A young man at loose ends finds he cannot look away from his new lover's alien gaze. A young woman out of time seeks her old lover in the cold spaces between the stars. The fleeing worshippers of an ancient and jealous deity seek solace in an unsuspecting New World congregation. In a suburban nursery, a demon with a grudge and a lonely exorcist face off for what could be the last time.
And when a big city mayor who delineates his mandate by the slash of a blade faces an unexpected challenger . . . it turns into a struggle that threatens to consume everything.
In Knife Fight and Other Struggles, David Nickle follows his award-winning debut collection Monstrous Affections with a new set of dark tales that span space, time and genre.
A young woman out of time seeks her old lover in the cold spaces between the stars. The fleeing worshippers of an ancient and jealous deity seek solace in an unsuspecting New World congregation. In a suburban nursery, a demon with a grudge and a lonely exorcist face off for what could be the last time. In Knife Fight and Other Struggles, David Nickle follows his award-winning debut collection Monstrous Affections with a new set of dark tales that span space, time and genre. With an introduction by Hugo Award-winning author Peter Watts. – Sandra Kasturi
"The stories [in Knife Fight and Other Struggles] are sui generis in presentation, veering from the discombobulating nightmare that is 'Basements' to the squid-laden eco-satire 'Wylde's Kingdom' to the sci-fi love of 'Loves Means Forever.' When it comes to this book, only two things are certain; the stories never travel where you expect, and David Nickle is a monumental talent."– Publishers Weekly (starred review)
"Believe the hype: David Nickle is very good."– The Globe and Mail
"David Nickle is my favorite kind of writer. His stories are dark, wildly imaginative, and deeply compassionate—even when they're laced with righteous anger. He's at the top of his game in this new book of short stories, and that's about as good as it gets."– Nathan Ballingrud, author of North American Lake Monsters
I met her on the beach.
It was one of Len's parties—one of the last he threw, before he had to stop. You were there too. But we didn't speak. I remember watching you talking with Jonathan on the deck, an absurdly large tumbler for such a small splash of Merlot wedged at your elbow as you nodded, eyes fixed on his so as not to meet mine. If you noticed me, I hope you also noticed I didn't linger.
Instead, I took my own wine glass, filled it up properly, climbed down that treacherous wooden staircase, and kicked off my shoes. It was early enough that the sand was still warm from the sun—late enough that the sun was just dabs of pink on the dark ocean and I could imagine I had the beach to myself.
She was, I'm sure, telling herself the same thing. She had brought a pipe and a lighter with her in her jeans, and was perched on a picnic table, surreptitiously puffing away. The pipe disappeared as I neared her. It came back soon enough, when she saw my wineglass, maybe recognized me from the party.
I didn't recognize her. She was a small woman, but wide across the shoulders and the tiniest bit chubby. Hair was dark, pulled back into a ponytail. Pretty, but not pretty enough; she would fade at a party like Len's.
"Yeah, I agree," she said to me and I paused on my slow gambol to the surf.
"It's too bright," she said, and as I took a long pull from my wine, watching her curiously, she added, "Look at him."
"Look at me," I said, and she laughed.
"You on the phone?" I asked, and she dropped her head in extravagant mea culpa.
"No," she said. "Just. . . ."
"Don't fret. What's the point of insanity if you can't enjoy a little conversation?"
Oh, I am smooth. She laughed again, and motioned me over, and waved the pipe and asked if I'd like to share.
"Sure," I said, and she scooted aside to make room on the table. Her name was Lucy. Lucille, actually, was how she introduced herself but she said Lucy was fine.
I introduced myself. "Tom's a nice name," she said.
The night grew. Lungs filled with smoke and mouths with wine; questions asked, questions answered. How do you know Len? What do you do? What brings you to the beach when so much is going on inside? It went both ways.
Lucy knew Len scarcely at all. They'd met through a friend who worked at Len's firm. Through the usual convolutions of dinners and pubs and excursions, she'd insinuated herself onto the cc list of the ur-mail by which Len advertised his parties. She worked cash at a bookstore chain in town and didn't really have a lot of ambition past that right now. Which tended to make her feel seriously out of her weight class at Len's parties, or so she said; the beach, therefore, was an attractive option.
She finished my wine for me, and we walked. I'd been on my way to the water's edge and Lucy thought that was a fine idea. The sun was all gone by now and stars were peeking out. One of the things I liked about Len's place—it was just far enough away from town you could make out stars at night. Not like the deep woods, or the mountains. But constellations weren't just theoretical there.
"Hey, Tom," she said as the surf touched our toes, "want to go for a swim? I know we don't have suits, but. . . ."
Why not? As you might remember, I've a weakness for the midnight dunk. We both did, as I recall.
I stepped back a few yards to where the sand was dry, set down my glass and stripped off my shirt, my trousers. Lucy unbuttoned her blouse, the top button of her jeans. I cast off my briefs. "Well?" I said, standing in flagrante delicto in front of her.
"Get in," she said, "I'll be right behind you."
It didn't occur to me that this might be a trick until I was well out at sea. Wouldn't it be the simplest thing, I thought, as I dove under a breaking wave, to wait until I was out far enough, gather my trousers, find the wallet and the mobile phone, toss the clothes into the surf and run to a waiting car? I'm developing my suspicious mind, really, my dearest—but it still has a time delay on it, even after everything. . . .
I came up, broke my stroke, and turned to look back at the beach.
She waved at me. I was pleased—and relieved—to see that she was naked too. My valuables were safe as they could be. And Lucy had quite a nice figure, as it turned out: fine full breasts—wide, muscular hips—a small bulge at the tummy, true . . . but taken with the whole, far from offensive.
I waved back, took a deep breath and dove again, this time deep enough to touch bottom. My fingers brushed sea-rounded rock and stirred up sand, and I turned and kicked and broke out to the moonless night, and only then it occurred to me—how clearly I'd seen her on the beach, two dozen yards off, maybe farther.
There lay the problem. There wasn't enough light. I shouldn't have seen anything.
I treaded water, thinking back at how I'd seen her . . . glistening, flickering, with tiny points of red, of green . . . winking in and out . . . like stars themselves? Spread across not sky, but flesh?
I began to wonder: Had I seen her at all?
There was no sign of her now. The beach was a line of black, crowned with the lights from Len's place, and above that . . . the stars.
How much had I smoked? I wondered. What had I smoked, for that matter? I hadn't had a lot of wine—I'd quaffed a glass at Len's before venturing outside, and I'd shared the second glass with Lucy. Not even two glasses. . . .
But it was Len's wine.
I'd made up my mind to start back in when she emerged from the waves—literally in front of my face.
"You look lost," Lucy said, and splashed me, and dove again. Two feet came up, and scissored, and vanished. Some part of her brushed against my hip.
I took it as my cue and ducked.
The ocean was nearly a perfect black. I dove and turned and dove again, reaching wide in my strokes, fingers spreading in a curious, and yes, hungry grasp. I turned, and came near enough the surface that I felt my foot break it, splashing down again, and spun—
—and I saw her.
Or better, I saw the constellation of Lucy—a dusting of brilliant red points of light, defining her thighs—and then turning, and more along her midriff; a burst of blue stipple, shaping her breasts, the backs of her arms. I kicked toward her as she turned in the water, my own arms held straight ahead, to lay hold of that fine, if I may say, celestial body.
But she anticipated me, and kicked deeper, and I'd reached my lungs' limits so I broke surface, gasping at the night air. She was beside me an instant later, spitting and laughing. No funny lights this time; just Lucy, soaking wet and treading water beside me.
"We don't have towels," she said. "I just thought of that. We're going to freeze."
"We won't freeze," I said.
"It's colder than you think."
"Oh, I know it's cold. We just won't freeze."
She splashed me and laughed again and wondered what I meant by that, but we both knew what I meant by that, and after we'd not-quite tired ourselves out in the surf, we made back for the shore.
I wonder how things went for you, right then? I know that you always fancied Jonathan; I know what happened later. I hope you don't think I'm being bitter or ironic when I say I hope you had a good time with him. If he misbehaved—well, I trust you did too.
Shall I tell you how we misbehaved?
In some ways, it was as you might expect; nothing you haven't seen, nothing you haven't felt, my dear.
In others. . . .