What I’ve Been Reading – 5/4/16

Happy Hump Day! Negativity’s got me kind of down. God knows I’ve been participating in plenty of it. With a certain orange-hued demon grabbing the GOP nomination for president, and the Rabid Puppies pooping all over the Hugo Awards floor, it’s hard not want to lash out.

So instead of that, I figured I’d highlight some of the great books I’ve read recently!

The Grace of Kings by Ken Liu

Ken Liu’s debut novel took the fantasy world by storm. It’s up for Best Novel in this year’s Nebula Awards and it’s got a boatload of critical praise to boot. Because of the language several reviewers used in regards to the book, I expected something paradigm-shattering. In that sense, Liu’s novel starts slowly. There’s an emperor, there’s a smattering of conflicting nations (though the world is Asian-inspired as opposed to European), there’s a roguish hero. I almost put it down a couple of times, actually, as the first quarter or so felt too bog-standard for me to enjoy.
I’m so glad I stuck with it! Once the book found its feet, I discovered a novel focused not on a single character arc, but a series of vignettes exploring several viewpoints in a continental war. Contrasted with something like Game of Thrones, these points of view are more limited in scope, but I didn’t mind that at all. Nearly all of them brought something interesting to the table, and whenever I found myself growing a bit weary of the central plot, Liu snuck in a new, exciting character or setting to perk me up.
Now, I have some mild criticisms. The novel felt very “male” to me–likely by design, as the primary conflict between the two main characters is arguably a conflict over the definition of masculinity. But even the female characters who were present felt flat. A princess who discovers her sexuality is a source of power! A wife who … is a wife! In the last quarter of the book, we’re introduced to a woman general, but even so I felt a little disappointed on the gender equality front. Still, not everyone will have issues with this.

All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders

Charlie Jane Anders, the founder and former editor-in-chief of io9, just left the site to pursue noveling full-time. And while I’m morose as hell about her departure–she was absolutely the soul of that site–I can’t say it was a bad decision. If her debut is any indication, she’s got a long career ahead of her.
Birds is a wildly different fantasy novel than Grace of Kings. While the former is sprawling and epic, Birds is focused, insular and, dare I say, positively literary. Her prose shines, as do her characters who we see grow from confused, struggling adolescents looking for their place in the world, to confused, struggling adults looking for their place in the world (I joke because life doesn’t get particularly easier for the two of them, but there is character development, I promise). The novel hinges on the tension between magic and science, which feels like a particularly apt theme for a former io9 editor, as Science Fiction vs. Fantasy is an evergreen discussion topic around those parts.
The book won’t necessarily be for everyone. I wasn’t lying when I called it literary, so if you’re looking for something faster, bloodier and littered with twists and turns, this probably isn’t your cup of tea. And there’s a fair amount of absurdism–which is absolutely not a criticism, but it’s not quite my favorite style, and I could imagine others being turned off even more by it.

STAR WARS!!

Hey! It’s May the Fourth, Star Wars Day, and I’d have to shut down my blog if I didn’t talk about some Star Wars books. First, one I’ve read: Battlefront: Twilight Company, by Alexander Freed, a loose, loose (I can’t overstate how loose) tie-in to the video game of the same name. This one starts out super slow, especially for fans of military sci-fi. I’d say the book doesn’t even get interesting until the halfway point (the choice to include a Stormtrooper POV and a series of main character flashbacks that never amount to anything pad the book’s length, but not its depth), so it’s hard for me to give an unqualified recommendation. 
However, those who stick with it will find some fascinating character development after the midpoint, especially in the character of Challis, an imperial defector who nevertheless isn’t really on board with the rebel cause. The existence of Twilight Company, a group of rebels with far more allegiance to their platoon then the Alliance, is similarly engaging. It’s readable for Star Wars fans, and likely enjoyable for Star Wars military sci-fi fans, but I wouldn’t hold it up as a master of the form.
Also new this week is Bloodline: New Republic by Claudia Grey, the author of Lost Stars, which is considered by many people, myself included, to be the best novel of the new Star Wars canon. I haven’t yet had time to start in on it, but a novel about Princess Leia? That ties in directly to The Force Awakens? That has her politicking and fighting the powers-that-be? Uh, yes please. I will have one of those, please.

Paladins of the Storm Lord by Barbara Wright

Friend of the blog Barbara Wright has a new book out this week: Paladins of the Storm Lord. This faraway science fiction tale is bit of a departure from her previous fantasy/romance novels such as The Pyramid Waltz and Thrall, but is certainly no less engaging. In fact, I think it’s her best work to date! It’s got spaceships, magic powers, mouthy military captains, arrogant gods and plenty of crazy critters as well. It’s also got lots of people trying to get in each others’ pants–and hearts! What more could you ask for?
I devoured this one as a beta reader, and while I haven’t yet read through the published version (it just arrived on my door this morning!), I’m looking forward to experiencing the story again.
And, uh, rumor has it that a sequel might be in the works 🙂
That’s it! I’m currently reading N.K. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season, but it’s still too early to give an impressions there. Any of you reading anything good lately? Any different opinions on the books above? Feel free to let me know!

Better than Nothing

[Content Warning: This is a piece about an underage prostitute, and is not particularly cheery]
 
    She makes herself smile as she slathers another coat of blush on her face. She thinks it makes her look like a clown but the other girls say it’s just the way things are and new pussy shouldn’t ask questions. The other girls never talk to her much, but she doesn’t really mind because they’re old and they’re scarred and they’re not nice, not even to each other. But it makes her miss her friends. She used to have friends.

    She walks out into the hall and Daddy’s sitting on the couch with his brother, smoking his bud. He’s not her real Daddy, of course — she doesn’t know anything about her real Daddy other than he knocked Momma up in high school and left town right after. This Daddy doesn’t like when she interrupts his “me time,” but that’s pretty much all the time and she needs a ride to 36th and Prince because he said if she doesn’t make at least two hundred tonight he’d take it out on her ass.

    “Hey Daddy,” she says, but it comes out as more of a cough as the smoke dancing in the room hits her throat. Neither of the men notice her, so she says it again, and her voice sounds more like the 13-year-old girl she is than the 18-year-old girl she’s trying to look like.

    “Fuck you want?” Daddy says without looking up.

    “I need a ride.”

    “Ain’t my fuckin’ problem. You got your own two legs, don’t you?”

    “Yeah, I got legs,” she replies. Daddy doesn’t like it when you don’t answer his questions.

    “Then fuckin’ walk.”

    His words sting. She hates the way he talks to her now, but more than that, she hates herself for being so hurt by them. She sniffles, and Daddy holds out an arm. She backs away, afraid he’s gonna hit her, but he wiggles his fingers and she walks forward. He bends her down and places a soft kiss on her cheek.

    “Do good tonight, okay Baby? Do good and I’ll take you out.”

    “All right,” she says. “Night, Daddy.” She heads toward the door, holding a hand to her face. It reminds her of when she first met him, when he said he wanted to be with her forever.

    She picks her purse up off the ground. There’s nothing in it except a pack of condoms, some cheap lip gloss and a stick of gum. She found both of those on the sidewalk last night before the fat old man picked her up. She almost chewed the gum after he bust in her mouth, but now she’s glad she saved it cause her stomach is groaning and it’s not real food but at least it’s something.

    Outside it’s that strange sort of weather between snowing and not-quite. The grey sky makes it seem like a different world, and she wishes it was. It’s not cold outside and she almost thanks God, but then she knows she doesn’t have a whole lot thank God for ‘cause He could probably give her more than a warm night if He really wanted to. 

Story Announcement

This shall be short and sweet. My story, “We are Not the Favored Children,” was selected to be published in the Dark Tales of Lost Civilizations anthology, edited by Eric J. Guignard and published by Dark Moon Books. The anthology will hit in both paper and electronic formats in Spring 2012, and I’ll post more information here (and in the Bibliography up above) when it’s available. Thanks to everyone who has sent me encouragement over the years! Hopefully this is the first step of a larger journey.

Excerpts from “The Mormon Renaissance” and “Mission to Tau Ceti: A Retrospective”



2012-2024



The beginning of the modern Mormon Renaissance can be traced back to the second decade of the millenium. In 2012, with a fractured Republican primary containing upwards of 8 candidates, all considered viable, Sarah Palin is nominated with 35% of the delegate total. The general election is considered a disaster, and though Barack Obama only wins with 395 out of 538 Electoral Votes, as the solid-red states in the South and Big Sky regions stay in Republican hands, it is a blow to the superconservative wing of the party. They are futher marginalized in 2014, when Republicans, instead of gaining seats, as is the tradition for the minority party in midterm elections, lose several, expanding the Democratic majority.

In the runup to 2016, the GOP looks to moderation to win back power. Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, now 66 years old, is ushered into the frontrunner status, and wins the GOP nomination handily. He eventually nominates former Senator from Maine Susan Collins, who chose not to run for re-election in the Senate due to a likely primary loss, as his Vice-Presidential candidate. He faces Senator Amy Klobuchar, a popular senator from Minnesota, with former Montana governor Brian Schweitzer as her running mate.


Romney’s campaign focuses on moderation, and is able to eek out a close 278-260 electoral win, even as Romney loses his home state of Massachusetts, and the Democrats retain majorities in both the House and Senate. During the campaign, as in 2008 and 2012, much is made of Romney’s Mormon faith. This has little traction in the mainstream media during the campaign, as the questioning consists mostly of “Would your faith influence your governing?” to which Romney’s answer echoes JFK’s: “Only in the aspect that my faith influences my morals. But as with all Americans, I can and do have disagreements with my church, and I can promise as President that I would never cede control to any religious authority.” This satisfies most Americans — indeed, in the wake of the election, many pundits point to independent groups attacking Romney’s Mormon faith as contributating factor to Klobuchar’s loss, even in an otherwise successful year for Democrats.

However, as Romney’s presidency begins, the Mormon faith comes under fire from conservative organizations. Several prominent conservative names, including a few members of the House of Representatives, inquire into the religion with delcarations that Mormonism is polytheistic, and that Mormons believe that God is just a normal person who received powers of creation after his death. These ideas are discussed ad nasuem, with some coming down that yes, Mormons do technically believe this, but it is not the most important part of their belief structure, to assertions that these more unfamiliar tenets are actually apocryphal and no longer represent the Church’s official positions. Nevertheless, the accusations dog Romney throughout his first two years, and the approval of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints plummets to an all time low.

As the country begins to recover fully from the effects of the depression in the early part of the decade, however, Romney’s approval rating remains high, and he sails smoothly to reelection in 2020. His second term completes fairly uneventfully in historical terms, and the hysteria about the LDS faith dies down. Romney exits gracefully amid a prosperous US economy and the best outgoing Presidential approval rating in modern history, besting even Clinton and Reagan.

Following his retirement, Romney pens two books. The first, a memoir detailing his time in office, entitled Faith in America, was only moderately well-received, as, though he was a popular president, he faced little scandal in his presidency and disappeared from the limelight after his second term. His second, a biography entitled Mitt Romney: My Life, My Faith addressed the more controversial aspects of LDS beliefs that came up during his first term. It was criticized by many, who claimed it cast Mormonism (and Christianity in general) in a more victimized light than it really was in modern society. Regardless, it became a recordbreaking bestseller, due mostly to the attention it received in Christian circles, even outside of Mormons. And most historians point to it as a turning point for the denomination, which grew to represent 20-30% of the Christian population in America by 2080. Indeed, in the last half of the Century, it is the only specfic Christian denomination other than Catholicism to grow as a percentage of the adult population in the country, as many more Americans began to consider themselves unaffiliated Christians, or nonreligious, with the majority of these changes happening from losses in the mainline Protestant churches.
– Jeremy Williams, The Mormon Renaissance

2070-2080
As the expedition to Tau Ceti began to solidify, with several groups already outlining their plans for the voyage, many influential members of the LDS Church lobbied the leadership to organize a church-supported mission, based on four main factors:

1) Mormon beliefs were uniquely qualified to tackle such a mission, as Mormon cosmology allowed for, and even explicitly mentioned, life on other planets;

2) Mormon doctrine called for spreading the message of Jesus Christ to all those who would hear it, and the possibility of witnessing to a foreign population seemed an opportunity too good to pass up;

3) Tithes were paid for no reason other than to build up and extend their Heavenly Father’s kingdom. Therefore, the mission would not be considered a waste of member resources;

4) And finally, the participants in the mission were likely to be seen as heroes, especially in the case that Tau Ceti is inhabitated. In that case, the expedition would be seen as a chance to be a “city on a hill” to the rest of the world.

The Church came under fire from secular and political organizations (including, it must be disclosed, yours truly) who claimed that the Church wanted to meddle in what could be a developing society, or invoke the wrath of an advanced one.  However, the President and Prophet attempted to assuage the fears by assuring the public that they only wished to present their beliefs, and that they would respect the cultures and beliefs of others as they did on Earth.

The Church leadership officially declared, in 2075, that they would indeed organize a flight to the newly discovered planet. The ship was to be named The U.N.S. Liahona, named after the compass given to Lehi to facilitate his escape from Jerusalem.  
-Mary Scott Davis, Mission to Tau Ceti: A Retrospective


I was just reminded of this piece, languishing on my computer, by a similar (but much more detailed) “how-they-got-to-space” type story by a peer, I figured I’d throw it up. It was originally written for a friend’s forum game, revolving around a bunch of different groups from Earth sending off expeditions to a planet called Tau Ceti (a place whose copyright belongs to him, and not me).

Such A Holy Place To Be

“Your wig’s crooked, dude.”

Even with all the pins and clips stacked on my scalp, I was having a hell of a time keeping my fake hair straight. My long blond locks had slipped to the side during the walk to the Tau Gamma Ro house. I tilted them back the upright position, and checked my eyebrows. Still there. Thank God.

“So you’re gonna have to follow my lead tonight, dude. Keep your mouth shut and I’ll send one of these girls your way.”

I threw up my thumb and gave a half-hearted smile. I hadn’t dated – or done anything of the sort – since I started school earlier in the year. Rex, on the other hand, was out with one of the girls from his classes almost as often as he was out tossing a Frisbee. Female interaction was at the forefront of my mind tonight.

Rex stepped across a rickety porch and I followed, worried only a little that one of the rotten planks would collapse. A large guy in a Spartan uniform stood in front of the open door and looked us over. His top half dripped with some sort of gleaming oil, but his shape was more Milhouse than muscle.

“Rex, Adrian, glad you guys could show up. I like the zombie costume!”

“Zombie hobo,” Rex corrected.

The guy turned to me. “And, uh. What the fuck are you supposed to be?”

I knew this was a mistake. “I’m Jareth, the Goblin King.”

“What?”

“Bowie. I’m David Bowie.”

“Oh. All right, it’s all good. Food and drinks in the kitchen, chip in if you want any of the hard stuff.”

The party had started without us. Black and orange streamers blocked entry to the stairways. The main floor of the house was filled with vampires, Jedi and ten-dollar Wal-Mart costumes. The characters in the room were disjoint as always. Halloween parties seemed like a sort of pop-culture convention, with attendees linked only by the red plastic cups in their hands.

Every possible variation of liquor lined the countertops in the kitchen, but the promised food left a lot to be desired. I begged Rex to stop somewhere on the way, but he pushed on, insisting that we would be late. My stomach gurgled and sloshed as it began to digest itself; I grabbed a handful of tortilla chips to quiet it.

I met up with Rex in the main room, surrounded by some old friends of his. He introduced me, and we watched as one of them made his way to the center of the room, next to a small karaoke machine, to perform an ear-shattering rendition of “Cold as Ice.” Rex pushed me forward as his friend finished.

“Dude, you have to get up there. Come on, you can’t dress as a rock star and not do karaoke.” Rex placed his hand firmly on my back and shoved me in front of the machine.

No one seemed interested in the spectacle, which calmed my nerves. I motioned to the dinosaur running the machine. “Anything by David Bowie? Space Oddity, maybe?”

He rummaged through the book for a few seconds, then nodded. “Yeah, it’s here. It’s a duet though. Got anyone to join you?”

Rex was already busy chatting up a skanky Navy girl whose uniform had to be against regulations. I tried my luck anyway. “Rex, it’s a duet. You know you want to sing with me.”

He twisted his neck around. “Dude, don’t be gay. I’m not gonna sing a fuckin’ duet with you.”

I tugged my right eyebrow as Rex accompanied his real interest into the kitchen.

“Hey, I’ll sing.” A nurse with long black hair, a short skirt and red cross hat stepped toward me and grabbed the second microphone. “Is that okay with you?” She smiled. As if I would turn her down.

“Fine with me. You want to take the high notes?”

“Of course. Try to keep up.”

I started to respond, but was blotted out by the drum roll. We sang well, even as our styles diverged. I did my best Bowie impression to the point of incoherence, while the nurse opted for a classical performance. It bothered me. There was something wrong about singing Bowie like Rent. Still, there was something interesting about her. I, of course, didn’t need to look at the lyric prompter. It surprised me that the nurse didn’t either. I hadn’t expected to find a glam-rock fan among Rex’s sort of people.

We received a clap or two on our way out of the room, but most of the partygoers were engrossed in other things.

“You want a drink?” I asked her.

“Sure. I left my cup over there, and you know what they say.”

I didn’t, actually, know what they say; but I wasn’t going to argue the point. This girl was pretty, really pretty, and I was going to hang on to any chance to strike up a conversation.

“Amber,” she told me as I filled her cup from the keg. “My name is Amber.”

“I’m Adrian. Thanks for backing me up in there. You sing really well.”

“Sure. You were pretty good yourself. Really, uh, freaky. So, you’re a big David Bowie fan?”

“I guess, yeah. I just watched Labyrinth the other day, I thought this costume would be amazing. I don’t think I pulled it off, though.”

“No, it looks great!” replied Amber. “Especially your blouse, it really completes the ensemble.”

I laughed. It wasn’t very often that a girl could make me laugh. “Just be glad I didn’t go with the bulging pants.”

Amber raised an eyebrow, and I felt my legs cross in front of me.

“What is your major?” I asked her. It was the most inconsequential thing I could think of to say.

“Polisci. You?”

“Molecular Biology.” It was normally a source of pride, but coming out of my mouth now it felt pretentious. Amber laughed, which didn’t help my confidence.

“You’re in a real science. That’s cool.”

“No, political science is admirable. Researching the effects of ‘change’ on the adolescent brain, right?”

“Shut up. I know, though. It’s a notch above business and worth just as much. I’m not going to be a lawyer, so I don’t know why I’m doing it.”

“You could run for office. I’ll vote for you.”

“Definitely. President Amber, I can see it. Let’s hope no one takes any pictures of tonight.” She tugged at her seductively short skirt. “That’ll be the end of my career.”

“So, are you a freshman?”

“Senior.”

I choked down a mouthful of beer. “Of course, sorry. You look young.” What?

“Thanks. What about you?”

“I’m a Junior. One more year, God willing.” I crossed my fingers and stared at her face, looking for any sort of tell that she had caught my lie. She gave off nothing more than a calm smile. Either she had bought it, or she had practiced her poker face.

Amber and I chatted in the kitchen, sliding to the side for the occasional patron who needed whatever we were parked in front of. When we could see the smooth white bottoms of our cups, we refilled them. We grabbed one of the main room seats as it emptied. My head had already become misty from the beer; drinking was not my strong suit.

We talked a while longer on the dusty pleather couch. Amber pointed out people as they walked past. That one has dressed like a werewolf for four years straight. Those two have a constant competition to outslut each other. Jim gets sick every year, we’re pretty sure he just fakes it to lie down and look up girls skirts, don’t know why he goes to such lengths at a party like this. There was a long silence between us as Amber ran out of quirky students to describe. She looked at me, suddenly, an odd smile creeping across her face.

“Have you gotten a tour yet?”

“A tour? No, this is my first time here.”

“Here, you have to see the library. Most of these frat guys are the biggest pigs I’ve ever met, but for some reason, they have, like, the coolest library. Really vintage stuff.”

“You realize that the school has a library, right? A pretty big one.”

“They don’t have stuff like this. It’s in the other wing of the house. Here.” She handed me her cup. “Get us another drink and meet me over there.”

I made my way back into the kitchen, and Amber headed in the opposite direction. I filled our cups, awkwardly juggling them, and turned to walk back into the main room. Rex was in the kitchen.

“Hey man, what’s up. Don’t drink too much, you don’t want to end the night with a sack in your face.” Rex clapped me on the back, nearly causing the beer to spill over the rims of the cups.

“It’s for a friend.”

Rex grinned, his perfect white teeth stretching from ear to ear. “Aw, yeah, I saw that. That Amber chick, right? Right on, man. Make sure to bag it, that girl’s with a different dude every year. Don’t get too attached.”

“What?”

“Don’t get attached. Pop it and drop it, dude. She’s a maneater.” Rex slammed remainder of his drink into his mouth and walked past me to the alcohol.

“Thanks, Oates. I meant the part about … bagging it. About being with a different dude every year. Are you just screwing with me?”

“I’m telling you, that girl is always hooking up at frat parties.”

“Did you ever…?”

“What? No way, bro. I mean, she’s hot and all but I’ve always had other girls. Still, dude, I’d go for it. But be careful.”

Rex finished his concoction and slapped me on the back one more time before walking back outside.

I made my way toward the library. Rex’s warning echoed in my mind, despite what I thought was undeniable chemistry between me and Amber. Had I been conversing with the school whore for the past hour? No. Rex didn’t know what the fuck he was talking about. Maneater? I hadn’t ever seen Rex with the same girl for a whole week. Who was he to talk about anyone?

“Took you long enough. Long line?” Amber sat, legs crossed, in front of a long line of streamers blocking the entrance to the library. She stood out from the Blond Sorority Girls and Depressed Emo Chicks that seemed to populate the campus. There was a perceptible intelligence that penetrated and amplified her appearance. Rex was wrong about Amber – she wasn’t one of them.

“Sorry, I was talking to my roommate. I’m ready to see this amazing library.”

She twisted her head around, slipped under the streamers, and gestured for me to follow her. My stomach twisted; I felt like everyone in the room was staring at me, waiting to see if I’d join Amber in the library. This was not true, of course. A majority of the people in the room were already buzzed, and the rest were too bored to care about anything going on in our part of the house. I took a deep breath and darted under the partition, careful to keep our drinks from spilling. Amber took her cup from my hand as soon as I stood up.

“You make it okay, champ?”

This girl had an uncanny ability to make me feel ridiculous. She led me into the darkened hallway, hitting a switch after we rounded a small corner. Overhead lights flickered on, revealing a large room packed from wall to wall with bookshelves.

“The left shelf is old tests and homework, but I doubt you’re going to find any biology stuff in there.” Amber pointed to the middle row of books. “I’m not sure how this part is organized. I think they stick books in here when they forget to return them to the library.” She moved along to the right side of the room, grabbing my wrist and dragging me along as she did so. My wig slid down my face, covering the slight hue of red that crept into it.

“This is the good stuff.” Amber ran her finger along the spines of the dusty old books, evidently looking for something specific. “Here, look at this.” She inched her fingers between the spines of two large tomes and pried one out. She flipped through it, holding the book open so that I couldn’t see it. Then she laid it open on the table.

“What the fuck?” A naked woman adorned the page. She sat on her knees, her arm stretched out past the top of her head.

“It’s Marilyn Monroe.”

I stared closer at the photograph. “I can see that. She’s naked.”

Amber jabbed a finger into my shoulder. “I figured any guy would recognize this. This is the first issue of Playboy. And it’s not a reprint – this is the actual thing.”

“Is it rare?” I asked.

“I don’t know. Maybe not. But that doesn’t stop it from being cool, don’t you think? They have every issue down here, from 1953 on. I think they think that it’s just an awesome porn collection, but it’s actually a pretty interesting look back in time. I like to read the articles and find out what people thought back then. I’m only up to like 1960 …what?”

I had been staring half-conscious at Amber the whole time. I couldn’t help but smile. “They let you in here to look at their porn?”

“Not exactly. They know me here, they let me in.”

“They know you come in to browse their magazines?”

“No, I don’t think so. But they let me in, that’s all I really care about.”

“You’re crazy.”

Amber folded her arms. “Excuse me? I find this stuff fascinating.”

And then, with Amber staring at me, slightly annoyed, I kissed her. I have no idea how I managed it. It was the most utterly bold thing I had ever done in my life. Amber accepted the kiss, and even ran with it, but made no effort to take things further than that. I looked at her after I pulled away. My head spun half with the alcohol, half with the excitement of being so presumptuous.

“Ah,” she muttered. “I guess these pictures affected you more than I thought.”

Jesus Christ. Just when I felt comfortable, she punched me in the gut.

“I’m just teasing you,” said Amber. “I just wasn’t expecting it.” She leaned in and kissed me again. It was short and sweet; there was no making out. We looked at each other for a short time after it was over. I turned my attention back to the Playboy collection.

“I wonder if you could get these magazines from them. Like, buy them or something. Or get them to donate the collection to the school.”

“I doubt it. These guys are kind of dumb, but they aren’t completely clueless.”

“So you never got with any of them?” Shit. What in the name of God made me say that. Alcohol may help some guys with romance, but not me.

“What? Of course not. I’m sure there are rumors, with me here all the time, but I wouldn’t touch them. I feel weird enough flipping through their books.”

“Yeah, I was just curious. My roommate’s just an idiot.”

Amber looked into my eyes. “What do you mean?”

“Nothing, nevermind. My roommate was just giving me crap.”

“About me?”

“No, not exactly,” I lied. “He just told to be careful, you know.” I was not a good liar, and the alcohol made it ten times worse. I could feel myself getting drawn into a trap, and I wasn’t having any luck getting out of it. I prayed that Amber would drop the subject. She didn’t.

“Worried you were going to get knocked up?” She grinned at me. “Don’t worry, I’m not that easy.”

“No, I know, I see that now.”

“Now?”

Fuck. This was the last night I would ever drink.

“I mean, now I know you, I know you’re not like that or anything.”

She didn’t buy it. “Like what? Who have you been talking to?”

“I told you, Rex was just giving me crap.”

“Wait, Rex? Rex Wilson? Your roommate is that douchebag? What, he told you I was a slut, and you believed him?”

“No, that’s not what happened. He was just talking out his ass, you know. I’m a little buzzed, I got paranoid.”

“Paranoid, or did you think you were going to get lucky?” Amber closed the book and brushed past me, sliding it back in place. “Jesus Christ, Adrian. Why would you … why would you hang out with him?

“I didn’t pick Rex, he’s my roommate! I didn’t know him before this year. And I didn’t come here … I mean, I’m not …”

“You didn’t come here to get laid?”

“Amber, of course not. I’m not like Rex, I’m not the rest of those guys in there.”

“Really? Adrian, why did you come to this party? You told me you don’t like the guys here. You obviously can’t stand the sorority girls. Was it just the booze and the free food?”

I stared at Amber, running through responses in my mind. I frantically searched for something that wouldn’t run her off. I came up short.

“I don’t know. Rex invited me, I guess I just figured I’d try to meet some people.”

“Listen, Adrian. You’re a cool kid. Don’t let Rex fuck you up, okay? He’s not a good guy.”

“What do you mean, what’s wrong with Rex? He’s not the smartest guy, sure, but … what happened? How do you know him?”

“I know him better than you do. It doesn’t matter. I don’t … I’m not going to talk about it. I think I’m going to go home, all right? I’m sorry.”

Amber pushed past me, oblivious to my protests. I stumbled after her. She walked straight through the streamers, past a few cries of “hey, what the hell,” and out the front door. Rex stopped me from walking after her.

“Shot down?”

“Fuck you. Fuck you.” I struggled to get past him, but he held me there.

“Dude, don’t get beat up over it. There’s another party next week, we’ll hook you up there. I didn’t get any either.”

I snapped, ramming my hands into Rex’s shoulders and pushing him into the door frame. “You asshole. You goddamn fucking asshole. What did you do to with her? What did you do to her?”

In a single quick motion, Rex placed his arm out in front of me and slammed me back into the other side of the doorway. The surprise more than the actual violence knocked the breath out of me, and I struggled to get it back with Rex’s arm pinned across my chest. A few excited “oooooh!”s floated through the room, hoping for a fight to end the night’s festivities.

“Calm down, Bro,” said Rex, inflecting the last word with just a hint of threat. “Why don’t you walk home and get into bed. You’ll forget about this in the morning, I promise.”

An unexpected feeling crept into me as I stared at Rex there in front of me, his massive arm goading me to yield to his strength. It was not a feeling of hatred, or even fear, but overwhelming disgust. Right then, I looked at Rex as every misogynistic quip, unwanted harassment and demeaning joke rolled into one miserable human being.

“What was it?” I asked Rex, raising my voice. “Did you screw her? Did you screw her one night and leave her like the rest of the girls? Was that it?”

Another round of agitating groans hit Rex, and he pushed the hard bone of his forearm further into my lungs. I smelled the acrid liquor on Rex’s breath. He grit his teeth as he spoke. “You don’t know what the fuck you’re talking about. Go home, Adrian, and we can talk about it later.”

An Indian chief turned sideways and moved through the doorway. He winked at Rex. “Hey man, let the kid have the girl. You had your go with her, right?”

Rex stepped back and glared at him. “Whatever. Fuck it.” Rex spit a glob of something on the ground and walked back into the house, careful not to look at me.

I leaned against the outside wall, catching my breath. “Hold on,” I yelled out to the Indian.

The man, now well off of the porch, turned and looked up at me. He looked to me like an actual Indian – Asian, not Native. Even with my chest pounding, I couldn’t help but wonder if that was intentional.

“You know Rex?” I asked him.

“Sure, he always comes to the Halloween party. Don’t worry about him, it’s just a touchy subject.”

“What is?”

“Well, that girl. I’m surprised he came, actually, if he knew she was going to be here. They hooked up a few years ago.”

“So?”

“Well, I say ‘they’ hooked up, but she wasn’t completely sober, if you know what I mean.”

The stupid smirk on the guy’s face nearly made me puke. I slid down the wall and landed in a sitting position. “What the fuck. Rex, what the fuck? He’s a player. Why the fuck would he do something like that?”

The Indian shifted his feet, and I could tell he regretted walking into my drama. “Uh, this was a long time ago. He might’ve been a first-year. Look, don’t worry, she got him back. I guess she realized what was happening and started beating the shit out of him.” He started to chuckle as he recounted the memory. “He ran out of one of the back rooms with his pants around his ankles. That girl was right behind him, beating him with a god damn Playstation controller.”

I pushed myself up off the wooden porch and steadied myself. “So that’s it. My roommate is a rapist.”

“No, I don’t think he got that far. He’s just a dick. We always tease him about it. He just says that she was a whore, and she freaked out from some bad mushrooms or something. I don’t know, man, we don’t really pay attention to him. Anyway, I’ve got to get going. Good luck.”

I stared at the chief as he left. Amber was long gone. She hated me. Who could blame her. I defended him. Shit, I stood up for him. I felt sick. I felt alone, looking at the people around me. I didn’t belong here. These people had no idea who I was. They had no idea who I was dressed as (and they probably would have called me a fag if they did). It occurred to me only then to wonder why Amber had come to the party. I wished Amber had stayed so I could ask her that question, along with delivering an endless apology. I decided I wanted the chance.

I halted and turned toward the kitchen. I stormed past some of the half-drunk crowd also making their way home – acting and looking like zombies, now. I had no idea if I was doing the right thing, or if I was wasted, but it didn’t matter. I grabbed a napkin and pen from the kitchen. I chewed on the end of the pen, conscious that it wasn’t mine. There were a multitude of things I wanted to write: Rex is a creep, You’re Awesome. It seemed so childish. And then, looking up at myself in the kitchen mirror, staring at my crooked wig and smeared mascara, my hand moved.

I’m floating in a most peculiar way

And the stars look very different today

I don’t remember knowing, in my slightly drunken state, just how corny my note was. But, in hindsight, it was the only thing I could have written that wouldn’t have made me a condescending ass. I scrawled my phone number on the bottom in the most legible writing I could manage.

I strode into the library, apathetic to the big frat guy’s dirty look as I walked past him. I ran straight to the Playboy collection, and began to examine the volumes. A year was scrawled on the spine of each. 1957. 1958. 59. 1960. Yes, I could find her online. I could ask someone else at the party about her. But that was too inelegant, too unimpressive for a victimized girl you’d just implicitly called a whore. I gulped, closed my eyes, and slid the napkin between the books.

Satisfied, I left the house for a second time. I tore off my wig as I walked through the cold air, scratching my short black hair. I looked up at the sky and whispered a small prayer that Rex wouldn’t come home tonight.

The Certainty of Chance

Nothing is certain. The impossible or unexpected could happen at any time. That was the lesson of the day. Evolution was a theory — so was gravity. Technically, nothing about physics was certain. Mrs. Miller told the class that, theoretically, it was possible that one of the students could shove a pencil through a desk. Nora spent the rest of the period testing that hypothesis.


Nora’s English teacher was sick, so she got a free period. Nora “freed” herself from the school and headed home. The day wasn’t over, and “expect the unexpected” wasn’t confined to physics. She learned that when she got home and found her brother and his girlfriend having sex on the couch. They sprinted to his room before Nora could say anything, and the girl left soon afterward.


The incident made dinner even more awkward than normal. Her mom was absent, as usual. Thursday was surgery day, which meant all the doctors and nurses in the center had to stay until the anesthesia had worn off in the last patient. Her dad started eating as soon as he got home, without changing out of his suit. They had the rest of the lasagna from the night before. The cottage cheese standing in for ricotta always tasted like dry lumps of dirt after a trip through the microwave.


“How was school?” Her dad asked.


“Fine,” Nora replied. “I got an A on my first calc homework.”


“Good.” He turned to Mark, her brother. “What about you? Did you find a job?”


Mark shook his head. “No, not yet.”


“Why not? Did you just sit on your ass all day like always?”


Mark looked at Nora, but she kept my mouth shut. “No. I talked to John. They might have an opening for a painter. Part-time at first, but…”


“Great, part time. Fuck. I swear to God, if you don’t find a real job in a month, we’re going to start charging you rent. I’m sick and tired of you freeloading.”


“Wonderful,” said Mark, trying his best to appear unfazed.


“Look at your sister. She works hard in school, she knows exactly what she wants to do with her life. She’s going to be a CEO while you’re still living with your God damn parents.”


Mark didn’t speak, so Nora chimed in. “I made an appointment with a counselor for tomorrow. We’re going to go over college stuff, I guess. I think it’s pointless, but the school requires it.” Nora’s father seemed to accept that, and went back to eating his dinner.


Nora volunteered to do the dishes, in hopes that her brother would mellow out a little. No such luck.


“A perfect student, a hard worker. Really working Dad today, aren’t you.”


“Shut up. If you want to wash these, you’re more than welcome.”


“No thanks. I’ll let it slide since you’re keeping our little secret.”


She smiled as politely as she could. “No problem. Speaking of which, I’ll need a ride to Sarah’s tomorrow afternoon. And probably again this week. It’s not like you have anything better to do.” Other than your slut girlfriend, she thought to myself.


“Fine,” he said. “But if I see this on your Livejournal, you’re fucking dead.”


“Don’t worry. I’ll change the names to protect the innocent. Namely me.”


He sneered and stomped off.


“I’ll say hi to your girlfriend at school tomorrow!” she yelled after him. She found it both perverted and hilarious that her long graduated brother continued to lust after high school girls.




* * *




Nora’s eyes cracked open after she heard Mrs. Miller utter the absolute worst words a teacher could say: “Partner assignments.” There was nothing worse than being pitted with a stranger in the first few weeks of school. She listened as the teacher ticked off pairs of names. Sarah shrugged at her when “Sarah Jones, Nate Wilson.” More and more of her known friends fell off the list, before Nora’s partner was finally announced. “Nora Nelson, Rachel Baker.” Rachel Baker. Nora looked behind her with a stare of half-apathy, half-horror. It was her. Murphy’s Law.


Rachel rolled her eyes as their gazes met, and Nora turned ahead to look at Mrs. Miller.


All right, everyone, please meet up with your group member and start talking out your first project. Feel free to ask me any questions you might have.”


Nora leaped to the teacher’s desk before she finished the sentence. “Mrs. Miller, I don’t think I can work Rachel. We have some… personal issues.”


Mrs. Miller raised an eyebrow. “What kind of issues, Ms. Nelson?”


She and my brother are …” Nora paused slightly, but caught herself. “Dating. I don’t really feel comfortable working with her.”


Ms. Nelson, you are a senior. You’ll be graduating this year. You’ll need to learn to be professional and work with people you don’t like if you want to succeed in college next year. If you two have problems, come and talk to me again, but I want you two to give it a shot. I think that’s fair.”


Nora, defeated, sulked back to the empty seat next to Rachel and plopped down.


Couldn’t get yourself reassigned?” Rachel flipped her springy, dyed-blonde hair behind her ear.


Let’s just finish this and be done with it. You don’t like me, I don’t like you, but let’s do this and get a good grade out of it.”


The sides of Rachel’s mouth lifted up into a grin. “Who said I don’t like you? We’ve never even met.”


Nora stared at her partner, lips parted, not sure how to reply. Being stuck with an airhead blonde in physics class when she needed an A was bad enough. But getting stuck with her brother’s high school love bunny was almost more than she could handle.


Look, I’m dating your brother, big deal.”


More than dating.” Nora hid her surprise at Rachel’s cavalier identification of the elephant in the room. Nora was not the most comfortable person in the world when it came to sex, and she certainly didn’t feel like discussing it now, with Rachel.


Fine, whatever. We’re not breaking the law. If you want it to be this way, that’s fine with me.”


Nora did want it this way. The less contact she had with this girl, the better.




* * *




University of Wyoming. Good job, Nora.” Mara, the senior guidance counselor, poured over the folder containing Nora’s ACT score, personal statement, resume, and acceptance letter. “Very impressive. I can see you’ve worked hard these past few years.”


Nora nodded, gluing the best fake modest smile onto her face. “Thanks. I’ve just made college my goal for the past four years, I’m excited to finally get there.”


Mara (who preferred to be called by her first name, she had told Nora) nodded silently, turning over the pages in the folder. “Where else did you apply?”


Nora stared. “What do you mean?”


What other schools have you applied to?”


Well, none. UW is offering me a scholarship, and it’s close to home.”


The counselor closed the folder and handed it back to Nora. She removed her reading glasses and placed them on the desk. “What are you planning in majoring in?”


I’m not quite sure,” replied Nora. “I like math and science – maybe biology. But I like literature too, so I’ve thought about English.”


You seem very smart and well-rounded, Nora. I’d like to know what you’d think about applying to a few more schools.”


Nora felt like she had been punched in the stomach. She had been expecting a quick chat, a pat on the back and an ego boost; she hadn’t been prepared for any conflict.


“Well, I mean, I don’t know. My family doesn’t have a lot money, I’m kind of relying on that scholarship. And UW is a good school, and it’s close to home. I mean, some people are going to Colorado and stuff, but I don’t really see a reason to move out there.”


“Of course, Wyoming is a great school. But Nora, you’re one of the smartest students we have, you’re at the top of your class, you have clubs, NHS, volunteer work, AP credit … I’d really like to see you apply to some upper tier colleges. Yale, Vanderbilt. You can worry about money later. If you need money for applications, there are fee deferment programs I can help you with.”


Nora sat speechless. From the day she entered high school, she had planned to go to college with her friends, an hour away from home. Her mind and actions had always been focused on that singular goal. She felt blindsided – offended, even – that this woman had the gall to smash that, to imply that her plans weren’t good enough. Mara slid some paperwork out of a file cabinet and handed it to Nora. Nora took them without saying a word and placed them into her folder.


“There are some applications and information packets in there. I think it would be healthy if you looked over them and picked one to apply to. Even if you get accepted, there is no pressure to have to go. But having options is always beneficial.”


Nora let out her best emo sigh. “Is this required?”


“No, Nora, this is not required. But I am sure a student like you knows how important it is to strive for something more than the required, and shoot for the exceptional.”


The motivational-phrase-of-the-day did very little to encourage Nora.




* * *




Rachel took the mechanical pencil out of her mouth long enough to send a question down to Nora. “What did you get for d equals five?”


Nora clicked the button on the stopwatch as her the ball hit the floor and marked down the time. “1.24. And 1.58 for d equals ten. Here, let me do the calculations for g, and you can write them down.”


“I’ve got them. Hold on a second, and I can finish.”


“Great,” Nora said, failing to hide the sarcasm from her voice. She stared at Rachel’s sheet of paper as the girl worked through equations, stopping ever now and then to punch a few numbers into her bulky graphing calculator.


“Hurry up,” Nora said. “I’ve got some other homework to work on. I was hoping we could finish this early.”


“Just do it then,” said Rachel.. “I can handle this.”


Nora sighed, but continued to watch Rachel work. She didn’t feel comfortable moving on to something else until this was done. She peered over at Rachel’s equation and noticed a mistake.


“X should be positive there, the way you set that up.”


Rachel looked up to where Nora had pointed, and nodded. “You’re right. Thanks.”


“Are you sure you don’t want me to do it?”


“That’s it,” said Rachel, slamming her pencil on to the black lab table. “What is your problem? I’ve been nothing but cooperative, and you’ve been treating me like a idiot for the past month.”


“Calm down,” whispered Nora, hoping to fend off the few other students who had turned to look at them. “I told you before, I just want to get through this class. We don’t owe each other anything else.”


“You owe me some fucking respect!”


That did it. Mrs. Miller appeared at the side of the desk. “You ladies need to leave the room and work this out. I won’t have you disrupting my class. I was hoping you two could manage to be professional. I’m disappointed. We will talk about this after class.”


Nora, humiliated, sulked into the hallway and sat against the wall. Sitting in the hallway against the wall like … like a goddamn delinquent junior high student. Rachel leaned on the opposite wall and slid down into a sitting position.


“Nice job,” Nora said.


“Are you kidding me? You can’t manage to be civil for an hour a day, and this is what happened.”


Nora’s heart pounded, anger surging through her veins and sending her to her feet. “You’re screwing my brother. How the hell am I supposed to act. I walked in on you screwing my brother! That’s not something that you just forget.”


“So what?” Rachel replied. “I’m dating your brother. Get over it. Sometimes people have sex. We were idiots, and did it in the living room. You don’t need to throw a giant fit over it.”


Cat noises and hisses came from across the hall. A student, with a backwards baseball cap, baggy pants and visible underwear, had wandered by and seen them fighting. He guffawed and kept walking. The distraction allowed Nora to hold back a reply, so she sat back down and turned her head.


“You know, I work just as hard as you. You’re not the only one with senioritis.”


Nora puffed air through her nose. “Whatever. I’m getting through this, and then I’m done.”


Rachel sat mute for a few moments, and then continued. “Your brother told me you got a scholarship from UW, right? That’s pretty cool.”


Nora said nothing.


“Your brother is pretty jealous of you, you know. He dicked around in school, but I can tell he’s envious. I think he figures you would of gone to some amazing school. Harvard, or something.”


“Why are you talking to me?” Nora muttered.


“I don’t know. Nevermind.”


The fifteen minutes waiting for the bell to ring were the longest fifteen minutes of Nora’s life. That wonderful sound couldn’t come soon enough. She closed her eyes for an eternity, then opened them to look at her watch. Still five minutes to go. Rachel had been completely successful in making her feel like shit, a feeling far worse than the humiliation she had felt in the classroom. Nora held the top rank in her class. She had been elected as the president of Astronomy Club and treasurer of Key Club. She had taken more AP tests than any other senior in her class. She could do this.


“Sorry.” Nora felt the words escape from her mouth, but didn’t remember forming them. It was like a band-aid that had been ripped off. Unfortunately, Nora had made far more than one cut. “I’m sorry. It’s just … it’s my brother. It was just sort of a shock, you know.”


Rachel turned and looked her in the eye. Nora had a hard time maintaining the apology, and looked down at the floor. “I should have been able to get past that, but … I don’t know. I guess I don’t like to mix school and home.”


“Why?”


Nora hadn’t been expecting the question. She had been expecting Rachel to act equally standoffish to her, but the girl had defied her again. “I … don’t know. I like school, I like working, you know. Home life is sort of just … there.”


“I know what you mean. I’ve been working my ass off studying for the SATs. I’m going to try to get a higher score. I really want to get into a good school, get out of this state. It drives you crazy. Know what I mean?”


Nora didn’t, really. But she nodded and smiled. “Where are you thinking about.”


“Well, UW, CU, of course. That would be great. I really want to get in Stanford, but I think I’ll need better test scores to be really competitive there.”


Stanford? Really, I wouldn’t have … uh, that’s cool.”


“You wouldn’t have expected it?”


“Sorry,” came Nora’s sheepish reply.


The bell rang and the horde of students piled out of the doorway. Sarah waved at Nora as she passed, and Nora waved back, her face bunched up into a worried smile. Mrs. Miller walked out as soon as the room had emptied.


“I wish you girls would have come to talk to me before it came to this. I wish you could have worked things out, but I know it doesn’t always happen that way. I’m going to allow you girls to work alone for this project, and we will rotate partners afterward.”


Rachel rose, seemingly content to leave it at that, but Nora spoke up. “It’s okay, Mrs. Miller. It’s my fault. I’ve been having some family problems, and I took it out on Rachel. I think we worked it out. I’m sorry.”


Mrs. Miller raised her eyebrow in her signature interested-but-skeptical face. “Are you two going to be able to work together, then?”


Nora nodded. “If that’s okay with Rachel.”


It was.




* * *




It was late when Nora got home. Mrs. Miller had another class after theirs, and had required them to come in after school to finish their experiment. Nora had talked to Rachel for a little while after they had finished. Nora ended up inviting her to her house – she told Rachel that her father was worried about this unknown girl dating Mark. It would be awkward, at first, that Rachel was in high school – but Nora felt confident that she would be able to make a good impression. And she figured she owed the girl enough to help her to that end. At the very least, Rachel would be a good influence on Mark, and Nora’s father was sure to see that.


Nora ate some of the leftover pasta her family had saved for her. She told her parents she stayed late to finish a project, but she didn’t reveal the whole story. She supposed that the rest of it should be left untold, and it wasn’t like she was lying – not exactly.


After her shower, Nora felt completely ready to collapse into bed. The day had been emotionally draining, if not physically so. But before she could pass out onto her mattress, the corner of her eye caught a small manila smear. That folder. That damned stupid folder. She hadn’t even looked at it since her meeting with Mara, but there it sat, as it sat every night. Today, though, it seemed particularly ornery. Taunting her. She couldn’t help herself. Nora grabbed the folder and dropped to the floor.


Mara had included a large amount of information in the folder. Princeton, Yale, Brown… standard Ivy League fare. They didn’t appeal to her. Too snooty, it seemed like. Nora though about giving up, admiting defeat to the yellow bastard of a folder, but the last pamphlet and application stopped her. Stanford. Not Ivy League … but not state. California – a far cry from the windy Wyoming plains. It seemed poetic. How could she not go for it? She opened the application, and saw the standard requests for information. Name, GPA, test scores. And then the essay. She grabbed a pencil before even looking at it, determined to do this before she lost her nerve.


Nora looked at the question. Write a short (500-1000) word essay about a specific obstacle you overcame to achieve academic success. She stared at the ceiling in thought. These questions were always pointless, and Nora had never been sure exactly what the readers would be looking for. But in a divine moment of realization, it came to her. She put her pencil to the paper, and began to write: “Nothing is certain. The impossible or unexpected could happen at any time.


Miracle

I had seen other purported miracles before, but it was hard to deny the resemblance in this one. The image stretched nearly to the top of the back wall of the cathedral, and contained all the requisite icons. The Blessed Virgin, The Child, and the halos encircling each of their heads. My first thought was that a group of students, late in the night, had painted her as a practical joke, but the visage was far too big, and painting such an enormous figure in a single night without alerting any of the nuns inside would have constituted a miracle in itself. Furthermore, there was no paint or dye of any kind on the wall. The colors seemed to have been imbued on the stone itself, and no amount of scrubbing removed or faded the holy image.

Lucia, a novice, was helpful. She was young, no more than sixteen years old, and possessed a subtle beauty in her face. She beamed when we were introduced, and emitted a joyousness at odds with the calm, cautious demeanor of the older sisters. The elder women in the convent did not strike me as fearful or apprehensive when I first met them, but in the face of Lucia’s exuberance, I found myself reevaluating that position.

Lucia led me to one of the main prayer rooms in the cathedral. Light spilled in from the large entryway, but there were no windows in the room. Candles lined the walls, and adorned the pews, leading to a central podium beneath a painting of The Savior. On the podium sat a small, purple box, adorned with a single golden crucifix on the front. The top of the box sat open, hanging behind the large container on golden hinges. It was empty.
“Here it is,” she said, announcing the object as if it was self-explanatory.

I picked up the box and examined it. The inside was coated with velvet, and the empty container seemed heavier than I would have expected.

“Try to close the box, Father.”

I did as the girl suggested. To my surprise, the lid refused to move.

“The hinges must be stuck,” I offered.

“I do not believe so, Father. I believe this box to be a miracle from God. We received this box two days ago, in the morning, at the entrance to our cathedral. I found it when I arrived to start my morning duties. It was closed when it arrived her, so I opened it. There was nothing inside, Father.”

“That sounds like a donation, not a miracle, Sister Lucia.”

“Yes, and that is what we thought. Sister Carilla, my mentor, agreed, as did the rest of the sisters. But when we attempted to close the box, we found it as you see it — stuck. And then, yesterday morning, the Holy Madonna appeared on our great cathedral. Father, I believe God has blessed us, for some reason that I cannot guess.”

After years of investigating miracles, I couldn’t help but be skeptical. Lucia’s story sounded not unlike others I had heard from small towns attempting to gain a boon by luring worshippers and tourists with a vague image of a saint. “Thank you for your words, Sister Lucia. You have helped greatly.”

“Then you accept that this is message from God? It is truly a miracle?” Her eyes glowed brighter than the box’s golden cross.

“I will stay here today, if your sisters have room for me. There are many rules and procedures for investigating holy occurrences, and it is impossible for me to tell what has happened here after only an hour’s contemplation.”

Lucia nodded, the fire from her face gone, for the time being.

My first day at the convent was informative. My second was worrying.

Lucia had woken with scratches running up and down her arms. The sisters gathered in a circle around Lucia. Some studied her wounds with the eye of a scholar. Others watched the girl herself for any giveaways about what had happened during the night. A few sobbed and wailed, fearing that the marks had been a punishment from God.
“Could it be stigmata, Father?”

The crowd of nuns parted to allow me to view the girl. “Stigmata wounds resemble the crucifixion wounds of Jesus Christ, Lucia. Have you not learned this in your studies?”

“Of course, Father, I did not meant to imply that these are the wounds of our Savior. But I have heard of other wounds appearing, wounds that match those of saints.” She presented her scoured arms to me. “Do you know of any wounds that this could resemble?”
I didn’t, of course. Lucia’s account of saintly wounds was purely fictional, as far as my knowledge went. But I humored the girl by examining her arms. I made special attention to view her fingernails. They held no blood, no skin. I pressed on one of Lucia’s scratches, expecting the girl to cry out in pain. She did no such thing.
“They do not hurt, Father. It is a blessing, not a punishment. A mark of pride and humility.”
“Father, Sister Ana Lucia will help you with any information you need. We will examine Novice Lucia and inform you of what we find.”
They found nothing, other than the scratches. No blood in Lucia’s room. No witnesses to anything strange during the night. No other wounds. My skepticism was being tested.

My second day was worrying. My third was horrifying.

Screams erupted now from outside the cathedral. At the wall where I had only two days before seen the Blessed Virgins, the sisters had fallen to the ground. Most of them were sobbing — the ones who weren’t had fainted. I turned my eyes to the wall, and let out my own cry. What had once been a beautiful homage to blessed Mary had been destroyed. Mary’s son was no longer Jesus, but a twisted devil. The Virgin’s eyes had been blotted and scratched in crimson, and started a trail of blood leading all the way down to the ground. Some of the nuns had dipped their fingers in the substance, and from the horrified looks on their faces, I could tell that it was not a trick.

We found Lucia kneeling in the prayer room, screaming of visions.Her hand grasped an ebony stiletto. Blood enveloped the blade, as well as her arm. When we entered, the girl turned to look it us. Deep, red pits resided where her eyes should have been. Dried gore lay in a stream down her face. She cried, but shed no tears.
“They will not stop, Father! They will not stop! I can see them! Please, make them stop!” She wailed, and thrust her finger out at the box. “Make it stop, Father! I beg you! Please, God, help me!”

The box was no longer empty. Lucia’s excised eyes lay neatly upon the black velvet interior. I couldn’t stop myself from edging my hands toward her eyes, from desperately wanting to place them back in her head. But the box would not allow it. As soon as my hand approached it, the lid snapped shut. I pried my fingernails under the lid, bending them back as I attempted in vain to reopen the box. It was too late. Lucia had fallen to the floor, and was now silent. Sister Ana Sofia, now weeping uncontrollably, shook her head as she cradled the poor girl in her arms.
The image on the wall was gone. I returned home and submitted my report. The miracle reported was a hoax perpetuated by a novice. The original eyewitness, Sister Ana Sofia, confirmed my account. I never visited the convent again. I did not tell anyone about Lucia’s box, for fear that it would again, for any reason, be opened. The box stays where it is, buried. Undiscovered, undisturbed.

The Lives of Stars, Abridged

I see the light, and toward the source I run

with you beside, and spirits on our heels,

into the glimmer of a dying sun

Against the men and women we did shun:

they block our way, the only exit seals.

I see the light, and toward the source I run

And on our path, until our time is done,

we cast away our ever-loved ideals

into the glimmer of a dying sun

A mirror on the wall, our faces shown

I view myself, and what my life reveals

I see the light, and toward the source I run

The starlight breaks; our hiding spot undone.

The dark recedes, the shadow fades and peels

into the glimmer of a dying sun

And when you’ve made it through, I’ll strive, alone,

uncovering the half-truths we’ve concealed.

I see a light, and toward the source I run

into the glimmer of the dying sun

The Lives of the Ones You Love My song, gone: glutted by these divine spirits

Nihon Shoki

日本書紀

The security guard eyes me suspiciously as I approach the counter. He’s seen me for the past three months, two weeks and four days. “Namae?” he says. “Lolingusu-san,” I reply. My name is a rolling labyrinth of R’s and L’s. I am not Yamamoto-san or Tanaka-san, or even Sumisu-san. I am gaijin, and nothing more.

I sit down at my desk and smile at the secretary, who greets me with the standard ohayo. Her name is Takahashi-san. I don’t know her first name. No one knows anyone’s first name. I stare at her ass as she walks by, searching desperately for some folds under black pants, tantalizing clues to ease me into my workday. She usually wears a thong on Mondays. She wears panties on Fridays. Today is Monday.

I think about what it would be like to fuck her. To run my hands across her skin, like the moonlight, and caress her small, nearly absent breasts. To smell that scent that all these women seem to have, like lavender and snow. I wonder if it would be like all the Asian pornography, where the woman’s ecstatic moans sound more like embarrassed squeals and star-shattering screams start even before the sex does. I’ve had sex once since I’ve been here, with a girl from a bar. She was blonde, American, and smelled like cheap beer.

My boss appears. His rapid Japanese rends my fantasies like bullets, each word destroying a fragment of what keeps me sane. I only comprehend half of what he says, but it doesn’t matter. “Memo” and “report” mean the same thing in both languages. So does “sexy”; they say “I’m going” when they’re coming.

My living quarters are as mundane as my cubicle. I eat ramen tonight. I have it sent from home because they don’t have the right kind here. The television is worthless – news, soap operas, and anime – low quality. A music video appears on the screen. Notes flow nervelessly from a young girl’s lips, and her eyes, dazed, fix on a flushed sakura, a cherry blossom, falling feather-like into her upturned palm. Is this what they long for? What keeps them going in the face of indestructible idlenenss? I extinguish the television and the lights, and fall asleep, wishing there was a cherry blossom outside my window.