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Coming Up and Newly Here

The Splendid City by Karen Heuler—sample

CHAPTER 1
 
Liberty
 
Betsy Bunderoo was used to seeing cats, but not ones who walked upright or spoke. She was standing at the bus stop, reading the notice that said the bus had been cancelled, permanently. Why? she wondered. Why don't they say? But these were the times – indefinite suspensions, removals, reversals, etc. Things suddenly were, and then just as suddenly, were not.
 
The structure is breaking down, she thought, and no surprise there. She felt a sort of grim satisfaction in it. So much had already changed since the election, why not this too? Why should anything work when none of it made sense? The president did not want buses to run anywhere near the palace, and that was necessary, she supposed. She understood. But the larger problem was that the world was going crazy. No one could tolerate anyone who didn't agree with them.
 
"It's true," the big black cat said, nodding wisely. Ah! She had been muttering again, a bad habit that was growing on her.
 
The cat was wearing a bowtie and a fanny pack. "I'm finding it very hard to have a reasonable conversation these days. Everyone shouts sound bites and no one shouts facts."
 
"I wonder if there are any facts left," she said with a sigh. "I mean, everything is endlessly manipulated." If she'd had time, she would have wondered why she was having a conversation with a cat, but right then and there she felt it was best to be polite, because he was such a very large cat. And he sounded irritated.
 
"Things would be so much better if there were no internet," the cat said. "Because it spreads everything too fast. People see crap, believe it, and act on it before there's a chance to respond. And there's never just one response. It branches out," he said moodily. "Have you heard about those mushrooms whose underground root spreads out for miles in all directions? That's the internet for you."
 
"But mushroom roots aren't right or wrong," she said, frowning. "I don't think you've got quite the right kind of analogy there."
 
"Really?" he asked with a nasty, hissing kind of snarl, pulling off his fanny pack and rummaging through it quickly to pull out a gun. "Really?" he asked again. And shot her.
 
She clutched her upper arm. Blood ran through her clothes. The cat put the gun back in his pack and ran off.
 
Eleanor was going to be mad. A happy growl rose in his throat.
 
* **
 
"How was your day?" Eleanor asked the cat when he walked in the door. She could see that he was miffed. He was always miffed.
 
"I shot someone again," he said, sighing. He had to agree it was becoming a nasty habit. "I do regret it."
 
"You always regret it." It was very hard not pointing out the cat's failures. She tried to make sure her face was neutral; it wasn't easy. She had pale skin, medium length brown hair, hazel eyes, and a face that gave away everything.
 
"Well, that just tells you about my character. I'm not actually the kind of person who goes around shooting people."
 
"And yet you do," she said. "Let's consider the circumstances. No doubt they said something to annoy you. What was it?"
 
He frowned and shrugged his shoulders. "She contradicted my theory about the internet being like that huge mushroom root."
 
"Stan," Eleanor said firmly. "It's a bad analogy. Now, do you want to shoot me?"
 
Stan scowled. "I do." Of course he wanted to shoot her. Shooting people made him feel better, for a while. And it was certainly true that she could benefit from being put in her place every so often. She was bossy. Opinionated. He was the way he was because of her.
 
"Why not talk it out instead? You have the power of speech, so why not talk about things instead? Gloria will blame me if you continue to go around shooting people."
 
"I never kill them, you know," he said, his hairs rising.
 
"Try and be the kind of cat who never shoots them in the first place," she said. "You're just drawing attention to yourself."
 
The cat shrugged. "Who'll believe a cat shooting a woman anyway?"
 
"They're a nation of believers here," she said in disgust. "Read a newspaper once in a while."
 
Of course his hands twitched at that, but he only allowed himself one shot a day.
 
* **
 
They were walking down the street when a bell rang out, a familiar sound in the city, though it roved from district to district around the palace. People stopped and turned, waiting to see the messenger approach. The message could be good or bad. Once, a van had stopped a woman and then gave her the car that pulled up behind her. Then there was the time when a bunch of men got out of the van and grabbed a young man – a Latino, by the looks of him – and pulled him inside. An older man ran towards the van but he was too late. They were gone.
 
The messengers were often on the news and were the most popular part of it, after the reported disasters in the rest of the country, and any attempts to overthrow the republic. Then the weather, updates about the president's latest triumph, and then on to the messengers. People loved the giveaways and ignored the disappearances, which were generally explained as reunions. They were also fond of the whipped-cream pies that hit people identified as tourists from the North.
 
"They'd better not hit me," Stan muttered. "I've got a gun." Eleanor snorted. "Everyone here has a gun."

"My gun is better," he said with satisfaction. Eleanor could see no point in challenging that. Besides, she often carried a can of whipped cream with her in case anyone threw a pie. She might not be able to prevent it, but she was all for revenge.
 
Finally, Stan said, "There have been fewer messengers this week."

 

"That's a relief."

 

"Maybe. I was hoping they'd stop for me and give me a car."

 

 "You can't drive a car."
 
"Why not?"
 
She scowled. "You're a cat." There were times when she thought that he just couldn't see himself as he was – but really, when had he ever?
 
"Which could change at any point, you know. All I have to do is hang in, and all you have to do is learn to be nice." He circled around himself in agitation for a moment. "But that's the flaw in my plan!" he growled.
 
"We're here because you were a jerk," Eleanor snapped. He always did it – he always had to bring things up, and bring things up!
 
"And yet you're here too," he purred.
 
What could she say? He was right. They were each other's punishment. She couldn't get rid of him until she redeemed herself with Gloria. She hated to admit it, but she was shackled to the cat. "I'm here to find out what happened to Daria," she said. Gloria hadn't given him a mission, and she liked to point that out.
 
"You know that's not completely true," he said smoothly. "Gloria wanted to get rid of you before she heard about Daria. You went too far. You always go too far."
 
She wouldn't dignify that with an answer. She knew perfectly well that she and the cat were bound together until Gloria decided that they'd learned their lessons. Luckily, she was also there to help find a missing witch, and that at least made it seem that Gloria respected her.
 
"I make the decisions," she said finally. "You're in charge of nothing."
 
The cat dropped to the floor in an elegant way and circled around her, pumping his tail up. "But to continue," he said, "I can say with all modesty that I do deserve a car. A convertible. Deep blue, I think."
 
"I suspect the van would decide to take you away instead," she scoffed. "And since no one cares what happens to the disappeared, I wouldn't care either." It wasn't a good look, she thought, saying things like that. But the cat was so annoying!
 
"I bet it's some kind of parking problem," the cat said philosophically. "Like getting towed."
 
"They don't tow people, they tow the cars."
 
"In other places, yes. But this makes more sense." He got a little jaunty, swaggering and swishing his tail.
 
He was like that, completely indifferent to what happened to others.
 
The bell was getting closer. She was determined to see what it was this time, to see up close. She and the cat had been in the city for three weeks now, adjusting and observing. Everyone had explanations for everything, but she wasn't going to fall for it. She would keep her New York City smarts for as long as she could. There could hardly be a good explanation for people being taken away.
 
A large tan van with side and rear doors rounded the corner. There was a cheerful logo on the body, a smiling chicken with a frying pan. How typical, she thought: pretending animals were delighted to be killed and cooked. The van began to slow down and some people stood still, watching, their heads swiveling as their anticipation built. Others, mostly Latinx, took corners, vanished into stores or up the stairs. And still the van moved along, ringing its merry bell.
 
In another era, it might be a siren, Eleanor thought, but it didn't matter; it was never ignored; everyone had their eyes on it. And then they could all see where it was heading – a young man, turning to stand and face it down, his legs spread out firm against the ground, his arms crossed, his head high, his eyes relentlessly watching it approach him, closer and closer.
 
How fierce he was! She could feel the tension rising in the air. Everyone contributed to it, as if they were a massed beating heart. And then the van's door opened, two arms reached out, grabbed him, and he was gone.
 
"Ooh, that was good," Stan said. "Neat and clean."
 
They heard a second bell, and almost immediately a car with the same logo came rushing down the street. This one had a sun roof, and a woman's torso stuck out of the roof and shouted, "They found my husband! They found my husband!" and she threw nougats at the crowd, who began to relax and grin.
 
These nougats were particularly popular right now. There were scarcities in a lot of items – milk, cheese, water, toilet paper – but nougats were everywhere and very cheap. Stan loved them, though Eleanor felt that he said this, and ate them, merely to irritate her. Cats didn't eat candy.
 
All around them, people were bending and picking up nougats, laughing and pointing out locations to other people. Some stuck them in their pockets and looked for more, others unwrapped them, threw the papers in the street, and began to chew blissfully. Some with open mouths, Eleanor noted in disgust. And the litter – these nougats were a disgrace.
 
"Put down that nougat," she said to the cat.
 
He popped it in his mouth and began to chew. "Leave him alone," a woman said. "Everyone likes nougat and why not enjoy it? We earned it." "We did not earn nougats," Eleanor said through clenched teeth and the cat laughed.
"I have to put up with a lot!" he said. "This is my reward."
 

"As if you deserve a reward," she said. "You're arrogant and selfish." The cat licked its paw once. "The problem is, you can't handle me.
 
That's why we're both here. You've got a nasty temper."
 

She narrowed her eyes. "I respond to you; that's the problem. You set me off."
 

"Everything sets you off."

 

"No, it doesn't."

 

"Well then, everyone."

 

"That's not true."

 

The cat snickered. "You don't imagine you're good with people, do you?"

 

Her face twisted a little and she had a brief fight with herself to get it back in order. "No, I know that," she said. She straightened her back and stepped forward, followed closely and carefully by the cat.
 
She hurried, but the car and the van had both raced down the street, making a turn onto President's Avenue, and were heading quickly towards the palace. Trying to chase them on foot was a fool's errand, she admitted. But tomorrow she was going to meet the local coven; perhaps they had information and could tell her what was going on. Maybe they would even give her some of her powers back. Any small amount of magic would irritate the cat, and that would be a gift.
 
* **
 
They were only a few blocks away from what served as home, and they walked there together quickly at first. The cat soon dropped back to whack a nougat wrapper floating in the air, then rushed forward to toss it at Eleanor's feet.
 
Eleanor approached an old house with a small set of wooden steps that led up to a porch and front door. Ivy had crept up from the ground to wind its way along the railings and it had spread all over the front of the building, draping it in green.
 
Stan trotted forward to scoot in ahead of her. Eleanor was looking forward to some tea and maybe a piece of cake. Nothing for the cat though, who'd after all just had candy.
 
And he was getting fat.

But she believed he liked it.

She got the tea kettle and turned on the tap. Nothing happened. She turned it off and on again, even though that was ridiculous. Doing something twice wasn't magic. She sighed, thinking.
 
"It's Tuesday, isn't it?" she asked the cat, who was busy licking his tail.
 
"It is," the cat answered.
 
"Didn't we pay to have water on Tuesday? Did you forget to send the payment?"
 
The cat was offended and stroked his paw in annoyance. "You see why it makes no sense to put me in charge of paperwork? I have a philosophical indifference. It is not in my nature to be diligent. I am a free spirit! If there is no water, we will drink champagne!"
 
Typical behavior! That cat never got over his airs. It wouldn't really matter what kind of creature he was turned into, he'd always be lazy and selfish. She could see him as a boastful snake, a snide bird, a swaggering toad. He'd manage to turn it into his advantage no matter what. It was better to just ignore his moments of grandiosity because he got too much pleasure out of her annoyance. She had to admit she was annoyed too often.
 
She rummaged in her handbag on the table. "Go give this to the water man," Eleanor said, and handed the cat a twenty-dollar bill. "And get a receipt!" Fat chance of that, she thought, but she couldn't stop herself from giving him orders she knew he would ignore. At least he'd be out of the house for a while. Some days she just couldn't stand him.
 
* **
 
Stan clutched the twenty-dollar bill in his paw for a block then tucked it into the pocket of his bowtie, which Eleanor had made specially for him to shut up his constant complaints. He strolled down the street, listening idly to the shouts not too far away in the distance. He liked to think of himself as an observer of the human condition, having recently been human himself. Having experienced life as both cat and man, he felt he had a unique width of perspective. Why go to work when mice were so abundant? Why wear ugly clothes when a sleek black fur was so superior?
 
He took the long way around to the water office, thereby encountering the outskirts of the Tuesday parade. He saw signs that said, Support Our Coal Workers and others that said Solar Power Isn't Power. He could see some signs with business logos as well. Not merely the ever- present chicken with a frying pan, but also Water Is Beautiful signs, which had the virtue of not meaning much at all. The energy signs were propaganda; he was superior enough in his understanding of the world to know that. This week's march was therefore about energy, which made everyone feel good since it was a warm, pleasant day.
 
He turned a corner and ran into a line of people forming the end of the parade, or the side of the parade. He hurried up to join them, picking up a discarded sign that read, You Don't Need Progress When You've Got Good Solutions.
 
"What do you think of this sign?" Stan asked a marcher, once he had sidled into the middle of the crowd. It was moving slowly and protestors waved to each other in delight.
 
His fellow marcher looked at it briefly and then shrugged. "A lot of words to carry. I prefer small signs." He waved his, which merely said, We're Right. "I think this covers just about everything, and it's easy to make."
 
"I've always felt very right as well," Stan said companionably.
 
The marcher frowned at him and moved away, and Stan quickly wandered back to the edge of the cheering crowd and sauntered off, heading for the water store.
 
There was a grumpy old man leaning over the counter as Stan entered the store. "No cats," he said without rancor.
 
Stan looked behind him, surprised. "Cats? I don't see any cats."
 
"You're a cat."
 
"My dear sir, I have a rare skin condition that makes me look like a cat. I am used to constant humiliation, to whispers and stares and the odd can of flung tuna, but I am not a cat."
 
The water man stared at him for a lengthy piece of time. "Okaaaay," he said, "as long as you're about to pay me for a water transaction. Otherwise, get lost."
 
"You see right through me! I do indeed want to pay for today's water." He handed over a piece of paper with an account number and an address. "We appear to have neglected to pay for today, though I believe you'll see the rest of the week is paid up."
 
The guy looked rapidly at his monitor, clicked a few keys, and said, "That will be one hundred dollars."
 
"For one day?"
 
"Reinstatement fee, update fee, penalty for lapse, plus, yes, forty dollars per day charge."
 
"That's ridiculous! It's always been twenty dollars a day!" Stan was about to say more but the fierce look on the guy's face stopped him.
 
"Rates went up. You want it or not?"
 
"I only have twenty." That was all Eleanor had given him; he was not about to touch his own money.
 
"Tell you what," and the old man suddenly got conspiratorial. "You give me the twenty, I'll give you, what, say, five hours of water?" He glanced at the screen again. "And five hours tomorrow. But from then on it's unfortunately double."
 
"Double!" Stan was shocked.
"Hard to find clean water these days. Liberals and illegals stealing it, y'know. Plus, lots of hands held out all along the way. But if you want clean water, we guarantee it. There's a black market for it, o' course, I'm not saying there isn't, but what kind of water do you think you'd get from them? Huh?" The last word contained so much satisfaction that Stan stepped back a bit and then pushed his money across the counter.
 
"Five hours, then," Stan agreed. "And not a minute less. We just arrived from the East and we're not used to the water situation here." He gathered himself stiffly.
 
"Ah, Easterners," the old man said sharply. "And complaining already, when we all know that the reason for our lack of water is that you've been taking it from us for years." The man held up one of the local thin-print newspapers in proof and tapped it. "It's all right here. Land grabs and water grabs and court case after court case. It's good seeing some of you living with the results of your own greed. Maybe then you'll learn to think of others."
 
He bent his head and entered some numbers on to his computer keyboard, then nodded and looked up at Stan sternly. "Five hours. No more, no less. And don't think you can fill up your bathtub with water, either. We have ways of checking that." This threat worked a surprisingly large amount of time, the water clerk thought smugly, this impossible threat. It gave him a tremendous sense of power because mostly the customers believed him. In his estimation, the world was a sneaky place to begin with, and he liked the moment of surprise he saw in customers' eyes when he said this; he liked being the authority.
 
"We'll manage," Stan said. He wasn't feeling altogether satisfied with how this transaction had gone. He wasn't, it was true, good at monetary responsibilities. He was good at posturing and hissing and taking advantage of people. Getting them confused. Getting them annoyed. But he couldn't confuse or annoy the water person because they needed the water. If only Eleanor had kept a bit more of her powers! Though he knew perfectly well that she deserved not to have them. He knew that better than anyone.
 
Stan hurried back, avoiding the parades for the most part, but came across a string of people dressed in bright clothes with flowing colors. Half of them held signs that said Horses tomorrow at 2 and the other said, Camels tomorrow at 3. One thing he did admire was that there was always something going on, despite the water shortage and the (possible) kidnapping of citizens. Eleanor took a more jaded view of that last one, though he liked the excitement of possibilities more than she did, it was true.
 
He decided to follow one of the women carrying the sign about camels.
 
"Hello," he said politely when he caught up with her. "Can one ride the camels?"
 
She stopped and looked him up and down. "No," she said with a sneer, "for the same reason that the camels can't ride you." And she started off marching straight down the street.
 
That was interesting. "And why can't the camels ride me?" he asked after her.
 
"Because there are no camels!" the woman shouted, and ran off.
 
This was exactly the kind of thing Stan loved. He was a student of absurdity and hated to think he might have missed this opportunity. He would walk a block towards the parade in case there were stragglers with interesting signs. Or anti-president agitators. They were rare and always filled with possibilities. He suspected they were hired, more often than not.
 
And he was in luck! It was only another two short blocks when he came upon what he believed was an actual agitator – moody, morose, holding a sign that said, Is this the best we can do? – a sign that might get him into trouble, depending on who was watching – and he pulled up short. "My friend," he said, "as a completely neutral observer, I want to say that this kind of sign might anger some people for its moral ambiguity and lack of patriotism."
 
The man turned his sign so he could read it. "It's true," he agreed. "I understand that it's not acceptable, and yet I can't help myself. It must be a disease."
 
"It's not safe to have a disease in times like these."
 

The man shook his head sadly. "Of course," he agreed. "Of course."
 
"Put that sign down. Or better yet – give it to me," the cat said.
 

The man nodded and gave him the sign. Stan propped it next to a garbage can, turned around, and squirted it. That was one of the many things that made being a cat so pleasant.
 
And he gave himself credit for having intervened in that poor man's life. Perhaps he had saved him from a disastrous encounter. Eleanor needed to realize that he was underutilized. He sashayed a little, preening, because he was just so good at everything he did, then remembered that it was close to dinner time, and Eleanor had promised him a treat. Of course, he could get something for himself... in fact, now that he thought about it, he would get something for himself. There was bound to be a café or small restaurant that had exactly what he was hankering for – fish tacos. Possibly with a spicy mayonnaise and a lovely beer. Eleanor frowned on his drinking beer. "Cats don't drink beer," she had said, "so you're deliberately flaunting the fact that you aren't, at heart, a cat. And that, if you were more aware, is a dig at how you became a cat, which is a dig at me. I have apologized a million times, so there's no need to shove my face in it."
 
She was always annoying, of course. Always thinking she was better than he was. And therefore in charge. In charge of what, exactly? The water bills? He laughed at the water bills!

 

No need to let her ruin his life. He had done his errand, he had saved that stupid man with the sign, and he had shot only one person. And that not seriously. Besides, it was hours ago. It had been the kind of day that required a celebration, he was sure of it.
 
He paid more attention to his surroundings. There were a lot of small shops in this area, though it unfortunately appeared that most of them were closed. But then two blocks more and there was a café with some chairs on the street. It had an open-air counter with a cook behind it and a menu written in chalk. The first item was "Fish tacos" which delighted him. He strolled up and ordered two from a waiter cleaning a small table. "Are the tacos authentic?" he asked, without thinking.
 
"They're not really authentic tacos," the waiter assured him. "They're an American version of tacos, and therefore so much better than the authentic kind."
 
"Of course," Stan said magnanimously. "Americans are the only ones who understand Mexican cuisine."
 
"You're so right!" the cook said whole-heartedly from behind his counter. "Or any cuisine, when you come down to it. These tacos use pure American ingredients."
 
"Are the fish local?" Stan asked.
 
"Frozen! Pure American frozen fish!"
 
* **
 
Stan liked how much attention the cook gave him. He decided he would even pay for his meal, though he had been intent on causing a commotion and escaping in the confusion, as usual. In a sudden fit of remorse, he decided now that he would always pay for his meals.
 
His tacos arrived promptly, beautifully prepared, with soft shells, some shredded cabbage and a salsa of fruit. "Wait," Stan said. "Is this a pineapple salsa?"
 
"Yes." The waiter looked alert.
 
"Aren't mangos in season? Why would you use pineapple? Aren't pineapples less American?" He forked his tacos into pieces – fish, cabbage, pineapple, cilantro, etc.
 
The waiter whisked it away. "I'm so sorry," he said. "Mango salsa! Of course! What was I thinking?"
 
Stan felt a mood coming over him. He had meant to be understanding; cooperative, nice. What had gone wrong? Was it his fault it had gone wrong? "And don't forget the ketchup!" he yelled to the retreating back. "This is how a good mood gets shattered," he muttered to himself piteously.
 
What the waiter finally came out with was actually pretty good, and the ketchup was a full bottle, which Stan used generously. Why were people always so snooty about ketchup? He loved it. He paused and made a note on his phone. He liked to pose provocative questions on his new social media startup, and he was sure ketchup would be a hot topic.
 
The waiter stood nervously nearby, refilling his beer when it reached halfway, over and over. Stan found the beer very good, clearly an American beer no matter what the label said. He paid, feeling kind and generous, and swayed his way down the street. He wondered how angry Eleanor would be if he stopped in a café and had a coffee and a cream tart as well. Surely the water would be back on by the time he got there, and she might not even notice he was late. Besides, he was very fond of cream tarts.
 
* **
 
Eleanor tried the taps every few minutes and finally there was water. It was amazing how quickly they could turn it off and on, as if it was all computerized so recently. Perhaps it was, she considered. Although computers and bureaucracy didn't usually go well together, bureaucracies somehow changed the speed at which a computer could do its job. There had to be a reason why this worked so quickly, and of course it all had to do with money. Turn it off fast and you cow people into submission. Turn it on quickly and it depletes resentment. And the constant reminders about the water shortages made everyone uneasy and glad to have water at any cost. Or, almost any cost.
 
Eleanor didn't believe that the shortages were due to liberal misuse and theft of water rights by the East, as the president claimed. She didn't believe that whatever was wrong was because of the liberals. Gloria had laughed about that in their last conversation. "Pollution, agricultural runoff, fracking; storing mining residue in failing pools; damming rivers so that the wildlife and the rivers die. You can name a dozen culprits as to why the water's so bad, and it still won't explain why anyone has to buy clean water. Where does the clean water come from?"
 
Gloria was the one who had sent Eleanor to Liberty. Part of it was punishment, of course, because of the cat, but most of it was that Gloria wanted eyes everywhere. She wanted to know what was going on with the Liberty witches and why the coven was so small. And, of course, to find where the missing witch had gone.
 
The water had come back on more than an hour ago. Where was the cat?
 
* **
 
The cat was licking his whiskers clean of cream, taking long luxurious swipes with his paw and then running his tongue along it. He felt very good about himself, which was true most of the time, but especially true at times like this. Eleanor believed in simple foods; he was more of a gourmand, notwithstanding the whole mouse thing.
 
He leaned back against his seat and glanced around with a superior, satisfied eye. He caught a touch of exasperation in a couple's conversation nearby and changed his seat after pretending the setting sun was in his eyes. He loved to eavesdrop. It was an art and he was an artist. He also loved to take whatever provocative statements he heard and post them to Whispers, a kind of Twitter thread that paid out for the whisps with the highest engagement. He had been surprised to find that Liberty had nothing like this social network when he arrived, and so he had started it. That was one reason he actually enjoyed being here. It was technically an underdeveloped country. Eleanor might chafe at being here, but he loved it.
 
The tense couple held themselves politely apart, though the woman in particular was trying to appear casual and contained. It was clear that the discussion was well on its way to being an argument. The man leaned forward. "When you picture 'American,' what do you see?" he asked. "I mean, what's the image you have? I'll tell you what I have – it's a man in a field, working on his crops, standing tall to see his work. Or on a steel girder, or looking at his architectural plans, or on a commuter train, going home to his family. Or defending his country, in uniform. And none of them are Asian, or Arabic, or even black or Hispanic. They're white men."
 
The woman's smile was slow and chilling. "I think it's interesting, too, how it's always men you see when you think of Americans."
 
"Oh, don't do that. You know what I mean. When anyone says men, they include women in it."
 
Stan could hardly keep himself from cheering. He loved this kind of thing. "Really?" The woman's hand slowly curled itself up. "Do they ever say women and include men? Would you stand for that?"
 
"You're just deliberately turning it around. I mean only that when you say Africa, you think of blacks. When you say Puerto Rico, you see Puerto Ricans. When you say a country, you see the people who live in that country. And it's good. Why would you go to India or Africa if it was just like going to the suburbs? No difference? All I'm saying is that the differences matter, they have value, they have weight. And when I see America, I see, yes, a white, middle-class man, the picture of what this country was built for."
 
"When it was stolen from the Red Man, yes. Not the Red Woman, either, which again is very interesting."
 
The man groaned in annoyance. "This is an unpleasant part of your personality. You're too stubborn. You're refusing to argue the merits of the case, you're just falling back on feminist crap. Feminist martyr crap."
 
"You know, they did tons of studies on what causes heart attacks and what to do to prevent them, to treat them. And you know what? They only studied white men. And it turns out the signs aren't even the same for men and for women. When women went to the ER they were turned away because the symptoms didn't match the symptoms for a man's heart attack. They went home with their heart attacks. Because whenever they studied something, they studied it with the male in mind. Whether it's medicine or, or – geography, apparently."
 
"Again, I see your point and that's a case to think about I'm sure, but it's not typical."
 
"It is typical. And it's time we did studies of all diseases but used only women. Let's see what happens then."
 
"That's stupid! That's just so stupid! How could it possibly be right, a study like that? How could it possibly be right if there are no men in it? Women and men are not the same."
 
"There! You see! You know that and you're not particularly enlightened. But medicine didn't know it. Isn't that amazing?"
 
"You have to start with the male," he said. "Of course you do. I mean, how could it possibly be valid if you started with women? Men don't have that whole menstrual thing, those hormones, they don't get pregnant, none of that stuff. Of course it wouldn't work. The baseline has to be male."
 
"Why?"
 
He spluttered. "You're doing it again. You're being stubborn again. I don't know how to say it without getting you mad."
 
"Penises? Is that what you mean? It can't be valid if it doesn't include a penis?"
 
He sighed dramatically. "It really took you that long to get to it? Everyone knows it. The penis is the dynamic force of civilization. There, you wanted me to say it and now I did. If it doesn't have a penis, it can't matter. What else? Penises made the world the way it is."
 
"That's true," she said bitterly. "Look around you. Walls. Polluted water. Forced marches."
 
"Keep your voice down." They glanced quickly around the café, and their eyes settled, together, on the cat.
 
"What's that?" she whispered. Stan had excellent hearing; it was ridiculous how people thought he couldn't hear what they were saying. Maybe they thought he spoke a different language. He grinned and turned it into a yawn and then waved at the couple, whose enmity had been overcome by their uneasiness.
 
"It's a cat," the man said. "Or something like a cat."
 
Should I? Stan wondered and then shrugged. "I am a cat," he said grandly. That would unsettle them on so many levels. If the cat could talk, they would wonder, could it report their conversation? Their faces went through contortions trying to remember all the things they'd said.
 
"Let's go," the woman said. The man took out a credit card. "In cash," she hissed. "Cash!" They glanced again at Stan.
 
"I don't have enough," the man said, but the woman was already going through her pockets. She took out a bill and put it down. "Now," she said. "Let's go."
 
He nodded and they stood up quickly, keeping their eyes straight ahead as they passed Stan.
 
What a good day this has been, Stan thought with satisfaction, as he wrote down a question for his new and thriving Whispers feed: Which is more typical of the human race, a man or a woman? That would get them going! He really should reward himself. "A delicious cream tart. Should I have a second?" He considered, seriously, whether a second cream tart would be against his principles.
 
It would not.
 
* **
 
A day or so later, Eleanor asked Stan, "Did you get the newspaper?" He had gone out for a leisurely stroll and come back smelling of cappuccino.
 
He tapped his fanny pack in response. "Amazing news today," he said. "It makes all my hairs stand on end." He took out the paper, looked at the headline and yes – his fur puffed up.
 
"You do that deliberately," Eleanor said. "I'm not impressed."
 
"Can you do it?"
 

"Why would I want to?" She shrugged. "What's in the paper?"
 
"The most marvelous thing," he murmured in a hushed voice. He really seemed impressed. "Really. Look at this and tell me you're not thrilled!"
 
She opened it up and right there on the front page, a graphic read:
 
Treasure Hunt!
 
She shrugged and put it down. "There was a treasure hunt last week too. It was a goldfish. I think the clue read, Living Gold or something. Obvious, when you think about it."
 
"Read it." He gave her a sharp look, which wasn't unusual, but she could tell by the tone of his voice that he'd fallen for it, whatever it was. Get rich quick, no doubt.
 
No doubt.
 
She picked it up and noted the headline: The Legend of the Grandiose Diamond Ring.
 
Grandiose Diamond Ring? Was that supposed to be a brand? More likely just a made-up description to hook the readers. But it actually did look interesting, and little by little she dropped some of her disdain. She smiled. Oh, this would be good!
 
Lawrence Dean Wilcox, 95, owner of Meridian Investments, was born in 1869. He had properes in Texas, New York, the Riviera, and Colorado, along with two yachts and a railroad. His wife of 50 years, Enid, died two years before him and had no children. He was a lover of chess, golf, and riddles. He buried the bulk of his collection of gold and jewelry in the desert someme before his death, fearing that it would be lost in the stock market, and as he lay dying, he thought out a series of clues and references that were difficult but not impossible for any true treasure hunter. His servants once heard him chuckling and laughing in glee as he worked on them in the study. "He bequeathed us the first clue, which was 'Not in town.' Not much of a clue. Not much of a thank-you."
 
The clues were to be revealed 100 years aer his death, a date which came up two weeks ago. Now that the box keeping the clues has been recovered, the grandson of his original lawyer is releasing hints and suggestions which he said were pointless, but he is bound by law and custom to do as directed.
 
His final note to his staff and lawyers claimed the treasure is worth over a million dollars.
 
"See?" Stan said. "Treasure." He began to sing gently in his throat, his eyes half closed before opening wide again. "I'm very good at puzzles," he said.
 
"Are you?" Eleanor was amused despite herself. Once you knew one thing about this cat, you knew everything about this cat – what motivated him, what he thought of himself, what shiny thing would catch his eye. It was a terrible admission, but she didn't think she'd ever known anyone as well as she knew Stan – unwillingly, unhappily, and without release, at least until she managed to redeem herself with Gloria. And speaking of that, she had a meeting with Dolores, the local head witch, in an hour. It would be best if Stan kept out of it. "You know, you are good at puzzles," she said finally. "I think you stand a chance." She managed to keep a straight face. He was so easy!
 
He lived for compliments. A compliment always overcame any suspicion he had, and this did exactly that. He stretched his front legs way out, and dipped his spine a little, trying to ignore the belly that ruined that long cat form. "I do," he said. "I really do." 

 

Heuler veers her speculative fiction toward the absurdly surreal here, introducing the ostensible protagonist only to have her get shot by a talking cat on the first page. The trigger-happy cat's name is Stan, and he and a witch named Eleanor have infiltrated a walled-off section of the former U.S., where constant spectacle keeps the masses locked in to the president's cult of personality, and where citizens search state-sponsored Wiggle, since everyone knows Google is biased. Stan and Eleanor each have a mission (hers is to find a missing witch; his is a treasure hunt) that send them into a bewildering landscape of misinformation where even the maps are "open to different perspectives" and the president is always watching. Whether readers find this closer to Orwell's Animal Farm or the film Don't Look Up probably depends on their capacity for commentary on the current moment. The dialogue is clever and the satire spot-on. The social commentary hits the nail on the head even if, occasionally, it lands a little on the nose as well.--Booklist

 

 
Texas has seceded from the US and named itself Liberty, ruled over by a president who gives the people what they want: daily parades, free nougat and plenty of surprises. Even being approached by a large talking cat named Stan doesn't seem too surprising to most citizens; maybe he's really a man with a strange skin disease? Eleanor, a young witch from the east, knows more about Stan's background than she likes to admit. She's been banished to Liberty and obliged to share a house with this annoying creature as penance for misusing a magic spell. She longs to be a good witch. Maybe, if she can prove her worth by helping the local coven find a missing member, she'll be allowed to return home – with or without Stan. A sharp, lively, funny contemporary fantasy with the feel of an up-to-date, more adult version of L Frank Baum's Oz books.--The Guardian
 

 

 

 

 

 

Coming August 2022

 

Partial cover reveal for Forgetting! Photo by Lynn Gallagher-Ford