Category Archives: Fiction

Lighthouse Waiting, by Gwendolyn Clare

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I wished them well, and they departed.

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

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

I blew up the debris.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They said, what war?

The war in the Chaian sector, I explained.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And now, you.

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

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

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

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

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

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

He promised.

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

Other Lonelys:

Birds On An Island, by Charlie Bookout

The Proper Motion of Extraordinary Stars, by Kali Wallace

Serein, by Cat Hellisen

Find On Your Body the Bruise, by Maricat Stratford

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You are dead.

It will be okay.

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

Published October 2018, Shimmer #45, 1600 words

Other Ghosts:

The Earth and Everything Under by K.M. Ferebee

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

Caretaker, by Carlie St. George

By the Hand That Casts It, by Stephanie Charette

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Interminable, absolutely.

Intolerable?

Briar sighed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Well, she thought sourly, who she had been.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What of her own desires? Her own will?

Briar let her gaze fall to the floor.

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

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

She inclined her head, smiled.

And waited.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Not…a duel?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And she’s—”

“He’s.”

“He’s someone you know well, or?”

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

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

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

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

“You wish to meet?”

“Ideally.”

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

The Crimson Hawk shrugged, of no help at all.

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

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

He had sense enough to look wary at the question.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The blue eyes, the broad shoulders, the Tiger.

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

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

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

She set down the shears.

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

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

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

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

As was true of her husband.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sometimes, fate tempted you.

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

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

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

Under her breath: “Amateur.”

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

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

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

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

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

Somewhere in the thickening smoke, he coughed hard.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m celebrating early.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He took the bait.

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

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

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

“Open the door, little cat.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Retirement was at an end.

 

 

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

5100 words, published September 2018, Shimmer #45

Other Growing Things:

If a bear… by Kathrin Köhler

We Lilies of the Valley, by Sonja Natasha

Only Their Shining Beauty Was Left, by Fran Wilde

 

 

The Ghost Pet Detective, by Ryan Row

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“He didn’t kill himself.”

“Who didn’t?” Law asks.

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

“Your brother. Who else is there?”

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

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

“That wasn’t in the paper,” Law says.

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

“How do you know all this?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Law,” he says, and the girl shrugs.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The girl’s name is Norma.

“Can I call you Normal?”

“Don’t call me anything.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You mentioned that.”

“I said no.”

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

“Why?” Law says.

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

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

“Is he here?”

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

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

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

“He didn’t kill himself.”

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

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

“If he did, he had a good reason.”

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

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

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

It feels exactly as you imagine it feels.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No.”

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

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

Law closes his eyes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Wait!”

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

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

fin

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

Published September 2018, 4100 words, Shimmer #45

Other Ghosts:

The Creeping Influences, by Sonya Taaffe

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

Blackpool, by Sarah Brooks

Rapture, by Meg Elison

Elizabeth Barrett Browning wakes up again. It’s the third time today. She thinks awakenings are far more common in springtime, but all year long she is called this way. She sighs and tucks her dark hair back under her cap. She will not refuse the call.

The afterlife is not as she imagined it. The throne of the Almighty is nowhere to be found, and no creature great or small has asked her to account for her good works or confess her sins. She simply arrived one day and met a woman with dark eyes and excellent manners, who showed her to this restful place, sometimes like a nice rooming house, other times like a torchlit catacomb, and told to sleep. The rooms are small but pleasant. It is always warm and smells of lavender or apples. And it always seems to be twilight, or perhaps just before dawn.

So she must light a candle. There is no pain here; it does not concern her much that she cannot see her way. If she stubs her toe or barks her shins, it would scarcely matter. But she hates to awaken anyone who has not been called. Some of the people who sleep around her—men, mostly—are terribly vexed when awakened and not fed. Horace Walpole—poor fellow—hasn’t had a bite in years. Anytime someone makes a sound near him, he jumps right up, excited as a child at Christmas. Then he lies back down, as disappointed as if that same child had received no gifts at all, whilst everyone else is merrily opening theirs.

As Elizabeth walks down the hallway, she can feel herself smiling automatically as Virginia Woolf comes into view. Virginia is always popular, and she has such a sprightly way about her for a suicide.

“Good morning, Virginia,” Elizabeth says. For it is always morning when you awaken, no matter the hour. And there are no hours here.

Virginia smiles back, reaches out and takes Elizabeth’s hand. “I’ve not seen you up in days!”

Elizabeth inclines her head, looking up knowingly. It seems to her that they are beneath the world rather than above it. They have no view; it is impossible to tell. “It’s springtime up there. I think it is easier for them to find me at this time of year. And who called for you?”

Virginia sighs. “A lovely girl. Scarce fifteen. She’s in love for the first time and only just knows it.”

Mrs. Dalloway,” Elizabeth says, not really asking. She is being polite. This is always the answer.

Orlando,” Virginia says, her smile widening. Elizabeth could swear she is glowing. “More and more, the calls are coming because of Orlando.”

Elizabeth smiles back. She does not know how long she has been in the catacomb, nor how the library here works. She only knows that she has read every book ever written. When she meets an author in the hall, she has perfect recall of their entire oeuvre, and they of hers. They know one another in the most comfortably intimate way. The woman who welcomes everyone on the day they die designed it this way. She is Murasaki Shikibu, and Elizabeth sees her always with an inked brush in her mouth, working, working. Shikibu knows everyone this intimately. She knows what every writer wants when they die.

Elizabeth thinks that some of the writers know each other better still. She has seen Anaïs Nin in Sappho’s doorway more than once. She has heard that such things are only possible for authors whose works touch in the world above. Perhaps that is true. Enough poets have come to her door that she imagines they must touch her words often, but she always sends them away. Robert has never once shown his face, and she does not care to know if he’s in these halls somewhere. She sleeps best when she sleeps alone.

She reaches her window, which is only hers. It is near a few others, and she does look around a bit and see who else is awake. There’s Christina Rossetti, reclining at the glass, winding a lock of her hair around her finger, enchanted by whatever she sees there. Elizabeth can see through no one else’s window, and no one may see through hers. That suits her. There’s Amiri Baraka, who always seems to be moving in time, as if he dances to music that no other may hear. There’s Juana Inés de la Cruz, free at last of her habit and sweeping around in crimson robes and a crown as she stands hungrily at her own window and takes and takes from whatever is given her. Elizabeth thinks of it as eating or drinking, but she knows that it not how it is for everyone. Some of them say it is like music, and others describe it as the act of love. Watching each at their glass, she can only guess at how they feel what they feel.

When she reaches her own window, she sees a familiar sight. It is always one of two things: a youth with a schoolbook or a grown person standing in the British Library before a glass case. In the case, they keep a foolscap original of Elizabeth’s poem that asks “How do I love thee?” And then offers to count the ways.

It is perhaps the most parodied and mocked love poem of all time, but such things do not call Elizabeth from her sleep. There is only one thing that wakes the writers who roam these halls, and that is rapture.

There is a young man peering through the glass. He can’t make out the words at first, and even now Elizabeth cringes at the thought of her penmanship. I was only drafting, she thinks. How could I know that centuries of onlookers would see my strikethrough lines, my shaking hand? How can I tell them it was the laudanum as much as the pangs of love which made me quake so?

But he is reading it, or she wouldn’t be here. He is reading it and his heart is swelling beyond its bounds. He is reading it and it is filling him with a longing so sharp that he resents it for puncturing the evenness of his day playing tourist. He came to this place expecting to be moved by Beowulf, and he wouldn’t be the first. That author, that hulking fellow, had breezed past Elizabeth more times than she liked to count. He had the look of an angry bear about him.

The young man is unmoved by the bear-man’s poem. He has come here with a terrible emptiness in his heart. It bleeds out of him now, and into Elizabeth. She feels no pain of her own, but when it is the precursor of the rapture of a reader, she feels it most sharply. It is the hunger before she is fed. (Pangs are only felt in hunger, guilt, and love.)

He is moved, instead, by a poem he knew first as a joke. As a litany recited by cartoon rabbits and snide antagonists who mock anyone who dares to show their heart. It comes over him the way a man is taken by sickness and he must step out of the gallery, into the corridor, to try and compose himself. He is weeping as though his heart is broken.

But it is not, or Elizabeth would not be here.

His love is not with him, but she is not gone from him. Not completely. He takes his own small, rectangular glass from his pocket and writes to his lady.

Ah, Elizabeth sighs. Would that they had such when I was young. When I think of how I pined for months for a letter. But no matter. Here it comes.

He finds it. Not her skiff of scribble, but a clear and even printing from which he may copy.

How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.
I love thee to the depth and breadth and height
My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight
For the ends of being and ideal grace.
I love thee to the level of every day’s
Most quiet need, by sun and candle-light.

He hits send.

Somewhere, in another part of the world, his love awakens. Her life is still in the world where pain is real and the sun still rises and sets. The stab of longing is shared between the two of them, and then between the three. It lands in Elizabeth’s chest, beating her heart once more. The lady above copies as well, and Elizabeth says the words along with her, lips moving as one as when the congregation is joined in prayer.

I love thee freely, as men strive for right.
I love thee purely, as they turn from praise.
I love thee with the passion put to use
In my old griefs, and with my childhood’s faith.
I love thee with a love I seemed to lose
With my lost saints. I love thee with the breath,
Smiles, tears, of all my life; and, if God choose,
I shall but love thee better after death.

And doesn’t she? Doesn’t she love them better than she ever could, seeing them crying for one another, split across oceans and without hope of anything beyond these words— her words!— that they share? Is not her love now a thing that could encompass all the world? She cries with them. She always does. She never loved anything so well in life. Of course she awakens for this. A thousand times, across a thousand centuries. If anything lasts so long.

When the rapture has faded and she is well-fed, Elizabeth rises from her place. It seems to her she has been sitting before a fire in a very comfortable chair, or else taking a sunlit stroll on a spring day that was warm but never taxing. When the bees could be heard but not felt. She stretches lightly, ready for bed again. For as long as she may rest. Until she is called once more.

Through the hall of glasses, she makes her way, only a little curious now about who is awake at this hour (for it seems very late indeed). But she comes to one corner that she knows is never empty, and she smiles, for he is not alone this night.

Disheveled and devilishly handsome, William Shakespeare sits with his chin in his hand, sighing at the glass before him. It never tires him and he is never tired. His bed hasn’t been touched in years. No matter how frequently Elizabeth rises, she sees him always here. He is happier than any of them, radiating contentment like a hot brick tucked between quilts, his reflection always smiling to his fellows over his shoulder.

And his free hand reaches out to his left, where Walt Whitman sits. He clasps William’s hand in his and grins broadly at his glass. His rapture is as pure as a child’s; if his hands were free he would clap them with delight. But he does not take his hand from William’s.

Elizabeth tucks her body closer to the wall, silent as the grave, and watches them just a little longer. It isn’t rapture, but it makes her smile as Virginia did. As any awoken author will.

William pulls Walt’s hand nearer to him and kisses it tenderly. He pulls him closer, wrapping an arm around his waist.

“I hope they never let us sleep,” William says. “I always knew I would be immortal.”

Whitman nods. “I always knew I was a god.”

Elizabeth turns to leave them without saying a word and nearly runs into Oscar Wilde. He smiles at her as he passes. “Well, if it isn’t one of my lost saints. Good morning, Elizabeth.”

She smiles back. “Goodnight, Oscar.”

Wilde slips in beside Whitman, wrapping a long arm around the two men. The three of them glow like embers in a fire that never goes out.

Elizabeth does not know if they are immortals, and she cannot believe they are gods. She does not think herself a saint, lost or otherwise. No one promised her the lifespan of her ink, and now that she is called by people carrying ink that never fades, she does not know if even that matters anymore.

She sneaks past the sleepers in rooms around her and does not envy them their unbroken rest. She cannot wait until she is awoken again by lovers who find her and bring rapture to her words. She loves them so much better after death. She cannot count the ways.

Meg Elison is a science fiction author and feminist essayist. Her debut novel, The Book of the Unnamed Midwife, won the 2014 Philip K. Dick award. Her second novel was up for the Philip K. Dick, and both were longlisted for the James A. Tiptree award. She has been published in McSweeney’s, Fantasy & Science Fiction, Catapult, and many other places. Elison is a high school dropout and a graduate of UC Berkeley. Find her online, where she writes like she’s running out of time.

2100 words, Shimmer #44, July 2018

Other Poets:

Held, by Ian O’Reilly

Hare’s Breath, by Maria Haskins

Itself at the Heart of Things, by Andrea Corbin

Now We’ve Lost, by Natalia Theodoridou

Bleeding Through the Shadows, by David Rees-Thomas

 

The store has been here for a hundred years. It’s outlived the coal mines, the dead of world wars, the indecencies of Thatcher, the indiscriminate violence of South Wales valleys youth.

Every day I get up on creaking, clicking knees, joints and muscles stiff and singing with strange and tiny pains. I open the shop and take in the deliveries, the milk, the eggs, the boxes, the tins, and the wrapped meat and cheese. I used to sit on the back step, have a cigarette, and stare across our thin, long village at the mountains standing on either side of the narrow valley, firm reminders of the farms and of the coal mines. The deadly deposits of slag and dust are all grown over now, lush and green but human-shaped.

We are planted firmly here. I don’t care about the supermarkets, hypermarkets, and all the American-style malls. This is a corner shop, and we stay on the corner.

It gets harder though, each day more of a trial on my body, and the village and the valleys evolve. I walk home, and though the shopping mall near the train station is as shiny as TV, I also see an old painted sign on the side of the first house in a terrace on Lansbury Street, bleeding into the newness, as if seeking to reassert itself. Drink Coldaway for cough relief, it says, and I stop, stolen from the strangeness of the present that has become my every day, and I am back in shorts, running up and down the dusty streets of the sixties, the air brisk, dirty with coal soot and grime.

My store has a tinkling bell above the door. Sometimes I find it irritating, but I fear its silence more.

It rings and I look up. A man enters, perhaps my age, perhaps older. He ignores two young mothers who are checking the dates on the milk cartons, and comes straight to the counter. He has a haggard face, one where the jowls drip, the skin hanging loose around the well-outlined skull, eyes that sink back into his bones.

“Hello Jonesy,” he says, his voice soft, cracking, but with the unmistakable rasp and thunder of the Rhondda valleys. “It’s been fifty years. We need to talk.”

The high street is one long road that starts at an arbitrary signpost marking the division between two villages, Cwm Fach, which is higher up the valley, and our village, Cwm Fawr. The signpost, with the two signs back to back, is placed between two terraced houses so the border is marked by old dark stones and brickwork. The snaking road is nothing but terraced houses for a hundred meters, but then it transforms into a few shops and a bus stop, and the road widens a little near my shop to accommodate a small square and a cenotaph commemorating the war dead.

I close the store at five every day. I don’t stay open late, though people say I should; perhaps if I were twenty years younger I would, but not now. The outside air smells of the peat marshes beyond the town, snug against the base of the mountains, dotted with allotments and even older men bent over vegetable patches, or standing, staring up at the dark green slopes, a haze of cold-air cigarette smoke swirling about their heads, slow to dissipate. This is the smell of my childhood: the dirt, the sucking bogs that grabbed your boots that stank of shit and rot.

Not a stench I’ve experienced in years. An old Morris Minor, maybe a 1965 model, rounds the cenotaph and disappears down the A4058, leading to Pontypridd then on to Cardiff.

I walk faster than usual, eager to get home, eager to close the door to the world I’ve known for so long.

I also live in a terraced stone house, for there is little else in this valley. The walls and the furniture are drab, the colors faded, the wood chipped, and a subtle and pervasive smell of damp and old cooking clings to everything. I head upstairs, to the room I slept in as a child, the room I still sleep in, and pull a box off the top of the wardrobe. I rummage through a few old photo albums until I find a piece of folded card, and inside this a newspaper cutting.

It’s a photograph of me, with Idris and Gwilym and Mair. Local kids. I fold it back into the card, and leave it on the bed, my fingers tracing delicate circles on the aging paper.

None of it is true, just like none of what we see in the village is true, either. It’s all just a concrete stain on the natural world. In a big city it’s much harder to see the truth in this, but here, in this narrow strip of a village, only three streets wide, and two of them one-way streets, with the wild and terrifying darkness of the land sliding down steeply to a point on both sides, it’s impossible to not see the truth.

There are days where I see the past of the village sneaking through these new shiny surfaces, and even if it’s not the natural truth, it’s clear that the old town is not dead.

The doorbell rings, and I head down, considering ignoring it, but I open the door, and he’s there again, Idris with his droopy face, and his unslept eyes.

“Sorry, Jonesy, but we really do need to talk.”

I stand aside, and let him in.

Idris sits on a sofa that has lain neglected for years. It’s old, and dust rises as the thin man positions himself with a halting grace. The swirling patterns of the particles hanging in the thin shafts of weak sunlight seem like the concept of beauty from someone who has never really considered beauty.

The room is quiet in that manner when the daytime life of those who don’t work halts for a moment and there is the sudden terror and realization of existence.

“I haven’t slept well for fifty years,” says Idris, and he looks at me as if he’s asking me the question that would have led to his statement.

The walls close in and I shift from standing awkwardly by the door to sitting in my usual armchair. It’s raining outside, the sky is gray, it’s always the same here, and soon the sheet of gray rain, and the banks of heavy gray cloud merge with the dead remnants of the coal industry.

“I think I need to do something, Jonesy, I think I need to talk to the police, tell them what happened.” He scratches his palm with long yellowed fingernails gone brittle and chipped over the years, and this irritates me more than his wish to talk to the police.

I breathe, my throat drying, each breath shallow and rapid. “Can I get you a cup of tea?”

I stand and walk toward the door, and Idris also stands, his hands clasped behind his back as he hobbles to the window. He pulls aside the net curtains with two long, thin fingers and stares out at the terraced street, but he doesn’t answer.

I pause by the door, my walking stick close to hand, and I look at it with violence surging in my mind as I speak.

“I don’t think that’s a good idea, Idris, it was all so long ago. We just need to keep ourselves together.” My hand wraps around the smooth, well-molded handle, and I begin to heft it into the air, and in my mind I’ve already taken one, two, three strides toward him, the stick raised, power in my arms as I swing and bring it cracking down on his skull.

But he turns, and my hand springs back to my side, hanging loose and alien as he sits again without looking up.

“Come on,” I say, “let’s forget about the tea, how about we go to the pub instead?”

We leave the house, and head up the high street to the Griffin Arms, my stick tapping on the uneven paving stones, Idris walking in step, still scratching his palm.

I see another old sign on the side of an end house in a terrace—this one’s for a local baker that went out of business twenty years ago—and in the window of a charity shop is an old bicycle, similar to the one I used to ride as a child.

I tap my stick a little faster as we near the pub.

The pub is too bright, the furniture too old, and the patrons are all men, old and young, some playing darts, some at tables by themselves staring into nothing. We sit at a booth with two benches facing each other, high-backed, private, and quiet.

I order two bottles of stout, and as the barman passes them across the beer-soaked bar without a word, his phone beeps on the counter and lights up. He picks it up then leans back, his finger scrolling across the screen. It seems like an alien act in a pub as old and crumbling as this one. I’ve seen newer pubs with replicated old-world charm, but this is old in a twentieth-century South Wales kind of way, and there is nothing beautiful about it.

We face each other in the booth, sipping at the stout. I break the silence.

“We can’t go to the police. What would be the point?”

“Salvation.”

I lean in, lowering my voice to a whisper. “It was a bloody accident.”

Idris stares, and I feel him working inside my head, trying to ascertain whether I believe my own words. He finally reminds me of his truth.

“You say it was an accident, and I think you may even believe it, but you didn’t have your foot on his head, you didn’t hold it there, that boy’s thin hair brushing against your foot in the water, the bone of his skull sharp and heavy, and you didn’t press harder as he struggled to get free. I sleep every night with not just this image in my mind, but I can feel the bump, I can taste the blood and the dank dead peat in the pond water as I bite through my own lip to mask the rising terror.”

I reach for his arm, urging him with my eyes to keep his voice down. “But we’ve managed this long, we’ve lived without saying anything…” I pause, and wait until he looks at me. “And it was an accident, it really was, you didn’t mean to-”

Idris nearly knocks the bottle of stout over, and it wobble for a precarious second before righting itself. “I didn’t? I?”

I let go of his arm, and sit back. “I’m sorry.”

“We did it, Jonesy, not just me.” Idris stands and leaves, and all I can hear is music, the strange sounds of the Rolling Stones, or maybe The Who, on the jukebox, and I trace my finger across the words on a beermat for a beer that hasn’t been brewed in years.

I resolve to do something about Idris.

I arrange to meet with him the next day. I do not want to act with haste in his regard, but I have to do something. Some might look through the windows of my life and consider that it isn’t actually much of a life anyway, that there is no hope, no real dream left to conquer, and if I look closely I can see that it was always this way, at least since that day.

I decided that the old station would be a good place to meet; it’s quiet, there’s still a few old benches from when it used to be a working railway, and we can talk in peace. And in truth, it’s also near enough the river that when I bludgeon him with my stick, I will bundle him in to the fast flowing torrent, and he’ll surface somewhere close to Ponty, far enough downstream that no one will ever know. How sure am I? Sure enough that though I’ve considered what could go wrong, I’ve dismissed it.

The streets of my past bleed through the modern shop fronts, and the new one-way system, and the smoothed hybrid cars. Dust and exhausted brickwork made new again, buildings like The Roxy cinema, the Double Diamond nightclub where Tom Jones plied his trade and the Sex Pistols once played on a rainy Sunday while the village prayed for our salvation, shops that sell tools and electronics made obsolete by the modern, all of it like a shroud for a town, like a stain upon the bleeding dark green and frigid waters of the Welsh valleys.

I sit on one of the benches, initials and cruder words carved into the rotting wood, but Idris does not come. Further up the mountainside from here, on a wide stretch of flat ground on the other side of the railway tracks, is the pond.

It tugs at me, and whether it’s just curiosity or something more mysterious, I can’t tell. I haven’t been there since that day.

Perhaps Idris is there now. Perhaps he’s trying to decide. Or perhaps he’s stepped into the water, letting the frigid death smell of the peat and murk beneath engulf his body. Perhaps the boy we killed is pulling him in to the depths as I sit and wait.

I head to the pond, stumbling over the old railway line, thick with weeds and empty rusting beer cans, across fields thick with thistles, and over gates that lead to the mountain beyond.

I want to see the place, I want to see what atonement might look like, how it could begin; I want to sense the rhythms of the pond and the harshness of the dead marshes again. I draw up the image of the frozen water, how I will dip my toes, then my feet, and then my body, how I will immerse myself into the frigid waters.

And perhaps I will find Idris later, either at the pond, or if not there then maybe he will try to contact me again, and not go to the police.

If he does, if he contacts me, then I’ll strike him with my stick, I’ll lay him to rest wherever he falls, though I’ll aim for the river still.

I push brambles from my face with the stick, and as I walk it gets steeper and the sweat trickles down my leathery face, the sun reflecting off distant metal surfaces in the village below, off cars, off windows, off the life of the town.

I can’t wait for him. I will track him down when I return, I’ll find where he’s staying, I’ll wait outside the police station, waylay him, drag him into a back alley. The thoughts churn in my mind as I visualize his aged, defined skull cracking and splitting apart, the blood, the slackness of his face once I strike.

I reach the pond. A thin crust of transparent ice has formed around the edge where the sun has slipped away, and the water is as dark as I remember, waving fronds of long grass wafting in the shallows. A cloud passes overhead and the whole scene becomes like the night.

In there lay the body of Stephen Griffiths for three days before the police found him; they needed to get the divers out, a team of people who from afar just looked as though they were milling about, waiting for something to happen.

Idris and I watched them working, holding our thoughts until the moment they came out with Stephen in their arms.

And then we waited for them to knock on our doors, for the inevitable.

But it never came.

And I suppose Idris has still been waiting all these years.

And, perhaps, so have I.

I stand at the edge of the pond a little longer, as the afternoon turns to the dusk haze of evening. The streetlights flicker on in the village below, a bus toots an old horn, and the images of the past bleed through, on the other side of the valley it even looks as though one of the mines has sprung back to life, and I think I can see a procession of miners and the lights of the shift change.

But I know deep in my mind that none of this can be true, this is just the manifestation of the waiting, of the dead and dying past, the spirit left in old physical structures, in buried posters, in forgotten road markers, bricks, stones, and the flaking paintwork. This is not the same old of the castles and the protected ancients, all tarted up to woo the tourists, this is the past of my once reality, and it still lives.

I head back into town, the nighttime air cooling, my breath ranging out before me in great clouds.

I reach the old train line where I had sat on the bench waiting for Idris. Further down the tracks is an old bridge which is no longer used. When we were children, there was a great wrought-iron sign, cracked across the middle, that proclaimed that the bridge belonged to the Great Western Railway, and that it was built in 1885. This was one of our marker stones, one of our borders, the land beyond became foreign, full of new and wild and terrifying forest and promises.

I stand on the old tracks and watch as a host of fire engines and ambulances converge on the spot, followed a minute later by police cars. I wander down the tracks, much like we did in the past, except that the stick I carry today, I carry most days, it’s not one that I’ll throw away, unless I have a chance to use it on Idris.

When I get closer to the bridge, it’s clear that I’ll never use it on Idris. They hoist his body down and I continue to stare at his drooping face even as the police form a line and push me back.

I go home.

The next day, I open the store as usual, except that all the thoughts, all the memories, all the adrenaline-pumping, heart-abating images and smells and the feeling of rough feet on rough feet as we push against Stephen’s hard knobbly skull come flooding back at every second. And though I didn’t place my feet upon the boy’s head I can feel it, I am there, in the pond at every waking moment.

The boy, Stephen, stands in the shop, just a pair of bathers on, tight against his skinny, pale body; his hair is soaked, and drips all over the floor, the water running in thin trickles down his spine, down his legs, and he’s cold, his teeth chattering, his arms folded across his chest.

He’s there, next to Mrs. Pritchard, who used to run the Sunday school; and Mrs. Evans, who left town in a hurry with rumors of dead babies, affairs, and thievery in her wake; and Mr. Cartwright, who lost his job at the school. Bleeding through the shadows, I see Idris.

Stephen is there all day, and though I close my eyes, and sit, feeling the tiredness in my legs, the sore muscles, the aching bones, I know that when I look again, he’ll still be there, not looking at me, but scared, oh so scared, looking for his mother, calling for her, never to be found.

David Rees-Thomas is originally from Wales, and now lives in Japan. He is a first reader at F&SF, and has an Instagram page @littlepoo.

Published July 2018, Shimmer #44, 3300 words

Dark Shadows:

The Creeping Influences, by Sonya Taaffe

Fallow, by Ashley Blooms

Extinctions, by Lina Rather

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