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.

Keep reading.

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.”

Keep reading.

*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.

KRAKOOOOM!

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?

Keep reading.

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.

Keep reading.

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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Saturday Storytime: Midnight Hour

I usually try to find a new writer for these stories each week. It’s easy to do. F&SF has no shortage of talented short story writers at the moment. Quite the opposite in fact. So it tells you something about how this story from Mary Robinette Kowal hit me that I know it’s not going to leave me alone until I share it, even though I’ve shared another of her stories before.

The Nameless Queen sipped her port, rolling the blood–dark liquid in her mouth. The night’s rain pattered against the tall leaded glass windows of her sitting room in a gentle susurration. On the mantel, the clock ticked four minutes until midnight.

The door burst open, bouncing against the paneled wall. “… must be planted in winter so that they can grow snow. You see? Grow snow. It is so delightfully simple that I am not certain why no one has thought of it. Grow snow! Then we shall have relief in the heat of the summer.” Her husband strode into the room with his hands tucked behind his back and his brow knit in concentration. Beneath his dark green robe, King Lennart of Stromhold’s broad shoulders presented the picture of a man of action, so long as one did not listen to the irrationality of his words. “Who is next, well? We have not got all day. Unless we stop the clocks, then we would of course, but meals would never come and one should get frightfully hungry. Yes? Who is next?”

One of the ministers who trailed him leaped forward. “What should we do about the ambassador from Itodia? Prince Volis has brought favorable trade terms for the everwood but wants to meet with you directly. We have not given the details of your situation, of course, but he has heard the rumors.”

The queen drew her feet up into the chair and pressed into the high winged back, praying that the king would not notice her until the clock struck twelve.

He tugged at his sandy beard. “Bugger him. Bugger, bugger, bugger. We shall not sell him any everwood at all. Shall we? No. Sell him the wood from the snow trees and then his ships shall freeze and they can skate upon the seas. That will be enough advantage. Who is next? Well? Who is next?”

She closed her eyes. It was bad enough to be with him when his hour of lucidity ended, but she rarely had to face his full raving energy.  Another minister slid into place. “We have narrowed the architectural candidates to three and I have their portfolios for you to look at. The first is the one I recommend.”

“Let us see, let us see—” Pages rustled, and then fluttered to the floor. “No, no. There are no ponies here. I distinctly asked for ponies. How shall we have the miniature jousts if there are no—” His voice caught on the word.

Lennart coughed, gagging on the torrent of speech. The next breath was ragged, but the words that followed were clear and lucid. “Your clock is slow.”

As if in response, the clock on the mantel chimed, counting the twelve strikes of midnight. The queen put her feet on the floor and rose to face her husband. “I will have it fixed.”

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Saturday Storytime: Bearing Fruit

I’m catching up on some writers I really shouldn’t have missed over the last several years. Based on this story, Nikki Alfar is very much one of those writers.

Despite the general, dismaying, though not unsurprising atmosphere of disbelief, it is hard for even the most determined of pundits to gainsay the unorthodox rapidity of your gestation; and so no one argues very much, really, when you announce that you are departing on a quest to uncover the unknown father of your unborn child. Your parents, you suspect, are not-so-secretly relieved—in fact, even before your departure, the very same male cousins who were once tasked with safeguarding your purity have been redirected to the construction of a new shelter for the family carabao. The shifting valuation of commodities is not lost on you, but even you are forced to admit that everyone has a use for milk, which therefore gives worth to the carabao. Whereas mangoes, it has become clear, are not to all people’s taste.

Accompanied, therefore, only by Dideng and Aguing, you set off, following the river along its meandering path upstream. Your triumvirate is armed with one sharp bolo, one stout stick, and your own sharp tongue and stout wits, which you hope will suffice since not one of the three of you knows how to wield either of the first two anyway. Fortunately, it seems that bandits, beasts, and all other living hazards of the wild—which is not all that wild, being mostly composed of field, sparse forest, and riverbank—are leery of women impregnated by supernatural means, for you are left unmolested, or at least no more so than you have already been.

When you are slightly more pregnant than you were—it is difficult to estimate, since the actual passage of time and the tumescence of your belly steadfastly refuse to coordinate—you come upon a mango tree some distance from but within sight of the river, with a young boy several years younger than you diligently loosening the soil about its roots. You are mortified at the very notion that this spratling might be the father of your child, and are perfectly prepared to give up, turn tail, and go back the way you came, except that Aguing has already hailed the little fellow with a wave of her stick, so that there is nothing to be done except to try and discern what you came to learn.

“Is this your mango tree?” you ask, critically eyeing the boy’s scrawny frame and filthy fingernails. This, of course, is highly unjust and judgmental of you, given that you live among farmlands and farming is a good and noble occupation for an honest man; so why not, for an honest boy? But you are some—days? Weeks? Months?—pregnant, after all, and might therefore be forgiven a modicum of irrationality.

“Oh, no,” says the boy, “this tree belongs to the wealthy widow in the valley below. I tend it for her, and she lets me keep any fruit in excess of what she needs.”

“And might you have dropped some of this excess into the river,” you say, “where the offending fruit might have floated downstream, severely inconveniencing, not to mention impregnating, any innocent young maidens hapless enough to have encountered it?” You have been rehearsing several versions of this little speech in your mind for some time, though of course you had anticipated delivering it to someone more able to appreciate your exquisite sarcasm.

“What? What!?” yelps the boy, nearly severing his toes when he drops his trowel—well, who would not be shocked, after all, following an oratory like that? “No,” he says, shaking his head with mildly alarming vigor. “No, no! Can mangoes do that?! No!”

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Saturday Storytime: What We’re Having

Time travel stories are tricky. As this story by Nathaniel Lee demonstrates, they’re tricky even when you sort out all the potential paradoxes.

I wondered about the bacon all day. Eventually I went and bought the package anyway, put it in the fridge. I want to do right by you, Frankie, even if I’m crazy and it means I’m wasting five bucks. I don’t want you to have cooked imaginary bacon.


Grilled Cheese, Turkey, and Tomato Sandwiches on Sourdough

That was when I was sure of it. The tomatoes had been in the fruit bowl for a week already and you kept saying we had to do something with them before they went bad.

(They were okay, Frankie. You didn’t need to worry. Maybe a little squishy, but that could have been the whole pan-­frying thing.)

Anyway, the point is, the sandwiches were there, butter­-hot and smelling like purified joy, but so were the tomatoes, still in their bowl. It wasn’t the right day for pan-­frying anyway. You only make sandwiches on your day off, when I’ll be up by afternoon and we can have a little time together before my next shift, because they’re no good once you let them get cold.

(Except they are good, Frankie, I don’t tell you that enough. Even if they were frozen they’d be good.)

So that was that. Today wasn’t your day off, so they weren’t today’s sandwiches.

They were tomorrow’s.


Beef Stroganoff, Same as Yesterday

I kind of enjoyed having tomorrow’s food. It felt special. It was like having a window on you when you didn’t know I was looking. I think about you a lot, Frankie, even if I’m quiet when we’re together. I like to know what you’re thinking about. Mostly I feel like I don’t. That’s why I’ll take whatever advantage I can get.

You never seemed to notice, Frankie. I’m not sure why. You ate those meals, too.

Didn’t you?

(Well, obviously the stroganoff, but honestly, why did you make so much of it? I swear that week lasted a year.)

Maybe you did, but you ate them at the right time, with the right version of me responding to your actual notes and e-­mails and not whatever you’d said the day before or what I thought you might say tomorrow. A lot of times I feel like I’m talking to you a day late anyway, even when we manage to get into the same room at the same time. (I try, Frankie, I really do, but I’m always so tired and half the time I don’t even know what you’re talking about. I’m not good at techie stuff. You just kind of assume I’m keeping up with you.)

Maybe it wasn’t the skillet that was out of synch. Maybe it was us.

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Saturday Storytime: The New Mother

Sometimes we get in the habit of thinking that science fiction is about the reach of imagination, about how far out an author’s imagination can take us. This story by Eugene Fischer, however, is a demonstration of how effective science fiction can be when the author’s imagination takes us that far in instead.

“Let’s go on the record now,” she said, and clicked on the recorder. “How long have you been aware of the spread of GDS?”

“It was first brought to my attention three months ago.”

“How did you learn about it?”

“An aide briefed me. I have my staff keep me informed about what our former colleagues in Austin are doing. Can’t lose touch with state-level needs while I’m stuck out here in D.C. It was Texas research that discovered GDS, you know. We’ve been a leader on this issue from the start.”

“I know,” said Tess, scribbling leader!! in her book and adding a wavy underline for absurd emphasis. “You’ve put language into the latest HHS funding bill that would prohibit federal funds from going to any organization that provides prenatal care for women known to have GDS. Can you explain the reasoning behind that for me?”

“Absolutely. This is a measure consistent with the track record I’ve shown my entire career. I have always promoted solid public health policy, with a special focus on women’s health issues. That’s what this new regulation is.”

“How is it in the interest of public health to deny care to pregnant women?”

“You’re looking at it completely backwards,” said Bailey. “The question is, how is it in the public interest for the government to subsidize the spread of a plague? Because that’s what we’ll be doing if we let taxpayer money go to increasing the number of cases of this disease.”

“But you’ve campaigned on child welfare. Surely this is a child welfare issue.”

Bailey nodded. “I agree. It is.”

“The how can you reconcile that with an amendment that will necessarily mean higher infant mortality.”

“There’s nothing to reconcile, Ms. Mendoza. My voting record is perfectly consistent. I’m protecting the normal, healthy children in those hospitals. We can’t risk the health of the majority of mothers and children by exposing them to a disease we’re just beginning to understand. One which, from all appearances, will warp their entire lives.” Bailey placed manicured fingers gently atop the monitor on her desk. “I could show you dozens of letters from women in Texas distraught that they or their daughters may never have the opportunity to be normal mothers now. I could show you even more from men who fear that they’ll never get to father children at all. Until we know exactly what this disease is, the situation calls for the utmost caution. If we don’t handle this correctly, it could literally be the end of mankind.”

It was nothing Tess hadn’t heard before. The tune was so familiar she could sing along if she wanted. The only difference with Bailey was a little more polish, a better memory for the talking points. It actually made her a less interesting interview than the representatives, who occasionally slipped up in interesting ways. Gale Schoening of North Carolina had distinguished women with GDS from those without by referring to the latter as “real mothers.” Matthew Hock had said outright that his constituency were “the natural-born citizens of Houston.” When Tess observed that in just twelve years the first girls born with GDS would reach voting age, he had said, “We’ll see. A lot can change in twelve years.” But aside from personal quirks, responses were so alike Tess could practically write her notes in advance. GDS is a disease. We have to protect healthy people. Men could become extinct. Think of the at-risk men.

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