Saturday Storytime: Going After Bobo

One of the great things about reprints in our digital age is that they continue to extend the reach of these stories going forward. People don’t need to collect back issues of a magazine in order to discover stories they like. I’m glad to see this story by Susan Palwick get this treatment.

So I had five days of not knowing where Bobo was, while Johnny and Leon baited me at school and Mom and David yelled at each other at home. And then finally the satellites came back online on Friday. The GPS people had been talking about how they might have to knock the whole system out of orbit and put up another one—which would have been a mess—but finally some earthside keyboard jockey managed to fix whatever the hackers had done.

Which was great, except that down here in Reno it had been snowing for hours, and according to the GPS, I was going to have to climb 3,200 feet to reach Bobo. Mom came in just as I was stuffing some extra energy bars in my pack. I knew she wouldn’t want me going out, and I wasn’t up to fighting with her about it, so I’d been hoping the snow would delay her for a few hours, maybe even keep her down in Carson overnight. I should have known better. That’s what Mom’s new SUV was for: getting home, even in shitty weather.

She looked tired. She always looks tired after a shift.

“What are you doing?” she said, and looked over my shoulder at the handheld screen, and then at the topo map next to it. “Oh, Jesus, Mike. It’s on top of Peavine!”

I could smell her shampoo. She always smells like shampoo after a shift. I didn’t want to think about what she smells like before she showers to come home.

He’s on top of Peavine,” I said. “Bobo’s on top of Peavine.”

Mom shook her head. “Honey—no. You can’t go up there.”

“Mom, he could be hurt! He could have a broken leg or something and not be able to move and just be lying there!” The signal hadn’t moved at all. If it had been lower down the mountain, I would have thought that maybe some family had taken Bobo in, but there still weren’t any houses that high. The top of Peavine was one of the few places the developers hadn’t gotten to yet.

“Sweetheart.” Mom’s voice was very quiet. “Michael, turn around. Come on. Turn around and look at me.”

I didn’t turn around. I stuffed a few more energy bars in my pack, and Mom put her hands on my shoulders and said, “Michael, he’s dead.”

I still kept my back to her. “You don’t know that!”

“He’s been gone for five days now, and the signal’s on top of Peavine. He has to be dead. A coyote got him and dragged him up there. He’s never gone that high by himself, has he?”

She was right. In the year he’d had the transmitter, Bobo had never gone anywhere much, certainly not anywhere far. He’d liked exploring the neighbors’ yards, and the strips of wild land between the developments, where there were voles and mice. And coyotes.

“So he decided to go exploring,” I said, and zipped my pack shut. “I have to go find out, anyway.”

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Saturday Storytime: If God Is Watching

If you’re on Twitter, you probably know Mikki Kendall as Karnythia, one of those people who can manage incisive social commentary in 140-character chunks. You may not have read her fiction, though. You should do that.

I killed a man when I was 13. Not on pur­pose or noth­ing. But he still died. Mama went over to see about Mrs. Johnson’s new baby after church, and I stayed home because I had a cold com­ing on. Mama is real par­tic­u­lar about sick peo­ple and babies, so I didn’t even ask if I could go vis­it­ing. Daddy went out fish­ing with my broth­ers, and after I got out of my church clothes I stretched out on the porch swing with a book. It was good too, all about pirates and buried trea­sure. It was a hot day, sunny, but not too bad if you were sit­ting in the shade. The breeze was blow­ing just right over Mama’s lit­tle flower gar­den, and it felt so good to sit there with the screen keep­ing the bugs out and the cool in, while I nib­bled on a slice of cake.

Our house wasn’t fancy exactly, but Daddy was always good with his hands and my uncles all knew a fair bit about build­ing because that was how they earned their money instead of farm­ing like Daddy. So when Mama wanted some­thing added onto the house they come over and do it for her. Folks said she was spoiled and I would be too since we were both the only girls in a fam­ily full of men. I don’t know about spoiled, but I was almost always happy. Daddy could grow any­thing he wanted no mat­ter how bad it might be doing for some­body else, and Mama knew about tak­ing care of sick folks and deliv­er­ing babies. Folks always needed some­thing and always had some­thing to trade if they didn’t have cash money.

I don’t know how long I was out there, but I was just get­ting to the end of my book when I heard somebody’s Model T rat­tling away. The road up to the house was longer than most, but it sounded like the car was com­ing on fast so I got up real quick and slipped in the house. Mama says that peo­ple shouldn’t be able to just walk up on us, at least not with­out us look­ing like we came from some­body, and we’re going some­where. So I took off the raggedy over­alls I had on, and put on a dress and a pair of shoes.

Mama made most of my clothes in those days, some­times dye­ing them for me so I wouldn’t be wear­ing the same thing as all the other girls who got their goods at the mer­can­tile in town. My dress that day was dark blue, with a lit­tle black flower pat­tern worked into it. It didn’t fit like it used to. Mama kept threat­en­ing to pass it on to some­one else, but I loved it so that she said I could keep it until she had time to make me a new one.

Some white man knocked on the door a few min­utes later. He was big­ger than my mama’s biggest brother, Uncle John, but not as big as my Daddy and wear­ing a shiny gray Sun­day suit and a funny look­ing white hat. He even had on shiny shoes, like a woman would wear to church if she wanted to get talked about for a month of Sun­days. He had a face like a skinned hog, all wet and red look­ing, but meaty. And he had too many teeth in his mouth. Looked like he was one of them bad sales­men that I heard peo­ple com­plain­ing about when­ever we stayed late after church and the adults would for­get that us kids were lis­ten­ing. He was grin­ning and yam­mer­ing away before I even got to the door good.

How are you today young lady? You look­ing mighty pros­per­ous on this Sun­day after­noon aren’t you?” Up close he smelled like he bathed in cologne, but not in a good way. More like per­fume over funk.

He had his hand on the door knob like he was about to pull on it, and I stared at his hand until it dropped. I can’t rightly fight, but my eyes make peo­ple think they don’t want to fight me. My broth­ers are the only excep­tion and even they don’t fight me to hurt me, just to teach me how to defend myself. Daddy says my eyes are just a darker brown than most peo­ple have ever seen, and Mama says I have eyes like her great-grandmother who was a con­jure doc­tor down in New Orleans. I don’t know which one of them is right, but most peo­ple don’t like my eyes because they’re so black they look like two holes punched in my face. At least that’s how Ms. Viola at the church describes them, and she’s been all the way to Lon­don and back so I fig­ure she knows best.

Can I help you?” It’s my best grown up voice, and I can see him look­ing me up and down when I use it. I can’t help but cross my arms across my chest when his eyes linger on it. I can see what Mama meant about my dress being too snug to wear out in the street.

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Saturday Storytime: Falling Leaves

Liz Argall, among other things, plays roller derby and writes “A comic about creatures who are kind“. Don’t let that fool you, though. This story is one of the hard ones.

Charlotte and Nessa met in Year Eight of Narrabri High School. Charlotte’s family were licensed refugees from the burning lands and the flooded coast, not quite landed, but a step apart from refugees that didn’t have dog tags.

Charlotte sat on the roof, dangled her legs off the edge and gazed at the wounded horizon, as she did every lunchtime. Nessa, recognizing the posture of a fellow animal in pain, climbed up to see what she could do. The mica in the concrete glittered and scoured her palms as she braced herself between an imitation tree and the wall and shimmied her way up.

She had to be careful not to break the tree, a cheap recycled–plastic genericus — who’d waste water on a decorative tree for children? The plastic bark squished beneath Nessa’s sneakers, smelling of paint thinner and the tired elastic of granny underpants.

Nessa tried to act casual once she got to the top, banging her knee hard as she hauled herself over the ledge and ripping a fresh hole in her cargos. She took a deep breath, wiped her sweaty hands, and sat down next to Charlotte.

“’Sup?” said Nessa.

“Go away.” Charlotte kicked her feet against the wall and pressed her waxy lips together.

“You gonna jump?”

“No. I’m not an attention seeking whore like you,” said Charlotte.

Nessa shrugged her shoulders, as if that could roll away the sting. Rolling with the punches was what she did. “You look sad.”

Charlotte bared her teeth. “I said, I’m not like you. Leave me alone.”

Nessa wanted to say, “Fuck you,” but she didn’t. Nessa wanted to find magic words to fix Charlotte in an impatient flurry. She couldn’t. Nessa scratched her scars for a while and felt like puking, but she didn’t think that would help either. Neither would hitting Charlotte’s head against a wall and cracking Charlotte’s head into happiness, although Nessa could imagine it so violently and brightly it felt like she’d done it. Nessa had banged her own head against walls to get the pain out of her head and chest, but it never worked — or rather it never worked for long enough, leading to a worse, moreish pain.

Nessa didn’t know what to do, so she just sat there, feeling chicken shit, until the bell summoned them into class.

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Saturday Storytime: The Gifts of the Giving Tree

When I read Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree, I loathed it. A lot of that reaction came from comparing the contents to all the recommendations of the book. The more I learn about Silverstein, though, the less I think he would have appreciated the straightforward praise for his story. I’m pretty sure, however, that he would have appreciated Mallory Ortberg‘s retelling.

Once there was a tree
and she loved a little boy.

And everyday the boy would come
and he would gather her leaves
and make them into crowns
and play king of the forest.

He would climb up her trunk
and swing from her branches
and eat apples.
And the apples stained his mouth a strange color
and it wasn’t green and it wasn’t red
and the stain wouldn’t go away
no matter how much his mother scrubbed his mouth
after he’d eaten them
(she loved the little boy very much)
And they would play hide-and-go-seek.

And when he was tired,
he would sleep in her shade.
(she loved him best when he was asleep)
(he never woke up with quite the same color eyes)
(and his mother hated to hug him after he came home from the tree)
(though she could never explain why)
And the boy loved the tree, very much.

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Saturday Storytime: Falling From Earth to Haphazard Sky (Tadpole Remix)

I was flipping through a bunch of recently published F&SF stories, waiting for a title to catch my eye when a name caught my eye instead. E. Catherine Tobler. Checked the blog. Nope, hadn’t featured one of her stories before. Then I read this one and, oh, yes, that was going to change. Only on looking at her website did I realize I’d tweeted a piece from her on the new SFWA bulletin shortly before. It’s a pleasure to be able to feature her fiction.

He isn’t adjusting well, they say.

They want to observe him. They want him to come in, so he isn’t always so alone in the house he called home. He’s walking the meadows to mush, his neighbors say. Spends all night spinning circles in the grass.

They wonder at his pat answers. His time in the station–two years, he is reminded, reminded of investments in time and money–should have left a significant, perceptible change upon him. They slide him back into the scanner to look inside every nook and cranny.

He recalls with chilling precision the way, in school, a frog upon a black wax tray was placed before him. Spread upon its back, the frog’s legs pinned to the wax, belly pale and bulbous. Swollen with preservative fluids. He closes his eyes and he can smell that smell, can taste it in the back of his throat. Closes his eyes and can remember the tug of frog skin perceived through the length of scalpel. They don’t cut him open, but he feels the same tug.

They slice him into monochromatic layers, thread-thin. Sagittal, coronal, transverse. They disassemble and reassemble and ponder and question. He is no different, they say. But he must be! they say.

He feels the motion of the galaxy (falling, one into another) and the slide of one planet through the gravitational plane of another–so far distant it impacts nothing, nothing but him–and he cannot tell them. He feels the endless suck of a black hole, feels a speck of debris caught in the event horizon; this debris possesses a desire to be at long last swallowed whole yet holds the knowledge that it never will be. Forever suspended.

They ponder his brain and his heart, but never his courage. He wants them to ask the questions they don’t, the questions he cannot put into any kind of proper words. Those words have not reached this planet yet, but are streaming ever closer. Light year by light year, invisible through space, but en route. He feels that tug, too.

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Saturday Storytime: Ten Sigmas

This story from Paul Melko is going to spoil me on parallel world tales for a little while I think. I mean that in a good way.

In some worlds, the truck is there, past us, or there, coming down the road. In some it is red, in some it is blue, and in others it is black. In the one where the girl is looking out the window at us, it is metallic maroon with white script on the door that says, “Earl.”

There is just one world where the girl lifts her broken, gagged face and locks her one good eye on me. There is just one where Earl reaches behind him and pulls the girl from sight. In that world, Earl looks at me, his thick face and brown eyes expressionless.

The truck begins to slow, and that me disappears from our consciousness, sundered by circumstance.

*

No, I did not use my tremendous power for the good of mankind. I used it to steal the intellectual property of a person who exists in one world and pass it off as my own in another. I used my incredible ability to steal songs and stories and publish them as my own in a million different worlds. I did not warn police about terrorist attacks or fires or earthquakes. I don’t even read the papers.

I lived in a house in a town that is sometimes called Delaware, sometimes Follett, sometimes Mingo, always in a house on the corner of Williams and Ripley. I lived there modestly, in my two bedroom house, sometimes with a pine in front, sometimes with a dogwood, writing down songs that I hear on the radio in other worlds, telling stories that I’ve read somewhere else.

*

In the worlds where the truck has passed us, we look at the license plate on the truck, framed in silver, naked women, and wonder what to do. There is a pay phone nearby, perhaps on this corner, perhaps on that. We can call the police and say . . .

We saw the girl once, and that self is already gone to us. How do we know that there is a girl gagged and bound in any of these trucks? We just saw the one.

A part of us recognizes this rationalization for the cowardice it is. We have played this game before. We know that an infinite number of possibilities exist, but that our combined existence hovers around a huge multi-dimensional probability distribution. If we saw the girl in one universe, then probably she was there in an infinite number of other universes.

And safe in as many other worlds, I think.

For those of us where the truck has passed us, the majority of us step into the street to go to the bagel shop across the way. Some fraction of us turn to look for a phone, and they are broken from us, their choice shaking them loose from our collective.

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Saturday Storytime: Glory Awaits

Did you know that Adam Lee has published two science fiction novels? Dark Heart and Broken Ring follow the life of Myrren Kahliana, a young woman in a world in which gods are real but can still be opposed. Now he’s also published two stories set in the same world, stories which set the stage for the novels. You can check them out to get a taste for Adam’s writing.

Soldiers all around Warde were starting to their feet, shouting in alarm, grasping for shields and weapons. But the enemy had already brought their bows to bear. A hundred, a thousand bowstrings snapped back, and a black storm of arrows hurtled toward the unprepared army.

The arrows fell with deadly accuracy, falling into Vraxor’s ranks like a flock of black birds descending on ripe wheat. And the officers, most of whom were mounted on horses and wearing bright dress uniforms, were the easiest targets.

“Fall back, men!” shouted Warde’s lieutenant, mounted and beckoning the men of his company. “Regroup! Gather around me and prepare to charge!”

Suddenly, there was a hissing whir and a sharp sound, and the long black shaft of an arrow stood out from the lieutenant’s throat. He looked startled, reached up to touch the shaft transfixing him, then opened his mouth as if to speak. Instead, blood gurgled out and he toppled from his horse.

Many officers, not just the lieutenant, had fallen in that first barrage. Warde saw a colonel’s horse, riderless and milling about among the crush of confused and frightened men. The battle was already becoming a rout, as the companies that had been preparing to charge the enemy had stalled in the face of Lahar’s deadly bowmen, and the entire force wavered on the edge of breaking up in panic.

One of the men in Warde’s squad, wide-eyed and frightened, seized him by the arm. “Sergeant! What do we do?”

While arrows flew and men screamed and died all around them, Warde thought furiously. The enemy held the high ground, and their officers had been decimated by the surprise assault. The proper response would be to fall back and regroup, to wait for orders.

But Arvis’ words were ringing in his ears. Glory awaits

“We will charge!” Warde shouted, pouring all his voice into a bellow to be heard over the screams of dying men. He drew his sword and held it up high, letting the polished blade catch the light and blaze like a banner. “Follow the river course uphill! Break their flank. For Vraxor and glory!”

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Saturday Storytime: Little Faces

Vonda McIntyre is one of the earliest women to be nominated for a Hugo. She’s been nominated several more times for several more awards since then. It will be unsurprising to anyone who reads this story that it was multiply nominated as well.

“Zorargul,” Yalnis whispered. She had never lost a companion. She chose them carefully, and cherished them, and Zorargul had been her first, the gift of her first lover. She looked up at Seyyan, confused and horrified, shocked by loss and pain.

“Come back.” Seyyan spoke with soft urgency. She stretched out her graceful hand. “Come back to bed.” Her voice intensified. “Come back to me.”

Yalnis shrank from her touch. Seyyan followed her, sliding over the fading bloodstain in the comfortable nest of ship silk. Her first companion extruded itself, just below her navel, staring intently at Zorargul’s body.

Seyyan stroked Yalnis’ shoulder. Yalnis pushed her away with her free hand, leaving bloody fingerprints on Seyyan’s golden skin.

Seyyan grabbed her wrist and held her, moved to face her squarely, touched her beneath her chin and raised her head to look her in the eyes. Yalnis tried to blink away her tears, baffled and dizzy, flooded with the molecular messages of anger and distress her remaining companions pumped into her blood.

“Come back to me,” Seyyan said again. “We’re ready for you.”

Her first companion, drawing back into her, pulsed and muttered. Seyyan caught her breath.

“I never asked for this!” Yalnis cried.

Seyyan sat back on her heels, as lithe as a girl, but a million years old.

“I thought you wanted me,” she said. “You welcomed me—invited me—took me to your bed—”

Yalnis shook her head, though it was true. “Not for this,” she whispered.

“It didn’t even fight,” Seyyan said, dismissing Zorargul’s remains with a quick gesture. “It wasn’t worthy of its place with you.”

“Who are you to decide that?”

“I didn’t,” Seyyan said. “It’s the way of companions.” She touched the reddening bulge of a son-spot just below the face of her first companion. “This one will be worthy of you.”

Yalnis stared at her, horrified and furious. Seyyan, the legend, had come to her, exotic, alluring, and exciting. All the amazement and attraction Yalnis felt washed away in Zorargul’s blood.

“I don’t want it,” she said. “I won’t accept it.”

Seyyan’s companion reacted to the refusal, blinking, snarling. For a moment Yalnis feared Seyyan too would snarl at her, assault her and force a new companion upon her.

Seyyan sat back, frowning in confusion. “But I thought—did you invite me, just to refuse me? Why—?”

“For pleasure,” Yalnis said. “For friendship. And maybe for love—maybe you would offer, and I would accept—”

“How is this different?” Seyyan asked.

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Saturday Storytime: The End of the World in Five Dates

I’ve featured one of Claire Humphrey‘s stories here before, but this one got to me. It started with the Harold Camping. It ended with..well, that would be spoiling it. Let’s just say I remember knowing I couldn’t live past a certain age. I’m happy to say I was wrong.

I: May 21, 2011 (according to Harold Camping)

Robin called it an apartment, but it was really part of an old carpet factory in the Junction: an echoing space where one of the looms used to be, furnished with a broken church pew, two wheelchairs, and the bench seat from a minivan.

The smells of paint and dust were good, banishing the phantom smells of antiseptic and latex gloves from my nose. I leaned in the doorway of the breakroom and watched her sweep. “Where’s everyone going to sit?”

“On the floor,” she said. “That’s why I’m sweeping it.”

“And you’re cooking dinner on this thing?” I gestured over my shoulder at the twelve–burner gas range; eleven of the burners were clotted with molasses–brown grease and a surcoat of dog hair.

“Petra’s bringing food. You’ll like Petra.”

“No, I won’t.”

Robin threw the broom down with a clatter, and marched over to the dentist’s cabinet in the corner. “Jesus,” she said. “You need an attitude adjustment, stat.”

She handed me a bottle of Crown Royal, about a third full. I poured some into one of the paint–stained mugs from the work table. The paint didn’t come off into the whiskey, so I drank it.

“Now,” Robin said, picking up the broom again, and sweeping the pile of dust and filings underneath the work table. “You are going to love Petra. Know why? Because she’s extremely fucked up.”

“Oh. Great.”

“Shut up and drink! She’s fucked up and she’s my oldest friend, and you can’t mess around with her. Be good to her. Got it? Even if you can’t be good to yourself.”

“It’s not about being good to myself, for fuck’s sake. If this is confirmed, it means surgery and chemo and all kinds of unpleasant bullshit and there’s just no point to it.”

“But you don’t know for sure! What if you’re wrong? If it really is cancer, Cass, you can’t just leave it alone —”

“Watch me.”

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Saturday Storytime: Turnover

Y’all know who Jo Walton is, right? She’s only won just about every genre award that exists. Well, if you don’t know her, consider this story a nice little taste of her work.

“We’ll never get to the New World,” Jay said.

Just then, Il Magnifico stood up, flourished his red cape, and called the gnocchi. Kitchen workers processed out singing, carrying the flat, steaming trays, and we made a mad dash, along with everyone else in the room, to get it while it was hot.

“What do you mean?” Mei Ju asked as we stood in line. “We’ll get to the new world in a hundred and twenty-five years.”

“Indeed, saying anything different is like questioning gravity,” Genly said.

Jay laughed, and held up his hands, pale palms towards us. “Speranza will get there, sure as taxes. But we will not. We’ll be dead. If you have grandchildren, perhaps they’ll get there as old people. Your great-grandchildren will no doubt settle it. But us? No. Were our ancestors who got onto Speranza going to the New World? Were their parents who died on Earth? Were theirs who never even heard of the Starship Project? How about my ancestors dragged across the Atlantic from Africa in the hold of a slaver, were they on their way to the stars?”

The line moved forward and we moved with it. “They were in a way. Their genes were going. Our genes will get there,” Midge said.

“The only thing you care about is genes,” Genly said, grinning.

“Whereas I,” said Jay, reaching the head of the line and putting his plate out for the server to ladle the gnocchi onto it, “care nothing about genes at all.” Jay despised his parents. He hadn’t even wanted to make his Contribution, even though nobody gets to be an adult without. I’d eventually persuaded him that just as he’d give a kidney to save a life, making his Contribution was giving his genes to help some infertile or consanguineous couple after he was dead. “Maybe the genes of my poor devil slave ship ancestors will get to the New World, maybe the genes of all our ancestors back to Olduvai Gorge. But I won’t. And I’m glad I won’t.” He bowed to the server. “Grazie, mille grazie.”

He took his plate back to the table. I waited, thanked the server as she loaded mine, then followed him. “How can you be glad?” I asked him. The gnocchi were heavenly, they always are. I’ve had gnocchi elsewhere and even made them myself, but they’re nothing compared to the way they do them at Teatro del Sale. They taste the way I imagine Ambrosia would taste.

“I’m glad because I like living on Speranza,” he said. “I think life farming on the New World sounds tedious in the extreme. And I think you’d hate it even worse than I would.”

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