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  • The Delayed Delivery of Nadia's Death by Katherine Varga

    As Nadia turned on her gas stove, her invisible death deliverer inhaled and leaned in, ready to blow below Nadia’s pan of scrambling eggs to cause a spark that would catch on her sleeve and spread across her body. But then Nadia did something odd for a woman who lived alone. She pulled out not one, but two plates from the cabinet, and not one, but two mugs. She separated her eggs with the spatula and put half on each plate. She poured coffee into both mugs. She looked directly at her death deliverer. “Join me?” DeeDee glanced behind her, at the kitchen wall, in case she had missed another person in the studio. “You can see me?” DeeDee asked. “Yeah. Ever since yesterday. On the highway.” At first, DeeDee thought she’d take it easy with a traffic accident. She popped into the front passenger seat and bent the rear mirror of the car in front of them so the driver would miss Nadia changing lanes. Just before the cars collided, she got distracted by dark ink on Nadia’s forearm. A flower with a clock in its center. For a second, she lost focus and Nadia honked and pull away. But that was okay – if at first you don’t succeed, etc. There were more creative ways to deliver a death. For example, a dangling light fixture falling on Nadia’s head. But that could wait until after breakfast. “I’ve never had coffee,” she admitted. She had never had any human food—none of the deliverers needed it. “It’s still hot,” Nadia said, handing DeeDee a fork. “Do you like eggs? I shouldn’t have just assumed.” DeeDee took a bite. The eggs didn’t taste like much. “They’re great,” she said. She sipped the coffee. Too bitter and too hot. “Have some cream,” Nadia said. DeeDee watched it lighten the coffee, like blood swirling around a shipwreck. “Do you read the paper?” She sized DeeDee up, and handed over the funnies. After breakfast, Nadia asked, “Do you need to change or do you always wear… that?” She gestured to DeeDee’s plain dark suit. “It’s business casual,” the death deliverer said. “I’ve got something. If you wanted to mix it up.” Nadia pulled a pink polka dot dress from the back of her closet and threw it at DeeDee, who accepted it although she usually wore neutral colors. Her assignments sometimes saw her right before their cognitive functions shut down forever, and she didn’t want their last thoughts to be, “What is that stranger wearing?” But Nadia could already see her, and she might appreciate looking at a cute dress during her final breathe. “So… I have work now,” Nadia said, hesitating by the door with her purse and keys. “I know.” DeeDee floated through the passenger side door and settled in. They didn’t speak during the drive, just listened to the radio. One of DeeDee’s favorite songs was playing – a remix, technically, but the familiar melody made DeeDee want to dance and twirl and laugh. Nadia shut it off. “It’s so horrible,” she said. “I can’t listen to the news before work anymore.” DeeDee felt ashamed, like a little kid chastised for making a fart noise during church. “I’ll probably end up there,” she said, gesturing to the radio. “When I’m done with you.” DeeDee eyed Nadia – would she try to shut her off as resolutely as she did the radio? But Nadia just said, “oh wow,” and pulled into a drive through at a donut shop. “Birthday at the office,” she explained. Nadia arrived at the back parking lot of her marketing firm. They both got out of the car. “Oh,” she said. “I thought work would be safe.” “Nothing’s ever really safe,” DeeDee said. “I suppose you’re right,” Nadia said. “Let’s go then.” Nadia sat at her desk, hand on her mouse, hunched over without realizing how bad her posture was. DeeDee waited in the empty cubicle next to hers, knitting a scarf for her brother, who might want to use it to strangle one of his assignments. There were several other humans in the office, but none close to death—DeeDee was the only one of her profession in the room. DeeDee learned a lot about Nadia from how she interacted with her coworkers: how she bit her lip in concentration, or giggled when she was nervous, or snorted when she was overjoyed. Every once in a while, Nadia glanced over at DeeDee and smiled. DeeDee had never heard of anyone acknowledging a death deliver so casually. People either froze with wide eyes or closed their eyes in resignation when death was so close. They never winked then went back to their emails. When Nadia went to the bathroom, DeeDee squeezed into the corner of her stall and looked up at the ceiling, to give Nadia her privacy. Although she thrived on germs, she washed her hands beside Nadia like any other coworker. “Will you warn me?” Nadia asked. “When it’s coming?” She could do it now. Ignite a fire in the sink. Bang her skull against the wall. Reach into her throat and stop her heart. No warning necessary, the way she always did it. “I will,” DeeDee said. When Nadia smiled, the fluorescent bathroom lights glowed more gloriously than a nuclear explosion. That night, as Nadia curled up under a blanket watching her favorite murder mystery show on TV, she glanced over at DeeDee, who counted stitches in the scarf for her brother. “Hey, so, I like to go to this bakery on Saturday mornings,” she asked. “Do you want to go with me? Not like, out of necessity because you watch my every move. But as a proper outing. We can have coffee and get to know each other.” DeeDee lost count of her stitches. “Sure,” she said, finally. “If you make it through the night.” She wanted to incite ominous shivers down Nadia’s spine, but Nadia just laughed with sparkles and light before tucking herself into bed. DeeDee floated outside while Nadia slept. She grabbed a lightning bug and squashed it in her palm. Easy, natural. If she was being generous, she’d do the same for Nadia now. Humans often preferred to die in the middle of the night, during their sleep, no awareness. Instead of returning to Nadia’s apartment, DeeDee flew down on the midnight wind to visit her brother in a neighboring town, who was shaking the trees above a house during a storm. He dropped the branches when he saw DeeDee. “Why are you dressed like a human going to a party?” he asked. DeeDee still wore the pink polka dot dress. She smoothed out a wrinkle above her hip. “I made you this.” She held out the scarf. He rubbed it against his cheek. “That is very generous of you. Come, sit.” They sat on a branch, the wind and rain howling around and through them. “I have an assignment. She has this tattoo—and she likes driving in silence—and she brings donuts for her coworkers—and I don’t know, maybe we don’t always have to deliver death,” she said. His eyes widened in horror. He was older and had gone through many more assignments than her – he forgot sometimes what it was like to be young. “All right, so we stop delivering death, just because we like a person,” he said. “The human doesn’t die. They age and age and age. They can’t eat or walk or remember anything, but they’re alive. Sounds like a zombie apocalypse.” “But maybe we don’t have to deliver death when they’re young,” she said. “Maybe we can wait.” Her brother laughed. “No senseless tragedies? How would people define themselves? Know the value of life?” Then he smiled slyly. “Besides. They taste better young.” Death deliverers rarely admitted this in polite company, but humans did taste good, especially the young and beloved ones. The sweetness of their lives oozed out, luscious, rich. Even after the death, the grief of those around kept the aftertaste strong. “If she’s as great as you say, she’ll probably taste extra good,” he said. DeeDee didn’t disagree, but that wasn’t the point. “She sees me,” she said. “She sees me and she isn’t afraid.” “Even the weird ones have to die.” Her brother jumped up, and grabbed the tree by the trunk. He snapped it so the upper half of the tree fell onto the roof of the house. He winked at her and flew away, off to the next assignment. The next morning, Nadia biked to the bakery with DeeDee sitting on the handlebars. Nadia ordered an extra large mocha latte and a scone to share. They sat in the red velvet chairs around the corner of the back, so nobody would think Nadia was talking to herself. “So like. Why me?” Nadia asked. She took a red mug from her bag and filled it with the mocha latte, then gave it to DeeDee. “It’s pretty arbitrary,” she said. “We get assigned someone close to death and latch on.” “How many people have you…” “About fifty,” DeeDee said. And then she couldn’t resist speaking the truth: “But you’re my favorite so far.” Nadia looked down, her cheeks darkening, much like they would if she were unable to breathe. “And how long do you stay with each person?” “Until they’re dead.” Nadia choked on her scone. Not severely – DeeDee wasn’t planning for her to go this way. But she coughed and some specks of pastry flew out of her mouth. “It only makes sense,” DeeDee said. “I’m here to end things, so I’m with you till the end.” Nadia stopped eating and stopped blinking and stopped sipping coffee. (But she didn’t stop breathing – DeeDee was very aware of the air still flowing up and out Nadia’s nose.) “I thought—I thought you were here to save me.” “I am,” DeeDee said, sipping her coffee. “I’m here to save you from living forever.” Nadia’s eyes widened and DeeDee laughed to hide her hurt. “What did you think, I was your guardian angel?” Nadia didn’t say anything. DeeDee was so used to her assignments ignoring her, but this intentional looking away and refusal to speak was new. She held up her hand to do it. Reach through Nadia’s mouth and twist around her stomach until the cells lacked the nutrients they needed to stay healthy, like reaching into a sink’s disposal to pull out a fork. Then Nadia would wait, wait, wait for the cancer to end her, just like DeeDee was wait, wait, waiting for Nadia’s response. Nadia finally looked into Deedee’s eyes. “How long do I have?” “As long as I decide.” “My entire life depends on someone else?” “That’s how the world works.” “Can I at least finish the TV show I’m watching before you do it?” she asked. “I think I know where it’s going but I want to see if I’m right. There’s only a couple more seasons left.” DeeDee chewed her scone slowly, soaking in Nadia’s dark eyeliner and painted fingernails and heart shaped necklace. She had to be honest with herself: if she hadn’t killed Nadia by now she never would. She needed time to recover from the illusion of being seen and cherished rather than feared and loathed. She would come back for someone with hair whiter than Nadia’s and skin more wrinkled. “I’ll see you after the last episode,” she said, and left. Of course, DeeDee didn’t care what Nadia watched on TV. But let her dread her favorite show. Let her avoid ever making it to the final episode. Let her live life never knowing if she was right about the ending. It couldn’t be any worse than finding out you were wrong. DeeDee would wait it out at the center of a field of flowers… Katherine Varga is a writer and theatre critic living in Rochester, NY. Her plays have been performed in 8 states. Her creative prose has appeared or is forthcoming in Passengers Journal, Qu Literary Magazine, Arasi, The Evermore Review, Welter, and The Hooghly Review. On an ideal day, you'll find her biking to the public library.

  • Self-Eclipse by Taylor V. Card

    Lise’s twin brother Darry tried to kill himself again last week. Also, the Mimick disease kills thousands of people every day. In summary: Lise has taken a week off work. The world is burning, etc., etc. Lise tries to be responsible. She wakes up every day, but not always every morning. Takes precautions, though no one can quite agree on what works. Her face is chronically swollen. It is not from crying though. After sleeping in again today, she realizes her roommate has stolen her car. Darry, who is also Lise’s roommate’s boyfriend, was supposed to watch the snake whenever her roommate was gone. He promised, so Lise wouldn’t have to. Lise did not sign up for pet sitting. Living with her ex-best-friend a.k.a. brother’s S.O. while they figured some things out? One thing. A snake? Another. Lise goes this far: the entry way of the apartment she shares with the roommate. No further. Last week she said to Darry, before the hospital: If my roommate was going to get me sick, it would have happened already. Darry said: They say it’s an empathetic reaction. You guys used to be friends. Are you sure you should keep living together? And Lise hung up on him, but that doesn’t make what happened next Lise’s fault. There is no fault. And after, despite the doctors trying to keep it quiet, Lise hears news spread around the wards: a patient was admitted Mimicking a feral cat. Lise has tried to avoid closeness, but it is an untraining in how to be human. And now, even empathizing with animals isn’t safe. To be safer, Lise started avoiding the spare room with the tank where the roommate’s snake, Piehole, lives. Lise saw the Mimick patient with the new barbed tongue when visiting Darry. Thousands of tiny hooks that cut open the inside of their mouth. Mostly the patient looked like a person drooling red. Lise does not want the forked tongue, slitted pupils, scales, the spine that goes on, Jacobson’s social-sensory organ. But even more, she doesn’t want to be posed the question: will this one survive? Lise’s phone vibrates with an incoming call. It is not her brother arriving. He hasn’t let on at all if he’s aware about the roommate stealing her car, or the snake lacking a pet sitter. Instead: her missing roommate. Lise picks up, says: - You took my car? - Lise! Can you drop off Piehole at Darry’s? I won’t be able to come back this week to feed him. Looks like, both my parents have it, minor cases so far, but I’m at-risk too. - Then? - Sorry, will you be okay without your car? I know I said minor but. It’s scary. It’s really, really not good. They both Mimicked the housekeeper. Lise wonders if she can engineer a drop off with no face-to-face time. Really, fuck this. - Do I just take the whole cage? - Yeah, don’t forget the heat lamp. And there’s a blanket, if you’re taking the bus. No one will care if you wrap him in the blanket. Do you know where it is? - I got it. - There’s also dead mice – they’re in my mini fridge, in the freezer. Can you stick a few in like, a cooler – - We don’t have a cooler – - Fine, use my Yeti. - … - I know. Just – can you? There was a time, Darry is right, when Lise and the roommate were friends. Today, Lise wants to forget the way the roommate looks when anxious, chewing on soggy nails. - Ok. Ok, I’ll do it. - I’ve got to go, but you have him? You’ll take Piehole over? - Yeah, don’t worry. Bye – be careful. Be safe. Lise’s roommate hangs up. Before the Mimick disease, repetitive greetings, hellos and goodbyes, were thoughtless autopilot. Now, people try to avoid repeating words, though there’s no proof that this helps. What’s on everyone’s mind: the symptoms. The first is uncontrolled, compulsive imitation of speech, followed by behavior, body appearance and finally body function. Can prove fatal. Risk factors: proximity plus empathy. For some, the final progression – change in body function – manifests as small as a change in diet or as pleasant as more efficient digestion. For others – well. It all depends on who and how you Mimick. The patient who Mimicked their cat was alive hours after being admitted, but their heart rate kept increasing, and Lise heard the nurses say it would be a miracle if something didn’t give out. Prep the machine. Lise has not seen Darry since the ER last week. Unavoidable now. She pulls up her Lyft app. Requesting a rideshare to campus. Requesting a woman as my driver. Requesting immediate pick up. Requesting a return trip. Requesting a pet friendly ride. No results. Try again. There is one driver in your area who meets most of your search parameters – Accept Jason (2 other passengers) as your ride? You have accepted a ride. Your driver is 7 minutes out. Lise uses two plastic produce bags to pick up the frozen mice out of the yellowing mini-fridge freezer and transfers them into her roommate’s Yeti mug, wrapping the mug in a hemp grocery sack to stuff in her purse. She slips on a pair of sunglasses, even though it’s probably not true that eye contact has anything to do with Mimicking. Blindfolds have been proven ineffective already. Still. Then Lise gets the purple plaid blanket from the roommate’s room and approaches the snake cage in the spare room. In the red light of the heat lamp, Piehole drapes from the mounted metal hook, loops of him hanging off on either side. The sliver pupil of his right eye angles toward Lise, unblinking. He yawns. Lise feels momentarily transfixed. Strange loneliness, when Lise maps yesterday onto today. There is something trapped here. Maybe Lise herself. The way the present overlaps with tomorrow when laid one atop the other does not encourage her either. Maybe the repetition. The phone calls. Always an emergency. As the days pass and the lines get thicker, she begins to feel an enclosure, experiences sealed off by time itself. There is no end to the damp length of this throat. Your ride is 1 minute out. Please be ready on the curb. But Lise cannot overthink this snake. She unfolds the blanket and tries not to looks at Piehole’s tongue, darting in and out, scenting the air. Blanket goes on the tank, around the tank. Unplug the heat lamp, the heat mat, both go in her bag. Now the hard part: picking up the snake tank. She lifts the tank to her chest. It is warm on the bottom and right side from the heat lamp and the heat mat. It is heavy. She stumbles into the entry way under the weight. Misses the step down and slams the glass tank into the wall to halt her fall. Real smart. But she didn’t hear anything shatter. And – Your ride has arrived. Lise gentles her feet into flipflops and nudges her door open with one elbow, edging out and down the front stoop to the waiting BMW – license plate a match for her ride. Behind her, her door swings shut and the lock clicks. It clicked, right? She doesn’t have a spare hand to check, but, no, it definitely did. It clicked. Deep breath. The night tastes like overripe fruit and hot asphalt. Someone in the back of the BMW opens the door for her – she climbs in: one foot, swings in her weight and the cage’s, a second foot. Almost overbalances, almost tips her burden onto the other passenger in the backseat with her. Clutches the tank close, feeling as if, at any moment, she’ll discover a break, a shard of glass, snake blood. Only apart can we prevent the spread of – And I told my brother, if you cheat on that – Calling in from Manistee, Jana is requesting “Alone Tonight” by – - Sorry, we’re picking a station. - It’s fine. They pull away from the curb. Something is climbing down Lise’s leg. The driver says: - Is the heat good back there? It is not the snake, it’s just warm and dry like one might be. The footwell heater, on a bit too strong for the night. So, she responds: - I’m warm. The person next to her in the backseat is a stranger. He doesn’t look at Lise. The driver pokes something on the dash, maybe the heater, says: - Saw you requested pet friendly. You got something alive in there? Now her seat mate looks at her – or, rather, at tank in her arms. The person in shotgun turns around to look too. Lise knows him. Angelo, one of the night-shift receptionists at the ER. Or at least, he used to be – it has been months. Last week, their visit was during the day: no Angelo. He says: - You’re not letting that thing loose, are you? Angelo seems to know she carries something alive. Treats this knowledge as seriously as check in and medical history. Turns fully around, unbuckles to make eye contact, his black nylon jacket making a whistling swoosh sound against the leather seat. The driver is not pleased – says, hey man, safety. To no avail: Angelo doesn’t stop watching her and the blanket-covered tank. The gaze makes her skin itch and shiver. But the blanket, purple-knit and frumpy, disguises well what it contains. Lise is mostly calm when she makes eye contact with Angelo. She doesn’t blink. - I’ve got a snake in here. I won’t let it loose. - A snake… a big one? - Maybe a little taller than you. - Venomous? - No, it’s a constrictor. - Does it eat people? - Frozen mice, mostly. - No, I mean in the wild. - In the wild, there aren’t people. There are just trees to hang from, little rodents to eat and in the skies, raptors with sharp beaks. Sun, sometimes. And at night, the moon. What does Angelo say to this? Nothing: they are at the first passenger drop-off point. Angelo gets out of the passenger seat, wishes them all to stay safe. (No one responds.) Walks from the car toward the flashing lights and murmuring crowd around a woman on the ground outside the bar. Now that Lise can see the back of his black jacket, she can see the word PARAMEDIC in large print. From receptionist to paramedic. And still not enough ambulances in this city? Still? The stranger next to Lise gets out of the car and walks around to shotgun, getting back in. As he sits down, he says: - No offense, just don’t like snakes. - Yeah. Lise doesn’t say she gets it. Expressing that bit of empathy won’t endear her to anyone. The driver has to wait for a police car and a fire truck to arrive on scene before he can leave the curb this time, but then they are off again. There are a few stars visible – less than Lise hoped this far out of downtown. There are sirens, some fading behind them and some becoming louder up ahead. The stranger in the passenger seat switches the radio station a few more times. The driver, Jason, glances back at her in the rearview mirror. She wants to tell him not to look. Lise licks her suddenly dry lips – twice, then again when they still feel close to cracking. She can’t say that now she’s cold when she was the one complaining about the heat. Instead: - What’s our next stop? - Taking you both to the dorms. Lucky it’s about the same spot. Then I’ve got one more passenger pick up and drop nearby, and I can swing back around to take you back home. Should give you about 10, 15 minutes. Lise doesn’t want to be dismayed about this length of time. Darry and she have, at this age, spent more time together than apart, even counting a few separate classes in their childhood, and most of college so far. But these near-deaths scare Lise more than anything else ever has. Her brother nightmares her thoughts. Darry told her: it’s not one thing specifically. He meant: Nothing you can fix. Tender the wound, Lise thinks, when a brother hurts you with his hurt. The driver is pulling up to Darry’s dorm now. The other passenger reaches for the door handle even though they haven’t stopped yet, ready to be gone. That is when Piehole’s yawn emerges from Lise’s mouth, jaw brashly open and tongue scenting for hot blood. Her teeth glimmer in the light from the smart console, radio now playing Strawberry Summer Hits in early September. Is this Mimickry? Do either of them notice? The driver says: - Here we are. Be safe. Lise lunges for the handle, gets the tank’s corner rammed right into her gut for it, but gets the car door open. Gets out. --- By the time she’s knocking on Darry’s door with her foot, the day has been long enough. She might be sick. The world is burning. Etc. Etc. Lise is tired, not sure she was ever being responsible. The dorm door opens. Darry’s hair seems longer than it was last time she saw him, nearly at his shoulders and loose around his face, which Lise doesn’t look at. Was his hair in a ponytail at the hospital? And Darry has all his new piercings back in: lips, ears, nose, eyebrows. With them, he is once again the stranger. One arm is still in a cast and sling, and one eye might be swollen, but Lise doesn’t want to look at his face long enough to be sure. I want to go home, she thinks, nonsensical. There is no home without Darry. And at the same time: - Can I get a hug? - C’mere sis. Of course, they don’t hug. There is the obstacle of the snake tank. Also, the snake. Piehole can be heard hissing within the purple blanket. Lise hopes she doesn’t get that, if she’s sick. Hissing would be creepy. Instead: Darry takes the tank. Jolts, as if stung. Bitten? Gives a half-shout, half-swear: - Fuck-Ow! Right, his cast. They’ve both forgotten what he can’t carry. So, he drops it. The tank shatters. Lise hates Piehole, such a stupid name, stupid animal. He squirms, bares his belly the wrong way up. Lise is on her knees in the glass without thought. Maybe hate isn’t the word. Blood: yes, hers and Darry’s and snake’s. Also: glass, murmuring from Darry. His one working hand is not doing much to help. Lise bats it away. Piehole wraps around her leg. Fuck-ow, Lise mocks. Fuck-ow, he repeats. - Darry, quit it. - I’ve got Piehole. Let me – - You’ve got nothing. Get something for the blood. Get the door. I’ll get the snake. Piehole, though, is panicking. Constricting. Tightening the loops on her ankle, winding tighter up her right leg. This goes three ways: 1. Piehole calms down. They get him off of her. They get him put away in some temporary home. Lise leaves, returns to her apartment alone. No one is there when her ribs start collapsing. 2. Piehole keeps panicking. Keeps ascending Lise’s body. Lise pheromones her fight back. Spreads her ribs to make herself big. Intimidates the snake into letting go. And then collapses. A role-reversal of last week: Darry takes her to the hospital. 3. It’s too easy to empathize. They’re all bleeding together. Scales rustle out of swollen flesh, loneliness does not abate. Later, the roommate finds them. Door still open. Three snakes, flattening their heads and necks, striking at the glass, their reflections, on the floor. Taylor V. Card holds an MFA in fiction writing from the Vermont College of Fine Arts and haunts her home in Michigan, making trending coffee beverages and wearing blue. Her fiction has been published by Button Eye Review, Digging Through the Fat, Paranoid Tree and Milk Candy Review and is forthcoming from Alternating Current. Besides writing, Taylor enjoys making ceramic animal sculptures - you can see a few at

  • I am Addicted to Emptiness

    I am addicted to emptiness. A Breathing Crevice is a phenomenon on Cateri VI, where the porous tunnels of rock are deep enough that they connect to vast, capricious underground climates. When night falls, the air cools and sinks into these tunnels, and when day returns the air heats up and is expelled. That is why I named them Breathing Crevices. But the force of the air was much stronger than I had anticipated, and although I had tried to stay clear of their openings, I wandered too close. The wind sucked me in, pulling me down a chute of smooth rock, to smash against a barren cavity below. Both of my legs shattered at impact, before the suit could slow or stop the fall. I felt the pain only for a brief moment, before the suit injected my blood and turned the sharp needles into a numb absence. I lay on my back, swaddled in darkness, surrounded by featureless rock and buffeted by the wheezing inhale of a planet. I think that is when I first began to enjoy emptiness. The feeling was, paradoxically, exhilarating. All I could do was wait; that was everything. The air began to shift and, in that interstitial moment between two extremes, the wind paused. My suit, with its micro-thrusters, lifted me into the air and flew me back to the ship. Once there, I dragged myself to the med-bay and engaged the First Aid control panel. The ship filled the small space with gas, and I plummeted again, this time into a dreamless sleep. When I woke, the ship had operated on me. My legs were fine, good as new. Memory is always tragic. A million years ago, Lamberii’s sun began to swell. The planet was beset by constant streams of solar flares and invisible whips of radiation. Its plants withered; the animals starved. All of the sentient species that lived there evacuated while they could. Now the rainforests have turned to desert, and the world is filled with great plains of sand that are beholden to the tides of the moons. Where I land, dusk is high tide, and so the only thing visible are the dunes. They are sweeping curvatures of sand, coloured with striations of amber, sierra, and burnt umber. The fierce orange of the swollen sun glitters along their length. The wind flicks plumes from their crests, whisking the top layer into streams of mesmerizing movement. As the night passes in cool, near frigid temperatures, the sands begin to recede. Come morning, they have moved back a dozen feet, and exposed the stone city below, which once housed a billion beings. It is a city only accessible for a few hours of the day, until the sun begins to dip low again and the sands return, cascading over stone roofs and weeping from open windows. Every evening, the sand fills the empty rooms, the long streets, the courtyards and marketplaces; the desert smooths over the entire city, replacing its hollows and crevices with a vaster, flatter emptiness. I wanted to feel what the city felt, so during low tide I strolled its streets and found a forgotten palace, into which I wandered until I found the throne-room. There I waited, sitting in the ancient seat of a long dead king or queen. Had the ruler been around to watch their kingdom become swallowed by sand? I waited for the sand to bury me. I heard it before I saw it: susurrations and secretive hissing coursed around me, the sound echoing from both above and below. Then a wave of sand washed past the arched windows, pooling below. The hours passed to the whispering and rushing of sand, as if I were trapped in the glass chamber of some enormous hourglass. The spaces between the buildings gradually filled, and dunes spilled in through the doorways and arches, piling into the throne-room, the golden tide reaching all the way to the tip of the throne before it stopped. I was sealed in. My suit had plenty of oxygen; all I had to do was wait, and the sands would free me of their own will. But for those interceding hours, there was only chill darkness. As if I were far, far under the surface of the world, or buried under the bottom of a dry ocean. You can not build yourself out of your mind. Refforia’s third moon is a graveyard, although it was once home to one of the most architecturally innovative species in the galaxy. Refforians were known to construct exquisitely complex palaces, mansions, and tombs. Their cities were planned for a century before even the first stone was laid in place, with teams of mathematicians, architects, and stone-masons debating and outlining for years at end. Then, once all was pre-ordained, they set to building. From this arduous procedure arrived cities of breath-taking geometry, which verged on illusion: the perfect array of bridges, set against equidistant staircases, connected by colonnades and arched tunnels. Various planes of courtyards obscured distance and provided strategic vantage points at which one could overlook the masterful display of urban design. But then their architects became possessed with a debilitating madness, some unknowable and infectious obsession. This cosmic disease rotted their rationality, and drove them to compulsive creation. Their palaces and cities became labyrinthine. Bridges rose at ninety-degree angles, terminating in empty sky. Tunnels arced downward for miles, only to stop abruptly. Some structures had no interior at all, while others featured branching systems of rooms without windows that defied convention and logic. Long hallways spiralled up and down, linking in bizarre and maddening circles. Domes and auditoriums swelled into absurd sizes, exhibiting nothing but large swathes of emptiness. To walk through a Refforian city is to feel the irrational. Doors are of the wrong proportion. Streets go nowhere. It is an architecture hostile to life, to living. No longer does any living soul prowl these ill-proportioned paths. Rumour tells that the workers built themselves into rooms without exits, tunnelled themselves into unsolvable mazes, and trapped themselves into a geometry that they could not escape from. Here it is all too easy to become lost in cold shadow, enshrouded in a nightmare of shapes that slowly close over you and become all that there is. Rooms and halls and stairs and alleys— all are devoid of features, fripperies, tapestries, statues, or any other artistic flourish. After three days of hopeless wandering, I collapsed, facing the underside of a staircase I had already traversed thrice over in my confused circles. That was where my ship found me. My suit’s micro-thrusters lifted my too-weak body out of the maze and into the ship’s med-bay. Was I hoping to infuse some degree of life into these barren landscapes, or was I only trying to punish myself for something I could not have prevented? All things in the universe have the same fate. Xuun is the only planet in its system. One organism became dominant by cloning itself through its roots, and, over the course of four billion years, it expanded to fill the entire planet. It spread up mountains and dipped into oceans and slinked across plains. Its branches and limbs and tendrils and feathers reached into every crack and fissure; its mouths and feeders and gills and teeth fed on every source of food until it had eaten all, and was then forced to begin to consume itself to stay alive. So it continued to grow and digest itself as its sprawling mass smothered all the other life on the world. Then it was the only being left. And then it too died. Now to visit Xuun is to traverse a world woven with a single corpse, part skeleton, carapace, shell, tusk, trunk, root. Pale and cold and slowly evaporating. It makes me wonder…does something similar occur after a seed of longing takes over a soul and feasts itself into oblivion? For months I wander this world, strolling through the graveyard of a single entity. I walk beaches where white ribs rise as tall as towers. I walk across the palm of a vast hand, its numerous fingers jumbled together like trees of a forest. And I walk the mountain range of a spine, making my way toward one of the creature’s many heads, now only a crumbling skull that rests on a bed of stone. I enter the skull through its mouth, climbing between broken teeth that are ten times my height. After hiking through a path of bleached bone, I find my way into the cranium. Old blooms of dead lichen decorate the inside of the curved walls. Gaps in the top of the skull allow sunlight to lance down, giving dimension to the dark cavern. But there is nothing left to give indication of the dreams and nightmares that once coursed through this alien brain, what fears once fomented in its glands, and what love once lavished in its lobes. I am a crater, left from the meteor of nothing. Adrix Prime, many billions of years ago, was struck by a stray asteroid, which killed half of its population. The other half gnashed their teeth and pummelled the ground and thrashed their limbs and acted in any way possible in attempt to expel their grief. They contradicted their laws of science, they burned their literature, they smeared their art. And, in eventual solution, they worshipped the god of Nothing. This worship consumed their every effort. They built great invisible monuments to this god, and they re-fashioned their old structures in the image of this god. All architecture is presence, so they were forced to disassemble every tower, temple and tomb, one brick at a time. Slowly, the geometry diminished, making way for the intrusion of nothing. Soon the only buildings that existed were in their own minds. This too, however, was something. So they erased even their own memories. Finally, they succeeded in inviting their god into their hearts and souls so that the nothingness would assimilate all their serrated despair and crippling anguish. They were no more; they had no grief. I walk a desolate planet, its only distinguishing mark the crater left from some ancient meteor. How can I possibly know this history that has dismantled itself and left no trace? (I would have built a home for you). There is a single house on a nameless world, where the geology has never reacted to organic molecules. Who built the house and when? It overlooks bare rock and featureless land. When I sit inside its single room and look out the bare window I feel something enormous stretching my chest past its confines, into vast proportions where it simply takes too long to feel anything at all; the emotions become desiccated long before they can cross the internal desert of the heart. And then the organs become hollowed and eroded like the relics of a failed civilization. The lungs become breathing caves. The mind exchanges places with buried cities. Finally, the little zaps of electricity between neurons have to jump too far to register and so they fizzle out into dark cerebral spaces; and everything alive and beating within the framework of curved ribs slides out to diffuse across infinitely smooth plains. Sam Cromwell is an emerging writer, with work published in Curiouser Magazine. Amber Allen is a contemporary painter whose work combines her passion for space travel, environmentalism, scientific theory and feminism. Always on the lookout for fun yet meaningful subjects, she explores the connections between our past and our future with a focus on space age themes as a metaphor for the human condition. Born in Indiana in 1992, Allen knew from the moment she completed her first still life painting at age fifteen that she would become an artist. Often moving from place to place growing up, she settled in the Bay Area for college and began to explore her disparate interests. A graduate of the Academy of Art University in San Francisco, Allen has exhibited her work in solo shows in California, and group shows across the US.

  • From Her Occupation Diary

    “Headed in a bad direction”: Omicron variant may bring second-largest US Covid wave --The Guardian Entry/July 20/2024 I’m numb. They’ve taken the baby for what they call “possible retooling”. There are rumors. But no one in authority can tell me what that means. I’ve been in camp three months now, in a barbed wire compound, waiting. Men without shirts, Vectors like me, wander around tattooed with stars fused into Vees. Soon we will board trains to work on farms or in distant factories. Who knows what’s true? Not a single word from Jack senior since I got here. We can only send out. Not a word—as though it might be contagious—gets in. I want to know what happens when, and if, you heal. We hear you’re “inventoried”, that everything you own is tracked, that you’ll be forced to live—if you survive— in prison-like villages. If you show no symptoms for two years—or so we’re told—we may be let out a few days every month. I ask myself, to what and to where? And the baby? The only way to get out of here permanently, they say, is to be symptom-free for five years. Five years! If you can believe them. Tomorrow we get “chipped”. Not just for contacts and our whereabouts, but every syllable we utter will be monitored for anything that suggests we’ve again become Vectors. Rumor says they scan our brains while we sleep. We hear other camps like this exist. . . _____ Inspired by diary excerpts recording Germany’s occupation of Europe Dick Altman writes in the high, thin, magical air of Santa Fe, NM, where, at 7,000 feet, reality and imagination often blur. He is published in Santa Fe Literary Review, American Journal of Poetry, riverSedge, Fredericksburg Literary Review, Foliate Oak, Blue Line, THE Magazine, Humana obscura, The Offbeat, Haunted Waters Press, Split Rock Review, The RavensPerch, Beyond Words, New Verse News, Sky Island Journal and others here and abroad. A poetry winner of Santa Fe New Mexican’s annual literary competition, he has in progress two collections of some 100 published poems. His work has been selected for the forthcoming first volume of The New Mexico Anthology of Poetry, to be published by the New Mexico Museum Press.

  • The Jameson Theory

    Siarra Riehl (she/her) lives and creates on Treaty Six land in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan with her wife and two cats. A transdisciplinary writer, performer, and teacher, she holds an MFA in Writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts. Siarra’s fiction received an honourable mention in AWP’s 2020 Intro Journals Project, and her work has appeared in Zone 3, Fatal Flaw, The Dillydoun Review, and elsewhere. You can find her at Paul Malone has always been interested in how the physical world comes to be; how it originates and what is its relationship to consciousness. In pursuing this research he has explored many historic lost and forgotten theories of science and natural philosophy; especially so in astrophysics. Often these early theories can be repurposed with contemporary data to resolve otherwise intractable problems within the current paradigm. The artworks he creates use these concepts as source material and it is often intriguing how this process assists in the visual understanding those phenomena. Paul is currently researching theories from the pre-Einstein era in relation to the phenomenon we call the Sun. This object is one of the most easily observed of all those in astronomy and yet it still presents some of the deepest and manifest mysteries within human understanding. Paul studied Fine Art at Reading University for B.A. Degree in 1976 and MFA in Sculpture at the Royal College of Art in 1980. Since leaving college he has worked in studios based in the London districts of Waterloo, Greenwich and, most recently, Art in Perpetuity in Deptford. He has exhibited extensively in the U.K., U.S. and Europe and engaged in curatorial practice through international exhibition exchanges and movie projects. He also delivers lectures and workshops about the historic astrophysical researches he is currently studying.

  • Reconfiguration

    The leaf brushed her cheek, and she awoke. She reached to swipe it away, but it was already gone. She sat up in her sleeping bag. The wind was cool, and the ground was soft beneath her. Above her, beyond the circle of trees, was the whiteness. She looked at the man sleeping beside her. His chest was rising and falling. She prodded him on the shoulder, and he awoke too. “Who are you today?” she said. He sat up, rubbing his eyes. “I’m not sure.” He held his hands in front of his face and turned them over. “Someone with rougher skin, at least.” “Your hair’s gone grey,” she said. “And your jaw’s sticking out.” He carried on examining his hands. She pushed him. “Come on. What about me?” “Oh, sorry.” He looked her over. “You have green eyes now.” “Is that it?” “You know I’m no good at this.” “There must be something.” He peered closer at her. “I think your forehead might be higher. And your nose is different.” “Well, what kind of different?” “Just, I don’t know, different. I told you already, I’m no good at this.” “Calm down, it’s fine. I’m sure we’ll find some way of looking at ourselves soon.” They stood up and brushed the grass off their clothes. The scattered leaves around them rustled as they were blown by the wind. They rolled up their sleeping mats and packed them away inside their rucksacks, which they had used for pillows. “Are you still OK with Jason?” she asked him. “I think so,” he said. “I still feel like Jason. How’s Anna feeling for you?” “I don’t think Anna fits me anymore.” She frowned. “I think maybe… Maria feels right.” “Are you sure?” “Yes. I like Maria.” He stuck out his hand. “Well, I’m pleased to meet you, Maria.” She shook it. “Pleased to meet you too, Jason.” She picked up her rucksack and slung it on her back. “We should probably get going.” They left the clearing and went into the woods. Beyond the gaps in the trees the whiteness surrounded them. After walking for a while in silence Jason said, “I wish we knew what it was.” “So do I.” “It’s like the whole world got cut and pasted out. And how can we see? There’s no source of light.” “Just don’t think about it,” Maria said. “You’ll go mad.” At the edge of the woods there was a city. An expanse of grass spread out from the edge of the trees to where it met the spread of flat concrete at the city’s perimeter. They stopped at the border between the two to look up at the whiteness. It was dimensionless. There was no telling whether it was spatially infinite or encased them utterly. They had never been close enough to find out. The city was empty. They wandered through the high street looking at the shops. Some had recognisable names, like WHSmith and House of Fraser. Others instead of names had different coloured smudged blurs. Eventually they stopped outside a newsagent, where they looked at themselves in the window. “I look alright,” said Jason. “You were right about my nose,” said Maria. “It is different.” “I told you.” They went into the newsagent and filled their rucksacks with sandwiches, crisps, chocolate, and bottles of water. Jason went over to the paper stand. Among them were copies of the Times, the Guardian, the Independent and the Daily Mail. None of them had pictures on, only headlines and text. He picked up a copy of The Times and flicked through it. “Look at this,” he said, handing it to Maria. She read over the front page. “I can’t understand any of it. It’s just gobbledygook.” “It’s like that placeholder text you get on computers. Lorem ipsum.” “Hmm.” She flicked to the back. “Oh, good. They still have the crossword. Hey, Jason, grab a pen from the counter for me.” The wind had picked up again when they left the newsagent. They found a big square with a stone fountain in the middle, and sat at the edge of it while they ate. Jason dropped his crisp packet by mistake, and the wind caught it and carried it away into the air. Maria wanted to explore, so they picked a random skyscraper to investigate. They went through the automatic doors into the foyer, which was a small room with metal walls that housed a single wooden table and a single wooden chair. At the other end of the room was a lift. “Let’s try that,” Maria said. They went to the first floor, which turned out to be a large open plan office. There were desks lined up evenly in rows, with each one having a computer, a printer, a pot plant, a waste paper basket, and a wheelie chair. The walls were all metal, apart from the right-most side of the room, which was entirely taken up by a huge window that looked out onto the rest of the city. They tried the second floor and it was exactly the same, as was the third, fourth, fifth and sixth floors. On the seventh floor they gave up, and Jason stood by the window looking at the view while Maria went around seeing if any of the computers would turn on. She joined him when she realised none of them had any wires, or plugs, or power buttons. The city was below them. Nothing moved apart from the water in the fountain and the signs outside shop fronts being blown by the wind. The woods seemed to have vanished, and the city spread out as far as they could see. The edges of it seemed to dissolve into the featureless white mass. “I wonder how far it goes,” said Maria. “It doesn’t look like it stops,” Jason said. He pointed at the skyscraper opposite theirs. “Look in there,” he said. Maria peered at it. “It’s the same office. On every floor.” They unpacked the rucksacks and made camp in one of the corners of the room. Maria did the crossword while Jason ate another sandwich. Once they started getting tired they each got changed behind a desk. Afterwards, Jason came to Maria with his sleeve rolled up. “Take a look at this,” he said, pointing to his elbow. The skin had turned a dark shade of brown. “Might be more by tomorrow.” They pulled down the blinds, turned the lights off and got into their sleeping bags. In the dark Jason said, “Have you remembered anything?” Maria rolled over and closed her eyes. “No.” She woke before Jason, and shuffled over in her sleeping bag to lean against one of the desks. Something unnerved her, and when she stood up she realised that it was the fact that beyond her movement, there were no sounds at all. She rolled up the blinds and looked out at the city. There was no indication that anything was different since they’d gone to sleep. Not even the levels of light had changed. She peered at the building opposite again, half-expecting to see another Maria looking back at her, but all of the offices there were empty. She focused in on her reflection, which unlike the city had certainly gone through some changes. Her eyes were now blue, her forehead was wider, and her shoulders had become more broad. She checked to see if Jason was still asleep before taking off her top. She didn’t know what her body had originally looked like. In fact, the idea of her having an origin at all was strange to her. Trying to imagine it was like trying to calculate the volume of water in the sea, or the exact positions of the stars in the second after the Big Bang. She often looked at herself when Jason was asleep, tracing the contours of her ribs, or tensing the muscles in her arms and squeezing them. It was rare that she got the chance to see it in full. As she was watching how her stomach changed when she breathed in, she heard Jason moving behind her. She quickly pulled her top back on. “Morning,” she said. “Morning.” He stretched, and noticed the new colour of his arms. “Huh.” He took off his shirt and looked at the rest of him. His skin was now dark brown all over. “Well, it’s definitely more than the elbow, then.” “You look good.” "Thanks.” After they had eaten, they packed up and went back out into the city. Maria shivered in the wind. They walked through more identical streets until they found one where a car was parked at the side of the road. They ran over to it and peered into the window. “The keys are still in the ignition,” Maria said. She pulled at the handle and the door swung open. As they drove through the city the buildings on either side became more and more shapeless. The doors and windows looked less like doors and windows and more like pictures of doors and windows, and eventually they were gone altogether, leaving featureless grey blocks that grew smaller and smaller until they were just piles of cubes. Soon the cubes were gone too, and it was only them, the car, the road, and the endless sea of white. They kept driving. The road never stopped and never changed direction. When one of them became tired or bored of being at the wheel the other took over. Maria got out the newspaper and carried on with the crossword. “Any clues?” Jason said after a while. “Um…” Maria peered at the puzzle. “Atmosphere of a place. 8 letters, ending with E.” “Ambience.” “Good one.” She wrote it down. “How did you know that?” “I don’t know. It just came to me.” Eventually they stopped the car, got out the sleeping bags and sat down on the road to eat. The whiteness extended in every direction. It could have been one mile away or hundreds. “What do you think it is?” said Maria. “Maybe it’s like a canvas,” Jason said. “Or the backdrop of a theatre.” Maria looked at the edge of the road. “We’ve never been so close to it before.” Neither of them spoke. Maria straightened her leg. The tip of her shoe jutted over the side. She moved it forward a bit more. Jason grabbed her ankle. “Don’t.” “Come on, Jason.” “We don’t know what will happen.” “Then we’ll find out.” “What if it’s dangerous?” “What if it isn’t?” Jason frowned, thinking. “Tell you what,” he said. He pulled off a lump of bread from his sandwich and gave it to Maria. “Throw that at it.” Maria squeezed the bread into a ball and rolled it across the tarmac. It lost momentum just as it neared the edge and stopped. She reached over and nudged it with her foot. It rolled a bit more and landed on the whiteness, where it lay still. Maria stood up. “Look,” she said. “It’s still there.” Before Jason could say anything she stepped off the road and onto the whiteness. It was solid under her feet. “Jason!” she said. “We can walk on it!” She took a few steps experimentally and found that it was the same wherever she went. “Jason, get over here” she said. “I don’t know about this…” She grabbed him by the wrist and pulled him onto it. “See? It’s fine.” “Wow,” he said, looking down at his feet. One at a time, he lifted them up and put them back down again. “We’re walking on nothing.” She tugged at his sleeve. “Come on,” she said. “Let’s see how far it goes.” “Wait,” he said. “If we can go on it, then maybe that can too.” He pointed to the car. “We’ll be able to cover more distance if we drive.” The car was able to go on it just as well as they could, so they drove it into the whiteness. The road receded until it was a faint black line on the horizon before disappearing out of sight. Now the whiteness was everywhere. The car kept moving, but it didn’t feel like they were travelling any distance at all. For all they could tell they could have been travelling for minutes, hours, or days. Ahead of them, in the distance, there gradually appeared a faint black line, stretching as far as they could see on either side. As it got bigger it became obvious that it was the road. They stopped the car and got out. “Is it the same one?” Jason said. Maria bent down and picked up the lump of bread. “I think it is.” They drove down the road for another short while before getting tired again. They tried sleeping outside, but it was too bright, so they tucked the sleeping bags into the car windows and lay down together in the back. Maria took his arms and wrapped them around her waist. They were quiet for a while until Maria said “Do you remember the desert?” “I do. That went on for ages.” “And it led straight to that ocean. That was a weird transition.” “Oh, god, the ocean. I got so sick of the smell of seawater. And that rickety old boat.” “You got so pissed off at that boat. When we finally hit land you kept threatening to smash it up. I had to drag you away so you didn’t do violence to it.” “I hated that fucking boat so much.” Maria laughed. She stroked the back of Jason’s hand. “Jason?” she said. “Do you think… that we were anywhere before this?” “What do you mean?” “I mean, do you think that we came from somewhere? That we weren’t always here?” “Well, we don’t remember being anywhere else, do we?” “I know, but…” She sighed. “Don’t some things seem familiar to you? Like those shops in the city. Don’t feel like we’ve seen them somewhere before?” “Not really, no. We can’t have done. It’s not possible.” “I’m sorry,” Maria said. “I know it’s silly. It’s just been on my mind recently.” “That’s OK,” said Jason. “I think about it sometimes too.” He kissed the back of her shoulder. “But I’m glad to be here now. With you.” Maria turned around on the seat so she was facing him. “I am too.” She kissed him, took his hand, and guided it between her legs. After they woke up and put their clothes back on, they carried on driving down the road. For a long time, there was no sign of anything, and they wondered about driving back into the whiteness and seeing if it took them anywhere new this time. Then a small dot appeared by the side of the road in the distance and quickly started getting bigger. “Slow down or we’ll miss it,” Jason said. Maria eased up on the accelerator and started braking as they got closer. They pulled up in front of a two-storey house. It was white with occasional patches of brick where the paint was flaking off. All of the curtains were drawn. They got out the car and stood staring at it. “Do you want to go in?” he said. “Of course I do.” They went into the driveway, the gravel crunching under their feet. The bushes in the front garden were swaying lightly in the wind. The front door was a dark shade of blue and the number on it said 73. Maria went up to it and lifted up the knocker. “Why are you doing that?” said Jason. “It’s polite.” “But it’ll be empty.” “Well, just in case it isn’t, I don’t want to go barging into somebody’s house.” She rapped three times. The sounds were like thunderbolts in the deafening silence. There was no response. “Now what?” said Jason. Maria frowned, and pushed on the door. It swung open without resistance. “Come on,” she said. Inside was a hallway with cream-coloured wallpaper and a staircase with dark green carpet. There was a row of shoes lined up on a mat, the nearest of which was a pair of small blue trainers with a cartoon duck on the front. On the wall by the door was a plaque hung on a nail by some string that read ‘Live, Laugh, Love’. They went into the living room, where there were toys scattered all over the floor. On the mantelpiece were several framed photographs of a blond-haired boy. In one he was on a swing, in another in the living room wearing school uniform, and in the centre one he was blowing out the candles on an 8th birthday cake. This one Maria picked it up. She looked at the boy and then to Jason. “Do you think –” “We can’t assume anything.” They split up to search the house. Jason stayed downstairs and Maria went to the top floor, going through each of the rooms in turn. The first was a bathroom with stickers of octopuses on the tiles and a waterproof alphabet book. The second was a bedroom with a double bed and a dresser that had more photos of the boy on in. The third was another bedroom. The bed in it was smaller than the other one and had a blue and yellow striped duvet. There was a wardrobe, a chest of drawers, and a desk with a chemistry set strewn across it. Bits of Lego cluttered the floor. Maria went over to the desk, avoiding the Lego. She picked up the different parts of the chemistry set, the test tubes, beakers and measuring sticks, the shape of them feeling like they suited her hand. She opened the desk drawer to that it was full of stationery and exercise books, which were filled with handwritten equations. She sat on the bed and ran her hand over the frame, finding a dent in the wood that made her touch the side of her head. Images rose up in her mind. Under the bed there would be two plastic boxes, one for toy weapons and the other for all of the Lego. In the wardrobe there would be a school uniform consisting of a white polo shirt, a green blazer with a tie, and black trousers. Somewhere tucked away in the bookcase would be a light yellow piece of card with two red handprints on and a calendar glued underneath. There were footsteps on the stairs and Jason appeared in the doorway. “I found this newspaper on the kitchen table. It’s got another crossword in if you –” He stopped. “What’s wrong?” he said. “Why are you crying?” “I don’t know,” Maria said, wiping her eyes. “I don’t know.” They sat in the car outside the house. “I knew that place,” Maria said. “Are you sure?” said Jason. She nodded. “I could picture every detail of that room. It was like I’d lived in it.” “But that can’t happen,” he said. “That’s ridiculous.” “Well, it did. I knew it like the back of my hand.” Jason huffed. “Even if you did know it,” he said. “All of the photos – it was a boy.” “So?” said Maria. “Our bodies are always changing, aren’t they?” “I guess,” said Jason. He turned on the acceleration. “Let’s just keep going and see what turns up next.” What turned up next was another house. This one was taller and thinner, with a black tiled roof and a concrete driveway with two brick walls either side. One of the upstairs windows was broken and a circle of plaster had fallen off the outside to reveal the dirty brickwork underneath. They got out and stood in front of it. The wind was cold. “I don’t want to go in,” said Jason. “Are you sure?” “Yes. I’ll wait in the car.” He tucked his hands into his jacket pockets and walked back down the driveway. Maria tried the front door but it was locked. She tried to look in through the ground floor windows but it was too dim inside to make anything out. She stepped back and folded her arms. The wind whistled through the broken window. She climbed up onto the brick wall and leant on the house for balance. If she was careful, she could just about lean forwards to look into the room with the broken window without falling over. It looked cramped. There was only just enough space for a half-made bed with a fraying mattress, and a wardrobe taking up the whole of the right side of the room. A bare lightbulb hung down from the ceiling and in the high corners was what looked like damp. On the walls by the bed were crayon drawings of cowboys, police cars and dragons. There were stacks of superhero comics under the bed, and toy cars scattered over the floor. Above the head of the bed, one corner hanging down, was a poster of a galaxy. She got back in the car and shut the door. “I believe you,” Jason said. “About knowing that place.” “What do you think it means, then?” said Maria. “I don’t know,” said Jason. His voice was shaking. “Maybe everything – all the places we’ve been – they’re all part of wherever we were – whoever we were –” “Before.” “Yes.” Maria thought for a moment. “That could be why some things we read made sense and others were just gobbledygook. Selective memory.” Jason slammed his hand on the steering wheel. “But none of this brings us any closer to actually knowing anything. If we were somewhere before, then where are we now? How did we get here? What is this place?” “There’s a solution to that,” Maria said. Jason looked at her. “We keep driving.” There were more things by the side of the road as they went on. They passed a set of swings, a row of school desks with a whiteboard, a dirty yellow skip with cigarette butts on the ground behind, a public toilet cubicle with a fogged-up mirror, and a dorm room with physics textbooks on the shelves and empty condom wrappers on the floor. Each time they passed something, one of them would get a twinge of memory. They stopped at a stone bridge that crossed over the road that they both half-felt a pull towards, and climbed on it and looked out at the road disappearing off into the distance. “Do you think it’ll go on much further?” said Maria. “I don't know,” said Jason. “It feels like we’re nearing something. But I don’t know what it could be.” “Some kind of answer, maybe.” “Or some kind of ending.” Maria looked at where the road faded into the whiteness. She shivered in the wind. Soon the objects stopped. The road grew thinner, and the car wouldn’t fit any more, so they took their stuff out and left it. They walked down the slowly diminishing road until it tapered to a point and stopped. Jason stood at the end of it while Maria carried on walking onto the whiteness. “Where are you going?” he said. “There’s nothing here.” “There has to be something,” she said. “Look at it.” He threw out his arm towards the whiteness. “This is it. We’ve reached the end. There’s nothing else left.” “What else are we going to do?” Maria said. “Turn back?” “We could do that,” said Jason. “Find the car, drive back to the city, live a life there. There’s food and water. We could survive.” “Or we could carry on.” “That’s not carrying on,” he said, pointing to the whiteness. “That’s running on a hamster wheel, forever.” “You don’t know that.” “And where would you go, anyway? There’s no directions out there. How would you decide where you went?” The wind picked up. Maria smiled and pointed upwards. “That’s how.” The wind took them far away from the road, and the more they walked, the more it grew in intensity. What began as a light breeze soon felt like a gale, and it was a struggle to stay upright. It wasn’t cold or warm, but it was strong. Jason was getting tired of all this walking, and annoyed at Maria for carrying on like this, when he bumped into something. “Ow,” he said, rubbing his nose. “What happened?” Maria said. “I felt like I bumped into a wall,” he said. They were having to shout over the wind. “I can’t see anything,” Maria said. It was true, the white was there and as opaque as ever. “But there’s something there.” “Hold on,” she said. She put out her hand and edged forward. “Yes,” she said, as she stopped. “I can feel something solid.” She felt around, and stepped back with a strange look on her face. “I think this is it,” she said. “What?” said Jason. “The end of it.” The two of them stood looking at the invisible wall. They’d both thought that this place, whatever it was, went on forever. But evidently it didn’t. Jason turned to Maria. “What do we do?” he said. “I don’t know,” Maria said. “We’ll have to turn back,” he said. Maria said nothing. She turned to him. “This can’t be right,” she said. “There has to be something beyond this.” “Why?” he said. “Nothing goes on forever.” “But this can’t be it!” She was shouting at the wall now. “There has to be more! There has to!” “Why can’t you just be happy?” He was shouting too. “Why do you always have to push forward?” “Why do you always have to hold me back?” she snapped. “Because you won’t ever be satisfied!” He was shaking now. “No matter how far you go, no matter what you find, it will never be enough. You’ll always need more, and in the end it’ll consume you!” “Oh, yeah?” She advanced towards him, and he instinctively retreated. “All you want is to be surrounded by your four walls on all sides. You depend on them. You want to be insulated, cushioned, stuffed head to toe with cotton. You’re an animal that loves its cage. Maybe I’ll never be satisfied, but at least I won’t stagnate.” She brought up her foot and kicked the base of the wall. Instead of meeting with solid mass, as she’d expected, it flapped like plastic sheeting hung over the frame of a door. All of the wind blew through it, as if finding an exit after being stuck in a confined space, and the atmosphere was still again. She glanced at Jason, who was just as bemused as her. Frowning, she nudged it with her foot. It flapped again, revealing dark blue underneath it, appearing as a line on the whiteness. “Don’t do it,” said Jason. Maria stared at him, and knelt at the foot of the wall. “Don’t do it,” said Jason. “Please.” “I have to see,” said Maria. “Don’t.” “You should come,” she said, lightly but with an undertone of desperate pleading. “I don’t want to.” “Don’t you want to know?” “I don’t care.” Maria sighed. “Look,” she said, “I’ll have a look, and once I know what’s there I’ll come back and get you. Alright?” He knew this wouldn’t happen, but there was nothing he could do. “Fine,” he said. “OK,” she said. She got into a crawling position, and edged towards the wall. When she was at it, she lifted up and put her head underneath. “Oh, my god!” she said. “What is it?” “I can’t. You have to see for yourself.” “Well, come out and tell me and then we can both see it.” She crawled forwards. Now she was halfway through. “Jason, this is amazing,” she said. “There’s no way I can possibly describe it. Oh my god, what is that?!” “Maria,” he called, “I really want to know what you’re looking at,” “Then come in. Woah,” she said. “I’ve never seen anything like that before in my life. I didn’t even know that was possible!” She was three-quarters of the way through now. Only her legs, still bent down, were visible to him. “Is there nothing you can tell me?” he said. “Nothing at all?” “Well, it’s –” She edged forwards, and the curtain-wall fell to her shins. “It’s so – so – bright!” Her feet slipped through. The curtain dropped. She was gone. “Maria?” He listened, hoping for anything, any sound at all. “Maria, are you there? What’s it like?” He waited for a long time, clasping his hands together, rubbing the base of his thumb. He bit his lip, and frowned at the place where she’d been. He called her name a few times more, and when nothing happened he sat cross-legged on the floor to wait for her to come back. With nothing to lean against, it became painful for him to stay sat up. He remembered the car with its comfortable seats, and found himself gazing in the direction they’d come from. At the same time, he didn’t want to leave in case Maria came back. He deliberated on this for a long time, and decided that if she did come back, it would be easy for her to find him. If he was going to wait, he may as well make himself comfortable. He stood up, stretching out his arms until they regained feeling. With one look back, and a silent apology to Maria, he left in the direction they’d come. He found the road again, and not long after that, the car. He got in and drove until he reached their gallery of memories. As he passed the bridge, the dorm room, the school desks, and finally the two houses, he felt no connection to any of them. They were just things. He spotted the lump of bread, which was where they’d left it, and soon after that small grey cubes began appearing at either side of the road. They grew into piles, and seemed to fuse together to create big grey blocks, which also piled on top of each other. The blocks became the size of skyscrapers, on which appeared pictures of doors and windows. They became real doors and windows, and the blocks became real skyscrapers, and he was once again in the city. He drove through the empty streets without any kind of destination in mind. It was barely possible to tell the difference between any of them. They numbed his mind as he swerved around corners, picking this way or that without any consideration for where they might lead him. In the end, he pulled up outside an office block, which he stared up at for a few moments before getting out the car. The automatic doors opened for him, and he was in a lobby with a polished oak floor. To his left was an unattended reception desk, and to his right was a waiting area, with cushioned chairs, circular tables, and a wall that was a window, looking out into the street. Ahead was the door to a lift with a button to call it. He went over and pressed the ‘up’ button. The doors opened straight away, sliding outwards to reveal a lift with mirrored sides and a plain metal floor and ceiling. He went inside. There was a single unmarked white button on the wall, so he pressed it. The doors slid closed and the lift ascended with only a quiet machine-like hum to indicate it was moving. After a minute or so it stopped, and with a ‘ping’ the doors opened again. He had expected to see another office, but instead there was a reasonably sized room, with a single window just above his head height. The walls were a plain stone-grey, and on the wall to his left was what looked like a hatch of some kind. Halfway down the same wall was a good-sized plasma screen TV, on top of a white stand with built-in shelves. Opposite the TV was a dark blue sofa, with big and comfortable-looking white cushions. A remote lay on one of its arms. He went to pick it up and turned on the TV. On it was some kind of streaming service, showing all kinds of TV shows. He cycled through the options, and recognised some of the titles, but for the most part they were completely new to him. Frowning, he clicked on the ‘View All’ tab to see the full list. There were thousands. He was open-mouthed as he scrolled through them, the titles blurring into each other. It must have been every TV show ever made. Now curious, he went over to the hatch and pulled it out of the wall. On the edge were four buttons: Breakfast, Lunch, Dinner, and Snacks. He went over to the sofa, and found that if you pulled the base forward, it turned into a bed. With great satisfaction, he made himself comfortable and picked a show at random. He watched the whole thing, from start to finish, eating and sleeping in between. He picked another, and did the same thing. Once he had watched all of them, it felt as if no time had passed at all. He turned the television off and stood up, stretching his arms and legs. A pinging noise came from behind him, and he turned to find that a new streaming service had appeared on the TV. In it was every film ever made, and he reclaimed his space on the sofa and watched all of them too. After this, he stood up and stretched his arms and legs, thinking it was about time he did something else, when a creaking noise came from behind him. A door had opened, and through it was a library. This contained all the books ever written, and had comfortable chairs with reading lights in every section. Jason went through everything there, and once he reached the other side, found another door. This one led to a gallery that contained every artwork ever made, and the door after that led to a concert hall in which he listened to every piece of music. In a small room with a beanbag, a TV, and every games console ever made, he played every video game. There was a door in that room too, and as he played through the games, he kept glancing at it, as if behind it was a gigantic mouth that would swallow him whole. All too soon, he’d played through the games, and there was nothing left for him to do except go through the door. It opened onto the whiteness again. The space was empty except for someone standing several metres away from him. It was Maria. He went up to her. She had none of the life or spirit he’d expect to find from her. Instead, she stared into nothing, her eyes fixed at a point just over his shoulder. Her skin was grey, and her hands dangled by her sides like two weights hanging from a string. “Are you Maria?” he said. “No.” It spoke not with her voice, but that of a woman in middle-age, tonelessly giving information. “But you look like her.” “It is my appearance.” He closed his eyes and turned away. “Do you know who she is?” “Yes.” “Do you know where she is?” “She is not here.” “Is she dead?” “She is not here.” “So she’s not dead?” “She is not here.” “Fine.” He crossed his arms and walked a few paces away from the thing. After getting himself back under control, he faced it again. “Why are you here?” “To convey an impulse.” “What does that mean?” “She feels sad that you are not with her.” He put his hands behind his head and breathed in, letting it out as slowly as he could. “OK,” he said. “Is that all you have to say?” “That is all I am able to say.” “Can I see her?” “No.” “Why not?” “She is not here.” “What if I went back, went the way she did?” “You can do that.” “Would I see her?” The thing was silent. “She is a long way away from you now. It is unlikely you would be able to find her again.” He thought for a moment. “What if I wanted to leave? To go back home?” “You can do that too, if it’s what you want.” And she was gone. He looked behind him and everything there was gone too. It was him and the whiteness. Once, she’d asked him a question. Who are you today? He closed his eyes, and made his choice. Charlie Alcock is a writer living and working in Birmingham. He holds an MA in Creative Writing from Lancaster University, which lives in a pile of other documents and 2016 Graduation Programs on a bookshelf. He likes crosswords, old horror films, cups of tea, and Doctor Who. He has previously been published in Horned Things, and he writes reviews for Twitter (@CharlieAlcock) and Instagram (@charlie.alcock94) Anthony Afairo Nze is a graphic artist.

  • The Chocolate Doll Cake

    In the candy store, Maruja held a heart with cherry filling to put inside the chocolate doll cake. The brown loaf humanoid resembled her face and body features: her skin full of moles made of chocolate chips, her legs glazed with sugary spider veins, and her trunk deformed by the mounds of dough around the belly and on the back due to the increasing scoliosis. The pile of cakes had to be frozen, so she could carve them in the shape of each limb. Even though she always wanted to be slender, she admired the sculpture of her huge stomach with its cherry-like belly button. “What a stomach cake,” she said aloud and soon she realized her joke. It took her three months to learn how to sculp the dough coated with dark modeling chocolate exactly the color of her skin. The cake had to be completed today, the day of her 50th birthday, Saint Valentine’s day. The most difficult part to copy was the scar on her right arm—its color wasn’t of Belgian chocolate but rather of dulce de leche. On the register counter, as Maruja slid the heart, a bag with chocolates and two stone candies for payment, the cashier, a young man, took one of the stones candies and said, “These are the exact colors of your eyes.” They were the color of molten honey. She lowered her glasses to the tip of her nose and looked at the cashier, saying, “My husband always says that he wants to eat them.” It was a lie, since she has never been married. She licked her lips, and said, “I guess I’m fully edible.” She paid with cash, lifted her shopping bag with the tips of her fingers to her shoulder, swung her hips, and said, “Are you going to think about me during your Valentine’s dinner tonight, dear?” The cashier, no older than nineteen and pale as vanilla ice cream, blushed. Maruja exited the store, swinging her hips and touching her hair, dense like clover lawn. It was bushy African hair except for the patches behind her ears and above her nape from which she had cut tuffs of hair to be planted in the chocolate cake. This was the only inedible part of the doll, in addition to the nails. She didn’t clip her nails because she was afraid that she might bleed. Asking her manicurist to give her the nail clippings was out of the question. Too many explanations for that. So, she submerged her fingertips into melting chocolate and bit them. It was so delicious that she thought she could overcome her fear of blood by drinking blood mixed with chocolate. Still she was very careful, and her teeth bit off her nails without injuring the skin. She washed the nails, but their brownish color didn’t go away so she painted them black even though her favorite color was pink. Black for my last birthday cake, she thought. A strong, cold wind entered as she pushed out the store-door and she had to put her bags on the floor to zip up her heavy purple coat. Outside, the city looked as if it were coated with whipped cream. A woman flung a bouquet of roses to the garbage can. Another gust of wind blew. Rose petals flew past her landing on a mountain of snow by the curb. For a moment, Maruja saw the petals like drops of blood. She felt drowsy. She hated blood; ironically, she had worked in a hospital for almost thirty years. A dropout from majoring in classical mythology and without any other training, she thought she could never get a job in any other place with the same benefits. For years, one of her coworkers, Lina, followed her with a cotton tip stained with blood, teasing her. Years later, Lina said as if she were apologizing, “I know you wanted to be a nurse or even a doctor.” She was referring to the pink nurse uniform that Maruja always wore. It was a common misconception. Maruja never wanted to be a doctor, but she liked to wear the uniform with a matching surgical mask, even though her duties were only clerical. Wearing the mask, she avoided the smell of blood, rotten milk, chicken soup and flushing toilet after menstruation, that permeated the hospital hallways. Thank God I don’t have to pay that bill any more. An idea that occurred to her when she had read the Merchant of Venice for a class in her college. Shakespeare made a mistake. Antonio shouldn’t be a man, but a woman and the Merchant is God. A God that hates women. She put her hand over her mouth and nose, trudging past a man who was holding heart-shaped balloons with Saint Valentine’s Day messages. If it weren’t for her birthday, Saint Valentine’s wouldn’t mean anything to her. Usually, she would bake a cake and Lina and the other coworkers would sing Happy Birthday. Then she would return to her job strapping bracelets that contained the patients’ names and dates of birth onto wrists. All of them were outpatients, without emergencies. She rarely saw blood even though the hospital smell to it all around no matter how often freshener she would spray. But in rare cases that she had to process someone bleeding, Lina always helped her, saying, “So much drama for a couple of drops of blood.” Finally, Lina had understood the disgust that blood produced in Maruja. What Maruja never told her was that every time she clicked the bracelet on a patient’s wrist a spurt of blood from a chicken neck came to her memory accompanied by her grandmother’s prayers. “I humble myself before the mysteries of Echú. You are the Messenger of Cambolé and the Ancestors. You are the Owner of the Mysteries of the Four Directions, north, south, east, and west. You are the Guardian of the Gates of Death and Life.” As she was walking along Lexington Avenue to the train station, she felt hungry and shoveled a chocolate in her mouth. It wasn’t enough. The tip of her tongue touched first a tooth on the right and then a tooth on the left. She enjoyed feeling their sharpness, a distraction from her hunger. One chocolate wouldn’t kill her. “Not yet.” Her recent diabetes diagnosis and her doctor’s words, “You need to eat chicken, nuts, meat, protein…” didn't matter. She wanted to eat only pastries and chocolates and fruit sometimes. Maybe she could survive without them or just taking insulin when the sugar was high, but she was terrified to think that she had to poke herself with a needle to test her blood and inject her belly with insulin. “Eat meat, Guacala,” she said aloud as if she were giving herself an order. Shaking her head, she looked at her watch: 1:35 PM. There was enough time to arrive home in Brooklyn. She needed to place the cherry heart in the doll’s chest, replace the eyes and light the candles before starting with the ritual at the exact time she was born: 3:00 PM. It was intriguing to her that she was born on February fourteenth during an eclipse at 3:00 PM; Christ died at 3:00 PM during an eclipse. And now she woke up every day at 3:00 AM to pray to Babalú Ayé before getting ready for work. But today's 3:00 PM would be her last birthday. She mumbled a prayer to Echú. Her coworkers had been teasing her earlier because for the first time she didn’t bake a cake to share for her birthday. Nobody knew about her human sized chocolate cake. “She has a date,” said Lina. “He’s a little devil.” Maruja giggled and moved her hips in the way she had learned when she was fifteen, when she learned to dance salsa. But there was no little devil. The only lover she ever had was a vegan man who used to sniff her, saying, “You don’t smell like dead animal, like the others.” It was sexy but she also wanted him to bite her and kiss her. He never did that. When he was on top of her, she imagined his tongue trying to shovel each inch of her palate as if it were the most delicious of candies. Instead of feeling like melting chocolate, when he finished, she was left on the bed like a pillow with a hole. Ten years younger than her, he was the one who deflowered her after a dance party; he was the one who married a New Age girl who he surely kissed; he was the one who used to ring her bell at 2:00 AM and left before her prayers to Babalú Ayé. He was the one who hadn’t returned after his penis bled and after he accused her of having some disease. A false alarm? Yes, and no. After that, the blood work came out with high cholesterol and diabetes. As she climbed down the stairs to get the 4 train to Brooklyn, the image of his hand pulling down the prepuce to show a pink bell, a drop of blood seeping from it, still made her shiver. No, there was no other man and when she thought about a hairy chest, square jaws, bowl heads, she remembered what her grandmother told her, “A man makes you bleed with tickles.” Indeed, her grandmother had bled and laughed the last time Maruja saw her. As Maruja crossed the train turnstile, the voodoo doll of her Grandmother with implanted gray hair came to mind. And laughing, Grandma said, “Men don’t like older women.” Maruja shook her head, trying to chase away her Grandma’s laugh and words that now were like a buzzing. But the memories rushed like bubbles in her mind. Maruja wasn’t even ten years old when her grandmother died. Now in her mind she had the memories of her Grandmother’s death: her grandmother stabbing the voodoo doll and her blood sloshing around Maruja, burbling and turning the ritual into a nightmare of hell with flames from the candles. The neighbors rescued the young Maruja from a wallow of her grandmother’s blood. One of the candles had turned down burning her right arm. The neighbors were terrorized by the little black girl who didn’t show any sorrow for her grandmother’s death and even one of her classmates told her, “My mom says that your father is the devil himself.” But what kind of grief could she show? She knew of grandmother’s death since she was five. That was the way she learned to count. Holding her little right hand her grandmother touched each finger. “One, two, three, four, five.” Then, she puffed smoke from her cigar and held the thumb from her left hand, “Here is ten, when you get there, I’ll be fifty. No men like a fifty-old year woman. There is no life for me after fifty. Did you hear me?” For Maruja, during the funeral, her grandmother’s body was a carcass and the coffin a container with meat. No, there was never sorrow, or even a single tear. What she wanted was to scrub the sticky sensation of the blood from her skin, to erase the red marks and deodorize the smell of blood, like putrid milk, and spread some refreshing ointment to relieve the burning sensation on her right arm. A year later, an evangelical pastor and his wife adopted Maruja and brought her all the way from Buenaventura, Colombia to Brooklyn, New York. Maruja’s dolls made with tufts of human hair that she stole from her classmates were the reason why the pastor gave her to an orphanage when she was twelve. “She is possessed,” he said with pleading eyes as he emptied a box with eight dolls stabbed with needles. Those dolls were her classmates who’d been mean to her, yelling, “Dumb blacky.” Except for her prayers to Babalú Ayé, she had almost forgotten about that, about the candles, the bloody dead chickens, and smudging of lemon balm, sage and pine. But her baking instructor had the idea to bake human-like body parts made from cake. Her cake, a plump left hand, inspired admiration from everybody. It had all the lines that her grandmother taught her how to read. It had a little hairy mole. It had wrinkles on the knuckles. And it even had a tiny red dot that nobody saw. Her grandmother had poked it with a needle, saying, “Here is when you turn fifty. After that there is no life that deserves living.” Maruja gasped for breath as she sat on the train bench and the image of the baked hand with lines came to her mind. The lifeline went until the moment of death, the red mark for the fiftieth birthday. After that she had drawn a morass of lines that only could mean death. Her stomach growled, stabbing the area above the belly button. She ate another chocolate. She imagined herself stabbing the chocolate doll in the chest. One, two, three times. The cherry heart would burst as her own heart would explode. “If it worked for grandma, then...” she wished. Maruja had witnessed how her grandmother’s former lover fell mortally ill after her grandma had stabbed a voodoo doll with the man’s hair. She looked at her watch: 2:25 pm. For a moment she wished she had taken the day off. But with a little bit of luck she would arrive at her home in Brooklyn a few minutes before 3:00 PM. She would insert the cherry heart in the doll’s chest and replace the eyes with the candy stones she just bought. The ritual had to be at 3:00 to invoke Echú, the God of the dualities who would grant death at the time she was born. She imagined Echú drinking from the pond of blood where her grandmother had died after the ritual. It wasn’t a suicide. It was with Echú’s permission, she thought. As soon as the train arrived at the last stop, she would run to her apartment and light the candles. She had everything ready. The super had helped her to move all her furniture out of her living room. “I’m turning fifty so I’m decorating for my celebration.” It wasn’t a lie. Her tiny living room needed space for the chocolate statue of herself laying on the floor. She touched the cherry heart in her purse. It would explode once she stabbed it and she would burrow herself in that cherry blood to eat the cake possessed by Echú. “My death will taste like chocolate,” she mumbled. A young Jewish man wearing a black hat, a matching long coat over a sparkling white shirt and carrying a large pizza got on the train at the Atlantic Avenue stop in Brooklyn. Is there any Kosher pizza? Maruja asked herself. The man’s long blond sidelocks fluttered as he held the door open and called for a woman who was running behind. Maruja had seen a synagogue around her neighborhood, but she rarely walked by that area since it wasn’t near her subway. Bouncing her feet and rocking back and forth, she wanted to tell the young boy not to hold the train. But she sighed once his girlfriend got in, stumbled, sat on the bench facing Maruja. The woman removed her headdress handkerchief, and the man sat next to her combed her hair. Even though Maruja had heard that only Jewish married women wore a wig, the single women always covered theirs in public. Weird. It’s New York. New York subway. A zoo of all the upside downs. Maybe Echu is playing with me, she considered. He is trickster. Maruja ate another chocolate and closed her eyes to ease a slight headache. The smell of pepperoni woke her up. They shouldn’t be eating pepperoni. That’s pork, she thought and frowned at the couple. But even stranger was that the Jewish people continued on the train all the way to the last stop. They usually get off at Franklin, she thought. The couple continued kissing and munching. I have never seen those religious Jewish people doing that. Kissing. The train came to a sudden halt. “There was an accident in the train ahead of us. We ask you for patience,” the conductor announced. To calm herself, she massaged her temples and smoothed the wrinkles on her face. After fifty, there is no life, she thought. She had her right hand inside the chocolate box, and she combed her hair with the other, imagining planting some pubic hair in the doll’s vagina, which she had forgotten to do. Her grandmother had done that with her voodoo doll. But it was already 2:55. There was no way she could be there by 3:00. She stomped, chewed another chocolate and imagined stuffing the mouth of the young man and his girlfriend with the crumbs of pizza crust that had fallen on the floor. “Echú, you who is guarding of the Gates of Life and Death,” she mumbled, leaning against the handrail while leaving her hand inside the chocolate box. She blinked and fell asleep. The Jewish couple in front of her transformed into two birds mating on the top of a skull with a flower garland. “Echú,” she prayed. “Grant me death.” The skull laughed and the two birds flew away scared and perched around a pizza box. The skull said, “I am not Echú. I am Saint Valentine. Echú sent me over after I gave him some candy.” The birds regurgitated pepperoni pieces over the pizza box and Saint Valentine said, “My two feathered friends are Hephaestus and Charis. Thanatos and Hestia boarded the previous train. You missed them by just three minutes.” Maruja’s hand muddled inside the bag as if she had submerged it in a swamp. She lifted it and was dripping mud. “I must say your doll is really a work of art. Sad that it’s made of dough. Clay would have been a better choice for that. But Hephaestus can glaze it with wrought iron. Charis could help you in polishing it.” The pizza now had Maruja’s face in a silver metal. “Grant me love,” Maruja pleaded, putting both hands together. They stuck as she rubbed them. Layers of dark mud bubbled as she tried to separate her hands. “Love cannot never be granted. Love is predatory in nature. You bite what you desire until you destroy it.” Saint Valentine laughed. In chorus, the birds and the iron face in the pizza spoke in Greek. “Γνῶθι σεαυτόν.” “Μηδὲν ἄγαν.” “Ἐγγύα πάρα δ ἄτα.” It was strange to her that she understood each sentence by heart even though she never took a Greek class. "Know thyself.” “Nothing in excess.” “Surety brings ruin.” Saint Valentin spoke again, “Gods always grants death, but humans never know when it will be.” She woke up crying. The chocolate had melted on her fingers. It was 3:00 PM. Admiring her chocolate-coated hand, she hated Echú. She hated her destiny. She despised her cowardice towards blood. She licked her hand, and suddenly, right there in the subway car, in front of the horrified couple across from her, she bit her fingers, right through the flesh, to the bone. Colombian-born, Mr. Jhon Sánchez arrived in NYC seeking political asylum, where he is now a lawyer. His most recent literary publications are A Weekly Call (Everybody Press Review), On WriNting (the other side of hope) “United Tombs of America,” (Midway Journal), “Handy,” (Teleport Magazine), and “ The DeDramafi,” (The Write Launch republished in Storylandia issue 36). He was awarded the Horned Dorset Colony for 2018 and the Byrdcliffe Artist Residence Program for 2019. In 2023, New Lit Salon Press will publish his collection Enjoy a Pleasurable Death, and Other Stories that Will Kill You. For updates, please visit the Facebook page @WriterJhon, Instagram jhon_author, Twitter @jhon_author.

  • The Burnings

    The boy appeared at dusk. That alone ought to have been warning enough. Blustering gusts had pushed inland a rumbling, crackling mass of storm clouds, and beneath that low, granite sky the child lay on Sela’s doorstep, as if swept in by the howling, ill-meaning wind. In the dim gray of evening he looked sullen and half-starved, shaking through every limb like a leaf on a weather-worn branch. Startled, Sela called for Red. Silent and severe, wariness in his step, Red came to the door, and after studying the boy for a moment or two, knelt down and picked him up. “Found him by the docks this morning,” he said. The boy didn’t even stir. “He must have followed me.” It had rained all morning, cold and heavy, lending a roughness to the wind, a violence to the sea. On the swells of raging waves Red’s boat had flailed and floundered, sail full with wind, but battered and limp, like a white wing, broken. By noon the waves worsened, rising as though with the sun, and not about to risk capsizing, Red had dragged in his morning haul, tied the boat to the nearest dock, and left the heaving, churning ocean behind. It was as he headed home that he had noticed the boy, huddled in an alleyway, shuddering and shivering with cold. All he’d done, Red insisted, was buy the trembling child a roll of bread, which he’d glared at with as much suspicion and fright as one might the edge of a blade. Hunger, however, triumphed over fear, and with fumbling fingers the boy snatched and devoured the roll. With that, Red had considered his duty done. How could he have known the child would follow him home and make a bed on the doorstep? “Because you encouraged it,” Sela said, gazing over the sleeping, chestnut-haired boy with distaste. Strangers came rarely to the village, and when they did, often came unwelcome. “If his parents are pirates, what do you think will become of us?” Red only shrugged. Weary and dazed, the boy opened his eyes. He looked weak, wrung-out, uncomprehending as he listened to her words. At length the fisherman’s wife sighed. Even if he was pirate-born, what did it matter? Whatever caretakers this child once had clearly wanted nothing to do with him. So without any further discussion, they wrapped the lost thing in blankets and tucked him in an alcove where for the night he slept. The next morning, the child awoke reluctantly to Sela’s boot prodding him in his side. “Up,” she said. “You’re coming with me.” Wordlessly, the child did as she said, trailing behind the woman as she led him in search of the town’s shaman. Down sloping hills of heather and wind-struck flowers, the shaman made his living on a crag by the shore, one that overlooked both the ocean and the chapel, lofty in position, humble in size. Twice she had to knock to be heard over the roar of the wind, which still carried the strength of the storm. The man inside answered, white as milk, or bone, smiling with pleasure at the sight of the goat-herder. His eyes then fixed on the boy, and for a moment they seemed almost to gleam. With a quiet greeting, he led woman and child inside, seating them in a cool, salt-scented room. Tapestries cloaked the walls, yearly offerings from the townsfolk, their striking colors set aglow by flowering embers in the hearth. Some of these Sela herself had weaved—tributes for good fortune. He pressed her not to hesitate, his hands clasped together, the white brow lowered. So Sela told her story, the child clinging to her skirts, avoiding the icy, unwavering eye of the shaman. When at last she finished, the pale, wide-eyed man stretched his arms, blue robes fanning out like the feathers of a cliffside bird, ready to take flight. “A blessing, surely,” he said, staring almost with reverence at the small boy, who still hid in Sela’s shadow. In the grate, the fire flared. “The winds have gifted you a boy, Sela. You ought to cherish it. You’ll never get another chance.” At this the goat-herder scowled. Three children she’d buried, and the shaman made sure she never forgot it. But it wasn’t as though the woman disbelieved the mysteries of the wind, and had considered the idea of this being a test of sorts. So, when she took him home, the first thing she did was scrub his face and clean his hair and name him Adrian. If he had a name from before, he wouldn’t speak of it. On that day of naming, their long-pregnant goat birthed a kid—a tiny, bleating lump of black fur. That was the second omen. Yet for the most part, Adrian didn’t appear foreboding. He was a quiet, unimposing child, who helped with the household chores and knew when to keep out of the way. But it wasn’t as though he had no eye for trouble; either he would find it, or it would find him. The day after his naming, a second bout of rain fell, a light but steady drizzle that soaked the earth and chilled the air. Adrian, not minding the rain now that he had a roof over his head, remained crouched near the hearthside, watching the fire as a kitten might a bird—attentive and beguiled. The reflected flame seemed almost to burn in his eyes, and as if irresistibly compelled, his fingers reached for one of the thin, fluttering tongues. Sela whirled at the boy’s howl, and in just a few paces had crossed the room and pulled him away. His face was twisted into one of horror, shrieking as she ran cool water over his blistering palm. He’d not let go. Till the moment she’d swept him into her arms, he’d clung to the thread of flame, crying and crying as though he didn’t understand the fire to be the thing that hurt him. “Well, what were you expecting?” she said, her voice harsh with anger and worry. The boy merely whimpered, searching for comfort and kindness in her expression, and when she betrayed none, buried his face in her shoulder and sobbed. Like coiling snakes the flames had wrapped themselves around his hand, and for an instant it did seem as though he fully held the tongues, as if they were tangible, graspable. Sela’s only concern, however, was how bad a burn it would be. By evening, Adrian had calmed down. The burned flesh, pink and welted, was now an object of interest for the boy, something that in equal parts fascinated and repelled him. Sela, meanwhile, could only be relieved it was no worse. When Red came home, Adrian was quick to show off his blistered hand, thrusting it into the stoic face of the fisherman. He wanted a reaction. Wanted to know how he should feel. As it was, Adrian seemed unsure of whether to be proud or abashed. To Sela’s surprise, Red’s lips slackened into a smile. His expression was one of good-humored sympathy, and with a dark, callused hand, he ruffled the boy’s hair. “Know your limits, and you’ll be fine.” Over the next few days the mark faded and faded, and by the week’s end, hardly a blemish remained. As shocked as she was relieved—for both Red and Sela were convinced a scar was inevitable—Sela set an undaunted Adrian to work. He’d braved the fire, and if he could spend all day sitting by the hearthside, drawing pictures in the ashes, he could stand to help with the chores. In the herb garden, a great rosemary bush bloomed blue with health, and around breakfast time, she sent him out to gather a few sprigs. When he returned, handing the stems off to Red, the fisherman’s brow lowered, perturbed eyes flicking to Adrian, who had moved on to helping Sela chop thyme. For a while he was silent. Then he came to the kitchen and placed the plucked rosemary on the table. “How did this come about?” Puzzled, Sela looked at the sprigs. They were blackened. She glanced accusingly at Adrian. “Why did you pick those?” she scolded, and sent him out for more. The ones he brought back were much the same—charred and crumbling, black as burnt wood. Now Sela saw fit to whack him. “Care to explain yourself?” The boy stared at her in dismay. “I haven’t done anything!” Tears welled up in his eyes, and in a huff, Sela went out to check on the bush. It was green and lush, blue blossoms bursting and swaying in slight wind. When she returned, out of patience for whatever trick this was, she found Red comforting the child, who had begun to weep softly. “It’s all right, Sela,” the man said. “He hasn’t done any real harm. I checked his pockets. He doesn’t have matches.” Irritated, Sela said nothing. But she’d gotten her sprigs when she visited the bush, so in the end, she supposed Red was right. No real harm had been done. In time, the incident was forgotten about. But aside from daily chores, Sela couldn’t see to the boy all day. The fields needed tending, the goats managing, and since Red would go out to sea, the duty of both fell on her. Being banished from the herb garden, Adrian was given the stables. He fared better there, feeding and milking what goats were young and sick. The black goat he’d named Charcoal, and to it he dedicated special care, since it was he who named it. To his credit, the care was reciprocated. Not even its mother’s dripping teat enraptured the young goat like Adrian did, and once the island winds fully pushed the last of the rainclouds out to sea, both boy and animal were allowed outside to play. Adrian liked being let loose to the world in this way. There was a freedom in the moorish hillsides, a wildness in the streams, vast and feral, haunted and holy. Charcoal followed when he could, bounding and skipping on wobbly legs, black, liquid eyes wide and curious as the boy waded in streams and tumbled through wildflowers. And it was not only the goat. By summer’s end, Adrian had assembled a loyal, affectionate following of crows. When he ventured outside, the crows would wheel and squawk and flock at his feet in a billow of black feathers. In their beaks they’d come carrying small pebbles and shells, or sprigs of pine and holly. Nervous and excited, they’d hop about his legs, dropping their offerings at the first timely moment before rising in a single, fluttering cloud, and in one great flock, would swoop toward the forest, duty done. Red had only seen this spectacle once. He’d come home early one day to see the boy surrounded by them, wreathed in black and laughing as they matched his movements. But though they looped and hovered about him, never did they land on him. Occasionally one would come close, swooping low with talons outstretched, only to swerve at the last second, as if it could sense something in that moment, something dangerous, a fear that commanded respect. Red eyed the scene warily, skirting the yard in which the boy and birds played and coming in the garden way. It was at dinner that he finally spoke. “You’ve garnered quite a following,” he said, choosing his words carefully. “They pay tribute to you and everything. How did you manage it?” Adrian, realizing he meant the crows, promised he’d show them, and after dinner, wordlessly scooped up his scraps and tossed them out the door, where a growing cluster of crows waited, eagerness in their glittering eyes and pecking beaks. Sela had chided him for that. “You shouldn’t waste food,” she said, though she admittedly found the whole situation rather amusing. Red always had an eye for omens, but to Sela, the crows had never bothered anyone. Even when he stopped feeding them, the birds proved faithful friends, often flocking near him or settling at his feet with their usual offerings. The village children were quite fascinated by this. At first they’d watched Adrian with cautious, dubious scrutiny, marveling at his solitude and strangeness. That, and the fact that they knew nothing about him, only that he’d been taken in by the burly, falcon-eyed fisherman and his goat-herder wife. They were very mindful that he was a stranger to their island, and spun rumor and story about his pirate origins and all their unscrupulous dealings. Indeed, they were well-pleased with the distance they enforced, since they took it for prudence rather than meanness. But when they saw the boy wandering the hillsides with birds and a goat in tow, they found themselves compelled by new interest. “Why do they like you so much, Adrian?” asked one girl, Heather, who wove her words with as much playfulness as there was provocation. Adrian shrugged, flinching slightly as the girl approached closer, gently running her finger along the black head of an adolescent crow, newly initiated. “I love birds. It’s amazing that they come to you.” Sela had been watching this interaction, and upon seeing Adrian’s shy smile, was as tempted to laugh as she was to groan. Heather was a volcano of a child, loud and proud and full of temper. Born on the winter solstice, when each year a lamb is sacrificed to the gods of the wind and sea, Heather was pushed into the world the very instant her mother left it. And if that weren’t a sign of ill-fortune on its own, the angry, grief-stricken father had laid the wailing newborn too close to the fire, and in moments, the flesh of her neck was seared, torn and ravaged by flame. “It’s a bad thing,” the shaman had said, his voice like the toll of a bell, clear and deep. “A very bad thing to be storm-born.” The previous night, a volley of hail had come crashing upon the island, and it was for that reason, the shaman said, that the new girl was burned. In the valley of the mountain, where the great bonfire leapt and flared, the townsfolk listened to the shaman speak, his voice low and neck bent, birth and death and fire weighing heavily upon him. To the townsfolk, the girl’s scar marked a sign of lasting misfortune, stretching raw and thick, as though a great claw had raked her throat. And indeed, she’d proven quite a handful for a child of her years, though Sela never thought it wholly her fault. Still, she never would have imagined that, out of all the children, Heather would be the one Adrian took a liking to. But then, the girl looked right at home in the wilderness, crow feathers in her hair as Adrian wove a crown of moor flowers for her golden head. What really won her over, however, was something no adult caught sight of. As she sat beside him one day, petting the curly head of Charcoal the goat, another, older boy trekked up to join them. A known troublemaker, he and Heather had gotten into tussles before, and he likely went at the behest of his friends, who huddled below the hillside, waiting. Incited by both them and his pride, he grabbed a handful of the girl’s hair, revealing the dark mark along her neck. But rather than laugh, as the child half-expected of Adrian, the goat-herder’s boy lashed out a hand with viper-like speed, clasping around the arm that pulled Heather’s curls and holding tight. At first, the older boy only laughed, since Adrian looked easy enough to knock down. But soon that laughter turned shaky, uncertain. Before long, it was a flat-out scream. The boy yanked his arm from Adrian’s. The ends of his sleeve were frayed and shriveled, still smoking in parts. Down the hill he streaked like a rabbit, past his friends, who chased after him, bewildered and disappointed their trick hadn’t gotten the reaction they’d wanted. Heather, however, had watched the scene unflinchingly. She was one who felt in extremes, and being scornful of fear, all that was left for the girl was to be utterly amazed. Within a week’s time the two were inseparable, knit together at the hip like the patchwork of a quilt. Rumors of the fight spread quickly amongst the children. Gen, the boy who’d disturbed them, showed off a fleshy, hand-shaped wound, but it was vague and thin, and being prone to over-exaggeration, no one took him too seriously. But neither was anyone eager to bother Heather or Adrian again, and they liked it that way. With the days to themselves, most of their time was spent atop the moors and cliff-sides, tottering and clambering about the edges of high precipices, jagged and slick with bitter, salty rain. Often the two climbed off the paths, up and up, where the white-headed turns made their nests between sharp rocks, and from there they cried out, loud and triumphant, over the world and sea and storm clouds incoming. It was in those moments that Adrian seemed most alive, a look of intensity kindling in his eyes, darkness that burned within darkness. “At least he’s happy,” Sela said to Red one evening. She knew of Adrian’s ramblings with Heather; she’d witnessed them herself on a few occasions, and for some reason, felt the behavior needed excusing. Red listened solemnly, contemplative in silence. From thrashing waves beneath the cliffside, Red’s hawk eye sometimes spotted them, hands interlocked and arms spread wide like a great albatross on the wind, ready to leap and fly free. At first, Sela had thought a friend for Adrian would give Red some peace of mind. But upon hearing it was Heather, the fisherman couldn’t help but wince. “The girl who the earth quakes for?” he said, low and weary. Sela frowned at that remark. Though marked at birth by death and fire, it wasn’t as though Heather had ever done any real harm. What wildness was in her came from neglect, not nature, and would be outgrown. As the days turned towards autumn, and the village hands all shifted to the coming harvests, the two children kept in this strange way. And so it was that one day, as Adrian awaited his friend by the crags, the boy looked into the bleak, sun-struck seas and saw, clustering along the horizon, tiny flecks of red and gold, like embers glinting in a darkened grate. He reached town before the boatmen returned, panting and breathless, beckoning others toward a slope that overlooked the eastern stretch of ocean. Curious and afraid, people followed the boy, and in the distance, saw what he had seen: ships gathering in a great line, creeping steadily closer. Pirates. They infested the waters far to the east, where they were known for ransacking the richer islands that traded ore and silks. There were rumors of the eastern lords increasing naval forces to destroy them; was that why they came here? Even on their island, the coming of autumn left much to plunder. The blacksmith stoked the fires, hammering away at fishing spears and barbed hooks, fashioning a point into every pike and farming hoe. Luckily, the wind was still that day, and without its help the fleet drifted limply in the open sea. Still, while their advance was a slow one, it was steady, inevitable. Evening came with red stained skies, and in its wake the water burned crimson, the prows of the ships wading through fire till night doused the flames. A chill fell over the earth, a tense stillness. Fog rolled slowly in, thin as a spider’s web at first, but the wispy threads lengthened and thickened, weaving a sheet of gray and shadow. It was so thick Sela could hardly see the sharpened stake in her hand. “Adrian?” she whispered. From her left, distantly—“I’m here, Mama.” “Where is Heather?” “I don’t know.” There was a note of shocked disbelief in his voice, as if he hadn’t considered this. “I don’t know.” “She’ll be inside,” Sela assured, wanting to comfort him. “Someplace safe.” From the fog there came no answer. But there was nothing to be done. Together, Sela and Adrian stood atop the sloping moorland, miles from town, ready to defend their home if the pirates reached the peak. In the belly of the valley, Red waited with the other men. The night drew on. Perhaps they were cautious, all of them, confused by the mist. But as the moon rose in the sky, the first echoes of fighting bellowed up from the valley below. Sela’s grip tightened around the stake. She looked for the boy. If he was near, he was nothing more than a shadow, lost to the fog. Then, off in the distance, there shone a spark. A pinprick of red. Into the gray-blue vapor Sela squinted, striving to see, though it hurt her eyes. Around her the mist began to thin and tatter, flooding from the moors and into the town in a great white shroud. At the high point of the isle, however, Sela could now see what the townsfolk likely could not: a bud of fire, bleeding through the fog as if through fabric. Had the pirates set fire to the harbor? No, it wasn’t the harbor that burned. It was the fleet. Long into the night those great ships sent up pillars of smoke, black and billowing, flames spouting across the water even as dawn broke gold over the edge of the ocean. By her side, Adrian leaned on her shoulder, tired from the night, watching the ships burn and split and sink in those white-yellow waters. When Red returned, his face was ashen and his eyes enflamed by smoke. The fighting lasted for about an hour, he said. One long, dark hour. In the mist they could hardly tell each other apart, dodging and darting through fog and shadow, but the villagers knew the terrain well, taunting and leading the bewildered men in circles or straight off cliffs. But what fighting had been done ceased when they saw their ships, and at that all had fled back toward the harbor, trying frantically to save those vessels that didn’t immediately catch flame. Some lad had been sent to torch them, in all likelihood. “Adrian!” cried a voice. Heather’s voice. The girl ran up the hills, hair shining flaxen in the light of morning. Weary, but relieved, Adrian waved. Heather had been in her father’s house, apparently. But when she heard the low, whispering voices of men outside, she’d jumped out a window and made for the forest. Sela, rather shocked that the girl had been left to fend for herself, let the child stay with them for the day. She took them to the cliffside, which was where they wanted to be, and on the sunlit horizon, they watched the surviving ships flee east, a blot in the hazy distance. In minutes the children were asleep, Adrian’s head on Sela’s lap, Heather’s in the moor flowers. Carefully, Sela studied the young, sleeping face of the boy, bronze in the blaze of afternoon. And as she did, she felt something prickle in her being, warm and mellow. A deep, raw feeling. Gently, she brushed a hand through his hair, and with a voice that faltered from sleeplessness, sang to the resting children. Sela didn’t forget Heather. Winter came in its frigid season, frosts blooming with chill, withering with oncoming spring. During the cold months, Red and Sela kept their doors open to the girl, who took full advantage. Every day she’d run up snow-swept hills to meet her friend, her pockets heavy with candies and needles and often a striker, which she made a habit of twirling between her fingers. For Charcoal, who remained ever faithful, she’d bring carrots. In the stables they would huddle close and share secrets, whispering and giggling as they played their strange games. “Here,” the girl said one day, holding in her hands a small, hollow dish. With a sharp stone, she sliced her palm open, and Adrian watched, captivated, as the blood trickled into the shallow basin. When she was done, it was his turn. The boy bit hard on the inside of his lip, spitting into the dish. Mixing the blood together, the two stared at what they’d just made, their mouths half-parted, eyes unblinking. Intrepid, Heather reached for the dish first, raising it to her lips, taking a quick, single sip. Then, again, it was Adrian’s turn. The boy winced at the taste, then smiled at the girl, and drank it whole. “There,” she said, as if coaxing him. “We’re blood twins now.” Back from the sea, Red watched this unfold through a chink in the stable door, and with a heavy heart, he shook his head. He knew what Sela would say: “Children are incomprehensible.” But in his mind, this was something else. Something strange and eerie, but not quite incomprehensible. Still, he didn’t say anything. Where he’d become more wary of the boy, Sela had only grown in fondness. And, he thought, if they were only left alone, it was likely nothing would come of it. As the days warmed, the crows returned, and while they remembered their original friend, were less enthusiastic about the girl. But as they spent more time outside, Adrian helped Heather find favor with them once again. And when other boys came to join them, for they were now of the age to notice someone like Heather, and envy someone like Adrian, the crows would swarm them furiously, flocking and screeching and scratching their faces and ankles. Unrepentant, Heather would laugh, while Adrian watched, eyes ever on his friend. “Let their eyes be plucked from their skulls!” she’d cry. Both Sela and Red watched this, each in their own way. Sela, for one, couldn’t understand why Red had begun avoiding Adrian. It was as though he saw something stirring in that young form, something dark and untempered, a sleeping disaster on the verge of awakening. Not that she didn’t think any of it to be odd. But no oddity, Sela thought, couldn’t be outgrown. In a year or two, this would pass. With mid-spring there came a wedding, the blacksmith’s young son to a fisherman’s daughter. Torches were lit and drums were beat and outside the church the people danced, launching themselves from dock to dock as the stars rose in the night sky. Adrian leaped with them, first with a group of boys, then with Heather, flashing in the moonlight like the winged-fish that soared out of waves. As the night drew on the adults stopped, watching young ones as they talked amongst themselves. The shaman remained with the bride and groom. He’d always thought them a good match, and as the ceremony waned with morning, began planning his next. When the shaman approached Sela, she thought she knew the reason. That summer, Heather would turn thirteen, and her father had long wanted the storm of a girl out of his care. The shaman, too, was just as eager; he’d always disapproved of the father’s neglect. “To keep the wild aspen in the garden, you must first prune its limbs.” Now, in the shaman’s eyes, Sela had emerged a most worthy pruner, and by extension, perhaps, so had the boy. The celebration continued long into the next day, even as the singers and dancers collapsed one by one, voices thin and limbs weary. By dusk the streets were almost deserted, and while the last stragglers were staggering home, the shaman summoned Heather and her father. Over the girl the shaman loomed, speaking gravely of virtue and duty, all with that booming, perpetually awe-struck voice. Heather stood beside her pillar of a father, head tilted a fraction to the side, uncomprehending. “Good children obey the laws, mind tradition,” spoke he. “I bled a lamb for the solstice last winter.” “Well that you did. Can you weave?” “No.” “Why not?” “I prick myself. Over and over. It makes my fingers bleed.” “Ah, but the lamb must bleed for the sacrifice. Only by doing that are the gods appeased.” Heather stared at him, frowning in half-understanding. And as the shaman continued to speak, that frown deepened. She was growing up now, and would no longer be granted a child’s indulgence. She was to be a young lady, and young ladies had duties. She would stay inside. She would learn to weave, and if she pricked her fingers, so much the better. It was a testament to hard work. And, if she paid heed to what her father—and the shaman—asked of her, she might be rewarded when the time came. But the father must have been convinced she would stray, for one thing was made quite clear: if not the goat-herder’s boy, someone else would suit. “Don’t allow it.” It was the first thing Red said. Sela had told him of the shaman’s proposal, and Red, with more gravity than she’d ever seen in him before, began almost to beg. “A marriage?” “It won’t end well.” “I don’t like it much either, but what can we do about it? Better than the girl being sent somewhere else.” “It’d be kinder to send the matchbox away than to meddle like this! Only fools try to twist fire into something it’s not.” And with that, Red stormed off. He’d heard stories of storm-born things. Stories the shaman himself had told, which made his decision all the more perplexing. Wind could not be tamed, thunder was impossible to silence. He remembered when Heather was born. When the girl was grasped by fire, and all knew something bad was on the horizon. It was just like then. Only the bad thing, Red thought, had finally arrived. The next day, the burnings began. The first was the bakery, engulfed in the dead of night. They awoke to the shrill, huge sounds of the gong, and running down the tangled hillsides, saw the bread house wrapped in flames. Wind blew in strong, swirling gusts, and in it the fire leapt and burst, hissing and spitting, the reek of smoke so strong their lungs grew raw and labored from breathing. But however wild, it seemed an accident. The dry season was descending, and the baker’s apprentice was a known halfwit. Even still, no one was eager to punish, and since the apprentice promised profusely that he’d made sure every ember of every fire was out, people were willing to forgive and let be. The next could not be so easily denied. On the first midsummer morning, the apothecary burst aflame, cinders flying and embers streaking as the wood-straw hut was consumed in fire’s great, voracious mouth. By the time the first bucket of water was thrown, the hut had crumpled, seeming to almost fold in half before it all came crashing down, the air heavy with the smells of ash and charred, sharp-scented herbs. There was no doubt in anyone’s mind this time—this was no accident, or work of nature. Human hands had sparked this fire. In the meantime, Adrian had all but vanished. When people saw him, he seemed a ghost on the moors, a lost soul wandering, alone and silent and pale-faced. His friend was gone, kept under lock and key, condemned to needle and fabric. And with her so caged, a new feeling began to take root, one that narrowed his vision, darkened his heart, fully waking that which was once only half-awake. The world became too small, and its smallness became heavy, oppressive, smothering the child within. He would break free. They would break free. In the depths of the following night, the weary, sleeping town stirred once again to those dreaded, familiar sounds and smells. In the gray light of dawn, the church bloomed red. Fire again surged in its mighty wave, a flower of flame against the sunless sky, lapping the underbellies of the low-hanging clouds. This time, however, the morning was heavy with oncoming rain, and with the villagers mobilized, hurling bucket upon bucket of sea-salted water, the embers were tamed, then extinguished. On rickety, half-seared legs, the old building stood, steeple smoldering long into the evening. From his bedroom Adrian watched the smoke spiral, cursing once under his breath. “And where did you learn that?” Sela asked, pushing the cracked door open wide. Adrian shook his head. “That’s no answer.” “One of the boys.” Sela merely raised an eyebrow, coming near and sitting beside him. “And? What do you think of this?” Still Adrian watched the smoke, and did not answer. At the sight of this Sela felt the weight of tears rise in her eyes, for now she thought she understood what Red had seen, what she herself had refused to see. It is a bad thing. She turned away, hiding sorrow in shadow. Silence. Then, ever so gently, a little hand cupped her cheek. “Mama?” Adrian’s eyes were wide and wondering, his pupils dark and flameless. Something within her began to twist and surge, like two snakes writhing and squeezing in her chest, and with a strangled sob, she threw her arms around the boy. She held him tightly, rocking him slowly in the ash-stricken air, drowning in heartache, in a swollen, wordless, grieving love. Tentatively, Adrian placed his hand on her back, rubbing circles into it. “Mama, why are you crying? Please don’t be sad.” A pause. “It’s not your fault.” The words came quiet, nearly a whisper, and as he spoke, he sounded as though he truly meant them. He was a smokeless flame. A barbed arrow, lodged in her heart. But she wouldn’t let go. Even if he singed her hair or tore her flesh, even if Red tried to pull her away, she wouldn’t let go. That night, as she watched Adrian tend to the goats, ever-gentle with the creatures that worshipped him, Red came to her side. She didn’t want to look at him. Gently as one would touch a butterfly’s wing, he placed a large, callused hand on her shoulder. “Why do you hang your heart on that boy?” His face seemed cut from stone, clenched and harsh, dark as flint, though a tremble shook his voice, quivering like the struck chord of an old instrument, locked in a minor key. “What good will come of it now? He was never meant for us.” Sela said nothing, hunched before the window like an old tree, dead in the earth, ready to fall at the first gust. Neither, for all their love and knowledge, could tell what to do. The burning of the church stirred up a rage—rage at being toyed with, at being violated. All eyes couldn’t help turning to the golden-haired girl, known for the evil mark across her throat and her brazen wielding of a striker. But Heather never disguised it, and the notion of hiding in plain sight was simply too baffling for most to believe. Her shadow, however, was another story, for the boy always did her bidding, and stood unafraid of any adult or consequence. But he, at least, could be accounted for on the morning of the church burning. Heather, according to her father, had been out fetching well water, and had taken the length of an hour to return, claiming she’d dropped the bucket on the way back. So the shaman thought he had his culprit—the insult to the church was not one he would stand, and lack of proof hardly mattered—and cemented what would be his next decree: on her thirteenth birthday, Heather would marry a fisherman from the neighboring island. That, the shaman decided, would put an end to her. Under a cloud-swept sky, deep in the lavender field near the stables, Heather escaped her room to meet with Adrian one last time. Sela stood near, concealed in the shadow of a crooked, bowing tree. In fact it was two trees, one birch and the other aspen, knotted and twisted together. Quietly, the children spoke. “I’ll miss you,” said the girl. Adrian said nothing. A high, suppressed, single note escaped from his throat, a shuddering whimper that, choked as it was, the wind carried clear and far. Heather smiled. “Speak. I won’t get to hear you for a long time.” The boy looked away, his features clenched and tumultuous. Relentless, she grabbed hold of his face. “You’re leaving me,” was all he could muster. At this Heather laughed. “That’s all you can think to say? I don’t want to leave, Adrian.” For a moment her voice came painfully, falteringly. Then she reached for his hand. Palm to palm, they stood completely still, a mirror to the other, the ends of their hair and clothing stirred by the wind. “We’re blood twins,” she said, and there was then a glint of triumph in her eyes. “Our bond will burn bright.” The boy stared at their interwoven fingers, wordless. Tenderly, his hand reached for what the fire had so long ago touched, and traced the rough, ruined skin down her neck and collar bone. Heather didn’t mind. She never minded anything. She, burned by fire, who carried all its pain, all its permanence, was among them the least afraid of it. And that night, while Heather remained locked in her room, the shaman’s house burned. The man inside was charred, hardly recognizable from the surrounding debris—a blackened, shriveled, wingless corpse. On a silent, windless day, when gray clouds stretched over gray sea, the blue-clad coffin of the shaman was lowered to the earth. In the pit, the townsfolk tossed flowers and shells, laid newly-woven tapestries, and lugged two goats, killed in sacrifice. But to one man, none of this was enough. It didn’t matter that Heather was proven innocent for this burning. And had Sela or Red had the heart to reveal the truth of the matter, it likely wouldn’t have made a difference. The girl’s father could take no more. He, perhaps, had the least faith in his own child, having long thought her a curse, a sure sign of chaos. Torn by rage and grief and fear, he set out to do what he thought should have been done from the very moment of her birth. The dawn after the shaman’s burial, Heather’s father took her into his boat, saying it was time she helped with the fishing. He rowed and rowed, through cloud after cloud of passing fog, into the vast haze of an ocean mist, unbroken by morning’s light. In the foaming, surging waves there appeared a lone sandbar, where a family of seals lay basking themselves. Setting his daughter on the thin, nearly submerged patch of sand, he watched as she ran to chase the seals, before turning his back and rowing into the sea once more. “She’s godless,” Sela remembered him once saying. “A godless, unrepentant spawn of chaos.” But it was Red who heard it last. Rowing out from a quiet cove, Red saw the boat that once carried two, carrying now only one. He called out, his voice drowned in the howl of the wind and water. But the man didn’t seem to hear Red. The girl’s father rowed like one possessed, though the boat teetered on surging crests of white-capped waves, and even as water filled the vessel, the man did nothing. Perhaps he thought he’d make it. With the prow of his boat biting into waves rising with storm and tide, Red tried to steer into the gust and toward the man’s fast-flooding vessel. But with wind and ocean so strong, Red could hardly handle himself, and with each moment the sea grew rougher, the waves larger. So it was that Red again glanced that way, noticed the far-off vessel hurtling dangerously close to the cliffside, blinked, and saw it no more. It was then that he thought he heard the words, the unmistakable mantra, carried like a ghost on the ocean gust—“Godless.” One look at Red’s face that eve was all Sela needed. And it wasn’t long before the boy, who studied the grim face of the fisherman with particular attention, knew it too. Like a willow branch in wind, limp and withered, Adrian swayed on his feet, black eyes vacant, lips asunder. Whether his will had been directed or not, whether Heather had encouraged it or not, the girl was dead. Dead for a crime she didn’t commit. Couldn’t have committed. Slowly, the boy’s mouth pressed into a single, thin, tight line. The eyes turned cold, unblinking. Steadying himself with a hand on the table, Adrian stood for a moment, firmly planted, before walking from the kitchen, out into the yard, up and across the rain-worn hillsides and into the shroud of the forest. It was the last time either Sela or Red laid eyes upon him. The tabletop was scorched. There was no funeral for father or daughter. No time to grieve for the wicked. The harvests were approaching, and with hearts weary from sorrow at so much death, people were determined to move forward, to let it all pass. Only Sela, with dark hands chafed from digging in hard earth, brought to their home a bouquet of wildflowers, the same kind that Adrian had threaded into a crown for Heather’s flaxen head all those months ago. Then, just as she reached their doorstep, she paused. With a bowed head, she walked back up the cobblestone road and off the village path, hiking and climbing to the highest precipice she could reach. There the wind blew strong, and there, with a final word of regret, she let the offering fall from her hand. Over the endless sea, the flowers fluttered and scattered, and like embers in the night, vanished from view. Autumn arrived, arid and chill. As they did every year, the villagers united around their common purpose—salvaging what they’d grown before the rain brought the frost. But when it came time to sharpen the knives and pruners, there came in the air a familiar smell. A thick, dry, suffocating smell. The smell of cinders. A crow cawed. Then another. Black wings flocked beneath a black sky in a frantic, spiraling swarm, screeching with their high, raspy voices. There was a shudder in the earth, a soft whining on the wind. Charcoal, no longer a kid, bleated mournfully. Across the sloping landscape, the fire rolled in waves—swelling and stretching, lashing and leaping, eating up the earth as the ocean does the shore. A bloated, heaving, bellowing mass of flame that grasped as though with hands, moved as though with mind. Embers sputtered, white tongues licked, the blaze whipped by wind, fanned in all directions—a crushing, swallowing, indomitable force. The blaze came from the forest, where from blackened trees fire still spewed and spread. Deliberate as it was indiscriminate, the flames moved for the fields, crows wheeling in the smoke-stained air, trailing in the fire’s path. Under a dismal, cloud-filled sky the villagers watched their harvests be consumed, and beneath that same sky Red looked on from afar, feeling nothing but regret for the boy consumed by flame and the girl who’d held the striker. On the moor by the goat shed, Sela sat in a shroud of smoke, heavy with love that no longer had a place to go. In the air, there blew the heads of moor flowers, severed from their stems. Like swallows they danced on the keening wind, and out to sea they went. Olivia Even-Vaca is a fiction writer and recent graduate from the College of William and Mary. When her nose isn’t tucked in a book, she can be found exploring Virginia's numerous hiking trails, a pair of binoculars at her eyes as she searches the trees for her favorite birds. She was raised in Virginia, and was the winner of the Glenwood Clark Prize in Fiction in 2021. Marieken Cochius is a Dutch-born artist whose work is meditative and intuitive and often explores growth forms, movement of light and wind, root systems, and animal architecture. She is drawn to remote places where she studies nature and makes art inspired by it. Her work encompasses drawing, painting and sculpture. In 2021 Cochius received an NYSCA Decentralization Grant for an Individual Artist Commission. She is a 2020 recipient of a Foundation for Contemporary Arts (FCA), Emergency Grants COVID-19 Fund grant. In 2017 Cochius completed a public sculpture commission for the Village of Wappingers Falls, NY made possible by a grant from the Hudson River Foundation. Cochius' work has been recently shown in exhibitions at the Lockwood Gallery, Kingston, NY, 6th International Drawing Triennial in Tallinn, Estonia, Alexey von Schlippe Gallery at UConn Avery Point, CT; Foundry Art Centre, St Charles, MO. Her work has been featured in Elle Decor, Columbia Journal, the New York Times, and in over 40 Art/Literary/Poetry/University publications and magazines in the USA and abroad.

  • The Human Show

    I’m not the only Californian Man in the human show, but Miss Carolyn assures me I am the best. Miss Carolyn is my handler. Her real name, like the language the Triptids speak, sounds like a riff on an accordion. She chose this human name for me to call her – it was suggested to her in one of her many books on adopting humans, all carefully arranged in her study. She found me not long after I was abducted. I must have been in the storefront for about two days. It had been a rude awakening – one day I was sitting on my surfboard, watching the first rays of the sun gleam on the waves, and the next thing I knew I was in a cage of glass. I was naked in a bright, big room, surrounded by other people in glass cages. Each cage had a mat on the floor to sleep on. There were two bowls, one red, one blue - one for water, one with food pellets that tasted like sawdust. I’d been hungry when they abducted me, so when I woke up, I was famished. I ate the pellets without a second thought. The Triptids must be at least twelve feet tall, with many black stem-like legs. They look like gigantic house centipedes and emit a scent that resembles rubber with a faint hint of lime. You would think this would be terrifying, but I never felt fear inside my glass cage, and none of the other humans seemed all that worried either. Later, Jessie told me that the Triptids produce a pheromone that naturally calms humans, keeping us docile. I remember the day Miss Carolyn came to get me. She stood before my cage for a long time, asking questions to the Triptid who owned the human store. There was a small, metal device attached to my ear – a translation unit that had been implanted while I was sleeping. I could hear Miss Carolyn asking if I was fully vaccinated and if I had any health defects or behavioral problems. Then she turned to me and asked me my name. When I told her, she repeated it, “Jason…yes, I think I’ll keep it.” I like Miss Carolyn a lot. She is one of the better handlers. She likes to make conversation – she asks me about life on Earth. She finds my accent very charming and when she has company she will show it off by asking me to say things. She asks me to talk about avocados and “gnarly waves.” Her ideas of Californian men seem to stem from Fast Times at Ridgemont High, a film that she plays often on holotape. She’ll put it on and say to me, “He’s just like you!” referring to Spicoli. I want to tell her that this film was made twenty years before I was born, but I don’t like to be rude. Miss Carolyn takes me for long, leisurely walks. This is my favorite part of the day. I love the orange grass and the high, billowing trees of my new home. There’s a neighboring red planet that you can see – it’s so close that sometimes you can make out the creatures on it. They are translucent green, and they glow. Miss Carolyn doesn’t like them much, and she will pull on my leash when I stop to stare at them. I met Jessie on one of these walks. She was with her handler, Miss Vivian. Miss Vivian collects Chubby Americans. Jessie is one of six. Miss Vivian trusts them, and since she’s had them for so long and they are so well-behaved, they often walk off-leash. “I see you have a new human,” said Miss Vivian. “Yes, this is Jason,” said Miss Carolyn. Her mandibles took on a bright red glow, a symbol of pride. “He’s a Californian Man.” “Like Spicoli!” cried Miss Vivian. Apparently Fast Times is very popular with the Triptids. “Good for you, Miss Carolyn. I could never keep up with a Californian Man myself. They’re too athletic! No, no – I just keep to my Chubby Americans. They have the same energy level as I do.” The Triptids shared a hearty laugh. It sounded like two accordions in an up-tempo polka song. I looked over at Jessie, the only one of Miss Vivian’s Chubby Americans to stay directly by her side. I was struck by her beauty. She looked like something out of a Botticelli painting. I was used to being naked at this point, and seeing other humans naked, but I found myself self-conscious and awkward. I willed myself to look her in the face, but I could feel my cheeks burning. “Doesn’t that offend you?” I asked her, referring to the conversation between our handlers. Jessie shrugged. “What? I am chubby. I know that.” I lowered my voice. “Isn’t it a little dehumanizing?” She smiled, and her face lit up. I couldn’t believe how beautiful she was. “I get better health care here than I ever got on Earth,” she said. “The doctor listens to me! He doesn’t just tell me to lose weight. Plus, it’s free. Health care in America was a lot worse.’” She shrugged. “Miss Vivian is pretty cool too.” “Oh, looks like my Jason has his eye on your Jessie,” said Miss Carolyn. “I could ask him if he’d like to stud for her…” “No need,” said Miss Vivian with a wave of her stem-leg. “Jessie is fixed.” Jessie raised her eyebrows at me. “I’d been asking to get my tubes tied for years on Earth, but no doctor would do it. I asked Miss Vivian and she had it done right away.” She kissed me on the cheek. “You’ll like it here, trust me.” Our neighbor has a French man. Sometimes Miss Carolyn lets me out into the backyard, where I sit and contemplate. There are these royal blue dandelion-like plants sprinkled throughout the backyard. They glow when you touch them. Sometimes I gather a bunch of them in my arms, pressing my palms against the glowing orbs. They smell like baked bread. I’ve been tempted to eat them, but Miss Carolyn says they would make me sick. The French man, Fabian, is often in the backyard next door. Sometimes he smokes cigarettes. He tells me his handler gives him cigarettes when behaves well. It’s been a hard transition for Fabian. He left behind a wife and kids, but it’s something more than that. He is insulted by the way he is treated. As far as I can tell, Miss Julia treats him perfectly fine, but he is discontent. Sometimes he starts hurtling abuses toward me from across the fence. It is on one such occasion that Miss Carolyn takes me back inside, hushing me. She walks me over to her study and sits me on the couch. It is so large that I must jump to reach it, but it’s awfully comfortable up there. “You shouldn’t let Fabian rile you up,” she says. She strokes my hair. It has a calming effect. I roll over my side, resting my head in her lap. “He said that Americans are docile,” I tell her. She nods, cooing softly at me. “That is something that Triptids say,” she tells me. “But don’t let it worry you. The French are more suitable for experienced handlers. They tend to be…difficult.” Something needles at me, but I can’t quite put my finger on it. I think about something Fabian said, about how our handlers would never let us see our families again. “Would I be able to visit my parents?” I ask her. Miss Carolyn makes an uncomfortable trumpet-like sound. She looks away from me. Her mandibles turn blue. “Oh, Jason,” she says. “I knew the day would come when I would have to tell you.” “Tell me what?” I ask, sitting up on the couch. “It’s been thousands of years since you were taken from Earth,” she tells me. “Your home planet still exists, but humanity was wiped out some time ago, I’m afraid. It’s uninhabitable now.” “Everyone I know is dead?” “We Triptids took many humans,” she tells me. “Gradually, over the years. We knew what was happening. Everyone in our galaxy did. Those lousy Frostorians wanted us to let you all die. They said you’d brought in on yourselves.” Miss Carolyn scoffs. It sounds like a violent chord on a harmonica. “If it will make you feel better, we can check the human database. It’s possible that your parents were taken at some point. We may be able to find them.” I shake my head. The thought of seeing them on Tripton makes my mouth go dry. I’d rather remember them as they were on Earth. “Thank you for telling me the truth,” I say. She strokes my back. “Of course,” she says. “I love you, my little Jason.” The human show is the main event of the year, and It’s finally happening. We are in the backstage area of a gigantic stadium. Our handlers are thrumming around us – giving pep talks, brushing our hair, and basically acting like stage moms. Miss Carolyn rubs my shoulders with two of her stem-legs, and brushes back my hair with two other legs. “You are my precious little man,” she murmurs. There is an audible hush as someone enters the backstage area. He is tall and muscular, handsome, with long blonde hair carefully mussed. I don’t recognize him at first, but then it dawns on me – it’s Brock Hammond. He went missing two years before I was taken. I remember his parents posting fliers around town. The cops didn’t take it seriously and assumed he went off to surf in Hawaii or Australia. They didn’t really care about poor burnout surfers. Brock looks better than ever – lean, muscular, and tanned, but it’s something more than his physicality that has changed. It’s his whole demeaner. He has an unwavering confidence that is practically visible. He swaggers through the backstage area like it’s his kingdom. His handler walks behind him, her mandibles bright red. He is flanked by two very pregnant women – one blond and tanned like him, the other olive-skinned with thick, dark hair down to her waist. He almost walks right by me before he does a double-take. “Wait a minute,” he says, his eyes darting around my face, trying to place it, “is that – Jason Wells?” I nod. He shrieks with joy and throws his arms around me. “Welcome to the human show, bro! Oh gnarly. I guess we’ll be dueling it out today, huh?” His accent is more pronounced than it used to be, so that he almost sounds like a Southern California caricature. “What’s with the girls?” I ask him, trying to be polite and not stare at their huge pregnant bellies. “Oh man,” he says, “Miss Bianca is studding me out right now.” He lowers his voice. “I know a lot of dudes would love this kind of thing, but it’s exhausting and weird. Plus, the girls aren’t even that into it. But Miss Bianca says once I father ten healthy babies she’ll let me go back to Earth. I can’t wait to see my parents again.” My eyes dart over to his handler. Although most Triptids wear simple garnishments, she is adorned in jewels, with several gold bands wrapped around each of her stem-legs. I remember what Miss Carolyn told me, and I wonder if I should tell him the truth. He is bound to find out sooner or later, but is this really an appropriate time? Miss Carolyn makes a scoffing noise from behind me and addresses Miss Bianca. “I see you’re showing Brock today,” she says. The disdain in her voice is apparent, even through my translating device. “And it looks like he’s got babies on the way.” “Yes,” says Miss Bianca, tapping the blonde woman on the shoulder, “Amy bore him a healthy baby a little over a year ago. Let me tell you, I got a hefty sum for that one. Pure-bred Californians are so popular right now.” Amy looks forward, biting her lip. I can tell she is holding back tears. “And Maria will bear him a beautiful child, I think. You see how she has this strong jaw? Brock, bless him, is a little weak in the jaw area. I’m hoping his mixing with Maria will help. I just love that the Californians come in so many colors, don’t you? Not like those Swedes or Koreans.” Miss Bianca tuts. “And this is your Californian Man, Miss Carolyn? He looks a little rough around the edges. Is this his first show?” Miss Carolyn puts a protective leg on my shoulder. I am immediately soothed by the feel and smell of her. “Yes,” says Miss Carolyn. “I just want the whole world to see my Jason. It doesn’t matter if we win.” “Good,” says Miss Bianca, turning away and beckoning her humans to follow her. Brock gives me an apologetic look. “Best of luck, dude,” he says. When it’s time for me to be presented, Miss Carolyn walks beside me. I have my leash on, as is customary for human shows. The judges look at my skin, my teeth, my hair. They murmur to one another. They have me talk about surfing. They even have a rigged-up surfboard that they make me stand on and pretend to surf on. They do seem impressed by my moves. There are seven judges – two give me 10 out of 10, three give me 9 out of 10, and two give me 8 out of 10. Brock goes right after me and gets 10s across the board. The crowd goes wild for him. It sounds like an orchestra of accordions and harmonicas out there. Afterward, when we go backstage, Brock pats me on the back. “You did good, bro,” he says. I think about his parents back home, long dead now, worried sick about him. I feel like the walls are closing in on me. Wouldn’t I want to know the truth if I was him? I don’t even know how to begin to tell him everything, so I just lean in and whisper to him, “Don’t trust Miss Bianca.” He furrows his brow. “But I love Miss Bianca,” he says. At that moment, our handlers take us away from one another. His words reverberate in my mind. To me, it is obvious that Miss Bianca is lying to him, but what if she isn’t? “Do you love Miss Vivian?” I ask Jessie. We are lying in my bed. Miss Carolyn is at her book club meeting, so it’s just the two of us at the house. Jessie squirms beside me. “Sometimes I feel like I do,” she says. “I mean, I’ve heard horror stories about some handlers. Miss Vivian treats me well. And I’m her favorite.” Jessie tries to play it off, but I can tell she’s proud of this. “Why?” “I don’t know,” I say, “just something about Brock. He said he loved Miss Bianca, but it’s obvious to me that she treats him poorly. It made me feel like…I don’t know, what if Miss Carolyn is lying to me and I don’t know it?” Jessie laughs. “Brock is just dumb, sweetie,” she says. “They’re pumping him full of testosterone for his studding service, and he wasn’t exactly Einstein before that.” She kisses me deep and slow. “You’re lucky, Jason. Miss Carolyn is the real deal.” I hope she’s right. After Jessie leaves, I feel unsatisfied. Something is gnawing at me about this situation, and I can’t quite figure it out. I decide to test Miss Carolyn’s love for me. I take the holotape player and throw it on the ground, breaking it into tiny little pieces. I run out into the yard and eat the flowers that smell like bread. They taste amazing, but moments later my stomach starts making odd noises and I end up vomiting all over the living room floor. I am on all fours, trying to catch my breath, when Miss Carolyn returns from her book club meeting. She makes a shocked sound like a tin horn and her mandibles turn bright yellow. “What is this?” she cries. “What have you done, Jason?” She scoops me up in her many legs and rushes me to the doctor. The doctor looks at me, humming and hawing. She gives me hot tea to drink and takes my vitals. “Why would he do this?” asks Miss Carolyn. “Does he have plenty to do at home, when you’re away?” asks the doctor. “Humans act out when they’re bored.” On our way back home, Miss Carolyn softly cries. It sounds like someone playing the glockenspiel. “Why, Jason?” she says. “Why did you do this?” “Just take me to the shelter and get rid of me,” I say. “I’m no good.” “You don’t know what you’re saying,” she says. “Yes, I do! Take me to the shelter.” Miss Carolyn takes me to the shelter, crying all the while. She keeps one of her legs on my shoulder, guiding me. We walk through and see the rows and rows of humans. Many of them are old and confused. Some are different in other ways. I see blind humans, humans with birth defects and missing limbs. Some look just like me, but they scream and cry, and bang against their cages. Some of them don’t speak at all, and just look forlornly out into the distance, not seeing anything. Some cry softly on their mat. “Is this what you want, Jason?” asks Miss Carolyn. “Because even if you destroy every single one of my possessions, I won’t leave you here. You can vomit all over my house and I will not leave you here. You can call me horrible names and I will not leave you here.” She turns me toward her. Her mandibles are purple. I don’t know what this means. I am crying. I want her to save all the humans that are stuck here. I want her to take me away from this awful place. “Jason, I love you, and I will never abandon you.” She pulls me into her arms – or legs, as it were – and I feel all of them wrap around me like a million little hugs, and I smell that strong rubber and lime scent. It soothes me like a warm bath, like the way Jessie smiles at me, like a big plate of eggs and bacon after catching waves all morning. She is my Triptid, and I am her human. I love Miss Carolyn. Gaby Harnish received her BFA in Screenwriting & Directing at EICAR: The International Film School of Paris. She has work published and forthcoming in Hash Journal and On the Run. She works as a veterinary receptionist and lives in Sacramento with her fiancé and her cute-but-troubled dog, Britta.

  • Helium

    It was nearly night, and now the silhouettes sprung from the trunks of trees and streetlights inside the park. No moon tonight, no stars, no awes. Clouds coiled, promising a thunderstorm later on, and the breeze concurred. The park was vacant, yet the cartman still stood behind his wheelbarrow of colorful, floating balloons. He waited patiently for a customer and the balloons kept him company. The cartman would care for them like children, untangling their strings when the winds sharpened and forming a shield with his body against any points and edges. After all, they were fragile beings, skin easily penetrable, gaseous blood ready to expand when popped. “Quiet out here, isn’t it?” a woman said. She wore joggers, a purple headband snapped tight around her head, and she marched in place, trying to keep her heart-rate racing. The cartman thought: Yes, silent like a mute child’s cry. His daughter’s face came to mind, her moving lips breathing no sensible words. Her thoughts forever trapped in her mind, imprisoned, banging her skull, pleading to escape. The cartman shook the dream fog away, looking at the woman with his tired eyes, “What can I do for you?” “One blue please,” she said, handing him a wrinkled dollar bill, damp with sweat. “Of course,” the cartman plucked one from the cart and tied the string around her wrist. He said, “So it doesn’t float away while you run home.” The woman thanked him and jogged straight through Main Street, shoes slapping the sidewalk, past TV-lit houses, down to Lover’s Lake, around the body of water, and back home. All the while, the blue balloon floated with her, side by side, its string twined tenderly around her wrist. And only when the woman closed her front door and shut the blinds did it begin to speak. “Are you my mother?” it said. Two marble-sized eyes shimmered open, and a mouth gaped, thick-lipped, below them. The woman jumped, heart pounding faster than on her run. She backed herself into a corner, eyes darting around the dark living room. The only illumination was that of the table-lamp; shadows wrapped behind the couch, out into the hallway, where the light didn’t touch. “Who’s there?” “It’s me,” the balloon said. “Up here.” “Where?” She looked up at the ceiling, half-expecting a ghoul to fall down on her head. “Here!” The balloon said. It bobbed, yanking at its umbilical-cord-like string. The woman felt the tug and shrieked. She rushed to the kitchen, balloon bouncing above her, and grabbed a pair of shears. “Get off me!” She snipped the string. The balloon was released. It rose to the ceiling, wailing, and smacked it. “That hurt.” It rested between two fan blades, stuck and unmoving. “Give me one reason why I shouldn’t turn that fan on and pop you?” “Because,” the balloon choked out. “I want to live.” The woman shivered. Her finger was about to flick the switch, but she hesitated. “Why?” The balloon coughed, then breathed in deeply; its skin expanded, swelling it to the size of a watermelon. “I’m in love. My heart, which I know you cannot see, has become enamored with the Clouds. Their shape and freedom and power over the world is beautiful and I yearn to meet them.” Its voice was light and genuine, the woman thought, like a young man in love with his future spouse, knee indenting the sand of a beach in Cancun, about to propose. Once upon a time, she acted in similar ways. “Okay.” The woman sighed. “I’m exhausted now, but tomorrow I’ll take you outside. I need to rest. Do you understand?” “Yes,” the balloon said. And that was the end of it. The next morning, the birds woke her, and the woman remembered her promise. She threw on a robe and padded downstairs. “Are you ready?” The woman asked the balloon. The balloon whispered. It was too weak to form words. The long hours of night had deflated it, pulling it down to the counter where it lay like a dead fish. The woman had failed to take into consideration the lifespan of its species: Mayflies live barely a day, some sharks hundreds of years. There was a spectrum and balloons were seemingly on the lower end of it. “I’m so sorry.” She cradled the balloon in her hands. “You can’t float to the clouds like this. I should have released you last night.” The balloon looked at her, kaleidoscope eyes shifting. Then, it died, deflated completely, save for the air whining out from its mouth. The woman hurried to the front door and ripped it open, then un-shuttered and lifted every window in her small house. The balloon’s helium, its life, was blending with her breath, the particles of the room, her home, and she hoped now it would be able to escape out into the sky. The clouds were up there--eternal love, too. Nicolas Farrell is a 19-year-old college student from Frederick, Maryland, who currently attends Middlebury College. He has been writing for as long as he can remember and particularly loves horror, science fiction and magical realism. He plans to pursue creative writing in college. Christopher Paul Brown is known for his exploration of the unconscious and serendipity via his use of alchemy. His first photography sale was to the collection of the Standard Oil Company of Indiana, and his video You Define Single File was nominated for the Golden Gate Award at the 47th San Francisco International Film Festival in 2004. Over the past four years his art was exhibited twice in Rome, Italy, in Belgrade, Serbia, and his series of ten photographs, titled Obscure Reveal, were exhibited at a Florida museum in 2017. He earned a BA in Film from Columbia College Chicago in 1980.

  • A Room of Her Bones

    by Nichole Brazelton. “it was here that she lay in bed, listening to the birds singing in Greek and imagining that King Edward VII lurked in the azaleas using the foulest possible language. All that summer she was mad.” – Quentin Bell on Virginia Woolf I’ve been looking at old men – all dead. Digging through the mud of centuries. Bioanthropology: people-bones and people-rules. Study is easier when they cannot speak, or move or look at me with more than rotted out sockets. Not as grotesque without blood gorging – moving them, thrusting them forward into places they haven’t built, places where they don’t belong, places where they have written their names in piss that has stained the walls for centuries. I’ve been looking at these man-bones wanting to figure out their lives, carbon date their politics, identify their diets of flesh. I want to chronicle all those marrow-rotted, white-bound secrets they tried to bury but couldn’t decompose. And what about the women’s bones? They are in a different room – a room full of bookshelves and lists, walls covered in clocks, painted-on staircases, and windows that face the river. A room that smells always like sex and lavender and Sunday dinner. I do not need to ask those skeletons any questions because our woman-bones are slipstitched and purled together. Plaited phalanges, seamed clavicles, our sternums curved into aviaries holding birds that have been singing to us in Greek – the same songs over and over and over. Nichole lives in Pennsylvania where she is an adjunct professor of composition and communication. She holds an MA in rhetoric from Duquesne University and an MFA in poetry from New England College. Her most recent poetry can be read in Canary, Sand Hills Literary Magazine, Sisyphus, and Marathon Literary Review.

  • Little Shell Girl

    This story is dedicated to the memory of my sister, Grace, who died suddenly last year and will always be young in my heart. One spring day, many years ago, a woman in a blue-green dress stood at the top of a bluff looking out over the ocean. She was an insubstantial-looking woman, impossibly old, her silvery hair long and curly-wild. She often stood at this spot, a few meters from Old South Light. People who lived near the bluff hardly noticed her anymore. Like the ever-present gulls whose plaintive cries filled the air, the woman had become a fixture of this sea shore, especially in May, always alone, her eyes always scanning the waves. On this particular day, a much younger woman approached, watched her for a moment, then sat on the cast iron bench that stood a few feet back from the cliff edge. A dark-haired woman in a curiously out-of-style dress, she might have reminded many people of an elementary school teacher they’d had, or of a friend’s mother when they were a child. The old woman glanced at her—another tourist visiting the old light house, she decided—then turned away; what she was looking for would be out in the water. But today, for some reason, perhaps a friendly air about the visitor, she felt like talking. She turned back toward the younger woman and waved her arm in a broad, sweeping motion toward the sea, encompassing miles of ocean, as she said, in her crack-ling rasp, “Have you ever looked out over the water and thought —just for a moment—that you saw someone bobbing in the waves, just beyond the surf? You shake your head and tell yourself, there’s no one out there. It’s just my imagination. Well, it might be real. Let me tell you a true story. The younger woman smiled and motioned for her to sit next to her on the bench, but the old woman shook her head and turned her attention back to the sea. It started long ago, before I was even born, the gray-haired woman said. It was a time of vast spaces—of lowlands that stretched through tall grasses—boggy de-pressions alive with snakes and frogs, and highlands like this one that rose and rose, till they turned and drove down to the sea, disappearing into a green mist, like the mist we see before us. Both women gazed off over the water. Tiny human settlements clustered here and there at shoreline estuaries, the inhabitants making their living fishing or trading with inland folk for grains and cloth in exchange for their treasures from the sea. It was a time when people feared the ocean, yet lived in harmony with it, reveling in its serenity on calm, clear days like today, and hunkering down in fear when storms rode in. They were sure, in those days, that in the seas dwelt strange and unknown creatures—from giant squids and monstrous whales to tiny, diaphanous beings that defied description. One year, a great storm raged for three days, and when the wind and rain subsided, a huge mound of debris lay across the shore road. In the pile of debris was a sea creature: she had been treading water a few meters off shore, watching the goings-on of land creatures rushing about to tie down their boats and lobster pots. Suddenly, she’d been captured by the waves, tossed about for many hours, and then, just as she despaired of life, was deposited onto land along with great strands of kelp, dead and gasping fish, battered crustaceans and broken bits of trees. There, exhausted by her ordeal, the creature fell into a deep sleep, and slept through the night. At that, the old woman wobbled, as if dizzy. Come and sit with me, the younger woman said, a catch in her voice, again motioning for the speaker to join her on the bench. Well, it is a long story, the old woman said. And she joined the newcomer, taking a mo-ment or two to settle in, then she continued, her eyes still focused on the ocean. Where was I? Oh yes. Late the next morning, the sea creature awoke, totally disoriented, and felt the vibrations of someone’s approach. It so happened that a man was riding his horse along the shore road at that moment, lead-ing a donkey burdened with lumpy packs of goods. Although the sea creature didn’t understand these things, the man was an itinerant tinker by trade. He traveled between settlements, fixing leaky pots and pocket watches, sharpening knives and repairing broken lockets for settlers many miles to the north and south. The tinker was accustomed to spending most of his days alone, but he was not a lonely man. He enjoyed equally the quiet of long stretches of road with its hum of insects and birds busy about their days, as well as the noisy welcome he received when he came to a town needing his services. Usually, the man carried his tools and wares in his wagon, but for the two previous days, a summer cyclone had raged, its winds tearing great trees from their roots and strewing branches everywhere. The debris blocked most roads, and when he dared a foray out, he’d been forced to leave behind his wagon and most of his supplies. Instead, he packed a few tools and inventory onto a pack animal he borrowed for the journey. Now, midway to his destination, he paused. Even the horse and donkey would not be able to make their way through the huge mound of sea weed and tree branches that lay across the road, and the woods near the road were dense. The sea creature watched as the large man-creature dismounted from one of the four leg-ged animals and approached her, his steps heavy on the soft earth. Trembling with fear, she looked around, wondering how to escape. Would it eat her? Make her its slave? She panicked. What direction would take her back to the sea? “Now what have we here, in this tangle?” the land creature said. He was tall, with great orange whiskers, dark overalls and heavy brown boots, but his voice was soft. She was unable to speak. “I am Malcolm,” he said, patting his chest. “Do you have a name? Are you hurt?” She said nothing, but her look of panic needed no language. Malcolm guessed that the woman—for she looked like a young woman—was dazed and confused from being lost in the storm. And as the woman wriggled free of the kelp, the man made another observation. “Why, what has happened with your clothing?” he asked. For the creature was naked. With every question, she looked beseechingly at him and would only shake her head. “Don’t worry. We can make do with some of mine,” the man said. He walked back to the four-legged beast and gathered up some sheets of soft material. The air was cool and breezy, and she shivered. Although she was unconcerned about her nakedness, she allowed him to dress her in a long shirt, then wrap her in another layer of thicker, soft fabric, which felt comforting. The man then made a fire and brought her close to it. His hands touched her softly, giving her a reassuring pat as he sat her on a fallen log. She closed her eyes and experienced the radiated heat of the flames. So hot, so dry, she feared her skin might crack; she moved back. She had seen bonfires on beaches; so this was how it felt. The man watched her. She bore no gashes or wounds other than a few scrapes, and she seemed unharmed by her ordeal, whatever it had been. And then she looked up at him and looked into his eyes, and he gasped. Her irises formed spirals, like the spirals of a nautilus; their blue and green drew him in till he could scarcely breath. He shook his head and drew back. He went back to his task of road clearing, and as he and his horse dragged heavy debris from the road, he looked up from time to time and saw the creature, looking so alone and fragile that he determined he would have to help her. When the day grew dark, he settled her into his blankets and lay next to her to keep her warm. In the morning, he helped her onto “Old Tom,” as he referred to his horse, and they started up his journey again. “You’ll have to hold on to me,” Malcolm said, “I have only one horse and I need the donkey to carry my gear. The next town sits at a ferry crossing over a great river. It’s no more than a day’s ride from here. There will be women there who can look after you better than I can. Maybe they can help you find your family.” The creature nodded blankly, then looked around at the trees and brush that lined the road. Birds flew overhead, chirping and chattering. A deer and her fawn stood silently at the edge of the woods. These and other land wonders the sea creature saw and smiled. And so, their journey passed quietly. No one in town knew the woman. The shopkeeper’s wife took her into her home, helped her wash and gave her some of her old clothes. She and the minister’s wife tried to discover her name, family, where she was from. But the woman was mute and—most perplexing of all—she seemed unused to washcloths and soap, nor did she understand how to fasten her clothing. They scolded her and tsk-tsked her immodesty and she submitted to being dressed. But she refused to wear the shoes they gave her. When Malcolm finished his business concerns and came to see how she was doing, she let out a sob and ran to his side, kissing his hand and indicating she wanted him to take her with him. So he did. Weeks passed. The tinker made his deliveries and bought the woman more clothing and soft Indian moccasins in the next large town. Eventually their travels brought them back to his wagon and they set off together on his normal route. He found her to be a calm woman; she smiled and bobbed a silent thank you for every-thing he did for her and soon mastered how to make a fire and fix coffee. When she showed a curiosity for his work, he began teaching her how to help him. Noting her dark hair and complex-ion, and trying to make sense of her unfamiliarity with women’s clothing, he guessed that she might be an Indian, the sole survivor of a ship that had foundered in the storm. So he named his new companion Lahari, the Indian name for foamy ocean wave. Gradually, they made their way through the small towns of his route, traveling south for the winter months. To forestall the inevitable gossip that would follow them—a single man and young woman traveling together—he told townspeople and settlers that they were married, and that his wife was a tribal woman and a mute. The explanation was accepted without question; some people he’d been trading with for years even gave them wedding presents—a pretty teapot, a small knit blanket. And over time they became man and wife in more than name Sometimes the pair traveled inland, through small towns along rivers. When they did, La-hari would grow anxious, shaking her hands and pointing back toward the sea. They came to find a sign language that worked for them for most things. She also began to speak a little, managing words that mattered to her—ocean, water, fish, bird, Malcolm. At times they traveled along great, tall cliffs that greeted the sea, where thousands of nesting sea birds cawed and shrieked and circled overhead from sunrise to sunset. There, Lahari seemed happiest. In those days people seldom sat on beaches, but if Malcolm had business near a small beachside town, Lahari would sit for hours on the sand, or waded in and splashed in the water while she waited for him to conduct his business. She began to gather shells and, using paints that Malcolm kept in his tool kit, she learned to paint tiny figures onto the shells—colorful fish, seagulls, strands of seaweed. They’d sell them to children for a penny at the next town. The old woman got up and looked off into the waves. I always loved sea shells, little mira-cles of curves, she said, then began to pace, glancing back at her audience only briefly from time to time. Shelley was their little miracle, entering the world before Malcolm even realized that Lahari was with child. When Lahari’s belly grew, she had guessed that she carried a babe, but was fearful. Would the child be like her, or like Malcolm? One warm May afternoon, when he went out to meet appointments he had made to sharpen knives, she stayed back at their campsite, rubbing her belly and signing discomfort. When her water broke, she intuited what was happen-ing. Labor among her people was brief and without serious discomfort, and she labored for less than an hour to deliver a baby girl. Malcolm returned as soon as he could that evening, thinking she was ill. Instead, he found her holding an infant, wrapped in a small blanket. They named their little girl Shelley—that is, Malcolm did, and Lahari smiled her approval. And as the child grew, Laharai began to speak more and more, mastering spoken language alongside her child. A nomadic life was no way to raise a child, Malcolm decided. There was a cottage with an attached shop for sale in a coastal town midway along his route. The shop could be his work area, where he could take in repairs and do knife sharpening. He would still have to travel from time to time, but he and Lahari would have a home. And, most importantly for Lahari, the house featured a view of the ocean. Lahari delighted in feathering their seaside nest. For Shelley’s room, instead of the usual teddy bears and ABCs, Lahari painted a border of clams and scallops, all golden, lively curves. On her dresser they placed a large glass tank, its water populated by tiny sea horses and sparkling small fish; along the bottom, a hermit crab in his borrowed nautilus shell. Lahari also began working with Malcolm in his shop. She could speak almost as well as anyone now, although she had not mastered reading. While he soldered pots and repaired lamps, she began making fantastic animals, birds and fish made from glued-together shells; families of hollow conch, and crowned conch with spikes outstretched like stars, rough coral exteriors giving way to pearlescent pink interiors. A glass-cutter’s widow offered Malcolm her husband’s tools and shop scraps in trade for repairing her gutters, and soon Lahari used the man’s bits of stained glass to form sun catchers. Over time, her blue-green seascapes filled the kitchen windows of most of the homes in nearby towns, and her stained-glass creations of fantastic fish and sea birds earned her some modest renown. As little Shelley grew old enough to understand the connection between her name and the shells that surrounded her, she took delight in the game, working alongside her mother to glue together her own sea creatures, like mussel-shell mermaids and scallop-shell sea serpents, and adding them to the figurine collection on her shelf. Her father liked to hold a large conch shell to his ear and tell little Shelley, “I hear the sound of the ocean. I hear the sounds of the universe. Listen. It’s calling you.” “What’s it saying?” she would demand. “That you are the princess of the seas, and fantastical sea creatures are your servants. Just call them and from the four corners of the earth, they will come to do your bidding.” “Oh, Papa.” And she would squeal with delight! Lahari and Malcolm were never blessed with another child, so they made this one their world. They loved taking their little girl to the beach. But she seldom spent much time with the other children there, running and screeching. She preferred solo play, digging or making sand castles with her bucket and shovel. Sometimes, she would stand right at the water’s edge, waves lapping at her legs, and stare off into the waves, as if someone, or something, was calling her. Malcolm and Lahari worried about her. Bathers thrashing in the incoming tide looked dangerously close to Shelley, and strangers’ eyes seemed to focus threateningly on the girl’s budding young body. But the child loved the sea and sought it out, so they continued to take her. At home, she would sit on a favorite armchair, legs tucked under her, and stare out the win-dow for hours at the ever-changing seascape. Even her eyes were blue-green, “the color of the ocean,” her father would say. But it was more than that. Like her mother, Shelley’s eyes were mesmerizing. The irises formed spirals, like the nautilus shells the child loved—hypnotic blue and green that could draw anyone who met her into their depths. And after each contact with the sea, the eyes became more aquatic. For her twelfth birthday, her parents gave Shelley a gold nautilus charm, made from a thin slice of a real nautilus shell that Lahari had cut—oh so carefully—in her studio, about an inch in diameter and as thin as a grain of sand. A jeweler friend had gold-plated it and adorned it with a small bit of red coral at the heart of the spiral. Shelley’s eyes widened with delight when she saw it, and she asked them to place it around her neck immediately. She wore the charm eve-rywhere from that moment on. The glint of the shell seemed to add a glow to Shelley’s auburn hair—neither as dark as her mother’s nor as fair as Malcolm’s—as if her body drew from it a golden sap. The charm’s sensuous curves, glistening in the faintest light, beckoned seductively to viewers to follow the circle to its ultimate, to infinity. In town, at outdoor markets, women often stared openly, even stopped her mother to say, “The child. The shell. It’s magic.” Total strangers would follow them down the street and stop them to say, “What a beautiful charm! And the child!” To this, her parents would mumble, “It’s the sea. We all feel the call of the sea.” And then they’d hurry Shelley home, aware that something beyond them was at work. Like her daughter, Lahari, too, was transfixed by the sea. She often day-dreamed about her home, before the day she met Malcolm. She was of an air-breathing species not unlike the dolphin, and had been part of an extended family group, living off kelp and small crustaceans, as did the sperm whale, another sea mammal she sometimes swam with. She hadn’t meant to leave her family, but once she was swept onto land in the storm, she’d been drawn in by the novelties of walking on land, fire, eating cooked food. And Malcolm was so sweet, she found herself un-willing to leave him. Then, once little Shelley came along… Lahari once thought she caught a glimpse of her mother one day, bobbing in the waves about a league offshore. After that, she often found herself searching the water’s surface for an-other sighting. Malcolm sometimes caught her standing at the window, looking out over the water. She had never explained where she came from or how she had ended up on the road that day of their meeting. She had never spoken of any family, despite his many pleas to know more about her, and he had eventually stopped asking. He had wandered the tinker’s road for over a decade be-fore he met her, never dreaming he could one day have a wife and home. He counted his bless-ings and didn’t push for answers. And then, one day, Lahari again saw her mother offshore. And her sister. She was sure it was them, watching her. She waved at them, and they waved back, then dove into the water and were not seen again. Could they be looking for her still, she wondered? That evening, Shelley in bed asleep, Lahari came to Malcolm in tears. “I need to talk,” Lahari said. “I miss my home. I miss my mother and sisters.” And with that, she began sobbing. Malcolm put his arms around her, and she allowed herself to be comforted. “I must go home to visit,” she finally said, when she could speak. “Shelley and I will come with you,” Malcolm said. “She can meet her relatives.” “No. I must go alone,” Lahari said. “That is why this is so difficult. Where I am going, you cannot follow.” “Will you leave us forever? Or do you plan to return? What am I to tell Shelley?” They embraced and finally, Lahari told him about her world. They talked till dawn. Shelley was thirteen when Lahari disappeared. There had been a big storm, and Malcolm let everyone—even Shelly—assume she had been lost to the waves. The child stood by her father at the memorial service and cried the right amount of tears. But when the tears stopped, she didn’t come back to the living. She became very quiet. She refused to go to school. The old woman dabbed her eyes—I don’t think the girl ever forgave her father for that. He didn’t tell her? The young woman asked. The old woman shook her head. “Will Mamma ever come back, or will the sea take me, too, Papa?” Shelley would ask from her favorite chair by the window. And her father would hug her, trying to cajole her back to the living. But the child even refused to eat; she became thinner and thinner. Malcolm watched Shelley move through the house, her auburn curls shining in the faintest of lights. Over the winter months, when the sun’s rays shone almost horizontally, it seemed the child’s curls emitted the light, like the rays of the sun at dawn. When the sun caught her spiral blue-green eyes, he choked with sorrow at the loss of Lahari. He had built a life revolving around his wife and child. And now, with Lahari gone, Shelley was all he had left. He feared he might lose her, too. Spring arrived, and Shelley was no better. He set out to convince the child of how much he needed her to live. One warm, May day, he took her to the beach to tell her again the story of how he and Lahari had met and the true story of her disappearance. It was sunny, but most of the boardwalk concessions that had been built over the past few years were still closed for the winter. Sea gulls shrieked, complaining about the lack of easy meals, forced to fish, instead of living from boardwalk trashcans. Father and daughter walked slowly through the deserted boardwalk. Hand in hand, not talking, they smelled the salt and sensed their desolation. Two derelict men were huddled by a boarded-up amusement booth. As the father and daughter passed, the men stared at Shelley’s neck, where the nautilus charm glinted in the cold spring sun. A rat scuttled though some newspapers. The man and girl shivered and headed down to the sandy beach. They tried wading, but the water was icy, so they hunkered down against the warming, dry sand, and watched numbly as the waves obliterated their footprints. Shelley had found an unbroken shell while they were walking and now held it up to her ear. Her eyes grew bright. “It’s Mamma!” she burst out. “It’s Mamma. She’s calling me. She wants me to dance for her. She misses me.” And she ran down the beach, twirling and sparkling in the oblique rays of the spring sun. Her father cried after her, “Please, Shelley. Please come back.” He watched as she ran up onto the boardwalk. When she kept going, he got up and followed her. As Shelley ran through the closed booths, one of the derelict men who had felt the lure of the sparkling gold at the child’s neck, grabbed the young girl, broke the charm from her neck and ran off. Shelley leaped up and ran after him, catching him around the knees, tripping him. “My Mamma gave me that necklace,” she sobbed as they fell against the pier, precariously close to the edge. “That’s my Mamma’s necklace.” As her father ran toward them, the man turned on Malcolm’s darling child and hit her fiercely against the temple with a hard metal object he held in his hand, knocking her off the boardwalk into the shallow water many feet below. He looked up at the stunned father who had not yet caught up with them, and then he ran away, the small gold charm and its chain left to fall through the boardwalk’s gaps into the water below, near the child. The tide was coming in, and as the waves crashed down, they poured over the child’s still form, which rolled and somersault-ed in the swirling water. Malcolm ran around the end of the pier and onto the sand, trying to reach his daughter, hoping to pull her to safety. As he drew near, he gasped. There was Lahari. She was swimming near where Shelley had gone under. Her head stood above the water for a moment, their eyes locked, then she dove in, and a moment later Shelley’s form was held above the waves. As Mal-colm drew near, wading in as deep as he dared, four shimmering, aqua-colored creatures—their blue-gold opalescence glowing with supernatural light—took the child into their arms and carried her off on the crest of the rising waves. “We will take care of her now,” Lahari said. “I promise I’ll bring her back if I can.” And she followed the creatures into the waves. When Shelley came to, she was lying on a bed of kelp, her mother at her side. “I am here, you are safe. You will live with me for a while, little one,” Lahari said. “Mamma!” Shelley cried and hugged her. “But Papa,” she protested. “He’ll be so wor-ried.” “He’ll be all right,” Lahari said. “Before I left, he agreed that you could come and visit me one day. Come, let me show you the wonders of my home.” “And we can go back?” “Of course,” Lahari said. Shelley was amazed as her mother brought her to see all sort of sights—castles and caves, sea creatures, large and small. She met aunts who sang with mesmerizing voices and cousins who swam and danced to the music. She learned the ways of porpoises and dolphins, and how to avoid sharks. Mostly, she swam effortlessly, often allowing herself to float at the surface in the slow coastal current. The old woman paused here, and the younger one spoke up. But go on, she said. When the girl returned home, what happened? How was Malcolm? Did I say the girl returned to live on land? The old woman said. She turned to stare at her questioner. She did return, but I hadn’t told you that yet. I’m just so intrigued, I guess I assumed. Well, you assumed correctly, the old woman said, and continued her tale. Poor Malcolm had never really recovered from this second loss. Every May he went to the place where he’d lost her and traced her last steps. Or he’d hike up to the light house for a better view of the sea and scan the horizon. As the years went by, rain or sun, cold or warm, Malcolm made his pilgrimage to the sea and stood and stared into the water for hours. And then, one year, a young girl came up to him, dripping wet, wearing an old-fashioned dress and a mass of auburn curls. She looked so much like Shelley he began to tremble. But twenty or more years had passed since that terrible day. He was an old man, and Shelley would be a mature woman by now. “Papa?” the girl asked. “Papa, what happened to you? You look so old.” “Shelley? Can it be you? You were gone so long.” Malcolm fell to his knees on the sand, keening. Shelley stooped to comfort him. “Only a few days. Mamma said she’d bring me back in a few days. And this morning she said it was time. She’s out there, just off shore, watching to make sure you came to get me.” Malcolm turned to see what Shelley was pointing to and made out Lahari bobbing on the waves. Her arm rose, waved, then disappeared. And the old man and his young daughter walked slowly back to their cottage by the sea. Within weeks, it was as if Shelley had never been away. They traveled south in the win-ters and went on shell gathering expeditions along beaches. They cooked together, laughing as they experimented with countless fish recipes. And Shelley learned to work alongside her father in their studio. She saw that her mother’s stained-glass designs were being copied by less skilled artisans in towns all along the sea shore and set out to master the craft. By the time she was an adult, she was an admired artisan. She never married, making a home for her father. But she nev-er saw her mother again. And here, the young woman listening to the story let out a sob. How could a woman aban-don her child? And her husband? How could she ever forgive herself? The old woman only shook her head. Some say that for many years the old man and his daughter made a pilgrimage every May to that beach and stood for hours looking out over the waves. Townspeople said that one year they laughed and jumped and pointed to something out in the water. When they left that day, they were smiling and hugging one another. And then there came a time when the daughter came alone to the sea shore, older now, still watching the waves. The old woman turned then and asked her listener, When you stand at the ocean shore, like you are doing today, do you ever see something bobbing on the water? You tell yourself that it was probably just a bit of seaweed, or some driftwood. It could be a seal or sea otter. But I do so hope it might be Lahari and the rest of my family. My mother never did have a very good sense of time, but I hope that one day, she’ll come to take me home. And with that, the old woman choked back a gurgled cry, overcome with emotion. It IS you! But you are so old! the young woman said, leaping up and helping the old woman back to the bench. Then she gazed down at the crying woman and the two sets of mesmer-izing blue-green eyes met. Hush, little one, the young woman said. Lahari is here. Mamma is here, she said, wrapping her arms around the crying old woman, caressing her softly, her arms as soft as strands of kelp. Look, I brought your necklace. I found it buried in the sand beneath that dock. The gold is still perfect. She unhooked the clasp and draped the chain around the old woman’s neck. The nautilus charm sparkled in the sun. Come, Lahari said. It’s time for us both to go home. At that moment, a pair of gulls cried and dove into the waves. Katherine Flannery Dering lives and works in the rolling, wooded hills of New York's Hudson Valley. Her memoir, Shot in the Head, a Sister’s Memoir a Brother’s Struggle was published in 2014 by Bridgeross. A mixed-genre book of poetry, prose, photos, and emails, it deals with caring for her schizophrenic brother, and she is an advocate for better care for the mentally ill. Her poetry chapbook is titled Aftermath (2018, Finishing Line Press.) Her work has also appeared recently in Inkwell, RiverRiver, Cordella, Share Journal, and Goatsmilk, among other literary journals. She serves on the executive committee of the Katonah Poetry Series and lately divides her writing time between poetry, essays, and a book of feminist fables, of which Little Shell Girl is one. She received an MFA from Manhattanville College. You can find her on Facebook as Katherine Flannery Dering, author, and on Twitter as @Katforwomen. Her website is, and it includes links to some of her publications.

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