Category Archives: Fiction

Milkteeth, by Kristi DeMeester

 

Daddy told me to keep to myself after the foxes disappeared, but there’s only so still you can keep your hands when your belly’s rumbling, and you think you’re seeing claws at the ends of your fingers instead of skin.

“What’d I tell you, girl?” he says, and his touch is rough as he wipes at my crimson-smeared lips. I nip at the iron tang on his palms, and he frowns when he sees the broken body of the mouse I caught and snatched up before it knew how to take its last breath. “You should have been a boy,” he says, scratching at his beard. “At least then I could have taught you how to use a gun.”

I don’t have the heart to tell him that we would still have gone hungry. There is no number of bullets that’ll bring back the dead so you can kill and eat them all over again.

“Come on,” he says and shifts the pack on his back. “I want to get to the ridge before sundown.”

I walk behind him, stepping in his footprints on the ice-crusted ground, and watching my breath cloud out of me. It’s too cold to snow, and this means the animals that are left are caught up in keeping the soft parts of themselves warm. It’s what Daddy and I should be doing, but there’s nothing left now but movement and touching my tongue to my teeth to see if they’ve gone any sharper. Some days I think they have, but there are other days when they are just as dull as the gray sky above us.

It’s a good thing my mouth is closed to hide my doing it. The last time Daddy caught me, he gave me six licks from his belt, and that was enough for me to remember to keep it from him. Mama had only been gone for a few months, but there was still food back then, and I’d had no real need for teeth meant to rip and tear meat from bone, but I longed to be something more than the girl I was. That was two years ago—only thirteen and unable to control the need to check—but I know how to fold that secret into myself now and touch my teeth behind closed lips.

My mouth still tastes of velvet warmth, and I try to hold the feeling for as long as I can, but soon enough there’s only ice and rot, and I hold my eyes open wide and sweep them back and forth across the ground in case there are any other tiny-boned things that have ventured outside. Of course, there’s nothing. The mouse is the first creature I’ve seen in weeks, and before then we hadn’t caught wind of anything larger than a squirrel, and even those were thin and rangy looking, but I went after them anyway with Daddy shouting behind me to stop. My belly cramps around the smallness of what I’ve eaten, and I slow.

“Pick it up, Henni,” Daddy says but doesn’t turn to look.

“My stomach hurts.”

“It’s the blood. The meat. Your body isn’t used to it, and it’s cramping. Breathe deep. It’ll pass.”

He always tells me this. Even back when there were still rabbits all sleek-bodied and shivering in the field behind our house and chickens in the coop that would let us take them up and cradle their necks in our fingers before we twisted until we felt that pop that told us we would not go hungry.

It has been a long time since then. For a while, I counted the days, and then the months, but then there was nothing left to count, and we left the house behind to look for something Daddy won’t talk about. It has been three days of walking with nothing more than a trickle of water from Daddy’s canteen to wet my tongue every five hours.

I double over, my hands digging into my sides as if I could claw the pain out of me, and keep walking. “How far until the ridge?” I say. Ahead of me, Daddy shuffles his feet like it hurts him to pick them up.

“Two, maybe three more hours. At least that’s how I remember it. ’Course, I wasn’t walking back then.”

“When was the last time you were there?” I say, but Daddy goes quiet, and I know better than to ask anything else because it’s better than him yelling about how he’d wish I’d learn to hold my breath, and I think back to the time we don’t talk about, and I know how it looks when someone forgets how to breathe and wonder if he’s trying to not think of it, too.

There are probably other people, living on in this famine with different earth under their feet, and I wonder if they’re walking, too, or if they stayed put, huddled together in cramped apartments surrounded by the smell of mold and rot in the cities I never wanted to understand. Once, Daddy wanted me to go to college. He’d talk about it, and Mama would smile and nod, but she knew I was as tied to this place as she was. There was only one way for us to leave. If nothing else, I was proud to have given her that.

Daddy is moving slowly even though we aren’t going uphill, and the terrain is dotted here and there with fallen branches, the earth drained of any color. What grass remained died off long ago and even the pines that should be evergreen are tinged with a kind of brown death that marks every living thing. I’ve wondered if the entire world looks like this dying forest.

My fingers twitch, and I pass my tongue over my teeth. If Daddy’s heart were to burst like overripe fruit, I would not be able to keep myself from eating. I flex my hands, dreaming of dark, hooked claws.

The cramping passes and settles back into the same aching hunger that has been pitted in my belly for so long. The skin on my legs burns and tingles, and I stamp my feet, try to get the blood moving even though it hurts. I hum something tuneless, anything to drown out the lack of sound. No birds crying back and forth to one another, no scurrying feet. All of that silence is louder than a scream, and I clamp my hands to my ears. It does no good. The only thing I hear is the hollow sound of my own heart.

It’s late afternoon when Daddy points ahead of us to the brown, peaked earth that rises toward the sky. “There,” he says, and touches his chest, his thighs, as if he’s looking for something he’s misplaced. A pocketknife or a handkerchief or the letter he’d carried with him since he met Mama after the War. Before we left for the last time, he folded it and buried it in the backyard. He didn’t wash his hands when he came inside, and we left the next morning.

I crane my neck, and the movement makes me dizzy. “Do we have to climb it?”

“No. We wait.”

“For what?”

“Hush now,” Daddy says, and his eyes are clear and bright and the color of lake water, and he jerks his head left and right, but there’s nothing else here. I sink onto my haunches. “Don’t sit like that,” Daddy says when he sees me, but he doesn’t jerk me to my feet like he usually does, so I stay that way. It feels better to let my muscles mold themselves into this movement that should be unnatural, to bend and stretch into a shape that fits my body.

Twice, Daddy brings his hand to his hip to touch the gun he carries, and I dig my fingers into the ice-crusted earth and think of my teeth against smooth throats. “I can help if you’re hunting. I know what to do,” I say.

When he looks at me, I tell myself his eyes aren’t distant. “I know you can, Henni. I know.”

We wait until the sun has almost vanished. Daddy keeps his hand on his gun the entire time, and I can taste the fire of it in the back of my throat and remember how he’d wanted to be the one to help Mama to the other side. But it was my duty. I was her girl, and she’d taught me what to do. Daddy could never understand. Not really. But he knew better than to hate me for it. I reckon when he married Mama, he understood what was to come but hadn’t been ready for it when it came. We aren’t supposed to live past forty. It’s not how our bodies work.

I smell them before Daddy hears them, and it sets my mouth watering. Two of them. A man and a woman who carries something dark inside of her. Not disease but something else that smells like nothing I’ve ever experienced before. Sharp and earthy, like the underside of mushrooms mixed with lavender, or like blood and honey that has ambered and lacquered the surface of wherever it has come to rest. I clamp my teeth together with a sharp snap, and Daddy unholsters the gun but doesn’t raise it.

“Just us, Paul. I got a gun on me, too, but it’s not out or pointed at anybody. No reason for all that, is there?” The voice is male but high-pitched and tinny and out of breath as if whoever owns it isn’t used to walking over such terrain, and my heart swells with pride for my Daddy, who’s broad shouldered and quick and can still run over uneven ground for miles without tiring out.

“You alone?”

“’Course not. You know that.”

With one quick movement, Daddy puts his gun back into the holster, and I’m almost disappointed, but I have my body, and that’s all that’s needed when the time comes.

The man is average, his stomach not bulging but not flat, and his hair is cropped close to his skull so it looks as if he’s just escaped from some kind of hospital. The woman is small, mouth pinched tight and dark hair flowing past her waist like water, eyes beady and set close together. Her hands are chapped and look bloodied, and even from all that distance I know she is watching me.

“Is that your girl?” the man calls, and I look up at Daddy, but he’s watching the man and woman and won’t turn to face me even though I’ve started up a whining in the back of my throat as warning.

“Henni. Her name is Henni,” he says in a voice too quiet for them to hear, and I know he’s not telling them but himself.

“This is Beth-Anne,” the man says. They are close enough now to see that the woman isn’t a woman at all but a girl probably just a bit older than me. She’s dressed plainly in a denim jumper that reaches her ankles that are covered by heavy boots, and a too-thin coat, but she doesn’t shiver.

Daddy nods, and the pair stop about fifteen feet from us. The man doesn’t look at me, but the girl, Beth-Anne, stares at me and chews at her lips. I sniff at the air and roll her scent over my tongue. She’s hungry, too. I can smell it.

“Well,” the man says and rocks back onto his heels, his hands stuffed into his pockets. “That’s all there is to it then.”

“I reckon so.” Turning, Daddy kneels down, pulls off the glove on his left hand, and cups my face, but he’s distracted, his eyes roaming back over to the man or down to the dirt. “Listen to me, Henni. You’re going to go with Beth-Anne now.”

“No. No, that’s not how it’s supposed to be.” My throat has gone thick, and I bite down on my tongue so I won’t cry. “Mama said.”

“Mama’s gone though, ain’t she?” Daddy’s voice is quiet, and I curl into myself because even though he knew what would happen, it was still this thing that lived inside the women in his life that robbed him of the happiness he’d found.

“It was supposed to happen. And one day it’ll happen to me,” I say, and Daddy shakes his head.

“Not again, Henni. It won’t. Not if I can help it. Go with Beth-Anne now.”

Beth-Anne has taken a step away from the man, and he has unbuttoned his coat, the glint of metal at his side too bright in this bleached-out landscape, and I understand the hollow sound that comes from Daddy’s side when he stands, the deliberate click that spells out everything he will not say to me.

“No,” I say, and Daddy raises his hand. His eyes are wet, but the meaning behind it has vanished.

“Go with her.” His finger is against the trigger, and I watch the muscles in his hands flex.

I stand up. I run.

I don’t wait for Beth-Anne but streak past her, the world a blur of dead colors. Behind us, one of the men fires a warning shot. I do not look back to see if it was Daddy. I do not look back to see if he’s calling to tell me he’s sorry, to tell me to come back, and we can go home, and keep living the way we’re supposed to. To tell me he can be strong the way Mama had hoped.

Only once I am deep within the trees again do I slow, and I can hear Beth-Anne panting behind me, but she keeps her distance. “We shouldn’t stop,” she calls. “They’ll give us a head start, but they’ll find us again.”

I pause but keep walking. “He let me go.” There are other words I want to say, but they dig into my belly like thorns, and I cannot pull them from me.

Beth-Anne pushes past me and turns to block my path. Up close, her eyes aren’t dark at all, but a light brown that is almost yellow. “Think what you like, but we have to keep moving and put as much distance between us and them as possible.”

“He would never do that to me. Come after me like that.”

“Being hungry does strange things to men. You should know that better than anyone.” Beth-Anne grins, and her teeth are sharp in the way that mine are not. She grasps my hand and tugs me forward so that her face rests against mine. She inhales, her cheek passing over my jaw, my neck. “You smell like my mother. Like me. I’ve never done this with another girl. Maybe it will be different this time,” she says and darts away.

By the time the sun has set, I’ve fallen into the rhythm of my legs pumping beneath me, and the burn in my lungs. Already, I can smell Daddy and the man behind us, and they smell of sweat and fear and metal. Now and then, Beth-Anne glances back, but we run on into all of that gathered darkness, the trees looking like bits of bone reaching up into nothingness. I imagine we are ghosts. I imagine we are still the girls who looked at our mothers in wonder the first time she explained what we were. I imagine our mothers have not left us, and what kind of golden world that would be.

I don’t notice when Beth-Anne stops, and I plow into the back of her, our limbs tangling as we fall. She clamps a hand over my mouth, and it’s almost as if we are not separate bodies but the same creature lying on our backs, four legs and four arms and two pairs of hungry mouths gasping into the night air. “Listen,” she whispers.

I do. For the first time since Mama died, all of the mechanistic parts of me roar to life, and I am nothing more than an extension of what’s always lived in my blood.

“Two of them. Big,” I say, and I catch the curl of Beth-Anne’s lips even through the dark.

“Good girl. What else?” she asks, but I cannot bring myself to answer her because it is something that will upend the sky and send me tumbling even though I’ve scented him this entire time.

Beth-Anne digs her fingernails into my cheek until I answer her. “Daddy,” I say, and she drops her hand, but we stay on the ground, and our breath rises and falls in the same pattern.

“It may be that he won’t kill you. Mine never does, but each time, he swears that he will. When he’s done with the thrill of finding me and hungry enough…” Beth-Anne presses the tips of two fingers to my forehead and makes a small popping noise. We lie there quiet for a moment longer, our heartbeats sliding against each other, and Beth-Anne wraps her fingers through mine. “We could have been together. Once. When there were many of us, and no one to hunt our skins. We could have been in love,” she says, and I try to crush her hand in mine, but I am not as strong as she.

“What are we?” I say, and she turns, her eyes flashing yellow.

“Wolves. Foxes. Bears. The mountain lion creeping through the night. We are fury wrapped in meat.” She brings wet lips to my ear, and her breath is hot across my neck. “We were girls. And now we are not.”

In the distance, a twig snaps, and two men mumble in low voices filled with a violence I still cannot understand. Mama did not explain this. She only told me what I would need to do to honor her memory. How I should take her into myself piece by piece until I was filled up with her. And so I had. She had not told me, though, how love can grow into something duplicitous. How a husband, a father, can look at his child and forget how he once cradled her fragile body and swore to her mother and to himself that he would follow her down into the dark, his protection the only thing that mattered.

“My mother got sick when I was seven. Too early, but she took the time to explain. How there is something alive inside of us. How beautiful it is and how that even with the world dying around us, we would carry on. And then she died, and I gobbled her down the way in the way she had her own mother. The next morning, my father took me into the woods and turned me loose, told me that if I could outrun him, he’d let me live. Back then, I knew he was brain-sick from losing my mother, but then it was more than that, and he did it again and again, and I wasn’t his daughter anymore but something to hunt. I kept coming back because the house was still warm, and there was still food, but there hasn’t been anything close to that for a while. And now, there’s you.”

She pauses and traces her fingers over her lips. “They’ve been talking for months, you know. I stole the letters and read them while he was sleeping. Our mothers knew each other when they were younger and had written for a few years after they’d gotten married. Your daddy remembered and sent the first letter to my father. Wanted to know how he could look his girl in the face when all he could see was his wife’s blood on her hands. He had itchy fingers, he said. So he wrote and asked how he could put you in the ground. Or at least, he wanted a way to be rid of you that didn’t mean covering your mouth while you were sleeping or pointing his gun at your head while you built a fire. Hunting makes what they’re doing a very different thing,” Beth-Anne says.

“He won’t kill me,” I say, and Beth-Anne laughs deep in her throat so that it sounds like a snarl.

“They can’t hunt the way we can. Looking for the small things that creep over the ground. And there’s so little meat left. So little for them to eat. They’ll die out before we do, and they’re scared and hungry.” Beth-Anne tugs at my arm. “We should go.”

My mouth, my teeth, my throat ache, but I stand and nod. “Yes.”

We run until our feet bleed and then still, we run, our eyes on the sky, waiting for the sun so that we might hide ourselves from the men who were once our fathers, but night is something we are caught in now, a great dome that cannot be lifted.

When the shot comes, it is not for me. Beth-Anne jerks and grunts, but she does not stumble.

“You have to stop,” I call to her, and she turns back, her teeth painted vermilion, and I feel only cold and hunger seeing her blood, but she reaches for me, and we run together. On and on and on into what seems like the quivering thread that separates this world from the next, but there is the crack of another shot, and Beth-Anne throws back her head and laughs and screams, and I open my mouth and scream with her. Sisters, mothers, lovers, born out of things husbands and fathers cannot comprehend.

“We take back our own, and the doing of it makes us stronger, makes us able to move through this world that has forgotten us. When the time comes, you will eat of my body and drink of my blood, and I will always be with you,” Mama had said, and now Beth-Anne looks at me, her teeth still bared. I bare mine back and know that they are now as sharp as hers.

When we double back, we go through the trees. Quiet and deliberate and without a sound. They do not know when we are behind them, their shoulders hunched against the cold, the only sound their ragged breath in the frozen air. We have stripped ourselves of our coats, our boots, anything that will keep our bodies from moving in the way our mothers had intended. We are hungry, and we go silently.

I have not forgotten the shape of my mother’s face. I have not forgotten how she placed her eyeteeth in my palm and told me to eat them first.

My father calls my name once, twice, but of all of the things I remember, I have already forgotten what it means to live inside the girl he should have taught to shoot a gun; the girl he carried out of the forest when she sprained her ankle; the girl he found covered in his wife’s blood and weeping tears dyed scarlet; the girl who became the ghost that would not vanish from his sight.

When we have finished, Beth-Anne licks my face clean, and with the beginnings of claws, I dig the bullet from her shoulder while she sits in silence, and we turn away from the trampled earth.

We leave the guns behind. We will not need them, and our bellies are full and cramping in the way my father explained, and I lift my eyes to watch the trees shape themselves into things I no longer recognize. “Will it always be like this?” I ask.

Beside me, Beth-Anne is silent, but she looks back at me, and it is enough.

 

Kristi DeMeester is the author of Beneath, a novel published by Word Horde Publications, and Everything That’s Underneath, a short fiction collection from Apex Books. Her short fiction has appeared in several places, including Ellen Datlow’s The Year’s Best Horror Volume 9, Stephen Jones’ Best New Horror, Year’s Best Weird Fiction Volumes 1 and 3 in addition to publications such as Black Static, The Dark, and several others. In her spare time, she alternates between telling people how to pronounce her last name and how to spell her first. Find her online at www.kristidemeester.com.

Published Shimmer #44, July 2018, 4000 words

Other Teeth:

The Triumphant Ward of the Railroad and the Sea, by Sara Saab

Black Fanged Thing, by Sam Rebelein

Define Symbiont, by Rich Larson

The Passenger, by Emily Lundgren

I try to take a picture of the eerie. The power’s out, so I’m like, okay, standing outside the Pump n’ Stuff, looking at the gas pumps. My last customer was twenty minutes ago. Down the street by the McDonald’s, the black veiny power lines seizure under the blinking traffic lights. I listen to the curdles of wind. There’s no one around. No one at the Kum & Go across the way. No one in the dirt parking lot outside Toby’s bar. Just cars rumbling along on the I-29 overpass.

Eerie.

But the picture I take is just a spread of grainy nothingness, boring, and I sit on a milk crate, and I mope: so much for the camera on the new LG EnV, sigh sigh sigh. But then at least it’s got the flip-out keyboard, at least I don’t have to look slow and stupid texting Wig anymore.

He’ll be here soon. I just ended my shift and he’s the early type.

My palms start to sweat. This is it, Kara. Even though he hasn’t been texting back since Friday after our quasi-date at Taco John’s, and even though he didn’t show up yesterday like usual to share a joint during break and make up jokes about all the customers. Still. He’ll be here. Because it’s finally happened. Myspace post and everything.

Miranda and Ludwig broke up.

There’s a kid working McDonald’s that goes out by the dumpster to try lighting a smoke. He cups his hands, I can see the sliver of flame—then it’s gone, snuffed by the wind. There’s the customers, all leaving. The street bathed in green traffic light. Then gold. Then red. Leaves whirling from ditches. There’s an honest-to-god-no-shit tumbleweed going see you later, dude.

That’s when I get the text.

Not from Wig, but from her. Miranda.

This is Miranda feldman, the text reads, like she forgot she gave me her number senior year of high school as I signed her yearbook. Have u seen wig?

Gross.

Then there’s a car. This real shitty ass car. This crappy ass two-door, green Cavalier. The same one that’s picked me up after work every Tuesday since August. It runs red. Pulls up on a slam of brakes.

I can see the shadow of him inside.

The door opens. I pocket my phone and climb in.

Here’s the thing about Miranda. From high school. From math. I try not to think about her more than I think about Wig. But they’re sort of hand in hand sometimes. Especially because she’s with this other guy now and sometimes, like yesterday, I go creeping to the public library just to look at stuff like Miranda’s Myspace page. There was a picture. Black and white. The two of them. Miranda and this other guy. This other-Wig. This guy with this whole swooped-bang look and dyed black hair. This Gerard Way look. But Wig can’t even do that style because Wig’s got a widow’s peak.

I swallow, anxious, because I figure how Wig must be feeling. Right now. Why he hasn’t been answering my texts since after our Friday sort-of-date. Thanks to my local library I know they broke up on Facebook and Myspace sometime around Saturday afternoon. So here he is. Right here, right now, all mine. Ready for an official date, maybe, where I’ll finally, actually get laid. Except something is wrong. Wig looks um. He’s gone all pale. More than usual. He’s holding onto the steering wheel sort of like if he lets go he’ll throw up. He runs another red.

Main street’s nothing but traffic lights. Tick, tick, eerie.

“Hey—um, how are you feeling, are you okay?” I say. I try to play it all casual. Last week he didn’t talk much, but that’s normal and he looked okay. Hawkish hair, dyed this sick color. Dark green so it does look a convincing black in the dark. By sick I meant sick. That kind of sick. But the rest of him does look like the other kind of sick when we pass yellow. The um kind. “Wig,” I say. I joke, “are you high?”

He rubs his eyes. “Fuck,” I think he says. His eyes are bloodshot. It’s hard to tell. He always smells weird. Not like pot, not all the time, but other stuff, too. Like incense sticks, all cinnamon, daydream, lavender. I always avoided him, in school. I knew him back then. He was in the same class as me. The same class as Miranda. Sometimes I wonder which one of us changed the most. I guess you don’t grow much, only two-ish years out. He’d show up to chem and paint his nails with Sharpie. It was like. Very strange.

He turns up the music. He’s listening to uh, some real loud ass shit. Per usual, I guess.

“I’m having a thought,” I say. But he doesn’t hear me. Good. I take a drink of my Joose.

Wig flips his phone open. His very own EnV, only the green color’s worn off and there’s duct tape. I try to side-eye for the reflection of his screen on the glass of his window while he texts. Balancing the wheel with his knee. I’m not spying. But I’m trying to. Just when I think I catch something he chucks it. His phone. Into the cup holder. Picks up the PBR from the holder next to it. He rubs his nose and takes a drink. I’ve never seen him drink in his car before.

I guess I should try to make small talk. Maybe ask if he’s going to do a spell tonight, at the beach. Even though the wind is bad. But I kind of… Shit. Don’t want to ruin the surprise. Just the two of us. In his car. The music. The town silent. Dark. Every house window reflecting Wig’s headlights back at us. Reverse-deers. Even though I’m sort of getting anxious about how he’s drinking the PBR at the wheel. Which. I mean. It isn’t really like him. We pass Duke’s, my trailer court. The little square of the community college. Wig runs another light. My eyes close.

This guy shreds. On his vocals. The bubble of guitar. I can’t shake this little feeling…

Wig and I talk about music all the time. I grew up on my dad and mom’s stuff. But he’s more into the alternative trends. When we first started hanging out this past summer, I was like: “I’m into your music but.” And he was like: “But?” And I was like, casual: “But they’re sort of like. Really shitty towards girls?” In reality. This was a thing my English teacher said senior year before we graduated. Posed the question. Sort of about, like, all rock n’ roll music ever. But particularly, Wig’s kind. The emotional kind. Everyone in class was like: bullshit! But I tried it out on Wig to see what he’d say. Maybe it’s sad but it’s the truth: I’d like him to think I’m smart.

I guess I shouldn’t care stealing what the teacher said. Because it worked. He was like: “Maybe. I don’t know. So what’s your stuff about?” I shrugged. Then I made him a CD. With that one Neil Young song about Charles Manson. That Black Sabbath one about doing heroin and Vietnam veterans. Then that one by Iggy Pop that’s about David Bowie. It made him think. I think? He liked the CD. I think. But then I see it on the messy floor of his car. Scattered with the rest. My sloppy sharpie: Kara’s. Scratched to shit by my Converse. I glance at him.

I’m not so sure I’m right—that my English teacher was right. I mean, about his music. To be fair. If I’m honest and all. I’ve been listening to it a lot more lately and mostly it seems like these screaming guys are all dating the wrong girls. Or it’s about hate-loving their dads.

My phone vibrates. I jump-scare, Jesus. Slide it open. It’s Miranda. Fucking Miranda.

Kara please, it reads, this is important …r u with him ?

I want to tell her to fuck off, but I don’t have the guts.

I take the biggest. Fucking. Drink. From my Joose. I wipe my mouth with my sleeve. My heart is like: Do I bring it up? The breakup? What will he say? It’s stupid, I think. He was ever even into her, I mean. Miranda. From math. In math, freshman year of high school, she told him to slit his wrists. Kids laughed. Being teenagers, at the time, we were into that. The idea of death, I guess. For sure. There was this whole mood, this whatever about it, go Plath yourself, etc. But. Miranda’s hot shit. Really, I mean. If I were gay. Long legs, long neck, this real beautiful jawline. No acne. She could’ve been on America’s Next Top Model. Everyone thought so.

What I’m trying to say is, I’d forgive her too, for bullying me, if I were Wig. If she just apologized one day out of the blue after we both got into the same college. If she were going to live on the same campus I’d be living on for four years and I was overwhelmed about living in a place like the Twin Cities. Miranda’s ACT was 30, I heard. I even heard she cried about it.

For comparison, I didn’t even take the ACT.

Looking at Wig now, I don’t know what he’s thinking. His slouch. He keeps fidgeting with his phone. The PBR’s tab. He’s even singing. Kind of, under his breath. Yeah, you were right about me… and we’re on the edge of town, now. Past the Cherry Street Grille, past the dentist whose daughter was featured on 16 and Pregnant. Past the empty lot by the evangelical church. The town’s sign: Home of the Tanagers. I’m having a thought. I want to say… I’m thinking. No. I’m thinking just let him be. For now, just let him be. Deal with it all at the beach.

I look down, my phone vibrates, Miranda: Kara and wig hey this isn’t fucking funny ok I no about ur beach thing—I fiddle with the buttons, figure how to get my phone to stop vibrating.

I guess he told her. I wonder how much he used to talk about me. What he said. I think about responding. I think about saying to Miranda: yeah so if you know you should leave us the fuck alone, and I would spell out all my yous because I actually care about language. I guess. I even type it out. Just to try out my keyboard, but then I’m like. No, fuck her. Fuck Miranda.

Sometimes I forget how Wig got into Macalaster after high school. How he spent two whole years at a private college, taking classes like qualitative literature. For real. He and Miranda had been a thing since the summer before they left for college. I knew this from web sleuthing, even though I didn’t talk to either of them, ever. Facebook, LiveJournal, Myspace trifecta. Miranda, rebel: look at my hot boyfriend, into lighting black candles and smoking pot and really into the Used, into Bright Eyes, The White Stripes, Linkin Park, also, hi, he studies philosophy at Macalaster, full ride. Wig, Wig. Ludwig.

But then he didn’t go back this Fall.

He spent more time hanging out at the Pump n’ Stuff gas station.

Buying gum and beer and smokes.

In other words, now he’s a college dropout.

This is weird, maybe, but at first I was mad at him. I wanted to say. Why are you staying here? In town? This town? You can’t be here! I heard what you were given. Smarts, tuition. Do you know what you’ve done, Wig? Do you? But I shudder just thinking about saying those things. I’m not his fucking mom. I get this feeling. Keep getting this feeling. Like he knows. Like knowing has fucked him up. Every day. Who is Wig, I mean, if he isn’t the college type?

Then out back, by the dumpsters. Splitting a joint on break a few weeks ago, he said: “I’m having a thought.” That’s our thing. I’m having a thought. Like it’s beamed down to us by aliens. I’m having a thought. This thought. He went: “Get this. Senior year. Back before I left for college, I did one of my mom’s spells. This love thing. I didn’t really believe in it, Kara. I don’t think I believe in anything, to be honest. But. You know those three wishes fairy tales…when all your wishes go wrong? How payback’s a real bitch, if you’re stupid about what you wished for? And everyone is, you know… Everyone’s always super fucking stupid…” He shook his head.

I just nodded. I didn’t say what I guessed or that he should chill out, you know. There are logical explanations as to why a popular supermodel like Miranda would date a scrawny emo kid like him. For instance. I would’ve said to him: your SAT/ACT scores were through the roof, I would’ve reminded him, and you grew up below the poverty line so you got all those scholarships. Then, there were his entry essays, probably. A+’s. How he did policy debate for the debate team. How they usually choose two kids a year from our town. So the love thing. I mean. They were accepted to the same college. It wasn’t a wish. It was because they were smart.

Maybe, too, his Myspace. He started it up his senior year. Miranda had one, too. He hung out with the local bands. 2k friends. Pictures of altars. Tapestries. He had a good eye. Tarot readings. Maybe I did one of his spells. Maybe two. Maybe a love thing. I didn’t tell him: pretty sure Miranda did, too, Wig. Pretty sure you had all of us doing black magic in our closets summer after senior year. Because no one knew what the fuck they were doing with their lives.

But he dropped it. The Myspace, just last month. The same time he dropped Macalaster.

Then it was all: hi, Kara, what’s up? At the Pump n’ Stuff. More and more often. Until it was September and I realized he never went back with Miranda to the Twin Cities. They were doing a “long distance relationship” before he went back to school in the spring. I can’t believe we all bought that, looking back. But then I remember this one afternoon. Out back. By the dumpster during break. I remember him going: “I don’t know if she really loves me, Kara…”

“Lol,” I’d said. Then he got kind of mad. I guess it was mean. But I said sorry.

So I guess he did believe in the long distance thing. For a little while.

Wig, now. In the car. He mumbles something.

Maybe Wig says, “I like you, Kara.”

But the guy shredding his vocals is too loud. Be my serene… Okay. I can’t tell for sure.

Still, now I’m just drowning in my sweatshirt. It’s hot. Like, temperature hot.

“I like you too,” I brave, sudden, into my half-finished Joose, but already feeling a little woozy, a little more daring. I say: “Hey, um, doing a spell tonight, Wig, in this wind?”

Wig and I have been doing “the beach thing” every week since August. Even when it rains, even when it’s October, like now, and it’s getting colder and we probably should find a better spot. Even when the power’s out. Even when he doesn’t answer my texts for days. It’s like going to church, I guess. I mean, I don’t know. Maybe it’s weird, but he told me he used to do this all the time, visit the beach like this, back when he was in high school. He told me he wanted to try to like, get into it again. He has these candles and a lighter and he builds an altar out of driftwood and actually it isn’t that weird. I swear. I always feel super calm afterwards. We just sit in the sand and we listen to everything around us and I try to empty my mind of getting laid, usually unsuccessfully, but I try. Afterwards, the first time he took me out here, we got drunk and went swimming fully clothed. But still nothing happened. He’s so good to her, I’d thought. Miranda. At the time. I’m so good to her, I’d thought, too.

Now the song is all pitched up, and the guitars are tapping, and Wig is checking his phone.

I guess he doesn’t hear me.

I look down. Miranda and her stupid texts. Jesus.

Kara im worried since friday he keeps sending me the same texts

He wont respond

Tell him kara

Tell him to leave me alone if ur with him

I’m not so warm anymore. Reading these texts. They make me freezing cold. Like the wind is rattling right through me and I’m ankle deep in mud. Wading bramble. I delete what I’d written before, about fucking off. I re-write it: why don’t u leave *us* alone miranda, but then I have to try to edit the text because I forgot about how I was going to write out all my yous.

Why were we so nice to Miranda?

Fuck Miranda.

But still. I don’t send my text.

Then it comes out of nowhere.

He throws it.

His phone.

Hard.

Into the windshield.

It spiderwebs.

The windshield. My heart spikes up into my throat. Then he’s finishing off the PBR. Crunches it up. Tosses it at my feet. With all the CDs. My CD. His CDs. The crumpled-up trash of fast food. Bags. Cups. Beer cans. His notebooks with their stupid doodles. He’s shaking. Trying not to cry. I know he’s upset. But I’m shaking. Too. Honest, I’m kind of scared. I want to say: what, the fuck. What, the fuck is your problem, Wig? But I don’t. Because of the way he looks. About to sob. And. Actually. I’ve never seen a boy cry. This is mean. But I don’t want to.

I look back down, into my cold hands. Into the cold light of my phone. The alerts. Going off, one after the other. Blink, blink, blink. There are so many texts, now. From Miranda. There are missed calls. I frown. The time is all wrong. They’re marked from hours ago. My phone says it’s near 3AM. But it can’t be. I read through the messages. Each of them is like a tiny sliver. My mouth draws open, but there are no words that come out. Just a stifle. That wind and panic.

Kara he is missing that’s why Im asking ok

Did u hear he is missing do u know

They can’t find him Kara u should turn on the news

Kara if u guys ran off 2gether please tell his mom ok

Kara he told me about how u r into him

Kara

answer

He keeps texting me I am having a thought

I am having a thought

Wig lights up a smoke. On Friday, on the weird night of what I considered our sort-of-date, I’d finally asked him. About the college dropout thing. I wanted to ask: will you really go back in the spring? Like you said? But I didn’t. While we walked the 24-hour Taco John’s drive-thru. I’d said, instead: “What happened—why did you drop out, Wig? For real, this time. It had to be better than bumming around here.” I acted all casual, after ringing the window door-bell.

He’d said, shrugging: “I couldn’t do it anymore. The homework. The classes. I got sick. Brain sick, I guess. Like I just. Um. I get sad all the time. Sometimes, I mean. I didn’t leave my room or go to my classes. I’d sleep until dinner time. But it’s okay. I’m taking care of it.”

I’d just nodded. But now. I should… I think. I should turn down the music. I should talk to him. About it. All of it. These texts from Miranda. The breakup, too.

I should turn down the music. I should ask: what did you mean, Wig? What did you mean on Friday about getting sad all the time? Why does Miranda think you’re missing? And mean it. But he reaches for the dial. The same time I do, and his hand moves through mine in a shutter of light-play and cold air. He reaches past. To his phone. On the dash. Spider-webbed glass. The singer croons. I am not your friend… I blink. I just saw something? Everything is all wrong.

It’s dark out. Now. Real dark. Not power’s out dark, but far past the traffic lights of town, dark. The stars are rolled out, the storm clouds all blown past. The trees small signposts. And I’m shivering. Bad. Teeth chattering bad. It’s like all the windows are down. The wind clattering straight through us. My heart hammering like I’m running a marathon. I need to say something.

Wig turns onto the gravel road heading towards Burbank beach. High schoolers still come here on weekends to party. To have bonfires. We used to, too. No. By we I really mean, the Mirandas. I went only once. With my friend and her boyfriend. We were seventeen. Ripe for partying. For letting go and doing crazy stuff we’d regret later. But we never did. Then they left. For college. Bye, Kara. I should say something. I should say something but when I open my mouth I just gulp down a gasp of wind.

There’s another car parked in the ditch off the gravel road. There aren’t any stars. The trees are all creaking.

There, we sit.

For a while, in the guitars, in the car.

It smells like Joose. My BO. Like sour PBR. Like old pot smoke. But. Still. I think he might kiss me. I want to kiss him. I want to tell him I was into him, since senior year of high school. Really. He grew into himself that year. He stopped wearing those stupid sock gloves. Because of the new dress code. He got a tattoo. This skull, on his knuckle. He was smart. Too smart. But he doesn’t kiss me. He shuts the car off. Power’s out. If I’m honest. Now that I’m thinking about it. Now that I notice. He hasn’t looked at me all night. He looks fucked up. In a trance. He finishes his smoke as I’m looking down in my sweaty palms at my phone’s cold light.

There’s no service. I stare at Miranda’s last text until it goes dim.

Kara his mom thinks he killed himself

Then we’re out. Of the car. But. Was I standing? This whole time? I feel. Like I’m splitting. Apart. I double-take, notice. The other car. The car that’s parked there, in the ditch. It’s our car. Wig’s car. His shitty ass Cavalier. Green, two-door. The same rust spots. The same license plate. What. The Fuck. There are two of his car. How. How are there two of his car?

“Wig?” I say, finally. I step away. But he’s already climbing. Through the ditch. Back turned to me. Fuck, fuck. I blink. “Wig, seriously, I’m not joking—what’s going on?”

He ducks under the barbed fence. Heading for the path to the beach. I mean, it’s not really a beach. But we call it a beach. It’s a riverbank. The Missouri. But the sand’s thick. There are sandbars. But then there are these dips. These undertows. Places where you can’t touch. Then you can. You have to walk. A ways. Through this grove of trees. Down the slope. By this guy’s pasture. Then you’re there. Driftwood. Beer cans, smashed. Broken glass. Dog collars.

I glance over my shoulder. The car. The one we drove in. It’s gone. There’s a tremor. Through me. This. Absolute. Dread. My heart is. That guy’s vocals. The drop beat. The pour of where you been? Like a douse of river. I am guitar, drum, bass. Ache. Whirlpool. I am running. Running after. Him. Gulping wind. Tripping. Over the scatter of branches. Of leaves. Then when we’re on the beach, round the bend of trees: the sand stings. My face. The trees aren’t creaking. They’re moaning. I’m sort of. Scared. I think. I. I catch up. He’s at the white-capping. River.

“Hey!” I say. I want. Him to. Look at me. But he. Still won’t. “Wig. Please. Look,” I reach for him. “At me…”

He doesn’t hear? Maybe. I stop. My reach. He’s undressing. His favorite button-up. With the flower-pattern. On the pocket. The dark green that matches his hair. Then his jeans. I’m standing there. Saying his name. Saying: “Wig? Wig! Ludwig…!” Maybe. It gets all wet. My voice. It gets all high-pitched, scrambled, whiny like it’s through a scream of wind. He looks at me. But not at me. He looks not good. He looks more than um. He looks more than uh or huh.

He looks like a ghost.

He takes off his jeans. His legs are skinny, dark hair. He leans over. I think he might kiss me. But he doesn’t. He whispers in my ear. But I don’t hear words. I only hear shiver. Like dead skin like dead eyes like dead fingers like dead lips. “What?” I say, “Wig, I can’t hear you!”

He pulls away. He takes off his shoes, socks. Then he holds up his phone. He texts. He waits. I’m. Really. Dizzy. I reach. I look. There.

I am having a thought

He looks at me. He turns. He throws it. His phone. He throws it out, far. Far. Out. The streak of spider glass glow. Then gone.

“Wig—?” My voice breaks. He’s sprinting. Into the water after it. His phone. I blink, watching him. Fuck. He’s running. Into the water. “Wig!” I almost follow. But I stumble. My shoes weigh me stopped. Sopped. Sand stings. My eyes. They water, I blink. Over and over. He’s out in the water. Moon-skin, no pull, like the water isn’t even there. Like he can’t even feel it anymore. Bye, Kara. He’s all light, he’s all mist over the water. Black water. Swimming. He’s.

Then I can’t watch. I can’t watch, I can’t watch this.

My panic cuts me into a sprint. Back, over the bank. The beach. The bend. Up the slope. I’m just. Thinking, still: I have to call. Someone. There’s no service. I need service. Like connecting might make a sandbar. Might make the water glow like summertime. Bring him back.

Like he wasn’t already dead. Like he didn’t already do this. Days ago, maybe Friday night. After. After he held my hand. Because I’m gasping. For. Breath. Fucking. Gasping. There are no words. Just snot. Shaking. Shivers and I look down at my knees. My feet. My shoes. My knees. Bleeding. Legs on fire like I ran through thistle. Ran through ditches. My shoes, muddy. Ankle deep in it. Torn sleeve. Scratches. Knotty burrs tied up in my shoelaces. Prickling. With each. Step.

Like I ran. Like I ran the whole way here. Out of town. Miles. In the dark. In the wind.

Then. His car. His real car. Not the ghost car. Not the dream car. The whatever it was car. The only car. His shitty Cavalier. Bye, Kara. I am reeling at its handle, I’m screaming. In shock. Maybe. In denial. It’s dark. Power’s out. I am opening the door. It’s a mess. Inside. There’s beer cans. Baggies. Lavender. Daydream. Keys in the ignition. No phone. But. I’m leaning, into the passenger’s seat. Hands digging up the floor. His CDs. Some split, shards, scratched. Mine. My CD. Kara’s.

I am shattered. I am pinhole stars.

Anyway, he’d said, right before our quasi-date night, out behind the Pump n’ Stuff. You want to get McDonalds when you’re off, Kara, maybe walk over? I’d smiled, face heating up. Yeah, but no, haha, how about Taco John’s, I’d suggested, there’s this kid over at McDonalds, he spits in all the food. I imagined holding Wig’s hand. It’s a date, he’d said, like it wasn’t a joke, like he actually meant it. Like we agreed, finally, that Miranda didn’t deserve how good we are. Were. Then he’d grinned. He’d even paid, after I asked. About his dropping out. After he said the words brain-sick. Made a joke of paying. Like what is this, a date? We walked through the park. Then I did. Held his hand. We ate our tacos on a bench. I was full of sound.

Now. I will get in his car. I will turn the key. In the ignition. I will collapse. I will come together. I will collapse. I will riot my voice away. But.

For now.

I’m having a thought.

I am having a thought and.

I will have. More thoughts.

Infinite thoughts.

 

 

Emily Lundgren resides in southeast South Dakota with her person and their dog. Her works have previously appeared in Shimmer and Luna Station Quarterly. Emily is a recent graudate of the Northeast Ohio MFA and attended UCSD’s Clarion Workshop in 2017. She is currently working to finish her first novel about necromancers in a post-apocalyptic Nebraska. Find her online at emilylundgren.com
Shimmer 44, published July 2018,  5000 words
Other Eeries:

Black Fanged Thing, by Sam Rebelein:  January was a shit month. It never snowed. Sun barely came out of hiding. Instead, a death-cold rain dripped endlessly. Mist curled inwards from the fringes of the woods. It covered the town for weeks, as Christmas decorations slowly drifted back into garages and basements. Everything here, just off-road of the Connecticut wine trail, lived for the fall. Once autumn was over, people indulged complacently in the holidays. But then they sank, miserably, into the post-apocalyptic beginning of a new year. Into the rain. This was when the winter wonderland died, dumpsters filled with sodden wrapping paper, and the world turned brown and gray for what felt like an eternity. Theoretically, there was Valentine’s Day to look forward to, but come on.

 

Now We’ve Lost, by Natalia Theodoridou: The war is over, we hear. We’ve lost. We look at each other in the dark. What does this mean? We’ve lost so much already. What is it we’ve lost now?

 

Blackpool, by Sarah Brooks: He has chapped lips and a grinning red slash at his throat. He topples over the wrought-iron railings of the pier and into the cold northern sea, where the autumn waves are hungry to swallow him up. He dies in the early morning, when the lights of Blackpool are not on. Nobody sees him fall.

 

You, In Flux, by Alexis A. Hunter

Something happened to you after you had the baby.

You didn’t notice at first — you were too caught up in the panic of “is this a fever?” and “is he pooping enough?” and “why won’t he latch?” You were lost in eyes so dark you could hardly see the pupils, in a tiny wrinkled face simultaneously so still and expressive.

Jason saw it before you did:

In the depths of a particularly hard night, he found you in a puddle. You’ll never forget the look on his face when he said, “What is wrong with you?”

That’s the moment your heart made its first small twist away from him.

And you hated it and you couldn’t explain what was wrong, because you’d only just begun to see it yourself.

Weekdays, when Jason’s working, you rock the babe against your chest and beg him to sleep. Please, please sleep. But he’s all angry, red, wrinkled face. He won’t stop and the sound rings in your head and you can’t bear another moment and —

—And your arm freezes solid.

Through and through.

You nearly drop the baby, but catch him at the last second. His screams intensify and you watch — amazed and horrified and slightly detached — as the freezing spreads down to your free hand, rendering the entire limb a terrible, crystalline anchor.

The first night out after the baby’s birth is desperately needed — and yet you dread it. The baby will be fine fine fine your mother says, pushing you gently toward the door. Jason waits, eager and vaguely annoyed.

Your arm reverted last time. And again the time after that.

Still, you’re holding your breath when Jason closes the car door for you. Panic and anxiety and I can’t do this, no no no and you feel your toes begin to drip inside your pretty black boots. Jason doesn’t notice. He’s crowing about the free evening, about your dinner and movie plans, and you can hardly hear him (this is increasingly common and increasingly disturbing).

He starts the engine and he pulls off, and there’s a scream behind your lips but it can’t pry itself free from your clenched jaw.

By the time you reach the interstate, your feet have pooled, like warm, liquid insoles.

There’s a delicate balance to it, to avoiding freezing or melting. You try not to feel any one thing too violently.

Sometimes it’s a foot, and sometimes it’s an arm, and once it was your throat and you felt like you were suffocating — but you’re getting used to that feeling.

When Jason finds you rocking yourself back and forth on the floor while the baby screams in his crib, he makes you go to the doctor. They send you home with a barrage of concerned looks, stern warnings to learn to ask for help, and a prescription to keep you from coming back.

The pills drop you into a vacuum — silent, numb. They keep you from freezing, from melting. They make your body act like a normal body, while your mind drifts unmoored and uncaring. The baby smiles at you and you don’t smile back.

Later, you cry when you remember it — and your fingers begin to drip on your pillowcase.

You creep out of bed and toss the pills in the trash and dare to lift the sleeping child from his crib. Cradling him to you, you whisper I’m sorry I’m sorry I’m sorry.

Jason is furious. You try to tell him maybe a different treatment — but he won’t stop to listen. He refills your prescription and tries to shove the pills into your hand. Your fingers crumble; the drugs rattle and dance as they strike the floor.

The baby looks up. Watches.

Your leg is cold and solid. Tiny frost branches stretch up your thigh. You marvel at the design, tuning out Jason’s shouts. You don’t have the energy to make yourself heard, to distill feeling into words. Eventually, he gives up and leaves.

There’s a pain, somewhere low and dull. Something melting inside, crying for what you’re losing with him.

Then you look at the baby, still watching you.

And he smiles.

And you smile back — so much crushing joy.

It’s all messy and painful as you imagine a future without Jason. But the moment you accept the idea — accept that Jason may not be yours forever, accept your own messy responses, accept the tremendous struggle and the tremendous joy the baby beams at you — is the moment you sublime.

Solid matter disperses, subliming, spreading out indefinitely.

Your body dissipates into a gas and the baby laughs.

Unspeakable joy — it takes every bit of strength you have to condense into solid matter again. When you do, your child giggles, wraps his little fingers around your thumb, and makes the sound that’s supposed to mean “again, again.”

 

Alexis A. Hunter revels in the endless possibilities of speculative fiction.  Short stories are her true passion, despite a few curious forays into the world of novels.  Over forty of her short stories have been published, appearing recently in Cricket Magazine, Spark: A Creative Anthology, Read Short Fiction, and more.  To learn more about Alexis visit www.idreamagain.wordpress.com.

published June 2018, Shimmer #43 (800 words)

Other Mothers:

An Incomplete Catalogue of Miraculous Births, or, Secrets of the Uterus Abscondita, by Rebecca Campbell

Your Mama’s Adventures In Parenting by Mary Robinette Kowal

Dustbaby, by Alix E. Harrow

What the Skeleton Detective Tells You (while you picnic), by Katherine Kendig

You’ve heard your local skeleton forest is vastly underrated, worth a day trip, a nice place for wedding photos and relaxing hikes. You’re not much of a hiker, and not much for trends, but you’re trying to spend more time outdoors. Your forearms are no tanner than your thighs, which worries you.

There are old skeletons, brittle-looking, skulls bleached by the sun and moss halfway up their shins. There are new skeletons with dark stains on their bones, like sycamores just shedding their bark. Real trees, too: big spreading elms, shady maples. Paths crispy with fallen leaves that look, at first glance, like withered skin. Soft shadows and a few nice places to picnic.

You take a closer look at the skeletons: a missing tooth, many missing teeth; hairline fracture in the ribs, massive fracture in the skull; those eye sockets, my God, you could fit pool balls in those things (and now you want to); note the restless fidgeting fingers on that one; note the flaring hipbones here, indicating a female—maybe, what do you know, you’re not a skeleton expert—note the ultra-prominent jawline indicating, if not a male, at least an asshole. Ha ha. Every so often you see a hint of graffiti, a single carved initial completed before the carver got spooked. It is spooky, but not overwhelmingly. It feels peaceful, actually, all that stillness.

Except—

Except yes, you back up a little, that one, there—the fidgeter. You’re still not a skeleton expert but you’re pretty sure the dead don’t fidget; you’re pretty damn sure, because if they could move around on their own, there’s no way you’d be here nosing around and staring into their eye sockets.

You look more closely. Keep calm. Maybe it’s the wind? Maybe it’s a bug, crawling around, or—

“Hello,” says the skeleton.

Don’t faint. Don’t faint. Don’t—

The worst thing for Jamie is not wearing her hat. As a skeleton detective, the odds are stacked against her, but the hat always makes her feel more self-assured; the hat and the gloves and the trench coat, although she can’t tie the belt of the trench coat without it becoming obvious that her abdomen consists of nothing but a spine.

By all rights, she should be dead. “Most skeletons,” her doctor told her dryly when her condition reached its peak, “are very, very dead.” But not Jamie: they call it omniossosis, which as she understands it is Latin for let’s pretend science can explain this. Jamie is the twenty-ninth recorded case in history (the fortieth, if she counts references in literature) and the first to be afflicted after adolescence.

Before she was a skeleton, she was a lawyer. Only for six weeks—she had just passed the bar and moved to Chicago when she started losing weight, and she went on voluntary leave when she started losing skin. Now she’s a detective. It’s a job she can do mostly from home, mostly wrapped up (hat, gloves, trench coat); her doctor has a friend on the force who helped her get set up and sometimes passes tips her way. There’s a lot of research involved, which law school prepared her for. There’s a lot of down time, which she spends almost entirely on the internet, pretending to be other than she is and editing Wikipedia articles on anatomy. She thought about suicide at first, but thinking about the ways she couldn’t kill herself horrified her so much she has since decided to live. (She doesn’t question the logic; don’t do it for her.)

In the skeleton forest, she is pretending to be dead. It’s something she’s trying for her latest case. She didn’t realize she was fidgeting, although she sure was bored.

You don’t swoon so much as sit down abruptly. You don’t think that should count as a faint, but it’s a weekday anyway (you have flexible hours) so no one is around to see you.

No one except the skeleton crouching in front of you, that is. He—she?—leans back a little, dips his—her—head as if avoiding your eyes. Now that you look a little closer you see this one is only mostly a skeleton; are those arteries? Sinews?

“Sorry,” she says. She—definitely she—stands and backs away.

“Holy shit,” you say.

Silence. The skeleton raises a hand toward her head, drops it, crosses her arms.

“Who are you?” you ask. Not one of the articles you’ve read about skeleton forests mentioned live skeletons. The state park website you looked up directions on mentioned ticks and carry-out policies and lightning safety, but definitely not live skeletons. Perhaps there are fumes in this forest—degrading bodies. Perhaps you are hallucinating.

“Um,” says the skeleton. Her voice is thin, a little hollow. It sounds strange and inhuman at the moment, but if you heard it on the phone it probably wouldn’t faze you. The skeleton hesitates and then walks away. After a few steps she stops and looks back at you, arms still crossed, shoulders tipped forward. Hunched.

You are still sitting in the slightly damp grass. You think about standing, but your legs assure you they’re not even remotely up for that yet.

“I’m Jamie,” she says. She says it so simply that for a frozen, horrified moment, you feel as if every skeleton around you, big and small, is suddenly going to wake up and start stretching and introducing themselves and complaining about the damp. Silence, while you wait for the sound of scraping bones. Silence, while you wait for cold fingers to grab you from behind.

“Jared,” you say finally, when your heartbeats have proven to be the only sound for long enough. “I’m Jared,” you say again, as if it weren’t clear the first time, and then you say it one more time for safety, to prove you’re in sound mind for the moment, at least: “My name is Jared.”

“Well—” the skeleton says. “Okay. I’m going to get my hat.”

Jamie doesn’t solve murders or track down missing children. She usually works with husbands and wives wondering what their wives and husbands are up to. Sometimes she helps determine if a teen has a secret boyfriend or a drug addiction. Once she helped a man reclaim a stolen cello, and twice she has found birth mothers. She doesn’t make much money or much of a difference in the world, but she doesn’t feel the need to.

Her latest case is more interesting than usual: The target is a man named Paul Sheeri, either dead (murdered) or dead (suicide) or dead (accident) or, possibly, gone off somewhere secretly (Canada? Albany?). Her client is Paul’s friend Angela—not family, not a spouse, just a friend—who, over Skype, had appeared both worried and angry about being worried, not sure if Paul’s disappearance was a tragedy or another example of “his usual selfishness.”

“Are the two of you a couple?” Jamie had asked gently, careful to use the present tense.

Angela had narrowed her eyes, peering at her screen. Jamie Skyped with clients in near-total darkness; she made sure they could see a hint of her hat, a hint of the perfectly ordinary room behind her. She pretended it was a problem with the camera. “We were best friends,” Angela said harshly, as if Jamie had profaned their relationship. Jamie apologized. The room behind Angela was pristine, carelessly chic.

Paul’s family didn’t know where he was, Angela had told her. They didn’t like her. They thought she was overreacting.

Paul had always liked the Montrose Skeleton Forest, Angela had told her. It was the only place he ever went without her besides the grocery store and the laundromat.

After the call Jamie looked at the facts as she saw them. The facts were these: Paul was twenty-eight years old. He lived alone, worked from home, “depended” on Angela for “literally any social activity,” and had been out of contact for almost a month. (Twenty-four days.) Jamie had typed a “W” whenever she thought Angela sounded genuinely worried and a “P” when she sounded practiced; there were an equal number.

Quote: He’s usually totally reliable. He’s always where he’s supposed to be.

Quote: He doesn’t know anybody.

Jamie had typed in a heart and a question mark, whatever Angela might say about their being a couple.

“I’ll call you if I find anything,” Jamie had told Angela, “or on Thursday. Whichever comes first.”

You’ve never had a conversation with a skeleton before. You don’t really know where to look. The fedora helps.

In your backpack you have three Nature Valley bars and a bottle of Gatorade. You’re sitting at a picnic table near a sign that reminds visitors not to leave any trash behind. There is goose shit all over the grass and you noticed that Jamie avoided it just as assiduously as you did on the walk over.

“So you were pretending to be a skeleton when I walked up?” you ask. It’s a poorly phrased question.

“I was pretending to be one of those skeletons.”

There aren’t many questions that won’t come off as rude, but luckily, Jamie is a talker; the words whistle out of her nonstop. Growing up in Benton, law school, Chicago. The way it feels to look at her own bones. Detective work. Knowing that when she does die, there will be almost no difference. She tells you about her latest case, client confidentiality be damned.

“Would you like a granola bar?” you ask automatically as you grab one for yourself.

“No,” she says, and you are impressed at how little contempt is in her voice. You have never felt so awkward before, so uncouth, as if having flesh is a faux pas.

The sound of your crunching is deafening.

This is Jamie’s plan: She totes a plastic trash bag out to the edge of the skeleton forest, stuffs her coat and gloves in it and gently tucks her hat in after, and stows it in some brush. Then she picks a likely spot, stands in it, and…stays. The idea is that if Paul comes she will watch him, look for clues, maybe follow him home. She is vaguely aware that this is not the most efficient plan, but it doesn’t matter; being who she is, how she is, what she is, has to help with something.

It’s not uncomfortable. She doesn’t get muscle aches anymore; her feet don’t hurt. It is, however, extremely dull. Jamie likes to think she has a disciplined mind—she went to law school, after all, and if you can make it through that—but she’s naturally restless, and when she has to think about keeping still, it takes half her mind to do it.

It’s clear to Jamie that love is involved with this case somehow. It’s the way Angela talked about Paul—always trying to rein herself in. Jamie has a decent amount of experience with love, as much as any twenty-nine year old can hope to have. She’s had boyfriends, one-night stands, unrequited crushes and unwanted admirers; she’s never been (and never will be) married, but—she reasons—most of her law school friends aren’t married either, according to Facebook. She’s still current in the field, so to speak, for a little while longer. Angela and Paul certainly aren’t married.

When she thinks of Paul, her mind goes where it always goes now with men, any man, to a fantasy of meeting him and him falling in love with her. In this case he is blind and falls in love with her voice, but his love is doomed, because she won’t ever let him touch her. Not ever. At first it’s nice to have company but then it gets old, his constant desire for more, and she pictures herself having to break it off with him, his devastation, his desolation. She can’t help these imaginings; it’s not arrogance, especially not now, when she knows exactly where things stand with herself. It’s just morbid, really, like the way she sets up fake dating profiles when she’s bored; the way she sends a real picture of herself when men ask, and then passes it off as a tasteless joke. Morbid like how she brushed her leg intentionally against the leg of a tall skeleton as she walked in this morning, pretended the scrape of bone was electric, ran a finger down a forearm and clicked their teeth together. It’s amazing how different a kiss is, without softness.

This isn’t helping. She has to think about the case.

Paul’s disappearance, according to Angela, is oddly unexciting; he’s not even behind on work yet because his projects are long term. No blood, no guts, no trauma— Jamie is reminded, in fact, of herself. But it’s Angela Jamie keeps getting stuck on—it’s the fact that Angela contacted her, and not a girlfriend or a sibling or a parent.

All day people mill about Jamie, looking at the skeletons, taking pictures, their behavior halfway between zoo-goers and museum tourists. Their voices hush at random and then cycle back up to outdoor levels; they reach out to touch cold and sun-warmed bone with just the tip of one finger, the way children touch snakes after animal trainers insist they’re not slimy. They carry backpacks full of sandwiches and trail mix and bottled iced tea and take pictures quickly. The smallest skeletons get photographed the most—them, and the famous conjoined twins, a special attraction of the Montrose forest. A few pictures have Jamie in them, and it amuses her that they’ll never know the difference.

It’s not easy to get here: The closest parking lot is two miles away, where the regular forest hits the river. It takes a while, so most people make an afternoon of it, picnicking, speculating about who this or that skeleton might have been, reading all the informational signs around the perimeter. If Jamie listens for it she can hear the bitten-off shrieks when first-time visitors catch their first glimpse of a skull.

At sunset, when the forest closes to visitors, Jamie has seen no sign of Paul. She gives up. She goes home. She comes back the next day and fidgets.

You look at the pictures Jamie shows you: one of Paul and Angela, maybe mid-twenties, summer, relaxed, at a cookout; one of Paul in a cubicle, turning back toward the photographer half-smiling; one group picture Paul was clearly not happy to be a part of, his left arm visibly hovering an inch above the shoulder of the girl next to him rather than casually slung across it. Angela is at the other end of the group, wearing bright yellow leggings and red lipstick. She looks, quite frankly, more than a little drunk.

“No,” you admit. “They don’t look familiar. I mean, I don’t get out a lot, so that doesn’t mean anything. But I don’t recognize either one of them.”

“That’s okay,” Jamie tells you, but you still feel bad; you want to add something. Suddenly it occurs to you that maybe you can.

“Are these the only pictures she sent you?”

“Yeah. Why?”

“Well—I’m sure you noticed—I mean probably you noticed—but these all seem like—you know, public pictures. Not personal.”

Jamie looks at her phone. “Wow,” she says. “You’re right.”

Jamie sometimes wonders if her body fell apart because it had nothing to hold on to. She was done with law school; her new job was uninspiring; her friends had scattered across America’s major cities and disappeared into high-rise offices. Her mind knows that she was a fairly accomplished young woman, knows that if people became skeletons because they were unfulfilled it would be a much more widespread phenomenon. But she can’t shake the feeling. It was only six months after Greg had gotten engaged to someone else, and she’d finally had to let that go; her colleagues were still intimidating strangers; her parents were retired and perpetually cruising. Jamie had felt unmoored in a way she never had before.

She’s drifting into self-pity again, which doesn’t happen as often as it used to; maybe it’s the sheer fact of talking to another human, face to face, outside in the sunshine. She doesn’t want to solve this case; she wants to eat a damn granola bar.

But she can’t, of course, she can’t, so she looks at Jared where he sits across from her, looking at her, not quite the way one looks at a normal person but not categorically unlike either. She is a little embarrassed she didn’t think about the nature of the photos; she was so used to thinking about who Paul and Angela were that she ignored where they were.

And that changes everything, doesn’t it? Now she can see that Angela and Paul only happen to be in the cookout picture together; they are not posing as friends, but as consecutive patrons of the grill. It looks like an older picture, but still—hadn’t Angela said they’d been friends for years? Jamie had been so excited about the skeleton forest, about putting herself to use as more than fingers on a keyboard, hiding under a hat.

“Will you do me a favor?” Jamie asks Jared.

He looks wary and eager all at once. She feels a surge of affection for this skinny stranger who doesn’t hate her, doesn’t fear her. At least doesn’t fear her enough to run away. (For a moment she pictures him leaning in— “Anything,” he whispers, and takes her hand—but—no. She shudders at the thought of being touched, of her rough bony fingers under his pulsing ones, at the way the shrunken tendons that hug her bones would feel. She is disgusted on his behalf. She pushes all thoughts aside, all thoughts, every thought.)

“What kind of favor?” Jared asks.

You picture reconnaissance, or breaking in to someone’s apartment to steal a file. You want to do these things, and kick ass at them, and at the same time know that if either of these is the favor Jamie needs, the answer is no. You aren’t actually a detective or a spy. You can barely make it gracefully through your own front door; you would not make a good cat burglar.

“Will you be Paul? Just on the phone. Just for a minute. I just need an address.”

She sounds nervous. It makes you feel kind of cool, and you almost grin at her rakishly, but then she tilts her head up so that the hat doesn’t shadow her face and any desire to flirt dies instantly. Her skull is not quite—not only—a skull; but it’s wrong. It’s so wrong. You cough to hide a flash of disgust, and nod at her.

“Sure.”

(She’s used to this. She’s used to this. There’s no reason for this wave of self-pity; it’s crashed before, flooded her before, the water damage is still visible. Waves like this ought to flow right through her now.)

“His um, his credit card company—I have the number and the last four digits of his social. You just call and confirm that his new address is entered correctly. Okay?” She stares at the table. There are tiny twigs in all the gaps between the planks. She doesn’t look at Jared. There is nothing in her gaps.

“Okay. Why would it be entered incorrectly?”

She wants to scoff at that, doesn’t. “It wouldn’t. I just want to know if he’s moved.”

“Oh,” Jared says. “Right.”

He is clearly nervous making the call, but it comes off as distracted; either that or the employee he’s talking to doesn’t have the energy to flag suspicious behavior. Jamie writes down the address. She stands up.

“I’m going to go see him,” she says, as if this is something she normally does. She never sees anyone; when contact is needed she hires people through Craigslist.

“Good luck,” Jared says, standing also. “I should head out, too.”

Jamie realizes that if they leave at the same time they will have to walk the two miles to the parking lot together, but she’s had enough interaction for the day. She doesn’t want him to watch her walk. She doesn’t want to follow him. She doesn’t want to keep thinking about who she isn’t.

“Oh,” she says. “Actually, I’ve got to look something up first. It was nice meeting you.” She doesn’t hold out a hand to shake, obviously, but the gesture feels distinctly missing.

“You too,” Jared says, and sounds sincere. “I hope you figure it out.”

He walks away. Jamie sits down and plays with her phone, giving him a head start. He never gave his last name, but she looks it up based on his college t-shirt. He’s on Facebook and two online dating sites, although his profile looks dusty and half-hearted. She doesn’t friend him or anything. After fifteen minutes, she leaves.

The farther you get down the trail towards your car, the deeper your sense of vertigo – after a while your steps slow to a crawl, unsure of the ground they’re walking on. Was this morning real? Did all this happen? You start with the wild explanations: You were in a car crash this morning, and this is a coma dream; Jamie is a hologram; your life is The Truman Show. You have the vague impression that you can walk through solid objects now.

Eventually you reach your car, and climb in it, and turn the ignition. You make it about a quarter mile before you realize you’re literally not seeing the road in front of you. You might as well just pull over.

After ten minutes of trying to suppress the new twitching in your left eye, a car passes you—a little maroon Taurus—and all you see is a hat. You’re following its left turn before you’ve even realized you’re back on the road.

Jamie knocks on the door and feels, mentally, that she is about to throw up. She has put on her gloves and buckled her trench coat; her hat is pulled low. The door opens.

“Jamie Pierce,” she says, professional, holding out a business card she ordered on Vistaprint. “Private Detective.”

The hallway is windowless and fairly dark; it takes Jamie a moment to realize that a woman has answered the door. “What can I do for you?” the woman asks, polite, wary. The chain is still fastened.

Jamie takes a tiny, necessary step back away from the light of the apartment. “Paul,” she manages. “Is Paul here?”

The woman looks at her, or tries to; Jamie tips her head low and stares at the ground.

“Is there a problem?” the woman asks. “Who sent you?”

Jamie feels as if her bones are finally collapsing the way they always should have. She tips her head even lower, unnaturally low, petrified that she will be seen; oh, it was different in the skeleton forest—she was normal there, almost, she had numbers on her side; Jared was the oddity there, Jared was the freak. Jamie knows the woman will scream when she glimpses Jamie, will threaten to call the police; Jamie cannot bear the anticipation of the slamming door. Her back hits the wall of the hallway and she presses against it.

“Everything okay, sweetheart?” she hears from inside, a man’s voice.

The woman half-turns, hands over the card.

“I’ll take care of this. Just give me a minute.” The sound of a kiss, the sliding of the chain, and then Paul is in the hallway with her, shutting the door behind him.

“What do you want?” Paul asks.

“What are you doing here?” Jamie counters, shooting the words out like she’s been choking on them.

Paul ignores the question. “Listen, you have about ten seconds to explain yourself before I call the cops.” He takes out his cell phone to ground the threat.

“Angela,” Jamie whispers. She has to pull herself together; for Christ’s sake, she has to pull herself together. She stands up a little straighter, tilts her head up a fraction.

“I was hired to find you,” she says, more normally. She can do this. She’s found him; he’s clearly alive; she can leave at any time. If things get dicey. She wants answers but not that bad, not bad enough to have her mug shot in the newspaper.

Paul runs a hand through his hair. “By Angela. Jesus.” He looks like he wants to punch the wall, but doesn’t; he takes a deep breath instead.

“She thinks you’re missing or dead.” Jamie thinks she is starting to understand: Paul is missing only to Angela. He’s dead only to Angela. “I’m starting to get the sense,” Jamie says, trying to sound like Humphrey Bogart, “that you don’t want to be found.”

Paul shakes his head. “Not by her. Listen, I don’t know what she told you—but we’re not anything. We haven’t been friends in a long time.”

Jamie phrases it carefully. “She seems to worry about you.”

“She doesn’t fucking worry about anybody but herself. She’s… Jesus. She’s like a tick that won’t let go.”

Paul suddenly drops to a crouch, and Jamie is thankful she’s wearing galoshes. He buries his face in his hands, hums a sound of frustration. After a moment he stands again.

“I’m trying to make a clean break,” he tells Jamie. “I don’t care what you say to her. I don’t care what you tell her. But please, please don’t give her this address.” He flicks the business card at her and goes back inside. The chain and the deadbolt click a moment later.

You’re waiting in the parking lot, trying to look normal. You’re trying so hard to look normal that you almost miss her coming out; but then it’s back to tailing her, left, right, left, right. She pulls into a strip mall.

You’ve barely parked when she’s at your door, holding a closed umbrella like a weapon.

“Jared? What the hell? Why are you following me?”

Good question. You hadn’t really thought about it; you’d been running on instinct, on the preservation of your sanity by proving your insanity was real. And it is, isn’t it? You have to acknowledge, now, that Jamie is real, and your conversation with her was real, and she is really a detective working on a case. And with that you realize you actually care.

“I just… wanted to know how things turned out,” you say. “With Paul and Angela.”

She hesitates for a few seconds. The umbrella lowers slightly.

“Well,” she says. “I just talked to him.”

“And?”

“Well, his girlfriend opened the door, first of all.”

“Really? Did she—” You pause. You are sitting in your car with the window rolled down; Jamie is standing outside of it with a pointy umbrella. Your stomach rumbles.

“Hey,” you say. “Actually, do you mind if I grab some lunch and we talk about this somewhere else? Maybe at East Park?”

“…Sure,” Jamie says, as if she is agreeing to be shot. “Sure,” she says again, a little more enthusiastically.

“Okay. Let me just run in. Do you—want anything?”

Jamie rests the tip of the umbrella on the ground. She looks like the coolest supervillain you ever saw.

“I guess I’ll take a Vitamin Water,” she says.

“That’s all?”

“That’s all.”

“Okay,” you say. “I’ll be right back.”

They’re seated at another picnic table, this one covered in obscene permanent-marker conversations. “You’ll have to help me figure out what to say to Angela,” Jamie says.

“First tell me what happened!”

“I know. I’m just saying, keep that in mind.”

“Got it. Does Paul have a secret love child? Is that it?” Jared leans forward, two hands on his sandwich, eyes on her.

Jamie can’t smile. Smiling doesn’t happen in the bones.

But all the same.

Katherine Kendig lives in Champaign, Illinois, with her husband, her novel-in-progress, and an insatiable desire for brownies. Her work has received awards from Dartmouth College and the University of Illinois and has been featured in The Cincinnati Review and on PodCastle.

 

4700 words, published May 2018, Shimmer 43

Dead and That’s Okay

The Earth and Everything Under by K.M. Ferebee

Ellie and Jim vs. Tony “The Nose” by Eden Robins

The Cult of Death, by K.L. Pereira

Gone to Earth, by Octavia Cade

He’d thought the green would keep him from dreaming of the memory of arid sterility, the red and waterless horizon.

It didn’t.

His body was racked with chill and he hunched in his bed, trying to breathe with the rhythm of tides, to slow his heart to growing things. Yet even the warm night air of the Coromandel summer, straight from the coast and rustling through rātā trees, couldn’t dispel the cold. The nightmares still came regularly, suffocating waves of homesick regret. Strange that they hadn’t passed now that he was home again and anchored to the world of the living, and even stranger that they came from an adventure marking him a hero. He’d even felt heroic at the beginning, but all the bravery of heroism had come from ignorance, the assumption of a strength not yet tested because the testing was unimaginable.

An astronaut on the first manned mission to Mars! All the psychological tests he’d undergone had been for other things: socialization, conflict resolution in close quarters, the ability to cope with long-term and claustrophobic isolation. Alan had passed them all and felt himself stable enough, had never wavered either in ambition or explorer’s faith.

They’d never thought, none of them, that what brought him down would be a different sort of lack.

Earthsickness, they called it. He was the worst affected of the three, but neither Paola nor Sarya had escaped it. It was nothing any of the psychologists had predicted—but how could they? There was no possible substitute for experience, and no terrestrial creature had ever been so cut off from a living environment before.

Alan was offered support, but didn’t take it. “What I need is already here,” he said, returned to the environment all his ancestors had adapted for. “I’ve just got to convince myself that I’ve come back to it.”

The rātā, especially, had proved an anchor, its bright flowers—the red of new blood, not old iron—were in one delicate and extraordinary shape the symbol of a living planet. Beneath it, he felt his nature reasserted, felt again the relation to other living things that defined a terrestrial creature, tried to forget that small unconscious part of himself found uneasy and set to screaming in barren plains.

The summer nights were still a trial, although better than their winter counterparts, with the lingering warmth, the noise of the mosquitoes and moreporks a reminder that seeped into his dreams, woke him gasping from the memory of Mars, and grasping for connection. More and more often, he found himself barefoot, taking the dark path down to the rātā, wanting to feel the Earth beneath his feet, to hear the small sounds of night, the feel of the flowers on his palm.

“I wish I could see you,” he said, but artificial light made the rātā blooms look washed out, a nightmarish cast to color that made him think he was dreaming still, and liable to wake from a horror of solitude.

It was easier to fit himself against root systems, to fold up in fetal position at the foot and wait until morning. Bare skin pressed against bark was less of a contention than that altered color, and he laid his head against branches, imagined he was hearing the pulse of sap in time with his own heartbeat because with his eyes open he saw the stars and remembered, and with them shut he couldn’t see even the shadow of trees, and was in need of substitute.

Easier still, when he remembered that the dirt he crouched on was also living, in its way, and filled with organisms: bacteria, beetles, the small decomposers and recyclers of organic matter. Alan smeared himself with them, scrabbling, rolled his naked body until his nails were clogged with dirt and his body caked with it: a sedimentary creature, a biological scaffold for the microscopic. Earth to cure Earthsickness, he thought, and even the small scent of iron from torn fingertips didn’t take him back to red plains and loss, but reminded him of blood cells and life.

“For me it is swimming,” said Paola, “in the night, where I can see the phosphorescence of the plankton.” See how it coated her skin, see how it lit the warm Caribbean waters of her home as she wallowed there.

For Sarya, it was the steep stone cliffs behind her parents’ house. “When I lick them I taste lichen,” she said, shrugging. “I know it is a strange way to behave.” She offered no excuse. It was enough that the three of them could share in understanding. That they could use what helped without comment, if not entirely without judgement.

They were the only ones who had been to Mars, the only ones to share the experience of Earthsickness. “No one else can understand.”

The trip to the Red Planet had been long, six months of growing fretfulness, close-caged in metal. Anticipation made it bearable, that and the tethering of the daily routine, but the closer the ship came to Mars, the more his anticipation soured within him. Alan had thought it was nerves, the strained culmination of childhood hopes, for how could the moment of contact live up to the weight of dreams? Was it possible there’d be an iron streak of disappointment to color the experience? It was the peak of his life’s effort, that voyage, and he couldn’t conceive that anything after would ever hold the same fascination for him, or the same purpose. He’d wondered, silently, what would happen to him when Mars was behind him, what shape the lack would take, but he hadn’t wondered long. The tests the three of them had undergone were of a type to weed out the melancholy, the personalities prone to brooding and quiet undermining, and he’d assumed his qualms were normal ones, and shallow-rooted.

It was only when he stood upon the cold, dead planet—he was not the first to do so, but got his chance nonetheless—that he felt himself gorged on the horror of it. A quiet, still dread that lingered even amidst the exultation of the explorer. He could see the same repulsion in Sarya’s eyes, could see Paola hug herself for comfort as his padded arms wrapped around his own body. They felt the awe as he did, the vast expanse of dry and cold opening up before them, and the sheer towering emptiness of the place was something to shrink from, not to fill up.

Afterwards, on Earth, they talked to each other sometimes over video link. They were the only times when Alan didn’t try to hide his hands in front of other people, the ends of all his fingers raw and bloody. “Have you been biting them?” said Sarya, and Alan shook his head.

“I’ve been digging,” he said. Tools didn’t give the same satisfaction at night, at the base of the rātā. Tools were a layer between skin and soil that he couldn’t tolerate. The earth was the only thing could calm him, until the sun came up and the rātā flowers anchored him back to planet. He rolled in it, gouged up soil in chunks and scrubbed himself with it, with the damp living smell of it, the pieces of snail shell and bird shit and annelid, the knowledge of bacteria.

Supplicant, his hands were soft. He bled as he worked, but the earth was soft with summer and humus and his blood didn’t pool on its surface when his scrabbling broke skin. It soaked into soil—and into the roots of the rātā as well, he liked to think, a connection between them built of more than need and gratitude and common home. In the days that followed, Alan thought that the tree’s blossoms grew brighter, as if in response to his nightly sacrifice. The thought made him happy. Surely only one who belonged could have such an effect?

“I always feel like I belong, when I’m in the sea,” said Paola. “There’s salt running through the both of us. Through everything that swims in it.” Through everything that came from it, a reminder of evolution and heritage. “I take the sea in my mouth sometimes,” she said. “It doesn’t do to swallow too much, but there are times I can’t help myself.” The bad times, the ones of nightmare-waking and the remembered bite of Earthsickness.

“The bad times,” said Alan. “I know.” His bad times had begun to come with slicing instead of gouging, quick cuts across his fingers, across his palms, that let loose more blood than he could offer up by digging. He watched his blood disappear beneath the rātā, absorbing easily into earth. He rubbed the moist dirt into his cuts, revelling in the symbiosis between them; rolled in it and felt the rolling again as a relief. He could taste his kinship in the blood-soaked earth whenever it touched his tongue. Iron and earth, they were relatives.

It was on Mars that Alan had begun to feel homesick. Not the mild nostalgia he’d experienced in lesser travels, but a shuttered, wrenching longing that closed his throat and took his hands to shaking in misery and loss. Its depth was primeval, the severing of a second umbilicus.

It was a wretched trip, one where everything had been blasted but for yearning, with long hours spent in strained silence. None of them responded well to the queries transmitted from Earth. Those seemed to possess an unhealthy tinge, shrill and feverish, incapable of sensibility and excited, still, about what they’d seen. About where they’d been—as if Mars should have been a wonder to them yet, not a monster of sterility and no place for life. And he’d known, had always known it was that way, but until he’d stood on that hideous and barren surface he’d never really understood.

Mars was rejection all through. It didn’t want them, didn’t want any of them. I think it hates the living, he thought, but he didn’t say it aloud because that was insane, wasn’t it. A planet didn’t hate anything. It couldn’t help being hostile to warmth and life, it was sun-distance and thin atmosphere that kept it from an ecology of its own. Insane, but he thought of the polar regions of Earth, the dark crush of deep seas, and there was life there instead of emptiness.

A living planet, a dead one. Alan never thought the difference so disturbing it could unnerve him—not until he stood upon the dead, and stood reminded that he was not.

He came home to winter, and it felt like a thaw. He shivered through it alone in the family bach, away from anxious colleagues and prying reporters.

Still he did not feel as if he had truly returned. The Earth, ambivalent to his distress, rejected him in turn. He felt a stranger to it. The stars, which had once mesmerized him beyond all bearing, leered down upon him. Alan felt he had torn himself on them, had not returned whole. They gleamed in the frosted night, disembowelled him. He was snagged and separated: aware that as he had once cast it off, so now in some strange way his home planet had done the same to him. He imagined it rejected his touch, his traitorous touch that had yearned once for the perfection of sterility and, tainted, had brought that sterility back to a planet where sterility was anathema.

Night after night he woke, screaming at the red remembrance of void. Night after night he fled outdoors to try to reconnect with living earth. The dirt was hard and chill beneath his scrabbling fingers; he broke his nails in it. All winter it rejected him, but in spring the world seemed to shake itself, to cast off torpor and resentment. As spring mellowed into summer, and the pohutukawa and the rātā spilled color upon the coast with their bright red blossoms, Alan was comforted.

The days became easier to bear. He spent most of his days in the small hollow beneath the rātā, soaking in the dry scent of the bark, the sound of birds and insects, wrapped himself in biosphere to make up for the time when he’d gone without. It was warm and sunny there and he could feel the Martian chill seep from him—felt as if he could, perhaps, be forgiven his preference, the old dream of distance that had led him to forsake one planet, no matter how temporarily, for the cold embrace of another. But the relief was only temporary, and did not outlive the sun. Always he dreamed of the moment when, secure in the pride of his own disconnection, his padded foot had borne down upon a dead planet. It had crunched, a flat, mummified sensation that Alan could not forget, an imprint in a soil lacking the deep pulse of the Earth. Born to a living planet, how could he process such a land of lack? Even the lunar astronauts had been able to look up from absence and see the blue-green swell above them. Mars had no such comfort. By the nature of his birth Alan was wholly unsuited; and that nature, meeting vacuum, broke him down and abandoned him.

“Your hands are worse,” said Sarya, lichen-mouthed, her tongue scraped raw against the Himalayan mountainsides. “Perhaps you should talk to someone.”

“It’s enough to talk to you.” Privately, he wondered if even that was too much.

The rātā, at least, never talked back. All its communication was done in drink and color, for it bloomed longer and brighter throughout the summer than any other on the coast. “Is it because of me?” said Alan. “Are you so alive because of me?” The earth beneath drank from Alan, and the rātā from the earth, so that was a connection between them, wasn’t it? Something to draw together, living things together on a living planet and it didn’t matter that they were so different, because the difference in living things paled against the difference between the living and Mars, and he could only block out the dead and sterile red of that hideous landscape by the reds of blood and bloom, each of them alive in their own ways, and related.

The rātā knew nothing of Earthsickness and questions, and as the season began to turn, the tree seeded. Alan collected some of the small, wind-blown seeds, plucked them from the earth with fingers that were of a scarcely different color. He set the seeds to germinate in soil-filled trays, kept them wet with water and blood.

“I need something to look after,” Alan explained to the rātā. Its flowers had faded, and he found it hard to open his palms for blood when there were no flowers to reflect the color. “I’ll not let your seeds die.” They were the same now, he and the rātā, and though he kept his nest at its root—the hollow shaped perfectly to him now, and the earth all tinged with red—he spent more time with the seedlings than the parent plant.

“It’s what living things do,” he said, trying not to think of a world where nothing living had done anything, ever. “They reproduce.”

Yet come as they were from a tree that had a passing familiarity with his veins, still only one seedling survived into winter. It grew at a prodigious, unnatural rate. Metrosideros robusta, the strong.

When it reached 50 centimeters, the seedling was old enough to transplant. Alan could have planted it in any number of places, but rātā could be epiphytic and he’d spent so much of himself in nurturing it that he couldn’t bear the parting that planting would bring. It was pure selfishness on his part. The chill of winter gave him unpleasant memories of empty plains and dry rock, and he was leery of losing the connection.

He wasn’t the only one so afraid, the only one looking for affirmation.

“It’s Paola. They found her floating in Havana harbor.” Sarya leaned forward, her face taking up the whole of the screen. “Alan, they said she drowned herself. They said when they found the body… they said she was smiling.” Her lungs full of sea water, of diatoms and phytoplankton, her fingers bitten away by little fish.

Earthsickness never truly went away. Mars was gone but the choice to go there remained, the deliberate abandonment of biosphere for a planet that held none, and that Alan was ever so foolish as to make that choice was more haunting than absence.

He kept the seedling entwined about him, the weight of it borne in a loose-draining basket hung about his neck, resting on his ribcage. Even without the summer flowers its presence, nestling into the hollow of his throat, gave him comfort. He imagined he could feel it pulse in time to his heartbeat, and every day his bleeding hands stroked the stem, added to the basket-soil. “You’ll be so beautiful when you grow,” he said, picturing the flowers: glorious and delicate and bright, anchor and symbol of a living planet he wished he’d never left.

The daughter plant grew faster than it should have. Every day a new tendril curled about him, every day it grew heavier to bear.

“You’re growing strong for me, aren’t you?” he said.

“It’s growing strong on you, you mean,” said Sarya. Alan caught glimpses of her tongue as she spoke, and it was less red than before, less vivid.

“You worry about your lichen and let me look after my own,” he said.

“I don’t want you drowning too—” but drowning was a water death, and if it had been a welcome one for Paola he’d never have risked it on his own account, for the rātā seedling would have drowned with him and that was something that, after Mars and Earthsickness, he would never be able to tolerate. On his blood and scaffold the rātā grew thick and glossy, insulating him from the bite of winter, the small cold a small reminder of a greater one.

The old rātā stood on the coast, and the path to it was rocky and uneven. With the weight of the young upon him, Alan couldn’t walk it easily but he liked to do so often, to take the epiphyte to the hollow beneath where he’d huddled in Earthsickness and had found/seen a way forward in flowers and flowing blood. The hollow was a place of communion for him, and the rātā a symbol of the bond between flesh and ecosystem. It took him longer to walk there every day—hands pink with new lines and slow seep, the ever-increasing weight of epiphyte—but with care and rest along the way he could manage.

It was sheer chance and compromised vision—the leaves about his head, the winding roots—that caused him to trip over a hanging tendril on the last steps. A quick fall, a sickening crack: His head opened on a half-buried rock at the edge of hollow, his thighbone, weakened from so long at little gravity, protruding from one of his legs and the color of rātā flowers spreading around.

In the bright, bristling flare of pain Alan forgot, for the first time, the horror that Mars had made for him. Shock, he thought, and stunned, but it set all his senses open, magnified them, and he felt himself alive there, and in the midst of life. The sound of the wind in the leaves, the vivid red of blood, the smell of warm iron and humus… The rock beneath his head was sharp, and cut his groping fingers in red-flowering stripes. He could even see it from the corner of one eye—lichen growing on the top, lacy circles of pale green that were almost white where the sunlight hit them. The bottom of the rock, where he’d knocked it from the ground, was crusted with living dirt, dark and rich. Beneath it, several insects crawled deeper into the disturbed earth.

He was certain that he’d never seen the world so clearly. His world, and he was aware, splintered open as he was, of nothing but his capacity for belonging. Pain, yes, a shrieking agony of it, but he was a creature of the Earth still, lying in that earth as a billion other life forms had lain there before him. The knowledge soothed him, made the pain of his shattered leg easier to bear. He bit down on epiphyte, bore down on it as he dragged himself so that his back was against trunk and kept his teeth in until the worst of the dizziness passed and he could breathe clearly again.

No one knew he was there. He’d seen them all off—the journalists, the psychologists, everyone from the space agency who thought they knew Earthsickness and couldn’t understand because they’d never left Earth, never gone beyond its orbit and outside its influence. Even Sarya had stopped calling; at least, he’d stopped taking her calls.

“Alan,” she said, over and over, messages left for him over voicemail. “Do you think Paola was the lucky one?”

There’d been talk of cremation, of sending her ashes up in a shuttle to spread across space. But it was talk that was over quickly, because her will had specified they be scattered at sea. “There’s nothing that can take me away now,” she’d written, burial wishes sealed and witnessed. “I don’t ever want to go back.”

He couldn’t crawl to the house, not with his leg.

It was a relief to know there was nothing he could do. Not drowning, not for him, but enough. He’d found his own way.

The rātā epiphyte was bound around him still. He unwound it as best he could to keep from crushing it, his back against the parent and the little rātā in his lap, the roots resting in the bloody puddle, and he couldn’t see the bone for foliage.

Blood loss, dehydration, shock. It was easy to imagine the rātā easing one of its tendrils into his wound, sucking at him, drawing his blood up into itself. Twigs lengthening on it. New leaves sprouting. More branches beginning to feed from him, forcing themselves into his body, the body of the host. It was easy to imagine the flowers bursting open from epiphyte, flowers the color of his blood and born from him, and he didn’t try to stop the imagining. He didn’t want to.

“Home,” he said, at last. “I’m home.”

fin

 

Octavia Cade has a PhD in science communication and loves writing about oceans and science history. She once backpacked around Europe with so much telescope in her pack there was hardly any room for clothes. Her stories have appeared in Asimov’s, Clarkesworld, and Apex, and a poetry collection on the periodic table, Chemical Letters, has recently been nominated for an Elgin. Her latest novella – not about science at all! – is the highly disturbing Convergence of Fairy Tales, because when she’s not messing about with seagrass or dead scientists she’s having fun with all the horror she can get her hands on.

 

Faint Voices, Increasingly Desperate, by Anya Johanna DeNiro

The silk threads of grief and time snap and spin away from the black looms, but all Freia wants to do is go back to Vienna. Dozens of women work the looms in the magnanery. Hands fly as the threads spin out of the boiling cocoons. Freia doesn’t work on the looms though. She’s not patient enough. Instead she sets the strands of damp, slightly sticky silk from the cocoons, hooking them to the spindle to unravel them, as the objects inside the cocoons die from the scorching water.

She dips her hands in. She can barely feel a thing. She hates the magnanery. The combination of Romanesque columns with the overhead fluorescent lighting creates the worst possible world she can imagine, and she knows many.

One of the other women she works with dumps a basket of cocoons into the troughs of boiling water. Freia judges the quality of silk inside. The most coveted threads are black, followed by citrine, carnelian, and gingerline. Invisible threads are not valuable at all; they are rough like a cat’s tongue and are always getting tangled. She sorts accordingly.

Freia has never been able to make any correspondence between the type of cocoon and the thread. No one has ever explained it to her, and truthfully she doesn’t care. She keeps her cravings for knowledge in check. This is how she survives.

The cocoons bob in the water and look like they’re about to jump out when she hooks them to the spindle. That’s when she can hear the voices inside most clearly, anguished whispers of help me help me and what is happening what is—

Freia usually wears her headphones while she works.

None of the other women working in the magnanery have talked to her in a long time. They keep their heads down. They have given up their old names. Their eyes are like pieces of charcoal excavated by an archeologist.

There is only the work. And Woden. But Woden is too monstrous to be contemplated just yet.

Instead, consider the tall tree in the center of the magnanery. From the central dome of the building, there’s a round opening where the tree keeps stretching on and on; and an opening in the floor where it stretches on and on.

But here, Woden uses the tree as a managed resource, a revenue stream.

From the trunk grow the branches with the golden leaves that the silkworms feast from. The leaves are supple and soft, almost like skin. And the worms are ravenous. Freia has never liked the worms, but maybe that’s because she knows what happens to them. Once full, the white worms start spitting silk, and they cocoon themselves, and after three days, the women pluck them hanging from the tree like figs and collect them for Freia.

The worms are silent. It’s only when they boil that they speak, and then what’s inside dissipates altogether.

Vienna, though—Vienna persists for her, almost despite itself. That’s all she wants. The world with the Danube and its tortes named after composers, her adopted home. She longs for blood. But Woden has removed anything that could cut her since the last time she fled, twenty-five years ago. It’s gutting to realize that her entire life has been stripped of its sharp edges. Woden sees her as a stubborn girl who is desperate for his protection but doesn’t realize it, or is afraid to admit it. He keeps her falcon cloak, her two cats, her boar, and her jewelry in a safe in his office.

At last, though. At last.

Freia hauls one of the troughs to the holding tank in the nave of the magnanery. She edges around the tree. One of the other women walking in front of her drops a needle that she’d pinned into the folds of her dress hem. Freia stops briefly, frozen. No one watches her, as far as she can tell. The needle is barely visible. The woman doesn’t seem to notice it’s missing. Freia kneels on the path as if she has to adjust the fit of her shoe, and then slips the needle into her own pocket.

Freia doesn’t dare look at it until she’s at her work station. A bronze needle with a glass bead at the tip of the shank. She doesn’t hesitate. All it takes is a drop. She gets a lot more.

“Ow!” Freia says as the needle pricks her thumb. She holds her breath and waits for her skin to blossom.

Soon the blood gushes down like the Krimml Waterfalls. The blood keeps coming, pooling on the floor and rushing down the storm drain of the magnanery, keeping it from reaching and feeding the tree—even Freia would not want to see that—and through the pipework, where it bubbles over in a toilet in a luxury high-rise apartment in Vienna. The blood rises at midnight, making the apartment’s bathroom unusable and thus the apartment unlivable.

Freia is breathless as the blood spurts out of her. She used to be known for so many beautiful and awful things, but now there is just blood.

The looms stop. The other dozen or so other workers in the magnanery stare at Freia. Despite her need for escape, and her joy, Freia is still ashamed and she hates that she’s ashamed. She bites her lip, and finally she sucks at the red rivulet.

“I’m sorry, I’m really really awful at this,” she says to them, but they don’t respond. Woden—her supervisor and one of her exes, who founded the magnanery many centuries ago—comes in through the iron door by the loading dock. He’s wearing a bombardier jacket and has a sack over his shoulder. Something writhes in the sack, trying to escape.

They stare at each other. They both feel the pull. He knows that once she bleeds, there is nothing he can do until she goes.

He gives her a mocking wave.

He doesn’t even look at her as she is cast down, cast down into the Imperial City, the red city, and this is what she is most embarrassed by, that he doesn’t actually care much about her, that she’s an afterthought, but still keeps her locked in the magnanery anyway.

Of course she has been cast down many times before, left to fall like piss from an airplane, always into Wien. It’s been their adopted home for a thousand years. At the beginning, before the Habsburgs came, Woden willingly let her venture into the city. The magnanery hadn’t been built yet. There was just the shining tree in the field, which stretched forever, where the worms congregated, ate, cocooned, and then burst into moth-dom, and flew away. Woden wasn’t quite as cruel yet. She still had all of her shit—a nice house, her jewelry, cats, and falcons, and boar, and lots of hot dead men and women to fuck.

And come to think of it, as she wakes up in the spartanly furnished apartment overlooking the Danube (or at least a hazy shimmer of it), even when he did become cruel he still treated her, more or less, as an equal—and sometimes he even cast her down himself by surprise, and she enjoyed this. She enjoyed having her throat slit and waking underneath the shadow of the Dreifaltigkeitssäule, commemorating the temporary end to the plague, which Leopold I attributed to God. She hates that she once craved Woden’s fucked-up affection.

But a hundred years ago or so he started taking his monstrous völkisch bullshit seriously.

The apartment is spartan, but still luxurious. Or wanting to give the appearance of money but not flaunting it. More than anything, the apartment wants to exude security, a cross between a panic room and a boutique infosec consultancy. The bathroom—the master bathroom—is a disaster area with the blood splatter—her blood, she has to remind herself. She walks around the apartment. A bedroom, a guest bedroom, two bathrooms, a kitchen, a “common area” with a foosball table, and a study. On the nightstand of her bed is a magazine in English folded to an article with the title “15 Members of the Super-Rich Who Remained Grounded and Humble.” She snorts. Whoever lived here before was either a lich or a sociopath.

She touches her arms. Her body is fine. It’s not the body she would have picked if she had the choice, but it’s fine. She goes through the walk-in closet and puts on what’s there: gray cashmere cardigan, white button-down dress shirt, black pencil skirt, black ankle boots. Onyx earrings. Dark blue scarf. It all feels good to her.

She’s in 2018, in an Age of Blood like no other. No purges, sieges, plagues or occupations from the past compare with the Imperial City Undying as an investment opportunity, a city for princely oligarchs to park money from selling teenaged Moldovan girls and lost nuclear warheads from Kazakhstan, apartments bought with white rhino horns and cash. Vienna is both the center and the beachhead for awful things. She knows this. The apartment’s previous tenant moved out in a hurry the day before, and there is an eviction notice under the door. She knows that she’s a hair’s breadth away from being a tourist, or a squatter. The notice indicates that the property managers, a holding company in Frankfurt, is “renovating” the building, which means likely demolishment and the construction of something more expensive. She sighs.

But it’s perfectly fine. She’s here. A little blood never hurt anyone.

It’s time for her to go to work then. She figures she could ditch this body’s responsibilities, but she can’t think of any easier way to interact with a large group of people where she’s not a complete stranger. It’s so hard being an almost-expat. Outside it’s…March? This March freezing rain, der schneeregen. The words form on her lips awkwardly. Her high-rise is on a quiet side street in Simmering, two blocks away from the Zentralfriedhof, the central cemetery with three million souls buried inside of it. She goes out of her way to pick up the tram right in front of the cemetery gates. The cemetery reminds her of home, that she’s no longer written under the sigil of love but only the sigil of death.

Fuck you she can hear someone say from a distance, deep inside the grounds. Fuck you, fuck you soul-sorter. On second thought, she has no time for the dead. There’s a glint on the sidewalk in front of her and she bends down. Amongst the raindrops is her needle, the bronze needle with the glass tip. In the magnanery, the needle was the lockpick and she was the lock. Woden must have tossed it out and down like the trash. The whole of Wien, every district, would not be sure what to do with her appetites, were it aware of them. She puts the needle inside a little fold in her messenger bag. Now all she needs is a thimble, a pair of scissors, a bobbin, a lucet, her spindle, and a loom powered by the exsanguination of a thousand innocents, and she would be set, she could open a shop on Etsy and make hats or shrouds for her enemies.

She gets on the tram, der 71er. She has longed for the tram for a long time, the creaking comfort of it. She remembers when the 71 trams threaded between ruined blocks. There really isn’t anyone left from that story in this story. There’s just—

“I can’t…I can’t open my Blu-ray player for the training video,” her supervisor says. She is a young, striving American woman, with a flat accent from the prairie. Freia, with this body, is slightly younger than her. Neither of them wants to be seen as incompetent, but they express it in completely different ways. Freia is supposed to be (she checks the bilingual business card on her desk) a digital strategist at this outpost of an American ad agency in Central Europe, the latest among twenty outposts or so in a network, like the trading zones of the old colonial powers. It’s not clear what she’s supposed to sell or strategize. Her office building, which used to be an imperial artillery college, also overlooks the Danube, but much more closely to the riverbank than her apartment. She’s upriver. She can see boats, mostly courier speedboats, cut through the sleet. The Viennese say that the Danube only looks blue if you’re in love. This is no time of love.

“Fuck,” her supervisor says. “Fuck it. Argh. Sorry.” She really is. Her name is Agatha. She’s tall, and awkwardly bends over the desk. Her blonde ponytail keeps flopping into her eyes.

“Let me try something,” Freia says.

“This Blu-ray in there is the training video,” she says. “But it’s not loading properly.”

“Yes, got it,” Freia says. “Got it.”

She finds the needle from her messenger bag and manages not to bloodlet again with it.

As she inserts the needle into the tiny “eject” indentation, Agatha watches breathlessly and rather too close. Freia realizes that the office has the feel of a tryst that has just started, yet at the same time has gone on too long. Though the Viennese outpost been open less than four months, desperation is written on all employees’ faces. When she first came into the office in the early morning, Freia opened the bottom drawer of her desk and found a tangle of VR headsets from about two years ago—from sleek masks to the smartphone mounts made of heavy cardboard or plastic. She gasped and closed it quickly, as if the drawer contained cobras or bombs. Their main clients back in America are various packaged snack brands from the Midwest—which doesn’t appear to her like a “good fit” with Vienna and its magical tortes. But who is she to say. She actually knows nothing about advertising. She doesn’t feel like she’s really good at convincing others to do what she wants.

The Blu-ray finally chokes and whirls and the disc slides out with difficulty. Fuck you fuck you it seems to be saying to her—

“There! Aha!” Agatha says, clapping her hands. She grabs the disc and hands it back to her. “Uh, be sure to watch this. I guess…I guess you have to reinsert it?”

“I’ll…try restarting,” Freia says. She holds the needle between her fingers and sets her hair with it, to get it out of her eyes. She’s always restarting.

Every time she dies in Vienna, she goes back to the magnanery, and she’s given more cocoons to boil. And every time the magnanery looks different. The décor never matches the time period. Several hundred years ago, right after the big siege by the Ottomans, the magnanery was a sterile laboratory and she wore clean suits, the kind used for making microchips. When she died during the February Uprising in ‘34, rounded up after a street battle and shot in the head by a Heimwehr teenager, the silk-makers all wore medieval dresses of coarse wool. Woden has never stayed in one place or time. After one of her escapades in the worst year of the Great War, he chained her by the neck and left her in a corner in the magnanery for five years to wash the raw silk with soap and water. He gave no pretense of rehabilitation. That was when she figured out the trick with her own blood, loosening an edge of her quartz washbasin and sharpening it for a year in secret.

This time, she doesn’t want to die here, she refuses to—she will refuse to die here. She watches the training video, which has glitched horribly, and makes this vow to herself. Because she doesn’t want to make thread again, to stand at the spindle in close proximity to her ex again. Each of those cocoons in the boiling water has a soul inside of it, and there are millions of them, and they die in the cocoons. They evaporate. That’s Freia’s job, to make sure that the dead die again. The others see it as embarrassing punishment to be sent down as a mortal, but she lives for nothing else. She wants the prick of the thumb, the gush. And she knows it will come. Because she always bleeds eventually.

But she also knows, when she is alive in Vienna, Woden hunts her. Or he hires creatures to hunt her. He always hunts her down and brings her back.

After the workday, Agatha asks her if she wants to go to karaoke with a few other people from the office. This makes her happy. She agrees. The sleet has stopped. There’s four or five others going, who she hasn’t really talked to, because they seem to have their shit together. It’s supposed to be a short walk to the karaoke place, near die Uni, but Agatha can’t quite seem to find it as they cut through Josefstadt, but it’s great, she insists, and Freia believes her. How did endearing Agatha become a supervisor? Soon enough the other coworkers concoct excuses to leave so there are only the two of them left.

“Ooh, spiced wine,” Agatha says, coming into one of the small, open squares—this one off Piaristengasse—that are everywhere in the central districts of Wien. “Uh, I mean, glühwein. I’m trying to get better with my German. Do you want to get some?” The air smells like cloves.

Freia smiles. “Sure,” she says. Glowing wine. A little late in the season for it, but on the other hand it really is fucking cold for March. The wine-seller is just off the steps of the Piarist church, and the two sit on the steps holding their hot paper cups.

“I…just love this city,” Agatha says. “There’s so much history. Layers and layers of it.”

“Yeah,” Freia says, taking a gulp, letting the star anise and cinnamon and citrus drain into her.

“Shit. I probably sound like a stupid American to you,” she says to Freia, her head down. “Jesus, Agatha. ‘Layers of history.’ Of course there is.”

“No, no, it’s…sweet,” Freia says, turning to look at Agatha.

“Okay, that’s not the answer I was expecting,” Agatha says. “But…I kind of like it?”

Freia laughs. “Good, good. Where are you from then?”

“Um, a small town in Wisconsin you’ve never heard of. I moved away as soon as I could. Where I grew up was—” She shudders. “Awful. Just awful for—well.” She pauses, holding back words. “Never mind. And you?”

“Me?” Freia stares straight ahead, at the two bare trees on the platz, and she swears she can see the writhing of hundreds of hungry worms on the twigs. “I’ve been kind of everywhere? But Vienna has been…home for a long time.”

“I wish this place could be home,” Agatha says, swigging the last of her wine. “But I don’t really have a home. The company back in the States sent me here to their worst-performing office to figure out what to do with me. Probably figuring out a way to ‘let me go.’”

“Fuck them,” Freia says, and she wishes more than anything she had a cigarette.

“I don’t know if I have that luxury,” Agatha says.

They sit in silence for a couple minutes, except that Freia can hear voices echo off the cobblestones.

He’s looking for you he’s looking he’s looking—

“This might be a strange thing to say,” Agatha says slowly, “and maybe it’s the wine talking. But even though I’m your boss, when I first saw you come in the office I got—really really scared of you.”

You should be, she thinks. This is a natural and healthy response.

Instead she says: “Are you still scared of me?”

“A little?” Agatha says in a quiet voice.

Freia leans over and bumps shoulders with her. “Well, just this once, I’ll promise not to bite.”

Agatha blushes.

Sometimes, when she’s strong—or at least feels the ghost of the strength she used to possess—she thinks: Start anew and triumphant and leave the magnanery, leave Vienna, leave everything, become mortal, even though you’ll die, you’ll be free. She supposes that it would be possible to forsake her self. But she can’t bear to think of herself as one of the hungry insensate worms on the golden tree of death and becoming an anonymous commodity for Woden before having her boiled remains sloughed off as wastewater. And she could never do what all the other goddesses, all of them, have done—renounce their names and pledge themselves to Woden in exchange for the dull freedom of not giving a fuck anymore. Not the good kind of not giving a fuck. It would be easier for Freia to give up, like all the others, and let Woden be the last of their kind. But she refuses. She is stubborn, like a human being.

As Agatha sings karaoke Bob Seger, Freia sits in the black booth, leans back and closes her eyes, imagining an America she has never known. Agatha, it has to be said, is in her element with karaoke, with a raspy baritone that’s somewhere between Stevie Nicks and Ringo Starr, and a fierceness in her green eyes that surprises her. She watches Freia the entire time she’s up there. Freia has a song coming up but she isn’t sure whether she wants to sing it, what this particular voice of hers will sound like inside of a microphone. The bar is nearly deserted. All the décor is black. On the other side of the bar two men and one woman all wear long black sleeveless t-shirts and study calculus. They have heathen tattoos on their arms: stags and Woden’s names. The names are in a made-up runic script the younger man downloaded from the Internet, but she can still read it.

“You’re up,” Agatha says, sitting down next to her and squeezing her shoulder. She has found that she was just clapping seconds ago. She feels a bit off. The table of neopagans—of whatever sort—now stare at her, with an intensity that concerns her.

As she starts to sing the Yeah Yeah Yeahs (what else? It’s either that or Billy Joel) she doesn’t know whether they know who she is, whether they would worship her or try to murder her, or murder someone else as a sacrifice, probably an immigrant, because they’d think it would please her, even though nothing could be further from the truth. Or Agatha. They eye Agatha too.

Veneration? Just as bad. She doesn’t want to be tied down by supplications. They each have knives in their belts, consecrated for sure. And heavy bronze pendants, masks of Woden’s face peering out behind a tangle of woods. Agatha stares at her in the dark-dim with milky eyes as she warbles, awful and sad.

Agatha has no idea how much danger she’s in, just by living and breathing. If they were to leave together out of the club and a bus slammed into them, Agatha would die, and come into life again as a worm on an undying tree and Freia would find herself again in the magnanery, and after few hours, when the cocoon had been spun, Freia would quite possibly hold her former boss’s soul inside boiling water to get at the threads inside. Her voice is hoarse at the chorus, and when she’s done there are a few stammered claps.

“That was great,” her boss says, as if she’s giving her a performance review. She continues to clap. She is more confident, or tipsy, or both. “Well done.” She takes another swig of Stiegl. “Well fucking done.”

“Thanks,” Freia says. She eyes the three at the table again. “We should leave.”

“Really?” Agatha says, unaware of the bad aura from the neopagans. “Where do you want to—”

“My place,” Freia says, getting Agatha’s coat. “Definitely my place.”

When she’s licking the base of Agatha’s girlcock in her apartment in Simmering, blanketed in a moonlit nest of quilts on her bed, Freia realizes she has no idea how to make her cum.

“How can I make you cum?” she says, leaning her cheek against Agatha’s thigh and looking up at her.

“Oh my god,” Agatha says, finding it hard to breathe. “Oh my god. Uh…do you have a vibrator?”

“Kind of,” Freia says.

“Okay, well—if you put it the tip of it right on my, uh, perineum—the taint—and…press down there.”

“Like this?”

“Yes. How the fuck are how are you doing that?”

“Shhh,” Freia says. “A magician never reveals her secrets.”

After Agatha orgasms twice, Freia makes her hand stop vibrating and curls up behind Agatha, putting her chin up against her neck and breathing deeply. The body is a lonely hunter, but occasionally it finds its quarry.

A tight knot loosens in Freia’s shoulder blades.

They fall asleep.

“Are you safe here?” Freia whispers to Agatha an hour before dawn.

“Mhm what?” Agatha says, eyes closed, still slick, shifting deeper into Freia’s arms.

“Are you safe in this city as…you know…”

Now it is Agatha’s turn to shush her. “That doesn’t matter now,” she says, as if in a dream. “I’m safe now.”

And Freia, this once, allows herself to believe this and dozes off as the Imperishable City thrums around her.

She wakes up to sunlight stabbing her eyes and looks up. Agatha is splayed on the high ceiling, still naked, her mouth stuffed with a neoprene ball. She’s paralyzed and can’t speak or move, but her eyes are wide. She can see everything.

“I thought I’d let you sleep in a bit,” Woden says, sitting in a high-backed chair at the foot of the bed.

Freia leaps out bed and jumps onto the ceiling to try to bring Agatha down, but Woden snaps his fingers and Freia thuds back onto the bed.

“Come on,” he says. “This is embarrassing, Freia. Get some clothes on.”

Woden, lord of the gods, the allfather, the shining eye, the war-merry one, the racist piece of shit, wears a black suit. His shoulder-length hair is tied back and he wears heavy ruby rings on three of his fingers. He looks at Freia with pity.

“Put on some clothes in my house,” he commands, turning away his chin ever so slightly.

Freia looks up at Agatha, and she goes to the dresser drawer where she finds several changes of clothes, mostly variations of the same pencil skirt and light sweater.

She doesn’t want him to see her this vulnerable, so she puts on one of these outfits and sits back on the bed, trying to take deep breaths.

“That’s better,” he says. “I can’t say the same thing for your boyfriend up here.”

“She’s not—” Freia begins, but she knows that Woden is only trying to goad her, not that he doesn’t believe that Agatha is mentally sick and unworthy of attention, much less love and care. She closes her eyes and mostly feels shame that she had assured Agatha of her safety, that she could be safe with her. Something that he had said earlier stuck with her.

“Wait, what do you mean your house?” she says.

He smiles. “I own the high-rise.” He snorts. “How do you think you ended up here?”

“So…what, you’re a landlord now?”

“It’s a little more complicated than that. I help expedite capital to move from the periphery of Europe into safe and lucrative opportunities in Austria. You always come a bit short, Freia, with your imagination.”

“That sounds like an elaborate way to say: ‘money launderer for white nationalists.’”

He grimaces. She doesn’t want him to get inside her head.

“It’s just extending a little of my hard-won expertise,” he says. “I’m just trying to give a safe landing towards my people mired in a sea of filth. The filth of cucks, cultural Marxists—”

“Your people,” she snorts.

“How many people do you have?” he says, smiling. “Him?” He points up at the ceiling. “Don’t make me laugh. My people are attuned to what I need. Like keeping an eye on you.”

She thinks of the trio at the karaoke bar, and in a sense, he is right—he does have people everywhere. She hates it. Neo-Nazi wolves in the Nationalrat, in the Catholic priesthood with their secret blots, in the Bundespolizei. Fathers, mothers, upstanding citizens with their Facebook groups set to private.

“Speaking of him,” he says.

Her, you fuck,” she says. “Her.”

“Stop indulging his delusions, sister. Or I’ll cut off his cock and stuff it into his mouth.”

Freia shuts her eyes hard and opens them again, looking up at Agatha. She is sick with herself, but those emotions will not save Agatha.

“All I want to know is why?” he says. “When you came down to Wien, why did you waste your time with this creature?”

She chooses her words very carefully. “I like women.”

“No, you like pussy. Not this…thing.”

“Don’t tell me what I want and don’t want.”

He snickers. “Even your degeneracy is degenerate.”

“I am the Consort of Blood. I am the Animal Bride, the Lady of the Slain—”

“Well, you were,” he says. “Past tense. Never forget that. But—I am feeling generous for some reason. Maybe it will be a way to teach you a lesson. I’ll give you a month’s leave in the city before you go back to work—gently monitored of course. You won’t even notice.”

“And Agatha,” she says angrily, not wanting to put it in the form of a question, to make it seem like she is pleading with him.

“Why should you care? Why should you care how I murder him?”

At that Freia looks at Agatha and she doesn’t hesitate, even though she knows the words are almost impossible to say. “I exchange my life for hers, then. After I return, I will never leave the magnanery again, and I vow never to return to Vienna again, until the end of time. In exchange, you will leave Agatha alone. She will be returned safely. And everyone you know will leave her be.”

“Freia—” he begins to say.

“You’re right that I’m not what I used to be. You’ve seen to that. But I am still the Consort of Blood, and you cannot deny me a blood oath.”

He begins laughing. “You would give up Vienna? You will work in the magnanery forever? No escaping it?”

“Yes. And yes. And no.”

His laughter dies once he sees she is serious. He stares at her. She hears Agatha’s raspy breathing above her.

“And if you decide to kill her,” Freia says, “I will fight and kick and scream when you try to drag me away from here. I will make your life miserable. You know I can do that.”

She figures that, more than anything, he enjoys the easy life now afforded to him, a life of vanity and empty slogans and sales pitches in twenty-fifth floor showroom apartments. She figures that he will not want to be inconvenienced by her. It’s a steep fall from who she used to be, but she will take what she will get.

“No, Freia,” he says. “Of course I’m not going to give into your demands. And you have nothing to perform a blood oath with. Stop embarrassing yourself. You’ll be able to harvest this bitchboy’s soul soon enough when you’re back at work.”

Freia doesn’t want to make sudden movements because Woden is a snake-wolf, a snare-wolf, a patient wolf, so almost casually, she reaches into her hair and pulls the needle out. Her long black hair falls to her shoulders, and without saying anything to Woden she stabs the most tender patch of skin on her neck with the needle, pushes it in as far as it can go, and pulls it out. The first drop falls horizontally, as if from a great height, and smacks against Woden’s cheek. The seconds slow. He moves his hand to wipe the blood from his cheek, on instinct, but then a second drop of blood lands on his face, and a third, and then there’s blood smeared all over the right side of his face, and it’s seeping into his mouth, like his mouth is the drain. He tries to stagger to his feet, but the blood overflows his throat, and he falls backwards.

“Choke on it, you fucking piece of garbage,” she shouts. “Are you ready to bind yourself to the oath?”

She knows this can’t last forever. Already she’s beginning to feel faint as she starts to bleed out, and Woden will find a way to survive. Soon she will be dead here, but she will get her oath.

Even now he resists, backing away from her. She moves towards him, kneeling in front of him and pulling his hands towards her.

“Coward,” she says, slashing a sigil onto his right palm with the needle. “Coward.” The left palm. He falls on his back and the blood masks his face. The wind rushes in.

Agatha wakes inside the main chapel of the Central Cemetery, in the chancel, at dawn. The clouds have broken open and the chapel takes in the sunlight like it’s breathing it in. She stands up from the cold floor, wobbling. Above her, the dome is lined by a blue firmament, with gold stars and gold blasts of light coming down from the central circle, and she knows this is the Last Judgement. She is alive somehow. She’s in the outfit she wore to work the day before. She remembers too much, watching from the ceiling. She couldn’t make out the language between Freia and the man, but it sounded like wolves arguing. Most of all she remembers not being able to move, and blood everywhere.

Her phone buzzes. There’s a message from Freia, on the company Slack to her:

“Really sorry about everything. You deserved none of that.

You deserve great things.

I’ve decided to take another position, something in a field that’s a better fit to my natural skill set and which is a little closer to home.

I really like you and I deeply regret not taking you out on a proper date.

I wish we could keep in touch—not assuming of course that you’d WANT to—but unfortunately any type of reception is really spotty where I’m moving (it’s really remote, you don’t even want to know). Wishing you every blessing I have at my disposal.

-F.”

Agatha starts crying. The cries echo in the chapel walls, and she hears voices inside the echoes, lucky, lucky, lucky girl, voices from the cemetery trying to catch the undercurrent of her pain, and Freia cries out too as she spins and spins the silk. Agatha hugs herself and wipes her tears on her jacket sleeve. The jacket smells like Freia, like fresh snow and sharp bronze and fucking, like burnt fur and hot glühwein and dried blood, like things she knows and things she will never know, like everything, and everything else.

fin

Anya Johanna DeNiro lives and writes in Minnesota. Her short fiction has appeared in Asimov’s, One Story, Strange Horizons, Persistent Visions and elsewhere, and she’s been a finalist for the Theodore Sturgeon Award. She currently writes YA novels about the adventures of trans women. She can be found online on Twitter, usually, at @adeniro.

Published May 2018, Shimmer #43, 5900 words

Other Goddesses:

An Incomplete Catalogue of Miraculous Births, or, Secrets of the Uterus Abscondita, by Rebecca Campbell

The Creeping Influences, by Sonya Taaffe

Painted Grassy Mire, by Nicasio Andres Reed

If a bear… by Kathrin Köhler

You know in the same way that anyone who lives in an isolated village in a deep-shadowed wood knows anything: It’s been repeated so often you’ve choked on it since you were a child. One day a bear will show up at your doorstep.

No one tells you what to do when the bear arrives. They tease with pointless tales of how Aunt Sisi was so busy chopping wood she almost missed hers (she never chopped wood again), and how Alte Nina’s bear came for her in the church (the villagers pretend shock, but no one’s surprised; she was too beautiful for her own good).

The implications dangle there unsaid except in the side-glances of the women, a secret language you have not yet been entrusted with or figured out. When you are able to wheedle any extra words, it is from a grandmother who cackles in a way that suggests deep knowledge or lack of caring (probably both), but all she says is “You’ll know.” You tell her this isn’t advice. She shoos you away.

You spend most of your time wandering in the wood with the trees and violets (they say exactly what they mean), and you forget about bears and things left unsaid.

When it finally happens, you are surprised: The bear doesn’t arrive in late winter (mad with starvation, willing to eat just about anything). The bear lumbers by in early summer, a few days after the solstice. The damselflies and squirrels and hedgehogs are all busy whirring and rustling deep under the canopy. It is amid this tableau that the bear knocks on the doorframe (the frame because the door is wide open for the breeze). It looks at you sitting at the table, the mending piled beside you.

Despite the lack of specific direction, you’re somewhat prepared. You’ve made a bed of leaves and wool and feathers in the corner near the hearth. You’ve even hung some cut glass and dried flowers about the nest-bed; perhaps this is more a thing for Waschbären than regular bears, but you figure it’s a nice gesture all the same.

According to the tales, you should either caress the bear and lure it into slumber, hoping that it doesn’t become enraged by your affection; or you should cut off its head, wrap yourself in the still-warm fur and lick your new blood. You’ve never enjoyed luring or skinning, so you hope that your company and the nest-bed are an acceptable compromise.

Now that the bear is finally here, you take a deep breath, let yourself unfurl, and relish that you have nothing left to wait for—the bear is here. Whatever is going to happen is going to happen. Probably soon.

The bear enters with more deliberateness and grace than you imagined such a massive creature could muster. It does not make itself small, just knows where its body is and is not. The bear hands you a bouquet of wood violets and says “hi.” You realize you weren’t expecting a female bear. Not that the bear’s voice is light or lilting. It is not. Her voice is a deep, powerful rumble that shakes the floor and your bones.

You rinse out a cup for the violets and arrange them. You move your mending aside and give the flowers the center of the table. “They’re my favorite. How did you know?”

“We get around,” she says.

This reminds you that she may be tired after her travels, so you show her the bed. The bear follows you to the corner and turns in circles until the leaves and fluff are settled. She lies down with a great sigh.

Her napping gives you time to think. Not that you arrive at any conclusions, but still. What you do have time to do is mend two shirts, put away the morning dishes, and reach a composure akin to inevitability, if not acceptance.

When the bear wakes, she stretches and walks into the kitchen to make coffee. “What do you do for fun around here?” she asks over her shoulder.

You try to remember what the rest of the villagers do for entertainment. Gossip and dance, you suppose. And complain. What you do is keep to yourself, wander in the wood, pick violets, and hunt mushrooms. You wonder If a bear… might like this, but a shyness creeps over you and you say nothing. With voices like that, bears probably prefer dancing and complaining.

“Not the others. They’re idiots.” The bear takes down two cups and pours the coffee. “I’m curious about you,” she says as she seats herself across the table.

She sips her coffee, eyes closing. Her rumbled “ahh” rattles the windowpanes. A resonance flutters in your own throat. She drains her coffee and pours another, offers you more, but you raise your hand “no.”

“I don’t want to make assumptions about you…” The bear looks around your cottage. There isn’t much in here except what’s needed, plus your own few touches: flowers, interesting rocks and pine cones, bones and geodes—things you found on your walks. “…but maybe you’d like to come with me.”

It’s been a day of surprises. “I thought when bears come, they stay.”

The bear blows on her coffee. The steam billows and stirs the fur on her face. In a wind, she must look like a god. “We can do what we want.”

It’s your turn to look around, though you know you’re going to say “yes.”

The bear knows, too, because she is smiling when your inventory of the cottage comes back around to the table and the two of you.

“And the violets?” you ask.

“They’re a great snack,” the bear says, and pops one in her mouth. “They were used in love potions. Wholly unnecessary. But they do make an excellent wine.”

You try one. The flavor surprises you: It tastes of sunlight and shadow and tenacity, reminding you that violets grow wherever they want. You’re not surprised when the bear tells you it’s her favorite flower as well.

Kathrin Köhler is a graduate of the Odyssey Fantasy Writing Workshop and the University of Wisconsin – Madison. An immigrant interested in the interstitial and ideas interdisciplinary, they are most comfortable writing in places “between.” Favorite topics include the power of narrative, what it means to belong, and how people conceive of and interact with nature. Their work has appeared in Interfictions, Strange Horizons, the Book Smugglers, and other fine places. Author website at theliteratecondition.wordpress.com.

 

Other beasts of the wood:

Even In This Skin, A.C. Wise

Cantor’s Dragon, by Craig DeLancey

The Seaweed and the Wormhole by Jenn Grunigen

The Imitation Sea, by Lora Gray

You find the dead Angel at five a.m. in the slurry of broken bottles and rotting fish on the Lake Erie shore. It almost looks human in the morning light, a ten-year-old, maybe eleven, boyish, face bloated, limp and blue and doughy.

You can smell the rot, sour-sweet like flowers left too long in vases and chemical-sharp like gasoline. It reminds you of that abandoned gas station you and Jack first fucked in, the one with the chains looped over the doors and the gaping, fractured windows. The one with a musty stock room and flattened cardboard boxes that greased your shirt with motor oil. You still have that shirt, unwashed and stained, in a shoebox under your bed.

You know that smell.

It takes you ten minutes to wrestle the Angel out of the cold sand. It’s heavier than you anticipated. Maybe it’s the soggy wings. Maybe it’s the waterlogged tubing buried beneath its skin. In any case, the weight resigns you to dragging, and you shuffle backward past galleries of picnic tables stacked and upended for the off-season, the Angel’s feet snaking through the late autumn scrub.

Its legs kick out at inconvenient angles as you wedge it into the trunk of your Dodge, but eventually the Angel fits, its face slumped against the wheel well, lips shucked away from pale and unnervingly even teeth. You almost expect it to speak. To sing.

Of course, it’s silent. It’s dead. But you still roll down the window and strain to hear it over the road noise and shush-shush of Lake Erie waves.

You never told Jack, but when you were a little boy, you thought Lake Erie was an ocean, a long blue-black tongue lapping its way into Canada. You were convinced there were sharks in that water. Whales. Jellyfish. Sunken pirate ships. Lost cities. Mermaids. Squid the size of buses. Sea monsters the length of football fields. Underwater kingdoms five fathoms deep.

In second grade you learned real oceans didn’t stink like melted rubber and rotting fish. Oceans weren’t peppered with warning signs about toxic algae and unsafe levels of bacteria. They didn’t have that conspicuous line of land squatting on the horizon if you squinted your eyes just so.

Lake Erie was just a lake.

That summer, when July settled its fat green heat over Cleveland, you watched the freshwater waves suck at your toes and imagined the lake devouring you. Jack was on vacation with his dad in Saint Martin. Your mom had abandoned you for the afternoon (this time for a lifeguard named Todd), and it wasn’t as if she could afford an Angel to watch over you. You were all alone. Nothing could stop Lake Erie from swallowing you if it really wanted to.

It would lick the meat from your legs, slurp your bones away, and you’d march home on the stumps of your thighs, a victim of an imitation sea. Later, you’d find the remains your dismembered shins, next to the ‘sea’ shells and ‘sea’ glass, picked clean by ‘sea’ gulls. You’d sell your toes to tourists and hawk tickets to the spot where the tragedy occurred. You’d use the money to fly to Saint Martin and spend the rest of the summer with Jack.

As smaller, richer kids tottered past you, carrying half-melted popsicles and buckets of pebbles, Angels floating dutifully behind them, you closed your eyes. Under the water, your legs grew cold. Weightless. Numb. When Mom finally reappeared and called for you, you cracked open one eye and carefully, carefully, you looked down.

Your legs were still there.

You shuffled, sunburned and silent, back to the car and wondered how you would tell Jack about it when he finally returned. You tried to pull comfort from the fact that the rocky sand left toothy dimples in your thighs. You rubbed at them the whole ride home as if you could press them into your bones as evidence.

You remember the day Jack told you about selling dead Angels. You were fifteen and huddled under his back porch, pot smoke in your hair and eyes, the afternoon light spilling golden through the tight, even slats. You remember how he plucked the joint from your fingers, his lips plump and flushed around it. His Angel hadn’t found you yet. You managed to ditch it for thirty minutes. It was a record.

“There are these scrap dealers that buy dead Angels for parts,” Jack said. “And these upcycle sites that make clocks out of their guts. Tables out of their faces. Reduce. Reuse. Recycle. All that shit. You remember my cousin in Utah?” You nodded and nestled your head against Jack’s shoulder. He fed you a drag. “He collects them. He’s got this walk-in freezer with rows of them tacked behind glass like fucking butterflies. He wants to buy mine off my mom when it dies.”

Jack wrapped one arm around your shoulders then, the other around your waist, like he was clinging to a buoy, like he was afraid he’d drown in porch dust and flaking paint. His eyes darted toward the crooked opening beneath the steps. Every passing car could be his Angel’s wings. Every flying bird, his Angel’s shadow. His parents had put him on house arrest the last time he’d ditched it and then they had taken him to a doctor because they thought he was ‘exhibiting alarming behavior patterns.’ Jack had just wanted twenty minutes alone with you.

“I don’t want them making money off any of it,” Jack whispered.

“So what do you want to do with your Angel, then?” you asked.

Jack tightened his arms. “Burn it,” he said.

On the drive home, you think about how you want to tell Jack that there’s a market for that too now. There’s the Angel Memorial Crematorium on Sixth Street. And there are megachurches that will pay to burn them on their live streams. You’ve seen the popup ads, the preachers with oily hair and slick designer suits shouting about sacrilege while heaps of feathers and flesh stamped with “Heaven’s Helpers INC” smoke in the background. Cash for unwanted Angels! Save the children! Save your soul! Subscribe subscribe subscribe!

You could use the money, but you won’t sell the Angel you found in the lake. As you pull your Dodge into the long, uneven driveway of your apartment, you already know what you’re going to do with it.

You heft the Angel out of the trunk and into your arms. You aren’t going to scrap it. You drag the Angel through the back door. You aren’t going to sell it. You lay the Angel on the kitchen floor in the nook where a refrigerator once lived and you watch sunlight spill onto the ruined cherubic face.

You’re going to resurrect it.

Angels were still toys when Jack moved to town. You were only seven, but you remember the commercials, the jingle, the bright white boxes plastered with cartoon halos and broad, smiling faces. They had feather wings. Or fairy wings or bat wings or airplane wings that dusted glitter onto sidewalks and kitchen tables. They were customizable. Some of them had fiberoptic hair or bellies that doubled as nightlights. They sang lullabies and pop songs and came preprogramed with Angel Apps and links to the official Angel Accessories site.

Jack was the first kid you knew who had one.

He walked into your classroom like a whisper, spindly arms crossed behind his back as if he were trying to fold himself inside out. His Angel floated behind him like a balloon child on an invisible string, round face beaming, pale eyes fixed solely and forever on Jack.

After the teacher had introduced him to the class, she told Jack to leave his ‘doll’ in his cubby until the end of the day. Jack’s cheeks flushed as he grabbed his Angel by one fat ankle and tugged it to the back of the room, wrestling it into the narrow space between parkas and muddy yellow boots. The class giggled. One of the back-row boys threw an eraser at him when he took his seat.

Jack was ‘the kid with a doll’ after that. He sat alone at lunch and spent recess huddled against the side of the building, staring at faraway places nobody else could see. You wondered what he was looking at, if he came from a school where all the kids had Angels. If he had any friends there. If he was lonely like you.

When the art teacher sat you next to each other, you asked if Jack wanted to borrow your scissors. He looked at you like he wasn’t sure if it was a gift or a trick, so you smiled. He smiled back. Together, you ripped pages out of old magazines, the real paper kind, splashed with jewelry ads and bright toothpaste smiles. A closeup of a gecko’s eye. Two men on a sailboat, leaning together as if they were about to share a secret. You cut them into pieces, giggling as you pasted them back together, upside down and inside out, hilariously monstrous and perfect.

Two years later, when the Angels became ‘tools not toys,’ Jack’s parents were the first to buy a safety camera attachment. Retina recognition. Imprint technology. Jack’s Angel became his babysitter and tutor. It recorded his sleep patterns and monitored his cognitive development and growth percentiles, his caloric intake and expenditure. His play. But even when half the kids at school had Angels hovering over their shoulders and you didn’t have one of your own, you were still the only one who played with Jack. You were the only one who knew how many times Jack tried to drown his Angel in the bathtub or trick it into flying into traffic. You were the only one who went to the lake with him in fifth grade when he hacked his Angel’s GPS and ordered it to fly to the moon.

You sat beside him on the cold, November sand, his hand brushing against yours as you passed a bag of stale corn chips between you and watched his Angel ascend. You craned your neck, hand shielding your eyes, watching as it went higher and higher until it became a slowly circling dot, a speck, and then, gradually, nothing at all.

You held your breath, wondering if the Angel would break apart because of the altitude or just keep going up and up forever.

“Bet it can see Canada from there,” Jack said, his hand poised at the lip of the chip bag even though there was nothing left. His profile was still, his head tipped back, his eyes fixed on an empty, blue sky.

When the Angel descended ten minutes later, mission aborted but intact, ticking off facts about Apollo 11 and the 1969 moon landing, you were the only one who saw Jack cry.

You tell yourself you are doing this because your therapist says new hobbies are normal and healthy. Don’t you want to be healthy again? Don’t you want to be normal?

You don’t mention the dead Angel in your therapy sessions, though.

Instead, you dismantle the Angel’s arms in secret, peeling away synthetic skin and tugging out wires like worms onto the kitchen floor. Then it’s the chest, flayed into wide sections, white and gelatinous, heart a fist of tubes and pumps, lungs like purple sponges. The brain spills over the linoleum like soup. The eyes are delicate as uncooked eggs. The wings are so rotten that, when you finally pull them out to clean them, the stench drags your breakfast out of your gut in one startling heave. It takes you an hour to clean up the mess.

The Angel is a collage of circuitry and organic layers that you don’t really understand, so you begin reading tutorials. Angels 101: A Complete Guide. The Heavenly Phenomenon. Angels for Dummies. Gradually, you lose yourself in textbooks about bioengineering and computer programming. Robotics. Design. Anatomy. Alchemy. Religion. You begin surfing the deep web for secrets. You plot how you might trick dormant organic tissue into repair and regeneration mode without original purchase codes. You learn how to substitute plastic bags for air bladders, fan blades for propellers, a marble for one hopeless eye.

For months, the Angel consumes you.

Some nights, you fall asleep beside it, slumped against the kitchen cabinets, a dislocated hand nestled in your arms. Sometimes you don’t sleep at all and you are never quite sure if the memory of soft whispers is a dream or if you somehow miraculously teased the Angel to life in the middle of the night only to have it die again before sunrise.

You work on it through your morning coffee, cup in one hand, wrench in the other. You turn its half-formed head toward the kitchen door when you leave and you imagine what its voice will sound like.

“Goodbye.”

“Have a nice day.”

“Stay. Just a little longer. Please. Please, stay.”

When you were fourteen, you became fascinated by Jack’s voice. It tripped over itself when he laughed. It broke toward something deeper and dangerously adult when he whispered and everything inside you curled. You couldn’t stop thinking about the veins emerging on the backs of his hands, winding like secret rivers toward his fingers. You wanted him to touch you. You dreamed about him touching you. And you couldn’t look directly at him when you wrestled anymore because he was breathless and flushed and on top of you and awkwardly, impossibly beautiful.

When Jack first kissed you, under a Lake Erie dock where his ditched Angel hadn’t found you yet, he told you he was going to leave his eyes open because he’d never kissed another boy before and he wanted to see if it was more or less real than kissing girls.

You kept your eyes closed.

You knew how real it was.

As he leaned in close, the world inside you capsized and you were certain your heart was going to beat out of your chest, tumble end over end past the orange safety net and empty vodka bottles at your feet and down into the hungry water. You imagined it breaking into a thousand digestible pieces. How would you ever be able to survive without it? When your chapped lips collided, the entirety of you shattered like a ship against a breaker wall. You became flotsam. Jetsam. Lagan. Derelict. The pieces of you scattered so deep you knew you’d never be able to recover them all.

You weren’t sure you wanted to.

It’s an April afternoon when you finally begin stitching your dead Angel together again. Torso propped between your legs, you tenderly tuck the restored parts back into its skin, the plastic gears and motors and layers of wet muscle. You reposition regenerated organs. You reunite wires. You secure delicate bolts. When the Angel is nearly whole, you deposit the voice box deep in its narrow throat, a waxy pearl swaddled in meat and electrical tethers. You key in the final, pirated code and murmur “please work, please work, please work” like a mantra.

There is a rattle and the Angel begins to hum fitfully against you. You stroke its hair, try to imagine the hacked nanites diving into the Angel’s veins and cavities, connecting organic tissue to inorganic armatures, weaving one world into another and bridging the gaps your hands could never hope to mend.

Jack died three days before his seventeenth birthday. You told yourself then that it wasn’t real. You didn’t see it happen. He hadn’t taken you with him when he went to the beach this time. He only took his Angel. And a can of lighter fluid. And book of matches and a bottle of pills and his dad’s handgun. You didn’t see him burn his Angel, torching it so it couldn’t save him. You didn’t see him take pill after pill after pill. You didn’t see him panic. You didn’t see him pull the trigger.

It couldn’t be real.

Reality wasn’t Jack laughing sadly against your shoulder one day and dead before breakfast the next. Reality wasn’t a closed casket because Jack had blown half his jaw away. Reality wasn’t a funeral with Jack’s uncle lamenting a dead Angel instead of a dead nephew.

Reality was a dirty lake pretending to be an ocean.

Reality was six months of Xanax and broken dishes and flunking out of math because you threw up the day the teacher called you Jack’s name by mistake. Reality was sneaking into an abandoned gas station to mourn, and crying and jerking off instead and hating yourself for it. Reality was a dock with vodka bottles and an orange safety net lodged so deep in the sand the waves couldn’t dig it out. Beached fish tangled in it instead. Every day you watched their slow dissolve into silence.

And as six months became a year, became three, and your loneliness never healed, you began to believe that your reality, too, must be silence.

It’s after midnight when the Angel begins to sing.

You’d fallen asleep with its body cradled in your arms, its forehead pressed against yours, the smell of ozone and plastic and regenerated flesh all around you. It’s the sudden intake of air that wakes you, the thin, reedy inhalation buzzing through a reconstructed throat. Your head is on the linoleum, your neck is cramped, but you don’t move. You are terrified that this isn’t real, that the sound will dissipate like smoke or sea foam if you jostle it. So you lie there, barely breathing, anticipation trembling through you. You watch as the Angel’s throat quivers. It swallows. It smiles.

It sings.

It’s a tuneless sound, broad and soft as whale song, static fizzing distantly behind it like an incoming tide. The Angel’s lips are slightly out of sync, forming O’s and A’s a beat too late, and there are no consonants, only round noises swelling through the moonlit kitchen like slow, summer air.

When you were kids, Jack brought you back a conch shell from Saint Martin. It came wrapped in bright paper, a sailboat and a sunrise repeating forever around the uneven shape. You sat together on his bed, shoulder to shoulder, and he showed you how to hold the shell against your ear, how if you listened carefully, you could hear the sea roaring toward you. You passed the shell back and forth, waves flowing between you, deep and steady and real as a pulse.

Now, when you finally gather the courage to move, you press your ear to the Angel’s lips. You close your eyes. You listen to it sing until the sun comes up, willing the sound of the ocean into you until all you hear is the rush of salt waves and the truth of deep sea water.

Lora Gray’s writing has appeared in various publications including The Dark, Flash Fiction Online, Liminal Stories and Strange Horizons. A graduate of Clarion West, Lora currently lives in Northeast Ohio with a handsome husband and a freakishly smart cat named Cecil. When they aren’t writing, Lora also works as an illustrator, dance instructor and occasionally moonlights as a voice over artist and musician. You can find them online at www.loragray.weebly.com or on twitter @LoraJGray.

Other Angels:

The Earth and Everything Under by K.M. Ferebee

Anna Saves Them All, by Seth Dickinson

Serein, by Cat Hellisen

 

They Have a Name For That, by Sara Beitia

“I don’t get this,”she says to her father about the station promo playing on the muted TV.

Daddy blinks—at the screen, not her.

They’ve been waiting for the local weather report, or at least she has. There’s no telling what’s on his mind. He’s in his favorite chair, and she’s pushing her luck on the chintz loveseat no one’s supposed to sit on except to delicately perch, as per Mother. (It’s still firm and shiny like a showroom piece, which is Mother’s preference.)

She’s trying to make polite conversation with her father while they wait to be shooed, bossed, or otherwise put to work in service of The Wedding, caps audible. The early light through the window is honey-gold, like it always is in this rosy little room this time of year.

What don’t you get, my dear?” she supplies for him when Daddy glances up but doesn’t speak. It’s harder for her mouth to form the words than it should be.

She notices sweat slicking his brow line, and remembers how even at dawn this little room just roasts this time of year. She realizes sweat has beaded her forehead, too, under the fur of which there’s now a little more.

“See,” she says, gesturing at the smiling blonde on the screen, “they have the girl—I think she’s the weather gal?—holding up a smartphone and telling us how great their app is. You know what an app is, Dad?”

Not that she expects a back-and-forth. She feels guilty about visiting so rarely even though Mother and Cal have described Daddy’s decline.

“But then when they cut to the close-up of the phone app, the hand holding the phone is a man’s: Big thick fingers and hairy knuckles. So you only ever see her face and those gorilla mitts. Implication: those are her man hands. Why didn’t someone notice that when they edited the promo?”

Daddy makes a funny noise in his throat and widens his eyes in alarm. His eyebrows like two white stoats slink upward.

“Oh, Dad, don’t worry. It’s funny is all. Like if I had hands like yours. Or you had hands like mine.” She holds up her hands, rotating them front to back like a model. “Silly, see?”

This doesn’t help. She wishes she hadn’t tried to draw him out. He’s showing signs of agitation, and it’s not as if he was such scintillating company even when he still had all his marbles. She sighs. It’s understood that today has to be one of his good ones, given the occasion, but no one can say how that’s to be achieved, exactly, beyond hoping.

If he remains docile, though, the gradual loss of his mind has smoothed his already handsome brow, which will make for some terrific wedding photos. (Unfair when he’d be judged least for a failure on that.) Haircut’s on but nobody’s home. Assuming, too, he doesn’t forget the guests and the cameras, shed his suit on the lawn. Assuming Mother doesn’t forget her famous company manners. Assuming Cal doesn’t forget she’s happy and start crying. Assuming the prodigal sister remains presentable, which is very much in question; she can feel something welling up, ready to pop like a boil. This is not hyperbole.

She hopes to miss the quarrel over how to purge those who don’t live up to photogenic standard from the wedding album, and other tribulations so very relatable. She hopes to be on a plane by then. The argument will smell like hairspray and white wine and sulfur.

Mother insists everyone always said what an attractive quartet the family was, and there’s a stair wall lined with years of family portraits to bear this out. And now Cal and her groom will have children of their own, probably immediately, and they’ll be beautiful, of course, because Calliope won’t have it otherwise, and somehow that’ll settle it, because her life is a fairytale, so she can’t conceive otherwise. It’s not her fault.

And will these cherubs have the family’s standard gray eyes, or Calliope’s medium blue? What color are Charlie’s eyes? She’s only met him a handful of times, and his handsomeness exists whole-cloth to her, not in details she can recount. It’s more a knowledge, like the sky is blue: Cal’s fiancé is handsome.

Eyes on the TV and not Daddy, she finds herself still babbling about those TV anchor’s mismatched mitts. “Maybe she’s a prima donna,” she muses, “and they wanted to make her look foolish.”

“Stop confusing him,” commands a voice that even in annoyance is smooth-polished maple wood. This is Mother’s stealth entrance into the little sitting room.

“Only making conversation.” She isn’t sure why she tries when she’s so bad at it. Calliope is much better at handling their father, now that he needs handling. It’s not like Cal was always his favorite and there’s some residual, decontextualized preference; all their lives Daddy seemed to hold a roughly equal genial indifference to both his daughters. But Calliope’s getting ready, so it falls to the less-qualified daughter to watch him.

Mother rolls her eyes. “He’s having a bad enough day already. Thinks today’s his uncle’s funeral. And your sister’s already beside herself, of course.” It’s clear Mother means about the bees, though she’s the one who’s been in a tizzy. “Breakfast is ready.”

“I have to finish the words,” Daddy pipes up suddenly. “The speech to give.” Then he shouts, “The eulogy!” and rubs his hands back and forth along the thighs of his trousers.

“After we eat,” his wife says firmly, reaching out to hold his chin in her hand for a moment of sustained eye contact.

Mother leaves without waiting to see if the two of them follow; she assumes they will, and she’s correct. The not-getting-married-today daughter stands and offers her father an arm, but he waves her off irritably and practically leaps from the chair with no trouble. He pauses to shoot his cuffs, like he’s headed someplace where impressions matter. She remembers to turn the television off, knowing how Mother feels about such things.

There’s an extra charge of nervous electricity in the air, as there always is before a hundred people converge on a place. She can’t understand why Cal chose to have her wedding here—beautiful as their parents’ home is, with the view of the valley and the aspen grove and Mother’s garden—when she could’ve just booked a venue and let someone else worry about infestations and spots on the lawn and where to put the tables and chairs and the tulle-draped arch where the officiant will bind Charlie and Calliope foreverandever in the eyes of God, or at least for an agreed-upon time in the eyes of the state.

The visiting daughter hasn’t seen the nuclear family for some time before this wedding weekend, but somehow the four of them have fallen again into established rhythms and old patterns. Daddy and Mother are the monoliths again, and the sisters are co-conspirators and semi-rivals again, and these things had ceased to be true before this time-travel interlude and will evaporate again once she’s gone and Cal’s off on her honeymoon.

The course of her life has advanced apart from this airless pocket. Neither her parents nor her sister know she was married—fleetingly—and bereaved. If “bereaved” is the word for a sort of wistful serendipity. She never mentioned either when they happened, and now several years have passed and it seems like a scene excised from someone else’s script anyway.

She emailed Cal a couple pictures of Levi and her at the beginning of things, snapshots and vacation pics and arm-in-arm at other people’s celebrations. And she mentioned him occasionally during infrequent duty calls to the homestead. Mother referred to him as “your fellow” if she ever referred to him and never probed, so it was easy to let it drop once he phased himself out.

Unlike Daddy, she finds the short walk to the dining room taxing. The floors are slick and her balance is off and her feet hurt, having become quite narrow as her toes fuse and grow hard. She’s afraid to say anything at this eleventh hour, but her wedding shoes for sure don’t fit anymore. Not with these hooves she’s sporting. Calliope will defecate bricks if things keep up this way.

Daddy’s mind, then the termites, the gophers, the bees, and now this. The headline in Cal’s head will read “Awful Sister Is Last Straw,” though maybe that’s not fair to Cal. She was reasonable enough before the wedding warp-sped away with her equanimity. Maybe it’ll be “Universe Ruins Calliope’s Big Day” instead. The patch of coarse white fur that’s been creeping over her stomach itches, but she resists the urge to scratch.

A thick perfume finds her from the formal living room. The wedding flowers fill it because they can’t be put outside until the bees are gone. Her stomach rumbles as she toddles past to the breakfast table.

“Egg?” Mother hovers a shallow spoon over her plate with an expectant look. “Daddy,” she says, “pass her the toast.”

“Egg, yes, thank you.” She treats her mother as politely as waitstaff, which is all the woman ever wanted when the girls were growing up. Not help, just: respect. Hard-won when your kids know your weak spot.

Water under the bridge, she thinks, feeling out of context and free. She shed this place like a snake skin when she left for college and never really came back. It’s no longer a part of her but a remnant, like a neat scar.

Her fingers ache and stiffen, but she forces them clumsily around the fork and refuses to look.

Ignores the tiny

darn, there’s more

that pops into her head.

She stabs the yolk of the poached egg and watches it run over her toast. She glances up to see Mother watching Daddy eat. Mother has the sugar bowl in both hands, clamping the lid down with one and cradling the bottom in the other, and gives it one deliberate, emphatic shake. She doesn’t even know she’s doing it, so ingrained is the gesture. Does anyone else give their sugar bowl such a violent jostle before dishing out a spoonful? Does anyone else dread clumping crystals as Mother does?

“Today is going well,” Mother says, in the middle of an imaginary conversation with no one in particular. Shake. “Considering. I think it’s going to be a beautiful day. Have you heard from Charlie?” she asks Calliope, who’s just slipped wordlessly into her chair at the table.

“Don’t,” Cal says. She helps herself to a grapefruit half and takes the sugar bowl right out of Mother’s hands. “I’m this close to losing it,” she says, but she looks showroom-fresh as always, rested and subtly tanned. She snaps at her sister, “Are you going to shave your legs?”

“I hadn’t thought about it,” the hairy-legged sister fibs, startled by Cal’s prescience. Her nostrils flare, and several more interesting smells hit her at once.

Passing Cal a piece of toast Cal won’t eat, Mother says, “Once we get the bees sorted, everything will be perfect,” and receives a snort in response.

The daughter who’s already eaten her toast thinks about all the exterminations deemed necessary this week. She says, “This place is turning into a slaughterhouse.”

“Oh, come on.” Cal rolls her eyes.

“Please,” Mother says.

“Bees, bugs, rodents,” she ticks off a sluggish tongue. “Hey, remember the rabbits? When Cal and I were small?”

Mother acts like she doesn’t. The daughter who remembers can still see the ravaging their mother’s vegetables took that year, and their mother’s tearful rage at every ruined plant, and the un-cute reality that in no way resembled a Peter Rabbit storybook.

(“You like your tomatoes and raspberries and spring peas, or do you prefer those damn bunnies?” Daddy asked rhetorically as he tried to remember which shelf held the box of birdshot. The sisters had ultimately preferred the tomatoes; the rabbits were mangy, flea-bitten, angry little thieves. They felt the blood on their hands, even so.)

Thinking of rabbits makes her flanks itch, and she scratches and scratches until Cal snaps at her to stop. Her ears twitch at the talking and dishes clanking and feet on floorboards. Were they always so loud?

Calliope isn’t diverted from her sister’s appearance. “Have your eyes always been so brown?”

“What a question!” their mother answers for her.

But Cal has more. “Can’t you do something about your ears?”

She’s tried for several days to explain her growing trouble, but each time she’s accused of being dramatic. There’s no point in trying again. She blinks, abashed.

“I’ve always admired your ears, Anna,” Daddy says to the daughter with the unacceptable ears. He winks. “You’re far too pretty for a funeral.”

Anna is his wife’s younger sister, and aunt and niece do—or did—look alike, more than the mother and daughter, people have said.

“Nestor, that’s your daughter, not Anna.” Mother’s eyes shine as she explains, “Your other daughter, Calliope, is getting married today.”

“Oh.” It’s obvious he’s confused. He goes back to dismembering his grapefruit. Then he asks, “Then who are we burying?”

“We’re not burying anyone!” That’s the good pepper from Mother. “The aviarist should be here by now,” she says, calm once more, changing the subject.

Is Cal bringing in doves? But no; uncontrollable cloacae are not her sister’s wedding style. “Apiarist?” she asks. “You mean a beekeeper?”

“Obviously that’s what I meant.” Mother looks at her wristwatch, because she still wears a wristwatch, a delicate rose gold thing her own mother gave her for her eighteenth birthday. “Where is he?”

They’re cutting it close with the wedding ceremony set for four, but the bees are a last-minute problem discovered only yesterday.

On cue, there’s a knock at the kitchen door. They all jump except Daddy. Mother pushes back from the table to go answer it, detonating a cryptic sigh that could be relief or annoyance or gas.

They hear voices from the kitchen, and Mother comes back with the bee guy, who’s still wearing a backpack and a repurposed tool belt and a battered straw hat he hasn’t removed indoors as a gentleman does. His face is so tanned, the recently brown-eyed daughter thinks, it’s age-indeterminate. She wonders what further bag of tricks he might’ve left outside.

Cal offers him coffee, and Daddy kicks out a chair from the table. The bee guy declines both with a headshake and a smile.

Mother, however, cuts to the chase. “How long will it take to kill the bees? We have a lot of setting up to do yet, and they’re very aggressive.” Said with palpable disapproval.

“I don’t kill them!” the bee guy exclaims with equally palpable disapproval. “I lure them away. I’m the Pied Piper.” Maybe to soften his lecturing vibe, he winks at the daughter who’s trying not to scratch her fuzzed legs. She’s a wink magnet today.

Mother’s right about the bees being aggressive, though; they look like harmless little honeybees, but they’re territorial and suicidal and mean as wasps.

But who isn’t? she thinks.

“Let’s get to it,” Mother says. Gesturing at the remains of breakfast, she says to the daughter not getting married, “Be a darling and clear this?”

“But my hands.” She holds them up to illustrate how suddenly inadequate she’s become.

Irritated, Mother rolls her eyes.

The bee guy follows Mother out the back door to see the fiends threatening to muck up Calliope’s wedding. Daddy trails. Cal mumbles something about the caterer and heads toward the front door while she taps out urgent messages on her phone.

For the moment, the house is quiet. She’s alone.

She doesn’t mean to wind up in the formal living room with all those flowers, but she does. They’re beautiful. They’re irresistible, like a pastry or a drug or a kiss.

Before she knows it, several of the flowers are destroyed or disappeared—eaten halfway down the stem, even the roses. Cherry blossoms right off the branch. Hydrangea puffs emptied, their tiny dismembered bits littering the carpet.

Golly, she thinks.

How much money just went into her stomach, she thinks.

Would it matter, she thinks, if she ate just a few more of the columbines. A buttercup or two. Consider the name, buttercup: It’s delectable.

And then she thinks, no one saw me.

But the damage is done, there’ll be no hiding it. And they’ll know it was her. Daddy might have taken the fall, except he’s hovering around the Congress of the Bees.

She doesn’t want to be here when Cal discovers the damage to her wedding regalia, so she makes her sly, laborious way out the back.

It’s a thick, sun-kissed morning that feels vibrant green, contrasting with the (guilt-perfumed and watchful) fever-yellow rooms inside. She gulps a lungful of heat and new-mown grass. She knows the property with her eyes closed, so ingrained are its paths and corners and plots and hollows.

Maybe it’s the occasion, but she recalls viscerally Levi’s handsomeness. She figures in retrospect it’s why, succumbing to impulse, she married him. She never did get around to dragging him to the old homestead. They both traveled for work, excuse enough, and figured they’d get around to it “down the road.” She can’t remember where his folks live, or whether they knew of the marriage; he never introduced her to his people, either. She can’t remember if she contacted them after Levi’s desertion, or if maybe some bureaucratic mechanism did the job.

He had a decent career photographing far-flung locales for various travel glossies. Mountains and rivers and skies and reefs and suns risings and suns setting—nature fetishized, tamed. The descriptor of his work that comes to her mind is efficient. She’d flown to the island to meet up with him on what turned out to be his last shoot. There was a new-moon night and a stunning comet, then innuendo and superstition and Levi gone. She was left with exotic flora and an empty tent. And she was relieved, in a way. After a couple months they both wanted out, in a low-grade fashion, though not badly enough to do anything about it. His disappearance had made the back pages here and there, but there wasn’t much of a story in “man swims, drowns.” Not if you weren’t famous.

“Humans are background in my spreads,” he informed her when they met: decorative, inoffensive, anonymous set-dressing. His pet project—the pictures that meant something to him—was livelier. His career was a pet project, but Levi nevertheless had another nestled inside it. The first time she went home with him, he showed her a portfolio of faces: stark and unlovely grimaces and sneers and snarls, scowls and frowns.

These are very convincing, she said, tracing finger over one woman’s arched upper lip, the tip of one protruding tooth.

They should be, he said. He closed the book in her hands and slid it out of her grip. Gently, decisively, like he did everything. The whole interlude should’ve annoyed her silly, but it didn’t. He was so very handsome.

Instead she asked, “How do you make them angry?”

He wouldn’t tell. Trade secret, he said. “Maybe I’ll do you one day.” It had been a tease, but also a challenge.

She doubted it. She was sure there was nothing in her to be mined, though she decided to let him discover that for himself.

But they ran out of time. After the second day on location wrapped, he went night swimming on his own, bravura that was really just showing off. She’s sure she tried to talk him out of it. And afterwards, well. That comet—while beautiful—was just a comet. Everyone there wanted so much for it to mean something, to be linked, to signify hidden depths, because they couldn’t conceive of Levi being gone for no cosmic reason at all.

The crew called in the disappearance, wrangled the report and supplied what details there were. She didn’t have to do anything.

“You’ve been touched by otherworld,” the lead producer told her through fat, angry tears, spitting otherworld like it was a known enemy who’d bested her before. The lead producer had worked with Levi many times, and clearly loved him.

She didn’t know what to say to otherworld, so she mumbled, “Thank you,” feeling inane. Her ankles were constellated with sand-flea bites.

Sometimes she likes to think Levi and his pet producer had manufactured his death so they could run off together. A romantic picture, even with herself omitted.

She’s tried to be comforted by the egalitarian, indifferent ways life might be hard or unfair.

It’s a long walk down to the trees, backwards through the arch and the lane between white folding chairs. She finds Mother and the bee guy watching a sluggish mound through a column of smoke rising from an apparatus that looks like a cross between an accordion and a coffee urn, with an old wheelbarrow for its base. Mother looks up as she approaches, and she appears to have been stung under one eye, the swelling creating a jaunty twinkle that’s very misleading.

The daughter who’s feeling sorry for the bees watches the smoke, feeling as disoriented as the insects. A few of the more stalwart bees mill around, but the bee guy, with a fistful of long juniper sprigs and an aluminum pie plate, ignores them.

The swarm swirls in its own pattern without really dispersing. Their electric hum swells. When the wind changes, the bees reform on the lilac branch and hunker down. Mother takes an unsteady step back, and who could blame her.

“Don’t you just … kidnap the queen?” Mother says loudly to the bee guy, who ignores her and watches the smoke. “This isn’t working.”

“Par for the course!” Cal calls, marching toward them with a denuded stem held between her thumb and forefinger like it’s something rotten. She pins her sister with an opaque look.

The sister who ate the flower averts her gaze.

Mother, oblivious, says, “We’ve never had trouble with honey bees before,” and it’s also obvious that she wants the bee guy to feel he has some culpability in this.

“So I’ll have wedding bees,” Cal says with a bark of laughter. “Maybe they can replace the massacre inside.”

“What?” Mother snaps into focus.

Daddy’s drawn to the action now, too, armed with the old .22 he used on the garden-pilfering bunnies and a few seasons of corn-picking pheasants and the squirrels who dig at the daffodil and tulip bulbs every single fall.

He announces, “We sure do have a pest problem.” He’s very chipper about it, though.

“Are you going to shoot them?” Cal asks with a wry motion toward the smoky cloud of bees—which seems a dangerous gesture with Mother and the bee guy in there, too.

“Pert,” their father reprimands, not Cal but the daughter who hasn’t spoken.

Why not, the silent daughter thinks. Pert. It’s an epithet he’s always loved, and that love, unlike the love he felt for his family, has lasted as his brain becomes a soft cheese. She’s pert like the two-in-one shampoo/conditioner. Though that’s not what he means.

“Come closer,” he murmurs to her, and she allows him to scratch her ears before tottering backwards out of reach.

“Was it you?” Cal asks her sister, holding up a bent and stripped tea-rose stem like a visual aid. She’s calm, but in this moment Levi would’ve had a perfect subject. “Did you wreck my flowers?”

“Oh, darling, you didn’t,” Mother moans, glancing from the accused to the flower and back. Now two perfect subjects. “How could you be so mean?”

She finds her mouth has been slyly reconstructing. She wants to speak, but her tongue and teeth and palate refuse to form the words I didn’t mean to.

“This day has to be perfect,” Daddy says, recalling something correctly for once, though he’s matter-of-fact rather than angry. “You should run off now, little thing,” he then advises the daughter whose velvety ears he’s just scratched, examining the gun as if he’s just remembered it. “It’s a shame to kill something so pretty, but.” He doesn’t say the words that come after “but.”

“Is that even licensed?” Mother asks in a hushed voice, looked around as if someone with a citation book might be hiding in the azaleas, ready to spring. “Aren’t there seasons for these things?”

“I don’t need a license, dammit, this is my property.”

“Nes …” wheedles Mother.

“My property to defend!” he bellows, no doubt channeling some earlier memory. Or a movie he once saw.

“Dad, no!” shouts Calliope, looking ferocious and fed up—more wedding jitters, no doubt.

The daughter who’s rapidly changing doesn’t stay to hear the tribunal’s final decision on whether it’s necessary to shoot flower-eating vermin. She doesn’t stay to tell them season and license aren’t really the point, afraid they’ll disregard the information as biased and therefore suspect. She thinks Calliope’s on her side, but she’s taking no chances.

These scattered thoughts sprint with her into the trees as her limbs figure out how to move in accord again. She slows up and stops in the dark canopy once she realizes no one’s behind her. The pain of adrenaline dump is crippling, and she doesn’t know if that’s more human or deer.

Like her hearing and sense of smell, her eyesight is sharper now. Statue-still she watches from the airless green until Daddy wanders off, probably forgetting who he meant to shoot and why. Her emerging angles and the low branches and brambles plucked her clothes to tatters, strip by strip, bright bits of cloth that birds and squirrels will use to build their nests. She remembers that Mother once had Daddy poison the silly little robins who built their nest over the kitchen door.

Mother and Calliope haven’t followed Daddy, but have gone back instead to watching the bee guy’s smoke fail to lull the bees enough for him to convey them far from this all-important event. The bee guy doesn’t care at all about the bees right now, though; he only has eyes for the dotty fellow with the gun.

She doesn’t move for fear of giving herself away. She perks up her ears, listening for clues as to their intentions, but her family’s still talking about the bees. The bee guy, it seems to the daughter who’s hiding, looks ready to bolt, too, a sudden move that might not be smart.

She feels like a worn-in deer, no freshly minted doe. (Thought in Mother’s voice.) Here fleas, there mats, gashes from branches, and—could it be?—a tick. She wonders if she can give the tick to Calliope, then feels like a beast for thinking it. Calliope doesn’t deserve a deer tick. She deserves pretty flowers and decent weather and nicer bees.

Mother, fed up with his ineffectuality and aware that time’s dwindling away, demands of the bee guy, “Do have a professional certification?” and before he can answer, “You really don’t kill them?”

He looks horrified, it seems to the daughter who watches from the trees, and then his mouth stretches into a thin line. “No, no, ma’am. I’m not an exterminator.”

“Then we’re done here,” Mother snaps. She takes Cal’s arm, saying, “I have some pest poisons in the barn. Where did your father get to?”

“God knows,” Cal mutters. “We’d better find him. I wish I’d known before we planned all this.” She doesn’t say what she wishes she’d known.

Mother makes no reply, but even from the trees it’s obvious she’s close to tears again. She notices the bee guy still standing there. “Gather your equipment and leave. Send me your bill.”

Which doesn’t seem altogether on the up-and-up to the daughter who’s watching, or to the bee guy. He doesn’t move, like he’s thinking of how to explain something. She’d like to beckon him into the trees, tell him not to waste his words, but she’s afraid to move, with Daddy still tramping around with that .22.

She hopes suddenly that Cal never wishes Charlie would disappear and he doesn’t, or wishes he wouldn’t disappear and he does. If she could figure out how, she’d make it her wedding toast. She tried to express something like it during the first night of her visit, during unpracticed sister-bonding over drinks (like you see in fiction, but awkward in real life), the sweet spot of Calliope’s “I’m getting married!” euphoria and before the final-stretch wedding insanity. But she couldn’t make Cal understand. Partly because they were both sloshed, and partly because Cal didn’t know about Levi.

Her neck hurts, and words like growth and sore and protuberance scroll through her brain as it swells. Her fingers are hard and stiff and unrecognizable. She bends and scratches her flank against a tree to calm the itch from the tick bite.

Maybe catching the shake of the leaves, Cal’s gaze comes her way, and it’s hard to say if their eyes really lock, or if Cal’s just scanning her direction. Calliope’s face is raked by sunlight and so impossible to read.

“Do I have to do everything myself?” Daddy hollers from nearby, loud enough to send a wave of finches out of the dogwoods. He probably doesn’t realize the sentiment historically belongs not to him but to Mother.

The daughter whose heart is growing feral feels the organ’s beat pause, then surge.

Cal sprints over the grass to head off their father, who stalks forward brandishing that old cannon.

He fires a shot into the air, accidentally or on purpose, it’s impossible to tell. This is just what’s needed to unfreeze the bee guy, who runs into the trees without bothering with his equipment or his budding argument with Mother.

“Daddy!” Cal admonishes, one hand on the old man’s shoulder, the other pushing the barrel up. She calls over her shoulder, “For hell’s sake, Mom, why haven’t you gotten rid of this thing? Take it and put it somewhere out of the way! What if Charlie shows up in the middle of all this nonsense?”

Mother, brittle to cracking, accepts the gun and heads toward the pasture like the thing is a live snake.

So engrossed is the watching daughter, she misses her brain’s frantic signals warning her to attend to the crashing approach upon her hiding spot.

“It’s you!”

It’s the bee guy, surprised but pleased. “Don’t bolt. I never hurt a woman,” he says, panting in exertion and fear but still a friend of nature, “or a deer, either. We can go together, quiet, look out for each other?”

“I can’t, I’m the maid of honor,” she says, though she’s not sure that’s true anymore.

He just looks at her. Maybe she didn’t say the words, maybe they only flow so easily anymore in her mind. How long that will last, she can’t guess. He mutters, “These Craigslist jobs never work out—”

She can’t tell if this is an attempt at (gallows?) humor. Like Mother, she wonders if he really knows about bees.

A crash and a bang and shouts, still close.

Maybe she can leave after all. They move, as noiselessly as a bee wrangler and a woman-who’s-not-quite-yet-a-deer-but-getting-there-she-fears can move. Her mind still feels like hers, but she isn’t optimistic. She isn’t much worried, either, which might be an upside.

The bee guy doesn’t seem to mind her abnormality, or lack of stimulating conversation. Her mouth won’t really let her talk at all now, but the bee guy seems happy enough to provide her side along with his.

“I’m going through a change, too,” he says, as if they were already discussing it.

There’s an implied conversation, she thinks, so maybe it’s not so highhanded. Handed. Calliope’s shorthanded without her, though the aunts and cousins should be arriving soon, so maybe not. Maybe they can knead Daddy into something presentable, for Cal’s sake. Underhanded. Maybe they can just sedate him, and Cal can walk him down the aisle. She’s becoming unhanded.

“I believe reality holds endless vicissitudes—you’re surprised a humble apiarist uses this word?—vicissitudes we rarely notice, because we’re engrossed in our own.” He doesn’t explain what change has hold of him. Instead he says, “The bees are changing, too. You see how angry they are? They don’t have our human adaptability.” He winks at her for the second time since they met. “And now they’re out of balance.”

She wants to believe him, that what’s happening to her—well, these things happen. Everyone’s out of balance, you’re not special. It doesn’t matter. He has green eyes, the whites a bit jaundiced to make them almost amber, not unlike a deer’s. Whatever else, their needs dovetail perfectly in this moment.

(And Levi? Did their needs simply split like a branch or a road?)

The bee guy reaches into his pocket, and she stiffens with the new wariness that’s part of her remodeling. He holds a little fluty pipe the way a woman holds a cigarette.

He says, “I want to know what has the bees so unbalanced. I want to talk to them, before the lady finds her insecticides.” And though she’s made no reply, he demands, “You don’t think they’ll talk with me?” He shows her the maker’s mark on the instrument, a slender and florid etching, and she makes out the words: honeysuckle tone.

She wishes she could tell him she’s suspended all judgements and beliefs at this time.

He puts the pipe to his lips and blows. Despite his apparent effort, she hears nothing from the instrument. After some time, she becomes aware of the swarm nearby, a faint hum that surges to a crescendo as the bees get closer.

He stops blowing. “You see. I told them to follow us.” She looks a question at him, which he seems to understand. “To safety.”

Safety? What does he think that word means? She wants to correct him, tell him there is no safety, no us—just movement and temporary dovetailing. But the limits of their unspoken communication have been reached.

They’re almost at the break where the highway cuts the trees, just a few yards from the long drive that leads up to the house. A convoy of caterer’s vans is just now turning one by one up the road. She and the bee guy stop well back in unspoken accord, to avoid being seen. Maybe all that nice food, she thinks, will make up for the wrecked florals and the uninvited insects and Daddy’s premature sundowning and the MIA maid of honor whose hooves won’t fit into her dyed-to-match wedding shoes anyway.

She looks back up the rise, and above the trees there’s a trickle of smoke, sooty and not so festive, the last of the smoke from the bee guy’s accordion-coffeepot apparatus. She hopes he returns for his tools, maybe steals them back in the night. Mother will stow them somewhere hard to find so they don’t mar the weddingscape.

Maybe Levi didn’t mean to leave, didn’t want to leave. Maybe the comet was otherworld; maybe he went through his own unexpected transformation and left as the comet they all saw, no chance to explain or say goodbye.

“The coast is clear,” the bee guy murmurs like the lead in a mediocre detective film. “We can cross now, before more cars come.” He puts the pipe to his mouth and resumes his soundless siren song. The swarm’s hum swells again, or maybe she’s imagining it.

She tries and fails to worry about where they’re going and what’s next, how complete her change will be, how permanent. She wishes she’d eaten all of the flowers while she had the chance. They sprint across the wide lanes of pavement, and back into the trees on the other side. She easily beats the bee guy across. She assumes the bees are following, though she doesn’t know what their plans are, either.

All phenomena are explainable, she thinks, breaking trail for both herself and the bee guy through low branches and thick undergrowth. When we don’t know enough about something unusual to comprehend it, to name it, we decide it’s reality, not us, that won’t bend. And then maybe we shoot it, or maybe we run away. This moment is a vivid reminder, though, that explainable and explained sometimes run in close parallel without curving to intersect.

A shot report echoes at the backs of the deer-woman who runs away and the want-ad apiarist who runs with her. Was Mother’s confiscation across the pasture not far enough, or is this something else? There’s another report, then another, but the last is a distant and retreating boom.

Sara Beitia lives and writes in the Gem State, which is really the “Famous Potatoes” state like it says on the license plates. Her first novel was selected for YALSA’s 2011 Popular Paperbacks for Young Adults list. Find her online at www.sarabeitia.com (you may have to brush asides some cobwebs).

 

Published March 2018, Shimmer #42, 6100 words

Other Woods Await You:

Only Their Shining Beauty Was Left, by Fran Wilde

In the Pines, by K.M. Carmien

We Take the Long View, by Erica L. Satifka

The Triumphant Ward of the Railroad and the Sea, by Sara Saab

Almost everyone I entertain over a frosted fifth of vodka—bottle balanced precariously on a foldout tray, half my attention on keeping it upright—wants to know how I became a competitive eater. Also, how I found myself living on the Dbovotav Coastal Express.

It’s not that odd, I say. In my family we all love eating. I do my belly out like a pufferfish, slide my butt to the edge of the molded seat, and open my knees into a deep V. The rumble of the train is in my calves. My drinking companions love it. They are drunk. You’re a blast, Neave! We all know they’re wondering where my ten shots of vodka went and when I’m likely to keel over. A girl like me doesn’t look the part of a competitive eater.

When the vodka’s finished Srdan will arrive to pull me out of my seat, issuing goodnights on my behalf. Springs squeak behind us as the tray packs shut. At the door to my sleeper cabin, Srdan says goodnight to me. I always sleep alone. I bolt the door thrice. The Dbovotav hoots in the dark, a hollow and lusty sound. I can’t fall asleep without it, the Dbovotav’s hoot. I picture my train cycling its tracks crying for something—a lover? Its child? The truth?

You must long for the truth too, even if my drinking companions are more interested in unrequited fantasies of hiding from winter and sadness behind the drapery of my black hair. Here is a piece I own of the truth: I became a competitive eater because I was afraid of floating out to sea. Food is ballast. Saturate your guts, render them heavy as waterlogged rope, and remain planted firmly to the ground.

The sea. I was afraid because of what happened to my family. I couldn’t understand it, so I focused on my craft. Honed it. I can put away a gallon of bathtub brew in forty-eight seconds. I’ve eaten a stack of sausages so tall it speared itself on a lantern hook in the low ceiling of Huluu Public House near the port at Arnik. The sausages took me twenty-two minutes, after which I cut the grease coating my throat with a pitcher of lager.

Why would I stop when I am so good?

Srdan does not remember boarding the Dbovotav, but my first memory of him is indelible: A young man in a conductor’s uniform takes a seat opposite me in the entertainments carriage, and, without uttering a word, presses a cup to the neck of my vodka bottle.

Nobody has ever confirmed Srdan in his post, yet he wears his red uniform with meticulous pride. He roams the carriages, knocking on the backs of seats and on sleeper cabin doors. When passengers fail to produce tickets, Srdan regards them with the sorrow of a caged saint.

I, on the other hand, clambered up the retractable steps of Carriage No. 5 the same day the Railroad and Longshore Company launched the coastal route. Station workers held a glossy black ribbon taut across unblemished tracks; a minor official snipped it. The Orderly Ocean roared. Workers tucked flat caps into coveralls to stop them flying off; seagulls landed on the fresh line of track as though on the split carcass of a whale. And there I must have been, half-sized, silenced by the air of ceremony, my hand grasping the oily canvas leg of somebody’s coverall.

A strange truth: I may be a railway orphan with the hiss of carriage doors in my bones, but I do not know all the things that our Srdan knows. He knows exactly how hot the coal burns in the cab of the Dbovotav. He knows how many hares we pass between Bretev and Totyozk. He knows when I am fed up with my drinking companions, and I think he knows about the loneliness afterward.

Perhaps it is that some of us are born closer to the truth than others.

The Dbovotav Coastal Express is self-driving. Three perfectly steep hillocks slow it to a stop, at Bretev and Arnik and Totyozk. At the top of each hillock perches a station: Bretev Coastal Station, Arnik Station, and the Liberator Placha Revolutionary Train Depot. The journey between Totyozk and Bretev takes a month; between Bretev and Arnik six weeks. I’ve been through more cycles of Totyozk-Bretev-Arnik and Arnik-Bretev-Totyozk than I can count.

“Maybe I shouldn’t leave the Dbovotav unattended,” Srdan says. The train is—with clanging and fanfare—climbing the final rise to Bretev Coastal. “Many fare evaders recently.”

The coastal route is long and monotonous, cliff bluffs and waves on one side, hills on the other, the geography undernourished and bloodless. Nothing catches the glazed roving of your eye but the occasional hot white stalk of lightning striking the dun peaks of the Orderly Mountains.

I pass Srdan his blue plastic cup. I’ve only half filled it with vodka against the trembling of the Dbovotav as it strains toward the platform. “Don’t you want to watch me eat the hell out of a pile of pig trotters?”

He turns the cup a full rotation. “You want me to answer this question?”

I nod encouragement.

Srdan sets the cup down, puts pale hands, fingernails chewed to the quick, on either side of my head for emphasis. “I think I would not like to watch you eat a pile of pig trotters.”

I meet his stare glibly while I mull over the surprising hurt I feel. The whites of his eyes are proud and rounded, the eyelids bronzed. He’s not comely to begin with; the scald of dismissal makes his face plainer, his scattering of pockmarks harsher.

Then I think, warmed by vodka: This is the only person I’ve ever felt safe leaving my cabin door unlocked for, even if I have questions about his trove of truths. Even if he won’t watch me eat the hell out of a pile of pig trotters.

Cold air fills the entertainments carriage. We’ve arrived. The smell is of hops and the ubiquitous bloom Bretevers call Clasped Arse because of the suggestive curve of the petals.
“You don’t have to watch the competition, but come get some air. Bretev is nice in this season.”

“Nice?” mocks Srdan. “It’s freezing.” But he is already fetching his scarf from the broom closet.

The season is springtime; there are so many seabirds in the sky that their droppings are an unbroken coat on the terminal roof. Emerging from the closeness of the Dbovotav feels raw and impossible, like being born. We stroll briskly in the direction of The Jingling Anklet in the Quarter of Our Knaves.

Bretev hasn’t had an eating competition in six months. At the last one, I made it through four bowls of sauced beans and forty pounds of roast lamb, deboned and seasoned with a sumac rub. My opponent puked on his boots after ten minutes of shoveling beans into his mouth and swigging watered wine by turns—a strategy I would not have recommended, if he’d bothered to ask.

“I will be in the square,” Srdan announces, slowing.

“You won’t come to the competition? You can sit at my elbow.”

Srdan has taken his red conductor’s hat off; it is balled up in his fist like a heart.

“No, Neave,” Srdan insists. “The disappearances. I should be on guard,” he says, as if I should know what this means.

He starts uphill.

“Srdan!” I call. “The disappearances? On guard against what?”

He gives a meek wave behind. Masses of seabirds, huddled in the slight sun, take wing in his wake.

A pig trotter is an awkward hunk of meat. I gnaw round each one like it’s an apple—in record time—and spend ten luxurious minutes pinching at the scraps I missed the first go around.

I would usually ask for a stein of beer to sip slowly. The beer refreshes my palate and prevents my gorge rising. But discomfort pulses in my fingertips as they spin trotters on greasy axes. I don’t know what’s bothered me so much. I may call Srdan a friend, but I barely know him. His flights of eccentricity should be none of my business, just as mine aren’t his.

I polish the platter with my tongue. Spectators plant kisses on my full-up cheeks and hold my hair back from the oily tabletop. The crowd is deafening.

The prize money is mine, of course.

Srdan is still in the square come midnight. I waddle over to him. It’s too cold to be sprawled against the mosaicked side of the almost-dry fountain the way he is. Puddles of standing water in the basin reflect a cloudless sky. Every step sends a meteor shooting through my belly; the firmament of my guts is the opposite of cloudless: roiling, on fire. But this is the price of not floating away.

“I won.”

I cast leery shadows over Srdan. His breath steams softly. He clutches a bottle of vodka in his hand, three-quarters empty. When he hauls it up to me, purple fingers pop free of the glass one by one.

“Congratulations.”

“The train is warm.” I bend down and hook him under the arms.

“You smell like meat.”

Then Srdan is on his feet and though it was a close thing, I have not dislodged the ninety-one pig trotters I ate. He tears away from me, drunk, heads along a sandy path. At the end of this path the Orderly Ocean claws at low tide, keening static noise.

“Let’s go back to the Dbovotav,” I shout down to him. A thin spread of frosted sand crackles beneath my feet. There are salt-air shrubs and tree stumps on either side, practically an invitation to dispose of the evening’s digestive burden. But we are painfully close to the sea.

“Srdan!”

“Can we resist forever?” he shouts up from the edge of the shore, slurring. “Don’t you want to jump in?”

“No!”

He is unbuttoning his conductor’s slacks in the frigid breeze. “We were always meant to.”

“No. Srdan, no!” I turn away from him. Half-panicked, I climb up the path. Waddle through the square.

The Dbovotav is warm and welcoming. Gingerly, I set myself down on my back in my sleeper cabin.

In the morning I am woken by the departure whistle and cramps in my guts. I pass Srdan on the way to the lavatory. He’s sitting in the entertainments carriage fanning through a block of return tickets like it’s any day.

Here you might say, Neave, tell us about the other travelers on your Dbovotav. Tell us of your rotating constellation of drinking companions, of your adopted railway family. And, well.

I will tell you what I know is true. Though the coastal route is obscure, the Dbovotav has never lacked for passengers. The travelers who make the Totyozk-Bretev or Bretev-Arnik journey lumber aboard with luggage, trailing mud or snow. They show tickets to Srdan when he asks, fingers hastily tracing the pockets of their overcoats. They crash around in the galley; they complain loudly of the cold because they do not drink enough vodka with me at night.

Then there are the others, the ones I never drink with, the ones whose faces I can’t seem to learn.

A thing I’ve noticed: The Dbovotav has been busier of late. There are queues for the lavatory; groups milling about the drinking spout. And when Srdan moves through, shouting “Tickets! Your tickets, please!” he seems to recognize precisely the passengers I don’t, and though he never squanders a chance to mutter to me about fare evasion, with them he is unusually forgiving.

Some days the loneliness is intolerable. I imagine vividly days I cannot remember. Days before the Dbovotav. My family was from between Bretev and Arnik, where there is no town marker. They lived in tents and sold pairs of goats from their herd and were popular for their stained mohair satchels. I had four siblings. I was the youngest; my job was to feed the goats. That is why I was not at the seaside that day with my family. They went often to gather spiny kelp from the surf, for the rich orange dye of the berries.

Nobody can tell me what happened after that. The dreadful lie was that my mother and father and sisters had gone out to sea, on a voyage that would take a long, long time.

The journey to Arnik takes the Dbovotav into the Orderly Mountains’ wind-blasted foothills before plunging us into a glacial, sea-facing valley. Therefore I drink vodka medicinally, against the cold. I’ve had enough that my lips are vaguely numb and I’m dribbling into the coarse knit of my scarf when there’s a clatter and a hiss. Srdan, pulling aside the accordion door to the carriage.

“Come help me with something,” he says.

I’m too drunk to be suspicious. We weave from carriage to carriage, threading toward the back of the train, stepping over solitary drunks and trios playing Jack & Ace in the corridors. I run fingers across polished wall panels and icy windows.

“One more,” says Srdan, and leads the way to the connecting door. In the passage between this carriage and the next, he stops.

“You can’t go further, see?” he says.

“Try the handle—”

“Neave—see inside.”

In that tight, freezing passage, the tracks a blur through the slats below our feet, the Dbovotav chugging and shimmying, I cup hands to the window of the next carriage. It is filled up—full, floor to ceiling—with food.

Squashes still covered in soil; three entire skinned carcasses, lamb or goat; an avalanche of freckled golden apples, some smeared in carcass blood; snowy all-season mulberries crushed up against the window; dusty knots of celery root; heaped peaks of spice upended over everything.

Srdan works the clasp on the tiny vent in the window. Putrid air lets out and dissipates on the choppy wind of our motion.

I’m no match for Srdan’s strange intuitions, but I thought I knew the Dbovotav the way a sister knows a sister. My palms have memorized the texture of the upholstered panels in the lavatory. My feet anticipate every dip in the floorboards. This carriage? It was not here before. It’s a betrayal, a failing, a thing about my train that I can’t understand.

For an entire week of our journey to Arnik, Srdan and I work to clear the carriage of half-rotted food. The meat and everything that has touched the meat we tumble into ditches from the sides of the Dbovotav, or boil fastidiously down into syrup on the burner. Fruit and vegetables that aren’t covered in mold, blood, or spice we portion and wrap into neat papered bundles. Srdan hauls them cabin door to cabin door: “Tickets, please. And a parcel of groceries, our compliments.”

Afterward, the last carriage is strangely hollow, its echoes louder than the chug of the locomotive. It’s a wooden refrigerator car with hatches in the roof. The vertical ice tanks at either end are empty, but sticky puddles of food and liquid we found as we cleared might be the remnants of ice blocks. It makes you wonder: how long has this carriage stood here—perfectly cooled, resistant to decay—in the chill of the air off the Orderly Mountains? Days? Two weeks? Since Bretev, or before?

There’s a solid lock on my sleeper cabin door, but the cab of the Dbovotav is where I go to be perfectly alone. The coal feeder towers in the center of the cab, oiled and sooty. Hunks of coal shuffle along a scaled ramp from the tender to the firebox; great copper-sheen cogs click to a varying beat. The intervals are determined by temperature or pressure or some arcane secret held in the pistons. Like I said: The Dbovotav is self-driving.

Normally I’d be the first to declare solitude and loneliness distinct sensations of the body. But today my back aches with the exertion of emptying the food carriage, and my gut aches with a training meal of thirty parsnips stuffed with cured cow tongue, roasted ten by ten in the galley oven. It all conspires. The fence between solitude and loneliness is fogged over today, and full of holes.

I am thinking not of Srdan’s company but of something he said. We were dragging a decomposing goat carcass into a sack for disposal. I joked, my heart nowhere in it, “Maybe I should eat my way through all this food.”

Srdan paused to adjust his grip on the long, slick thigh of the carcass. A clean apple fell out of his pocket and bounced twice, shallowly, on the floor of the unexplained refrigerator car.

“Well. It is a mound of food and your talent is eating mounds of food. A funny thing,” he said.

I touch each sooty scale of the coal feeder. My thumb comes away stained like the ink-dipped fingertips of newly processed prisoners.

Loneliness is not the consistency of coal—it is not dry or porous or easy to palm. It is a fish, a thing of the ocean, slapping forever in the chest, eroding a space in the heart shaped like its own body. Srdan. My family, lost at sea. The truth may turn out to be a buoy at the farthest point from land. Friendship may turn out to be a fishing net threaded with falsehoods. And the Dbovotav—

There’s a thunk, a creak in the coal feeder’s cogs. I squint into the dark mouth of the firebox, just where the glow falters. Coal dust makes my throat itch, my eyes water. There’s something stuck in the scales of the ramp where it lets into the fire.

Another thunk, a torrent of thunks. Now the mouth of the firebox is clogged with objects. I reach my hand toward searing heat, pull the nearest thing from the blockage. It’s a huge clamshell, parted, the meat inside viscous and generous.

“I’m not even hungry,” I say, the fool words on my lips unbidden.

Coal plops from the ramp to the carpet. The feeder groans and slows.

“Srdan!” I shout, but I am, after all, exquisitely alone.

I grab a poker, jab at the mess until it clears, clamshells hurtling into the firebox in twos and threes. A keratinous smell overlays the years-deep smokiness of the cab.

I throw the last clamshell in and dust the soot from my hands.

Arnik. The entire austere valley is washed in the jingling of bells from the town’s five thousand belltowers. Each tolls to remember something: the first incursion of civilization into this hard land; the first successful harvest of millet; the birth of the first child of Arnik, the infant Salame Poshoi; the death of this same child, who lived eighteen months before succumbing to a wasting illness.

At 11:42 a bell tolls for the first passage of the Dbovotav through Arnik. Of all the bells, this is the bell that flushes me with pride.

Arnik is known for a warming brew, as well, called barrel milk. Juniper berries and a very thin alcohol, and a nose of anise that gets stronger the more you drink. I’m telling Srdan about the eight gallons I’ve agreed to down at a drinking competition later that afternoon as we pull into Arnik Station.

Many of the Dbovotav’s passengers disembark with us. The pebbled platform surface—a green-gray volcanic rock—grinds under our soles; a wave of big crunches for the hop down from the train; a choppy krsh-krsh-krsh as the passengers disperse. Nobody is here to receive the train, not a loved one, not a railroad worker, not a soul. The wind whistles a particularly maritime sadness.

“There are no bells, either,” says Srdan.

I lead us off the platform. “There are supposed to be bells.”

We wander the city with the wind, Srdan and I, the sea at our backs, feeling that we have tripped over the end of a reel and are traversing a precarious elsewhere. Arnik is everything and nothing I remember. There are golden loaves in bakery windows. There are seabirds roosting in the eaves. There are rubbery salt-spray fronds sprouting from cracks in the paving stones. But there are no people.

“The whole place is abandoned,” says Srdan.

“It is a town of ten thousand.”

Srdan hoods his eyes. “Take us to where you would have your competition.”

Arnik’s celebration hall is deserted too. Somewhere, a drop of condensation falls over and over, the sound fattened to a complex symphony by echoes.

The door to the celebration hall gives a startling rattle, once, twice, and pops open against the suction of the wind.

“Hi, Neave,” says Lusha, the competition promoter. “Come in, come in, Ylon,” he says behind him, and a broad woman enters, dragging by turns a table and a wheelbarrow piled with kegs.

They begin to set up the table in the center of the celebration hall.

“Lusha,” I say. “Where is everyone?”

“Oh, yes,” he says, hoisting a keg onto the table with a grunt. “I’m glad you’re safe.” This promoter is more untrustworthy than they usually come. I’ve known him since I was a child of eight. He gave me my start in this business—noticed, with his eye for opportunity, how I knelt beside the food trays to mop up a whole spit-roasted goat after my family’s wake. He led me by the hand to the Huluu Public House to see if I were still hungry enough to eat for an audience.

“We’ll be lucky to get a single soul tonight,” Lusha adds mournfully.

“People,” Srdan says, “are disappearing.” He’s examining the mosaicked arch of the doorway like some art connoisseur.

“Quite right. Either disappeared or hiding.” Lusha rubs his face over and over. I imagine each of his too-many rings catching and nipping at the folds of his skin. His face is an overlarge sock.

“Sometimes, Neave, we see them wade out. If they get that far, it’s over. We might pull them back, wrap them in blankets and lock them up for their own safety, but the next time they’re allowed out—a day or a year later—they’re gone.”

“Gone? Gone where?” I ask.

“Gone to the sea,” Srdan says. He breathes out ponderously and adjusts his conductor’s hat.

Ylon has taken her place at the table. She pours out a tall glass of barrel milk. “Ready to lose?” she asks me.

“If it weren’t for the Dbovotav, you’d be gone too, Neave,” mutters Srdan.

And now some nameless impulse resounds in my bones. It carries me through the door of the celebration hall. Against the wind. The cold sun slices across my vision; all the vodka has made me brave.

I pass through the eerie still of Arnik back to the station and my train.

Inert, the Dbovotav seems heavier somehow. That colossal weight of steel resting on rails.

The entertainments carriage is empty, the refreshments kiosk stocked, cream biscuits and bottles of liquor untouched. All the passengers who disembarked are still away—doing, thinking, seeing what in the wide brokenness of Arnik? I twist open a vodka bottle from the drinks cart, take a swig, make for the back of the train.

The refrigerator car is gone.

In its place is a stately room, a carriage only by virtue of being coupled to the back of the Dbovotav. I enter by a heavy oak door. Inside the walls are speckled marble. Four gargoyles—mermen dwarfed by their spears—perch at ceiling corners. The floor is a pastiche of overlapping rugs dyed shades of madder-root red and spiny-kelp orange.

Against one wall is a podium, and on it a huge book. Even from a distance I can see there’s water damage to the pages. I take another swig of vodka and go over to it. In gilded lettering: Longshore Workers’ Log, Triumphant Metropole of Arnik. A ribbon marks a page, a glossy black ribbon that reminds me of the one they cut to christen the Dbovotav. I flip to the bookmarked location.

Here, a photograph marred by the burn of chemicals. I squint at it. My young face and four little faces like mine. Young-me is seated and looking into the camera. My siblings are arranged behind me. They are posed perfectly. Four names are listed below the photograph: Lost at sea, presumed dead. And my name, a remainder: one orphan, Ward of the Railroad and Longshore Workers’ Union.

I turn a crackly page. Dust twirls away in the slanting light. Another photo: I’m maybe ten, leaning on a pile of huge copper cogs. An elderly rail worker in coveralls is bandaging my hand where I’ve sliced it on precision engineering. My blood has left dark smudges on pieces of the Dbovotav’s coal-feeding mechanism.

I turn the page again. Three photographs: the sea, captured from the sky. In the top photo, the surface glossy, then closer up, broken by swells, then much closer, busy with waves.

I am suddenly so hungry.

A tiny sliver of the truth: Before I became a competitive eater, I was rarely hungry. After I became a competitive eater, I was even less hungry. I’ve never done what I do because of hunger. I’ve never needed all the food I eat. I burn through it with my anger, my internal firebox incinerating everything I let near my core.

I startle at a noise in the carriage behind. The oak door swings inward—Srdan. The conductor’s hat is perfectly peaked above his long brow. “Another wacky car,” he says, voice steeped in some intoxicant.

I go over to a carriage window, count fifteen belltower spires against the skyline. “Wacky car. Mystery food. Dopey passengers. Disappearances,” I list. “Just tell me the truth.”

“This is the truth.” He nods around at the gargoyles, the podium. He moves across the carriage, half-trips on the edge of a rug, rights himself in front of the logbook. “Sometimes the truth is just”—he looks for a word for a long time—”strange.”

“I’m getting tired of things being strange. And I ate a square lunch earlier, but for some reason I’m ravenous.” I have another thought, or intuition, or question, roving for its answer. I push past Srdan, heading back through the train toward the cab.

He trails me. “You don’t need the truth from me, Neave,” he calls over my shoulder. His voice is more desperate than I’ve ever heard. “You need a friend, a friend who isn’t the Dbovotav.”

“The Dbovotav is the only friend I’ve ever had.”

“No, no. The Dbovotav is an ally. In a war.”

I round on him in the corridor. “And you? What are you? An ally? A friend? Neither?”

Srdan regards me sadly. “You will see that we are not so different.”

“Dbovotav!” I shout, turning away. My knuckles syncopate on the windows as we pass, the doors of each carriage hissing shut behind us. “What else can you show me?” I’m shouting down the corridors.

Then we’re at the door to the Dbovotav’s cab.

Srdan sighs. “The train is doing everything it can for you, you know, considering—”

I twist the handle. The door gives, too easily—

—and out rushes a tremendous wave of kelpy black water that soaks us to the waist. A tiny brown crab struggles on the toe of Srdan’s boot. I dip a finger into a puddle and taste it: coal-brackish saline. The salt and charcoal fills my mouth with saliva.

“Not good,” says Srdan.

I am full of cravings.

“Are we going now?” he asks me.

“Yes.”

“I have wondered when we would go.”

We rush toward the cloud of seabirds squawking in the distance, and from there I follow my nose: saline and wet life and unholiness.

Arnik has a pebble beach. The Orderly Ocean is a blue slab all the way to the horizon. I don’t let it touch me, stay where the pebbles are salt-dusted and dry. Srdan has come to stand beside me. His overcoat stinks of being soaked and dried too many times.

“What’s happening to me?” My voice cracks. The hunger is unbearable. I look out over the still water, and it’s as good as a table spread with a feast.

“We’re caught in the middle of a stand-off,” says Srdan. “Between the Dbovotav and the sea. And I think the sea is winning.”

“My family was taken by the sea.”

“Yes, and many others,” says Srdan. “Consider your dopey passengers.” He takes off his coat. “But I think your family were the first.”

Srdan looks at me as if recalling a dream. “When I went into the water, I did not even struggle. You think you will fight to live, but you don’t.”

He takes off his boots. “Then I heard the hoot of the train. That’s when the truth became strange. I was like a fish in a net made of steam and cogs and steel.”

Srdan approaches the surf. He begins to wade out, his slacks dark and flapping in an instant. “Here we go again,” he bellows.

“Wait. Srdan!” My shout is tattered by the wind. “Who can I trust?”

He turns toward me, even tries to step back out of the water, but he seems to be caught in a rip current. “Trust me, Neave! You won’t even struggle. A train is no match for the sea. Even a train like yours.”

He holds onto his cap and wades and swims until the water is over his head. He does not float up. It is as if he is on a staircase down to the ocean floor.

I am knee-deep in freezing water before I remember to heed Lusha’s words. My thighs pucker with the cold. I swallow against hunger, swallow the taste of vodka in my spit. The smell of the sea is unbearable; I try to knuckle water, to lift it up by the crests of its waves. I imbue the water with textures it does not have, spongy flatness and doughiness and the supple give of a wheel of marzipan pulled in half. Scoops of it come up in my palms. The sea feels nothing like food, only frigid and dribbling and full of noise.

Nonetheless I eat. Strings of goat meat studded with farro grains dyed with saffron and boiled to softness. No—water. Pig trotters, still tangy from their brine. No—water. Beans, millet, celery root soup. Hard tack softened in chicken broth. Clotted cheese with acorn paste.

No. Water, water, water.

The sea’s got me by the hipbones, but I am a competitive eater, a hot talent in a lukewarm industry. Eating is what I do best. The people buried by these waves, my mother and father and sisters, they are the silver charms hidden in a loaf: treasures you must find, but gingerly with your tongue, without chomping.

I swallow the sea, palmfuls and palmfuls, my gullet distending, and feel the pain of my heart packing tighter in. Then—because ballast is only a useful defense on dry land—I submerge.

Underwater, a lungful of the truth. The sea is angry at those who got away, but especially me, a prize hurtling down a fingernail of coastline for decades, shielded by metal, just out of its reach.

I feel myself sinking. I twist to look below. There’s Srdan, floating facedown at the boundary of blue and dark, where water compacts and becomes like space. And there, right behind its conductor, the Dbovotav, a long, ominous bulk. The Dbovotav, in the sea.

There is a throb of pressure on my temples. My throat and nostrils burn with saltwater. One impossible stroke, two, and I’m beside the doors to Carriage No. 5.

I press the button to release the doors. The underwater Dbovotav opens to me and it’s not full of water—it’s full of smoke. I scramble in, coughing, water sluicing off me onto the carpet. A coal fire in the cab? But when I breathe this smoke my airways begin to clear, and my gray fingers flush back to brown.

I reach my hand through thick smoke, past the door, out into cold water. I lunge at Srdan’s floating wrist, digging nails into the embroidered cuff of his conductor’s uniform, and wrench him toward me. Srdan’s prominent eyes flit in his face, lock on me soulfully, and then he shakes his head, tugs his hand back. You may wonder: Is this a gesture meant to save me, or save himself? I wonder too.

Behind Srdan, in the dusky blue sea, a daisy chain of passengers and assorted luggage bob toward the open door of Carriage No 5. Srdan reaches his freed hand behind him, links it with the front of the daisy chain, and—

—the Dbovotav’s doors sweep shut.

I loll on the carpeted floorboards, hear the departure whistle, then that sensuous, wounded hoot. I see a sort of dawn through the windows. The smoke begins to clear.

I puke: water, truth, too much of it, more than a body should be able to hold. You and I, once again, we’re exquisitely alone.

Sara Saab was born in Beirut, Lebanon. She now lives in North London, where she has perfected her resting London face. Her current interests are croissants and emojis thereof, amassing poetry collections, and coming up with a plausible reason to live on a sleeper train. Sara’s a 2015 graduate of the Clarion Writers’ Workshop. You can find her on Twitter as @fortnightlysara and at fortnightlysara.com.

Published March 2018, Issue #42, 5500 words

What Else Is On the Menu

The Seaweed & the Wormhole, by Jenn Grunigen
Three months ago, Peregrine had started sleepwalking. He said his night’s mind was always full of abandoned taxidermy shops, and tea brewed from obsidian dust and anise and silkworms. But his waking mind was full of these things, too, so they hadn’t worried Ebb. It was something else—other—that was making him anxious. After a month of the sleepwalking, he’d started to wonder what Peregrine wasn’t saying. He could tell when his lover was holding back; it was their nature to know each other. When he realized Peregrine was keeping something he couldn’t have, Ebb knew it had to be wrong. Invasive.

Skills to Keep the Devil in His Place, by Lia Swope Mitchell
The seat of evil in the human body, he said, is the liver. Taken directly from a young person—for a young person’s liver is fat with evil, untainted by years of experience or suffering—when offered freely, the flavor is perfect: deep yet delicate, light yet filling. It sates him utterly, for a while. He will seek nothing else.

Spirit Tasting List for Ridley House, April 2016, by Alex Acks
Before proceeding, we respectfully remind you to check the condition of your crystal spirit glass; it should be free of all cracks, chips, or blemishes to be able to properly capture and concentrate energies. Please take advantage of the sanitizer provided at the door, which will remove any lingering ectoplasm. Should your spirit glass develop an imperfection during the course of your meal, new ones will be available for purchase at a reasonable rate.