Saturday Storytime: The Star Maiden

io9 is helpfully making sure we don’t miss great stories from the last few months. There are plenty of good ones to choose from, but as I’m a sucker for good riffs on fairy tales and folks tales, this story from Roshani Chokshi particularly grabbed me.

I already knew what she would say. To anyone who would listen, she would tell them the tale of how she had floated down from the heavens to a secluded forest pool and how, there, my grandfather had fallen in love, captured her, and wedded her shortly thereafter.

“Your Lolo stole my dress when I was bathing,” she said matter-of-factly. “I could never fly back home. Without her dress, it is the star maiden’s curse to live out a mortal life.”

She crooned a little song before looking at my grandfather’s picture on the wall. “Salbahe,” she said, scolding the picture affectionately. “Your grandfather was very mischievous.”

When I was younger, I believed everything she said. I believed that a tikbalang slunk through coastal shantytowns, its ghost hooves crusted with sea-salt, its body twitching and hungry for virgins. I believed that a shadow in a tree meant a wakwak was preening and that its smooth-skinned witch familiar was nearby. I believed my Lola was a star-maiden who once wore a constellation in her hair and yearned to press her feet in the warm loam of the Philippines. Later, my parents would tell me that Lola had lived through the war and had lost everyone. If she chose to mask slain family members with a myth, then that was her business.

At the time, however, the one thing I couldn’t believe about my grandmother was why she stayed on Earth.

“He stole from you! Why did you stay?”

Lola shrugged. “I do not know. Perhaps I was curious. I was a foreigner, after all. The first day he saw me, he gave me a mango. I had never had a mango…it was masarap. Like eating a sun. He was a good man. And he had the most beautiful singing voice.”

Later, I would discover that things less powerful than sweet mangoes and lovely voices could grasp your heart. But at the time, I was quietly outraged. How could my grandmother—who knew a thousand ways to lull someone to sleep, who knew that the moon wore a coronet of solar flares, who knew what a star looked liked without its husk—fall for a song? Then again, perhaps I could understand. I remembered Lolo’s voice. He sang to me once when I was eight and had fallen off a bike. My head against his chest, his voice—exquisite and velvety—wrapped around us like gauze, soothing my bruised knee and scuffed elbow until I was bobbing my head with the rhythm, garbling the lyrics and trying to sing with him.

“Did you ever find it?” I pressed. “The dress?”

“Oh yes,” she said with a nonchalant wave of her hand. “He was so messy. He could not find his own nose without my help.”

“But you stayed.”

“I loved him. I still do. Mahal ko siya.”

“But he cursed you by taking your dress,” I pointed out.

“Oh anak, that is not the curse,” she said, taking my hand in hers. “The curse is to love, to be loved in return, and still have to leave.”

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Saturday Storytime: Cold Wind

It is a glorious time right now to enjoy F&SF short fiction. It is also a slightly overwhelming time, with so much out there to choose from. So it’s nice when short lists come along and help you make sure you haven’t missed stories you would enjoy, like this one from Nicola Griffith.

She came toward me, stepping around the spilt beer and dropped fries, lifting her feet high, placing them carefully, as though she wore tall heels.

I watched, unable—unwilling—to move.

And then she stood before me. I could smell her—woodland, fern, musk—and I wanted to reach, fold her down, stretch her out on the bracken, and feel the pulse flutter at her neck.

“You were watching me,” she said, and her voice sounded hoarse, as though used to a bigger throat.

“I’m . . . an anthropologist. It’s what we do.” I’ve been looking for you for a long time. I didn’t think you existed.

“What’s your name?”

I thought about that. “Onca.”

She nodded; it meant nothing to her. Her eyes were so dark. She turned up her collar. “I’ll see you, Onca. Soon, I hope.” A cold stream purled through her voice and snow blew across her eyes. Come outside, under the sky with me, they said.

I nodded. We both knew I would: she called, others followed. It’s who she was.

And then she was gone. I didn’t look out of the window. If the stories were true in this way too, I wouldn’t be able to see her, not yet.


I found her victim in the bathroom, the blind spot with no cameras. She wasn’t dead. She sat propped on the seat in a stall, jeans around her knees, head against the wall. She grinned at me foolishly. “Can’t move,” she said.

I locked the stall behind me. “Does it hurt?”


It would. I smelled blood, just a little. I bent, looked at her shirt darkening between her breasts. “Can you draw a deep breath?”

She tried. In reality it was more of a sigh. But she didn’t flinch or cough. No broken ribs.

I squatted in front of her, elbows on knees, hands dangling comfortably. She just kept smiling, head at that odd angle against the wall. In that position she couldn’t see me. I stood, straightened her head, then, because it was distracting, I leaned her on my shoulder, lifted, and pulled up her jeans. She could fasten them herself later, or not.

I squatted again, regarded her. She was still smiling, but it was a faint echo of what it had been. No longer solid. After this not much would be. “There’s a legend,” I said. “More than a dozen legends, from all over the world.” La Llorona. Or Flura. Xana, Iara, Naag Kanya . . . “She lures people with sex. Some say she takes your heart.” Sometimes literally. “But she always takes something.” I considered her. “She’s taken your spirit.”

“My . . .”

I waited, but she didn’t say any more. “Your soul.” As good a word as any. “You’re tired, I should think.”

Her smile faded, like a guttering flame. She might survive. She would never feel alive again.

I wasn’t sure she could hear me anymore. I leaned forward, unbuttoned her shirt. The bruise was swelling too quickly to be sure, but the shape cut into the broken skin—lovely skin, over firm muscle—could have been from a blow by a hoof.

“What’s your name?”

“Maria José Flores.”

“Maria, you make me hungry.” And she would have, with her spirit intact. “But not like this.” I fastened her back up and stood. Time to go.

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Saturday Storytime: The World in Evening

Strange Horizons is now running its annual fund drive. And if you want to know why they’re worth supporting, you could do worse than this delicious little creeper from Jei D. Marcade.

For a while there was only the sawing of steel through bone, the rasp of Rook’s own breath echoing in his mask. Then he heard a low growl behind him. He dropped the hunk of meat he was working on and pivoted machete-first, unfolding his lanky frame from the pool of deeper shadow at the base of the auto shop wall.

“Farrago, hush,” Mouse said softly, a warning. Beside her, its head reaching well above her waist, crouched a hulking, chimeric thing with mismatched eyes, the only feature that remained of the daylit stray.

Its nostrils flared, and Rook wondered idly if it recognized what remained of Harley’s scent—if it recalled his comment about stuffing household pets.

“Friend of yours?” Rook said.

“Sometimes.” Mouse curled her fingers in the creature’s thick ruff when it released a rattling, staccato bark. “Hush, it’s okay.” Her hood was down, and Rook saw her hair for the first time, chopped short and ragged as though with a pair of safety scissors. A cord led from her backpack to the headset hanging around her neck, a muffled voice hissing urgently from the speakers. Rook thought he heard his name. Mouse adjusted a dial on the cord to silence the noise.

Rook swayed and smiled when Mouse tracked the movement, her eyes clear and sharp and trained on the lens of his mask, her hand plunged into the pocket of her sweatshirt. Gone was the heaviness from her limbs, the gloss of disinterest scrubbed from her face, as though the night had carved a new Mouse from her daylit torpor with the razor of the moon.

“I know you,” she said. It was almost a challenge. “You live across the street from us. You’re Harley.”

“Sometimes.” Rook stepped onto the sidewalk, a fat dark drop rolling off the serrated edge of his blade and splashing onto the pavement; it sounded loudly in the empty street as though in a tunnel. “Just not at night.” He hadn’t meant to take that step, but he did not try to reclaim it.

The beast planted itself between the girl and Rook, a snarl trickling through bared teeth as it flashed incisors the length of Rook’s thumb. Mouse seized two of its curling horns and tugged.

“Farrago,” she said again, louder. “Leave it. Come on.”

Head a-tilt, Rook lowered his machete, holding it partially out of sight behind his leg. “Little Mouse, little Mouse,” he sing-songed, “won’t you come out and play?”

“I will not,” she said firmly, staring hard into his lens. “Not with you. Not tonight.”

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Saturday Storytime: Loving Grace

Oh, do we have messed-up ideas about work. Erica Satifka shows us exactly how messed up some of them are.

“The bird wasn’t unhappy to be owned. She knew that her shining eggs, though worthless to her, brought great joy to the prince of the kingdom. The bird’s power made her unusual, she knew, and she was quite willing to forego the garden outside the barred window of her cage to bring delight to the prince and his kingdom. All was well for many years.”

The storyteller takes a swig of water from the mason jar at his side. He smacks his lips.

“Then came a day when the prince brought in the royal scientists to study the bird. They made copies of her DNA and inserted them into other birds. The bird that laid golden eggs was no larger than a wren, you see, and even ten of her eggs could make only one small crown, even when melted down. They started with a chicken, then an eagle, then finally worked their way up to an ostrich. For a while, the little bird was even happier! She was no longer alone, and though the aviary was now crowded with many different species of gold-laying birds, not all of whom got along, her life was much less dull than it was before. She was so grateful to the prince.”

Chase makes eye contact with a young woman illuminated by the soft moonlight. Her jacket is shredded on one side and her hair is lank and dirty, but she smiles at him warmly. He smiles back.

“For a few years,” the storyteller says, “things remained as they were. The little bird, and all the other gold-laying birds, got along as well as they could. The eagle still sometimes pestered the little bird, but even the eagle knew that they all had a job to do. Then, one day, the royal scientists unveiled their greatest creation ever! They handed a jewel-encrusted box to the prince.

“ ‘What is this contraption?’ said the prince.

“ ‘It’s a replicator, a grand replicator. With this box, you can produce all the gold you could ever want. You don’t need the birds anymore. You can set them free.’

“The prince paused. He looked at the aviary. The birds had never known life outside their cage. Could they be trusted to be free? Would they even want that? He thought for seven days and seven nights, as the grand replicator passed out brick after brick of solid gold, forged from nothing at all.”

Chase inches closer to the woman, drawn like a magnet to her, though he doesn’t know why. His breath catches in his throat. On a night like this he feels so lonely he can’t even think straight.

“At the end of a week of intense deliberation, the prince threw the key to the birdcage from the top of the tallest tower in the kingdom. There was no need to tell the birds about the grand replicator. They were only birds, after all.”

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Saturday Storytime: The Oiran’s Song

This story from Isabel Yap comes with a trigger warning, as well it should. It is a vivid story set in the midst of many kinds of trauma. It simultaneously is as cold as the winter in which it is set and burns with a yearning as hot as the blood that is spilled.

The first few days, she does not run out of questions. She never helps with your tasks, but often comes along. When you ask her why, she replies, “I’m bored.” But no sex before dinner, or so the unspoken rule goes. She keeps up with her practice, and plays splendidly every night, so they let her do as she pleases. In many ways this matches the idleness of Yoshiwara before evening. But there are no warm baths and no parades here, no other girls for her to pinch or tease. She sits and watches you, tossing and catching her bachi or plucking her shamisen, while you walk through the forest gathering wood, or beat the soldiers’ bedsheets out in the snow, or polish their guns and swords.

The soldiers scout for the enemy, await orders from the military, loudly argue about whether to trust the French. You know that the purpose of your unit is to be light, quick, trained with foreign weapons. Eight in a unit, stealth and speed as shields. You have seen the men do their work. You have tried to do the same.

But you are clumsy with the sword, and although you are now a decent shot, holding a gun still makes you anxious. You might fire more accurately if they did not snicker every time you tried. A year ago, Kazushige was appointed your trainer by Taichou—they didn’t expect you to become one of them, but an extra set of hands and eyes was welcome.

Kazushige is one of the few who has never touched you. He still laughs at your mistakes and hesitation, still hits if you do something wrong, but when he moves your arms to position the rifle, he never grips you too hard. Sometimes you even think you like him.

The idea of liking anything is strange. Unreal. You remember Tamakoto; you remember Kaoru. As memories held apart to be revered, wondered at, they make sense; anything closer and your mind shuts off. The oiran’s shamisen makes an awful twang, and you return to the task at hand: checking that the traps set to capture wolves are still in place.

“No wolves are going to come, anyway,” the oiran says.

“How do you know?”

“Because of the oni,” she answers.

It is well known that the women of the floating world delight in storytelling. They spend years honing this skill.

“Like in the rumors? Those are lies.”

“No, they’re not,” she says. “I’ve seen one.” You glance at her, but she doesn’t meet your eyes. She strikes her shamisen, then grins so that you know she is teasing. “It frightened the hell out of me.”

You keep your mouth closed, though really you are thinking: you frighten me, and I don’t know why. Then you realize: it’s because I want to protect you, and I don’t think I can.

The trap is empty, as it has been the last several days.

“The wolves aren’t coming,” she repeats.

Someone shouts for you to start getting dinner ready. As the two of you trudge back through the snow, you think: the wolves aren’t coming; they’re already here.

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Also, if you like the story, consider doing as Yap asks and funding the Uncanny Magazine Kickstarter. As she notes, the publication of this story was possible because Uncanny reached all their stretch goals for their first year. They have only a few more days to reach the same level for their second year. If you want an additional incentive, I am offering two backer rewards.

Saturday Storytime: A Kiss with Teeth

This story by Max Gladstone was not on the Hugo Award ballot this year. It would have been*, but the puppies’ slates pushed it off. This is yet one more reason I am angry with the puppies.

The teacher waits, beautiful, blonde, and young. She smells like bruised mint and camellias. She rests against her classroom door, tired—she wakes at four-fifteen every morning to catch a bus from Queens, so she can sit at her desk grading papers as the sun rises through steel canyons.

When he sees her, Vlad knows he should turn and leave. No good can come of this meeting. They are doomed, both of them.

Too late. He’s walked the halls with steps heavy as a human’s, squeaking the soles of his oxblood shoes against the tiles every few steps—a trick he learned a year back and thinks lends him an authentic air. The teacher looks up and sees him: black-haired and pale and too, too thin, wearing blue slacks and a white shirt with faint blue checks.

“You’re Paul’s father,” she says, and smiles, damn her round white teeth. “Mister St. John.”

“Bazarab,” he corrects, paying close attention to his steps. Slow, as if walking through ankle-deep mud.

She turns to open the door, but stops with her hand on the knob. “I’m sorry?”

“Paul has his mother’s last name. Bazarab is mine. It is strange in this country. Please call me Vlad.” The nasal American ‘a,’ too, he has practiced.

“Nice to meet you, Vlad. I’m so glad you could take this time for me, and for Paul.” She turns back to smile at him, and starts. Her pupils dilate a millimeter, and her heart rate spikes from a charming sixty-five beats per minute to seventy-four. Blood rises beneath the snow of her cheeks.

He stands a respectful three feet behind her. But cursing himself he realizes that seconds before he was halfway down the hall.

He smiles, covering his frustration, and ushers her ahead of him into the room. Her heart slows, her breath deepens: the mouse convincing itself that it mistook the tree’s shadow for a hawk’s. He could not have moved so fast, so silently. She must have heard his approach, and ignored it.

The room’s sparsely furnished. No posters on the walls. Row upon row of desks, forty children at least could study here. Blackboard, two days unwashed, a list of students’ names followed by checks in multicolored chalk. This, he likes: many schools no longer use slate.

She sits on a desk, facing him. Her legs swing.

“You have a large room.”

She laughs. “Not mine. We share the rooms.” Her smile is sad. “Anyway. I’m glad to see you here. Why did you call?”

“My son. My wife asked me to talk with you about him. He has trouble in school, I think. I know he is a bright boy. His mother, my wife, she wonders why his grades are not so good. I think he is a child, he will improve with time, but I do not know. So I come to ask you.”

“How can I help?”

Vlad shifts from foot to foot. Outside the night deepens. Streetlights buzz on. The room smells of dust and sweat and camellias and mint. The teacher’s eyes are large and gray. She folds her lips into her mouth, bites them, and unfolds them again. Lines are growing from the corners of her mouth to the corners of her nose—the first signs of age. They surface at twenty-five or so. Vlad has studied them. He looks away from her. To see her is to know her pulse.

“What is he like in class, my son?”

“He’s sweet. But he distracts easily. Sometimes he has trouble remembering a passage we’ve read a half hour after we’ve read it. In class he fidgets, and he often doesn’t turn in his homework.”

“I have seen him do the homework.”

“Of course. I’m sorry. I’m not saying that he doesn’t do it. He doesn’t turn it in, though.”

“Perhaps he is bored by your class.” Her brow furrows, and he would kill men to clear it. “I do not mean that the class is easy. I know you have a difficult job. But perhaps he needs more attention.”

“I wish I could give it to him. But any attention I give him comes from the other children in the class. We have forty. I don’t have a lot of attention left to go around.”

“I see.” He paces more. Good to let her see him move like a human being. Good to avert his eyes.

“Have you thought about testing him for ADHD? It’s a common condition.”

What kind of testing? And what would the testing of his son reveal? “Could I help somehow? Review his work with him?”

She stands. “That’s a great idea.” The alto weight has left her voice, excitement returning after a day of weeks. “If you have time, I mean. I know it would help. He looks up to you.”

Vlad laughs. Does his son admire the man, or the illusion? Or the monster, whom he has never seen? “I do not think so. But I will help if I can.”

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*There’s a possibility that without any of the voters who nominated works on the puppy slates, this story would have fallen below the threshold of 5% of total nominations required to be placed on the ballot, but it’s hard to say, as even slate voters don’t appear to have been uniform in their nominations.

Saturday Storytime: Catcall

All I can really say about this story from Delilah S. Dawson without spoiling it is, “Enjoy the punch in the gut.”

I was doing my homework at the dining room table last night, and my dad came in from cutting the grass. I knew he’d been drinking, because he was always drinking when he was in the yard. But he was drunker than usual, and I didn’t know that until his fist slammed into the table just a few inches away from my Calculus book.

“Why do you dress so weird?” he said in a haze of moldy wheat breath.

“Because I like it,” I answered. I moved the book over, sighed, and tapped my pencil against the table. “Do you mind?”

“Hell, yeah, I mind. You look like a lesbian. Short hair and baggy shirts and army boots. Is that what you are?”

I bit my lip and forgot everything I knew about numerals. My dad hadn’t talked to me much since I’d gone through puberty, and I’d just gotten accustomed to being ignored most of the time and staying out of his way when he noticed me. I wasn’t ready to have this conversation, but his other fist landed on the other side of my book, and I could feel his sweaty shirt against my back. My mom wouldn’t be home from work for another hour, and there was nowhere else to go, nowhere at all.

I took a deep breath.

“Yeah, maybe I am gay. Is that a problem for you?”

I didn’t know if it was a lie or a truth or a half–truth, but does it matter?

He shoved my face down into the math book, the paper cold against my cheek. “No, you’re not.”

I exhaled, my hands in fists. “Make up your mind, dad.”

He growled and pressed harder, and I closed my eyes and wished that he would quit, that he would just explode, that he would catch fire and scream and go away forever with his stupid face and bad breath and bigotry.

Something popped overhead.

“What the hell?” He released me and backed away, staring at the dining room chandelier. All four bulbs had exploded, and tiny bits of hot glass covered the table, my book, the arms of my sweatshirt. His bloodshot eyes jerked back and forth from me to the chandelier. His hands were covered in glass, red with tiny cuts and burns.

“Did you do that?”

I smiled, or maybe sneered. “Yeah, maybe I did. Is that a problem?”

“You didn’t. You can’t.”

I didn’t blink, didn’t waver.

“Make up your mind, dad,” I said.

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Saturday Storytime: The Totally Secret Origin of Foxman: Excerpts from an EPIC Autobiography

My friend Kelly McCullough just launched his new book, School for Sidekicks, this week. (No, literally, he launched it.) It’s his first middle-grade book after a history of writing for adults, and it’s getting ridiculously good reviews. This story is set in the same universe, though the protagonist and the intended audience are both older.

The railway provided us with a little slice of urban wilderness mostly cut off from the city around it. We could sit on the brush-covered slopes out of sight of anyone official and do the sorts of things that teenage boys playing hooky have always done. There were bums around, sure, but we had something of a truce with the regulars. Besides, we were fifteen and sixteen—you know, invulnerable.

But tonight was different. Tonight we were going to test my rocket board. It was December fifteenth, around six p.m.—solidly dark and into rush hour. There’d been some real snow finally, which made the pavement into a death trap for a skateboard going a reasonable speed. Add in the rocket . . . yeah. Not going to happen. Not inside the warehouse either. I’d already had plenty of warning about the dangers of mixing rocket fuel and interior spaces.

That’s how I’d settled on the railway. Not only was it clear of snow, but it was a perfect straightaway. I’d had to rig up a custom wheel set and a magnetic lock, but now the only way off that rail involved me hitting the toe release. That meant I didn’t need to worry about turns or bumps or anything but staying on the board. Perfect!

Michael shook his head as I locked the board onto the rail. “I don’t know, Rand. Don’t you think this is kind of dangerous? Maybe an unmanned test first . . .”

“Don’t worry. I’ve already tested the thrust on the rocket seventeen ways from Sunday. It’ll barely get me up to fifteen miles an hour before it tops out. A bike goes way faster than that. If anything goes wrong I can jump clear easy. It’ll be fine.”

“What about the bridge?”

“That’s nearly a mile away. I don’t even have enough fuel to make it that far. I’m going to go half a mile on rocket assist, max. I’ll coast to a stop well short of the bridge. I’ve done all the math more times than I’d care to count.”

I was more nervous than that, but hell if I’d admit it to Michael. I did check the straps on my helmet and various pads one more time. I know I didn’t mention them in the script version of this scene, but that’s the movies, man. Safety gear isn’t cinematic. I stepped up onto the board.

“Wish me luck.”

“Good luck, crazy man!”

I poised the toe of my sneaker above the rocket engage, and . . .

The world vanished with an intense purple flash like the world’s biggest black-light strobe firing off. For one brief instant I could see Michael’s skeleton like a green framework within the translucent purple outline of his body—oddly, nothing else seemed to go translucent. But I barely registered that over a sensation that felt like someone pumping every cell in my body full of hydrogen and lighting it on fire.


The sound of the Hero Bomb hit like summer lightning taking out the tree I was leaning on. If not for the sheltering banks of the railway, I think it might have knocked me off the board. Is it any wonder I accidentally stomped on the rocket ignition?

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Saturday Storytime: The Shape of My Name

Time travel stories are hard to do well. They’re even harder when they don’t hide where they’re going, when the map of time is laid out on the table so the story is all about the travel. This story by Nino Cipri manages that and more. Thank you to all the readers at Lady Business who recommended it.

I had two childhoods.

One happened between Dad’s ten-day hitches in the White County oil fields. That childhood smells like his tobacco, wool coats, wet grass. It sounds like the opening theme songs to all our favorite TV shows. It tastes like the peanut-butter sandwiches that you’d pack for us on our walks, which we’d eat down by the pond, the same one I can just barely see from my window here. In the summer, we’d sit at the edge of the water, dipping our toes into the mud. Sometimes, Dad told me stories, or asked me to fill him in on the episodes of Gunsmoke and Science Fiction Theatre he’d missed, and we’d chat while watching for birds. The herons have always been my favorite. They moved so slow, it always felt like a treat to spot one as it stepped cautiously through the shallow water. Sometimes, we’d catch sight of one flying overhead, its wide wings fighting against gravity.

And then there was the childhood with you, and with Dara, the childhood that happened when Dad was away. I remember the first morning I came downstairs and she was eating pancakes off of your fancy china, the plates that were decorated with delicate paintings of evening primrose.

“Hi there. I’m Dara,” she said.

When I looked at you, shy and unsure, you told me, “She’s a cousin. She’ll be dropping in when your father is working. Just to keep us company.”

Dara didn’t really look much like you, I thought; not the way that Dad’s cousins and uncles all resembled one another. But I could see a few similarities between the two of you; hazel eyes, long fingers, and something I didn’t have the words to describe for a long time: a certain discomfort, the sense that you held yourselves slightly apart from the rest of us. It had made you a figure of gossip in town, though I didn’t know that until high school, when the same was said of me.

“What should I call you?” Dara asked me.

You jumped in and told her to call me by my name, the one you’d chosen for me, after the week of indecision following my birth. How can I ever make you understand how much I disliked that name? It felt like it belonged to a sister whom I was constantly being compared to, whose legacy I could never fulfill or surpass or even forget. Dara must have caught the face that I made, because later, when you were out in the garden, she asked me, “Do you have another name? That you want me to call you instead?”

When I shrugged, she said, “It doesn’t have to be a forever name. Just one for the day. You can pick a new one tomorrow, if you like. You can introduce yourself differently every time you see me.”

And so every morning when I woke up and saw Dara sitting at the table, I gave her a different name: Doc, Buck, George, Charlie. Names that my heroes had, from television and comics and the matinees in town. They weren’t my name, but they were better than the one I had. I liked the way they sounded, the shape of them rolling around my mouth.

You just looked on, lips pursed in a frown, and told Dara you wished she’d quit indulging my silly little games.

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Saturday Storytime: When Your Child Strays From God

Sometimes a bad review will lead you to a story you’ll like. In the case of this story from Sam J. Miller, it was the reviewer’s distaste for the name “Carolina Bugtuttle”. Combine that with the religious themes, and I knew that the protagonist inhabited a world that would be at home in an alternate Green Gables universe. And though the comparison feels very strange given the trappings of the story, I was right.

Understand: Timmy was not a bad boy. There was a sweet curious creative little nugget inside that lanky angular body he’d metamorphosed into. Love and kindness, buried under all the hate and anger. He acted like everyone in the world hated him, and preemptively acted to hate them harder. Every single day, it seemed, he made my husband so mad he spit nails.

This, of course, was my fault. Everything a child does is his mother’s fault.

We venture now into territory that could potentially be the subject of another e-bulletin: Confronting the Whore Your Son Is Dating. I have lots to say on the subject, not all of it germane to the subject at hand, although my husband Pastor Jerome would say that’s never stopped me before, since The Deacon’s Wife routinely goes On and On about Unnecessary Details No One Cares About, but I say what the heck. That’s what the internet is for.

A brachiosaurus raced me most of the way to Susan’s house, every heavy footfall shaking my teeth, some of them an arm’s length from my soccer-mom SUV, and I wondered what would happen if one of them came down squarely on top of it.

Webslingers have a lot of theories about the things they see in the webworld, none of it backed up by science but all of it rooted strongly in This Happened To a Friend of a Friend of Mine. Some visions were real things, transformed, like how Marge became Pug-Marge. The brachiosaurus could have been a tractor, or a bug. Some visions were total figments of the imagination—though whose imagination exactly, and what they meant, was the subject of endless webhead debate. Some slingers said the visions couldn’t hurt you—So and So got stabbed like a dozen times by Bettie Crocker and that teapot from Beauty and the Beast one time and she bled until she passed out and when she woke up she was stone cold sober and unharmed—and some said web-world wounds would follow you, Freddie-Kruger-style, into the real world. Drugs are maddeningly resistant to methodical study, or even rational scrutiny.

To be honest, though, all the dinosaurs were a good sign. Timmy used to love dinosaurs. When he was little. The fact that his webworld was packed full of them meant maybe he was in a peaceful happy childlike state of mind.

I passed a skate park. Teenagers moved through the little hills and curves, on rollerblades and skateboards, enjoying the sudden snap of early-spring warmth. What did it mean, I wondered, that every one of them had a horse head? That they were dumb animals, or that they were strong and noble? Being on drugs was a lot of work. I’d only been under for a half hour and already I was exhausted.

You may imagine, fellow congregant, that risking death or imprisonment by venturing out into the world Under the Influence was the most frightening part of my ordeal. Not so! For I realized, as the horses watched me pass with hostile looks on their faces, that the law and bodily harm were the least of my worries. The real terror came from two warring forces that threatened to crack me open. The first was love: that tether that tied me down, a choking liquid swamp I floundered in, thick and warm as phlegm, floodwaters that had started rising the second I took a hit of webbing, the only thing I couldn’t vanquish with a Good Attitude. Love for Timmy, helpless maternal love that overpowered my anger at everything he’d put us through.

The second was fear.

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