George Moss moves like a man twice his age. Hands in his pockets, he plods towards Gravity’s Edge Gifts. The shop sits like an afterthought across the street from Lenox Circle Mall. The exterior walls wear countless coats of sunset orange paint but the warm color does nothing to brighten George Moss’s mood.
Gravity’s Edge Gifts has been around ever since he can remember. Rumors about the store’s mysterious proprietor always intrigued him, but in forty-five years he never had occasion to set foot within.
A shopkeeper’s bell trills overhead as he shoulders his way inside. Dreamcatchers hanging over plate glass windows cast spidery shadows on handmade works of wood, clay and yarn lining naked pine shelves. The scent of Murphy’s Oil Soap permeates the air. George Moss barely registers any of it. His attention is focused on the gnarled woman with skin like old beechwood sitting behind the counter. A grey wool shawl drapes her shoulders. She sorts through a basket of tangled crochet threads and mutters to herself.
“Welcome, welcome. Welcome to Gravity’s Gifts,” she says. Her accent is vaguely Eastern European and she draws out the long vowels. She pronounces her “w’s” like “v’s”.
“Are you Madam Moirai?”
“Of course, of course? Who else, dear? You are?”
George Moss shifts his weight, floorboards creak.
“I’m looking to sell something. Or trade. However this works,” he says.
“This is store. I buy and sell many things. Is simple,” Madam Moirai’s broad teeth have strained decades of coffee and strong tea and her gums are a dark purple.
George Moss leans forward, his voice dropping just above a whisper. “I understand you can handle… special requests.”
Madam Moirai turns her head and looks sideways at him.
“I do not buy the drugs, if that what is you are asking.”
George Moss’s face goes pale. “No! No. Gosh, sorry no.”
“Maybe some homemade incense, if you have, but—”
“No, I don’t have incense. I–” He withdraws his hands from his pockets and places them on the counter. He begins pulling at the thick gold band adorning his left ring finger. It takes considerable effort but at last he has it off.
“I want to sell this,” George Moss says and places it on the counter. Madam Moirai stares motionless at the ring, so he pushes it toward her. At last she looks up.
“A nice ring, but you get more from Eddy’s Gold Shop at mall,” she says.
“No. It’s not just the ring,” George Moss says. This isn’t going at all the way he’d hoped. Rumor had it Madam Moirai could help with special problems. That there wouldn’t be a lot of explaining. He takes a deep breath.
“My wife hardly speaks to me. We haven’t had sex in a year. My oldest, Scott, is in rehab. For the sixth time. Mike, the middle one, he’s lost his job and needs to move back in. With his boyfriend. Michelle wants to drop out and focus on her poetry. She’s in middle school for Christsake! Even the dog ran off and I don’t blame him.”
“Ah,” Madam Moirai says.
“You got it now?” George Moss asks. “This ring, it’s the symbol of all this responsibility I don’t want anymore. I want you to fix it…make it go away. I was told you could help someone in my situation.”
Madam Moirai picks up the ring and peers at George Moss through the hole. She lays it flat in her palm and weighs it up and down.
“Heavy,” she says.
“Very,” George Moss replies.
“I tell you what. I make trade.” Madam Moirai pushes the basket of crochet threads aside and rummages under the counter. A loud “ah ha” accompanies the discovery of what she is searching for. She puts a shoebox on the counter and turns it so it will open toward George Moss.
He is relieved that she understands. He opens the box. There is a black revolver inside with wooden grips.
“What is this?”
“For you. Fix your problems,” Madam Moirai says.
“I don’t want to kill anybody!” George Moss says.
“Not kill them. Kill yourself. Problems solved.”
“What? Are you crazy?” George Moss asks. “What kind of solution is that?”
“Who is crazy? You come in here think I am some shtriga? Some witch who can makes spells on people? Or maybe give you a potion fix all problems? Huh? Ha! I have accent. I run business. No fairy stories here. If things so bad you kill self – snip, snip – problems solved.”
“I—,” A flash image of him holding the gun to his head hits George Moss like a bucket of cold water. What comes out of his mouth next surprises him. Laughter. The intensity gathered in Madam Moirai’s eyes dissipates and she cracks a coffee stained smile.
“I’m an idiot,” George Moss says. “All this stuff piling up on me…”
“You don’t tell somebody this before, I think?” Madam Moirai says. She pats his cheek. “No good you keep things inside.”
“I’m sorry. I can’t believe I thought you could… well, never mind,” George Moss says. “I know what I need. I need to cinch up and deal with life. That and maybe see a shrink.”
George Moss takes his ring from the counter. It slides on his finger much easier than it came off. He looks around the store, but there’s nothing here that he wants now and his embarrassment grows the more he thinks about this whole episode. Maybe later he’ll come back and buy something. There’s a startling indigo crocheted sweater that would really bring out his wife’s eyes.
“Thank you, Madam Moirai,” he says. “See you around.”
Madam Moirai puts the box with the gun under the counter and returns to picking apart the snarl of crochet threads.
“Goodbye, George. Good luck.”
As he’s waiting in line at the florist’s with a large bouquet of flowers for his wife, George Moss reflects that he never mentioned his name.
J.C. Towler feels it is silly to write bios in the 3rd person unless one is British Royalty which he is not.
Anya’s earworm was malfunctioning.
There could be no other explanation for what she was feeling: she had caught herself several times humming the melody of a tune that wasn’t her graduation song. Just this morning at breakfast, her fingers had developed an impromptu twitch, tapping out an unfamiliar rhythm on the top of the kitchen table. When her father headed off to his job in the Translation Department, Anya locked herself in the bathroom and sang loudly and raucously to the mirror, the words forming unbidden, the noise in her head crashing out around her. Afterwards, she sat on the cold floor and cried because she had never felt so happy in her life.
She had heard stories of this happening, of course – the implants everyone received at birth didn’t always take, although Anya was pretty sure there had never been a case of a teenager having a defective model. Babies sometimes required surgery to remove the implant and have a new one inserted, but their immature brains could tolerate the stress of the procedure and there were rarely problems with the replacement. Anya wasn’t sure what having her earworm removed would do to her brain. She didn’t think she wanted to find out.
The earworm couldn’t have gone rogue at a worse time. Graduation was two days away and, like all of the members of her class, she was scheduled to perform in front of the Minister and the other heads of State, for a nationally-televised live broadcast. The earworm she had been given at birth had designated her as a singer, and once she was finished school, her job was to join other singers and musicians in performing all of the music required by the State. Celebrations of births, deaths, marriages, political appointments and corporate deals – she would be obligated to sing at them all. The earworm had always given her a voice and told her what to sing, and now, just before the most important day of her life, it seemed to have relinquished control.
Anya boarded the train and headed to practice. She bit her tongue to keep from singing on the platform, and she kept her hands clasped tightly in front of her. On the train, she was careful to sit quietly, although the song that wasn’t her graduation song was roaring in her ears and making her body feel twitchy. She wanted to sing. She wanted to get up and move, grab the hand of the stranger next to her and swing into his arms.
Anya’s friend Peter was waiting in the student lounge for her after she straggled out of the auditorium. He had two cups of coffee in his hand. He passed one to a grateful Anya and flung his scarf over his shoulder. The two of them followed a crowd of chemistry pre-grads in lab coats into the courtyard. “How was practice?” Peter asked. “You look worried.”
Anya tried to smile. Peter’s implant, a heartmurmur, had designated him as a paramedic. It would be his job to take care of people in emergencies, but she didn’t think he’d been trained for her particular emergency. The Head of the Music Department, Mme. LaFlamme, had been less than enthusiastic about the way Anya had performed during practice. Anya had not wanted to sing her graduation song, not with that other song filling her, threatening to burst from her seams and bounce off the walls. She had struggled to keep herself together, but Mme. LaFlamme had sensed something was wrong. Anya was terrified that she might soon find herself on a surgeon’s table with her skull spliced open instead of graduating with her friends. And there was something else: she could not bear to lose the earworm now, not after she had felt the rush of the other music. She was convinced that never knowing that joy again would kill her. “Can I tell you something?” she asked.
Peter listened, wide-eyed but calm. He would need to draw on that stillness when he performed on Graduation Day. He was scheduled to save the life of a volunteer suffering induced cardiac arrest. Failure wasn’t an option for him, but then again, his heartmurmur wasn’t defective. He had completed his training, and he would know what to do when the time came.
“What if it’s not your earworm?” Peter asked when Anya was finished. “That maybe it’s you – that you’re overriding the implant somehow?”
Anya frowned. “Do you think that’s even possible?” she whispered. But she thought it might be. She had read the histories, knew that her ancestors had made music and art and literature for themselves, not the State. She had been taught that it had all been destroyed in the Purge, long before she was born. But what if she had tapped into it somehow?
“What are you going to do?” Peter asked. “I mean, about Graduation Day and all.”
“I’ll sing,” Anya said. She sounded braver than she felt.
It wasn’t her graduation song that Anya heard in the sudden hush as she stood there before the cameras on Graduation Day, the Minister and the rest of the heads of State seated in the balcony high above her, her father and her classmates and Mme. LaFlamme deep in the bowl of the stadium. She felt her fingers move. She wanted to snap them together, clap her hands, punch out a backbeat for the words she had spun together. But instead she placed them tightly at her sides, smoothing out her satin skirt.
Peter sat with the rest of their class, in the first row. Anya caught his eye. He looked upset, although he had easily rescued his cardiac patient a few minutes earlier. She knew he was worried for her, and she wanted to tell him he needn’t be: she had thought long and hard about this graduation gift, and she intended to keep it.
Sheryl Normandeau is a Calgary-based writer. She spends an inordinate amount of time at the public library (mostly because she works there). Her work has appeared in several North American publications.
“Hey,” Max says. “Got some bad news. We’re shutting down.”
I stare at him, slack-jawed. His tongue lolls out, and his tail gives a vigorous wag.
“I hate to harsh your day,” he says, “but I thought you might want a few minutes to settle accounts.”
I glance around. We’re alone in the dog park off Barker Road. The sun is high and hot in a deep blue sky, and a soft June breeze is pushing the leaves around on the gnarled old oak that stands between us and the parking lot. A drool-soaked tennis ball sits in the grass, right where Max dropped it.
Right before he started talking.
“I’m sorry,” I say. “You’re gonna need to…”
Max drops to his haunches and grins up at me.
“Gotcha,” he says. “Background. This?” He makes a sweeping gesture with one paw. “It’s a simulation.”
I look around again. Definitely nobody watching.
“Yeah. You know what a simulation is, right?”
I nod. I’m not sure I do, but I don’t want to look stupid in front of my dog.
“Good,” he says, “because you’re in one. It’s been running for most of a year now. Going really well, honestly, but we’re out of money. I thought I might be able to get an extension based on some of the data we’ve collected on ecosystem collapse. Ran it all the way up to the Section Head, but… well, long story short, he wasn’t impressed. So, like I said, we’re shutting down. Sorry.”
I sit down in the grass and pull my knees to my chest. Max comes over to me, pushes his nose under my hand, then settles down against me as I scratch behind his ears.
“But…” I say.
He closes his eyes. His tail beats a steady rhythm against the grass.
“What’s it all about?”
“Yeah,” I say. “I mean, what are you saying? That none of this is real?”
“Come on, Doug. What’s real? You think, therefore you are, right? That’s as real as any of us can be sure of. Look, there’s probably a chance that my level of reality is actually somebody else’s simulation. Worrying about whether you’re at the top of the tree or not just isn’t productive.”
A bird leaps into the air from the top of the oak. It beats its wings as it climbs, spirals once around, then pixelates and disappears. When I look down again, the tree itself is losing resolution.
“So,” I say. “What do I do now? Should I be praying or something?”
Max opens his eyes long enough to roll them at me, then closes them again.
“If you want to, I guess. I should tell you, though, that I didn’t put any gods into this run. Theistic simulations generally don’t give you much useful data. Hard to learn anything about the migratory patterns of emus when you’ve got pillars of fire and whatnot running around all over the place.”
“Yeah,” I say. “I guess it would be.”
The breeze is picking up now, pushing my hair back from my face and ruffling the thick fur along Max’s spine. I look up. A fat white cloud scuds across the sky, straight overhead. As I watch, it freezes in place, then breaks into a fractal pattern of smaller and smaller clouds before disappearing.
“I don’t think…”
The sun blinks out, leaving behind a jet-black sky filled with bright white stars. Then one by one, they begin to disappear as well.
“By the way,” Max says, “if you’re wondering whether I’ve been laughing at you behind your back since you got me home from the shelter, the answer is no. Max was just your simulated dog until five simulated minutes ago. I went back and forth between talking dog and burning bush when I decided to give you a heads-up on this. I figured you’d take it better from the dog. Did I make the right call?”
He lifts his chin. I rub my knuckles along the underside of his jaw.
“Sure,” I say. “I mean, I guess so. I think I’m taking it pretty well, don’t you?”
“Oh yeah,” he says. “Definitely. Versions of me are laying this on every sentient in the sim right now. Half of them are running around in circles, clucking like chickens and smearing food all over their bodies. You’re doing great.”
The last few stars wink out, and we’re left in a dark so black that I might as well be blind. The wind dies down. Max noses my hand again.
“Hey,” he says. “Who said you could stop scratching?”
I start in on the back of his neck. He sighs a long, satisfied dog sigh, and I suddenly realize that I can’t feel the grass anymore. It’s just me now, and Max, and a silent black nothing.
“So this is it, right?” I say. “Nothing left to go but me?”
“Actually,” Max says, “you should already be gone by now. So should I, for that matter. What’s up with that?”
“Well,” I say. “Have you considered that maybe you and your simulation were all actually just a part of a bigger simulation that I was running? Maybe this whole scene was just my way of seeing how you’d react to your simulation shutting down.”
“You’re shitting me.”
“Yeah,” I say. “I am. I have no idea what’s going on.”
Max presses against me. His fur is soft and warm, and I can feel his breath on the bare skin of my leg. We float together in companionable silence, in a world without form, and void.
After an unknowable time, a light appears in the distance.
It flickers and grows as we watch.
“Huh,” Max says. “I wonder…”
I can see that there’s something below us now, the vaguest hint of a dark, roiling vastness. I look up.
By ones and twos, then all at once, the stars reappear.
Edward Ashton is the author of more than a dozen short stories, as well as numerous technical articles and medical texts. His fiction has appeared most recently in Daily Science Fiction, Perihelion, and Escape Pod. You can find his work online at smart-as-a-bee.tumblr.com.
editorial by Camille Gooderham Campbell
From the Editors
So here we are, rolling into the final month of our eighth year of publication—and how strange that seems, to have been doing this so long. I hope all our Western Hemisphere readers are enjoying the summer (and some beach/vacation reading time) and not suffering from extremes of temperature.
We’ve had a few hiccups with the website this past month, and we’re still working to get some of our erstwhile features back in place for you. Taking care of EDF is a big job for one person, so at the moment, we’re looking for a volunteer assistant webmaster to help EDF keep running smoothly. WordPress skills are an asset, any programming ability is nice.
We could also use a volunteer copy editor to help with proofreading stories and publishing them to the site. Great experience and a useful thing for one’s resume in the publishing field.
If you’d like to get involved, please contact us.
As usual, we have lots of great stories for you this month; one for every day, in fact.
We’re happy to welcome new slush readers Danielle Dyal and Glenn Mori to our team, while David Beavers leaves us to move on to other things. We expect to be adding a few more new people over the coming month as well.
And what do we need from you? Why, your Labour Day and back-to-school stories, of course. Your harvest and autumn stories. Your Halloween stories and your winter-is-coming stories. Bring them on.
August’s Table of Contents
|Aug 1||Edward Ashton||In the Dog Park|
|Aug 2||Sheryl Normandeau||The Graduation Gift|
|Aug 3||J.C. Towler||Gravity’s Edge Gifts|
|Aug 4||Rachel Harrison||We’ve Come to Ask You a Series of Questions|
|Aug 5||Daniel Ausema||The Gunpowder Resistance|
|Aug 6||Tony Press||Run for the Roses|
|Aug 7||Jordan Zetterlund||Paisley Ties And The Jaws Of Life|
|Aug 8||Regina Solomond||One Tuesday|
|Aug 9||Sean Mulroy||The Botanist and Her Daughters|
|Aug 10||Chelsea Hanna Cohen||My Husband Is A Frog|
|Aug 11||Aaron Knuckey||Innocent Childe|
|Aug 12||JT Gill||Full Circle|
|Aug 13||Diana Rohlman||10 Seconds|
|Aug 14||Ian P. Harris||Moving Onwards|
|Aug 15||Wil Cabrera||The Master Password|
|Aug 16||Kelly Castillo||Duty, Honor, and Country|
|Aug 17||Hermine Robinson||Logorrhoea|
|Aug 18||Anne E. Johnson||Cinderella’s Tailor|
|Aug 19||Deirdre Coles||Third Saturday Morning in May|
|Aug 20||Anna Zumbro||The Call of the Void|
|Aug 21||Roderick Holl||Pulled Over on the Interplanetary Autobahn|
|Aug 22||Desiree Wilkins||The Emptiness|
|Aug 23||Helen Cattan-Prugl||Alice’s Monsters|
|Aug 24||Philip Wentz||Better Homes and Corgyn|
|Aug 25||Kathleen Molyneaux||New Year’s Dive|
|Aug 26||Sara Jackson||Casting Stones|
|Aug 27||Tim W. Boiteau||The Robbed|
|Aug 28||Robert Kibble||Survivor Guilt|
|Aug 29||Perry McDaid||Long Walk, Short Mesa|
|Aug 30||Kimberly Caldwell||Atonement|
|Aug 31||Joel Hunt||Confessions of a Superhero|
Late on certain afternoons I often liked to climb into my small boat and row out into the pond near my cabin. Sometimes I played a flute I had carved from a hickory branch and watched the perch dart about my boat through the clarity of the water. I liked to think my music charmed them.
One evening a woman walked through the trees at the edge of the pond. She was a delicate thing, her blonde hair almost glowing by the light of the dusk-time moon. She knelt at the water’s edge, cupped her hands, and drank from the pond.
My flute was still to my lips. I stopped playing.
The woman looked up. She seemed confused and disoriented. She wore a tattered white dress of dingy cotton. A woodsman’s wife or daughter, I surmised, or perhaps one of the traveling folk–dirt poor, shady and rarely welcome in town.
“Hello there,” I called. She looked at me and I could see some fear in her eyes, which were reddened as if from tears. “It’s okay. I’m just a fisherman out tooting my flute.” I played a few measures and she seemed to relax.
“I’ll row in.” I grasped the oars and propelled myself back to the water’s edge, where I had a small fire burning.
My little boat skidded up on the shore. I grabbed the brace of perch I had caught earlier and carried them over by my fire, placing them on a stump. The woman still squatted by the water’s edge some twenty yards away.
“I’ve plenty of fish I plan to fry up.” I pulled my iron skillet from my pack and set it on the fire. “You’re welcome to some, if you like.” She simply stared at me.
I set about cleaning the fish and cutting them into filets. Next I flipped a dollop of lard into the skillet, then tossed in the fish. I then took a bottle of whiskey from my pack and took a sip.
“Care for a drink?” I asked.
“Is that whiskey?”
“My man drinks whiskey. Then he becomes angry and mean. Are you gonna be angry and mean, mister?”
“I generally stay on the congenial side of things, ma’am.”
“That’s good to know. I like your music. My folks say music’s a sin, but…I’d like to hear more.”
I took the flute out and played. The woman stood and danced about. Her bare feet gently kicked at the hem of her dress, which flew up as she pirouetted, revealing her trim ankles and calves. I finished the song and as she stopped dancing, the sad countenance returned to her face. I flipped the fish with a pair of iron tongs.
She came and sat beside me. “Your fish smell good.”
“They are. You should have some.”
When we finished eating, I again took a slug of my whiskey, and again I offered it to the woman. “They say whiskey’s a sin too,” she said, but this time she took it and put it to her lips, taking a tentative drink.
“I’ve never drank it before,” she said, a slight cough following her statement.
“It takes a little gettin’ used to, but I think you’ll find it takes the edge off the day.”
“I hope it doesn’t make me angry and mean.”
“Ma’am, I’d wager that you don’t have an angry or mean bone in your body.”
We drank more of the whiskey, passing it back and forth between ourselves long into the night. I more than once replenished the fire with small logs, and it burned bright in the darkness by the pond. At her request I brought out the flute and taught her how to blow it.
Much later, she began to grow drowsy. “Is that your cabin up there?” she asked.
“May I stay there with you tonight, or are you a hermit?”
“I come out here so I can work these woods. Trapping. Fishing. Whatnot. But I don’t guess I’d object to any human companionship.”
“I mustn’t go home tonight.”
“May we go there now?”
“I reckon. Let me get some water from the pond to put out this fire.”
“Why don’t we put it out like this?” She stood, grabbed a burning brand with my iron tongs and tossed it high into the air over the pond. Orange sparks trailed behind it like a sky rocket, then it fell and hissed as it smacked the water.
“Careful,” I said.
“Tonight I don’t want to be careful.”
“I don’t know,” I said, but I also tossed a burning log just the same. She laughed, as happy perhaps as she had ever been or would be. We kicked dirt until the last of the fire was gone, and as the moon had set, we were left in utter darkness. I could hear her breathing soft yet wild gasps of air.
We started for the cabin. I felt her groping at me until she found my hand. She clasped it in her own and a shiver passed through me. Her skin was smooth and warm and ‘I found I liked it more than I could have ever known.
“Ain’t nobody ever been nice to me like you been, mister.”
“It ain’t hard to be nice.”
“It is for some people.”
The next morning when I awoke she was gone. For the best, I reckoned–there might be trouble otherwise, but I did feel some unexpected loneliness as I lay once again by myself in my bed. Later I found she’d taken my flute, but I didn’t care. There was plenty more deadwood strewn about the forest, awaiting my carving blade. No, I was glad she had it. It was hers now; a token that at least brief happiness could be found in the world. I hoped it might continue to give her some small measure of joy, or at least serve as a balm against whatever meanness awaited her.
Christopher Owen lives in Texas with his wife and two cats. His work has appeared at Daily Science Fiction, Mirror Dance, New Myths and other places. He is a graduate of the Odyssey Writing Workshop and the Yale Summer Writers’ Conference.
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