Category Archives: Fiction

Antumbra, by Cory Skerry

As you enter the doors of this school for the last time, the girl who your brother slept with last night brightens for just a moment before she realizes you’re not Jesse. She deflates.

You and your brother should be identical—technically you are—but no one has ever mistaken you for each other.

Jesse comes out the door just behind you, and the girl’s gaze ignites once more. You lean against the lockers, your backpack lumpy against your shoulders, and listen patiently, painfully, as she stutters her way through nonchalance she obviously practiced in front of the mirror this morning.

Jesse shares a mirror with you, and all he talked about was what your next house will be like, your next school.

You had nothing to say about the next school because you like this one. It’s nothing special—it’s a rural school, smaller than your last. Everything is the color of Reese’s Pieces, except the vomit-green floor. You stare at it, at your and Jesse’s white-capped sneakers and Dani’s—Dina’s?—weird purple bowling shoes, stationary pylons in the sea of other feet pattering by.

Work boots shedding dirt, more skate shoes, shiny running shoes, spiked Doc Martens—and a pair of ghostly pale bare feet, the toes so long they could curl around a pencil, the talons stained a dark rust-red.

Your head snaps up, but you see only two bulky boys laden in plaid, ones you named Fox Buckle and Fox Hat in your head. In the second it takes them to pass, whoever—whatever—walked beyond them has vanished.

“Jasper, you okay?” Jesse asks.

“Yeah, I just—” You look around for an excuse, so you don’t sound crazy in front of this D-named girl who might tell everyone, which you shouldn’t even care about since you’re moving again.

Jesse is sharp enough to spot Freddy.

Freddy wears those spikey Docs, a septum ring, and a halo of dark curls. Even though you’ve never said a word about thinking Freddy is cute, Jesse knows the photos you heart on Instagram.

He elbows you just a little too hard. “Last chance,” he whispers, before he turns his attention back to D-name Girl.

He’s right. You think about it, about asking Freddy if he wants to come over tonight and play videogames or watch a movie or something. But you can’t do it. Somehow it’s easy to just put on headphones and a blindfold and pretend Jesse isn’t having sex in the bed next to yours, but you don’t think you could lose your virginity with him playing air guitar across the room, which is the only way Jesse wears headphones. Not even your kissing virginity.

The bell rings.

Your family prays before every meal, and you wish you didn’t have to hold your mother’s hand, because she squeezes like you have a secret, like she knows you.

“How was your last day?”

She asks this for the second time this year, and it’s only May. She pushes back the sleeves of her comfy sweater as she pours herself a glass of orange juice.

“I got everyone to sign my guitar case,” Jesse says. He shovels pancakes-for-dinner into his mouth as if they were his favorite, but they’re actually yours, and that’s why you eat slowly, cutting the pancakes into fluffy squares and savoring every bite as you listen to him talk about a day that won’t matter by tomorrow.

Eventually, there is a lull as he drinks his juice.

“Jasper?” your father asks.

When you don’t respond, he prods, “You okay?”

“You know exactly how I am.”

You leave the table and go outside. You don’t slam the front door, but you think you would, if you were a different person.

Jesse will be your only real friend until you go to college, and even though you love him, you cannot help but hate this truth, hate hate hate. Your social media accounts are ripe with followers, but it’s just the wretched evidence of how many times you bonded long enough for them to feel bad deleting you. Thousands of ghosts of the friendships that never were.

You’re afraid if you stay on the porch someone will come out to Talk to you, so you shuffle down the weed-dappled sidewalk.

At your last house, the neighbors had carefully coiffed shrubbery and plants that weren’t allowed to touch one another, stranded in clinical strips of shredded bark. You saw only one car that looked over ten years old—a restored classic that had a crank engine, sleeping in someone’s garage. Everyone was retired and they kept inviting you to church, pointedly, especially when you wore pink.

The place before that was an apartment complex where the neighbors smoked on the stairs and “forgot” to empty their ashcans, and everyone had cats but no one gave them flea meds, and it stunk like piss and despair any time you opened your tiny window.

This house is Goldilocks perfect, even if there aren’t enough bedrooms. You feel like you belong in this quirky cottage, nestled in a neighborhood quilted together by gradual changes in zoning laws, with a multitude of toys lying on the sidewalk and happy, stupid dogs snuffling at dilapidated fences. Everyone has an ugly vegetable garden, and sometimes there are signs that say “Take some!”

You almost walk to Freddy’s house—you know where his family’s mobile home is, resplendent in year-round Halloween decorations. But even if Jesse thinks it’s a good idea, even if Freddy miraculously feels the same, you know what your parents would think.

When you return, you overhear Mom and Dad whispering as you slink past their window. Even though you know you shouldn’t, you pause.

Mom: “…Keep this up, we just can’t.”

Dad: “But if we don’t, they’ll catch…”

Some indistinct words and then Mom again: “We never should have stolen…”

These words are abstract poetry, pretend-intrigue from a life you know your parents can’t possibly have, but these words are also the sharpest of their kind, and they stab deep into your thoughts.

You’re still wondering what it means, if they’re secretly on the run from the Mafia or if they’re Russian spies or maybe just playing a sex game (unhear, UNHEAR) when you clamber through the window into the room you share with Jesse.

There’s a plate of soggy pancakes sitting on the desk and a wet ring where there used to be a bottle of lemonade beside it.

Jesse sits on your bed, not his, sipping the bottle. “I got sick of waiting for you,” he says, as if that’s an apology, so you sit beside him while you eat, his arm and leg warm against yours.

“You know Mom and Dad love their jobs,” Jesse says in a low voice. “All these kids we’ve met, their parents hate their jobs. They argue all the time.”

You shake your head. “They could keep doing it,” you say, even as you wonder again if they really are travel writers, if they used to be bank robbers or if they’re still hackers, assassins, recruiting for a cult. “They could travel, and write about it, and just come home in between.”

“We might be old enough to drive, but someone would still call CPS,” he says. To change the subject, he hands you a sack from under your pillow, and you already know what’s in it, because you can feel the cool cylinders through the paper.

“This town will remember us. Blue or yellow?” he says, and for a moment, you stare at the spray paint and think about explaining yourself to the deputies or getting hit by a train or just not being good at tagging.

Screw it. “Yellow.”

Jesse pulls on a black hoodie — your black hoodie, but you keep a spare because you’ve known him for sixteen years — and you follow him out the window.

Jesse climbs down first, unafraid of the dozens of spiders with tangled webs that have beaten you to decorating the train trestle. Even at dusk, the metal beams are warm from hours of sun. Your palms sweat, but the river is only twenty feet below—if you fall you’ll get wet, and it’ll ruin your phone, but you’ll survive.

Jesse paints two dragons 69ing, borrowing your yellow for the flames that cover the genitalia. You concentrate on writing your initials in bubble letters. They’re the same as Jesse’s, so it’ll double as a signature for his piece.

The secret is, you don’t mind being you. You used to casually mention that you’re not as popular, not as fun, not as adventurous, but people acted like you might be suicidal. Now you know: They don’t want to be a shadow, so they think you don’t, either.

You’re still painting when Jesse invites you to jump in with him. The water below is slow and an unappetizing brown, and you’re about to offer to hold his clothes for him when he’s already leaping off, can in hand. He sprays it in the air as he goes down with a whoop.

He splashes in, bobs back up—and a few feet behind him, something else rises. A discarded foam Halloween skull, with skeleton hands? No, a live thing, like a human but paler, with bulbous, dark eyes and rust-colored nails on the tips of its too-long fingers. It reaches toward the trestle. Toward Jesse.

Its thin fingers are only a couple feet away, and you know if you yell at Jesse he will turn and look instead of just swimming away, so you throw the can of paint as hard as you can. It spins through the air and crashes into the thing’s face, which dents like a boiled egg before spewing black bubbles.

It sinks immediately, but you imagine it under the surface, reaching for Jesse with those bony fingers…

You yell at Jesse to get out of the water with more authority in your voice than you’ve ever used. He complies and nimbly jumps up the bank, then runs along the rails straight toward you, as if he thinks you’re the one who needs help.

You clamber up onto the top of the trestle before he can reach you, leaving only a JR without the Z, because you need to get Jesse home.

You grab his hand, his wet sleeve partially covering his palm and squelching under your grip, and run.

He doesn’t ask questions-he probably assumes you’re just chickening out—and you let him.

When the two of you reach the end of your street, you slow. Red and blue lights blink with lazy regularity in front of the quirky cottage, and there are shadows on the lawn.

Everyone is furious until they see that Jesse is wet, and he uses it to smooth things over. “We went for a walk and I fell off the park bridge,” he says, and even though that’s a whole mile from where you were, and the water there is much shallower, they buy it because Jesse exhales white lies as easily as he inhales air.

“Please, let’s all just go to bed,” Mom says, and you let yourself be shepherded into the house, but you don’t let go of Jesse’s hand, and even though he gives you a curious Look, he allows it.

The deputy shakes your parents’ hands, and they’re all smiles until they shut the door.

Mom catches sight of a strand of weed draped over Jesse’s shoulders, and as she draws it away, you see it’s actually many strands of waterweeds that have been woven into a necklace. There’s a white stone in the center, the size of a pea.

“Where were you?” Mom’s voice is thick and wrong.

Jesse smiles placatingly. “I told you—”

“Did someone who looked like a model lure you away?” Mom demands. “The devil never looks like the devil—”

“Did you follow music?” Dad interrupts. “Or a beautiful light?”

The Look you and Jesse exchange this time is mutual, because Mom balances her checkbook nightly before she goes to bed while Dad falls asleep playing the uncool kinds of videogames, and they both shop at Sears and are afraid to eat sushi because it’s raw. They’re painfully ordinary, until this very moment, when they are insane.

Mom looks down and notices that you and Jesse are still holding hands. Her face crumples and she joins Dad, who is already crying. “We’ll talk about this later. Don’t leave this goddamned house again, do you understand?”

Jesse inhales, as if he’s about to ask questions or argue, but you tighten your grip and lead him to your room.

“What the hell is wrong with them?” Jesse asks, and you almost tell him what you heard, that maybe your parents are on the run.

That you’re not sure what they stole, but you’re starting to think you might know who wants it back. You open up your laptop and type in a few things, things you never thought you’d be saying to Google, but it’s “lady in water with teeth” that gets convincing results.

Before you can tell Jesse, he whispers your name and points at the window sill. Someone has nailed the window shut, not neat, but messy, with so many roofing nails crammed together that they are splitting the wood.

“Maybe they’re on drugs,” Jesse says. “Like a mid-life crisis kind of thing.”

“I don’t think so,” you say. You share the fruits of your eavesdropping, the feet glimpsed in the hallway, and the true story of what happened at the trestle.

“I think it was a… a jenny greenteeth,” you say, and your lips feel like a chicken must feel when it shits out an egg. The words are so foreign, they stretch your ability to say them to the person you love most. “It’s… a faery. Mom and Dad must have stolen from them.”

Jesse shrugs, but you can see everything in the way he avoids your eyes. Your stomach clenches in a ball, and you are about to cry like Mom and Dad.

Maybe you are going crazy. Jesse’s never been perfect, but he’s always been right. No regrets, extraordinarily confident in his momentary cruelties and sudden gifts, strangely innocent and canny all at once.

“We’re not twins,” you whisper. You don’t mean to say it aloud, but it spills out, because you’re so used to telling him everything.

“I’m going to shower,” Jesse says, and you beg him to leave the door open, so you can be sure he’s still there, that they haven’t managed to take him.

But when he shuts the door, for the first time ever, the lock clicks.

You drift off in spite of yourself, because for over an hour you have been using every available neurochemical to process this day, and now you feel like a papery exoskeleton.

When you wake again, you aren’t sure why. It’s not dark, but when you pass your hand over the screen, your phone swears it’s 12:01 a.m.

After a moment, you realize the light isn’t coming in through the window—the light is standing just inside the window, a slender figure in robes made of moonlight. Their—her?—hair is the same ghostly pallor as her skin, and her eyes are the glossy, wet red-black of movie blood.

“How’d you get past the iron nails?” you ask, because in your groggy state, this is the first question you have.

“I have ways,” the figure responds, and her voice is seed pods rattling in an autumn wind.

“You can’t have him,” you say, and you glance toward Jesse, who is predictably sound asleep, one hand still curled around Mimmussy, the tiger he’s had since he was a baby.

The faery pulls the moonlight around her shoulders, as if it were a blanket, and settles onto the edge of your bed. The springs barely compress, as if she weighs no more than a stack of towels.

“Why not?”

“Because he’s my brother and I love him.”

“Even though everyone likes him better?”

You snatch the salt shaker from the bedstand and flick it toward the folds of light and the wet eyes.

The faery’s horrible shriek is muted, as if it’s happening under a blanket. The light folds in on itself and blinks out.

Now you can’t sleep. You lie in bed and stare at Jesse drooling on his pillow, his dark lashes stark against his cheeks.

You imagine life without him, without lying to cover up his antics, without being able to coast on his social skills, without someone who knows sixteen years’ worth of your feelings, failures, triumphs, and in-jokes.

It smells like sausage in the morning, and when you and Jesse sit down at this dining room table for the last time, you find a breakfast banquet.

Jesse, who inconveniently slept through your guest last night, stuffs his face with sausages and omelet and begins talking about the new house’s lake access and how he’d like to learn to kayak.

“A person in glowing robes came into our room last night and threatened us,” you say calmly, as you slice into the single sausage on your plate. “I salted them.”

The air is heavy, and it feels like you’re stealing silence with every quiet breath.

“Good job,” Mom finally says.

“Stop me if I get anything wrong.” You cut into your sausage again: perfectly even slices that fall into a line like collapsed dominoes. “Sixteen years ago, you had a baby. The faeries stole him and replaced him with a facsimile. The moment you saw him, you knew he wasn’t yours.”

You and your brother are supposedly identical, but no one has ever mistaken one of you for the other.

“The new one—it didn’t cry,” Mom whispers.

Your fork pins the omelet down like a dead butterfly, and your knife cleaves it, again and again, until there is a grid. “You never went on an expedition to the Andes. When you tell your hiking stories, they’re about a trek to Underhill, where you stole back your son—but you’d already fallen in love with the magic baby, the one that’s too perfect to possibly be real.”

Mom and Dad stare at you, and for the first time, you realize how exhausted they must be, running from mythical creatures for so many years. Had your parents ever thrown salt that smoked on a faery’s eyes or swung iron to leave bubbling welts against its flesh? Are they freelancers, or are they warriors?

“They are both perfect,” Dad says, and he closes his eyes, his voice croaking as if he’s never used it before.

Jesse drops his silverware. “Why are you all doing this? Do you hear yourselves? Please tell me this is a joke.”

“It’s not a joke, Jesse. Your parents are thieves.”

The new voice fills the kitchen, and you all turn to see a tall, pale person with a crust of enormous sparkling gems glued to her skull. Last night she wore robes of moonlight, and today she wears a red dress embellished with cicada husks. A cloak of shadow coils about her shoulders, rippling like water, wisps snaking off and disintegrating in the sunlight.

She wiggles her long, many-jointed fingers, and the cloak flows from her shoulders and pours across the floor, sprouting up into indistinct grey golems of many shapes and sizes. Each is translucent, but you can tell by the way the floor creaks under their weight that they are real.

Three of you reach for the salt shaker, but you are too slow; fingers of shadow grip all of your wrists and bind you to your chairs.

“At least we gave you something in return,” the faery goes on. “At least we were fair.”

Mom’s face purples, and you almost don’t recognize her as she snarls, “When I stepped inside your bone hut, you were smearing bird blood on his penis! Directly out of the bird!”

“You know nothing of our ways, mortal,” the faery snaps.

“You’re savages!” Dad roars. “Monsters.”

“Witches,” Mom adds. “We raised two good Christian boys, healthy Christian boys.”

“But what is good? Has my boy been given the leisure to learn a place down to its very roots? To fall in love?”

“Shut your filthy animal mouth, he’s ours, HE’S OURS!” your father shrieks.

You feel like you’re in a car wreck, where you can see the other vehicle spinning towards yours, and there’s nowhere to go, just an impact to brace for. Some vehicular damage is permanent, can never be hammered out and painted smooth, just the way that you can never unhear your parents’ sick words.

You and Jesse share one mutual glance before his eyes wander up to the person who really made him. You wonder if he’s going to go, if he’s going to leave you.

Light refracts from the faery’s cap of gems, sending rainbow rays across your soggy cereal. Her gaze finds yours, not Jesse’s.

“Come with me, my child. You don’t belong here, and you never have.”

The words hang in the air, their meaning so colossal you have a hard time bending your perception into this new paradigm, one in which you are special and otherworldly.

How much would you have to love someone to become a fugitive for them, and what of the hollow-eyed parents whose children end up on milk cartons?

“Am I made of sticks and mud?” you ask.

“You will never again be what you once were,” the faery says. She might as well have said yes. She gestures toward you with pianist fingers. “Nothing binds you, child, for you are one of us. Make your choice.”

You ponder the alchemy that makes a live creature from organic detritus. About what must lie dormant inside you, like turtles sleeping under winter mud.

You wish away the cool grey fog-snakes, but not just from your own hands. You wish Jesse free.

“Thank you, Jasper,” the woman who pretended to be your mother says, but you don’t unbind her, and her face pinches when she realizes this.

“Don’t be ungrateful, Jasper. You have no idea what we saved you from. We Saved you.”

Jesse meets your eyes again, and everything is familiar and right for a tiny, iridescent moment in the sucking swamp of nonsense that has swallowed both of your lives. You know your brother, and your brother knows you.

“You guys kidnapped him,” Jesse says to your parents. “You literally stole a baby.”

Jesse grabs your hand in his, and it’s dry and firm. Yours is sweaty, but you squeeze back as you turn to face the faery.

“You made me as nothing more than an escape plan, so you could get away with a crime. How could you think I’d want to go with you?”

Jesse grabs your hand, and you squeeze back.

“Go ahead and keep our bank account full,” he says to your parents.

You meet the faery’s eyes. “You go ahead and leave us care packages on our porch.”

“We don’t want to see you, any of you. We need some time,” Jesse says, and it’s just what you wanted him to say.

As you walk out of the room, all of your parents begin arguing behind you. You slam and lock the door and pour salt over the carpet.

“Lake house?” Jesse asks, his eyes pleading. You loved this place, but you already knew Jesse would be your best friend until college, and you can hate hate hate it all you want, but you love love love your brother.

“Lake house,” you agree.

He throws a chair through the window, and even though you roll your eyes when he yells, “Dude, I’ve always wanted to do that!” you dutifully cover the jagged shards with a pile of bedclothes so neither of you cuts yourself on your way out.

Cory Skerry divides his workday between writing the impossible, illustrating the outrageous, and assisting individual authors and small presses who want their manuscripts to exceed reader expectations. When his current meatshell begins to decay, he’d like science to put his brain inside a giant killer octopus body, with which he’ll be very responsible and not even slightly shipwrecky. Pinky swear. For more, visit inkshark.net.

Fae & Strange & Beautiful

Lake Mouth, by casey hannan

My mother walks up dizzy from the pier with her mouth open and her arms out and dripping. The lizards on the boardwalk drop their blue tails to get out of her way.

I’m on the patio swing saying it’s a tough living dyeing my own wool and spinning it into fancy yarn. Peggy tells me to shut up and worry about my mother. My mother vomits algae on the patio, and I get worried.

My mother says, “Don’t you kids look. It’s just my vertigo.”

The kids are me and a few old women in shorts. The old women push me inside the lake house and block the sliding door with their clotted bodies. I sit on the floor and trace the black veins from leg to leg through the glass. The veins are black because they’re full of ants. If the old women get cut, the ants will escape, and the old women won’t have anything to carry their granulated blood to their hearts.

My mother married into this family. She doesn’t have the right blood for the lake. Linda told my mother how a ghost would swim up in her if she went out on that raft, but my mother comes from country people. They learn by doing. My mother is learning right now. A ghost from the lake is caught in my mother’s stomach, and it’s teaching her what it means to be a stubborn individual.

A cloud of mosquitoes blacks out my mother’s hair. Sandra looks at her phone.

She says, “I’m calling it.”

Linda says, “This whole situation makes me want to spit. Get those mosquitoes out of her hair. Those mosquitoes don’t get to be part of this.”

I knock on the glass. It hurts. My knuckles are sharp, and my skin is thin. It’s something about my parents’ combined genetics. I’m hardy and fragile at the same time. I bleed at the joints when I make a fist. My blood isn’t ants. It’s just blood. Before my father died, he taught me to squeeze that blood into jars and keep it the right temperature for if I need it later.

He said, “You can do more with blood than it says on the box.”

He’s right. I’ve used my blood to dye wool the perfect shade of brown.

Peggy hugs open a Christmas tin and eats a cookie.

She says, “Your poor mother.”

Peggy was made to stay behind the glass with me. Her sisters are out there telling my mother how not all dizziness is vertigo. My mother’s screaming a story about the first lake people.

Sandra says, “Someone should record this. I don’t think we have this one.”

Linda says, “I’m not going to be involved in that. This woman has her rights to privacy.”

Peggy gives me a cookie and says, “Your mother will be fine. Eat this cookie, then we’ll go out front and play a game.”

I eat the cookie. It has raisins. I can’t digest raisins at the lake. My stomach turns them to gravel. I puke the cookie into a red plastic cup.

Peggy says, “I know. The lake takes getting used to. My first time here, I found out I couldn’t whistle. We lost a puppy that way. He started running toward the lake, and I tried to whistle for him, but nothing came out. He ran right across the water on a bridge of snakes.”

The lake is a man-made finger of blood-black water on the border of Virginia and North Carolina. It’s a culture shock like when I was in Australia and used the toilet paper to the last square. The last square was glued to the roll. I cried because that’s not how it is in America. In America, the last square comes clean.

On the other side of the glass, my mother says, “Brother Bill Agnes dressed as an old woman and secured a place on a lifeboat. That was in April of 1912. Grandmother Will was born a year later to Sister Viv, a lapsed nun who made pies out of sawdust. All Sister Viv’s children were allergic to trees.”

Peggy reaches behind my ear and pulls back two lit cigarettes.

She says, “Let’s go play that game.”

Peggy and I go out on the front porch and sigh into rocking chairs. A noiseless fighter jet goes over the trees and unzips a formation of geese. There’s an Air Force base nearby. The geese crash in the yard and shit the sand to mayonnaise. Peggy says when she and Linda and Sandra were kids they would grab the geese by their necks and swing them over the house and into the lake. I think that’s a feat misremembered.

I tried grabbing a goose once, but the goose grabbed me instead. I had to climb a tree to get away. My hands got cut up on the bark. Sap fell into the deepest splits. My hands healed up bumpy, so now I have hard beads in my palms like a pearl necklace held and absorbed.

I thought the sap might have poisoned me because my fingernails started growing faster than normal, and I had this urge to scratch people. My mother would hug me, and I would pull up divots of skin from her back. One of those times, I pulled up a mole and its network of cancer. My mother let out a sound like a motorcycle.

I told her I was a poisonous monster because of the sap in my hands.

She said, “No, honey, look. I’ve got pencil lead in my neck from a thing that happened on accident, and your father says I’m good ’til I die.”

The boom of the fighter jet catches up to us a minute after the jet’s out of sight.

Peggy says, “That’s what ghosts sound like when they’re not sitting in your stomach. If you put your head down in the lake, you can hear the ghosts screaming like a really big shell put to your ear.”

I say, “I know what ghosts sound like. My father had a bad ghost take him over a few years ago.”

Peggy says, “I didn’t forget.”

I say, “You said something about a game.”

Peggy says, “Yeah, the game where we smoke these cigarettes and just shut up because there will be enough talking in the morning, and the geese want to talk now.”

The geese start honking. I yawn. Peggy looks at me like I’m ruining the moment. I yawn again but in my closed mouth. My eyes water like I might cry.

I’m the oldest of the younger cousins this year because Ashley, the real oldest cousin, had a baby, and the baby’s already doing that thing where he looks over Ashley’s shoulder at things that aren’t there.

“He sees spirits,” Ashley says when she calls to make sure we’re all still alive.

I tell Ashley my mother’s been hit by a long-winded ghost. Ashley says that’s a shame and a tradition. She says to give everyone her love. I tell her blood is love at the lake.

She says, “You know what I mean.”

Ashley didn’t tell me being the oldest cousin came with responsibilities. I have to get the younger cousins drunk but not too drunk. One of the old women gives me 50 bucks to buy her some cheap bourbon. She tells me to keep the change. I spend the change on vodka for the younger cousins. Peggy helps me pour the glasses.

I say, “This is weird.”

Peggy says, “They’ll need it to sleep in a house that’s always talking.”

Peggy and I decide to split the rest of the bottle. This would be a good time to cry and ask about my mother, but I know ghosts don’t give up easy. I look out the window. There’s too much fog to see the lake anymore.

Peggy says, “That’s the body of the ghost. If you go out tonight, try not to breathe it in.”

Peggy coughs some ants into the bottle.

I say, “My mother won’t talk again, will she?”

Peggy says, “Well, your mother’s staunch, so she’ll probably try.”

I call the younger cousins into the kitchen, and they get their drinks and head to the basement. Peggy says I should go with them.

She hands me the bottle and says, “Don’t you leave this shit vodka with me.”

The stairs to the basement are covered in carpet that’s always a little wet. I run down the stairs, and it feels like I’m running on rum cake. The younger cousins are sitting around a card table and flicking poker chips at each other.

Matt says, “You know what you do with these?”

I say, “They stand for money.”

Matt says, “No. They stand for America. This one’s red, this one’s white, and this one’s blue.”

Matt takes a drink and starts coughing.

Lee says, “I know. This one’s really strong.”

Katie says, “Yeah, this one too.”

All the younger cousins take cat sips and talk about how they can’t wait to get out of wherever they are. Lee’s the only one who isn’t a blood cousin. He’s the neighbor. His teeth cross like swords. Katie has a thing for messed-up teeth. She’s been all over Lee since we got here. She texts me and asks if I think it’s OK for her to keep going. I tell her it would be fine if Lee weren’t gay.

Peggy yells down for me to move her car closer to the house so it’ll be easier for her to pack tomorrow, if there is a tomorrow. She laughs and shakes a pill bottle. The other old women come running.

Lee says, “I’ll go with you.”

Katie stands up and pulls down on the legs of her shorts.

Lee says, “Just me and your cousin on this one.”

I say, “Yeah, there might be snakes out,” which is stupid because we all know snakes take to the water at night. They float on top of the lake in loose sex balls, roaring like a gas leak in a small town. Every morning, there are clusters of fresh eggs knocking the pier legs. Linda and Sandra cut the eggs open and use the undeveloped snake babies for fishing bait.

Katie says, “OK, guys. What. Ever.”

Lee and I hit the gravel. I try not to breathe the ghost fog. Lee trips over himself like he got drunk off three sips of vodka. I tell him to keep his mouth shut and his nose shut and just breathe with his mind.

He says, “No can do, but I’ll race you to the car.”

Lee grabs my hand, and we run through the fog to Peggy’s car where we suck in the clean air and pass it between our mouths. My tongue counts Lee’s crooked teeth. I want to ask if his teeth hurt arranged like that, but my mouth and his mouth are the same for a while. I can taste where I smoked a cigarette earlier, and so can Lee. He sucks on my lips to get it all out.

Lee tells me he’s moving to California to sit in a chair on the beach and talk about what he believes. He doesn’t know what he believes yet. He thinks if he starts talking, he’ll know.

Lee asks me what I believe.

I say, “I believe my mother still has a lot to say.”

Lee says we don’t believe the same things.

I ask Lee if he’s met any of the ghosts from the lake. He says no. I take his shirt off and say, “I’ll show you a ghost in the morning.”

The fog is lifting. Lee swallows all the spit in his mouth.

“No,” he says, “you won’t.”

My mother is sitting on the pier in the morning, and the ghost has left her. I can see her skull through her skin. She says it’ll pass when she eats, but she’s not hungry.

The water under us is black and iridescent as motor oil. I tell my mother I’m not hungry either. She says I smell like I ate all night. She coughs, and no algae comes out, but her breath is still green.

Lee comes down the boardwalk, and I say, “Mom, this is my special friend.”

My mother grabs a post to stand. I see all her veins at once like purple lightning.

She says, “Don’t do this to me right now.”

Peggy yells that breakfast is ready. My mother says she needs to try to eat. I say we’ll be up soon.

Lee and I get on our bellies on the pier. We look in the water for ghosts.

I spit in the lake, and the lake spits back.

Casey Hannan was born in West Virginia, raised in central Kentucky, and has lived and worked in Kansas City since 2003. He graduated from the Kansas City Art Institute in 2007 and has continued to develop his literary and visual art practices in tandem. He is the author of two books, Mother Ghost (Tiny Hardcore Press) and The Three Woes (Spork Press) and can be found at caseyhannan.com.

 

Shimmer #46, November 2018, 2100 words

Other Mouths:

Black Fanged Thing, by Sam Rebelein

Fallow, by Ashley Blooms

The Wombly, by K.L. Morris


Streuobstwiese, by Steve Toase

Kate’s been out on the roof again. She’s drawn her finger through salt the color of wood ash, the sigils barely holding together on the terracotta slope of the tiles. The gutters are clogged with yellow fat, and dead hares whose eyes are gilded in gold leaf. Across the valley a field of barley whitens with mold and blight.

I coax her back through the casement and hold her while she whispers curse words into the damp cotton of my shoulder. Her breath smells of bonfire smoke. She does not sleep.

I know where the artist’s bones are. Deep in the clay below the Gravenstein apple trees. Root-wrapped and smeared with grease. The fruit tastes slightly of marrow and damp cloth. It is not an unpleasant flavor.

Something has been killing the hoopoe, leaving their plucked bodies in the orchard’s long grass. Their scorched beaks have been torn free and sealed tight with honey. Kate does not come down here often, though she can see the trees from the house. I pick up the corpses, the loose feathers, and drop them into a burlap sack, the one I normally use for harvested fruit. Later, I bury their small bodies in shallow graves.

“I didn’t mean to,” Kate says, and I know she’s telling the truth. “He scrubbed out the salt. I don’t know why he scrubbed out the salt.”

I look at the line going around the house. A single footprint has worn through the white powder, tread still visible. He lies on the corner of the porch, eyes wide and blinded with mold erupting through his jaw and across his tongue. Even though the cartilage in his throat has turned to dust, he still tries to speak.

“You need to finish what you’ve started. It’s not right to leave him like this. To leave him for me to deal with,” I say, but even as I finish speaking, I know she can’t. She never can. We keep two large apple presses behind the house. I use the second one, and later burn his uniform down at the far end of the orchard. The wind will carry the char of smoke down the valley, away from us and the town.

Kate sits, her back against the pollard’s bark while she knits. I watch bees flit from blossom to blossom. The day is calm and bright, her needles clattering against each other. I’m glad she’s come down amongst the trees. The air is full of the scent of fresh grass, crushed by our footsteps. I force the scions into the cleft cut in the rootstock, take out the chisel and seal the graft with wax from a single red candle.

Afterwards, I’m not sure how she distracted me to get at the tree, but she managed to. The glyphs are small and precise, carved with the tip of her knitting needles. I know she has good intentions. She sees the gaps in the world, and needs to close them. I’m grateful. How can I not be, but I wish she would tell me. Speak to me. I dig up the tree and the surrounding soil. There are still unburnt scraps of uniform on the warm embers. I push them deep into the flames as the dirt-covered roots start to smolder.

We are low on food, so I take some of last year’s crop to the village to sell.

“Had a bonfire?” Carmen in the grocers asks. I know what she wants to know. I stay silent. I’ve hidden most of the scrying ingredients in the house, but Kate is inventive. Instinctive. I can feel her watching even when she isn’t.

“Burning old scrub,” I say, putting the basket on the counter. There will be extra cash, too, but I will stash that away for the winter.

“We’ve seen the hut again, Rachel. Glowing between the trees,” Bill says. He stands by the window and does not turn as he speaks to me. I have not seen the hunting lodge appear, but it does not surprise me.

I notice the clattering first. Hundreds of barbed fishhooks fall from the sky onto the road outside. This is not Fortean, but a threat. I step outside, and the downfall pauses long enough for me to get to the car before intensifying once again to trap Carmen and Bill inside the store. I see their faces pressed against the lettered glass.

The sky glitters. Kate has done it for me. Setting the clouds on fire and letting them fall like forgotten fireworks.

“This won’t last, you know,” she says, slipping her arms around my waist. “We just need to make the best of it.”

The streamers of light twitch as they hit mist rising from the river.

“Already fading,” I say, and she sighs, unhooking her fingers and walking away.

I arrive back from the orchard and cannot get into the house. The porch is covered in wax bees, their wings fluttering against the rotting wood. The day is warm, and the wax soon melts. The insects inside fall to the ground, suffocated. I try not to step on them, but there are too many, and they rasp as I make my way inside. The hives will be empty now, and many of the trees will not fruit.

The artist only ever gave Kate one piece of art. An old installation never taken by a gallery. She keeps it in the cellar, no other room big enough to display it. On the day he delivered it, he pulled up the lane in a battered white van. With our help he dragged out the hospital gurney, ants and beetles already suffocating in the thick smear of honey across the metal.

After he left, Kate would eat the sweetened insects, dedicating each death to a goddess whose name only she knew.

In the morning I scour the river bank, collecting torn shrapnel from a plane’s fuselage. The registration number is scorched beyond reading. There is no one to tell.

I take Kate by the hand and she leads me down to the orchard, though I am the one who asked if we could go. Paperweights of dew slide from the grass, glisten on the skin of her bare feet, and for a moment I am transfixed. We reach the orchard, and it is worse. Even Kate gasps. The elm trees are no longer seedlings, their granite branches resting on the crowns of the apple trees, crushing the Berlepsch and Weirouge to pulp.

“There are two thousand,” she says. She reaches up and plucks a leaf, lets it fall. Silica in the rock glistens like dying stars.

“There need to be zero. They are killing the apple trees.”

I do not ask where the stone has come from. Whether she grifted it from some family quarry in a nearby village, or erupted and cooled a volcano far through the earth. I think I can smell bone in the rock. I do not ask.

Someone has been to the house. Aftershave lingers around the porch, a light reek of citrus and alcohol. I let my hand rest on the door handle, peering through the frosted glass for any bundles in the hallway that do not look like they belong. Kate is sitting on the stairs.

“The visitors went away,” she says. Her knuckles are red-raw where she’s torn skin to lace. I nod. It was lucky they did. I know what she was planning to do. I’m glad she didn’t feel she had to.

She has found the artist’s cap and is wearing it, long hair bunched up inside. Sat in the dark. The room is heavy with the reek of sweat-stained wool and all his lies.

When he was alive, he never took it off. The thing with lies is they have power. He knew that and wore them like ribbons.

Kate uses them to create other things. These falsehoods smell of mildew. I glance at her arm in the little light coming from the window. She is sprouting jackal fur in the crook of her elbow. I reach into my pocket for the tweezers, ready to pluck it out hair by hair. Root by bloodstained root. It’s the only way, or it will spread and she will be his by morning.

Later that night I take the hat down to the meadow and try to burn it to ash. The flames dance across the weave. I wedge it into the crook of a pear tree. I know it will be back in the attic by morning.

They’re not taking our apples in town anymore. They say that the crop is tainted. Kate wants to come to the town, to support me. I can’t let her. The way they’ll react to her. The way she’ll react to them.

I wake up in the middle of the night and go to her room. She’s sitting on the edge of her bed, window open. I can hear flies buzzing across the fruit as their offspring burrow through apple skin. The scent is sweet and warm and collapsing. I walk across to shut the window and she says nothing.

“You need to stop,” I say.

“What will happen, will happen,” she replies. Her face is turned toward the floor, shadowed and hidden. I cannot tell her reaction. There is a scent of burning willow and pine. Sap bubbles out of her fingertips and drips to the floor.

I tell Kate that after enough blossoms have fallen in the meadow, the artist will find his own way back through the soil to knock on the door. She asks about all the wasps that drink themselves to death on apple-rot cider, slipping between worm castings and mole burrows. I do not have an answer for her that is not a lie, so instead I tell her a truth: Wasps never stay under the earth for long, dead or not, before they steal skeletal leaves for wings and return.

We drive into the town. It’s the first time Kate has left home in five years. She sits in the back, the window closed even though the day is one of the hottest of the year. I can smell myself on the recycled air inside the car.

I turn us down the main street. People are sitting under parasols, drinking ice-crowded drinks and eating chemical- flavored ice cream.

“They’re staring,” Kate says, shrinking down in her seat.

“They’re not,” I lie. “It’s far too warm to pay attention to anyone else.”

But she does not believe me. My lies are brittle children, and they do not live long around her.

The beetles are small and black and crawl out from inside the doors, up over the car’s windows, scratching the glass with their feet. Soon they obscure the view outside, the temperature inside climbing as the sunlight bakes their carapaces.

I put on the wipers to clear the windscreen, but there are too many, and they smear as they are crushed. I slow down. I can hear them crawling along the petrol pipes, drowning in the fuel and filling the tank. Their dying bodies clog the air vents, sealing us from the world.

I could explain that this spectacle of death is draping us in attention. That people who had not noticed our progress through the town center are now leaving their houses to watch. To stare. I do not. Cars are not the only things that can be suffocated with dying insects. We abandon it beside the road and walk home through the orchard.

“We need to make the circle bigger,” she says. I am too distracted by looking after the fruit to pay any attention. To give her any attention.

The salt crosses the track up to the house, crystals fresh. Along the ditch are two rows of salt pans, evaporating in the sun, stone tacky with clots.

There are two people on the back porch. She has slit their throats with sharpened oak leaves. Wrapped them in blankets that do not cover their injuries. Through the fabric I see bones like larch poles snapped and splintered. The last of their blood, the little she did not harvest for crystals, has seeped across the floor. Flies from the rotten apples sip their fill.

“What was I supposed to do?” she says, I take her arm and lead her back in. Her hands are stained with yellow pollen. I do not know which flower it comes from, but I wash it down the sink.

“It was very quick,” she says as I scrub her hands with the nail brush. She winces as the bristles catch her knuckle scabs. I say nothing.

I did not want to leave her for the night, but accountants don’t come where we live. Carmen and the others must have seen my car go. Took their chance to try and stop Kate. They did not succeed. From a distance it looks like the visitors got together to help manage the orchard, but Carmen and the others aren’t pruning the tree. Accelerated branch growth has woven its way through their veins, splitting their muscles from their bones. Their teeth will be the fruit harvested in autumn. I find Kate amongst the windfall, arms around her knees.

“We need to make the circle bigger. All the way around the fields,” she says, but I know that no salt circle will ever be big enough to keep the world out. Maybe we’re two faces of the same monster, me and her. I hold her close and ignore the sound of shattering jaws from the canopy above. I lace my fingers through hers and lead her back to the house.

Kate has covered all the furniture in calico, thick and muffled. Mice tug the fibers loose and hoard them behind the wooden slats in the walls. I stand in the middle of the room and look around at the chairs, the sofa, the cupboards. The piano. She brushes past me and sits down on the stool. Her hair is curled with honey that drips down the back of her dress. I try not to gag at the sweetness. She rests her hands on the covered keys and underneath, hammers strike taut, muffled strings.

“When he made the original one, he meant it to be silent.”

I’ve barely finished speaking before I know I’ve made a mistake. She stands and walks over, placing each foot with grace. Running a finger through her hair, she coats my lips with honey. The sugar turns to skin and I have no mouth. She returns to the piano stool and continues to play.

Later that night she wakes me and runs a fingernail across my face. The mouth is not mine, her memory is not that precise, but I am glad to be able to speak.

“I’m sorry,” she says, and I want to answer, but even with my speech returned I cannot bring myself to reassure her.

Wilted blossoms fall around us as we stand in the middle of the orchard.

“They’re dying,” I say, and she nods. The trees can take only so much grief. Absorb so much death before their roots wither in the ground.

“I can make them come back,” she says, and I appreciate her offer, because it is truly given, and comes from sadness, which is her most powerful ingredient, but I shake my head.

“Even if they do, there are no bees,” I say, and before she offers to fix them too, I hug her, and we sag against each other like two trees planted too close.

There are routes she does not know. Routes I have masked from her with honeysuckle and knots of uncarded wool buried in old lemonade bottles, the necks sealed with glass marbles and apple pips. I buried them long ago, pressing them down into the dirt of the path, below stiles and between hawthorn trees. The fog of them gets lost in the fog of her thoughts.

The basket is heavy, and split-willow rods rub away the skin of my forearms. Kate is having a good day.

“I can come and help, Rachel,” she says. She never uses my name. There are only two of us. It sounds crystallised on her tongue.

“I’m fine,” I say. “I’ll be back for dinner. I have my lunch in here.”

She smiles, and I do not notice at the time how brittle it is.

I should not have drawn her attention to the basket. There is food in there, but not for lunch. Enough to get me beyond the hills.

The route is blocked with brass rods running from thorned branch to thorned branch. She is sitting on the fence, wrapped in calico. The trees reach out and entangle me before I can move. Blood beads along my arms and hardens to ladybirds that scratch far more than the thorns.

“I couldn’t carry on,” I say.

She nods and strokes my arm between the wounds to give me ease.

“I know, and I’m sorry.”

I wake up in the fruit cellar, lying on a metal gurney. It is dented beneath my spine, and I cannot get comfortable. Across the room she has arranged the artist’s bones, a pile of wet soil on the concrete where she has sifted for his fingertips. Without moving, she drags the gurney toward her. The hare is nestled in her lap, blank-eyed, gold-leaf crumpled against its lashes.

“I won’t be him, you know,” I say.

“I know,” she says, smiling. “I will have the best of both of you.”

This is a lie she speaks with the full knowledge of its nature.

His skeleton doesn’t quite fit in my skin. Splinters of bone embroider my muscles, which are too short to stretch across the new femurs. My own are a fine powder coating my diaphragm and lungs. Already, infections are spreading from the clay she did not clean from the time-pitted surface of his spine. Vertebrae are in the wrong place. I do not know if this is intentional or carelessness. There is pain, but I cannot scream. She has stitched my mouth shut to stop my face slipping from his skull. She has kept my hands free to make the new artworks he never finished. The fingerbones are too long for me to hold the tools she has prepared. Soon she will strip me back to her artist’s bones, and I will be little more than fat clogging the drains.

Steve Toase lives in Munich, Germany. His work has appeared in Lackington’s, Aurealis, Not One Of Us, Cabinet des Feés and Pantheon Magazine among others. In 2014, “Call Out,” first published in Innsmouth Magazine, was reprinted in The Best Horror Of The Year vol. 6.  You can keep up to date with his work via tinyletter.com/stevetoase, facebook.com/stevetoase1, www.stevetoase.wordpress.com and on Twitter @stevetoase.

3100 words, Shimmer #46, November 2018

Other Orchards:

Fallow, by Ashley Blooms

All the Red Apples Have Withered to Gray, by Gwendolyn Kiste

Gone to Earth, by Octavia Cade

Shimmer 2018: The Collected Stories

The final collection of Shimmer stories is here…

This gorgeous volume collects our final year of stories. Cover art by Sandro Castelli. This book includes:

  • Black Fanged Thing, by Sam Rebelein
  • An Incomplete Catalogue of Miraculous Births, or, Secrets of the Uterus Abscondita, by Rebecca Campbell
  • Me, Waiting for Me, Hoping For Something More, by Dee Warrick
  • Held, by Ian O’Reilly
  • The Triumphant Ward of the Railroad and the Sea, by Sara Saab
  • They Have a Name For That, by Sara Beitia
  • The Imitation Sea, by Lora Gray
  • If a bear…, by Kathrin Köhler
  • Faint Voices, Increasingly Desperate, by Anya Johanna DeNiro
  • Gone to Earth, by Octavia Cade
  • What the Skeleton Detective Tells You (while you picnic),
    by Katherine Kendig
  • You, In Flux, by Alexis A. Hunter
  • The Passenger, by Emily Lundgren
  • Milkteeth, by Kristi DeMeester
  • Bleeding Through the Shadows, by David Rees-Thomas
  • Rapture, by Meg Elison
  • The Ghost Pet Detective, by Ryan Row
  • By the Hand That Casts It, by Stephanie Charette
  • Find On Your Body the Bruise, by Maricat Stratford
  • Lighthouse Waiting, by Gwendolyn Clare
  • Dead Things, by Becca De La Rosa
  • Rotkäppchen by Emily McCosh
  • The Witch in the Woods Falls in Love a Third Time, by Kate Lechler
  • Streuobstwiese, by Steve Toase
  • Lake Mouth, by Casey Hannan
  • 40 Facts About the Strip Mall at the Corner of Never and Was, by Alex Acks
  • Antumbra, by Cory Skerry
  • The Time Traveler’s Husband, by A. C. Wise
  • Tyrannocora Regina, by Leonie Skye
  • Rust and Bone, by Mary Robinette Kowal
  • From the Void, by Sarah Gailey
  • Thistledown Sky, by Stephen Case
  • Ghosts of Bari, by Wren Wallis

You can find it in paperback and Kindle! Thank you for your support of Shimmer through the years!

The Witch in the Woods Falls in Love a Third Time, by Kate Lechler

 

Here’s what nobody told you yet: I loved both those girls.

The story as you probably heard it goes, once upon a time, a witch met your great-great-grands in the woods, blessed the good sister, cursed the bad. The sweet one went on to marry some jumped-up slick-faced city boy, while the sorry one lost herself in the woods and was probably eaten by a cougar.

That’s true as far as it goes, but the truer truth is that I intended neither boon nor bane. Since I split from my mother like a sprout from a seed, I had never laid eyes on another human ’til they came. When they did, the only words I said were words of love, declarations of devotion. How they twisted when they passed my lips, I couldn’t say.

The first sister came by my hollow on a fool’s errand, looking for water from a dried-up spring. I should’ve stayed hidden but when I saw her—petal-soft, virtue-bright—I filled like a cup with longing for something I never knew. I told her so.

Shaking like a spooked rabbit, she tried to talk. Instead she choked up garnets and emeralds, spat spring beauties and azaleas. Her quartz-cracked lips brushed, bleeding, against bearded iris the way I wished she’d brush against me.

She didn’t brush against me, not even as she scrambled towards the road heading to town. And I never got her name to call it after her.

A while later the next one showed up, champing at the bit for the same blessing. Alive with greed and cunning—for fame, for riches, for a better-looking fellow than her sister’s—but mostly just alive, a smile coiled in the corner of her mouth. I knew I should stay quiet but I burned like foxfire, cold-hot all at once at the look of her. My words this time laid eggs in her belly, slithered up her throat.

Last I saw of her, the blunt head of a kingsnake was slipping past the muscle of her mouth, making its way into the open air.

I loved them so much, they choked on it.

Believe it or not, I own a Bible. I know what the Good Book says. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was God.” But I learned that, god or not, the word infects. Say the words too hasty—”I like you,” “you’re beautiful,” “stay”—and the knowledge bleeds through the back of time, altering anything that came before. Like gunpowder in a mine, it detonates in the brain and body, a tingling at the base of the spine, the soft hairs of the arm raised up in surprise.

Love lays its eggs in the lover, too. Like a worm no thicker than a hair can crawl inside the brain of a cricket, take a creature made for jumping and singing and make him head for water and drown himself. Love takes hold of the mind and sets a new course, steering from a cabin of meat and hormones, locked in on the object of desire. I could no more stay away from those girls than an ant could leave the scent trail leading to its nest.

Is there anyone who can remain unchanged in the face of love?

After those girls left me, love turned inward, cancer-like, became hard, slick, spongy. I waited in the hollow like a seed in an airless cave, while love bubbled up, bloomed out, snaked through my guts, squatted in my throat.

My body betrayed me. The only use for my eyes was looking at theirs. The only use for my nose, smelling them. My fingers itched to touch their arms, their cheeks, their perfect thighs. Love tore at me until I fell apart, a clatter and mess of bits that didn’t match any more.

Now you.

I don’t know how long it’s been. You’re the third to arrive—great-great-grand-niece-or-other of the two before—when you park your blue hatchback up the road and stalk through the undergrowth towards that spring. At dusk, you set up camp in the hollow, and I watch the neat bones of your wrists as you tie down the rainfly, read the murmur on your lips as you hum along with the battery-powered contraption you brought.

I do not come out.

Love presses words under my tongue, into the soft roof of my mouth. I wake with them tangled in my hair, pressed to my cheek like crystallized tears. I crouch like a waxcap mushroom, gilled with love, breathing clouds of spores, hoping for one of them to root down into the thin skin on the back of your hand, to come up spelling desire.

If I knew writing was safe, I might chance it. Drop verses through your day like maple keys. A sonnet folded like a flower peeping from under the edge of your tent. Haikus rain-slicked to your windshield.

But I learned the price of speaking long ago.

Kate Lechler’s work has appeared in Fireside Fiction, Podcastle, and Kaleidotrope, among other places. She teaches British literature at the University of Mississippi in Oxford, Miss., where she lives with her husband, a cat, a ghost-dog, and seven fish. When she’s not at school, you can find her sitting on a lawn chair in her carport, writing about genetically-engineered unicorns and dragons.

850 words, published November 2018, Shimmer #46

Which Witch:

The Earth and Everything Under by K.M. Ferebee

In the Pines, by K.M. Carmien

Hic Sunt Leones, by L.M. Davenport

Rotkäppchen, by Emily McCosh

artwork by Emily McCosh
artwork by Emily McCosh

 

The wolf arrives the same day Adeline buries Hugo on the edge of the woods, her boy’s grave forming a raft of upturned earth between two trees, just far enough from the fens that he won’t be drowning. She watches two young village men blanket him in icy soil. His shotgun leans against a nearby tree. His hunting knife is tucked under her shirt, against her back. Bone handle followed by colder steel. A second spine to hold her upright.

Behind her, the villagers’ thoughts cover her like a summer heat, so oppressive and consistent she drowns in it. Bears, bears, bears. In winter. Bears.

Her daughter-in-law, Irene, seems to wither under the unspoken worry, all the eyes on her and Adeline’s granddaughter. Adeline touches the other woman’s hand but doesn’t speak—they’ve never been close—and thinks vaguely of wolves. The pressure of their paws on the undergrowth. The heat of their breath. She hums Hugo’s name silently in the back of her throat and holds her granddaughter like a shield before her.

There is a wisp of fur in the long shadows of evening that follows her home.

Her house is not much like her own grandmother’s, but there are several oaks hemming it like old giants. She cracks the window to her bedroom, letting leaves and the occasional leftover acorns find their way onto her floor. Winter air creeps in. She doesn’t sleep. Her body is cold stone under the covers, her face feeling liable to crack.

Some of Hugo’s things are packed between the night-table and bedpost, smelling of pine, sharp and sure. His coat, she has laid across her chest. Like cracked mud or dying bark, a shield of brown fabric against the night. Adeline concentrates on crying and can’t manage it.

When she smells the creature outside, she turns her face into her pillow and refuses to acknowledge the fact that there are paws and teeth and the heady scent of the woods on the other end of the door. Her granddaughter is a mile out of the trees, nearer to town. She hardly knows the girl, and her mother even less. Hugo left these woods for a time, returning with a woman foreign but kind, a daughter in his arms. Adeline loves the child, but hardly knows her granddaughter’s eyes.

Her husband is in the dirt, as her son is now. The house feels quiet, though it’s sheltered only her for years.

Does her granddaughter sleep? There must be many village men awake and on guard against the winter bear that took Hugo. Rifles across their knees, coffee warming their bellies. She must be safe for now. Adeline wonders if the little girl feels the other, not-quite-here things in the woods.

There are paws on her doorstep. This she knows rather than hears, and knows it until she peels back the blankets and puts her bare feet on the wooden floor. Quiet as can be managed, she puts a match to the lantern and lifts the latch on the door. A halo of light cuts across the porch. She doesn’t wish to look long at the illuminated beast waiting for her. She is alone, but not in need of company. Words stick in her throat for too long

“Come to tell me my boy’s dead, you’re a day too late.” Her voice cracks. “Buried him in your woods.”

The wolf is quite larger than the ones that roam in packs, thinking of hunger, hunger, the trees, and sometimes the moon and her stars. They are indifferent to men and women, take only spare moments here and there to be curious of children. They are not this. This reminds her of her childhood. The hands of her grandmother. The whisper of a new cloak around her ankles. Teeth. A hunter’s ax.

Hunter. Hugo. Adeline shakes herself.

She wishes to close the door. Hugo’s shotgun is beside her own at the door. Her limbs protest sudden movements and long walks these days, her eyes don’t like the dark, but her hands know the work of the weapon. Deep down, she knows the shotgun isn’t needed. This is not that wolf. This one whines at her words, for however much wolves understand grief. This is an old friend, but Adeline’s son is dead, and she has no time for the worries of wolves and bears, for the quarrels that foxes start with badgers. The world doesn’t have much time for these kinds of fairy tales any more.

But the whine starts an ache in her chest. You don’t send someone away into the winter woods. Shame over the thought of casting the wolf out mixes with the guilt of ever letting her son set foot between the trees. She lets the door fall open.

He finds the woodstove humming with coals and settles. Mud and bits of leaves are left where his paws fall. His winter coat is matted, and Adeline wants to pick the twigs from it. She approaches slowly, taking a wide loop to the side so he sees her before sidling closer and putting water on the stove to boil. Kicking a pillow closer, she sets herself down. The flame from her lamp and glow of the coals through the cracks of the stove’s door fills the house with ghosts.

“I watched you bury him,” the wolf says, and Adeline finds that a strange comfort.

“Thank you,” she says. Wolves don’t much bother to care for human problems. Not even the one warming himself by her fire.

She leans close enough to stoke the fire back to life. Bitter copper fills her nose, strong enough she can taste it on the back of her tongue. Too much blood today. First, her son’s. Now something she can’t make out in the darkness. She leaves his side long enough to splash her face with water and return with the lamp and clean cloths.

“What happened?”

“I knew a lark that befriended a hawk once. A storm came in spring so bitter and sudden the lark’s eggs froze in her nest—”

“Must it be a grieving story tonight, wolf?”

She has no name for him she can speak. She knows him like a familiar smell or an ache of recognition, the same way she knows when winter has started. Any time she’s asked him for a name, he tells her a story. Sometimes she can peel them apart, find some meaning at the core. Many times, they’re gibberish.

“You are a grieving story tonight, Adeline.”

Her throat burns for a moment so brief she isn’t sure it’s real pain. So carefully it’s hardly even a touch, she brushes her fingers against the edge of his hind leg. The fur is coarse. Heat from his skin makes her cold fingers tingle back to life. The growl in his chest seems automatic, for he lays his head down and keeps his peace the next time she tries. Something has gouged the flesh around his ribs. The shape of the wound is suspiciously tooth-like. Large-jawed.

Bear, she thinks again, suddenly certain of her diagnosis.

It’s been too long since she’s been to the village—she cuts away fur and does her best with what her garden provides. The whole place smells of herbs and oils.

“Once the bear king came out of his winter sleep still tired,” the wolf says; Adeline starts when she hears the word out loud. “He could not hunt nor scavenge and grew more and more ill over the hot days of summer. He slept early in autumn and never woke. Miles away, a new cub was born to take his place. But she was a tiny little thing in her mother’s paws. When one of her kind went mad in the snows, she was not yet old and strong enough to protect her woods.”

They are quiet for longer than Adeline can count. “I think that was the most straightforward thing you’ve ever spoken.”

“The bear…”

“It will be killed.”

“You’re sure of that?”

She isn’t, and her silence speaks to her doubt.

“I am too old for a mad bear, Little Red.”

Adeline puts her hand under his armpit, against his chest bone where his heartbeat taps against her palm like a mothwing. She knows enough of wolves and their panting breaths and hot quick blood to feel dull worry at the slowness of it. Today’s loss has left her nerves splintered, and she feels the weight of the late night. Though the wound is large, it is not deep. This is a sickening Adeline does not understand. Has the entire world fallen to it? She thinks it must have, in this winter where her village is afraid, her son is dead, and her friend…

“That’s not my name,” she says, an old argument. “And I’m too old for you to be dying on my floor, wolf.”

He blinks lazily at the light of the stove, and Adeline throws a blanket over him despite the trouble he’s brought her way.

“There was once what you humans would call a king in his castle—”

Adeline bolts the door for the first time since she was a child, draws every curtain, and curls before the fire like a wolf pup against her old friend.

A thing for certain Adeline knows about wolves: They are mostly not dishonest.

People are quite the opposite, she’s found. Most lie. Sometimes, you’ll find one so honest it hurts. It’s almost laughable that the first wolf she met was intent on deception. He was friendly. Liked the red of the cloak her grandmother made her and wanted to meet the woman. Adeline had been dreaming of wolves since she toddled about on baby legs trying to make friends with the moths and scarecrows. She dreamed of the wolves’ hunting and their eyes. The sharpness of their noses and slopes of their tails. This wolf walked beside her, and she could listen to the otherworldly rasp of his voice as he told her how much he favored the cakes she was bringing to her grandmother.

Later, she figured he liked the cloak not at all, or because it was the color of blood. She knew afterward why he wanted to meet her grandmother.

She saw the other wolf—not the silver-tongued one back in her grandmother’s cottage split down the belly like a fish—while she was behind the outhouse, retching up everything she’d ever eaten. He had the strangest expression. Eyes far too large. Human. She was ready to scream when he ducked his head and stepped away non-threateningly.

“I am sorry.” His voice sounded like he wasn’t used to speaking. He trotted to the side of the house, his nose touching the window frame, before slinking back into the trees.

She saw the hunter hauling the carcass of the creature that had almost eaten her whole.

Her mother forbade her from venturing into the trees after that, and her grandmother came to stay with them for a time. That very night she’d slipped out the window in her nightgown. The village sat in an opening in the woods, miles and miles of trees beginning a dozen yards from her parents’ house. It was spring. Heavy dew hung from the grass, wetting her toes and the hems of her gown. The moon was full, and she wanted to howl at it. When she found the wolf lying at the edge of the trees, she sat on a fallen trunk nearby.

“Are you a fairy tale?” she asked. A dream?

“No.”

“Why did you apologize to me?”

“Because I protect my kind. And I take care that they do no wrong,” he said, and told her a story about the animals he watches over, and the way the trees arrange themselves.

When she was much older, Adeline taught her son to always beware wolves, but never to hunt them.

A rattling on the door wakes her. The fire has died. The kettle atop the stove is stone cold. Warmth seeps into her skin from the wolf’s snout resting on the side of her waist, but she’s cold down to the bone. She puts a hand on the floor. Her hips, knees, shoulder, neck, even her ankles ache from sleeping on wood. Age does not suit her.

A knock follows the rattling. “Grandma? It’s Fern. Are you there?”

The little girl’s voice is solemn, and Adeline is half awake but vaguely angry. Surely Irene is here as well, but they should not be here, walking through the woods in the morning light, with a starving, rabid bear hunting for all the food it can get.

She glances at the creature beside her, his dark eyes staring unblinking. People are not so ready to believe in magic as they once were. There aren’t many around who will remember a time when you could strike a friendship with a wolf.

“Go into my bedroom,” she says. “In the closet in the back.”

She rises with some difficulty and unbolts the door. The air outside is an icy wave, slithering through her thin nightgown and the blanket over her shoulders. Snow floats on the breezes like scraps of tissue paper, taking their time to disappear onto the ground. The beginnings of an approaching storm. Six-year-old Fern chews on her littlest gloved finger and blinks up at her. Irene stands down off the porch with Albert, one of the bigger young men in the village. A shotgun is slung across his shoulder, and Adeline nods at him approvingly. Irene is not as foolish as Adeline’s sleeping mind imagined. She pulls Fern against her, covering her shoulders in the blanket she wears. The girl wriggles a bit but doesn’t pull free.

“Everything well, Irene?”

Her daughter-in-law looks like she hasn’t slept an hour this last night. Her eyes are dim, skin dull, shoulders bent. She wrings her hands around the handle of the basket of food she’s brought. Adeline figures her own face probably looks just as drawn.

“We think you should come stay with us a while, Mama. At least until that…” —the word catches in her throat, and she visibly glances into the trees— “monster creature is caught.”

Adeline used to bristle against the girl saying the motherly name, but it made Hugo smile, and she’s lost any will to keep up those thoughts. Irene isn’t quite ready to live amongst the trees, but she’s a good girl. She loved Hugo. Instead, Adeline imagines Hugo’s grin whenever it happened, the one tooth on the top row of teeth a hair shorter than the rest.

When Adeline’s grandmother came to live with them, leaving her little cottage in the woods, she never went back. She spent every day with them, and although Adeline cherished having the woman closer, she didn’t fail to notice the way she stared into the trees, how the animals of her mother’s garden came to her, but she never really went back home. Adeline might be able to stand it—never walking these paths again, never sleeping with the eyes of the forest just outside her wall—but this is where Hugo grew up. And she has a friend to care for.

“I’m all right, girl. I don’t go out much in this weather anyhow.”

Irene sucks her top lip in between her teeth, eyes trailing after Fern as she wanders Adeline’s porch. “You’re sure nothing’ll happen to you? You won’t go outside if you think anything’s out there?”

Adeline smiles a little. The movement cracks her face as if she hasn’t done it in ages. “I can keep myself to myself. I promise.”

Irene nods and sets the basket on the top step of the porch. Adeline is reluctant to leave the door, but steps forward to take it, genuine gratitude curling in her chest. She doesn’t need the provisions, but the younger woman means well. For the little time they’ve spent together, it’s more than she expected.

“You should get on back before this blizzard rolls in. It gets colder than anyone’s business out here in the winter.” She looks at Albert and manages to keep her voice level. “Anyone see that bear?”

She doesn’t miss the slightest downturn of his mouth, the pull-together of his eyebrows. “Markus thought he saw something last night on the edge of the woods. Huge. Shaped like a bear. But he filled it with enough lead to kill ten bears and it disappeared. Figures it must have been a shadow. Nothing would live through that.”

Adeline swallows thickly, a strange sensation rolling her stomach. Do they truly believe it was a shadow? Albert’s jaw works, his eyes on his boots or the trees. He’s frightened, and Adeline feels she should be as well. Instead, the dull ache that started last night in her chest becomes a pounding thing with teeth and claws. She feels sick. She wants to know what fairy tale out there killed her boy and sheds bullets.

“Mama?” Fern drapes herself over the porch railing. “Did Papa hunt bears?”

Irene makes a noise like someone’s punched her, quiet and low in her throat.

“Yes,” Adeline says gently, half-hearing her own words. “And it was a foolish thing he did.”

Fern blinks up at her, her eyes drifting down through the crack in the door and widening. When Adeline glances back, she sees her wolf still slumped by the stove, his head propped up against the leg of a chair, watching them. Her mouth opens with some half-formed explanation, but Fern only stares at her in wonder, a smile tugging at the corner of her mouth. She lets her grandmother steer her back down the steps to Irene.

“I’ll come by when the storm has calmed. With a present for you.”

“For me?” Fern grins enough to show the gaps in her baby teeth.

“Just for you.”

Irene looks like she’s trying to smile but can’t quite manage it. She takes her daughter into her arms. Adeline touches her shoulder. A pitiful comfort.

“Albert?” she says after they’ve turned away. The young man looks over his shoulder. “If any of you see that bear, shoot it, but don’t get anywhere close to it.”

He frowns but nods, glancing from side to side all the way down the path until the woods swallow them. They know not to stray, and to walk with quick steps.

Inside, she tells her wolf, “That was a foolish thing to do. I told you to hide.”

He lays his head down, whining once, unmoving under the weight of whatever ails him. It is quite possible he cannot get up. Quiet fills the house. Adeline itches in her skin, almost ready to shuck it off and run for the mountains far from here, where men and women do not exist and the forest is a thing without shape or meaning. She imagines the toenails sprouting from her fingertips, the thinning silver hair on her head becoming thick and short, enveloping her like a coat.

Her wolf is still watching her. “Why do you think those things, Little Red?”

His voice is a touch of wind, raspy and hardly-there. Adeline takes a few creeping steps forward, brushing her fingers along the top of his snout. He can’t know her strange dreams. Not really.

“What things?” she asks without thought.

She drags on a heavy coat and brings firewood in, slowly, pieces at a time, covering the outside pile with an old tarp. The snow sticks to the ground now, throwing a layer of dirty white across the world. Her house warms slowly. She heats gruel for herself and feeds him bits of salted pork she softens in hot water.

“What gift?” he asks.

Adeline stares at him evenly. His wound is not all that severe, just as she thought, and she feels a strange bitterness at him coming here to die for a reason she can’t understand. She feels small and old. Unequal to the task. The resentment fills her with shame.

“The gift for your granddaughter,” he clarifies. “You said you’re giving her a gift.”

There is a chest under her bed filled with many things. Hugo’s baby shoes. Her husband’s wedding ring. Black and white photos so grainy only she really knows the faces on them. Adeline pulls a length of thick red wool from its depths. She unclasps the front of the cloak and puts her face against the rough fabric. It hasn’t been around her shoulders in decades, but smells of pine and soil nonetheless.

“I remember that,” he says when she’s taken a seat in the chair beside the stove. She pulls out her sewing things and begins hemming the length of the wool, bringing in the shoulders and making the hood smaller. When she’s grown, Fern can cut the threads and make it long once again.

“Tell me why you weren’t frightened that day you saw me.”

Adeline doesn’t expect the question—he doesn’t usually ask them. “I don’t know. I’d been sneaking into the forest and trying to talk to the animals my entire life. And I was frightened of you, I just wasn’t quite ready to give up on whatever magic I thought I saw. Tell me how you became who you are.”

She expects a story, but receives a very straightforward, “The same way anyone becomes the way they are: They’re born.”

“Is that all?” A disappointment she can’t understand overtakes the worry in her chest for only a moment.

“What more did you want?”

Something beautiful and believable, she supposes. Or horrible and believable.

“I was born before there were war-planes in the sky and the trees became parted by trains. There was a boy I knew once who was much like you. He talked to flowers and sought time with the animals though he was still very small.”

He pauses long enough she asks, “What happened to him?”

“He found a dying badger. She told him he could dance with them. Become one with the dirt and the worms and the heartbeat of the woods. When she died, he took her skin upon him and ran with badger feet through the world.”

“Did he ever return?”

“He would visit his family, but only his sister could see him as the little brother she held dear.”

Adeline pulls out a crooked stitch. “And you’ve come here to die on me as well? Like my husband and my son?”

Grief is a tangible thing sometimes. She can hear it in his breathing, see it in the way his face crinkles around his eyes. Maybe wolves are better at heartache than she thought. The stitches she makes in her granddaughter’s cloak begin to blur, and Adeline thinks this is not what should be making her cry, even if they aren’t real tears yet.

Her wolf lays his head on her feet and sleeps.

Hugo was four years old when Adeline first took him deep enough into the woods that the only paths were the kind made by the paws of animals. The whole place smelled of summer heat, the soil hot and baking where the sun cut through the trees, her tongue heavy with the scent of pine sap. Hugo ran ahead and jumped from every fallen log while her husband, Paul, held her hand. He was a carpenter and a good man, quiet and stable. Even without fully understanding her relationship with the trees and the creatures in them, he accepted what she knew and didn’t question the way she knew it.

He’d met her wolf years ago, and although he wouldn’t speak to the creature, Paul let him eat from his hand, and his eyes held only curiosity. When she wanted Hugo to meet the wolf, she was answered with a smile.

“Mama, where are we going?”

“To meet a friend, little bird.”

“Out here?”

“Indeed,” she said, and her husband chuckled.

They didn’t find one another in any particular way. Adeline knew that if she walked enough, he’d eventually find their path.

“Mama, a wolf!” Hugo’s voice was a whisper anyone could hear.

She took Hugo by the hand and pulled him onto a log so that he was eye to eye with the creature. Her wolf looked curious, and vaguely amused. He snuffled Hugo’s mussed hair and loped through the trees while her boy chased the matted fur of his tail. Hugo was too young to understand what he was experiencing, his giggles echoing off the canopy of the woods. Beside her, her husband laughed and laughed at their boy’s wonder.

It attacks someone else.

When the storm has blown itself out, Adeline maneuvers her wolf onto a blanket and drags him into her bedroom with more than a little difficulty. Tucking him into the corner where no one is likely to look, she leaves a pan of water and throws another quilt across him. He slept through most of the storm but licks her hand as she prepares to leave, and she kneels by his head to stroke his ears.

“Do you fear walking that path alone?” His eyes are heavy-lidded.

“No.” She doesn’t feel that’s the right answer. “Fear and I aren’t cooperating since Hu…”

She chokes on his name and her wolf does not push. “Will bullets even do us any good?”

He sighs long and slow, like the air won’t leave his lungs. “I don’t know. It has a touch of magic same as you and I. And I… I wasn’t ready to be fighting it.”

There is a despair in his voice so deep it matches the ache in her own chest. She kisses the corner of his eye and walks the path with Hugo’s shotgun under her arm, her granddaughter’s new cloak tucked into her coat.

Frigid air still rustles the trees, but no snow blinds her way, and the path is free of any life.

The village spreads before her like the forest taking a breath, but she sees a group clustered at the entrance of one of the cottages. Not Hugo’s. Not Irene’s and Fern’s, but Adeline feels something lodge in her throat. She’s known the faces of the people around her all her life, feels their concerned eyes on her as she squeezes through the throng to get to the nearest window. Albert sits at the table, his disfigured arm being cleaned by the doctor. Adeline looks away.

“Mama, Mama, Adeline.” Irene’s fingers wrap around her upper arm, leading her from the window. Her eyes are red.

“What happened?”

“It—the bear came into the village. Albert shot it right in the head but it ran off like it wasn’t nothing, good God. Did you walk here by yourself?”

Adeline nods half-heartedly, allowing the younger woman to lead her back to the house Hugo just built for them. Fern blinks at her from the kitchen table but jumps to her feet when her grandmother opens her arms. She puts her face in the girl’s hair and breathes, her scent something like Hugo’s but not quite.

“I have something for you,” she says quietly, unfolding the blood-red cloak from her coat. Fern’s mouth forms a little O as Adeline drapes it around her shoulders. “Keep it on when you go into the woods. My grandmother made it for me, and I changed it to fit you.”

“It looks like poppies,” she says, enamored of the little brass button used to clasp it in the front. Adeline likes that imagery more than anything she could come up with.

She kisses the girl and puts her lips beside her ear. “It’ll be over soon. No need to be afraid. I love you, little bird.”

She is aware of Irene watching them the way one feels the eyes of animals in the woods, curious and knowing at once. Her daughter-in-law follows her outside, where she left the shotgun leaning against the wall in the flowerbed.

“You can’t walk back alone.” She pauses like she knows her own words aren’t right and tries again. “What are you going to do?”

Her voice shakes like pine needles in the breeze, her hand at her neck, lower lip unsteady. Adeline thinks of her wolf taking his last breaths in her house, and of the little boy that danced with a badger’s skin until he became one. Wolf’s magic is old; only Adeline’s body is.

She hugs Irene, taking her skinny shoulders into her arms until the girl cries. She gives her a kiss on the forehead same as she gave to her granddaughter. Her throat begins to burn, and doesn’t stop as she takes the path back home.

It growls when she reaches her porch: the creature behind her. The bear is large, but not much more so than her wolf. It’s ragged and ghost-thin, unlike anything she’s ever seen. Pale fur blotches its skin, the roar it makes when it steps forward alien and strange. Adeline fires three shots, backing up the steps into her doorway, sobbing like a madwoman. The bear snarls and flinches from the bullets long enough for her to bolt the door behind her. She can hear its paws on the porch, claws against the door, but her house stands strong and proud as the day it was built, and Adeline lets her son’s rifle lean against the wall.

Her wolf is where she left him, breathing deep, too-slow breaths. His eyes watch her through exhausted slits.

Despite the soreness from the other night slept on the floor, she curls around him, weeping into his fur.

“This is not a story, not really,” her wolf tells her, his breath on the inside of her palm. “You are not the only friend I’ve had, but perhaps the best. I know when I’m ready to be in the earth. Your boy crossed my path as I came to find you. He saw my weakness and carried me. The bear crossed our path, and I could not help him fight it.”

The night is quiet, and Adeline’s body is unmovable, as if the weight of her tears and their shared grief is something to be felt and wrapped around her. She’s not released him from her embrace.

“I know what you’ll do,” he says, soft as the night. “For your granddaughter. I think it’s good. I did not tell you that the boy who danced in the badger’s skin heard her voice within his heart until he, too, laid down into the earth.”

Relief is a breath of air that finally reaches her lungs, a sharp knife against her sorrow. “Good.”

He whimpers softer than a breeze, kissing her fingers with a weak tongue.

“You were there with him?” she asks.

“Forgive me for my weakness.”

Adeline’s arms form a vise around him, her face in the rough fur of his neck, “Always, wolf.”

His pelt comes off like air, solid and musky in her hands. Nothing awaits under the skin but bones that dry and crumble the moment air touches them. Adeline wonders if this is what she will look like inside once the deed is done, and weeps through the task, though his heartbeat has long faded.

On the bed are Hugo’s things, and a few other treasures she doesn’t want lost to time. Irene will find them soon enough.

She sheds her clothes in the cold, cold night, opening every window, breathing out Hugo’s name and kissing goodbye the world he knew.

She wraps her new skin around her. For many minutes the wolf is nothing but a wet, warm fur around her old flesh. But she feels it like a birdsong far off, a little pinch in her chest that fails to hurt but leaves her on her knees nonetheless. Salt from her tears mixes with the bloody skin. The walls of her house become confining and narrow, and she slips out the window on four large paws that guide her through the trees, muscles crawling along her back and legs and neck, itching to be used. Her heart pounds like heavy wheels on a train track. A thousand smells fight for her attention. Her tail brushes the back of her legs.

Focus, something inside her says, and a yip of bitter joy at the familiar voice breaks apart her chest.

She smells the bear by the village, all madness and maggot-filled meat. Like a dream, a shadow under the moon, she lopes away from her human home.

In the spring, Adeline’s granddaughter finds a wolf on the edge of the trees. The girl wears her grandmother’s poppy-red cloak, and the wolf’s dark fur is veined with silver. She remembers the mad bear that took her Papa in the winter, and the wolf that came to drive it away.

She grins with half her baby teeth.

The wolf whines and licks the girl’s giggling cheek. Her mother hangs laundry a ways away, and watches with eyes that don’t see or don’t fear the creature kissing her daughter’s neck.

“Grandma,” the little girl says.

The wolf settles around her granddaughter and tells her a story of a badger that was once a boy, an old wolf that befriended a young woman, and all the animals she watches over.

fin

Emily McCosh resides in California with her family and monster dogs, where she is a graphic designer by day and dedicated daydreamer (read: story writer) at all times. Her fiction is forthcoming/published at Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Flash Fiction Online, Galaxy’s Edge, and elsewhere. Find her online at oceansinthesky.com and on FB and Twitter @wordweaveremily.

Published Shimmer #46, November 2018, 5600 words

Other woods:

Hare’s Breath, by Maria Haskins

Trees Struck by Lightning Burning From the Inside Out, by Emily Lundgren

Only Their Shining Beauty Was Left, by Fran Wilde

 

Lighthouse Waiting, by Gwendolyn Clare

I am alone now. The gates mostly stand dark against the starscape; you are the first to come this way in some time. I hold myself together, hold myself out, and after so much practice I can do it almost without thinking. I sing my warning song made of radio waves and light. This, too, is reflexive. Before you, there was no one here to sing to.

But I won’t have to wait much longer. Guilhermo is coming back to me.

I am one hundred and forty-three stations arrayed elliptically around the rift. The rift was meant to be a gate, but the construction failed and now it is a ship-eater, what Guilhermo calls a death-trap. I asked him to define death, but his explanation confused me. In any case, if a ship enters the rift it does not come back, and this is a bad thing, or so I understand. Which is why I am here: to keep the ships out.

Hot and bright, I sing my warning call across the electromagnetic spectrum, flinging endless waves of energy through the frigid silent void. Once my signals fell upon a dozen ships an hour, repelling them toward the safest route—near gate to far gate and far gate to near gate, a trip of six standard days. I haven’t had much work lately, not since the war began, but if you like I’ll tell you of the ships I’ve seen while you travel.

The day Guilhermo left, a whole armada emerged from the near gate, moving in perfect glittering synchrony. There were battleships and cruisers and carriers and raiders. They looked quite beautiful and refined to my young sensors, nothing like the old dust-scratched white hulls of the trade ships I’d seen before.

Also unlike any trade ship, one of the carriers taxied close to Station 23—where Guilhermo lives—and matched orbit with me. It made me nervous to have a ship so close by. After all, it was my responsibility to keep them away from the rift. Nothing had approached me since my original deployment except a few erroneously named “airdrops” bringing supplies to Guilhermo. Just a little cube with thrusters and a rudimentary nav system, not a whole ship with a landing bay large enough to swallow one of my stations.

Thank the stars I had Guilhermo to handle the situation. He traded several rounds of communications with them. I hoped he was going to send them away, but instead, he began to pack a bag.

Guilhermo told me there was an uprising in the Chaian Sector, beyond the far gate. Guilhermo said they needed him to program evasion algorithms for fighter drones, and he would have to go with them for a while.

I was scared at the thought of being without him. He had never left communication range, not since he made me. He always says he likes retiring somewhere quiet—a joke, you know, since sound waves can’t travel in space? But I think he means it. They made him leave me even though he said he didn’t want to.

Guilhermo promised he would be back as soon as he could.

Next came the deserters, three ships with engines burning hot as they burst out of the far gate. I asked them if they had heard of an engineer named Guilhermo Vaz, or perhaps he would be called a strategist, now? They told me the Chaian War was going badly, that they had mutinied and run, and they wouldn’t have known someone important like a strategist anyway.

Even at high thrust they still had four and a half standard days’ travel between the gates, so I offered to display for them a light ballad I’d been composing in Guilhermo’s absence. They couldn’t see it properly—the human visual spectrum is too narrow—so I shifted the wavelengths up for the ultraviolet tones, and shifted them down for the infrareds, and did my best to cobble together a pleasing composition.

It was good practice, I thought, for when Guilhermo returns. By then I’ll have the ballad perfected for human eyes to appreciate. He’ll be so pleased at my creativity.

“Won’t you stay to see another?” I asked the deserters. I wasn’t accustomed to being alone, yet, and feeling rather desperate for the company.

The deserters declined to slow their thruster burn, and soon I was alone again. I wasn’t worried, though, not really. Guilhermo had promised.

Would you like to watch the light ballad? I’ve refined it through two hundred and thirty-seven revisions since then, so it’s even prettier now.

Shortly after the deserters left, the near gate opened again and produced some new company for me to chat with. It was a single ship, a fierce sleek black design I’d never laid sensors on before. I inquired about their purpose, and they confirmed they were reinforcements headed to the Chaian sector.

That made me feel better. I asked them to return Guilhermo to me when they could. They agreed to pass along a message for me if they saw him. Everything would work out okay.

I played the opening stanzas of a new light sonata for them, and their feedback was quite complimentary. They seemed so nice; everyone I’d met so far in my existence seemed so nice. I had a vague impression of what war entailed, and it strained the imagination that all these nice people would participate in violence. Probably they were all conscripted into service, as Guilhermo had been.

I asked them for details of their crew, curious about their motivations, but they declined my request. Theirs was a classified operation, they explained. I had to content myself with suppositions only.

When they reached the far gate, I wished them luck and good velocity.

I was alone for a while then. I improvised light compositions and played with new orbital trajectories for my stations. I imagined whole conversations I might have with Guilhermo when he came home.

Finally a ship arrived through the near gate. It was a dinged-up, patchily repaired older model. What Guilhermo would call a “rust-bucket,” though of course there could be no oxidation damage in space. (This is something called metaphor, he once explained.)

In any case, they did not look much like a warship. I asked them what enterprise they were engaged in.

They marveled that I did not have access to a police database with which to identify the ships passing through my region of space. No, I did not, I assured them.

They called themselves a salvage team. Then they politely inquired about whether or not I have anything of value to steal.

I told them yes, I am a unique and sophisticated lighthouse with many expensive components, including short- and long-range defense systems, and would they care for a demonstration? I spun my railgun turrets and flashed my targeting eyes, hoping to impress, but they declined my offer. I was disappointed, never having had an opportunity to try out my defense systems before.

I asked them if they were certain. They assured me that, yes, they now had sufficient data upon which to formulate their course of action, even without a demonstration.

I wished them well, and they departed.

Time passed uneventfully, until my sensors detected an object approaching through realspace. It was a chunk of debris, mostly ice and rock from the spectral analysis.

The space debris swung close to Station 65, attracted by the steady pull of the rift. I warmed up the nearest railgun and aimed the turret, tracking the object’s trajectory. It was not a difficult shot, but I was nevertheless very excited to finally get an excuse to use my defensive systems. How thrilling! How eventful!

I blew up the debris.

The pulverized remains rained down upon Station 65, too small and too diffused to cause any direct damage. However, a few tiny particles lodged in the station’s attitude jets—a circumstance I had not foreseen.

My self-repair modules were not designed to compensate for such a situation. Guilhermo would have invented a solution, but I did not have his help, so I spent many hours considering the dilemma.

The station’s orbit began to degrade. I attempted to dislodge the particles using centrifugal force generated by firing the unaffected attitude jets. It did not work, and I grew desperate. I fired the affected jets, hoping to force the offending particles out, but one of the jets broke instead.

There was nothing more to do. I could only watch as Station 65 lost altitude and gradually gave in to the unrelenting pull of the rift. I lost contact and it vanished, gone forever.

Before that, I was a hundred and forty-four stations; now I am a hundred and forty-three.

The universe offered me no comfort. I was alone, and facing the realization that what happened to a single station could theoretically happen to more. Is this what Guilhermo meant when he tried to explain death? A slow attrition of the self, losing piece after piece until I no longer possess the processing power necessary for higher-order cognitive functions. Until my last station falls into the rift and I cease to exist. I am still not certain I understand.

It was a very sad time. Not even light ballads could cheer me.

I dwelled in persistent melancholy until the next ship arrived. Strange, how a period of sadness can brighten the joy that comes after; greeting that vessel was the happiest I’ve ever been.

I was so excited I forgot myself and sent them an accidental onslaught of over-eager hails, which I imagine must have been rather shocking to receive. I had to calm down and gather my wits and remember to communicate at a rate slow enough for humans to process. Once they got over their initial surprise, they seemed quite eager to speak with me.

I asked them if they had heard of Guilhermo Vaz, a strategist in the war.

They said, what war?

The war in the Chaian sector, I explained.

They told me “Chaian sector” was an unfamiliar designation, and they knew of no major conflicts in occupied space. Privately, I thought they must be very ill-informed, but I was too polite to say so.

They also said they were explorers and sounded quite pleased to have “rediscovered” me. Those people were confusing. How could I be rediscovered when I was never lost to begin with? I’ve always been right here where I’m supposed to be, right here where Guilhermo left me waiting.

They requested permission to dock with one of my stations, for what purpose I could not imagine. I declined.

Persistent, they asked again, claiming they wished to study my systems architecture. I had to explain that unauthorized personnel were not permitted aboard my stations, which they should have known since it was a standard security protocol. But as I’d already observed, they did not seem to know much of anything. Confusing people.

I felt bad about refusing their request to board me, so I sent them a file of my design specifications and improvised a new light ballad just for them. My stations flashed with syncopated blues and glowed with a slow rising crescendo of reds. A quiet pulse of yellow, steady as a heartbeat, helped me keep time.

That was the hardest part. I’ve never been good at keeping time.

The next ship to arrive carried a crew who spoke an unfamiliar dialect. I spent most of their six-day journey learning to accurately communicate in their language of preference. They called my dialogue archaic, and marveled at my overall functionality.

This confused me. Why would I be anything less than functional? I am a highly sophisticated integrated system. I am a pinnacle of technological achievement. I am Guilhermo’s proudest, finest creation. Of course I keep myself functional to the best of my ability. My mission here at the rift is an important one.

Guilhermo would not like it if I failed to perform my function, and I could not bear to disappoint him. After all, he is my creator. He is the only one who matters.

The ship’s crew seemed perfectly nice, of course. I don’t wish to be rude and imply otherwise. It’s simply that, in your heart, no one can replace your creator. The person who gave life to you. Wouldn’t you agree?

The ship of the strange-dialect speakers passed into the gate and vanished from my corner of the universe. Then I was alone again.

And now, you.

Why thank you, yes—I have been practicing my dialectical variations in anticipation of another vessel such as yours. It is thoughtful of you to remark upon my linguistic abilities.

Tell me, what is this archaeology of which you speak? I’m afraid I don’t understand why you wish to study old things. Can’t you simply remember history? I remember every ship passing through the gates. I remember every word that left Guilhermo’s tongue.

It must make you very sad, this forgetting of which you speak. The concept frightens me, if I may be honest. I do not understand how you can function when the past runs from you, when your own memories hide away in the cracks of your imperfect minds. It seems a difficult way to exist.

Before, I did not know to be grateful for the flawless memory storage Guilhermo gave to me. Thank you for this revelation. Even if I still can’t comprehend what you do.

History is your occupation, so I suppose that is justification enough. It is good to fulfill one’s purpose. And in any case you seem very nice, if you don’t mind my saying so.

Have you heard of the Chaian War? Have you heard any news of the brilliant engineer Guilhermo Vaz? No, don’t apologize. You are too kind, worrying over my welfare, but there is no need to linger here on my account—Guilhermo will surely be here soon to keep me company.

He promised.

Gwendolyn Clare’s novels include the young-adult steampunk duology INK, IRON, AND GLASS (2018) and MIST, METAL, AND ASH (2019). Her short fiction has appeared in Fantasy & Science Fiction, Analog, Asimov’s, Clarkesworld, and Beneath Ceaseless Skies. She teaches college biology in central Pennsylvania, where she lives with too many cats and never enough books. She can be found online at gwendolynclare.com or on Twitter @gwendoclare.

Other Lonelys:

Birds On An Island, by Charlie Bookout

The Proper Motion of Extraordinary Stars, by Kali Wallace

Serein, by Cat Hellisen

Find On Your Body the Bruise, by Maricat Stratford

First, you are everything. Then, you are a drop of blood on a blade of grass. You are the grass, the dirt beneath it, the network of aspen roots buried in the dirt—no, not yet. Pull yourself together now. You are a network of neurons spastically misfiring inside a broken skull. You are a fading chemical reaction, you are a feeling, you are a collection of memories. You are dead. You are not surprised.

You are a lesbian and you are a poet. Even before you knew these things—knew what kind of woman you were— you knew there was no future for women like you, whoever they might be. Now, you feel a relief. The anxiety of waiting for death is over. You feel satisfaction that in the end, it wasn’t your fault. You have experience with funerals. Often, when it’s a suicide, people are angry with the deceased. No one will be angry with you at your funeral. Since you are a poet, you are very sensitive about these kinds of things.

The names of the people who will attend your funeral sound like a poem as they echo through your consciousness. One name aches with a specific familiarity. Remember your name. Remember who you were, who you might have been. You had, improbably, made a future for yourself. Or were working on it, anyway. You were open to the possibility of possibilities. You were going to foster stray puppies and take a ballet for beginners class. Remembering these things hurts.

Your therapist has said that dissociation is a coping mechanism for dealing with emotional pain. Try to spread out again, under the dirt. Can you reach into the aspen leaves? No, you cannot. The force of your anger keeps pulling you back into yourself. Now you are a small, dense ball of lightning scorching the grass. Everyone dies eventually, so you don’t think you shouldn’t be this angry, but here you are. Angry.

Your therapist has also said that there is no should for emotions and that it is okay to be angry. Listen to the remembrance of the voice of your therapist, soft and soothing: What is the root of this anger? Where, in your body, do you feel it?

You will feel the anger wherever he touched you. Look at your body, lying there on the grass. It hardly looks like you. It is swollen and bruised. You are not this. You are a lesbian and a poet. You are a name that your mother gave you when she saw you for the first time, red and wriggling, and whispered, You are my precious daughter, beloved in the sight of the Lord.

You wonder what the man who killed you saw when he yelled hey baby from his car window as he drove past. Maybe he didn’t see anything except a woman until he looked in the rearview mirror and saw you giving the finger to his car, and felt so ashamed—that he had catcalled a lesbian, that he had hurt your feelings, that he had not done what Jesus would do—that he had to back up and pull his car over, crushing the tall green summer grass and yellow and pink wildflowers which grow freely alongside the road, and beat you to death.

His touch still lingers on your skin. Become your sweat and his sweat. Go deeper. Sweat is not enough. Be your skin cells and his skin cells and the friction between them. Skin cells will do if that’s all you have, but blood is best. Blood calls to blood. You know this in the same way that you know your own name, and know what it is that you must do to be able to let go of the anger—your anger, your own pain that grips you tight like a fist. Find on your body the bruise that made the skin of his knuckles split open. A drop of his blood, now dry, still remains. Use it. Go to him.

He will be in his house, sitting at the kitchen table. Ice cubes wrapped in a paper towel will rest on his right hand. His left hand will hold a beer can from which he will drink in slow, ponderous sips. He will have an old dog lying at his feet on the yellowed linoleum floor. No matter what kind of dog it is you will think, what a good dog. When the dog notices you, it will whine, ears back, eyes wide. You are good with animals. You will want to offer up a biscuit in an open palm to reassure this dog that you mean no harm, but you don’t have any biscuits, nor palms. You will remember, with sudden clarity, why you are here.

The man will look at the dog. You will want him to yell or throw something. You love dogs, but it is very important that he is not kind to his dog. You don’t want to think about this poor dog, after you have left, all alone with the body of his beloved human. You don’t want to think about how the man who killed you could value a dog’s life more than yours. Trust me, you don’t. He will call to the dog, and scratch it under its chin, where age has turned hairs of its yellow fur gray. Don’t look.

This is the hardest part, now, to go inside the man. You will have to stop being the flicker in the ceiling light and get close to him. Close like two wafer-thin pages in your grandmother’s Bible. Close like two women when the heat of sex has melted the space between their skin. Get close. Closer. When it happens, you will know.

You will be in him and you will be him. You will hear the dog resume its howl. It will sound muffled in his ears. You will look out with his eyes and see the incomplete translation of the kitchen table into shapes and colors. To think, your whole life has been mediated by the same kind of fleshly proxy. You will not be tempted to stay in his body. But there are some benefits while, stretched out from the marrow of his bones to the edges of his fingertips, you are here. You will get to pet the dog.

Now pull yourself out of the man’s bones, muscles, and tendons. Let him crumple, slumped in his chair, torso splayed across the kitchen table, face down in spilled beer. Pull yourself out of his stomach, lungs, and heart. Those organs will keep working without your help; besides, they are big and strong, they are not where you should be. Instead, sink into his arteries. Flow, within the blood, inside his arteries. Find his weak spots. Is it the abdominal aorta? The ascending aorta, siphoning blood away from the heart? The anterior cerebral artery? Only you will know. Find the place where he carries his tension, and push.

Stay focused. You won’t want to leave this half-done. Soon it will be over. The artery wall will break and the blood that is you will burst forth freely, triumphant. Then you will feel it: the soft dissipation of your anger. The emotion falls away from you as gently as snowflakes dusting the needles of ponderosa pines on a windless, silent night. You will rise up out of the man and be a coldness in the air. Watch. Wait.

The dog will sniff around him and lick his hands. The man’s breathing will quicken, then slow, then stop. The dog will whine for several minutes, and bark sharply at the cold spot in the air, then give up. Settled under the kitchen table, the dog will go to sleep. It is, after all, an old dog.

You will be tired, too, but you will want to make sure that someone will come by to pick up the dog and, you suppose, the man’s body. His laptop will be on the coffee table, open to his Facebook page. In a series of small static shocks, sink into the computer. Then, post a simple message, writing as if you were him, taking responsibility for the death of a woman and asking someone to check on the dog. You won’t have the energy to write more. You knew how to navigate a human body; it is more challenging to find your way around a computer. Besides, the boundaries of yourself are already beginning to soften. In the few seconds you have left, check your own Facebook page. Look at the pictures of you and your friends, and your friends’ pets.

Think about how much you love each and every one one of them. Then float up, through the plaster ceiling, wooden beams, roof tiles.

It will be good to be outside. Be the breeze and the aspen trees and the rustle of leaves. Be the roots and the dirt. Be water and sunlight.

You are dead.

It will be okay.

Maricat Stratford is originally from the Mid-Atlantic region, and now lives in Arkansas, where she is an MFA candidate in the University of Arkansas Creative Writing program. Find on her twitter at @maricatmaricat.

Published October 2018, Shimmer #45, 1600 words

Other Ghosts:

The Earth and Everything Under by K.M. Ferebee

List of Items in Leather Valise Found on Welby Crescent by Alex Acks

Caretaker, by Carlie St. George

By the Hand That Casts It, by Stephanie Charette

If there was one thing Briar Redgrave hated most about her current profession, it was the clients.

“But I wish it to be yellow, and vibrant,” the client insisted with a shake of her head. The crown of ostrich feathers on her wide-brimmed hat convulsed as though the bird that died for fashion’s sake was near resurrection. “It is my signature color. How else will the Viscount know that the flowers are from me?”

“Madame,” Briar replied as demurely as she could manage, “you came for my expertise in the delicate art of communicating delicate matters. Yellow is a beautiful color—sincere, bright, hopeful.” The client might be hopeful, but in Briar’s opinion was neither bright nor sincere. “When the abstract is made manifest in a flower, the meaning changes. A yellow rose, mere affection. Tulip, hopeless love. And a yellow carnation all but screams no to an admirer. You do not, Madame, strike me as a woman who would scream for anything.”

Unless I were stabbing you. Briar kept a practiced smile on her face and wished the woman would let Briar do her job. “I am myself blissfully ten years wed thanks to just such a careful arrangement.” She’d used that line countless times since retiring, and it was true. She’d opened the shop on the heels of a romance that scandalized many back in the day and at just over forty still cut a dashing figure. But this ingénue? Too young to even have heard a whisper of it.

The ostrich on the client’s hat returned to a state of rest. “I suppose with a name like yours, you would know your business.”

Ah, that familiar ache of disappointment: There would be no stabbing today.

With the client’s begrudging assent, Briar set about assembling an appropriate bouquet for the would-be lover with a few pertinent yellows. Briar explained her choices as she worked: the long stalk of buttery acacia flowers for secret love, the dwarf sunflowers for admiration. Wordlessly she tucked in a single tall sunflower for pride and a scarlet geranium for stupidity when the client wasn’t paying attention. The Viscount was also a client and one passingly familiar with the fine art of floriography. He would at least be warned. She owed him that much.

So finicky, clients, and so often acting against their own interests. Days like this made Briar regret her choices post-retirement, until she remembered her prior profession wasn’t qualitatively so different—only with a better success rate.

The client at last left happy, and Briar was at last blessedly alone.

Was it happiness? When a door closed, it must surely open again. The silence always temporary, the wait always too brief no matter how much time might pass. Someone would come and buy flowers. Today, tomorrow, and the next. Forever.

Well, until someone brought a bouquet to Briar’s own grave after she’d had the temerity to die of old age, she supposed.

Interminable, absolutely.

Intolerable?

Briar sighed.

Nearly mid-day. Head aching from hair pinned halfway to heaven, hours yet until she might loosen it, go home, and find her young husband back from his rounds. She started to reposition the two weighty silver hair sticks—her faithful Thorns, she called them—that kept the bulk of her long, disagreeable hair tightly bound to her head when the bronze shop bell rang like an alarm. She’d be lopsided for the next customer, now! Briar longed to cut it all off, but polite society required otherwise, so for ten years her hair had grown. Her husband might be delighted with it, but still. Briar tugged her hair back into a semblance of order and reset her expression with a fresh if slightly pained smile—that slid off her face when she recognized who was framed in the doorway.

The Crimson Hawk: second-best assassin in all of Victoria’s London.

He stood there being ridiculously dashing, a head taller than her with nice shoulders, chestnut curls falling over his brow and a dimple that looked like it had been cleaved with a knife. He oozed a confidence that had as much to do with the twin pistols peeking out from under his coat on either side as it did with being born a Lord. Brash and loud, he was reported to be a natural shot, the envy of every marksman in the army, using a special gunpowder that produced a red smoke when fired.

Breath held, Briar found her hands wanting to reflexively reach for her silver hair sticks. Instead she kept herself quite still.

“I want to buy a bouquet!” This he shouted, as if announcing a coup to Parliament.

Briar, ever the professional, blinked hard once and reapplied her smile. She cut past him in a fluid movement and peered out at the street to make sure he wasn’t followed. “Private consultations are available on Sundays.” She flipped the shop’s sign from open to closed, then locked the door. “But since you’re already here…”

“Couldn’t possibly wait until Sunday.” His gaze hungrily roamed the store as his hand grappled the nearest flower, a rose so dark it was nearly black. “Not when I feel this way.”

“Of course,” Briar said, counting the bloom ruined. “Follow me.”

“Not any of these? Doesn’t it just have to be pretty?” The rose hung limp in his hand.

She hesitated. Had he stumbled onto her shop, wholly ignorant of her preferred clientele? Did he think her merely a florist for the wealthy? Had he no idea who she was?

Well, she thought sourly, who she had been.

Communicating via le langage des fleurs was a favorite way for the upper class to express interest in an object of desire, or interest’s wane to a paramour, in a tasteful, subdued and mostly secretive way. The vast majority of Briar’s clients wanted something invariably prosaic, everything from shy affection to more passionate requests.

Among assassins, her real clientele and secret thrill, flowers were a different game entirely. It had become fashionable some years ago to send a bouquet to a contracted hit. Soon enough assassins began sending them to each other for any manner of reasons: when their territories overlapped, when one stole another’s contract, or even when one had insulted another. Crafting an order for an assassin required privacy, more than her unassuming shopfront could offer.

The Crimson Hawk seemed utterly genuine. Irritatingly in the prime of his life. Taking in the shop like he was a regular customer out for a stroll. Not counting exits, not looking for traps. Had his back to her, of all things! The rankest of amateurs.

But no, she decided. The Hawk had been sent more than one bouquet since his debut mere months ago. She had the purchase orders! A firearm phenom with luck to match, he couldn’t be that ignorant of their ways and still be alive. Best to be tactful, and nudge him in the right direction, though it stung her pride that he didn’t recognize her.

“I think someone such as yourself would have…particular needs that these specimens wouldn’t suit.”

He flashed a smile. “Keen eye. Ladies first.”

“Of course,” she replied, smile brittling by degrees.

She led him to the back room behind a door designed to look like another part of the shop’s interior. Shortly after buying the place, she had split the main area in two, shrinking the storefront’s footprint to create a private garden studio with the remainder. There, the upper floor had been removed entirely, and the ceiling above replaced with greenhouse glass. A wet heat pervaded the space and every surface, horizontal and vertical, was lush with greenery held in check by wrought iron planters, stands, and trellises, punctuated with sharp bursts of color.

No roses, nor their facile counterparts, grew in the back room. A floral arrangement that promised death by the stroke of midnight took an entirely different breed of flower from the kind found in an English garden. Lilies, chrysanthemums, and bleeding hearts, while seemingly appropriate, were far too crude and obvious besides. A few of the old suspects—the tiny purple flowers of the belladonna or the deceptively fragile mandrake blossoms—had their place, but Briar’s collection ranged far wider than that. Death’s Head, Winter Cherry, Murderer’s Caul Lace, Wolfsbane, Night Whispers, Creeping Dread, Wormwood, Snakesfoot. Not traditionally pretty flowers, but each compelled the viewer’s eye. Beautiful in their own way and all capable of conveying something much more important than whether or not a viscount might deign to fuck a second cousin’s wife.

These were the tools of her trade, and familiar after all these years. It had taken bloody-minded persistence to carve out a place for herself in a new industry, even if it never felt as natural as her first. She had changed the destinies of how many political families? Blackmailed unfaithful lovers, settled trade disputes, ended entire dynasties. Now all of it was done second-hand, far from the danger, communicating the desire of others.

What of her own desires? Her own will?

Briar let her gaze fall to the floor.

She gave the Hawk a moment to take in the private room, mentioning offhand the secret entrance in the roof for guests such as himself. The rare breeds were arranged in a circle of planters. In the center, she’d taken a seamstress’s mannequin possessing her measurements, and set it in a planter of fine soil to be a trellis of sorts. It was completely overgrown with Barbed Promise vines and their fat, lurid blooms. A faceless caretaker completely rooted within the shop? The irony wasn’t lost on her, and it had long ago ceased being amusing. Briar’s place was beside the mannequin while the client circled the room and its offerings. She stepped into position, looked at him expectantly.

The Hawk paid her no heed. She might as well have been a second mannequin. Instead, he wandered the room, prattling on to no one about this and that as he gormlessly stroked at least three separate poisonous things.

She inclined her head, smiled.

And waited.

Study the mark, whispered a voice very much her own but from too many years ago to bear thinking on. The voice of a person who might barely recognize Briar as she was now and would perhaps be disappointed.

Hard to pin down, this Crimson Hawk. She had heard much about him from others in the field; some were admirers, others rivals. Newly minted to the work, already infamous for his lack of subtlety. He killed a man under contract while duelling another at a masque ball, the kind of over-the-top murder that would find him fêted by a community that loved beautiful distractions.

Distractions, however, wilt as surely as any flower. Only a matter of time before a true professional tired of it. She would be sure to mention it to her husband later, after she closed up.

Until then, he was Briar’s problem. What would he likely want? This was his first visit; sooner or later every assassin darkened her door. Hawk loved duels, challenged and was challenged often, and won them frequently. Had he finally deciphered the meaning behind all those bouquets with a single Barbed Promise? Briar picked up her favorite pair of silver shears and reached for a glorious example of its species: palm-sized, suffused with petals and a heady scent, with a single thorn piercing the center. Their transaction would be quick, which suited her; she had an assignation of her own to keep.

Whatever blather had been passing his lips stopped mid-sentence at the sound her shears made while cutting the stem.

“Oh, no,” he said, clearly recognizing the flower. “Not that.”

“Not…a duel?”

He laughed, rich and sure of himself. “I mean, it would be a lovely day for a duel. Shame to waste the flower. But I hope that no bloodshed will be required to satisfy this party.”

“Oh.” The Barbed Promise lasted only a day after being cut. Briar found a glass bowl, filled it with honey water from a nearby pitcher, and hoped someone might be of need of the flower soon. “What did you have in mind?”

He opened his mouth to speak and then his smile vanished, replaced by a contemplative frown. “I’m not sure. I’ve never asked for something like this. Never…felt like this.”

Ah, a customer who doesn’t know what he wants. Her day kept improving.

“How are you feeling?” Briar asked mildly. “What stirs the breast of an assassin so that he does not know his own heart?” And can’t be said with a knife to the jugular. “Is it a warning you wish to send to a rival?”

“A warning! Yes, a warning of intent!” He seized on that last word excitedly.

She waited a hopeful moment, then swallowed a sigh. She would have to lead him through every step. “And your intent…is?”

He gaped, he rolled his wrists. No words came out of his mouth.

With front-of-the-house regulars, this was common. Especially among men who would grasp and ferret about for the words that expressed both love and more carnal desires without sounding either vulgar or vulnerable. Of course, he was young and clearly infatuated with—oh no.

She’d seen this happen before on rare occasion, an assassin falling for their mark. It was something of a fever, but usually passed given enough time and self-reflection. The truth of it was that coin was coin, and steel was steel, and a job simply must be done. If an assassin couldn’t complete the hit, well, one could always count on colleagues to end it one way or the other.

This Hawk was, in truth, too pretty and too young to die. She berated herself for going soft, and here she was barely over forty. Besides, hadn’t Briar found herself in similar circumstances in her youth, infatuated with a dashing young man that she gave everything up for?

They were in the wrong room if she were to build a bouquet to bare one’s heart, but he was absolutely not going to leave as he came in. What did she have on hand?

“Describe how you met,” she said, heading to a basket of cuttings from the front shop that she’d been saving for herself. Well, saving for her husband. Anniversary plans. Her fingers went straight for the roses. Pale ones, white and pink, moving them out of his reaching hands.

He sucked at a finger pricked by a thorn. “Business acquaintance.”

“And she’s—”

“He’s.”

“He’s someone you know well, or?”

The assassin ruffled his hair while his mouth tried and failed to find an answer. Finally: “I’ve known him only a fortnight, and yet I feel as if I know him. And wish to know him more.”

Oh, not even lucky enough to be felled by mere lust. He was truly smitten! If word got out, it would ruin him. Assassins in love either became too free with their blades or gave them up entirely. No consensus among the community which fate was worse. A debate she was rather tired of, frankly.

She tried her best to steer him someplace productive: back to murder. “And this is a…warning of that desire?”

“We must meet. I wish to confess all.”

“You wish to meet?”

“Ideally.”

“All right, so we have great admiration, request to meet, and…”

The Crimson Hawk shrugged, of no help at all.

But since I’m trying to help you not get killed was usually taken poorly by paying customers, Briar persisted with a cheery demeanor. She needed to find out who his mark was and decide the danger. His folly could topple others.

“Tell me about him,” she said, her tone conspiratorial and coy.

He had sense enough to look wary at the question.

Briar gently continued. “I can’t craft the perfect message if I don’t know the man.”

The affectation of gossipy interest was enough to let his gaze slide away without seeing anything deeper. The Hawk let loose a torrent of words describing his would-be paramour — how he moved like a beast, how his blue eyes blazed, the first creep of gray into his temples, how his shoulders formed the perfect triangle to his waist, how his arms were powerfully sculpted. No open contract came to mind from his description as she listened. Familiar, but she couldn’t put her finger on it.

Ah, when was the last time she’d played this game? Often as not, a job was discreetly arranged. One couldn’t blurt it out. What if someone overheard? A clandestine meeting, carefully phrased instructions, and then the hunt was on. She bit her lip, enjoying the puzzle as though it were her own, but no gentleman came to mind.

Briar studied the Hawk instead. Careless, in the way he let his coat fall open so that the handles of his pistols could catch the light for anyone to see. He never once kept an eye on the exits, either the one they came in or the secret door he was supposed to use. Maybe it was all luck until now. So young. Irritatingly so. When had that started to annoy her? It hadn’t always. She thought of her husband, ten years her junior and still at the top of his game. Something she never failed to take pride in.

She decided on something simple: yellow-orange coreopsis for love at first sight, those yellow tulips for hopeless love, and forget-me-nots for true love. Save for the tulip, the other flowers had a youthful quality, as if plucked fresh from a field. She had one more in mind.

“The scar on his cheek,” he said, the words trailing off as if he’d been dumbstruck. “I wonder how he got it. Only a man that beautiful could sport a scar like that and be all the more handsome for it.”

Her shears were a hairsbreadth away from trimming the pale blue primrose for young love. “Scar?”

“Yes, a tiny cross.” His tone changed; all his playful idiocy gone, and instead hard amusement, an eagerness. He grinned with his eye teeth. “They call him the White Tiger. Suffocates his prey, the way a tiger would. Oh, how I want that man’s hands around my throat.”

Briar’s hands tightened around the shears as her stomach fell away to a cold place far below.

The blue eyes, the broad shoulders, the Tiger.

Ten years ago, there had been a duel. A smothering, moonless summer night. Perfume from the garden thick in their throats. She had wrestled that tiger, won that tiger, and carved that cross with her silver blade into his cheek one breathless moment before they shared a first kiss worth throwing everything else away.

Assassins only last so long in the business. Women, men, didn’t matter. Retirement was a luxury few were foolish enough to hope for, let alone live long enough to consider. How many lives had she ended, how many duels had she won, with no thought to the future? But every passing day since her retirement, those sharp shears goaded her. How nicely they fit the hand, how nimble still, her fingers. Her best years yet not lost.

Flowers were a poor substitute for the elegance of a blade. Who cares who loves or lusts, when who lives or dies is decided by the hand that casts it? Briar had spent years communicating the desires of others, hadn’t she, both before and after? Past time to communicate her own.

She set down the shears.

Briar left the simple flowers where they were. Her fingers reached for other blooms, pinching the stems with her own fingernails. It wasn’t something as simple as jealousy that moved her, but professional courtesy. Belladonna for silence, bold pasqueflowers for you have no claims, acanthus and yarrow twinned together for the art of war.

And with utmost care and gentleness, the Barbed Promise she’d cut earlier, not wasted after all.

She presented the bouquet, with the first unaffected smile she’d had in the shop since she’d traded steel for stems. “He’s quite taken, I’m afraid.”

Briar’s fingers slid the first of her Thorns from the intricate knot of her hair. The second came free with the barest of tugs, and the rest of her black hair fell to shroud her shoulders. The Thorns, made of the finest steel, gleaming like silver, with white quartz for each handle, once terrorized all of England. They were among her last vestiges of her former life, and she couldn’t bear to part with them.

As was true of her husband.

“Ah,” the Crimson Hawk said, sounding satisfied. “The Shadow Rose reveals herself.”

He knew? All this time he’d been playing with her? Cheeks burning, Briar cursed her complacency. She tightened her grip, then forced herself to loosen it.

Hawk looked her up and down with a mixture of bemused dismissal. “You’re supposed to be dead.”

“Some do call retirement that. But, no. Not dead.” She widened her stance. “The White Tiger is mine.”

He laughed, albeit politely. “Are you sure?”

Ten years retired. A lifetime. Too long. Briar and her new husband had argued hotly about what they would do at the time. There wasn’t room for two master assassins in the family, and she had already ten years of professional killing on him. So London’s best assassin had stepped aside, and her husband took her place. Why tempt fate twice?

“I think he needs someone younger to tame his tiger.” The Hawk bit his lip hard as his palms rubbed the polished wood of his pistol grips. “Someone with fresh blood on their hands. Still in the game.”

Sometimes, fate tempted you.

“Shall we see who plays the game better?” Briar spun her Silver Thorns with an effortless grace. They felt so good in her hands. She couldn’t imagine now, or ever again, setting them down.

A flash of bright white teeth, followed by a flash of light.

Of course, he pulled a gun. Only one, the pompous ass, shooting over her head and striking the wood panels above. Playing with her, underestimating her, the pretty dark-haired slip of a thing, like they all used to—right before one of her knives pressed under their chin. The cold kiss, they called it. But one has to be close enough to use it. Briar took cover behind one of the garden stands as he shot into the air, the sound cracking through the private room. Smoke poured out, began to drift. He coughed and she used the sound to cover the noise she made tearing off her skirt.

Under her breath: “Amateur.”

“Ah, the old cat has teeth! Good. I didn’t want this to be just murder.”

“It’s not the teeth you should worry about, love.”

She leapt to her feet and threw one of her Thorns directly at his right eye, the one she’d caught him aiming with. Dexterous enough, he jerked left an inch and avoided the blade, though it left a lovely red line across that sharp cheekbone of his.

It also provided distraction enough to bolt to the next bit of cover, the mannequin, with the remains of her skirt in one hand and the second Thorn in the other.

Another shot, this time the light painfully bright and too close for comfort. More red smoke, its crimson particulate drifting softly to the floor while its smoke thickened the air between them, becoming a shifting gray screen. The effect was rather striking, but no time for admiration. Nor could she count on it; the smoke moved like a slow, third partner to their dance, leaving gaps, stealing breaths. Not good. She kept low to avoid the worst of it.

Somewhere in the thickening smoke, he coughed hard.

Had the fool not thought what firing one of his flash rounds in a small and airless room would do? There was nowhere for the smoke to go but up, and she wasn’t going to be opening any doors any time soon. Not until she’d taken care of business, anyway.

Use what you have, she’d told her eager husband all those years ago. Time to take her own advice.

Footsteps, those grand boots of his a drumbeat on the floor as he surveyed the room from its center. Another cough, and then: “Don’t drag this out. I have plans to meet your husband shortly to deliver the terrible news. ‘Rival assassin breaks protocol, starts a war sure to clear out half the assassins of London by the time it’s all over. I couldn’t save your lovely wife in time!’” As he spoke, the sound of shot loaded by a hand so practiced, so smooth, she almost didn’t hear it for what it was.

“I’ll be a legend after this. And all I had to do what find and kill the assassin everyone told me was dead.”

The remains of her skirt across her lap, she felt around the mannequin along well-practiced routes until she found the secret latch on the rib cage. She had built the room for such an occasion all those years ago. Was it only to honor her past, keep those mementos close, or had she secretly wished for this from the moment she first opened the shop? That someone would come and test her.

The latter, she was prepared to admit. Finally. She grinned.

“Isn’t it foolish, to tell me all your plans?”

“You won’t be alive to tell anyone else, never mind him.”

“Confidence alone doesn’t confirm a kill.” Guided by touch, she reached inside the secret compartment and grabbed her gloves, their comforting steel tips all but whispering to her. She stashed the remaining Thorn in her hair with a deft twist and then donned both gloves. Still a perfect fit.

“I’m celebrating early.”

“And what about the grieving widower? You’d do this to the man you claim to love? He’ll be heartbroken at news of my grisly demise.” She gathered up the remains of the skirt in her hands.

“I’ll console him in the most gentle and attentive of ways.”

Briar rolled her eyes, then rolled her body to the left, toward the shelter of a free-standing planter.

He wasted a shot, striking the mannequin, which went down. The smoke from his shot continued to rise; she could no longer see through the glass above, the Hawk little more than a shadowy figure save for his legs. He stepped into the center of the room and she considered, then discarded, the idea of a simple hamstring. Those guns would still be a problem. Both were up now, the set of his legs saying he was prepared to face an onslaught of attackers as he made his slow scan of the room.

Time to test those shoulders. She leapt from her crouching position, skirt between both hands like a matador ready for a gun-wielding bull. He fired one shot blindly the moment the skirt fell over his face, then twisted to grab her; she was already gone.

“Or we can make this difficult. Difficult is fun, too.” His laugh was ugly. “I was trying to be a gentleman …”

She landed right in a blasted cloud of smoke. She coughed, couldn’t help herself, and cursed for giving away her position.

Hawk didn’t waste the opportunity; another shot rang out, and this time it razed the air near her shoulder. Lucky shot indeed, since he was still pulling her skirt out of his eyes and swearing like no gentleman.

She stifled a second cough and wished she’d kept some of the skirt for a handkerchief. It would be the only way she was going to avoid inhaling much more gun smoke.

Wait. Her heart squeezed. That wasn’t gun smoke.

She dared to look for the source and sure enough, true smoke was curling up from the dried moss in one of the wrought-iron planters. One of his shots must have sparked it. Damn him! Fire in a shop made entirely out of wood, a small room besides, and plenty of fuel. Every shopkeep’s nightmare. Not that she lived or died by her earnings, it was all just a way to spend her days, but did he not understand they were nearing their end game? Winning didn’t count if you weren’t there to see it.

Up was out of the question. She could climb the iron handholds studded into the wall and thick with twining vines up to the roof exit blindfolded (and had), but through the smoke? So out was through the only door they’d both used to enter the hidden room. Behind him.

Hawk, finishing a spin on his heels as the last of her tangled skirt fell to the floor, locked eyes with her. Behind him, flowers withered in flames, coughing up the last of their perfume.

His eyes shone. “Time to pick my Rose.”

There was no running. The room, the fire, him blocking the only exit he believed she would use. She tilted her head up at him. Made those eyes. Trembled her lip on cue. Showed him her throat.

He took the bait.

Strong grip, those fingers. She winced. Her instinct to gag as he squeezed got her nowhere. When she fluttered her eyes this time, she meant it.

She grabbed him with both gloved hands, and twisted, the metal tips effortlessly cutting through his white sleeves, leaving long red ribbons in their place. Blood spurted to the floor. He let go, recoiled, and Briar made for the door. Scrambling, coughing, trying to duck under the growing smoke. Behind her, the Hawk coughed and spat, and crashed into something.

The heat! How had the fire grown that quickly? The moment she was on the other side of the door, she slammed it closed, slapped the bolt—the metal hot to touch—and leapt back as he pounded at the door.

“Open the door, little cat.”

Briar laughed. “But I’m a frail rose, all but dead!” She clicked her tongue. “Think you can fly out of that fire, Hawk?”

One hard slam, and then only coughing from the other side.

She kissed the door, feeling the heat on her lips, and fled the shop.

There was screaming in the street. The fire brigade would be along too late to do anything. The same could be said of her day dress. She tore off the last hanging shreds of the skirt and thanked herself for wearing her custom leggings. How many times had her husband told her to put them aside? He loved her legs; he’d get to keep loving them at least for a little while longer.

The shop, or what was left of it, burned, a rosy glow in the growing dusk. Was that a figure escaping out the balcony exit as the rooftop frame collapsed with an orchestra of falling glass?

“Now he uses the exit,” she said with a snort. She patted out her smouldering chemise and took stock. Not bad at all, all things considered. A bit stiff, bit of blood. Lost a Thorn, but she still had the one. No shop. How many thousands of pounds were rising in the air as the fire burned? No point in staying to watch what was a forgone conclusion, or for the inconvenient questions that would be asked once it was smothered.

Ah, but the Crimson Hawk’s escape sent her heart to happy fluttering. She looked to the rooftops, biting her bottom lip. She’d have to do something about that. About him. Glorious. Briar had such good news to tell her husband.

But first: She lifted her Thorn to the back of her neck and cut off all her hair. She held it a while, the great, heavy length of it, and then, humming, tossed it through the fire-gutted window.

Retirement was at an end.

 

 

Stephanie is a raven-brained science fiction and fantasy nerd from the wilds of Canada. She’s an alum of Viable Paradise (Go Fifteeners!) and Taos Toolbox 2017. A cat fancier, tea sniffer, and wallflower with a taste for whisky, she’ll be off hoarding office supplies but not before asking you where you got that pen. Just don’t let her borrow it.

5100 words, published September 2018, Shimmer #45

Other Growing Things:

If a bear… by Kathrin Köhler

We Lilies of the Valley, by Sonja Natasha

Only Their Shining Beauty Was Left, by Fran Wilde

 

 

The Ghost Pet Detective, by Ryan Row

Art’s funeral is full of crying girls. Law thinks this should tip some of them off, but there it is. Crying girls everywhere. White flowers in their hair. Black dresses and the scent of clean underwear and Ivory soap. There’s a ghostly snake wrapped around one of the girl’s nylon ankles. It slithers up her leg like the white stripe of a candy cane until its flat head disappears under her skirt. She doesn’t notice. The ghost of a tiger lounges beside the coffin. It died in the zoo, maybe. Or else it came straight out of Law’s head. He rubs his neck. Through the tiger’s semi-translucent fur, he can see a tiny bird fluttering around inside the cage of its ribs like a weird, trapped heart.

Out behind the funeral parlor Law finds, leaning against a dumpster and furiously smoking a long black cigarette that smells like cinnamon, another crying girl. He wonders, fuzzily, if somehow his brother’s death has altered the composition of the entire human race, and that all girls are crying now and all boys are drunk and trying to find a place to throw up and get away from all the ghosts.

“Don’t cry,” he says. He puts a steadying hand flat against the warm dumpster and leans way over. It doesn’t steady anything.

The girl flicks her raccoon eyes at him. Black mascara in lines down her cheeks like dried rain.

“Fuck off,” she says. Her lips are a clumsy red, like fake blood.

“That’s fair, pretty lady,” he says. He closes his eyes. Under his eyelids, little red lines wriggle and writhe. It reminds him of ghosts, so he opens them again. A little cloud of ghost gnats hover over the dumpster, glowing faintly and mingling with the real ones.

“Death is everywhere,” he says. He feels exhausted, and also like there’s a chunk of vomit caught at the bottom of his throat. A little breeze blows the smells of warm garbage and cinnamon smoke all over the half-full parking lot. He’d like to take off all his clothes and lie down on the hot asphalt like it’s a black beach and let the wind tangle in his scraggly chest hair, but this girl is looking him up and down like she’s trying to find his slim, handsome brother somewhere inside his chubby, drunk body.

“He didn’t kill himself.”

“Who didn’t?” Law asks.

She looks at him now like she’s really seeing him. Recoils, a little. Her yesterday’s-rain eyes squinting in disbelief.

“Your brother. Who else is there?”

“Why?” he says. His hand against the dumpster is really hot now, but if he lifts it he’s not sure he’ll be able to stand. And if he can’t stand, he won’t be able to throw up. And if he can’t throw up, he might never feel better. The ghost of a fat horsefly buzzes soundlessly by his nose and he bats at the air with his off hand, wiping away smoke like smudges on the air. The ghost of the fly passes through his palm, and makes him feel cool and slimy.

“The newspaper said he had ligature marks on his wrists, but he was supposed to be alone in the basement. There were also bite marks on his shoulder and neck, and scratches on his back,” the girl says. She raises an eyebrow. “I didn’t put them there.”

“That wasn’t in the paper,” Law says.

“It also said his body was practically frozen. Like somebody had put him in a cooler and moved him.”

“How do you know all this?”

She looks at him, then looks at the sky, then the trash, as if trying to decide which is farther away and more useless. She plants her now-stubby cigarette with its fine cap of ash in her lip and digs in her purse. She pulls out a manila folder, creased and bent, with his brother’s name on the tab.

“I paid the coroner for this,” she says, looking at her feet. He looks too. Her black shoes are open-toed, and he can see chipped red polish that reminds him of high school.

“I’ll bet,” he says, reaching for the folder. She jerks it away and he grabs a fistful of air. He’s so disconcerted that he thinks, for a moment, that his hand must have passed through it. That it’s not a real file, but the ghost of a file.

“Don’t be a dick,” the girl says, then offers the folder again.

“Sorry,” he says. He pushes off the dumpster and stands up straight. The world shimmers and splits apart in his head. The ghost of a rat scurries over his shoe and under the dumpster.

“You are Arthur’s brother, right? You’re Lawrence? I need your help.”

Law makes a noncommittal grunt and takes the folder. The words swim on the page. The outline drawing of a bald, naked baseline man with little notes scribbled in the margins. This could be anybody.

“Law,” he says, and the girl shrugs.

“Why do they call you that?” She flicks her cigarette impatiently into the trash.

“Because,” he says, then turns away a little. The scent of hot trash and this little town, pizza and fryer oil and little corruptions like drugstore colognes, wafts up at him on a highway wind, and something unclogs in him, and he throws up onto the sleeve of his jacket.

She looks at him now like she’s really seeing him.

Hometowns are like memories. Coming home is like trying to remember something, but it’s all mixed up. His brother was thirteen, and Law was sixteen, and they were wrestling. He remembers the feel of Art’s bony shoulder blades against his chest like clipped wings. He remembers the ghost of their old cat, Cloud, who’d been run over by a school bus full of horrified children a few years before, lounging on the porch, lazy and transparent. He remembers the ghost of Cloud getting up and slinking through him while he and his brother rolled on some grass, chilling his spine and locking him up. His slim brother, already almost taller than Law, kneeing him in the gut. Being completely breathless on the lawn, pinned on his back. Humiliation, and that huge northwestern sky, as broad as the palm of God. They were already falling out of brotherhood and conditionless friendship and into the greater strangerhood of adolescence. Art, perhaps confused about what was supposed to come next after having pinned Law, slapped him across the face. And Law bit Art’s wrist hard enough to draw blood. The taste of pennies and the sea.

It’s all jumbled up. In his memory, it feels like he’s the one being bitten. In fact, now, in the girl’s car, watching the brick buildings of his childhood fall past them as if they are the actual crumbling bricks that built his childhood, it feels like he’s being bitten. His mouth tastes full of blood.

Law rubs his wrist absently. He wonders if he’ll be able to use his brother’s toothbrush when they get to his parents’ empty house, or if that would be considered macabre.

“Was that the jail?” Law says, spinning in his seat, straining to see the squat row of brown buildings as it blurs by. The power lines in town are thick with the shimmering ghosts of generations of pigeons and crows. “It looks different.”

“You’re remembering wrong,” the girl says.

He’s been gone a long time. Law’s only twenty-five. Art was twenty-two. Anyway, it feels like long time, the same way any life feels as if it’s been going on forever. His brother, that scrubbed, younger version of himself with a face like a fallen angel, the strong tongue of a snake, and the body of the first man, had stayed home. Had worked at their father’s hardware store. Sliding into his life like sliding into a bed. As if he’d laid down in it. Law had left at eighteen. He thought maybe there’d be fewer ghosts in other places. He thought that, surely, the greatest number of little ghosts lived close to home. Wrong. No matter where you went, the world was heavy with ghosts.

Also, he thought he might have better luck with women if he wasn’t always around his brother. Wrong again.

The girl’s name is Norma.

“Can I call you Normal?”

“Don’t call me anything.”

She wants to look around his parents’ basement and his brother’s room. She has this idea, this little paranoia, that anybody could be the killer. Maybe everybody. Maybe it was a conspiracy. It’s not like Law doesn’t know the feeling. She trusts him because, she tells him, she knows he lives far away, in the city, so there’s no way he could be involved.

“Do you know of anyone who would want to hurt your brother? Did he have any enemies?”

Law sits dizzy on the upholstered, bygone basement couch. It sinks under him like the fabric of a dream. “We weren’t really close.”

He’d found a beer in the basement fridge, probably his brother’s beer, which he’d have drunk with his girls, and he sips it now to wash down the taste of vomit. There’s vodka in the freezer, but he’ll leave that for later. This feels like a long-night kind of day. Norma traces the lines of the room with her fingers. Chewed nails. Small hands. The beer tastes like more warm blood, and he almost gags. The can is cold in his hand.

She looks under the fridge and behind it. Behind the old television. In the drawers of an old dresser. She looks at his old DVD collection and opens each one. Most of the discs are mixed up, and in the wrong places.

Norma flips couch cushions. Finds some change. A few ripped-open condom wrappers, which she holds between fingernails and frowns deeply at. A lipstick tube, which she grabs with an inside-out plastic bag, then seals, and writes on it “basement.”

When she comes to the cushion Law sits on, she sighs through her teeth and thrusts her hand under it without asking him to move. She’s kneeling between his legs. He can smell her hair, wood ash and some kind of plastic flower, the slightly sweet and chemical scent of her makeup or lotion. He can see the back of her pale neck, strands of her brown-bronze hair sliding off it as she moves. He feels her arm dully through the cushion beneath him. Her arm stops moving. It feels like her hand is right beneath him, almost like she’d holding him up, or maybe groping him.

“We were gonna get married, you know,” she says from between his legs.

He swings one leg over her and rolls off the cushion, off the couch, and onto the floor, so he’s sitting beside her. He’s spilled a little beer on the way, but so what. He offers her the can.

“Have a drink,” he says. His wrist really hurts now. It looks vaguely red in a small crescent shape. The ghosts of two mice chase each other over his ankles. “There aren’t any ghosts in here.”

She’s crying now. Little drops swimming with mascara like oil floating in rain.

“Yeah there are,” she says. “Yeah there are.”

She flips the cushion. Beneath it, wedged into the couch, are a pair of pink handcuffs with no key.

Law was born with a fleshy rope of umbilical cord tied around his neck. Still little newborn’s heart with all the potential of a tiny bomb. Human hands pressing and nudging his chest, his heart back to function, like an absent parent nudging a hapless child into the deep end of a pool to flail. Life’s full of chlorine and urine, so, Law thinks, it more or less works as a metaphor.

Law is a clairvoyant. Law is an alcoholic. Law sees only animal ghosts. Why is that? Maybe it’s because animals, unlike humans, are not ashamed. Maybe it’s because humans don’t have souls, or those souls shatter or go somewhere else. Or maybe Law’s just a bent antenna, a radio dial turned to a weird, pirate frequency. Anyway, no people. Never.

The older the ghost, the harder it is to see, they’re fuzzy. The more sober he is, the easier it is to see them. The further back he can see. When he was growing up, before discovering alcohol in his second year of high school, he used to watch exotic birds with feathers like scales and stubby wings like fingers struggle to fly in his bedroom. He’d watched a shaggy bear-like creature swimming in a dry river batting at long-gone fish. Two bison butting heads in the parking lot of the sketchy chicken place that served mostly truckers and families passing through on their way elsewhere.

Now, with the alcohol, it’s mostly rats and birds. Dogs and cats. Real things in unreal places. Sometimes, though, when he’s stone sober, or all the way to the other side of drunk, he’ll see the ghosts of things that never existed at all.

A unicorn once, in that same parking lot, grazing on asphalt. Sometimes he sees impossibly long dragon shapes flying across storm clouds in the distance. Sometimes the ghosts of giant spiders creeping through traffic and throwing weird, transparent non-shadows on the cars beneath them.

The thing about that is, he sometimes drunkenly concludes, is that the imagination can die. And that it leaves behind a ghost.

His brother’s room is upstairs, and it smells like old sex, just like the basement except sweeter and older. Dust settled on young skin. Norma wrinkles her nose. A square of light from the window falls on the floor like some ghost’s weird shadow. The bed is neat. A computer. A desk. There’s a poster of two girls from behind on a beach in black and white. Another poster, a row of girls against a blank background, all in thin two-piece bathing suits that make Law think loin cloths and pre-men.

“Where was this taken?” Law says, tapping the blank background. “Purgatory?”

Norma taps possible passwords into the computer. Law watches her type her own name. It stays locked. The hazy, beer-drunk outline of a ghost crouches in a corner of the room. Maybe a big dog. Law squints at it, but it doesn’t get any clearer.

“I cheated on him once,” Norma says. She stares at the locked screen. Her face is very still, and her makeup seems theatrical and purposeful. Her pink lips are starting to show beneath her lipstick. Her dark eyes beneath her washed-out eyelids. She looks like she’s in a trance, or dead. “It wasn’t a mistake. I wanted to. I didn’t want to hurt him, but I felt like I was disappearing into him. Like my body was being eclipsed by him. He had this huge personality. He had a good time no matter where he was. His smile was like a disease, it infected you. Whether you felt shitty or tired or hungover, after being with him for a few minutes, his mood sort of took over your mood, you know? But sometimes you just want to feel bad.”

“Did you notice all the other girls at his funeral, Normal?” Law turns away from the lump of ghost in the corner, it’s a little creepy even for him, watching him without a face, and he lies down flat on the floor and starts pulling shoeboxes out from under the bed. His wrist throbs.

“He was done with all that. You know he asked me to marry him.”

“You mentioned that.”

“I said no.”

One shoebox is filled with change. One with silk scarves and handcuff keys. One with photos of girls, some in their underwear, some in clothes. Near the bottom, Law finds the gray halo cone of an ultrasound photo.

“Why?” Law says.

“He told me you could see ghosts,” she says.

“Not those kinds of ghosts,” he says, quickly shutting the box of photos, though Norma still has not turned around. Instead she’s looking at all the corners in the room one at a time like examining pieces of fruit for ripeness and color.

“Is he here?”

Surreptitiously, Law stands and at the same time pushes the box of photos under the bed, along with the box of handcuffs and scarves.

“Sure.” And he’s about to say something sweet, because he’s feeling tender toward her. Something like He’ll always be with you. Or, He wouldn’t abandon you. Things that are untrue tend to have a certain sweetness. Take dreams. Take ghosts.

But before he can go on, Norma pushes back from the desk, stands and turns to him. Her little animal face tight and puffing up like there’s a thin fire under her skin. Her lipstick has been rubbed off in the middle, because, he’s noticed, she tends to stick her tongue out when she’s thinking. She looks as if she’s steeling herself for something.

“He didn’t kill himself.”

“I think he did,” Law says. He’s buzzing all over. It feels like he’s a balloon that’s been let go, and he’ll float around and around until he gets too heavy, and sinks into a powerline and causes a huge fire that spreads through the whole town and eventually the whole state. “And I think he cheated on you. A lot.”

She continues to breathe her little fire breaths through her flared nose. She steps forward. Her arm swings up, and her hand slaps the back of his neck and holds him.

“If he did, he had a good reason.”

She kisses him like she wants him to disappear. She’s all teeth. Even her small, pointed tongue feels like a fang on his neck.

She looks at him now like she’s really seeing him. But he knows, despite how much clearer her eyes are than his, and even now getting clearer as she rips her clothes off like ripping off the bandages of the past, she’s not really seeing him. In fact, she’s looking right through him.

What is the lifespan of the unreal? What is the half-life of a unicorn eating asphalt? At what rate does a dream decay? A fantasy rot? A crowd of ghostly moths, like disembodied Christmas lights, pass through the ceiling light. All this implies that Law doesn’t really know the world he lives in and will never know it. Will never understand it.

It feels exactly as you imagine it feels.

He wants to stop her, but he’s never been good at control. She sits on top of him like he’s a chair. The sun goes down on her skin. She bites his shoulder and holds his wrists and claws at his back. It’s all mixed up in his head. He remembers his brother in the grass. God’s sky. Blood on his tongue. Were they fighting, or were they in love? The moon rises in her hair. Silver moonbeams like fingers touching her face. His own fingers on her face. Numb with alcohol. Like they always are. They look like ghost fingers. Semi-transparent.

“If I get pregnant,” she says through gasps. Her breath tastes like cinnamon and cigarette smoke. “Do you want me to keep it?”

His back tightens. The ghosts of fireflies and moths spin in the moonlight. He comes. It’s like trying not to grow up. It’s like trying not to become who you already are. His whole body as stiff as a corpse, but he’s moving right along anyway.

When he left town, he thought he might become a vet.

Art laughed at that. “All those dead animals? What, you want to collect their ghosts?”

It was hard to argue with the logic of that. So instead, Law became a pet groomer, with a little bit of pet detective work on the side. It was quiet work he could do while maintaining a steady, baseline haze of yellow scotch and sugar syrup. On his darker days, he would place his hands on either side of a dog’s square skull and force it to look him in the eyes like two flat mirrors.

“Someday,” he’d say. “You’re gonna be a ghost.”

Art had confessed a few years ago to seeing ghosts, too. Not as clearly as Law, mostly blurry outlines like figures dressed in ultrasound static. Still, it depressed him and made him question his sanity and the sanity of nature in the same way. Ghosts in every corner.

When Law had jammed the last garbage bag of his clothes into the trunk of his rumbling Chevy, and it was just the two of them standing in the cracked driveway of their childhood, Art said, “You shouldn’t drink so much.”

“You know why I drink,” Law said. The ghost of Cloud, thinner and more transparent now, was rubbing its ghost body through his leg. It was slimy and cool.

“You should try girls,” Art said. He grinned, and tapped his temple. His grin was a little crooked, afraid maybe. “Sex is like disappearing. And afterwards, things are a little clearer. Shapes are a little clearer. And that actually helps. Know what I mean?”

“It’s not for lack of trying.” Law got in the car, window permanently down and the glass broken inside the door. When he closed it, he could hear the cubes of safety glass clattering against each other like people. He took a nip from a flask in the glove compartment. “Or maybe it is. Either way, it’s too late now.”

“Hey, you still just see animals, right?”

“Yeah?” Law said, brow drunkenly raised. “What else is there?”

“Yeah,” Art said, flashing that crooked grin. Like he wasn’t really smiling, more like he was grinding something in his teeth. “Yeah. Nothing else.”

“Hey, just forget it, okay?” Norma says. She’s dressing. Black bra like a rope around her chest.

Law doesn’t say anything. He sprawls out on his brother’s bed and tries to keep his mind empty. The shape in the corner does, in fact, look a little clearer now.

“Is Arthur still here?” she asks, but her voice is far away, like she’s thinking about something else.

“No.”

She nods. She’s fully dressed now. The moon is somewhere else. She’s lit in the weird off light ghosts. She glances at the corner. The corner with the ghost. It’s unfolding itself like a letter. It’s tall, maybe a big cat or human-sized extinct bird. Its shape is familiar, long-limbed and slim and unreal. Even though it is painfully real. He thinks about the tiger with the bird in its chest. He thinks about the unicorn in the parking lot. It is as rare and graceful as a dream. But whose?

“I was drinking, a lot. Other stuff too. I had a miscarriage. You know it was actually a relief. I wanted an abortion, but he proposed, and what was I supposed to do then? I loved him. You know he knew without me telling him. He knew right away. How do you think he knew?”

Law closes his eyes.

“It’s not your fault.” He feels slimy, and not just because he’s a bad person. It’s cold in here.

“He told me that if he ever died, he would come back as a ghost. And he’d haunt all the corners in the world, because the corner is the loneliest part of any room.”

“Goodbye,” Law says, sharper than he means. She’s filling up his head again. She seems to exude smoke even without her cigarette.

He hears the door open. He turns to look. She’s standing by the open door with her hand out at her side. The long shape, as long and as tall as him, moves toward her. It extends one fuzzy arm and softly takes her hand. He sees the corner of her smile.

“Is this what you wanted?” he says. The pain in his wrist is gone.

She turns back to him and smiles, then quickly looks away. Or maybe she was smiling at someone else.

Before she can answer, Law hears a car in the drive. His parents. He gets up and hastily begins to dress. Hopping drunkenly into his pants, though he can’t seem to get them up past his ankles, he looks up and sees them disappearing past the edge of the door.

“Wait!”

In a flash, he sees a life with her. In the shower with Norma, the hot water and the steam counteracting the cold, slick feeling of his brother. Their half-ghost child strapped to his chest in the grocery store. Laughing and pulling on his ears. Long nights solving pet deaths and putting pet serial killers behind bars, and long mornings sleeping in each other’s arms, his brother’s gray, static arm stretched over them all.

He wonders, his pants around his ankles and cold all over, his parents running into Norma downstairs and already starting to scream, what kind of ghost this fantasy will leave behind when it, too, inevitably dies.

fin

Ryan Row’s short fiction has appeared in Clarkesworld, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Interzone, and elsewhere. He is a winner of the Writers of the Future Award. He holds a B.A. in Creative Writing from San Francisco State University, and is pursuing an M.A. in Creative Writing at the University of California Davis. He lives in Sacramento, California with a beautiful and mysterious woman. You can find him online at ryanrow.com

Published September 2018, 4100 words, Shimmer #45

Other Ghosts:

The Creeping Influences, by Sonya Taaffe

Spirit Tasting List for Ridley House, April 2016, by Alex Acks

Blackpool, by Sarah Brooks