and lack of sleep. I remember the moment that stopped.  On a bitterly cold day in February of 2003, I froze my ass off protesting the American invasion of Iraq. Thirty-six million people around the world protested. But it happened anyway. I knew it was going to happen anyway. It didn’t matter, nothing we did mattered.

But the kids these days aren’t just marching. The kids these days give me hope. The kids these days aren’t standing around in the cold; they’re lawyering up.

I’m talking about the youth all over the world who are suing their governments for policies that contribute to climate change. Some of these litigants are literal children.

There’s a seven year old in Pakistan.

A nine year old in India.

A group called Nature and Youth in Norway.

And a group of 25 children and young people won their court case in Colombia!.

On October 29th, 2018, the “Trial of the Century” is starting in the United States.  Twenty-one Americans ranging in age from eleven to twenty-two have filed that their government’s actions that cause climate change have violated the youngest generation’s constitutional rights to life, liberty, and property, as well as failed to protect essential public trust resources.

If it can happen south of the border, it can happen up here in Canada. The American kids are represented by lawyers from the legal non-profit organization Our Children’s Trust, who are partnering with other attorneys and youth around the world to file more lawsuits – and they have a page with our name on it.

I’m currently raising a kid of my own, and he’s already doing ground-level advocacy work in his kindergarten – though it’s a necessity, not a choice. He has to explain to his classmates that it’s possible to have two women as parents, because that’s what he has. He has to explain that some people use they/them pronouns, because those are people in his life.

And if he ever wants to sue the government over fossil fuels, he has my full support.


Dorianne Emmerton grew up in the woods on the North Channel of Lake Huron and currently lives in the metropolis of Toronto. She loves both of those environments, but wishes the drive between them didn’t take so long. She has recent publications in the Ink Stains Anthology; Friend. Follow. Text #storiesFromLivingOnline; and Issue #1 of Beer And Butter Tarts, as well as a personal essay in A Family By Any Other Name: Exploring Queer Relationships. She is currently working on a space opera novella in collaboration with Ottawa band
Saturnfly, and a novel about occult magic in Northern Ontario. She has a wonderful chosen family, an adorable son, and a black cat.


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Bright Spot — Jerri Jerreat

When Brian Hades and I were discussing themes for Nevertheless (Tesseracts Twenty-one) one of the possibilities he suggested was optimistic speculative fiction. I pounced on that idea for two reasons. First, because I’d just recently become aware of solarpunk (largely through Sarena Ulibarri) and was excited to work on an anthology that might include some and second because I’d become convinced that we were living in the darkest timeline.

That was in 2016. I had no idea how much darker it could become.

Still, despite a very difficult couple of years, I manage to find reasons for optimism. Lights in the darkness. And I’m not alone in that.

In the coming weeks I will be hosting a series of blog posts I’m calling “Bright Spots in the Darkest Timeline”. Each will be written by a Nevertheless (Tesseracts Twenty-one) contributor and I think they will serve the dual purpose of giving me an excuse to talk about the anthology, and shining a bit of light into people’s lives.

Today we continue with this contribution from Jerri Jerreat how she stays optimistic.

 

Why I’m Still Optimistic

By Jerri Jerreat

I think a writer needs to be drenched in the real world, not holed up in a garret or mansion, separate from life swirling around. I am terribly curious, nosy, my sister says, about everyone. I enjoy chatting with the person beside me on the bus or plane, the waitress, the logger, the cashier. These small connections give me hope. I’ve learned that ordinary people are resourceful and hopeful. They’re all trying to create good lives, make wise choices. They are capable of learning new ways.

I support a variety of kick-ass charities, including Ecojustice, Greenpeace, environmentaldefense.ca, Friends of Clayoquot Sound, Help Lesotho, Women for Women International, etc. They are each accomplishing amazing things. I sign petitions, walk in marches. Martin Luther King taught us.

As well, I teach a classroom full of students under the age of 13. They have anxieties. My 9 year olds came to school in a panic after Trump was elected and I had to soothe them, explain that that was not our country. We were safe. But are we? We have to fight for our safety, our Human Rights and our right to clean air, water and land. Throughout the year, in class, we read newspaper articles together that inspire us all with hope. There were those kids in Yellowknife who wanted to be a sledge hockey team to play with their friend with cerebral palsy; the clever off-grid tiny houses built by the Secwepemc people to protect their alpine meadows; shaggy haired Boyan Slat, with an invention to use the ocean currents to remove plastic; and the Malawain lad, William Kamkwamba, who built a wind turbine out of scrap metal bits and an old textbook. I read them the book, “And Tango Makes Three”, to which one lad responded, “Well why can’t penguins be gay? People can be!” We heard Malan, a local teen, recently a refugee from Syria, chat to us about her life, and we played with her baby sister. My class ate a gorgeous lunch with Muslim Canadian families.

People are creative! We can unlearn prejudices. We can learn to repair our excesses. We can rein in those negative leaders, and work to halt the world’s warming.

I am optimistic, but I am also a fighter.


Jerri Jerreat’s fiction has appeared in The New Quarterly, The Dalhousie Review, The Antigonish Review, Fireweed, Canadian Storyteller Magazine, and won a Room fiction competition. She has a Masters degree in Creative Writing from the University of British Columbia and has taught a variety of writing courses at St. Lawrence College, in Kingston, Ontario. She now teaches younger students, and each year, mentors a class to create a play together, then directs it. She read A Wrinkle in Time and other fine books aloud to her own kids, Tanner, Adan and Haven, walking them to school, and is proud to say she can still walk and read at the same time. When her family canoe trips somewhere like Algonquin Park, they all stuff massive books secretly into their packs.


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Bright Spots — Natalia Yanchak

When Brian Hades and I were discussing themes for Nevertheless (Tesseracts Twenty-one) one of the possibilities he suggested was optimistic speculative fiction. I pounced on that idea for two reasons. First, because I’d just recently become aware of solarpunk (largely through Sarena Ulibarri) and was excited to work on an anthology that might include some and second… because I’d become convinced that we were living in the darkest timeline. That was in 2016. I had no idea how much darker it could become.

Still, despite a very difficult couple of years, I manage to find reasons for optimism. Lights in the darkness. And I’m not alone in that.

In the coming weeks I will be hosting a series of blog posts I’m calling “Bright Spots in the Darkest Timeline”. Each will be written by a Nevertheless (Tesseracts Twenty-one) contributor and I think they will serve the dual purpose of giving me an excuse to talk about the anthology, and shining a bit of light into people’s lives.

Today we begin with this contribution from Natalia Yanchak about shifting how we think and approach things.

 

How to Repurpose a Diss

By Natalia Yanchak

I’ve been mostly self-employed throughout my life, so taking a part-time job was a big change. The decision set my work-life balance askew — or, I considered, the regular pay cheque might recalibrate my life-life balance. Not to say my decades-spanning career in rock and roll wasn’t work, it just never really felt as such.

Now I’ve committed to going in to an office, and managing said office, several times a week. I ride public transit with commuters and have to run errands on the weekend—along with the crowds and everyone else. I promised myself this would be temporary. My band would be making another album and have to tour again in a few years. But for now, I can be normal-core.

At risk of sounding like clickbait, you won’t believe what happened next! The show that was coming to the gallery (did I mention the office was situated in a non-profit art gallery in Tiohtià:ke/Montreal?) would put my optimism to the test.

Part of my new job is being available to visitors of the space. I have to greet them and be able to answer their questions about what is being displayed or presented. This generally requires learning about the work via a walkthrough with artists and curators, or a group reading. In the case of nènè myriam konaté’s curatorial residency “yes, and… also”, gallery employees were invited to a closed reading and discussion of Naomi Klein’s Leap Manifesto — a call to action for economic restructuring and basic equalities for all Canadians.

Part of nènè’s residency included a challenge to only converse in positive terms. Their residency was partially an experiment on how to effect positive change. How intersectionality and improvisation can lead to radical openness, requesting that we “stand firmly in our yes’s + that we ask ourselves why.”

When chatting in the space, nènè would kindly reminded me to reword negative language. It was harder to “stand firmly in my yes’s” than I thought. When wanting to challenge a point in our group reading of the Leap Manifesto, I would begin to speak, then pause and reflect: “How do I criticise with something in a positive way?”

It is doable, but requires forethought. To be positive and optimistic we must defy our innate training towards cynicism. We lean too much on our competitiveness. We puff ourselves up by denigrating others, where this exercise curated by nènè planted the seed that it was possible to speak positively about, say, even the hugest asshole. Those negative thoughts only help to cast an outward, negative vibe.

The inspiration behind my story, “Lt. Andrewicz Goes Apple Picking” is simple: as I waited to pick up my son from daycare, I looked over the photos from a recent field trip to an apple orchard. I couldn’t spot my boy in any of the shots, but I knew he was there: he came home with a sack of apples that day! So where was he? Enter my imagination.

Enter, also, the concept of parenthood, enter the primal bond one develops with their children. Enter the terror of thinking that one day your child might not need you. Then the doubt: Have I done my best? Have I given them the emotional and critical tools they might need to handle whatever life throws at them?

This is where positive vibes come in handy, where the simple task of equipping the people around you — young and old — with a sense of purpose effects positive change. Take pause to work out how that would sound. Come up with something inspiring about someone, even if it’s behind their back, even if you never tell them.

Could you imagine, a day without sending or receiving a single microaggression? Try it for an afternoon. Judge and disagree in solely positive terms: express what would you like to see, instead of ranting about what you didn’t like. Reframe that negative idea, repurpose that diss, and manifest the future, the yes’s, that you want.

 


 

Natalia attended Concordia University’s Creative Writing program. After graduation, she toured  internationally as keyboardist and singer with The Dears. She writes speculative fiction in Tiohtià:ke/Montreal, where she lives with her husband and two children.

 

nataliayanchak.com

twitter.com/nataliayanchak

instagram.com/nataliayanchak

facebook.com/natalia.scifi

 

Author photo credit: Richmond Lam

 


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