About the Author
Cassandra Rose Clarke is a speculative fiction writer and occasional teacher living amongst the beige stucco and overgrown pecan trees of Houston, Texas. She is a graduate of the 2010 Clarion West Writers Workshop and holds a Masters degree in creative writing from the University of Texas at Austin. Her short fiction has appeared in Strange Horizons. The author lives in Houston, TX.
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
The Mad Scientist’s Daughter ONE
Many years later Cat still remembered the damp twilight on her skin and the way the dewy grass prickled and snapped beneath her bare feet as she ran up to the edge of the forest that surrounded her childhood home. Her mother had let her stay out late that night so she could catch fireflies in a jar, and she lay among the tumbling honeysuckle and ropes of wild grapevines with the jar held aloft, holding still and waiting for the fireflies to buzz through the opening so she could trap them inside.
As the night fell soft and sparkling all around her, Cat watched the fireflies climb up the sides of the glass, the glow of their abdomens transforming them into intermittent stars. Somewhere around the front of the house a car door slammed, once and then twice, but she ignored it, knowing her father to come home late from his meetings in the city. But then the light came on in the screened-in back porch. Immediately, Cat slunk down into the shadows. She was at an age where she liked to spy, where she liked to note undetected the goings-on of adults. The round, familiar silhouette of her father stepped onto the porch, followed by another figure, tall and thin and angular, a figure Cat didn’t recognize. She clutched the fireflies to her chest and crept around the perimeter of the yard to get a closer look. Those fireflies she hadn’t caught blinked on and off in the darkness, and Cat’s jar glimmered faintly from between her hands. On the porch, behind the gauzy screen, the unfamiliar silhouette sat down. Her father leaned over it, their shadows blurring together. Cat slid across the grass. She crept up to the porch, near the steps, to the place where the screen had been ripped away from the frame a few weeks ago by the old raccoon that came around the yard sometimes. She tucked the jar under her arm and stood on her tiptoes and peered through the screen’s gap, and she saw her father’s broad, expansive back, a narrow sweat stain tracing along his spine. Of the stranger she saw nothing but a pale, slender arm, hanging motionless off the side of the plastic chair, and a foot covered in a dirty old sneaker.
Her father straightened up and took a step back. He put his hands on his hips. He said something, too soft for Cat to discern over the sounds of cicadas whining in the trees and the ceiling fan clicking rhythmically inches from her father’s head. He sighed. Then he walked across the porch to the wicker table in the corner and set down a thin metal tool that gleamed in the porch’s yellow light. There was a person sitting in the plastic chair, only he didn’t seem like a person at all. His eyes focused on Cat, and she yelped and ducked into the crawl space beneath the stairs.
“Do we have a visitor?” said Cat’s father, his voice booming out into the night. Cat huddled in the cool, moist dirt beneath the house, her jar pressed between her chest and her knees. It smelled of cut grass and old rainwater. The screen door slammed. Footsteps rattled Cat’s hiding place. Then her father’s face appeared, as white and round as the moon. “What have you got there, Kitty-Cat?” He pointed at her jar of fireflies.
“It’s my light-jar.”
“I see,” said her father. “And a lovely light-jar it is.” He reached under the stairs and plucked her out, swinging her through the cool night air and bringing her to rest on his hip. “I have someone I want you to meet.”
Cat buried her face in his soft shoulder.
He carried her into the screened-in porch. The light inside was weak and old-looking and buzzed like the cicadas outside. The man sitting in the plastic chair looked at Cat’s father, then at Cat. His eyes moved before his head did. They were very dark, like two holes set into his face.
“Cat, this is Finn. He’s come to stay with us.”
Cat didn’t say anything, just pulled the firefly jar to her chest and wiggled out of her father’s grasp so she slid down the side of his leg. Finn nodded and then smiled at her.
“A child?” he said. Cat wanted to run back out into the darkness.
“Yes, Finn,” said Cat’s father. “That’s right. My child. My daughter.” His enormous hand ruffled Cat’s hair. He knelt down beside her, and she looked at him. “Why don’t you show Finn your light-jar?”
Cat didn’t want to show Finn anything. He unnerved her. In certain ways Finn resembled the few adults Cat had seen in her short life—his height, his long torso and limbs, the solidity of the features of his face—but otherwise he was completely different from the boisterous scientists who came over some evenings for dinner parties. His eyes loomed steadily in the buzzing light of the porch. His skin was much too fair, sallow beneath the swath of black hair that flopped across his forehead.
She decided he must be a ghost. He was an adult who died. Her father brought him here to study him. This was the only logical explanation.
Cat hugged the jar tight against her chest. Finn didn’t move, didn’t even twitch the muscles in his face.
“Don’t be rude,” her father said gently. “We need to welcome Finn into our home.” He straightened up, and Cat took a deep, shaking breath and stepped forward, feet rasping across the porch’s painted wooden floor. She held the firefly jar out at arm’s length and looked over her shoulder at the porch screen dark with nighttime. When the weight of the jar lifted out of her hands, she scurried back behind her father.
“Photuris pennsylvanicus,” said Finn. “The woods firefly.”
Cat’s father laughed. “Latin names,” he said. “Good to know that scholarly upgrade is working nicely.”
Finn held the jar up to eye level, but in the light, Cat noticed, the fireflies looked like ugly brown beetles.
Cat tugged on her father’s sleeve. “It’s only outside,” she whispered when he glanced down at her. “It’s only a light-jar outside.” She wondered what would happen if Finn stepped beyond the boundaries of the porch, if the yellow light made him visible, if his true nature would cause him to melt back into the shadows.
Finn ignored them, turning the jar over in his hands, gazing at it with his peculiar, dispassionate expression.
“Oh, of course!” said her father. “Finn—” Finn’s head jerked up. “Let’s go outside. Come along.”
Finn stood, his narrow body unhinging at the waist. He handed the jar to Cat and smiled, but Cat grabbed the jar and pushed through the door, out into the cool, dampening night. The fireflies glowed again. She could hear them knocking against the glass.
“How lovely,” said Cat’s father.
“Lovely,” repeated Finn, as though the meaning of the word eluded him. For a moment Cat stood in the darkness, her back to Finn and her father. She wasn’t ready yet to see what Finn had become in the darkness. The surrounding forest rustled and shimmered against the starry sky. The glass from the jar was warm beneath her hands. She wondered if fireflies could protect you from ghosts. Probably not if they were trapped in a jar. Cat bit down on her lower lip, and then she unscrewed the lid and the fireflies streamed out, leaving streaks of light in their wake. Cat dropped the jar to her side. She took a deep breath. She turned around and gasped.
Finn had blended into the darkness, just as she predicted, but his eyes, gazing levelly out at the forest, shone as silver as starlight.
* * * *
That night, Cat couldn’t sleep. Whenever she closed her eyes, she saw two flat disks of silver, and her heart pounded violently up near her throat. She pulled her reading tablet out of its drawer and turned it on. She tapped the little ghost icon to bring up all the ghost stories contained in the database of the house’s main computer, and she began to read, looking for clues as to how to protect herself from Finn.
She was beginning to grow drowsy in spite of her need to feel afraid when she heard her parents’ voices seeping through the walls of the house. She slipped the reading tablet under her pillow and climbed out of bed and padded softly into the hallway. A sliver of light arced out from beneath her parents’ door.
“A perfect tutor,” her father was saying. “You said you didn’t want to send her to that school in town—”
“This is not what I meant, Daniel. He . . . It . . . It’s unsettling.”
“He’s not an it, darling.”
Cat curled herself up beneath the empty telephone alcove and set her chin on her knees. She wondered if Finn could hear them arguing, too. She wanted to knock on the door and tell them to keep their voices down, since it was potentially dangerous for a ghost to hear any discussion of itself. And she knew Finn wasn’t far away, either: earlier her mother had set him up in the attic bedroom, where the walls slanted down at an awkward angle and the air was always warm no matter the outside temperature. Cat had helped, carrying the heavy metal fan up the creaking stairs, its cord snaking down behind her, while her mother opened the windows, stirring up clouds of golden dust.
“It’s hot up here,” Cat said, rubbing the sticky, itchy dust out of her eyes.
“Won’t matter.” Her mother sighed. “Your father insisted we bring the fan.” She turned toward Cat. “Come along, it’s past your bedtime.”
So it was entirely possible that Finn had his phantom ear pressed to the attic room’s wooden walls, listening in on everything her parents said. Assuming he hadn’t slipped out already, in the form of cold damp mist, or possibly a cockroach. Cat gnawed on the hem of her nightgown. Surely her father, who was a brilliant scientist, knew how to contain him.
Inside the bedroom, Cat’s father said, “Let’s talk about this in the morning.”
The rim of light disappeared. Cat’s eyes widened. It would be dangerous if Finn caught her unaware in the dark. She crawled out of the alcove and crept back along the hallway, making sure always to step at the place where the floor met the wall so the boards wouldn’t squeak. When she came to her bedroom she stopped and peered down the hall, at the door leading to the attic stairs. The air-conditioning kicked on and that familiar roar gave her a sudden burst of courage. Cat skittered up to the attic door. She pressed her ear against the smooth cool wood, holding her breath in tight: but there was nothing, no sound, no movement. No light under the door.
Cat went back to bed. Exhausted, she fell asleep.
* * * *
Over the next few weeks, it became apparent that her mother had lost the fight Cat overheard that first night: Finn stayed. In the mornings he came down from the attic bedroom and sat with the family as they ate breakfast, although he ate nothing, only kept his hands folded on top of the table. Cat always watched him with caution, hoping she could find some clue as to his nighttime activities. One morning he returned her gaze with a weird smile, and she yelped and kicked her heels against the legs of the table so the whole thing wobbled.
“Cat, stop it,” said her mother, reading the news on her comm slate.
Cat paused for a few seconds. Finn had turned away from her. He knows I know! she thought, and immediately kicked the table leg again.
“Caterina Novak! What did I tell you!”
Cat drank the last of her orange juice and then slid off the chair so that she pooled on the floor underneath the table. She considered the three pairs of feet: her father’s, in his woolly slippers, her mother’s, bare, with chipped pink polish on the toes, and Finn’s, in heavy black boots. She crawled beside her father’s chair.
“I’m going outside,” she told him.
“Oh?” He smiled down at her. “Why don’t you take Finn with you? And show him the garden?”
Cat’s heart began to race. She didn’t look over at Finn. She willed herself to stay calm. “Do I have to?”
“Don’t be rude,” her mother said without looking up.
“I would like to see the garden,” said Finn.
“See?” said Cat’s father. “I think that settles it. Show him your citrus tree.”
Cat stood up and so did Finn, pushing his chair back neatly. He smiled at her again. He seemed exceptionally polite for a ghost, although it was possible that was how ghosts tricked their victims. She clomped over to the door and stepped outside. The light was pale and hazy. “It’s this way,” she said, leading him around the side of the house. She heard his feet rustling the overgrown grass.
When the garden came into view, small and neat and boxed in by its black fence, Cat broke into a run, stopping only to unlatch the gate. The garden hadn’t yet completely unfurled itself, and most of the blossoms were only tiny fists pushing out of their stalks. The climbing roses had been pruned back a few weeks ago; the hyacinth poked unscented out of a stretch of black soil. Cat ran over to her citrus tree and leaned against it, watching as Finn stepped through the gate and stopped and looked around the garden as though he’d never been outside.
“This is remarkable.” Finn pointed at the Texas wisteria. “Wisteria frutescens. I have never seen it before.”
“It grows all over the place,” Cat said. “It grows in the woods.”
Finn turned toward her citrus tree. “Citrus limon,” he said. “Lemon tree.”
“Yeah, I guess,” said Cat. “It’s mine.” Her citrus tree was the same height as her and covered with flat waxy leaves, although no lemons yet. She had planted it with her mother last year, digging up the soil with a plastic shovel, watering it dutifully during the summer drought.
“I understand.” Finn walked over to the tree and reached up to rub one of the leaves between his thumb and forefinger. He was close enough to Cat that she could see the fibers in the fabric of his T-shirt, thin and faintly worn. It looked like the T-shirts her mother kept folded up in a drawer to wear when she worked in the garden. It didn’t look like the T-shirt of a ghost.
Cat had a sudden idea. “Hey, do you want to see the cemetery?”
Finn dropped his hand and turned toward her. “The cemetery?” His voice sounded different, higher pitched, like a child’s, like a girl’s. When he spoke again, it had returned to normal. “I’ve never seen a cemetery.”
Cat nearly clapped her hands together in her excitement. Her hypothesis was correct. (Her father had taught her about the importance of hypotheses.) Finn had forgotten that he was dead. He had forgotten the place where he was buried. Maybe he wasn’t the bad kind of ghost at all, just the lost kind. Cat ran out of the garden, back toward the house. “Come on!” she shouted. Inside, she plopped down on the kitchen’s cold tile and put on her shoes. Finn walked in, looked down at her, then back up at her parents, still sitting at the kitchen table.
“We are going to the cemetery,” he said.
Cat’s father took a long drink from his mug of coffee. “Well, that’s wonderful,” he said. “I knew you two would get along if you had the chance.”
Cat’s mother didn’t say anything.
Cat jumped to her feet and went into the living room to grab her sketch pad. Then she ran back outside, letting the screen door slam behind her. Finn followed. She led him down to the woods, still dark and fragr...
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