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In a brilliant, wide-ranging anthology, Strahan presents stories by authors as diverse as Karen Joy Fowler, Elizabeth Bear, and Paul Di Filippo. Ellen Klages contributes “Lotion,“ a story about imaginary numbers and the strange powers of math, in which a young girl discovers the magical potential of pure math. Ellen Kushner’s “Dolce Domum” is, perhaps, not about what its characters think it is. Bear’s “Swell” is a fairy tale about a musician seeking her voice, in which a mermaid’s gift is not as wonderful as at first glance it seems. Molly Gloss’ “The Visited Man” presents a lonely pensioner who lives upstairs from le douanier Rousseau and the relationship that develops after the painter brings the retiree a stray cat. As for the previous Eclipse anthologies, Strahan has picked stories whose authors care about both the craft of storytelling and the stories they tell. Each piece is distinctive and haunting.

* * *

Jonathan Strahan, Karen Joy Fowler, Ellen Klages, Pat Cadigan, Nnedi Okorafor, Elizabeth Bear, Maureen F. McHugh, Jeffrey Ford, Nicola Griffith, Peter S. Beagle, Daniel Abraham, Paul Di Filippo, Tom Pudding, Jane Yolen, Adam Stemple, Molly Gloss, Caitlín R. Kiernan, Ellen Kushner


Introduction by Jonathan Strahan

The Pelican Bar by Karen Joy Fowler

A Practical Girl by Ellen Klages

Don't Mention Madagascar by Pat Cadigan

On the Road by Nnedi Okorafor

Swell by Elizabeth Bear

Useless Things by Maureen F. McHugh

The Coral Heart by Jeffrey Ford

It Takes Two by Nicola Griffith

Sleight of Hand by Peter S. Beagle

The Pretenders' Tourney by Daniel Abraham

Yes We Have No Bananas by Paul Di Filippo1. Invasion of the Shorebirds

2. Ocarina City

3. Unplanned Obsolescence

4. Trash Platter Chatter

5. Moving Day Morn

6. Old Habits Die Hard

7. In Pursuit of the Tom Pudding

8. Vasterling's Mad and Marvelous Menagerie

9. "More ocarina!"

10. American Splendor

Mesopotamian Fire by Jane Yolen & Adam Stemple

The Visited Man by Molly Gloss

Gal; ápagos by Caitlín R. Kiernan

Dulce Domum by Ellen Kushner

About the Authors

* * *

Jonathan Strahan, Karen Joy Fowler, Ellen Klages, Pat Cadigan, Nnedi Okorafor, Elizabeth Bear, Maureen F. McHugh, Jeffrey Ford, Nicola Griffith, Peter S. Beagle, Daniel Abraham, Paul Di Filippo, Tom Pudding, Jane Yolen, Adam Stemple, Molly Gloss, Caitlín R. Kiernan, Ellen Kushner

Eclipse Three

© 2009

Introduction, story notes, and arrangement by Jonathan Strahan. © 2009 Jonathan Strahan.

"The Pretenders' Tourney," by Daniel Abraham. Copyright © 2009 Daniel Abraham.

"Sleight of Hand," by Peter S. Beagle. Copyright © 2009 Avicenna Development Corporation.

"Swell," by Elizabeth Bear. Copyright © 2009 Sarah Bear Elizabeth Wishnevsky.

"Don't Mention Madagascar," by Pat Cadigan. Copyright © 2009 Pat Cadigan.

"Yes We Have No Bananas," by Paul Di Filippo. Copyright © 2009 Paul Di Filippo.

"The Coral Heart," by Jeffrey Ford. Copyright © 2009 Jeffrey Ford.

"The Pelican Bar," by Karen Joy Fowler. Copyright © 2009 Karen Joy Fowler.

"The Visited Man," by Molly Gloss. Copyright © 2009 Molly Gloss.

"It Takes Two," by Nicola Griffith. Copyright © 2009 Nicola Griffith.

"Galápagos," by Caitlín R. Kiernan. Copyright © 2009 Caitlín R. Kiernan.

"A Practical Girl," by Ellen Klages. Copyright © 2009 Ellen Klages.

"Dulce Domum," by Ellen Kushner. Copyright © 2009 Ellen Kushner.

"Useless Things," by Maureen F. McHugh. Copyright © 2009 Maureen F. McHugh.

"On the Road," by Nnedi Okorafor. Copyright © 2009 Nnedi Okorafor.

"Mesopotamian Fire," by Jane Yolen & Adam Stemple. Copyright © 2009 Jane Yolen & Adam Stemple.

For the late, great Charles N. Brown, last of science fiction's

great lions, dear friend, and tireless supporter.


Eclipse Three is, as always, more than just the product of one person: it's the creative output from a small village of people. Once again, Jeremy, Jason, and Ross at the Shade have stood tall and provided me with the support I needed to do the book that I wanted to do; something for which I'm incredibly grateful. I'd also like to thank all of the contributors to the book. This book evolved much more naturally than it's predecessors, with stories coming from unexpected places at unexpected times, so I'm very grateful to everyone who has sent me stories this time. I'd like to thank Peter Watts for his understanding, and the Richard Powers Estate for the fabulous cover.

Finally, two special thanks. This book may not have been completed without the support of my good friend Gary Wolfe, who has never ceased to remind me of its value, and it certainly wouldn't have been done without the support and hard work of Marianne Jablon, who was both in-house editor on this book for me and tireless supporter. I'm very lucky indeed.

Introduction by Jonathan Strahan

A good book cover attracts the eye of a potential reader. It makes a book pleasing to behold, and makes you eager to pick it up and look further. A great book cover does more. It encapsulates the essence of the book and communicates that essence clearly and simply to anyone who might be interested.

When I first saw the cover for Eclipse One, the opening volume in this series, I could immediately see that it was a good cover, but I wasn't sure that it was a great one. It certainly had all of the right ingredients. Designer Michael Fusco had created a clean, simple series design that could be used with almost any piece of art. Multiple award-winning artist Michael Whelan's pre-existing art provided an appropriate air of ambiguity. What the cover didn't do, though, was "fit" the book that I felt I had in my mind's eye. It didn't have quite the same feel; represent the essence of the stories completely.

Now, creating a cover that fits an anthology is always difficult, and it is especially difficult when you are talking about a book such as Eclipse, which is unthemed and intended to be as varied as possible. Still that fit is something an art editor strives for, and that a designer works to achieve. It's also something that has become enormously important to me as an anthologist over the last year or two.

Increasingly I've felt that it's essential to create a total package that is, for want of a better word, "honest." I want the cover, the blurbs, the cover quotes, the introduction, and the stories to tell the same story, to deliver the same message to anyone who picks the book up so that they have a clear idea of what it is they're going to get. It's an ideal, but it's one that I think is worth working towards.

Because of that I was much more confident about the cover for Eclipse Two, which came out last year. I had decided, in consultation with my publisher, to make the second volume in the series a much more science fiction oriented book. I approached more science fiction writers than fantasy writers for the book. I chose stories that had robots and spaceships and vast empires. And art editor Jeremy Lassen provided a peach of a cover, taking a well-known piece of art by Hugo Award-winning artist Donato Giancola and nudging it into Michael Fusco's design in such a way that it was bright and shiny and new. I remember the excitement I felt when I opened the email that had the cover attached, and how I felt that it was just exactly right for the book. Even now, I think it's one of the best covers to appear on any of my books.

I was, however, frankly nervous about what kind of cover would be found for Eclipse Three. Like the first volume of the series, it's a varied volume featuring stories that range from straight fantasy to swords and sorcery to eloquent social science fiction. What could possibly, I wondered, honestly represent that variety? I needn't have worried.

When I first saw the cover art for Eclipse Three I knew immediately it was right. Following his own passion for great science fiction art, Jeremy Lassen had searched out and found something special: an unpublished piece of art by the late Richard Powers. Powers was possibly the greatest artist ever to work in the science fiction field, producing more than eight hundred science fiction paintings during a long and distinguished career that saw him produce iconic covers for Robert Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, and many, many more. Although when Powers started his career his work fit the conventional pulp paperback style of the day, he quickly evolved a Surrealist style that was influenced by the likes of Picasso and Yves Tanguy, but was highly personal and very much his own.

The painting was perfect for Eclipse because it was vibrant, rich, and evocative. It suggested something hip and cool, but it didn't prescribe anything. It spoke directly to the essence of what I thought an Eclipse volume should be-varied, engaging, and ever changing. It also had connections to the science fiction world that I couldn't resist. The first volume of Damon Knight's classic Orbit series of anthologies had a Powers cover, as did the first volume of Pohl's Star and one of Robert Silverberg's New Dimensions. He'd also done some classic covers for books that had meant an enormous amount to me, like R. A. Lafferty's Nine Hundred Grandmothers.

I was sufficiently thrilled by the cover that I wanted to know more. After all, how likely is it that unpublished Powers art of this caliber still existed? As it turns out the provenance of the art is as mysterious as the image Powers created. His agent Jane Frank told me that information on the work was severely limited. It is signed "Powers Laz/org," as he signed all of his commercial work, which suggests it was done for publication. But there's no information on it having been published. It has the hallmarks of a Powers book cover-layout, collage style, signature, etc.-but no other information. It is a mystery. And for me, that makes it perfect. A mysterious cover-bright and filled with energy-for a mysterious book. It's my hope that, when you've read the group of stories that make up this latest Eclipse you'll think it's perfect too.

Before I hand you over to the stories, though, a few thanks. Eclipse Three exists because of the generosity and dedication of Jeremy Lassen, Jason Williams, Ross Lockhart, and John Joseph Adams at "the Shade." Without them this book literally wouldn't and couldn't exist. I'd also like to thank the contributors to the book who have let me publish such wonderful work, and Jane Frank at the Powers Estate. As always, though, my greatest thanks goes to my wife Marianne, who has been there for every difficult moment I went through getting us here.

And last, thanks goes to you, the reader, for picking up this book and being willing to enter the worlds contained within it. Whether you were there for Eclipse One and Eclipse Two, or this is your first time under its darkling skies, welcome, and I hope to see you here again next year.

Jonathan Strahan

Perth, Western Australia

July 2009

The Pelican Bar by Karen Joy Fowler

For her birthday, Norah got a Pink cd from the twins, a book about vampires from her grown-up sister, High School Musical 2 from her grandma (which Norah might have liked if she'd been turning ten instead of fifteen) and an iPod shuffle plus an Ecko Red t-shirt and two hundred-dollar darkwash 7 jeans-the most expensive clothes Norah had ever owned-from her mother and father.

Not a week earlier, her mother had said it was a shame birthdays came whether you deserved them or not. She'd said she was dog-tired of Norah's disrespect, her ingratitude, her filthy language-as if fucking was just another word for very-fucking this and fucking that, fucking hot and fucking unfair and you have to be fucking kidding me.

And then there were a handful of nights when Norah didn't come home and turned off her phone so they all thought she was in the city in the apartment of some man she'd probably met on the internet and was probably dead.

And then there were the horrible things she'd written about both her mother and father on facebook.

And now they had to buy her presents?

I don't see that happening, Norah's mother had said.

So it was all a big surprise and there was even a party. Her parents didn't approve of Norah's friends (and mostly didn't know who they were) so the party was just family. Norah's big sister brought the new baby who yawned and hiccoughed and whose scalp was scaly with cradle-cap. There was barbecued chicken and ears of corn cooked in milk, an ice-cream cake with pralines and roses, and everyone, even Norah, was really careful and nice except for Norah's grandma who had a fight in the kitchen with Norah's mother that stopped the minute Norah entered. Her grandmother gave Norah a kiss, wished her a happy birthday, and left before the food was served.

The party went late and Norah's mother said they'd clean up in the morning. Everyone left or went to bed. Norah made a show of brushing her teeth, but she didn't undress, because Enoch and Kayla had said they'd come by, which they did, just before midnight. Enoch climbed through Norah's bedroom window and then he tiptoed downstairs to the front door to let Kayla in, because she was already too trashed for the window. "Your birthday's not over yet!" Enoch said, and he'd brought Norah some special birthday shrooms called hawk's eyes. Half an hour later, the whole bedroom took a little skip sideways and broke open like an egg. Blue light poured over everything and Norah's Care Bear Milo had a luminous blue aura, as if he were Yoda or something. Milo told Norah to tell Enoch she loved him, which made Enoch laugh.

They took more of the hawk's eyes so Norah was still tripping the next morning when a man and a woman came into her bedroom, pulled her from her bed and forced her onto her feet while her mother and father watched. The woman had a hooked nose and slightly protuberant eyeballs. Norah looked into her face just in time to see the fast retraction of a nictitating membrane. "Look at her eyes," she said, only the words came out of the woman's mouth instead of Norah's. "Look at her eyes," the woman said. "She's high as a kite."

Norah's mother collected clothes from the floor and the chair in the bedroom. "Put these on," she told Norah, but Norah couldn't find the sleeves so the men left the room while her mother dressed her. Then the man and woman took her down the stairs and out the front door to a car so clean and black that clouds rolled across the hood. Norah's father put a suitcase in the trunk and when he slammed it shut the noise Norah heard was the last note in a Sunday school choir; the men part of Amen, sung in many voices.

The music was calming. Her parents had been threatening to ship her off to boarding school for so long she'd stopped hearing it. Even now she thought that they were maybe all just trying to scare her, would drive her around for a bit and then bring her back, lesson learned, and this helped for a minute or two. Then she thought her mother wouldn't be crying in quite the way she was crying if it was all for show. Norah tried to grab her mother's arm, but missed. "Please," she started, "don't make me," but before she got the words out the man had leaned in to take them. "Don't make me hurt you," he said in a tiny whisper that echoed in her skull. He handcuffed Norah to the seatbelt because she was struggling. His mouth looked like something drawn onto his face with a charcoal pen.

"This is only because we love you," Norah's father said. "You were on a really dangerous path."

"This is the most difficult thing we've ever done," said Norah's mother. "Please be a good girl and then you can come right home."

The man with the charcoal mouth and woman with the nictitating eyelids drove Norah to an airport. They showed the woman at the ticket counter Norah's passport, and then they all got on a plane together, the woman in the window seat, the man the aisle, and Norah in the middle. Sometime during the flight Norah came down and the man beside her had an ordinary face and the woman had ordinary eyes, but Norah was still on a plane with nothing beneath her but ocean.

While this was happening, Norah's mother drove to the mall. She had cried all morning and now she was returning the iPod shuffle to the Apple store and the expensive clothes to Nordstrom's. She had all her receipts and everything still had the tags, plus she was sobbing intermittently, but uncontrollably, so there was no problem getting her money back.

Norah's new home was an old motel. She arrived after dark, the sky above pinned with stars and the road so quiet she could hear a bubbling chorus of frogs and crickets. The man held her arm and walked just fast enough to make Norah stumble. He let her fall onto one knee. The ground was asphalt covered with a grit that stuck in her skin and couldn't be brushed off. She was having trouble believing she was here. She was having trouble remembering the plane. It was a bad trip, a bad dream, as if she'd gone to bed in her bedroom as usual and awakened here. Her drugged-up visions of eyelids and mouths were forgotten; she was left with only a nagging suspicion she couldn't track back. But she didn't feel like a person being punished for bad behavior. She felt like an abductee.

An elderly woman in a flowered caftan met them at a chainlink gate. She unlocked it and the man pushed Norah through without a word. "My suitcase," Norah said to the man, but he was already gone.

"Now I am your mother," the woman told Norah. She was very old, face like a crumpled leaf. "But not like your other mother. Two things different. One: I don't love you. Two: when I tell you what to do, you do it. You call me Mama Strong." Mama Strong stooped a little so she and Norah were eye to eye. Her pupils were tiny black beads. "You sleep now. We talk tomorrow."

They climbed an outside stairway and Norah had just a glimpse of the moon-streaked ocean on the other side of the chainlink. Mama Strong took Norah to room 217. Inside, ten girls were already in bed, the floor nearly covered with mattresses, only narrow channels of brown rug between. The light in the ceiling was on, but the girls' eyes were shut. A second old woman sat on a stool in the corner. She was sucking loudly on a red lollipop. "I don't have my toothbrush," Norah said.

"I didn't say brush your teeth," said Mama Strong. She gave Norah a yellow t-shirt, gray sweatpants and plastic flip flops, took her to the bathroom and waited for Norah to use the toilet, wash her face with tap water and change. Then she took the clothes Norah had arrived in and went away.

The old woman pointed with her lollipop to an empty mattress, thin wool blanket folded at the foot. Norah lay down, covered herself with the blanket. The room was stuffy, warm, and smelled of the bodies in it. The mattress closest to Norah's belonged to a skinny black girl with a scabbed nose and a bad cough. Norah knew she was awake because of the coughing. "I'm Norah," she whispered, but the old woman in the corner hissed and clapped her hands. It took Norah a long time to realize that no one was ever going to turn off the light.

Three times during the night she heard someone screaming. Other times she thought she heard the ocean, but she was never sure; it could have been a furnace or a fan.

In the morning, the skinny girl told Mama Strong that Norah had talked to her. The girl earned five points for this, which was enough to be given her hairbrush.

"I said no talking," Mama Strong told Norah.

"No, you didn't," said Norah.

"Who is telling the truth? You or me?" asked Mama Strong.

Norah, who hadn't eaten since the airplane or brushed her teeth in twenty four hours, had a foul taste in her mouth like rotting eggs. Even so she could smell the onions on Mama Strong's breath. "Me," said Norah.

She lost ten points for the talking and thirty for the talking back. This put her, on her first day, at minus forty. At plus ten she would have earned her toothbrush; at plus twenty, her hairbrush.

Mama Strong said that no talking was allowed anywhere-points deducted for talking-except at group sessions, where talking was required-points deducted for no talking. Breakfast was cold hard toast with canned peaches-points deducted for not eating-after which Norah had her first group session.

Mama Strong was her group leader. Norah's group was the girls from room 217. They were, Norah was told, her new family. Her family name was Power. Other families in the hotel were named Dignity, Consideration, Serenity, and Respect. These were, Mama Strong said, not so good as family names. Power was the best.

There were boys in the west wings of the motel, but they wouldn't ever be in the yard at the same time as the girls. Everyone ate together, but there was no talking while eating so they wouldn't be getting to know each other; anyway they were all very bad boys. There was no reason to think about them at all, Mama Strong said.

She passed each of the Power girls a piece of paper and a pencil. She told them to write down five things about themselves that were true.

Norah thought about Enoch and Kayla, whether they knew where she had gone, what they might try to do about it. What she would do if it were them. She wrote: I am a good friend. I am fun to be with. Initially that was a single entry. Later when time ran out, she came back and made it two. She thought about her parents. I am a picky eater, she wrote on their behalf. She couldn't afford to be angry with them, not until she was home again. A mistake had been made. When her parents realized the kind of place this was, they would come and get her.

I am honest. I am stubborn, she wrote, because her mother had always said so. How many times had Norah heard how her mother spent eighteen hours in labor and finally had a c-section just because fetal Norah wouldn't tuck her chin to clear the pubic bone. "If I'd known her then like I know her now," Norah's mother used to say, "I'd have gone straight to the c-section and spared myself the labor. 'This child is never going to tuck her chin,' I'd have said."

And then Norah scratched out the part about being stubborn, because she had never been so angry at her parents and she didn't want to give her mother the satisfaction. Instead she wrote, nobody knows who I really am.

They were all to read their lists aloud. Norah was made to go first. Mama Strong sucked loudly through her teeth at number four. "Already this morning, Norah has lied to me two times," she told the group. "'I am honest' is the third lie today."

The girls were invited to comment. They did so immediately and with vigor. Norah seemed very stuck on herself, said a white girl with severe acne on her cheeks and chin. A red-haired girl with a freckled neck and freckled arms said that there was no evidence of Norah taking responsibility for anything. She agreed with the first girl. Norah was very stuck-up. The skinny girl with the cough said that no one honest ended up here. None of them were honest, but at least she was honest enough to admit it.

"I'm here by mistake," said Norah.

"Lie number four." Mama Strong reached over and took the paper, her eyes like stones. "I know who you really are," she said. "I know how you think. You think, how do I get out of here?

"You never will. The only way out is to be different. Change. Grow." She tore up Norah's list. "Only way is to be someone else completely. As long as some tiny place inside is still you, you will never leave."

The other girls took turns reading from their lists. "I am ungrateful," one of them had written. "I am a liar," read another. "I am still carrying around my bullshit," read the girl with the cough. "I am a bad person." "I am a bad daughter."

It took Norah three months to earn enough points to spend an afternoon outside. She stood blinking in the sun, watching a line of birds thread the sky above her. She couldn't see the ocean, but there was a breeze that brought the smell of salt.

Later she got to play kickball with the other Power girls in the old, drained motel pool. No talking, so they played with a silent ferocity, slamming each other into the pool walls until every girl was bleeding from the nose or the knee or somewhere.

After group there were classes. Norah would be given a lesson with a multiple choice exercise. Some days it was math, some days history, geography, literature. At the end of an hour someone on staff would check her answers against a key. There was no instruction and points were deducted for wrong answers. One day the lesson was the Frost poem "The Road Not Taken," which was not a hard lesson, but Norah got almost everything wrong because the staff member was using the wrong key. Norah said so and she lost points for her poor score, but also for the talking.

It took eleven months for Norah to earn enough points to write her parents. She'd known Mama Strong or someone else on staff would read the letter so she wrote it carefully. "Please let me come home. I promise to do whatever you ask and I think you can't know much about this place. I am sick a lot from the terrible food and have a rash on my legs from bug bites that keeps getting worse. I've lost weight. Please come and get me. I love you. Norah."

"So manipulative," Mama Strong had said. "So dishonest and manipulative." But she put the letter into an envelope and stamped it.

If the letter was dishonest, it was only by omission. The food here was not only terrible, it was unhealthy, often rotting, and there was never enough of it. Meat was served infrequently, so the students, hungry enough to eat anything, were always sick after. No more than three minutes every three hours could be spent on the toilet; there were always students whose legs were streaked with diarrhea. There was no medical care. The bug bites came from her mattress.

Sometimes someone would vanish. This happened to two girls in the Power family. One of them was the girl with the acne, her name was Kelsey. One of them was Jetta, a relatively new arrival. There was no explanation; since no one was allowed to talk, there was no speculation. Mama Strong had said if they earned a hundred points they could leave. Norah tried to remember how many points she'd seen Kelsey get; was it possible she'd had a hundred? Not possible that Jetta did.

The night Jetta disappeared there was a bloody towel in the corner of the shower. Not just stained with blood, soaked with it. It stayed in the corner for three days until someone finally took it away.

A few weeks before her birthday, Norah lost all her accumulated points, forty-five of them, for not going deep in group session. By then Norah had no deep left. She was all surface-skin rashes, eye infections, aching teeth, constant hunger, stomach cramps. The people in her life-the ones Mama Strong wanted to know everything about-had dimmed in her memory along with everything else-school, childhood, all the fights with her parents, all the Christmases, the winters, the summers, her fifteenth birthday. Her friends went first and then her family.

The only things she could remember clearly were those things she'd shared in group. Group session demanded ever more intimate, more humiliating, more secret stories. Soon it seemed as if nothing had ever happened to Norah that wasn't shameful and painful. Worse, her most secret shit was still found wanting, not sufficiently revealing, dishonest.

Norah turned to vaguely remembered plots from after-school specials until one day the story she was telling was recognized by the freckled girl, Emilene was her name, who got twenty whole points for calling Norah on it.

There was a punishment called the TAP, the Think Again Position. Room 303 was the TAP room. It smelled of unwashed bodies and was crawling with ants. A student sent to TAP was forced to lie face down on the bare floor. Every three hours, a shift in position was allowed. A student who moved at any other time was put in restraint. Restraint meant that one staff member would set a knee on the student's spine. Others would pull the student's arms and legs back and up as far as they could go and then just a little bit farther. Many times a day, screaming could be heard in Room 303.

For lying in group session, Norah was sent to the TAP. She would be released, Mama Strong said, when she was finally ready to admit that she was here as a result of her own decisions. Mama Strong was sick of Norah's games. Norah lasted two weeks.

"You have something to say?" Mama Strong was smoking a small hand-rolled cigarette that smelled of cinnamon. Smoke curled from her nostrils, and her fingers were stained with tobacco or coffee or dirt or blood.

"I belong here," Norah said.

"No mistake?"


"Just what you deserve?"


"Say it."

"Just what I deserve."

"Two weeks is nothing," Mama Strong said. "We had a girl three years ago, did eighteen."

Although it was the most painful, the TAP was not, to Norah's mind, the worst part. The worst part was the light that stayed on all night. Norah had not been in the dark for one single second since she arrived. The no dark was making Norah crazy. Her voice in group no longer sounded like her voice. It hurt to use it, hurt to hear it.

Her voice had betrayed her, telling Mama Strong everything until there was nothing left inside Norah that Mama Strong hadn't pawed through, like a shopper at a flea market. Mama Strong knew exactly who Norah was, because Norah had told her. What Norah needed was a new secret.

For her sixteenth birthday, she got two postcards. "We came all this way only to learn you're being disciplined and we can't see you. We don't want to be harsh on your birthday of all days, but honest to Pete, Norah, when are you going to have a change of attitude? Just imagine how disappointed we are." The handwriting was her father's, but the card had been signed by her mother and father both.

The other was written by her mother. "Your father said as long as we're here we might as well play tourist. So now we're at a restaurant in the middle of the ocean. Well, maybe not the exact middle, but a long ways out! The restaurant is up on stilts on a sandbar and you can only get here by boat! We're eating a fish right off the line! All the food is so good, we envy you living here! Happy birthday, darling! Maybe next year we can celebrate your birthday here together. I will pray for that!" Both postcards had a picture of the ocean restaurant. It was called the Pelican Bar.

Her parents had spent five days only a few miles away. They'd swum in the ocean, drunk mai tais and mojitos under the stars, fed bits of bread to the gulls. They'd gone up the river to see the crocodiles and shopped for presents to take home. They were genuinely sorry about Norah; her mother had cried the whole first day and often after. But this sadness was heightened by guilt. There was no denying that they were happier at home without her. Norah had been a constant drain, a constant source of tension and despair. Norah left and peace arrived. The twins had never been difficult, but Norah's instructive disappearance had improved even their good behavior.

Norah is on her mattress in room 217 under the overhead light, but she is also at a restaurant on stilts off the coast. She is drinking something made with rum. The sun is shining. The water is blue and rocking like a cradle. There is a breeze on her face.

Around the restaurant, nets and posts have been sunk into the sandbar. Pelicans sit on these or fly or sometimes drop into the water with their wings closed, heavy as stones. Norah wonders if she could swim all the way back into shore. She's a good swimmer, or used to be, but this is merely hypothetical. She came by motorboat, trailing her hand in the water, and will leave the same way. Norah wipes her mouth with her hand and her fingers taste of salt.

She buys a postcard. Dear Norah, she writes. You could do the TAP better now. Maybe not for eighteen weeks, but probably more than two. Don't ever tell Mama Strong about the Pelican Bar, no matter what.

For her sixteenth birthday what Norah got was the Pelican Bar.

Norah's seventeenth birthday passed without her noticing. She'd lost track of the date; there was just a morning when she suddenly thought that she must be seventeen by now. There'd been no card from her parents, which might have meant they hadn't sent one, but probably didn't. Their letters were frequent, if peculiar. They seemed to think there was water in the pool, fresh fruit at lunchtime. They seemed to think she had counselors and teachers and friends. They'd even made reference to college prep. Norah knew that someone on staff was writing and signing her name. It didn't matter. She could hardly remember her parents, didn't expect to ever see them again. Since "come and get me" hadn't worked, she had nothing further to say to them. Fine with her if someone else did.

One of the night women, one of the women who sat in the corner and watched while they slept, was younger than the others, with her hair in many braids. She took a sudden dislike to Norah. Norah had no idea why; there'd been no incident, no exchange, just an evening when the woman's eyes locked onto Norah's face and filled with poison. The next day she followed Norah through the halls and lobby, mewing at her like a cat. This went on until everyone on staff was mewing at Norah. Norah lost twenty points for it. Worse, she found it impossible to get to the Pelican Bar while everyone was mewing at her.

But even without Norah going there, Mama Strong could tell that she had a secret. Mama Strong paid less attention to the other girls and more to Norah, pushing and prodding in group, allowing the mewing even from the other girls, and sending Norah to the TAP again and again. Norah dipped back into minus points. Her hairbrush and her toothbrush were taken away. Her time in the shower was cut from five minutes to three. She had bruises on her thighs and a painful spot on her back where the knee went during restraint.

After several months without, she menstruated. The blood came in clots, gushes that soaked into her sweatpants. She was allowed to get up long enough to wash her clothes, but the blood didn't come completely out and the sweatpants weren't replaced. A man came and mopped the floor where Norah had to lie. It smelled strongly of piss when he was done.

More girls disappeared until Norah noticed that she'd been there longer than almost anyone in the Power family. A new girl arrived and took the mattress and blanket Kimberly had occupied. The new girl's name was Chloe. The night she arrived, she spoke to Norah. "How long have you been here?" she asked. Her eyes were red and swollen and she had a squashed kind of nose. She wasn't able to hold still; she jabbered about her meds which she hadn't taken and needed to; she rocked on the mattress from side to side.

"The new girl talked to me last night," Norah told Mama Strong in the morning. Chloe was a born victim, gave off the victim vibe. She was so weak it was like a superpower. The kids at her school had bullied her, she said in group session, like this would be news to anyone.

"Maybe you ask for it," Emilene suggested.

"Why don't you take responsibility?" Norah said. "Instead of blaming everyone else."

"You will learn to hold still," Mama Strong told her and had the girls put her in restraint themselves. Norah's was the knee in her back.

Then Mama Strong told them all to make a list of five reasons they'd been sent here. "I am a bad daughter," Norah wrote. "I am still carrying around my bullshit. I am ungrateful." And then her brain snapped shut like a clamshell so she couldn't continue.

"There is something else you want to say." Mama Strong stood in front of her, holding the incriminating paper, two reasons short of the assignment, in her hand.

She was asking for Norah's secret. She was asking about the Pelican Bar. "No," said Norah. "It's just that I can't think."

"Tell me." The black beads of Mama Strong's eyes became pinpricks. "Tell me. Tell me." She stepped around Norah's shoulder so that Norah could smell onion and feel a cold breath on her neck, but couldn't see her face.

"I don't belong here," Norah said. She was trying to keep the Pelican Bar. To do that, she had to give Mama Strong something else. There was probably a smarter plan, but Norah couldn't think of anything. "Nobody belongs here," she said. "This isn't a place where humans belong."

"You are human, but not me?" Mama Strong said. Mama Strong had never touched Norah. But her voice coiled like a spring; she made Norah flinch. Norah felt her own piss on her thighs.

"Maybe so," Mama Strong said. "Maybe I'll send you somewhere else then. Say you want that. Ask me for it. Say it and I'll do it."

Norah held her breath. In that instant, her brain produced the two missing reasons. "I am a liar," she said. She heard her own desperation. "I am a bad person."

There was a silence and then Norah heard Chloe saying she wanted to go home. Chloe clapped her hands over her mouth. Her talking continued, only now no one could make out the words. Her head nodded like a bobblehead dog on a dashboard.

Mama Strong turned to Chloe. Norah got sent to the TAP, but not to Mama Strong's someplace else.

After that, Mama Strong never again seemed as interested in Norah. Chloe hadn't learned yet to hold still, but Mama Strong was up to the challenge. When Norah was seventeen, the gift she got was Chloe.

One day, Mama Strong stopped Norah on her way to breakfast. "Follow me," she said, and led Norah to the chainlink fence. She unlocked the gate and swung it open. "You can go now." She counted out fifty dollars. "You can take this and go. Or you can stay until your mother and father come for you. Maybe tomorrow. Maybe next week. You go now, you get only as far as you get with fifty dollars."

Norah began to shake. This, she thought, was the worst thing done to her yet. She took a step toward the gate, took another. She didn't look at Mama Strong. She saw that the open gate was a trick, which made her shaking stop. She was not fooled. Norah would never be allowed to walk out. She took a third step and a fourth. "You don't belong here," Mama Strong said, with contempt as if there'd been a test and Norah had flunked it. Norah didn't know if this was because she'd been too compliant or not compliant enough.

And then Norah was outside and Mama Strong was closing and locking the gate behind her.

Norah walked in the sunlight down a paved road dotted with potholes and the smashed skins of frogs. The road curved between weeds taller than Norah's head, bushes with bright orange flowers. Occasionally a car went by, driven very fast.

Norah kept going. She passed stucco homes, some small stores. She saw cigarettes and muumuus for sale, large avocados, bunches of small bananas, liquor bottles filled with dish soap, posters for British ale. She thought about buying something to eat, but it seemed too hard, would require her to talk. She was afraid to stop walking. It was very hot on the road in the sun. A pack of small dogs followed her briefly and then ran back to wherever they'd come from.

She reached the ocean and walked into the water. The salt stung the rashes on her legs, the sores on her arms and then it stopped stinging. The sand was brown, the water blue and warm. She'd forgotten about the fifty dollars though she was still holding them in her hand, now soaked and salty.

There were tourists everywhere on the beach, swimming, lying in the sun with daiquiris and ice cream sandwiches and salted oranges. She wanted to tell them that, not four miles away, children were being starved and terrified. She couldn't remember enough about people to know if they'd care. Probably no one would believe her. Probably they already knew.

She waded into shore and walked farther. It was so hot, her clothes dried quickly. She came to a river and an open air market. A young man with a scar on his cheek approached her. She recognized him. On two occasions, he'd put her in restraint. Her heart began to knock against her lungs. The air around her went black.

"Happy birthday," he said.

He came swimming back into focus, wearing a bright plaid shirt, smiling so his lip rose like a curtain over his teeth. He stepped toward her; she stepped away. "Your birthday, yes?" he said. "Eighteen?" He bought her some bananas, but she didn't take them.

A woman behind her was selling beaded bracelets, peanuts and puppies. She waved Norah over. "True," she said to Norah. "At eighteen, they have to let you go. The law says." She tied a bracelet onto Norah's wrist. How skinny Norah's arm looked in it. "A present for your birthday," the woman said. "How long were you there?"

Instead of answering, Norah asked for directions to the Pelican Bar. She bought a t-shirt, a skirt, and a cola. She drank the cola, dressed in the new clothes and threw away the old. She bought a ticket on a boat-ten dollars it cost her to go, ten more to come back. There were tourists, but no one sat anywhere near her.

The boat dropped her, along with the others, twenty feet or so out on the sandbar, so that she walked the last bit through waist-high water. She was encircled by the straight, clean line of the horizon, the whole world spinning around her, flat as a plate. The water was a brilliant, sun-dazzled blue in every direction. She twirled slowly, her hands floating, her mind flying until it was her turn on the makeshift ladder of planks and branches and her grip on the wood suddenly anchored her. She climbed into the restaurant in her dripping dress.

She bought a postcard for Chloe. "On your eighteenth birthday, come here," she wrote, "and eat a fish right off the line. I'm sorry about everything. I'm a bad person."

She ordered a fish for herself, but couldn't finish it. She sat for hours, feeling the floor of the bar rocking beneath her, climbing down the ladder into the water, and up again to dry in the warm air. She never wanted to leave this place that was the best place in the world, even more beautiful than she'd imagined. She fell asleep on the restaurant bench and didn't wake up until the last boat was going to shore and someone shook her arm to make sure she was on it.

When Norah returned to shore, she saw Mama Strong seated in an outdoor bar at the edge of the market on the end of the dock. The sun was setting and dark coming on. Mama Strong was drinking something that could have been water or could have been whiskey. The glass was colored blue so there was no way to be sure. She saw Norah getting off the boat. There was no way back that didn't take Norah towards her.

"You have so much money, you're a tourist?" Mama Strong asked. "Next time you want to eat, the money is gone. What then?"

Two men were playing the drums behind her. One of them began to sing. Norah recognized the tune-something old that her mother had liked-but not the words.

"Do you think I'm afraid to go hungry?" Norah said.

"So. We made you tougher. Better than you were. But not tough enough. Not what we're looking for. You go be whatever you want now. Have whatever you want. We don't care."

What did Norah want to be? Clean. Not hungry. Not hurting. What did she want to have? She wanted to sleep in the dark. Already there was one bright star in the sky over the ocean.

What else? She couldn't think of a thing. Mama Strong had said Norah would have to change, but Norah felt that she'd vanished instead. She didn't know who she was anymore. She didn't know anything at all. She fingered the beaded bracelet on her wrist. "When I run out of money," she said, "I'll ask someone to help me. And someone will. Maybe not the first person I ask. But someone." Maybe it was true.

"Very pretty." Mama Strong looked into her blue glass, swirled whatever was left in it, tipped it down her throat. "You're wrong about humans, you know," she said. Her tone was conversational. "Humans do everything we did. Humans do more."

Two men came up behind Norah. She whirled, sure that they were here for her, sure that she'd be taken, maybe back, maybe to Mama Strong's more horrible someplace else. But the men walked right past her toward the drummers. They walked right past her and as they walked, they began to sing. Maybe they were human and maybe not.

"Very pretty world," said Mama Strong.

A Practical Girl by Ellen Klages

Can I watch Howdy Doody when we get home?" Carolyn Sullivan asked. She pushed the cart down the canned foods aisle of the Shop-Rite while her mother added creamed corn and green beans to the basket.

"May I. And what's the magic word?"

"May I please watch Howdy Doody?"

"All right, if there's time after we make the beds. We have guests coming."

Carolyn sighed. The Institute for Advanced Study was holding a conference over the weekend, and they were expecting a visiting professor to arrive the next day. The house on Mercer Street had been in the family since the end of the Civil War. When Ensign William Sullivan's ship was torpedoed late in 1943, all hands lost, his widow transformed it into a guest house, to support herself and her baby daughter.

Einstein lived a block away.

Mrs. Sullivan wheeled the cart into a check-out line. "Would you like to play the register game?" she asked. "It'll be good practice. School starts next week."

Carolyn nodded. Her mother thought the game was a kind of homework-good for her-but she liked trying to add up all the groceries in her head as fast as the check-out girl could use the keys. She was the best in her class at arithmetic.

She put the cans of corn on the belt and watched as the white tabs jumped up at the back of the machine with a soft ka-ching, like ducks in a shooting gallery. Twelve cents, four times, which was easy. Then the beans. The first one was 13 cents, and she smiled, because there were four of them too, and that was 52 cents, which made the dollar rectangle in her head whole again. 48 + 52 = 100.

It made her happy when the numbers meshed together with nice, even edges.

The girl was fast, and Carolyn lost track, a little, when the roast went through-$2.37-because it was a big number and it ended with a seven. They were the hardest because they almost never made nice shapes. But when the girl hit TOTAL, Carolyn was only 68 cents off.

"Pretty good," her mother said as they loaded the bags into the back of the station wagon. She pulled a Tootsie Pop out of her purse. "I think that deserves a reward."

Carolyn made the candy last, sucking, not biting, and still had a tiny nub left when all the groceries had been put away. But by the time the last pillowcase had been fluffed and placed just-so, it was too late for Howdy Doody, so she went out to the backyard with her book. Newly cut grass clippings clung to her bare legs like jimmies on an ice cream cone, and her hair hung damp on the back of her neck in the August heat, but discomfort was the price of freedom. Next week it was back to plaid uniforms, memorizing and eagle-eyed nuns.

She sat against the stone wall that separated their yard from the woods, grateful for the shade of the elm. Four pages into Johnny Tremain, she heard the solid thwack of a bat hitting a baseball, and a second later a white missile whizzed over her head and landed in the underbrush beyond with a swishing of leaves and a soft thud.

Silence, for a moment, then a babble of boys' voices. She stood up and looked across the manicured lawn of the Taylors ' house next door. On the far side, she saw a trio of crew cut heads above the wooden fence. New kids, moved in last week.

"Do you have our baseball?" one of them yelled.

Carolyn cupped her hands around her mouth and called back. "It's in the woods."


He headed for the chain-link fence at the back of his own yard, and had one sneaker wedged a foot up before she could warn him, "You won't get through from there. Blackberry bushes. Big thorns."

She watched him shrug and leap the fence anyway.

"Ow! Shit!" came through loud and clear a moment later.

The urge to yell, "I told you so," was strong, but she hadn't met that boy yet. He swore, so he might try for payback. She watched him climb back into his yard, rubbing his knee, then made a bold decision.

"I'll get it."

Her mother always warned her about the woods. Besides the blackberries, it would be easy to get lost among the acres of trees. "You're all I have," she'd say. So Carolyn had never explored beyond the wall, mostly because, up until this summer, she hadn't been tall enough to climb over. But she was now.

She looked behind her to see if she was being watched, then scaled it and surveyed the ground on the other side. A soft verge of grass and dandelions grew at the base, and the blackberries seemed to peter out midway behind the Taylors '. She jumped down.

The ball had left a trail through the undergrowth, and she found it soon enough, too pale and too perfectly round to be part of the natural chaos. She recovered it from underneath a clump of damp leaves, disturbing a legion of rolly bugs and one fat salamander.

She'd planned to walk down the verge to the Wallers' house, on the corner, and return the ball from the sidewalk side. Then she saw three flat stones, piled one on the other, the topmost painted with a faded red crosshatch, like a tic-tac-toe game waiting to happen. That wasn't nature, either. She squatted down. The stones marked what looked like a path leading deeper into the trees. It might be nothing, and it might end in more blackberries, but, except for the market, she'd been cooped up inside all day. Chores and more chores. Everything had to be tidied up, "neat as a pin," when guests were coming.

Carolyn scuffed her feet in the leaves as she walked back to the stone wall, leaving her own trail, and threw the baseball as hard as she could across the Taylors ' yard, shouting, "Ball!" It landed next to the birdbath and knocked over a garden gnome. She headed away from the sudden clamor.

No one had used the path in a while. Saplings blocked her way and sprang back, hard, across her arms as she pushed through. Twigs snagged at her ankles, and her white socks were soon covered with a carpet of tiny green burrs that would take forever to pick out. But it was a path, and every hundred yards or so she found another pile of rocks. Some of them had tumbled over, but one stone always had the same mysterious crosshatch.

The woods were cool and shady. Carolyn could smell the earth, almost sweet from decomposing logs, with a bitter undertaste of autumn after autumn of fallen leaves. No breeze, and except for the sound of her feet crunching along, all she heard were birdcalls and the occasional rhythmic knock-knock-knock of an unseen woodpecker.

The path paralleled Stony Brook for a little while, then veered off to the left and ended at an old wooden fence with a narrow stile, its boards warped and moss-covered. Carolyn put one careful foot on the bottom step. It creaked, but held her weight, and she climbed up and sat at the top, looking into the ruins of what had once been a large and elaborate garden, not just a backyard.

Rosebushes taller than her surrounded stone benches and a sundial. The edges of a gravel walkway were blurred with weeds, and wildflowers grew knee-high. A dozen bees droned lazily in midair.

The walkway led to the back of an old barn. A huge maple tree, still thick-leafed with summer, blocked her view of all but one wing of the house-a single story with a bay window below a magnificent stained-glass peacock. She sat on the stile for a few minutes, savoring the discovery of a new place and debating about exploring further.

She had come this far, and didn't want to turn back now, but entering the garden wasn't just being in the woods. It was trespassing. If anyone still lived in the house-which didn't look too likely-she'd get caught. They'd call her mother and then she'd really be in trouble. She'd spend the last week of summer doing laundry and dishes and ironing. Inside.

After several go-rounds with herself, curiosity won and she clambered into the garden. Gravel skittered and the bees flew off to a safer distance, but nothing else happened.

The walkway continued around the barn. She turned the corner and barely stopped an out-loud gasp. The house on the other side of the wide drive was enormous, with gabled windows and a cupola, every inch covered in ornate Victorian gingerbread that needed painting.

She still thought the place was deserted-until she saw the round-fendered Buick, parked with its nose just inside the "barn," which turned out to be a four-car garage. The Buick had a Princeton sticker on its bumper, and New Jersey plates, 1952, just like her mother's car, all legal and up-to-date.

Carolyn stepped into the shadows and scrunched down. She eased around the corner of the house, planting each foot carefully so her Keds were almost silent. The wide porch held a line of peeling Adirondack chairs and wrapped all the way around to the front. That was even grander-stone pillars and more stained glass, green-limned copper letters over the entrance that said THE BRAMBLES.

It was a mansion, the biggest house she'd ever seen outside a magazine. But, except for the Buick, it would be easy to believe no one had been here for years.

"Hullo. Have you ever seen a giant turtle?"

Carolyn gave a little yelp and jumped back, whacking her elbow on a drainpipe. Cradling her arm, she looked around to see who had spoken.

It took her a moment to notice that the massive front door was open, just a crack, a foot in a leather oxford wedged into the gap.

"How giant?" she asked. Her brain was full of other questions, but that was the one that came out of her mouth.

The oxford moved and the door opened to reveal a boy about her age, sitting cross-legged on the floor. He made a circle with his arms, wider than his body. "Like this."

"Wow." Carolyn climbed the steps and stood on the porch.

"He's very old," the boy said. "Grandaddy sent him from China for my daddy's birthday. He's magic."

"Sure he is." Carolyn tried not to laugh, because the boy sounded serious, but she was a practical girl. She didn't believe in magic and fairy tales and all that baloney. Her family? Not so happily ever after.

The boy shook his head. "Not Daddy. Lotion."

"Lotion?" Was that what he'd said?

"My turtle."

"Funny name for a turtle." Even an imaginary one.

"He's Chinese." The boy stood up and pushed the door all the way open. He had short brown hair and was taller than Carolyn, by a couple of inches, but she could tell right away that there was something wrong with him. One side of his head was shaped funny, and his eyes didn't look straight at her, just a little beyond.

Real. Imaginary. Didn't look like it'd make much difference to him.

"Who're you?" he asked.

"I'm Carolyn. I live on Mercer Street, on the other side of the woods," she said, slowly, the way she talked to the little kids she babysat.

"I'm Bibber." He stopped and shook his head again. "No. The man from the bank says I'm too old. Now I have to be Robert." He looked from side to side, as if someone might be hiding on the porch, then whispered, "You can call me Bibber."

"How old are you?"

"Eleven. Last month."

"Oh. Me too. But not until December." She leaned against one of the pillars. "Do you live here?"

Bibber nodded.

"You must have a really big family."

"No. Just Higgins and Cook and Mrs. Addison, the housekeeper. But she's having a Day Off."

"How 'bout your mom and dad?"

"Mommy died having me and Daddy's in the war hospital. He's sleeping and he won't wake up."

"I'm sorry," Carolyn said. She wondered if it was Korea, or the last war.

"I know. That's why the bank man makes the rules for me." Bibber pointed at the doorway. "You wanna come in?"

"I guess so." He didn't look dangerous, and Carolyn felt sorry for him. Not just because he was-slow, but because she knew how it felt to have a war steal your father.

The inside of the house was cool and dark, darker than the woods. Heavy velvet curtains covered the windows, and massive furniture loomed around her. The walls were encrusted with big, gilt-framed paintings of dead birds and fruit.

"I don't play in here," Bibber said. "But Lotion sometimes hides under the sofa."

They walked through three rooms with high ceilings and fireplaces tall enough to stand up in. A long table with twelve chairs around it was bigger than her whole dining room at home; another eight chairs lined the walls. Twenty people could have dinner, she counted without really thinking.

The next room was one she didn't know a name for. Her house had a living room and a dining room, a kitchen and a utility porch, but this room was none of those. It had high-backed leather armchairs and small side tables and cabinets full of foreign-looking objects: curved knives, lacquered boxes, intricately carved figurines. On the walls were animal heads, stuffed and mounted, their glass eyes glinting in the dim light as she walked by.

"What did your grandfather do?" she asked.

"He went far away on boats. He bought things for museums." Bibber pointed to a cabinet. "He kept some of them."

"Yeah. I can see."

"I like this room," Bibber said, opening the double doors.

It was a library, floor-to-ceiling bookcases with rails that held two wooden ladders. At the far end, beneath the stained-glass window she had seen from the stile, was a bay window with a cushioned seat. The curtains were tied back, and in the sunlight, the leather spines of the books-brown, maroon, deep green-felt like an extension of the woods.

A table with two glass-shaded lamps sat in the center of the room, chairs on either side; a thick carpet with ornate dragons and flowers covered most of the parquet floor.

"I do too," Carolyn said. It was exactly the sort of room she had read about and always longed for, a place to sit and read for hours and hours. Cozy and enclosing, a world of its own, the perfect place to get lost in a story. "Have you read all these?" she asked. She looked around, wondering where she'd start, if it was hers.

Bibber didn't answer. He looked down at the carpet, staring at the head of a curled green dragon.


"I can't read by myself," he mumbled. "I know all my letters, but-"

"Oh." Carolyn couldn't imagine not being able to read. "Where do you go to school?"

"I don't. Nanny taught me lessons." Bibber sat down and wrapped his arms around his knees. "But she went away."

Carolyn hesitated, then sat down near him. "Well, I bet the bank man will get you another Nanny real soon."

"No." Bibber began to rock back and forth. "The bank man says I am too old. Mr. Winkle has hair now, and I have to go to Vineland."

"He can't send you there!" Carolyn blurted, before she could stop herself. Vineland was the state school for the feeble-minded. Going there was so bad that the nuns used it as their last-resort threat when someone didn't do their homework, or failed a test.

"He says I have to. And I can't take Lotion."

How could they forbid an imaginary animal? Carolyn traced a finger along the plush wool of the dragon's tail. "When do you go?"

"Next week," Bibber said. He wiped his eyes with the edge of his wrist. "I wanna stay here."

"I would too," said Carolyn.

They sat in silence for a few minutes before Bibber stood up. "Wanna see my picture book?"

"I guess."

He went over to a bookshelf, pulled out a pebbled black volume, opened it, shook his head, took out another. "There he is!" he said, suddenly sounding very happy.

Bibber laid the book on the long table and motioned for Carolyn to come see. When she stood up, she saw that it wasn't a real book, but a scrapbook, the pages filled with snapshots and postcards and ticket stubs. Someone had written names and dates and notes under each photo.

"That's my daddy, on his birthday." Bibber pointed to a photo of a boy kneeling with his hand on the edge of what really did look like a large turtle shell. The rest had been cut off by the camera. The caption underneath read: Bobby with a gift from Father, all the way from Nanking China! A card next to it said: A puzzler for you, son. Can you find the secret?

"Wanna see another one?"


Pinching the bottom corner between his fingers, Bibber carefully flipped the page to reveal a single, larger photo. Two boys in knickers sat cross-legged on either side of a huge tortoise, its shell painted with a complicated design, groups of connected dots.

"See. That's him and Lotion."

The caption read: Bobby and friend Bill admire the new addition.

Carolyn gasped, out loud this time.

The turtle was real.

And the other boy was her father.

Bibber wanted her to stay longer, but Carolyn needed to go home. She promised she'd return, then walked back through the woods, her mind racing with questions she doubted Bibber could answer. When she reached the stone wall at the edge of her own backyard, she felt like she'd been far away for a very long time. But next to the Taylors' a group of boys were still playing ball, and when she went in the back door, her burr-covered socks hidden in the pocket of her shorts, her mother had just begun peeling potatoes for supper.

"There you are," her mother said. "Where did you disappear to?"

"I was hot, so I took a walk," Carolyn said, which was true enough. She got a tumbler from the cupboard and drank a glass of water. "I'm going to go upstairs and read for a while, okay?"

"Dinner in an hour," her mother said.

Carolyn went upstairs, but not to her room. She opened the door to the attic-slowly, so it wouldn't squeak-and climbed the stairs in her bare feet. Way back under the eaves was a trunk with bits and pieces of her father's life before the war. She'd found it two summers ago, and had looked through most of the stuff, but she'd never mentioned it. She figured it wasn't against any rules-he was her father-but it made Mom sad to talk about him, so mostly they didn't.

The trunk was wood and brass with a rounded top. Carolyn had to move three cartons of winter clothes and Christmas ornaments before she could slide it out far enough to open the lid.

A flat box held wedding pictures, official papers and Navy medals. She set it aside, along with a Princeton High yearbook and pennant. She thought there was a folder from when he was her age-school essays and a science-fair project-and she was hoping that somewhere in it she'd find the answer to why Bibber had a picture of him. Because anything about her father was important, and Bibber would be lost to Vineland soon.

Carolyn opened a school composition book. Homework, math or science, with doodles and games of tic-tac-toe among the equations, some in pencil, some in blue or black ink. She leafed through a couple of pages and was about to throw it on the "other" pile when one of the doodles caught her eye-a sketch of a pile of rocks with a cross-hatch pattern. Below it, in a kid's handwriting, it said: Secret Passage of the Lo-Shu Club.

Excited, she turned a few more pages, but the attic was too hot to sit still, and sweat had begun to drip between her shoulders. She pulled out the next layer of papers in the trunk; they were crayon drawings-too young-so she carefully replaced everything except the composition book and shut the lid. She hid her find under the mattress in her bedroom and had her hand on the railing when "Honey? Supper," came from downstairs.

"Where did you go on your walk?" Her mother asked after a sip of iced tea. They were eating cold chicken and potato salad at the kitchen table, because there were no guests.

"Just down to the library." That was more or less true.

"Sounds lovely. It was too hot to bake anything, so I made an icebox cake for dinner tomorrow night. But if you want a snack, have an Oreo. The cake's for company. Don't cut into it."

"I won't." Carolyn was used to FHB-family hold back.

After dinner she washed their dishes and put them in the drainer, and only missed a few minutes of Mr. Wizard, her favorite show. When Arthur Godfrey came on, she left her mother knitting a new throw for the easy chair, and stole up to her room to find out more about the Lo-Shu Club.

Page after page of the composition book was covered with what looked like parts of tic-tac-toe games, some with the usual Xs and Os, and some with numbers in the squares instead. She could see that two people had written in it, because the 4s and 8s were different. The diagrams were surrounded by dozens of addition problems, like the drills Sister Li-guori gave for practice, but all really easy-just the counting numbers, in batches of three: 4+9+2, 3+5+7, 8+1+6, 4+5+6…

She liked puzzles and story problems because the answers made sense in real life. If Sister Liguori gave them one about cooking eggs, Carolyn could be sure the answer wasn't going to be a fraction, because who would take a third of an egg to a picnic? It was harder trying to figure out what the story was when all she had was numbers, but these were starting to make interesting patterns in her head. She was at her desk, chewing on the end of a pencil, deep in thought, when her mother called from the hall. "Lights out. Sweet dreams."

Rats. "'Night, Mom," she called back. She turned off her desk lamp, but took her flashlight under the covers and lay on her side. She had to use one hand to hold the light and the other to hold the notebook open flat, so she couldn't write anything down, but she was determined to get all the way to the end.

Half an hour later, her neck had a crick, and she was fighting back yawns. Uncle. She was too tired to think any more. She riffled through the remaining pages, about a dozen, then stopped and sat bolt upright, sheltering the book and the light in her lap.

Inside the back cover of the composition book, in capital letters and bright red ink, it said:





Underneath were two crosshatches and two signatures-William A. Sullivan and Robert M. Wilkins.

Bill and Bobby.

Carolyn woke up with her arms wrapped around the composition book, the flashlight down by her feet. She stashed both under her pillow and went down to breakfast, racing through corn flakes and orange juice so that she could return to her quest. Then her mother got out the vacuum cleaner.

"You can do the downstairs first," she said, as if it were some kind of treat. "I'll tackle the linens. I don't want to be ironing in the heat of the day. Holler when you've finished the living room and I'll carry the Hoover up so you can do the bedrooms-it's still a little heavy for you." She patted Carolyn on the arm.

So it wasn't until after lunch, when her mother went off to the cleaners and the bank and the drugstore, that Carolyn had a chance to get back to the notebook. She sat at the dining room table with a pile of scratch paper, going over her own sums for the third time, checking her work, when the doorbell rang.

The professor was early.

She put down her pencil and went to the screen door. An older lady with blond hair and glasses stood on the front porch in a plain blue dress, a cardigan sweater folded over one arm. Someone from the women's club, raising money for the March of Dimes again?

"Can I help you?" Carolyn asked.

"I'm Dr. Hopper. I believe I'm expected?"

Holy moley. Most of their guests were scientists. Only big brains got invited to the Institute's conferences. But none of them had ever been a lady before.

"Oh. Sure. Please come in," Carolyn said, in her most polite, talking-to-guests voice. "My mother will be home in a few minutes." She held the door open, saw a suitcase, and remembered to ask, "Do you need help with that?" Dr. Hopper was on the skinny side.

"No, thank you. I can manage." She picked up the small Samsonite case and walked into the front hall. "What a lovely home."

"Thanks." Carolyn thought hard. She'd watched her mother check guests in, but had never done it by herself. "Have a seat," she said, gesturing to the dining room table. "Would you like some iced tea?"

"I would. It's rather warm today."

Carolyn went into the kitchen and stood on a chair to get down one of the nice glasses. The lever on the ice-cube tray stuck, and the pieces came out broken, but she didn't think it would matter. She took the sweating glass and a napkin out to the table.

Dr. Hopper had a pencil in her hand, tapping it on the pile of scrap paper. She looked up when Carolyn came in. "I see you're working on the Lo-Shu problem."

Carolyn caught the glass before she dropped it all the way, but it splashed enough to soak the napkin. She set the tea onto the table. "How do you know about that?"

"I'm a mathematician." Dr. Hopper took a sip. "Legend says it was first discovered by a Chinese emperor who noticed the pattern on the shell of a divine turtle, and thought it was an omen."

"A turtle?" Lo-Shu. The light bulb finally went on. Lotion!

"That's the story." She smiled at Carolyn. "Mystical poppycock, of course. But it is the most common variation of an order-three magic square."

"Magic? It isn't math?"

"It's both." She laid the papers flat on the table. "Why don't you sit down, show me what you've found." She was a guest, but she sounded like a teacher.

"It's a square, three across, three up and down, with all the counting numbers, no repeats." Carolyn pointed to one of the diagrams.

4 9 2

3 5 7

8 1 6

"Do you see a pattern in the digits?" Dr. Hopper asked.

"I think so. The top row adds up to 15. So do the others."

"Very good. In this configuration, the sum of every row, column, and diagonal is the same 'magic' number-15."

"What can you do with it?" Sister Liguori was big on using math in real life.

"Not a thing. It has no practical application." Dr. Hopper laughed. "But that's a plus to many of my colleagues. Pure mathematics is about truth, unconnected to everyday life. They create their own perfect worlds, happily-" She turned. "Oh, hello."

"Hello. Welcome." Mrs. Sullivan stepped through the doorway from the kitchen and held out her hand. "I'm Eileen Sullivan. We spoke on the phone." She looked down at the stack of papers. "I see you've met my daughter, Carolyn."

"Oh yes. We've been discussing higher mathematics."

"Really?" Mrs. Sullivan raised an eyebrow. "I hope she hasn't been-"

"Not at all. I'm enjoying myself." Dr. Hopper stood up.

"Well, we try to make our guests feel at home here. Why don't I show you to your room?" Mrs. Sullivan headed toward the stairs. "You're at the back, on the right. A lovely view of the woods this time of year." She looked down at the suitcase. "May I take that for you?"

"No, thank you, I can manage."

Carolyn's mind kept wandering off to a place Sister Liguori had never mentioned-a perfect world where numbers could be magic. But her hands helped make dinner, set the table with the good china, and serve while her mother chatted with Dr. Hopper, who was one of the less boring guests they'd had. She'd been in the Navy during the war, a WAVE, but in a laboratory, not on a boat, working on something called a computer-a machine that could do arithmetic. Now she had a job with an important company, building an even bigger one.

"They're the first machines man has built to serve his brains, not his brawn," she said. "One day children will use something like UNIVAC for their homework, instead of memorizing multiplication tables."

Mrs. Sullivan frowned. "But then they won't learn anything."

"They will. They'll learn how to use numbers, see the patterns and connections. That's what mathematics is all about." She reached into the pocket of her sweater and took out a pack of Luckies. "Do you mind?"

"Not at all. Let me get you an ashtray." She went into the kitchen.

"What's your conference about?" Carolyn asked, leaning forward. She had never told her mother about the numbers making shapes, when they played the cash-register game, because it would sound kind of weird, but she thought Dr. Hopper probably understood.

"Let me see. Tomorrow morning's schedule has papers on combinatorics, twin primes, set theory, and imaginary numbers."

"What, like a make-believe one-fifty blibbity-blips?"

Her mother put the ashtray and a book of matches by Dr. Hopper's plate. "Carolyn! That's no way to-"

Their guest held up her hand. "It's a reasonable conjecture," she said, lighting her cigarette. "But no. Numbers like this." She took a mechanical pencil from the same pocket and drew a figure on the inside cover of the matchbook: √-1. "The square root of negative one."

Mrs. Sullivan stared. "I was an English major, and I only got through algebra, so forgive me, but if you multiply two negatives, isn't the answer always positive?"

"Yes. Every time."

"So the square root of negative one is impossible."

"No, only imaginary." Dr. Hopper smiled. "I know it sounds like mathematical fiction, but it's quite useful in understanding electromagnetics and quantum mechanics."

"I see," Mrs. Sullivan said.

Carolyn could tell that her mother was only being polite, but she wanted to know more about how numbers could be magic and how imaginary things could be useful. Because if the numbers in story problems were about real life, then-

"Is that your topic at the conference?" Mrs. Sullivan asked.

"No, Dr. von Neumann and I are part of a symposium on recent developments in electronic data coding. Among other things, we're going to be discussing one of your favorite games." She turned to Carolyn.

Huh? "Which one?"

"Tic-tac-toe." She tapped her ash into the small glass dish. "A bright young man at Cambridge – England -has programmed a computer called EDSAC to play. The Xs and Os are on a cathode ray display-like the picture tube in your TV."

"It's a pretty easy game," Carolyn said. Why would the brains talk about that?

"Exactly. It's finite, with perfect information."


"Sorry. Mathematically, that means there's no luck involved. You can know every possible move, and there are only a limited number."

Carolyn nodded. "Yeah. Nine."

"Not even close. Try 362,880."


Dr. Hopper smiled again and drew a small tic-tac-toe board on the matchbook. "First move you have nine choices where to put an X, right?"

"Sure. That's what I said."

"Ah, but then the next player has eight choices of where to put an O. Seven choices for the second X, and so on until someone wins. Or ties." She stubbed out her cigarette. "That big number is nine times eight times seven times six-" She waved her hand in the air. "Etcetera, etcetera."

"Why on earth would anyone want to build a machine that plays games?" Mrs. Sullivan asked.

"Programming a computer to make logical decisions is the first step in replicating human intelligence. If all goes well, Tic-tac-toe is going to help create a better future." Dr. Hopper stood up. "May I use your phone? It's a local call. Dr. von Neumann."

Carolyn's mother seemed to be in a bit of a daze. Guests usually talked about the weather, or how the Phillies were doing that season. "Of course," she said after a moment. "On the table, in the hall. I'll get dessert. Coffee?"

"Please. Two sugars. I'll only be a minute." Dr. Hopper put her napkin down beside her plate and left the room. Carolyn heard her dial, then say, "Johnny? It's Grace. Are we still on for breakfast tomorrow?"

All night, Carolyn tossed and turned, thinking about numbers and Tic-tac-toe-and Vineland. Even though she had never met her father, only seen pictures, she felt like she almost knew the boy in the notebook, who had sworn to rescue his best friend if Bobby was ever in danger. Too late for that.

But now she could rescue Bibber.

The next morning, while her mother was getting ready for a Women's Club meeting and Dr. Hopper was waiting for her taxi, she filled the pockets of her shorts with chalk and pencils and a pen. She tucked a dozen sheets of scrap paper into the composition book that held the secrets of the Lo-Shu Club. She was ready.

By 9:30, the house was empty. Carolyn left a note-Gone to the library.-and headed into the woods. When she reached the stile, she slipped over into the garden. She crept along the far edge until she could see in through the library's bay window.

Good. Bibber was there. He lay on his stomach, moving a line of toy soldiers around a fort made of blocks. She duck-walked along the base of the porch to the front door and tiptoed through to the room of cabinets and animal heads, then quietly opened the double doors to the library.

Bibber looked up, and his whole face filled with a smile. Carolyn put her finger to her lips-Shh.

Bibber nodded. "Why are we being very quiet?" he whispered.

"I don't want your housekeeper to hear us."

"Oh. She won't," Bibber said. "Mrs. Addison is in the kitchen with Cook. She leaves me alone until my lunch." He shrugged. "Unless I make a big noise."

"What time do you eat?" Carolyn asked in her normal voice.


That wasn't much help. But Carolyn figured it'd be at least noon, and that gave her plenty of time. "Do you know how to play Tic-tac-toe?" she asked.

"Uh-huh. I'm pretty good."

"Great." She laid the composition book and two pencils on the table. When she drew the grid on a piece of scratch paper she said, under her breath, "By the sign of the magic turtle."

Carolyn knew how to use numbers for a lot of useful things, but she hadn't known they could be magic until she met Dr. Hopper. If she said that was real, Carolyn believed it. She was at the Institute, with Einstein, the smartest man in the world, so she ought to know.

"You go first," she said.

Bibber drew a tiny X in the top right corner, and she followed with an O next to it. She wanted to put her O in the center-it was the best move-but she also wanted Bibber to win the first game. When he drew his third X in a row, he smiled in triumph. "I told you. I am good at this."

"Yep. So you get to draw the next one."

He did, his tongue in the corner of his mouth, concentrating on making the four lines as straight as he could.

There. They had both drawn the sign that made them members of the Lo-Shu Club. "You are my brother," Carolyn whispered. "I will rescue you from danger." She made an O in the center square, but let Bibber win again.

"Where do you keep Lotion?" she asked.

"He crawls all over the house. The downstairs part. Right now he's under the table."

"Here?" Carolyn moved one of the chairs and squatted down. On the carpet was the biggest tortoise she had ever seen-even bigger than the one in the Bronx Zoo. At her movement, he turned his head and looked at her with a yellow, reptilian eye. "How do you get him to come out?" They couldn't lift him, not even the two of them. He was the size of an ottoman.

"I wait until he's hungry," Bibber said. "We could try and feed him now."

"What does he eat?" He looked as prehistoric as a dinosaur, with scaly front feet the size of salad plates. He might eat anything.

"Fruit and stuff. Leftover salad. Watch." Bibber pulled a cluster of blue-black grapes from his pocket and lay them in a pile a foot away from the edge of the table.

In real-life slow motion, the tortoise rose up and lumbered forward, one leg at a time, until he stood over the grapes. He extended his surprisingly long neck, lowered his head, and mashed the grapes into his mouth in three pulpy bites.

"It's bad to feed him on the rug," Bibber said, pointing to a purple stain that was almost invisible against the elaborate floral design. "Mrs. Addison says."

"I can see why." Carolyn stared at Lotion's back. She'd planned to draw the Lo-Shu numbers onto the turtle with chalk, but she didn't need to. The pattern was carved into nine plates on his shell, the center square marked with five dots arranged like the pips on Monopoly dice, faint traces of red paint in the deepest grooves.

Lotion was already magic.

Now for the tricky part. Carolyn circled the room, chalking √-1 on the four walls, the window frame, the doors, and a side or shelf of each bookcase.

"What are you doing?" Bibber asked.

"Making things imaginary." It was pure math, and would be unconnected to the real world, where Vineland waited.

When she had marked all the openings, she made one more circuit, checking her work, then turned to Bibber. "Can you sit on Lotion?" The tortoise had eased back down to the floor, and lay with his eyes shut. He looked sturdy enough.

"Sure. I ride him around, sometimes." Bibber straddled the carved shell and scratched the tortoise on the top of his leathery head. "How long do I hafta sit here?"

"You'll know." Carolyn hoped that was true. She circled the room again, taking a few books from the shelves: Huckleberry Finn, Treasure Island, The Wind in the Willows, Peter Pan, The Jungle Book, The Wizard of Oz. She added a dictionary and the scrapbook with the picture of their fathers to the stack. Then, stepping around Bibber, she arranged the eight books in a square, three on a side, with Lotion at the center to make nine.

"What are those?"

"Books I think you'll like."

"I can't read." Bibber frowned. "I told you."

"You will. Pure math creates its own perfect world." She wrote nine blue numbers in ink on the soft skin on the back of Bibber's neck:

4 9 2

3 5 7

8 1 6

Magic turtle, magic boy.

"That tickles." Bibber laughed.

"Sorry." She patted his hair. "But now you can live happily ever after." She turned toward the door.

Bibber frowned. "Are you leaving?"


"No. I want you to stay." He sounded sad.

Carolyn looked around at the room full of books and light and comfortable chairs, a room she'd always dreamed of. It was so tempting-a lifetime to sit and read, uninterrupted, no chores, no nuns-she bit her lip-no Mom. You're all I have, she heard in her mind, and shook her head. "I can't, Bibber. I have to go home."

"But you'll come visit?"

She opened the double doors. "I'll try." She stepped into the next room and closed them behind her, then marked each one with √-1.

"Keep Bibber away from Vineland," she said aloud, then added, "Please."

There. That was all the magic she knew.

She tiptoed back through the house, holding her hand tight on her pocket so the pen and pencils wouldn't make a noise. She was in the room with the paintings of fruit before she noticed that her other hand was empty. Her father's composition book, with all the notes and secrets of the Lo-Shu Club-she'd left it on the library table.

In a quiet hurry, she went back for it. Through the dining room, into the room she had no name for, to the double doors that-

Carolyn stared.

There were no doors.

Stuffed and mounted animal heads stared out glassily from above the wide rosewood cabinet that now filled the wall. And among them hung the empty shell of an enormous tortoise, its carved and polished surface glinting in the dim light.

Don't Mention Madagascar by Pat Cadigan

For Allen Varney

I don't actually remember meeting Suzette. It's like we were heading in the same general direction and fell into step together. She knew everybody I knew and vice versa, but amazingly enough we had no ex-boyfriends in common. But we'd never have let a guy come between us. "No penis between us," Suzette used to say with her big old grin. Girlfriend had a great grin.

Suzette was about five-four, five-five, and proportioned like a dancer. I think she had trained as one once but she never said and I never asked. I've never asked a lot of questions; still don't. It's not that I don't care or I'm not interested. I've just always figured that if there's anything I need to know about anyone, they'll tell me, no need to interrogate. Not that I mind answering questions as I also figure if anyone wants to know something, they'll ask; no need to admit to anything prematurely.

Suzette was more forthcoming. She'd drop tantalizing little tidbits into a conversation in an offhand way-like, "Hey, I used to have shoes like those but someone stole them while I was getting defibrillated. I swear, you gotta keep an eye on your stuff every minute in Mongolian emergency rooms." Anyone else, it would have been showing off; Suzette just knew how to take things in stride. I like that in a person.

The only time I ever saw her ruffled was on this one occasion. At the time, she was an office manager for a real estate agency and coming in regularly to the coffee bar. By day I made soy lattés and iced half-caff mochaccinos with a twist, and I studied computer engineering at night school. About 11 o'clock on a Tuesday morning, she showed up looking like a woman who'd just been caught in a high wind-rumpled, dreadlocks practically standing on end, eyes too wide and too bright, and a little out of breath.

I said, "Jeez, what happened?"

"I just quit my job," she said.

"Oh. Well." I knew this couldn't be what had her all freaked. "Are congratulations in order?"

She flicked a glance to my right and I knew The Great Dick Tater had to be giving me the stink-eye because I said something to a customer that wasn't What can I get for you today? The GDT took his assistant manager responsibilities very seriously.

"I don't know what's in order. Everything's out of order." She glanced to my right again; the GDT must have been wearing a face that could sour milk. Soy milk.

"What can I get you today?" I said cheerfully.

Suzette's mouth opened but nothing came out.

"One medium American filter, mellow blend of the day, room for cow," I announced, repeating her order from yesterday. I rattled off the price while I double-cupped it to go, staring the GDT down with my back. Suzette paid and dropped a few coins in the tip jar. All the baristas split the tip jar, something you should keep in mind if you like your overpriced coffee without extras like employee saliva. Suzette was top of the no-spit list (posted conspicuously in the locker room, along with security camera photos to prevent episodes of mistaken identity), a policy that even the GDT respected.

Transaction done, Suzette went upstairs to sit. I gave it five minutes before announcing I was going on my break.

"Jeez, Pearl, what kept you?" Suzette said when I finally joined her.

That annoyed me; she knew damned well what the GDT was like. "Sorry," I said, taking off my apron and folding it up. "I couldn't just drop everything. Then I had to walk up the stairs because the teleporter's broken again."

Suzanne gave me a sharp look at that last.

"Kidding," I said; as she visibly unclenched, I added, "The teleporter's not really broken, I just needed the exercise."

Bam-she was white-knuckled all over her body again, which was a neat trick for someone with skin that dark. "Stop that," she growled. I felt a sudden seriously terrible pain in my upper arm; Suzette had me in a Death Grip of Doom.

"Ow." I thought I could hear bone start to crack within the pulp formerly known as my bicep. "What kind of day are you having?"

"Odd." Her grip loosened.

I pulled away fast before she changed her mind. "How odd?" I asked.

She took something out of her back pocket, unfolded it, put it on the table: a photograph. I winced; folding photographs goes against my personal code of fussy conduct. I'm no tight-ass-I'll tear the tags off pillows, jaywalk, even wear white after Labor Day. But fold a photograph? It's practically a physical pain.

"Look at that." Suzette tapped her finger on it hard. I winced again because touching the surface of a glossy-finish photograph is another of my fussy things.

"What is it?" I said.

"Rolling Stones, late 1960s."

"Really?" I almost forgot how fussy I was. It was an outdoor venue in sort of jungle-ish surroundings and the vantage point was onstage, far to the right. Only Keith Richards and Mick Jagger are in the photo. Keith Richards was still pretty rather than craggy, with the wide-eyed look of someone whose reality is exceeding his dreams, not the sneer of an old-timer who's seen it all. Mick Jagger was singing and pointing at a bunch of screaming girls. One had hoisted herself up on the others and seemed about to climb onto the stage in the hope of touching His Satanic Majesty.

"Where'd you get this?" I said. If it hadn't been for the folding and the fingerprints, the photo could have been taken the day before rather than forty-odd years ago. Heavy on the odd.

"My boss's desk," she said.

I was stunned. Suzette never stole from anyone, no matter how much they might have deserved it.

"He showed it around this morning. Said his uncle took the picture when he was a stringer for some music magazine back in the day."

I looked from the photo to her and back again, frowning. "And that made you, uh… kleptomaniacal?"

She tapped the photo hard again, her finger on the faces of the screaming girls. "See this woman? That's my Aunt Lillian. And the one trying to climb up on the stage?" She moved the photo so it was directly under one of the bright ceiling lights and pointed. "That's my mother."

"Are you sure?" I tried not to laugh and failed.

Suzette tossed her dreads, offended. "What, you think I don't know my own mother when I see her?"

"OK, so it's your mother. Why does that upset you?"

"Dammit, you're not looking!"

"Jeez, just tell me already." I drew back a little. "And then let me know if my head's still there or did you bite the whole thing off."

"Sorry," she said and managed to look it for all of a second. "But that's not my mother back in the day. That's her now."

"Oh?" I picked the photo up and angled it under the light. None of the people with her were very young. They were really cutting loose and that made them seem youthful but they hadn't been girls for some time.

"Or rather, it's how she would look now," she added.

I frowned, not understanding.

"She died when I was sixteen."

"Oh," I said. "Well, then, it can't be her."

"It is."

"OK, have it your way. It's her. Photoshopped. Do you know when your boss met your aunt? And did you know they were such tasteless practical jokers?"

Suzette grimaced impatiently. "I tried calling my Aunt Lillian. Some guy answered, said he's her house-sitter while she's on vacation. She's been gone two weeks and he's not sure exactly when she's coming back."

"Did he say where she went?"

Suzette's dark eyes seem to get even darker. "Where this picture was taken." Tap-tap-tap with her finger again. " Madagascar."

(I know what I said. Don't interrupt.)

Now, this next part is kind of a blur. It's not that I don't remember what happened, it's that I don't have a reasonable explanation for it.

It certainly seemed reasonable at the time-well, after listening to Suzette for a while-to go downstairs, toss my apron in The GDT's face, and walk out the front door with her.

First stop after I went home to pack a bag and grab my passport was Suzette's aunt's house in Chicago, to meet this alleged house-sitter and see, as Suzette put it, just what his shit was made of. That was an eight-hour drive in my ancient Geo, a subcompact car which a lot of my friends have described as being only just too large to hang on a charm bracelet. Taller people grumbled, then stopped when they found out what kind of gas mileage I could still get out of it. I'd have bought a hybrid a long time ago except that being virtuously green has always been the domain of the extremely wealthy, who probably weren't so virtuous while they were getting that way. Suzette and I discussed that on the road; by the time we hit the Loop, we had an airtight argument for why all the hideously rich had to help all the rest of us get virtuously green by buying us hybrids and solar panels and shit. If I ever remember it, there'll be one hell of a revolution.

Suzette's aunt's place was a condo halfway up a high-rise with a nice view of Lake Michigan. I was surprised but no more than Suzette was herself.

"You've never been here?" I asked as we got into the elevator.

"She moved here last year. Or maybe the year before, I can't remember."

"Haven't seen her for a while?"

"She's always busy," she said, sounding defensive. "You want to see her, you gotta make an appointment."

I started to tell her that I hadn't meant anything by that question but we were already at the right floor and heading down the hall, which smelled like a mix of potpourri and carpet shampoo. Suzette stopped at a door decorated with a wreath of artfully woven twigs and pussy willows, hesitated, then rapped on it hard, squarely in the middle of the wreath.

The guy who answered was better-looking than anyone calling himself a house-sitter had any right to be, tall, bearded and golden-skinned. We'd have stared even if he hadn't been wearing a turban.

"Ah, Suzette," he said. "I recognize you from your pictures." He stood back to let us in, giving me a polite little nod as if to say that I was welcome, too, even though there were no pictures to recognize me from.

His name was Jamail, he told us over coffee, and he was a student at Northwestern. One of his professors lived down the hall and when Suzette's aunt was looking for a house-sitter, he had introduced them. "I'm what you call a mature student," he said. "I believe learning is for life. Your aunt feels the same, obviously."

"How do you figure?" Suzette asked.

"I chose to go to university, she to Madagascar." He lowered his voice ever so slightly on the last word.

"Is that where you're from?" Suzette stared pointedly at his turban.

"No. I'm from Scottsdale."

" Scottsdale?" Suzette was openly skeptical.

He shrugged. "My grandparents were from India. I'm a Sikh." The only contact information he had for Suzette's aunt was an email address on Google Mail; there was no hotel or cell phone that he knew of, or so he claimed. Both Suzette and I found that hard to believe. Jamail took our suspicion graciously. He was really quite a sweet guy; I found myself wondering if Sikhs ever dated outside the church, so to speak.

Finally, he played the I-really-must-study-now card and started clearing away the coffee cups. As he turned toward the kitchen with his hands full, Suzette stopped him. "Thanks for letting me know my aunt's in Madagascar."

He smiled faintly. "Don't mention it."

"Did she take her wheelchair?"

Wheelchair? I looked around. Nothing suggested a wheelchair user had ever lived here.

"I'm sure she took everything she needed. Now, if you'll exc-"

Suzette shoved the photograph in his face. "And she never said anything about this?"

He dropped everything with a godawful crash. "Where did you get that?" He reached for the photo.

Suzette whipped it behind her back. "A friend."

"I see." Jamail hesitated, then went into the kitchen and came back with a small business card. "If anyone asks, you just found this somewhere," he told Suzette firmly, looking unhappy as he handed it over.

"OK. Thanks," Suzette replied.

I started to bend down. "Here, let me help y-"

"Don't." He didn't snap or even raise his voice but the command was so forceful that we backed off immediately, and kept backing off, out the door and down the hall to the elevator.

"'Miles 2 Go,'" Suzette read from the card as the elevator descended. "'We'll Get You On Your Way. Jinx Gottmunsdottir, Senior Agent.'"

"Hey, does your aunt really use a wheelchair, or was that a trick question?" I asked.

She flicked a glance at me. "She's been in a wheelchair for ten years. I told you. What kind of a name is that?"

"No, you didn't and it's Icelandic, like Björk." I was only half listening. The elevator we'd gone up in had not had mirrored panels.

"I mean 'Jinx.'" Suzette was impatient again. "A travel agent named Jinx? Seriously? There's pushing your luck, there's tempting fate, and then there's teasing fate unmercifully till it bites you in the ass and gives you rabies."

"Is it rabies if this isn't the same elevator?" My reflections and I watched each other with wary solemnity on infinite repeat.

"What are you talking about?" Suzette glanced around quickly, then made a face. "So it's a different elevator. There're two. We went up in one and now we're coming down in the other." She studied the card again. "Address and phone number but no website. What kind of business doesn't have a website?"

I was busy trying not to feel spooked at my endless duplication. "This is not the same elevator. And when there are two, they're usually identical."

"So? I don't think there's a federal elevator law about it."

We went all the way to the ground floor without stopping and for a split second, I had the crazy idea that the doors would open onto a different lobby. If so, what should I do-go back up to Suzette's aunt's apartment and ask the Sikh's advice? Or just get off and take my chances with whatever was coming up next?

But it was the same lobby, of course, and there were, indeed, two elevators. The other one, however, was blocked off by a ladder with a sign taped to it that said OUT OF ORDER. I stared, sure that hadn't been there when we'd come in. Then something else occurred to me.

"Hey, Suzette, if your aunt's in a wheelchair-"

But she was already halfway across the lobby, muttering about bad names for travel agents.

Jinx Gottmunsdottir was a pink-cheeked strawberry blonde somewhere between fifty and sixty-five, with sapphire blue contact lenses and generous proportions made to look even more so by her cabbage rose print dress. She did business in an indoor market between a sports souvenirs stall and a place selling Russian nesting dolls custom-printed with your own face (X-tra Faces = X-tra $-Ask 4 quote!). Her "office" was an ancient desk with an even older typist's chair, and two other chairs for clients: a molded white plastic thing and a vinyl beanbag that was a lot more bag than bean. Overlooking all of this was a poster stapled to a heavy dark blue drape, a generic landscape of rolling dark green hills with a glimpse of ocean in the background; flowery script at the bottom said, Bulgaria… Let It HAPPEN… To YOU.

She looked up without much interest from the motocross racing magazine on her desk. "If you want cut-rate fares to London or Paris, you're in the wrong place. I specialize in roads not taken." Suzette slapped the photograph down on her desk. Immediately, Jinx Gottmunsdottir swept the magazine into the center drawer. "Have a seat."

I let Suzette have the white plastic chair. The beanbag was hopeless so I just sat cross-legged on the floor.

"Normally, I have a spiel I go through," the woman said in an important, business-like tone. "However, you're obviously familiar with the caveats so I can save my breath."

Warning bells went off in my head. I got up on my knees to suggest she go through her spiel anyway and suddenly found myself rolling around on the floor; Suzette had pushed me over.

I pulled myself up on her chair. Suzette gave me a warning glare and mouthed Shut up.

"But I will remind you that you have to follow the itinerary exactly," Jinx Gottmunsdottir was saying as she took two ticket folders out of her right hand desk drawer. "Miss a connection and it's immediate cancellation. No refunds." She checked the contents of each folder, nodded, and smiled at Suzette expectantly. "We take all of the usual credit cards."

"Is there a discount for cash?" Suzette asked.

The woman blinked in mild surprise. "Do you have some?"

"No. I was just wondering."

"Ah. Well, no, it's the same price regardless. We don't do bulk, either. I'm sure you can see why."

Suzette, still bluffing, nodded; I decided to assert myself. "I don't."

Jinx Gottmunsdottir's professional smile disappeared, replaced by an expression of cold irritation with an undertone of revulsion.

"Don't mind her," Suzette said brightly. She produced a credit card and pushed it across the desk.

Jinx Gottmunsdottir produced a wireless electronic credit card machine and spent a lot more time tapping the keypad than seemed usual. When she offered it to Suzette, I saw that below the tiny screen there were two separate sets of keys, one with standard numbers and one with symbols that I mostly didn't recognize, although some of them seemed vaguely Greek or Cyrillic.

Suzette barely hesitated before entering a PIN. The woman pulled the machine back before we saw anything on the screen. Seconds crawled by while she stared at the device and we stared at her and I wondered if Suzette's bluff had failed. I actually hoped it had. Bluffing isn't anything I think you should do outside of poker and, truth be told, I'm not that wild about poker, either.

But then a slip of paper came out of a slot at the top of the machine and Jinx Gottmunsdottir beamed as she tore it off and handed it to Suzette along with the folders. "Enjoy your trip."

"Will do," Suzette replied briskly and helped me to my feet. "Bye now."

Jinx Gottmunsdottir gave us a distracted wave. The racing magazine was already back on the desk in front of her.

Since our flight was at four-thirty the next morning, we found a hotel near the airport and didn't so much spend the night as take a nap. Normally, that alone would have been enough for me to bail-early morning is not my natural habitat. But Suzette and that damned picture seemed to have me under a spell.

Of course, the alternative was just another barista job, or temping in an office. Or cleaning it. Or trying to survive on unemployment until something else opened up in the great minimum-wage wasteland. Go to college, get a degree, they said. Yeah, because nothing impresses the civil servants at the unemployment office like someone reading Proust in the waiting room. Flying to Madagascar definitely seemed like the better option.

Suzette was also paying for everything at this point. She didn't even ask me for change. Any time I offered, she'd wave that credit card. Finally, over breakfast in the airport-coffee and limp croissants at one of those tall round tables where you have to stand up and eat (which I would like to go on record as saying is adding insult to the dual injury of the price and quality of the food, thank you so