Daddy’s Little Girl (Part 1)

Like all fairytale princesses, little Charlotte’s birth was nothing short of a miracle; a beauty in an ugly place of ignorance and prejudice, not as far far away as some might expect. She was darling, silent, and obedient. But as she grew more curious, and more rambunctious, the King became wary. He sought advice from the Kingdom’s well respected doctor, who had a dreary conclusion to draw: Bestowed with cleverness, and a proclivity towards intellect, he was sure hysteria would soon be upon the Princess Charlotte.

So very closely she was watched, that after being found defiantly sneaking about the castle at the tender age of fifteen (thus proving the doctor’s theory), Charlotte was put to rest on a bed of roses that adorned the vicinity with thorns. There, in the deepest of induced sleeps, Charlotte would lie until a suitable prince might come along – one who might be trusted with the task of keeping her safe, and quiet.

“This will do. Remember to give her one dose each morning. We wouldn’t want the effects to ware off at an inopportune time,” the doctor chuckled as he was escorted out of the castle.

“Oh, of course.” The King returned the smile, anxious to be rid of his company.

As the doctor turned to leave, he paused and glanced back at the King. “I must ask, if it’s not an imposition – you said she was poking around, did she happen upon –”

“Dr. Kitz, I told you that in confidence. I expect the matter will not be brought up again.”

The doctor bowed his head apologetically, and stuttered a vow of silence. The King closed the heavy doors in the man’s face and grunted his disapproval. The doctor had been intrusive, but at least he had provided the King with a definite solution to his problem. Charlotte would no longer be an issue.

******

“There’s a storm coming, your highness. Shall I fix the fires?”

The Queen looked up from her daze and met the eyes of her maid, but seemed to look right through them. After a moment the maid backed away, unnerved by her Queen’s empty glare. It had been nearly two decades since she had seen that look in her eyes.

She shuddered to remember the first night it happened. She had only been at the castle for a few weeks. The King and Queen had been newlywed and the Kingdom’s celebratory festivities were just starting to wind down. It was the first quiet night since her arrival, and the maid was looking forward to it. She had been getting along quite well with the Queen, and had even made her giggle once or twice. It had set her completely at ease. That particular night, she had been doing her rounds of the castle, sure to open all of the shutters to let in the bright harvest moonlight. Then, humming a tune through the dissipating darkness, the maid had caught the sight of what she could only describe as a beast through the window. It stood on two sturdy hind legs in the distance; its fur white as snow, eyes red as blood, soul black as night.

Startled, the maid yelped and let her candle tumble to the floor. Despite the yards of space between them, the monster seemed to sense her fear, and turned so that its eyes met hers before it leapt into the shadows of the trees and disappeared. In her catatonia, the maid hardly noticed the candle had set her skirt ablaze. It was only when she turned to run, hyperventilating, that she came face to face with the Queen who had been silently watching the events unfold. The maid yelled out, frightened by both the realization that she was not alone, and by the fact that her highness was standing so very still. Suddenly, the maid could feel the heat sneaking up her legs, and smell her own flesh melting away. She jumped, breaking the Queen’s empty gaze. Snapping out of what seemed to be nothing short of a hypnotic state, the Queen poured her glass of water onto the small but painful flames below them. The maid had not even noticed the water, and wondered if she had been holding it the whole time. She might have asked if she were not overwhelmed by the strangeness of it all. Instead, she watched, mouth gaping and heart pounding, as the Queen wandered off down the hall.

Frightened and confused, the maid had told no one about the monster she had seen. Eventually, the memory became less tangible and more oneiric.

Tonight, the Queen had that same eerie look in her eyes. The recognition sent the memory of that night flooding back to the maid. It washed over her like a wave, so that she was woozy and unsteady on her feet. In her mind’s eye, images of the beast flashed incoherently until she felt her body succumb to the exhaustion. She collapsed to the floor and it was only then that the Queen rose, and came to her side (though with very little urgency). The world blackened and the maid soon awoke in her chambers, tucked into bed with a cool breeze grazing her face. She let her eyes flutter open and saw that the Queen was just leaving, closing the door behind her.

The window was wide open, sheer curtains blowing in the wind. Much like that night so many years ago, moonlight poured in splashing her in the face. Only now, it was not so welcomed. She turned her back to it, squeezed her eyes shut, and said a silent prayer. In the distance, she thought she heard a howl. So, she prayed again.

Down the hall, the princess slept, sound as death.

TO BE CONTINUED…

Read Part 2

Cry Wolf (Patricia Briggs): Book Review

Supernatural; Romance ♠

Author: Patricia Briggs

This book was published in July 2008, the first of the Alpha & Omega series. It holds a 4.11 rating on Goodreads. The series is now a graphic novel series, as well.

Anna never knew werewolves existed, until the night she survived a violent attack… and became one herself. After three years at the bottom of the pack, she’d learned to keep her head down and never, ever trust dominant males. Then Charles Cornick, the enforcer—and son—of the leader of the North American werewolves, came into her life.

A werewolf tale with very little bite, and a pathetic protagonist for whom you may root out of pity, or grow terribly bored with. The latter was my experience.

To preface, I am very fascinated with wolves and pack structure, and my favourite werewolf narrative to date has been the film Ginger Snaps. I also enjoy the Bitten TV series, although I had never read any werewolf fiction before Cry Wolf (unless you count the shorts in Angel Carter’s The Bloody Chamber and Stephanie Meyers’ depiction of the werewolves in Scarlet). I chose Briggs because I had read that she was known for her action-packed stories and strong female lead, Mercy Thompson. Cry Wolf takes place in that same universe but is, as far as I can tell, altogether different. It has an original (if sometimes laughable) take on pack structure, and a sterile take on romance within it.

Anna, the Victim-Hero

The heroine of this book, if you can call her that, is Anna. As the protagonist, the reader should be able to rightfully predict a certain level of character growth and heroism, but I got none of that out of this book. It’s important to note that Anna is a victim, and has been for years. Treated as a submissive wolf within her former pack, one can only imagine the tortures she would have endured. That she survived should be telling of her strength, but the trauma overpowers her.

I appreciate that Briggs took the realistic route here and let Anna be a wreck, but it was very difficult for me to spend 300 pages in the headspace of a victim. Specifically, a victim of male dominance. Surprisingly, the difficulty did not spring from any sort of too real depictions of the abuse, and maybe that was the problem. The details of Anna’s story are grazed over so it’s difficult to really feel them with her. Instead, I just found myself rolling my eyes every time she’d cower or crumble because I wanted her to stop being so pathetic. I couldn’t sympathize because, it seems, the author didn’t really want me to.

She has been saved from her pack by Charles, a werewolf enforcer whose standing basically makes him a prince. A real fairytale, right down to the lack of true connection. In fairytales, the prince sweeps the princess off her feet, away from the evil stepmother, the end. In the same way, Anna and Charles’ connection seems as though it was instant, based on nothing, and surviving on nothing. No spark; just a desire to be mated. And yes, the word “mate” is on every other page along with some form of “you’re mine.” Turns out, Charles chooses Anna as a mate because she is an Omega. In wolf packs, the omegas are the bottom of the food chain acting mainly as servants to the others, bullied to no end. Sometimes, they tire of the abuse and wander off to find new packs where they might challenge an alpha and gain better standing. Not in Briggs’ world. Omegas have special powers to soothe and comfort, are less violent, and more valuable. So Charles didn’t really fall in love with Anna, just her omega scent? Beautiful.

By the end, she finds her true strength. It’s not violence or kicking ass. She’s a soother. And when it comes down to it, and witches need to be fought, she might step up. I wasn’t very impressed with whatever (I won’t say what) is supposed to pass for her growth from victim to hero.

Narrative and Plot Development

I also wasn’t impressed with the story or plot development which is slow in most places and convoluted in others. Briggs’ writing is always grammatically correct, but this can sometimes lead to a boring read. There aren’t any prose that scream creativity or passion or even atmosphere and tone. They’re just words, followed by more words – usually “mate”, “mating”, or “mine”.

The story grabbed me in the first few pages which are told from the perspective of a mysterious man in the cold Montana wilderness, who risks his life to save a young man from being attacked by a beast, becoming one himself. Personally, I liked this idea and wanted to know a lot more about the rogue. A true horror narrative was somewhere in there but it didn’t develop. Instead, most of the pages are dedicated to Charles and Anna’s relationship and how she is trying to overcome her fears. I expected more action than I got – and why were there witches? I’m still not sure if it worked for me.

However, I did like how Briggs swapped character point-of-views often enough that the reader can learn about others. It was done well enough.

Final Thoughts

With a 4.11 rating, I know a lot of people loved this book and will disagree with my criticisms. That’s fine. To each their own. Paranormal romance has never been my thing, and Cry Wolf was simply not the type of werewolf story I was looking for when I picked it up.

I give it 1 spade: ♠* for creativity.

*My rating is based on a five-spade system. The rating is decided based upon how well/uniquely the book: 1) develops story and plot; 2) develops characters; 3) accomplishes or deconstructs the conceits of its genre; 4) raises thought-provoking issues; 5) discusses important issues. This system has been developed according to my own understanding of what makes a book "good." It is therefore subjective.

 

Misery (Stephen King): Book Review

Horror ♠♠♠♠

Author: Stephen King

This book was published in 1988. It holds a rating of 4.06 on Goodreads.

Paul Sheldon. He’s a bestselling novelist who has finally met his biggest fan. Her name is Annie Wilkes and she is more than a rabid reader – she is Paul’s nurse, tending his shattered body after an automobile accident. But she is also his captor, keeping him prisoner in her isolated house.

This is a straight-forward horror piece that sets out to do one thing: thrill. In that, it’s very successful. This was the first King book I read cover to cover, and on that note I should probably preface this by pointing out that while I admit King is an amazing storyteller, I’m of the seemingly popular opinion that his actual writing is not very impressive in terms of style. Actually, I tend to find it a bit bland, and I normally give up on his books quite quickly.  I know that’s a contradiction and that it’s not entirely fair.

King is meant to be read for thrills, not for prose. He writes in a very clear and concise manner – and as a tech writer, I appreciate that to some extent; but, what can I say, I’m a sucker for prose. And yet, Misery sucked me in, and left me satisfied.

A genre piece through and through, the story at once seemed unrealistic and entirely realistic. Hmm… I guess I’m full of contradictions when it comes to King.

While the story did not outwardly discuss any social issues, I still think it raised a few things worth discussing.

The Creative Industry

Paul Sheldon has made a name for himself as the bestselling author of the Misery book series. The books are period pieces that follow the romances and dramas of the (presumably) young and beautiful, Misery. The character has had many adventures but Paul has decided to call it quit on the series. He’s tired of panning to the masses and their love of Misery, and wants to try something a little more creatively ambitious. He wants to write something serious and meaningful.

This aspect of the book is very interesting because even as a successful well-known author, he doesn’t feel like a real artist. It begs the question of how we as a society define art, and has us question whether art and pop culture can co-exist, and what makes them different. It also makes us think about the pop culture machine – note that Sheldon’s agent is not impressed with his new career path. What if his new approach simply doesn’t sell? It’s all about the masses.

Gender Role Reversal

It seems worth noting that when Paul falls victim to Annie Wilkes (an obsessed fan who holds Paul hostage until he “brings Misery back to life”), there is an inherent gender role reversal taking place. Historically, females have been thought of as the more vulnerable sex, making them easy targets for men, who have been thought of as the more violent and dangerous sex. Historically, this scenario has also played out in reality many times, and continues to, across all societies. Subsequently, archetypes like the damsel in distress or the attacked woman have populated our books and screens. But not this time.

Annie is large, strong, and independent. She has the ability to physically overpower Paul, even if he wasn’t recovering from a terrible car accident. When men are victimized to the extreme level Paul is in this book, it adds a level of discomfort. The role reversal is itself scary because it says no one is safe, not even a big, tough, man. At the same time, the idea of a woman being so powerful is also jarring. Even if only subconsciously, this type of reversal is its own brand of horror. That this book is so obviously playing with that is really entertaining.

But for all its clever reversal, there is one generic element that remains intact: like in all good horror narratives, the (male) authority figures turn out to be utterly useless. These are the moments the readers/horror fans gets to roll their eyes and smirk.

Violence

The violence in this book is a slow build; and it works. Annie is clearly a little strange when she is first introduced, and slowly but surely her craziness begins to seep through. She’s unstable. She’s unpredictable. And then, after a long while of seeing it coming, she’s violent.

That first act of violence against Paul is intense. The reader has by this point suspected for some time that Annie is not to be trusted, and it seems that she is capable of doing him harm. But when she finally does, all of the anticipation is satisfied, explosively. The story’s pace increases from that point on, and the reader remains just as on edge as poor, helpless, Paul.

Final Thoughts

It’s fair to say that the suspense and thrill was delivered very effectively in this novel. It was a lot of fun to read, and it leaves a chill not to be soon forgotten.

As for the characters, it was exciting to watch Annie’s ups and downs and Paul’s plight was captivating. The book offered lots of suspense and thrills, and I loved that it mixed up the typical gender roles. Lastly, there were some noteworthy points raised about the creative industry, even if they weren’t explored in-depth.

I give this book a solid 4 spades* ♠♠♠♠

*My rating is based on a five-spade system. The rating is decided based upon how well/uniquely the book: 1) develops story and plot; 2) develops characters; 3) accomplishes or deconstructs the conceits of its genre; 4) raises thought-provoking issues; 5) discusses important issues. This system has been developed according to my own definition of what makes a book "good." It is therefore subjective.

Humble Pie

Yvonne Reached over the stove and closed the window, suffocating the sweet smell of baked goods within her tiny kitchen. The sun, unwilling to set just yet, let its orange light coruscate through the shutters.

The room fell still. Her silence was thick, her limbs heavy, and her fresh bruises sore. Yvonne sucked back the last of a cigarette, its sizzle screeching through the room until it was almost an echo. 

She stood wide-eyed; her consciousness watching  from somewhere outside of her body, floating among the tarred nicotine smoke and the swirling blueberry-scented heat. The fog grew heavy around her, but she didn’t bat an eye.

When Yvonne heard his car pull into the driveway, she dropped the wilted butt into the sink and exhaled the last of its unsavory fumes. Donning her oven mitts, she pulled the oven door open and peeked inside at her masterpiece. The blueberry pie was perfectly sculpted and was perhaps the most delectable image she had ever seen in her own home. She had been so patient with it, so tender and cautious. After all, any misstep would spell disaster, and Yvonne was through with disasters.

His footsteps thumped through the empty halls and trailed into a back room. He hadn’t even said hello. The nerve of him – it shouldn’t surprise her anymore.

Yvonne placed the pie on the white wooden table, a sharp edged spatula neatly at its side. There were no heart palpitations, no shivers; no indications of anxiety at all. Her peace had been made.

He entered the kitchen, sniffing his way to the pie like a dog. When he spotted the nectarous dessert on display just for him, he smiled. It wasn’t a genuine smile, or a thankful one. It was a smile of triumph. He was filled with pride at the idea that he had once again smacked some sense into his feeble little wife. The pie, he thought, was his reward – an assurance that she had been put in her place.

For too long, Yvonne figured out that morning, domesticity had been thought of as synonymous with docile. For too long, Yvonne realized that morning, she had let it be. Well, not anymore.

She picked up the spatula, gleaming in the dying sunlight still trying to seep through. She watched him seat himself, eager to be served, like a royal who thinks he has no enemies when the whole court is plotting against him. She almost smiled, but that would be a misstep.

The hunk of pie, perfectly cut, was surely a sight to remember. Its glazed crust, its prominent fruit filling – everything about it was so inviting. And, so deceitful.

Yvonne backed away from the table, faced the sink, and wordlessly set to work on the dishes. It was only when she heard the gurgling begin to creep out of his throat the she let herself smirk. At first, it was slight but as the sound of struggle behind her increased so too did her sense of victory. Soon enough, the smile had taken over her entire being.

Until that moment, she had forgotten what it was to be happy.

Shyla Fairfax-Owen ©

Generation Slasher

Jessica gasped lightly. A shadow lingered in her peripheral vision, and she had to hold her breath to keep calm; to keep from screaming. Her heart rate increased and tiny pools of sweat emerged from under her bangs. She could feel her pulse in her neck; a constant thud that she was sure must be visible, if not audible. Her stomach churned. She suddenly regretted the mixture of popcorn and soda she substituted for a freshly cooked meal. The room had always had a chill in it, but now Jessica could barely contain her shivering. Her teeth even wanted to chatter, although she had clenched them with such force it seemed more likely that they might crush under the weight of her fear.

And then it came. The man jumped out his hiding spot and pounced on the half naked teenage girl. She screamed as the knife penetrated deeper and deeper.

Jessica let out a yelp, and although it was embarrassing, she was glad she had. Now she could breathe again. Unable to watch the gore unfold on the huge screen before her, she squeezed her eyelids shut and tried not to imagine anything worse than what might actually be happening.

Beside her, Erin burst into laughter. It was genuine, but those who didn’t know her might find it obnoxious. Suddenly, Jessica was hiding not only from the blood bath on the screen, but from the other moviegoers who might be getting irritated with her friend.

“Shh,” she whispered, still refusing to open her eyes.

“Oh, please” Erin retorted. Her voice was lowered but it was certainly not a whisper.

The credits began to roll, cued in by the last victim’s fading scream and the rising level of the ominous theme song that had been a staple of the franchise for the last decade.

“That was the worst one. I tell ya, no more. I’m done with these sequels,” Erin blurted as they hustled out of the packed, dark, cinema.

“It was scary. And gory. That seems like it’s exactly your thing.” Jessica was feeling more like herself now that the film was over.

“Not even! It was just a hack. An imposter of the greats.”

Jessica rolled her eyes, knowing she was in for a long walk home.

“Think about it,” Erin started, “There was all the typical slasher icons: it had the maniac in a mask who is human but borders on the supernatural in his ability to kill, fight, and not die. It had the mixed bag of unsupervised teenage pals: a jock, a nerd who is cooler than he lets on, and two hot girls, one a bit more… promiscuous… than the other.”

Jessica nodded, wondering exactly where this was going.

“Then we have the setting – secluded getaway with a killer on the loose. But, of course, the kids don’t know that because they’re too wrapped up in their teenage love-triangle bullshit to listen to the news. Wrong place, wrong time. One by one, they get the axe.”

“Yeah, I’d say that about sums it up. All of them.”

“That’s my point. Those are the main ingredients – nay, the required ingredients to put together a slasher. It’s what you do with all the in-between that makes it a great film, or a waste of everyone’s time. This one was of the latter category.”

“Okay, so what makes any of these great? As you say, it’s all formulaic. The purpose it to make us squirm, and I do. Mission accomplished. Success.”

“No. It’s not that simple. Horror movies are made for horror fans. The people squealing next to us are the people we dragged with us.”

They turned off of Main St. and the wind picked up. Erin kept talking.

“Horror fans don’t watch it to scream. We watch for a bunch of different reasons; personally, I watch for the final girl, which this film severely lacked. The ‘no survivors’ angle seems original, until you realize that with no survivors there’s no story. No one to route for, route against, laugh at, identify with. All of that is embodied by the final girl; or, on the very rare and generally unsuccessful occasion, the final boy. Either way, that archetype is essential. I wanna see some girl that everyone underestimated kick some ass.”

“Wouldn’t that also be predictable?” Jessica couldn’t help but ask.

“Maybe. But it depends what you do with her.

There are two types of slasher films. You’ve got your run-of-the-mill reactionary film. Typical of the 70s, and it’s all about punishment. It’s a reaction against the civil rights movement, women’s lib, gay rights and anything else that was considered leftist or unnatural. All those things get knifed. The black guy, the sexual women or any form of sexual activity. Whatever isn’t the typical picture of 50s suburbia. In those films you’ve got a virgin for a final girl. She’s hope for the traditional values. Usually she’s even kind of a damsel in distress and she gets rescued.

Then you’ve got your progressive films which are all about the Other fighting back against the monster who represents social oppression. There, you get a badass final girl. She isn’t going to take shit, she’s smart, and she’s capable and she wins. It’s not luck, it’s strategy.”

Jessica pondered on that for a minute and was surprised by how much sense it made to her. Erin caught a glimpse of that in her eyes and smiled, pleased with her persuasive argument skills.

“You see,” she added, “horror is all about living vicariously through these characters. But that doesn’t mean we’re all masochists.”

“I might be. You don’t really drag me here. I could say no. I like the scares and I watch to squirm,” Jessica finally admitted.

Erin laughed. “Yeah, I guess you might be, then.”

Shyla Fairfax-Owen ©

Grace and the Varmin

Donnie had never been particularly perspicuous, so when he asked Grace to attend the concert with him she was taken slightly aback. Up until that moment, she had been unsure whether he had any real interest in her, or if he had just been making the best of the situation. She had been a gift after all; a compromise; a symbol of gratitude – though never treated as one. A concert, though, was a clear indicator of affection. Or, at the very least, fondness. It eased her mind, and even loosened the figurative cuffs around her wrists.

The rendition of Sonata no.14 was poor, but Grace tried to appreciate the effort behind it and clapped heartily with the crowd when it was expected of her. She snuck glances of Donnie every now and again, but he seemed indifferent to all of it. At the intermission, she hurried off to the ladies’ room – an excuse to gather her thoughts.

“I’m awful tonight, I know.”

The voice was soft but sent a jolt through Grace, who had not expected Donnie to enter the washroom. Her face flushed immediately, and she stuttered without eloquence. She had no idea what the appropriate words were, nor what reaction Donnie was trying to garner from her. That always made her nervous – not knowing what others wanted of her. He approached slowly, eyes locked into her own. She tried to look away, but found herself mesmerized by his forwardness. In all the time she had know him, he had barely said more than a few words directly to her. In fact, he rarely spoke at all.

Grace’s knees buckled as she backed into the counter, clawing the edge with her satin-gloved fingernails. Donnie came within a couple inches of her and stopped dead. The intensity in his eyes melted away, leaving behind those of a confused youth. He shook his head as though awakening from a trance and looked around. Grace cleared her throat, still absent of vocabulary. In the distance, the bell sounded to urge the audience back to their seats.

“We should,” Donnie started.

He did not finish. He simply wandered out.

Grace spun to face the mirror again. Her dress was a vibrant pink that shone under the pot lights. Disoriented, she tugged at the strapless number to raise it higher on her bust, tucked a few rebellious curls back into her diamond encrusted hair clip, and exited the washroom.

Donnie was nowhere in sight. Rattled, Grace walked back to her seat on the balcony. He was not there either. After the show, Grace stepped into the cold night air and used her cellular to dial her driver. It was supposed to be his night off, but he would have to make an exception. He brought her home, where she undressed and retired to the library; one of the few rooms Donnie had granted her access to (although it was not without a fight).

The next morning she attended to her usual chores. It was while she was dusting the entertainment set and watching the news that Grace heard of the gruesome murders of two concert goers. Both had been wearing stunning pink dresses, much like her own.

She turned away from the screen, resisting reaction. It was not her job to understand Donnie, or his motives. When he came home, she would not even ask the question.

Shyla Fairfax-Owen ©

The Way Out

I stood in the middle of the room, gripping the envelope until my fingertips drained of all color. A grave silence filled the surrounding space, from floor to ceiling and wall to wall. It was evening now, and the other household occupants had all headed off to the market to beg and barter for a meal. I had rushed home from work, too eager to put off this moment. And now, finally in it, I felt frozen in time; unable to move forward.

I had been one of the first people to apply for Migration. I did it before the drafting began; there had been more of those than we had expected. As the drafts came in my anticipation built, but the waiting period for applicants was much longer. Many of us had criminal histories and other ‘unsavory’ characteristics, so the Treaty Directors were being extra-thorough. If you were drafted, you had already passed the test.

I set down the envelope to compose myself. For weeks I had been imagining life on another planet; somewhere where I could have freedoms, rights, children. The planet had been being prepped for decades, made to emulate Earth as much as it could. It would be different, there was no doubt about that, but it would be something that we could all recognize. The system was going to be heavily dependent on the social contract, and life was going to be laborious. To me, that meant fulfilling.

And if I had been denied…

I looked at the clock. Josh would be home soon. It would be better to know by then; to practice my expression. If we had made the cut, I’d have to play down my excitement. Josh had always been opposed to leaving. He was convinced it meant giving up on the human race.There were a lot of anti-colonization groups that had been protesting the Migration Project since its conception, but Josh wasn’t like them. The issue was far more superficial for him. He was afraid; afraid to try something so new, so foreign. His white privilege had kept us afloat for a long time down here. We both knew it. Up there, things could be different. We’d both be the Other, and so would our potential children. It didn’t really bother me, though, it was the story of my life.

My mother had been a migrant worker when I was born. She had left Colombia as soon as she found out she was pregnant; afraid that if she put it off we’d be separated, and I’d be killed. At the time, the prospect of colonizing a new planet was real, but the details were still under wraps. Overpopulation was at its worst in Latin America and Asia at that point. North America was catching up, but many people had still been in denial about the inevitability. The American Dream still had a seductive ring to it, and in spite of everything, it still did for a lot of people – but not for me.

My stomach lurched, curling around itself, tugging at my nerves. Snakes. It felt like a hundred snakes wriggling about inside of me, trying to find a comfortable place to coil themselves. But there was no such place. There was just me, and the envelope.

I tore it open on a whim. Quick, like a Band-Aid.

My name, my age, my marital status, my partner’s name…

ACCEPTED.

I stared at the paper. It was real. It even provided a date for us to go in and have our infertility chips removed. It was real.

I read it again, and again.

ACCEPTED.

The door creaked open, snapping me back to life. I blinked, and noticed the tears streaming down my face. Josh entered, lugging a small sack of potatoes from the market. Normally I’d ask what he had bartered, always concerned I’d lose something precious. But not today. Today, I gained something precious.

Josh tried to smile. I tried not to. The silence lingered.

We finally had a way out.

A glint of hope flashed in his eyes.

Our lips met, unsure of what else to do.

Shyla Fairfax-Owen ©

Arctic Apathy

Ana coughed violently as a miasma of blowing snow and fog swirled around her.

“You’re just not used to this climate, yet,” Tucker yelled over the whirring sounds of the harsh environment.

It was true; Ana was not used to the climate. She had only left Calescent a few months ago, and her body still ached for its warmth, its moistness, and its luscious vegetation. Here on Zephyr, everything was a struggle. Her muscles panged all the time, her eyes burned, her skin cracked. Still, she had made a point not to complain aloud, for fear that her guides would question her motives for coming.

As it stood, she had told Tucker and Reese that she was searching for a long lost friend. They may not have believed her entirely, but they were willing to take her through the tundra and up to the mountains for a fair price – or, at least what they considered a fair price. 80 coins. Ana had given them 50, and promised the other 30 upon arrival. She wasn’t good for it, but she’d cross that bridge when she came to it. After all, she was pretty sure she could outsmart the two men, neither of whom seemed particularly quick-witted. If she was misjudging them, she had two knives they hadn’t thought to search her for.

“Should we set up camp soon?” Ana asked, trying not to sound too eager.

Reese looked around at the vastness before them. Ana could not even guess what he would be looking for. There was nothing; nothing, and snow.

“We’ll head north for a while longer and find a cave. We’re too exposed out here. The Feeders will be out tonight.”

Ana thought she saw the shadow of an ominous smirk flash across Reese’s face, but as quickly as it had appeared it had vanished. She shook it off, but patted her breast pocket to feel the assurance of a weapon. The other was hidden deep in her travelling pack.

The trio trudged on in silence, each conserving their breath for when the winds would choke them. By dusk they had found a cave. Tucker and Reese scoped it out, while Ana waited patiently on the outside, keeping guard. She was enjoying playing the role of meek damsel, it suited her. Since she was a child, she had liked to use her femininity to her advantage. It made her difficult to read. Ana liked being difficult to read. It helped her keep her secrets wrapped up tight.

Inside the cave, Ana faced the unpleasant discernment that as happy as she was to be sheltered, she would not be able to sleep next to two men she hardly knew. In an effort to mask her vulnerability with the falsehood of heroism, Ana offered to keep watch against Feeders.

“I’m not much up for sleeping. I’m -” she stumbled, “I’m excited to see my friend.”

The men eyed her suspiciously, but agreed. While they slept, Ana could not help but entertain the idea of sneaking away. They had gotten her so far already (40 coins worth, at least), and it would be an easy escape from the dues. She stood in the cold, trying to assess the barren land. She squinted through the storm, and tried not to wince as the frost fought its way through her cheeks and settled into her bones. She was almost certain she could make out the mountain ahead. If she could just get to the top… Yes, that’s what she’d do.

Ana peered into the dark cave and listened closely. The hush of slow breathing was apparent, as she had assumed it would be. Ana took off in a hurry, but not before stealing 10 coins back. Neither men roused. Not even when the Feeders came.

Shyla Fairfax-Owen ©

Testing Day

The room is white. The room is cold. The room promises anxiety. I scrape away at my cuticles (a disgusting habit I’ve always had under pressure) and try not to shift around on the table. The paper gown against the paper on which I sit makes a sound that reminds me of where I am. I wish there was a window, or at least that the doctor would hurry back. When I finally notice the blood smeared across most of my nails I lick it all away, ashamed, and focus my attention on the pamphlets taped to the walls.

Getting Tested is the First Day of Your New Life.

Stay Healthy, Stay Happy.

The World Needs You. Get Tested Today.

Finally, the door swings open. My heart seems to quiver and I sit up straight as if concerned that my poor posture will annoy the doctor and she’ll leave again. But she doesn’t even look at me. She stares at her clipboard and makes checks and exes here and there. I try not to make a sound, try not to disturb her concentration. Mostly I just want us both to forget I’m here; to simply disappear. She is short, with thick round glasses and straight smoky grey hair. When her head springs up her chubby cheeks swing back, loose with age.

“Fertile.”

That’s all she says. Then her head bows again as she sticks her pen back in her jacket pocket, clears her throat and walks out of the room. I will never see her again. Her only job is to test the fertility of every 18 year old boy and girl in the sector, and then she disappears forever.

I slowly reach for my clothes and become suddenly aware of how drab they are. Beige pants and a grey button down shirt with my identification number plastered to the left breast pocket. That number is more important than my name; authorities know me not as Gen, but as 504576. Today, though, I will become known to them only as fertile. I am hope.

Once a young woman is determined to be fertile a sigh of relief sweeps the nation like a cool, crisp, awakening breeze. They can match me with a fertile young man now, and assign us our national duties which will include jobs based on our levels of skills and intelligence, and on the nation’s needs. As a fertile couple, we will be given five years before we must clock in to work. These five years are to be allotted to childbearing and child rearing. We will be given a house, because we are the pride and joy of the nation. We are hope. Our sector will survive because of the few who are fertile. The many who are not will work harder and longer to provide for those of us who are. They are just as important to the new system. And who am I to shame the new system? After all, things used to be worse – but somehow, that doesn’t make me feel any better.

I dress, unsteadily, one foot at a time. The buttons take forever because my fingers fumble with them through the tremors. I feel a burning sensation rising from my chest and radiating into my sinuses. To fight this from exploding into tears I hold my breath. I do this for so long that by the time I walk into the bright daylight I am dizzy. I quickly glance to the left and then right, and when I’m sure my mother is not here yet I exhale so fast and hard I cannot even recognize the sound that comes out of me. How could this happen to me? What are the odds? I haven’t taken any precautions to ensure fertility. I even live in the most toxic end of the sector. Ironically, discovering that I have been virtually unaffected by these toxins is the first thing that makes me feel as though I am truly suffocating.

Just as I prepare to embrace my sadness a car pulls up and I see my mother’s stern yet forcibly bright face in the driver’s seat. At this, I immediately pull myself together. I stand up straight and sigh, taking on again my typical expression of impassivity. She jumps out of the car with such specious excitement the car itself might still be in motion. She runs around the back of it to reach me as quickly as she can. Arms wide, she yells “So?!”

“Fertile.”

I say it and that’s when I know it’s real and has to be accepted. My mother squeezes me tight, a rare show of affection. “It’s going to be fine, Genesis,” she whispers unconvincingly. “Everything’s going to be fine.” A bromide for people who are either too afraid, or too weak to tell the truth.

I nod and shrug. Maybe it will be fine.

Shyla Fairfax-Owen ©

Perception

“My planet doesn’t actually look like yours. The human mind is quite limited; usually it can only perceive the familiar, so when something is not familiar, it makes it so.”

“I’m not sure I’d describe what I’m seeing as familiar.”

Sybil looked up and let herself be taken aback by the mountainous trees, adorned with branches that seemed to touch the clouds. She wished Ongue would give her a moment to let the mesmerizing view settle, but in the little amount of time she had known it, she had learned that was not its style. It immediately spoke again.

“Yes, well, it’s difficult to know what a human will see exactly. But it should most definitely be something your memories of Earth can relate to.” It gestured for her to pick up her pace, “Come, now. This way.”

Ongue was a tiny being. It stood only three feet or so off the ground (or whatever it was that Sybil understood as “ground”), and had slender limbs and fingers. Its webbed feet were the size of Sybil’s palms and, if a comparison had to be made, its faintly grey skin was akin to that of a sickly elephant’s. It spoke in a hearty tone, that seemed to boom from its tiny body. The voice sounded definitively male to Sybil, but it had been explained to her that Ongue was genderless, and that it was only her restrictive mind making that connection. Back on Earth, Sybil had had a few friends in the trans community, so she knew it was important to be respectful of Ongue’s neutrality. Still, it did make her uncomfortable to refer to an intelligent being as an “it.”

Sybil herself was quite feminine in appearance. She had long dark hair, full eyelashes, a slender jawline, and heart-shaped lips. Her olive skin tone seemed fluid, darkening in the summer months, but paling completely in the winter ones. It had always made her feel like a chameleon.

“You’re the last to arrive. The others are just in here,” Ongue informed Sybil as it held a heavy steel door open to her.

The door was attached to a very small hut, so that Sybil had to bend herself to fit through the opening. Once she entered, though, she was standing in the lavish entryway of a grandiose manor with ceilings nearly thirty feet high. Others who looked just like Ongue were busying about this way and that, not even noticing her presence.

“This way, this way,” Ongue insisted, scurrying off down the hall.

Once Sybil had been seated in the amphitheater with the hundreds of other men and women, the formal address began.

Ongue took the podium and welcomed the group to its planet. It thanked each and every one of the brave souls for summoning within themselves the courage to venture outside of their world, and into this new one. Although, as Ongue explained, this world was not new, but millions of years Earth’s senior.

“The Intergalactic Treaty that has brought us all together has been a dream of ours for millennia. Earth, although still in its infancy, has become worn and tired. The humans who refuse to acknowledge this undeniable truth will have to live through witnessing its fall, but you are all here because you have chosen to move forward. We thank you for your open-mindedness. You are wise and beautiful beings of vast natural differences. This world will be an opportunity to embrace such difference, and change.”

Ongue paused momentarily, satisfied by our nervous smiles, then continued, “time, of course, moves differently here, as well. Over the next few hundred years, you will learn to see our world as we see it. The process will be slow, but eventually, this will become your home. As you adjust, the Earthly landscape you see before you will morph into something all together new, as will your understanding of it. Rest assured, the concept of home itself will become less dichotomous, and more malleable.”

Another, shorter, pause.

“Earth, however, will always be where you came from.” Ongue stepped out from behind the podium and spoke to the audience more directly. “It was an empire,” it said, “and we are all sad to see it go. Let us take a moment of silence, as is the custom for many of you in times of grief, and say goodbye.”

Mimicking the crowd (and without hesitance), Sybil bowed her head. She had been raised by devout theists and Nationalists; false solemnness was a practice she had always been familiar with.

Shyla Fairfax-Owen ©