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  • 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

  • Our Beauty, Our Virtue

    RUNNER-UP FICTION WINNER Then the LORD said: If now, while they are one people and all have the same language, they have started to do this, nothing they presume to do will be out of their reach. Genesis 11:6 When our tribe won or lost a battle we gathered around a bonfire. After the address, there were dances and revelry. I was young when I saw the old foreigner slumped in front of fire gazing into its flames with her raven eyes. The war widow was always in the periphery. I wondered if skin leathered by the sun could better withstand heat. Perhaps she would teach me her toughness. Fearing my shawl might catch fire by sitting so close to the flames, I stood behind her and examined her fine gray hair, tinged violet in the light. She spoke without looking at me, revealing the truth behind a story I had heard a million times. “I was born into a tribe of scholars during the Thousand Year War. The men my grandmothers grew in their bellies were sent to the battlefields for slaughter. My father survived the carnage and thought himself sage. My brother Benji played in the marshes with me. We twisted fly lures out of feathers to fish from the riverbanks where our mother washed. We sucked the sting out of mosquito bites. We cracked cheat codes to Super Mario 64. We repeated rhymes to classify snakes. Black yellow red, soon you’ll be dead. I spun stories like threads. Benji thought of ways to make them better. He taught me to read and write before I started school. He continued reading aloud and taking my dictation until we were grown. When Benji left for war college, I searched for a new audience. The women walking to the well shushed me, preferring their circular tales of fallen women and philandering men. My father remarked on my calligraphy and tasked me with his correspondence. My mother encouraged me to recite the epic war poetry of our tribe for my father’s general friends. The TLDR on the Thousand Year War: In the before times, the nine tribes signed a series of allyship treaties so that when a chief trespassed onto another territory, they fell into warfare like dominos. I never understood the motivations for the continued violence. Questions are considered unpatriotic in my culture. Elders spoke of the tribes surrounding us with scorn. I learned the other tribes were each in their own way savage and ruthless peoples. Whenever I mumbled my words or spoke with my mouth full, my mother would say, ‘You sound like a barbarian,’ and I knew it was the very worst thing. After two years in war college, Benji came back hardened. He was to become an officer at the front. I read him a story I had written about a bunny hibernating in a den. I had hidden my fear for him in the lines, but Benji was busy polishing his boots. I knew how brothers returned from battle dusty-eyed. Their bodies would recoil when dabbed with balm. I asked Benji if he was scared. ‘It’s not a soldier’s place to be scared,’ he said, ‘He follows orders and serves his tribe with honor.’ My father was proud. When I folded my face into my mother’s skirts with worry, she put my palms together in prayer. A week before Benji was due at the front, an aura appeared in my mirror. It beckoned me. I heard a cracking voice as if on a distant radio frequency. ‘Daughters: bring your art degrees and your sewing kits, your tap shoes and your guitars, your seedlings and your stories. You will build a tower in my name.’ I was mesmerized. The purple light tapped on the glass. ‘Do you have doubts, my child?’ I had never been allowed a question before. ‘Yes. What is this tower? And why do you want me to build it? And how? Also, who are you?’ ‘You will know when I settle in your heart. You have been called to build a city in a tower with daughters from the other nine tribes. You will learn a wordless language. Men moved by your mission will lay down their weapons to settle in peace.’ ‘Will you protect my brother?’ ‘You will save him and all the others.’ ‘How can I leave my mother for so long?’ ‘Take the best of her with you. I will slow down time.’ ‘How am I to work with barbarians?’ ‘Retire that term. Trust you will look into their eyes and know truth. It is time for you to leave.’ I packed a change of clothes, an extra pair of sandals, a toothbrush and my Discman. I left my family a note on the fridge. ‘Saving world—bbl.’ Careful to not make noise, I bit down on an electric torch as I tied a blanket to the seat of my bicycle, a teal three-speeder Benji had given me as a goodbye—he had skinned the leather tassels on the handlebars himself. He had exchanged strong words with my father, who thought an unwed woman should not hold a mechanical beast between her legs. I had taught myself to ride it, proud of my scrapes and bruises. Following the aura’s instructions, I traveled for six hours. Some of the others traveled for days. We arrived by the moon’s midnight to the Shinar valley. We looked at one another’s faces and we knew. We burned an effigy to the aura and we saw it dance in the sky with pleasure. We examined one another’s foreign faces, tracing features with our fingers. We wanted to speak but our languages sounded garbled to one another. We found new ways to tell our stories. When Femi first heard the war trumpet, she told her father she wanted to enlist. ‘Silly child, we fight to defend your beauty and your virtue. We can’t defile you in a trench.’ The sounds Femi’s mouth made when she spoke were like two birds chirping, so she told us the story through a dance. She beat her palms on the ground and rubbed dirt across her arms and chest. The circular lines she made with her body became jagged and tense. Finally, she seized her throat and lay in stillness. We nodded because we knew what she meant. When Vera was a girl, she cut off her own bangs with a knife. Her mother slapped her and asked why she would do such a thing. Vera had lived a solitary life even when she was surrounded. Inside her heart, she now explained to us in a sand drawing, had once lived a creature who shook her skin-cage with sadness. As a teenager, Vera thought the only way to free the creature was to destroy its cage. She showed us the scars where she’d traced her father’s shaving razors across her hips. In the supply room of the school, she closed her eyes while a pimply boy jabbed at her vulva with a dry finger and then two and three. She mimicked the moans she learned from pornography waiting for it to feel good. One day, she told us, she opened her eyes, and the boy’s finger was a dick. And that’s how it happened. Vera caressed her protruding belly. We asked her if she was scared to give birth. ‘There’s no future for children born out of wedlock in my tribe. Girls have no dowries, but at least they live. Without an influential father to secure a post for them, bastard boys become cannon fodder.’ We joined our hands in a circle and prayed for a baby girl. Maia and Talia were twins. They told us their story through a harmony of notes. Their father refused to have them married off. ‘Such a shame to separate a set,’ he said. As a young doctor, he completed a trauma surgery fellowship at Johns Hopkins. He was so skilled at removing shrapnel, enemy combatants brought him their wounded, for whom he charged double. The men whose flesh was torn into ribbons almost always lived. Maia and Talia had swept the floor of the clinic and fed the wounded men soup. They sanitized their father’s instruments and kept inventory of the bandages they rolled. They fell in love many times. When Maia asked her father to fund her medical education, he said he had taught her enough to be a nurse. ‘You could study to be a midwife. Or a dentist.’ Maia asked their father who would take over his practice when he retired. ‘I will drop dead in this clinic,’ he said. Thinking he could cure his own mortality, he declined to answer: ‘And what comes next?’ Talia was a poet. Whispering verses into broken ears, she had convinced a hundred men to defect. Maia explained desertion was the best preventative medicine. When Talia’s treason was discovered, it threatened to destroy her father’s name. The night before her military trial, the aura had appeared in their mirror. Sura was our botanist. Scorched earth campaigns had destroyed the fields where her family foraged. Her village had become a food desert, and her father now worked at a gas station where no fruits were sold. Their farmhouse was under foreclosure. Sura designed our garden. When we needed water, we offered our grief to the aura and watched it rain. Teresa was our chef. She dropped out of culinary school when her student loans had become too costly. As we brainstormed our building plans, Teresa fed us dishes made out of nettles and berries. When she cracked gnats in the fire, they tasted just like popcorn. Xi had taken a correspondence course in architecture. She drew the tower’s initial design: a series of circular prisms reaching towards the sky. Back in her home tribe, Xi was praised for her ability to draw and redraw lines on battle maps. She handed the paper to Sura, who painted the surrounding landscape in verdant hues. War cartography had also been Sura’s responsibility, and they recognized one another’s work. Our city was a cone with a circular ramp at its center. There were dormitories, classrooms and a hospital. The rooms had removable partitions that rendered the structure endlessly adaptable. Natalie told us her story through mixed media. Her family worked in low-cost construction. She had been the forewoman on a few sites. She was obsessed with natural building practices, but she couldn’t crack a contract on her own. ‘You can’t get funding without a portfolio, and you can’t build a portfolio without funding.’ We were Natalie’s last chance. Binta was a traveler. She told us her story through small clay statues. She had read every book in her village library and taken the oral history of all the elders in her tribe. She longed to see new sights, but it was unsafe for women to travel. Her chief had instilled a curfew. The aura had promised her safe passage. Binta’s brain could take a large problem and break it up in bits, managing people and materials. Xi’s modular design meant the tower could be assembled piece by piece. Every night, we asked the aura for the materials we needed. It would provide when we agreed. We molded bricks and hardened them with fire. We used bricks for stone and bitumen for mortar. We didn’t always receive exactly what we imagined, but it was enough to improvise. Sometimes it seemed like the aura’s direction was an improvement on our own, and we grew to welcome the collaboration. Our bodies were too tired for our minds to feel grief. Weeks passed. We took turns shedding tears of exhaustion. We formed a circle around the crier until she finished. Even as we built our new home, we were homesick for the ones we left behind. We missed our mothers and we missed our men. We shared the small things we’d never noticed. We played music on my Discman. When my mother’s memory weighed on my heart, I repeated what the aura had said about bringing the best of her. We made each floor a tribute to our tribes. We sacrificed and we built. Femi and I developed sign language to help us coordinate commands. Stop. Go. Lift. Higher. As the tower got taller, we found we could understand each other better. On the third floor we made a discovery. By placing our hand atop another’s heart, we could absorb her memories. When the sixth floor was finished, we could laugh or cry in unison with a look. The aura spoke through us. We found our language above words. Soon even Maia and Talia stopped using their spoken tongue with one another. Our bodies ached and our backs peeled in the sun. We took turns nursing Vera’s baby. We prayed for more hands. When we were nearly finished building, we started imagining our future. We measured the resources required to survive in peace. We hadn’t seen the aura for six days—its last shipment had been cleaning supplies. Some of us imagined welcoming our families and friends to our city. We were sure our fathers, brothers and boyfriends would hit it off once they surrendered their foreign tongues. Others thought it safer to scale slowly. We wondered if our tribes were looking for us. We voted to not make decisions until we reached unanimity. I sensed shaping a society would be even more exhausting than erecting a tower. We were sweeping the last of the debris from our cylindrical city when we found a man at the very top. Natalie was peeling the plastic from the skylights when she felt a gust of wind on her back. She was on the ninth floor which was shaped like a dome. Xi had designed it so that when the sun rose and set, the reflection glittered on the materials like diamonds. Natalie looked behind her and saw a man sitting behind a desk none of us had built. It had been so long since we had seen a man—where did he come from? Natalie thought of scenarios as she ran down the ramp calling us. We gathered together in front of the glass that encased him. We spoke without moving our mouths. ‘Do you recognize him?’ Natalie said ‘I’ve never seen him before,’ Binta said. ‘Might He be God?’ Sura asked. ‘He’s not my God,’ Femi said. ‘Mine neither,’ I agreed. ‘What’s on his desk?’ Talia asked. We saw a bundle of red candles wrapped in black ribbon and a crystal ashtray with a violet center. The man’s skin was pale and his hair reminded me of a winter willow. A small log burned between his cracked lips and he licked up its black smoke. Later, when catalogs finally came to my village, I would recognize the garment he was wearing as a pinstripe suit. ‘Did any of you build this office?’ Xi asked, ‘ It wasn’t in my blueprint.’ ‘Forget the room. How did this guy find out about our tower?’ I said. ‘How did he get up here without us noticing? If he wanted to join us, he should have asked,’ Maia said. ‘Do we have laws against trespassing?’ Teresa asked. “Not yet. We should vote on them. Let’s ignore him until he tells us what he wants,” Sura said. ‘Why are we acting so scared? Let’s ask him to leave,’ Vera said. ‘I move that we kill him,’ Femi suggested. No, we voted. No killing. We talked until we reached consensus. Vera’s baby was crying and our feet were getting tired. We told ourselves he was a minor inconvenience. We hadn’t sacrificed so much for anything less than we imagined. Vera tapped on the glass. The man opened the door. When he spoke with his snake-tongue, we all heard our own languages. It had been so long since we heard the sounds of home. The man tapped at the sundial on his wrist. His candles smelled like death. ‘Ladies, ladies, calm your histrionics.’ We were all like, ‘What? We’re not even talking.’ The man waved a stack of papers in his hand. ‘It’s come to our attention that you did not get the necessary permits to build this little art project. Under section 311.A of the jurisdiction, any and all structures not built to code must be immediately razed.’ The scented candles on the desk were called dynamite. ‘This land doesn’t belong to anybody. We claimed it with our sweat.’ Natalie said. ‘That’s where you are wrong, sweetheart.’ The man passed out business cards that said Mr. Logic Man in embossed gold. ‘I’m curious, were you actually planning on living in this trash heap?’ We began to notice the tower’s odd angles, the plaster we’d used to smooth over its faults. We had planned on making improvements, but the man’s criticism planted seeds of doubt. ‘You don’t have a warrant. Please leave,’ Binta said. ‘You should be thanking me. Look at how thin and haggard you’ve become. What man would want you now? You can’t raise a baby in this setting. This building is a death trap. What will you do when you’re attacked?’ ‘We’ll fight back!’ Femi said. The man laughed. ‘You sound just like your fathers.’ ‘First of all, getting attacked isn’t a fair assumption. And if we are under threat, we’ll take a vote like always,’ Xi said. ‘Are you kidding me? It took you two hours to talk to me.You’re not capable of governing yourselves.’ At that moment, Talia noticed the purple in the man’s ashtray. He had trapped the aura in the glass and dissected it like a butterfly. We could see it stretch and strain. A thought passed through our shared minds. Natalie distracted the man while Talia reached. A scuffle ensued and the man’s hands burned Talia’s skin like acid. She screamed and dropped the glass—the aura shattered into a million pieces. Teresa gathered the glitter dust in her apron and we tumbled downstairs. Natalie told the man we’d be back tomorrow. Teresa fed us dinner while Maia treated Talia’s arm. We tried to put the aura back together, but our rituals could not revive it. The next day, we returned to the man’s office. We opened our mouths. Our vocal cords had grown lazy. When we explained the wombs and the wars, our words came out tangled. The man showed us pictures of our aging parents and the gravestones of our brothers and friends. ‘Did you think time would wait for you? The wars haven’t ended.’ ‘We will teach men to surrender their weapons. We can save future generations,’ Sura said. Later, in our 360 feedback review, the man would tell us we had not been strategic enough in our pitch. ‘You should have appealed to my better angels. Maybe used a deck,’ he would say. ‘Would it have helped?’ We would ask. ‘Probably not, but next time, it might.’ Before our defeat, I explained how our shared language would lead to peace. The man nodded and said ‘I hear you, I hear you.’ ‘Why do you keep saying that? Is there something wrong with your ears?’ Maia took out her otoscope. The man laughed and touched her shoulders. He mounted a giant paper pad on Sura’s easel. He pointed at red charts and figures. ‘I appreciate the optics of peace, ladies, I really do. Nobody likes to see blood and guts on the evening news. But what would your tribes do without war? As you can clearly see here, economic productivity is up one million percent.’ When Xi asked him to define his axes, the man said he would not tolerate disrespect. Femi took her blowgun from her holster and lodged a dart in the man’s forehead —a flesh wound. We couldn’t help laughing. The man had clearly never seen himself bleed before. ‘Next time, I will poison it with a frog,’ Femi said. The man called us hostile. He called us aggressive. As he wiped himself with a monogrammed handkerchief, he said ‘This is going on your permanent record.’ After no deliberation, he told us the decision had been made above his pay grade. ‘Rules are rules.’ The man separated us and seduced us in our own languages. He said our families would forgive us. He promised us safety in good homes and good men. He scrambled our shared frequency. We were unable to coordinate a defense. He whispered discord into our ears, and we thought of the smells and tastes of our childhoods. Really, we did not like eating nettles. The daughters of the nine tribes were dismantled with empty promises. The man gave Binta a television, Talia a boob job. Sura, he said, would be remembered as a saint. Maia inherited her father’s clinic. Xi received a diploma. The man wrote Natalie a letter of recommendation. He promised us our daughters’ lives would be better than our own. He renamed Vera’s baby Patience and we forgot what we had named her. I think it was a coo and a dance. As we scattered, loneliness weighed on our hearts. We resented each other for not understanding. We couldn’t agree on anything, least of all how to agree. I am ashamed to admit it. The man broke me with a promise of fame. He said, ‘Scribe: generations will know your tale.’ He pointed at Xi and posed: ‘Artist: behold your God.’ Before the man followed protocol, he apologized if our feelings were hurt. He yelled at us. Didn’t we see how our tears were making him feel? Only Femi resisted until the very end. She rebuffed his offers of military rank. Her war dance seemed to say, ‘I refuse to be your female exception.’ She made crude gestures with her hands and finally, she charged at him. From the beginning we knew the fight was futile. The man was twice her size. Femi kicked his knees and sliced his thighs with a knife, but it only fueled his strength. He killed her and that is where the word femicide comes from. I will never forget the sad chirping sounds she made as she died. When we demanded a trial, the man said she had misinterpreted his intentions and that we would understand it all one day. I prayed he was right and I hoped he was wrong. Finally, when we couldn’t take it any longer, the man detonated our beloved tower. He said he hoped we learned our lesson and we did. Our souls scattered with the blast, furious and heavy. We yelled at each other in our own tongues. If you had just! If you had only! We sounded like a mob of bleeding monkeys, each lashing out in her own language. We returned to our warring tribes dirty and defeated. When I released our tale, it was repeated and resold. Flattened into nine verses in your book. The story you know is not the story I told. We were no longer a we but an amorphous they. Elders wrapped their moralities around our tale. They said we were defiant and doomed. A cautionary tale. They married me to a sweet man destined to die. Child, you are my last rebellion. I will not wrap my story with a bow. Please remember us. Before our loss there was our triumph. Femi’s fierceness, Vera’s warmth, Maia and Talia’s sisterhood. There was Sura’s garden, Tersa’s talent and Xi’s vision. There was Natalie’s boldness and Binta’s mind. These gifts are now yours. The light has not entirely left me, though it wanes. I pray for the day the daughters of the nine tribes will reunite, whether in this world or the next. I think of Vera’s baby often. Patience must be a woman. I have a habit of tapping mirrors. I still search for the aura in the night sky. Sometimes I see a glimmer of purple in a girl’s eyes.” The old woman turned around to face me. I thanked her and I walked around the fire until I found my friends. Brenda Salinas Baker is an MFA student at The Writer’s Foundry at St. Joseph’s College in Brooklyn. Her fiction has appeared in The Coachella Review and Solstice Literary Magazine. She was a finalist for the Breakwater Review 2021 Fiction Contest. She is a Mexican immigrant.

  • Ghosting Violet

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

  • mare incognitum

    there aren’t supposed to be dead bodies on the moon, but once we realize they’re there, it’s hard to stop thinking about them. or, perhaps it’s better to say, we aren’t supposed to remember that there are vengeful gods, arising from red-spun planets, demanding another sacrifice for the children of their sisters. they won’t believe us when we tell them that they have been buried at sea, slept in polluted, plastic bodies, swallowed by that special sort of gravity usually reserved for martyrs and masters, the kind we fancied ourselves before we discovered that time is a liquid that stipples like rain onto melted, abandoned roofs, flows along solar currents to the carbonated atmosphere, where it sizzles, meteorlike into a long shower that sneaks into every pore, pools lukewarm in bedsheets and body. but how could the cosmonauts be responsible for these consequential clouds? how could they have heard our wolfish cries once the alarms of their helmets, left behind in moondust, had honked themselves into exhaustion? we were never taught to observe the soft white bricks of penumbral chambers, of great nebular tombs, the pyramids of sparkling wire for our industrial godkings that now crumble along the seams of the sewer drains and don’t pick up night calls. now that we are at the end, all we are trying to do is ask what they are thinking— our own thoughts hold too much water and leave our brains to soak. are they enjoying a last view from the Selenean summit? do they bother to pray for us on the oblivious lake shores? do they know that the remains of our last great experiment have been returned to worms meat, patriotic, packed into vignetted soil? we don’t know how everyone else forgot, how they can just not notice the swampy rot of corpses fluttering about the sky, accumulating like ash on the face of a reinforced window; and we will always be afraid that we’re the only ones that can feel the moon-soaked fingers of a cosmonaut at our forehead, the only ones that believe in the future they whisper to us in those astral, mummified tongues, the only ones that can’t ignore the celestial cemetery stacked above our heads. we have read the palms of the dead in the stars and this is all they can give us. a long-stale warning, imbued with the atemporal power of the consecrated and forsaken astronauts on the moon who tried to remind us of what we once knew of what we will come to know. Ashli Cean Landa is an emerging writer, currently working and living with her cat Mac in the land of cornfields, central Illinois. Her work is inspired by a wide variety of media, from Dune to The Legend of Zelda, but also by the complex stories we tell ourselves to create identity and purpose. Much of Ashli’s work is pulled from her experiences as a queer/bisexual and biracial person.

  • Wolverine

    I remember feeling very small in the backseat. The world beginning and ending at the worn fabric edges, the scuffed molded plastic. The musty smell. A past dampness baked in and starting to turn. I could stretch out fully across the car’s width without difficulty, but on that evening I chose to remain curled. The jackets I had drawn around me formed a small tent, the nubby fabric soothing in its scent and texture. It filtered the harsh orange light of the streetlamps outside to a faint, earthy peach, flooding the car intermittently as we rattled down crooked roads. I pressed a palm to the corduroy sky and imagined I was catching the sun. I drifted pleasantly in and out of sleep. The in-between of waking and resting when you may feel, for the briefest moment, released from the glittering grit of life. You become lighter, lifting slightly within yourself. Hovering, not flying; breathing, not gasping. She was singing along absently to the radio, both so low that I hadn’t noticed it had begun, only realizing once it was happening. We had found the highway, so the ragged rocking of the car as it caught against cracks and dips had eased, and instead we slipped seamlessly along. I couldn’t see it in the dark, but I pictured the asphalt as a silken stream, someone at the other end patiently gathering it up and pulling us forward. The heavy summer air, thick despite the cover of night, pressed its clammy face hard up against the windows. Persistent, it found its way inside, through leaky windows and wizened metal plates. Patient fingers tenderly easing under rotten paint. The lights became fewer and less frequent, brief flashes that eventually disappeared altogether. I peered out from under the coats and gazed into the night. The whole world was a black sea, the moon picking out tiny waves as they crested and crashed across the sky. She was still singing. More of a hum, really, since there were no words. I couldn’t see her face, only the hand delicately gripping the steering wheel. It looked like something dredged up from the bottom of the ocean, tinged green in the glow of the dashboard. I watched thin trails of algae sway softly in the half-light, stretching from her slick skin to her knees. The seat was stained wet, the dirty carpeting sodden and squeaking occasionally under her feet. Once, she lifted her hair slightly, heaving it over one shoulder and rubbing at a knot in the side of her neck. But other than that, she kept a hold of the wheel, sitting still and staring straight ahead. We didn’t speak. The night rolled on, endless, vast, and wide. After some time, we came to rest stop, one of those parking lots cut out of the tree line. It made me think of a gap-toothed smile, and I poked my tongue through empty space in my own gums. It still tasted of blood. She turned off the car and sat for a moment. Smoothed back her hair, hands briefly cupping her face. I could still feel the whirring of the engine and the clicking of some mysterious machinery somewhere deep under the seat cushions. It made my bones tingle, as though absorbing the extra energy. Wait here, she said, and twisted backwards in the seat to face me. The other presence rippled beneath the surface of her skin while her hands, cold and clammy, grasped for mine. Bruise-coloured eyes to match shiny nails. Something coiled below one cheekbone slowly unwound itself and squirmed over the bridge of her nose. Straining between bone and flesh, nearly bursting, before slithering away into the tendon ridges of her neck. She didn’t appear to notice, although even in the night haze I could pick out the thin trail of blood staining one corner of her mouth. Like oil, polished to a high shine. I won’t be long, she whispered. And then stepped out of the car. She left the door open and I watched as the darkness crawled in, pulling itself over the lip of the floor and inching steadily along. I hugged my knees closer. The night had begun to gather below, thick and shining, curling and twisting. Sometimes a hand or a face would punch out, a sudden show of exuberance quickly extinguished. She was gone when I looked up. No shadowy shape in the distance or footsteps fading away. There was a hole in the air where she had stood, a patch of nothing at all that roughly followed the curves and edges of her body, smeared slightly where she had moved. The outline burned bright, just for a second, before melting and twisting in on itself once more. And once more, the air was smooth. The forest gazed back, impassive. It was unbothered; it had seen stranger things. She had to come back, I thought. Didn’t she? I crept forward, wedging between the driver and passenger seats to reach the door and pull it shut. The sound was satisfying, crisp and certain. Something solid to grip. I turned it over in my mind, like an interesting stone picked up while exploring. There was nothing to do but wait, and so I settled amongst the mess of clothes and bags in the back, the disorder mirroring our hasty departure. The nighttime that had leaked inside was pooled in the footwell, but had stilled now, resting. I heard it muttering softly to itself, chuckling occasionally. I closed my eyes and tried to sleep but my bones were still tingling and, around them, invisible ants scurried hurriedly through my veins. I gave up and curled into a corner of the bench, blotted against the musty covering. I watched the trees standing in the night, straining for the slightest hint of movement, hungry for her return. I didn’t understand, then, what it meant when she left or where she had gone. Our whole lives unspooled erratically between different nameless cities and low-slung towns, strung together by frantic escapes made at odd hours. Are we running away? I had asked her once. It was a soft desert morning, the sky still bloated and purple with sleep. The sand around us was dry and spiced, so unlike the salty silt I was used to. She patted it absently into small dunes as she thought. I buried my legs while I waited. The heat felt like it came right up from the center of the earth. No, she said finally. We’re running towards. Towards what? I asked. I didn’t look up, shoving my fists into the sand. She sighed. Towards home. When will we get there? I asked. Its not a there, she said, like a place on a map. Or a house or any kind of a building. It’s a feeling. I raised my arms, letting the sand stream golden through my open fingers. It’s safety, she said quietly. It’s being allowed to exist. I nodded, although I didn’t really understand. To me, then as now, living was simply the mechanics of breathing and waking, sleeping and eating. Everyday moments strung together every day, and for every day after that. When I looked up she had her eyes closed, face tilted at the sun. It shot through the blood bubbling at the edges of her lips so that it glowed from within, deep and vibrant. Time to go. I don’t know where she went, but it had always been so. Just as mornings cycled through mid-day and finally to night, so too did she come back and disappear, return before vanishing once more. You could tell it was going to happen by the blood. Usually a thin trickle inching from the corners of her mouth, jewel-bright with heat. Other times it was angry, less sedate. Something bursting, straining, heaving to be released, a cascade of rough-cut gems flushing through parted lips. She emptied herself on the ground. And then of course there were the in-between occasions: a gentle bubbling or perhaps a thicker flow, nevertheless easily staunched by a corner of fabric or the back of a hand. The blood would come and then she would leave. I did not question this, my natural order of things, and when she showed up again she would have food to share, love to give. After eating, she might let me curl beside her until I fall asleep. And the rest of the world would do the same, curving closer and closer around the two of us. Cupped between two palms. I had begun to drift off again when the air just beyond the car screamed apart with a terrible tearing sound, light gushing pus-like through the opening. She fell out into the damp darkness, and through the heavy glow I could see something small and dead cradled firmly between her teeth. Clouds of insects swirled and billowed in the yellow thickness, partly obscuring the other figures clambering through behind her. I scrambled to the far window, pressing my face against the warm glass. She had struggled halfway to her feet, knees bent and back hunched in an awkward half-crouch, arms raised to shield her head. Three others had spilled out, backlit so that I couldn’t make out much more than their general forms. It made them seem extra solid, basic outlines filled with something heavier than flesh and blood. Stone or sand poured into human-shaped weights. They stood in a half-circle around her as she stiffened, the gaze of their guns pinning her to the ground. The rip in the summer night gaped behind them, ragged edges smarting where they hung in ribbons. Although the first bright blast had faded, a weak stream of liquid light continued to dribble into the sweaty grass. Get. Down. In my head, but not of my thoughts. She spoke again, the words unmuffled despite her mouth being full. Get down. Now. And whatever happens, do not. Come out. I heard the night time on the floor stir and slide, rustling over the matted rug. I squirmed away, pushing up hard against the door as I slid down, trying to make myself as small as possible. Don’t fight it, she thought to me. Its to hide you. Outside, she slowly let the mass fall from her mouth. I hadn’t even formed the thought, the cool darkness just easing over my feet, tasting the strip of bare skin around my ankles, when she leapt forward. One movement that contained whole worlds. She grew smaller and sleeker as she surged up, skin flushing with thick fur as hands and feet gave way to steel-tipped paws. They shot her and the pain cleaved my skull. Her screaming or mine, it didn’t matter. I heard it blast open every door in my brain, just as I felt my own throat turn raw and ropey. The current slammed into our bodies, leaving our bones brittle and skittish and scorching our veins. It continued, never waning. The pain made time elastic, expanding the dead space between seconds into full minutes so that it felt like whole days were passing by. Teeth sang in their sockets while soft things inside us were starting to burst open, a throb layered just below the sear. And then: her voice. Barely audible at first, a drip amidst a tsunami. I felt it rather than heard it. In the soft stroking of my hand, in the tiny kiss on the furthest edge of my mind. There were no words left to answer back, only pictures. I was fading, thoughts slipping away any time I got near. I love you, came the whisper, I love you. And then: the end. The electricity shut off just as abruptly as it had begun. Everything was still and quiet once again, except for my body. It jerked and trembled in the dark, slick and sticky. The humidity was already oppressive, despite the early hour. It beaded on neatly trimmed mustaches and collected under arms and in the smalls of backs in dark patches and splatters. A flagrantly abstract pattern, at odds with the strict uniforms. A woman pushed a pair of glasses further up her nose, sweat threatening to slide them from her face. She peered through the thin film of condensation at the mess splayed out across the ground. What do you think? Someone asked behind her. You ever seen an animal do this kind of damage before? She mopped the back of her neck and shook her head slowly. Sank into a squat and began to photograph the bodies. Hey boss, over here, I think I’ve found something. It was a couple of paw prints, rusty and perfect in a shady corner of the parking lot. The woman adjusted her glasses and snapped a picture. Probably rabid, she said, turning to her colleague. Find it and put it down. Jacqueline lives in Ottawa, Ontario. She entertains herself on long runs by thinking up stories.

  • 2020 Contest Winners -$100 Prize

    Landing Zone's fiction and poetry contest received about two 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 for both categories—fiction and poetry. They stories are readable digitally through the links below. FictioN Winner: "The Moth Bride" Jess Richards Runner-Up: "The Wild" Chris Schacht poetry Winner: "what your birth year says about you" Sophia Bannister Runner-Up: "wanderlust" Alani Hicks-Bartlett You can submit to our 2022 Contest through the submittable link below.

  • In Cryosleep

    The artery is severed, and the lizard that dreams of being human colors its tongue. While the eyes are closed, the heart pumps its remaining quarts of blood. The claws that opened up the cavity are wet, and the lizard slips inside the skull and is reborn. Speak. It understands you. Its fatal embrace will not stop until you promise not to fight it, until you say to it, what do I know? My mind is already slipping. Gregory Kimbrell is the author of The Ceremonial Armor of the Impostor (Weasel Press, 2019) and The Primitive Observatory (Southern Illinois University Press, 2016), winner of the 2014 Crab Orchard Series in Poetry First Book Award. His poems have appeared in Alcyone, Coffin Bell, The Dark Sire, Rough Cut Press, and elsewhere. More of his writing, including his ongoing erased surrealist verse novel, can be found at gregorykimbrell.com.

  • Baby's Breath

    I have always loved the forest. I grew up on a farm as a country-boy in the rural South, and there wasn’t an inch of wooded areas where I lived that I hadn’t explored. Just about every young boy had a .22 caliber rifle and could shoot the hair off a flea’s ass by the age of thirteen. Hunting season never mattered to anyone. Nothing was safe—birds, squirrels, possums, raccoons. And in the country, you ate what you hunted…well, maybe not the birds and the varmints but the squirrels made a tasty stew. I had a rifle, too, but I hardly ever took it off the wooden rack I’d made for it in shop class. I loved being in the woods and didn’t feel the need to hunt. It was the smell of the forest that attracted me most —aromas of pine, cedar, and dried grass, or the musty odor of wet fallen leaves and earth after a rain. I learned to recognize the pathways and trails made by deer through impenetrable thickets. Most people tromped through the forest like soldiers on a mission, mindless and clueless of the order of things—momentary intruders invading nature’s rhythm. To me, the forest was a cathedral. The tall trunks of old-growth trees that shot straight up to the sky served as columns. If God lived in his grand churches, I bet the forest was where he’d come to relax. Often, I’d find a clearing where the sun peeked down through the canopy, and I’d find a fallen tree on which to sit. If I stayed perfectly still and relaxed, the forest would come to life. And the tall pines would whisper to me, soothing me, as a reward for my patience. I attended these places of worship for thirty years, and I was never once disappointed in their sermons. It was at the end of October and I’d driven to a small town in the mountains of West Virginia on my way to visit my brother in Ohio. It was a stunning time of year when the peaks and valleys were carpeted with fiery reds, purples, and violets. There was a nip in the air that when breathed in, tasted clean and fresh with traces of Mountain Laurel. The town of Smithville was more of a hamlet where two twisty, narrow roads crossed. It consisted of a general store, a garage, and a small church with a tall steeple that was out of proportion to the rest of the building. It was as if the worshipers had erected the steeple as a monument to the glory of God, and the tiny building, the church part of it, looked like it was stuck on as an afterthought. It was the only thing odd about the town. The place was chocked with cars with out-of-state tags parked in every conceivable space. Tourists came from the cities in the lower altitudes to view the stunning display of forest colors. Among the Lexus sedans and SUVs, the Range Rovers and convertibles, were the more basic modes of transportation, old worn-looking Ford and Chevy trucks. Their owners were the people who lived in the area’s valleys and hollows for generations. One resident had parked his vehicle behind some out-of-towners and was nowhere to be seen. The driver and family of the blocked-in car, a huge Ford Expedition, milled around, and asked other locals where the perpetrator might be. No one seemed to know. Inside the general store the scene was pandemonium. People poked through the merchandise, people ogled at the tall walls filled with shelves of everything from canned goods, leather boots, to stacks of overalls, and a long snake of them wound through the store to pay at the register. In the middle sat a giant, ancient, pot-bellied stove and firewood, stacked neatly in a pile beside it. Surrounding that were rockers and an old wooden domino table with four chairs. Every rocker and chair were occupied by a local. The overcrowded place gave me the heebie-jeebies, but before I left, I asked one old man who’d obviously grown up in the area the location of a secluded part of the forest I could explore in an afternoon. He didn’t answer at first. I thought he might have been deaf, but his eyes met mine in a hard stare, then softened. “I reckon you’re not like the rest of these yahoos. For the afternoon? Hmmm—the old Campbell place is as good as any. Ain’t nobody there. The house burned down some years back and took the whole family with it.” “Great. So, no one will think I’m trespassing if I take a hike through the woods then?” “They was a queer lot, them Campbells, but they all went up with the house when it burned. There ain’t a one of ‘em left to bother you.” The old man glanced around at his companions in the rockers and smiled. They all nodded and grinned back. I got the impression that he was getting a consensus of approval to let a stranger roam a neighbor’s wood. He gave me detailed directions to the Campbell place. I drove up a rutted track and stopped at the ruins of a burned house with a solitary stone chimney that leaned over the charred remains like a preacher praising the dead at a funeral. I killed the motor, opened the door, and reached for my hiking shoes. The air smelled cleaner here, then the breeze changed direction. My nostrils were filled with the sour odor of charred wood as if the house had recently burned. The charred timbers had fallen, smoldered and settled years ago from the look of them. The odor was stronger than it should have been, but I dismissed it. I couldn’t wait to absorb my experience of the West Virginia forest in the middle of the Appalachian Mountain range. I followed the animal paths that wove through the brush. They shifted a few feet up or down in elevation but pretty much stayed level. I struck out toward a hollow, careful to keep my bearings and waypoints recorded as a back-up in my GPS. I was perhaps two miles from my car when I realized something stood out. Or rather I stood out, standing at the edge of a clearing in a patch of what looked like Baby’s Breath. It grew in bunches where little white blooms exploded from the tops of long stems. Up ahead there was the remainder of a wooden box that lay half-buried in the ground, the top half, rotted from the weather. On closer inspection, it contained something wrapped in a heavy cloth like a blanket that had faded years ago. I brushed away leaves accumulated from countless seasons and grazed the blanket with my hand. The material disintegrated into powder and revealed the lifeless form of a human baby. I stepped back, surprised and appalled. The forehead was long and bulbus, and the eye sockets and face were pushed down toward the chin—most likely from being left to the mercy of the elements than from blunt force trauma. The coloring of the skin stretched across the skull was a deep caramel-color. In spite of my revulsion, I reached down to touch the head. “You leave that baby be.” The rough, hoarse sound of a voice startled me. I whipped around; my heart rate shot up like a geyser. Not ten feet away stood a man. No, not a man—a dead, horribly burned man. His skin and fingers had melted away and what was left, crackled when he moved. Bits and pieces of charred flesh fell from him. He was featureless, no nose, hair, or eyes. His lips were partially consumed as well, leaving one side of his cheek open that exposed stained molars. His entire body was blackened by fire like burn victims in car crashes. In terror, I thrashed around in the thigh-high Baby’s Breath trying get away, but the tall, spindly stalks and the small white blossoms tangled together and entrapped my legs. Breaking free was futile. I stopped struggling and took a few deep breaths. I needed to calm down. And only then did it register what he’d said. “You leave that baby be.” He stood there, facing me. Waiting. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to disturb anything.” The man kept silent. I had the creepy feeling it didn’t matter what I said. And if I could somehow force my way through and out of the patch, he’d know it and I didn’t want to think about what would happen next. More burned people appeared in the shadows, just outside the clearing, standing sentinel-like as if guarding the baby. None had facial features that set them apart, although one had breasts, or what appeared to be melted lumps of flesh on its chest. The man spoke again. “It was that bastard, Tobias Smith. He set the fire that burnt me up, along with my wife and two young’uns. He will suffer the torments of Hell just as we did.” As spooked as I was, I realized that it wasn’t me they were after. This Tobias Smith character murdered the whole family for some reason, but something was off. The poor creature in the box. Who was that? “What about the baby…what was his name— this baby, here?” Another period of silence passed. Then he answered. “The fire done run us all upstairs. We was trapped. Mama wrapped little Samuel in a blanket and pitched him out the window. That bastard Tobias found Samuel and brought him here figuring the varmints ‘n vermin’ll have their way.” So, that was it. They couldn’t leave and go wherever souls go after death. Their spirits stayed to protect the baby. And they did just that, even after it perished from neglect. What torture to be a spirit and to watch a loved one die and not able to do anything. Then, one day I showed up. “I’m so sorry that happened.” I looked down at the wizened creature in the box. “And I’m sorry I came and disturbed your little Samuel. Please forgive me.” I looked up and the burned Campbell family was gone. I glanced down at the baby, still there, and looked up again. The burned family, still gone. I felt free. Relief spread though me. And I felt free to move. I took a step through the Baby’s Breath. Easy. It was no longer a tangled mass. I made my way out of the clearing and headed back to my car. I repeated the sequence of events over in my mind. Other than being scared out of my mind, the spirits never threatened to harm me. They’d been horribly wronged and wanted justice. Or maybe just closure. By the time I reached the car, I knew what I had to do. I drove back to the general store and spotted the old gentleman I’d spoken to before. His long, ungroomed eyebrows shot up in surprise. I squatted down on one leg, level with the old man in his rocking chair. I said nothing but I cracked a grin. “Didn’t count on seeing you this soon, son. Did you find the Campbell place?” “Sure did. I had quite the commune with nature.” The old man nodded and rocked back. He reached down and picked up an old stained can that once contained spit pea soup and spit tobacco juice in it. “Tell me, do you know a man named Tobias…Tobias Smith?” The old man stopped rocking and starred at me hard. The kind of glare that said I’d asked the wrong question. All the old men around the pot-bellied stove stopped rocking too. It was as if everyone in the store disappeared and the old gentlemen around the stove and I were the only ones in the place. “How did you come by that name, son?” “Someone mentioned it. Know him?” The old man’s gaze intensified, his eyes tightened into a squint, probing for a clue. “I know him. Why you askin?” I sensed all the old men catching every word, staring at me, watching for any clues. “Sounds like someone I’d like to meet, that’s all. Is he around?” The old man cut his eyes to the other old men. Their expressions grim. “Don’t rightly know he’d want to meet you. He’s a private person. Don’t cotton to strangers much.” “I just want to say hi to him. And pass along some information.” "What kind of information?” “Private information. The kind he’d be upset not to hear. I’d like to tell you, but it’s for him only.” The old man searched the faces of his companions again. One of them, a big man with long greasy hair wearing worn overalls, leaned close to the stove and spit. It sizzled until it evaporated. It must have been the signal the old man was looking for. He turned back to me. “Tobias is a powerful man around these parts. And he don’t like strangers, like I said.” Another old man piped up, “Hell, he don’t like much of nobody coming round, stirring things up.” “But suit yourself. If you’re so all fired up to meet him, go ahead. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.” The old man gave me directions to Tobias Smith’s house. “Mind the dogs.” Once again, I drove down narrow, twisty roads until I came to a driveway with a big hand-painted sign nailed to a post that read, PRIVATE. KEEP OUT. I turned in. The Smith manse was a huge Victorian affair set in the middle of a front yard of barren soil. Not a blade of grass grew within the border of old railroad ties. The dark, weathered wood siding had never seen a lick of paint. As soon as I opened the car door, two Dobermans appeared from under the house and stood, side-by-side at the ready, growling. No one came to the door. I was startled by a tapping noise. I looked to my right out the driver-side window, down the long barrel of a shot gun. The man holding it was wearing a gold Rolex on his wrist and a threadbare, worn out robe over a stained wifebeater tee shirt. He looked as if he had not seen a bathtub in a week. He nodded for me to roll down my window. It got halfway down before he bellowed, “Cain’t you read the sign?” “I’m sorry. My name is—” “I know who you are. What do you want? Make it quick.” I wasn’t eager to relay anything to do with the Campbells to a man pointing a shotgun at my head. “Would you mind pointing that shotgun somewhere else?” “I’ll point it where I damn well please. This is my property and you’re trespassing. I could blow your head clean off and be well within my rights. Now spit out what you got to tell me.” To emphasize the moment both dogs growled, no doubt hoping their master would provide fresh raw meat in their bowls tonight. Reluctantly, I decided to tell my story. I’d come this far, and I doubt I could say, ‘never mind, I’ll just back on out and be on my merry way.’ “I went to the Campbell place to hike the woods. I like hiking and I like the woods. I ran into some folks you might know.” Smith’s face darkened and he gripped the shotgun tighter. “Who, boy?” “Went by the last name of Campbell.” He blinked, shocked to hear it. “You a goddamn liar. There ain’t no more Campbells.” “He didn’t seem to think so.” “What’s his name, then?” I noticed his hands trembling. That caused the shotgun to tremble. Not a good omen. “Sam,” I said. “Short for Samuel. He wanted me to pass along a message— that he wanted to meet up with you at the old Campbell place. That’s all.” Smith’s face screwed up like a twisted rag with all the water wrung out of it. I closed my eyes and waited for the momentary blast I was sure to come next. It never came. I opened my eyes to find no one there. Smith and his shotgun had disappeared. I looked around. Even the Dobermans were gone. I needed no further instructions; I started the car, backed around, and shot out past the PRIVATE. KEEP OUT. sign barely able to keep the car on the road back to town. I stopped at the general store but saw no reason to go back in. I filled the tank with gas and left Smithville hoping to make the Ohio state line by nightfall. I never was happier to leave a place as I watched the general store shrink in the rearview mirror. At least I had a tall-ass tale to entertain my brother and his family. I’d spent a week visiting my brother. He and his wife were amazed to hear of my adventure on my stop in West Virginia. The first night, after telling the story and drinking several beers, his wife retired for the night while we caught up with each other’s lives. My brother paused in thought for a moment, then asked, “Wouldn’t you like to know if that Smith guy ever went back to the Campbell’s place?” “Naaah, I get creeped out every time I think about it.” The truth was, it was all I could think about the entire visit. So, after fond farewells, I headed for home, via a cautious detour to Smithville. The closer I got to the odd little town, the more nervous I became, but I had to know more. Obviously, my visit to Tobias Smith made some impression. I wondered why he’d saw fit to murder the Campbells and burn down their house. Then again, going back to a place after pissing off the most powerful guy in town wasn’t the smartest decision I’d ever made, but still, I had to know. I arrived around 3 in the afternoon. The peak of the leaf season had passed, only a few out-of-town cars were parked in town. The place looked halfway normal, except for the phallus-like steeple-on-steroids. I had my choice of parking spaces in front of the general store; I pulled into one and got out. There were the same old Ford and Chevy trucks as before but there were more parking spaces than vehicles. The bell over the door jingled as I entered. The last time I came through I hadn’t heard it ring for the noise of the crowd. The store, now empty of humanity, was one long open room from front to back and the shelves half-empty from being shopped, but the pot-bellied stove, the wood pile, and the domino table remained as did the four chairs and the rocking chairs. All were occupied by the same old men. The low murmur of the men playing dominos stopped, the players all turned and starred at me. The rockers stopped. The old man who’d talked with me before didn’t rise from his rocker, nor did he acknowledge my presence. He was expecting me. “Boy, you shouldn’t a come back. You should-a kept on going in whatever direction you was headed. But here you are. And here you’ll stay.” Someone behind me locked the door I’d entered and pulled down the window shades. I’d screwed up big time. “What is going on here? I’m calling the police.” I went straight for my back pocket, nothing there. I’d left my cell phone in the car. The old man observed my dilemma and grinned wolfishly. “We handle our own affairs here in our little town. We see no reason to involve outsiders. Of course, there’s the tourists. They come every year, every season. They come and come and every year they take a little of us back to wherever they come from. Oh, we like their money; make no mistake. But some take more than others—like you!” “I have no idea what you’re talking about.” “Liar! What have you done with Tobias Smith?” “Nothing.” “We ain’t seen hide nor hair of him since you left town. You best come clean now, boy. It’ll be easier on you if you do.” “What? I went to his house and never got out of the car. His Doberman’s made sure of that. Next thing I know, he sneaks up on me and points a shotgun at me. I gave him my message and he disappeared. I got the hell out of there, gassed up my car, and left town. That’s the God’s honest truth.” The old man scowled. “Bullshit. You’re hiding something. What’d you tell him?” “None of your business.” The old man’s scowl deepened for a moment, then he rocked back and picked up his old split-pea can and spit into it slowly. “Tain’t my business? I recon you’ll beg to tell me after we cut off your hand. Tell me now or later. Makes no difference to me, but you will want to make it my business.” I thought about that. I was defenseless and trapped. The old man knew it, I knew it, and so did everyone else. “I told Tobias I’d met someone at the old Campbell place. Samuel Campbell—who wanted to meet up with him at the ruins of the old home place.” “Samuel Campbell? There ain’t no Samuel Campbell ‘round here. You best not lie to me, boy.” “It’s the truth. I thought he was going to shoot me. I closed my eyes. When he didn’t, I opened them, and he was gone. That’s when I got the hell out of there.” The old man rocked back again and scanned the faces of his companions. One guy nodded in the direction of the Campbell place. The old man turned back to me. “Looks like we’re gonna take us a little trip.” Ten people loaded into an array of motley-looking off-road vehicles. They stuffed me between the old man and “a big’un,” a corn-fed boy who took up most of the bench seat in the ’83 Chevy 1500 truck he drove. He was a kid, maybe fifteen or sixteen, with a face full of acne and had a sparce growth of thick black curly whiskers. He needed a bath. The odor was more than I could take. “Hey, could you crack a window. It’s a little close.” No response from anyone. We passed the church with the huge steeple. I asked the old man. “What’s with the steeple?” The old man glanced at me, then stretched his neck to take the tall steeple in. ‘What about it?” Obviously, he thought it was normal. “It’s so…I don’t know…big. Bigger and out of proportion of the church itself.” “Tobias gave the town the money for it.” “When?” “Twenty-years ago, I ‘spect. Said he wanted it tall enough so the Lord would take note.” “Isn’t that about when the Campbell’s house burned?” “Maybe. Why do you ask?” “Could it be atonement for killing the Campbells.” The old man looked at me like I’d grown two heads. “Atonement? I ain’t never heard nothin about Tobias killing nobody. I mean, sure, he wanted to buy ‘em out. They got a sweet parcel of land back in that hollow, but Tobias wouldn’t kill fer it." I told the old man my story about finding the baby. He laughed. Said it was the biggest bunch of horseshit he’d ever heard. “Okay, then I’ll show you the baby’s corpse. Maybe you’ll believe me then.” We pulled up next to a late model Cadillac Deville parked next to the jumbled burned remains of the Campbell house. “That’s Tobias’s car,” said the old man. Everyone got out. They started to form a search party to look for Smith, but I had a feeling where they’d find him. “I think I know where he is.” I said aloud. One of the old man’s companions from the circle of rockers popped up and said, “Where you left his body, you mean?” I didn’t answer. “Then lead on. I don’t like seeing Tobias’s car abandoned. Sooner we find him, the sooner we’ll deal with you.” I didn’t like the sound of that, but I headed in the direction I’d chosen for my previous hike. I wondered if the old man would make it. For the first time in my life the woods seemed foreign. The trees stood mute and barren. The harsh crush of human footfalls in the carpet of dried and lifeless leaves echoed off the wide trunks of surrounding oak, poplar, and tulip trees. A brisk breeze cut through the bare forest to make the moderate cool temperature even colder. I saw the clearing up ahead, silhouetted by trees, but it looked different. I soon saw why. The entire area of Baby’s Breath was dead. The small white blossoms were brown and dry, and some had fallen leaving only the lifeless stalks protruding toward the gray, overcast sky. The baby was gone. It its place lay a blackened fire-ravaged body. It lay on its back, features unrecognizable and rendered into crisp charred masses. One ravaged arm, twisted and contorted, lay close to the body. The other, outstretched to the sky as if imploring the Almighty, or a Campbell for forgiveness. A gold Rolex was half embedded in the surrounding flesh; the crystal shattered from the heat. Everyone surrounded the body and stood in silence like a funeral service. The old man was silent, but when he saw the gold Rolex, he staggered in recognition. He knew. The old man finally looked up and his eyes seared into mine, then they refocused, and his mouth gaped. He looked past me. I turned and saw another burned figure just outside the tree line, and another, and another. All the Campbells were there. The mother stood holding her tiny baby, Samuel. His tattered blanket flapped in the cold breeze. Then they were gone. Later, after the convoy of trucks returned to Smithville, the old man turned to me and said, “Git out of here, boy. Leave and never come back.” I didn’t hesitate. Gordon Smith grew up in rural Mississippi, immersed in its rich tradition of oral storytelling. Facts were never the point of a good story and embellishment was welcome and embraced. Gordon employed his early storytelling talents in his career as an advertising Senior Art Director, spinning short tales into award-winning television commercials. Now, a full-time writer, he returns to his native heritage to conjure stories of mystery and the supernatural. Baby’s Breath is only one of many strange and enticing stories Gordon reveals from the hidden side of human nature.

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