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  • 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 atticusbook.co.uk. 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 after she realized of her joke. It took her three months to learn how to sculp the dough coated with dark modeling chocolate exactly 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 of 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 left as she enjoyed feeling their sharpness, that distracted her from hunger. One chocolate wouldn’t kill her, “Not yet.” It didn’t matter her recent diabetes diagnosis and her doctor’s words, “You need to eat chicken, nuts, meat, protein…” But no, 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, replaced 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 a February 14 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 at 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 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 the 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 the pink bell as a drop of blood seeped 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 those the memories of her Grandmother’s death: her grandmother stabbing the voodoo doll and her blood sloshing around Maruja burbling and turnin 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 10, 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 as 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 came with the idea to bake human-like body parts. 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 would 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 was holding the door open and calling 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, sitting on the bench facing Maruja. The woman removed her headdress handkerchief, and the man sat next to her combing 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 nerve 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 as she left 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 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. https://muckrack.com/jhon-sanchez/articles

  • 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 www.katherineflannerydering.com, and it includes links to some of her publications.

  • The Girl Who Grew Flowers

    There was once a girl covered in scars. Her mother brought bounteous suitors, but each one would run in fear at the sight of the girl. They would stare in shock at her blistered skin, wailing in horror at the wounds of the woman. Her mother was afraid the girl would become a spinster, for every man was too repulsed by the caverns that cratered her skin to marry such a maiden. One day flowers began to grow from her scars; little tulips budded and roses bloomed. Her fleshy grottos became the fertile soil for the most beautiful botanical treasures. Her mother cried in bliss, for now that she was the rarest and fairest maiden, the suitors needed to come back at once to see the miracle that was her sylvan skin. But rumour had already spread across the land of the girl whose skin grew flowers. Many suitors entered her cottage and waited upon her; but all the girl could remember was how cruel they had been when they screamed after one glance. And as she recalled their fearful glares, anger swelled up inside of her; and with each bit of rage, the flowers began to grow; they grew and blossomed until they flocked the suitors and swarmed her little cottage with the most beautiful bed of flora. They smothered the suitors, And the men begged for her to return to scaly flesh. And to the maiden’s joy, amid their cries of fear, the men admired how beautiful she was. And that was the last thing they remembered before they took their last botanical breath. Olivia Loccisano is a writer and filmmaker from Toronto, Canada. Her work centers around transformations of the body, specifically through dark fantasy, body horror and magical realism. Through storytelling, she explores how young women and children navigate strange realms of life through their own imagination and rituals.

  • Dreaming of Whales

    “Words carry oceans on their small backs.” - Lidia Yuknavitch Imagine a girl living inside the ocean, dreaming of a girl living on the moon. Sometimes, the girl on the moon can see her reflection in the ocean. Or perhaps, on some days, what she sees is in fact another girl? If only there was a bridge to bring them together and reassure them of each other’s existence. Reassure each other that even though the world is split into two and you could easily fall into the end-of-the-world crevice, the volcanoes and the ice were still alive in another world, somewhere. Imagine several girls around the globe dreaming the same dream, at the same time. They all know and love each other, regardless of where they’re from, and play until dawn while the sun and dolphins watch them. They are only girls and have no magic powers, but they both dream and act upon those dreams. They won’t be princesses when they’ll grow up, no, that’s a dream of the past, a dream none of them could make anything with now, this is the promise they make to one another. They’d grow up to be marine biologists, aviators, cosmonauts, foresters, and writers. It had happened before. In another time and place, to other girls and many girls before them. They’d rise together. Together they’d build a future where their existence was possible. They all carry the same tattoo on their forearm: “Words carry oceans on their small backs”. It’s a quote from the old times, when you could still cut trees and print books. When plastic hadn’t fully engulfed the ocean and the wind. Before the earth turned into desert. Back when there was still hope, the air was still breatheable, and magic was floating both under and above the ocean. If nature had a single sound, what would that sound be? Where would you find it? Imagine a girl on the top of a mountain, a girl who lives with the wild goats and couldn’t imagine living anywhere else. In the morning, she watches the mountain peaks rising above the clouds. Like her, they’re almost floating towards the sky. The first time she went paragliding, she felt so close to the edge of the universe, like she could reach the stars if she wanted. Imagine a girl who sleeps outside, under the stars, watching the sun fade to purple, orange, yellow, then blue. Imagine that nature is her temple. Imagine this girl is you. In a world without mountains and clouds, where would you go to worship, to pray? Imagine a girl living in the forest, in the hollow of a tree. She only saw the fireflies once, when she was five, on the path down to the waterfall, you know where, right after you pass the old glacial lake, in the land of the mushrooms and the woodpeckers. On the night of the great fire, she tried to make it to the old waterfall one last time, to save the woodpeckers and herself, to take their story into the world, but the forest keeps burning and their voices die in flames. Her last thought was: Where do animals go when forests burn? She knew the answer: Birds fly away, mammals run, amphibians and small creatures burrow into the ground, hide out in logs, take cover under rocks. Other animals, like the elk, hide in streams and lakes. The oak seeds are so hard that fire helps them germinate and grow. The shrubs and grasses fertilized by fire-created nutrients will grow lushy; deer and other grazing wildlife (even mice) could make a meal of them. She knew that forest fires are a natural and essential part of an ecosystem. The nutrients from dead trees are returned to the forest during a fire, but the fire needs to end at some point. When fire rages through dry underbush, it clears thick growth and sunlight can reach the forest floor, allowing seedlings released by the fire to sprout and grow. She knew the answer, but it was too late. Imagine a girl bursting into flames. The trees tried to speak to the nearby humans when they started catching fire, but they were engulfed into flames far too quickly. They would have told humans how to save the forest, and themselves. How to take the roots of the strongest birch tree and rebury them somewhere else, so that magpies could still nest. But the trees burst into flames far too quickly, they were engulfed and became nothing but gray clouds, their ghosts haunting the land of the country, the neighboring cities, and the nearby mountains for months and decades. Love itself became a thing of the past. The rain forgot how to fall. The ocean stopped caressing the shore. Once the flux and the reflux stopped happening under the moon, the whales and the dolphins were the first to die. The day the rain touched the grass and the dry surface of the earth for the very last time, it was night time, but not dark. Oh, how the grass and the ground needed that rain! The rain travelled around the globe under the full moon. A blood moon, it was, for the girl on the moon was bleeding through all her pores. It was like a grand goodbye, a brush across the canvas of forgetting, turning all the world’s pieces into one. Humanity slept through it all and the rain remained unheard, the crying of the girl on the moon remained unheard, except in the forest, where every leaf, every speck of dust, every bird, every crawling creature heard them. That was right before everything caught fire. The rain forest turned into a degraded savannah. Imagine a world without trees. Imagine a girl who grew up to be a writer. Imagine a writer who travels around the world. She still got to live in a world with trees and oceans, a world where rain used to fall. She can still remember the smell of the waves splashing against the shore, the backs of dolphins rising to the water surface, the sound of a woodpecker in the forest at noon against the trunk of a tree, the light flickering through tree crowns, the brown and red mushrooms growing in the shade, the trees that although cut can grow hearts and moss, the fireflies that dance through the forest at night leading her way, the rain and the stars, the animals in the wild, the balance of an ecosystem still present, with things and souls in their place, and people-islands connected by land in the ocean. She can still remember it all, but her role is now strictly documentary. Imagine a girl who grew up among books, who taught herself how to read, in a foreign language before even learning to properly speak her own. A girl for whom the central city library was nothing but a big second home, one where every voice in every book was a friend and a parent and – above all – it was heard. And she, the reader, felt heard as well. In the old attic, under her writing desk, she’d build herself a fort. Sometimes the fort turned into a forest. She could paint herself a world as she had only seen in history books. She’d read about the man who goes in search of the strongest roots in the forest and replants them all over the world. She’d dream of travelling with that man, of being that man, of becoming the very soul of the forest. Imagine a girl who loves books more than anything else in the world, who one day stops reading books, not because she wants to, but because there are hardly any trees left, and she wants to rescue the last ones. Imagine a girl who longs to save the forest. But despite no longer reading, she stills knows all the books she has read by heart, and sometimes she even adds her own details to make the stories more real. She still carries that old tattoo on her arm. One day, her time will be nothing but a fairytale and most likely nobody will even manage to read any books about the people who used to be like her, or about anyone else who used to matter to her, or about anything at all – facts, numbers, objects, landscapes, dreams. Perhaps they’d know something about this time of the earth by word of mouth, if – without trees – there would still be air. If there would still be people, caring about other people. For empathy was declining too. Imagine a girl who can no longer breathe. Imagine a girl who invents a new language for the new world. It all starts out of necessity, because she no longer knows how to talk to herself in a world without sunshine. A is for abyss. B is for birds. C is for catharsis. D is for doing. E is for estranged. She wants to keep something from the old alphabet, as long as she can still remember it, but she won’t need all of its letters, not at first. R is for remembering. Out of the words of the new language she builds a net that won’t help her cross no longer existing oceans. Imagine a girl living in the middle of the desert. There used to be water at times in her desert. A couple of years ago, a lake appeared out of nowhere in her desert. Some locals called it a miracle, while others called it a curse. All to dive into it though, to swim in its cooling turquoise water, while the mirage lasted; even those who were afraid, even as the lake turned into a green sludge. Every night, from now and until the end of the world (which she knows was near) she’d dream of oceans, dolphins, whales, rain, and summer storms. In water she would reinvent herself. If only she’d remember how to breathe life into the ocean. How to make the earth and air fill up with water, not war. Imagine a girl living inside the sun. How long could she possibly survive there? Imagine a girl, still alive somewhere. A girl on a boat, carrying a message. How loud must she be to wake up the world? If that girl were still alive, if words were still possible, if books were still a thing, and if writing were still a form of communication, the girl would speak to us and tell us everything she knows, if we were still there to listen. Imagine waking up in a strange new world, with whales found in courtyards, dead, how else. And when a whale dies, it does not sink into the ground. It stays there. It just stays there and bleeds, until it rots. A blue whale aorta alone is large enough for a human to crawl through. A lot of people did just that and died inside. It was better than dying of too much sun exposure. So many dead whales mothering dead girls! I am a girl who – at the turn of the twenty-first century – used to travel, write, and daydream. I collect the memories that my world is losing. Losing or letting go of, I don’t know. In my dreams, I’m almost always flying above the ocean. It’s either the ocean or the sea, I don’t know. From the airplane, in plain daylight, I see whales, all sorts of whales, giant blue whales and orcas, almost rising to the water surface. The water is crystal clear, and smooth, like the turquoise water of a glacial lake the ones I read existed decades ago in what used to be Canada or Southern Germany. Our flight and the whales’ swim appear synchronized. Once, I went whale watching close to the Polar Circle, in the middle of a storm. It wasn’t stormy when we’d left the harbor. On the rocking boat, it was freezing cold. I stayed outside, on the upper deck, and let the cold rain hit my face, hoping the wind and water would help me be less dizzy and more awake. They didn’t. We saw no whales. Eventually, we went back to the shore. Never again did I go searching for whales. I knew better later, I knew not to invade their personal harbors. Air travel is no longer possible. I still remember my first flight. I had never felt lighter as when we left the ground. I didn’t feel trapped, and I didn’t feel sick. Since then, when flyinh above the ocean, I’d wonder: what if we were to crash? I’m not a good swimmer, but I love water. I keep promising myself to become a better swimmer, but don’t. Like in my childhood, when I’d sink in the pool while swimming on my back, water still gives me cramps. Our forests keep burning. I still remember how it felt to rest under the shade of a tree. The smell of the forest as I’d enter it during my alpine hikes. The feeling of home, because the trees, the mountains, and the lakes were there. Oh, how I long to lie down on a carpet of dried leaves in fall, compostable garbage as a friend used to say. Have you ever noticed how tree crowns grow around each other? There’s both a border and an embrace between them. I’d watch the mushrooms and the birds. It took me many years to hear a woodpecker in its natural space. Soon land travel won’t be an option anymore either. And then? In reality, I’ve never seen non-captive whales. I saw captive orcas, on an Easter Sunday, at the Edmonton Mall, one of the biggest malls in our world back then. I wish I hadn’t. Orcas, despite being killer whales, have never been reported to have killed a human. Although considered whales by most people, orcas are members of the dolphin family. Dolphins are a lot like us humans, but we aren’t enough like them. I saw free wild dolphins once, in Florida, when Florida still existed, without searching for them. They were swimming synchronized, at sunset, much too close to the shore. People were busy with themselves, taking selfies, but the dolphins were there. The dolphins swam underneath the water, from one side of the pier to the other, and carried on towards the shore. Then they changed course and went back where they belonged, into the vastness of the deep dark water. I never saw the dolphins return. We’ve been gentrifying while our entire planet was dying at our hands. There are oceans unfolding down our path, but we are not following it anymore. It started with birds laying down branches on the route to the ocean, before they killed themselves in the water instead of flying away, but then it became much more than that. We were all rivers before we are oceans. If only we could remember how to breathe life into the ocean, how to make the air fill up with water again, not war. The whale is my spirit animal. Whales keep resurfacing into my stories, and into my dreams. In dream symbolism, they represent the unconscious, rising to the surface to meet the conscious – they’re a call to listen to our intuition, to our inner voice, and let them come true. Whales symbolize fertility, calm, and peace. In times of trouble though, being the large mammals that they are, they can be the weight of the world. Imagine that the girl from yesterday and the girl from tomorrow are not the same girl. The girl from tomorrow would love to tell the girl from yesterday: Wake up, your world is on fire! But there is always a wall between them, and it gets higher every day, towards the end of the world. The excessive UV light exposure changes the girl from yesterday, her skin color, who she is, who she can become, to herself and to another. The girl from yesterday turns red, and the girl from tomorrow, in the times of post-radiation, turns blue. In the beginning, they were a rainbow, like all girls, but towards the end of their world, they no longer will, they no longer can – remember it. Imagine you are a girl waking up on a strange little planet, in a strange new world. There is no food, no shelter, and you are all alone. Imagine that hundreds of years later, on what used to be the earth, humans are long gone, the ocean is gone, the mountains are gone. The girls’ statues are almost still there, in the deserted desert, their bodies standing like the darkened trunks of trees after a forest fire, while their faces have been erased by decay and time, specs of dust blowing in the wind, near a lost shoreline that won’t return. Imagine the seed of a birch or an oak tree, it is either or both, buried deep down into the scorch of the earth. The seed knows that the womb of the world may one day again awaken and push it towards the surface. The seed has seen it all and can wait for a very long time before it decides to grow. The seed knows that all it has is one single chance to find the right conditions to take shape – it’s either that or nothing. But if it does, oh, it if would! It could turn the whole world into a land of living dreams, floating above oceans. Perhaps the girls, or at least one of them, would be reborn.

  • Folds and Creases

    You found The Chair sometime last fall. It was dark in that solstice sort of way, a weighted blanket of starless sky, and you had already bodied three joints that never ended up getting passed to the next person in the circle. That was maybe an hour, two, ago; back when there were streetlights and not waifish birches shuffling to the tune of a ten below windchill. A sweatshirt, limp with sour, watery beer and sweat in the same vein, was doing about as well as your jeans at circulating warmth so you’d started sucking the numb off the fingers you wanted to keep. You were on a path before. You were getting ice, taking a shortcut. The birch trees bent to watch you scrape your feet across the detritus of Summer. The Chair was there: not suddenly, but abruptly. It was a white foldout, rust-stained at the hinges. There was an identical one hanging in the garage back at the condo, holding vigil over beer pong and cup flip. You never imagined something could look so unremarkable so divorced from its natural environment, but The Chair occupied its space like a tree worms its roots through the soil: invisibly, with purpose. The path was on the other side of the clearing. Any neon hum was imperceptible through the chirrup of patient cicadas but you could swear the gas station was up ahead, somewhere past a bend. Sunk cost fallacy. You didn’t sit in The Chair that night. You had a cold for the next four days but you were a hero when you brought back not one, but two bags of ice, and you managed to swallow down another joint and leave the next morning before the burnout with racoon eye bags could ask you to Venmo him for the trouble. Two weeks later you were at the 7/11 buying Swisher Sweets with a fake ID when the kid behind the counter dropped a handful of change onto the floor. “Shit,” he said, staring monotone and unmoving. “You good?” “Yeah, man. Tired as fuck.” Buzzing fluorescent bulbs cast even light across his face but his eyes were sunk so deep in his skull they were still swimming in shadow. Somewhere in those depths his grey irises were flexing and retracting ineffectually. He still hadn’t moved. “Do you need any help?” “No. No.” he lowered himself, scooping pennies and dimes one by one, “Bad dreams, you know?” “Rough.” “Every night it’s just,” the coins trickling out of his palm kept pace with the ones he added, a juggling act of clinking and clattering zinc. “Fuck. Sorry. Jesus.” “You sure you’re good?” “I just can’t. It’s every night, man, every night.” You started to wonder how badly you needed those cigars. Davie still had a handful of fifty nicotine pods you could bum for about the same price, maybe more, but he had fucked your ex after graduation and things had just been kind of weird since. The cashier was picking up faster and faster but he was trapped in a Newtonian hell, every coin added equaling a coin lost, and he was getting frantic. Desperate. Panting and desperate. Some thought itched the back of your mind and you scratched it away. Surely the kid didn’t deserve this. He was staring at the pile of coins now, surrendered. His back was making hiccup-y jerking motions but there was no sound, only the still moment of you, watching. “I never should have sat in that fucking chair, man.” From then on you saw The Chair spreading its roots. The digital moms in their Facebook gatherings swapped stories of kids failing algebra: a daughter hadn’t slept in six days, a son was complaining about recurring dreams of a threateningly amorphous quality. The grad students from the law school were talking in hushed tones to the pre-meds about record breaking benders: the bursar was looking to quietly reallocate scholarship money after its previous recipient was caught, mind-blasted on zombie dust, smashing MacBook screens in the library. Holly—fifth year senior, volleyball player—said she cut his dose with drywall powder but she’d been doing that since senior year number one. The freshman cashier working at the campus convenience store told the sophomore buying condoms that an R.A. had beat someone half to death over a housing contract violation and the sophomore mentioned that one of the Alpha Theta rushes smashed his own arm over a rock in the woods so bad there were bones sticking out of his shoulder. You didn’t go home for Thanksgiving break. Turns out, Davie didn’t either. And you still needed something for the twitching in your left eye so you shot him a text. He said, yeah for sure. Come over. You drove the fifteen minutes to his part of town and he buzzed you into his complex. You knocked on the door. The person who answered was not Davie. You were certain of this. He was, for all intents and purposes, physically identical, down to the hairline scar on his chin from when he fell off the swing set in second grade. He smiled with the same amicable eyes that had always rested just a margin too far apart and he had the same close-lipped smile, implacably self-conscious, but you were certain this was not Davie. You stood there in the narthex of his home for a good, long while. He stared and tilted his head. “You can come in, if you want.” He stepped to the side and gestured inwards. “Sure. Thanks.” You entered, eyes set rigidly forward, neck muscles tensing against the urge to keep your eyes on not-Davie. You had never been to his new apartment. It was clean. There was the sharp nostril burn of an essential oil diffuser. His TV was on, idling on the Netflix home screen, and a stack of unwashed dishes dominated the kitchen counter. Not-Davie watched. “Want a cookie?” “No.” He frowned. He hadn't expected you to know the rules. Wasn’t Davie. “Brownie?” “No.” The downward curve of his lips deepened, carving canyons in his cheeks. “Straight to business, huh?” “Sorry. It’s just kind of-” “Weird?” “Weird.” “I get it. Just want the shit you came for, I guess?” “Yeah, no, yeah. Forty bucks, right?” “Get the fuck out of my house.” “What?” A vein on Davie’s forehead thrashed and squirmed with the wild abandon of an upside-down cockroach. “Get the fuck out of my house.” “Jesus Christ, are you okay?” There was a quiet plip and you saw a thin line of blood crawling out from between Davie’s clenched fist, burgeoning at his knuckles and dripping to the linoleum. “Davie, hey-” His hands were on your shoulders and before you could punch him in the gut you felt your spinal column make sudden and violent contact with the wall. The plaster indented, molding to your back like a tortoise shell before the rebound sent you elbow first onto the floor. Davie grabbed your ankle and started dragging. Your nails cracked and splintered as you clawed for purchase in the grout-lines and your free leg, flailing, kicking, made contact with what felt like skin and bone but unfalteringly, Davie persisted in scraping your body across the floor and out of his apartment. I still remember you coming back to the condo, limping and hoarse. You told me you didn’t need to go to the hospital, you were fine. You asked if I still had that baseball bat from intramural, and where the flashlight was. I asked what for. You peeled a fingernail off and threw it in the trash before telling me that you were going to get some ice. You told me what you were studying, once: anthropology. Folklore. You never really talked about it, too tweed and elbow patches for the façade you used to put on, but I caught you on an off day halfway between two caffeine tablets and the convulsing shape of your mouth was stringing one word after the other. “It’s like,” you began, “different setting, you know?” “Not really?” I had just severed the umbilicus tethering me to reality that was my pre-med track. The catatonic fallout kept me addled and unfocused enough to let you ramble. “Sports, then. Like if you took Mahomes and put him in the NHL. We’re Mahomes, all the wackos that came before us are the NHL.” “Uh huh.” “It’s a whole different game, all those hockey nuts playing with sticks and pucks and icings and shit. And vice versa, nowhere to go on turf when you’re wearing skates.” “So what do you do?” “I learn how to play hockey.” The clearing was as you remembered it, for the most part. There was a lamp there now, tall and narrow and streaked in thick veins of rust. The light, white and even and clean, settled with a languid familiarity over the leaves, and over The Chair. Later, you would try to explain the sensation to me in increasingly manic metaphor. It was the unhinged physics of the hypodense cluster nestled in the universe’s frontal lobe, not so much occupying its space as it was being the space it occupied. It was a rat-king of severed fingers and toes from the Canaanite king Adonibezek, suffusing the matrimonial desire to be symmetrical once more. It was an ion, edging the speed of light along its collision course with the discovery of dark matter and you were just one of the four pit-stops along the way. Sitting in The Chair was a deal, really. Immeasurable trade, that’s why everyone lost their shit. They were being audited, preternatural mote by preternatural mote, because in exchange for whatever The Chair had to offer all they could return was the fading memory of O-chem, chapter 11; geographical map of the Baltic States; Shakespeare sonnets twenty-eight through thirty-two; when to show up at the bar so you wouldn’t get carded. You, on the other hand, were lacing up your skates. When I first saw you leave milk and bread on the stoop, I asked if it was for the strays. Sort of, you said, nurturing your room’s newest addition: a waxy fern to match the succulents lining the windowsill and the bulbous mushrooms potted in metal beds, under constant vigilance from a low-wattage heat lamp. You rubbed the leaves between your thumb and forefinger, smiling. It was your new project, keeping the plants. Something besides endless reading and researching and note-taking that you could come back to, somewhere you could rest. And Dane liked them too. Dane was coming over more. He hadn’t come over before, I don’t think; he at least wasn’t familiar, which was beginning to become less important. Dane always asked me for my name, said those words exactly. “Could I have your name?” And you laughed and punched his shoulder, but Dane just stared at me, his head tilted to the side, quizzical and goading. “Sorry, long day at work. Hard to turn off the customer service voice sometimes.” I crashed my car going through the roundabout. It was a blazing sun morning, forest green morning, and the graphic design majors were dancing until their feet bled onto the bone circle in the quad, and then they danced some more. Throngs of briar and mulberry, dense and matted as a king’s crooked crown, crept and crawled their stunted path longways ‘cross— Dane started showing up to PHILOS 522. Registration was closed. He sat in the front row and took laborious notes while the professor click, click, click-click, clicked her way through slides on Edouard Machery and David Hull, the last battle for human nature, and primate mind-reading. I followed Dane after class. He walked off campus, but not by much, and into a Starbucks. I went to the Urban Outfitters across the street and watched from the window as he put on a green apron. None of the other employees paid him any mind as he arranged five croissants in a hexagonal pattern on a plate and stood by the front door. I couldn’t read lips, but he smiled and tilted his head at everyone who walked in, flapped his gums rhythmically, and waited for a response. On that first day only one girl took a croissant: she was blond and short and wore a purple backpack with pins, indiscernible from my vantage point behind a mannequin whose outfit could’ve covered next month’s rent. She nibbled the corner and nodded before spitting it onto the floor, gagging and coughing black flecks. Dane just stood and smiled while someone brushed past him to see if the girl was okay. Following Dane to work became my project. Every Tuesday and Thursday I would enter the Urban Outfitters, or sit at the covered bus station, or kick at the loose edges of the sidewalk tiles while Dane stood by the door and waited. It wasn’t always croissants; it wasn’t even always something from Starbucks. I saw him leave class with a plastic bag and try to hawk chocolate covered strawberries, chunky and misshapen in the homemade sort of way. People didn’t take the free samples every day, and when they did, the effects were not always as immediate and as violent as the first girl’s had been. Once I saw a man beat his nose against the uneven brick wall over and over and over again, muscles straining against the crowd of Good Samaritans clawing at his fleece quarter-zip, trying to pull him away. His face ended up mashed and flat like an interbred bulldog’s. That was the worst of it. —the highway, the highway. I had wrapped my car clean around a tree trunk and the metal tendons were screaming and tearing at their cage, rubber melting into incense for the moldy orange sky. I clambered and clawed at the door handle but the guts of my vehicle tensed; apoptosis of the me, the meager cell who never evolved altruism, otherwise I would have kept us both unbent and unsundered by the curling tree-meat. The graphic design students would have wept for me if their eyes hadn’t parched and wrinkled like grapes forcefully unlearning their former shape. A man wrapped in business and Tom Ford had a cellphone against his cheek, nervous sweat sticking it there and running rainbow streaks across the screen. He was standing on the white dotted line, one eye on me and the other smooth and absent, a blank canvas of raw skin. “I can help you.” “What do you offer?” Metal squelched against metal and the fractal remains of my roll cage were prodding my kidneys with inevitable intent. He scratched his face absentmindedly. “911. Bound to respond.” “To respond, or to help?” “To help can be arranged.” “Will it be?” “You’re good at this.” “I learned from—" I woke up in my room on Monday and there was a black stain streaking the wall by my headboard, watery and shimmering like spilled ink in the pale morning light. It dripped, incrementally, infinitesimally, downwards. “You have to get rid of your fucking plants.” There was a waxy smell in your room, candles just extinguished. Your fire alarm was hanging limp from a bare wire, the plastic casing cracked and in pieces. You looked up from your desk. It was covered in books and ink stains and what at first glance looked like beads of amber, but upon further inspection revealed themselves to be dozens and dozens of cicada shells. “What about my plants?” “There’s some fucking, I don’t know, fucking mold in my room.” “Bold demand.” “Jesus Christ.” “Can I get rid of the mold for you?” “Why do you have those things.” “These?” You held a single cicada shell in your palm, rolling your eyes over its creases and joints. “Yes, yes those.” “Interesting creatures, these. Did you know that when bending paper into the shape of a juvenile cicada, an origami master might make hundreds, if not thousands, of folds? Just to make something that looks like this. That’s not to mention the years of experience it takes to box pleat or square pack without tearing the paper.” “Are you fucked?” “What I’m interested in is how many folds it will take to make this,” he gently pressed a finger down on the shell until it was a flat oval, “into what it was before.” “What the hell.” “Could I have your thoughts on the subject?” “Yeah, and you can-” I watched a lecture, once, about a man who found a thin white thread sticking out from beneath his fingernail. Thinking it cat hair or loose fabric, he yanked it out only to suddenly wake up, days later, in the hospital. It had been a loose nerve ending, and touching it had sent, in a quintillionth of a second, a rhapsody raging through his body. His brain, unable to dance to the rhythm of ten trillion beats per microsecond, four four, presto, was violently and suddenly removed from the number, leaving him untethered from his corporeal self. When you robbed my mind, it felt something like that. —the best around.” The deal was struck, sealed in the old ways of lexical prescriptivism and locutionary acts. An ambulance came and I was gurneyed into its yawning throat, absentmindedly scratching at the patch of flesh where my left eye had never been. A man with a wasp’s head was checking my blood pressure, mandibles splaying and protracting to reveal pink flesh, some gnarl of tongue and mouth and proboscis. I glittered in the million panoptic facets of his eyes. “Rough day?” He pressed his antennae against the stethoscope’s nodules, disk against my chest. “Offering or asking?” “Damn kid. I don’t know if you can tell, but I’m really not good at this.” The fine hairs haloing his head tickled my cheek as he went to adjust the IV drip. There was only us in that moment: the wasp man, me, and the haze of citrus sky smearing its last breaths across the horizon. Stars were corkscrewing into view, daylight peeling away like paint under paint thinner. “Can I smoke?” The wasp man was holding a cigarette between his mandibles, “I know, I know. I didn’t think it would work either.” “Debt.” “Debt?” “You asked, ‘can I smoke’ and if I said yes, you would be in my debt. It’s a favor act.” “Shit.” He ran a hand over his carapaced head. “Rescind your contract.” “Rescind my what now?” “Your contract. Just say ‘I revoke my offer.’” “I revoke my offer.” “You may smoke.” No matter where he turned his head, there were always at least a dozen of me, watching; fisheyed into plate-shapes. “So we’re square? Smoking is good?” “Yeah.” Grey blue clouds—agitated, flicking in every direction but none—filled he ambulance. He tapped the ashes out on the gurney. A pile was forming by my toes. “How did that happen,” I asked, not bothering to specify. “Jesus.” The orange tip of his cigarette was breaking records on its way to whatever organ counted for his mouth. “Kid got hit by a truck while she was riding her bike. Rearranged her entire skeleton, looked like someone had stuffed a Jell-O mold full of rock candy. What the fuck are you supposed to do there? CPR? Probably would’ve pushed her guts out through the path of least resistance or something horrible like that. So I just kind of got down and lied and told her it was okay, everything was fine. And then she asked ‘could I have your name,’ verbatim. Just like that. Fuck, man. I said I’m. I’m. Fuck I’m. God, fuck, Jesus I’m. I’m-” “Want me to light another cigarette for you?” “Yeah, yeah.” He handed me the lighter. “I need these straps undone.” “Sorry.” When he loosened the straps around my chest and legs, I sat up and stood by the door. I twisted the handle and shoved the wasp man out onto the— I stopped following Dane after class. There wasn’t anything in it anymore, now that I knew what was going on. Instead, I underwent the process of unlearning you; or, learning how to avoid you. The mold wormed its celiac pseudopods deeper into the walls, into the beams and paint and studs until my bed frame started to rot beneath me and sleeping on the couch was the only option. I didn’t ask first, knew better of it, learned better of it, after you cannibalized pieces of me at breakfast, and in the bathroom, and in the doorways. You told me you didn’t take pleasure in it. You can go fuck yourself. I cannot even remember the price of learning how to live. You took that from me. Where there was once. Where there. Where there was. Fuck. There was, everywhere, the scream of cicadas. The chittering thrum of God (though you and I both know there is no god here, you just like the word). You became the gardener. Mushrooms like fistulas sprouted in rings and ropey roots like children’s forearms grasped out from moldering soil. I saw Dane lay the bone circle on the quad, and by then I had learned enough to plug my ears. People I had never seen before moved through the house like wine through Canaan. They brought not gifts, but requests laden with the value of malleable prophecy, the debt of twelve, gilded kidney stones impressed with silvered mouse skulls. I learned to avoid them all. The cicada shells sprawled across the house. All waxy paper exoskeleton, some more perfectly folded than others. They moved like artery bypasses through the halls and the rooms and it became such that every step I took threatened to crush them, un-align their geometries. You tolerated my presence. Welcomed it, I think. “Are you leaving?” you leaned against your bedroom door, unrecognizable in all the features that once belonged to me. I took the car keys off the rack. “You’re going to miss the best part.” You unfurled your hand, and there was a patient chirrup, growing in intensity. Black concrete. He flopped and ragdolled and spun through the air, round and round and round until he was, from afar, an immobile speck. I took the isopropyl alcohol from the cabinets, all of it I could find, and then the gauze and after some deliberation, the scalpel and EpiPens. The driver was rapping his knuckles on the dividing door and saying something but I just uncapped the EpiPen and screamed. The ambulance protested the weight of its continued momentum, suspension railing against Newtonian law, until it rested, spent, in the gravel on the side of the road. A man stepped through the door and before he could look surprised I screamed and leapt on him, wrapping my body around his chest like a car around a tree, jamming the EpiPen into his neck hard enough to leave a bruise. I unfurled my limbs as he gagged and sputtered on the floor, pink saliva drip-drip-dripping down his lips. It took me until sundown to find the woods, but you were right. All those metaphors. I could not have ended up anywhere but that clearing, under that lamp. It was Summer now, somehow. Maybe you stole time from me, or maybe that was something I lost along the way. The Chair is here, and even as I spray concentric spirals around it I can still feel its question, and I can feel the need to answer. I will not. That is something I learned from you. The moon is a yellow sickle in a sky dense with absence. I flick wasp man’s lighter to life. Somewhere in the woods there is a bed of paper-skin cicada shells, arranged in the fabricated geometries of the universe’s wheezing heat death. You fuck. Come get me. Matthew Bettencourt is a student studying Creative Writing at UW Madison and working as Fiction Co-Editor-in-Chief for The Madison Review. His work has appeared in High Shelf Press, Neuro Logical and The Moving Force Journal.

  • Love You Forever

    Frances watched a pair of chubby legs toddle over to her, grubby hands waving as a mouth wet with drool forced out a few sputtering syllables. As disparate parts, they seemed so familiar, the son she had known for his two years of life plus ten extra years. As disjointed features, they appeared real, lifelike even, as if the sparkle in Dean’s eyes was fueled by childlike adoration and not the LED lights she paid $60 extra for. She reminded herself that at least the light was still there, that she still had a being in front of her who demanded nurturing and attention, that at least he resembled the original Dean — Frances inwardly corrected that slip; proper bonding could only take place if the child and its replacement were deemed one and the same, the sales representative told her. They both had his tousled brown curls, the small scar on the back of his neck where she could pretend that his surgery was successful, and she brought him back to a place of warmth. Hospitals were far too cold and bright, too harsh to die in, she figured. “I can offer you our newest model. 20% down payment now, and I assure you that our lifetime satisfaction guarantee is still in place.” The sales representative sat behind her desk, a vast, glass desert that separated her from Frances. A silver name tag that read ‘Joan’ was pinned to her baby blue blazer and matching skirt, and Frances suddenly felt embarrassed by the wrinkled sweater she hastily threw on over her pajamas. It had only been two days after the surgeon gave her the news when she received the call from the Asimov Foundation, though she wasn’t sure how they got her number. She recognized the name from the cardiology wing she wandered past during the operation, the pet replicas she occasionally passed being walked by neighbors, barking and growling through synthetic vocal cords. “If you want, I can show you a few samples, though yours will be customized to match the deceased.” Joan spoke matter-of-factly, and Frances noticed three ‘Top Sales Representative’ plaques hung on the wall behind her, right in the view of any potential clients. “You said he’ll be exactly the same, right?” Her neighbor, Michael Harrison’s greyhound seemed close enough to the original, but she doubted that the animal had much of a personality to be replaced. “Of course, Ms. Richards. The deceased’s surgeon recorded a snapshot of his brain in the moments before death. On our end, we recreate the brain neuron by neuron, and we can proudly boast a 70% satisfaction rate from our clients.” “Wait, you didn’t call me until today. How did you know to…” “Consider it standard protocol. It gives us the most accurate results possible. I’d doubt you’d want us to use an old scan, right?” Frances couldn’t help but agree. She wanted Dean back exactly as he left, for him to always remain that way. “Excellent. Now, I just have some papers for you to sign. And, would you like to pay upfront or use an installment plan?” Dean, not a replica, she reminded herself, but the real Dean, arrived in a neatly-taped cardboard box the following week. His body was carefully placed into the clothing he wore the morning of his operation, head resting over his hands as if he was sleeping. It took Frances a few minutes to find the switch located under his limp, silicon arm, but, once pressed, the toddler opened his large, green eyes, yawning slightly before smiling at her. That gesture, that familiar face she saw every day, was truly accurate to the finest detail. Accurate but still inhuman in many ways that Frances learned were by design when she read the manual that came in Dean’s box. AI had no need to eat or sleep, though it was suggested that they be turned off to allow caretakers time to rest. His joints gave off a small wrrr as he ran, and occasionally steam would erupt from his fake sweat glands as his internal processors attempted to cool down. “Does someone want to play?” Dean happily chirped in response. Frances wondered if he would ever learn how to speak properly, a thought that quickly dissipated as the years slowly slipped by, and he remained exactly as he was. Innocent, naïve, as if every new experience rolled off of him, never able to teach him or allow him to change. But he was still here and able to fall without so much as a scrape on his knee. She declined the injury package that allowed AI to develop injuries as they explored the world through ink packets hidden in their artificial skin. Dean’s skin was hot as she lifted him, another wet coo escaping his lips. No, there was a time when he got hurt, but Frances knew it was her fault. She hadn’t read the manual properly, the part where it said that Dean’s model had to cool down completely before being turned off. He was still and limp and cold in his cot when she tried to rouse him awake, eyelids half-open like his circuitry attempted to force the steam to exit out of every possible opening. Some small part of Frances wanted to acknowledge how many phones she had dropped into public swimming pools or laptops cracked and replaced the next day. But that was quickly drowned out by the screaming when she found her baby dead once more. In a place warmer and under a mobile decorated with the moon and a series of stars, but dead nevertheless. “Yes, he overheated I think. You didn’t tell me that could happen!” After one of her neighbors and his mechanical dog yelled at her through the front door until she calmed down, Frances called the Asimov Foundation and asked for Joan. “It was clearly written in the manual. We hold no liability for information that you missed.” She heard Joan click a pen and write something down, maybe how she failed at motherhood twice and was now barred from getting a newer Dean. “What do I do now?” Though Frances had forced her body to relax enough to reach for her cellphone and type in the number, panic still ripped through her body like steam searching for an exit hole. She wondered if this was how Dean felt in his crib if he silently cursed her before his circuitry cut out. “It’s only been six months, so your warranty isn't up yet. If you want, we can send you a new replica free of charge.” Frances agreed immediately, and the new Dean arrived in express shipping a day later. And, the old Dean — or maybe he was the newer old Dean, or just a butterfly going through stages of life; no one would call an empty chrysalis an old butterfly — was placed in her attic, hands curled under his head like he was sleeping, beneath some boxes of old tax information and photo albums containing the man who left him soon after he was born. Dean played downstairs the whole time, examining the blocks that his other selves used to construct kingdoms out of. The year passed without any more issues, as did the next and the next until Frances forgot about the milestones she once dreamed of Dean passing: first day of school, first bike ride, first gold star on an assignment and more distant hopes of weddings and grandchildren and having someone built on those hopes look her in the eyes as she finally drifted away. Now, the only eyes she saw in those moments of wistful dreaming were damp with confusion, too new and innocent to know why mommy wouldn’t wake up, why her body was still and limp and cold. There would be no instruction manual for him to read, just the reality that a person once there was gone. It wasn’t until the 10th anniversary that was celebrated with a gift card from the Asimov Foundation to be used on any of their pet models — not a 12th birthday, Frances reminded herself, wishing that she could reach in and pluck those wavering neurons out — that Frances became attuned to how her joints shifted each morning as she walked upstairs to wake Dean, how her body seemed to crack into place with every slowly, methodical motion. She considered moving his crib downstairs into her room, where he once resided as a newborn, but Dean, as she knew him, always gave life to the top half of the house, and legs without a torso and head were useless. No, it was her that was failing once more even as she fought to do anything but. He felt heavier now as she lifted him, closer to a marble statue of human perfection than something of flesh and blood. Frances couldn’t help but smooth out his tousled curls and wipe a strand of drool from his chin. Maybe she should call Joan again and ask for his salivary glands to be dampened. The sales representative had already been so kind as to sell her the elastic joint pack to keep his knees and elbows healthy and resistant to injuries, the anti-speech pack to distort his vocal cords and turn his choppy spew of sounds and consonants into a soft, melodic coo, even the heater pack to always give his body a soft warmth even when he was turned off. There were dozens of others, but Frances preferred to think of them, not as additives but a completion of sorts, a way to bring Dean to a more perfect form. It wasn’t until she placed him in front of his toys that she felt the cold emptiness of her arms with nothing to hold. Frances supposed that this was a feeling that mothers learned to ignore, that their baby was now too big, too old to carry and allow them to place their chubby cheeks on the small part of her body where her neck and shoulders connected. But what would happen when her arms grew too frail to hold him, bones too fragile to support his body as he groped and tugged at her hair and the top of her shirt? This Dean had known nothing else, nothing but all she was willing to give him. At first, she considered having it in her will that, when her moment of natural death came, Dean would be deactivated and buried with her. The idea came when Michael Harrison had a stroke in the middle of the night two years prior, and the Asimov Foundation euthanized his silicon greyhound to be placed in the coffin with him. It seemed so simple, romantic even, for that to be the end of her and Dean. Yet, the shame and horror when she even contemplated Dean’s death was bound to kill her faster than any natural death could. No, he couldn’t die again, and so, she couldn’t either. She knew he would prefer it that way. On the floor of his room, Dean seemed to know nothing of her thoughts, slamming his hands against a toy xylophone she bought him for the 6th anniversary. Even now, as his LED lights seemed more apparent, and several layers of mismatched paint coated his silicon limbs, he looked just as pure as he did that morning in the hospital so long ago. So full of life without understanding the risk of living, the agony of having to mitigate those risks. He stared at her after a moment, eyes pinched in concentration as his throat attempted to force a word up. A sound that could slip past his distorted vocal cords. “Mama,” a sticky hand pointed at her, a bright, zirconium smile as he gazed at her in wonder. That was all it took to cement her decision. The dial tone for Asimov seemed to mock and enchant her as she waited for Joan to pick up. She knew Frances' number and sometimes seemed to be waiting with bated breath for her call. “Ms. Richards, how can I assist you today?” A pen click, the smooth tide of papers over a glass desk. “I’d like to inquire about your adult models.” SARAH LICHT is a poet and writer based in Titusville, Florida. In their spare time, Sarah enjoys exploring nature preserves, reading early science fiction, and entertaining their caffeine addiction. Their work has been published in The Grinnell Review, Screen Door Review, and Grim & Gilded.

  • 2021 Fiction Contest Winners -$100 Prize

    Landing Zone's 2021 contest received about three hundred fantastical submissions from many brilliant authors. We managed to, with great difficulty, narrow all their original worlds down to one winner and runner up. The stories are readable digitally through the links below, and will be included in Print Issue I, releasing in February 2022. Winner: "Ghosting Violet" Amanda Krupman Runner-Up: “Our Beauty, Our Virtue” Brenda Salinas You can submit to our 2022 Contest through the submittable link below for a chance to win $150