Raissa locked the Special Collections room, clocked out of the Central Branch Library, and walked, humming along with her bug, to the 10th Avenue bus stop before she noticed her hands. Two teenaged boys clued her in, pointing at her, mimicking a mime trapped in an invisible box, and fell over each other in laughter matched by the violet pulses of their bugs. She frowned at first, then realized she still wore her white archival gloves. With a sigh, she curled her fingers at them in silent claws.
As the bus approached she decided not to share a ride with them. Killing time until the next one, she crossed the street to the coffee shop. They hooted after her.
Her bug bristled and panted, and finally settled against her neck.
* * *
The barista with the cobalt blue eyes started her drink before she ordered.
Raissa looked at him sidelong, as her bug trilled lightly. “Am I so predictable?”
His smile widened as his bug stirred awake on his defined trapezius. “Twice this week, three last week. And you only drink half.”
To avoid his eyes, she watched his hands on the counter. Their bugs warbled and swayed.
“I’m gonna just…” She pointed away.
“I’ll bring it out to you.”
She found an empty seat at the access station, vintage school chairs around the thick trunk of braided crystal and spongy tissue that corkscrewed up from a large planter box. The node bloom had grown since Tuesday, its long branches arcing against the ceiling and back down to fine glowing filigree tips. She whispered a rhetorical hello to the other users, and reached for a free bough as her bug moved into her hand to connect them with anxious tendrils.
The barista brought her latte. She took a sip and noticed he’d written his name and number on the napkin.
Flipping into the limitless biofretwork, she and her bug sifted her memories and weaved new channels. She spoke in thought sheens with her old friend Elaine, whom she’d not seen since fifth grade. Bobby, who’d moved to Utrecht last year for a job. And her sister, who was starting her sophomore year at Grinnell, major still undeclared.
She let herself fade out of the social mesh until the voices grew distant in the infinite lattice. Her mind knit and formed a secluded place, and when it was complete, she stepped onto the cool marble floor, surrounded by towering bookcases illuminated by flickering candle light. A steady mumuration filled the hall from the rows of long ebony tables where varied figures hunched over heavy tomes, whispering from mouths and beaks as they traced lines of luminous script with finger, talon, and paw. When she put her finger against her lips and made the sound of a serpent, the entire space fell silent. All heads returned quietly to reading. Her sharp heels clacked on the buffed stone as she strode across the main floor to the winding staircase.
She wandered among the ancient stacks, straightening shelves and gilded spines, as she inhaled the aroma of countless worlds in each tattered volume, exquisite stories written in dreams.
The tearing sound began faintly, interrupting the perfection, pulling at the fabric of her place, and she ran toward it.
By the time she reached him in the eighth aisle of the fifth floor, he had removed a multiple chapters of the book. Crosslegged among scattered pages, he looked up from the ragged work at her standing over him, and gasped. He seemed about her age, with a pleasant enough face.
There was always one, but then, she always looked forward to it.
Raissa took him by the ear and marched him to the end of the aisle. She stopped him at the mahogany banister overlooking the vast hall, and he turned to her for further instruction. From her long skirt she produced an ornately carved wooden paddle. She tapped the thick implement on the rail.
Obediently, he lowered his trousers, leaned forward and gripped the balustrade.
The paddle, she told him between each smack, had been fashioned from an ancient meteorite tree, carved by a basilisk poet, and polished with manticore blood. And what? Smack. Did he think? Smack. Of that? Smack. Each wallop echoed throughout the rotunda.
He received five additional swats for answering.
* * *
Raissa only vaguely recalled that autumn day at the downtown plaza. She’d been standing in line at the Korean fusion food cart when the fountain slowed to a dribble, ceased, then caved into a dark dusty void. With barely a rumble, the eruption showered out onto the memorial bricks and stairs a geyser of iridescence that bloomed, solidified, then wept a cascade of small, almost insubstantial fruits, hand-sized mellifluous clouds, each undulating with jointed legs and dancing ribbon tendrils. It might have been repulsive but for the deep primal song pulsing in the air around them. When she picked herself up from the sidewalk and noticed the organism attached to her neck, she was not afraid, for she knew at once the story of its journey and its name, though she could not pronounce it aloud.
She used to go back every day at lunch, to see the burgeoning first growth. Its giant crystal floret produced no more bugs, but its branches still thrived. Now its kin flowered throughout the world, and the scars from each scion sampling blossomed more colorful stalks, especially in the rainy season. And she could speak six languages overnight.
* * *
Because she had done nothing but work the last few months she went out to dinner with Maslin the barista. They enjoyed the Ethiopian food and each other’s company. And because she hadn’t kissed anyone in more than a year, and he was pleasant and seemed safe, she went to his place afterward. She sat intentionally on the far end of his couch and tucked her legs beneath her. They talked about his band, the rising price of craft-brewed beer, naked bike rides, and the latest bloom spots. She noticed that when she mentioned books, he talked about movies.
When he touched her hand the skin shivered and rose up. “Horripulation,” she said aloud.
He frowned at the word. Then she frowned at him. She felt the prick of disappointment begin, and before it could take hold, she kissed him.
She left a few minutes later, with a promise to call soon. On the way home she decided that their bugs interfaced well, but he was simply not a good kisser. She smoothed the napkin face-up on the bus seat and left his phone number there, musing without regret that maybe the finder would be his perfect match.
She’d never particularly liked coffee.
She crawled into bed with a copy of The Cracked Kettle, book two of the Forswain Coterie quintology, and nearly finished a chapter before her eyelids betrayed her. She folded her horn-rimmed glasses on the night table and slid to sleep on the thrumming duet of bug and Emily D the ruddy Abyssinian, both nestled warm and close.
* * *
She discontinued her coffee shop visits and instead used the node in the library periodicals and reference wing. Now empty of tables, and with only a single remaining catalog computer in the corner, the room provided spacious seating around the towering growth. Its trunk rippled with light, widening upward to delicate swaying branches that teased the stained glass skylight.
She flipped in and a familiar channel beckoned her. Mom, asking when she was coming to visit.
“I can see you fine right now,” Raissa said.
“It’s not the same.” Mom sighed.
She looked better, and had more energy, she said. The bug was helping her lungs.
When they’d finished chatting, she did something she’d never done during work, and slipped into her huge marble bibliotheca. Candlelight showed two boisterous men scribbling in a brilliantly embroidered atlas. She watched them a moment from the shadows, then flipped away. Let them wait.
* * *
The bus’s autodrive paused near 30th and Belmont, calculating. Something had changed ahead, and she glimpsed through rainstreaked windows the jagged facets of the huge crystal fiber canopy draped now over entire blocks, reflecting the streetlights like a geode turned inside out. The bus whirred and rerouted around the structure. She wondered how long before her neighborhood received a splice planting.
* * *
It was no particular Thursday when she walked in.
“I’ve just learned this word, and now I want to see one.”
Raissa looked up from the archive desk. The first thing she noticed about the woman was her striped black and orange thigh-high stockings. Then the boxed tattoos of 84Po and 88Ra on her inner forearms. Then the spiked lip piercing and brunette pigtails. Then the shadowed and fulminating eyes, behind the thick black-framed glasses.
Lastly, that she had no bug.
“See… one? Is there a particular series or title you’re looking for?” Raissa asked.
“No…” She stretched her response into an odd smile. Like it was a secret now. “I just know it’s a kind of book.”
Raissa frowned. “Can you recall the word?”
“Well, I can…” Her mouth parted slightly, tongue against teeth in a moment of contemplation, with a playful clicking noise that Raissa soon took to be a tongue piercing. “But can you guess?”
Raissa’s found herself staring into those hazel eyes, and then away. Her bug murmured in a way she’d not heard or felt before.
“It’s an old word.” With a taunting lilt. “It means ‘cradle’.”
“Oh, now see, you’ve completely given it away.” Raissa waggled her finger. “Take a seat in the reading area, and I’ll be back with our best incunabulum.”
“You’re quite good.”
Raissa returned and placed the large tome open on the table, whispering, “Latin original.” She leaned over and turned a tall vellum page with the long flip stick, showing a woodcut and a hand-colored print.
The woman pointed at Raissa’s hands. Their arms grazed. “Do I get to wear some like yours?”
“You are, in fact, required to.” Raissa straightened up. She pointed to the box of white gloves in the middle of the table.
“Will you…?” She presented her hands, wrists upturned. “Put them on me?” A single overt flutter of eyelashes.
Raissa quietly swallowed a gasp. She felt flush and light at once. Warm quivers spread from her bug down and across her whole body. Her eyes escaped to look everywhere else, and she adjusted her glasses. “Library policy strictly prevents us from touching our patrons.” Having said so, she was able to meet the woman’s simmering gaze again. She saw disappointment there. And she expected to find relief in that, but instead felt a brief thrill in her chest.
Turning to leave, she was surprised to find herself wink.
Her bug amplified the sensation, echoing in her legs with each step.
When she looked up twenty minutes later, she felt as alone as the old book on the vacant table.
* * *
Raissa barely caught the last evening bus. She’d stayed late processing a new collection of 18th century serial pamphlets and recording small damages on volume three of a double-size folio of hand-colored engravings. Riding along with the engine’s groan and the dim night lighting, the thought of her usual evening felt disappointingly uneventful. And solitary.
The whisper came from behind, close and familiar, on breath smelling of cloves and mint. “It’s Giselle,” as if in answer to a question. Raissa shivered beneath her skirt. Then a woman slipped forward and sat next to her. A black and orange stocking brushed her thigh.
They sat quietly for a distance, but Raissa felt the glances. She didn’t shift away when the lurching bus jostled them together. Or the next few times.
“Mine’s Raissa,” she managed, her voice cracked and she had to repeat it.
“Hello again, dame,” Giselle said.
“I feel like I should tell you…” Raissa began in a more confident tone, and paused. And then found herself unable to continue. Finally she managed, “I like boys.”
“Oh, I like boys too.” Giselle said immediately.
“You do? I mean, why—”
Raissa snickered and covered her mouth. When she noticed Giselle wasn’t laughing, she turned and stared.
Giselle nodded once with certainty.
Raissa faced forward again. Then she blurted, “I’d… I’d like to see that.”
Giselle gave her a wicked grin. “I bet you would.” She squeezed Raissa’s knee.
After a man with three backpacks shuffled off at 42nd Avenue, they were the last two passengers on the route.
They stepped off at 61st into a cold late-evening mist. “Do you live around here?” Raissa asked.
“Nowhere near.” Giselle locked unblinking eyes on her. “No not at all.”
Raissa felt the thrill rise in her again, and this time she met the look with intensity. Her gaze fell to Giselle’s parted mouth, and there, at the edge of a streetlight, the space between them contracted.
Just before their lips touched, Raissa turned without a word, and hurried up Yamhill Street’s shadowed sidewalk. Her bug felt confused too. “Can’t catch me,” she called back. After half a block she heard the footsteps behind her. Only when she reached the entrance to her apartment building did she finally turn around.
Giselle pressed her firmly against the door, with hands light at her chin, and a warm fragrant mouth smothering breath or protest. Their kisses began as light trembling exploration, and escalated to deep fervor as Raissa’s bug trilled low, pleased. They giggled a moment when their spectacles bumped. Their arms caressed and pulled. Giselle lifted her thigh between Raissa’s legs, slow and insistent, pressing powerful muscles against her warmth. Teetering on her toes, Raissa gasped, as Giselle kissed along her throat.
“Ask me,” Giselle whispered against her skin. Raissa felt a tug at her shirt collar and realized that teeth had unfastened her upper buttons. “Ask.”
“Come in,” Raissa breathed. “Please, please, won’t you come inside?”
Giselle looked up at her with a smile. She traced a finger down where she’d kissed and wrapped it in Raissa’s glasses chain. Quick and controlled, she pulled the metal loop tight, under her chin, just above the windpipe. “Not tonight.” She nipped Raissa’s lower lip, then kissed it gently.
Raissa looked back at her with yearning, as she was lowered again to the ground. The chain loosened, but still held her. Her knees felt unwilling to take the weight.
“Can you remember an address?”
Raissa nodded, breathless.
“8643b North Lombard. Come visit me on Saturday.” She kissed her again. “Goodnight, lovely.” Then she patted Raissa’s bug. “Goodnight creature thing.” And she melted into the dark drizzle.
* * *
Raissa wrote the address on a notepad, but resisted every time she thought about looking it up, reserving it as something to look forward to. The remainder of the week felt like forever.
On Saturday, she woke early and anxious, took a bus to the light rail, rode west, then transferred to a bus headed north. Along the trip she tried not to think of her mysterious destination, and what it might say about Giselle. Perhaps a dive bar or hair salon, a franchise taco drive-thru, a welding shop. Her mind lingered on their last scene for a few blocks, as tingling warmth spread from her shoulder.
She arrived at the address to find a shop called Galactic Lemur. Inside she found shelves of comic books, games, and busts of superheroes. Giselle sat behind the counter, wearing a Bettie Page T-shirt, surrounded by monster figurines.
“Is there anything I can help you find today?” Her tone was so formal, Raissa thought at first she didn’t recognize her. Then Giselle winked and gave a snarl of a smile.
“Do you work here full-time?”
“I own the place. Bought it last spring. Needed a break from my other career.”
“And what do you do when you’re not slinging comic books and collectibles?”
“I’m a damn fucking good rocket scientist.”
Raissa snorted with amusement.
Giselle’s expression held deadpan for a long moment. Then she said, “I’m closing up for lunch in a few minutes. I’d like if you went upstairs and waited for me.” She took a skeleton key from her pocket and slid it over the counter.
Raissa found herself accepting with only a nod. Outside she found a wooden staircase in the alley and followed it up. The key fit the door.
The papasan looked comfortable, but she chose one of the wooden chairs at the small kitchen table. She briefly surveyed the living room, impressed by the five full bookcases and absence of a television. A model spaceship with four engines hung from the ceiling light fixture. The bicycle by the door sported two white buckets on its rear rack, and a scuffed black helmet hung from the handlebars. Next to it she noticed another helmet, decorated with bright flames, atop a pair of roller skates.
She crossed her legs and waited for some time before retrieving a book from her bag. Occasionally she lost track of who was winning the dirigibles versus pterosaurs aerial battle as her mind wandered to thoughts of Giselle’s lips or the tattoo peeking from her neckline. The daydreaming turned her drowsy, and she didn’t know how long she’d snoozed when Giselle arrived.
“I didn’t mean—” Raissa began.
But Giselle motioned for silence. Then she moved purposefully across the floor and kissed Raissa once, lingering close so they inhaled the other’s breath, and in three swift gestures secured the tall leather collar around Raissa’s neck. She unhooked a thick-linked chrome chain from her hip pocket that Raissa had thought connected to a wallet, and clipped it into the collar’s D-ring. “Follow.”
Raissa rose and walked after her. They only made it a few steps when Giselle turned and glared. Her eyes gestured adamantly downward, returned, and waited. Raissa knelt. She followed through the hallway on all fours.
The bed looked like a fortress, impressive and imposing from her low vantage point. Four thick wooden posts carved with winding dragon motifs, connected with crossbars and a headboard of thick ironwork twisted into nautilus fractals, shapes both sharp and flowing. It was so large, surely the room and building had been built around it.
As instructed, Raissa removed her clothes and folded them neatly.
Giselle unclipped the chain, then replaced it with a long leather strap and brought two ends to an even length. Then she wrapped both Raissa’s wrists with smooth ambidextrous motions and pushed her back onto the bed.
Raissa gasped as her legs were also hitched, and in the next second found her ankles bound up to her arms. She watched, helpless on her back, as Giselle pulled on tight black gloves.
Leather caressed every surface of her skin, lingering in the places that made her squirm and moan: the soles of her feet, the crease behind her knees; tracing her sensitive hips, circling her nipples to full attention. The warmth mounted between her legs, as waves resonated along her spine, and soon her arousal dripped to the sheets.
Then Giselle was kneeling over her from above, their faces upside down from each other. “I’m clean,” she said, suddenly serious, “Tested three weeks ago. Last partner six months ago.” She checked the knots and gently moved strands of hair from Raissa’s eyes.
“I—me, too. Both. I mean, it’s been over a year since…”
“Is… it gonna be okay?” Giselle nodded at the purring bug.
Raissa whispered yes.
Giselle smiled, then locked Raissa’s head between her thighs and lowered herself, revealing another piercing. There was a murmur of surprise, but Giselle simply responded, “You are, in fact, required to.”
Raissa’s tongue had barely explored, when the warm folds eased down, firmly sealing over her breath. Leather traced her skin and nipples again. As the excitement rose near bursting in her chest, she was given reprieve, and gasped once, twice, before being enclosed again. The denial and breath continued in waves, sending a flush of euphoria through her whole body. When she felt a mouth on her own nether lips, her trapped moans rose and rose, until the relentless sensations took over, containing her in frenzy and elation until time disappeared. At the apogee of rapture she was allowed to cry aloud. The ebbing shudders nearly took her into an exhausted dark.
When she opened her eyes only a few moments had passed.
Giselle, now standing beside the bed, stepped into a leather harness and slid it up her defined legs. She put her hands on her hips and the large silver dildo stood out, alarming but alluring. “Ask me,” Giselle said as she buckled the straps. “No—beg.”
* * *
Raissa woke in a strange and comfortable place, with an open window sharing night air and moonlight, and a gentle snore not her own. Her bug rippled with an ultramarine glow, intoning to match her lover’s noises. In the light she saw the tattoo between Giselle’s shoulder blades, a dark starry scene cut by sleek silver rockets hurtling toward a red crisscrossed planet. She touched the inked image and felt the rhythm of breath and blood beneath.
She moved closer and wrapped her arm around Giselle. When her bug shifted forward enough to touch them both, she felt something new.
* * *
The note on the nightstand said,
Didn’t want to wake you, but had to run off to practice. Come see my bout on Friday?
Tintinnabulate me: (9—) 3—-6——.
Folded inside the note was a ticket for the event rollin furies vs. slingshot sirens. Raissa guessed the skates in the other room were now gone.
She saw the towels set out for her and showered. The bathroom seemed an odd place to hang a framed certificate, and its position above the toilet a likely indicator of Giselle’s sentiment with her career thus far.
Rutgers School of Engineering
Masters Degree of Engineering
Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering
Sigma Gamma Tau Honors Society
She exited the train halfway home and walked along the bluff overlooking the river. Rampant new blooms sprouted along the waterway, their iridescent stalks breaking through walls of old warehouses and half-constructed condo towers, changing colors when the sun occasionally emerged from the clouds. Her bug chirped anxiously when she approached a brunch café with small nodes flowering from planters on patio tables, but she passed by, and did not wince when it pricked her neck and drew extra sustenance.
* * *
On Thursday afternoon, she was in the back room repairing the binding of a first edition of The Patchwork Girl of Oz when the bell rang at the front desk. She went out to find Giselle standing there, hair tied under an orange kerchief. “I couldn’t wait for Friday.”
“I see.” Raissa clucked her tongue with disapproval. She noted the otherwise empty reading room. “I’m glad you’re here. I have something to show you.” She opened the waist-high wooden gate and gestured in. She swiped her employee pass card and led Giselle through the hiss of the sealed door into the cool, humidity-controlled archive.
They walked by old mahogany bookcases with volumes slipped in plastic, and deep metal cabinets with extended drawers. Raissa stopped them at a wide reading pedestal with a glass overlay.
“This is a 1755 edition of the first English dictionary.” She donned a pair of white gloves and opened the display. Gripping with each hand at top and bottom near the binding, she turned a bulk of pages, then carefully a few more individual sheets with a long flat stick of polished bone. She closed the case and stepped to the side. “Now read to me.”
Giselle stepped forward and tried a few words, half-heartedly. “Macaroon. Maceale. Macerate. Machination…”
Raissa reached under and found the Giselle’s belt buckle. When Giselle turned in surprise, Raissa seized her chin. “I didn’t give you permission to stop.” She removed one glove with her teeth, and turned Giselle’s head back to the text.
“Macilency. Mackerel-gale. Macule…”
She slid Giselle’s pants down just enough, and smacked her buttock with a bare palm.
“Macule. Madcap. Made…”
Giselle gasped and bit her lip, but did not whimper until receiving the fifth blow, when she leaned forward and braced her hands on the pedestal.
“Read me the definition,” Raissa commanded.
“The act of making wet.”
“Very good.” She spanked the left cheek with added verve.
Giselle cried out in pain and delight.
Raissa clucked. “This is a library.” She removed Giselle’s bandana, rolled it, and tied her mouth open in a gag. Then slipped Giselle’s belt free, pulled her arms behind, and bound them at the small of her back. “And this area is for authorized personnel only.”
Raissa spanked both cheeks until her hand stung, then swatted Giselle with the whalebone page-turner. She admired the bright red color and heat radiating from her taut rump. Her bug moved up her arm, and when its wisps touched Giselle’s neck, she felt the frisson of each blow flash in her own loins. Giselle’s tears flowed, but she faced forward for a surprisingly long time. When her head finally turned, Raissa stopped immediately. After a moment she understood the pleading eyes and continued the blows, enjoying the twitching ass and the trembling legs, ignoring the call bell. Until the expression changed from more to thank you.
After the second bell, Raissa replaced her white glove and lightly caressed the welts. She released Giselle’s restraints and embraced her, kissing her perspiring face and holding her weight. She brought a chair and a glass of water, but she doubted Giselle could sit.
The bell rang again and she went out to the desk. “Sorry,” she apologized to the patron, “Stacking old books.”
* * *
On Friday evening, Raissa took the Yellow Line train to the Expo Center and entered the deafening noise and flashing lights of Exhibition Hall C. She found a space on the bleachers, though no one was actually sitting as they cheered madly for the women racing around the flat track. It took her a few minutes to identify Giselle, dodging through the pack with a star on her helmet.
A teenaged boy stood near her with what she first took to be a costume. Long lustrous stalks reached from his shoulders, swaying and curling at twice his height. A few people asked him to move, and he pretended not to hear them. When someone pushed him, he moved away. She saw him pass below her, and saw the bloom roots emerging from his skin.
Giselle spilled off the track once, rolled, and came up clutching her knee. She limped off, but she was back in soon. Once she figured out the scoring, Raissa screamed for the jamming and the pivots and the blocks. Afterward, when she found Giselle out in front of the hall, she hadn’t realized she’d lost her voice.
“Scare-O-Nautical, huh?” she whispered again.
“I need a mai tai and an ice bath.” Giselle limped closer.
The post-event cheers of the exiting crowd suddenly erupted with urgency. People rushed into a dense group in the parking lot. The two women hurried over and tried to see through.
In the ring of people, five large men in baseball caps shoved the stalk kid between them. He stumbled silently, hunched and thrown, his long fibrils bubbled a deep maroon. Voices from the crowd chanted weakly for a fight fight fight. Feet tangled and he went down. Their bugs howled as they kicked him. He covered his face and brought his knees to his chest. When they stamped and ground his luminous branches against the asphalt, he screamed agony that Giselle could taste like burning and blood. But they did not stop kicking.
Raissa pushed through and reached for one of the attackers.
In the moment before it happened she saw lights instead of the ground. Her mind told her it was reflections on wet tarmac, but she saw the vast distance to the bright points and the huge space between, as the ground was removed. She saw bone and sinew and surprised skull as pieces of people around her subtracted. Then it all restored in a frozen second. Before the lucid blast threw them back.
The air smelled of sulfur and fennel.
The five screams ceased when the bugs finished devouring the ballcaps and heads of their hosts.
* * *
Without a plan or discussion, they spent alternating weeks at one apartment, then the other, though their sexual roles switched more often. Whoever put on the gloves, white or black, took charge. Raissa tried to entice Emily D into the travel carrier, but ended up leaving a larger bowl of cat food and an open window. She found herself borrowing casual and ill-fitting clothes, but enjoyed wearing Giselle’s scent.
“We can find a new bloom that’s producing,” Raissa said.
“I never really wanted one,” Giselle said. “Maybe someday.”
“It’s okay. I’m not judging.”
The local incident they’d witnessed gained national attention, but only as a brief mention among other occurrences. Unsatisfied or curious, more people were ingesting or implanting the potent live shoots instead of allowing a bug to select them. The strange events seemed alarming and cataclysmic at first—the Mississippi River changing direction, Lincoln’s face disappearing from Mt. Rushmore, the girls of a Cleveland third grade class flying to lunch. The FBI raided a farm in central Oregon, following intel that implanted extremists were plotting the liquification or deletion of Seattle and Denver and possibly other major targets. The media reports dwindled within a few weeks, finally replaced by celebrity gossip. Regular pairings proceeded at millions per week, despite continuing debate, as evangelists and senators hosted symbiote burnings, and laws prevented their use in Texas, Omaha, Glasgow, and Iran. Startup companies in Delhi, Seoul and San Diego prototyped projectors that showed what happened inside the biotic network, though they could only display a live feed, not record.
One morning Raissa found her bug resting on her lover’s back. She called to it and tried to coax it loose, but finally left the apartment alone. She felt something more than trust, and endured the day with a mild headache. Indeed, Giselle showed up at the library just after noon.
“Can you believe this?” She pointed to the bug on her shoulder.
“Sorry,” Raissa said.
“It’s great. Like riding a motorcycle with a clit piercing—except all the time. And all over.” She held out her arm and the bug hurried back to its host. “I prefer other distractions.”
They cooed and tittered reunion, while Giselle stuck out her tongue in mock disgust.
It was nearly lunchtime. “Come with me.” Raissa stepped out from the archive desk and headed for the door. She locked it behind them, and led the way to the first floor.
The tall node was now more than a dozen feet wide at the base. She pulled out a chair for Giselle, while she stood behind. The children next to them frowned. Raissa tapped her partner’s shoulder until the bug returned to it.
When Giselle flipped in, Raissa found herself there too. Not alongside, but entwined and within. She felt all of Giselle’s memories at once. She knew then that they would be together for a long time.
Very quickly Giselle found her secret hall.
“You made this?” Giselle gazed into the misty heights of the stacks.
Raissa sniffed and frowned. “Excuse me…”
Three shirtless headshaved men with beards leaned against the tall, varnished cabinets of the card catalog, smoking cigarettes. Two reptilian women with deep eye shadow and tattoos sat on a reading table and shared a pizza over long open scrolls. A wolfman with fashionably rolled pants and sleeves played shuffleboard with first edition pulp novels.
Raissa produced the paddle.
The library fell still and silent.
“Naughty girl,” Giselle’s tsk-tsks echoed over the marble floor. “Naughty.”
“I haven’t been back here in weeks.”
Raissa approached the smokers first. She smacked the paddle loudly into her hand and they assumed the position.
Giselle turned a chair around and settled in. “I shall watch.”
* * *
When they surfaced, a few other users stared at them. Giselle later realized that while their bodies hadn’t done anything inappropriate, the witnesses had never seen anyone flip in together.
“That was fun,” Giselle said, “but I don’t need to do it again. Makes me walk all widdershins.”
“Good word,” Raissa said.
* * *
They flew back home to be there for her mother’s surgery. The operation was a success, the surgeon said, she wouldn’t have made it without her bug, and the tracheal tube could come out in three months. Giselle had to get back to work the store, while Raissa stayed another few weeks to get Mom settled.
The Central Branch Library had closed by the time she returned due to extensive structural damage, its node covering most of the city block. She found part-time work at the Kenton Branch, picked up some shifts at Giselle’s shop, and ran the table at the annual comic convention. Instead of renewing her lease she moved in with Giselle. They took turns wearing the gloves, bought some new sex toys, and began crafting their own.
* * *
When the gargantuan mouths opened in the sky and descended to take their harvests, the whole world cried out. The shrieks of the node blossoms shook mountains to mud. Every lament resounded a billion times. Boiling gore flowed from the torn roots of the great blooms, shredding the matter and space around them.
Raissa grabbed Giselle’s arm and pulled her running out into the cracking heaving street, down the block, where they froze and screamed as houses folded, then turned and bolted any direction, until their feet and lungs ached, and they fell into the quiet of a community garden. There they knelt among a patch of young cultivated node sprouts, she held up her bug and put her partner’s unsteady hands on it, and were joined by a dozen crystal tissue crests. As the sky melted around them, they flipped in and felt everyone there, floating and frightened in the great lattice, no longer vibrant but cold and still. She hoped it would be enough to dull the violent crushing pain coming to their outside bodies.
They were ripped back out as stone screamed and dark devoured light while the whole world broke.
They locked eyes and fears one final time, bringing into focus between them and refracted through her bug the slipping moment; a formless thing with sudden shape that they immediately snared, then cracked its invisible shell for the resplendent yolk, a rich substance they curved and molded into a small place within a place, something new, shutting out the slaughter and ruination.
When it all fell away except their sheer bubble floating cold amid the starry blackness, Giselle calculated a course. They headed off for a distant red planet. Women and bug and sprouts sang again.
© Andrew S. Fuller, 2016