Anticipation is nine-tenths of any successful encounter. I don’t know what it says that it was my father who told me that right before he shoved me out to chew a few holes in some so-called superheroes.
It doesn’t say anything about how much I admired him, or how desperately I clung to his approval in a world that labeled me monster. It hints at his cavalier attitude and his confidence that a few caped meatheads carrying nunchucks and resorting to laser vision would never be able to conquer him. It very obviously gives me advice about sex, but he meant it to refer to my upcoming fight.
Not that I equate fighting with sex, mind, but it shares certain elements of conflict and resolution that I could draw some pretty strong parallels for.
He said ‘anticipation’. At the time, I thought he meant I should scare them. Flash my claws, bare my teeth, send a few to the hospital. So I did. We did. I and the others in my clutch swarmed out to meet the defenders, one for each. Short straw had to wait until next time to try her luck.
My opponent was Larry ‘Daggerpads’ Kerplefrumsch. I think his talent or mutation or superpower or whatever they’re calling it these days was along the lines of ‘terrible jokes’ and ‘falling out of his banana hammock’. Or it could have something to do with how he’d overcome losing his legs in that freak rollercoaster accident by replacing them with state-of-the-art kinetic-energy-storing multi-use prosthetics. He was a tech mutie. There had been gene-splicing involved so he could control his new appendages with his brain. I didn’t like his moustache.
But dad had meant anticipation on both sides, and not just fear. Daggerpads took one look at me - all sinuous eight feet of me - and every bit of him controlled by thought sprouted blades like a puffer-fish.
I spread my wings, mantling and rattling the loose scales on my spine, and he seemed to catch up, but in waiting for him to attack I realized what my father had really meant. I had to anticipate him, not just tease him. Perhaps it was supposed to be obvious from how dad’d said it, or how he phrased it, or because that’s what he meant in the first place, but I don’t often think that far ahead and at the time my ability to even think ahead at all was completely new. Decantation-to-maturation acceleration in cloning and chimera-design is an art, and dad hadn’t then figured out how to speed up emotional maturation beyond that needed to elevate logic above base instinct.
I’m saying I was a little slow on the uptake. I was young. But I understood eventually.
Daggerpads had a weak high-kick for someone whose claim to fame was sharp things on his fake feet. He went all-out and for a moment I was scared, anticipating. I had never really fought anyone before, only trained with my sisters.
Then I found that he telegraphed his moves. A muscle in his thigh would twitch. For all kickers, I recommend a less revealing outfit just as a precaution. My training activated. I knew who had taught him, what his conditioned weaknesses would be, and he was telling me everything else I needed to know.
But if I could tell how to counter him, I could also see how he was going to counter me. Thus, I played with anticipation.
I am still alive, so I pass on my father’s advice: Anticipation is nine-tenths of any successful encounter.
Just under 600 words. For my writing group. I promised not to write about aliens.
Shelving books in a corset only worked when it was extra loose. Bitta stood on her tiptoes, breath held, to slide a heavy volume on to the top shelf. There. Dropping back to the floor, she turned and slammed into the young man walking past. Her former armload of books narrowly missed her toes, and he caught her by the elbows before she followed them down.
He released her. “Are you alright?” He wore a threadbare t-shirt that proclaimed ‘It’s dangerous to go alone’ and depicted a kitten in an open palm. “I didn’t mean to run into you.” After an awkward beat, he amended, “Well, I did, but not so literally. I didn’t hurt you did I?”
“No, no I’m fine.” Bitta knelt, unable to bend at the waist, to collect her books. Crouching with considerably less grace, he helped her gather and stack them.
For an awkward minute, they did a bit of silent, coordinated reorganization, retrieving books from the ugly burgundy shag of Madam Lorella’s Bookshop and Burlesque Cafe.
When they finished, Bitta asked, “You were looking for me?” She offered him a wary smile, feeling suddenly vulnerable.
“I-” He took a breath and introduced himself in a rush. “I’m Leo and I saw you at the screening of Blade Runner at the scifi club at the college.” He gasped and finished, “So- um- hello!”
“You followed me to work?”
“I asked your friend where would be best to talk to you?” He made it a question.
“Oh.” Bitta fled behind the register, putting the espresso machine between him and her, and occupied herself tidying. Leo came over to claim a stool and lean, arms crossed, on the countertop.
As he settled, she paused mid-wipe, the counter half covered with crumbs. “She thought here was best?”
“I have no idea. She just said that you work here and if I wandered over on a Thursday, I’d probably get to see you dance.”
“I didn’t want to be a creeper.”
Bitta laughed. “Hands up.” She instructed, gesturing with her cleaning rag.
“I surrender.” He told her, wiggling his fingers in the air and lifting his elbows clear as she scrubbed up a splotch of half-dried jam. His scraggly moustache quirked at her as he smiled hopefully. “Do you want me to order something so I have an excuse to stay and talk with you?”
She tapped her chin in an over-exaggerated ‘thinking’ pose. “Sure. But only because you helped me pick up the books.”
“Then- a cup of coffee.” He passed her change. “I hope none of them - the books - were damaged.”
“Are you actually worried?”
He look surprised that she had to ask. “Of course?” Another question, as if he were uncertain his response was acceptable.
Bitta reassured him. “Bonus points, then. I don’t just work here for the tips.”
He smiled at her. She smiled back.
Sipping his coffee black, he said, “I was too busy looking for you not to run into you. How’s that for mad skills?” He looked like he wanted to ask for milk and sugar but didn’t want to push his luck.
Bitta leaned on the counter and nudged creamer his direction. “I am wearing a corset. Were you expecting me in a corset?”
Grateful, he flashed her another smile. “Well - no. She said you danced on Thursdays.”
“Also Wednesdays. You could stick around and watch?”
“Can I take you for dinner after?”
“We’ll never know unless you try.” Bitta agreed just before she was called away to make a double mocha frappuccino.
I wrote three. This is the third. I did not send this one in.
She closed the book, placed it on the table, and finally, decided to walk through the door. First, though, she needed a door.
She kept watch over her shoulder as she sought the slender wire that would trail from door to spine. Careful not to disturb the book and alert her minders of what she was about to do, she slipped the wire into its fastening.
A small spark burned her fingers and the gray, blank wall resolved into the glass door she sought. It opened with a touch and she was through, lingering only long enough to hear the alarms as she stepped into the story. They couldn’t follow her here, not while she was inside of her favorite book where the grass felt warm like shredded paper, and she filled in details to make the world her own.
The flowers jostled for her attention, and while at first she imagined it the wind, her darker worries brought forth the creature. In a smooth pirouette with the blade now in her hands, she slashed the beast down the side to rain crimson on parchment leaves. This, then, was why the garden book was her favorite. It gave her the tools she needed to defeat the darkness.
Panting, she watched the beast regather for the second of three attacks. The bulk of its body was formless shadow, too many legs and not enough, and only the face held its shape between one glance and the next.
Seven dark reptilian eyes.
Many rows of many teeth.
The railing of angry orderlies came through the door, but they knew better than to interrupt. Breaking her concentration, her connection, would leave her here as they pulled her body through. Perhaps that was what the beast was, former wards and patients.
She met the second lunge with a shriek and her blade bit deep, as of its own accord, following the memories of her hands and the words on the page.
The last was always the worst and when it came at her, claws extended - claws from nowhere made of nothing - she only just avoided its slash. It preyed upon her anxiety, her fear of returning to the sterile world beyond the door. She fought her own thoughts. The creature grew in strength, winning as it never had before, as she feared to go back.
She could die here fighting, or die there staring at blank walls and blank faces. The creature read her reluctance and ate her right arm.
That was not part of the story, and it was only a story so there was no pain, but it reminded her that this was a temporary place, no matter how often she longed to visit. The beast fed on what she brought to the book, and every battle fell along different lines.
Her sword sliced its head off, vorpal or near to it, and she sat up as the fog of the creature burned away. She would return to the hospital this once, her courage restored, and when she could no longer take the prognosis and the plastered smiles, she would return for another round. Maybe then she would stay.
Comforted, she stood. White light shone through the door and after a step she paused to feel the stump where her arm ended. Familiar. The story was growing to reflect her reality, and while even a day ago she might have cried, now the thought made her smile.
She left the sword bleeding shadow on the paper grass.
I wrote three. This is the first. I did not send this one in.
She closed the book, placed it on the table, and finally, decided to walk through the door. That was that, then: guestbook signed. She was committed to being here no matter how she felt about the day’s impending nuptials. Lingering a moment, she plucked a handful of butter mints from the candy dish and faded into the background like aways. Just because she decided to go through the archway, with its faded stained glass and ugly cherubs, didn’t mean she must right this minute.
Aunt Key shuffled past in her pastel pink Sunday best, her ankles wrapped in neon orange and green compression bandages. Among all the other guests, the elderly woman was the only one who looked pleased to be there, happy for the couple. She was the only one who noticed Marie.
Breaking away from her escort, she hobbled over to the niche between the sign-in table and the door and placed a hand on Marie’s arm.
“Not happy with his choice?”
“I love Kailey, but he could do so much better, Aunt Key.”
“Your brother made his bed, Marie.”
“But he’s the doing this for them, and they all hate it. He doesn’t have to prove anything to family. He doesn’t need a beard for us.”
The older woman reached passed Marie and picked up the guestbook. “They should be signing. Whether or not he and Kailey part ways later, they’ll want this signed by everyone.” She handed the book to Marie. “Would you take care of that, dear heart?”
“Why are we celebrating this mistake?”
“Because neither of them deserve our censure.”
Marie clutched the book to her chest, ignoring the curious looks of the guests as they filtered in. When she was ready, that’s when they would sign. Until then, she would hold the book hostage to her indecision. She was ready to support her brother, but- “I can’t agree to this.”
Mints crackled between Aunt Key’s dentures. “He doesn’t need your agreement. Just your good wishes for a bright future or something. Support him. Love him. Even when you think he’s stupid.”
“He’s going to be miserable.”
At this, Aunt Key dropped a mint back into the dish and rounded on Marie with one gnarled finger extended and a stern expression that caused her niece to shrink back. “And you know this how? How do you know? How can you know? Kailey is the best friend he’s ever had and she knows what she’s getting into. How can you be so cruel to expect this to be horrible for them? Not everyone marries for reasons you agree with. Those marriages don’t have to look like whatever nonsense you have in your head.” She paused for breath, wheezing and listing sideways enough to make Maire put out a steadying hand. “Treat Kailey like a queen. This is her day. They’re doing this in spite of all your stares and gossip and unhappiness, because they want to. Whatever reasons they have, they’re good enough to face you, so- so-” Overcome, she sputtered to an angry stop.
Marie whispered, “I’m sorry.”
“Get over it.” Aunt Key didn’t bother with sympathy. She merely turned and wobbled away, demanding an arm to lean on, neon bandages so very bright.
Clutching the book to her chest, Marie took a deep breath and turned toward the chapel arch, the cherubs watching her with their beady little eyes. Finally, she decided to walk through the door.
As something that prowls the night, the empty streets between living alleyways, it is a great offense that the new city’s chemical lights are having a detrimental effect on the psyche of the general public. In the past, when the streetlights came on, the people would be consoled—if falsely—by the cheerful white and yellow streetlights provided them to prolong their daylight hours and keep my kind at bay. As evinced by the romantic art of the last several hundred years, suggested by many paintings and holograms metaphorically depicting lonely lampposts as islands in a sea of darkness, the sun-mimicking glow of gas, electricity, or even sulfur—cheap and vile as it might be—has been as steadfast in your culture as a sign of urban hope. Whether it be a solitary cone of light cast upon the snowy sidewalk or a a string of streetlights reflecting from a windshield, they have always possessed a warm glow that confounded night vision and provided pooled safe havens from night hunters.
The ‘increase’ of attacks so loudly trumpeted by the text in this very newsfilter is nothing more than a removal of the natural urban barriers to ghast predation.
With the introduction of this new ‘un-fueled’ system of lighting—which even the least educated know for a misdirection, Senator Kleary—the city streets are now bathed in an eye-soothing wash of reds and blues. Is it any wonder that such a fundamental change in the city’s infrastructure might have unforeseen repercussions? Who would have thought that a color change might send the city into a spiral of terror?
Terror, as you well know, taints the meat of creatures who experience it, which is one of my primary concerns. Additionally, fear both keeps humans inside and, paradoxically, allows my kind more opportunities for a meal from those who do decide to brave the cool, dark streets.
Since time and population controls - like the controversial Lista-Parvani ‘Thirdborn’ Act - have regulated human birthrates, the ghast population has increased and decreased in lockstep with their chosen prey. The humans, though wary, carried with them into urban centers an acceptable-loss threshold, as unfeeling as it sounds. I fear that with the city’s color-change decision, the threshold has been breached and my kind face a world where our survival is not only seen as at the expense of others, but as unnatural and detrimental.
I argue for a return to the equally-expensive and less third-planet exploitative streetlight colors of last year. As further evidence to the duplicity and corruption of your human leaders, the budget numbers do not even show a dip in infrastructure spending as we were assured there would be by cool-light proponents.
My kind’s society depends on hovering at a certain ratio to human. Yours and my goals for ghast population control align in that neither of us wish the population to increase, but the removal of the precaution of electric light has caused a baby boom among my community, the likes of which hasn’t been seen since the urbanization of the the old United States and the second Great War when the ghast population was able to increase their former rural ratio and experience a cultural Renaissance. Our culture is about to, once more, go through the bloody growing pains once experience by our previous generations. The effects of this, with our increase in numbers, may spill into the human herds and reinforce prejudices and fears regarding what is normally a positive, symbiotic parallel civilization.
To those listening, I exhort you to write your congresspersons in a rational manner to explain the need for yellow light on the streets at night. The humans more likely to survive their walks home at night will thank you, as will this particular ghast and his growing family.
Margareta felt less like honoring her ancestors and more like getting flayed. She lingered at the bus stop in front of the Arnie’s Ink and Jab tattoo parlor, waiting for the 305 to take her out of the sketch part of town. She could see Jade through the window, hair spiked and black sleeves half-finished against her brown skin, sweeping the grit that the door didn’t catch.
Three minutes late. Nothing in the grand scheme of things, but enough to change her mind about going or staying. Pushing up from the bus stop bench and tightening her rebreather straps, she dusted off her jeans and stepped out into the biting wind. Fifth day sandstorm and the city couldn’t decide to shut down or wake back up. Red sand and small pebbles burrowed their way into the folds of her jacket, making it a zillion times heavier. Larger particles pinged off her goggles, but she no longer flinched.
The bell rang when she entered, announcing her presence like a stranger’s, and Jade looked up to greet her. Her professionally neutral expression shifted when she recognized Margareta.
Margareta pushed through the particle screen, feeling the feather-light touch of the field tingling on her skin beneath her clothes. The doorway flared red when she stepped through and the bell rang again as she shut the door. She lingered a minute to watch the dirt and sand she’d left on the other side be swept away by the wind.
“I just want to talk.”
“There’s nothing to talk about.” Jade lifted her rebreather to her mouth and inhaled. She still put Joy in the charcoal. Margareta never approved. “You made your bed. Lie in it. Suffer.”
“Feliz dia de Los Muertos, Jade.”
They stared at each other. Jade dropped the rebreather so it hung once more around her neck, then gripped her broom like she was thinking of chasing Margareta from the store.
Snap decision. “I want a tattoo.” Margareta said.
“No.” Jade’s instantaneous denial startled both of them, eyes widening as a fizzle of remembered tension flew between. Margareta’s heart began to beat faster. Jade hesitated. Gave in. “Fine.”
Margareta took off her coat, hung it on the rack. “I want a heart. Black. Right here.” She turned around again, shell-less without her coat and goggles, breather and pack. She tapped her collarbone, pushed her hair away from her face.
“Going to hurt.” Jade said, professional.
Less professional, “You trust me not to fuck you up?”
“No. Do it anyway.”
Preparations took time enough for Margareta to get nervous. Logic tried to process why she laid on the padded chair. Stuttered, failed, gave up. She looked around instead and realized this might be the last time she came here. The rich reds and vibrant blues that swirled the walls, stylized sunset sandstorm, home but more than home. A remembered life, unreality, nostalgia.
“You want a sketch?” Jade sat, pulled the tray cart close and let the generator hum to life. Power went out on day three. Didn’t matter when the city knew how to stretch a thimble of gas a year. No hurry.
“Freehand. You know what it looks like.”
Jade’s eyes darkened, jaw clenched. “Your funeral.” She tugged Margareta’s shirt off her shoulder, exposing her canvas. With firm pressure, she forced her back. “Don’t move.”
Margareta tried to relax, but Jade’s face was a breath away, the hand with the pen resting on her collarbone. Electricity passed between skin, little tingles like the particle screen, followed by the pinpricks of the needle. Old-fashioned, intimate technology.
Neither spoke, just touched. The whir of the needle lost in the generator’s thrum, Margareta felt the image take shape. Jade’s thumb on her jugular forced her chin up so she couldn’t look before time.
The small image took no time to complete, black against skin, just two simple arches combined at points, anatomically incorrect and symbolic. Margareta could see the conflict in her tattooist’s eyes, the desire to draw the line across her breasts, deface her memories in one vengeful, painful motion. A moment before she declared the tattoo done and Jade’s integrity warred with her anger, Margareta braced herself, accepting either outcome.
Jade sat back. “Done. Look.” She held up a mirror.
Pitch black, not more than an inch wide, but gracefully curved and filled with the grace of an artist. Simple. The skin around the tattoo flamed angry red and purple. Blood welled just enough to let Margareta remember the pain. “Done.”
Together, they bandaged her up, recited care instructions, and Margareta went to find her wallet.
“No charge.” Jade said, facing the wall.
“No charge, goddamnit. No fucking charge.”
Margareta hid her wallet behind her back, the motion pulling at her heart, reminder her heart was tender. “Fine. No charge.”
The tension went out of Jade’s shoulders. She turned around, glared at Margareta. “I never want to see you again.”
“You won’t.” Careful of her new tattoo, but not so careful as she wouldn’t know it was there, Margareta suited up to return to the storm. “Promise.”
“We both know how much your promises are worth.”
Rebreather already on, Margareta didn’t have to answer. The bell rang, but before she could step outside she felt the weight and pressure of a hand squeezing her shoulder. Left shoulder, above her heart, pulling newly inked skin. She rested her gloved hand on top of the gift, but didn’t turn around, said nothing. She stepped through the barrier, the weight disappearing as the tingles swept across her skin.
Margareta took the next bus going the wrong direction.