I first saw the ogre because I left the packing plant late. It was my third week there and I’d missed the midday bus. The plant wasn’t the sort of place I wanted to hang around, so I waited outside in the cold—three hours and thirty minutes—watching my breath materialize in the air and trying not to see demons in its cloudy shape. Maybe the cold was a good thing. Those days, being numb seemed my best option.
When the evening bus came at last, Mr. Pell was near the front, in the double seat that faced the opposite side of the bus instead of the front. I guessed later he liked that spot since the space for handicapped passengers gave him extra room. The only open seat was directly beside him, so I took it. I was twenty-eight years old and I felt ancient. My legs were still learning to stand a full shift on the cutting line. The weather didn’t help any either, locking up my joints.
“Sorry. Sorry. Terribly sorry,” he said as I fell into the seat. At least I imagined that was what he said, for he barely spoke above a murmur and only vaguely moved his lips. What he was sorry for exactly, I don’t know, but he snatched away the brown paper sack resting on the seat before I got there, and he inched himself as far away as his broad hips would allow. His body settled into itself again. From buttocks up, each wide layer sank into the even wider one below: round belly into broad pelvis, flabby chest into belly, jowly neck into chest, and finally bald head into neck. His thick legs hung off the seat, too short to reach the floor of the bus.
I mumbled a thank-you, sat down, and took out my book. And I forgot about him. Only my nostrils reminded me every so often that he was there, an odor that mixed marsh water and goats. It didn’t bother me. I could only imagine how bad I smelled. Ten hours at the plant had dulled my senses to it, but under my hat there was gore caked in my hair, and under my fingernails, too. Traces of the disassembly line.
Twenty minutes later, he shifted his weight. I understood the universal sign for “I’m getting off.” But he waited until we had jerked to a full stop before attempting to stand, which he did only with great effort, old and large as he was. I half-wanted to offer him my arm, useless with fatigue as I was.
When he had gotten vertical, though, pity left me. I shrank back, intimidated by his height. You wouldn’t think he was so tall, if you saw him sitting. Once his frame found its natural state standing upright, his flesh evenly sorted itself, and he lost the appearance of morbid corpulence. Even his neck lost one jowl, letting his teeth show clearly—blunt yellow tusks protruding from an undershot jaw. When he was standing up on his short legs, you noticed too the impressive length of his arms and torso. The body widened from the top down to the waist, like an arrow of which his head was the point. But from my new perspective, staring at his belt-line, it was less his shape that impressed me than his height. He shuffled off the bus, still looking at his shoes.
I’d never known any ogres before, personally. My political activity before the war, such as it was, had brought me into close contact with sylphs and elves and a hobgoblin who pulled me under her wing like a twenty-third grandchild. But even among people who loved to talk about human/folk alliances, humans were in the majority, and some species had it easier than others. I admit it—we moved in separate social circles, sometimes touching but never overlapping. We didn’t like it, of course, but we didn’t know exactly what to do about it. My youthful rebellions were almost entirely intellectual and informational. I was the granddaughter of diplomats. Causing a stir wasn’t a skill I’d learned, and me walking into an ogre neighborhood definitely would have caused a stir.
Right after the war, I half-expected that the Finitian occupation would end segregation, at least in Ward Twelve. That was the industrial zone without ties to the city proper, easy for the Finitians to fence in and wall off. And in the new New Avalon, for most humans and non-humans alike, the only work was in the factories of Ward Twelve. The Finitians had the whole continent to the south and control of the border crossings, so the only other options were finding passage across the ocean or trying your luck in the wilderness. If that scared you, you accepted your fate in Ward Twelve. It didn’t matter what you did before the war—lawyer, clerk, artist, teacher—or what social strata you thought you’d reached. Now you were a conscript in the industrial army.
I thought I saw a silver lining, though. Working alongside one another, human side-by-side with ogre and dryad, sharing the same aches and pains, it seemed to me species wouldn’t matter so much anymore. I made it my mission to be part of it.
But our new masters were clever. Under new Finitian-Canadian trade agreements, some industries, they announced, would be carefully regulated and humans only. The plant that took my application was one of them. So by the time I met Mr. Pell, my mission had changed.
Some weeks later I saw him again. I’d traded shifts at the plant with a girl who wanted to get home to her kids before dark, so I found myself on the evening bus again. I sat beside the ogre once more, and once more he got off twenty minutes into the ride, the same stop as before.
We didn’t speak until the third day of this in a row. As luck would have it, the seat beside him was the only one open again.
“Hello,” I said, through the high collar of my coat. I always had the collar turned up, zipped and buttoned over my nose. It was an easy way to be anonymous, and the freezing temperature was ever my alibi. “Getting to be a routine, this, isn’t it?” I remarked. He mumbled something hospitable to his shoes. I took out my book. My hands had developed cramps from the repetitive slice slice movement of the plant, but I could still turn the pages without grimacing.
“Hello,” he said carefully, the next day. “How are you?”
“I’m well,” I lied. “How are you?” Such an innocent question, yet such a dangerous question to ask those days. You never knew what nerves were raw. How are you? I’m well, except I’m living on sawdust and boot leather. I’m well, except my neighbor was dragged away by a patrol this morning. I’m well, except border guards nearly kicked me to death on the street last night.
“Just fine,” he responded, matching my lie with his own.
“Glad to hear it,” I said, as I sat down. I was weary to the very marrow of my bones, which must have shown in my voice.
“Long day?” Mr. Pell asked.
I nodded again. I certainly wasn’t going to volunteer information about my job. Not to a stranger.
“Oh,” said he, and fell silent.
We got on like that for some time. Half of his words I missed because he spoke so softly and stared at his water-stained shoes. But I never worried he’d said something important that I’d missed. Anything he said, I was sure, would be empty, general pleasantries.
I began to notice more about him. He wasn’t completely bald, for example. A few tufts of white hair still surrounded his pocky scalp, fine as cirrus clouds. And he wore glasses, constructed from the remains of two different pairs, wired and taped together at one hinge joint. The right-hand ear piece always hovered beside his cheekbone instead of fitting snugly against his head. Behind the round lenses his small blue eyes were milky and bewildered as a pig’s. Every day he wore the same green-plaid tweed jacket. It was the eccentric sort of thing only a tenured college professor should get away with. And if he hadn’t been an ogre, I might well have guessed that’s what he’d been before the war. That jacket wasn’t half warm enough for the winter.
Always he carried his brown paper sack with him, which kept the empty seat beside him before I got on, and then occupied his receding lap. It was like he was saving the seat for me. But I didn’t flatter myself that this was true—more likely he wanted the extra space but couldn’t bring himself to claim it once I got on.
It was about three weeks after I’d traded shifts, three weeks of riding the late bus beside Mr. Pell each evening, that our bus was stopped and three Finitian border guards got on, looking warm and comfortable in their long, fur-lined coats. My coat was as long, but I’d bet not as warm. Certainly not as dapper. You could almost forget these men were police, they looked so smart. But they carried rifles slung over their shoulders, and black truncheons.
I’d heard about these random searches for weeks, but still I’d hoped to avoid them. The fellow I’d heard it from said the border guards didn’t like to do searches on the evening transit—too many people coming home from work, it was a tedious job for them. But no such luck.
All three of the guards were on us at once. And by us, I mean Mr. Pell. I was of no interest.
“You got your papers?” said the tallest one loudly, the one who seemed to be in charge. Why he had to say it so loud, I don’t know—as if he thought Mr. Pell was hard of hearing or wouldn’t understand English. I don’t think I’d ever seen a man so eager to use his truncheon.
Mr. Pell coughed and reached into the inner pocket of his green tweed coat. His movements were slow, like every movement I’d ever seen him make, but I could feel his discomfort. I’m sure he could feel mine, how I willed him to hurry up and avoid the guards’ annoyance. He couldn’t know what I was carrying, how essential it was.
Out of his pocket, Mr. Pell produced a handful of wilting paper—receipts, directions, old shopping lists, and letters that had been lost in the mail, all frayed at the edges and ink smudged. With two open palms, he offered these tattered scraps to the tallest guard.
The guard recoiled as if he’d been offered a steaming turd. “What’s that trash?” he demanded, jabbing Mr. Pell with the butt of his stick. “Do you have your travel papers or not?”
Mr. Pell grunted at the blow to his ribs, but swallowed any other reaction. Painfully, he began to pick through his handful of scraps with sausage-thick fingers, smoothing one paper at a time and examining it through bleary little eyes. He had to hold each page right up to his eyeglass lenses to make it out. “Yes, sir,” he mumbled.
Meantime, one of the other guards had gotten bored and moved on. The third looked at me. “Papers, miss,” he said, quiet and businesslike.
I moved automatically to my purse to produce them, straight out of the pocket where I’d set them weeks ago, ready to go at a moment’s notice. Working papers to explain my presence on that route, passport to prove my humanity, Mom and Dad’s sides both. I smiled at the guard as I gave them to him, though he couldn’t have seen it through the collar of my coat. A smile without teeth. I couldn’t help putting my hand on my chest, touching the spot where my camera was hidden in the inner pocket of my work clothes.
But Mr. Pell had all of the guards’ focus. “Let’s go, you old fart,” said the tall one, badgering Mr. Pell again. “You want to hold up the whole bus?”
“I can help him,” I said, wondering why I’d said it the instant it was out of my mouth. I should be avoiding attention, not inviting it. But instead of slapping me for insolence or finding an excuse to arrest me then and there, the tall guard looked at Mr. Pell.
“Give it to her,” the guard ordered Mr. Pell, jabbing him again. Mr. Pell looked at me, his milky eyes full of shame, and gave up the wad of papers.
My fingers were chilled and stiff, but I had better luck than he did picking things apart. Some of the pieces were worn tissue thin.
“Canadian,” the guard who had my information said to the tall one, pointing at me as if by way of explanation. Both Canadian and Finitian governments kept up the pretense that the Finitian presence here in New Avalon was a strategic partnership, not an occupation. But there was no love lost between the natives and our “allies” from the south.
I found Mr. Pell’s ID card and quickly handed it to the tall guard. But I wasn’t so quick that I didn’t have a chance to read his name and the line for species.
The card was yellow—I knew what that meant. Non-human, non-combatant, neutral. A blue card was the best anyone who didn’t pass for human could hope for now. But blue cards were reserved for known friends of the Finitian government, or known enemies to the giants. I’d heard even hobgoblins had trouble getting blue cards now.
So most people had to make do with a yellow card like Mr. Pell’s. It restricted movement to Ward Twelve. It was hard, especially on species like sylphs and dryads, types who’d been born to fresh air, unpaved earth, and running water. If they’d lived outside Ward Twelve before the war, well, not anymore. They had to find new lodgings in the shanty towns or on the streets.
The tall border guard scrutinized Mr. Pell’s ID card up and down.
“What’s in the bag, orcky?” he demanded.
“Nothing, nothing,” mumbled Mr. Pell, his eyes on the guard’s shiny black boots.
“Oh yeah? Let’s check,” said the tall guard, grabbing a corner of the crumpled brown paper.
“What are you reading there?” the shorter guard asked me, as he handed back my papers. Trying to be sociable, I suppose. And to distract me from his superior and Mr. Pell.
“Jack London,” I said, numb. “The Road.” Without a doubt, I knew what was about to happen, saw it in my mind’s eye. I couldn’t stop it, though; I was as helpless as Mr. Pell.
So it happened. Mr. Pell clutched his bundle, reflexively, protectively. At the same time the tall guard pulled, and the paper sack tore. The contents tumbled out onto the floor of the bus: old snapshots, sheets of loose composition paper, newspapers, used razor blades, spare shoelaces, near-empty bottles of shampoo, a few obsolete Canadian coins, wadded-up socks and underwear. All the material wealth Mr. Pell could still call his own. He froze, seeing it all on the floor before him. I shifted my feet away from the spill.
“Oh, yeah? That like Call of the Wild?” asked the short guard eagerly, jerking my attention back to him. Maybe he smelled blood on me. It must be a turn-on for men in his line of work.
“Yeah,” I replied, hating my casual, careless voice. “Sort of.”
The tall guard kicked the pile of Mr. Pell’s belongings, sifting through them with the toe of his boot, getting mud over everything. “What’s that?” he asked, spotting one of the razor blades. He picked it up. “Whatcha planning to do with this, orcky?”
Mr. Pell wheezed. He was trying to reply, I realized, but his throat was closing in on him. That, and the general mumbling way he spoke, made it hopeless.
“What? What’d you say?” asked the tall guard, getting close to Mr. Pell’s face.
“I loved Call of the Wild,” said the short guard brightly, still chatting me up. “Dog sledding, eh? Pretty neat.”
Mr. Pell tried again. His chest heaved, air slipped between his teeth, but there was no voice behind it.
“I can’t hear you, orcky,” hissed the guard. The end of his truncheon was in Mr. Pell’s ribs again. “This is dangerous, orky.” His face pressed into Mr. Pell’s, the razor blade clutched between his thumb and forefinger, ready to demonstrate just how dangerous on Mr. Pell’s cheek.
“Sh-sh-sh,” wheezed Mr. Pell.
“There any dog sledding in that one?” the short guard asked me.
My head spun. “Uh. No.” Any moment, the tall guard’s patience would be gone, and Mr. Pell’s blood would be on the floor.
“Sh-shave,” Mr. Pell spat out desperately.
The word hung in the air, clear as a bell, for one instant. Neither the tall guard nor the short guard, nor Mr. Pell nor I made a sound.
The tall guard burst out laughing.
“Oh, very good. Very good, orcky,” he congratulated Mr. Pell. He straightened up, holstering the truncheon in his belt. “You keep that,” he said, dropping the razor blade onto the floor. “That, too,” he added, dropping the yellow ID card as well. It fluttered to the pile. Then he motioned to the shorter guard and they moved on. Their colleague was hassling a satyr in the back of the bus, far better sport than Mr. Pell and me. We remained still and quiet until the guards left the bus.
As the bus engine started up again, Mr. Pell slowly, stiffly lowered himself to the floor and began to gather his belongings once more. After a moment, I got down on my knees as well and handed him back his wad of papers, abashed. From the receipts I now knew where Mr. Pell bought his green jacket and which pawn shop had his French horn. What’s more, there had been personal letters in the stack: envelopes addressed to someone named Julia Pell, returned to sender and marked “Undeliverable.”
Without meeting my eyes, he took the wad back and deposited it safely in the inner pocket of his jacket. Then I picked up sheets of music composition paper, smoothing them and brushing away the guard’s footprints as much as I could. He took them from my hands without a word, and I rose back to my seat.
Nothing else passed between us the rest of the ride. He got off at his usual stop.
The next day brought a breakthrough. I planned, before boarding, that I would not take my usual seat beside Mr. Pell but stick it out on my feet, at least until he had gotten off. The intimacy of yesterday, thrust upon us so thoughtfully by the border guards, was an embarrassment. And I wasn’t sure I wanted to sit so close to anyone who attracted Finitian soldiers’ attention.
But as I was shuffling onboard and came parallel with Mr. Pell, he edged over to make room for me beside him so naturally, so routinely, that I’d have felt foolish and cruel not to sit down. He’d even scrounged a new paper sack for his things, which he pulled off the seat and into his lap. So, like usual, I sat. Like usual, I took out my book.
Five minutes later, Mr. Pell cleared his throat and said the first distinct words I’d ever heard out of his mouth. “What’s your name?”
I admit I stared at him, hardly believing my ears. His voice, while throaty with age, was pleasant and assured, at least so far as this statement went.
“Lucy,” I told him. “What’s yours?” I asked, though I already knew it from the ID card.
I could practically feel his blood pressure rising as we embarked on this strange familiarity. But he wanted it. He could have said nothing at all if he had preferred to keep to himself. For that matter, so could I. Nothing was forcing us to be friendly. In fact, circumstances being what they were, we had every reason to be cold and aloof.
“Pell,” he answered, and I knew this was the surname. Langston was his first.
When he got off the bus, after he’d pressed by me, he stopped, turned, and forced himself to look me in the eye. “See you tomorrow, Lucy,” he said, slowly and purposefully.
I smiled. Not the phony, toothless smile I’d given the short border guard. A real smile to crinkle the skin at the corners of my eyes. “Yes. See you tomorrow.”
Over the next month, I gleaned more information about Mr. Pell, twig by precious twig, until I had a comfortable nest. Twenty minutes a day of fellowship to rest in, twenty minutes when I could speak and act unguardedly—well, less guardedly than at work. We did not ride that bus alone of course. There were always other ears to worry about. You never knew who was a Finitian informant, who might mistake an off-hand comment for incendiary rhetoric. But the only incendiary comment I ever made to Mr. Pell was that I didn’t like Mozart.
Mr. Pell, as it turned out, had been a musician in his antebellum life. I could have guessed as much from his belongings, but it was better to hear him say it. It wasn’t a common vocation for an ogre, but he’d been lucky to have a public school education. Early on, a sympathetic teacher had discovered he had an ear and taught him some piano while his fingers were still small and nimble enough for the keys. From there he’d progressed to brass instruments of all sorts. Though he never said as much, he was built with the lung capacity for it.
But there wasn’t much call for musicians in New Avalon now, and what calls there were went to human musicians. Mr. Pell worked at an auto-parts factory. I don’t think he’d had financial success even before the war, though he never said that in so many words either. New Avalon, I sensed privately, would have regarded an ogre who played the French horn as a novelty act. Novelty acts don’t get regular booking.
Once, he asked me where I worked. At the time, the bus driver had his radio on, the volume turned low. Even so, it was loud enough we up front could hear the broadcast, even if the rest of the bus couldn’t. The Finitian President had made a speech that morning, and the newscasters were replaying the highlights.
“War is a terrible thing; no one goes to war gladly. No one cheers the loss of life, the displacement of innocent civilians, the destruction of property.”
I couldn’t help thinking that the Finitian president did not know the people I worked for in the plant. Destruction is as good for business as construction, maybe better. When things get broken, someone has to clean up the mess, and someone has to pay the contract of the someone who has to clean up the mess. But, I admitted to myself an instant later, it was a naïve thought. Of course the Finitian president did know the people I worked for. And even if he didn’t, his masters did.
“But,” the president went on, “the world acknowledges the inalienable right of a nation to defend itself. And so I remind our people, and the people of the world, that we did not ask for this war. We were attacked.”
Beside me, Mr. Pell grew tense as a violin string.
“The giants were the aggressors. Thirty-thousand of our citizens, including my predecessor in this office, were murdered. Murdered in the most savage way possible, for the most savage reasons. Such brutality must be answered.”
Mr. Pell and I were both trying not to listen, nor to know that the other was listening.
“And so answer we did, and we prevailed.”
Which is why he asked about my job.
“But we do not rejoice,” the president assured the world. “Thirty-thousand of our citizens were murdered. Many more gave their lives to ensure that their killers were brought to justice.”
Mr. Pell didn’t realize that my job wasn’t a change of subject at all. But I told him where I worked, wondering if he would recognize the name of the packing plant. He asked me what we packed.
“We feel no joy, then,” said the president, “but only grim satisfaction that, when called upon to do what was necessary, Finity was not found lacking, and justice was served.”
“Sausages,” I told Mr. Pell.
“And so,” the president continued, “because we do not rejoice in this war, neither the tragedy of its beginning nor the necessities of its end, we take all possible precautions now to assure ourselves and our neighbors that history will not repeat itself. We will not be attacked again.”
Mr. Pell and I were silent and still, afraid the smallest movement would betray us. The others on the bus were strangers to me, but I am quite sure now that there was no one aboard who understood what “precautions” meant better than the two of us.
On Saturday, I asked Mr. Pell to have a drink with me. He waffled, as I expected he would.
“On me,” I told him. It would be a wrench to spend wages on it, but I could get by. Tomorrow was Sunday, no work, and I could fast. Tonight I wanted to do this.
He shook his head. “I can’t leave Ward Twelve.”
“Don’t have to; I know a place.” The woman with all the answers, that was me. “Let’s get off at the next stop.”
It took more coaxing, but eventually he agreed.
Walking beside him was a strange new thrill. Seated, his face was nearly level with mine. Now it hovered a full foot above me, and while I had witnessed his height every day when he got off the bus, I had never spent any real time with the fully-vertical Mr. Pell. I felt like a child with a marvelous new playmate, someone to ward off bullies and fetch forbidden sweets from the top cabinets. In the dark streets of Ward Twelve, I felt invincible, something I’d never felt there. Mr. Pell just looked uncomfortable.
The wine shop I had in mind was a cubbyhole called Tipsy Manticore. I knew it from my college days, when a friendly satyr from the grounds crew had invited a bunch of us progressive humans out for a night in his neighborhood. It was already crowded when Mr. Pell and I came in, packed with yellow-carders off work, trying to forget their troubles and stay warm. There was no one you could have looked at twice and thought human. It was all cyclopses, centaurs, elves, goblins, trolls. Two wendigos sipped liquor through their skeletal mouths in the corner, grinning their inevitable grins. The room smelled of mulled wine and the sweet musk of the centaurs. Mr. Pell and I pressed our way to the bar, where I ordered the house red. Mr. Pell asked for a coffee.
When the drinks came and I settled the bill, disappointing the barkeep with good old Canadian coins instead of Finitian scrip, I suggested we try the upstairs. It might be less crowded and quieter. No one downstairs was boisterous, but they weren’t silent either. The Tipsy Manticore was probably the one stopping place in their weekly lives where they didn’t have to keep their voices down. Mr. Pell nodded and carried the drinks high, safe from jostling elbows. I told him to watch his head on the stairs.
We met a nasty gnome on the staircase who prodded me in the chest and demanded to know what a human was doing there. Even bundled in my coat—only my eyes visible between the high collar and my hat—somehow I was always marked as human. Clearly not a hybrid like a minotaur or a satyr, I guess. Not graceful enough for a nymph or an elf. And too big for a gnome—though getting smaller every day on starvation rations.
I opened my mouth at once to set him straight, but Mr. Pell spoke before I could. “With me,” he said simply, darkly. Mr. Pell’s size did the trick despite his white hair and patchwork glasses; the gnome quailed and pressed against the wall to let us pass.
The upper floor was crowded as well, but we found two open chairs that I dragged into a corner. I unbuttoned my coat. Handing me the wine, Mr. Pell wrapped both hands around the chipped coffee mug in his lap and stared at it awkwardly. Judging from that white hair, I was sure it had been some time since he’d sat in a wine shop with a young woman. If, in fact, he’d ever sat in a wine shop with a young woman. I felt awkward myself. Being with him, off the bus, suddenly there was nothing to say, and nothing to bind us together. No reason at all to occupy each other’s lives.
This bashfulness was ridiculous, though. I had badgered him into coming here, and I was going to make something of it.
“I’m not actually human,” I said.
He raised his blue eyes, skeptical.
“No,” I assured him. “Not a hundred percent, anyway. My grandmother’s selkie, my mom’s mom. She married a human from here in New Avalon—I mean, they were together. They couldn’t actually be married in those days.” Too late, I sensed the arrogance of my last statement and regretted it: Mr. Pell was much older than I. He could speak for “those days” better than I could.
“Did that…make problems?”
I frowned, recalling family stories. “Yes and no. My grandfather was a diplomat, his brother was a senator, they had important friends. It was kind of a scandal, I guess, in the society papers. But then, my grandmother was beautiful and charming, which covers a multitude of sins. And liberals were in power. So after a month or two, no one bothered about it. They lived here, Grandma went to college, wore the latest fashions, threw dinner parties, sat on foundation boards.” I summed it up: “If you have money and you act like them, humans don’t really care who you are.”
Mr. Pell also frowned as he listened, so I expected him to disagree with me. But if he did, he didn’t say so. “What were your grandparents’ names?” he asked instead. I wasn’t expecting the question. I told him the truth, because I couldn’t think quickly of any reason not to; the last name was well-known, one of Nova Scotia’s old, reliable ruling families.
The frown disappeared and he nodded. “I played for them. The New Year’s Ball, at the Finitian Embassy. I played it every year for a long time.” His face cracked into a smile. “Small world, isn’t it?”
I couldn’t smile, though. My mother talked about her parents with pride, how progressive they were, how they’d insisted on employing non-humans where they could, to promote interspecies cooperation. Mom talked of growing up around ogres and domovoy, of how sweet they were to her. How sweet, I thought, doing the dishes and clearing the gutters and cleaning the toilets. And playing in the brass band at the New Year’s Ball.
Mr. Pell asked me where my family was now. I explained that we’d all had dual-citizenship because Dad was Finitian, but lived in New Avalon until the war. Then Mom and Dad and my kid sister went south to Finity.
Mr. Pell was frowning once more. “Aren’t you lonesome for them?” he asked, surprising me again. The feeling in his words! As if his own heart would break for me. Even now it puts me to shame.
But I shrugged off his sympathy. Tough girl, I was. “I have it better than most people around here. At least I know they’re safe. And things in Finity… Well, it’s better for them. They can have a normal life, like there wasn’t any war.”
Mr. Pell did not say “Wow” but he might as well have. A haze of wonder rose behind his glasses, and I realized testifying to a miracle like “normal life” strained my credibility.
On impulse I reached into my purse. “I had a letter from my mom the other day. Would you like to see it?”
He hesitated. I took it out anyway, and he accepted it. Thanks to the border guards, I’d gotten a look at all his personal property. He might as well see something of mine.
The letter was old, dated over a month ago, but I was happy mail was coming through the border at all. Of course sending mail was a different story, and I had little hope that my reply had reached the family. I’d been careful what I wrote anyway, knowing censors would consider every word.
Mom had written about trivial things—a friend she’d made at the laundromat, Finitian soap operas, my sister’s new school. The community theater had just put on Hello, Dolly! and Dad was enjoying the backyard, small as it was. Everyone was prospering there. Mr. Pell had to hold the letter right up to his glasses to make out the words. I watched his face as he read, enjoying his enjoyment. I imagine my own face had looked much the same when I read it the first time: amusement, hope, relief that someone somewhere was well-cared for, that somewhere people lived without fear of each other. But behind all that was the frustration I always feel colliding with blissful ignorance. Frustration and resentment.
I’d forgotten about the last paragraph until it was too late: “Write us soon, sweetheart. I worry about you so much. There’s so many different reports, it’s hard to know what to believe and what’s really happening there. The news said the other day that Sweden is calling our actions genocide—that we’d wiped out all the giants, but that can’t be right. People would notice and say something. You can’t hide a dead giant. Anyway, the president’s right: the giants attacked us, not the other way around. And Canada wouldn’t allow Finitian troops on their soil if Finity were doing something wrong, would they?”
Mr. Pell’s face darkened as he read these last lines. He folded the letter back along its creases and returned it to me.
“Thank you,” he said simply.
“You’re welcome,” I replied, regretful. I should have remembered that paragraph.
Mr. Pell was silent for a long moment. Then, “Why didn’t you leave with them?” he asked.
Heat flushed my face, as it always did when I thought about my reasons—my naïveté at first, my determination second. But I was pretty sure I wasn’t visibly red. Even if I was, I didn’t think Mr. Pell could make it out, between his eyes and the dim light in the room. I couldn’t tell him all, not yet, maybe not ever, and even among the friendly crowd at the Tipsy Manticore, I was uneasy about eavesdroppers. I shrugged and told a half-truth. “I suppose I wanted to stay—this city’s my home, and I suppose I thought I could do more good staying.”
“Oh,” he murmured. His face was still puzzled but he didn’t challenge me. The puzzlement I was used to by now. Most people who had the money and the connections to leave, left.
After a moment, I asked him, “Do you have a family?” Immediately I regretted it, afraid of the answer.
Mr. Pell leaned back in his chair. His eyelids slid low over his little eyes, as if he were looking into the past. I relaxed. I was almost certain he had forgotten all about me, where he was, and what I had asked him, when at last he answered.
“I had a daughter,” he said. “She would be about your age now.”
At once I remembered the sealed letters he carried, addressed to Julia Pell. The undeliverable letters. Had a daughter? The bottom dropped out of my stomach. I knew what had happened.
“She wasn’t as pretty as you,” he said humbly, which broke my heart.
“I’m sure she was beautiful,” I dared to say. My heart was beating faster. There were other possibilities, I counseled myself, trying to be calm. She might have died in the war. Or she might be alive. She could have fled north and started a new life.
“I thought so,” said Mr. Pell. “Her mother, too.”
“What happened to them?” Now I really couldn’t help asking. I tried to tell myself: She could have had a falling out with her father one day and walked out, years before the Finitians even showed up. He could have abandoned her.
As soon as the question left my lips, though, the window closed. He shook his head and closed his mouth. Maybe it only meant sorrow or regret, but I read a warning. I didn’t ask again, much as I wanted to. Much as I needed to, to assuage my own guilt.
I spent that Sunday locked in my room, developing film, wondering if any of the pictures captured Mr. Pell’s daughter. I wouldn’t have been able to recognize her even if one did, but I couldn’t keep her out of my mind. Besides wishing that I had enough money for dinner along with the development chemicals, I also wished that I had seen a postmark date on those letters Mr. Pell carried. That might have settled it for me; if she’d been missing long before the war, I wouldn’t have Julia Pell on my conscience. I refused to have her on my conscience.
With guilt, there was suspicion. Had Mr. Pell sought me out in particular? He’d asked about my job, after all. It would mean danger—if Mr. Pell could mark me like that, someone else could, too. And part of me felt betrayed: I was starting to think he actually liked me, that we were becoming…not friends exactly, but something like that.
But it didn’t add up. The first time he saw me on the bus had been chance. He couldn’t have known I’d switch shifts at the plant; and anyway people who are after something don’t mumble and shrink away and passively sit drinking coffee while you try to make small talk. Mr. Pell wasn’t after anything. He’d already given it up for lost. No, Mr. Pell hadn’t found me to find his daughter. If I’d had a hand in covering up her fate—and I still don’t know if I did—he didn’t suspect. I was glad, imagining the catastrophe if he and I ever opened up and shared our information. My mission could come to nothing. I could be tried for treason and executed, or worse; and they wouldn’t even bother with a trial for him. He’d just disappear, like his daughter. Return to sender. Undeliverable.
Mr. Pell and I each held puzzle pieces that could not be fitted together.
The next day, we resumed our normal routine— chitchat and pleasantries, and no mention of families. By silent agreement, we went on that way, twenty minutes a day, bus stop to bus stop. The next time we tried the Tipsy Manticore, camaraderie was surprisingly natural.
My shift at the plant was never easy, that was sure, but some days were worse than others, like when my hands had gotten too cramped to hold the paring knife at my old station. The bosses rotated me to the other side of the plant, to the brain room, where skulls slid down the line instead of limbs. It was my job to insert a pressurized hose into the mouth, then stamp the button with my foot. The brains inside were blasted into pink mush that would become thickener and filler for processed foods. For ten hours, I looked at face after face, some seventy faces per hour. The overseer watched me carefully, walking by every ten or twenty minutes. No chance to take pictures.
I could barely meet Mr. Pell’s eyes when I got on the bus and fumbled into my seat, too tired to wait until he had gotten his hand quite out of the way. I nearly sat on his fingers, and as soon as I was down, I had to get up again and run to the bus door. The driver had been ready to set off, but we weren’t in motion yet, and my desperate, peaked face must have told the driver everything he needed to know. He threw the door back open, just in time for me to retch onto the curb.
Mr. Pell had shadowed me, concerned. Now he put his palm on my shoulder to comfort me and mumbled soothing words, guiding me back to my seat. When we sat down again, the hand stayed on my shoulder and he peered into my face anxiously.
“You’re not ill, are you? Are you ill?” To seek medicine for a factory worker, even a human one, on that side of the barrier would be a fool’s errand. In Ward Twelve, a cold could be a death sentence. His concern was like a child’s for a parent—powerless, without comprehension, overeager to help. Thinking back on it later, I was touched.
But at the time, there was no room for any observation but his hand on my shoulder and the weight of each fleshy, pink finger. I imagined his face looking down at me, and then I imagined his face sliding down the disassembly line. I shuddered and wanted to retch again. “Don’t touch me.”
He took his hand back and drew away from me. He was wounded, I knew it at once. I regretted my words, but I couldn’t fix it. There was no way to explain on the bus. I tipped my head forward and rested it against my knees, shutting my eyes, trying to shut out the smell of him and my own smell. My brain throbbed, and waves of pain and nausea washed over my guts, but I was determined not to move if I could help it. I only shifted slightly when Mr. Pell got off. He told me he hoped I’d feel better.
I apologized the next Saturday at the Tipsy Manticore. On the intervening days, I’d searched his manner for any sign that there was coolness or tension between us, any hesitation. On the surface, there was none, and he accepted my invitation for a drink. Even so, something had shifted, and I wanted to give him an explanation, incomplete as it would be.
“It’s just that—I was thinking of someone’s face,” I told him. “And you reminded me. It… it was a dead person.” I did my best not to look at his face now. He obliged me by staring down at the table.
“A dead—ogre?” he asked carefully.
I nodded, trying to guess what he was thinking. Was it that I had said “person,” when the Finitians never used that word for anyone who wasn’t human? Was he sorry to hear someone like him had died? Most importantly, did he wonder how I had come across the dead man? Would he think of where I worked, would he think of the Finitians and their “precautions,” would he unravel the puzzle of my presence in Ward Twelve on his bus day after day when I could have been safe and content and well-fed in Finity? His blue eyes considered me, like examining a new insect they had never encountered before, or a tropical flower blooming where it had no business to be.
“We’ve all seen things,” he said carefully, “in the war, that we wish we hadn’t.”
I let go of the breath I hadn’t known I was holding, relieved that he wasn’t going to pump me for details. Then again, I wanted him to know. I wanted anyone to know. And Mr. Pell was all the “anyone” I had. Beyond that, he of all people had a right to know. He’d lost his family, for Christsake.
“I didn’t want you to think that—that it was you,” I went on awkwardly. “That I didn’t want to be touched by a—by…” It hadn’t bothered me to be compared with an ogre’s daughter, and it wasn’t an ogre’s hand that I couldn’t bear to touch.
“I—I know,” said Mr. Pell, eager to excuse my behavior. He was not comfortable either, but at least now the cards were on the table. He edged forward in his seat and coughed. “I know you aren’t like that. It’s not like that with all of you.” He looked down.
All of you. Despite the compliment, I’d never felt more separate or more isolated in my human blood, not even when the gnome had demanded to know what a human was doing here the first time we came. We regarded each other across a chasm that neither of us had made, and both might have liked to cross. But I couldn’t see a bridge.
I expected that to be the end of it, but he surprised me. “I always tried to tell my daughter,” he went on, “you give them a chance to like you, they’ll like you. But she wouldn’t hear me.”
His daughter. I bit my tongue to keep from asking about her, reminding myself I didn’t want to know what he knew, and I couldn’t tell him what I suspected. “Oh,” I murmured.
“Yes,” he said, something ruminating in his mind. I checked myself from filling the silence. His openness was delicate as a soap bubble. Any question might pop it. And no matter what I told myself, I did want to know.
In his own time, Mr. Pell went on. “It was like this,” he said, “I never thought what was best for a little child, how to teach them. I only knew what I’d done when I was small. I never gave it two thoughts. Her mother hadn’t gone to school, but I figured she should go like I did, get her education, be able to make her own way.”
“Sure,” I ventured. The way he kept looking at me, he was pleading to be understood—or excused. And while I didn’t understand how these pieces fit together, I nodded as if I did.
My assurance didn’t penetrate. “You could tell she was smart,” he went on, with the same pleading in his eyes. “Sensitive, though. She was raw, if you understand me? She couldn’t hide it when something bothered her. I thought she’d go great guns in school—she was so much smarter than I was.”
He paused, and shook his head heavily. “We should have kept her home with us, it wasn’t any good for her. Things had changed. When I went, only a few of the kids were human, and they were real poor. So it didn’t matter what any of us were—troll, elf, what-have-you. It didn’t matter, none of us had two pennies to rub together and they treated us all the same.”
I wondered if Mr. Pell’s memory was playing tricks on him. Surely such an egalitarian idyll hadn’t existed six years ago, let alone sixty. But I wasn’t about to interrupt and argue the point.
“It wasn’t like that for my daughter,” he explained. “Schools’d gotten bigger, and more and more humans went—I guess you probably went to public school, did you?”
Mr. Pell nodded also and went on. “Well, kids are cruel animals. They were cruel to my daughter, anyway. She was the only ogre in her year. Either she came home crying, or she was in the principal’s office for fighting. When the other children teased her, she couldn’t let it be. The teachers told us—they admitted the other students bullied her—but she was a terror, they said. She wouldn’t listen; they couldn’t manage her. I told her, ‘Someone calls you a name, you do what I did, let it wash off your back, don’t pay it no mind. Be quiet, be polite, do your work and it’ll see you through.’ But she couldn’t do that. I told her, ‘Be a good girl, do your work, and humans don’t care what you are. Leastways not the humans who matter.’ Not decent folks like your grandparents.”
Startled, I realized he meant my grandparents. I was about to remind him that my grandmother hadn’t been human, before I realized it was a moot point. To him, watching her float across the dance floor like a goddess, she might as well have been.
Again Mr. Pell shook his head over the memory of his daughter. “She wouldn’t listen to me. In the end we just couldn’t send her to school anymore—I’d get her there, then turn around and meet her mother halfway. The teacher’d called to come pick her up again.
“Julia was seven. Her mother and me did what we could, tried to teach her at home. She wouldn’t have it—she hated it. Everything reminded her of school. She screamed and cried if you tried to get her to say her alphabet, she tore the pages out of books and threw crayons in the toilet.”
“What happened?” I couldn’t help asking. But Mr. Pell was absorbed in the telling now and didn’t stop to notice. We’d spent weeks on the bus, him and me, with nothing but single sentences, but now the torrent was bursting free and all the words came out.
“Finally we just let her play. The neighborhood was safe, she was old enough we let her look after herself. She always tried to find other ogres and spent all her time with them. I think she was trying to make a life for herself without humans. It was easy enough where we lived. Anyone wasn’t human, she’d talk to them. She wasn’t shy, so she learned a lot. Never learned to read, but that didn’t stop her learning. I was always amazed, the things she knew. Things that were happening in the neighborhood, sure, but some of the history she knew, too, the news from halfway around the world, and the things she learned how to do. She could play any card game you wanted, she could fix a flat tire, make you a hat out of an old newspaper. You hummed a tune at her, she could play it back on the harmonica like that.” He snapped his fingers.
I laughed. “Sounds like her dad.”
Instead of reflecting pleasure, Mr. Pell’s face clouded over. “We got to thinking she’d be fine. It didn’t matter if she went to school or not, she’d land on her feet, we thought. But she started to have ideas when she was a teenager. There was a group of young ogres moved in a house down our street. None of them related, none of them employed far as I could tell. She started to spend time with them. They were young, I say, but older than her. At first I didn’t worry about it, but then she started to change. She started to say things, angry things, about how humans had used ogres, had taken the land from us, taken our culture, made us their slaves.
“It was just talk, I told her mother. It didn’t mean anything, and we’d heard others say the same. Then she stopped wearing human clothes. She wore skins like her new friends. Said she wasn’t going to—assimilate. She said she was an ogre, she was going to act like an ogre.”
I smiled, thinking I liked Mr. Pell’s daughter. He did not smile.
“That’s how it started, with the clothes,” he continued, “but it wasn’t just clothes, it was everything. After a while, she wouldn’t eat human food either. It had to be raw, uncooked, no seasoning or cutting apart, even. Next, she wouldn’t use human things like can openers or toothbrushes. Then she wouldn’t answer to her name anymore—a slave name, she said, that humans had made up. More and more, she refused to do normal things. Everything was human, you see, nothing was ogre, and she wanted so much to act like an ogre and nothing else, to be something and live some way that humans hadn’t had a hand in. She didn’t like speaking English even—human language, you know. I think she would’ve unlearned it, if she could, but she didn’t know any other. Her mother and I didn’t know any other. It’s been so long since ogres have had their own land, where we could just speak something else. Only a few very old people know Orcish anymore.”
My ears buzzed. The corners of my smile slipped. I was beginning to understand the problem, like the lone thread that hangs from your cuff; pull it and the entire sweater starts to unravel.
“What did you do?” I asked.
Mr. Pell rubbed his nose where his glasses sat. Maybe he brushed away tears, too. “I tried to tell her, tried to make her see, you have to go along to get along. She called me a coward.
“She lived with us, though, ’til she was twenty. Well, she wouldn’t take a job—every one was a human trick, see—and I don’t think anyone would have offered her a job anyway, the state she was in and the way she was with people. In the end, she needed caring for, because she wouldn’t take care of herself. You see. I loved her, but I couldn’t manage her. Then my wife took sick—she’d never been well, and I had to look after both of them.” Mr. Pell was not trying to hide his tears now. He paused for a long time, so long I wondered if he would go on at all.
“I—I didn’t know what else to try, so I went to a—a counselor. Nice human, you know? He came to our house, met with my daughter, saw how she lived. By then, she just sat in the dark in her room—she wouldn’t use electricity. Wouldn’t wear clothes at all. The ‘traditional’ ones she’d had, she found out ogres didn’t wear ’til they met up with Indian trappers. Her friends down the street, she’d fallen out with them a long time ago. Said they weren’t serious enough to follow through the ideas they floated. By then she wouldn’t clean herself really anymore, either…”
He paused, embarrassed. I nodded that I understood—he didn’t have to explain; he should go on. So he did.
“The counselor couldn’t get her to talk to him. I’d told him she wouldn’t. So he talked to me instead. He told me he knew people who could take her, they could bring her somewhere she could be cared for, where they could help her. All I had to do was sign the papers.
“He said it right in front of her, right where she could hear! I thought maybe he just wanted to scare her a little, to get her to talk. She wouldn’t talk though. She wouldn’t talk anymore in his language. She just looked at me, just looked at me and I could see what she was thinking, even if she wouldn’t say the words. She couldn’t help thinking the words, that’s the only way she knew how to think, and I could tell from her face. I was a traitor.”
He let himself pause again, overcome. Mechanically, I reached out and put my hand on his. But I don’t think he felt my touch.
“I signed.” He gasped out the sentence. “I signed,” he repeated, drier. “And they came and took her away.” He shook his head. “I thought—I thought it was the best thing. What else could I do? But I never saw her again, they wouldn’t let me see her! I thought they were going to take her to a nice place, a safe place for people with problems. I wrote her letters, told her it wouldn’t be long, we’d see her again. Her mother wrote her letters.” He raised his free hand to his breast-front pocket, where I knew those letters sat.
“I called the counselor, too. He told me she was fine, they were taking care of her. But it would upset her treatment if I came there, even if I just talked to her on the phone.” The words were coming thick and fast now, desperate, as he must have felt in those days. “A month passed. The letters came back unopened. My wife was getting sicker. I was so worried about her, I wanted her to see our girl once more. I called the post office, they couldn’t tell me anything about the address I had. So I tried going there myself, and I brought the letters with me. But it wasn’t a hospital at all; it was just an old house, and there was no answer when I rang the bell. I rang and rang and I knocked, but no one came. So I came home.” He sobbed. “I couldn’t get anyone to help. I didn’t have any money to spare, I had to get my wife’s medicine. I didn’t know anyone important. I’d never talked about my daughter to the people I worked for. They didn’t even know she existed. The police said I’d signed the papers, there wasn’t anything they could do. The counselor stopped returning my phone calls.”
My jaw was clenched. Mr. Pell had trusted them; why shouldn’t he have? He’d played by their rules, done everything they’d asked of him. He’d gone to their school, played their goddamn New Year’s Ball. I could feel the heat in my face.
The flow of words was not so easy now. But in stops and starts, Mr. Pell finished his story. His wife held out for several years, but she never saw her daughter again. With no one left to care for, Mr. Pell began to seek out his daughter once more, but the trail was cold. He had only just begun when the war came.
“A lot of people, I think,” he said, rubbing his hands on his pants, “would say the war changed their lives. A lot of people would say that’s when they lost everything.” He paused. “I didn’t have anything to lose.”
How final. How depressing. I couldn’t stand it.
Seizing the opportunity, I raised my glass of wine. “Hm. Cheers to that,” I replied, hoping a joke, even a dark one, could spare us more tears.
Mr. Pell looked at me, across the table over his coffee. His face remained quite somber.
“I would be dead by now if you hadn’t taken that bus seat next to me,” he said to me.
I believed him.
That night, I should have rested easy, knowing Julia Pell had disappeared a decade ago. There was nothing I could have told her father that would solve the mystery. Anything I said would have been speculation.
But I did not rest easy, and I couldn’t help but speculate. Years before, when I was a teenager getting politicized and picking up any title that’d raise Grandpa’s eyebrows, I’d read about human experiments on other species. It was always in labs with no windows. But maybe that’s not what had happened to her. Maybe they really had taken her to an asylum and cared for her. By now, though, I reasoned, she’d probably been killed or abandoned. No one was going to waste time now with an ogre who wouldn’t work.
Lying in bed, thinking about it, tears came into in my eyes, tears I never would have shed in the Tipsy Manticore. That poor girl. It wasn’t just that she’d been kidnapped, stolen from her family and the only home she had ever known, her life brutally interrupted. That could happen to anyone—sad, but bad luck. That could happen to me, you, anybody.
No, what got me about Julia Pell was this: she’d never had a home or a life to call her own—and she knew it. I had thought I was a sensitive person. I had thought I understood the wrongs of the world well enough, if not to right them, at least not to increase them. But I had never thought, never considered how far tyranny really extended. She’d seen it, though; she’d sensed it. Somehow she’d come aware just how much her life had been decided years and decades and centuries ago, how much humans owned every millimeter of her, right down to the shape of her mind and the very words on her tongue. Humans had taken it, colonized it all, long before she was born. So she depended on humans for everything—even for the words. Even if all she wanted were words to shout out at the injustice of it.
I also thought about my grandparents, so proud of themselves and their mixed marriage and their tenure at the top of New Avalon society, their little exemplar of interspecies cooperation. How much they must have thought they had done. How little they actually had. On the surface, yes, cooperation and good sportsmanship; but underneath, a thousand stories like Mr. Pell’s, people who had been shunted aside because they didn’t have the right DNA. All it took was one little war to tear through the pretty packaging, to expose it all.
I wondered what I was really doing in Ward Twelve, how much I was like them. I’d romanticized it, convinced myself I was a revolutionary, thinking about my mission all the time. But my form of resistance felt so feeble—so comical. Like my jelly legs trying to ride the bus at the end of every day at the plant. No matter what, no matter why, there was dried blood in my hair and under my fingernails. It might as well have been Julia Pell’s.
Strange to say, my bus rides with Mr. Pell grew more lighthearted after that. Having shared the darkest corner of his past with me, somehow he’d become free to enjoy what was left of his present. He spoke more openly than ever. We swapped stories of life before the war, foolish stories with no point other than to prove to ourselves and one another that such times were real. He told me about his father, who’d worked on a whaling ship, turning humpbacks into oil, and how his father had snuck him aboard as a small boy, hiding him in a footlocker when the bossman came around. He told me, too, how he had met his wife. She’d been washing dishes in a club he played and she walked right up to him at the end of a set to tell him he’d been off the beat all night. It wasn’t true—turned out she didn’t have any ear for music and couldn’t tell a trumpet from a tuba, but she’d wanted something to say to him and that’s what she came up with. He loved her instantly.
On my side I told him about my parents, my sister. There was my early life in the Art Deco neighborhood of New Avalon, where the elevator in our apartment building had closed with a grate instead of solid doors. I told him how my sister and I had played floor hockey in the hallway using the elevator as a goal, slowing down everyone who needed to ride it. He asked me once what I had wanted to do with my life. I was honest. I told him photography.
“A picture is worth a thousand words,” he said sagely. And I smiled back at him, as if he were the first person ever to put it that way.
I had known Mr. Pell less than four months before I could not imagine life without him. Then I realized it was time we parted.
Always my ears were hungry for news. Another letter from my mother had reached me, filled as before with the scenes of life in a peaceable country, too good to be true. Filled also with anxiety about me and my long silence. I gathered no letter of mine had reached her. I hadn’t expected one to. I also gathered, from Mom’s words and the stories I heard at the plant and in the streets, that people weren’t passing through the border to Finity so easily either.
The radio reported a pro-giant slogan scrawled in blood on the steps of the Finitian capitol. Two days later, a man fired shots over the presidential motorcade before the Finitian police shot him. My family was two thousand kilometers away, I knew, safe and sound. Even so, my stomach clenched when I heard about it—the news never reported violence on Finitian soil. Finity was the perfect land of peace and plenty, prospering in the post-war boom. I learned the next day that the dead man had been a Finitian soldier, gone AWOL here on the very day I had first ridden the bus beside Mr. Pell. Now the Finitian president was talking about closing the border altogether, because the influx of “genuine”—and human, I might have added—refugees had slowed and the number of “insurgents” coming over had risen. Suddenly I realized, if I ever wanted into Finity, it had to be soon.
I had to say good-bye to Mr. Pell.
“Tipsy Manticore?” I asked him. I didn’t need to; it was Saturday, and we’d been every Saturday since that first visit. It was safe to assume by now. But I always asked, and he always agreed only after a moment’s consideration. It was our little tap dance.
“Yes,” he said slowly, observing me through his patchwork glasses. “That might be a good idea.”
My skin prickled. Although I’d taken care not to say or do anything unusual, I imagine somehow he knew this would be our last meeting.
From then, every minute took on the hyper-reality of a dream, speeding by and yet somehow as labored as if Mr. Pell and I moved through gelatin. Had it always taken us so long to reach the wine shop from the bus stop? The span between one footfall and the next felt like a full minute, longer than I could hold my breath. Too, I noticed how slowly Mr. Pell spoke, how deliberately he formed each syllable. I half wanted to shake him, to force the words out.
But there wasn’t enough time. Individual moments felt like agony, but altogether they sped past in great chunks, faster than the blink of an eye, and I would never have them back again. Blink! And the last bus ride had ended. Blink! And our last stroll through the streets of Ward Twelve was done. Blink! And never again would I hear Mr. Pell ordering coffee instead of alcohol.
It was alarming how quickly I was losing moments, experiences, opportunities that came and went and would never come again. Do we always live this way? I wondered. God, I was hemorrhaging time. Life. I couldn’t stop it or even staunch the flow.
We took our usual corner on the second floor. Mr. Pell told a story about his wife that I had heard before. I laughed in the right places, and finished my wine. The evening was dying all around me—the crowd thinning, the sleep weighing on my eyelids—but there was nothing I could do. Mr. Pell set his cold coffee cup upon the table and turned toward me, and I stood, as I knew he expected me to. He would walk me as far as the fence that marked the edge of Ward Twelve, and then bid me good-night, without knowing it was good-bye.
I followed him out the door of the Manticore and could go no farther. I had to do something, try something, to make this evening last. His upper arm was before me, solid within its tweed, and I reached out for its support. He stopped short, looked back at me in surprise, and I drew close to him and peered up into his face.
“May I come home with you?” I asked.
If there was any way I could have astonished him more, I cannot imagine it. I hadn’t meant to, hadn’t considered it at all. But, taken aback as he was, he did not refuse me, although his grunts were pensive as we walked. The sky was clear, letting the full moon light our way. Inside the sleeves of my coat, my narrow arms felt the wind bite as surely as if they were bare, and I sunk my hands into my pockets as deep as they would go. I stared ahead straight as I could, only sensing Mr. Pell’s gaze from the corner of my eye, and behind my collar I set my jaw while trying to keep my cheeks and brow impassive. Had I known the way, I would have struck out a step in front of him, hurrying to get out of the cold. As it was I had to remain level with him, letting him set our pace with the laboring gait of great mass and old age.
His way-house wasn’t more than a few kilometers from the Manticore but the walk took us nearly an hour. I say “his” although he didn’t live there alone. Any building in Ward Twelve that offered half a roof and three walls was fair game for squatters. The moment I stepped through the door that Mr. Pell held open, ten luminescent eyes stared at me through the dark—a sphinx and her litter of children. Frozen, I stared back. Mr. Pell put his hands on my shoulders and steered me toward the next room, stepping over the snoring bodies of two boggles wrapped up in yesterday’s newspaper. There was no light save the moonbeams that came through the spotty roof.
In a second, smaller room, Mr. Pell motioned to a battered mattress laid along one wall. It couldn’t have been longer than three-quarters of his height. His trick of sinking into himself, if he could do it lying fully horizontal, must have been useful at night. A second mattress lay along the opposite wall, covered in enough soil you could have planted posies in it. I glanced at Mr. Pell.
“Vampire,” he explained. “Won’t be back until morning,” he assured me, somehow sensing I had something to confide that I didn’t want overheard. Then he clammed up, waiting for me to make a move or explain my boldness.
I laughed suddenly. “I—I suppose it sounded like I was propositioning you back there.” It hadn’t occurred to me beforehand. In this life, it was absurd. I felt so dirty, covered in dried sweat and months’ worth of gore that never really washed off. I couldn’t have felt attractive. Not to an ogre, not to anybody.
Mr. Pell waited. His breath was white, in and out between his blunted tusks, white as the hair that circled his head like a halo—all I could see of him in the darkness, beyond the reflection of moonlight off his glasses. For no reason at all tears welled up in my eyes. But I didn’t let them fall. Out with it, I admonished myself.
“I’m leaving,” I whispered.
There wasn’t a sound but the boggles’ snoring, the sphinx singing her kittens back to sleep, and the trickle of water still running in the defunct canal outside.
“I—I can’t wait any longer,” I blundered on. “If I don’t go—the Finitians are closing the border, I may never get across and I’ve got to. I’m sorry it’s short notice, I didn’t decide until yesterday, not for sure. I—I never meant to stay forever. I only stayed for my mission.” He still hadn’t made a sound, or a move. He just stood there, face tipped toward me, breathing his white breath below his halo-hair.
“Well, anyway.” I sucked back the tears again as I undid my coat, despite the cold. “I couldn’t very well say good-bye on the bus. And even the Manticore felt too…public.” I reached for the inner pocket of my coat, the pocket no one knew about. “I have to give you these. I have to explain. I didn’t stay for my home. I didn’t take the job at the packing plant just because…”
I held out an envelope toward him. “These pictures,” I said, naming the contents. But I couldn’t name what they showed, not even then. I swallowed. “I have to get to Finity, I have to get them to the people there, so they know. But I want you to have this set, just in case I can’t get them out in Finity—people have to know. The Swedes are right, or closer to right: it’s genocide, the giants… But they don’t know, they don’t know the half of it. People have to know, and people have to fight.”
I wasn’t making any sense. I couldn’t have been, because Mr. Pell was just standing there still, not taking the packet. Finally I grabbed his hand and put the envelope into his palm. He frowned. But the fingers closed around it.
“When are you leaving?” he asked at last.
“Tomorrow,” I admitted. “As soon as it’s light.”
And then he did something I did not expect. His arms spread wide, spreading his impressive size even farther, and he stepped forward, blocking the moonlight that shone in through the hole in the roof above his head. The blackness of his body loomed before my blind eyes and gaped to swallow me. For a moment I shrank back, the way I had that first day on the bus, the first time I saw him rise to his full height. But then he pulled me within the shabby warmth of his tweed coat, and flattened my nose into his chest, me not minding the smell of swamp and goats, loving it even. No one had hugged me since before the war.
How could he love me when I had the life his daughter did not? How could it be so unconditional, this affection? As if he hadn’t heard a word I’d said, as if I hadn’t just revealed how I’d lied these past months, how I was deserting him now to return to my comfortable life with my comfortable family. The family I had that he did not. More than that even, I was a traitor. I was deserting him to die. I realized it in that moment even if he didn’t, and it didn’t matter that I was doing it so that other lives, later lives, younger lives, might be saved. Mr. Pell wasn’t going to escape the Finitians. He couldn’t. I could.
I hadn’t realized I was weeping until I felt the damp on his shirt where my tears moistened it. He didn’t say anything, just held me while I cried.
It was six months before I was home again, really home with Mom and Dad and my little sister. I would like to say it was a simple matter to go from point A to point B, to see my photographs plastered all over point B, galvanizing and militating a groundswell of people—plain people with flaws as bad as Grandpa and Grandma’s, but people of goodwill and kind intentions.
But it didn’t happen like that. There had to be a newspaper willing to print the photos first, to confirm what the Swedes had said one year ago and what had been rumored even before that: that the Finitians had massacred the giants— that the Finitians were still massacring non-humans, hiding the evidence in packing plants, and making a pretty penny selling dog food and sausages overseas. There had to be a paper willing to say all that and fight the shills who’d contradict my story, or worse yet, call it a fluke and push it so far into the margins it was in danger of falling off the page.
From the other side of the border, I’d had so little sense of what it was like in Finity. I had imagined the hard part was over when I left Mr. Pell: no longer working in the plant and taking the photos when no one was watching. But in the land of peace and plenty, it is hard to put out in pictures what were only words before, and whispered words at that. Even once the photos were in wide circulation, it took the struggle of others—more stories, more reports, more photos, more people who had been there—to verify and credit what my photos said.
Once the story is believed, too, what then? I watched all my people, my groundswell of goodwill, stand about looking from one to another, bewildered. Never imagining they would see such evil in their lifetime, they don’t know automatically what to do when the veil is stripped away and they stare at evil face-first.
Eventually, though, they move. And the Finitians—the President and the president’s men and the president’s masters—feel the ground come loose under their feet. On this side of the border.
I have a recurring dream about Julia Pell—about us knowing each other like old friends. From the night Mr. Pell told me her story, I knew I would have liked her. In the dream, against all odds, she also likes me.
On the other side of the border, on the Tuesday after I crossed into Finity, two border guards got on a bus in Ward Twelve to check papers. They never got off because the bus exploded. Investigators said it was a homemade bomb, so I suppose anyone on board could have done it. But the bus driver survived and, when he finally woke up, he said the guards were questioning an ogre just before the explosion. The driver said he saw the ogre reach for a brown paper sack on the empty seat beside him. The news reporters thought this must have been the culprit.
After I crossed, friends took me underground for my own protection, and I stayed in hiding until the photographs were out, so no one could directly connect them with me and my sudden appearance in Finity. I didn’t learn about the bus explosion until many weeks after the fact, and by then it was old news and only chance that I heard it—it wasn’t the first bombing, and it wouldn’t be the last. There was no particular reason to tell me about it. I hadn’t described Mr. Pell to anyone, and no one would have connected him to me or thought I had a personal interest in the event.
I don’t know why I didn’t talk about Mr. Pell, exactly. I’d like to think I was protecting him, but maybe I was trying not to miss him. When I heard the report and what the bus driver said, I didn’t believe it and I still didn’t talk about him. That night, I cried by myself, but that was all.
Now I think about Mr. Pell and Julia and I wonder. Maybe the news got this one right. “I would be dead by now if you hadn’t taken that bus seat next to me.” That’s what he’d said to me that night at the Tipsy Manticore, after he told me what happened to his daughter.
“People have to know and people have to fight,” I’d told him, in the way-house before I left. As if he needed me to tell him.
I understand his words better now. Before he ever met me, they’d already taken so much from him that he was ready to die, but he was also ready to take a little from them. Mr. Pell and I are not so different. If I were trapped the way he was, I’d want to take a few of them with me, too.
Should he have thought about the others on the bus? Should he have hesitated because of them? Well, he hesitated because of me. But I know: the more you are there, in the gore and the hopelessness, the harder it is to care about consequences—even for other people. And if you feel alone, you resist alone.
Really it was my failure, my inexperience, my presumption—I’d been a photographer, not an organizer. If I’d tried harder, if I’d shared who I really was and what I really thought and why I’d really stayed in New Avalon after the war, he might have seen another way. But I hadn’t expected to find friends, let alone allies, in Ward Twelve. Just victims. For all my youth, arguing about Folk rights and integration and interspecies communication, I just thought they were ground too far down under Finitian boots to do anything about it.
I am sorry for the others who lost their lives on the bus—regular people who might have wanted to resist, too. I am sorry for the others who were mutilated. They have so much reason to hate now, not only the border guards but also the people they might have sympathized with, even joined with.
But Mr. Pell chose his death; the Finitians didn’t choose it for him. At least he never went through the meat grinder like so many ogres I saw, to be sold in freezer sections across Finity. I’m glad for him.
Sometimes I don’t believe it, though. The ogre’s bag could have been full of shaving cream and spare socks, nothing more. Sometimes I prefer the innocent Mr. Pell, the one I remember holding me in the way-house. The Mr. Pell who couldn’t hurt a fly. Or a border guard.
But that Mr. Pell was defenseless, and I left him alone. I cannot think this. I won’t be my parents or my grandparents, insisting that ogres and dwarves and trolls are harmless, because really, my family was telling non-humans that they’d better be harmless, that they’d better not try and defend themselves. Really, my family was telling them to trust human rulers. I can’t believe that Mr. Pell would have swallowed that bunk, not after Julia. Not after my photos.
But does anyone ever really know another person, what they’re capable of, and what they’re not?
So now I know: Mr. Pell is dead and Ward Twelve is in revolt. Which we in Finity only hear about in bits and pieces—and always after the fact.
The day after the bus exploded, a worker at an auto-parts factory—my source told me she was a sylph, others said a gnome, but what does it signify?—found a packet of photographs left next to her locker. She circulated them down the rest of the assembly line. From the design of the building’s wall in the photographs they could recognize the packing plant. And the photos proved what had only been vague rumor. The giants had not withdrawn, the giants had been wiped out, their bodies mutilated, sliced to bits, hidden. Others, too, not just giants. Trolls. Ogres. Centaurs, cyclopses, gnomes, goblins. Others who disappeared, abducted in the night or escorted from their homes in broad daylight, flanked by Finitian border guards, or even New Avalon police. No bodies were found. No bodies. No tell-tale people parts left over to give the Finitians the lie.
Meanwhile, the auto-parts workers walked out of their factory. The guards came down with their truncheons, but there were too many workers to disappear all at once and they couldn’t be contained right away. Eventually, enough were killed and transported or talked into higher wages and a foreman’s badge that the Finitians relaxed.
But the Finitians didn’t realize: the story is known now. The photos are out. So it keeps happening, I hear. People in Ward Twelve refusing to go to the factories to work for them, to obey the border guards, to show their yellow cards and blue cards and passports. People at the packing plant leave—people I’ve known, humans every one of them—and go out to stand with the others, to say, yes, it’s true, the stories you’ve heard. It’s all true, and please forgive me, I don’t work for them anymore. Mobs tear down the fences around Ward Twelve and build their own barricades. Border guards flee or join them, and the mobs draw their own borders.
Around the world, others are taking notice. There are demonstrations, shows of solidarity, and when Finity calls on its allies, as it must one day, there will be refusals. Already, a peace group in Stockholm has troubled an arms factory, sabotaging the missiles it sells to the Finitian military. Just yesterday, in Bimini, a clan of merfolk scuttled a Finitian carrier.
That’s my legacy. For six months at the packing plant in New Avalon I turned people into products so that when I left, leaving others behind to turn more people or get turned themselves, I could let the world know.
So I sleep at night, and have vivid dreams of my friend. The ogre I met on the bus is dead, but Ward Twelve is in revolt.
C.S. Malerich lives and works near the District of Columbia. In addition to Ares Magazine, her speculative fiction has appeared in InfectiveInk, The Again, Mother’s Revenge from Scary Dairy Press, and the Among Animals anthologies from eco publisher Ashland Creek Press. “Phoenix Cross,” her contribution to Among Animals 2, was nominated for a 2017 Pushcart Prize. Visit her online at csmalerich.com.