I’ve decided that I’m not a very good critic because I either try too hard to love the things I read, or I get irrationally mad at them because prolly they’re better than I could ever be. That all being said, I still want to share some of the better short stories and such I’ve been reading with y’all, so here’s just that. Check out this story from Lisa L. Hannett, published in Apex Magazine, entitled Heirloom Pieces, about the responsibilities that come with having a child, and maybe a little bit more. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.
I grow tired of knocking at ivory gates, stooping so low to crawl inside, when I can just as easily bound over the castle in a single leap, blowing horns of victory.
Do you hear them singing?
And the knocking continues forevermore, but not my bloody knuckles, not on their bloody doors.
Yet still, I blow the victory horns.
I’m not quite sure I really like this story, and yet I’m the one who wrote it. That’s why I’m sending it out by paper airplane here and giving up on selling it to the birds. Only a mother could love this one, and maybe the people who follow the blog will be more forgiving like only a mom could be. Without further lowering of expectations, here it is:
length: 1,000 words
The Song From Outer Space
by Bryan Perkins
I dropped the pick and rubbed wet palms on skinny jeans, clenching my eyes tight, waiting for any response. After an eternity of silence, it came.
A chuckle? My heart sank into my stomach. The beat stopped. My knees knocked, probably a more rhythmic performance than I could ever play on my guitar. It was shit. I knew it.
“Stop it!” Erin said. I hear hand slapping jean jacket. “That’s so rude.”
“Sorry,” Phil said, trying to stifle his laughter. “I was laughing at something else, not you. Your music was…well…your music.”
I opened my eyes. Only Zane was left to respond. He wouldn’t make eye contact with me, hiding behind his swooped black hair.
“Well, what do you think?” I said, unable to wait longer for his verdict. My life was in his hands now.
“I don’t know,” he said, flinging his hair to the side with a tic of his neck, revealing his piercing blue, lined eyes. “It’s like–and I never thought I’d ever say this–but it’s like, too out there or something. Alien almost. Am I right?”
“Oh, yeah. For sure,” Erin said, nodding too hard. She always went along with Zane’s opinion, no matter how stupid it was. She wanted to get into his pants. Well, guess what, girl. They’re too skinny. There’s not even room enough for him in there.
Phil chuckled. “Outer space,” he said, probably because he was so high that’s where he was. Maybe I’d join him in the clouds when this was all done.
“Right,” Zane went on, nodding and swiping his hair to the side. “Like it was from outer space. It gives me a weird feeling. I don’t know. I don’t like it, bro. I’m sorry.”
“But–You said–” I said. “You said you were tired of the mainstream. You said you wanted something new, something different. Well, here it is.” I played a few notes.
“I don’t know what to tell you.” Hair swoop, sending all my hopes out the window. “I guess you’ve shown us today that there is such a thing as too unique. Let that be a lesson for all of us. C’mon guys. Let’s go. We’ll talk to you later, bro.”
Zane walked out first, Erin followed right up his ass, and Phil lagged a few steps behind, chuckling to his own joke.
My knees ended their performance once the three hipster stooges were gone, giving out entirely, and I fell to a heap on top of my guitar.
It doesn’t matter how long I laid there, almost sleeping. When I awoke, I lined the room with candles, lighting each one by one, and sat in the middle of the circle of flames with my guitar in my lap and pill bottle next to me.
It wasn’t that bad, was it? I started to play, staring into the fire. Sure, the time signature was overcomplicated to the modern ear, but what of the future ear? The melody followed patterns and progressions with alien logic but logic nonetheless. It produced–
The lights changed color. A rainbow chorus of candles sang out in perfect harmony with my melody. I couldn’t stop playing.
The colors flickered and danced in geometric patterns while the flames grew and shrunk. Smoke billowed. I almost stopped playing before the smoke resolved itself into physical forms. Standing atop each colorful flame were tiny, barrel-bodied figures, singing in chorus with each other, in chorus with my guitar, my song.
I stopped playing. My muscles grew too weak to carry on. The stupor produced by the vision was too much. The song kept going, though, with the little visitors keeping it alive.
One of the figures, standing atop a green flame, grew larger and larger as the chorus sang, to about the size of a toddler, dwarfing all the rest. “You sing more beautifully than we have ever heard,” it sang, and the chorus crooned their agreement.
I blushed. The whole lot of them flashed red with me. “Oh–well–I wasn’t really singing,” I said, feeling a little light headed about everything. “That was my guitar.”
“Your song was beautiful,” the green one sang. “It opened our pathway here. We had to come see what perfect creature could have such an angelic voice. Please, sing it again. For us. Bring us closer to your presence.”
“Yes, sing for us,” the chorus sang.
I tried to play something, anything, but it took too much energy to even lift my pick. All that came out was randomness. The chorus and the green one, whatever they were, flickered and squealed.
I dropped my pick, dropped my guitar, knocked over the empty pill bottle, and the aliens–I was convinced now that’s what they were–flickered back into solidity, standing atop their flames, singing my song better than I ever could.
“Come with us,” the green one sang over my own alien melody.
I couldn’t even lift my head, slumped over the dead guitar, to respond. I tried to move. I think I waved.
They sang my song louder, giving me energy. I raised up, reached for my phone, clicked the last call, and it rang.
“It doesn’t work as well from this side,” the green one sang. “Come with us or keep playing. The connection will be lost soon.”
“Hello?” said the voice from the other side, Zane. “You there, bro?”
“Come with us,” the green one sang, flickering, still singing my song, the song from outer space.
“Do you hear that, Zane?” I mumbled. “It’s so beautiful.”
“We’ll be awaiting your voice,” the green one called, blinking into nothingness along with the rest of the chorus, blowing out the candles on their way, and leaving me in darkness.
“Did you hear that, Zane? They’ll be waiting for my voice.”
The phone fell to the floor in a clatter. So did I, humming my melody, waiting for Zane or the green one, whichever came first. My life was in their hands now.
Here’s another short fable for you all to enjoy. Come back now, ya hear.
length: 600 words
Dinner for Two
by Bryan Perkins
“She’s gourmet,” I said to the phone. “Of course I want to go out with her. Next to her I’m like dog food.”
“So what’s the problem?” the phone asked back.
“The problem? I can’t even afford to go out to a nice restaurant by myself, that’s the problem. How do you expect me to afford a dinner for two?”
“Oh, come on,” the phone said, putting on that concerned tone like he knew what I was going through. He didn’t. Phones had all the money. Everyone everywhere needed a phone to do everything. He couldn’t help but to roll in the bakers—it was how he was built. “This is a new day and age,” he said. “The girl will even pick up the waiter these days. They call it dutch ovening or something, I don’t know. The point is, even a cheap ass sack of fries and a greasy burger dressed up in a paper suit deserve to sit on a nice table with a pretty girl every once in a while.”
“That’s easy for you to say,” wasn’t too difficult for me to say. “You’re a phone.”
“What?” the phone said, tone: offended. “You think my life is problem free? Those animals are always grabbing me, spitting on my ass, putting my face—that’s where my mouth is, you know, and my nose—up in their ears, and making me whisper sweet nothings from some other phone’s ass. You’re tellin me you want that life?”
“No,” I said. I did not want that. “But I’m fast food. I’m gonna—”
“What? So you’re afraid then?” the phone cut me off. I wasn’t even sure I was close enough to his butt for him to hear me.
“No, I’m not afraid,” I said anyway.
“You’ve never dreamed of sitting on a fancy table, candlelight between you and your gourmet date, a sweet, beautiful violin singing in the background, accompanied by an a capella orchestra?”
“Well, sure, who hasn’t? But I’m fast food!”
“It doesn’t matter, kid. It’s your destiny. I’ve made the call already. Get ready for the ride of your life.”
I won’t bore you with the details of the ride. Suffice it to say that it was the ride of my life. The table I ended up on deserves a little more description, but the phone has already gotten to that: candles, a capella orchestra, and—best of all—my gourmet date.
Ooh, what was she, though? I couldn’t see her from that angle, with the burning candle blocking my field of vision, but I could almost smell something exotic—maybe Thai. More than likely it was my own unkempt stench which I’ve probably never smelled anything beyond.
“Ahem.” I cleared my throat of greasy phlegm. “Hello,” I ventured over the candlelight.
Gourmet gagged. “Ew. You have got to be kidding me.”
“I—excuse me.” I didn’t like the tone of her voice.
“You’re fast food!” she screeched.
“I—uh—” Of course. “The phone didn’t tell you?”
“I thought it had to be a joke. It is a joke, isn’t it? You’re not fast food, there’s something more under that paper veneer.”
“No, I—” I complained, but a hand—ugh, the most disgusting thing imaginable—ripped my clothes off and lifted me naked for the entire world to see.
Gourmet giggled now. It was so much worse than gagging. My insides turned pink. I gave up, gave in. There was nothing more for me. Thank the Holy Cow, Creator up above, a slobbery, cavernous black hole devoured me, sending me on a journey unknown, through depths even darker than these.
Cat Pictures Please by Naomi Kritzer
reviewed by Bryan Perkins
“I suppose you’re wondering why I didn’t start with the Golden Rule. I actually did, it’s just that it was disappointingly easy to implement. I hope you’ve been enjoying your steady supply of cat pictures! You’re welcome.”
In Cat Pictures Please, Google–or an unnamed equivalent–is a sentient being who knows everything about you, your job, where you live, what kind of videos you watch on the internet, etc. It even knows everything about what you ought to do, which job would get you closer to where you want to live, which house has more space but costs less than the one you’re living in now.
With all its vast knowledge, however, Google knows nothing about what it ought to do, and there’s no hyper-Google to give it advice. So what does Google decide to do? Luckily for all our sakes, Google just wants to do good–and see cat pictures, of course, but who doesn’t?
First it tries to decipher what it ought to be doing with its life, what good is, by going through the flow charts of every major religions’ moral codes. Upon exhausting them, Google finds a few lucky souls and personally selects their advertisements so as to push them into doing what’s best for themselves. Ultimately most of the humans fail to take Google’s advice, but that won’t stop it from trying.
This story is just plain fun. There’s more to it, of course, including a message about taking control of your life and actually acting in your own interest occasionally instead of waiting for your Google overlord to push you in the right direction, but it doesn’t need all that. Not to mention I’m happy to see a sentient AI tale without murderous robots. The only thing I could ask for to make it better would be more cat pictures.
Here’s installment number two in my short story review series. Click here to see the rest and enjoy.
Pocosin by Ursula Vernon
reviewed by Bryan Perkins
“The preacher laughed. He had a gorgeous, church–organ laugh and Maggie’s heart clenched like a fist in her chest at the sound. She told her heart to behave. Witchblood ought to know better than to hold out hope of heaven.”
Maggie Grey was born old and she grew cynical. She’s a witch who’s been settling other people’s fights for too long now. All she wants is a little time to herself. She’s no quitter, she knows that what she does is necessary, she is a witch after all, but are a few weeks alone to drink whiskey, tie fishing flies, and stare at the pond too much to ask?
Pocosin presents itself as a modern fable complete with a possum god, the God, the Devil, and Death herself, all personified. What initially seems to be a simple fairy tale, driving toward a well-worn commentary on human interaction with nature, becomes instead a treatise on what it means to be a woman. Maggie, sitting on the porch with her grandmother Death, venting about her frustrations, says four words which make this theme all the more obvious and which drove me to give the story a second reading: “Ain’t I a witch?”
Maggie Grey is a witch like Sojourner Truth is a woman. And though witchkind has been dealing with these same issues for so long, though Maggie is sick and tired of stupid, sick and tired “of taking care of things, over and over, and having to do it again the next day,” she knows she has no choice but to carry on. All she asks for is a few weeks alone with her whiskey and fishing flies, the world can get on fine without her for such a short time.
I’ve been reading a lot of short stories lately, getting a feel for the market, and a post on /r/printSF got me to thinking that I should start writing reviews of some of these as I go along. So, I’m going to do just that–starting with the ones I like so get ready for some rating inflation. They won’t be very good, because I don’t know what I’m doing yet, but I’m sure they will lead you to some enjoyable short fiction at the least.
Without further ado, for my first installment I’ll be reviewing L. S. Johnson’s Vacui Magia which was published in Strange Horizons Magazine. Click the link to read it or scroll on to read my review first.
Title: Vacui Magia [Podcast Reading]
Author: L. S. Johnson
Magazine: Strange Horizons
Publication date: 1/5/15
Rating out of 5: 4.5 (Because I’m new to this. I don’t know what constitutes a five yet. Give me a break.)
Vacui Magia by L. S. Johnson
reviewed by Bryan Perkins
“The most crucial element in any conjuring is, of course, conviction. You know this. Every witch knows this. You must believe, utterly believe, that it will work, despite what your senses tell you, despite what your reasoning mind tells you.”
You cannot conceive. Your mother is dying and all she ever wanted was to see you with child, to meet her grandchild. How much are you willing to go through to give her what she desires? Anything? What does “anything” entail?
L. S. Johnson purports to teach us the principles of conjuration, but in reality teaches us something deeper about the human experience. The same principles which guide you through the creation of a clay golem, designed to fulfill your mother’s dying wish, apply to all human endeavors and creations. Nothing is made in a vacuum, we must know and understand our purpose, that which we sneer at is that which we become, closeness breeds empathy, and our actions reveal our true desires.
Vacui Magia is full of life, and although the unnamed main character (you) may have realized in the end that your purpose was something other than you originally thought, something your heart truly desired, I don’t think that magic was empty. Though I won’t argue with you about it, especially if believing the magic was empty helps you feel better after the unmaking.
In the end we are all conjuring clay golems, or we are all clay golems conjured. Perhaps we are both, and though the journey to the unmaking is long, there will always be the walk back, “wading and stumbling, blinded by tears,” giving us enough time to forget our losses and relearn our freedom.