Science Fiction & Fantasy

Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2017

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Fiction

The Mutable Borders of Love

Though Marietta’s eyes are closed, she is wide awake, fingering the new sheets she gave Asher as part of his six-month anniversary present. The other parts were dinner, followed by multiple sexual favors. She has already thought ahead, to the seven-month anniversary, when she will trade dinner for breakfast, trade a languorous night of sex for a quickie. She worries about thinking so far ahead and having expectations concerning things she cannot fully control. Is this really the way being in love should feel?

Asher’s bed is a California king. It is out of place, too big for the eight-by-ten room. The sheets cost almost double the price of her queen-size, but she bought these for herself as much as him. Asher’s new sheets are crisp and cool dense cotton that makes them feel shiny. Marietta is obsessed by their smooth texture and fine weave. She can’t stop fidgeting with the fabric between her forefinger and thumb. The old sheets were a remnant from a previous relationship. No matter how many times they were laundered, the Hawaiian ginger scent favored by the woman Marietta has since replaced lingered like old smoke. Marietta hated sleeping over at Asher’s until tonight.

Her lover snores content beside her, something she calculates will continue another ten minutes before he fades into a deep and heavy sleep, at which time he will probably call out the names of women he dated before they met. These women are dead, just as her past sweethearts are dead, but it bothers her just the same, maybe because it’s an unwelcome reminder that not everyone’s strong enough to survive love.

In most relationships, someone wins and someone loses. Marietta has been fortunate, so far, to have won them all. She appraises the lump in bed that is Asher. He has been fortunate, too. They are both successful competitors in the contest of love. She isn’t jealous, just insecure. Many wonder if love is worth the risk. So far, for Marietta and Asher, the answer has been yes.

Street lamplight filters through the shaded windows of Asher’s apartment. In the dim light, the delicate pastel blue of the sheets dulls to a computer gray. Outside, wind rattles branches and pushes cool air through cracks in the window frames. Go to sleep, Marietta tells herself. Deliver the sweet dreams she once enjoyed. It requires effort to keep her eyes shut and to lie motionless. She waits for what seems inevitable, for the ghost to appear as he has nearly every night for the past few weeks.

Her ghost’s name is Lenny and he was her first lover. They were eighteen—late for her, early for him. If she were honest, she would admit that she used him, viewed him as a means to an end. She was anxious to cede her virginity to the past. Long after their relationship ended, she realized that in her haste to get it over with, she had not stopped to consider the importance Lenny placed on his own deflowering.

Asher murmurs a name in his sleep, one she can’t quite hear. Asher is dark-skinned and haired, stocky enough to spill over onto her side of the bed. While the California king feels oversized to her, he’s used to taking up more than his share. Lying beside him is oddly comforting, given that he has passed out while she is awake fretting. They are both naked, the warmth from their bodies covering them like a second sheet.

The weather has changed to the days before fall, the time of year an apartment feels good without either heat or air conditioning. It is man-messy here, with a ring around the toilet bowl, no counter space, and a yeasty aroma leeching from bags filled with beer bottles hiding in the closet, awaiting redemption. Asher doesn’t leave much room for her to fit into his life. In this way they’re well suited. She doesn’t understand women who sacrifice their independence for their men. Women like that die young. Asher’s apartment reminds her of a foreign country, one she’s always welcome to visit, as long as her belongings fit inside a backpack.

“Go away,” Asher says in his sleep.

A tickle of doubt crosses her mind that the name he called aloud might have been hers and he might be thinking of her, but that that’s out of the question. They have been together long enough that she’s certain she loves him, yet short enough to still worry things might fall apart, that one of them will move on, that their time together will be defined by memories and smells loitering in the furniture and bedding. Marietta is twenty-six and ready for this to be the real thing. She thinks Asher feels the same, especially since he is thirty-three, an age where many men think it’s now or never. Absolutely nobody breaks up at this stage of love.

Lenny is late. Maybe her ghost has decided to respect the mutable borders of love and not show up, here, in her lover’s bed, in the new sheets that mark a new beginning. The waiting feeds her anxiety. She’s about to give up on sleep, slip into the other room to watch television, when she feels a slight sensation tugging at the duvet just below her left foot. Her gut twists, relaxes. Her eyes flick open and adjust to the darkness. And there is an apparition bathed in moonlight: a ghost, perching on the edge of the bed. The ghost stares at Asher. Marietta knows that it’s a ghost because she can see through its lithe body to a cherry wood chest of drawers propped against the wall. Transparency is the ghostly quality she most admires. Mystical, yet honest. Intriguing. There is no human equivalent.

The ghost is not the one she expected, her Lenny, but is instead a woman she’s never seen. It looks to be in its early twenties, wearing a sheer negligee the thickness of a window screen. It sits as if posing for an art class, hands crossed at the knee, torso twisted slightly. It’s a lovely, feminine thing, only the smallest bit scary because of ghost-white hair that’s thin and patchy like packaged spider webs sold at Halloween. It smiles with a beatific, disarming expression.

“Hi,” Marietta says after thinking about it more than is necessary.

The ghost answers with a condescending look that conveys boredom and disapproval.

At this point, Marietta understands the ghost belongs to Asher. It has discovered its ex-boyfriend in bed with another woman.

“This is awkward,” Marietta whispers, because acknowledging a problem is preferable to ignoring it. Asher confided he had ended his last affair a few years before she and he had started dating. Perhaps this was the one? Too bad about this woman, of course, but these things happen. Love doesn’t always go your way. Asher hasn’t said anything about a haunting. Should she wake him? Or would that just make things worse?

The ghost shrugs. “He doesn’t like being awakened,” she says.

“Can you read thoughts?” asks Marietta.

“Sorry about that,” says the ghost. “I forgot how much that spooks y’all.”

Keeping her mind blank takes concentration. Marietta feels a frisson of fear sweep over her, an emotion several steps up from vague anxiety. “When did you two hook up?”

“Two thousand ten,” says the ghost.

The answer renders it less likely that the last set of sheets belonged to this ghost. “Did you love him?” Marietta asks.

“With all my heart. He really hurt me.”

He must not have liked her that much, Marietta thinks, or things might have worked out.

“I was better than you in bed,” the ghost whispers.

It shouldn’t, but this boast hurts. She pushes away her insecurities. “You’re dead now,” Marietta says. “So how good could you be?”

“Don’t underestimate me,” says the ghost, rising from the bed. When she stands, her body extends from the floor nearly to the ceiling, elongated like pulled taffy.

Marietta hears primitive noises, growling and snorts. At first she thinks the sounds emanates from the ghost, but the growling moves closer, accompanying a change in the texture of the sheets. The fabric roughens from smooth water to broken glass. The growling and snorts are sound effects, a cheap parlor trick. Ghosts are good at effects, better than people. Marietta’s arms itch—the more she scratches, the worse it gets—until hot, itchy bumps crop up through her skin. The temperature in the room rises. Sandy granules cling to her skin.

“What do you want from me?” Marietta asks. She climbs from the bed, sweat dribbling down her face, temporarily blinded. Her shoulders grow raw from her scratching. Her skin itches behind her ears, between her thighs, inside her mouth. She can’t stop raking herself with her nails. “This isn’t fair,” she protests. This ghost isn’t from her past; she’s from Asher’s. Marietta shouldn’t be responsible for his mistakes as well as her own. “Take it out on him. I didn’t do anything to you.”

“Good point,” says the ghost. Ghosts enjoy showing off their powers. They’re quite human in that respect. “Listen,” the ghost says. “Sorry, about the rash. That was childish. The truth is, I just came to warn you. So you don’t end up like me.”

“I won’t end up like you,” Marietta says.

“There are worse things,” the ghost says with a dismissive wave.

Marietta’s skin dries and the itchy feeling fades.

As if on cue, Asher calls out in sleep, “Inez!”

“It’s good to know he still thinks about me,” says the ghost.

“No,” says Marietta because Asher should be thinking of her. “It’s just a dream.”

“Yes, of course,” says Inez. “I didn’t mean for you to get so worked up.”

“Are you apologizing?” asks Marietta.

Inez laughs. “Sure,” she says. “Sort of.”

Marietta cracks a smile and senses some barrier breaking between them. She senses this ghost means well. “‘Inez’ is rather old-fashioned.”

“It’s a family name.”

Admitting you’ve been given a family name is gloating. Marietta thinks of all the family lines she’s ended by being the lone survivor of the relationship. How sad. She doesn’t think of herself as inconsiderate.

“Asher is afraid of commitment. You two will have another week, two at most. He’ll win, you know. He’s very strong. He’s never lost.”

“Neither have I,” says Marietta.

“You haven’t played against Asher.”

“It’s not a game.”

“Well, there’s always a winner and always a loser. If I were you, I’d be worried that your luck will run out.”

Inez is right, in that rarely do both parties survive intact. But it can happen. It can happen if both want it enough. It’s not the norm, but Marietta knows of people who do love for keeps. “Why are you telling me this?”

“It’s complicated,” says Inez.

“You’re still angry.”

“Not with you.”

“It won’t happen to me,” says Marietta. “I’m strong.”

“That’s what I used to say,” says Inez. “By the time you understand yourself, you’re dead.”

“I’m fairly experienced,” Marietta says.

“Experience doesn’t help,” says Inez.

“And you are you telling me this because . . .”

“This might sound odd,” says Inez, “but I’ve found someone else.”

“Good to know there’s love after death.”

“The thing is, you knew him. His name’s Sheldon Perricone.”

“I do know him,” says Marietta. “Did.” Good old Sheldon. Smack in the middle of her life’s timeline between Lenny and Asher. Kind of funny that a man she abandoned on the altar found love with one of Asher’s old girlfriends. “Small world,” says Marietta.

“We’re in love, but we need more time to make it work. I can’t take a chance that he still loves you. I’d rather you don’t die. At least, not yet. I’m not being nice—just cautious.”

Marietta nods. This makes sense, in a weird, metaphysical, lovesick sort of way.

“Promise you’ll be careful. Asher is sneaky,” says Inez.

“So am I.”

“Promise,” says Inez.

Marietta says, “Sure.”

There’s a loud yawn and a whisper of sheets as Asher lifts himself to a sitting position on his side of the bed. He rubs his eyes. “Who are you talking to?” he asks.

They are alone. Inez has vanished.

“Anything wrong?” Asher asks.

Marietta snuggles beside him and wraps her long legs around his muscular ones. She kisses his neck, while he strokes her back. He’s so warm, so dark and substantial, nothing like a ghost. Her body’s warmth returns. “It was nothing,” she says. “I couldn’t sleep.”

“I don’t mind,” he says, and she can feel him growing hard beneath her touch.

• • • •

The next morning, while she’s in her office catching up on email, Marietta hears a ping and spies an instant message from someone named SP. Caught off guard, she answers and soon finds herself corresponding with her old, dead boyfriend, Sheldon Perricone, the ghost she recently learned is partnered with Inez.

So, do you have a fast connection up there?

LOL. Sorry to disappoint you. In the afterlife, Comcast still has a virtual monopoly.

She stresses over what to say next. Equal parts of curiosity and dread prevent her from ending the conversation. She’s about to type “I’m doing well,” when her monitor goes dark and a voice says from behind, “It’s better to talk in person. I was never a good typist.”

And there he is, Sheldon Perricone, not exactly in the flesh, and not exactly in person, and not exactly there, at least not the way she was. She hadn’t meant to hurt him. She never meant to hurt any of them. Human interaction is not an exact science, so there’s bound to be mistakes along the way.

Sheldon stands naked in the middle of a plant stand. Philodendron leaves ring his hips like a tutu, so of course she cannot tell if he still has a penis. Why would he? Why wouldn’t he? If you are reading my mind, she thinks, let me see.

He smiles but does not move.

She sees through his belly, though his face seems more solid. His eyes, no longer an intense ocean blue shade, have dulled to gray, with milky quartz crystals as their centers. He’s watching, waiting.

“You’re forgetting something,” he says, as old memories emerge and a feeling she identifies as regret washes over her. She remembers how he hinted of a plan to propose in the morning and that night, instead of meeting him for dinner, she went out drinking. She met someone new, enjoyed a very fun, very sexy one-night stand with a stranger. She remembers telling Sheldon it was over, remembers his face twisting with anger then despair. She remembers him fading into shadow before her eyes. Watching was horrible and since then, she’s turned away. “Sorry,” she says. “I guess I wasn’t very nice.”

His expression now is vast and full of sorrow.

She’s first to break away from eye contact. “Mistakes were made,” she says. “I was young.”

“Don’t make excuses,” Sheldon says. “I was young, too. I don’t blame you. Just don’t make excuses.”

She wills herself to be quiet, sensing that she seeks something from him, something she cannot fairly ask. She would like to be pardoned for all mistakes, not just those mistakes she made with Sheldon. She doesn’t want to be a bad person. It’s just that being a good one is too costly. Sheldon, for example. What did being good buy him? He lost.

“Look at me,” he says. “Don’t ignore me.”

“I’m not,” she says. “You need to learn to move on.” It’s a vacuous statement, one she immediately regrets. “How have you been?” she asks, though the answer is obvious.

“You’ve met Inez,” he says. “I love her. I think she’s my soul mate.”

Her jaw drops, and while she’s tempted to contradict him, she cannot believe what he has said. Is he saying he’s forgotten her? Does true love only happen after you’re dead?

“No,” he says, reading her thoughts. “Not always. We find love where we can. I just wanted to warn you. Asher loves you. Don’t mess up. Not everyone gets another chance.”

She’s recovered her cynicism. “Are you afraid I’ll dump Asher? Is he that much of a threat?” she asks.

“You’ve got it all wrong,” he says. “You’re worrying about the wrong things.” He disappears without so much as a subtle whoosh.

• • • •

On the bus ride home from work, a man across the aisle gives her a look that could be interpreted as simple friendliness, or could be interpreted as an invitation. Isn’t he worried about what she’ll do to him if she gets the chance? Is the urge to pair up so strong it would make a reasonable person risk his life? She has great power over men, something they all recognize. It never stops them. It doesn’t stop her, either. Everyone thinks they are in control of the situation.

The man stands up and moves across to sit beside her. “Hey,” he says.

“Do you want to die?” she asks and flashes a look she hopes signifies contempt. She stares ahead, refusing to meet the stranger’s glance.

She can’t control her fidgeting. The ghosts of her past have obviously unnerved her. She accidentally skips her stop and has to backtrack several blocks. Breaking up is hard to do, though she is better at it than most. But she really does love Asher. She thinks he loves her. If she’s wrong, it will be the end of one or the other. She wants to be right. How can she know?

Later, she’ll meet Asher at her place to watch Survivor, which now holds an especially ironic twist. She’s running late enough there will barely be time to call for pizza, let alone shave and straighten up. No choice but to settle for a spit bath and quick rubdown with a towel. She has already picked out a silk shirt to match her jeans. The bell chimes, signaling Asher has arrived.

“Coming,” she yells, wishing she’d had time to change her bedding. Her sheets are old and threadbare, a suddenly significant fact. She can’t ignore all the ghosts who have slept beside her in that bed. Memories of them still linger in her life. They get in her way, make it difficult for her to fully commit to love. She sets her towel on the bed and pulls up her panties and jeans, dabs Must de Cartier perfume at her pulse points, and wonders if it’s worth the effort to wear heels that will come off the second she sits on the couch. She picks up the shirt, no bra. The doorbell rings again.

From behind her, she hears conspiring whispers. She turns around. Lying on their backs, smoking cigarettes, pale and naked, are three gossamer men she once thought she loved: Lenny, Sheldon, and a one-night stand whose name is hidden just a bit lower than the tip of her tongue. The worn sheet covers lumps where their genitals might be.

Terrific. Her ghosts have hard-ons. At least one of her questions has been answered.

“Hey there,” says Lenny. When he exhales, his smoke has more substance than does he. He points to her shirt and moves his fingers in increasingly small circles. Her silk shirt flies up from her side and hangs fluttering in the air like a fabric kite.

“Come sit beside me,” says Sheldon with a tap on the sheet. “Plenty of room,” he says. “I could use some company.” When he nudges the pillow his elbow passes straight through it.

“You were something,” says the one-night stand. “But you said you’d call. Why didn’t you call?”

They mean to scare her. Except they are dead and she’s alive. The scariest thing that could happen has already happened, to them. “What do you want?” she asks. “It’s over. I won.” It sounds harsh when she says it straight out, yet true.

Her ghosts smile with hollow lips. They act as if they don’t believe she’s the victor.

Sheldon blows her a smoke kiss. “It’s not over ’til it’s over.” The room grows ominously cold.

There’s a knocking at the door. In the distance, Asher shouts her name. He’s a punctual man who expects no less from the woman he dates.

She checks her watch. “This has been fun, but I gotta go.”

“Stay,” says Lenny, his cold stare pricking like nettles.

She stands up, feeling shaky, says, “Go away!”

“Make us,” says Sheldon.

They think she’s to blame, but she didn’t make up the rules. They knew what they were getting into when they hooked up with her. She tried to love them. It just wasn’t meant to be. She wasn’t ready. That’s not the kind of thing you know until it happens. She snaps her towel and the specters disappear one by one, pop back up, and disappear again. Flustered, she throws her shoe. It passes through Lenny and bangs against the wall.

“Come back with us,” says the one whose name she has forgotten.

“Too late,” she says.

Lenny sniffles. “You sure know how to hurt a guy’s feelings.”

“Tell me something I don’t know,” she says and pulls the old sheet from the bed to wrap around her shoulders. She styles the sheet over her head and looks out at a room that is daytime foggy, with just enough light peeking through the blinds that her furniture looks like boxes. Her hands appear almost transparent. A creepy effect, but one that makes her laugh. Who says that being a ghost isn’t fun? She rushes from the room, toward the front door.

She hears them rummaging through her things, hears their footsteps follow her into the living room. They make the lights dance and topple books from the shelves, but their efforts fall short. She’s made up her mind to forget them. They can’t touch her. “It’s too late,” she says. She says it again, louder. Shadows appear through the fabric of her sheet. The shadows lengthen and twist like jungle vines. She trips on something she cannot quite see and pitches forward. “You can’t get me,” she says. She’s stronger than they are; she’s stronger than any of them. She’s proved that by surviving this long.

Still, her pulse races.

She anticipates what will happen when she opens the door. Asher will smile when she answers, when he sees his lovely, ghostly girl, hidden beneath her sheet. He’ll pull away the fabric, notice she isn’t wearing a shirt. They’ll make love on the carpet. Sex, when it’s good, makes her forget about the problematic things, like love. She’s afraid of love but with good reason. Loving can be dangerous. Is it really worth the risk? Fear is the icy river coursing through her veins. Fear is the dust devil in her throat that makes her cough and choke for air. Fear is the stabbing pain in the gut that comes from uncertainty. Marietta is afraid because she cannot know if it’s worth the risk until it’s too late.

The ghosts laugh and groan. Their voices strangle and then sputter out like a fire doused with sand. When she turns the ghosts are faint ripples. Their steps slow to a halt. Their rustling movements fade to silence. As suddenly as they appeared, their spirits vanish.

She’s won again. It should feel good, but it doesn’t.

Knocking.

Asher waits for her to let him in.

She can barely make out the frame of the door through the worn sheet. She stumbles forward, twists the lock open, pulls back the door. A dark form wavers on the other side of the threshold.

Relief floods through her as she recognizes him. She hesitates before speaking. “Hey,” she says.

“Hey,” he answers. Once he steps inside he winds his arms around her. The door closes softly behind him. “Missed you,” he says. There’s a slight warble to his voice, like he’s worried. He holds her so tight it’s difficult to breathe. He nuzzles her neck through the sheet, breathing in the sweet scent of her laundry soap, her spicy perfume, the salty fragrance of her skin. He’s told her how much he adores these things. “I love you,” he says. He waits for her response.

It would be easy to comfort him, to say that she loves him. It would be easy to lose herself in love. Because she does love him. And that terrifies her. She wants to tell him, but she can’t make her mouth form the words. It feels dangerous to admit how she feels. She can’t do it.

He brushes her lips with his.

She pulls away from his kiss. “I’m sorry,” she says.

His arms stiffen. He lifts the sheet from her face and stares into her eyes. His complexion has the clarity of old bath water. His affect is flat. “Why?” he asks.

“Asher,” she says. She doesn’t want to explain. She leans into him, pressing her breasts flat against his chest, unable to feel the thrum of his heartbeat through her skin. A slow chill trickles like a tear along her spine. “Sorry,” she says. “I really tried.”

“Congratulations. You won.”

“I didn’t think this would happen,” she tells him, but that’s not exactly true. She suspected it would end this way. It always does. She feels bereft, alone, empty. For the first time in her life, she understands love, how it is best defined by loss, by what is missing, not by the transience of joy.

“It hurts,” Asher says.

She holds him tight, not to comfort him but more to hold her own feelings of regret. In the end, he slips through her grasp and floats upward, to a place where love has no boundaries, where it floats like the memory of artifacts trapped in amber.

“I love you,” she says, too late for him to hear.

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Leslie What

Leslie What

Leslie What collects and sells eclectic vintage jewelry and is a Nebula Award-winning writer and finalist for the Oregon Book Award. Ms. What has edited fiction for the journal Phantom Drift: New Fabulism and nonfiction for Winter Tales: Women and the Art of Aging. Her writing has been published in Asimov’s Science Fiction, Parabola, Interfictions, Best New Horror, Calyx, Amazing Stories, Los Angeles Review, Flurb, City of Weird, and other places. Ms. and Mr. What recently celebrated an anniversary equivalent to the atomic weight of krypton. Ms. What is the artistic co-director of What! Lunch? Enterprises and has tap danced professionally, sold masks and costumes in New Orleans, been a charge nurse and counter girl and is currently underemployed as a grandmother. A mostly up-to-date bibliography can be found at www.lesliewhat.com.