Diversity in Speculative Fiction

Human beings have a huge range of perspectives and experiences. It can be easy, as readers, to gravitate towards the familiar, to read about same types of characters again and again. But if we do, we miss seeing the full spectrum of beauty and art that our favorite genre can offer.

Djibril al-Ayad, general editor of The Future Fire, discusses the topic with us further.

Q: Congratulations on ten years of The Future Fire. For those unfamiliar with the magazine, could you fill us in on the basics?

A: Thank you. Basically, The Future Fire is an online speculative fiction magazine that specializes in social-political themes—which is to say we’re more interested in the way cultures differ in future/past/alternative worlds, and what that says about our own society, than we are in all the jazzy tech, magic, war or royalty. That also means we’re interested in diversity—stories by and about under-represented groups, and stories that explore issues like gender, sexuality, race, disability, class and other axes of privilege. And we are devotees of the traditions of Franz Kafka and Jorge Luis Borges, so we love stories that are slightly surreal or magical realist, ekphrasis, hoaxes, and the absurd.

Q: You’ve published several anthologies featuring under-represented voices in speculative fiction. Could you give us some more details about them?

A: Oh yes, we’ve now published three anthologies, and there are a couple more in the pipeline. The first was Outlaw Bodies, proposed and co-edited by Lori Selke, which features nine stories of worlds in which bodies that are different, modified, imperfect or transformed are prohibited, required, disadvantaged or otherwise constrained. There’s a lot of variety in there, and I’m pretty proud of the strong reactions we’ve received, from love to the occasionally reviewer who was offended by some of the content. And then we published We See a Different Frontier, co-edited by Fabio Fernandes, a postcolonial-themed anthology, which was the first time we paid professional rates for fiction. We See a Different Frontier featured stories from all over the world, earned a huge array of nominations, reprints, and honorable mentions, and is also being taught in a couple of college literature courses. And finally, out this month is Accessing the Future, co-edited by Kathryn Allan, full of stories and artwork that tell stories about futures in which disability is handled differently—sometimes better, sometimes not, but always recognized as the social and political phenomenon that it is. (Disability is not a medical issue; it’s a political one.) I think I’m being fair when I say that not a single story in any of these anthologies is a single-issue story, nor is any piece a dull, earnest tract or screed; they’re all great stories in their own right.

And right now we’re reading for a new anthology, Fae Visions of the Mediterranean, co-edited by Valeria Vitale, for which we’re looking for stories of ghosts, sea-monsters, pirates, hallucinations, dreams, legends, horrors and wonders from and about the countries bordering the Mediterranean Sea (including and especially the under-represented North Africa and Near East).

Q: How has the fantasy genre changed in recent years? Do you feel it’s including more diverse voices than it used to? What are your thoughts on the urban fantasy genre, specifically?

A: I don’t know how it has evolved as a genre, necessarily, although there are no doubt trends and patterns that we could pick out in publishing. What I have noticed is that there is a certain kind of diversity that has probably always existed—there has always been fantasy by and about women, people of color, queer issues, class and disability—but that the mainstream is more aware of these days. This is obviously a good thing (or at least, obviously I think so), but it has also let to various push-backs and regressions: we’re seeing a lot of appropriation of non-European cultures by neo-colonialist authors, which is sometimes, but not always, deeply problematic. And we’re seeing the more sinister harassment and abuse campaigns against authors of color from groups who feel threatened by this new acceptance of diversity. Maybe this really ugly reactionary behavior is a sign that we’re winning, in the long term, but that doesn’t help people whose lives are destroyed by it.

Urban fantasy has long included diversity of characters in its menu of features, I think, and the inclusion of diverse authors is improving, too. There are common issues of cultural appropriation and stereotypes, of course, and gotchas like the “unique kick-ass heroine” with no female friends or relatives, but there are plenty of great women and authors of color writing UF, so we certainly don’t need to read any of the boring stuff if we don’t want to!

Q: What would be your advice to writers who want to write from an under-represented POV that they are not familiar with?

A: My first comment would be a warning against cultural appropriation—for me, it’s much more important to hear the voices of under-represented writers than it is to give the same cishetwhiteabledanglo privileged authors more variety and color to write about. Ask yourself why you want to write from an under-represented POV. Read works by people from that POV (nonfiction as well as fiction in the genre you write). Talk to people. Most importantly, ask someone from the group you’re writing as to read and critique your work. But then, don’t try too hard—remember that whoever’s voice you’re trying to write is human, too. 99% of the time they’ll have the same fears and motivations and reactions as your other protagonists who look like you. I’ve never understood (e.g.) male writers who are afraid to write female protagonists because they don’t know how. C’mon, guys, women are human! Have you never met a woman? They’ll react to meeting a ravening werewolf pretty much exactly the same way you will. Mutatis mutandis.

Q: What would be your advice to readers who are seeking books about diverse characters?

A: Firstly, I’d congratulate them on an excellent idea! I’ve hardly read any books by cis/het white anglo men for the past several years, and I’ve discovered some wonderful new work as a result of it. (Nothing against straight white men, of course, but they get 75% of the attention at the expense of the other 99% of the world, so they can afford to lose my custom for a bit!) But the main thing I’d say is look for books by diverse authors—that will give you the diverse perspectives you’re looking for far better than looking only at characters’ backgrounds. And if you don’t know where to start looking for and , then ask around: there will be a good deal more out there than you thought. I started asking around about diverse/minority SF/F anthology themes a few years ago (I was looking specifically for short stories), and received more recommendations than I’ve been able to make much of a dent in.

Q: Any closing thoughts?

A: Since you’ve been so kind as to let me talk a bit about TFF and our tenth birthday this year, I might mention that as a celebration we’re planning an anthology to reprint a few stories from the last decade plus a bunch of new material, which is tentatively titles Ten Years of The Future Fire or “TFFX” for short. Since we’ve never made any profit from this online magazine and small publishing venture (we’ve never aimed to), we’ll also be running a Kickstarter to raise the funds to pay authors properly for reprint rights and new stories. As stretch goals we will also try to: (1) raise the pay-rate for the Fae Visions anthology; (2) raise the pay-rate for authors and especially artists in the magazine itself for next year or so. You will find details of the fundraiser and other celebratory activities at our Editors’ Blog: Press.FutureFire.net

Thank you so much for giving us this space to chat with you and your readers!

Tides Beckoning by Michael T. Banker

Dennis saw it first in the doctor’s face, that their baby wasn’t normal. The doctor’s eyes widened and she actually pulled back her hands, just for an instant. She shot a sympathetic glance toward Dennis.

“Your baby’s head has crested,” she announced, all professionalism again. “Deep breath, Therese, then give me one more really good push.”

Therese squeezed half-moons into Dennis’s palm with her nails. First she wouldn’t meet his gaze, and then she did, looking almost sorry for Dennis for finding out like this. Therese, he thought, what have you done?

Therese moaned and Dennis, connected to his wife through their hands, felt the moment the baby came out. Therese’s eyes closed in shame.

Dennis prepared himself to meet his daughter.

What the doctor held in her arms resembled a jellyfish that had swallowed a human fetus. Its skeleton was visible through translucent blue flesh. It was a creature that belonged in the murky recesses of the ocean, not in the light of day. Therese had sworn to Dennis that she hadn’t visited the sea in years, yet here was the ghastly proof. She’d been carrying on an affair with a mer.

Only, as Dennis stared, he watched his daughter slowly decompress from her journey through the birth canal. Here a doughy elbow stuck out, there a foot twitched, complete with five perfect toes. A light spot caught his eye: the bridge of cartilage pressing against the skin of her nose. That provided him a focal point through which he suddenly recognized a fully formed and decidedly human face, grimacing and squinting into the light. There was the baby he’d seen in the ultrasounds. She didn’t cry. The doctor cut the umbilical and whisked her off to check her respiration.

Perhaps Therese saw what transpired on Dennis’s face, for she tentatively set aside her guilt and spoke one word: “Chelsea?”

Dennis shook himself. “What? Yes! Yes, Chelsea. There she is.” It was the name they had agreed upon. ChelSEA. Therese had suggested it, like a subtle confession, a scarlet letter. And yet, how ordinary it sounded.

“Chelsea,” echoed the doctor as she laid the baby in Therese’s arms. “Chelsea is a healthy…” she only hesitated a moment, “baby girl.”

#

Chelsea never did cry. Dennis made a habit of waking in the middle of the night to check on her, since she couldn’t tell him if anything was wrong. “Going to count our daughter’s bones,” he’d mutter to Therese. Then he’d stand over her crib and muse how frail she looked, absorbing moonlight into her translucent cheeks like molten glass.

Dennis glanced back at his wife, cocooned in sheets. She always slept with her back to him, but he noticed that she’d turned since he’d walked around to the crib, so that her back was to him still. What had become of them?

Chelsea was an ever-present reminder of the choices Therese had made. Dennis had a recurring dream where Therese would undress herself on a beach, scattering blouse, bra, socks, panties. Wave after wave would lap over her naked body, without receding, until she was fully submerged. And then the mer would arrive.

Therese wouldn’t talk to Dennis. Chelsea wouldn’t cry for his attention. Their house was a mausoleum for the life they might have lived. He wasn’t the first parent of a half-mer, but there were hardly books written on the subject. Still, he channeled all of his frustration into caring for Chelsea.

Even when her second birthday arrived and still she couldn’t walk, or even stand. And when four candles graced her birthday cake, but the most they could hope to get out of her were docile “Yip, yup,” guppy sounds.

On the morning after her fifth birthday, Dennis walked downstairs, poured Chelsea’s orange juice and cut a pear, which he set on her striped placemat with a napkin and fork. He heard the irregular thumps that announced her sliding down the stairs on her bottom. But when her face appeared around the corner, just above the floor, Dennis merely snapped his newspaper in the air and turned the page. He was aware of her crawling into the kitchen and climbing into her seat.

“Po Po?” she called to him pitifully as she picked up a slice of pear.

He had decided to be cruel for his daughter. Until she learned to walk, he would simply ignore her. She knew what he wanted.

Two days of this passed. Dennis nervously tapped the side of the recliner, hating and second-guessing himself, rereading the same page of his novel. Chelsea was a perennial presence across the room, sitting cross-legged in his favorite dress of hers (pink, to complement her blue). Then Dennis heard a small thud, and without thinking he looked over to see that she’d fallen on her bottom, eyes sharp with concentration.

She pulled herself up by the edge of the stairs to stand on wobbly legs. Dennis quickly looked away, only to hear another thud. Followed by another. And another. This settled into a regular rhythm, neither speeding up nor slowing down: stand, let go of the wall, take a step, thud. This was it, Dennis realized, it was going to happen. He chanted to himself in time with the thuds: Come on. Good girl. You got this. But he didn’t dare look at her for fear of breaking the spell. Until she missed a beat and he glanced over to find that she was still standing after a single step. But she fell with the next one and crawled back to the wall to pull herself up and start all over again.

Dennis looked for Therese in the kitchen. Her head perked up, and he beckoned her in with his eyes. With rare excitement animating her features, she tiptoed into the doorway.

Chelsea was making more steps at a time now. Their living room carpet was a vast beige ocean, but she wore determination on her face as only a five-year-old could. Still Dennis didn’t dare look at her directly. He tapped the side of his chair more energetically, coaxing her forward. Come on, honey. Come to me, little goldfish. She was so close, he watched her from his peripheral vision, prepared to wrap her in a tight hug and pepper her face with kisses the moment her cool skin touched his hand.

Instead, she lunged–threw herself across the remaining couple of steps, mouth open. Dennis looked over just as she clamped down on the flesh beneath his thumb.

He shoved her away, harder than he intended. She crumpled to the floor but didn’t take her eyes off him. His own red blood beaded on her bottom lip.

Therese marched over, grabbed Chelsea’s thin arm and squeezed it to the bone.

“Therese. Hey, come on–you’re hurting her!”

“No, I’m not,” she replied, and indeed, Chelsea pouted in both of their directions but nothing more. She licked her lips.

Therese squeezed for several more seconds and then dropped Chelsea’s arm. She rounded on Dennis. “Are you happy now?”

“Excuse me?” Dennis angled his hand so that the blood wouldn’t drip on the recliner.

“Your daughter has walked. Has she proven herself to you? Are you content?”

“Yes, Therese, I’m very proud of her.” He spread his hands. “I’m not allowed to be happy for my daughter?”

“Let’s get a pool.”

There it was. Dennis squeezed his eyes shut. “Therese…”

“Why not?”

“You goddamn know why not!”

Dennis’s words hung in the air. In that moment, Chelsea shifted toward her mother.

“She’s passable.” Therese shrugged. “She’s passably human, isn’t she? You can guilt and coerce her into walking and talking and playing nice with other kids. Offer her your shoulder to cry on when she gets bullied. Pretend she’s normal. I for one am not so cruel.”

“Don’t,” Dennis warned.

“Look at her. Really look at her. I know what she is.”

Dennis closed his eyes. Therese, nude at the edge of the water, toes curled in the sand, breasts rocking with each wave.

“She belongs in water. That’s her natural. Accept her for what she is.”

The mer flows to her, over her. She spreads her legs for it–it, thing, force of nature.

“Fine.” Dennis exhaled the word, visibly slackening. Therese planted a fish hook in his belly, and it was tearing his insides raw. His baby had finally walked! Dennis knew he did right for her, but hell, he just didn’t have the strength for it anymore.

“Do whatever you want,” he said. “Get a pool.”

#

A month later, Dennis and Therese stood on the fresh concrete and watched their daughter insinuate herself with the water. First her feet disappeared, lapped up on the first rung of the ladder, jelly-like muscle and intricately locking bones seeming to dissolve. By the time she was submerged, her brand-new purple one-piece seemed to be swimming by itself, blanketed by black hair with a sheen of green like seaweed. She didn’t take to the water–she was water. Occasionally an arm would surface, or less frequently her head, and Dennis would be reassured that she hadn’t melted entirely.

Therese was right; Chelsea’s introduction to the water was as natural as a bird jumping out of its nest to meet air for the first time. Dennis wanted to be thrilled that his daughter could have this, but instead he just felt as if he’d given up on her.

But then, he reasoned with a stroke of bitter honesty, maybe he was ready to give up on her. At least to this extent.

#

Chelsea lay face-up on the concrete in a yellow bikini. It was the third of March, and she was sixteen. Sixteen was important, because her Po Po was going to take her to the ocean this year. He’d promised it, when she was five and he’d had to cover up the pool in the winter for the first time, condemning her to five months of the hard earth beneath her feet and thin air against her skin. He hadn’t expected her to remember, or to remind him every birthday without fail. But he’d promised, sixteen, this year.

Chelsea slipped her left hand beneath the tarp covering the pool. Her anxiety leached out with her body heat. She watched a “V” of small, black birds flying overhead. She snapped her teeth idly at them, wondering if flying felt like swimming for the feathered and hollow-boned.

“Hey,” someone hissed.

Chelsea’s ears perked up. The voice came from behind the fence which had always been, as far as she was concerned, the edge of her world.

She stalked over. It was white plastic with gaps no bigger than a ruler’s edge. Still, she pressed her eye against a slot and realized that she could make out a fuzzy vertical strip of green grass and yellow siding.

Someone rapped three times a short distance away. Chelsea jumped and repositioned herself. This slot was dark… someone in the way?

She tap–tap–tapped in response.

And was rewarded with a throaty laugh and shuffling of feet as her mysterious companion moved to hit the fence farther down. It was a girl’s voice. Chelsea was there in an instant. Soon they were tapping out a musical call and response, the girl laughing without restraint, Chelsea snapping her teeth happily as if she were soaring in pursuit of clever little birds.

But their dance was disrupted by a call from her Po Po. “Chelsea! Dinner!”

Chelsea froze mid-swing. She backed up, raised her foot, and kicked the fence with all her might. She meandered into the house as the rattling fence reverberated through the neighborhood.

“What was that?” asked Po Po.

She ignored him as she dragged an extra large shirt over her bathing suit (a rule at the dinner table). She walked to the kitchen with closed eyes, her translucent lids giving the impression of looking through murky water, and landed moodily in her seat. Chicken and baked potatoes. Chicken was a stupid bird that couldn’t fly, so she concentrated on the potatoes, lathering them with butter until they were mushy and yellow, then molding them with her spoon into the shape of waves.

Her head snapped up and she locked eyes with Po Po. “When,” she enunciated, practicing each syllable in her head before shaping her tongue around it. “Take. Me. Ocean?” She punctuated her question with a smile.

“Oh, Chelsea, I will take you, honey.”

She set down her spoon carefully while she waited for Po Po to finish that thought.

“I’m just not sure you’re ready yet. The ocean’s a–”

“Promised!” She shoved aside her plate, dislodging most of its contents. “Promised. Sixteen!”

“And it’s still a promise. But honey, you’ve got to prove you’re mature enough. The ocean’s a big place. If you ever got lost, there’s no way for us to find you.”

She couldn’t hear this. She covered her ears over her hair, squeezed her eyes shut and imagined water that moved her instead of parting mindlessly, waves that both pushed and embraced, fish and mollusks and seaweed that filled every inch of it with movement and purpose. The sea was alive, it beckoned her, and she had waited her entire life–sixteen years!–to meet it. She opened her mouth, not to scream but to reason and plea, to put words to the lunar tide of longing that swelled within her breast, threatening to drown her if she couldn’t reach her true home. But Mama cut her off.

“No, Chelsea! You’re not ready, and you may never be. Unlike your father, I make no promises. You either belong in this household or you belong in the sea. There’s no visiting, no compromise. Now eat your dinner and stop complaining.”

Chelsea looked helplessly between Mama and Po Po, unused to them teaming up. She pushed her chair back and stood up, but the fight was out of her. They didn’t even call to her as she escaped outside, where she tapped on the fence without response.

#

Po Po opened the pool the following morning, although the sky misted a chilly March shower and anything green was still locked inside the frozen earth. He didn’t even try to put on a good face as he did it. Chelsea breached the surface soundlessly and immediately started swimming laps. She wanted to disappear, and that was exactly what she achieved. The first time she surfaced to breathe, she saw that Po Po had already retreated inside.

“Hey, Chelsea. Chelsea!” whispered a voice. Her neighbor’s face peered over the fence. She was Chelsea’s age, with short blonde hair and a shiny green stone pierced through her nose.

Chelsea waded to the side of the pool and smiled for the first time since last evening. She gestured with both hands, beckoning.

The girl glanced toward Chelsea’s house, where the door was still shut, and then back at her own house. “Okay,” she whispered. “Don’t go anywhere.”

Her face disappeared and Chelsea heard scraping and fumbling with something heavy and metallic. Then the girl popped all the way up to her waist and swung a leg over.

Chelsea swam to the opposite end of the pool and back again in her excitement. The next time she looked, the girl was hanging backwards from the fence, feet dangling. Chelsea decided to play a trick on her. She submerged in wait.

The water closed off the outside world like a bubble. Sunlight trickled down to the bottom so that even she couldn’t see where her limbs ended and the water began. She looked up at gray clouds and the tip of the white fence distorted in the water’s surface. Soon the girl’s face appeared as well, seemingly worlds away.

With a thrill that made her shiver, Chelsea set her feet flat on the pool floor and kicked up with all her might. She broke the surface just long enough to pull the girl down with her.

The girl didn’t even have time to scream before the pool claimed her. Chelsea released her immediately to let her catch her breath, only to dunk her all over again. The water churned white with their thrashing. Stimulated, Chelsea swam to the opposite wall and back again, then pulled her neighbor back in just as she was climbing out. Then she grabbed both of the girl’s hands as if inviting her to dance. But the girl got her first good lungful of air and screamed wordlessly in Chelsea’s face.

Startled, Chelsea let go and watched as the girl heaved herself out and collapsed on the concrete like a drenched ferret. She staggered back up and didn’t look back until she was well away from the edge of the pool, shivering and coughing and crying. Then she turned away without a word and left out the front yard.

Po Po appeared in the doorway an instant later. “Was that you screaming?” he asked, mildly alarmed.

Chelsea ignored him and sank beneath the surface. Eventually he left as he always did and Chelsea was alone, knowing that she’d just scared away her very first friend in the world.

#

Chelsea swam monotonous laps. Pool toys floated like bloated dead fish, or sank to the bottom like neon shells. A week had passed since she’d scared her neighbor away, and there had been no inviting taps against the fence since. She didn’t even know her name.

Chelsea knew the length of the pool like the length of her arm and could close her eyes without fear of hitting the side. She swam until she needed a break, which took the bulk of the morning. Then as she waded toward the ladder, she looked up and there was her neighbor, standing a safe distance from the edge of the pool for who knew how long.

Chelsea froze. The girl was all seriousness now, none of the laughter on her face that came so easily before.

“What,” said Chelsea after a moment, “Is. Yer-name?”

“Oh. Devon.” She edged minutely closer.

“Safe. Promise,” assured Chelsea. “And… sorry.”

Devon nodded and walked to the edge, where she squatted to Chelsea’s level.

“I’m sorry, too,” she said. “I thought you were just something, you know, weird and exotic to do shit with. That’s a high complement coming from me, seriously. But you’re the real deal. You’re a mer, right? I had no idea mer were so… human.”

Chelsea just waded in place, meeting Devon’s gaze.

“Look at you. I love how you look so fragile, but you’re anything but. Man, I’d love to see the full sunlight shining through you. I mean, you’re beautiful.”

Devon extended her hand tentatively, and Chelsea moved forward until the hand touched her cheek. She felt it tremor and then relax. “Sorry, I guess I expected you to be slimy or something. Can I… kind of awkward… can I see your heart?”

Chelsea rolled down the top of her bikini to reveal her beating heart tucked inside fiberglass ribs.

“Can you,” said Chelsea. “Take. Me. To the. Ocean?”

A smile spread across Devon’s face like the sun spilling its bounty over a watery horizon. “I could do that, yeah.”

#

Chelsea stepped out of Devon’s used Oldsmobile onto a rocky shore. A steady wind whipped her hair about her face and she tasted salt water on the back of her tongue. Muted sunlight filtered through a steel gray sky making the whole scene look flat, like entering a painting.

She stumbled forward with bare feet on the smooth, hard rocks. Honking seagulls tugged at the corners of her attention. The ocean courted her with small, lapping waves, but she approached it diagonally, restraining herself, savoring the moment. Maybe just a little bit nervous.

First the ocean kissed the soles of her feet before retreating shyly. Then it tickled her ankles, wrapped around her knees, hugged her waist. Arrestingly cold. Chelsea felt more physically satisfied, more emotionally whole than she could ever remember.

When the next wave came, she dunked her head under it, lifted her feet and let it pull her into its bosom. She hesitated long enough to wave at Devon on the shore, her one true friend who had made this experience a reality.

As Chelsea waved, something in the water wrapped around her ankle and pulled her under.

#

Therese lay face up in bed, feeling anxious. She didn’t know why she felt this way or what to do with the feeling. Usually she slept until oblivion eluded her, dumping her into the waking, busy, tiring world.

But today she was full of nervous energy. She listened to a car pulling out of a driveway. Birds chirped in the cherry tree outside her window. Dennis unloaded the dishwasher downstairs. This suburban cacophony was enough to chase her out of bed and into the bathroom, where she turned on the shower to escape into its white noise.

While she waited for the water to heat up, she glanced out the window. It gave a clear view of the pool and her moody, implacable daughter who lived there. Only, where was that girl now? Steam curled invitingly out of the shower, but Therese ignored it, scanning back and forth across the pool’s surface. She should at least be able to spot Chelsea’s bathing suit, ripples in the water, her trailing green-black hair. Her daughter was perpetual motion, and motion caught the eye. Maybe it was just her anxiety finding something to attach to, but….

She shut off the shower and met Dennis downstairs in the kitchen. “Where’s Chelsea?” she asked him.

“In the pool, where she’d sleep if I let her. Why?”

“Check.”

Frowning, Dennis set down the silverware he’d been drying and walked outside. Half a minute later, he returned. “Is she in her room?”

Therese walked upstairs to check, knowing full well she wouldn’t be there. But where–how–could Chelsea go? As her mind started working, something made her think of that car she’d heard leaving its driveway–possibly that teenage girl next door. A week ago, she and Dennis had heard a girl scream who wasn’t Chelsea, and they’d wondered if it had been that neighbor. Would Chelsea seek out a girl her own age? As each unlikely event occurred to her, Therese started to build a narrative around them. What did Chelsea want, more than anything in the world? Now that the connections were formed, she found them impossible to dissociate in her mind. Neighbor, Chelsea, car. This was reinforced by the sense of inevitability that Chelsea would somehow, someday, find her way back to the sea.

“Get in the car,” she told Dennis. “Our neighbor drove Chelsea to the sea.”

#

Therese pressed her fingers into her temple as Dennis drove. Her elbow nearly brushed him, yet an invisible schism separated them, as always. Just like when they ate a meal at the same table, or lay beside each other in bed. Chelsea’s arrival had neatly cleaved their relationship. Equally true: Chelsea was the last thread that held them together. Dennis probably didn’t realize it, but Therese was terrified for Chelsea right then, and part of the reason was because losing her would be tantamount to losing him.

Dennis turned to Therese. He looked haggard, hunched over the steering wheel. She could see his mind working, imagining Chelsea drifting helplessly in a vast ocean. Or maybe he was afraid that she’d be happier there without them.

“Why, Therese?” he asked softly.

It took her a moment to realize what he was asking, for it was a sixteen-year-old question. Yet he’d never asked until then. “Does it matter anymore?”

“Of course it matters! I’ve expended far too much energy convincing myself that it didn’t. Why did you cheat on me? What were you looking for in the ocean? Did you find it?”

Therese sighed. “You must know, deep down, I’ve always been a little bit damaged. Love is a mirror. If I didn’t love myself, how could I tolerate it in your gaze? I did love you. I–” She stopped short of repeating that thought in present tense. “I thought you understood that about me, on some level.”

Dennis avoided meeting her eyes.

“I went to the ocean to feel something. It wasn’t your fault, nor was it anything you could fix. Yes, I found what I was looking for, and yes, I regret it.”

Therese heard seagulls, and suddenly they crested a hill and were looking straight into the throat of the ocean. But they had miles of it to search, so they lapsed into a sullen silence.

“There!” Therese called out about twenty minutes later. Dennis spotted it at the same time and hit the brakes. A vaguely familiar Oldsmobile was parked a little ways off from the road. Dennis pulled up behind it, and Therese was out of the car before he could cut the engine. Sure enough, their neighbor stood at the edge of the water, looking in.

“Can you see her?” asked Therese, traversing the rocks with bare feet.

The girl started. Her face was ashen and her eyes rimmed red. She shook her head mutely.

“What happened?”

“She was pulled in. I don’t–I don’t know how. She was looking at me, and then she was just gone. I swear–”

“Fine.” Therese dismissed the girl and strode straight into the water.

The first wave hit her like a wall of ice. She was still in her nightgown. Its hem floated around her waist as she plunged in deeper.

There were no sharks in these waters. Only one thing could have pulled Chelsea in. Her real father, the mer, had somehow sensed her in his domain. And reclaimed her.

Therese unbuttoned the top button of her gown. “I’ve returned! Remember me? Where are you?”

She hesitated once the water reached her chin. The waves didn’t break over her anymore, but buoyed her, her feet finding and losing the shell-strewn floor. Chelsea was nowhere in sight.

She leaned forward and began to swim, only to be buffeted back by something stronger and firmer than a wave.

“Wait!” she gasped as she went under.

The mer reunited with her body. Therese opened her eyes, but there was nothing to see. Unlike Chelsea, the mer lacked human form; it was water with intention, passionate and wild. It pressed against her underwear. Suddenly she was seventeen years younger again, throwing herself into the ungentle arms of the ocean and truly waking up for the first time in her life. Her body responded, even as her lungs strained for air and consciousness threatened to abandon her. She existed on the hairline between perfect awareness and senseless oblivion.

Her face broke the surface and she gulped air. “Where–”

The mer pushed her under again. It was on top of her. In the white froth of their struggle, she could almost make out its ever-changing silhouette.

But Therese pushed it back firmly. Without surfacing again, she regained her equilibrium and mimed language. Us, she pointed between them. Child, her swelling stomach. She waited a moment to let that sink in. Here, she pointed down and shook her head. She doesn’t belong here. Then she placed her palm flat on what might have been the mer’s chest. Please.

The mer pushed back against her hand, so that she could feel its strength and pride. Then it retreated backward and disappeared, and Therese surfaced eagerly for air.

She pushed her hair out of her face and squeezed her eyes shut against black spots that swam in her vision. She vaguely noticed that Dennis was calling her name now and had entered the water behind her, but she lacked the strength to reassure him.

She spotted something in the distance, a moving bump in the water like a living wave. Something vaguely reminiscent of seaweed was suspended inside it: long green-black hair. The wave closed the distance at a surprising rate, and then submerged without warning, propelling Chelsea neatly into Therese’s arms with her remaining momentum.

But she was floating face-down, just a tangle of hair and a yellow swimsuit. Therese lifted her daughter up with numb hands. Her face materialized seemingly out of the ocean, features limned as the water dripped off them. Her eyes were closed, and she was nothing but dead weight. Therese propped her against her shoulder and stroked her hair with the same hand that held her. “Mama’s here now,” she muttered. “Wake up.”

“Is that her?” asked Dennis, who was close behind her now.

“Yes, help me.”

As Therese maneuvered toward him their eyes met, just for a moment. A frisson passed through her, full of feelings she had long thought buried. Meeting Dennis again in this cold, harsh environment; they were just two warm, floating bodies attracted to each other. But the weight of the ocean leaned on their relationship, like the weight of Chelsea in Therese’s arms.

Chelsea spasmed and coughed water down Therese’s shoulder. “There you are,” she gasped as all of the day’s adrenaline drained out of her at once. Chelsea clung tight, shaking and coughing.

“Mama?”

Dennis was there too, rubbing her arm. He snuck a glance at Therese like the very first time they’d met at the campus library.

Chelsea clawed Therese’s back feebly, grasping for something solid to cling to. “I want,” she murmured. Her mouth worked, trying to shape the words that came so hard for her. “I want. Go. Home.”

Dead Records Part 5

Part 1: http://urbanfantasymagazine.com/2015/03/dead-records-part-i-by-steven-savile-and-ryan-reid

Part 2: http://urbanfantasymagazine.com/2015/04/dead-records-part-2-by-steven-savile-and-ryan-reid

Part 3: http://urbanfantasymagazine.com/2015/05/dead-records-part-3

Part 4: http://urbanfantasymagazine.com/2015/06/dead-records-part-4-2

There was some commotion from the kitchen, so I rose, threw on a robe, and went to investigate.

I found her wearing one of my shirts and nothing else. She’d opened several of my frozen dinners and their carcasses lay on the counter next to a family-sized bag of powdered pancake mix.

“You know,” I said, glancing into the pan, “those don’t usually go together.”

She flipped a pancake dotted with cubed liver she’d rescued from a frozen dinner onto a nearby plate. “I usually like a little protein with my carbs.” She smiled and stretched, the motion lifting her shirt. She wore nothing underneath.

Puppies and football and yesterday’s news. We had too much to do to fall back into bed together. Wembley was only a few weeks away, and we still didn’t know how to prevent another incident like what happened at the Broken Doll. Suddenly a few things came together in my mind. Mental wax was the key. We needed the audience to think of something other than her singing.

I frowned inwardly at the ludicrousness of that line of thinking. How could we expect Aura to build a singing career around convincing people not to listen to her?

Maybe, I thought, mental wax works both ways. What if there was a way to stop Aura from “getting hungry”, as she’d put it? If songs about stealing another woman’s boyfriend put her in the wrong frame of mind, so to speak, she couldn’t be a pop singer. But that wasn’t the only genre out there, was it? She could sing punk rock, or ska, or… the blues.

I am a fucking genius. Have I told you that before?

“Can you read music?” I asked abruptly.

She’d just finished tearing off a hunk of liver pancake and popping it into her mouth. She chewed twice and swallowed. “Sure.”

I darted into the bedroom and tore open the bottom drawer of my dresser. Inside were a few newspaper clipping from bands who’d broken through with my help, some emergency cash, and pages of sheet music. I rummaged through them and came up blank. I didn’t have sad music. At last, I grabbed the closest thing I could find.

Aura was curled up on my loveseat with her plate of pancakes. I handed her the page of sheet music. “Sing this. It’s O Come, O Come, Emmanuel. Don’t ask me how I have it.”

She read it over between chews and then handed me her plate. The last remaining pancake was turtle-shaped with a brown lump of liver at its center. I set it down on the coffee table as she assumed her position in front of the TV. I would have to stop at a drive-thru on the way into the studio.

“Ready?” she asked.

I indicated with a flourish that she should give it her all. Inwardly, I was terrified. Would I fall back into that black pit? I settled into the chair, my fingers digging into the armrests.

She began with the same magical hum she’d used in the shower last night and then slipped into lyrics. Her voice was as clear and powerful as a clarion bell. I was moved by every word. But when the song was finished, I’d kept control of myself and so had she.

I grinned. Like I said, I’m a goddamned motherfucking genius.

“I think we’re onto something here,” I said with relief, underplaying the whole genius thing. I pushed out of the chair and began to pace. “But we’re not going to build a singing career out of Christmas carols, are we? No. Art is about emotion. Pop succeeds because it’s about personal gratification. Rock is anger. Blues is sadness. More or less,” I amended quickly. “Of those, I vote for the blues.”

“The blues?” she asked.

“Well, blues-influenced. That kind of music has always been popular. The modern incarnation usually focuses on break-ups, but we can work with that. The trick is to take some personal experience that’s really, you know, sad, and then end the song with a ray of hope. ‘I will go on’. That sort of thing.”

“A personal experience?”

I nodded. “Something that made you sad.” Suddenly I remembered exactly what she was. A cannibal. Reformed, granted, but she’d likely spent a great deal of her life murdering people and then eating them. “But not horrifying.”

Surprisingly, she didn’t even have to consider it. “The Cliffs of Moher off the coast of Ireland. The cliffs are tall, sheer things, covered in moss and bare rock. At times migrating birds land there, and their calls can be heard for miles. Three hundred Spaniards drowned on the cliffs in 1588, and it’s been a favorite hunting ground of mine ever since.” She sat in the loveseat and crossed her legs. “But it had been weeks since I’d eaten, and I was starving. The fog was thick and, though I could see nothing through it, I sang until dawn. At last, a solitary rowboat emerged from the mists. A lantern hung from the gunwale, and a man sat at the oars. We were far out to sea by then, almost too far for the man to row back. But there he was, and I was starving, so I swam to the side of the boat and pulled myself aboard.

“It was a fishing vessel, one of the smallest I’d seen, and the man must have been very poor. Nets made from woven reeds were piled in the bottom of the boat, and I could smell rotting mackerel in his bait bucket. He had a scraggly beard, weathered leather skin, and eyes like beaten metal. Old and malnourished, he would not make much of a meal, but still I advanced on him, singing as I put my hands on his throat.

“That’s when I saw the child. Perhaps the man was a widower, or the boy his apprentice. He was a small thing with red hair and a dusting of freckles; he wore clothes that had been patched many times. Too young to be under my spell, he merely looked at me sadly, like he knew what I was and why I was there.

“I twisted the old man’s neck, but stopped before I heard the fateful pop. If I killed the man, the boy would not have the strength to row back to shore. For the first time in my long life, I felt ashamed of what I was and what I was doing. I was not the creature of wonder and beauty I’d thought myself to be. I was something terrible and savage. I was an animal.

“I released him slowly. The boy’s expression did not change, and I could no longer bear it, so I jumped back into the sea. I could find my dinner elsewhere.

“I heard a splash behind me. The old man hadn’t even bothered to remove his jacket before he’d followed me in. He was not a strong swimmer and perhaps the weight of his warm clothes weighed him down. He went under after only a few strokes and did not resurface. Though I was weak from starvation, I worried for the boy and so dove to save his father.

“He’d stopped swimming and hung suspended in the brine, an expression of lust frozen on his face. But he was not dead. His eyes darted and bulged as I swam to him. His arms clamped around me when I got too close, and though my strength allowed me to peel him loose, he caught at me again and we sank still further. He pressed his face to mine and kissed at me, choking as he inhaled seawater.

“By the time I managed to bring him to the surface, he was nearly dead. The boat had gone. Taken by the currents and disappeared into the fog. Though I searched for hours, I couldn’t find the boy. Several weeks later I found the boat at the bottom of the Irish Sea. There was no body, and I like to imagine that the boy was rescued by a passing ship, though I know that to be a lie. Sometimes lies are good, no?”

She looked up at me and I could see that her cheeks were wet and her eyes red. She’d torn a hole in the armrest of my loveseat, but seemed not to notice. “I vowed then to leave the sea and never look back.”

She fell silent for a long while, and the silence soon became unbearable.

“That’ll do,” I said, and realized my voice was hoarse. I coughed and looked at the floor, and then the ceiling. I stood. “Excuse me. I have a song to write.”

#

This is what I do best. This is my world. I’m king here. I spent the morning putting the emotions I’d felt when she told the story of the man and his son into her song, and then we drove into the studio to record it.

Harvey was waiting for us, and after Aura had practiced the song, we staged a little performance for him. By the end of it, we were all in tears, and I knew we had a hit on our hands. She told me more stories, which I dutifully put to music. By the end of the first week, we had a rough cut of our first album.

This girl could really sing the blues. It was powerful, heartbreaking stuff.

Screw shiny, happy pop. Give me a good bit of heartbreak every time.

It was less dangerous, for a start.

I began putting in a lot of hours at the studio, struggling with the impossible task of getting the backup band –which consisted of the same three members we’d had at the Doll– to play as well as Aura sang. I tried every trick in the book and had to drag Aura back into the studio over and over to sing with them. They had chemistry, but a potato would have had chemistry with Aura. Obviously potatoes have chemistry, you can make batteries out of them, after all, but you know what I mean. She bled into every track, every performance. She seemed to have an unlimited well of sadness to tap into.

It wasn’t until we were three days out from Wembley that Harvey brought me aside. He wanted to talk. His office had started life as a supply closet, and boxes of office supplies were stacked next to spare soundboards. A synthesizer lay on its side near the studio’s only water cooler. Harvey’s desk was IKEA-cheap. A raised circle in the veneer indicated where he rested his coffee mug.

“We’re moving after this Wembley business, Harvey,” I said, feeling charitable. “You deserve better than this office. Dead Records will have its own studio. Think Abbey Road. Think…” I couldn’t think of any more studios. “…of this place,” I finished a bit lamely. I wasn’t good when it came to inspirational speeches.

My round-faced assistant squeezed between wall and desk and then fell into his chair. “Care to have a seat?” he asked, indicating the office’s only other chair.

I have found that situations get more serious when two people sit down to talk about them, so I sat warily. “What is it?”

He laced his fingers and leaned forward. “It’s about Aura. You’ve got her singing all these sad songs, and I know they’re just songs, but I think it’s having an effect on her.”

“What do you mean?”

“When was the last time you saw her smile?”

I rocked back in the chair and tapped the armrest. It was an odd question, but Harvey seemed to be taking it seriously, so I indulged him. That morning had been rough, but productive. We’d finally discovered that the reason the band kept missing their cues was because the magic of Aura’s singing had gotten hold of them. It appeared that Aura’s lust affected only men, but her sadness was universal. I suggested a little mental wax, but Harvey had headphones on hand that would dull the sound of her voice without blocking it out entirely. It would look a little odd to the audience, to have three ladies with large black headphones performing behind Aura, but we’d find some way to spin it that would make sense to the masses. With the headphones on, Aura could channel raw emotion into her music, but that meant she hadn’t smiled all morning.

Had she smiled earlier?

We’d been rushed at breakfast, and dinner the night before had been take-out. I became angry with myself when I couldn’t answer Harvey’s question. Had it really been that long?

“I don’t know,” I finally admitted. “But she’s a blues singer. She doesn’t need to smile.”

Harvey frowned. “But you’ve got her singing about what a monster she is. I think it’s taking a toll on her. I caught her popping pills at lunch.”

I pushed back from his desk and stood.

I really didn’t have time for this, not three days away from Wembley.

“We’ll take a vacation after the performance. I’ll take her someplace nice and we’ll forget about all this for a while.”

“I don’t think–”

I pounded my fist into his desk harder than I meant to. “You’re not here to think, Harvey.” He jumped and his coffee mug tilted, spilling a splosh, but it didn’t overturn. “She wants this, Harvey. She came to me, remember. I’m making her into a star.”

#

Aura said nothing on the drive home, and I didn’t prompt her.

Like when the past, present and future walk into a bar, it was tense.

I asked her about the pills. She claimed they were diet pills. I decided to believe her, because… it was easier. She didn’t have an ounce of fat on her whole body, so obviously they were working. Look, the big show was three days away. Nothing bad could happen in three days, right?

Okay, okay, yes, hindsight’s great. I was wrong. I know that now.

The Girl at Midnight by Melissa Grey Reviewed by Stephanie Burgis

The Girl at Midnight by Melissa Grey

Reviewed by Stephanie Burgis

ISBN: 0349002134 (Paperback)

Atom Books, Little Brown UK — 368 pages. Ebook also available.

If you love secret, hidden magical worlds that coexist with our real one, The Girl at Midnight is the book for you. With hidden rooms in the New York Public Library, a race of bird-people with gorgeous plumage (who live in tunnels underneath the streets of New York City), and a race of dragon-scaled people centered in rural Scotland, this book is filled with the whisper of a magic that we might just be able to glimpse if we only looked harder at the people around us.

Echo is a human girl who escaped her abusive home to live secretly in the New York Public Library when she was only seven. She was discovered and adopted not by human social services but by the Ala, an ancient, wise, and compassionate woman who is one of the leaders of the Avicen — a hidden race of people with feathers instead of hair and easy access to magic. Unbeknownst to the humans who live in New York City above them, the Avicen are locked in a vicious, centuries-old war with the Drakharen, a dragon-like race with the patterns of scales showing on their skin and magical powers of their own. Most young Avicen and Drakharen women and men don’t even know exactly why the war began, but over time, it has turned into a blood-feud in which both sides are painted as monsters worthy of genocide.

Echo, now seventeen and working as a thief for various magical employers, has always tried to ignore the war. But like it or not, she is about to become a key player.

Raised among the Avicen but never completely accepted by most of them, Echo is desperate to prove that she belongs. When the Ala asks her to go on a quest for the mythical phoenix (a creature that would have the power to end the war forever, but which would be apocalyptically dangerous in the wrong hands), she leaps at the opportunity. However, there are other leaders of the Avicen who are more brutal and ruthless than the Ala. They will do anything to get the phoenix for themselves, as will the Drakharen. Unbeknownst to Echo, the Drakharen prince is also desperate to find the phoenix. While his own motives may be pure, there are lethal plots brewing in his own family that will work against all of his hopes for peace.

As Echo sets out on a worldwide scavenger hunt for the phoenix, following a century-old pathway of clues, the richly-described settings leap gracefully between countries and continents. Grey seamlessly works magic into each new setting, from the New York Public Library to the Louvre to the Black Forest and more. For me, that perfect melding of the magical and the real, combined with the sheer fun of the virtual tourism, was my favorite part of the book. I occasionally wondered, as I read, why museums like the Louvre and the Met didn’t have more high-tech security, but it’s easy to ignore questions like that when the story itself is so enjoyable. (And who knows? Maybe their security really is that basic.)

Of course, Echo and the Drakharen prince soon come into conflict in their hunt for the phoenix — a conflict which turns into an uneasy alliance as they bring together a small group of Avicen and Drakharen men and women to join their quest. All of them have been raised to hate each other, but they are forced into a tenuous alliance as power-hungry armies from both sides of the war close in on them. Relationships form, betrayals mount, and Echo (despite having left behind an Avicen boyfriend at the beginning of her quest) comes to find the notorious Drakharen prince horrifyingly appealing after all.

This book is being cross-marketed in both the adult and the YA fantasy genres, much like Laini Taylor’s Daughter of Smoke and Bone trilogy. Honestly, it’s hard not to be reminded of that trilogy, in which another human girl was raised by one group of supernatural creatures and caught up in their ancient war with another group. However, Taylor’s trilogy reveled in its gorgeous, lyrical language, while Grey’s Girl at Midnight is filled with fast, snappy banter and written at a breakneck pace. That difference in writing style gives the book a very different tone.

In the first half of the book, I sometimes found the nonstop banter and reflexive snark of the heroine to be slightly off-putting, as I wondered exactly how three-dimensional any of the characters really were. However, the emotions in the second half of the book ring true throughout, and all of the characters are explored in far more depth as events develop. The climax is intensely emotional as well as exciting, and the ending sets up a fascinating turn of events to be explored in later books.

If you’re a fan of secret worlds, fabulous locations, and fast-paced adventure, do try out The Girl at Midnight. It’s a fun opening chapter in an intriguing new series.

Etiquette and Espionage by Gail Carriger Reviewed by Kayla Dean

Etiquette and Espionage by Gail Carriger

Reviewed by Kayla Dean

ISBN-13: 978-0316190107

Little, Brown Books for Young Readers — 307 pages. Available in paperback, hardcover, and e-book.

Snatch your tea from the kettle, and don’t forget your best deadly accessory. Gail Carriger brings her signature snappy style and sharp wit from her Parasol Protectorate Series into a new set of stories. Etiquette and Espionage, the first in the Finishing School Series, is everything you could hope for in an action and adventure steampunk novel.

The Finishing School Series is set in the same world as Parasol Protectorate, only this time the main character is teenager Sophronia Temminick, a troublesome, but outrageously smart girl who always seems to get into trouble. When it seems her behavior couldn’t be more difficult, Sophronia’s mother sends her away to finishing school on the moors of England. But little does she know, the Miss Geraldine’s School for Young Ladies is not quite the polite and mannered learning environment her mother would have wanted for her daughter. Instead, it’s everything Sophronia could have wanted.

It turns out “finishing school” is just that: the girls must learn how to “finish” anyone or anything that needs to be finished. This typical term is, in fact, a play on words: the girls are trained assassins, learning under the guise of a ladies’ school for manners.

But on the way to school, Sophronia and her new friends, Dimity and Pillover, discover that the woman posing as Miss Geraldine is just an imposter. The school never sends out the real Miss Geraldine; she doesn’t even know that her school is a training ground for assassins. It’s part of their training to fool her.

Highway men from the air –called flywaymen in the story– immediately take over the carriage, and keep asking for something — a prototype. The student imposter, Monique de Pelouse, pretends she doesn’t understand, but doesn’t try to defeat the men. It is Sophronia who saves the day, drives the carriage to safety, and gets everyone away from the flywaymen and their dirigibles. However, the trouble isn’t over yet, and Sophronia still has much to learn at finishing school. We certainly get our fair share of interesting lessons.

From learning how to curtsy to understanding which knife they can hide under their petticoats, the girls start to learn all the tricks to being a spy at their first year of finishing school. But Sophronia must first prove herself. While everyone else has a family history at the school, Sophronia is what they call a covert recruit. She was referred by someone, but who? It is a mystery until the very end, and it isn’t the person you expect.

We also get a view into the world underneath the ladylike classrooms of the dirigible school. After Sophronia gains a mechanimal pet, she makes her way to the boiler room to feed him and meets some of the most interesting characters in the book. We meet Soap, a teenage boy who immediately befriends Sophronia, and nine-year-old child genius Vieve, a teacher’s nephew with a love of trousers and a knack for invention. With Dimity, Vieve, and Soap, Sophronia must discover why the flywaymen want the prototype, and what it means for England. The answer has something to do with technology — something we have today, yet the world didn’t yet have in Victorian London.

While in the Parasol Protectorate Series, we had a keen sense of London and its surroundings, we get more by way of allusions to the city in Etiquette. In this novel, we have a keen sense of the English moors around them: the Academy is a dirigible that floats over the countryside, guarded over by a werewolf and vampire, plus more than a few mysterious teachers at the school. They are constantly in hiding behind clouds.

And while we have only a glimmer of some of the more supernatural elements of the world, it seems like the sequels will delve in further and bring us into the world of the vampires and werewolves. We do get allusion to the Parasol Protectorate series when one of the other girls, Sidheag, tells Sophronia that she is the great-great-great-great granddaughter of a Lord Maccon. It isn’t clear if this is the same Lord Maccon from Soulless, although if it is, then we are very far into the future.

Carriger has such a strong voice, and it really comes through in the novel. While some reviewers stated that they though some aspects of the novel were silly, like the girls’ training in fanning their eyelashes, Carriger really has a knack for satire. At one point, Monique tells Sophronia and Dimity that the boys at the evil genius school made silver and wood hair sticks for one girl, along with an exploding wicker chicken. When Sophronia asks, “Goodness, what’s that for?”, Dimity simply replies, “Who doesn’t want an exploding wicker chicken?” We never get the answer, but we do have our fair share of laughs.

By taking her characters into sometimes unlikely and ridiculous situations –in the climax, Dimity brings Sophronia a cheese pie in the middle of a fight– we can laugh right along with the characters, and understand that this is just part of the world of steampunk.

Carriger is a specialist in comedies of manners, and she does not disappoint in this story. By throwing in a little bit of the ridiculous, Carriger cleverly carries the novel and unfailingly entertains the reader. We can certainly keep in mind something that one of the teachers quite cleverly pointed out: “No one said learning etiquette and espionage would be easy, my dear.” We can all agree to that.

D.J.’s Locker by H.L. Fullerton

“How’d the dead kid die?”

I stop eating lunch, look at the new kid. He seems weirded out. Maybe because he has the dead kid’s locker and someone told him D.J. died in it. But if he’s asking, he’s heard the other versions, too. Probably wondering which is true.

Everyone at the table eyes me like I’m some fucking expert. I toss a new rumor into the mill. “OD’d on oxy. Dead Kid liked to party. Why? You find some pills?”

“He didn’t drown?” what’s-his-name–Aaron? Eric?–asks.

That one’s not mine; it’s too close to the truth. I shift in my seat. “Why you asking me?”

“You’re Jonah, right?”

“Yeah.”

New kid slides a sand dollar –back side up– on the table and walks away. It’s inscribed. I toss it at the trash, try to forget. But its message is etched on my brain: Ask Jonah.

#

Dinner is a disaster. My parents somehow heard the nasty rumor that D.J. strangled himself watching porn and are freaked. Mom’s all, Why would someone say that? What if Helen–D.J.’s mom–hears? Dad keeps saying how there are a lot of sick people out there. I don’t tell them the sicko’s eating with them. Or the one about the pedo and the van.

“Why’d you cook shrimp?” I say to shut them up, and my mother goes green. I shove my plate towards her, fried commas toppling over its edges.

Dad takes her side. “It’s been almost a year, Jonah. You can’t expect us to walk around on eggshells forever.” Shells. I think of the new kid’s gift. “David would want–”

“Forget it,” I say and go to my room.

#

I cut gym, break into the new kid’s locker; school never bothered to change the combination, so it’s easy. A slew of sand dollars fall at my feet, break into bits. I see my name lurking among them–and D.J.’s. The reek of salt and fish turns my stomach, and I slam the empty locker shut. The shattered shells I leave in the hall. Why not? It’s not the first mess I’ve walked away from.

#

I find sand dollars in my locker, nestled atop my notebooks. Like sick little love notes. I know how I got the new kid’s numbers, but how the fuck does he have mine?

I throw them all away.

When Matt asks if it’s true the dead kid once sucked off the principal, I punch him and get suspended. My parents pretend to be understanding, but I can tell they’re pretty pissed at me.

Join the fucking club.

#

First day back, I discover stacks of sand dollars stuffing my locker and follow the new kid into the bathroom. Creepy, yeah, but I don’t want to pull an audience for this argument.

He sees me and we square off. My hands form fists. I should’ve hit him instead of Matt. I still might. “What’s your deal?”

“My deal? Why don’t you tell your boy to back off?”

“You back off.” I hurl a handful of flat, white disks at him. They crash to the tiled floor and break like chalk, dust and all. I’m breathing hard, two shakes from spastic. The new kid gives me a pity look.

“Do you even read them?” He’s calm, confident.

“Just stop it, Aaron, okay? Leave me the fuck alone.” I’m fizzing out like soda about to go flat, so I take a step back, retreat.

“It’s Aram.” He reaches into his backpack. I hear the tinkling of shells and freeze. Think, Are you fucking kidding me? and How many of those things can he have?

He holds up a sand dollar, but keeps his distance. These letters are in dark seaweed green and easy to read. They spell: Show Jonah. The bell rings, but here inside the boy’s room, it tolls. Aram says, “I want to show you something.”

For some reason–curiosity, guilt, apathy, despair, fun party mix of them, whatever–I let him lead me to his locker. Something bangs from inside. I move to open it–thinking the sick fuck’s stuffed someone in there–but Aram pulls me back. “Wait,” he whispers.

The banging grows louder, then stops. Sea water explodes from the locker’s vents, wets our sneakers. I startle, dance back, and Aram grabs hold of my arm. “Every morning and every afternoon,” he says and drags me towards the locker, opens it. The funk of low tide blankets us. Aram rips away strands of wet seaweed to reveal sand dollars piled high on the tiny shelf. All etched with my name–messages from D.J.

Aram shakes me. “Did you drown him? Did you kill D.J.?”

#

Yeah, I killed him. I didn’t drown D.J., but I’m the reason he’s dead. Everyone says it’s not my fault, but it is. They know it, I know it. Hell, D.J. knows it. At the funeral, his mom said she didn’t blame me, but c’mon, late at night when she’s crying her eyes out because her only child is dead, who do you think she’s cursing? Fate? God? Or Jonah Shipley? Ding, ding. It’s me.

Fuck, it was so stupid.

D.J. was allergic to shellfish. And I dared him to eat shrimp. “C’mon. I got your EpiPen right here. You start to swell, I’ll stab you. Call 911.”

We didn’t actually think anything would happen. Katie–the smartest kid in our grade–said every seven to ten years, you become a different person–because that’s how long it takes every cell in your body to replace itself. Turns out, that isn’t true.

He ate two shrimp. Said, “You’re right, these are awesome.” Then went into anaphylactic shock. And even though the directions are right on the stupid thing, even though I read them a hundred times and D.J.’s mother had drilled me on how to use it, even though I’d practiced with the training injector, I panicked. Fumbled the pen and somehow plunged the epinephrine into my thumb instead of D.J.’s thigh.

I dialed 9-1-1. I called his mom. My mom. I told him to hang on. I cried, said I was sorry.

He died anyway.

#

“Yes,” I tell Aram and it feels so good to say out loud. “I killed him.”

Aram shakes his head. “You’re such a fucking liar. Read the goddamn things and end this.” He walks away, down the hall and around the corner. I eye the locker.

“D.J.?” I say, then feel stupid talking to a metal box. Maybe not for talking to it. Day after the school cleaned out 7C, gave his personal things to his mom, I sat across from the locker and talked to him some. Made a makeshift memorial to D.J. inside it–like the way people leave gifts or flowers at the side of the road when someone dies in a car crash (which I always thought was lame but suddenly got why.) A red Power Ranger, the graphic novel we made when we were eight, a toy surfboard for the spring break trip we’d never take, and my Little League t-shirt from the year we were the Pirates and went undefeated. I guess I would’ve stuck them in his coffin if he had one, but he was cremated. His mom was going to spread his ashes at some beach in Florida they used to visit. Not sure she did, though–the urn she picked out was shaped like a treasure chest, so I can’t see her letting go of it–or him. I closed the locker and thought it’d stay that way till the rest of us graduated. Next day, I started telling stories about the dead kid. Eleven months later, some fucking new kid shows up and D.J. doesn’t even have a locker anymore. So maybe I feel funny now because I expect him to say something back.

He doesn’t.

I stare at the shells and think about reading them; I do. But I close the door and walk away empty-handed.

#

Aram keeps piling shells in my locker, and I keep throwing them out. I can do this shit all year long.

Then one afternoon I open my locker and, instead of sea tokens, I have books, binders, and an extra backpack that stinks like beach. I should feel like I won, but I don’t. I go home and toss my baseball trophy in the trash. Heave my Pirates uniform out, too. Doesn’t help.

I think of confronting Aram. Ask him where my shells are.

Did they stop?

Then why is he using my locker?

#

On the anniversary of my best friend’s death, I hang outside until the first bell rings. Wait for the halls to clear, then beeline to D.J.’s locker. I check my phone; watch minutes tick by as I wait for the banging to start. Aram said it happened twice a day, so I downloaded a surf widget that tells me when the tide changes. Trouble is, I’m not sure which tidal station to use–or if D.J.’s using tides at all.

I’m about to give up and head to class when I hear a rumble. Followed by a knock. I spin the dial left,–bang–right,–bang–left–bang! Hitch open the door…

…and get clobbered by a wave. The water is salty. I wipe my face with my hands and see a shadowy shape emerge from the locker. It’s D.J.–and it isn’t. Like an octopus, he slithers into the hall, tentacles unfurling, suckers squelching and all.

He’s dressed like a pirate and, under a tricorn hat made of fish bones, has reddish seaweed for hair. His purplish skin pulsates, stretches like an inflatable raft, then contracts swiftly. Sand dollars tumble from pockets like coins–plink, plink, plink.

I smile, stand up. Say, “Hey, D.J.”

D.J. grins at me with razor sharp teeth, and I wonder if after we talk, he plans to drag me down into the depths of his locker.

#

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Welcome to the July 2015 Issue of Urban Fantasy Magazine

Well, summer has hit (at least in my hometown, it has!) We’re sporting a new look on our cover and a new feature in our pages. In place of our typical nonfiction article, we’re presenting this month’s topic, diversity in urban fantasy, in an interview format. Our guest is Djibril al-Ayad, who has been publishing short fiction from underrepresented voices for the past ten years.

We’ve also got two amazing short stories for you this month, both from authors who are no strangers to the professional short story market.

Our first story is from H.L. Fullerton, whose previous work can be found in Buzzy, Penumbra, and Flash Fiction Online. In this new story, “D.J.’s Locker”, a troubled teen’s dark past is shoved in his face when a series of sand dollars, each with a message, starts to appear at his school.

Our second story is from Michael T. Banker. His short fiction has been featured in Orson Scott Card’s Intergalactic Medicine Show as well as Writers of the Future, Volume 31. In his story, “Tides Beckoning”, a young woman caught between the world of the sea and the world of humans struggles to find her true home.

If you still need a taste of the ocean, you can check out part five of our serialized story, “Dead Records”. Marcus may have finally found a way to stop musician/siren Aura from making her listeners go insane, but it’s taking a toll on her that even she might not be aware of.

Last but not least, our book reviewers bring you their opinions on Girl at Midnight by Melissa Grey and Etiquette & Espionage by Gail Carriger.

As always, thanks for reading!

-Katrina S. Forest