Tomorrow she would go through the green door. Tomorrow, not today. This is how it must be. Today, she had to pass it by, with its peeling paint and the missing name-plate. Whose name had been there before? Was it absent to make space for her? Who would answer these questions? Today, she would finally stop to admire the climbing vines, the red flowers. She would smell deeply of their scent, accepting it as a gift, as incense, as an offering to her, or a blessing. Or a warning. She’d walked by this doorway every day for a dozen years. Tomorrow, she would place her hand on the door, take a deep breath, and walk inside, knowing that she would never pass through that doorway again. Tomorrow marked the end of her old life. But just today, she would live as she always had.
Lizzie McPherson was young for a widow, but she didn’t let that stop her from her dream of being a boxer. Even when she sat for her formal photograph announcing her new status, she wore her new gloves as a sign to her friends and family of her intentions. Perhaps it was a warning.
Now that she no longer had to answer to a man, she was free to live as she had always wanted. As a maiden, she was under the authority of her father. As a wife, that role passed to her husband. She wasn’t allowed to make any legal decisions without their say-so. Sure, she could decide what she wanted to wear and what food to buy for the household. She was even allowed to pick out the books she wanted to check out from the local library. She understood that this was a rare exception, granted to her by the magnanimity of her spouse. He’d even signed a form, on file at the front desk, letting the librarians know she had free rein.
In the 27 years that branch had been open, only two other women had been granted that privilege. Had the others not known it was an option? Or did they not care? Maybe they were content to read the same old boring stories over and over. Sure, there were new books every week, but only the character names changed and the locale.
Lizzie wanted more. She wanted to be surprised by what she read. She wanted to be surprised by life. She didn’t want to know how the story ended until it ended. If it was predictable, why spend the time reading it? Life was too short for that. Lizzie was busy enough with all the chores required to run the homestead that she didn’t have time to waste on silly books.
James, her dearly departed husband, had moved them out to the wilderness the day they got married. Neither of them had set eyes on the parcel of land that had been allotted to them by the government but that didn’t matter. It was take it or leave it and no second chances with the land grants game. They decided that no matter what, they’d stick with it, come rain or shine, come harvest or famine. What other option did they have? The opportunities to start a life together were few and far between in their town – and the same was true all over.
Just too many people in too small a space. Only the elderly were staying there now, with no youngsters to fuss over and no jobs to go to, what with mandatory retirement. All their needs were taken care of, even food and personal care. They had no worries. Those were for the next generation, the ones trying to set up a family and get their household established. Marriage was the first of many hurdles to being a full citizen.
James took Lizzie out to the plot that very day, right after they’d shared the wedding cake with their family and friends. That act sealed the deal and cemented them as legally joined in the eyes of the law of the land. The plot was three hours away from the town they had known all their lives, and it had nothing on it. Their wedding night was spent in a canvas tent, without even a bed. Their wagon had just enough room for one or the other and they had thankfully agreed that shelter was more important than comfort, even on that night.
From that day onward she wore his clan tartan to tell one and all that she was claimed. Now, a widow, she wore it to fend off possible suitors. She was done with belonging to someone else, done with having to adjust herself to someone else’s whims. She’d had it relatively well with James, but she’d served her time. Now she could live as she wished. It was the best of all possible worlds.
Boxing wasn’t the usual pursuit for a lady, but she’d taken it up out of self-defense. The trouble began with her cousins at family picnics. The male ones, of course. They thought nothing of chasing her down and demanding a kiss, or worse. The adults, if they noticed at all between beers, laughed it off as childish games and told her to play along saying “boys will be boys”. It was then that Lizzie knew she’d have to take matters into her own hands. Literally.
She took up boxing secretly of course, but it didn’t matter. She was much more confident, much more certain of herself. Somehow the boys knew not to hassle her, and for many years she was single because no one had the gumption to tangle with her. This was fine by her. But then James came along. He didn’t ask her to stop boxing. He was proud of it, in fact. He was the first man that was able to befriend her, in part because he didn’t see her as a conquest but as a fellow person.
This was unusual to say the least. No man thought of a woman as his equal in those times. But James wasn’t usual. He was a s/he. S/he’d been raised as a girl until it was time to go to school. Then her parents changed her name and her clothes and nobody knew any better until Lizzie came along. This was why they got along so well. They were part of the same club, as it were. They didn’t agree on everything, of course. Nobody does that, no matter how much they have in common. But they got along better than many other couples, and in private, they even boxed. Maybe that helped too.
The photographer tried to talk Lizzie out of wearing the gloves for her portrait, but she wasn’t budging. She no longer had to prove herself or make space for other people. It wasn’t that she was pushy, or that she had to have her way all the time. But she was done with shortchanging herself to make others feel rich. Perhaps boxing had taught her that. She wondered what else it might reveal to her about herself.
Morris wasn’t pleased with the bicycle instructor that had
been assigned to him. He was more OK with the idea that it was a skeleton than
the fact it was an “it”. How was he supposed to address it – Mr.? Mrs.? Ms.?
Then he started to wonder why women got a different title when they got
married, but men stayed the same. But he didn’t have time to wonder very long
He needed to know the correct title so he would seem like an
appreciative student. He looked again at his assignment slip – Terry Hasenmiller.
No help there – that first name could go either way. He decided to settle on
“Teacher” as a safe bet.
After the preliminary instructions when it was determined
that Morris wasn’t a complete beginner at cycling, the instructor decided to go
over all the tips and tricks on how to maintain a bicycle. “As my teacher
always says ‘if you take care of your tools, they’ll take care of you’.”
Bicycles weren’t for exercise in those days. They were a
necessity in a culture that seemed to be going faster and faster. A bicycle
(never a “bike” according to Terry) was what made it possible to get a job or
an education other than just from what was around you. The bicycle was the
great weapon against mediocrity and even poverty. With a bicycle you could
pedal your way out of whatever you’d been born into and make for yourself a
better future. You were no longer limited by your circumstances – you could
This attitude is why Terry was still alive – in spite of
being a skeleton. Terry didn’t let something as common as death put an end to a
good life. Terry hadn’t always taught people how to ride a bicycle, but it made
sense now. If it weren’t for the bicycle, Terry would never have known there
was a different life, ready for the taking, just on down the road. If it
weren’t for the bicycle, Terry would probably be just like everyone else in
that town – poor and content with a sixth-grade education.
The tree grew from within the house, all on its own, slowly
taking it over. The owners were amused at first, but then they had to move out.
It hadn’t simply eaten them out of house and home; it had grown so that finally
there wasn’t any room left for them. It had taken years, of course, so they
didn’t realize that was what was happening. All they knew was that they felt an
increasing pressure, a cramped-ness, an overwhelming sense of smallness. They
thought they had outgrown their house, but actually it had outgrown them.
The Mueller family had bought the house back in 1976, back
when they had moved to Philadelphia. Of course it wasn’t called Philadelphia
when the area had first been settled, all those hundreds of years ago. Back
then it was Coaquannock, named by the Lenni-Lenape tribe. The name meant “Grove
of Tall Pines” back then. Now there was no grove, because the pines had been
cut down by the new immigrants, the new settlers from across the sea. They cut
down the trees to build their beds, their chest of drawers, their homes.
They had moved in just like this tree, quietly, surely,
intending to coexist side by side. But then they too grew too big and started
pushing out the people who were there. Back then it wasn’t just a house, but a
whole area, a city, a state, then the entire country. They set up their own
rules, their own laws, even their own names for the towns they had taken.
So much for “City of Brotherly Love”, the meaning behind
Philadelphia. They only wanted peace for themselves. “Brother” meant people
they fellowshipped with, not everyone. They followed the letter of the law and
not the Spirit.
Perhaps this tree was trying to right a wrong. Or perhaps it
was simply following in the settler’s footsteps. Or perhaps karma is real.
Charlie Jones was an extra on the set of a second-rate science-fiction
series, but he never took off his costume. He couldn’t. The other actors just
thought he was a method actor, that staying in his costume meant staying in
character. They didn’t know how he could possibly endure the heat in that suit,
or how he got the fake fur to be so lustrous and soft. The trick is that it wasn’t
a trick. He really was an alien. Sure, he wasn’t a “Graglethorp” or whatever
silly random assortment of letters the writers came up with. He was an Acthun,
of the planet Acthunis, in the Gamma quadrant. Of course, his people didn’t
call it the “Gamma” anything, seeing as they didn’t know Greek and they
certainly didn’t think of themselves as third in line. “Gamma” only makes sense
if you think of yourself as first (Alpha) and you’ve already found your first
neighboring quadrant with more planets. It was kind of how many indigenous cultures
simply called themselves “The People” since they had no reason to differentiate
between themselves and other humans. As far as they know they were the only
Charlie Jones had an Acthun name, but it wasn’t pronounceable
to humans. Their tongues would need to be bifurcated in order to get the right
trill. And even if he said it humans tended to cover up their ears because the
pitch was so high. So he came up with a “normal” name, one that wouldn’t mark
him as foreign. He really needed this job to work out and couldn’t afford to be
discriminated against, even unintentionally. He had a family at home that was
depending on him to send back money.
He couldn’t wire transfer it, or mail it. PayPal wouldn’t
work for off-world bank accounts (not yet). So once he got his check cashed,
he’d photograph half of the money, email the picture to the neighborhood
administrator (who had a Gmail account like everybody else) and then burn the
money so he couldn’t use it. The administrator would then credit his family’s
account with the appropriate amount (once the exchange rate was taken into
consideration) and then they could pay their bills.
There weren’t a lot of bills to pay, but even a little is too
much when you don’t have an income. Only Charlie was allowed to work, being the
only one in the family above 20 and below 50. And male, of course. Everyone
else was forbidden by law to work, it being seen as too much of a hardship.
Most Acthuns worked the same job nonstop for 30 years and then retired, some to
plenty and some to poverty. The jobs were chosen for them in high school. It
was believed that by then your personality and aptitude were locked. Everyone took
a series of tests and their appropriate career was computed for them. Some care
was taken to ensure that the job would be something they would like and be good
at it, but it wasn’t an exact science. Mistakes were sometimes made, but
usually the citizen just quietly endured, or took up drinking cactus wine to
But not Charlie. He’d been unhappy with his job since the
first week, after the (inadequate) apprenticeship was over. He was sure the
counselor had made a mistake, maybe swapped his test with someone else’s, or
transposed a number when typing in the data. S/he assured him that wasn’t
possible because s/he been doing this job for 20 years and there’d never been a
S/he was an exception, a non-male who was allowed to work.
Not a female, and yet not a male, but something other, undefined. The Acthuns understood
that there were shades of reality, that rarely was anything 100% one way or
another. They understood the concept of “gray” and were amused that was the
term for extraterrestrial visitors used on Earth, along with “alien”. So they
had a third gender, and these citizens were allowed to work if they wanted to,
and could choose any job not already assigned to a male. But they were not
obliged to work and could collect the same communal salary that unattached females
and seniors were entitled to if they had no male to support them.
But Charlie had to work. It wasn’t optional. And he certainly
didn’t want to work in the factory he’d been assigned to. Not for even a year,
and certainly not for 30 years. He just couldn’t bear the idea of it. Why had
he chosen to be born male? All children were told us – told that they had made
a “soul contract” before being born as to who they be. This may or may not have
been true, but it was a good story to keep the citizens in line. This way, they
thought of their lot in life not as something done to them, but somehow their
Charlie was a renegade as far as the Acthun way went. He
refused his assignment, rebelled against the convention that he chose his
unfulfilling and frankly unsuitable career, and even his gender. So he sweet-talked
a former classmate and stowed away inside the first transport ship to Earth.
The Acthuns regularly made trips to and from Earth to restock and refresh from
the vast breeding supply of cows there, who they used as mates. Their own gene
pool had gotten shallow over the decades-long war/famine on their planet and
they needed new blood. After enough survey teams had tested Earth’s nearest
analog to their biology and found it acceptable, the ships began removing cows
to use as broodmares. They never took bulls after that first unfortunate incident.
It was decided that Acthun males could mate with the cows, but the females
would only mate with other Acthuns. The cows were shipped back after five seasons,
out of concern some do-gooder would start expecting them to be granted
citizenship. Imagine that! A cow, a full citizen! It had been brought to
the planet as a servant, a slave, even.
It could not be thought of as even remotely equal to them. That would
upset the entire social system.
Charlie had no plans of being an Earth citizen. He was on the
planet illegally, a true alien. So he kept a low profile – as low as possible,
looking how he looks – and tried to make enough money to support his family and
hopefully enough more to pay to get a second (and hopefully better) career
assigned to him when he returned.
It looked like the death of the saints, all
over the town. One by one the saint figurines were found, toppled over. The
town authorities were sure it was teenagers, bored and unsupervised, but the
usual suspects had verifiable alibis. No, this was an event of a different
They decided to look with different eyes. All of
the saint figurines on the East side were female, and all were pointed in the
same direction. The seemed unusual. At first they thought maybe the perpetrator
was right handed, and had pushed the statues down going across himself. But
then when the detectives looked in other parts of the town, they realized that the
statues were oriented in slightly different ways. So some looked like they were
pushed forward, some backward, some to the right.
The lines were plotted on a map and all led to the
oldest funeral home in town. “Doc” Brown had run the place since his grandpa
died, having inherited the business since he failed out of medical school. His
grades weren’t good enough for living people, but his skills were plenty for the
His grandpa took him on as an apprentice all
those years back, getting him to drive the pick-up van to transport the bodies.
His Papa wasn’t too thrilled that his son wasn’t going to be a doctor. He
wanted his progeny to carry on his dreams, not understanding that each
generation has its own burdens to carry and doesn’t have time for the past. It
isn’t fair to expect somebody else to live your life for you, after all.
Was that the reason the saint statues were
pointed towards it? A dream deferred, an accidental career? Was that the
reason, or was it something darker? Psychics were called in after the
detectives drew a blank. The newspapers weren’t informed of the true nature of
these outside consultants, but they suspected. The police had no need to be so
cautious – the town was a lot more open-minded than they could have ever
The psychics pulled out their cards and sticks
and crystals. They lit incense at sites. They dowsed, they chanted, and still they
had no idea what it all meant. It was only when Bessie Maguire had a dream about
the statues that anybody had any clue what it all meant.
Now Ms. Maguire was as quiet as a church mouse
most of the time. She kept to herself and never caused a fuss, as you might
expect of an elderly spinster. She’d taught kindergarten most of her life, and
if you can’t trust a kindergarten teacher I don’t know who you can trust. She
didn’t want to share about her dream, but it was so vivid she knew she had to tell
somebody. So she went to talk with her pastor. He said she’d have to tell the
police, and who was she to go against the pastor’s orders? So down she went to
Central and told them all about her dream.
The statues were pointed to the funeral home not
because of what it is, but because of what it was. Long ago, way
past living memory, that part of town was an oak grove. Not maple, or even
chestnut, but oak. That was important. The trees had all been tall and thick,
creating a sanctuary of stillness. No pagans worshiped there, but that didn’t
matter to the oaks. This was long before the old religions had been
rediscovered, or invented, by New Age folks. Nobody in these parts knew the old
ways, divorced as they were from the old country. But the oaks still knew. They
knew the same way all the cherry trees across the world knew when it was time
to bloom and when it was time to drop their petals like some kind of spring
But what the oaks knew was darker stuff that
spoke of more than just impermanence, but transcendence. The oaks spoke of
living on in the next generation, not just as an ancestor or as a memory, but
in actuality. The oaks knew that they could hide themselves within every acorn,
not as a half but as a whole. It was parthenogenesis. The whole grove was a
shrine to Athena, goddess of wisdom and it was filled with owls.
So it was fitting that this Ms. Maguire, this maiden,
had a vision about this place, as Athena was not only a maiden but born from
the head of her father Zeus, the God of the gods. There was no coupling in her
creation. She was fully made, complete, not half of her parent, but whole. She
was Zeus, but in a different arrangement of elements, in the same way a lump of
coal is also a diamond. One wasn’t better than the other, in spite of the
dollar amount. A diamond won’t keep you warm or cook your food, after all.
And then the strangest thing started happening.
The bodies in that morgue didn’t stay dead. But only the female ones. It didn’t
matter if they were maidens or not, they woke up, completely healed of whatever
had ailed them. Maybe this is why it was only the female saints who were affected.
But even stranger, the newly reanimated acted differently. They looked the same
as long as they been in the cooler when the Event happened, but they were
Nobody knew what triggered the Event. All they
knew was that there had been a strange advance notice that something was up
when the saints all toppled over. Had it begun then? Or long ago? When does a
person begin – when they are born, when they are conceived, when their parents
meet for the first time? Or even before that?
Does it matter? Because now was all the town
could handle. They didn’t have the energy for philosophy. Now they had to deal
with people coming back to life. The relatives had already moved into their old
homes. The estate process had already begun. The casseroles that had been
brought over by kind neighbors and dutiful church members weren’t finished, but
that was to be expected.
Here’s one of the ways that the second-lifers
acted differently – they could talk with owls. I don’t mean that they could imitate
their calls, but that they could actually understand what the owls were saying.
It turned out that the myth was true – the owls were indeed speaking about upcoming
deaths. They didn’t cause the deaths. They just knew, somehow, and talked about
it in the same way that some people talked about the weather. But the second-lifers
didn’t share this information with the regular people. They couldn’t handle the