得獎小說

溫馨小說

Monday, 5 June 2017

2017年6月得獎小說《群鳥飛舞的世界末日》



作者: 查莉・珍・安德斯 (Charlie Jane Anders
責任編輯:林欣璇
出版社:臉譜  
出版日期:2017/06/08

你想像中的世界末日,是怎麼樣的光景?
  能拯救地球的,是魔法還是科學?

她一心渴望遁入暗藏魔法的森林,
他夢想逃進繁星點點的外太空,
性格迥異卻同樣孤獨的女巫和科學家,
是否能攜手拯救遺棄他們的世界?



摘自 【光磊國際版權公司FB】2017.5.22

國幻想文壇的年度大獎星雲獎(The Nebula Award)昨晚揭曉,著名科幻/奇幻網站 io9.com 共同創辦人查莉‧珍‧安德斯(Charlie Jane Anders)的首部長篇小說《群鳥飛舞的世界末日》勇奪最佳長篇殊榮,中文版即將由 臉譜出版推出!

本書的故事敘述派翠西亞和勞倫斯兩個小孩因為總是受到同學欺壓,成為無所不談的好朋友。中學畢業後,兩人失去聯繫,等到再度重逢,他們皆已長大成人,她是能懂鳥語的女巫,他則是頂尖的電腦工程師,而他們身處的地球正瀕臨毀滅,洪水地震天災不斷,蜜蜂即將絕種、食物鏈受到破壞,飢荒與火災綿延。

科學與魔法自古以來水火不容,如今卻因為兩人逐漸萌發的愛苗而有了共存的可能。巫師試圖治癒地球的疾病,科技怪才則想要帶人類前往外星,尋找新的家園。這一切的結束,竟是未來的開始。

《群鳥飛舞的世界末日》文筆優美、故事獨具新意,結合了科技狂想、魔幻童話、末日寓言和愛情故事,得到主流文學和幻想類型圈的一致好評,麥可・謝朋稱讚這是可與《最後的國度》和《雲圖》並列的大師級傑作。



內容簡介


幻想文壇三項大獎話題鉅著
★ 星雲獎得獎作
★ 雨果獎決選作
★ 軌跡獎決選作
★ 亞馬遜網書當月選書
★ 亞馬遜網書年度好書
★ TIME年度十大好書
★ 柯克斯書評科幻/奇幻類好書
★ 好讀網(Goodreads)選書
★ 威廉克勞佛獎得主
★ 獨立書商協會當月選書
★ 著名奇/科幻網站io9.com主編|雨果獎得主眾所期待首部長篇小說


你想像中的世界末日,是什麼模樣?
能拯救地球的,是魔法還是科學?

派翠西亞和羅侖斯兩個小孩是眾所公認的怪胎,她偶然在森林裡拯救了一隻落難的鳥兒,發現自己聽得懂小動物說話;他則發明了「兩秒時光機」,雖然用處不大,但在他離家出走、去看火箭發射時意外獲得一群麻省理工研究員的肯定。 遭受同學排擠、同樣孤獨的兩個邊緣人自然而然成為無所不談的好朋友。

中學畢業後,兩人卻因誤會而漸行漸遠,等到再度重逢,他們皆已長大成人,派翠西亞是力量強大的女巫,羅侖斯則是頂尖的電腦工程師,而他們身處的地球正瀕臨毀滅,洪水地震天災不斷,蜜蜂即將絕種,食物鏈受到破壞,饑荒與火災綿延。巫師試圖治癒地球的疾病,科技怪才則想要帶人類前往外星,尋找新的家園。

當兩派人馬都想拯救世界,卻因種種偏見和矛盾而讓情勢更加險峻,大難將至,魔法和科學卻仍互相猜忌對立,派翠西亞和羅侖斯該怎麼面對?兩人要如何在末日降臨前尋得未來的契機,還是成為壓垮一切的最後一根稻草?


作者介紹

查莉・珍・安德斯 Charlie Jane Anders


著名科幻奇幻網站io9.com的主編。她在Tor.com上出版的《六個月,三天》榮獲雨果獎最佳中短篇小說,也入圍星雲獎,後來由美國國家廣播公司發展為電視影集。《錫房子》文學季刊、《艾西莫夫科幻小說》雜誌、《奇幻與科幻小說雜誌》以及McSweeney’s Internet Tendency文學網站都出版過她的小說,安德斯發表過的短篇小說目前已累計超過一百篇。

《群鳥飛舞的世界末日》是她的第一本長篇小說,即入圍眾多獎項,並獲主流文學與幻想類型圈一致好評,美國當今文壇鬼才麥可.謝朋稱讚這是可與《最後的國度》和《雲圖》並列的大師級傑作。

可以追蹤她的推特帳號@CharlieJane,也可以到她的網站charliejane.com逛逛。


作者談書




推薦好評

巧妙融合科幻與奇幻,一則寓意深遠而充滿詩意的故事。
──美國全國公共廣播電台

想像黛安娜・韋恩・瓊斯﹝《霍爾的移動城堡》原著作者﹞和尼爾‧蓋曼生了個孩子,那會是《群鳥飛舞的世界末日》。
──英國《獨立報》

充滿啟發人心的哲思,黑暗卻又閃爍著希望的光芒。每一代對末日的想像都不一樣,我相信安德斯知道這個世代的年輕讀者也許對未來感到絕望,但她想告訴他們,我們有能力解決前人留給我們的問題。找到拯救自己的方法,就是先找出我們該如何改變。
──SF Signal網站書評

在《群鳥飛舞的世界末日》裡,查莉‧珍‧安德斯在科幻小說的假定、奇幻的反事實、當代美國生活苦樂摻半的平凡之中,以令人目眩神迷的沉著衝刺與遨翔,拋出陣陣文學風格的閃電,魔法或電子在其中閃閃爍爍。她處理深刻複雜的問題,廣闊無邊又無足輕重如這星球的命運,微小關鍵如友誼的變化無常。讀者彷彿搭乘火箭,在袖珍型的認同史詩裡高速穿梭,形象鮮明的主角們最後感覺就像讀者的好友。這本小說毫不受限地引入宏大的構想以及神秘奇異的想法,創造出前後一貫、充滿神話的整個另類世界(依然確確實實是我們當前這個世界),同時又讓讀者為之心碎,讓我聯想到《天堂的車床》、《雲圖》跟《最後的國度》這類的傑作,有這般膽識的小說為數並不多,剛剛又多了一本。
──麥可‧謝朋(Michael Chabon)

兩個瘋狂的孩子,一個有科學天賦,另一個擅於魔法,在童年時期結識,分道揚鑣多年之後再次相遇。他們會找到愛嗎?他們會拯救世界嗎?還是會毀掉這個世界以及當中的每個人?展讀安德斯這本活潑、古怪、性感、駭人、詭異跟美妙的書,找出這些問題的答案吧。
──凱倫.裘依.芙勒(Karen Joy Fowler)

讀者夢寐以求的首部小說──以新鮮的角度觀看科幻小說最受珍視的文化基因,先無情地將之粉碎,再憐愛地加以重組。
──科里‧達特羅(Cory Doctorow)

溫暖、滑稽、譏諷──是我多年來讀過最棒的首部小說。
──查爾斯‧史卓斯(Charles Stross)

這本書是獨立製作魔咒應用程式的beta版本。這是手工調劑的互動指南。這本書是你第一個認識有瘋狂寫實3D刺青的人,這本書是個文青跟書呆子。等你讀了這本書,就會懂我的意思。
──茉琳F.麥克修(Maureen F. McHugh)

出色至極,充滿瘋狂的智慧,跟我所讀過的東西都不同。
──拉梅茲‧納姆(Ramez Naam)

查莉‧珍‧安德斯將科學跟奇幻的縷繩交纏起來,作為寫作類型也是體驗人生的方式,成就了一本光芒四射的小說,呈現了兩者令人振奮的必要性。
──約翰‧哈吉曼(John Hodgman)

查莉‧珍‧安德斯──半個先知、半個浪漫主義者,百分之一百才華洋溢的說書人──寫了《群鳥飛舞的世界末日》這本精彩小說,這是我們這個時代與下個時代的愛情故事,或許也屬於下下個時代。
──湯姆‧巴貝須(Tom Barbash)

《群鳥飛舞的世界末日》將兩個特色鮮明的文類,天衣無縫揉合在一起。喜愛科幻小說跟奇幻的人會深深受到這個世界的吸引,而這個世界的存續與否,端賴兩個不同凡響年輕人之間的角力。
──劍與雷射科幻奇幻播客 薇落妮卡‧貝蒙特(Veronica Belmont)

時不時會有一本小說出版,會在朋友之間引發討論、在喝咖啡的時候熱議、埋頭讀到書脊皸裂。而《群鳥飛舞的世界末日》就是這樣一本書。這則出色的成長故事探討了魔法與科學、世界末日以及愛情。
──邦諾書店科幻部落格 艾登‧莫爾(Aidan Moher)

高明、怪得美妙……派翠西亞跟羅侖斯的小說會讓類型小說書迷心生歡喜,而查莉‧珍‧安德斯慧黠平實的行文風格也會吸引主流讀者。
──《出版人週刊》


小說譯文摘文



他討厭別人叫他賴瑞,簡直受不了。所以呢,大家當然都叫他賴瑞,連爸媽有時也這麼叫他。「我叫羅侖斯,」他會堅持,望著地板,「沒人字邊的倫。」羅侖斯清楚自己是誰,知道自己是什麼樣的人,但這個世界拒絕承認。

在學校,其他小鬼都叫他賴瑞敗類或賴瑞匪類,或是在他火大的時候,叫他恐怖賴瑞,只是這在他那些穴居人同學之間,是種難得的諷刺展現,因為賴瑞事實上一點也不恐怖。通常這句話的前面會先出現「噢噢」,只是為了讓這個笑話更到位。賴瑞並不想當個嚇人的人,只是希望別人別來煩他;希望他們如果不得不跟他講話,也許可以把他的名字叫對。

羅侖斯就年齡來說個頭偏小,頭髮是秋末樹葉的顏色,長下巴,雙臂就像蝸牛脖子。他爸媽總是替他買大一號半的衣服,因為他們一直覺得他隨時可能就會快速抽長,而他們想要省點錢。所以他永遠被太長太鬆的牛仔褲管絆倒,雙手消失在運動衫袖子裡。即使羅侖斯想表現出氣勢逼人的模樣,消失的手腳也讓這件事情難上加難。

羅侖斯生活裡唯一的亮點就是紫外線電動遊戲,他在當中讓成千上萬想像中的敵人蒸發不見。可是羅侖斯又在網路上找到其他遊戲──耗費他好多時間弄懂的拼圖,還有大型多人線上遊戲,羅侖斯在那裡發動了繁複的戰役。不久之後,羅侖斯就自己寫程式了。

羅侖斯的爸以前對電腦還滿拿手的,不過成年之後在保險業裡找到一份差事,在那行裡他還是需要掌握數字,但不是你想知道的事情。現在他老是害怕自己會丟掉飯碗,然後全家會跟著挨餓。羅侖斯的媽原本在攻讀生物博士學位,後來懷孕,加上論文指導老師辭職,她休息一段時間之後,就一直沒回學校。
爸媽老是擔心,羅侖斯把清醒的每一分鐘都花在電腦前面,最後會變得跟他舅舅戴維斯一樣有社交障礙。於是他們強迫羅侖斯去上一連串永無休止的課程,目的在於讓他踏出家門:柔道、現代舞蹈、西洋劍、初學者的水上馬球、游泳、即興喜劇、拳擊、高空跳傘,最糟糕的是週末的野外求生活動。每堂課只是逼得羅侖斯換上另一套鬆垮的制服,其他小鬼在一邊嚷嚷:「賴瑞,賴瑞,賴皮鬼!」把他壓進水裡、把他提早拋出飛機、抓住他腳踝要他倒吊著即興表演。


羅侖斯納悶,是不是有另一個叫賴瑞的孩子,對於被丟包在山坡上這種事,會抱持著「衝啊」的積極態度。賴瑞可能是平行宇宙中的另一個羅侖斯,也許羅侖斯只需要把前後五分鐘左右、射向地球的所有太陽能集中起來,就可以在浴缸裡產生一種小型時空裂隙,把賴瑞從另一個宇宙綁架過來。這樣賴瑞可以出門負責去受折磨,而羅侖斯本人則可以安安穩穩待在家中。困難在於,要趕在兩週後的柔道巡迴賽以前,想辦法在宇宙裡鑽出一個洞。

「嘿,賴瑞匪類,」學校的布萊德・強能說,「快動腦。」這是羅侖斯遲遲想不通的句子之一。那些叫你「快動腦」的人,思考速度往往比你慢很多。他們這樣說只是正要做點事情,對集體的心智惰性有所貢獻。可是對於「快動腦」這句話,羅侖斯一直想不出完美的回擊,而且他也不會有時間講什麼,因為一秒鐘過後通常就會有討人厭的東西砸到他,然後他就必須去把自己清理乾淨。

有一天,羅侖斯在網路上找到某種示意圖,他把資料印出來,反覆讀了一百遍,最後終於開始弄懂它們的意思。他找到一個埋藏在舊訊息版貼文裡的太陽能電池設計,把這個跟示意圖裡的東西結合起來,開始做出成果。他偷了爸爸的舊防水腕錶,跟從幾個微波爐烤箱、手機搜刮來的一些零件結合起來,加上幾個電器行買來的零碎東西。最後就有了一個可以套在手腕上的時光機。

這個裝置很單純:只有一個小按鈕。不管何時壓下按鈕,你就會在時間上往前跳兩秒,只能這樣而已,既沒辦法擴展時間長度,也沒辦法倒轉時間。羅侖斯試著用網路攝影機來拍攝自己,發現當他壓下按鈕時,會消失一兩次眨眼的時間,可是只能偶爾使用一次,要不然腦袋就會暈到無以復加。

幾天之後,布萊德・強能說「快動腦」時,羅侖斯確實快快動了腦筋。他壓下手腕上的按鈕,原本朝他拋來的一團白色東西啪答落在他前方。每個人先看看羅侖斯,再看看融入地板拼磚的濕爛衛生紙捲,然後又看看羅侖斯。羅侖斯把「手錶」調至睡眠模式,表示如果有人把弄它,它也不會產生作用。可是他不用擔心──大家只是以為羅侖斯以超人的反射動作閃過了。葛蘭迪森先生氣呼呼走出教室,質問衛生紙捲是誰丟的,大家都說是羅侖斯。


能夠略過兩秒鐘有時還滿有用的──前提是要挑對那兩秒鐘。就像你跟爸媽在餐桌上,你媽說了點諷刺你爸又錯過升遷機會的話,你就知道你爸爸的憤恨即將短暫但致命地爆發出來。你就需要像神一般抓準時機,挑中帶刺話語發射的時間點。有一百種指引的信號:煮過頭的燉菜氣味、房間溫度微微降低的觸感、滴答作響的爐子漸漸停擺。你可以把現實拋在後頭,等事件過後再出現。
可是另外還有不少場合。比方說,艾爾‧丹斯把他從攀爬架丟到操場沙地上,他落地的時候消失不見。或是某個受歡迎的女生正準備走過來,假裝對他好,只是為了事後跟朋友們一面走遠一面嘲笑這件事。或是當老師開始了一段特別乏味的怒罵。即使削減兩秒鐘也有差別。似乎沒人注意到他閃逝了一下,也許因為你當時必須正眼看著他,而從來沒人正眼看他。如果羅侖斯一天可以使用這個裝置好多次而不頭痛,該有多好。

除此之外,在時間上往前跳躍正好強調了問題的根本:羅侖斯沒什麼可以引頸期盼的。

至少,羅侖斯就是有這種感覺,直到看到那個光滑形體在陽光中閃耀的照片。他盯著逐漸收窄的弧度,美麗的前錐體,強大有力的引擎,然後他內心有什麼甦醒了。有種他好久不曾體驗過的感受:興奮。這個私人資助的自製太空船就要發射到軌道上,多虧特立獨行的科技投資客米爾頓‧德斯,還有幾十位發明家朋友跟麻省理工學院的學生。再幾天就要在麻省理工學院校園附近發射了,羅侖斯非到場不可。他想親眼看看,而他這輩子從來不曾如此渴望一件事。
「爸。」羅侖斯說,起步就不順利:他爸正盯著手提電腦,雙手弓起,彷彿想保護自己的八字鬍,鬍子末端滲進了他嘴周的深刻紋路。羅侖斯挑錯了時間,來不及了,他已經鐵了心。「爸,」羅侖斯說,「星期二有個火箭測試,算是啦,這篇報導有講。」

羅侖斯的爸正要敷衍了事,他原本已經半是忘記要抽空投入親職,現在決心突然湧上。「噢,」 他頻頻回頭去看手提電腦,上頭有張報表,最後用力關起電腦,盡可能全心面對羅侖斯。「嗯,我聽說了,是那個叫德斯的傢伙,呃。是什麼輕量級的原型,對吧?最後可以降落在月亮的陰暗面。我是聽說過。」然後羅侖斯的爸說了個笑話,關於叫佛洛伊德的老樂團 、大麻跟紫外線。 
「嗯,」他爸滔滔不絕,羅侖斯趕在對話扯太遠以前打岔,「沒錯,是米爾頓‧德斯。我真的想去看,這就是那種一輩子只有一次的機會。我想也許我們可以當成親子活動。」他爸無法拒絕親子活動,要不然就像是承認自己是不稱職的爸爸。

「噢,」他爸深邃的眼眸裡有種尷尬的神情,就在方框眼鏡後面,「你想去啊?下星期二?」

「對。」

「可是……我的意思是,我有工作要做。有個案子,我一定要好好表現,要不然到時會很難看。而且如果像那樣把你帶出學校,你媽也會不高興。加上,我是說,你可以在電腦上看啊,會有網路轉播什麼的。你也知道,那種東西親自到場看都很無聊,要站老半天,而且有一半機會最後都會延期。你親自跑過去,什麼都看不到。透過網路去看,視野反而更好。」羅侖斯的爸的語調彷彿試著要說服兒子,也是要說服自己。

羅侖斯點點頭,一旦爸爸開始端出一堆理由,爭辯也沒意義。所以羅侖斯什麼也沒說,直到可以安全退場。然後他上樓回到房間,查看公車時刻表。
幾天之後,羅侖斯趁爸媽還在睡,踮著腳尖走下樓,在前門附近的小邊桌上找到媽媽的皮包。他打開扣鎖的動作,彷彿會有活生生的動物從裡頭跳出來。屋子裡的每個噪音聽起來都太大聲:咖啡機加熱、冰箱嗡嗡響。羅侖斯在皮包裡找到皮製皮夾,抽出了五十塊美金。他以前從來沒偷過錢。他一直料想會有警察從前門衝進來,上他手銬。

羅侖斯計畫的第二階段就是,在他搶了媽媽的錢之後,跟她面對面。他在她剛剛醒來,披著金盞花色晨袍、睡眼惺忪的時候去找她,告訴她有校外教學,需要她寫張同意他參加的紙條。(他已經想通一個舉世公認的真理,只要你搶先跟人討證明文件,他們就絕對不會跟你討任何東西的證明文件。)羅侖斯的媽抽出一根粗短的人體工學筆,草草簽寫了一張批准單。她的指甲油正在剝落。羅侖斯說這趟旅程可能會在外頭過夜,說如果外宿就會打電話回家。她點點頭,亮紅鬈髮上下彈跳。

羅侖斯走到公車站的路上,一時緊張不已。他要獨自踏上一趟大旅程,沒人知道他的去向,而且他口袋裡只有五十美金,加上一枚假羅馬硬幣。要是有人從購物中心的垃圾子母車後面跳出來攻擊他怎麼辦?要是有人把他拖進他們的卡車,把他載到幾百公里以外,然後把他的名字改成戴若,強迫他成為他們在家自學的兒子怎麼辦?羅侖斯在電視上看過一部電影在講這個。



可是接著羅侖斯想起那些在野外度過的週末,還有他曾經找到新鮮水源跟可食用的植物根部,甚至把一心為了爭奪綜合堅果巧克力、想跟他單挑的花栗鼠嚇走。他痛恨野外週末的每一秒鐘,可是如果他可以從當時活下來,那麼他就可以搭巴士到劍橋去,再想辦法前往發射地點。他是埃倫堡 的羅侖斯,他穩如泰山。羅侖斯不久前才弄清楚「穩如泰山」跟別人會不會胡搞你的衣衫一點關係都沒有,現在只要一有機會就盡可能用這個詞。

「我穩如泰山。」羅侖斯跟巴士駕駛說。駕駛聳聳肩,彷彿他也曾經自以為如此,直到有人搧了他一記。

羅侖斯打包了一堆吃的用的,但只帶了一本書,是一本薄薄的平裝書,討論最後一場星際大戰。羅侖斯才花一個小時就讀完那本書,然後就無所事事,只能盯著窗外看。巴士駛過公路時,路樹似乎放慢速度,然後再次加速──某種時間膨脹。

巴士抵達波士頓,然後羅侖斯必須找到當地地鐵站。他走進中國城,那裡有人在街上賣東西,餐廳櫥窗裡有巨大的魚缸,彷彿那些魚要先審查潛在客人,再決定他們有沒有資格進來。然後羅侖斯越過查爾斯河,科學博物館在晨光中熠熠生輝,對他敞開鋼鐵與玻璃手臂,炫耀著天象館。

羅侖斯抵達麻省理工學院校園,站在里戈海鮮餐廳前面,試著弄懂以編號標示的校舍時,才明白自己根本不曉得該怎麼找到發射火箭的地點。

羅侖斯原本想像抵達麻省理工學院,學院看起來會像是莫奇森小學的放大版,有前側階梯還有公布欄,大家會在那裡預告活動訊息。羅侖斯試了頭幾棟建築,甚至還進不去。他找到了大家張貼演講通知、約會建議還有搞笑諾貝爾獎的告示板,可是上面沒提到要怎麼去看那場大發射。

羅侖斯最後淪落到好麵包咖啡館,吃著玉米粉鬆糕,覺得自己像傻蛋。如果他可以上網,也許就可以弄清楚接下來怎麼辦,可是他爸媽還不給他手機,更不要說手提電腦了。咖啡館播放著悲情的老歌:珍奈傑克森唱著自己多麼寂寞、小甜甜布蘭妮坦承自己又做壞事了。他啜飲每口熱可可以前,都先長長哈口氣,一面試著想想接下來怎麼辦。

羅侖斯的書不見了,就是他在巴士上讀的那本。他原本放在桌上,就在鬆糕附近,現在卻不見了。不,等等──是在一個二十幾歲女人的手裡,她留著棕色長辮,寬臉,穿著紅毛衣,衣服起毛到簡直長了毛髮似的。她雙手長繭,穿著工作靴。她在手裡反覆翻著羅侖斯的書。「抱歉,」她說,「我記得這本書,我高中讀了大概三遍。寫說有個雙子星系跟住在小行星帶的人工智慧開戰。對不對?」


「呣,對。」羅侖斯說。

「選得好,」現在她正在打量羅侖斯的手腕,「嘿,那是兩秒時光機,對吧?」

「呣,對。」羅侖斯說。

「酷,我也有一個喔。」她拿給他看,跟羅侖斯的看起來差不多,只是小了一點,而且有計算機的功能。「我花了好久時間才弄懂那些網路上的圖解。就像是結合了工程技術、膽識跟什麼的小測驗,最後可以弄出一個有一千種用途的小裝置。介意我坐這邊嗎?我站著往下看你,讓我覺得自己像個權威人物。」
羅侖斯說沒關係。這場對話他不大能夠參與。女人坐在他跟吃剩的鬆糕前面。現在他跟她視線等高,發現她還滿漂亮的。

她有個俏皮的鼻子跟圓下巴,讓他想到去年他暗戀的社會科老師。

「我叫伊索貝,」女人說,「我是火箭科學家。」結果發現她就是來參加那場火箭大發射的,可是活動延遲了,因為臨時出了些問題,加上天氣什麼的關係。「可能再等個幾天就行了,你也知道這種事情總是這樣的。」

「噢。」羅侖斯望著熱可可的泡沫。到此為止了,他什麼也看不到了。莫名地,他讓自己相信:如果親眼看到火箭發射出去──原本在他面前,現在脫離我們星球的重力──他自己也會連帶獲得釋放。他可以回到學校,然後不去在乎,因為他已經跟某個在外太空的東西有了聯繫。

現在他白忙一場,只能成為蹺課的怪胎。他看著那本平裝書的封面,上頭畫了凹凸不平的太空船,跟以眼睛作為胸部的裸女。他沒哭出來或什麼的,不過有點想哭就是了。平裝本的封面上寫著:「他們前往宇宙的盡頭──為了阻止銀河的大災難!」

「可惡,」羅侖斯說,「謝謝妳告訴我。」

「沒問題。」伊索貝。她跟他說了更多火箭發射,還有這款新設計多麼具革命性的事,這些事情他老早知道了,然後她注意到他一臉悲慘。「嘿,不用擔心啦,只是拖個幾天。」

「是啦,可是,」羅侖斯說,「我到時就沒辦法過來了。」

「噢。」

「我到時候就沒空了,活動事先都排好了。」


羅侖斯舌頭稍微打結。他搓著桌子的邊緣,晃得熱可可表面的油膜都起皺了。
「你一定是個大忙人,」伊索貝說,「聽起來你的行程好像排得很滿。」

「其實,」羅侖斯說,「每天都很相像,除了今天以外。」現在他真的哭出來了,該死。

「嘿,」伊索貝拋下他對面的椅子,走過來坐他旁邊,「嘿,嘿,沒關係的。聽著,你爸媽知道你在哪裡嗎?」

「不……」羅侖斯抽噎,「不知道。」他最後把來龍去脈都告訴她了,說他如何從他媽那裡偷走五十美金,又怎樣翹了課,搭巴士跟波士頓地鐵來。他跟伊索貝述說的同時,因為害爸媽擔心而開始過意不去,可是他也越來越確知這種奇招不可能再重複。不管怎樣,短期內都不可能了。

「好吧,」伊索貝說,「哇,唔,我想我應該打電話給你爸媽,不過,他們得花點時間才能到,而且到發射地點的路線很混亂,我會告訴他們怎麼過去。」
「發射地點?可是……」

「因為等他們抵達的時候,你人已經在那邊嘍。」她輕拍羅侖斯的肩膀。他已經不再哭了,謝天謝地,他正要努力打起精神。「來吧,我帶你去看那個火箭。我帶你逛逛,介紹一些人給你認識。」

她站起來,對羅侖斯伸出手。他牽住她的手。

這就是為什麼羅侖斯能夠認識地球上最酷的十幾位火箭宅的緣由。伊索貝開著菸草味瀰漫的紅色福特野馬,羅侖斯的雙腳埋在玉米片的空袋裡。羅侖斯在她的汽車音響裡,頭一次聽到嬉哈樂手MC法朗塔勒。「你讀過海萊因的小說嗎?也許口味有點偏大人,不過他的青少年小說你一定應付得來。」她在後座挖來挖去,最後遞給他一本破舊的平裝本,叫做《穿上太空服旅行去》,封面炫麗得令人欣喜。她說她還有一本,他可以把書留著。

他們順著紀念大道行駛,然後穿過無止無盡一系列相同的公路、彎路跟隧道,羅侖斯領悟到伊索貝說得沒錯:他爸媽如果想來接他,縱使她給他們完美又清晰的指示,他們還是會迷路個幾次。他們老是抱怨在波士頓開車是自找麻煩。雲朵逐漸飄入天際,午後變得更加昏暗,可是羅侖斯不在意。


「看好了,」伊索貝說,「地球往軌道的單級火箭。我老遠從維吉尼亞州開車上來,就是來幫忙這件事。我男朋友嫉妒到快瘋了。」

火箭是羅侖斯體形的兩到三倍,儲放在河流附近的穀倉裡。它閃閃發光,天光透過穀倉窗戶流瀉進來,在淺色金屬外殼上反射出一道道光。伊索貝帶領羅侖斯繞著火箭走,把所有亮眼的特徵指給他看,包括燃料系統周圍的碳奈米纖維隔絕材料,實際引擎上的輕量矽酸/有機高分子外罩。

羅侖斯伸出手摸摸火箭,用指尖感覺微微起伏的外表。人們開始晃了過來,執意知道這小鬼的身分、他為什麼在碰他們寶貴的火箭。

「那個設備很精密。」穿著高領毛衣、嘴唇緊繃的男人叉起手臂。 

「我們不能隨便讓什麼小鬼在我們的火箭穀倉跑來跑去。」穿著連身褲的矮小女人說。

「羅侖斯,」伊索貝說,「秀給他們看。」他懂她的意思。

他的左手往下伸向右手手腕,壓下那個小小按鈕。他湧上那種熟悉的感受,就像心跳漏了一拍或是過度換氣,幾乎沒花什麼時間。然後就是兩秒鐘過後,他依然站在美麗的火箭旁邊,周圍繞了一圈人,他們全都盯著他看。大家都啪啪鼓掌。羅侖斯注意到他們的手腕上都戴著東西,彷彿這是一種潮流,或是某種徽章。

之後,他們就把他當成自己人。他征服了一小段時間,他們正要征服一小段宇宙。他們和羅侖斯一樣,都明白這是預付款,總有一天他們會擁有更大一塊宇宙,或者他們的子孫會。你歡慶小小的勝利,你夢想未來的大勝利。

「嘿小鬼,」穿著牛仔褲跟涼鞋的多毛男人說,「來看看我弄的這個推進器設計,很優喔。」

「是我們合力弄出來的。」伊索貝糾正他。

高領男年紀較長,三、四十多歲,搞不好甚至有五十多,灰白夾雜的頭髮逐漸稀薄,眉毛粗濃。他一直問羅侖斯問題,一面在手機上記東西。他要羅侖斯拼出名字,前後兩次。「提醒我在你十八歲生日的時候找找你,小鬼。」他說。
羅侖斯的爸媽為了搞清楚收費公路、史多羅大道、隧道和一切,灰頭土臉地抵達這裡時,羅侖斯已經成了這個軌道單級火箭幫的吉祥物。回家的漫長車程上,爸媽對羅侖斯解釋說,拜託喔,人生可不是一場冒險,人生是個漫長辛苦的跋涉,有一連串的責任跟要求,他全都左耳進右耳出。等羅侖斯年紀大到可以隨心所欲時,也是大到足以明白自己就是不能隨心所欲的時候。

夕陽西下。全家停車吃漢堡配更多訓話。羅侖斯一直偷偷往桌下瞥著那本攤開來的《穿上太空服旅行去》。這本書他已經讀了一半。


作者到Google朗讀&談書


作者訪談




原文摘文  source:Tor.com

All the Birds in the Sky, Chapter 1

When Patricia was six years old, she found a wounded bird. The sparrow thrashed on top of a pile of wet red leaves in the crook of two roots, waving its crushed wing. Crying, in a pitch almost too high for Patricia to hear. She looked into the sparrow’s eye, enveloped by a dark stripe, and she saw its fear. Not just fear, but also misery—as if this bird knew it would die soon. Patricia still didn’t understand how the life could just go out of someone’s body forever, but she could tell this bird was fighting against death with everything it had.

Patricia vowed with all her heart to do everything in her power to save this bird. This was what led to Patricia being asked a question with no good answer, which marked her for life.

She scooped up the sparrow with a dry leaf, very gently, and laid it in her red bucket. Rays of the afternoon sun came at the bucket horizontally, bathing the bird in red light so it looked radioactive. The bird was still whipping around, trying to fly with one wing.

“It’s okay,” Patricia told the bird. “I’ve got you. It’s okay.”

Patricia had seen creatures in distress before. Her big sister, Roberta, liked to collect wild animals and play with them. Roberta put frogs into a rusty Cuisinart that their mom had tossed out, and stuck mice into her homemade rocket launcher, to see how far she could shoot them. But this was the first time Patricia looked at a living creature in pain and really saw it, and every time she looked into the bird’s eye she swore harder that this bird was under her protection.

“What’s going on?” asked Roberta, smashing through the branches nearby.

Both girls were pale, with dark brown hair that grew super-straight no matter what you did and nearly button noses. But Patricia was a wild, grubby girl, with a round face, green eyes, and perpetual grass stains on her torn overalls. She was already turning into the girl the other girls wouldn’t sit with, because she was too hyper, made nonsense jokes, and wept when anybody’s balloon (not just her own) got popped. Roberta, meanwhile, had brown eyes, a pointy chin, and absolutely perfect posture when she sat without fidgeting in a grown-up chair and a clean white dress. With both girls, their parents had hoped for a boy and picked out a name in advance. Upon each daughter’s arrival, they’d just stuck an a on the end of the name they already had.

“I found a wounded bird,” Patricia said. “It can’t fly, its wing is ruined.”

“I bet I can make it fly,” Roberta said, and Patricia knew she was talking about her rocket launcher. “Bring it here. I’ll make it fly real good.”

“No!” Patricia’s eyes flooded and she felt short of breath. “You can’t! You can’t!” And then she was running, careening, with the red bucket in one hand. She could hear her sister behind her, smashing branches. She ran faster, back to the house.

Their house had been a spice shop a hundred years ago, and it still smelled of cinnamon and turmeric and saffron and garlic and a little sweat. The perfect hardwood floors had been walked on by visitors from India and China and everywhere, bringing everything spicy in the world. If Patricia closed her eyes and breathed deeply, she could imagine the people unloading wooden foil-lined crates stamped with names of cities like Marrakesh and Bombay. Her parents had read a magazine article about renovating Colonial trade houses and had snapped up this building, and now they were constantly yelling at Patricia not to run indoors or scratch any of the perfect oak furnishings, until their foreheads showed veins. Patricia’s parents were the sort of people who could be in a good mood and angry at almost the same time.

Patricia paused in a small clearing of maples near the back door. “It’s okay,” she told the bird. “I’ll take you home. There’s an old birdcage in the attic. I know where to find it. It’s a nice cage, it has a perch and a swing. I’ll put you in there, I’ll tell my parents. If anything happens to you, I will hold my breath until I faint. I’ll keep you safe. I promise.”

“No,” the bird said. “Please! Don’t lock me up. I would prefer you just kill me now.”

“But,” Patricia said, more startled that the bird was refusing her protection than that he was speaking to her. “I can keep you safe. I can bring you bugs or seeds or whatever.”

“Captivity is worse than death for a bird like me,” the sparrow said. “Listen. You can hear me talking. Right? That means you’re special. Like a witch! Or something. And that means you have a duty to do the right thing. Please.”

“Oh.” This was all a lot for Patricia to take in. She sat down on a particularly large and grumpy tree root, with thick bark that felt a little damp and sort of like sawtooth rocks. She could hear Roberta beating the bushes and the ground with a big Y-shaped stick, over in the next clearing, and she worried about what would happen if Roberta heard them talking. “But,” Patricia said, quieter so that Roberta would not hear. “But your wing is hurt, right, and I need to take care of you. You’re stuck.”

“Well.” The bird seemed to think about this for a moment. “You don’t know how to heal a broken wing, do you?” He flapped his bad wing. He’d looked just sort of gray-brown at first, but up close she could see brilliant red and yellow streaks along his wings, with a milk-white belly and a dark, slightly barbed beak.

“No. I don’t know anything. I’m sorry!”

“Okay. So you could just put me up in a tree and hope for the best, but I’ll probably get eaten or starve to death.” His head bobbed. “Or… I mean. There is one thing.”

“What?” Patricia looked at her knees, through the thready holes in her denim overalls, and thought her kneecaps looked like weird eggs. “What?” She looked over at the sparrow in the bucket, who was in turn studying her with one eye, as if trying to decide whether to trust her.

“Well,” the bird chirped. “I mean, you could take me to the Parliament of Birds. They can fix a wing, no problem. And if you’re going to be a witch, then you should meet them anyway. They’re the smartest birds around. They always meet at the most majestic tree in the forest. Most of them are over five years old.”

“I’m older than that,” Patricia said. “I’m almost seven, in four months. Or five.” She heard Roberta getting closer, so she snatched up the bucket and took off running, deeper into the woods.

The sparrow, whose name was Dirrpidirrpiwheepalong, or Dirrp for short, tried to give Patricia directions to the Parliament of Birds as best he could, but he couldn’t see where he was going from inside the bucket. And his descriptions of the landmarks to watch for made no sense to Patricia. The whole thing reminded her of one of the Cooperation exercises at school, which she was hopeless at ever since her only friend, Kathy, moved away. At last, Patricia perched Dirrp on her finger, like Snow White, and he bounced onto her shoulder.

The sun went down. The forest was so thick, Patricia could barely see the stars or the moon, and she tumbled a few times, scraping her hands and her knees and getting dirt all over her new overalls. Dirrp clung to the shoulder strap of her overalls so hard, his talons pinched her and almost broke her skin. He was less and less sure where they were going, although he was pretty sure the majestic Tree was near some kind of stream or maybe a field. He definitely thought it was a very thick tree, set apart from other trees, and if you looked the right way the two big branches of the Parliamentary Tree fanned like wings. Also, he could tell the direction pretty easily by the position of the sun. If the sun had still been out.

“We’re lost in the woods,” Patricia said with a shiver. “I’m probably going to be eaten by a bear.”

“I don’t think there are bears in this forest,” Dirrp said. “And if one attacks us, you could try talking to it.”

“So I can talk to all animals now?” Patricia could see this coming in useful, like if she could convince Mary Fenchurch’s poodle to bite her the next time Mary was mean to Patricia. Or if the next nanny her parents hired owned a pet.

“I don’t know,” Dirrp said. “Nobody ever explains anything to me.”

Patricia decided there was nothing to do but climb the nearest tree and see if she could see anything from it. Like a road. Or a house. Or some landmark that Dirrp might recognize.

It was much colder on top of the big old oak that Patricia managed to jungle-gym her way up. The wind soaked into her as if it were water instead of just air. Dirrp covered his face with his one good wing and had to be coaxed to look around. “Oh, okay,” he quavered, “let me see if I can make sense of this landscape. This is not really what you call a bird’s-eye view. A real bird’s-eye view would be much, much higher than this. This is a squirrel’s-eye view, at best.”

Dirrp jumped off and scampered around the treetop until he spotted what he thought might be one of the signpost trees leading to the Parliamentary Tree. “We’re not too far.” He sounded perkier already. “But we should hurry. They don’t always meet all night, unless they’re debating a tricky measure. Or having Question Time. But you’d better hope it’s not Question Time.”

“What’s Question Time?”

“You don’t want to know,” Dirrp said.

Patricia was finding it much harder to get down from the treetop than it was to get up, which seemed unfair. She kept almost losing her grip, and the drop was nearly a dozen feet.

“Hey, it’s a bird!” a voice said from the darkness just as Patricia reached the ground. “Come here, bird. I only want to bite you.”

“Oh no,” Dirrp said.

“I promise I won’t play with you too much,” the voice said. “It’ll be fun. You’ll see!”

“Who is that?” Patricia asked.

“Tommington,” Dirrp said. “He’s a cat. He lives in a house with people, but he comes into the forest and kills a lot of my friends. The Parliament is always debating what to do about him.”

“Oh,” Patricia said. “I’m not scared of a little kitty.”

Tommington jumped, pushing off a big log, and landed on Patricia’s back, like a missile with fur. And sharp claws. Patricia screeched and nearly fell on her face. “Get off me!” she said.

“Give me the bird!” Tommington said.

The white-bellied black cat weighed almost as much as Patricia. He bared his teeth and hissed in Patricia’s ear as he scratched at her.

Patricia did the only thing that came to mind: She clamped one hand over poor Dirrp, who was hanging on for dear life, and threw her head forward and down until she was bent double and her free hand was almost touching her toes. The cat went flying off her back, haranguing as he fell.

“Shut up and leave us alone,” Patricia said.

“You can talk. I never met a human who could talk before. Give me that bird!”

“No,” Patricia said. “I know where you live. I know your owner. If you are naughty, I will tell. I will tell on you.” She was kind of fibbing. She didn’t know who owned Tommington, but her mother might. And if Patricia came home covered with bites and scratches her mother would be mad. At her but also at Tommington’s owner. You did not want Patricia’s mom mad at you, because she got mad for a living and was really good at it.

Tommington had landed on his toes, his fur all spiked and his ears like arrowheads. “Give me that bird!” he shrieked.

“No!” Patricia said. “Bad cat!” She threw a rock at Tommington. He yowled. She threw another rock. He ran away.

“Come on,” Patricia said to Dirrp, who didn’t have much choice in the matter. “Let’s get out of here.”

“We can’t let that cat know where the Parliament is,” Dirrp whispered. “If he follows us, he could find the Tree. That would be a disaster. We should wander in circles, as though we are lost.”

“We are lost,” Patricia said.

“I have a pretty reasonably shrewd idea of where we go from here,” said Dirrp. “At least, a sort of a notion.”

Something rustled in the low bushes just beyond the biggest tree, and for a second the moonlight glinted off a pair of eyes, framed by white fur, and a collar tag.

“We are finished!” Dirrp whispered in a pitiful warble. “That cat can stalk us forever. You might as well give me to your sister. There is nothing to be done.”

“Wait a minute.” Patricia was remembering something about cats and trees. She had seen it in a picture book. “Hang on tight, bird. You hang on tight, okay?” Dirrp’s only response was to cling harder than ever to Patricia’s overalls. Patricia looked at a few trees until she found one with sturdy enough branches, and climbed. She was more tired than the first time, and her feet slipped a couple of times. One time, she pulled herself up to the next branch with both hands and then looked at her shoulder and didn’t see Dirrp. She lost her breath until she saw his head poke up nervously to look over her shoulder, and she realized he’d just been clinging to the strap farther down on her back.

At last they were on top of the tree, which swayed a little in the wind. Tommington was not following them. Patricia looked around twice in all directions before she saw a round fur shape scampering on the ground nearby.

“Stupid cat!” she shouted. “Stupid cat! You can’t get us!”

“The first person I ever met who could talk,” Tommington yowled. “And you think I’m stupid? Grraah! Taste my claws!”

The cat, who’d probably had lots of practice climbing one of those carpeted perches at home, ran up the side of the tree, pounced on one branch and then a higher branch. Before Patricia and Dirrp even knew what was going on, the cat was halfway up.

“We’re trapped! What were you thinking?” Dirrp sang out.

Patricia waited until Tommington had reached the top, then swung down the other side of the tree, dropping from branch to branch so fast she almost pulled her arm out, and then landed on the ground on her butt with an oof.

“Hey,” Tommington said from the top of the tree, where his big eyes caught the moonlight. “Where did you go? Come back here!”

“You are a mean cat,” Patricia said. “You are a bully, and I’m going to leave you up there. You should think about what you’ve been doing. It’s not nice to be mean. I will make sure someone comes and gets you tomorrow. But you can stay up there for now. I have to go do something. Goodbye.”

“Wait!” Tommington said. “I can’t stay up here. It’s too high! I’m scared! Come back!”

Patricia didn’t look back. She heard Tommington yelling for a long time, until they crossed a big line of trees. They got lost twice more, and at one point Dirrp began weeping into his good wing, before they stumbled across the track that led to the secret Tree. And from there, it was just a steep backbreaking climb, up a slope studded with hidden roots.

Patricia saw the top of the Parliamentary Tree first, and then it seemed to grow out of the landscape, becoming taller and more overwhelming as she approached. The Tree was sort of bird shaped, as Dirrp had said, but instead of feathers it had dark spiky branches with fronds that hung to the ground. It loomed like the biggest church in the world. Or a castle. Patricia had never seen a castle, but she guessed they would rise over you like that.

A hundred pairs of wings fluttered at their arrival and then stopped. A huge collection of shapes shrank into the Tree.

“It’s okay,” Dirrp called out. “She’s with me. I hurt my wing. She brought me here to get help.”

The only response, for a long time, was silence. Then an eagle raised itself up, from near the top of the Tree, a white-headed bird with a hooked beak and pale, probing eyes. “You should not have brought her here,” the eagle said.

“I’m sorry, ma’am,” Dirrp said. “But it’s okay. She can talk. She can actually talk.” Dirrp pivoted, to speak into Patricia’s ear. “Show them. Show them!”

“Uh, hi,” Patricia said. “I’m sorry if we bothered you. But we need your help!”

At the sound of a human talking, all of the birds went into a huge frenzy of squawking and shouting until a big owl near the eagle banged a rock against the branch and shouted, “Order, order.”

The eagle leaned her white fluffy head forward and studied Patricia. “So you’re to be the new witch in our forest, are you?”

“I’m not a witch.” Patricia chewed her thumb. “I’m a princess.”

“You had better be a witch.” The eagle’s great dark body shifted on the branch. “Because if you’re not, then Dirrp has broken the law by bringing you to us. And he’ll need to be punished. We certainly won’t help fix his wing, in that case.”

“Oh,” Patricia said. “Then I’m a witch. I guess.”

“Ah.” The eagle’s hooked beak clicked. “But you will have to prove it. Or both you and Dirrp will be punished.”

Patricia did not like the sound of that. Various other birds piped up, saying, “Point of order!” and a fidgety crow was listing important areas of Parliamentary procedure. One of them was so insistent that the eagle was forced to yield the branch to the Honorable Gentleman from Wide Oak—who then forgot what he was going to say.

“So how do I prove that I’m a witch?” Patricia wondered if she could run away. Birds flew pretty fast, right? She probably couldn’t get away from a whole lot of birds, if they were mad at her. Especially magical birds.

“Well.” A giant turkey in one of the lower branches, with wattles that looked a bit like a judge’s collar, pulled himself upright and appeared to consult some markings scratched into the side of the Tree before turning and giving a loud, learned “glrp” sound. “Well,” he said again, “there are several methods that are recognized in the literature. Some of them are trials of death, but we might skip those for the moment perhaps. There are also some rituals, but you need to be of a certain age to do those. Oh yes, here’s a good one. We could ask her the Endless Question.”

“Ooh, the Endless Question,” a grouse said. “That’s exciting.”

“I haven’t heard anyone answer the Endless Question before,” said a goshawk. “This is more fun than Question Time.”

“Umm,” said Patricia. “Is the Endless Question going to take a long time? Because I bet my mom and dad are worried about me.” It was hitting her all over again that she was up way past her bedtime and she hadn’t had dinner and she was out in the middle of the freezing woods, not to mention she was still lost.

“Too late,” the grouse said.

“We’re asking it,” said the eagle.

“Here is the question,” said the turkey. “Is a tree red?”

“Uh,” Patricia said. “Can you give me a hint? Umm. Is that ‘red’ like the color?” The birds didn’t answer. “Can you give me more time? I promise I’ll answer, I just need more time to think. Please. I need more time. Please?”

The next thing Patricia knew, her father scooped her up in his arms. He was wearing his sandpaper shirt and his red beard was in her face and he kept half-dropping her, because he was trying to draw complicated valuation formulas with his hands while carrying her. But it was still so warm and perfect to be carried home by her daddy that Patricia didn’t care.

“I found her right on the outskirts of the woods near the house,” her father told her mother. “She must have gotten lost and found her own way out. It’s a miracle she’s okay.”

“You nearly scared us to death. We’ve been searching, along with all of the neighbors. I swear you must think my time is worthless. You’ve made me blow a deadline for a management productivity analysis.” Patricia’s mother had her dark hair pulled back, which made her chin and nose look pointier. Her bony shoulders hunched, almost up to her antique earrings.

“I just want to understand what this is about,” Patricia’s father said. “What did we do that made you want to act out in this way?” Roderick Delfine was a real-estate genius who often worked from home and looked after the girls when they were between nannies, sitting in a high chair at the breakfast bar with his wide face buried in equations. Patricia herself was pretty good at math, except when she thought too much about the wrong things, like the fact that the number 3 looked like an 8 cut in half, so two 3s really ought to be 8.

“She’s testing us,” Patricia’s mother said. “She’s testing our authority, because we’ve gone too easy on her.” Belinda Delfine had been a gymnast, and her own parents had put several oceans’ worth of pressure on her to excel at that—but she’d never understood why gymnastics needed to have judges, instead of measuring everything using cameras and maybe lasers. She’d met Roderick after he started coming to all her meets, and they’d invented a totally objective gymnastics measuring system that nobody had ever adopted.

“Look at her. She’s just laughing at us,” Patricia’s mother said, as if Patricia herself weren’t standing right there. “We need to show her we mean business.”

Patricia hadn’t thought she was laughing, at all, but now she was terrified she looked that way. She tried extra hard to fix a serious expression on her face.

“I would never run away like that,” said Roberta, who was supposed to be leaving the three of them alone in the kitchen but had come in to get a glass of water, and gloat.

They locked Patricia in her room for a week, sliding food under her door. The bottom of the door tended to scrape off the top layer of whatever type of food it was. Like if it was a sandwich, the topmost piece of bread was taken away by the door. You don’t really want to eat a sandwich after your door has had the first bite, but if you get hungry enough you will. “Think about what you’ve done,” the parents said.

“I get all her desserts for the next seven years,” Roberta said.

“No you don’t!” said Patricia.

The whole experience with the Parliament of Birds became a sort of blur to Patricia. She remembered it mostly in dreams and fragments. Once or twice, in school, she had a flashback of a bird asking her something. But she couldn’t quite remember what the question had been, or whether she’d answered it. She had lost the ability to understand the speech of animals while she was locked in her bedroom.

Excerpted from All the Birds in the Sky © Charlie Jane Anders, 2015




記得小說裡的那隻女主角誓言要保護的貓咪嗎?
請讀作者Charlie Jane Anders 另寫的這個短篇《Clover

“Clover” copyright © 2016 by Charlie Jane Anders


The day after Anwar and Joe got married, a man showed up on their doorstep, with a cat hunched in the cradle of his arms. The man was short and thin, almost child-size, with a pale, weathered face. The cat was black, with a white streak on his stomach and a white slash on his face. The man congratulated them on their nuptials, and held out the squirming cat. “This is Berkley,” he said. “If you take him into your home, you’ll have nine years of good luck.”

Before Anwar and Joe had a chance to debate the matter of adoption, Berkley was already hiding in their apartment somewhere. They found themselves Googling the closest place to get a cat bed, a litter box, and some grain-free, low-fat organic food for an indoor cat. It was a chilly day, with scattered clouds that turned the sunset into a broken yolk.

Berkley didn’t come out of hiding for a month. Food disappeared from his bowl, and his litter box filled up, when nobody was looking. But the cat himself was a no-show. Until one night, when Anwar had a nightmare that the tanks cracked and his precious, life-giving beer sprayed everywhere. He woke to find the cat perched on the side of the bed, eyes lit up, one leg outstretched. Anwar froze for a moment, then tentatively reached out an arm and touched the cat’s back so lightly the fur lifted. Then Berkley scooted in next to Anwar and fell asleep, thrumming slightly. From then on, Berkley slept on their bed at night.

Their luck didn’t become miraculous or anything, but things did go well for them. Anwar’s microbrews grew popular, especially Nubian Nut and Butch Goddess, and he even managed to open a small brewpub, an “airy cavern” in the trendy warehouse district between NC State and downtown, not far from where there used to be that leather bar. Joe documented a couple of major atrocities without becoming a statistic himself, and wrote a white paper about genocide that he really felt might could make genocides a bit less likely. Anwar and Joe stayed together, and Joe’s hand along Anwar’s lower ribs always made him feel safe and amazed. Everyone they knew was suffering—like Marie, whose restaurant went under because she couldn’t get half the ingredients she needed due to the drought, and then she went back to Ohio to care for an uncle who’d gotten the antibiotic-resistant meningitis, and wound up getting sick herself. But Anwar and Joe kept being good to each other, and when problems came, they muddled through.

They almost didn’t notice the upcoming ninth anniversary of Berkley’s arrival. By now, the cat was the defining feature of their home, the lodestone. Berkley’s moods were their household’s moods: his pleasure, their pleasure. They went across town to get him the exact food he wanted, and kept him well supplied with toys and cat grass, not to mention an enormous climbing tree. Anwar’s most popular stout was the Black Cat’s Tail.

Nine years after Berkley’s arrival, to the day, another man showed up at their door, with another cat. A female this time, a fluffy calico with an intense glare in her wide yellow eyes. This cat did not squirm or fidget, but instead had a wary stillness.

“This is Patricia,” the big bearded lumbersexual white dude said without introducing himself. “You won’t have any extra luck if you take her in, but she’ll be a good companion for Berkley.” He deposited her on their doorstep and skipped away before Anwar or Joe had a chance to ask any questions.

They decided “Patricia” was an odd name for a cat, and named her “Clover” instead, because of the pattern of the spots on her back.



Berkley had worked for years to get Anwar and Joe’s apartment under control, and this represented both a creative enterprise and a labor of love. He had carved out cozy beds atop the laundry hamper, inside the old wicker basket that contained extra brewing supplies, and in the hutch where Joe kept his beloved death-metal concert shirts. Berkley knew exactly where the sunbeam came through the slanty front windows in the mornings, and the best hiding places for when Anwar brought out the terrifying vacuum-cleaner monster, versus when Anwar and Joe started shouting after Joe came home from one of his trips. Berkley had trained both men to sleep in exactly the right positions for him to curl up between their legs.

And now this new cat, this jag-faced maniac, sprinted around the front room, the bedroom, the kitchenette, the bathrooms—even the laundry nook! She trampled everything with her wild feet. She put her scent everywhere. She slept on the sofa, where Joe sat and stroked her shiny fur with both hands. She was just all over everything.

Berkley made no secret of his feelings on the subject of this invasion. His oratorio spanned two octaves and had an infinite number of movements. But his pleas and remonstrations went unheeded, as if his companionship were a faded, shredded old toy that had lost all its scent. Berkley should have known. This was the way of things: You get a sweet deal for a while, but just when you get comfortable, someone always comes and rips it away.

This lesson, Berkley had learned as a kitten. His first proper human had been a young girl, who had sworn to protect him, and Berkley had promised to watch over her in turn. Somehow, they had struck this deal in the language of cats, which made it much larger than the usual declarations that cats and people always make to each other. And then, she had disappeared.

Berkley never knew what had happened, only that he’d had a friend, and then she was gone. He was left alone in this giant wooden house, where every smell was a doorway. He’d searched for her over and over, his tail down and his head upcast. He had cried much too loud for his own good. There were still people in that house, but they didn’t love Berkley, or even wish him well. Their angry shouts and stomping boots echoed off the ancient walls, ever since Berkley’s friend disappeared. Every time he emerged from hiding to call out to his lost friend, he risked getting plucked off his feet by grabby hands.

He kept thinking he heard her or smelled her, but no. This always set off the wailing again.

Quick quick quick sleep.

Quick quick quick sleep.

Sometimes the grabby hands caught him, and then his hard-gotten dignity was all undone. His body bent into shapes where it didn’t want to go.

They heard Berkley cry, the angry people, and they shouted, they pounded the walls. He didn’t have a way to stop crying.

Friend didn’t mean to Berkley the same thing it would to a dog, or a human. But this girl had been the shoulder he slept on, the hand that scritched his ear, the voice that sang to him. Even the cozy old attic felt colder and darker, and the wooden house smelled like nothing but mildew.

Berkley was just letting go of the last of his kittenhood when another pair of hands had lifted him, gently, and brought him to this new house, where the scents were different (yeast, flowers, nuts) but the people were kind. Berkley forgot almost everything in life, but he never entirely forgot the girl, his original disappointment.

And just like the girl had been taken away from Berkley with zero warning or goodbye, now this new cat was going to steal all his comfort from him. Clover tried to talk to him a few times, but he was having exactly none of that. Berkley hissed at her like she was made of poison.



The thing was, Anwar really believed, deep down, in the “nine years of good luck.” He always referred to Berkley as their maneki neko, like one of those Japanese cat statues that waves a paw in the window and brings in good fortune. When the second guy showed up exactly nine years later, with another cat, and he knew so much, that clinched it.

Anwar had a sick feeling: Our luck just ran out.

Raleigh was an okay friendly city, mostly, but lately when he found himself downtown at night, he felt like he was going to get jumped any minute. Big scary dudes had followed him out to his truck from the bar once or twice, but Anwar had always gotten away. The mosque in Durham had gotten graffitied, and the gay bar off I-40, bricked. Inside his own bar, Anwar was getting more ignorant tipsy people up in his face, asking why he was brewing alcoholic drinks anyway—when, hello, the Egyptians invented beer, thank you very much. The barback, a large Hungarian named Vinnie, had needed to eject more and more abusive drunks recently. Anwar didn’t want to live in fear, so instead, he lived in the sweet spot between paranoia and rage.

The one-bedroom apartment, with its scuffed hardwood floors, crimson drapes, and shelves sagging with ancient books, seemed like a refuge. Locking the door from the inside, Anwar always took a deep breath, like his lungs were expanding to the size of the stucco walls. He felt ten years older outdoors than indoors.

But lately, Joe woke up angry, because funding cuts, and he was constantly having to haul ass up to D.C. for crisis strategy meetings. When Joe was home, and not crashing at Roddy’s place near Adams Morgan, he was a piece of driftwood in the bed, rigid and spiky. Joe talked to a point somewhere to the left of Anwar, instead of looking straight at him. The cats had gone to ground, as if sensing a high-pressure front: Berkley in one of his thousand hiding places, Clover under the sofa. Anwar screwed up his hamstring and limped around the apartment, and when he ventured outside it was with a what now feeling—maybe this time, his truck wouldn’t start, or the neighbors would have a campaign sign for that guy who insisted North Carolina would never accept refugees from any of the places where Joe kept track of atrocities.

“You got the right idea, staying home all the time,” Anwar told Berkley, who grudgingly offered his white tummy.

So one day, Anwar got done showering, and all the real towels were dirty. So he dried off using a hand towel. He emerged from the bathroom, cupping himself in that small woolen square, and saw Joe staring at him, gray eyes wide and unwavering. Anwar felt himself blush, was about to say something flirtatious to his husband, but Joe was turning to close the half-open front curtain, where anybody could see in from the front stoop.

“You might want to do a lot more crunches before you pose in front of an open window like that.”

Anwar bit his own tongue so hard his mouth filled up with blood. He just backed away—first into the bathroom, but there was nothing to cover him there, so he took a hard left into the bedroom. Still limping, he nearly stepped on Clover, who ran to get out of his way. Joe might as well have broken that window instead of covering it.

“Hey, I didn’t mean . . .” Joe came in just as Anwar was pulling on his baggiest pants. “You know I think you’re beautiful. I just meant, the neighbors. I was just teasing. That came out all wrong. I didn’t mean it like that.”

“Don’t you have a meeting in D.C. to get to?”

Once Joe was gone, Anwar fell onto the sofa, wearing just his big sweatpants. He felt gross. All of Joe’s previous relationships had ended with some combination of sarcasm and distraction, but Anwar always thought he’d be different. Anwar looked at his forearms, which at least were buff, thanks to pouring so much beer. He had to be there in a few hours, unless he called in sick.

Clover had jumped on the sofa when Anwar wasn’t looking, and had scrunched next to him with her head resting on his thigh. He scritched her head with one hand and she purred, while Berkley glared from the opposite end of the room. “Hey, it’s not your fault our luck went south when you showed up,” he told her. “I’m sorry you had to see us like this. We were a lot cooler when everything was going our way.”

The cat looked up at him with her eyes perfect yellow spheres, except for tiny black slits, and said, “Oh, shit.”

Then she sprang upright. “Shit! I’m a cat. WTF. I didn’t mean for this to . . . how long have I been a cat? This is really bad. You have to help me, or I’m going to get stuck like this. Listen, do you have a phone? I need you to dial for me, because I have no freaking opposable digits. Listen, it’s—”

Then Clover stopped talking, abruptly. She sat down, looked up at him, and let out a long, high chirp, like the sound a cat makes when it’s sitting at an open window and trying to communicate with passing birds.



Berkley’s life was ruined, and it felt worse than the first time. He was a lot older this time, and, too, he couldn’t run and hide from this.

Joe was gone. As in, just not at home anymore—he had been around less and less, lately, but now days had passed without his scent or his voice. Anwar was still there, but he wasn’t acting like Anwar. No gentle pats, no tug-of-war with the catnip banana. No silly noises. The only cat that Anwar paid attention to was Clover, and he acted as if Clover had quit in the middle of playing a game that Anwar really wanted to continue.

It was way past time someone sent Clover to The Vet.

Berkley was a fierce, crafty hunter. He found the perfect bookshelf from which to watch for Clover emerging from under the sofa. She usually came out when the mail rained down from the slot in the front door, because that was like a daily miracle: paper from the skies! Berkley had a claw, ready to swipe.

He almost got her. She ducked out of the way, just as the claw came down, and he caught some dust mites instead. She ran, back toward the sofa, and he followed.

“New cat!” he hissed at her. “You ruined it all!”

“I didn’t mean to!”

As Berkley stalked her, he found himself telling her the story of his original disappointment: how he’d lived in an old wooden house with a cruel girl and a strange girl. And Berkley had made the strange girl his own, until she was taken away, and he was left worse than before. That “worse than before” was where Berkley was, now, and he had nothing left but to share that feeling with Clover.

“But,” Clover said from under the sofa, “that was me. I was the weird girl. I remember now. I promised to protect you. I kept my promise! That’s how you got here. I kept my promise. And now I need you to help me in return.”

And just like that, Clover lost her fear of Berkley. She talked her wild talk at him, out in the open, and no amount of claw-swipes could scare her off. As mad as she was acting, it was almost like she wanted to go to The Vet.

“I was a person. I lived with you,” Clover kept saying. “I went away to learn more tricks. I could speak cat, sometimes, but I wanted to do more. But when I left, I thought about you all the time. I had bad dreams about you. Scary dreams. I imagined you all alone in that old house, with my family, and I had to save you. But my teachers wouldn’t let me leave the school. So I asked them to save you.”

Berkley growled. “So then you just told a man to come and take me away? That was all you did?”

“They said they found you the perfect home, the best family for you. They said I could repay them later. I didn’t understand what they meant. But now! I have to turn back into a person soon, or I will just lose myself. I don’t know how. I think this is a test, and I’m failing it. You have to help me. Please!”

Berkley considered this for a moment. “So. You say you are the girl who abandoned me as a kitten, and spoiled my good thing. And now you’ve come back as a cat, to spoil my good thing a second time. And you want me to help you?” Berkley let out the most disdainful, vengeful hiss that he possibly could, then turned and walked away without looking back.



Anwar had met Joe at this death-metal concert that his friends had dragged him to, in a beer-slick dark club that resembled the inside of a giant van. When he saw Joe in his torn denim and tank top waiting at the bar, his heart had just flipped, and he’d stood next to Joe for ten minutes before he got up the nerve to say hi. Their first three dates, Anwar lied his ass off and pretended to be a death-metal fan, to the point where he had to keep sneaking away to text his friends with questions about Finnish musicians. Joe had this mane of red hair and permanent five-o’clock shadow flecked with white, and a way of talking about guitar solos that was way better than listening to music.

When Joe had found out that Anwar actually loathed metal, he’d nearly wept. “Nobody’s ever done anything like that for me. That is so . . . beautiful.” He kissed Anwar so hard, Anwar tasted whiskey and felt Joe’s stubble on the corners of his mouth. That’s when Anwar knew this was the man he wanted to marry.

Joe was Anwar’s first real, proper love. But Joe was more than a decade older, and had already lived through a string of two-year and three-year relationships. Joe had experienced enough relationship failure to be inured. When they’d first hooked up, Joe had prized Anwar’s twenty-something body, his lean golden frame, and seeing that covetous look in the eyes of this slightly grizzled rocker dude had punched a button Anwar didn’t even know he had.

Anwar prized Joe’s independence, the way he always said, Live like the fuckers don’t own you, even after they went all domestic together. His gentleness, even when he was pissed off, and the warm sound of his voice when he checked in. Joe had not checked in in ages—they had barely even talked on the phone—because the emergency in D.C. had given birth to other emergencies, and now there was a whole emergency extended family.

Meanwhile, Anwar’s truck kept not starting, there was a weird stain on the bathroom wall, and, well, Anwar was losing his mind and imagining that his cat had talked to him. Clover hadn’t spoken since that one time, but she’d been on a tear: chasing Berkley around, making weird noises, knocking things over. Both cats were upset, since Joe was gone and Anwar wasn’t himself. Anwar kept trying to pull himself together and at least be there for these two fur-balls, but he only stayed together for a minute or two at a time, no matter how hard he tried.

Then another one of those men showed up at his door: this one pale and thin, with elaborate tattoos on his hands, and a dark suit with a thin tie. “Don’t mind me,” the man said. “I just want to talk to your cat.” Anwar stepped aside and let the man come in.

“How was the good luck, by the way?” The man peered under various pieces of furniture, looking for Clover. “Were you happy with how it turned out?”

“Um, it was okay, I guess,” Anwar said. “I’m still trying to decide, to be honest.” He wanted to say more—like maybe he and Joe had never been tested, as a couple, because everything had gone so smoothly for them until now. Maybe they’d have been stronger if they hadn’t had training wheels. Maybe they were just fair-weather lovers.

“Okeydoke,” the man said. “I could get you another dose of luck, but it would cost a lot more this time.” He squatted in front of the sofa, where Clover eyed him. “Has she talked to you?”

“Um,” Anwar said. “I guess so. Yes.”

“Don’t believe anything she says.” The man reached out a hand gently, and Clover let him pet her, fingers under the chin. “She’s the worst combination of congenital liar and delusional. Even she doesn’t always know if she’s telling the truth.”

“So she was lying when she told me that she used to be a person?”

“No, that was true. She wanted me to do her a favor, and this was the result.” The man snapped his fingers in front of Clover’s face. “Come on, then. What do you have to say for yourself?” Snap, snap. “How’s the food?” Snap. “Are you enjoying your accommodations?”

Clover just stared at him and grumbled a little. She twitched whenever he snapped his fingers, but she didn’t try to run away.

“Either she’s unable to speak, because she just hasn’t gotten it under control, or she’s just being pissy. Either way, disappointing.” The man stood up. “Please let me know if she speaks to you again.” He handed Anwar a business card that just had a Meeyu handle. “And if you decide you need another lucky break, just @ me.”

“What exactly would I have to do to get more good luck?”

“It really depends. Some of it might be stuff where you wouldn’t really be you by the end of it. But I tell you what, if you can get that cat speaking English again, that would go a long way.”

The man spun on one heel, almost like one of Joe’s old dance moves, and walked out the door without saying goodbye or closing the door behind him. Anwar hated when anyone left the door open, even for a second, because he never wanted the cats to get any ideas.

Joe called when Anwar was in the middle of trying to coax words out of Clover with cat treats and recitations of Sufi poetry. (No dice.) “Things are beyond crazy, you have no idea. I’m trying to come back to you but every time I think I’m going to get out of here, there’s another fucking drama eruption. The auditors are maniacs.” In the background, Anwar could hear guitar heroics and laughing voices. “I am going to make it up to you, I swear. I still have to apologize properly for being such an ass before. I gotta go.” Joe hung up before Anwar could even say anything.

Anwar had sort of wanted to ask Joe if he felt like they’d been lucky, these past nine years, and whether the luck would be worth going to extremes to get back. But he couldn’t think of a way to ask such a thing.



Berkley took a wild skittering run from one end of the apartment to the other, and just as he hit peak speed, he reached the front door, where Clover was sitting waiting for the mail to rain down. He vaulted over her, paws passing almost within shredding distance, and landed at the front door, so hard the mail slot rattled.

Clover just looked at him, eyes partway hooded.

Berkley pulled into a crouch, ready to spring, claws out, ready to tear the new cat apart. But that bored look in her eyes made him stop before he jumped. He was a cunning hunter. He could wait for his moment. She hadn’t talked any more nonsense to Berkley since that one time, but she still didn’t seem scared of him. He didn’t know what he was dealing with.

“New cat,” Berkley said in a low voice. “I’m going to send you to The Vet.”

Clover didn’t reply. The mail fell, but it was just a single envelope with red shapes on it.

Some time later, Anwar cried into his knees on the couch. He smelled wrong—pungent and kind of rotten, instead of like nice soap and hops. He was all shrunk inward, in the opposite of the ready-to-pounce stance that Berkley had pulled his whole body into when he’d been preparing to jump on Clover. Anwar didn’t look coiled or ready to strike, at all. He was making these pitiful sounds, like he couldn’t even draw enough breath to sob properly.

Berkley saw the new cat creeping across the floor towards Anwar, and he ran across the room, reaching the sofa first.

“No,” he told Clover. “You don’t do this. This is mine. You’re not even a real cat. Go away!”

Berkley climbed up on the sofa without even waiting to see if the new cat went away. He rubbed his forehead against Anwar’s hand, holding his knee, and licked the web between his fingers a little bit. Anwar let his knees down and made a lap for Berkley. Anwar’s hand felt good on his neck, and he let out a deep satisfied purr. But then he heard Anwar say something, in a deep, mournful voice. He sounded hopeless. Berkley looked up at him, and struggled with his urges.

Then Berkley looked over at the new cat, who was watching the whole thing from on top of the bookcase. Berkley narrowed his eyes and told her, “I want to hurt you. But I want to bring back the other human more. If I help you, can you bring the humans back together? Yes or no?”

Clover looked down at him and said, “I think so. I’ll do what I can.”

A few hours later, Anwar had stumbled out of the house and the cats were alone again. “I keep forgetting who I am,” Clover said. “It’s hard to hold on to. But I remember, I begged the teachers to help me save you from my family, and I talked about how you were suffering. They said if I understood cats so much, why didn’t I try being one? I was like, ‘Fine.’ I didn’t realize what I had signed up for until years later.”

“So you climbed into a place that you cannot get out of again,” Berkley suggested. “Because there is not enough room to turn around.”

“Sort of, yeah.”

“So,” said Berkley, tail curled and ears pointed. “Don’t turn around.”



Anwar’s ankle was kind of swollen and he had no money for a doctor visit, and the stain on the bathroom wall had gotten bigger. The Olde Tyme Pub had gotten a totally bullshit citation from the North Carolina Department of Alcohol Law Enforcement, which had the hilarious acronym of ALE. His truck still kept not starting. Anwar longed to rest his head on Joe’s shoulder, breathing in that reassuring scent, so Joe could say, Fuck ’em, it’ll all be good. On his lonesome, Anwar only knew how to spiral.

Clover came up to him as he sat on the bed, getting laboriously dressed, and perched on the edge. She made noises that usually meant “feed me” or “throw my fuzzy ball.” Anwar just shrugged, because he’d wasted three days trying to get her to talk.

Just as Anwar finally got his good shirt buttoned and stood up, Clover said, “Hey.”

“Well,” Anwar said. “Hey.”

“Oh thank god. I finally did it. I’m back,” Clover said. “Oh thank goodness. I need your help. I think this is a test, and I’m failing it. One time before, I became a bird, but I needed help to turn back into a person. And now I feel totally stuck in cat form.”

Anwar was already reaching for his phone to go on Meeyu and @ that guy, to let him know the cat finally started talking again. He no longer cared if he was being a crazy person. What had sanity done for him lately?

“The longer I go without turning back into a person, the harder it’s going to be,” Clover said, jumping on the bed. “You look like shit, by the way. Berkley is worried about you. We both are.”

“Hey, it’s fine. You’re okay.” Anwar picked her up and looked into her twitchy little face. “I already told those guys, the ones who dropped you off here. They know you’re talking again. They’re probably on their way. They’ll help you out, and maybe they’ll give Joe and me some more luck.”

Clover squirmed, partly involuntarily. “You really shouldn’t take any luck from those guys. It’ll come with huge strings attached.”

“Well, they told me that you’re a liar. And you know, I have nothing to lose.” But Anwar had a sudden memory of the man saying, You wouldn’t really be you any more.

“Please! You have to help me change back to a person before they get here,” Clover said.

“I don’t know how to do that.”

And anyway, it was too late. The door opened, without a knock or Anwar having to unlock it, and a man entered. He had dark skin pitted with acne scars, and long braids, and a purple turtleneck and matching corduroys. “So,” the man said, “what does she have to say for herself?”

“You wasted a trip,” Clover told him. “I’m still working on changing myself back. I only just got my human voice working. I’ve got a ways to go before I’m in my own body again.”

The man shrugged and picked Clover up with one hand. “You already did what we needed you to do. Just think what we’ll be able to do with a cat who talks like a person and knows how to do magic. You’ll be way more useful to us in this form.” Clover started squirming and shouting, and tried to claw the man, but he had her in a tight grip. He turned to Anwar. “Thanks for whatever you did. We’ll consider this a down payment, if you decide you want more luck.”

“No!” Clover sounded terrified, on an existential level. “This is messed up. I don’t want to be stuck as a cat forever. I have a boyfriend. I have friends. You have to help me!” She looked right at Anwar, her yellow eyes fixed on him, and said, “You can’t let them take me.”

Anwar thought about how things had been before, with just the one cat, and Joe there, and everything peaceful. He wanted nothing more than to bring back that version of his life. But he looked at Clover, her whole body contorted with terror—claws out, eyes huge and round, mouth full of teeth. And he knew what Joe would say if he was here: You gotta live like the fuckers don’t own you.

The words came out before Anwar had even thought them through: “You can’t take my cat.”

“I beg your pardon?” the man said. His stare was impossible to meet.

“You can’t,” Anwar swallowed. “That’s my cat. You can’t take her.”

“Thank you thank you,” Clover whispered.

“This isn’t a cat. She’s a whole other thing. And whatever she told you, she was lying. That’s what she does.”

Anwar drew courage from the fact that the weird man was arguing with him, instead of just taking the cat and leaving. “You gave this cat to me. You didn’t say it was a loan. She’s mine. I have all the records to prove it.”

And now the man did turn to leave, but Clover leapt out of his arms. She landed on three feet, nearly tumbled head over tail, and then got her balance fast enough to run back into the apartment. She headed for one of the hundred hiding places that she’d gotten to know, but the man was right behind her. Anwar just stood and watched as the man ran through the apartment, knocking over Joe’s guitar. He was right on top of Clover, leaning to scoop her up.

There was another cat between the man and Clover. As he bent down to grab the cat who was still shouting in English, his hand connected instead with Berkley. Who bit his thumb, hard enough to draw blood.

Berkley growled at the man, in a pose Anwar had never seen before. Standing his ground, snarling, bloody teeth bared. Roaring. Like a tiny lion. This would have been the most ridiculous sight ever, if it weren’t so heroic.

Clover stopped and looked at Berkley, defending her. Her jaw dropped open; her ears were all the way up. “Berkley, shit,” she said. “You just bit the thumb of the most powerful man on Earth. I can’t believe you. Whatever happens now, I want you to know I regret leaving you behind. And no matter what price I end up paying, I’m glad I rescued you. I’m sorry, and I understand what you went through.”

That last phrase was like a string breaking, or a knot being undone after hours of pulling and worrying. As soon as Clover said understand, the cat was gone. A naked woman stood in Anwar’s hallway, holding Berkley in her arms. He looked up at her and seemed to recognize her. He put his head on her shoulder and purred.

The woman looked at the man, who was nursing his thumb. “I know you’re still pissed about Siberia. I get it. But jeez. This was mean, even for you.”

The man rolled his eyes, then turned to look at Anwar. “I hope you enjoy not having any luck ever again.” Then he stomped out of the apartment, leaving the door open.

As soon as the man was gone, Anwar fell onto the couch, hands on his face. He felt weird having a naked stranger in his home, and even weirder that this girl had seen so much of him at his worst, and he’d had his hand on her face so many times. The whole thing was weird. And he felt a huge letdown in his gut, because he’d convinced himself somehow that he and Joe would get more luck and it would be fine.

“So that’s it,” Anwar muttered, mostly to himself. “We’re screwed.”

“Hey, can I borrow some clothes?”

While the girl—Clover—was getting dressed, she tried to talk him down. “Joe is coming back. He loves you; he just sucks at expressing it sometimes. I’ve seen how you guys are.” Somehow, she managed to put clothes on without letting go of Berkley. “So listen. I suck at giving advice. But the absence of good luck is not bad luck. It’s just . . . life.”

“I guess that sort of makes sense,” Anwar said.

“That would be a first for me.” Clover looked twitchy, like she was still ready to chase a ball around, or eat a treat out of Anwar’s hand. Anwar wondered if she was going to be stuck having cat thoughts forever. “I can fix your injured ankle, no problem. And also I think I know how to get rid of that stain on your bathroom wall. I’ll have a look at the truck; I’m pretty good with engines. And I’ll leave you my Meeyu info, if you ever have another problem you need help with. I’ll be around if you need me, okay?”

Anwar nodded. He was starting to think having this magical girl on speed dial could be better than good luck anyway.

Joe came home an hour later, after Clover had already left. “Hey,” Joe said. “I lost my job. But I think we’re better off, and I already have a line on something—I’ll never have to leave town again. I just wanted to say I’m really sorry about being a jackass, and leaving for so long, and I love you. You’re the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen.”

Anwar just stared at his husband for a moment. He had a case of highway sunburn on one arm and part of his neck, and his hair was a mess, and he looked like a rock star. Anwar threw his arms around Joe and whispered, “The cats missed you.” Then he realized there was only cat, and he was going to have to explain somehow. But he was too busy kissing the man he loved, and there would be time for that later.

Watching the two men from the top of his fuzzy climbing tree, Berkley looked immensely self-satisfied.

“Clover” copyright © 2016 by Charlie Jane Anders








  



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