Science Fiction & Fantasy

Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2017

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Fiction

The Heart’s Cartography

Jade was the sort of backwoods girl who had a map of the countryside tattooed on her heart, and she could feel it in her bones when the pieces of her world shifted. So when the new family moved into the house across the road that late summer, she felt ripples of wrongness radiating out from them and their too-bright clothes, their bizarrely old-fashioned wood-paneled station wagon, and their rolling words that felt just a little to the left of normal.

“Time travelers,” said Jade’s brother, watching them from the window the day they moved in. Jade stood nearby, not daring to move or breathe.

“They are strange,” said Jade’s mother thoughtfully as she unloaded groceries. Jade helped her carry them in. “So . . . maybe. Maybe.”

“Can’t be anything else,” said Jade’s sort-of friend Andy as they rode their bikes into the village. “Gotta be from the future. If I were a time traveler I’d be just as clueless as that.”

Jade agreed, but didn’t say so.

They had a girl just about Jade’s age, who introduced herself as “Sally” with that little hitch before the first syllable that suggested it wasn’t the name she usually wore. Jade was hypersensitive to that sort of thing. People always had that hitch before they said her name, like the word Jason was on their tongues, in their minds, and hanging in the air between them before they placed the polite fiction of Jade in its place.

And so she found solace in the woods and streams and wild green places beyond the farms and tumbledown houses. The forest and the hills didn’t care about gender; there, she could be herself. She could be alone.

The woods sang to her, a chorus of wild, sweet voices. She hummed along as she walked, and she knew where every rock, every trail, every tree was.

One day she was tramping down the path by the ancient stone wall when she stiffened, all senses alert. She knew someone was there, a bright and shining feeling, even before she heard the crack of branches and the hasty rustle of leaves behind her.

She turned and saw a blur of bright orange and pink making their slow way through some trackless part of the woods. She steeled herself before calling out, beckoning. Soon Sally was standing sheepishly in front of her, hair a tangle of branches and knees scuffed and bloody.

Jade couldn’t help it, she burst into laughter. And then, to her amazement, Sally started laughing too.

• • • •

They sat on the rocks by the slow late summer trickle of the old mill stream, shooting the breeze together about the woods.

“I got turned around on Hawk Mountain once,” Jade was saying. “So I just decided to go west, cause I knew Lathrop Road was there. I crashed through the woods for hours, following the sun, until I was completely covered in scratches. And then I took a left to go around a boulder and found the damn trail—it had been like twenty feet away from me the whole time!”

She didn’t say that she’d been only seven at the time, long before her sense of the woods had really begun to develop.

“I adore the forest,” Sally said. Her accent was soft and flat, almost Midwestern, but with longer vowels and a rushing, lilting cadence that vaguely reminded Jade of Spanish. “At home we have some parks and spaces, but it’s not wild like this!”

“I love it here,” said Jade simply. “I never want to be anywhere else. I feel like . . . it’s a part of me. I know every inch of it, in here.” She tapped her chest, amazed at how easy it was to bare her heart to Sally.

“I can see why!” exclaimed Sally. “Wish I had a place like that.”

“So, where is home for you?” asked Jade innocently.

“Oh,” she said, flushing. “Chicago.”

“How far in the future?” asked Jade.

Sally looked up at her, eyes wide with panic. “W-what? No! I mean—”

“It’s okay,” said Jade smugly, thrilled to have been proven right. “Everyone figures you’re time travelers. We’re not stupid.”

Sally swore in a language that wasn’t quite English, then glared up at Jade. “How?”

“Clothes,” said Jade, ticking items off on her fingers. “Car. Accent. The way your dad is always standing around being fascinated by normal things. And your mom kept mentioning something called the Warm Shift, like we’d know what it was.”

Sally groaned. “My dad is an idiot. He’s always so sure, but we always do something to mess it up and then we have to leave!” She swore again. “I’m so tired of having to leave.”

“Don’t worry,” Jade reassured her. “We won’t tell.”

“Thank you,” said Sally, breathing a sigh of relief. “Oh, it’s so nice to stop pretending. I just want to stay somewhere for more than a couple months.”

“Don’t you ever get to go home?”

Sally shrugged, and her eyes were heavy. “Yeah, but Dad keeps getting assignments, so we never stay long.”

“Time traveling is his job?”

Sally gave her a look. “I’m really not supposed to talk about any of this.”

“Aw, come on,” Jade pressed, grinning. “Who am I gonna tell? The trees?”

Sally thought for a moment. Jade could tell she was unspooling a lifetime of training and paranoia. Then she came to a decision, rebellion in her expressive brown eyes. “Okay. I can tell you a little bit. You already know the time travel thing. Dad’s a temporal anthropologist. Mom’s a climate historian. She studies whatever time period we get sent to, she writes papers on things like air quality and whatever. He just makes these really weird observations and then tells us all about them at dinner.” She made a face. “He’s completely obsessed with shoes this time. It’s so annoying. We go home in between assignments, but we never stay more than a week. Mom and Dad say we’re lucky. I guess we are.” She didn’t sound convinced.

“So how far in the future are you from?” asked Jade, circling around to her original question. “What’s it like?”

“Now that I really can’t talk about. I’m not supposed to tell you anything about it!” She shook her finger at Jade. It was such an incongruously old-fashioned gesture that Jade couldn’t hold a giggle back. “Could end up changing the future!”

“Right,” said Jade, still grinning. “So have you been to the past? I mean, farther past than this?”

“Oh, yes!” said Sally brightly. “My favorite is the 1920s. We were there before we came here! The fashions were so nice, and everyone spoke so beautifully.” She sighed. “We only stayed two weeks. I miss it.”

“Wow,” said Jade, burning with jealousy. “I’d have loved to have seen it.”

“It was amazing,” sighed Sally. Then she tapped the side of her head and stared off into space, as if checking something. “Oh, dear. I have to get back. But . . . I was thinking I would come down here again tomorrow. I like being outside like this. Are you doing anything? Um. I mean—”

“I’d love to,” said Jade at once. It was still summer, after all, and there were no demands on her time. The prospect of sharing her woods with someone like Sally was exhilarating. “Wanna meet here? We can go up the waterfall trail. There’s a pond at the top. It’s really pretty there.”

“That sounds bully!” exclaimed Sally. Then she flushed again. “That’s wrong, isn’t it.”

Jade found herself grinning. “Sure, but who cares?”

Sally grinned back. “I’m so glad I came here! Who knew I’d find such a cool girl to hang out with? See you tomorrow, Jade!”

She ran off down the trail, leaving Jade feeling utterly buoyant. Girl. Cool girl.

There hadn’t been any hitch when Sally had said her name, no slight emphasis on her gender. There was no choking, suffocating Jason expanding to fill the air between them, just a clean and fresh future full of possibilities.

Jade hadn’t know how much of a relief that could be until now.

• • • •

She made her winding, casual way home as the sun set, letting herself in the back and then darting upstairs to avoid her father’s stern, disapproving glare. She picked out a skirt and a clean top for dinner and carefully, hesitantly crept back downstairs to eat.

Her father gave her that same look he always gave, then shook his head and banged his glass down a little more forcefully than he needed to. Bourbon spilled out onto the tablecloth, and her mother winced.

“J—Jade—how was it out there?” her mother asked, trying to stay cheerful. She always made such an effort to get things right.

“Fine,” said Jade.

“Did you see anything new?”

Jade shook her head. Her mother smiled, and then poked at her meat.

And that was just about it for conversation. Her brother told her father a little bit about something he was doing at his summer job; her father grunted noncommittally, sipped from his strong-smelling glass, and then the house lapsed back into a thick and cloying silence. Forks clinked against plates.

“Good dinner, Mom, thank you,” said Jade quietly when she was done. Her mother smiled at her again, trying to ignore her father’s sour expression. She picked up her plate and put it in the sink, then escaped back up to her room. The internet was agonizingly slow out this far out in the country, but she could still talk to friends, post to her Tumblr, and soak up everything she was missing.

There was an interview with a famous trans activist, and she watched it even though YouTube stuttered and buffered the whole way through. Everyone loved her. The world was changing.

Please change faster. Please change faster. Please change here, too.

Please don’t forget about us.

• • • •

Sally was waiting next to the stream that morning. She was wearing hiking boots and a practical-looking outfit that seemed to be made of a cross between denim and leather.

Jade asked her about it.

“Can’t tell you,” she said smugly. “Wanna get going?”

Jade laughed. “Bet I can make you tell me before we get there.”

“You won’t!” said Sally, hoisting her pack.

But she did, less than halfway there.

“It’s called saldec,” admitted Sally, exasperated after Jade’s constant prodding. “I don’t know what it means! But a lot of our clothes are made of it, it lasts forever.”

“Better than these old jeans,” said Jade, eyeing a hole in her knee.

“Oh, but I like jeans!” exclaimed Sally. “They get so comfortable after a while.”

Jade laughed, shaking her head as they trudged onward.

They spent the afternoon by the waterfalls and then the pond, eating the weird hard candy Sally had brought with her (“It’s from the past! So it’s okay!”) and talking about the village nearby, Jade’s family, the weirdness of time travel, and all kinds of other things. After a while they just sat together. Jade watched the dragonflies flit from lily pad to leaf, listening to the sound of cicadas, as white clouds drifted overhead. The air was warm but not too humid. There was no pressure to talk, no pressure to be anything but themselves.

Being with Sally was like being alone, but better.

When they separated by the creek as the sun began to set, after a promise that they’d meet up again tomorrow, Jade felt a peculiar emptiness. She was so used to being by herself that actually missing someone’s company was strange.

She decided she could get used to it.

• • • •

Their friendship grew as the weeks passed. They started hiking in different directions—into town, down by the ruins of the Seven Acres farm, out by the highway. Sally liked the town and the old farm, but she loved the highway. She watched the cars and trucks go by for hours, eyes wide.

“It’s just so different!” she exclaimed. “We don’t have anything like it!” Then she clamped her hand over her mouth while Jade laughed, filing the information away.

She’d learned a lot about the future from the little hints Sally had let slip. She’d started writing them down at night in a notebook she kept by her bed.

Hotter

Wetter? More rain?

No cars or highways

No United States?

Probably a couple hundred years

Really great clothes material

There were some big wars but people survived them?

Everyone has tech that’s part of them—Sally’s is mostly disabled and she misses it

No robots (damn)

No aliens either (double damn)

But nothing lasted forever, and summer’s shadows lengthened while fall began to loom over Jade’s life.

“Are you gonna go to school with us?” asked Jade. They were sleeping over at Sally’s house. Sally’s dad had been excited about the prospect, and had spent the whole evening, from the suspiciously normal meal of precisely-made hamburgers to an awkward, forced few hours sitting in front of the television watching a shopping channel, making surreptitious notes about her. He’d interrogated her at length about her sneakers, too. She caught Sally miming him a few times and had to stop herself from bursting out into howls of laughter.

But now the lights were out, and the girls were in their sleeping bags on the floor of the tastefully finished basement. Clearly Sally’s family hadn’t decorated the house at all. Jade had propped up a flashlight for them to see by.

“I don’t know,” said Sally, her face falling. “Dad’s already saying he’s got most of what they wanted him to get. And Mom thinks people in town are getting suspicious. So . . .”

“What? No! You’re not leaving, are you? Please say you’re not!”

“I—I really want to,” said Sally, downcast. But then she made a visible effort to brighten the mood. She was always doing that—she didn’t like staying sad too long. Jade was reminded of her mother whenever her father was halfway through his bottle of bourbon. “But I bet it’ll still happen! Sometimes we’ve stayed a lot longer than we expected. Right? So tell me about school! I bet you have lots of friends. Are there boys? Girls? Are there boys or girls who like you?”

“Oh,” said Jade, flushing. “Um. Not really.”

“But you’re so pretty! They’re missing out oh so much.”

Pretty? “They don’t like me,” mumbled Jade.

“But why?” asked Sally, clearly mystified.

“Oh come on,” said Jade, suddenly cranky. “You know!”

“I do?” asked Sally, blinking.

Jade sat up, bewildered. Could it be possible that Sally hadn’t picked up on it? She was so used to never passing, never being seen as herself. She’d stopped trying so hard when Sally was around; she just assumed Sally knew.

What if she didn’t?

Her heart pounded. Did she really want to swing a wrecking ball through all that?

But then Sally neatly shattered her illusions. “Oh! I bet I know. Was it because you were born a boy?”

“Shit,” muttered Jade, bracing herself for the deluge of awkward questions, reassurances, and worse.

But it never came. “I forgot that about now,” Sally continued. “It’s so weird. In my home time it’s fine to move around between all the genders. I was a boy for a week in third level! But it didn’t work out, I like being what I am.” She grinned, then her face fell again. “People don’t give you a hard time about it, do they? Is this one of those times where they do that?”

Jade just looked at the floor. “Oh. Nah. It’s . . . I just . . . I’m alone a lot. People are fine. They’re nice. But nobody gets too close, you know?”

“I do know,” said Sally softly. “Nobody really likes time travelers, either.”

“Even at home?” asked Jade, surprised.

“It’s . . . it’s all political,” Sally said, waving her hands in frustration. “People say we’re messing up the past. That we’re polluting it. That’s . . . like a huge deal. So people don’t like us. I’m usually alone, when I’m back there. Why do you think I go with my parents? I have a sister who just stays home. But not me, I want to be here. Because . . . every time we go I might make a friend.”

She was crying. Jade hesitated, then put a hand on hers. “Even though you have to leave them?” she asked.

“It’s better than nothing,” whispered Sally.

Jade squeezed her hand. “I want to tell you something,” she said.

Sally blinked at her.

Jade took a deep breath. She wanted to give Sally something, and she couldn’t think of anything else worth giving her. “Everyone else knows it. But . . . I want to share it with you. When I was a boy . . . my name was Jason. I don’t go by it. I don’t like it at all—please don’t ever call me it. But maybe it’s a secret you can take with you. Some little piece of me I don’t need anymore.”

Sally wiped a tear away. “Thank you, Jade. I like going by Sally. I always go by it, now. But back home . . . my name is Rehabetha.” She laughed bitterly. “I hate it. Please don’t ever call me it, either.”

“I like Sally way better for you,” said Jade with a grin. “It fits.”

“Jade fits so much more for you, as well!” Sally exclaimed. “Oh, let’s always be Sally and Jade!”

• • • •

Late that night, with Sally snoring softly in the bag next to her, Jade took out her notebook with her observations about the future. She switched on her light, and quickly wrote:

We survive

As she put it away, she was filled with a wild, wonderful hope. The future could be better than the past.

Things could keep changing.

• • • •

One morning, just two days before the school year started, Jade’s mother’s voice woke her up.

“Hon,” she said softly. “The woman from across the road is here. Your friend’s mother is downstairs. She wants to talk to you.”

“Uh? Sure,” said Jade, blinking sleep from her eyes. “I’ll come right down.”

“Don’t wake your father,” her mother whispered. “He’s . . . not feeling well.”

Hungover, then. Best to avoid him.

“Got it,” said Jade, and mother and daughter shared a nod, a little moment of we-are-in-this-together solidarity. Her mother left and Jade quickly dressed, ran a brush through her wild mane of hair, and tip-toed downstairs, taking care to skip over the creaky step.

Sally’s mother was in the front room, eyes wet. When she saw Jade she hurried to her and grabbed her hand.

“Jade,” she said, and Jade saw the awful, aching fear in her eyes.

“Oh no,” said Jade, heart stopping. “Sally?”

“She left early this morning. I don’t know where she is. We need to find her! We’re—we’re traveling today.” Her mother looked away. “We can’t leave her behind.”

Traveling. They were leaving today. It hit Jade like a punch in the gut.

No wonder Sally had run.

“Do you know where she is?” Sally’s mother asked, desperation in her voice.

“No,” said Jade. Sally’s mother’s face fell. “But—I’ll find her.”

“You will?” asked Sally’s mother, confused.

“If she’s lost anywhere in the hills, my girl will find her,” Jade’s mother said firmly from the kitchen doorway. “No one knows the woods better.”

Jade’s heart swelled with pride. She looked Sally’s mother in the eyes.

“I’ll bring her back before you have to go. Promise.”

• • • •

Jade stepped out of her house into the cool morning air. She closed her eyes and pictured the vast sweep of the land in her mind. She knew every fold, every rise, every creek, every tree . . . every blade of grass. Every stone.

They sang to her with that majestic chorus, alive and vital and sweet. She opened her mouth and sang along, her heart opening and her senses sharpening.

Suddenly, she knew the location of every rabbit, every cricket, every deer . . . and every human.

Sally. The sense of her was as bright and clear as the sun.

She’d gone to their place by the waterfall. Jade never even considered telling the adults. This, she knew, was between the two of them. She shouldered her pack and set off at a jog.

• • • •

The sun was obscured by threatening clouds when Jade arrived, exhausted and panting from running. She’d fixed her mind on the sense of Sally, and now here she was in front of her, sitting by the water, sullenly casting stones into the pond.

“I knew you’d come find me,” she said softly as Jade sat next to her.

“Everyone’s looking for you,” said Jade. “Your mom came to my house.”

Sally swore. “I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be. She said . . . you’re traveling today. Are you . . .?”

But Jade couldn’t bring herself to ask the question.

Sally started to cry. “I don’t want to go back. I hate leaving all the time! I finally make a friend and now—and now—”

Jade hesitantly put an arm around her, rebellious tears slipping down her own face. “I don’t want you to go, either,” she sniffed.

Sally turned to her, eyes suddenly wild and fiery. “Come with me. Come with us! I’ll say I told you everything. I’ll say you can’t stay here. It would contaminate the timeline! There are rules. We could go to the future. We could be together!”

“What?” said Jade, taken aback. Her arms fell from around her friend.

“Please!” wailed Sally. “Please come with me. You—you can be anything you want there. No one will be mean to you!”

The wind picked up, and Jade tasted danger in the sudden cold. “Storm,” she said, cursing herself. She’d been so intent on finding Sally that she’d missed all the signs. “Hell. We have to go. Come on.”

“No,” Sally said, the wind blowing her hair into her face. “I’m not leaving. Not until you say you’re coming with me!”

Jade felt a chill that had nothing to do with the storm. The future stretched invitingly in front of her. The future had to be better than today. She could see all the wonders Sally had hinted at, she could be herself, and she would be with the only person she’d ever felt had really understood her.

But then she looked around at the pool and at the forest growing tall behind it, and felt her heart like an anchor connecting her to this place.

“I can’t,” she said, her heart breaking as the words left her lips. “I’m so sorry. I can’t go.” She dragged Sally to her feet.

“Why?” asked Sally, starting to cry again. “Don’t you want to come with me?”

“Of course I do! I wish you could stay. You’re the best friend I’ve ever had. I mean that.” Jade thought of how to put it. “But . . . this is home. Right? And I can’t just leave. I wouldn’t be me anymore if I left.”

“You have to go sometime,” said Sally, sniffling. “To go to college? People do that here, right?”

“Maybe I won’t go to college,” said Jade. The wind was blowing in gusts, now. “Or I’ll go to Callville State, just over the hill.” She pointed, sure of the direction. “I want to be a park ranger someday, I think, or a guide. Something where I can be outside, and be here. This place, this here and now, is so important to me.”

Sally nodded, eyes still wet. “I know. I know it is. But what about the people? Everyone’s so awful.”

“They can change,” insisted Jade. “They already have. The future doesn’t have to be like today. You taught me that.”

Sally shook her head, miserable. And then a fat raindrop sailed out of the sky and hit her square on the nose.

She started to laugh.

“Sally, we have to go!” said Jade.

“I know,” said Sally, and hugged her. “I know! I—I’ll come back. You’ll see. I’ll come back and find you someday.”

“I believe it,” said Jade, grinning. “Now, come on!”

They sprinted for the cover of the woods as the rain began to fall in earnest.

• • • •

Three soggy hours later they finally arrived, soaking wet, at Jade’s house. Jade’s mother ran to fetch Sally’s while the girls changed into dry clothes. Thankfully Jade’s older shirts fit Sally fairly well.

Jade stayed out of listening range for the hushed, intense conversation Sally had with her mother, but she couldn’t help but tear up when Sally and her mother ended in a long, heartfelt embrace.

A hand on her shoulder. “You did real well,” said her mother. “I knew you’d find her.”

“Is Dad here?” Jade said, not sure what else to say.

“Out with his friends at the bar. He won’t know about it,” she said, a small smile on her lips.

Sally walked over, her eyes red from crying. “We’re . . . we’re going now. We’re already late.”

Jade looked at her mother, who nodded slightly.

“I’ll walk you over,” she said.

• • • •

The rain had stopped, and the world smelled damp and clean. The sun peaked out from behind a distant cloud.

They said nothing on the walk to Sally’s house. Jade had so many things she wanted to say to Sally, but couldn’t think of how to start. There was too much to know where to begin. Sally’s mother was walking ahead, giving them privacy.

Jade took Sally’s hand and squeezed it. Sally squeezed back.

They arrived to find Sally’s father waiting inside the wood-paneled station wagon. He grinned when he saw Jade there.

“I hear you’re the one who found our girl,” he said. “Thank you. We . . . ah, have to travel today.”

“You’re going home to your own time,” said Jade, meeting his eyes. “I already know.”

Jade’s father’s mouth dropped open, and he shot Sally a shocked look.

“I didn’t tell her,” said Sally. “She guessed it the first day.”

“Oh,” said her father. “Ah. That invalidates some of my notes, then.”

Her mother gave Jade an appraising look. “I’m glad you came to say goodbye,” she said. “R—Sally really likes you.”

“I like her, too,” said Jade shyly.

“Well,” said her father. “Come on. We’re late. Let’s go!”

He got into the station wagon.

“I’ll give you girls a minute,” Sally’s mother said, getting in the passenger door.

They were alone, for a last moment.

“I hate goodbyes,” said Sally.”

“Yeah,” said Jade, trying not to cry. “How will I ever find you again?”

“Time has a map,” said Sally, voice quavering. “It’s written on my heart. And on yours, too.”

Jade hugged her friend hard.

“I looked you up in our databases,” whispered Sally. “I know where to find you.”

“What did you find out?” asked Jade. “What am I going to be like when I’m older?”

Sally shook her head, fighting all her training, all of the things she’d believed since she was little. Then she gave Jade a last squeeze and whispered, “You’re going to be amazing.”

And with that, she got into the car. Jade stepped back.

Sally waved. The engine started up—and then the car was simply gone, as if it had never been there.

• • • •

Jade walked back to her house, feeling an aching loneliness like nothing she’d felt before. She kept thinking how she would laugh about this with Sally later, or she’d see her on her walk tomorrow. She searched for the bright sense of her, but she was nowhere, now. She was beyond her reach.

Her mother was waiting for her at the door.

“Oh, hon, I’m so sorry,” she said. “She left?”

Jade nodded and collapsed into her mother’s arms, sobbing, the dam burst at last.

“My poor Jade,” said her mother softly. There was no hitch in her voice this time, no hesitation. “My poor girl. It’s all right. It happens. It’s hard, but it happens.”

“I miss her already,” cried Jade.

“I know. I know. Come on in to the kitchen. I have the teapot on. Your dad won’t be home for a while. We can have a cup of tea together, and you can tell me all about her. Okay?”

Jade nodded, grateful. She followed her mother inside.

As she crossed the threshold she felt a sudden ripple in the world around her, and then an achingly familiar bright, shining sense. She whirled around, and inhaled sharply.

A young woman stood there, dressed in clothes that looked nothing like anything Jade had ever seen. She had to be in her mid-twenties, and her deep brown eyes were full of tears. And next to her . . . stood a tall woman dressed in camouflage and hiking boots, with twigs in her gnarled hair and a wicked grin on her face.

Their arms were around one another. They both raised their hands in greeting, and farewell.

Jade waved back, grinning. The first woman touched her hand to her heart, and then they both vanished again.

The sun was shining overhead. Jade shut the door, and headed for the kitchen where her mother waited with hot tea and a smile.

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Susan Jane Bigelow

Susan Jane Bigelow

Susan Jane Bigelow is a writer, librarian, and political columnist from Connecticut. She is the author of five science fiction novels from small press Candlemark & Gleam, including the Extrahumans and Grayline Sisters series. Her short fiction can be found in the magazines Strange Horizons, The Toast, and Apex Magazine, and in the anthologies War Stories and the Lambda Awards-winning The Collection: Short Fiction From the Transgender Vanguard. Her weekly column on Connecticut politics can be found at CTNewsJunkie.com. She lives in northern Connecticut with her wife and a herd of very fuzzy cats, where she spends her days writing and playing video games.