1ST PLACE FICTION WINNER
Violet, on the floor, still at sea in dreamthought. She will throw a party.
Yes. Jemma always loved parties.
Violet pulls herself up and throws open the blackout curtains to face the noonday sun. On the street below: people. Gobs of people. She doesn’t like them (people) as a whole, but they fill rooms; rooms full of people fill space; it’s space she has now, and it’s a liability. Four rooms with twenty-five-foot ceilings, naked walls, and unencumbered floors.
With the curtains pulled back, the light is icy and invasive and fills every pockmark and crack in the place. She feels the sting of it on her skin: it is a bracing, activating kind of pain.
Morning eleven. She’s awake.
Violet invites all of Jemma’s contacts. Thousands of connections, but it takes mere minutes to ping them party details because Jemma left her Earworm plugged into Violet’s laptop. Almost immediately, yes-chimes roll in. Some messages too: Girl! It’s been too long. So excited to see you! and Hey, Ms. Truly Truly Truly Outrageous! You KNOW I’m there. They keep coming. Violet eventually mutes them.
People, with just their clicks and voices for now, but bodies soon. That’s what Jemma had always needed: lots of bodies. Then Violet might get some sleep.
When Jemma didn’t come home one, two, three nights, Violet was worried, but not particularly so. She had disappeared before with no warning. And always returned, with words of regret. And Violet, well, Violet had always been struck dumb by her love for Jemma.
The vast expanse of whiteness, now absent of any mitigating accents, of context, will probably drive Violet into some sort of madness. But it’s also true that she isn’t particularly concerned with keeping her mind intact.
The white floors were Jemma’s idea. Her idea, but she hadn’t painted them: Violet was the worker bee in the relationship. And Jemma: the queen. Though that comparison wasn’t quite right, because Violet was the one who stayed inside the apartment, and Jemma was nearly always gone from morning until long after dark. That was true then, true now.
Actually, that last part was just speculation. Violet can’t totally be sure what’s happening now.
The furniture was cleared out on day ten. Violet was left only with the fantastic bed she’d designed and built for them. The movers didn’t know what to do with it. Baffled, they’d looked up at it, then back at Violet with deadpan eyes.
She’d made the bed the first year they’d lived there. It rose fifteen feet high. There was a ladder that went straight up past the towering bed into the ceiling, to a hatch that opened up to the roof. Sometimes they would open the hatch at night, for stars, though those were mostly obscured by the city lights.
The bed was surrounded by flowers at its base. It was Jemma who bought them, three times a week, and Violet who arranged them, popping off the firm heads of daisies and carnations, and trimming the stems from the gentle-petaled dahlias and roses.
There was also the thing they called the cloudforest.
On her last day out in the world, Violet wandered alone into the places she had loved most, which included the museum she had, at one time, helped direct. She walked through the large, interconnected rooms with hazy vision and a gnawing stomach: she couldn’t consume any of it. Then she rounded the corner into the wing that held the rotating exhibitions. There she found a sculptural installation by a Korean artist unknown to her. What it was: domestic objects—chairs, coffee cups, hand mirrors—cradled in stormy swathes of black thread, spun in the shape of twisters and tsunamis.
Violet was taken with an inexplicable feeling: it wasn’t a momentary sensation like déjà vu; it was a piece of some gummy past she couldn’t unstick. It snuck in like an insect crawls inside a sleeping person’s mouth and it traveled, nesting in her gut. She circled round and round the installation for nearly an hour, trying to make sense of its familiarity. Failing, she left the museum, bought supplies, and went home to the loft, a place that would become both sanctuary and prison.
It was trying to pinpoint the feeling, the memory, that made her weave the thread between the four bedposts, and it was leaving a world of trees and lakes and clouds that had her do it in their colors, to build a floating memorial tumbleweed of greens and blues. Twisted as such, the colors were nearly indistinguishable from one another, or at least pointless to differentiate.
Sometimes Jemma would bring sex home with her. These were almost always friends of hers, which Jemma preferred. And they were almost always strangers to Violet, which Violet preferred. In this way they were compatible.
Once, Violet surprised Jemma by ordering in. Violet liked sex with strangers and she liked to pay for it, but she hadn’t done so since they’d been together. Violet trembled with excitement when the loft’s elevator doors opened as Jemma returned home. She’d staged a kind of tableau: the two of them naked on the wine-stained couch, the long woman she’d hired stretched across the velvet, one leg thrown up over the top; she, compact, head between the woman’s legs, eyes on Jemma, drinking in her momentary bewilderment and the grin that followed. Drowning in Jemma’s widening smile as she dropped her bag and stood there, not getting any closer to them, just watching with an appraising stature, arms crossed over her chest and legs planted hip-width apart. Was she doing everything right? Violet asked with her eyes. Jemma would let her know. But later. Violet would have to wait.
Another time, Jemma brought someone home who wasn’t a friend, couldn’t be, because it was clear by the band around his neck that he was a Plastic.
For Jemma, it was all an adventure. For Violet, it was all for Jemma. But she drew the line at fucking Plastics.
Get this thing out of our house.
Jesus, Violet. He’s not a thing. He has a name—
Get it out.
You’re being a bigot, Vi. Calm down.
The two of them continued fighting, so didn’t notice the Plastic’s exit right away. Jemma hadn’t even released it—but somehow it was out there of its own accord. They saw it on the app—Nex was the name—a black dot a few blocks away, moving toward Broadway. Jemma released it through the app, somewhat pointlessly as it was already out of range, but she didn’t want to be liable for whatever damage it could do to itself out there.
Jemma being Jemma, they threw lots of parties. Then there was the last one: her 45th birthday.
Denny, a mutual friend of Violet’s and Jemma’s, had been the first to arrive. She was the only person they’d known independently of each other. Denny and Jemma used to have play-dates, as they called them, though Jemma told Violet she’d lost interest long before she’d shook Denny off with cheerful elusiveness (as was her style). Violet knew her from AA meetings she’d stopped going to right around the time she met Jemma. Denny and her cultivated surliness laid into the world like a dulled knife. She wasn’t totally sure—Jemma denied it—but Violet thought Denny might have badmouthed her when they began dating, maybe even with stuff she’d brought up in group. The meetings were confidential, but Violet had left the fold, and Denny, a true believer, had seemed to take it personally.
Denny gave Violet a curt nod before leaning in to kiss Jemma. “Happy birthday, kid,” she said.
After Denny there was a round of boys who had just returned from a week at Fire Island and were still loose-limbed and tousled. They all took turns kissing Jemma on the mouth and hurried over to the sink to make vodka drinks.
The radical lawyer and her partner brought their droopy-faced kid, but promised they were leaving early, they couldn’t get a babysitter but oh how they loved their girl J, and how could they possibly miss her birthday?
In the following hour, at least thirty to forty people arrived in stylish clumps. Violet didn’t know any of them and from what she could tell, Jemma didn’t either. But that didn’t matter: she pulled them all into a Jemma brand of intimacy, corralled them all with that halo she wielded like a golden lasso.
The performance artists came later, arm in arm with the bartenders, and it got out of control (Jemma said “fun”) soon after. Some had started making out and groping each other in corners even before the lawyer’s kid went home, and soon it became the bacchanalian display everyone had imagined and hoped for: two of the Fire Island boys with one of the bartenders on the rag rug; a female female-impersonator and a male male-impersonator, putting on a show on top of the piano; and eventually, some of the unknowns, howling like coyotes, bending their half-dressed Plastics over the waist-high Lucite tables. Plastics were still controversial and exotic (not to mention expensive), so there was a whole group standing around gawking, some pointing and laughing, or moving to get a different angle, jumping over each other like kids at a zoo. Did Plastics actually feel real on the inside? Try it out for yourself someone said, stepping aside.
The lawyer would probably have intervened if she’d stayed. But one didn’t have to be an advocate for Plastics Reform to find it all quite tasteless. Was it fantasy? Yes(?). Did it seem real? Yes. Although real people consented to being degraded, hurt, and used all the time. That was kink. This is the same, Violet thought, except with fancy puppets—ciphers, programmed to do what you say. Asking for consent from them was just its own fantasy. Yet she saw how thrilling it was for the ones who each took their turn not to have to ask, to just take, to grab on, and the violence became real: she started to breathe it in, an acrid taste all too familiar to her. Violet remembered the Plastic that Jemma had brought home, which had left on its own.
But then she caught a glimpse of the black band around one of their throats and self-corrected: They were Plastics. They didn’t hurt or want or eat or vomit or die.
Or orgasm. There were the programmed erotic responses, lubrication and the erections, but that was, of course, for the humans’ benefit. Violet had read somewhere that the newest models would include more personalized features, including orgasmic responses to certain acts, or at pre-set times. She supposed that meant enough customers had requested it—and that was good, wasn’t it? That people still wanted orgasms from their sex partners, even if they were literally robotic.
Watching it all go down and doing nothing, watching Jemma doing nothing (except make out with a twenty-year-old shaved head in the corner): Violet realized none of them could say anymore whether they were libertines and sex radicals or just a bunch of dumb animals. That’s what came of gangbanging the Plastics at Jemma’s birthday party.
After six days passed with no Jemma and no communication, Violet began to worry particularly. Jemma had never been gone that long—close, but she’d at least sent an edible emoji Violet’s way, to show she was alive, was thinking about her. Enough, at least, to spend some Bits and message over a Sad-Faced Oatmeal Raisin. Jemma selected the same cookie every time. Violet hadn’t printed any since the first—the cookie had been overly sweet, with a metallic edge.
Tear off the stems.
Build a moat of blooms, diverse, with no recognizable pattern.
Tear off the day from the page-a-day calendar, write three words, then find a place for it: fold it neatly in halves, or thirds, or into the shape of a bird, and release it into the forest of thread spun between the bed posts, the web that extends down all the way from the top.
Climb the ladder and sit on the fifth rung, so your legs dangle. Climb five more rungs—halfway up—and observe the distance between the hard concrete and your feet: this is where it becomes possible for you to break, if you fall. Take notice but turn away. Climb all the way up, ring the bell.
Hadn’t Jemma loved the idea that the bed could be something else entirely. When it had ceased just being a place for sleeping or fucking. Hadn’t she loved the idea of them lofted up above a bunch of abstraction.
Yes, Jemma loved the ritual at first, but, over time, tired of it. She wanted to skip it some nights, like flossing. Other nights or early mornings, Violet woke up alone in the bed, though earlier, in sleep, she’d half-heard stirrings of Jemma’s return. Peering down, she saw the outline of Jemma curled up on one of the couches near the door, her boots still on her feet.
Jemma didn’t need the ritual to mark time, to honor what was left—she still had the world and its routines. Grim and survivalist as they were, they had rhythms and logic. Naturally she had no real use for ornate love rites.
Violet wasn’t able to bring herself now to climb the ladder, to do the ritual, though she couldn’t stop herself in the past. In those times she’d done so with extra fervor. Then the folds could be nothing less than birds. Each day had been another bird.
On day seven, Violet earwormed Denny. Have you seen J? No response.
Violet was stuck. This was the life she had chosen after the war began, yet she was tempted to give in now, file her fingerprint and retinal scan so she could leave the apartment, get past checkpoints. Find Jemma.
She hadn’t thought she would have the capacity for more heartbreak—not the kind that had any power to change her anyway. She was an idiot. Dumbstruck, maybe; dependent, certainly; disconnected, yes, from everything in the world! Except for Jemma, who was gone. And of course she was.
Violet couldn’t register: she was illegal. It was best that she remain officially dead to the world. And if Jemma didn’t return, didn’t contact her, she would just have to accept that she might be dead too.
Violet couldn’t, wouldn’t sleep in the bed. She hated the goddamned bed. The flowers had rotted. She slept on the wine-stained couch with her boots on.
It was night seven/morning eight when Violet woke to the sound of the bell. Wind from the hatch, probably: had she left that open?
Morning eight and Violet woke to violets. Hundreds of them, at the base of the bed.
Night nine/morning ten and the bell rang every hour. Insistent, imperious ringing.
Morning ten and Violet’s violets have doubled in number.
Morning ten and the men arrived with instructions to clear the furniture.
“Why? Where are you taking it? Who sent you?”
They looked at Violet with dead eyes: Plastics.
“Orders,” the one said with a shrug, and that human gesture, that programmed nonchalance, sent Violet over the edge. Panicked, she chased after them, running back and forth to each one as they packed up the chairs, the desk, the piano, the Lucite tables, the wine-stained couch.
Evening ten, on the floor. The bell rang with less urgency than the night before, but more frequently: every ten minutes now, an impertinent little ding-ding.
Fuck Jemma Hughes, Violet thought. No, actually: fuck the fucking ghost of Jemma Hughes. And then thought it again. The words looped in her head—a mantra, a hex—and, absurdly, became enjoined with the melody of a children’s playground song.
“FUCK THE GHOST OF JEMMA HUGHES, JEMMA HUGHES, JEMMA HUGHES. FUCK YOU, MOTHERFUCKING GHOST! FUCK YOU, GHOST, YES FUCK YOU MOST!”
Violet’s singing slid into laughter as she imagined a cartoon Jemma, under a sheet, kinky hair mushrooming up the top, flying overhead, glasses over the eyeholes, witchy pointed boots with untied laces poking out from underneath.
The punchdrunk hilarity was momentary relief. The bell began to ring again, and then, a new sound—rustling. Violet jerked up. With courage, she let go of the blanket and stood. The bed was on the other side of the makeshift wall, out of sight, but the shh-shh-shh-ing was right there with her, over her, on her, like rainfall.
A foot from the bed, Violet could see that something had transformed, but what? Violet felt a chill and simultaneously her arm thrust reflexively forward in a kind of hypnic jerk. She grabbed onto a handful of thread and then saw the page-a-day notes, felled like dead leaves.
Violet backed away, fear keeping her gaze on the bed while anger moved her feet. She would not climb that bed and ring that bell, now that Jemma demanded it. She would not collect those fallen page-a-days. She would not write three words down for someone who wouldn’t send one. She would not be haunted. She would not. She would not. She would not.
Morning eleven. Violet is up, armed with dreamthought. She has a plan. She throws open the curtains. She is fully awake.
The violets are wilting, but there is something else: the dead page-a-days have been swept up. They are all back in the cloudforest. They have all been molded into tiny folded birds.
There is a war on. And people want to drink, laugh, screw, glom onto one another for warmth. Or to Plastics, on demand. People were dumb animals; people filled space; space was a liability. Violet sees familiar faces from the past, but there is no light in their eyes upon seeing her, no expressions of recognition or of dawning memory.
In this world, Violet has disappeared and Jemma is a ghost. Yet there are at least two hundred people and Plastics in their loft, and you can’t tell one from another unless you bring each into singular focus. As far as they all know, they’d received their invitations from Jemma, yet Violet hears no mention of her name. No one seems to care that Jemma isn’t—as far as they know—present. Perhaps her ghost had appeared to them too. Wouldn’t that make sense: Jemma’s ghost restlessly moving from place to place—until the darkest hours, Violet’s hours.
There is only the bed now, so the guests are piled in it and on the ladder, and clustered below, fingering and opening the page-a-day birds. Violet does not feel annoyance or sadness as they trample the posies of violets and read their once private words. She isn’t sure what Jemma wants with her ghosting—if want was a word one could use in the situation—but if the last thing left in the loft they’d shared is stripped away, Jemma has nowhere left to haunt. And all the better if Violet’s hands are clean, if it’s the will of the people, a natural piece of the chaos characterizing one of the last blowouts at the end of the world.
Denny arrives late and haggard and spots Violet among the crowd immediately. As she crosses the room to Violet, her stride and expression all business, Violet notices how thin she is. It has been about a year. Denny’s hair, always buzzed close, has grown in. Her face is not only gaunt and shadowed but bruised above her temple and along her jaw.
“Is Jemma here?” Denny asks.
“No. Well, maybe.”
“What does that mean? Is she here or not?”
Denny’s head appears too big to be supported by her spindly neck as it oscillates, scanning the room.
“Jemma’s been gone for almost two weeks,” Violet says.
Denny’s neck gives up on her head and she shrinks two inches. Violet stands, unmoved, stiff as a soldier.
“You never answered me. Was she with you?”
“I’ve been in detention,” Denny says. “I’ve only been out a day. I went home and they’d taken everything. Apparently it’s happening everywhere. Then I heard Jemma was throwing a party—and it didn’t make any sense, but I thought, maybe there’s a chance—”
“Didn’t make sense—so then you do know. What happened.”
Denny looks away and shakes her head. “No. I don’t know what happened, what’s happening.”
“I threw the party,” Violet says.
“It’s for Jemma.”
Denny sighs. “What the fuck, Vi.”
That is all that leaves her mouth, but Violet hears what Denny would have said, if she wasn’t drained of her anger, cored by her last few years in service:
You did this. Coward. Holing yourself up in this place for—what? Has it been two years? Two years you’ve had her handcuffed to you? Making her feel guilty every time she tried to escape this…fantasyland of safety. While some of us are actually trying to do something. She should have left you a long time ago.
Behind Denny, one of the mounted speakers blares new, louder music. It is a favorite song of Jemma’s, and for a moment Violet thinks she is ghosting again, sending the two of them a message, or else just playing good hostess. Ghostess with the mostest. Cartoon Jemma comes to mind again and she has to hide the smirk behind her palm. Ladies and gentleman, the ghost of Jemma Hughes is in the building. But then Violet turns and sees a shirtless, hairless boy bent over her laptop and a close-knit group behind him, cheering and dancing with the joy that can come in these times from getting something you want easily, even if it’s just a song dedicated to a room of queer revelers.
Violet isn’t sure if she wants to know exactly what happened to Jemma, or if Denny actually knows anything about it, so she just asks the question she’d been asking Jemma all these years, about what she couldn’t find out for herself in the last two weeks because no online identity means no tribal stamp, no media key, no Bitcard. She will have to make a plan soon. She is running out of food, the partiers will pick apart the fairytale bed, and soon she’ll just be a lonely, by-all-accounts dead woman who’d dodged the Resistance and expelled the ghost of her girlfriend from the clinically white box she’d hid in for 742 days. For all these reasons she can only lamely ask: “What’s happening out there?”
Denny picks up a half-empty bottle of tequila someone left near the window where they stand and takes a good long swig. “Wanna know what’s happening? Get into your elevator, go downstairs, and try living like the rest of us.”
The chatter and the laughing and the bass are a concrete bunker of sound, but the bodies are vulnerable. There is glamour and vulgarity, earnestness and exhaustion; there is throbbing life. Violet and Denny, sharing the bottle of tequila, aren’t close enough to the elevator doors to witness the first signs of upset, but Violet feels the shift in temperature. The bodies, intermeshed, hot with sweat, begin to scatter and stumble toward the windows, clearing a path from the elevator directly to Violet, crosslegged on the floor. And incoming, a deafening shrill, a storm cloud of flapping, and then, clearly: birds, flying low out of the gate but rising up and swirling fifteen feet above their heads.
Violet had been right: the bed is already half undone by the revelers. The cloudforest is a collapsed and mangled pile, and some of the guests are wearing remnants like shawls and turbans. Someone had pushed the mattress over the edge, and it is now on the floor, occupied by three girls in matching red suits. The birds, tied together, a convex swarm, roost one by one on the base, under the hatch. Covering every inch of the bed’s skeleton—the wood beams and the ladder rungs—the birds sit, as if waiting for instruction.
The music is still vibrating but the bodies are petrified in place, watching the birds, waiting for…something…an explanation…an explosion…an attack? Someone cuts off the music, and left behind is the sharp white fuzz of the birds’ song. So when the uniformed Plastics come in a moment later, most are, at first, too stunned to fight back. Denny, however, instantly jumps into action, planting herself in a defensive stance and brandishing the empty tequila bottle over her head. The Plastics are outnumbered, but it doesn’t matter. They don’t succumb to the punches, and even Denny’s bottle, smashed into bits against one Plastic’s head, makes little impact. Violet quickly loses sight of her. There is a rolling chorus of no and help and don’t and why and fuck you, along with the steady beat of the Plastics’ only response: orders orders orders orders orders orders orders orders orders orders…
Violet finds herself pinned in a corner, the weight of a Plastic smashing one side of her face against the wall. Is this it? Are they taking her, and where? Is this the end?
The chaos of the scene erupts in small, repeating patterns of violence all over the loft and yet, strangely, not one of the starlings moves from their perch. The Plastic pulls Violet off the wall and moves her toward the exit, where Plastics appear to be loading and unloading their captives as efficiently as can be done with an ancient freight elevator.
This has already happened.
The thought, an insect, enters Violet’s mind. What?
You know how this will end.
Violet looks once more at the bed and its birds. The cloudforest is gone and replaced by the birds that, while appearing black from afar are, up close, a glossy iridescent mix of dark greens and blues.
Are these Jemma’s starlings?
This has already happened. You remember.
Violet remembers. Six years before. The war was still a few years away, but the Resistance had begun to form in small factions all over the country. After a meeting, the beach. Sun setting and starlings above the lake, with Violet and Jemma sitting on the shore to watch. Grouped in a series of pointillist patterns, the murmuration scattered out and then swirled back in with collective intent.
There seemed to be a hundred, and then many more.
“What kind of birds are those?” Jemma asked with wonder.
“Starlings,” Violet said. “They’re an invasive species. A menace.”
“Oh c’mon,” Jemma said. “How can anything that beautiful be all bad?”
“They’re bullies. They dominate other birds and are a pain in the ass for farmers. They eat all the grain and shit on the cows.”
Jemma laughed. “I love them anyway. Just look at them! All of that other stuff isn’t their fault. They’re just doing what they’re supposed to do.”
It has been two years and twelve days since Violet chose to hide instead of fight. Two years and twelve days since she took her last walk around the city that she suspected would be unrecognizable to her now, where she saw the haunting sculpture of black thread that had tied up all of the simple and occasionally stormy elements of home life. In this world, Violet is by all accounts dead to the world but not yet buried, Jemma is a ghost who will not disappear, and nearly two hundred humans, some who came with their own Plastics, are being rounded up to meet uncertain futures.
The Ghost of Jemma Hughes has summoned starlings, and though so far they have only sat, watching and singing, Violet knows that Jemma would only send them with benevolence. They would offer proof that she had wrongly judged the species.
Violet determines this is the only possible truth just seconds before the first bird explodes into flight.
Amanda Krupman is a writer in Cleveland, OH. Her work has appeared in a number of literary journals and magazines, including The Forge, Punk Planet, Smokelong Quarterly, Gertrude, and The New Engagement. Amanda received an MFA from The New School's graduate writing program and was a recipient of a 2017 Jerome Foundation Emerging Artist Residency Award. She teaches creative writing at Pace University, North Central College, Cleveland State University, and through Think Olio. Find her on Twitter: @akrupman.