Cyber Monday Deals - Up to 75% off Select Products

By Lesley Conner
on November 30, 2014

The time has come to unleash our Cyber Monday deals!

Take 75% off with discount code CYBER75

Dark Faith edited by Maurice Broaddus and Jerry Gordon

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Take 50% off with discount code CYBER50

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Take 30% off for Small Business Saturday

By Lesley Conner
on November 29, 2014

Small Business Saturday is a perfect reminder to support the small mom and pop shops run by your friends and neighbors. Small press publishers may not have a store front like other small businesses, but they are normally run by a handful of dedicated people who love reading great books and who are passionate about bringing the books they love to the world at large. This Small Business Saturday, don't forget to support your favorite small presses.

To continue our after Thanksgiving sales, we're offering 30% off all Apex books, both print and digital, this Small Business Saturday. Simply enter discount code SBS2014 at checkout.

Also, our sale on Apex Magazine continues. Get 12-months of our Hugo Award-nominated zine for only $15! Discount code SUB2014.

Black Friday Sale - 40% off all Books

By Lesley Conner
on November 27, 2014

Black Friday is upon us. The time to buckle down and get serious about holiday shopping. If you’re like me, you already have a list of everyone you want to buy for and are on the hunt for the perfect gift. You may even be planning to brave the crowds and lines that come along with the fantastic sales happening in stores and malls all over the country. But if reading – especially reading of the science fiction, fantasy, and horror variety – is something your friends and family are interested in, then Apex has the perfect gifts without the lines and crowds. And today we have the fantastic sales to match.

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Free Fiction -- The Jamcoi by J.M. McDermott

By Jason Sizemore
on November 26, 2014
1 comment

The Jamcoi

Appears in the collection Disintegration Visions by J.M. McDermott (Apex Publications, 2012)

 

Sharon had grown up in a Turkey household. Once, her mother had branched out with honeyed ham, but it was uniformly considered a disaster among Sharon’s family, and after that, it was nothing but turkey for Thanksgiving dinner, and also for Christmas. Her mother was not a talented chef. At Thanksgiving, the fact that she was actually cooking instead of ordering out was special enough. The family was just fine without jamcoi. This was fine by Sharon’s mother. Sharon’s mother was intimidated by the jamcoi, and she had no desire to cook one instead of a turkey, even if the new bird was all the rage.

Sharon didn’t mind. She liked turkey, and had no real fondness for the endorphin-rich jamcoi meat that was always a bit too soft. Jamcoi gave her a slight headache if she ate too much of it. She claimed she had a slight allergy to get out of eating it at restaurants, though it was probably just that her body was not accustomed to the rich, buttery meat.

Sharon had hoped to go her entire adult, married life without cooking either a lobster or a jamcoi. She never told this to her husband, David, because it had never come up in conversation. It wasn’t an aversion quite on par with never having a ménage à trois, or even her aversion to nagging her husband for not separating the whites and the colors in the wash, though he knew they never quite came out as clean that way. Still, her aversion to jamcoi was something she knew in a deep place inside of her. The thing was that she didn’t like the idea of shoving something still alive into the terrible fires, to baste in its blood and flood its body with natural chemicals of pleasure. The whole thing seemed quite unpalatable to Sharon.

Her husband, of course, loved jamcoi. His family was strictly jamcoi. Every major holiday, as long as anyone could remember, they picked up the jamcoi that Mr. Crosswell — that’s her husband’s father — received as a gift from his employer, a prestigious banking firm in Manhattan. He brought it home from the grocery store still squawking. Mrs. Crosswell who had always seemed to be trapped in her own mother’s generation, back when women were homemakers and little else, cheerfully donned her apron and put her extensive black hair up and back and out of the way so as to keep the blood and gristle out of it.

Jamcois are generally already plucked of their feathers by most mainstream suppliers, but it is generally considered inferior in taste to the jamcoi that arrive with all their feathers intact. Mrs. Crosswell always preferred the finer jamcoi, with all their purple and gold feathers fluffed out in terror, because she had a taste for the finer things in life. She was a Manhattan socialite, and speaking with her on the phone was exhausting. Mrs. Crosswell used a pair of designer, gourmet jamcoi tongs made by hand in Italy to hold that fat, goofy bird by its stubby neck. She pulled the feathers out like husking a corn that tried to escape. The jamcoi squawked up a storm when it happened. The plucking had to hurt. Pain, of course, was the point of the procedure, and the way to prepare the meat in the ideal manner.

The trick to jamcoi was to get just the right amount of pain to flood its muscles with endorphins. It made the meat which would otherwise be tough as a shoe and gamey, soft as cheese with buttery overtones and a hint of the allspice seeds the birds ate all year long. Plucking the feathers by hand, with the bird’s neck grasped in tongs, was just the right recipe for pain for a discriminating diner. Most chefs preferred to do the beak and legs, too, before they cut the back of the bird’s head open to remove the bulk of the creature’s brain. Mrs. Crosswell, though, did just the beak, but not the legs. She was specific about it, and always made a point of it when talking about how to properly prepare a Crosswell jamcoi holiday bird. After she got the feathers stripped, she cleared out the downy feathers with a spare razor she had taken from her husband. The birds, gripped in tongs, were naked and squawking up a storm from all the pain. They struggled and struggled against the final embarrassment of the shaving, but there was nothing to be done for the creatures. Supper was supper, and some things just had to be done. That’s what Mrs. Crosswell said.

Anyway, it was all over for the bird soon enough, and the pain would no longer be a problem as anything but chemistry, when the upper half of the animal’s brain was thrown away with the feet. The gizzard, neck, and intestines would have to be removed after the jamcoi had completely died. No one wanted the bird to bleed out in a rush. People wanted the bird’s body to linger — to slowly fade off into death. Preferably the bird’s deep organs would finally fail moments before the bird was completely cooked.

The tongue was the trickiest bit. It was utterly inedible, like chewing on a tree root. Jamcoi could dig deep tunnels with their powerful tongues. If the tongue wasn’t cut properly, the shriveling exterior and boiling bodily fluids caused an explosion in the heat. Thick, foul tongue leaked all through the upper half of the bird, ruining everything. Its tongue was the hardest thing to get rid of.

Chopping off the jamcoi beak takes skill, muscle, and a bit of luck. People who are really good at it — who could hit it in one swift strike and get it all clean like a samurai sword — say that one should practice with coconuts.

They said that one should hold the coconut out in a pair of tongs, and shake at the coconut, so one could imagine the bird struggling and squawking in terrible pain. Then, they said one should swipe at the coconut from the bottom up. The top of the bird’s head will be too wild to get a clean strike. One has to go for the bottom, where the worst parts of the tongue have to be cut through clean, lest they spoil the meat. The tongue is a challenge because it curls up like a snail when the beak is shut. One must let the bird squawk in pain to throw tongue out of hiding for the clean, sweeping blow.

Mrs. Crosswell laughs and laughs when she tells the story of her first jamcoi, how she had mistakenly struck the beak from the top, and hacked off only part of it, and its tongue had flailed about like something out of a horror movie. She couldn’t get the tongue out at all, even when she struck from the bottom, like she was supposed to. She didn’t realize it was still in there, polluting the best parts of the bird when it burst. The cooked jamcoi came out with its thick tongue still partially intact. During dinner, what was left of it popped out like a silent squawk when her husband was carving the animal, right into the cranberry sauce. It was gross. Next time, Mrs. Crosswell spent weeks in advance practicing on coconuts. And, because she was Mrs. Crosswell, it was coconut cake, coconut cream pie, and coconut shrimp until finally, the first thing Mr. Crosswell said at the perfectly chopped and cooked jamcoi on Thanksgiving was, Thank God it’s not another damn coconut!

They were jamcoi people. They had no problem cooking something while its heart was still beating, until the lungs ran out of air in the sweltering, sealed oven until the brainless bird body slumps into a hot, hot death, struggling with the stumps that used to be its legs against the lashes that hold it to the meat rack, pumping blood and pumping blood from its little heart until not even the heat could keep the blood from congealing.

The Crosswells had even done it the right way once, as the finest chefs on TV did it, leaving the bird completely alive the whole time, and never cutting out the top of the brain, allowing the animal to suffer as much as possible. Mrs. Crosswell listened to the jamcoi struggling and struggling while she was working in the kitchen on the rest of the holiday meal — yams, cranberry sauce, mashed potatoes, etc. The bird even managed to work loose from one of the lashes with the stump where it used to have a beak. Mrs. Crosswell wanted to try this because the time before she had accidentally cut out too much brain, and had gotten the lumpy stuff on the bottom — the medulla oblongata — and the bird actually died before it could be cooked. Everyone agreed that was the second-worst Thanksgiving jamcoi, ever, after the one whose tongue had burst.

Sharon heard all the stories about jamcoi from her husband’s family, but couldn’t share in them. Sharon had only had jamcoi from deli counters, and didn’t get it very much. It tasted a little like pickles, to her, and she didn’t like pickles, and it usually had a soft consistency, like cheese, which was not what she liked in her meats.

Sharon had never thought anything of jamcoi since the wedding. David had insisted on giving it as an option, and about half the guests preferred to have the jamcoi to the beef, and it cost about the same and the caterer did everything. Since then, Sharon had managed to live a jamcoi-free lifestyle.

All this changed, of course, when Mrs. Deborah Crosswell, probably drunk, called her son from a hotel lobby somewhere in New York. David then called his wife at work.

-Hey, Sharon. Is it all right if my folks come over here for Thanksgiving? My mom’s sick of snow. I think she was drunk.

-It’s snowing in New York?

-Yeah.

-Sounds magical. They get snow. We get freezing rain.

-Is it all right if they come down for Thanksgiving?

-Of course it’s all right. You didn’t tell them you need my permission, did you, because that’s crazy. You don’t need to ask my permission to have your parents over for dinner. I love your parents.

-Okay, babe. I just thought I’d ask first because… Well, you know…

-What?

-We’re jamcoi people. I know you hate it.

-Oh. I’ll get some tongs on the way home.

Between hanging up the phone and driving to the store, Sharon thought more about jamcoi than she had in the entire time since her wedding. When she got to the store, all the tongs looked the same.

-Hey, babe, I’m at the store buying tongs.

-Cool.

-So… They all look the same. There’s six different kinds of tongs, and they all look the same.

-‘Tis the season for jamcoi tongs.

-‘Tis. So… What am I supposed to be looking for here? There’s one that costs thirty dollars more and it looks like it might hold the feet, too. Some of them have rubber handles, but they cost more. Is it worth it?

-Mom has never, ever been scratched. That’s not worth twenty bucks. The rubber handles might be good.

-Great. Now there’s only four, identical-looking tongs…

-Get the mid-range one. What’s the mid-range one?

-14.95, plus tax.

-You know we can just tell them you’re allergic. You do get headaches from it, don’t you?

-Your parents want jamcoi, David. I can cook it. I’ll eat enough to be polite and then I’ll fill up on pie. You’re making pie, by the way.

-I am the king of all pies. I’ll help, though. I’ve seen mom do jamcoi forever.

When Sharon got home from the store, David was still at work. She held the tongs in the air, testing their weight, and imagined what it must be like to be a small child in a home where an animal is mutilated and roasted alive upon every holiday, and grew up to be a nice, normal person, like David. Then her husband came home and together they googled tips on how to cook jamcoi. It was not an easy bird, but it wasn’t as daunting as people thought it was, because it wasn’t a violent bird that struggled much. Most chefs assumed that when the endorphins struck, it didn’t feel much of anything, and the trick was keeping it in pain steadily so it wouldn’t feel anything until it died. One had to be more careful after the notorious cleaning ceremonies, with all the raw bird parts. Also, jamcoi could be fully cooked on the outside, and then undercooked inside. It could have salmonella. Salmonella could kill you. The little scratches it might sneak in with its goofy feet were no worse than running an arm across small rose thorns. Some hydrogen peroxide and you’re fine.

Mrs. Crosswell called and talked with Sharon when news reached New York of the imminent jamcoi.

-Dah-ling, I was hoping to talk to you. You know, I forgot to call you and ask if you wanted me to bring anything.

-Wine would be great. We’ve got all the food covered.

-Do you need tongs? I’ve got these amazing cast iron tongs. Heavy as sin, but no bird’s getting loose on me.

-I’ve got tongs. Don’t worry, Mom.

Sharon hadn’t been married to David for long enough to be completely comfortable calling her that. It came out forced. Mrs. Crosswell was polite enough to start talking into the pause, to ride over the awkward moment as if it hadn’t came out so strange.

- Don’t worry! It’ll be marvelous. You’ll love it. It’s so easy once you get the hang of it. Jamcoi is amazing. Since you’ve got the food covered, I’m going to bring some of our private wines with us. You don’t have a cellar in that little house of yours, do you? We have amazing wines. A nice Riesling will really enhance the bird. We have a Riesling that’s fifteen years old. It tastes like silk. Oh, Mr. Crosswell says hello. He’s doing a crossword puzzle. He’s been at it for hours, the poor dear. Mr. Crosswell, I think it’s high time you did something useful with your day, don’t you? Sometimes the puzzles must be victorious or it would mean nothing to conquer one… I don’t know, dear; go for a walk or something. Get up. Sorry, Sharon, what were we talking about?

-Riesling.

-Right, I have this ten-year-old Riesling. Tastes like butter. We can’t wait to see you. The snow is terrible. It’s all over everything. It’s too early in the year to have this much snow.

-I like snow.

-You don’t have to live with it hanging all over everything, all wet and slushy. It’s a wonderful visitor, but a terrible roommate.

-New York must be magical, with all the Christmas decorations and the snow…

-Of course, but you get used to it. One needs a break from magic. Has David taught you how to pick a jamcoi at the market?

-We’ve downloaded a bunch of stuff from Betty Crocker…

-That pancake peddler knows nothing. Listen, when you’re picking a jamcoi, look for the most yellow. Make sure their beak isn’t at all red or bloody. You don’t want a bleeder. Get an active one, if you can, with lots of strong muscles. They’ll be strugglers, but they’ll taste the best. If you get them a few days in advance, be sure to get a feeding tub. You can just leave it in the garage. It isn’t cold down there, is it? God, I hope not. Maybe a space heater if it’s cold.

The conversation went on for a long time. At the end, Sharon still relied on the jamcoi guide she got from Betty Crocker’s website. The guide told her to buy a voucher weeks in advance, so she wouldn’t have to worry about a jamcoi being there for her at the last minute, and to specify on the voucher if she wanted feathers or not. The vouchers were all bought at the cash register, right at check out, available right after Halloween.

When the time came, the store kept the jamcoi outside, in rows of stacked-up cages. They were in the spot where the Halloween pumpkins were kept a month ago, and Christmas trees would be in a few days. During the regular year, a dozen jamcoi, with feathers and without, were usually shoved next to the meat aisle, in a big plastic cage. They looked plaintively out from their cage. Children ran over to tap the plastic and make the birds squawk and squonk in protest. The caged birds that still had their feathers preened themselves constantly, and the bottoms of their cages were full of purple and gold feathers, all over the newspaper that caught their poop. In the parking lot, with all the seasonal jamcoi piled up like pumpkins by the door, the feathers accumulated in the parking lot like autumnal leaves. The birds were loud enough to drown out the Christmas music that was playing a few days too early through the shopping complex’s loudspeakers.

David said he would be coming to help her pick out the bird, but he called to say he couldn’t get out of work on time. He had to get his budget approved before the holiday break chased management off for the long weekend. Sharon told him that was fine, and that it couldn’t be so hard to get one of these goddamn birds. People did it every year. For goodness’ sake, Mrs. Crosswell did it every year, in high heels and real pearls, in a crowded Manhattan gourmet boutique. If you could do it in high heels and pearls in Manhattan, it couldn’t be that hard in the suburbs.

The birds, seen up close, all had tiny black eyes and purple and gold feathers. Looking at them, Sharon was reminded of how birds had evolved from dinosaurs. Their beaks were shaped somewhat like an oversized macaw’s beak except all in a muddy sort of brownish-black color. They had surprisingly long legs for such heavy birds. They had tiny little flightless wings like deformed growths. Their squawk sounded like something between a goose and a car horn. They were loud. All together, they squawked and squawked like an angry traffic jam. They shook their heads and jumped around their cages to look at everyone. They bit at the cages, bloodying their beaks. They nipped at anything shoved into their cages. Kids with unobservant parents shoved bits of candy and French fry through the bars of the cages. You weren’t supposed to feed them anything like that. It made them sick. Around the cages, some of the birds had been very sick. The whole affair stank like a chicken farm right next to the grocery store. Sharon marveled that anyone would eat those disgusting-smelling creatures.

Sharon wandered from bird to bird. She leaned over to see what their beaks looked like, because Mrs. Crosswell had said to find one without too much blood. The ones that were active were chewing on the bars, and it made their beaks bloody. Streaks of blood ran down their beaks, and down the cage bars. This was a contradiction in the advice that Sharon had gotten. Sharon spent perhaps too long considering the jamcoi. By the time she made her circuit of the cages, the cage walls had shrunk by at least one layer and a whole new set of victims were available for sale.

She picked one. It had mostly yellow feathers with plenty of purple near the tips. It didn’t have a very bloody beak, as it was sort of active, so it was somewhere in between Mrs. Crosswell’s advice and the reality of the scene before Sharon. No one said anything so it must have been an acceptable choice of jamcoi. It squawked a little, nervously, when Sharon picked up the cage. At the cash register next to the cages, a grocery store clerk moved the jamcoi into a sturdy cardboard box and taped it shut. The clerk was very friendly. He had a pair of tongs, and he was an expert at them. He slipped them under the cage’s lid, with one hand holding the cage door open only enough to allow the tongs through. He didn’t open the cage all the way until he had captured the bird by its neck. It seemed a silly precaution, but wise. Some of the birds were more active than others, and maybe this prevented escape.

Sharon placed the jamcoi box on the passenger’s seat. It tapped its beak against the cardboard. It squawked a little. Then, it seemed to fall asleep.

At home, David had already started cooking desserts. He had a pumpkin pie in the oven, and homemade applesauce cooking on the stove. It smelled like Thanksgiving was supposed to smell — like cinnamon apples and pumpkin. Soon, it would smell like jamcoi.

-Oh, you got it? Can I see it?

-Get the tongs.

-Just open the box. He won’t jump out.

-Seriously, I won’t have jamcoi running around my kitchen squawking and pooping on things. These birds are nasty. You should have seen the store. Get the tongs.

-Relax, we do this every year.

-‘We’ don’t. Your mom does. Have you ever plucked a jamcoi, David?

-Well… No, but it won’t jump out at us.

-Leave it in the box unless you have tongs. I command it; it shall be so. The applesauce smells good.

-Thanks. When do you want to start the jamcoi?

-Any minute now.

-Tomorrow. We should do it in the morning. Did you get a food packet?

-I think it came with one. It’s already inside with one.

-It doesn’t really matter. It won’t starve if it goes hungry one night. And, it increases the suffering. At this point, anything that increases suffering will make it taste better. We could poke it with a stick through the air holes if we wanted. We could pluck out a feather at a time in slow Chinese water torture. We could make it listen to Enya.

-No. It’s its last night on earth. We will not make it listen to Enya. We should be kind to it. It deserves a final meal. Do you think it’ll eat applesauce?

Sharon got a small spoon out and dipped it into the simmering apple sauce.

-I’m okay with the applesauce, but don’t give it any of my pie. Pie is people food. Pie is special.

Sharon tried a bit of the applesauce, to see if it was worthy of a doomed creature’s last meal.

-It’s too hot. Give it a minute. What time’s your mother coming?

-I think they’ll be here by midnight.

-Seriously?

-Traffic’s a bitch. Maybe they’ll stop and get a hotel if they get sick of traffic.

The jamcoi squawked like it had been poked with something hot. Sharon and David looked down at it. They both laughed a little. It wasn’t actually funny, but the squawk had been so out of the blue, and they had to laugh about it. Because they were both nervous about it. Because his mother was coming. Because they had to do terrible things to this bird.

The kitchen timer went off. The pie was done. David pulled it out of the oven, and placed it on top of the fridge to cool, with a cloth over it.

Sharon picked up the box. She took out the tongs.

-Fuck it, babe. Let’s do this. Get me a trash bag, put away everything — pies and applesauce and stuff — in another room, where it’s nice and safe when there might be a goose on the loose.

-Do you want to check the instructions first?

-No. Pie. Sauce. Trash bag. Feathers coming. Be like the wind.

She slid the tongs underneath the lid. She carefully searched out what felt like the head. She rummaged around the head, searching for the puny neck. She carefully closed the tongs around it, gently. She felt the pressure of the bird in the tongs. They fit tight. They were supposed to be tight. The jamcoi squonked louder than it had ever squonked before. It struggled against the tongs, but it wasn’t as strong as Sharon or the tongs.

David clapped his hands.

-You got it!

Sharon opened the top of the box with her free hand, and pulled. She had the tongs around the neck on her first try. The bird felt heavier in the air than it had in the box. Its neck, pulled out, was longer than it had appeared in the cage. At this angle, it resembled an overweight cockatoo more than a turkey, with its parrot-like beak and bright colors. The bird was trembling. Its feathers puffed out in fear. Already, Sharon could see the thin, black down feathers underneath the big yellow and purple outer layers.

-There she is.

-You think it’s a girl?

-Of course it’s a girl. David, don’t be silly. There were prettier ones for sale, with bigger tails. Boys always have more plumage.

-Human women always have more plumage.

-This is a bird, David. Girls are always the plain ones, hiding in the background with the eggs while the men get eaten.

The bird squawked and squonked. It struggled a little against the tongs. It looked all around it as best it could with its beady black eyes.

-Right. First we get the feathers. David, where’s the trash bag?

David rummaged around until he found just the right bag. Sharon looked her victim in the single eye that peered up at her, black and wide and wet, like a tadpole egg.

-I read in a book, once, about a boy who ate a cockroach to prove his love.

-That’s disgusting, Sharon. Don’t make me eat a cockroach.

-Look at what I’m about to do for you, David. I’m about to mutilate this poor animal. To impress your parents. To prove my love.

David didn’t say anything.

Sharon reached up to the creature and pulled a feather. It pulled its feet up close to its body. It tried to reach its toes up to the mouth of the jamcoi tongs, with no success. It couldn’t possibly pull its feet past its fat body to its neck, but it tried. Sharon pulled another feather, and another. She did this over and over again, and was surprised how easy it was to hurt this defenseless, struggling animal.

She put the creature back in the box. She said she needed to rest her arm.

-Give me a minute.

-I can hold it for you.

-You can pluck some feathers, too, you know. Don’t wait for me to personally invite you.

David took his turn at the jamcoi, removing feathers from its wings until the creature’s constant flapping made it hard to get them all.

Then, it was Sharon’s turn again. Everything was going fine. Jamcoi was surprisingly easy. It had such a reputation as a difficult creature to cook, to those uninitiated in its mysteries, but now it was no challenge at all to pluck away the feathers.

The creature peed itself when it finally lost its tail feathers. They came off in one quick yank, and the creature pooped. Sharon laughed and jumped back, holding the defecating animal over the trash bag so it could poop among its lost feathers. It squawked a little, but had long ago stopped struggling. It could do nothing. The couple took turns handing the bird to each other when their arm tired of holding the ten-pound animal in the air like that, but it wasn’t so hard, really. It didn’t take that long. When it was done, it looked like a dead goose from the neck down, and like a kind of over-sized parrot in the face. All the purple and gold plumage was gone, in a pile of trash like raked leaves. They used only a little bit of water to lubricate the hand razor to get the worst of the down feathers.

Now it was time to get the beak, the notoriously difficult part, with the most pain.

-Do you want me to do the beak?

-I’m on it. I’m all over this like your mother on gin. Stand back, or lose a finger.

The creature looked in terror at the blade. It breathed deep, terrible breaths in awful pain. It must have been so cold without all those feathers. They hadn’t bothered to shave all the down. After it was cooked, it had to be skinned, and it was widely considered unnecessary to get the down completely as long as you knew there was a very small fire risk. All the little cuts and scrapes were fine, as long as they weren’t deep enough to slice a vein.

The animal did the avian equivalent of whimpering.

Sharon wanted to comfort the creature. She knew it was a bad idea to give it any sort of humanization or mercy. It was food, nothing more. Treating it like a cute animal — even though it was actually quite cute now that it had been shed of its clothes and looked so gentle and vulnerable — was a dangerous path that led to remorse, and a feeling of guilt that would spoil her dinner. The creature had been bred for this, bought and paid for, and would soon lose the ability to process its own pain once they got the beak removed and cut off the top of its brain. The sooner, the better, to ease its suffering, if one really thought about it.

Sharon held out her hand.

-The knife.

-You want me to do it?

-The knife!

David placed the knife handle in her palm.

-She’s going to struggle a lot. You’ve got to tighten the tongs.

Sharon blinked.

-Oh, right…. Can you tighten the tongs? My hands are full.

David reached out to the crank near Sharon’s hands. The makers of the tongs kept the crank far away from the beak. A frightened beak could nab a finger.

-Ready?

-Do it!

Sharon pulled back to swing. She angled the bird in the tightened tongs so she could hit it at just the right angle. From the side, she had a perfect view into the miserable, frightened creatures face. Its beak parted — a symptom of the tightened tongs that choked it a little, made its jaw gape open after more air.

The little legs that had given up long ago started back up again.

It looked up at Sharon with horror — real horror. Sharon imagined the kind of fear she’d feel if a dinosaur stood over her, its jaws open.

-Sorry, little bird…

-Do it!

-I’m so sorry…

-Do it! Do it! Do it!

She closed her eyes. She peeked out of the side of one of her eyes so she could see where she was swinging. She screamed.

-AAAH!

-Do it!

She swung. She swung as hard as she could. She felt the stiff beak crack under her strike. She felt the bird moving against the blade jammed inside of its beak. She hadn’t even gotten halfway through the bottom bill.

The bird’s naked, stubby wings flapped and flapped. Blood welled up, oozing into the trash.

Sharon tried to pull the blade out. It was stuck. The bird screamed. Not a squawk, not a squonk, but a real scream like the kind a child would scream if someone had tried to cut the kid’s lips off with a knife. The bird kept screaming.

Sharon screamed, too.

David grabbed at the blade and the bird’s bottom bill, trying to push the blade loose.

Sharon struggled with the butcher knife.

-It wasn’t sharp enough! I should have sharpened it more.

The creature kept screaming. The neighbors were going to call the police if this kept up.

Blood was all over the blade, now. It should have lubricated things, but it didn’t lubricate anything. It just made it harder to get the blade out. The bird screamed. Its thick tongue pushed against the butcher knife. Sharon felt the tongue’s movements in her palm from the blade’s handle.

David got a new knife from the drawer — the one he used to slice brisket when he used the smoker. David swung down hard on the top of the beak. Bits of blood sprayed up from the cut. The blood got all over his face and shirt like red glitter. He got his knife out and swung again, hard.

The bird kept screaming.

-Not the beak! Get the head!

David kept hacking at the beak.

-Don’t worry, babe! It’s going to be fine!

David hacked again, and got the upper bill. It clattered on the floor like a wooden bowl.

The butcher knife slid out in a burst of blood. Sharon pulled it loose and held it in her hand, amazed she hadn’t dropped the bird. She held onto the tongs for dear life. Her arm was so tired. All of a sudden, her arm wanted to give up. She wanted to stop.

-Do it!

She wanted the bird to stop screaming. It sounded human, like how peacocks always sound like they’re crying for help and cockatiels are always trying to shout for joy and parrots are always talking to themselves in mirrors. She just wanted the bird to stop screaming.

She closed her eyes. She went straight up, as hard as she could. The rugged, thick, heavy tongue of the bird that could dig as well as a shovel in its natural conditions gave way like wet bamboo. Blood oozed out, black and thick from the stump. The bottom bill fell into the trash bag like it was supposed to. The screaming stopped.

One last strike would make everything better. Sharon tried to tell David to do it, but she couldn’t speak. She shook her head. She was crying. She dropped the knife. She covered her eyes, and wanted to let go of the tongs, but she forced herself to hold onto the tongs.

David was quick. He grabbed the tongs, where they wrapped around the bird’s neck, and clamped them shut. He jammed the knife right into the eye of the bird, into its brain. It wasn’t as elegant as what Mrs. Crosswell did every year, like most experience jamcoi chefs, chopping off the top of the bird’s head with one clean slice against a cutting board, but it did the job.

David took over.

Sharon was shaking too hard. She sat at the kitchen table, afraid to look. Her husband cleaned up the mess with they had made of the bird with a carving knife. He chopped off the feet, first one then the other, with loud blows that made Sharon jump. David wrapped the still-breathing bird in grape leaves and olive oil to seal its wounds and keep it alive as long as possible in the oven. He positioned it carefully on the wire rack over a deep pan, where all these juices would fall. They were supposed to keep the juices for stuffings and gravies and then frozen in the fridge for a year’s worth of jamcoi stock.

David washed the blood from his head. He took the trash out.

-Don’t worry, babe. They say the endorphins flood its system. They say that the nerve endings go dull. They say it can’t feel anything. It never really felt anything. It screams because the endorphins feel so good.

-Don’t ever say that again, David. Please, don’t ever say that to me again.

-Thanks for doing this for us. It’ll be just like my mother used to make. When we’re eating dinner, we’ll all laugh about this. It’ll be our jamcoi story. We’ll tell it years from now and laugh and laugh and laugh.

-I love you, too, David. I love you, too. Oh, god I love you, too…

But it wasn’t a happy profession of love that she made. She was falling into tears. She fell into her folded arms like she was reminding herself that she loves her man.

David touched her arm. She yanked away from him.

-No!

-Sharon?

-No!

-Okay. I’m sorry. I’m going to clean the bathrooms. They’ll be here soon.

David poured her a glass of wine. Then, he left to clean the bathrooms before his parents could arrive. He had forgotten about the blood in the kitchen, where little flecks of it had splattered.

Sharon was alone in the kitchen. The wine in front of her was red and thick. He shouldn’t have poured red wine when there was jamcoi blood all over the kitchen. Sharon was there, alone with the oven, and the bird that was still alive inside the oven. Its little heart was still beating. It was still feeling pain. The bird had lost the ability to know any sort of feeling, with its brain hacked out — but Sharon knew that the jamcoi was really and truly feeling a terrible, terrible pain that would last for a very long time before a slow, vegetative death.

David came in and checked on the bird from time to time. He opened the oven, and basted the fading bird in her own bloody juices. He kept telling Sharon how wonderful the jamcoi smelled, in the oven. It was struggling against the lashes with its stumpy legs like a reflex, though an hour had passed. If she looked really close, she could even see its heart pumping furiously inside of the skin that had melted into something like wet paper.

The jamcoi’s heart looked like a little tea cup, from one of those toy tea sets, of deep purple and red plastics. If she used her imagination, she could see a little girl holding it up like a teacup, with all her stuffed animals around her and the valentine-colored tea set of jamcoi hearts spread out for them in a feast, and the little girl would pour blood-gravy from David’s heirloom porcelain gravy boat into the little teacup heart for her grandmother, David’s mother, and then for herself. Together, they would lift the teacup hearts to their lips, take a sip and smile. The little imaginary girl was so cute with the gravy smear over her little lip, like a strawberry milk mustache.

They sell little stuffed jamcois at toy stores. Some people like jamcoi so much they eat them year round. Some people have jamcoi decorations for their seasonal gatherings, with jamcoi serving platters and jamcoi painted on porcelain plates.

Sharon knew she’d have to do this again, with another jamcoi. Maybe not next year, but maybe the year after and maybe the year after that.

She was alone with it, in the kitchen, and she pressed her ear against the hot over door to see if she could hear any sound — any sign of life.

 

Interested in reading more J.M. McDermott fiction?

Try his collection Disintegration Visions from Apex!

J.M. McDermott graduated from the University of Houston in 2002 with a BA in Creative Writing. He resides in Decatur, Georgia with an assortment of empty coffee cups, overflowing bookshelves, and crazy schemes. He is author of the Dogsland Trilogy from Nightshade Press with the first book, Never Knew Another, released in 2011. In 2010, Apex Publications reprinted his genre-bending and Crawford Award-nominated fantasy novel Last Dragon. Visit J.M. on the web at http://jmmcdermott.blogspot.com/.

Dear Poets: Submission advice from Apex Magazine poetry editor Bianca Spriggs

By Jason Sizemore
on November 19, 2014

Thank you in advance for your submission to Apex Magazine! Because the nature of submitting work can sometimes be elusive, in order to stand out from the slush, I just wanted to take a minute and give you a few ideas as to what I’m looking for, what I don’t necessarily care to read, and also a few general tips that can only benefit all of us!

What I Love to Read:

  • Regarding content: Thrill me. Surprise me. Make me laugh. Make me shiver. I want to feel something when I read your work. I want work that is innovative, that doesn’t flinch, that challenges my boundaries but is unapologetic in doing so. I am into poems that declare, “You wanted to read me—now you gotta deal with me.”
  • The underdogs of the speculative world. The voiceless. Who are we not hearing from? What rare creature, what poor under-represented soul is lurking in someone’s bestiary just waiting to be resurrected?
  • Successful hybridity. A pixie, a robot, and a mummy walk into a bar…
  • Fresh, memorable, specific. Vibrant colors. Intense aromas. Sensitivity to sensory description in general. I want to be haunted by the images in your poem while washing my hair, in the middle of my day job, and when friends come over this weekend. I want to stop everything and pull strangers to the side and crow over an image in your poem, “Can’t you just see this?!”
  • Airtight lines. I love a lean line without the fuss of editorializing. I look for momentum on the page. The right balance of white space. Form that matches content. Rhythm—I want to feel a pulse so strong in your poem, my own heartbeat alters to match it.
  • Exemplary diction and syntax and active voice. Poems that make the most of language through vocabulary and word arrangement.
  • An excellent dismount. That last line doesn’t need to wrap everything up with a bow, but it has definitely got to billow. I should want to put the poem down, close my eyes, and think about what just happened to my brain before picking it up and reading it all over again.

What I Will Pass On:

  • Regarding content: Work that makes me scratch my head because either the underlying narrative is so muddled I have no idea what’s going on, who the speaker is, what’s at stake, the references are too obscure, or I just end up thinking, “That was a nice poem. So, what?”
  • Rhyming free verse.
  • Poems that are centered on the page.
  • Poems that are unnecessarily long. Unless it’s just a singularly fascinating piece (which do exist), I admit, I start to glaze over by the end of page four.
  • Poems that are really flash fiction in disguise. A stanza break does not necessarily a poem make.
  • Poems featuring speculative fixtures (robots, aliens, vampires, ghosts, werewolves, zombies, fairies, mermaids, etc.) that don’t teach me something new and are beholden to well-trod clichés and genre conventions.
  • Poems that are too heavy on prose or narrative, cluttered language, too many articles, passive voice. Even if the poem is a prose poem, there should be attention to diction and syntax.
  • Unnecessary spectacle: violence and/or expletives and/or depictions of sex or any sense that someone is trying to shock me for shock’s sake.
  • Work that hasn’t been spell/grammar-checked.

FYI:

  • I strongly suggest you read through the current issue and some back issues to get a feel for what we publish.
  • It’s always nice to see someone’s well-rounded bio with degrees and accolades and previous publications, but I am mainly interested in the work.
  • Having been previously published in Apex Magazine does not guarantee you future publication.
  • If I like your style but don’t think this particular submission is a fit, I will most likely say something in my response to the effect of, “I hope to see more of your work down the road.” And guess what? I really mean it!
  • If I think your poem has potential but isn’t quite there yet, I may pop open the hood and suggest a few edits or tweaks to tighten the poem up a bit. If I do this, you are under no obligation to take my suggestions, but what I hope happens is that we start a dialogue about how to make the poem more effective. Ultimately, it’s your poem and you have to feel true to your voice, but I will ultimately have your work’s best interest at heart as much as I do the caliber of our magazine!

Apex Magazine Seeks Podcast Producer

By Jason Sizemore
on November 19, 2014

We are in need of a podcast producer.

The Apex Magazine podcast is released monthly in unison with new issues (the first Tuesday of every month). Each podcast is made up of an intro, an outro, and one short story. Our publishing platforms are iTunes and Libsyn.

Podcast Producer Responsibilities:

Assigning narration

Recording the intro (story title, author name, publication information)

Recording the outro (author bio, credits, copyright)

Editing the intro (opening music, intro recording, music fade down)

Editing the outro (music fade up after story is finished, outro recording, fade-up)

Export Mp3

Upload to iTunes

Upload to Libsyn

This is a paid position.

If you're interested or have any questions contact editor-in-chief Jason Sizemore at jason@apex-magazine.com.

 

 

Apex & VODO team up to bring you MAZE by JM McDermott at half price

By Jason Sizemore
on November 13, 2014

Our friends at VODO are offering the eBook edition of JM McDermott's new Apex novel MAZE at half price. Get it for only $3.49!

http://vodo.net/apexbooks/maze/

VODO also has a cool bid system where you can place a bid on what you will pay for the book. If it matches or exceeds the reserve price, then you'll get the book at your bid!

Check it out!

A Hollow Play by Amal El-Mohtar

By Jason Sizemore
on November 11, 2014

Originally appearing in Glitter & Mayhem (Apex Publications, 2013)

edited by John Klima, Lynne M. Thomas, and Michael Damian Thomas

 

 

DEAR PAIGE,

I’m heading out of the flat tonight, for once, since Anna invited me out to a cabaret thing. Funny how it happened — for weeks she’s been casually asking what I’m doing after work, but never following up after I say some variation on “derby practice” or “watching cartoons.” I guess it’s taken her until now to decide I’m someone she’d actually choose to hang out with in her free time. That should make me feel good, right? But I’m actually terrified. Because it’s been so long since — I don’t know, since I’ve had a friend? That sounds horrible. And it’s probably not true, if I sit and think about it properly. What I mean is, since I’ve had a friend the way I had friends in Canada. When it was easy, you know? When I could click with someone and just feel this trust, this knowledge that we both liked each other equally and in the same way, when I could take for granted that I could say things and have them be understood. Like with you. It feels like forever since I’ve had that. A year, at least.

So anyway, I feel like I might have that with Anna — but we’re always at work, and all the conversations we have are sandwiched between people ordering flat whites and the occasional biscuit. When it gets quiet, though, sometimes we really talk, about serious things, heart things. I’ve told her a bit about you. She told me she’s trans — which isn’t a secret, it’s okay that I’m telling you — and we talked about how basically we’re both always coming out, we can never be wholly done coming out.

 I guess I’m terrified of messing this up somehow. Being boring. Not being into the show that she’s really excited about. Being — yeah, okay, being an obnoxious North American in the company of British people, even though Glasgow’s about a million times better than London for not making me feel that way.

Right, it’s time to go. I’ll write more later.

Love,

Emily

*

Emily stood in the doorway to the Rio Cafe and looked around, half–convinced she had the wrong place. The word “cabaret” had conjured up visions of illicit underground doings populated by white–faced pianists in dark, shabby suits, coaxing notes of tragic joy from their instruments. But this was just a really nice pub, full of comfortable, brightly coloured wooden booths perpendicular to a long bar. There were some smaller tables and chairs to the right and back of it, blackboards with specials written on them, and nothing that looked like it could be turned into a stage.

Make sure you get there early, Anna had said, it fills up fast. Emily shrugged, manoeuvred her way to one of the small tables towards the back, pulled a pen and a leather–bound journal from her bag, and resumed writing.

*

Dear Paige,

So, I’m here, but Anna’s not , and I awesomely left Memoirs of a Space Woman at home in spite of knowing I’d have two hours to kill, so I figure I’ll just keep writing to you.

Cabaret! I have no idea what to expect. Have you ever been to a cabaret show? I wasn’t sure how to dress for it either — when I asked Anna she just laughed and told me to use my imagination — so I’m wearing the red top you gave me, the button–down one with the sleeves that flare out and curl from the elbows. I can’t believe I still have it — it’s been, what, ten years, three moves? It’s not fitting so great now — since I started taking derby more seriously, (I’m EMILY THE SLAYER now! Strong like Buffy!) my arms have gotten huge, and you should see the butt on me — but it’s still pretty and I love it, and it still matches my favourite earrings best.

I should probably tell you more about Anna, since obviously there’s more to her than being trans and my co–worker. She’s really great, and really cute — she just cut her hair short last week and dyed it bright orange–red, so she looks kind of like Leeloo from The Fifth Element. She’s vegan(sometimes I swear she likes the fact that I’m not, because it gives her an excuse to play “Meat is Murder” on loop in the cafe for the duration of my lunch break, which no one notices, because it sounds like every other Smiths song except the good ones, which she refuses to accept no matter how many times I explain it), an amazing cosplayer, and getting into burlesque. She hasn’t performed in public yet, just for friends in her living room, but she’s been developing this number that involves a chef’s hat, mixed greens, and oversized serving implements.

We’re not dating or anything. I’ve only known her for about a month, though it feels like way longer — and I refuse to entertain a crush, because she’s been in a closed poly triad for a while and they’re kind of going through a rough patch that she hasn’t told me much about. So I’ll tell you more about this cabaret thing instead.

It’s called SPANGLED CABARET (“spangled” is apparently one of about a million words that also means “wildly drunk” in the west of Scotland) and it happens once a month in this cafe, and Anna’s been coming to it forever, basically. She really wants to perform here sometime once she feels confident enough.

It’s also where she met her partners, Lynette and Kel. Kel’s genderqueer and prefers “they” as a pronoun, so I’ll try to keep this from getting confusing: they work nights at the airport, but Lynette’s a performer, whose stage name is Lynette Byrd; her thing is apparently to dress up like a bird and sing?

Oh, she’s just coming in. I’ll write more later.

Love,

Emily

*

“Ooh, well done,” said Anna, grinning, hooking her jacket over a chair. “These are the best seats in the house. Can I get you a drink?”

“The finest wines available to humanity,” Emily declared, capping her pen and shutting the journal. She smiled up at her. “Something red?”

“Will do.”

Emily watched her head to the bar. Anna, as usual, looked amazing, in a turquoise chiffon dress with ruffles at the neckline waving their way asymmetrically down the front, cinched at the waist with an orange belt that matched her hair.

She was also alone. When Anna returned with their drinks, Emily asked, “So, where’s Lynette?”

“Oh, she can only hang out after her act. Something about ‘diluting the effect’ —” Anna made air quotes and rolled her eyes, “—if she mingles with people beforehand. I hope that’s okay — I thought we could have a little more time to talk before launching you into poly drama.”

Emily chuckled. “That’s fine. It’s really cool to see you outside of work. You look awesome.”

Anna grinned and tossed her short hair back dramatically. “Why thank you. So do you. That’s a great blouse.”

Emily blushed, looking down at her shirt. “Thanks, it was a gift —”

“It’s very Romantic! Poet sleeves, fountain pen, leather–bound journal — excellent ensemble, though of course leather’s murder too.” Anna’s smile was teasing. “It’s beautiful, though. Where’d you find it?” 

“Oh,” she said, blushing hotter. “It was also a gift. From the same person. My best friend. The one I mentioned, Paige.” She paused, uncertain how much more to say. “I write to her in it.”

Anna blinked. “What?”

“You know, instead of letters. We each have one, and we write to each other in them whenever the mood takes us, and when they get full, or half full, we post them to each other. We’ve been doing it for years — ever since she moved out west.” She dropped it into her bag again, zipped it shut.

“That’s so cool.” Anna grinned. “You’ve actually found a way to make snail mail slower.”

“Shut up! Not all of us want to have our phones embedded in our palms.”

“Lies and trickery. You, too, lust for the Singularity in your heart of hearts.”

“Those aren’t even the same thing!”

The wine was good, the conversation easy. Emily felt herself relaxing, becoming aware of how little effort she was making, how unnecessary it felt to play at being wry and unaffected and vaguely disdainful of anything she passionately loved. By the time the lights dimmed and a tall man in red spats and cerulean trousers announced the beginning of the show, she was feeling excited.

The first act was a startling realisation of Emily’s earlier expectations, as a short bearded man unfolded a keyboard, flicked his coat–tails behind him, and sat down to play something melancholically sinister while a young woman in layers of fringed and shimmering fabric, loops of large white beads, and a flapper’s red head scarf expertly drew a violin bow along the edge of a saw. The result was equal parts mournful and uncanny.

“That,” shouted Emily over the subsequent applause, “was amazing. Is it all like this?”

Anna smiled. “Not quite.”

The next act saw Emily covering her face while an attractive young man hammered nails up his nose.

“Come on,” chuckled Anna, “it’s not that bad! It’s mostly tricks, anyway.”

“Anna he’s bleeding! He stuck a needle up his arm and drew blood.”

“He’s a professional!”

“His hands are shaking! This can’t be right!”

“It’s just part of the whole blockhead routine, honest. I’ve watched him do it loads of times.”

“Really?” She dared a peek between her fingers, winced, and covered her eyes again.

“Really. Well. Not the needle, I think that’s new, but the nails are standard. Oh, come on, you can’t miss this, he’s going to swallow those razors and knot them together in his throat —”

Hey, I need the loo and we should have more drinks. Same again?”

“Sure, sure. Coward.”

Emily stuck her tongue out and beat a hasty retreat.

It was equal parts the half–light, the show, and the wine, but the Rio had clearly slipped somewhere just slant of real. Navigating the distance between table and toilets felt like lucid dreaming. She passed men with moon–white faces in bowler hats; she washed her hands next to a woman in scarlet lingerie with mouse ears and a cheese–grater crotch. It felt like a secret carnival, like a place a runaway could call home.

She sat down again just as the blockhead was taking a bow, thankfully none the worse for wear. Anna looked positively fond as Emily pushed a new glass of wine toward her.

“You’ve got the look,” Anna said, smiling.

“The look?”

“Of the hooked. The enchanted. You’re one of us now.”

“Just like that?” Emily looked dubious. “By running away from the blockhead?”

“It takes all sorts. I can’t wait for you to see Lynette. She’s usually on towards the end.” Anna fiddled with a napkin. “She’s… Something else. I could go on and on about her and not be able to say how.”

“Are things...” Emily hesitated. “I mean, is it okay if I ask...”

Anna shrugged. “Things are things. The weirdness is mainly between Kel and me, but obviously Lynette’s involved too, she can’t not be. But — I can’t really talk about it, sorry.”

“That’s totally fine. I don’t want to pry! I just don’t know what to expect, at all.”

Anna chuckled. “That’s probably for the best.”

Once the applause died down, the emcee stepped forward to announce the final act, and encouraged everyone to stay precisely where they were.

Then the lights went out.

The cafe buzzed for a minute until a spotlight clicked on, shining up from the floor, illuminating a woman seated on a tall stool. But not completely — shadows striped her face and body, and as Emily took the scene in, she saw that the spotlight was shining through an ornate bird cage, projecting its bars against the wall and woman together.

When Anna said Lynette would be dressed as a bird, Emily had imagined something a bit camp, a bit silly, maybe a bit sexy into the bargain. She hadn’t expected this tall, solemn, slender creature of angles and air, delicate golden–brown feathers sprouting from the shoulders, hips, and hem of a long white dress worn over slightly incongruous brown boots. Thick dark curls were piled on top of her head, against which leaned a high, feathered fascinator. There was an air of honey and copper about her, a shimmering sweetness. Emily’s breath caught at the sight.

Lynette Byrd lifted her chin and regarded her audience coolly, head sharply tilted. When she parted her glittering lips and spoke, her voice was a sweep of warm light in the dim.

“Green finch and linnet bird! Nightingale! Blackbird!”

How is it you sing!” shouted the audience members as one, making Emily jump a little in her seat. Lynette smiled.

“An oft–repeated question. Why does the caged bird sing? Why does it not embrace silence in protest, refusing to give up the thing for which it was imprisoned? Why, day after day, does it warble and sway from perch to perch, trilling its essence out in unrepeatable sequence for the benefit of its captors? I am trusted,” she laughed, suddenly, a sound like glass bursting, “with a muzzle and enfranchised with a clog; therefore I have decreed not to sing in my cage.

With that she closed her eyes and leaned her cheek against the feathers on her shoulder, looking for all the world like a bird asleep.

Silence, then. Emily looked at Anna uncertainly, wondering if she should clap, but Anna was gazing at Lynette in rapt adoration. No one else seemed to think it was over, either. An uncomfortable minute passed, then two. A few people closed their eyes; a couple were staring intensely at their phones; one man nearby was moving his mouth without making a sound, and Emily realised he was counting. She looked back at the stage. Lynette remained completely immobile. The sound of the bartender wiping crumbs from the counter became noticeable. She heard people shifting a little in their seats, though none spoke.

Emily frowned and looked down at her own phone. Had it been four minutes? Four minutes of —

Her eyes widened in sudden understanding. Before she knew what she was doing, she had gasped “OH!” out loud, to the shock of just about everyone else in the room.

She clapped her hands over her mouth in a panic and looked at the stage, but Lynette hadn’t moved — it was only every other head in the cafe that had swung towards her, some frowning, some biting down a laugh, some laughing outright. Anna stared at her in an astonishment that bordered on reproach. Cheeks flushing, she fixed her eyes on the floor and tried to will it into melting away and taking her with it.

But only for another thirty seconds, as Lynette’s performance of John Cage’s “4’33” came to an end. As people began to clap, Emily raised her head again.

Lynette had opened her eyes and was looking directly at her. She seemed amused.

“The reason, ultimately,” she said, stretching her neck from one side to the other, and rolling back her feathered shoulders, “is that silence is terribly boring, no? Let us jubilate.”

With that, Lynette launched into the most unearthly rendition of Sondheim’s “Green Finch and Linnet Bird” Emily had ever heard. It was like sugar melting into caramel, hearing that bright, glittering song dimmed into a smoky minor key and twisted, stretched into so unlikely a shape. To listen was to feel her heart dragged over burrs, each turn of lyric snagging and pulling at her. By the time Lynette was asking the birds to teach her to be more adaptive, Emily had a pain in her throat and wet cheeks. Anna was quietly sobbing next to her.

Emily stretched out her hand without a word. Anna took it and squeezed.

*

It was like nothing else. She broke us open and read our entrails, I swear. It was like her art was a kind of sewing, a stitching together of things you’d never have thought could go together seamlessly. Hah. I just noticed how Seamstress is like a portmanteau of Seam and Mistress. Seam. Seem. Mistress of Seams and Seemings.

I’m pretty drunk right now by the way.

So she’s a Seemstress. She ended the show with a flick of her wrist, throwing a black cloth over the birdcage, and the spotlight clicked off. She didn’t take a bow. She’s drinking with Anna, now, they’re talking, and I’m hiding in the bathroom because I can’t bring myself to look at her even though I really want to talk to her and tell her how amazing it was. She came towards us after, and she looked at me in this way and said “I truly enjoyed your contribution,” and I just clammed up. I was so mortified. I don’t think she even meant it to be mocking but I couldn’t bear it. So I just sat there and got redder and redder and Anna took her attention off me, which is fine but I just felt like I’d failed, made the worst impression, and I just really needed to tell you about this right away, while it’s all still hurting, the good and the bad of it, all together. I needed to tell you. I always need to tell you and you’re not — you’re never —

I wish — I wish you could have been here. Everything would be better if you were. I wish we could be talking about it right now. I wish — God, Paige, I miss you so fucking much. I miss you.

*

The ceiling came into focus first, and it was wrong: much too high, and the familiar pale orange stain that usually greeted her when she woke wasn’t there. Then the smells: unfamiliar laundry detergent mixing with coffee like her father had it, with cardamom. The sound of water running, one wall over. Suddenly she bolted upright and took stock of the strange room, the strange bed, and the dull orange light coming through unfamiliar window slats from a street lamp outside. Still night time, then.

She felt sick. Still drunk, obviously; the room kept threatening to spin, and her vision was anchored to a slow, awful churning in her belly. Was this Anna’s place? Blearily, she swung her legs out of bed, and saw that she was still dressed. Quietly, she padded her way out of the room and into a dark hallway, toward the sound of water. She was thirsty. Her mouth felt full of sour cotton.

Light slanted into the hall from the half–open door to what she thought must be the bathroom; maybe Anna was brushing her teeth? She pushed it the rest of the way.

Lynette Byrd stood on one foot, lifting the hem of a white nightgown, one knee delicately raised above a bathtub filling with water. But her feet — Emily stared, blinked, shook her head, couldn’t stop staring.

From the ankle down, Lynette’s feet were the leathery, taloned, four–toed feet of a bird.

Lynette’s eyes met hers, and she tilted her head as she had in her performance, but it had the look of a raptor now. Emily staggered back, watching Lynette’s upraised knee lift higher, those talons flexing, swivelling away from the tub and on to the floor, clicking.

“Seemstress,” she gasped, and the room spun faster and faster until she tumbled backwards into the dark.

*

When Emily woke again, it was to morning light filtering through the blankets over her head and whispering voices in the hall. She ventured a peek over the sheets, and saw Anna and Lynette in animated conversation, while someone who shared Lynette’s height, cheekbones, and colouring stood silently by with arms folded. Kel? They had short–cropped black hair, sharp cheekbones, and human feet.

Lynette’s remained disconcertingly taloned. She hadn’t imagined it.

Emily rolled over and burrowed deeper into the blankets in search of oblivion.

“Hey,” came Anna’s voice, gently, from beyond the duvet. “Morning. How are you feeling?”

Emily tried to part her lips to say something intelligent and managed a tiny croak of misery. Anna patted her shoulder.

“Have some water. Come on, we won’t bite. What do you remember?”

Slowly, Emily sat up, taking in the company. Anna, in pink flannel pajamas, looked concerned. Lynette without her make–up and feathers was still devastatingly beautiful: her black hair was a long sideways braid over her shoulder, and her light brown cheeks still had a hint of glitter to them. Her eyes were as black as her hair. She looked less like a magical bird–woman and more like someone from Emily’s own family now — as did Kel, who was looking at Emily with distrust.

She accepted a glass of water and took small, careful sips. “Lynette has bird feet.”

Anna winced. Kel muttered something under their breath that sounded like it was probably rude. Lynette waved her hand.

“We will speak of that later. I think Anna meant from earlier in the evening.”

“Oh.” She hadn’t given it much thought. “I remember — sitting with you both, and then going to the bathroom, and, um.” The shame of it, locking herself in a stall and crying, washed over her in a nauseous wave. “I guess Anna came in to check on me after a while. I don’t remember much else.”

“You seemed very upset.” Lynette looked at her curiously. “I was concerned that I had said something to hurt you. Then you fell asleep, and Anna didn’t know where you lived, so we brought you here instead.”

Emily bit her lip, stared into her glass. “I’m so, so sorry —”

“It’s no trouble, truly,” said Lynette. Kel snorted at that, and Anna smacked them on the arm and glared. Lynette ignored them, focused on Emily. “Did I hurt you in some way?”

“No, I’m — I was just so embarrassed. About the John Cage thing. Everything had been going so well until that point, and now I’ve fucked everything up, and you — you’re being so nice —”

“Emily.” Anna looked pained. “You haven’t done anything wrong.”

Emily looked at her, and felt something tightly wound in her release. She felt suddenly ragged with relief.

“Really? You’re not angry?”

“Angry?” Anna stared at her. “Emily, you just found out my girlfriend’s part bird and you’re worried about what I think?”

“I think,” said Lynette, “that we should have some coffee. Would you like that, Emily?”

“Yes, please.” She looked at Kel uncertainly. “Are you — are you going to curse me or erase my memory or something?”

Lynette blinked. So did Anna and Kel. All three of them looked at each other. To Emily’s discomfort, they all burst out laughing.

“That,” said Lynette, “would be terrible manners.”

“That’s — not a ‘no,’ though.” Emily had the feeling of being in a dream, of watching herself having this conversation. Lynette only smiled, looking as if she was enjoying herself.

“Emily, if you’ll forgive me the presumption, what is your surname?”

“Haddad.”

“Then we both hail from places where hospitality is sacrosanct, and one would not offer coffee to a guest to whom one intended any harm. Come. Let us have a sobhiya.”

The coffee tasted of home, of dawns spent with her father in comfort and certainty and safety. Kel remained quiet, and Anna’s focus was on them more than Emily, but Lynette was shockingly easy to talk to. Emily found herself pouring out the history of her last year: the Master’s degree in library sciences in London, how unbearable she’d found life in the city, how brutal the sarcasm that passed for affection, how she only hated herself more for not being able to banter with her colleagues and their friends, how she never felt entirely welcome among them.

“It’s like everything I took for granted about friendship, and language, about what’s polite and what isn’t — it’s not a default. We’re taught — I was taught — that it’s somehow universal, to be kind and open and welcoming and sincere, and it’s not. And worse, it’s not that it’s bad not to be that way, there. There, it makes sense, how closed off and distant and biting everyone is. It’s just a different way of being, that’s all. But it’s hard not to feel like everything about me is wrong — the way I laugh, the things I laugh at or don’t. My words, my accent, the things I think are cruel. It’s like, to live there, I needed to… Tailor myself. Cut off bits that don’t fit, or stuff them away, and sometimes I’d look in a mirror and just not recognize myself for the silence.” 

Kel stood up, abruptly.

“I’m going to bed,” they said, gruffly, in a low voice. “Sorry. Long night.”

Emily faltered. “Okay.”

“I’ll join you,” said Anna, getting up. “Just for a bit.”

Kel muttered something by way of assent. Anna looked apologetically at Emily before following Kel and shutting the door behind them.

“So,” said Lynette, sipping her coffee from a tiny porcelain cup, turning her attention back to Emily. “Where were we. You finished your degree, yes? Why not go home to Canada? Why come to Glasgow instead?”

“Oh —” she sighed, swirled her coffee around her cup, watched the patterns the grains made against it. “I love my family, and I miss them. A lot. But — I’m queer, and they’re not okay with that. I mean,” she rushed to say, “they’re not horrible or anything. We’ve had the ‘we’ll still love you no matter what’ talk and whatever. But I just — I never really dated anyone when I was home. At all. And suddenly here, awful as everything else got, I went on dates, I flirted with men and women, and — part of me is more me here, I guess. I’m not done with that yet.”

“Even though everything else feels wrong?”

Emily chuckled, not without bitterness. “Yeah. I’m crying you a river, I know.” She finished the rest of her coffee in a gulp. Lynette leaned forward and poured more.

“It’s the plight of the displaced, Emily. The stuff of song and story. People here are fond of saying that all the most loving songs about Scotland are written by those who left.” Lynette replenished her own cup, and lifted it contemplatively. “One leaves home, one misses it; one makes a home as best one can, with the materials at hand, knowing it will never be what one had; but there are reasons, always good reasons, why one left in the first place.” Before Emily could ask anything, Lynette smiled. “But, Glasgow? Why not stay in London?”

“Honestly?” She smiled a little. “I’d never been to Scotland yet, and I loved the names of Glasgow’s derby teams. Irn Bruisers? Maiden Grrders? Seemed like reason enough.”

Lynette laughed, and Emily found herself thinking of flowers. She took another sip of her coffee, and waited.

“Well,” said Lynette, a touch of amusement still there, “I suppose it’s my turn. Do you know what a Peri is?”

Emily blinked, brain flashing through Patricia McKillip, Doctor Who, and hot sauce. “Er —”

Lynette smiled. “That’s quite all right. Whatever you do, don’t read the Wikipedia entry. Nineteenth century Englishmen with their books and operas did more to secure ignorance about us than the Severing of Seventy Bridges. Suffice to say we are a kind of — what you would call spirit. We are not human, though we sometimes enjoy human form. We have a world, our own world, that overlaps and intersects with yours,” here Lynette clasped her hands together, fingers interweaving, “and in which we are ourselves. But without access to it —” Lynette fixed her gaze on somewhere just over Emily’s shoulder, as if the world she spoke of was just there, “—we are less. We lose our ability to shift our shapes, to fly, to be flame or water. We become solid, locked. We,” she drew her gaze back to Emily, “cut off bits that don’t fit, or stuff them away, and sometimes we look in a mirror and can’t recognize ourselves. We are wrong. We are less.” Lynette paused to sip her coffee, and licked her lips thoughtfully. “Though we are also sometimes more.”

Emily felt a lump rising in her throat. “How?”

Lynette lost, for a moment, the air of knowing amusement she’d worn for most of their acquaintance, and looked only wistful. “I was no performer, back home. I had no art. It was here, in this place, that I found my voice.” When she smiled again, it was soft, and pained. “I did not learn to sing until I was shut in a cage.”

Emily frowned. “Shut? But — didn’t you leave on purpose?”

She shrugged. “To the extent that being forced to flee is ‘on purpose.’ Kel and I — ”

“Wait, Kel’s a Peri too?” Emily stared. “But — Kel’s feet —”

Lynette chuckled. “We all have different tells. Were Kel to show you their back, you would see two lines of black feathers angled along their spine. May I continue?”

She flushed. “Please.”

“We were… ‘Exiled’ is perhaps not the right word. Our country is at war, Emily. We are, in a sense, refugees. We fled, and the door shut behind us. Kel wants nothing so much as to go back, to fight, to die, if necessary. I do not. As much as I long for wings again —” Lynette’s voice caught, and she looked down, and shook her head slowly. “— No. For better or for worse, I am making a life here.” She chuckled. “Though it is difficult not to laugh, or weep, when someone asks me where I am ‘from.’ ”

“I sort of know what that’s like,” Emily murmured. “ ‘Where are you from?’ ‘Canada.’ ‘Yeah, yeah, where are your PARENTS from.’ ” Emily mimed throttling an invisible neck, and Lynette chuckled. “It’s not as bad here, actually. Mostly people assume I’m American.” She paused, thoughtful. “So — why doesn’t Kel go back?”

“Ah.” Lynette put down her cup, folded her hands in her lap. “They cannot afford the cost.”

“The cost?”

“Indeed. Our world is the source of our power; when the way is open, we can shift our shapes, fly, find things that are hidden or missing, carry our lovers across the world in our arms if we so choose. When the way is shut —” Lynette shrugged, “— there is a cost to open it. At present it is as if Kel and I have been stripped of citizenship, and must apply for visas instead of coming and going as we please. And, as with visas, there is always the chance that after having paid the price and sent in our paperwork, our application will be rejected all the same. …Are you all right?”

Emily nodded, tight–lipped. “Sorry, I just — what do you mean, find things that are hidden or missing?”

“It’s just an ability we possess.” Lynette looked at her curiously. “A function of our nature.”

“Oh.” She nodded again. “Please go on. What is the cost?”

Lynette considered her for a moment longer before answering. “It is… An elaboration of the usual shedding of a form. For us, to open the way, we must give up a whole person. A sacrifice, if you will.”

Emily stared at her. “What, you mean — you have to kill someone?”

Lynette shook her head. “Not kill. Give up. Relinquish. But it only works if the person is precious, beloved. For me — if I were to cut out my tongue, I might be able to open the way back. I would be giving up who I have become here, my art. Once on the other side I might easily choose a different form, one with a tongue, perhaps one with a more beautiful voice — but I would lose Lynette Byrd, whom I have come to love, and I would never have her again. That is if the sacrifice is deemed sufficient.”

“So, Kel —”

“Kel loves nothing about who they are here. Every moment spent in their body is torment. Kel never kept one body for long, understand — if you comprehend gender on a spectrum of male and female, think of us as possessing gender along a spectrum of fluid and fixed. It is agony for Kel to be in one body, to be static, to be observable always in the same way.” Lynette sighed. “It is an exquisitely devised exile. We must love something so much that we could never wish to give it up — and then give it up. So long as Kel despises their body, they cannot shed it, and so long as they cannot shed it, they will always despise their body and the world it is forced to inhabit. The only things they have come to love, while here, are the river Kelvin, from which they take their name — and Anna. But not enough. Kel is too willing to give them up. I had hoped that perhaps with Anna — with someone who understood the pain of a body that feels wrong —” Lynette shook her head. “As soon as Kel began to feel deeper affection for her, they sought to barter it for passage.”

Emily blinked. “Kel tried to give Anna up?”

“Yes.” Lynette looked pained. “There is a ritual we do, by the river, to open the way home. Anna participated, willingly — but it wasn’t enough. The trap works too well. Kel might have once loved me enough for the leaving to hurt sufficiently, but —” she closed her eyes, briefly. “— It is hard for them, that I will not give up myself to pay for the chance of our passage. And so it goes. The magic must be cruel, to work. It must feel like the tearing of a page.”

Emily felt a sudden pang — a tug in her belly, like cresting the topmost hill of a rollercoaster, teetering on the edge of the plunge.

“So, without your powers, you can’t open the way back, and until that way is open, you don’t have your powers?”

Lynette opened her eyes again, and nodded. Emily bit her lip.

“And could — anyone open up the way? By giving something up?”

“In theory.” Emily felt her cheeks flushing beneath the sudden intensity of Lynette’s gaze. “What are you saying?”

“I’m saying — suppose someone wanted you to have your powers. For something specific. Would you — could you help them, if the door was open?”

Lynette said nothing for a long moment, while Emily met her eyes. When Lynette finally spoke, it was gentle.

“What have you lost, Emily?”

She pulled her backpack onto her lap, unzipped it, pulled out her journal, and put it on the table between them.

“My best friend.”

*

Dear Paige,

I told Lynette about you. It was hard, at first. For so long you’ve felt like a secret I’ve been keeping on your behalf. My best friend, to whom I write — who never writes back. My best friend, whom I’ve known for half my life — but who hasn’t spoken to me in over a year. My best friend, who was going to travel with me, share a home with me, be up against the world with me — who vanished into air and darkness and didn’t tell me where she was going.

It was hard, but it got easier.

I told her how afraid I’ve become for you. I told her about your depression, how you’d been withdrawing for a while, that it got worse once we had extra time zones between us. I told her about the unanswered phone messages, e–mails, postcards. I told her about how I called your work one time just to see if they could tell me you were alive, and how they said they’d laid you off a week earlier, and didn’t know how to answer my question about whether or not you were okay.

She asked me if I was prepared to find out that you’re dead. I told her that I knew you couldn’t be dead, couldn’t possibly be, because I’d know. I’d feel something snap. I’m sure I would.

She told me to prepare for the possibility all the same.

So this is the last I’m writing to you in here. I’m giving you up — sort of — to find you. It may not work. It may not be enough. But I told Lynette that I’m giving up years of myself in here, too — the me who is best friends with Paige, who is happy and secure and confident, who can see friendships come and go because at her core is this one, this unshakeable soul–twin sister–friend who’ll never leave her.

So long as I’ve been writing in here I’ve felt like I could still be that person, because by writing to you I am conjuring you, I am keeping you in existence, and if you exist, so do I. And maybe if I find you — if Lynette can find you — she said Peri magics include carrying people through the air, so — if you’re in trouble, if you’re hurt — I can’t even think about that but I have to trust in something, that this will be okay, somehow. That I can still be some kind of me even without you.

I love you. I’m giving you up.

Emily

*

Lynette and Kel had gone ahead, saying they had preparations to make. Anna watched as Emily laced her boots in the entrance to their flat. “I can’t believe you’re doing this. Why would you do this. You hardly even know them.”

Emily shrugged. “It’s not for them. It’s for Paige. And — for me.”

“Bullshit.”

Emily flinched and looked up, hurt. “What possible other reason could I have?”

 Anna folded her arms, looked away. “Whatever, I don’t care.”

“Do you not want me to do this?”

Anna rolled her eyes. “Think about it for two seconds, Emily.”

“But Lynette said you wanted —”

Fuck Lynette.” Anna brushed a lock of hair behind her ear. “Look, I just — I love Kel. I fucking love them. And it’s — hard, to make peace with losing someone for their own good, to know that you’re the price of their happiness, and to agree to pay that price and then have it not be enough, because actually they didn’t love you enough, you know?” She exhaled, pushed the heel of her palm into her eye. “And here you are, having only just met them, making some kind of huge weird sacrifice, and if it works —”Anna choked. “— If it works, then I lose Kel, and nothing about it was noble, nothing about it was my sacrifice. I’m just another failed attempt to get home.”

“That’s not true,” said Emily, shocked, standing up so quickly she stumbled. “Anna —”

“Shut up. Go to the river, do whatever needs doing. I get it. Been there, done that.” They looked at each other through tears. “I hope you find your friend.”

Then Anna walked into her bedroom and slammed the door behind her. Emily tried not to cry as she let herself out.

*

They stood together beneath the Gibson street bridge over the river Kelvin, having climbed over the fence and down to the water’s edge. Emily clutched her journal to her chest and shivered as Kel waded into the water barefoot. Once the river reached their lips, they stopped.

Emily could hear Kel murmuring something into the water. Lynette stood next to her, wearing her cabaret costume and clutching a fistful of flower petals. She spoke quietly.

“You know what you need to do?”

Emily nodded.

“Very well. Kel is almost finished asking the river’s permission to pass through.” She looked away. “I hope this works. I don’t know how Kel will bear it otherwise.”

Emily swallowed, thinking of Anna. “I hope it works too.”

Kel stopped speaking, and began undressing in the water. As they removed their shirt, Emily saw the two long black lines of feathers running to either side of Kel’s spine like sutures, glinting in the dim light.

Kel turned to look at them, and nodded once. Lynette closed her eyes.

“It’s time.”

She drew a deep breath, cast the petals into the water, and began singing the Arcade Fire’s “My Body is a Cage.” While she did, Emily took a few steps into the water and opened the journal. She looked down and couldn’t help but read a line — from an early entry, a happy day, speaking of how exciting it was to be in England, how she’d been to the Sir John Soane Museum and tried to count all the busts for science.

As she grasped the page and pulled, she couldn’t tell if it was she or the paper who was tearing.

Then she staggered. The world tilted, and she felt herself struggling to hold her breath. Something was happening to the water — a churning where it had been still, a circling of light flooding upwards around Kel. Emily tore another page, and another, throwing each one into the river, sobs welling up as she did, cutting into her throat every time she read, in spite of herself, a snippet of something Paige would never read, never know — her conviction that a different sun shone over London, made of syrup and smoke; the dream she had on Halloween after her first gin and tonic; her first kiss with a woman. She’d meant to share it all with Paige, had written it all out for her, and if Paige didn’t have them, how could she?

Lynette was still singing — set my spirit free, set my body free — but she sounded farther and farther away. Emily could see the light around Kel brightening, and Kel — Kel was changing. The twin lines of feathers on their back were growing out, covering more and more skin, and Kel’s body was blurring in and out of the water. Could it be working? Was it enough, after all? Would she find —

Lynette’s song ended, and half a beat after the final note Emily heard her say, as if she were shouting from a vast distance away, look into the water.

She looked. In the same brightness she had seen shimmering around Kel, there was Paige.

The sight sank into her like a knife. There was Paige, in a laundromat — she was seeing her from behind, her long pale hair twisted up into a bun. She was taking washing out of one machine and putting it in a dryer. She was humming something, happily.

Overwhelmingly, Emily knew she was happy.

I can bring her to you, thundered Lynette’s voice, if you wish. In half a moment or less.

She did wish. She wanted, so badly, to have her in front of her, to rage and scream how, how could you be happy and all right and not speak to me, why wouldn’t you, what did I do wrong, what.

Paige was happy, washing laundry, and had her back to her. Emily stretched her hand into the water, choking on everything she wanted to say. But she’d said it already, into the river, as Anna had said it to Kel.

She drew her hand back.

“No,” she whispered. “She’s fine where she is.”

Then the light dimmed, the river smoothed, and Emily found herself weeping into the down on Lynette’s shoulder.

*

Dear Emily,

This is probably cheating, but you never specified the size of journal required, and a palm–sized Moleskine is still a Moleskine, and that means journal, so. Here I am, writing to you in a journal. My penmanship peaked in Primary 6. I hope you’re happy.

I’m sorry for — well, everything. I hope I didn’t hurt you too badly by keeping away for a while — that’s why I’m writing in here, for now. I figured maybe we both needed a little space after what happened. But — well, I miss you. I miss talking to you. This is a piss–poor substitute, actually. But I guess it’s better than nothing, and I think you might like, maybe, to know that I pay attention to the things you say even if I also tease you about them a little.

So I don’t know how long I’ll keep this up — it’s a small book, and it’s not meant to replace anything, obviously. It couldn’t. I don’t know how you’ll feel about it when I give it to you. I just want you to know, basically, that I still really like you, that I think you’re grand, that I’m grateful you’re not a jerk, and maybe if you’re up for it we could go to Nice N’Sleazy’s sometime for a gig? I think you’d like it, the ceiling lights are covered in paper shades with clubs, spades, hearts, and diamonds on them.

Oh, you’re just coming in for your shift. I’ll write more later.

Love,

Anna

Amal El–Mohtar is the Nebula–nominated author of The Honey Month, a collection of spontaneous short stories and poems written to the taste of twenty–eight different kinds of honey. She is a two–time winner of the Rhysling Award for Best Short Poem, and edits Goblin Fruit, an online quarterly dedicated to fantastical poetry. She has also contributed essays to Queers Dig Time Lords, edited by Sigrid Ellis and Michael Damian Thomas, and the Hugo–nominated Chicks Unravel Time, edited by L. M. Myles and Deborah Stanish. Find her online at amalelmohtar.com.

Amal would like to point out that Spangled Cabaret is a real thing (though sadly no longer in the Rio Cafe), and that this story is deeply indebted to its participants, among them Markee de Saw & Bert Finkle, Vendetta Vain, and the Creative Martyrs. Look them up!

Such & Such Said to So & So by Maria Dahvana Headley

By Jason Sizemore
on November 11, 2014

Originally appearing in Glitter & Mayhem (Apex Publications, 2013)

edited by John Klima, Lynne M. Thomas, and Michael Damian Thomas

(Reprinted in 2014 Year's Best F & SF edited by Rich Horton)

 

IT WAS LATE JULY, A DARK green mood–ring of a night, and the drinks from Bee’s Jesus had finally killed a man.

The cocktails there had always been dangerous, but now they were poison. We got the call in at the precinct, and none of us were surprised. We all knew the place was no good, never mind that we’d also all spent some time there. These days we stayed away, or not, depending on how our marriages were going, and how much cash we had in the glovebox. There were no trains nearby, and if you ended up out too long, you were staying out. The suburbs were a dream, and you weren’t sleeping.

There was nothing harder to get out of your clothes than Bee’s Jesus. We all knew that too. Dry cleaner around the corner. You’d go there, shame–faced and stubbled at dawn, late for your beat.

“Ah, it’s the Emperor of Regret,” the guy behind the counter would say to you. No matter which Emperor you were. All us boys from the precinct had the same title.

“Yeah,” you’d say, “Emperor of Regret.”

The guy could launder anything. Hand him your dirty shirt, and he’d hand you back a better life, no traces, no strings, no self–righteous speech.

I was trying to get clean, though, real clean, and the martinizer couldn’t do it. I knew better than to go anywhere near the Jesus, but I could hear the music from a mile away. Nobody wanted to let me in anymore. People doubted my integrity after what’d happened the last time. The last several times.

The cat at the door was notorious, and had strict guidelines, though lately he’d begun to slip. Things weren’t right at Bee’s. Hadn’t been for a while. They had to let me in tonight. This was legit police business.

“C’mon, Jimmy, you can afford to look sideways tonight,” yelled one of the girls on the block, the real girls, not the other kind.

“I’m here on the up and up,” I said, because if I came in on the down and down, the place wouldn’t show. But I’d seen it as I rolled past, lights spinning. Gutter full of glitter, and that was how you knew. Door was just beyond the edge of the streetlight, back of the shut–down bodega, and most people would’ve walked right on by.

But I knew what was going down. Somebody in that bar had called the police, and reported a body, male, mid–thirties, goner. I was here to find out the whohowwhy.

“You the police?” the caller had said. “It was an emergency three hours ago, sugarlump, but now it’s just a dead guy. They dumped him in the alley outside where Bee’s was, but Bee’s took a walk, every piece of fancy in there up working their getaway sticks like the sidewalk was a treadmill. So you gotta come get him, sweets. He’s a health hazard. Dead of drink if you know what I mean.”

We did know what she meant, most of us, and we crossed our hearts and needle–eyed, cause we weren’t the dead guy, but we could have been, easy. We were fleas and Bee’s Jesus was a dog’s ear.

Me and the boys duked it out for who was taking statements and who was caution–taping, and now it was me and my partner Gene, but Gene didn’t care about Bee’s like I did. The place was a problem I couldn’t stay away from. I kept trying to get out of town, but I ran out of gas every time.

“What’re you doing, Jimmy?” Gene said. “You’re trying to sail a cardboard catamaran to Cuba. Not in a million years, you’re not gonna get that broad back. Cease and desist. Boys are getting embarrassed for you.”

I was embarrassed for me, too. I wasn’t kidding myself, she was what I was looking to see. I was trying to put a nail in it.

Gloria was in that place somewhere, Gloria and the drink she’d taken to like a fish gill–wetting. Bee’s Jesus was Gloria’s bar now.

 *

Ten years had passed since the night she sat on the sink, laughing as she straight–razored my stubble, and lipsticked my mouth.

“Poor boy,” she said, watching the way I twitched. “Good thing you’re pretty.”

Gloria was a skinny girl with bobbed black hair, acid green eyes, and a tiny apartment full of ripped–up party dresses. In her cold–water bathroom, she melted a cake of kohl with a match and drew me eyes better than my own. She’d told me she wouldn’t take me to her favorite bar until she’d dressed me in her clothes, top to tail, and I wanted to go to that bar, wanted to go there bad.

I woulda done anything back then to get her, even though my Londoner buddy Philip (he called himself K. Dick, straight–faced) kept looking at her glories and shaking his head.

“I don’t know what you see in her, bruv. She’s just a discount Venus with a nose ring.”

She was the kind of girl you can’t not attempt, already my ex–wife before I kissed her, but I knew I had to go forward or die in a ditch of longing. It was our first date.

I saw her rumpled bed and hoped I’d end up in it, but Gloria dragged me out the door without even a kiss, me stumbling because I was wearing her stockings with my own shoes.

Downtown, backroom of a bodega, through the boxes and rattraps, past the cat that glanced at me, laughed at the guy in the too tight, and asked if I could look more wrong.

Actual cat. I tried not to notice that it was. It seemed impolite. Black with a tuxedo. Cat was smoking a cigarette and stubbed it out on my shoe. It groomed itself as it checked me out and found me wanting.

“Come on, man, go easy,” Gloria said. “Jimmy’s with me.”

She was wearing a skin–tight yellow rubber dress and I was wearing a t–shirt made of eyelashes, rolling plastic eyeballs and fishnet. It didn’t work on me. It wanted her body beneath. She was a mermaid. I was trawled.

“You expect me to blind eye that kind of sadsack?” the cat said, and lifted its lip to show me some tooth. Its tail twisted and informed me of a couple of letters. NO, written in fur.

“Better than the last boy,” Gloria said, and laughed. The cat laughed too, an agreeing laugh that said he’d seen some things. I felt jealous. “I’ll give you a big tip,” she said to him.

I was a nineteen year old virgin. I’d never gotten this close to getting this close before.

Gloria picked the cat up, holding him to her latex and he sighed a long–suffering sigh as she tipped him backward into the air and stretched his spine.

“Don’t tell anyone I let the furball in. They’ll think I’m getting soft.”

“I owe you for this,” she said to the cat.

To me, she said “Time to get you three–sheeted.”

I was pretty deep at this point in clueless. Underworld, nightlife, and Gloria knew things I had no hope of knowing. She was the kind of girl who’d go into the subway tunnels for a party, and come out a week later, covered in mud and still wearing her lipstick. I’d been in love with her for a year or so. As far as I was concerned, the fact that she knew my name was a victory. She kept calling me Mister Nice Guy. Years later, after we’d been married and divorced, after Gloria had too much gin, and I had too many questions, I learned this was because she’d forgotten my name.

She tugged me around the corner, through a metal chute in the wall. For a second I smelled rotting vegetables and restaurant trash, cockroach spray, toilet brush, hairshirt, and then we were through, and that was over, and we were at the door that led to Bee’s.

Gloria looked at me. “You want a drink,” she said.

“Do they have beer?” I asked. I was nervous. “Could I have a Corona?”

The shirt was itchy, and she’d smeared something tarry into my hair. I felt like a newly paved road had melted into my skull and gumstuck my brain.

Gloria laughed. Her eyelids glittered like planetariums.

“Not really,” she said. “It’s a cocktail bar. You ever had a cocktail, Mister Nice Guy?”

“I’ve had Guinness,” I said.

She looked at me, pityingly. “Guinness is beer, and it’s Irish, and if we scared any of that up, it’d be interested in you, but I’m not sure you’d want it. It’s heavy and gloomy. You don’t want the Corona either. You don’t want what Corona brings you. It makes you really fucking noticeable at night.”

I liked Guinness. I liked Corona. I liked wine coolers. I wasn’t picky, and I knew nothing about drinking. Whatever anyone poured me, I was willing. I had never had a cocktail. I didn’t know what Gloria meant.

She opened a door, and we were in Bee’s. Bright lights, big city, speakeasy, oh my God. My face went into a trombone to the teeth, and the player looked out from behind the instrument and barked.

“Get your mug outta my bone,” he said. He was a dog. A bullhound. But I was cool with that. Dogs, cats, and us, and it was all completely normal and fine, because I was with Gloria, and I trusted her.

I didn’t trust her. I didn’t know her. She was a broad. She was a broad broader than the universe, and I wished, momentarily, for K. Dick and his encyclopedic wingman knowledge of bitters, bourbons, and cheap things with umbrellas. I wished for his accent which lady slayed, and which made the awful forgivable. Or so he swore. K. Dick was more talk than walk.

I did need a drink.

Full brass band. Wall–to–wall tight dresses and topless, girls and boys in high heels, everyone cooler than anything I’d seen before. There was one gay bar where I came from. I knew of its existence and looked longingly at it from across the street, but I couldn’t go in. I wasn’t gay, and I wasn’t legal, and anyone having fun inside it kept the fun there.

Now, though, I’d lucked into Bee’s, and Gloria shoved me up to the bartender, through the dancers and the looks. First curious, then envious as they saw the girl I was with. I tried to get taller. My shoes were a flat–footed liability. Gloria was wearing steel–toed platforms that made her six inches my senior. I looked like I lived in a lesser latitude.

“What you drinking tonight, Glo?” the bartender asked.

“Something with gin,” Gloria said.

“You sure?” he asked. “Last time wasn’t what you’d call a pretty situation.”

The bartender had an elaborate mustache, and was wearing a pith helmet covered in gold glitter. I could see a whip protruding from over his shoulder. Around his wrist, a leather cuff with a lot of strings attached. I looked at them, and saw that they connected to the bottles behind the bar.

Gimmicky motherfucker, I thought, imagining myself as K. Dick, cool, collected, suave. I’d be a Man of Mystery. No more Mister Nice Guy.

“The lady will have a gin martini,” I said, and the bartender looked at me. I wasn’t sure if gin went into martinis, but I looked back, gave him a glare, and he snorted.

“Dirty?” he asked, sneering at me. I didn’t know what dirty was. It sounded bad.

“Clean,” I said, and Gloria grinned.

“And what about you, Jimmy?” asked Gloria. “What are you drinking?”

The bartender held out his hand to her and she spit her gum out into it. My tongue crawled backward like an impounded vehicle.

“I’ll order for the boy,” she said.

“You always do,” said the bartender, and flicked his wrist. A bottle of gin somersaulted off the shelf and onto the bar.

“You sound like you got a beef with me, Such & Such,” said Gloria, uncurling one half of his mustache with her fingertip.

“Not a beef,” he said, his mustache snapping back into place, and nodded at me. “But you bruise the merchandise. And that shit is not my name.”

“George,” Gloria said, and rolled her eyes. “Make him an Old Fashioned for starters.”

He moved his wrist and the bourbon slid over like a girl on a bench, the way I wished Gloria would slide over to me.

The music was louder than it had been, and the cat from the door was onstage now, walking the perimeter, eyeballing everyone and occasionally laying down the claw on an out–of–hand.

The bartender turned around and made my drink, and I heard a noise, a kind of coo. Then another noise like nails on a chalkboard.

Such & Such handed me a heavy glass full of dark amber liquid, cherry in the bottom. Gloria had a martini glass full of a silver–white slipperiness that looked like it might at any moment become a tsunami.

The bartender pushed them across the bar.

“Cheers,” he said. “Or not, depending on your tolerance, Nice Guy. Should I call you Mister?”

“Yes,” I said. Then I didn’t know what to say, so I said. “Call me Lucky.”

“You’re not a Lucky,” the bartender said. “You think you know a damn about a dame, but you don’t know dick about this one.”

I hardly heard him.

Gloria ran her finger around the edge of her glass like she was playing a symphony, and her drink unfolded out of it, elbow by elbow until a skinny guy in a white and silver pinstriped suit was sitting on the bar, looking straight into Gloria’s eyes, and grinning. Pinkie diamond. Earrings. Hair in a pompadour, face like James Dean.

I heard the bartender snort, and followed the chain on his wrist to the vest pocket of Gloria’s gin martini.

My drink was already out by the time I stopped staring at hers. For a moment, I didn’t know if she was a drink or not, but then I saw her wringing the wet hem of her amber–colored cocktail dress. She looked at me, and pulled a cherry stem from between her teeth. Her bracelet, a thin gold ribbon with a heart–shaped padlock connected her to the bartender’s chains.

“You lovely So & So,” said my Old Fashioned, her accent Southern belle. “Ask a girl to dance.”

Gloria was already gone, in the arms of her white–suited martini, and I caught a glimpse of her on the dance floor, her black bobbed head thrown back as she laughed. I could see his arms around her.

I’d misunderstood the nature of our evening.

Resigned, I took the Old Fashioned’s hand. She hopped off the bar and into my arms, her red curls bouncing.

“You can call me Sweetheart,” she said, and lit a cigarette off the candle on a table we passed. “But I don’t think I’ll call you Lucky. You came with Gloria, didn’t you?”

“Yeah,” I said. “She’s great.”

“She’s trouble,” the Old Fashioned said. “She likes her drink too much.”

I looked onto the dance floor to see Gloria but all I saw was a flash of yellow, a stockinged thigh, and Gloria’s acid–green eyes, wide open, staring into the silver eyes of the martini.

I spun my drink out into the room. The music was loud. The brass band was all hound dogs. I found that I could dance with my Old Fashioned, dance like I couldn’t dance, swing like I couldn’t swing. Her dress stayed wet at the hem, beads of bourbon dropping on the floor as the cat from the front door scatted with the band. I leaned over to kiss her shoulder, and tasted sugar.

“Oh, So & So, you’re such a gentleman,” she said, and spun me hard to the left, suddenly taking the lead. I kissed her mouth then, and her lips were bitter, a sharp taste of zest, the lipstick bright as orange peel.

She bent me backward and I could see her laughing, looking over me and at another girl on the floor, tight, sequined gold–brown dress, same kind of red curls. “Want another drink?”

“No,” I said, overwhelmed. The room was spinning away from me, and there was Gloria out of the corner of my eye, now dancing with three guys and one girl, all in matching silver–white suits.

By morning, I was being led around the dance floor by five redheads, and my mouth tasted bitter. I had sugar all over my clothes, and I was wet with bourbon. I opened my mouth and spat out a cherry, but I hadn’t even tasted it. I couldn’t walk.

The cat pranced along the bar, his tuxedo front suddenly white as a near–death, and said, in an imperative tone, “Time to catch the early bird.”

All of Bee’s Jesus moaned.

The cat leapt up, clawing the light cord, and fluorescents hit us hard. The bartender hopped over the bar, and raised his wrist, tugging each chain, and in a moment, all the beautiful people in Bee’s Jesus were gone.

Blast of light. I blinked.

I looked down. Broken glass and ice all over the floor, and a few people like me, in the middle of them, eyes sagging, stockings laddered. One of them in a bright yellow rubber dress. She looked over at me, and waved, her hand shaking.

“Wanna get some eggs?” Gloria said, and I nodded, weak–kneed.

*

Glo and I got married and then we got divorced.

We spent too much time at Bee’s Jesus. I got to know the regulars, the margaritas and the Manhattans, the Sazeracs and the Bloody Marys, but I kept ordering the Old Fashioned, and Gloria kept ordering the gin martini, as I eventually figured out she always would. She fell hard for her drink, and I fell hard for mine.

Eventually, we started taking them back to our place, the four of us, him sitting at our table in his white and silver suit, and her there in her sequins, lipstick on her cigarettes.

We moved out to the suburbs, but the gin martini didn’t like it there. He’d stand outside, looking down the tree–lined, holding a shaker in his hands, and complaining about the quality of the ice. The two drinks sat in the car, in the afternoons, and sometimes Glo sat with them. Eventually, the martini took off, but the Old Fashioned stayed. After a while, Gloria went back to the city too, breaking my heart, and all the tumblers at the same time.

She bought the bar, and moved into the apartment upstairs with him.

Every night, or so I heard, she could be found dancing in the middle of the floor with five or six guys in silver, the band blasting. She hired some pit bulls, and they kept the door down while she danced. Gloria had fucked a German at Bee’s Jesus one time, she’d told me at some point in our marriage. At first, this wasn’t worrying. It was when she added Shepherd to the mix. She said it like it was no thing. It seemed like a thing to me.

Now the dog seemed like a better option than the martini. She turned to drink, and then she turned again and wrapped herself in his silver arms. He spun down into her, his diamond shining.

I kept waiting for her to come home, but she’d never really loved me, and so she never really did.

The redhead put herself on ice, and now when I tried to dance with her, sugar cubes crushed under our feet, and everything got sticky and sour. Her skin was cold and hard, and she kept her mouth full of cherry stems, but never any cherries.

“I miss the martini, So & So,” she said at last, her dress falling off her shoulder, sequins dripping from her hem. “And I miss Such & Such. I miss the way he tended.”

I tried to kiss her. She turned her head. I tasted a new spirit.

“What’s that?” I asked her, and she looked away.

“Dry vermouth,” she said, and looked at me, with her liquid eyes. “He gave it to me.” Something had changed in her. She wasn’t an Old Fashioned anymore. She’d been mixing.

She swizzled out the door one morning early, and I knew she’d returned to Bee’s.

I cleaned out the cupboards. I quit drinking, cold turkey. I became a cop and tried to forget.

But soon the bar was back on my radar again. Trouble there all the time. It was a blood–on–the–tiles known failure point, and the boys at the precinct knew it well.

And now, the call, the murder. I had a feeling I knew who it might be, but I didn’t know for sure.

“Pull over,” I said to Gene. Glitter, shining in the headlights.

“You sure you wanna do this?” he asked. “I know you got a soft spot for Gloria, but we gotta arrest that broad, we gotta do it, no matter your old flames.”

“That fire’s out,” I said. It was.

I saw the cat then, his tuxedo shining. I saw his tail, the letters reading NO. I saw him run out the door of Bee’s Jesus, and into the street, and then I saw Glo, right behind him. She shook her shoulders back, and looked at the cruiser, like she didn’t care. She walked over to the window and looked at it until I gave up and rolled down.

“You got no business here, Jimmy,” she said. “Somebody called in a false alarm.”

She looked at me with those same acid eyes, and I felt etched. Nothing like a long ago love to bring back the broken.

“Stay here,” I said to Gene. “Do me a favor. One.”

Gene sighed and set a timer, but he stayed in the car.

I walked down the alley behind Gloria, and Gloria held out her fingers to me for a second. Just one. We were the old days.

I saw him shining, his white and silver leg, dumped in the alley like the caller had told me he would be. I knew who the caller had been. I knew her voice. I knew her muddles. She couldn’t let a guy stay in the street. She wasn’t all bitter, and she had a soft spot for martinis.

I saw the cat, and I saw the band. All of them out in the street, like I’d never seen them. The pit bulls and the bull hounds.

The cat looked up from what he was doing, his teeth covered in blood. Red all over the white front of his tuxedo shirt.

“Sadsack,” he said. “You knew this place, but it’s gone.”

I could hear his purr from where I stood, appalled, as he bit into the gin. The dogs and the cats. All of them on top of the martini, making it go away. There was a pool on the cobbles, and I could smell juniper berries.

“Another one back in the shaker,” said the cat, then shook his head, gnashing. “Hair of the dog,” he said, and spat.

Something caught the light at the end of the alley. Golden–brown sequins. I tasted ice. I could see her mouth, cherry red, shining out of the shadows, and then she stalked away.

Gloria looked up at me, and shrugged. The whites of her eyes were red. Her hands shook. The sun was rising.

“He used to be clean,” she said. “You remember, Jimmy, you remember how he was. You remember how he was. But he got dirty. I’m getting away from this town. This bar. I shut things down in there.”

A cocktail walked out the door of Bee’s Jesus, and I watched her come. All in crimson, her perfume spiced and salty. She knelt beside the remains of the gin martini, and stretched her long green–painted fingernails over his face. She lay down on top of the corpse, and as I watched, the gin dissolved into the Bloody Mary.

“No chaser,” said Gloria, and smiled sadly. “She’ll take him away.”

The Bloody Mary stood up in her stilettos, wiping her hands on her dress, and took Gloria’s hand in hers.

“See you, Mister Nice Guy,” said Gloria. “Bar’s closed. I have a plane to catch. Somewhere sunny. Somewhere I can get a drink with an umbrella.”

I watched Gloria and her new drink walk away. As she went, I saw her unfasten something from her wrist. A leather cuff decked in long chains. She dropped it in the gutter. I watched her turn the corner, away from the glitter, and then I watched the sun rise, shining on the mountain of ice outside the former door of Bee’s Jesus.

 *

“No dead body,” I said to Gene. “Just ice and glass. What can you do?”

I took myself to the cleaners. Blood all over my shirt front, hair of the dog on my knees. I smelled bourbon and cherries, juniper and regret. Gloria and her gin.

“Ah, it’s Such & Such,” said the martinizer. I was no longer an Emperor, if I’d ever really been. “I cleaned your dirty laundry,” he said. “But some stains don’t come out.”

He handed me a white shirt not mine. He waved me out the door and back into the brittle light of the morning.

Maria Dahvana Headley is the author of the dark fantasy/alt–history novel Queen of Kings, as well as the internationally bestselling memoir The Year of Yes. Her Nebula–nominated short fiction has appeared in Lightspeed, Subterranean, and more, and will be anthologized in the 2013 editions of Rich Horton’s The Year’s Best Fantasy & Science Fiction, and Paula Guran’s The Year’s Best Dark Fantasy & Horror, and Jurassic London’s The Lowest Heaven. Most recently, she co–edited the anthology Unnatural Creatures, with Neil Gaiman. Find her on Twitter at @MARIADAHVANA, or on the web at www.mariadahvanaheadley.com.

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