Category Archives: Issue 24

Come My Love and I’ll Tell You a Tale, by Sunny Moraine

Tell me the story about the light and how it used to fall through the rain in rainbows.

Tell me the story about those times when the rain would come and the world would turn sweet and green and thick with the smell of wet dirt and things gently rotting, when the birds would chuckle with pleasure to themselves at the thought of a wriggling feast fleeing the deeper floods.

Tell me that story, about how once we all had everything we wanted and never lost anything, about how once we slept and dreamed and sometimes we even slept without dreaming, total sleep that wrapped around our minds like a blanket and lulled and coaxed and woke just as softly, turning and sliding an arm around the waist of whoever happened to be beside you.

Tell me the story about lazy Sundays, about dinner at eight, about dressing like dolls and music that wound around us and kept out the world.

Tell me the story about how once there was cold, and snow, and all sound muffled and the world still, and a single one of those laughing birds sang tentative songs that suggested a long journey, a warmer climate, a finite amount of deprivation that only made the blooming of the world sweeter and more welcome.

Tell me about the times before the fires.

When you have told me that story, tell me the story about the time when we cared about false lives, little story lives within other stories, when we had time for such diversions, when we had the heart to care. Tell me about the shifting of flat light and faces and their trials and tribulations, how we suffered vicariously through them because their suffering made the beginnings of our own more bearable. Tell me about what it was like to grow up as an entire planet, to come to understand in our walled garden what everyone else already knew: that we were our own little diverting stories and that not all stories have happy endings. You and I both know they don’t, but tell me about a time when we were still children, and ignorant, and we ran and played and didn’t think about dying.

come-pull1Sit down beside me in the dust and tell me stories of empire. Tell me stories of glory in war before the war came home. Tell me stories of wars in plays of light, rainbow light without the rain, and tell me all about how exciting it was and how we couldn’t wait to see what happened next, all make-believe at being brave, until something else came along and stole our attention away. Tell me the story about how we really didn’t think too much about it until those awkward family holidays, until looking without looking and then looking away, at scars and half a limb and perfect eyes that still stared and hated us for looking back. Tell me about how no one said anything. Tell me about that guilty silence, and about how we all felt like we were being jerked out of a dream and it was all our fault for having it in the first place.

Tell me stories about the first city falling, the running and the screams, blood-foam and trampling and how we watched it from so far away, so we still felt safe, mostly, but tell me then after that about how the helicopter hit the side of the building and bloomed fire, and then the tanks, and tell me about roadblocks and gunshots and how we didn’t know what had been done so we didn’t know how to keep it from happening to us.

On second thought, no, don’t tell me. I don’t like this story.

But I don’t remember so I have to ask; won’t you hold my hand and tell me about the highway and the curve of the mountain’s back and the crystals of ice in the sky, a frozen rainbow like light that didn’t fall but flew. Tell me about how our hands got so cold they were red and hurting, how we put them wet on each other’s necks and screamed at the contrast.

Tell me about the times before all the houses washed away and you shot a man for a bottle of water, in the middle of a flood you did that, and I laughed because it was so funny how it made no sense but it made all the sense it needed to.

come-pull2And then, once you’ve told me all of that, you can tell me about the hundreds of people on the roads, hundreds of thousands with bags and packs, with eyes like pits with little lanterns at their bottoms, and you can tell me about useless cell phones dropped and crunching underfoot like autumn leaves. You can tell me about when we had autumn leaves. You can tell me about fields of corn, green and gold, rough leaves that could scratch when they touched you in just the right way. Before all those fields were burning.

You can tell me stories about the dreams I used to have, sleeping curled against you in crude parodies of how we used to do, satire that never set anyone free but which still cut like knives. You can tell me about my dreams of wanting and comfort and plenty, of return, which you always said were pointless, when you told me to stop having them and I told you they were all I had, because then I felt like I didn’t even have you anymore. You can tell me about the flat of your hand and my face and the moment when the two came together. You can tell me about the audacity of eyes devoid of the proper tears. You can tell me about the opening of a frozen space in time, a broken instant that marked the end of everything that came before and everything that came after. You can tell me stories about the real end of a real world.

But you can also tell me stories about everything before that spike of temporal ice. Please tell me stories about back when I had no idea what it looked like when a pregnant woman died. Tell me about when I didn’t know what it looked like when a dog ate a child half-submerged in mud.

Tell me about the times before the camps, before the camps also burned, when we had beds, when we had sheets and their softness, and breezes that smelled like living and air. Tell me about the times before we got our food and our water from men and women in helmets, guns like pointing fingers and so angry, and at what? Can you tell me what they were so angry about? Tell me about when there was a time where no one told us what to do.

Tell me about the times before the stars were so bright.

Tell me about the times before the sun cracked and blackened skin, raised blisters and burst them. Tell me about a kind sun, a sun with which we could have love affairs. A sun we would travel thousands of miles to lie in, to stretch out in like cats, letting it touch every inch of us.

Tell me stories about blue.

Tell me stories about maps, about the discovery of terrain, about the luxury of taking our time. Tell me stories about adventures, about the joy of fine little shivers of imagined danger, about heights and sharp drop-offs that enticed us but which we never had to go near.

After that, tell me a story about the survival of how selfish we were. About how first it made us happy and then later it kept us alive.

But tell me about the first one.

Omit the latter, if you can.

Tell me the story about how that one time you said something funny, and it didn’t matter what it was because it was funny, and I laughed, and you laughed, and no one cared that we were laughing and no one yelled to shut up or hit to make it so, and you put a hand on my belly and said soon, very soon now, and I believed in soon as a concept. Tell me a story about when soon wasn’t something to fear.

Tell me a story about when each second wasn’t a needle’s stab.

Tell me about when there were unbroken windows, about clear reflections, and faces you wanted to see, could admire, could improve. Tell me about polish and painted lips, and watching with half a smile, turning and moving for the sheer pleasure of seeing it so.

Lean against me and touch each of my fingers, one by one—the ones I have left, and the places where the lost ones aren’t anymore—and tell me about before all the stealing, before the smashed storefronts, before we stopped standing in line for needless things.

Tell me a story about all the pretty lies.

Tell me a fairy story, a story with heroes. Tell me a story where virtue equals salvation. Tell me a story about a world where that matters. Tell me a story about being kind, not being weak and getting fucked over every time.

Tell me a story about a time that never happened, a thing we never did, like sharing what we had with the hungry-eyed people, the lantern-eyed people, looking at us like they’d kill us and take it all but then there was the gun so they never did. Tell me a story where we save people and they love us and we smile, yes, we did that and we were good. Tell me a story about how we might be good.

Tell me a story about back when we could be good. When we could pretend. Tell me a story about when never meant something more than until.

Tell me a story about when meat meant just animals.

Tell me a story about when you were whole.

Tell me a story about when there were still things I wouldn’t do.

come-pull3Please tell me a story about a time when this wasn’t happening, when I wasn’t crouching here by this fire and looking at you, touching all the places where you used to be, my belly empty and my head empty and all my memories running out of me like tears. Give them back to me, every one. I’m begging you, open your mouth and open your eyes and tell me about a time before the knife, before no choices, before being alone and starving and terrified and so numb that terror no longer matters, about no more lights but the stars, tell me about those pretty falling rainbows so I can look at them and not at you while I do what I have to do.

A story about the living taste of you, and about my mouth and your mouth and being consumed, and how greedy we were with each other. A taste that is not this taste and a greed that is not this awful, clawing thing twisting my gut into a devouring maw. An unkind thing. Less than you deserve and so much more than I do. Tell me about when I lived with you and not on you, not on your flesh and on your blood, and both so cold.

Tell me a story.

I need you to tell me a story so I can remember that this is not all there is, parting skin and no fat left and stringy muscle and thin blood, like water, in which I see no light at all. I need you to tell me a story so I don’t die here, die and just keep moving anyway, slow and even all the way to the unhappy end.

I need you to tell me a story that isn’t thicker blood in the dirt and loss that reaches into the heart and claws it out of your body. I need you to tell me a story about life and first breaths and cries that mean a future.

Tell me a story that isn’t this story. I need you to tell it to me like stories still matter. Like they’re more than whispers that die when the fire starts roaring.

I need you to tell me a story so I can put it in me and carry it with me, my own little lantern in the pit of myself, wavering and flickering but still lit, rainbows hiding inside it, on into the darkness without you. Tell me. Tell me all of it, to my teeth and tongue and throat.

Tell it to my belly, my heart. Tell me and I swear I’ll believe you.

Oh my best beloved, tell me the story and I’ll believe in the light again.



Sunny Moraine’s short fiction has appeared in Clarkesworld, Strange Horizons, Nightmare, and Long Hidden: Speculative Fiction from the Margins of History, among other places. They are also responsible for the novels Line and Orbit (cowritten with Lisa Soem) and the Casting the Bones trilogy. They unfortunately live just outside Washington DC in a creepy house with two cats and a very long-suffering husband. sunny
Shimmer #24 | Support Shimmer and Subscribe

You Can Do It Again, by Michael Ian Bell

I come up again at the bodega on 189th and Amsterdam. When the vertigo and nausea pass, the shimmering forms resolve into bodies and storefronts. Trash bags are piled enormous in the street and I stare transfixed, one hand on the doorframe, steadying myself. In my other hand is a cola, cold like ice. I put it against my forehead and it shocks me into the moment. Every time is the same but it never gets so I expect it.

again-pull1As my head clears, I can feel the heat of the summer air. Sweat trickles down and drips from my chin. Sun hot like a furnace. Blacktop steaming all around me.

This is it, I think. This is the last time you’re gonna see Cisco.

And then Rafi is there, pushing me into the street. Sun splashing into my eyes, all I can see is the gaping chasm where his canine was knocked out two weeks previous. “Vamos!” he says, smiling wide, and we start heading downtown. In my mouth the cola stings but a cooling sensation spreads in my stomach.

When we cross into CastleTown, I see the car in the distance. My heart races. The air is hot but a breeze comes off the river, a breath of air that shuffles past us like a ghost. On the corner of Cabrini we see the red Ford in a thick film of dust. The window rolls down and Rafi reaches inside. “Oye, Francisco,” he calls. “Give us a ride!”

But Francisco looks past his shoulder and into my eyes, lowering his sunglasses. I put my hands on the hot metal, lean in. An unspoken thought passes between us, an expression I’ve seen a thousand times, but the old translations don’t fit.

I’ll be late for dinner.

Or: Keep a lookout for dad tonight.

Or: Stay out of trouble until I get back.

But there’s something new that my twelve-year-old eyes would never catch. I meet my brother’s gaze and smile. I feel the warmth of his hand as he reaches out and closes his fingers on mine, a warmth that spreads into my torso, that fills me completely. Inside there’s a love that is pure and genuine. If I could capture that love and seal it in a box, I think. If I could hold onto this moment, hold it in my hand like I hold that grimy pill bottle. If there were no bottle and no pills but only this moment now and forever.

The scene freezes like a photograph. The car’s leather interior, forgotten soda cans on vinyl floor mats. The sun igniting every surface inside and out. A total absence of sound, and far off the smell of something on fire. The look on Cisco’s face, the way his eyes shone. The message contained therein. I file away the details, even though I’ll be back. I’ll stand here again and grip the doorframe and fight and thrash and scream inside. I’ll muster every ounce of energy just to open my mouth and tell him I love him. Tell him to wait, that he doesn’t have to leave, at least to take me with him.

The picture fades and the vertigo returns. But I’ll be back.

As the scene fades, I repeat it like a mantra. I’ll be back here again. I’ll be back.

Some memories float to the surface no matter what; try as you might, that’s just where you come up. Redo’s like that sometimes.

Pale blue sky filters in through the blinds and dust motes hover in illuminated pockets of air. Parallel bars of sun fall across the misshapen couch and the surface of the coffee table, highlighting ashtrays overloading and empty pill bottles marked only with the black felt-tip outline of a clock. I push the pill bottles around with an exploratory finger. They fall soundless across the trash piles and onto the carpet. I rub the heel of my palm across my face and stretch, pull myself up off the recliner and onto uncertain legs.

In the distance, a single siren sings the tale of criminal activity, somewhere deep within the bowels of the barrio.

I move into the kitchenette, where the analog clock reads 7:43. The air is thick with the humidity of another autumn morning. The flat thwack of a basketball and the shrieks of small children rise from some unseen but nearby source.

The cisterns are full again on the makeshift balcony, and I pull them in through the window, a three-gallon bucket and two smaller plastic jugs with the tops cut off. I wash my face in the bathroom with meager handfuls of rainwater. In the mirror, familiar eyes look back at me. My hair is long and greasy and stubble clings to my cheeks and neck. I rub a hand down my chin. “This is reality, Marco. This is you.”

But I feel ancient and the face in the mirror is not that of a 24-year-old. My eyes are bloodshot, dark bags hanging beneath. This is you, Marco.

In the medicine cabinet is another bottle containing six flat disc-shaped pills. I open the door with shaking hands and count the thin pills twice to be sure.

Johnny is sitting at the counter of El Conde Steakhouse when I arrive thirty-two minutes later. He rolls his eyes when he sees me, like he was getting tired of looking at his watch.

“Café,” I tell the woman. “Solo.”

She shakes her head without looking up, points at a crumpled piece of paper tacked to the wall. NO COFFE, it reads. COKE.

I look at Johnny’s cup and he just nods. The woman puts down a saucer and cup and pours from a two-liter bottle.

“My head feels like a fucking steamroller, man,” I tell Johnny.

He pushes his cup toward the woman and she refills it. “Yea yea, I’ve heard that one before. You want some eggs?”

I shake my head. “So did you talk to Rafi?” I ask. “What does he say?”

Johnny snorts and gazes past tinted windows and into the street beyond. “Get it through your head, hombre. No one talks to Rafi.”

“But you were gonna see him, yea?”

Johnny shakes his head. “Man, forget it. Just keep doing what you do. Rafi don’t care who or what you’re looking for. He plays one game only. Speaking of…”

I reach into my back pocket and pull out a brick-sized envelope. Johnny feels the weight, takes a smaller envelope from his jacket and slides it across the counter. From the shape and size I can tell it contains three bottles. I slide it back.

“I told you I can’t,” I say.

“I heard what you said. But you said it before.” He puts a twenty on the counter, stands and unzips his jacket. “And I don’t believe you.”

I take a deep breath and put my hand on the envelope. He claps a hand on my shoulder and leans down to whisper in my ear. “Besides hombre, we need you. Just one last time.”

I sit there unmoving until long after he’s gone.

Just one last time.

Then I’m out on the corner again, Cabrini and 187th, smoke seeping out from between my lips and swirling around my head. Eyes on the street where it disappears in the distance, waiting for the red Ford to pull around the corner like it did for the last time twelve long years ago. I watch through three cigarettes, amped up on cola. The buildings are bombed-out castles, shattered concrete and white brick, graffiti both faded and new. Occupied now by vermin and squatters, restored only to their 1% glory in dreams and in time-bumps. I slip my hand into my pocket and close it around the envelope. Three pill bottles.

Back home, the first thing I do is pull the blinds in the living room. Sunlight pours in, warming the mildewed furniture. I strip down to boxers and sit on the sofa. On the coffee table beneath crumpled hamburger wrappers, the journal waits, its pages filled with dates and bullet points. July 12, 2002, it reads at the top of the latest page. And “the last time” and nothing else. Several more journals lie on the bookshelf, identical entries too many to count.

Next to the journal, the new pill bottles are laid out before me. Forty discs per bottle. One hundred and twenty time-bumps. I stare at them thoughtfully, calculating the time it will take to turn the bottles into stacks of fives and tens. But the math makes my head hurt and I go to the medicine cabinet for relief.

Two aspirin, check. I reach for the bottle with six pills lying inside and bring it back with me. I place it next to the full bottles and regard them for a while. Then I’m slipping a disc onto my tongue. There will be time to hit the streets later. Right now all I want is him.

I sink into the Redo. Window down, one hand on the wheel, Cisco smiles and puts his hand on mine.

We’re only eleven years old the first time we get high. As the scene resolves, I can feel the swimming sensation in my head, the slowed-down feel of time passing us by. The giggling evoked by every word, every look.

We pass the joint tentatively, Johnny and Luis and Rafi and me, up in the Cellblocks. That was Johnny’s word for the apartment complex, cinder-block walls stacked high and spread with tiny windows sporting heavy iron bars. We didn’t know then what prison would look like, nor that we’d find out soon enough. All we knew was that Rafi’s place was fair game at any time of day. His mom was always out working some job. He never mentioned a dad and we never asked.

Francisco is seventeen years old, and he knows where to find me. I haven’t aged-out, so the calls from school haven’t stopped coming yet. This is the day he picks up the phone when the call comes in. He knows instantly where I am. I was too young to realize what would happen next, too foolish. How could I know he would find us like this?

I try to push myself out of the Redo. I try to bring on another memory. I try to toss the joint, to leave the apartment. I try to warn the boys what’s coming. I try for the life of me to change the past. I’ve been doing this long enough to know that it’s possible. I can feel that I’m close.

But there’s a pounding on the door.

And then his voice. My throat constricts.

And then he’s inside and his eyes are wide with fury. Or is it fear?

He’s speaking, yelling, but I’m not hearing the words. My head is reeling with the mortal terror of my eleven years. And then he’s slapping me. Hard. Across the face and back again. The joint flies to god-knows-where. Johnny and Luis and Rafi have vanished. Francisco has my shirt balled up in one shaking fist.

This is the first time he ever hits me. And the last.

It knocks me right out of the Redo and into the moment. When I come to, a storm is raging and the windows still open. My face is wet with rainwater.

That spring morning of ’01 was the first time we got high, but it wasn’t the last. We fell into a routine in the next two years, and by the summer of ’06 we were slinging. I was a man now at sixteen and my one and only plan for September was to not go back to school. I’d be a junior with two more years ahead and prospects uncertain thereafter. There was never a good reason before and I knew it wouldn’t present itself now.

Johnny got us started on the Redo in June of that year. The pot was no longer enough, and the drink wasn’t good for anything but getting into fights. Johnny wanted something more important. Something with significance. But I knew then it wasn’t about the time-bumps, just as the pot had never been about getting high. They weren’t in it for the exploration. They were in it for the game. They were in it for the money.

When Johnny went to prison that first time, Rafi disappeared for two long years. He never visited once. Johnny was too laid-back to care. He lifted in the yard and played poker with the inmates. Said the place was a daycare center, only the nannies were your dealers and they didn’t give a damn what you did, as long as no one got hurt. He got hurt continuously those first three months. It’s normal, he’d tell me, black eyes and fat lips during visiting hours. Did you bring me anything? But the smile he gave me said he never expected I would. Take a break, he told me then, every time. Do something fun. See the world or get a nice girl. But I didn’t want a girl and I sure didn’t find much worth seeing out there.

I was a heavy user by the time they put him away. I wouldn’t bring dope to the prison, but I did anything I could to keep myself in the discs. That was when Luis got me into my routine. They say adulthood starts when you settle into that groove. When each day carries purpose, that significance that takes you to the end of your life. You find your calling; the future comes into focus. You make a plan and you take care of business.

I focused on Redo. And I took care of business, all right. Luis brought me into sales and when Rafi came back I was a street mule. Rafi was some big-time lieutenant to the “boys upstairs.” I couldn’t even see him if I wanted. Luis dropped off the package and I took it to the streets. I sold five bottles a week back then with a ten percent cut. I turned around and poured it into one more bottle. Forty flat discs and the black felt clock on the cap.

again-pull2That was when I settled into my routine, started the journals. It was an easy life and I wasn’t feeling the side effects back then. We were young and we were reckless. Who knew what it did in the long-term, going back to those places again and again? I didn’t care, I wasn’t thinking about the future. I was too focused on the past. July 12, 2002: that corner in CastleTown.

The last time.

Soon, one day becomes the next. The transitions smooth, today dissolves into tomorrow like a disc dissolving on the tongue.

I come up again and the sting of winter descends. Pellets of ice on my face, sliding into my jacket and melting on my neck. My hand in his, strong grip, supportive. Like you could feel the love contained therein. I look up to gaze at him. He is fully twice my size. That smile. That wink. “Come on, big man,” he says.

Neither of us are big but it doesn’t matter. He’s twelve but he looks like a man already. Distantly, I hear myself thinking: That’s how old you will be the last time you see him. But at twelve I was never a man. When were you ever?

He pulls me forward, gently. It’s the worst storm in years, they’re saying. Fur coats and shiny shoes pass here and there, white faces to match the whiteness in the air. And we the dark ones, our jackets too thin, our sneakers wet and frozen. Each building like a castle, with curious figures standing sentinel in windows eight and ten and fourteen stories high. I wanted to know which room the kings and queens slept in back then. And Francisco would laugh and point at various windows.

“Who else lives in a castle?” he asks, playing along. I’m too young to know where we are, to know that it’s a neighborhood on the other side of Broadway. To me it’s just CastleTown. That’s all it ever would be.

“Princes,” I tell him. “The Pope.”

He laughs again. It fills me with warmth. In twenty-four hours the water mains below the street will burst and destroy seventeen subterranean power converters. The Heights will go dark, the castles reduced to the same frigid, poorly lit homes of our neighborhood. But tonight all is twinkling and bright and beautiful.

The scene shifts. My head swims. When the picture resolves all is darkness and chaos. I feel my body rocking. I feel my mind reeling. The thoughts that form make no sense; I’m not thinking in words. I’m thinking in terror.

The bedroom door is shut but the light seeps in from the hallway, falls across the threadbare carpet, paints a line up over the tiny bed, over the animals arranged neatly along the headboard.

The floors rumble. Cisco is holding my four year old body, rocking me. The shouts and shrieks are muffled by his chest, his arms. He shushes me, whispering quietly. It’s okay, he’s saying over and over again. It’s okay.

I’m crying. The tears are wet on my face and his shirt. The voices get louder, the pounding harder. They’re upstairs now, in the hallway. My breath catches in my throat and I hear a thought forming. I’m saying no. No no no no no.

A door slams. The screams end. In the street a car peels away.

After a time Francisco lays me down and smooths the hair down on my head. Kisses me and tells me it’s okay now, it’s okay. Stay here and I’ll be right back. I grip his hand for a moment but then relax. Because I know he’ll be back. He’ll be right back.

Two doors open. Across the hall I hear him whispering. And as my breath slows, I hear her crying and sniffling. The last thing I recall is his arms wrapped around me, his breath on my neck.

My head begins to spin.

The water jugs on the balcony are empty and the sky is clear when I wake up. The evening storms come only sporadically as November draws to a close. I make a mental note to stock up on water. Then I think better of it and write it in crayon on the kitchen counter.

In the fridge are two liters of bottled rainwater, warm. I upend one to nearly empty, swallowing greedily, lean over the sink, pour the rest of the bottle over my head. The AC still works but without the coolant it only pushes around thick, moistened air. All the same, the sun pulls down the temperature as it drops below the horizon. Satisfied, I dress and slip a bottle with fifteen time-bumps into my pocket. Ambitious, but not impossible to unload in one trip.

I head South on Amsterdam and West along 181st. On the corner of Broadway, the theater advertises movies that are coming soon but will never arrive. Someone has pulled the block letters down so all that remains is the word “SOON” in thick black print. Ready when you are, I say to myself.

Across the street, McDonald’s is selling the cheapest burger in the six boroughs. The sun casts a pinkish hue against the line queuing up at the walk-thru window. Bums and well-to-dos stand together amicably enough. A man in black converse and a pin-stripe suit is telling a story of woe to whoever will listen. I keep walking.

CastleTown is still the best place to unload the discs, even after the market crash. Show me a man with something to lose, Luis always said, and I’ll show you a buyer. Why do you think they live in them castles? Why do you think they have all that stuff? It’s cause something’s missing, hermano.

I unload twelve bumps in four hours, sliding down Cabrini with my hands in my pockets, leaning into passersby and whispering, “You can do it again.” One of them calls the cops I guess, because Banks pulls up around one o’clock with his lights flashing. He takes me home and says he’ll look the other way, but this is the last time.

The last time, I think. Yea right it is.

And he’s doing me a favor getting rid of this shit. He fishes the pill bottle out of my pocket and gives it a shake. Frowns a little, like he’s disappointed. But in me or the take, I don’t really know.

Don’t let me catch you on the West Side again, he says. And he slinks off into the night, sans headlights, a white and blue shadow on wheels.

The last time I did a turn up-county, Banks was pushing papers and I was just some no-name kid from the barrio. He did my fingerprints and looked at me sideways, disapproving, telling me what the next twenty years of my life would be like.

“Sure, you’ll do a month in the county before they turn you loose. And then what? Next time you’re carrying weight and packing heat, and then you’ll do a decade in state prison.” He clapped his hands together one-two. “But more likely the deal goes sideways and we’re scraping you off the corner and into a body-bag.”

I laughed because I was seventeen and I knew it all. They wouldn’t keep me a week ’cause I was underage, and after all, I was only carrying a couple of discs. Back then, the boys in blue hardly knew what to make of Redo. Another designer party drug, they thought. Uppers or downers, it didn’t matter. It was all the same to them. Didn’t take long for half the force to get hooked.

I cleaned up my act; I took more precautions. I didn’t move as many discs, but back in those days the Heights were flooded anyway. It got so everyone you saw was either looking for a time-bump or carrying, and most of them were Rafi’s boys or would be soon. He had the Heights locked up in the first few years after Redo hit the streets.

Every once in a while you get a dope-fiend or a speed-freak. But that’s less and less frequent these days. And no one carries that stuff anymore, so they won’t be asking for long. Why bother with a simulated high when you could have a real one, guaranteed and straight from your own past?

Do it again, I whisper as I shuffle past bloodshot eyes and shaking hands. Fort Tryon’s gone to shit in the autumn storms, the torrents cutting dark rivulets into the mud and pushing rocks and leaves across every path and into every sewer grate. But it doesn’t hurt the market any and the park still crawls with hopeful slugs looking only to go back and do it again. There used to be a hopper named Frankie up here peddling Redo as bona fide time-travel. Don’t just do it again, he’d say. Go back and change everything.

One morning he was shot in broad daylight by a client looking for more than a flashback. I was a hundred yards away and it sounded like a firecracker going off. When you got there you could see Frankie face-up with one eye open, only half his face was gone with only the one eye remaining, a bloom of bright red blood painting the canvas of asphalt around his head.

“Go back and change that,” the guy kept saying. “Change that, motherfucker!”

It was Banks who came and put the guy in cuffs. These days, that’s what it takes to get sent upstate. They don’t have room anymore for small fries like me.

You didn’t wait long enough, is what I was thinking. You gotta try harder.

You hear the stories now and again. A guy from the Bronx said he saved his dog from running into the street and getting flattened by an ice-cream truck. The chimes started playing that ice-cream music and the dog set to whining, and then he was out the door and the poor guy didn’t even see him coming. Turned the truck over and spilled ice cream everywhere. The driver was fine; the dog was killed.

So this guy goes back ten times, twelve times, tries to get his hand on the dog’s collar. Finally manages to shout NO at just the right moment, and that’s what does it. By the time the dog is in the street, the truck is already gone. That night the dog shows up at his backdoor, just wagging his tail around and looking stupid and happy.

Or the time Rico down the block got stabbed at the gas station hold-up in ’04. He went in for a pack of gum and these guys came in and cleared out the register. Rico stood frozen, eyes wide, scared to death. Stop looking at me, this guy yelled, over and over, each time Rico goes back to do it again. But Rico stares terrified, so he sticks the knife in his chest, just misses the heart. Cuts through some muscle and into the lung. Rico is messed up for years, can barely move his arm after that.

Rico goes back for the hundredth time and musters up the energy, and when the guy starts yelling, he just closes his eyes. And that’s all it takes. When he came out of it, he said the pain was gone. Full rotation of the shoulder, didn’t hurt to breathe any more.

A lot of folks will tell you it’s bullshit, but I don’t know. The more I see, the more it starts to make sense.

When I wake in the morning, I can hear Paul’s generator running across the hall. There will be gas available down at the Sunoco on 184th, and the balcony cisterns are half-full. I put together enough water to trade for maybe a gallon of gas and stow the rest in the defunct refrigerator. There’s still time to lay in a store before the rains give out in December. Used to be you’d never see a thunderstorm in the city past August, but those were the days when September brought cool air and the trees started to turn. You might not remember those times if you didn’t go back to the old days so often.

My current journal tells of the old days in fifty or so pages of increasingly illegible handwriting. I turn to a fresh page and flex the fingers of my writing hand. I try to make a fist, massage my forearm. Grip the pen and put it to the page.

July 12: I write. The last time.

’01 in the Cellblocks: getting high.

Winter, ’96: Francisco in CastleTown.

1994: The big fight. Dad disappears for weeks.

The penmanship is sloppy and the shakes are getting worse, but I get the important pieces down. Beside the book is my one bottle, four discs remaining, the black clock inked on the grimy white cap.

I turn to the start of the book and push through it mechanically, looking at the headings as the pages flip.

July 12, 2002: On the corner. The hottest summer in the Heights. Rafi and the arcade. Francisco’s car on Cabrini. The last time you saw him.

Again and again. July 12, 2002. The occasional deviation.

November 29, 2001: They fight. Dad breaks all the dishes.

March 14, 1997: Birthday and circus. Francisco buys the bicycle.

And July 12: Hot summer. Francisco on the corner.

And July 12: The last time you saw him.

And: The last time with Cisco

The last time

the last time

last time

for pages and pages and pages.

Books of memories, you could say. But memories don’t change; they can’t change. This isn’t some photo book or home movie. It’s a lot bigger than that.

They say you don’t forget the important moments in life, and I think that’s true. The Redo doesn’t let you forget, and I think it has a plan. You don’t come up just anywhere. You come up where you’re meant to. You go back to the right places, you see things you might have missed the first time around. And you keep going back, well, that’s what makes you stronger. They say muscles have a memory, and that’s how you can’t unlearn riding a bike.

Well I think memory is a muscle, too. And the more you exercise it, the stronger you get. Strong enough to go back and do things right. Strong enough to change what needs changing.

When I come up on that afternoon in July, the sun is bright and the air heavy. The cool sting of cola blends with the aroma of exhaust and burning plastic. Rafi is there again, hitting me playfully, smiling that gap-toothed smile, filling my heart with joy. In my mind there is nothing but a blank slate of possibility. Anything could happen today. This could be the greatest day of my life.

We move into the street and head West into CastleTown. The buildings stand tall and firm. White faces in polished windows, white brick and oak doors with doormen to guard them. Dukes and princes, I hear myself saying, with a giggle. I’m old enough to know there’s no royalty here. There’s no royalty anywhere, not anymore.

The heat is stifling, but an energy courses through my limbs. We bound across 187th and onto Cabrini. Air still and street empty, but in the distance the sound of an engine revving.

This is it, I think. This is the last time you’re going to see him.

The thought echoes and recedes into the depths of my consciousness. The dusty red car appears, rounds the corner onto Cabrini.

He’s pulling up in front of us. The moment of truth.

When the window rolls down and my hands are on the hot metal of the doorframe, I take it all in. His eyes, shining, his hand, strong and gentle and warm as he lays it atop my own. The intensity of the sun as it spills through the windows, painting every surface with light. The car’s interior, tan leather rubbed raw with age and relics of fast food jaunts and soda cans lying here and there. A small plastic bottle tucked into the niche on the driver’s side door, orange and transparent and capped in white.

I capture it again. The moment stretches on for an eternity. I have all the time in the world to gather my strength, to tell him I love him. The well-chosen word here will change everything that follows. This was the last time, yes, but it doesn’t have to be. All I need to do…

He winks and draws back his hand. My stomach churns with love and anxiety. And the engine revs. As the image begins to fade, the vertigo returns.

We’re back here for a reason, of course. We’re meant to come back and change it all. We’ll see what we need to see. Say what needs saying. Some memories float to the surface no matter what you’re going for. Redo‘s like that, you know. It takes you back where you’re meant to be.

So I repeat it again because I know I’ll be back, and next time will be different. Next time will be right.

I’ll be back again, I’m saying. Head spinning, his car vanishing in the distance.

I’ll be back for you, Cisco. I’ll be back here again.


Michael Ian Bell grew up in Northern New Jersey, where he currently teaches English and serves as the Director of Campus Life at an independent school.  In summer he co-directs a boys’ camp program in New Hampshire.  When the homework is done or the kids are all tucked away in their cabins, he spends the last hour of his day writing, (or at least, that’s the goal, isn’t it?).  His first published story appears right here, in Shimmer.
Return to Shimmer #24

The Cult of Death, by K.L. Pereira

The first time you saw her, she was getting change from the machine in the lavandería; copper and nickel clacked against her metal palms, a rain of clicks pricking your eardrums. She was just as grotesque as your sister said: silvery fingers stiff as stone, jointless and smooth, unable to pluck the money from the open mouth of the change-maker. She struggled to scoop the coins into the stiff basket of her hands but you wouldn’t help her. You were too busy praying to Saint Lucy to take away your voice for good this time.

cult-pull1After your father’s death, you couldn’t speak; your throat was dry and not even startled bird sounds flew from it. When you were finally able to nod for yes and shake for no, your mother sent you back to school because what else could she do with you?

It was autumn and the neighbor’s cat was twining around your legs and you bent and ran your short brown fingers down its back and up its tail and what could you do but sigh at the feeling of soft silky fur? You hadn’t meant to. Until that moment, you hadn’t even known that you could make that airy rumble in your throat. The cat stumbled then, looked at you and then behind you with eyes so dilated there was almost no green left in them and then limped away under the front bush. It was strange but then, people had been running from you since your father died, the tiny mute girl who witnessed it all.

When you came back from school that afternoon, your neighbor was looking and looking but never found her cat. You cried into the orange carpet beneath your bed because you loved cats and had hoped you were not such a bad girl, that the first time, the time with your father, was just an accident. You started to breathe long and even and slept with your hands around your neck so no sounds would come out while you were dreaming.

You were doing so well, until the day the boy fell over. You hadn’t known your tongue started to work again, could push the airy hum that you kept pressed down in your chest into stubborn syllables until the boy decided to stab you in the cheek with the pencil. You were all the way at the back of the room and the boy, who was only as cruel as children can be, turned to you and jabbed the yellow stick into the softest part of your face. The jagged point of the lead ripped your skin and made it burn. His eyes dared you to tell and so help you, your voice swept from the dark valley of your lungs, not loud but fast and you couldn’t have stopped it. What you whispered was unintelligible but terrible enough and you’ll never forget the tremble of his eyes and the convulsing of his lips or the blood that pooled after his head hit the floor.

You wrote his mother that you were sorry but she never wrote you back and your ma didn’t send you to school after that. Your ma asked your abuela, who was still alive back then, what to do with you and Abuela said you must pray to the Virgin but that hasn’t gotten you anywhere. So you pray to Saint Lucy and when you’re supposed to be kneeling on the hard wooden floor of the confessional or doing penance by cleaning houses while everyone is doing laundry or shopping or work and making very sure you do not open your mouth, you walk around the town pretending you are the only one alive. Because you could be.

You see her the second time outside of the church. Your ma and your tías have told your sister the woman was exiled here. They are all afraid of her, disgusted by her. How could she let a man do that to her? She’s too calm and unashamed, walking with her head high in crowds, nodding to the matriarchs of the town. She doesn’t offer apologies when she catches children, or even adults, staring at her hands, her feet. You never see her slinking out from behind the dark walnut of the confessional, or pressing her forehead to the polished shoulders of the pew in front of her, or taking the Communion. You wonder if she’s even Catholic.

You are, just like everyone else you know. Saint Lucy is your favorite saint because you can talk to her in your full voice and she doesn’t mind. She scared people, too. She plucked out her own eyes to stop a pagan king from adding her to his harem. When he found out she’d disfigured herself, he had her beheaded. Now she walks around where the spirit world and the people world rub against one another like cats on a new couch, her eyes held before her on a bright blue plate, eye-sockets dark caverns in her face. Even though your ma tells you to pray to Saint Jude, the patron saint of hopeless causes, you pray to Saint Lucy, the protector of those who have trouble with their eyes and throats. You pray she’ll take your voice away for good, or at least steal your ma’s eyes so she won’t have to look at you.

Your sister says she knows for a fact that the woman with the silver hands is in the witness protection program, saw the feds parked outside her door.

How d’you know they’re feds? Isn’t she from China or somewhere? You scribble on a memo pad in big block letters and hold it up to your sister from across the room.

Your sister loves you, but will only let you sit with at least a room between you, in case you get excited or angry, in case you can’t help it, she explained. It’s not that she doesn’t love you, Abuela told you once. She just fears Death.

Your sister reads the pad and just gives you a look. She watches a lot of television, all of the murder shows and detective shows and cop shows and if anyone knows feds, it is her.

Well, how do you know they were there for her? The memo pad is full so you write this on the thick back cover.

—Please, she says. Who else would they be here for?

It’s true. Why would the feds come here?

You wonder. Later, you will hate yourself for it but you wonder what the woman did wrong. What she did to deserve it—being cut and sent away. Did she do something as horrible as you did?

Probably worse, you think. At least they let you stay.

The third time you see the woman, she’s in the produce aisle of the grocery. It is a Friday, a day when most women are at the lavandería, catching up on gossip and telenovelas while their whites and darks spin in lazy circles. Your ma and tías are probably there, too. No one shops on Fridays. You, however, have decided it’s the perfect day to visit Lorenzo, your only friend, who is deaf and who you therefore cannot hurt, in the vault of the funeraría, where they keep the bodies before they go underground. You will get kiwis for him because he has a weakness for strange fruit. Then you will sneak off and visit your abuela.

The woman is standing in front of the melons. They are round, ripe, huge as your tías’ breasts, and their warm smell tells you that they are already mush inside, too soft, like the head of a new baby. But the woman doesn’t seem to catch their scent. Instead she places the melons in her basket, cocks her head and moves to the nectarines, the plums, the strawberries. She must feel them to know if they are good to buy. You see her press the tip of her hard finger to their tiny fleshy bodies, one by one.

You wonder: How can she feel ripeness? Anticipate the taste on her tongue?

You feel sorry for her. You wonder: What would it be like to never know if the fruit at your lips will run juicy down your chin, or crunch dry between your teeth?

You pluck a perfectly red strawberry from its sage-green carton and, with gentle pressure, you run your thumb down its seed-speckled fullness. It is perfect. Then, without flinching, but also without touching, you place it in the palm of her silver hand.

The woman looks at you and nods. She pays for the fruit, yours and hers, and follows you out of the store.

Later, at the café, she tells you to call her Marsha. You wonder what her real name is.

She says that her hands and feet were removed. Not cut or lopped or hacked off. For a moment it makes you think that maybe, just maybe they were surgically separated from her body at birth, due to some kind of defect. This thought, your thought, makes you feel momentarily comforted.

Before you can begin to imagine how a baby can crawl with no hands or feet, she says:

cult-pull2—You are the first person to acknowledge me. Even the cashiers at the bodega look away from me, keep silent, as if their lips where as hard as my hands.

You are sitting at a dirty plastic table, drinking strong coffee, even though your mother has warned you that this will stunt your growth. You stir a pure white waterfall of sugar and a lake of cream into your cup. Marsha does not touch her coffee. And even though she is strange and broken, you somehow know that it would be impossible for you, as evil as your ma says you are (and she is probably right), to hurt her. Perhaps it is the way she looks at you, as if she has already forgiven you for whatever you might do, whatever you have done.

You decide to open your mouth because for once, someone is talking to you and is not afraid and this makes you brave. You breathe in, fill the shadowy caves of your lungs and then, slowly, let them collapse with your words.

—You’ll get used to it, you whisper. They do not like anyone to be more interesting than them. My abuela used to call them the quedadas malas. They don’t like me either. I call Death.

You don’t tell her why. You don’t know why, not yet. You are sure that if she sticks around town long enough, she will figure this out on her own. Her eyes are black and round as the cup of coffee between her hands. She does not reply, does not try to comfort you. She simply watches; a very still animal waiting for something to happen, a change in wind, a shift in the shadows.

—So, what are you doing here?

Impatient, your voice splashes into the air, louder than you meant it to, and she is as still as the statue of Saint Lucy you pray to every night, and for a brief but flaming second you are afraid, truly afraid, that you’ve killed her. That her eyes will run and her mouth will weep with saliva and you will be left, again, with the body.

Her eyes are so still, pools of oil and her skin the solid yellow-brown sand of the earth and then she says:

—I’ve come for you.

She doesn’t flinch when she says this. Something in her tone calls to you, an understanding, a kinship, something in her deep eyes and careful words makes you feel you could fall into her arms, the blanket of her compassion warming you, that you could stay there forever and not be afraid. You hold your breath until the lights in the corners of the café go flashing and blue and then you let it out. You tell her everything.

You are not supposed to confess your sins to anyone except the priest (the priest who will not hear you, who lets you sit in the brown dark of the confessional alone because even he fears for his life), but you do. You lay your woe at the silver feet of this woman you just met, this woman you are supposed to ignore, but who has somehow, miraculously come for you. You tell her about your father’s death, when you were just a baby in his arms. How he sang to you: mi cielo mi cielo mi cielo and how you, after months of trying, could finally form the sounds, say the words back to him. You loved your papa, your heaven. You did not understand when his pupils shrank and his mouth gaped and all the muscles in his face went slack and he fell on the slick lino of the kitchen floor and when you saw the blood you called and called until you lost your voice and someone you did not know came to take him away. You tell her about your abuela, who, years later believed you when you drew out for her what you’d done, and who told you it was no evil, but a gift, a gift she made you promise to use when she was old and suffering too much, and you were the only one who could do it and so you did, just like she asked, and now, now everyone hated you, especially your mother who missed your father, and her mother, and would never ever forgive you for calling Death to take them.

You’ve led Marsha to the cemetery. The day to clean the graves is months away and most stones lie in neglect, covered with the dust of rotten flowers. Marsha sits at the foot of your abuela’s stone and watches as you polish the statues of Guadalupe and kiss the head of your own Saint Lucy and place her with her plate of eyes in the middle of the marble, flanked by petunias and marigolds and three ripe strawberries. You’ve already told Marsha everything when she says:

—When I was a girl in Xi’an, I played the violin. I could make the bow and the wood sing and all who heard it swore it was more beautiful than the cries coming from the very heart of the goddess Kwan Yin. Do you know her?

You shake your head, snake your hand to the top of the gravestone and sneak a small strawberry. Since you sat on the warm earth the scent of ripeness has been stealing into your nostrils and you cannot help yourself. Your abuela would not mind.

—She is the goddess who hears all the suffering of the world and is said to give comfort. She does not flinch from death, nor from life, no matter how full of sorrow. Marsha continued. —In any case, I was promised to a very wealthy, very cruel man. My father said that the man would ensure that I had the finest education, lessons from the masters of string and entrances to the greatest orchestras in the world. I only had to obey him. It was not hard to say yes—I was very young, what did I know of marriage?

—So you were married?

Marsha looks not much older than your sister. You want to ask her if she misses her father but instead you suck the fruit into your mouth. You are not used to interrupting, to the deep ocean of your voice and the way it sounds when it is full, when it does not kill.

Marsha places her shining hands on her knees, palm up and squints at the sky:

—Yes. Yes, we were married. We were not happy. We loved different things. I loved my music and he loved having a wife, a possession.

—But how was he cruel? Did he lock you in a tower?

You think of all the fairy tales you were ever told, the stories you and Lorenzo tell each other with your hands in the dark recesses of the funeraría vaults where only the dead can hear.

—No. Listen.

Marsha’s voice is strong and clear and all the stones in the cemetery shake like they are going to crack and her eyes fix on you: black and shiny and terrifying and ready to swallow you if you say another word.

—What matters is that I had a gift and he stole it away. How can I describe how creating music felt? It was more than the hum along the strings, the small brown body of the violin trembling beneath my chin; it was as if every sorrow there ever was had shaken loose from the world. I had just started my instruction at the conservatory when I became pregnant. My husband would not allow me to be a mother and a violinist. My place was by his side. He was a lonely man and the prospect of a child made him believe that he could keep me, keep us forever, objects in his collection. But how could I give up the one thing that made me who I was? So I refused.

Her words are nails piercing coffin-wood. The sparrows in the trees above stop their chittering and sit perfectly still, tiny brown stones waiting to fall from the leafless trees.

You look at her hands then, thinking that you understand.

—No, little girl. It was not simply what was taken from me that made me what I am. It was what I found after.

She raises her palms and all of the light in the world streams into them. The grass, the trees, the gravestones, everything, falls colorless, simple shades of glass and shadow. Nothing moves. Not even the air. Not even your chests.

And in this place of still smoke and mirror you start to know your gift. You close your eyes and know: you are the woman in the boat who cradles the king’s head, you are the saint who sits beside the goddess of mercy, you are Death and though you are feared, you need not fear yourself.

You open your eyes and again, are in the day, the cemetery. You sit beside Marsha, the woman, the outcast, the only person you can speak to in your full voice. You will follow her, wherever it is that she takes you.

She lifts a perfectly round watermelon from her bag and with heavy, silvery hands, knocks on the jungle-green skin of the fruit. You feel the dull thump deep in your chest and before she cracks the rind you know the pink taste of sweetness, can feel it flood your mouth, your throat, your heart.


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The Scavenger’s Nursery, by Maria Dahvana Headley

A boy finds a baby in the garbage. It’s hotter this summer than it was the summer before. Everyone in the city is trying to get to the country, because in the city, the rat population is exploding. Rats themselves are exploding, though not of their own volition. Sometimes rats swallow explosives. Sometimes explosives are wrapped in little bobbles of food.

The boy, Danilo, has been doing some work in this regard. Rats are a renewable resource. Today, he’s tracking a big rat up the mountain. Beneath his sandals is a hill of plastic and peelings, rubber, blank screens, glass formerly glowing, now reflecting nothing but sun. He looks through red knock-off sunglasses labeled GUCCY. His feet skid on something. Something across the hillock ignites, and he looks suspiciously at the area, judging distance. Fine. No wind today.

garbage-pull1This mountain can be seen from space. It has a name, and on maps, it’s part of the topography. It’s only when you get closer that you can see it for an assemblage, invented earth. Secretly, the boy calls the mountain after himself: Danilo’s Bundók, as though he’s the first explorer to reach its summit. Beneath Danilo’s feet, the mountain shudders. A quiver, a coursing, and garbage slides.

In the town below, roofs clang with tin cans, and automobile parts thunder down. It’s a storm of junk.

As the avalanche subsides, Danilo becomes aware of something at his feet, pushing out from the layers of refuse. The rat, he thinks, ready for it. It’s long as his forearm. He nearly spears it, a wet black thing, its skin shining, blurry, dazzled eyes opening. But it isn’t a rat. It is an animal, its flesh hard and soft at once, like a banana bound in iron.

He’ll take it home, he thinks, and make it a pet. He’s owned other pets, some friendly, some feral. There’s a chicken in his history, smut-feathered, beak shiny and perfect, and when he owned that chicken, he stroked it until he lost custody and it became a soup. This pet won’t be eaten. There’s nothing about it that looks edible.

The thing blinks, showing pale yellow rubbery eyelids, somewhat transparent, and Danilo reaches out and picks it up. It shifts, comforting itself against his fingers, and he thinks Baby? Danilo once held his sister over his shoulder, her silken cheek resting against his neck, her fuzz of hair brushing his face, and so he tries to hold the thing using the same method. He jogs it a bit, and coos, shifting his sack to the other shoulder. Below him, metal roofing vibrates in the sun, hot and glittering, but where he is, far above the town, he’s king of the bundók.

He considers his new pet. It’s not a monkey, though it has a tail, and grasping fingers. It has a feathery black fringe around its neck, and small rough horns made of something very solid. No teeth, but a clamping mouth, the sort of mouth that would cause a bruise were it allowed to bite. It is very ugly.

Danilo knows he hasn’t seen everything. He hasn’t seen the stars, though he knows they exist, or once did. On the mountain, he found a tourist magazine with a yellow jacket, and photos of places all around the world, including the bottom of the sea, where a glowing jellyfish orbited in the dark, like a balloon caught in a current, floating higher and higher until the clouds took their color.

Antennae tendril against Danilo’s face, radio, television, insect, whisker, he can’t tell, but they belong to the baby. The little thing stares up at him, and he feels powerful. He might put the baby down and leave it here in the sun, or he might take it and save it. It’s his choice.

It makes a sound, a gurgling crow. Then it begins to cry. Danilo gives it a bit of his T-shirt to suckle at, and it clamps its mouth down on that, nursing at the dirty cotton, smacking. He considers for a moment, and then wraps the baby in the rest of his shirt, constructing a small sling. He makes his way, bare-chested, down the mountain toward home.

As Danilo descends, the mountain pulsates. He looks around, wondering if there’s a relief organization bulldozer bringing dirt to cover over some particular toxicity, but shortly, the quivering stops, and he continues, the baby sleeping against his chest.

The last of the river dolphins. The last of the poisonous frogs. The last of the polar bears. The last of the Siberian tigers. The last of the dodos, gone two centuries now. The first of these.

A small boat moves like a hungover partygoer in Times Square on New Year’s Day. Nets stretch out to take samples from the patch—bones and tangles. It’s a glittering gyre, colorful bits of wrapping, and metal-lined sacks.

It’s the end of the world as we know it, and I feel fine, somebody’s music shouts from the cabin, and somebody else yells “Fuck off, Jack. That song’s banned from this boat and you know it.”

“I miss the ‘90’s,” says the somebody, unrepentant.

On deck, Reya Barr sifts fingernails through her fingers. A container of decorated plastic press-ons fell from a Chinese ship six months ago, and here they are, as predicted. She’s mapped their theoretical progress on a current chart, but no one ever knows what the ocean will do, not really. She reads the pale pink ovals, one letter at a time. B-R-I-D-E. As though a woman might need to look down midway through her wedding and read her fingertips to tell herself who she is. She puts one on each finger, and crimps her fingers into claws. It’s for the money, this cruise. Her student loans are due. BRIDE. Her other hand’s all glitter lightning and storm clouds.

This is a particular kind of expedition, a sponsored sail though a plastic sea. The goal is to confirm that the garbage patch is growing, and also to confirm that it’s drifting toward Hawaii. Everyone already knows this, but this is science; one hypothesis requires confirmation before another can be made. The scientists are mapping the boundaries of the mass. Garbage flows over the water like something fluid, but it’s also distinct, each piece something that can be captured in a net, examined.

garbage-pull2She imagines garbage crossing thousands of miles, drawn to this place. A kind of magnetic desire, drawing like to like. The world is collapsing under plastic ducks. Hula hoops. Water bottles. Were she plastic and thrown into a gutter, Reya might be drawn here herself. She’d sail across the sea, until she arrived in this civilization of crumple.

She leans far out over the rail, squinting at something shiny moving in the garbage. Maybe a gull or a trapped fish. There’s an ancient smell out here—rot, salt, and darkness.

There’s a kind of weird beauty in the reinvention of an ocean. It’s not as though things have never changed before. It isn’t as though what she floats on wasn’t once ice. And the land she walks on, when she’s at home? That land was covered with ocean, the sand full of bones of the sea.

She thinks about that when she feels like pretending that none of this is really going to have repercussions. There was oil geysering up in the Gulf of Mexico; the oil was in the news for a while, and then mysteriously gone, as though some giant mouth beneath the ocean sucked it away. It isn’t lost. That much oil doesn’t get lost. But the world is content to believe that water is big enough to win.

Reya has vials full of water thickened with photodegraded plastic, a slurry of children’s toys and dildoes, of baggies, shiny leggings, medical tubing and plankton, and all of it looks like the same thing. It looks like water.

Sometimes she dreams of dropping to the bottom, where none of the world has yet gotten, but even the deepest vents are full of mermaid tears and microplastic. The arteries of the earth are clogged with hotel room keys.

The world’s ending, yeah. It’s begun to bore her, the sort of horror that’s dull when considered too deeply from the deck of a research boat out in the middle of the Pacific.

The thing in the garbage patch is still moving. She watches it idly. There was a storm last night, and today the mass has rolled over. New things are visible, bodies of gulls and fish skeletons, dead jellyfish wrapping about indecipherable gleam. She aims her camera at the thing, zooming in on its motion and filming it. She’ll post it to the vessel blog. Look at this, expedition donors, this bit of plastic that looks like an animal. Look at this un-thing that looks like life.

The un-thing looks back at her.

“What,” she says, quietly, and then her voice rises. “What the hell is that?”

It’s not a seal. It’s not a shark. It’s not anything like anything.

A cloud drapes itself over Mexico City, yellow with gasoline and cigarettes and souls. It hangs there like something solid, low enough to graze the skyscrapers, putting them to their original task, that of touching the fingers of god. But the cloud is not birthing a god; it’s birthing another cloud—small, dark, heavy, wet.

In an office building in London, a janitor pushes a wastepaper bin down a hallway. Inside the bin, a plastic sack of shredded accounts rustles against coffee grounds, newspapers. Its heart is full of decapitated payables, receivables, half words and splintered sentences, crumpled muffin wrappers, its blood copy machine toner and printer ink.

The newborn lies at the bottom of the bin, too wobbly to support its own limbs. The janitor swipes a mop along the floor and dumps wastepaper baskets, and each time wastepaper joins the mass, the baby at the bottom of the bin grows bigger.

scavengers-nursery-illustration-topDanilo puts his garbage baby into a box and feeds it fruit. It rattles and bares its tiny tin teeth. His sister looks into the box, once, and gives him a look of confirmation. Yes, Danilo is a devil on earth. Yes, he would adopt a thing like this thing. She runs from the room spitting tattle like she’s a can full of crickets.

Danilo’s mother looks into the box, but doesn’t really see. It’s dark. All she can make out is tail and a fringy black ruff. “That’ll get too big,” she says. “Better put it out now and save yourself the pain.”

“I’ll keep it just a little longer,” Danilo says.

“Don’t get attached,” says his mother, knowing he will. These are the sorrows of having a son. Daughters are more bloodthirsty.

So the baby grows. The mountain outside shudders and shakes, shedding layers of garbage, earthquaking, and the baby cries. Danilo worries about it. He isn’t feeding it the right food. He gives it a Coke. It whirrs like a motor, and grows fat and sleek on sugar. It sleeps in his bed. It eats a bicycle tire, then a bicycle, broken and twisted after a run-in with a car. Danilo looks at it, assessing its appetite. The mountain is there, and periodically a particularly succulent piece of garbage surges up through layers, a gift for the baby’s belly.

Reya reaches over the rail, the fake-fingernails three inches longer than her fingertips. The un-thing swims to her. She hauls it aboard. The garbage gyre roils, and then is still. The creature is small and light, its body covered in aluminum wrappings and fingernails, bones of fish, a bit of kelp, a tentacle of some dead cephalopod caught in a net. It has a black beak, and large, lidless hazel eyes.

The other scientists examine it, brows furrowed, tweezers taking samples. They argue. It’s a gull covered in oil; maybe it drifted in from the Gulf. No, it’s some other seabird, messed about in garbage and plastic. At last, they decide that it is—it must be—a creature that’s been mutated by the plastic water. They photograph it, post the photo to the vessel’s blog, and then send the photo to NOAA, asking for backup. People take notice. A contingent rises up and screams about the end of the world, beast numbering, signs.

The un-thing curls in Reya’s stateroom, wrapped in a heat blanket, opening its beak periodically for food. Its tentacle twists around the bottle. The only woman on the ship, and here she is, feeding a baby. She’s appalled, repulsed, guilty. She can’t bring herself to think about what sort of baby it is. It’ll become a paper in Nature. She’ll be the head author. Career-making. New species. She looks at its glassy doll eyes. There was a container of five thousand drink-and-wet baby dolls lost from a ship late last year. She’d originally thought of tracking the baby dolls instead of the fingernails, but decided it was too much metaphor, mapping a sea full of fake babies.

Though she should’ve known they were coming, Reya isn’t expecting it when the helicopter lands on their pad and the uniformed men get out. They’ll take the un-thing away from her, probably to a laboratory to be dissected. She looks into the baby’s eyes. If anyone’s going to kill it, dissect it, display it, it will be her.

garbage-pull3Reya carries it onto the helicopter. She cradles it all the way to Washington. She feeds it Styrofoam cups and foil-wrapped candies. She doesn’t croon to it or lullaby it. She learns it. That’s her job. Does it have reflexes? Yes. Can it speak? Also yes, a mynah, a mimic. She knows things about it that the other scientists don’t. It’s intelligent. She’ll be damned if she lets it pass through her fingers without…without, what? She wants to know where its mother is. It didn’t come into being out of light and photosynthesis; it was born from the patch. The creature’s mother is drifting toward Hawaii.

In the laboratory, Reya looks at the creature, and the creature looks back. It opens its mouth, stretches its jaws, and crumples itself back into a ball. It lives in a tank beside the tanks of the seagulls and the ocean fish to which the lab is comparing its DNA. Reya doesn’t feel sympathy for it. It’s more complicated than that, and also simpler. She feeds it a classified document, which gives it codes for entry into any locked door in the building. Later, the baby will use the codes to open its cage and rustle out. Later in the night, it will become a Top Secret, but for now, she passes it a latex glove, and watches as it sinks its teeth into it.

A heap of cell phone parts glimmers green as beetle shells. Children sort them. A goat minces its way through a thousand ghost voices, recorded messages crushed into oblivion, texts, naked photos, emails, and pleadings. The goat’s white-yellow fur is splashed with turquoise powder from a festival that’s now over. It nibbles at a bit of metal, faintly annoyed at the new thing rising from the heap of broken. Children crouch on their heels and watch as a newborn creature stands, twelve feet tall, flashing in the sun. It opens its mouth and screams, and all across the sky, satellites tremble.

This one, at last, hits the international news, but is dismissed as a hoax. Hysteria. Mass hallucination. Some sort of Techno-Environmentalist Bigfoot. Eyes roll in the countries that still have all the money. The creature in the photo is convincing, and that is to the credit of whoever made it, but that’s all.

The monster crawls into the forest, its feet tender still, bruised by rocks. After a time, some of the children creep into the trees to feed it. Children are better at feeding monsters than adults are. They don’t have the burden of suspicion.

Danilo finds the baby standing in his bedroom one day with a rat in each of its claws. They struggle, upside down.

“Rats aren’t food,” he tells it, suddenly anxious. He can’t tell whether or not the rats are explosive. The baby is six feet tall now, but still doesn’t sleep through the night. Its long tail is whippy, and it knocks things down.

It’s becoming difficult to keep the baby quiet in his room, though it folds itself small when it sleeps, and he’s reminded again of the tiny creature it was when it was born. It requires bottles of oil and dirty water. It needs gasoline. When Danilo fails to feed it on time, it bites at itself. When he fails to feed it what it wants, it bites at him. He feels exhausted by responsibility.

It eats the rats. They explode inside its belly. Danilo cringes, hands over his face, simultaneously hoping for freedom and fearing disaster, but the baby doesn’t die. It grows bigger.

In a forest in Montana, a newborn made of sawdust, splinters, engine oil and bird’s nests encounters a thing with a chainsaw. It picks the thing up, looks at it curiously, considering its purpose. Satisfied, it crumples the thing in its giant hand, and throws it away, off the logging road and into the river, where it floats for a moment—a bright, chaotic piece of red and white garbage. The body sinks, slowly, and the fish eat it.

The rest of the logging crew is speechless for only as long as it takes to dial the police, who bring news crews along with their sirens.

The monster stands in the place where it was born. Is it confused? Does it care? It is unclear. The newborn’s still standing there when the loggers surge around it and cut it down.

Hysteria begins with that footage, worldwide.

Danilo’s baby eats more than its weight, making its way onto the mountain at night, scavenging cars. It speaks to the mountain, until, one day, the mountain itself stands up, raining down on all the people surrounding it, and walks away from the place it has always been. The mountain carries its baby in its hands, and Danilo, standing in the doorway of his school building, covers his eyes.

Danilo goes about his business, what business there is. Rats explode. His family flees the city. At night, he looks out and as the world gets darker, the stars are, for the first time in his life, occasionally visible.

Reya Barr lets the monster take her with it when it leaves the lab. It carries her in its arms, and she looks up into its glassy eyes. When it opens its beak to speak it says Bride. It says love. It says sleep. It swims out into the sea, and she rides on its back, free of her student loans, her publication graphs, the way she prayed for an article a year, the scientists who’ve told her, despite her accomplishments, that she’s not their equal. She still thinks of dissecting the monster, but now she feels like a dissected object herself, a doll made of soft materials and stuffed with batting. A thing fallen off a ship and floating. She no longer minds. She sings the song from the rock and roll band, the end of the world song, and the garbage monster, the mimic, sings with her.

“And I feel fine.”

There are guns, of course, and bombs. There are thoughts of nuclear strikes, but the summer is hotter and hotter, and at first, the monsters aren’t killing many people. Those they do kill, they crush efficiently, placing them in sloping piles in the dirt.

Scientists and politicians deliberate. They try bombs, but bombs do nothing. They try poisons and guns. One monster curls up into tiny pieces of garbage, and then resurrects from each piece, a thousand-headed hydra, an impossible excess. More emerge newborn from buried trash, destroying houses and buildings. The earth wears a mantle of paper and plastic, tin cans, DVDs, and all of it is hatching. Perhaps the cold will kill these creatures made of useless things. The research supports it. Blooms have always ended and waters have always run clear again. Eventually, even plagues of locusts starve and fall out of the sky, and the humans, what humans remain, will do as they’ve always done. They will shovel.

Live and let live, say some.

Already dead, say others.

Use everything, say still others. The people on earth who’ve been living in places where everything has already been used look out across the dry plains at the dry crops. They move into caves. They set fires around the perimeters of their camps and villages, because the only thing that keeps the creatures away is fire. Those people survive. The ones who are used to excess do not. They hide amongst their own stockpiles, and there, the conditions are right for births. Even a scrap of paper forgotten might yield a newborn. Even a toothpick, or a rind. Even the dead might yield a newborn, and in a city with an underground full of pauper’s unmarked graves, things shake and stir and skeletons assemble into horses, large enough for the monsters to ride.

These are new conditions to become accustomed to, but this is the planet shifting. Earthquakes have flattened cities. Cities have been murdered. The ice has melted. The world adjusts, after screaming and panic, to a new normal. The monsters keep to themselves, and most of the remaining population of the planet does not eventually care. The garbage sleeps at night, and sometimes someone tries to kill it with a gun, or with a knife, but it doesn’t die. The rivers run and drift into the sea. Lazy twisted currents, water traveling into lakes and into sky. The garbage moves through the water and rain from the clouds, floats and drifts, and slowly makes a changed world out of mess.

scavengers-nursery-illustration-bottomThe documents from this period are public now. The deaths—called mysterious—of the team of scientists sent to examine that first sea-born baby, the way they were, months after they harvested it from the Pacific Patch, crushed in its tentacles and torn by its beak, the way the hazel eyes blinked when its head moved to swallow them.

The way Reya Barr, the scientist who fetched the baby from the water, was the only one spared as the laboratory was torn apart from the inside out, returned to metal and glass, and how that broken metal and glass rearranged itself into something new. The way more babies were born from this new garbage, and how they emerged from the building, flooding the parking garages, swarming down the street, overturning cars as they moved, turning the cars into wrecks, turning the wrecks into more of themselves.

A bloom of babies. A swarm. A plague.

And can joy be read between the lines of the official prose? Vindication, certainly. The world was indeed ending. Certain of the official documents reflect that conviction. Everything was beginning again. Slates were wiped clean.

The President gave an address, of course, an Emergency State of the Union, but as he spoke, he realized that all he could say was that people should stay away from the garbage.

Fresh Kills landfill walked into New York City, miles tall and miles deep. In Rome, Monte Testaccio shook off the trees on its back, and stood up to trample, its body made of the shards of ancient amphorae, once full of olive oil, now coated in lime.

The rules of the world changed. There was an evolution, a shift in everything.

The last of the senators. The last of the secretaries. The last of the chieftains. The last of the burlesque dancers. The last of the astrophysicists.

The first of these.

The cities empty. The streets stop moving. The nights get quieter and darker. Danilo is one of the last left in his city, and as he grows older, sometimes he sees the garbage mountain walking, moving past his shack, and beside it, the smaller body of its baby, walking with long strides, a slipping thing with a hard shell, horns, a black plastic fringe fluttering in the hot breeze. Beyond the city limits, there’s a new mountain, this one made of human bones, and in its layers the rats move as they always have, turning the secrets of centuries to sediment.

Somewhere in the Pacific, Reya Barr floats on a raft made of detritus, her back supported by plastic bottles, held above the surface by the fingers of soda rings. Her hair is long and white now, and it trails into the deep, and her eyes are blind from too much sun.

Some things are still as they’ve always been on earth. There are fewer people, but they still fight and still fuck. Some people are frightened of the dark, and some are not. In one of the cities, a human throws something away. A dog finds it in the garbage, snuffles it and barks, and a gleaming, clattering creature kneels and picks the garbage up, carries it away, cradling it, rocking it.

As it’s carried, the human baby cries, a thin cry, and then it’s soothed by the thing that has found it. This green-skinned creature sings out a lullaby in all the former languages of the world, for more signal, for

Can you even hear me? And

Fuck you, just go and fuck yourself if you’re going to be like that I’m telling you I’m done and

I love you so much, oh my god I love you so much and

I’m going to tell you something I’ve never told anyone before and

The creature opens its mouth wider and vibrates to all the satellites, to everyone who has ever occupied the place it occupies now. It holds the human baby in its metal hands, and talks to the sky.

I’m losing you, it trills in every language ever spoken through telephony. I’m losing you.


Maria Dahvana Headley is the author of the upcoming young adult sky ship novel Magonia, from HarperCollins, the dark fantasy/alt-history novel Queen of Kings, the internationally bestselling memoir The Year of Yes, and The End of the Sentence, a novella co-written with Kat Howard, from Subterranean.With Neil Gaiman, she is the New York Times-bestselling co-editor of the monster anthology Unnatural Creatures, benefitting 826DC. Her Nebula and Shirley Jackson award-nominated short fiction has recently appeared in Lightspeed, Nightmare, Apex, The Journal of Unlikely Entomology, Subterranean Online, Glitter & Mayhem and Jurassic London’s The Lowest Heaven and The Book of the Dead. It’s anthologized in the 2013 and 2014 editions of Rich Horton’s The Year’s Best Fantasy & Science Fiction, Paula Guran’s 2013 The Year’s Best Dark Fantasy & Horror.

She grew up in rural Idaho on a survivalist sled-dog ranch, spent part of her 20’s as a pirate negotiator in the maritime industry, and now lives in Brooklyn in an apartment shared with a seven-foot-long stuffed crocodile. Twitter: @MARIADAHVANA Web:


 Buy Shimmer #24 or Subscribe!

Shimmer #24

art by Sandro Castelli

The world is always ending. The world is always being reborn. Small steps, planetary scale. Turning itself inside out, do-over, rewind, fast-forward this part, and pause. Pause here and take a breath and read these four stories that will change your perception of how things end, how they start, how they go ever on.

Shimmer is not generally known for its humorous content, nor happy-go-lucky stories. Shimmer stories tend to have a mood and that mood is often bleak. Beth once told me Shimmer stories were like the line from Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” (or was that line only in the Jeff Buckley version?), it’s a cold and it’s a broken hallelujah. It’s cold and broken, but there is still a sliver of light by which to see. That’s the shimmer.

The Scavenger’s Nursery, by Maria Dahvana Headley
A boy finds a baby in the garbage. It’s hotter this summer than it was the summer before. Everyone in the city is trying to get to the country, because in the city, the rat population is exploding. Rats themselves are exploding, though not of their own volition. Sometimes rats swallow explosives. Sometimes explosives are wrapped in little bobbles of food.

The Cult of Death, by K.L. Pereira
The first time you saw her, she was getting change from the machine in the lavandería; copper and nickel clacked against her metal palms, a rain of clicks pricking your eardrums. She was just as grotesque as your sister said: silvery fingers stiff as stone, jointless and smooth, unable to pluck the money from the open mouth of the change-maker. She struggled to scoop the coins into the stiff basket of her hands but you wouldn’t help her. You were too busy praying to Saint Lucy to take away your voice for good this time.

You Can Do It Again, by Michael Ian Bell
I come up again at the bodega on 189th and Amsterdam. When the vertigo and nausea pass, the shimmering forms resolve into bodies and storefronts. Trash bags are piled enormous in the street and I stare transfixed, one hand on the doorframe, steadying myself. In my other hand is a cola, cold like ice. I put it against my forehead and it shocks me into the moment. Every time is the same but it never gets so I expect it.

Come My Love and I’ll Tell You a Tale, by Sunny Moraine
Tell me the story about the light and how it used to fall through the rain in rainbows. Tell me the story about those times when the rain would come and the world would turn sweet and green and thick with the smell of wet dirt and things gently rotting, when the birds would chuckle with pleasure to themselves at the thought of a wriggling feast fleeing the deeper floods.

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Author Page: Michael Ian Bell

mikeMichael Ian Bell grew up in Northern New Jersey, where he currently teaches English and serves as the Director of Campus Life at an independent school.  In summer he co-directs a boys’ camp program in New Hampshire.  When the homework is done or the kids are all tucked away in their cabins, he spends the last hour of his day writing, (or at least, that’s the goal, isn’t it?).  His first published story appears right here, in Shimmer.

Michael’s Shimmer Stories: