“Shard of Glass” by Alaya Dawn Johnson:
That day, my mother picked me up from school, wearing the yellow sundress and shawl I remembered from our trip with Father the year before. She looked just like she did most days back then—a glamour queen, a movie star (“Just like Lena Horne,” my friend Chloe had once said, “only darker—oh, sorry, Leah!”), but today her beauty somehow had a harder, more defiant edge to it. I could smell the expensive Dior perfume as soon as I opened the door, which surprised me, because my mom was usually fastidious about not getting perfume on her clothes. She was wearing her bug glasses—huge dark things with lenses that bulged out like fly eyes and reflected my face like a fun-house mirror. She had tied a yellow silk scarf around her hair and was taking deep pulls on a cigarette held between two immaculately manicured fingers. Only I knew about the nicotine stains she carefully covered with her special order “forest sable” cream each morning.
Tiffany, a stupid but vicious senator’s daughter who I had the misfortune of sharing a classroom with, suddenly dashed from inside the school, her face flushed.
“Hello, Mrs. Wilson,” she called. Before my mother could respond, she giggled and ran back to three of her friends waiting beyond the door. I could hear them laughing, but I was glad I couldn’t understand their words. They were all fascinated with my mother—the black housekeeper who dressed like Katharine Hepburn and drove a Cadillac, whose daughter’s “light toffee” skin indicated that she might just like her coffee with a lot of cream.
Sometimes I hated those girls.
“Get in the car, Leah,” my mother said. Her already husky voice was pitched low, as though she’d been crying. That made me nervous. Why was she here?
“Ma, Chloe was going to show me her dad’s new camera. Can’t I go home on the bus?”
My mom pulled on the cigarette until it burned the filter, and then ground it into the car ashtray—already filled with forty or so butts. She always emptied out the ashtray each evening.
“Get in the car, Leah.” My mom’s voice was even huskier as she lit another cigarette and tossed the match out of the window.
I sat down and shut the door.
We rode in silence for a while. Despite her shaking hands and the rapidly dwindling box of cigarettes, she drove meticulously, even coming to a full stop at the stop signs. She never stopped at stop signs.
“Ma . . . is something wrong?” I asked hesitantly.
Her fingers tightened on the wheel until her knuckles looked even paler than my skin. “We’re going on a trip, Leah,” she said finally, jamming on the brakes at a stop sign.
“Remembrance Is Something Like a House” by Will Ludwigsen:
Every day for three decades, the abandoned house strains against its galling anchors, hoping to pull free. It has waited thirty years for its pipes and pilings to finally decay so it can leave for Florida to find the Macek family.
Nobody in its Milford neighborhood will likely miss the house or even notice its absence; it has hidden for decades behind overgrown bushes, weeds, and legends. When they talk about the house at all, the neighbors whisper about the child killer who lived there long ago with his family: a wife and five children who never knew their father kept his rotting playmate in the crawlspace until the police came.
The house, however, knows the truth and wants to confess it, even if it has to crawl eight hundred miles.
“Useless Things” by Maureen McHugh:
I wake at night sometimes now, thinking someone is in my house. Abby sleeps on the other side of the bed, and Hudson sleeps on the floor. Where I live it is brutally dark at night, unless there’s a moon—no one wastes power on lights at night. My house is small, two bedrooms, a kitchen and a family room. I lean over and shake Hudson on the floor, wake him up. “Who’s here?” I whisper. Abby sits up, but neither of them hears anything. They pad down the hall with me into the dark front room, and I peer through the window into the shadowy back lot. I wait for them to bark.
Many a night, I don’t go back to sleep.
But the man at my door this morning weeds my garden and accepts my bowl of soup and some flour tortillas. He thanks me gravely. He picks up his phone, charging off my system, and shows me a photo of a woman and a child. “My wife and baby,” he says. I nod. I don’t particularly want to know about his wife and baby, but I can’t be rude.
I finish assembling the doll I am working on. I’ve painted her, assembled all the parts, and hand rooted all her hair. She is rather cuter than I like. Customers can mix and match parts off of my website—this face with the eye color of their choice, hands curled one way or another. A mix-and-match doll costs about what the migrant will make in two weeks. A few customers want custom dolls and send images to match. Add a zero to the cost.
I am dressing the doll when Abby leaps up, happily roo-rooing. I start, standing, and drop the doll dangling in my hand by one unshod foot.
It hits the floor head first with a thump, and the man gasps in horror.
“It’s a doll,” I say.
Before Eugie Foster was taken from us last year, she gave the world hundreds of short stories. We are lucky that she was so prolific, and it’s our loss she died so young when she could have written so many more.
I’ll take the opportunity while I’m linking this story to link to a few others. “Beautiful Winter,” a retelling that appeared in last year’s IGMS sampler, has the very beautiful imagery I associate with her writing. Retellings were often her ouvre. “The Tanuki-Kettle,” a folk-tale-style story set in Japan, was one of my first acquisitions for PodCastle for its warmth and humor. Finally, for those who didn’t see it last year, one of her stories was posthumously nominated for the Nebula Award, and particularly wrenching in context — “When It Ends, He Catches Her.”
Eugie and I were part of the same “Nebula class” (which is only something I call it in my mind, it’s not a real thing). We were both nominated for the first time in the same year and in the same category, and we got to know each other and a bunch of the other first time nominees at the convention that year.
“Sinner, Baker, Fabulist, Priest” won that Nebula Award. Its mix of high concept and colorful images that disarmed readers.
“Sinner, Baker, Fabulist, Priest; Red Mask, Black Mask, Gentleman, Beast” by Eugie Foster:
Each morning is a decision. Should I put on the brown mask or the blue? Should I be a tradesman or an assassin today?
Whatever the queen demands, of course, I am. But so often she ignores me, and I am left to figure out for myself who to be.
Dozens upon dozens of faces to choose from.
1. Marigold is for murder.
The yellow mask draws me, the one made from the pelt of a mute animal with neither fangs nor claws—better for the workers to collect its skin. It can only glare at its keepers through the wires of its cage, and when the knives cut and the harvesters rip away its skin, no one is troubled by its screams.
I tie the tawny ribbons under my chin. The mask is so light, almost weightless. But when I inhale, a charnel stench redolent of outhouses, opened intestines, and dried blood floods my nose.
Ted Chiang, as they say, needs no introduction — if you follow the contemporary science fiction and fantasy short story scene. In case you don’t, Chiang is a powerhouse, not only one of the masters of the short form, but also someone whose work can always be relied on to be strong. Is some better than others? Sure. But it all shows his characteristic attention to detail and deep consideration and analysis.
My favorite of his is actually “The Short Story of Your Life and Others,” but alas, it’s not online. Instead I give you this one, to which it was my honor to lose the Hugo.
“The Lifecycle of Software Objects” by Ted Chiang:
Ana’s half expecting to see a fantastical landscape when the window refreshes, but instead her avatar shows up in what looks at first glance to be a daycare center. On second glance, it looks like a scene from a children’s book: there’s a little anthropomorphic tiger cub sliding colored beads along a frame of wires; a panda bear examining a toy car; a cartoon version of a chimpanzee rolling a foam rubber ball.
The onscreen annotations identify them as digients, digital organisms that live in environments like Data Earth, but they don’t look like any that Ana’s seen before. These aren’t the idealized pets marketed to people who can’t commit to a real animal; they lack the picture-perfect cuteness, and their movements are too awkward.
Keffy Kehrli is a too-often-overlooked writer. This is my favorite of his short stories.
My parents raised me on a diet of jazz, big bands, musicals, and classical music. I’ve never spent much time listening to more recent popular music. “This Is a Ghost Story” is about Kurt Cobain — but even for me, who has no connection to the source material, it was still intense and affecting.
(By the by, if you like listening to short stories, you might be interested in Keffy Kehrli’s LGBTQ podcast, Glittership.)
“This Is a Ghost Story” by Keffy Kerhli
On a muted television:
He smirks like he’s found the way out of an impossible maze, like he hasn’t a care in the world. Except that if you look in his eyes, you’ll see the breadcrumbs leading right back to the labyrinth. You’ll feel a memory of unrelenting stone walls and know that it wasn’t necessarily a bad feeling, being held. Suffocating.
Turn up the sound too late for the question.
He runs cigarette–stained fingers over the stubble on his chin and leans on the arm of the leather couch. He crosses his legs, skinny jeans worn and ragged. He’s still wearing old Chucks with the tread half–gone, even though he could buy a thousand new pairs. He doesn’t wear the Mister Rogers sweaters anymore. Sometimes he still wears dresses for the fuck of it, but today he’s wearing a white t–shirt that looks like his kid doodled on it with four colors of Sharpie. A bloodied stick man holds a shotgun.
He licks his lips, and he doesn’t look at the camera, or at the floor, or at the interviewer’s face. He’s focused on the space between, like it’s a gulf or a fence or a wall. He says, “Yeah, it was pretty rough for a while, you know. I kept saying things were getting better, but really they weren’t. Eventually it was clean up or die, so…
“I started thinking about doing music for other shit, not because I needed the money, but to fuck with people. Then I thought maybe I’d do a Disney soundtrack, but it’d probably end up like in Fight Club where the guy’s splicing porn into kid movies.”
Then the interviewer asks about his kid, and he grins. “She’s great,” he says. “I know that’s not very ‘punk rock’ of me, but whatever.”
What are you looking at? This interview never fucking happened.
I’m a big fan of science fiction that takes vivid, strange images into the future. I think, actually, I always have — and if you look at a lot of classic SF, that’s what it’s doing. That’s obvious when reading someone like Stanislaw Lem, but I think it’s still true about folks who we consider more traditional now. It’s just that some of the weird images they used have been carried on in the conversation so far now that they’ve become standard, and have lost their newness. Stories like this, and space opera by people like Yoon Ha Lee, bring a contemporary disjunctive strangeness to the genre. I look forward to seeing what happens when the next generation gets bored with it.
If you like odd surrealism and lyrical writing, Maria Dahvana Headley is worth perusing.
“The Traditional” by Maria Dahvana Headley:
By your first anniversary, the world’s stopped making paper, and so you can’t give 3your boyfriend the traditional gift. You never would have anyway, regardless of circumstances. You’re not that kind of girl. You pride yourself on your original sin. It’s the hot you trade in.
So you give him the piece of your skin just beneath your ribcage on the right side, where the floating ribs bend in. It’s a good part. Not the best. You’re like a food hoarder who pretends her larder’s empty, all the while running her finger along the dusty ledge that leads to the trick shelves that hold the jars of Caspian caviar. You’ve always been the kind of liar who leans back and lets boys fall into you while you see if you can make them fall all the way out the other side. You want them to feel like they’ve hit Narnia. You traffic in interdimensional fucking, during which they transcend space and time, and you go nowhere. When they fall in love, you Shun & Break™ them. Their poor plastic hearts are Pez dispensers topped with copyright violation Mickey Mice.
Your boy’s not falling for this shit. He simply refuses. He sees through your methods. You met him in a bar on the night of the first apocalypse, just prior, and both of you somehow lived through the night.
He clocked you from moment one, when you bought him a drink and brought it to him, fresh lipstick on your mouth, altering your walk to cause him pain. He drank it. He then took the cherry out of yours and drank your drink too, looking at you the whole time like he was a prime transgressor who was going to rock your world until it broke.
“You gonna try to make me love you now?” he asked. “That your thing?”
“Brother,” you said, taken aback by the way he’d just needlessly whacked the rules of flirtation, “I don’t even know you exist.”