Category Archives: Issue 28

A Drop of Ink Preserved In Amber, by Marina J. Lostetter

Amber knew normal girls didn’t have drawers in their chests. Or in their stomachs, or backs, or thighs. She knew her parents had had her specially designed by a geneticist in Pakistan, where the international genome-manipulation laws were more difficult to enforce than in the U.S. In the history of the world, there had never been another human like her. And she was human, even if she didn’t look it on an X-ray.

ink1And her parents had made it quite clear that X-rays were to be avoided at all costs.

“You are too special,” they told Amber when she was little. “There are some things other people were simply never meant to know.”

At six, she rode her first airplane. She loved it — the roar of the engines, the rush as the aircraft took off and she was thrust back into her seat. It was her favorite part of their family trip.

Her least favorite part was airport security. That first time falling in love with flight was also the first time she was embarrassed about her body. Her parents asked for a private screening, and she didn’t understand why. The TSA agents ushered them behind an opaque barrier, still within earshot of the bustling and beeping of normal security. The area smelled strangely sterile, like a hospital, but the lady who approached Amber didn’t look anything like a doctor. The pat-down she received wasn’t especially intrusive — the woman was polite and explained everything she was doing and why. But it still made Amber feel terrible. Not because the lady was poking and prodding her, but because Amber lied when the TSA agent asked if she’d emptied all her pockets.

Mama had instructed her to say yes–had told her ahead of time that her drawers weren’t pockets and no one would ask her about her drawers.

After, they got on the plane. Amber rode the whole way with her hands over her heart, protecting the secret Mama had stashed there.

They flew from New York to LA. Mama called it a “test flight.” Daddy said her drawers were big enough to use now, but they had to be sure. Neither of those things made much sense to Amber, but, they were her parents, and she wanted to do them proud.

Six long hours later, they landed and retrieved their bags. Emerging from the terminal into the hot California sun, her parents gleefully loaded her into a rental car, laughing. Daddy drove, and Mama sat with her in the backseat.

“You can open them up now,” Mama said with a smile. “You did a very good job. You’re a very good girl.”

Amber didn’t feel like a good girl. She didn’t know why, but hiding her drawers from the lady in New York felt wrong.

She took off her shirt anyway — the one with the cartoon dinosaur with googly eyes — and pressed the center of what should have been her breast bone.

When closed, the drawers were invisible; she looked like any other pudgy child, with uninterrupted contours, a round belly, and tiny limbs. But when she pressed just right, large sphincters unfurled like flowers, letting the bony drawers slide out.

Supple skin covered in fine, velvety hair encased the calcium structures. The drawers were well-padded with cartilage and thick skin, protecting whatever she — or her parents — chose to hide in them.

Mama kissed her forehead and gently plucked a piece of cut amber from her daughter’s chest. It was set in a roughly worked bronze brooch, with small accent rubies encircling the main stone.

“Look,” Mama pointed to the center of the honey-colored gem. “There’s a spider in the amber, perfectly preserved.”

Breaking News: In light of the twelve genetically-modified babies born at UK Centurion Labs — all exhibiting signs of what some are calling transmorphic-posthumanism — members of Congress have pushed forward consideration of a bill that would regulate modifications and define what changes are acceptable here in the U.S. Modifications of intelligence and basic human anatomy are thought by many to be clear violations of ethical reproduction by the Department of Health and Human Services.

Amber’s parents told people they were archaeologists. It wasn’t until long after that first flight that she learned “archaeologist” did not mean “smuggler” or “black-market dealer.”

“Is it because of what we do?” Amber asked when she was eight. “I can’t tell them about my drawers or else they’ll find out about the pretty jewelry and stuff?” She sat at the kitchen table, swinging her little legs while munching on dry cereal.

“The average person doesn’t want to know that people like you exist,” her mama said. “It makes them angry that you’re different. It makes some of them violent.” She brought her tablet over to Amber and pulled up a news article.

“Six Dead at Mod Clinic, Suicide Bomber Suspected,” read the headline.

“So you can’t tell people, understand?” Mama said. “It’s to protect you, to keep you safe. Daddy and I don’t want anything to happen to you. There are people who would want to hurt you. People who would want to study you. The government might want to take you away from us because of how extensively we modified you. We just couldn’t take it if something…”

Her lip trembled and she took a deep breath — at which point she devolved into tears.

Even at eight, Amber had the wherewithal to think, If you wanted to protect me so much, why did you modify me?

Update: The federal government has now outlawed human genetic modification. A doctor caught modifying an embryo will have their license to practice permanently revoked, and may spend up to ten years in prison. If a woman is discovered carrying a genetically modified fetus in the first term, the overseeing medical professional is responsible for ensuring the pregnancy is terminated, under threat of similar penalties.

In grade school, Amber didn’t tell anyone about her drawers, but she used them to do magic tricks. Because her parents often took her to foreign countries for weeks at a time, Amber missed many of the social crucibles of youth. Birthday parties and sleepovers were held without her, as were dances and soccer games. She did her best to capture the attention of other children when she could.

When springtime came, she did a special trick. She would invite a handful of kids down to the river and show them how she could make birds and frogs disappear. First she had to catch them, which was a special trick on its own and led to many bruised knees and bum lips. But when she had her prize, her audience would watch, enrapt, as she moved her hands swiftly behind her back or under her shirt before revealing them to be empty.

ink2“You just dropped it,” a boy inevitably accused, and she always took it as her cue to bring the creature back again.

Once, when she caught a young songbird, it started singing inside her chest. The chirping had a hollow, far-away quality to it, ghostly and reverent. Amber opened her mouth to make a joke, and the song sprang past her lips as surely as if she’d sung it herself.

It took the trick too far. That particular set of classmates wouldn’t speak to her after that. One of the boys threw rocks at her every chance he got.

Play magic is one thing, he said. Real magic is another.

It was the first time she understood how the headline about the suicide bombings applied to her. In sharing some of her secret, she’d scared the other kids.

Mama hated it when Amber did tricks with animals. The frogs made her drawers slimy, and the birds left welts and scratches. “And, you smell like a pond,” she said. “Plus, it’s cruel to use a living thing like that. Now be a good girl and hide this ring for me. Your aunt is coming over and I don’t want her to realize I took it.”

Update: The United States is the fourteenth country to pass a federal law that not only prohibits the creation of genetically modified humans of any kind, but details the legal methods of post-delivery disposal. Should one of these, quote, ‘abominations,’ be discovered, the law describes the threshold for corrective surgery versus euthanization. Any modification of the brain is automatic grounds for extermination.

When Amber didn’t get her period like other girls, her mama explained that it was because she didn’t have a uterus. They’d had to shift a lot of her organs around to accommodate the drawers, and something had to go for them all to fit.

“It’s okay,” Mama assured her. “A uterus and company are nothing but problems anyway. Cramps, cancer, cysts. Be thankful we spared you all that.”

At thirteen, Amber was too young to really care that they’d also ‘spared’ her the problem of pregnancy. Well, at least I’ll never have to worry about ruining my jeans like Aki did.

When she reached high school, Amber realized secrets were currency. Gossip was good, sharing secrets with other girls was good. But, keeping secrets from adults was better.

When the head cheerleader offered her a cigarette behind the gym, she said no. Her dad smoked the occasional cigar and it turned her stomach every time. That stuff stank. But as she was waving the offer away, Coach Green came around the corner. The other girl looked so distraught, Amber had to do something. She took the smoldering cig and stuck it in her thigh drawer. It burned, but she did not cry out.

The blisters stung for days. She had the cheerleader’s admiration for months. She bore the scars for years.

It wasn’t just her parents’ gratitude and love she could earn with her drawers, she noted. If she let other people use them, perhaps they would grow to love her, too.

But, she had to be careful.

The boy who had thrown rocks at her in elementary school did his high-school senior project on “The Ethics and Morality of the Disposal of Human Experiments.” His thesis was not that such experiments were cruel to the subjects, but that they were cruel to the people who had to interact with those subjects. What might these man-made monsters do to “true” humans? How might they oppress them or violate them?

Throughout his presentation, Amber could have sworn that he was staring straight at her.

“In conclusion,” he said, “all modified ‘people’ should be institutionalized. For their own safety, and ours.”

Roaring applause followed.

If he’d known for sure about her drawers, what might he have done? Who might he have called?

In college, she majored in archaeology. Real archaeology. She built up enough courage to tell a few people about her drawers, but only her closest friends. She didn’t want to hide forever, but the recent abolishment of all mods made her wary. Sick-to-her-stomach wary. What if her friends rejected her? None of them had ever expressed anti-mod sentiment, but one never knew.

Maybe they would throw stones at her, too.

She cried when she told Aki. Amber had known her the longest, so it was only fitting she came first.

“It’s okay,” Aki said, hugging her close. “I know it’s not the same, but my eyes are mods. Near-sightedness runs in the family, so… I kind of get it.”

Yeah, she kind of did. But only kind of.

Afterward, they went out and got matching tattoos on their wrists. Two little gold keys each.

ink3Thankfully, all of Amber’s friends took it in stride. No one was horrified, no one threatened to turn her over to the law, and a lot of them seemed pleased. After that, her drawers were never empty. Charlotte hid her pregnancy test in Amber’s stomach when her dad barged in on them. Raj dropped his bag of weed in her shoulder when a cop pulled him over for speeding. Quinn wrote a long, angry letter to her step-mom and asked if Amber could keep it in her chest until she felt ready to confront the woman who had abused her.

Eventually, Amber allowed herself a lover. She’d always been afraid of being intimate with a boy — once, during a hasty make-out session in high school, one of her drawers had popped open, and she’d fled the scene before anyone had a chance to find out. But, in college, she let herself be seen. A few potential lovers left once she’d shown them her body. Enough of them stayed. One even hung around, and he hid secrets in her drawers as well.

Amber’s own secrets never went in her drawers. They couldn’t fit; they were big and balloon-like and made her head swell as though it were filled with steam.

Update: During her upcoming address this evening, the President will remark on the topic of genetic modification — specifically whether or not all adult cases have been corrected. Our White House correspondent believes the President will say the brief era of modification is over, and that we as a nation — and perhaps even the world–can forget about this terrible period of human experimentation and return to the unified forward-stride of mankind.

Even after earning her doctorate, Amber still traveled with her parents; to Turkey, to Belize, to anywhere with antiquities worth stealing. It was the only way she could spend time with them; her parents were only ever home long enough to offload their loot. They filled her up like a treasure chest, muttering as they went — talking to their plunder more than to her.

Unfortunately, Amber’s profession lent an air of legitimacy to their black-market comings and goings. An air they wallowed in.

“One of these days they’re going to start weighing passengers when they fly, and I’ll have a hell of a time explaining how I gained thirty-five pounds in a week,” Amber joked as her mother stuffed a small gold censer between her shoulder blades.

They were in a dingy hotel room in Greece, the walls sported peeling wallpaper. The carpet had a bug problem, and the torn curtains were drawn tightly over the small, open window so that no one could see what they were doing. The room had no air conditioning, though the Mediterranean humidity made the room feel like ninety degrees when it was seventy-five.

Soft snatches of Greek wafted in from the fruit stand on the street below. Amber understood little bits of it, and the swift glimpses into local lives made her smile to herself.

Amber stood in the center of the room, mostly naked, which made it easy for her mother to access whichever drawer she needed.

“It’s called tourism, dear,” her mom said absently. “People tend to eat themselves to death when they travel. But you’ll never have to worry about that. Weighing passengers is too insulting, however practical.”

After her mother finished, Amber pulled on her robe and belted it tight. All of her drawers were heavy with relics from a vandalized fifteenth-century Roman-Catholic cathedral. The metal pieces in her hips poked at her, and she clinked when she shifted. The section of split tapestry in her side was rough — sure to leave a carpet burn. The most gruesome treasure, a mummified tongue — supposedly that of a saint — jumped slightly with every beat of her heart.

Secrets bled out of the brain, through the tongue. Keeping it in the drawer in her chest, the drawer she considered the most important, felt…fitting.

Amber stood full of history. She could feel them — all of the human fingers that had touched all of the human things in such human ways.

History was beautiful, and terrible, and full of secrets that need not be forgotten. Secrets that were all the more important now that their creators were gone. Secrets she was tired of stealing.

“Mom,” she said.

“What, dear? You need to hurry up and get dressed if we’re going to be on time.”

“I think this is going to be my last trip. This kind of trip, I mean.”


Because stealing is wrong? Because my drawers sport enough scars as is? Because I’m tired of you seeing me as a pack animal instead of a person?

“Because history shouldn’t be hidden,” she said. Amber pressed on her breastbone and her chest opened. She plucked out the tissue-wrapped tongue. “This isn’t just a thing you can attach a price tag to. It belonged to someone, saint or not. Someone spoke with this, kissed with it, ate with it.”

“It’s a tongue,” her mother said flatly. “We all have them, but very few are worth a villa.”

“That’s not… What I mean is… What about my drawers? What if, centuries from now, someone digs me up and sells off my pieces? What if I’m all that’s left of modified humans, and someone sticks me in their personal vault, and the world never knows.”

“Most people stay in the ground, dear. The world never knows about them anyway.”

Amber pursed her lips. “I’m trying to say that one person doesn’t own history, and shouldn’t hide history. If people dig me up in the future, I don’t want to stay a secret.” I don’t want to be a secret now. I want people to accept that I’m part of this world, too.

“You’d rather be put on display, like a relic, is that what you’re saying? You think this man wanted his tongue set under glass for people to ogle?”

“If the ogling means they try to understand him, that they acknowledge him, acknowledge the part of history he represents…maybe. I don’t know. I can’t speak for him, I can only speak for me.”

“And speaking for yourself, you’re too good to help your father and me? You’re standing on awfully shaky moral high ground. Selling these treasures has kept you in good clothes, fed with good food — you’ve seen the world. And if you think ‘legitimate’ archaeologists like yourself don’t shove history away, you’re wrong. For every artifact you see in a museum, how many hundreds — thousands — are stuffed away in warehouses? We’re doing exactly what you want: this way, someone gets to appreciate the past. We save history from the dead-depths of university collections and government vaults.”

Amber waved the tongue pointedly. “This was in a damn church.”

Her mother shrugged. “A church where mods like yours are considered a deadly sin. Nobody’s perfect. Now, get dressed.” She slammed the door on her way out.

We save history,” Amber chuckled mirthlessly. She carefully placed the tongue back in her drawer. “Well, who’s going to save me?”

Her entire life, Amber had watched the news. They were always talking about her, even if they didn’t know it.

But in the last several years they’d stopped talking about her. No news updates, no new editorials or information spots. Nothing but the occasional rhetorical nod in a ‘somebody’s wrong on the Internet’ spew-fest.

She knew she should be pleased. She’d gotten away with it–she still had her drawers, and no one was suggesting they euthanize modified humans anymore. She was safe.

But safety meant disappearing. Being forgotten — like a dead language or a small tribe.

Modification is important. It happened. Its destruction happened. Why is everyone so eager to forget?

She’d drafted several letters to news stations, a few to her department head at the university, and a handful of blog articles she could post anonymously. She was just waiting for the day she’d be brave enough to break her silence and submit one of them.

But the truth was, she wasn’t brave. She’d never been brave. She didn’t know how to stand up to her parents — she was a grown woman, a professional, and still she helped them smuggle. She didn’t know how to tell her friends that, just because she’d told them about her drawers, it didn’t mean they were free to use them. These days her drawers concealed proof of her friends’ affairs, secret credit cards, and past-due statements.

She knew now that sharing her drawers didn’t equate love, but it was a difficult habit to grow past. Just like she knew hiding her drawers from the general public didn’t equate with normalcy.

How could she stand up to the world if she couldn’t stand up to the people she loved? How could she be sure that she wasn’t expunged from history if history was intent on forgetting her?

When Amber turned thirty-five, she gave herself a present. It was a painful present, a permanent present.

She took all her secrets and poured them into her drawers: her desire to know another modified human; her fear of being forgotten; her perpetual grief over her sterilization; her anger at her parents and her friends; her anger at herself; her anger at the world.

ink4And her deep love of the ancient, of the past.

And her love for her parents. Her love for herself.

Her love for the world.

Amber covered every inch of her drawers with beautiful, broken secrets. Secrets that she would ensure could not remain hidden forever.

In the years that followed, she tracked down the brooch she’d first carried–the one with the spider suspended in amber. The man who owned it became a good friend, and never asked to put anything in her drawers.

Ten years after that, Amber began to make funeral plans. Not for her parents, but for herself. She knew she still had long years ahead of her, but there were a lot of pieces to put into place if she was going to get the postmortem treatment she wanted.

Her death was important because her life was important.

She told her elderly parents about her plan, and they didn’t hate it. She showed them what she’d done to her drawers, and they cried.

They cried because, for the first time, they understood what they’d done to their daughter.

“We defaced you, we…” Her mother couldn’t get the words out. She dabbed at her weak, watery eyes with thin, shaking hands. “We were selfish.”

Amber took her mother’s hand. “Selfishness is very human.”

She told her colleagues at the university about her drawers. They wanted to tell the news, to let the public know that mods were still around.

But Amber knew it would mean little. The people of today wanted to forget mods. It was the people of tomorrow Amber needed to tell.

No one was sure what they’d find when they opened the Tomb of the Unknown Doctor.

Three centuries previous, a Brown University professor had been buried underneath Rhode Island Hall, home to the Joukowsky Institute for Archaeology at the time. The individual’s name had been purposefully expunged from the record, though innumerable campus legends swirled around the possibilities. Instructions for the tomb’s opening were left at the university, carved in the stone of the tomb’s outermost wall. On the three-hundredth anniversary of its closing, the tomb was to be opened by three archaeology graduate students specializing in, of all things, ancient ink and tattooing.

One of the selected grad students went by Melissa, though Melissa wasn’t her real name. Her given name was attached to a rap sheet filled with ridiculous charges of self-mutilation, and she preferred to keep such absurdities to herself.

Ink was her life — was a part of her very soul–and though she was allowed to study it, her culture forbade her from using it to express herself the way she wanted. Tattooing was a nasty, backwards habit, they said. Only a barbarian would want to mark themselves for life.

Melissa wore long sleeves in public, even in the dead heat of mid-August. Whenever a cuff rode up she quickly tugged it back down, afraid the black spirals of her first self-applied tattoos might show. Friends and would-be-boyfriends who had accidentally seen her markings had all urged her to get help. They thought the artwork covering her body indicated mental illness.

What the ink represented was her lust for life, for memory. When Melissa looked in the mirror, all she saw was beauty. A beauty that connected her to thousands of years of history.

Now, Melissa sat in a darkened university lab over her lightbox — well after the building had officially closed for the evening — studying captures from the CT scan taken of the mummified body they’d found in the Tomb.

She and her team had expected tattoos, of course. Why else would the instructions call for such specific grad students? But this —

This was glorious.

The whole team had been present for the scanning, which had revealed rectangular, calcified structures within the corpse. That in itself was a major discovery. How could someone filled with compartments — moving compartments, like drawers — have survived? The organ displacement alone should have led to a stillbirth if the drawers were natural. The team suspected they weren’t, but until now, such extreme modifications were thought to have been a myth.

During the scan, Melissa had seen something unusual and kept it to herself. There were patterns on the inside of the drawers — the internal skin was almost black with it. The others thought the variations just the natural texture of the skin, but Melissa had her doubts.

Yes, the body had external tattoos, but nothing extensive or unusual for her time. Nothing that would have warranted the grad-student request.

So, what if the patterns weren’t natural?

Maybe she’d been selfish to keep the notion to herself. It didn’t matter now.

Holding a magnifying glass over the first cellulose slide, Melissa squinted. There — was that swooping line a letter? Could it be script?

She could have turned on a holo-table to take her notes digitally, but instead she grabbed a pad of paper and a pencil.

She sketched the lines without looking, hoping they’d appear more familiar in her own hand. Yes, yes — that was an S — not just an S, a whole word. Yes, yes!

Frantically, she transcribed all she could make out. Some of it appeared to be garbled nonsense; they’d need better images to decipher it. But some she could clearly read.

It’s a memoir, she realized. This woman, this unknown professor, had tattooed her life story on the inside of her drawers.

Melissa worked all night, giddy with the discovery.

“But, what’s your name?” Melissa asked the cellulose.

After a long while, the mummy divulged the secret.

As the sun’s rays slipped in through the lab windows, Melissa’s inhibitions dissolved away. This woman was as marked on the inside as Melissa was on the outside. They were two sides of the same skin; sisters-in-spirit separated by centuries.

Slowly, Melissa stood and strode away from the lightbox, toward the morning glow. With each step she shed an article of clothing, leaving fabric scattered across the floor like flower petals. When she reached the windowpane, she looked down at herself. A myriad of black marks — depicting everything from her mother’s smiling face, to a silhouetted flock of starlings, to the Chinese character for eternal — stared back.

This body is for all the people who have been used, then forgotten, stated a portion of the memoir she’d transcribed. For all of those history overlooks or chooses not to remember. It is a symbol of every inconvenient historical fact, every dirty secret and every ‘dangerous’ life.

“Thank you, Amber,” Melissa whispered.

It were as though the long-dead professor had given Melissa her blessing–as though somehow she’d known that the future would continue to forge secret-people who lived secret lives.

“Rest easy,” Melissa said. “We will not be forgotten.”


marinaMarina J. Lostetter’s original short fiction has appeared in venues such as Lightspeed, InterGalactic Medicine Show, and Flash Fiction Online.  Originally from Oregon, she now lives in Arkansas with her husband, Alex.  Marina enjoys globetrotting, board games, and all things art-related.  She tweets as @MarinaLostetter, and her official website can be found at  She’d like to give a special thank you to SB Divya for providing the prompt that became this story’s title.


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To Sleep In the Dust of the Earth, by Kristi DeMeester

Lea and I met Beth when we were thirteen. That was the year Lea had legs that wouldn’t fill out her shorts. The year I started sneaking Marlboro Lights from my mother’s purse to share with Lea in the back corner of Benjamin Harper’s abandoned lot.

“He was going to build on it. A house for his wife. But she died, and he just…” Lea made a fluttering motion with her fingers, scattered the smoke streaming from her lips.

“Jesus. We’ve only heard the story about a million times. Give it a rest.”

“I just think it’s sad is all. You don’t have to be such a bitch about it, Willa,” Lea said and flicked her butt into the grass.

There were rumors that the lot was haunted. Little kids would dare each other to sneak out there at night. Sit right where the front door should have gone and stay until morning. For the older kids, it was a place to do all of the things our parents said we shouldn’t. Even still, we hung at the periphery of the land, far from the heart of the house Harper would have built.

“You don’t feel something when we come out here? It’s so quiet. My hair gets all prickly,” Lea said.

“Like something big is about to happen. Like right before a door opens. When you don’t know who’s on the other side.” She looked somewhere just over my shoulder.

“Someone’s here,” she said and let out a deep groan. Her eyes fluttered into her skull, and she began to twitch, her fingers going rigid, and her back arching.

“Stop it,” I said, and she let out two more guttural grunts before dissolving into giggles.

“Seriously, Lea. It’s not fucking funny,” I said and pushed her. She tumbled backward, and then, for what couldn’t have been more than two maybe three seconds, I couldn’t see her. Dark hair and eyes caught in the act of falling suddenly vanished among grass grown tall.

Must have been a trick of the afternoon sunlight because there she was again, those legs in the dirt and a smile streaked across her face.

“You asked for it,” she said and brushed her hands over her thighs. “Shit. SHIT. Godammit, Willa,” she said, her fingers spread wide.

“Nope. Not falling for it again.”

“No. My ring. My mom’s aquamarine ring. It’s gone. She’ll kill me.”

“It must have fallen off when you fell. Hold on. We’ll find it.”

dust1Later, Lea and I would chew Klonopin and tell each other that there was nothing strange about the day Beth stumbled into our lives. We were just two girls kneeling in the grass, hands outstretched. We must have felt her. Positions of supplication. Must have noticed the moment the sky went darker and the birds fell silent. I don’t think we ever got up from that place. Not really. I think there will always be the two of us seeking something that will not be found.

“There’s a hole here,” Lea said, and I peered over her shoulder.

“Looks like an animal den or something.”

“I think I see it,” she said and poked her fingers into the entrance.

“Don’t just shove your hand in there! It could be a snake hole. Don’t you pay any attention in school?”

“Doesn’t matter any way. Hand’s too big. Help me find something to hook it. A long stick.”

We have different memories of the first time we heard Beth’s voice. For me, Beth sounded like someone trying very hard to not be heard. A quiet rush of words that she hoped would fall from her lips and into the dirt. Lea said that Beth’s voice sounded like water. Something that slipped into your head and sloshed around so that you couldn’t get it out no matter how hard you tried.

“I can get your ring for you.” Beth looked whitewashed. Skin the color of oatmeal. A beige jumper that brushed a pair of knobby knees over a white t-shirt and a pair of crummy, knock off Keds. The kind of girl you see but don’t spend too long looking at.

Lea turned to me and rolled her eyes. “I can’t deal with this weirdo right now. My mother is going to hit the fucking roof. I’m not even supposed to touch the damn thing.”

“I don’t think we need your help,” I said and turned my back to her. Message sent loud and clear.

“I’m Beth. I just moved here,” she said, and Lea muttered something under her breath about being a homing beacon for idiots.

“Really. I can,” Beth said and pushed her way between us.

“Is she fucking serious?” Lea said, but Beth only smiled and thrust her hand inside the hole.

“No way your hand is that small,” Lea said.

“Maybe she has baby hands or something,” I said.

Even now, I wonder if it was the lot acting on Beth. Leaking into her like venom into blood. Most of the time, I think that it was Beth all along. That the darkness we came to know was already a part of her. That she released herself into that place. Into us.

I think I’m still choking on her.

When Beth handed the ring to Lea, the gem cast glittering flecks across Lea’s cheeks. She stood before us, head bowed, while Lea stuck the ring in her mouth to suck off the grit.

“Thanks. Really. You have no idea the shit storm that was coming my way. Your hands must be fucking tiny,” Lea said once the ring was safely back on her finger.

“I’m Beth,” she said again.

We should have never told her our names. Sometimes, things are meant to be lost. There are things you aren’t supposed to go looking for.

Sometimes, it doesn’t matter.

We were seventeen, full of a stolen box of Franzia White Zin, lungs heavy with smoke. Our lips and tongues and teeth pressed against the mouths of boys who told us they were students at GSU but were actually seniors at the other high school. It was almost funny how stupid they thought we were, but they were warm, and we were cold, and there were empty places in the world that were filled with the things we had lost.

Always, Beth was in the background. Hovering behind us while we tested the waters of adulthood. Always watching with her quiet, pale smile. For four years she’d been with us. We didn’t tell her to leave.

Even after all that time, we didn’t know much about her. She didn’t answer most of our questions when we asked them. There were the things that she told us: that her father moved the two of them here after her mother died; that he stood outside of her bedroom at night–to be sure she was breathing; that her favorite color was yellow. Sunshine yellow. The color of joy.

There were the things that she did not tell us: why we weren’t allowed to come into her house; why she never spoke of her father after the first time she told us about him; why we never saw him — not at school to pick her up, not at the grocery store, not at PTSA meetings or driving his car or the hundreds of other ways you’ll see someone’s father; why she had scratch marks on the inside of her thighs.

Eventually, we stopped asking questions, and Beth faded into the background of our lives until we needed her.

During those four years, Beth found all of the things we lost: my favorite lipstick that I thought was in the bottom of my purse; a safety pin earring Lea’s first boyfriend gave her before she let him feel her up for the first time; a pair of yellow sunglasses I bought with my babysitting money. Nothing important. Nothing that we couldn’t live without, but it was amusing. Lea and I had something that set us apart from everyone else. It made us different. Interesting.

We would end up at the empty lot, and Beth would sit next to the hole and presto, just like magic, whatever item we’d been searching for would emerge clutched in her fist.

“She’s stealing that shit. Trying to convince us she’s special,” Lea said after the second time.

“I don’t think so. She’s never excited when she finds something. Or proud of herself. If anything, she looks ashamed. Like she’s just done something dirty.”

dust2“Uh. Yeah. She stole our stuff.”

We hid random things in secret places: in shoe boxes in the backs of our closets, stuffed down garbage disposals, thrown into the woods on our way to school, eyes closed. We didn’t tell each other where they were, but when we told Beth about what we had lost, she would lead us to the lot, put her hand in the hole, and pull out each and every trinket.

I’m not sure if she knew that we were using her. If she understood that was the only reason we let her hang around. Because she could find lost things and bring them home again like our own personal magic trick.

We liked to think that we were doing her a favor. That without us, she’d languish in social hell. No friends. No one to talk to. We adopted her because it amused us. We curled her hair to see if we could, put coral lipstick and liquid eyeliner on her as if she were a doll, and then gave her the crumbs of our affection. Still, she smiled at us and took us down to the lot when we had something that needed finding.

“Don’t ask Beth to come. She gives me the creeps when we have boys with us. The way she sits there and stares. Like she’s never seen a pair of tits before,” Lea said.

“Maybe don’t pull your tits out then,” I said, and she flipped me the bird.

Lea and I were in love with the feel of warm hands against the small of our backs and the musty scent of Acqua Di Gio, and the boys who had lied to us could give us both. We were going to meet them down at the lot.

I can’t remember the boys’ names — they were generic, Chris or Mark or James. What I do remember is a swoop of strawberry blonde hair, freckles, green eyes. Hands in my hair and on my waist. Laughter. Someone brought a radio and Pearl Jam was singing in the background about last kisses. Everything moving in slow motion, like a dream. Beth somewhere in the background, humming along.

When the other boy, Lea’s boy, started screaming, I thought I had fallen asleep, slipped into the half shadow world of nightmare. Beth stood beside him, her arms cradling something I couldn’t see, and the boy screamed again.

“What the fuck? What the fuck?” He scrambled backwards.

“I’m sorry,” Beth said and extended her arms outward, offered him whatever she held.

“Please. I thought I could do it. I could feel him. Down there in the dark,” Beth said, and the boy recoiled.

“Get her the fuck away from me,” he said, but no one moved.

“Beth,” Lea said and reached out for her, but she turned away, clutched the thing in her arms to her chest.

“I’m sorry. I thought I could bring him back for you. You miss him so much. I can feel it,” she said, and I saw what she carried. The rotting body of a small, white dog rested in her arms. Eyes glassed over like two dark marbles.

If the boys ran, I don’t remember. There was only Beth, sobbing, her fingers tangled in the dog’s white fur. It took two hours to get her to let go of it, to convince her to bury it under a pile of dead leaves, and get her on her feet.

We took her home; walked under moonlight that turned Beth’s hair silver, the streaks of mud on her fingers into ink. I don’t ever remember her as beautiful, but that night, her beauty was a terrible thing.

“What did you do?” I said when we got to her porch. Her eyes were translucent. It was like looking through glass into something with no bottom.

“Father made me a door,” she said.

“What do you mean?”

“She’s there. Behind the door. But I can’t open it completely. Not yet,” Beth said and disappeared into the gloom of the house.

That night I dreamed of Beth. She crawled out from between my legs, her fingernails digging against my thighs.

I saw Beth’s father on my eighteenth birthday. There was a party. Champagne in plastic cups. Dancing with Lea while Shirley Manson screamed something I couldn’t quite make out. Beth smiling and shaking her head when my mother offered her some champagne.

We never talked about the night with the dog. That year, when something went missing, Lea and I let it go. Didn’t wonder about where it had gone or tear apart our rooms searching. The lot and the things we did there faded into the myths of our childhood.

I was going to New Orleans for school that fall. Lea was headed to Atlanta to chase a bass player in a shitty rock band. “He’s really good, Willa. They’re going to make it. You’ll see.”

Beth was going to stay home. Take care of her father.

“He’s sick,” she said, but she never told us with what. Only that she had to help him. The idea of her in that house, alone with her father — a man I’d never seen — nauseated me.

“You need to be out. On your own. You know, live,” I told her. The way she smiled at me — lips chewed open and bleeding — made my skin itch.

In three weeks, I’d be far away from all of it: from Beth, from the lot, from all the lost things she had found. From the nightmares that were coming more and more frequently. From the new fear curling hard and sharp in my belly.

Lea went home early. Her rock and roll boy had told her that he might drop by later. She wanted to be sure she shaved her legs in case he did.

dust3One by one, the partygoers stumbled out into the night, followed the moon back to their beds, until there was only Beth and me.

“Walk me home?” she asked.

I don’t remember getting up to leave, my feet falling into the familiar path to Beth’s house. Right onto Lakeshire, left on Hope Circle, left again onto Cumberland Way. We were standing on her porch, when I realized that I had dropped out for a bit. I dismissed the lost time as being more than a little drunk.

Beth turned to me, took my hand, and opened her front door.

“Come inside,” she said, and I hesitated, my foot brushing against the threshold. Warm air pressed against my face, heavy with something that smelled like yeast, like bread baking.

“I shouldn’t,” I said.

“It’s okay.” Her hand was hot over mine, and she pulled me inside.

“I want to show you something.”

The door closed.

“I want you to meet my father. He’ll be so happy to see you again. It’s been so long,” she said, and I wanted to tell her she was mistaken, that I had never met her father, but my tongue was heavy and her hand pulled me into the dark.

“This way.”

She led me into a hallway. Pictures lined the walls. A series of Beth at various ages, her hands and arms covered in dirt as she offered them to whomever stood behind the camera. In some she was smiling, her teeth long and wolfish. In others, she looked down, her hair covering her face.

“We’ll go through the door. And then everything will be fine. Like it was before. Before everything was lost.”

Beneath our feet, the carpet had given way to hard packed dirt, the walls covered with moss. A man stood at the end of the hallway facing a door, his back to us. Dark hair streaked with silver, clipped short. A white shirt tucked into jeans.

“This is my father,” she said, dropping my hand. The man turned, bending to place a kiss on his daughter’s lips. When she opened her mouth to him, I tried to turn away, tried not to hear Beth moan, but my arms felt heavy and would not move to cover my ears.

Beth paused before the door, her hand pressed against the wood.

“You always were my favorite, Willa. Will you help us? Will you help me find something that we lost?” Beth opened the door.

The doorway opened into Harper’s old lot. We were inside the hole, the one where Beth found lost things, looking out and up into the night sky. No moon. No stars. Only the sound of something vast moving just beyond the hole. Something dragging itself along dirt paths.

“He made me a door. And I went searching. Hands seeking in the dark. Looking for what we lost. It took a long time, but I found her. She was so small. So quiet. Curled up like a cat at the bottom of a well,” Beth said, and her father took her hand.

My mouth tasted of blood, sweet and hot and full of iron.

“Who did you find?” I asked, but she didn’t answer.

Beth went down on her belly with her father behind her. They crawled up, up, up and through the hole and into the night, leaving me behind.

Whatever crawled along in the dirt laughed.

“Mother. We found you,” she said, and I closed my eyes.

We bury our dead in the ground. We tend to the seeds and water them with our tears. We wait and watch. Sometimes, what we find is beautiful. Other times, all of the hope we put inside the seed rots and decays. Then, we mourn all we have lost. The things we can never find. What we have thrown into the woods with our eyes closed.

The next morning, I woke up in my bed with no memory of how I got there and the fuzzy leftovers of a champagne headache. My thighs burned, as if someone had clawed their way out of me, but there were no scratches. No blood.

Three weeks later, I boarded an airplane for New Orleans. Neither I nor Lea heard from Beth after the night of the party.

Over the next three years, Lea and I drifted apart and came together with the strange consistency of childhood friends. We called each other when the men next to us were sleeping, and we whispered the lies that we had rehearsed, the fabricated stories we’d adopted to keep ourselves sane. If Lea had her own secrets to keep, I didn’t ask, and she never asked me either.

“I dream about her,” Lea said.

“Me, too.”

“I called her house once. About a year ago. A woman answered. Said that she was Beth’s mother, but her mother died. Didn’t she? I think about her, but everything blurs together, and I can’t be sure if what I’m remembering is real,” Lea said. We didn’t have to say that we were afraid.

Neither of us went back home. Our mothers begged us to visit, but we came up with reasons to stay away. Finals to study for. A new job that wouldn’t give us the time off. A cold that I just couldn’t shake. If Beth even still lived there, we didn’t know. We didn’t ask our mothers, and they never mentioned it. It was like she had never existed — a ghost.

Eventually, I convinced myself I had dreamed that night, down in the hole, with the stars so clear, but every couple of months, I would wake to the taste of dirt in my teeth and Beth’s voice in my ear, her nails digging into my thighs.

It took twenty years for me to come home.

I was twenty-seven when I met Vasily and fell in love with his dark hair and hard tongue that cut straight through words rather than bending around them. I was thirty-two when Terrin was born and learned how the knowing of love is a little like drowning.

Terrin was four when we lost him. An accident. Sun in the eyes of the driver behind us. Didn’t see the brake lights. No one’s fault.

Five months went by, and I could not move. Could not speak. Vasily packed his things. In the story I tell myself, he kissed me when he left.

dust4“Come home, Willa,” my mother said over the phone. She sounded like an old woman, and I thought of what it would be like to bury her. It would feel right. Not like the world had just slipped inside out.

“Did Beth move away?” I asked her, but I knew the answer.

“Who? Oh, Beth. I see her every now and then at the store with her mother and father. She takes care of them I think. Always was a strange girl.”

I went home and slept in my mother’s house. It was no longer mine. There was a bed that she kept, but the girl who had slept there was not me.

Lea came. Took a red eye in from Charleston. My mother let her into the bedroom, and Lea sat on the edge of the mattress, picked at a loose thread. Neither of us spoke, and she went away when the sun began to set, told me that she loved me, that she would be back.

I slept, and I dreamed of a little boy with dark hair like his father, a small hand curled in mine, the sound of his laughter. I waited. I spoke his name and hers into the silence.

It took nine days for Beth to come to me. I woke up to her crouched on the bed. Her feet were dirty, and she’d left dark streaks on the white quilt.

“Can you still find lost things?” I said. She took my hand, and I followed her out the door, down the streets I memorized as a girl and then followed when I was a teenager.

The lot had not changed. Broken bottles, cigarette butts, and candy wrappers still tangled in the grass. The ghosts of two girls and a third who came to them, who brought them nightmares. And somewhere in all of that, a door.

“There’s more than death in the ground, Willa,” she said and knelt down.

“Yes,” I said, and watched as she reached beneath the earth and pulled.


demeesterKristi DeMeester lives, loves, and writes spooky, pretty things in Atlanta, Georgia. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Three-Lobe Burning Eyes, Xynobis 2, Nightscript, Black Static, Year’s Best Weird Fiction Volume 1, and others. She is currently at work on her first novel. You can find her on the web at


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In the Pines, by K.M. Carmien

“You stink like the city,” the woods-thing says. The pines close around them, a green wall, filtering the light to dim and gray, cutting off the world. It looks like a girl, this one. Waxy pale skin, lank dark curls, shabby blue coat. Most of them don’t. They look like trees, or thickets, or wolves, or cats, or patterns of shadow. But this particular one, which always claims the right to deal with her, wears the skin of a girl who was murdered by a drifter four years ago.

The body, technically, is still living. The girl herself is gone or erased or sleeping in whatever dream the woods-thing can build for her.

The drifter is in pieces in his potter’s grave. Only the woods-things are allowed to kill in here.

That is, in fact, the subject of this meeting.

Harry Kang shrugs. She can’t argue there–she just got back from Duluth. The ghosts of steel shavings and city smog are still sunk in her shadow. Her brother works there in a warehouse that ships car parts. By all accounts he seems to like it, but you never can tell with Reg.

“I hate it,” the woods-thing continues, “Why do you go?” It seems more petulant than normal, and more on edge. It won’t stop moving — shifting from foot to foot, picking at the moss lining its cuticles, tugging its curls.

“Family calls,” Harry says.

It spits into the leaf-mould at its feet. Woods-things think family means never leaving. Means a fisher-king binding to the land. So none of them have ever thought much of Harry’s brother, when they consider him at all.

Woods-things spare very little thought for humans who aren’t either witches or annoying them. Or both.

“Come this way,” it says, “To see the body.”

That’s the thing about witching. At some point there’s always a damn body.

pines1Harry has always been a witch.

It comes down through her mother, though they are so entirely different that’s it strange they have anything at all in common, even eye color (brown like soaked bark, like forest streams). Her mother’s magic is books and symbols and long bright lines of numbers. Harry’s is dirt and leaves and roots, blood and antlers, deadwood. Like her grandmother, long dead.

When she was younger, no one but her dared enter the family garden, for fear that the herbs growing there would rise up and choke them for daring to not be her.

In the town of Canby, Minnesota, home to fifteen hundred sixty-seven people, there is an understanding about the women of the Kang family and their little cabin just on the edge of the woods. It wasn’t always the Kang family — before her mother married her father Michael, new-come from Korea to look after the paper-mill’s machines, human as human and loving as the whole wide sky, they were the McKinnons. And it was known that the McKinnon women, for a price, would…help. In little ways. Lower a mortgage, ease a birth, punish a wrong the police ignored. A gift left on the concrete stoop of their little house at the edge of the forest could buy much.

(It was also known, although less well, that the woods, too, would answer a request, if paid in blood.)

At school, people would sometimes ask Harry to show them things. Harry, six years old and tick-swelled with pride, said that it was not for showing off.

And she did not, though they sang to her, though she slept and ate and dreamed restless hungry dreams in their shadow, though her father and brother went in with rifles and came out with deer, enter the woods. Her mother had asked her not to, and in those days Harry was a good girl. No matter how much she ached to go in — she was a good girl.

Then there was the murder, in the winter of 1998.

The girl in question, Harry feels it’s important to remember, was named Maisie Grant. Harry knew her, because Canby is so small that one must work not to be known, but not well. She was a junior in high school. She wanted to go to New York for film school, so she could make nature documentaries. Maisie was not afraid of the woods. She loved them, spent her weekends hiking with an antique compass and maps and fair-trade trail mix, taking gorgeous pictures with her little camera and pouring her adoration out over the trees.

The woods repaid her as best they could, but they could not save her from the knife. Woods-things must be woken. And despite all her love, Maisie never knew how.

When she didn’t come home that October Sunday, and when the police found nothing after those crucial forty-eight hours, Maisie’s mother asked Evelyn Kang to find her.

But it was Harry, fifteen and prideful and wanting the woods like some people want a lover, who went in.

The trees said to her: she is here.

The trees said to her: this is what you are.

The trees said to her: is it not time to become?

A good many of Harry’s reasons were selfish.

In she walked, her battered work-boots making no sound on the carpet of pine needles. A ghostlight burned pale gray-white in her upheld left palm. Shadows snapped and rolled around her, thrown into a frantic dance by her light. If she were being honest with herself, Harry would have to admit that the ghostlight wasn’t actually helping,

But witch or no, she was a child alone in the dark forest, and being without the light frightened her too much.

(Some of the shadows were not shadows at all, only things that looked that way, and were watching her. She could hear them whispering right on the edge of sound, but was still too young to know them.)

The trees sang, still, but did not speak. They weren’t going to hand her everything. Witches should know.

For a long time, till past moonrise, Harry wandered, not quite lost but not quite sure of the path. The still core of her where she kept her magic was buzzing with nervous excitement and worry and nausea.

Even then Harry was a realist. She knew how likely it was that there was a corpse waiting at the other end of this night, and that probably she wouldn’t be able to do anything about it.

The shadows dogged her path. Wolf-eyes gleamed about her, there and gone in half a heartbeat.

pines2Finally she stopped beneath a massive, twisted pine. This wasn’t working. “New plan,” she said under her breath. Her voice trembled more than she’d like, but there was a thin clear thread of strength in it. Harry sat down, cross-legged, on the cold ground, and made her mind into a tiny hard-light sphere.

She breathed in. She breathed out.

She cast her mind like a dragnet over the woods.

Life jackhammered through her. Trees and insects, sleeping birds, owls on the wing, the huge slow pulses of moose and bears, great cats and the bright, brief little stabs that were rodents. The woods-things, alien and familiar all at once. The coiling, endless heartbeat of roots and moss and bones at the center of it all. And she forgot her name, and her purpose, and that she was a her and not part of the woods.

And, as payment for this forgetting, she knew everything.

Later, when she went home, Harry would learn just what she’d done and fear it. Then she knew it well enough that she didn’t fear it, because among the everything she understood how someone might remember she was a fifteen-year-old girl and become that again.

She knew where Maisie Grant was, and where Maisie Grant’s blood soaked into the earth, and she knew where the man who had killed her was, and what had been done to him for his crimes.

Then Harry collapsed back down into her flesh, and was only a girl. But she remembered what she needed. Harry stood on shaking legs, throat dry, eyes burning, and made her way through the dark woods to the clearing. Moonlight lay gentle over the leaves and the blood and the glassy-eyed dead face of the drifter, and on Maisie Grant’s body, which sat primly on a fallen log. The woods-thing inside Maisie’s skin smiled a rictus smile, wide as the ragged slash across Maisie’s throat, and said, “You’re the witch. We’ve been waiting for you.”

Harry swallowed down fear and revulsion and said, “I came for Maisie. Her mother wants answers.”

“And she may have them, but this — ” The woods-thing ran Maisie’s dead hand possessively over Maisie’s dead thigh. “This is mine. She gave it to me. She said I want to live I want to live, and she paid me with all of her blood, and this is what I could do.”

A bargain, freely made and finished in good faith. As much as Harry hated the idea of this thing made of wood and sap and old hungers inside the body of a girl she’d known — it was fairly done. To break it would break her power and anger the woods and a whole host of other things that she, young as she was, couldn’t imagine but knew would be terrible.

“That’s fair. And the drifter?”

“She wanted him to be punished.” The smile, which hadn’t gone away, widened. Maisie’s teeth were white and pearly, straight from years of braces, and gleamed unsettlingly in the moonlight. “I punished him.”

“That’s fair, too.”

“You’re a smart witch.”

“Well, that’s a requirement.”

The woods-thing laughed, and mercifully it wasn’t Maisie’s laugh, but high and chiming and completely inhuman. “Only sometimes. What will you give her mother for answers?”

“Give me her pack,” said Harry, “And a lock of her hair. It’ll have to be enough.”

It wouldn’t be. But then nothing would have been.

Harry buried the drifter in a shallow grave using his own collapsible shovel, and strode out of the woods into the Tuesday dawn with an aching back and blistered hands and a throat full of sour failure.

Her mother waited for her, and Maisie’s mother, and when they saw that she was alone, Mrs. Grant began to wail.

The trees said to her: come back soon.

Now Harry walks with the woods-thing that wears Maisie Grant’s flesh, hand-in-hand in the greenish light. (Over the past months it’s begun to touch her more and more, and she hasn’t found the voice to ask it to stop because she fears it will actually listen to her.) From far away they look almost ordinary, just two girls in the woods. Sideways Hansel and Gretel, ersatz Snow White and Rose Red. It leads her on a long and winding path, over streams and through thickets, skirting copses. She knows where she is, of course. A witch always knows. What she doesn’t know is quite where they’re going.

At last they come to a clearing, blasted and bare, an unnatural miniature wasteland in the heart of the forest. It stinks of rot; where the land is not bare dirt, broken-trunked dead trees stand. The wrongness of this is a coiling physical thing that punches up through her stomach and strikes at her heart. Her power buzzes angrily, shaping itself long sharp spines in answer.

Nauseated, Harry grips the antler-and-deadwood amulet around her neck so hard the points press little dimples into her skin, grounding herself with the pain, and raises a shield around herself. It cuts the feeling. Not enough, but she can work with it. Harry steps forwards. The woods-thing lets go of her hand, and shrinks into the shadow of the trees.

She never thought that she would think this, but it looks afraid. What has happened here?

In the center of the clearing lies a tangle of coyotes, bloodied, eyeless, mouths open in futile, soundless snarls. Even dead the bodies tug at the eye–they run into each other, with no clear ending or joins; they’re all one thing. They cast no shadow.

This was a woods-thing. Was.

“No,” she says, “No — “

“Yes,” says her woods-thing.

“What did this? Do you know?” Her voice is shaking. She lets it.

“One of us,” says her woods-thing. The anger and disgust in its voice are crawling dark things, tangled up and rusted-sharp. “One of us.”



“Help us.” It holds out its hands to her, pleading. “Please. Kill it and we’ll give you whatever you want.”

She’s being asked to answer an abomination with an abomination. And worse, she knows her decision already.

Harry steps out of the clearing, and she takes her woods-thing’s hands between her own and says, “Yes.”

She takes samples, blood and bone and earth and wood, and pictures with her phone. So many pictures that she has to start deleting older ones to make room. Then she plants bundles of green twigs (asked for, paid for, freely given) and tufts of her own short dark hair tied with twine taken from her pack around the perimeter of the clearing. Nothing will get in. If something rises, it will not get out.

She hopes.

Then she texts her mother and Amy Dove, who’s several miles north on the Fond du Lac reservation. By her own hand will the execution be don — but finding the killer woods-thing, that’s not something she has to do alone. It will go faster with three. And the faster, the better. How long before it kills again? How long before it tries to reach beyond the forest? How strong is it, fed on death?

“Stay here,” her woods-thing says as they reach the edge of the trees, “Don’t go.”

This is normal. It asks her, every time, and every time she refuses it because of course she does. She still lives in Canby no matter what she is. It’s a ritual, by now half-meaningless and comforting.

Now, though, it sounds afraid and on the edge of desperate.

Harry notices that more of them than normal are out — tangled through each other, dogging her steps. The trees around them are heavy with other woods-things, clad in shadow and leaves and mud.

They’re not meant to die, and there one of their own has gone sideways and awfully wrong, and so, against their nature, they’re trooping. And hers (since when is it hers? Since she needed a way to differentiate between it and the others in her head.) wants her to stay with it. For comfort. For safety.

It would be sweet, almost, if the heavy sick wrongness wasn’t still lingering in her gut.

“I’ll come back,” Harry says. And then, “Here.” She pulls the chain of her amulet over her head and loops it around her woods-thing’s neck. “There you go. Insurance.”

They stare at each other for a lightning-charged moment, and then it hugs her hard and fast and awkward. On instinct her arms come up, and for a second she hugs it back, breathing in its flowers-growth-sweat smell.

Then it melts away, and so do the others, and she heads out into the field.

pines3The three witches hold their council of war in Canby’s best diner. Harry’s mother looks as she always does: hair falling out of its bun, clothes rumpled, glasses sliding down her nose. Amy is straight from her job as the rez’s public defender, pantsuit impeccable, scrolling forearm tattoos peeking out from the sleeves of her crisp white shirt. Over thick black coffee and cherry pie, amid the noise of conversation and the crackly stuck-on-the-sixties jukebox, they pool what they know. Or rather, what Harry knows.

Amy sums up their feelings with a succinct, “This is shit.”

“Tell me about it,” Harry says, in a tone that more accurately conveys fuck the universe.

“Language,” Evelyn adds mildly, and, “I have a search algorithm I can adapt for you.”

“And I’ve got a devil’s trap I can change,” says Amy. “Tell you what, I’ll stay overnight.”

Absentmindedly, Evelyn makes a sign with her fingers, and in response her phone texts Michael, telling him to make up the guest bedroom.

“Once we’ve got it,” Amy says.

“Once I’ve got it,” Harry says, “It’s my job. I catch it. I kill it.”

“How?” They ask in stereo.

“Greek fire,” says Harry. “Reg knows a guy who knows a girl in Duluth. I can keep a lid on it.” She’s only half as certain of that as she sounds, but she must destroy it on her first try and there is little Greek fire won’t burn. A woods-thing, born of trees, will stand no chance no matter how strong it is. Containing it after —

With a sort of grim humor, Harry thinks, I’ll burn that bridge when I get to it.

“Are you sure,” says her mother. “About doing this alone? I know I can’t help, but Amy — “

“Mom,” says Harry. “No. This isn’t the kind of thing you can split.”

“She’s right,” says Amy. “It ain’t the Ides of March, here. Doing it together won’t make it less…”

“Shit,” supplies Harry. It’s easier to say that than to call it what it is.

Amy shrugs.

“Sweetheart, I don’t like the idea.” Evelyn squeezes her hand. “I want you to be safe, you know that.”

“I know, Mom.” Harry manages a smile at her. “But witching isn’t safe. You know that.”

“Oh, save us from overly clever daughters,” grumbles Evelyn, but worry still edges her voice. “Finish your pie.”

Dutifully, Harry finishes her pie, and tries not to think about what she’s going to do.

A day later, in the small hours of the morning, she rides shotgun in Amy’s car, a small pot of Greek fire balanced carefully on her knees. They drive on through the misty darkness, the world narrowed to the sedan and the half-circle of cracked asphalt illuminated by the headlights.

Amy says, “What’ll you do, after?”

Because she won’t be the same.

“Dunno.” Harry smooths one finger around the rim of the pot. “Stay, if they’ll have me.”

“Will they?”

“They asked me to.”

Amy shoots her a sideways glance. “They don’t think like us. Sometimes I think you’re too close to them, kid. You think they’ll be grateful, when you’re done? Maybe you’re right. But maybe they’ll kill you for it.”

Harry thinks of her woods-thing lacing its fingers through hers, and she thinks of the shadows weaving behind her footsteps and the gleaming wolf-eyes that follow her sometimes, yellow and utterly alien, and knows Amy’s right.

“Be careful, is what I’m saying.”

“I will.”

The forest at noon is no less dangerous than the forest at midnight, but the sun plays through the leaves and the birds sing, and it seems warmer, somehow. Harry knows that’s just her, but she takes comfort from it. God knows she’ll need it.

At the very edge of the trees, her mother draws her into a fierce hug. Harry breathes in the smell of faded perfume and old books and lavender conditioner and holds Evelyn tight against her. When they part, Evelyn folds a thin silver chain that glitters in a way that has nothing to do with light into her palm. Amy claps her on the shoulder and hands her a tiny burnished-bronze eight-pointed star. The word here is etched on the bottom in tiny Anishinaabeg letters.

Harry does not say the words if I don’t come back. Reg knows she loves him. Dad knows she loves him. Her mother will know what to tell them.

She says, “Thank you.”

And she walks into the woods, and she doesn’t look back.

Soon they close around her.

Soon after that, there is a woods-thing at her heels, and another, and another. Fox-shaped and thicket-shaped and twisting into her shadow. A stumbling bear; a silent shine-eyed moose.

Hers isn’t there.

It isn’t there.

And then, from much too far away, it screams.

The scream isn’t so much a sound as a feeling, shooting up from the forest like a new tree, piercing Harry to the marrow. She hits the forest floor on hands and knees, gasping, retching, and then forces herself to her feet and runs like she’s never run before. Desperation burns new-star hot inside her. Half of it’s hers and half of it’s theirs, spilling over into her through the winding roots of her bond with the forest. The silver chain of the search spell jumps and stutters in her hands and she keys it to her woods-thing and lets it go.

Witch and woods-things sprint through the woods. They bend the world around them by sheer collective will alone, shifting trees and roots and copses and thickets to make a straight path to the growing weight on the skin of the world. Harry can feel it. It’s starting to make her sick, that heavy dark wrongness that wants and wants. Endlessly hungry; endlessly ferocious. A rabid animal with magic twisted in it.

The woods spit them out into another blasted clearing. And there it is, a shifting mass of shadows and roots and what looks like the drifter’s corpse that turns the eye away. There are teeth in there, and a glint of sunlight-through-leaves, and thick gloppy sap. It’s swelled up like a spider full of blood from its first kill.

Harry’s woods-thing fights, stretching past the limits of the skin it wears. It’s not girl-shaped, not quite, not anymore. Fingers have crooked into branches, feet into hooves; where it’s been cut it leaks sap mixed unevenly with blood. Whip-thin thorny branches hang from its curls. It opens its mouth, wide and wolf-toothed, and screams again. Now it’s a sound, ragged, high, sharp and piercing.

Harry can feel the bright little point of her amulet around its neck.

That’s something to work with.

She draws the pot of Greek fire from her coat and holds it at her side, and with her other hand holds the eight-pointed binding star.

One chance. She’s got one chance to pull her woods-thing out of there, and if she doesn’t make it she’ll have to kill them both, because it can’t be allowed to eat her woods-thing and grow stronger. The knowledge is a stone in the pit of her stomach.

No time to brood, though.

“Hang on!” Harry winds up and softball-pitches the binding star into the center mass of the killer woods-thing and yanks, as hard as she can, on the power of her amulet.

pines4The dead earth contracts under her woods-thing, pulling it back. It scrambles towards her, hands outstretched and growing, and loops its fingers around her forearm. She pulls. It’s heavy as lead, heavy as a lake. The killer woods-thing throws out feelers of shadow, clinging to it, but the shadows curl up and die at the edges of an invisible wall. Still it hangs on.

Hers, it’s hers, this monster-thing can’t have it.

“Mine,” she growls, and braces her feet, and gives one last great pull.

With a tearing pop, it comes out of the trap she made and falls at her feet.

It’ll live, she thinks with a stab of relief, but this isn’t over.

The killer woods-thing roars, and, with all her might, Harry throws the pot of Greek fire at its heart.

White-hot flames lick the sky. Heat sears her front, and an awful ratcheting scream drills into her ears, the sound of an animal in pain multiplied a dozen times over and folded back in on itself. The woods-things behind her scream too. Hers grabs her hand with fingers nearing human.

Tree-tendrils scratch and scrabble at the edges of the trap, desperate, seeking. Slowly, they crisp and curl and die. The screaming stops.

And her power snaps and cracks, turning inwards, clawing at her insides and slipping out at the seams. It leaks from her mouth and her nose and streams down from her eyes. Harry’s knees give out and she falls.

(She knew this was coming, she knew, but she wasn’t ready.)

She hits the ground and barely feels it. Someone is shouting at her. Someone is prodding at the sick sharp place where her magic is. Someone is calling, “Harry! Harry Kang!”

The words mean nothing that she can understand.

“Harry! Witch!” A slap cracks across her face. The sting is muted. “The fire is escaping, get up, stop it — Harry, please!”

Hot air rolls over her, intense as a kiln.

Her power curls inside her. Nausea stirs her stomach.

Harry, please.

Slowly, she cuts her way through the fog to rationality; realizes that she has to get up, but can’t quite grasp why. She gets one palm flat against the ground, then the other. Then she gets to her knees.

Then she sees the Greek fire eating its way through the barrier.

Oh. That’s why.

With a rush, she comes back to herself. Everything is too much, battling for her attention, scratching her mind raw. The broken pieces of her magic stab at her and at the fire alternately. She’s going to vomit. She’s going to pass out.

She’s going to quell that fire if she dies doing it.

(She really hopes she’s not going to die.)

Fire is hungry, always. There’s no way to feed it to satisfaction; it’ll always want more. But she can starve it to death, if she’s careful.

It’s so big, looming over them all like a wave about to break, and she can feel the weakness running in her bones. Harry swallows and gathers what she’s got left.

It will burn air. It will even burn on water.

But what’s left of her magic —

Maybe not that.

Harry snaps the trap open wide, and holds out her arms to the fire, and draws it inside her.

It burns all the way down her throat and into her stomach, and it fills her to bursting. It hurts so much, worse than the time she broke her arm jumping off the barn roof, worse than the time she left her mind wedged open and spent a week full of everyone else’s dreams, worse than the time she left herself inside a deer while it died.

She swathes the fire with every shard of power she has, cutting it to ribbons and smothering the individual pieces. Tiny sparks escape and bite at her.

Her fingertips start to smoke.

Still she goes on.

The burning climbs her arms, and she breathes out a long stream of woodsmoke with a whimper on its heels. An arm winds around her waist; shadows clump around her legs. The foxes and the moose press into her, their forms blurring. They open the heart of the forest to her.

But the influx of power is not enough. Stretching, choking on a scream, she draws on a year of her life, two, three. Four.

The fire inside her goes out, and Harry falls again, falls a very long way.

When she wakes, it’s to still greenness, and waxy-skinned hands tipping water down her throat.

A bone-deep exhaustion weighs her down. The world is dull and far away and she feels sick, still. Everything blurs. Her tongue is swollen and useless. And something–something else, something worse, is very wrong with her. What is it?

Her woods-thing says, “You’re awake.”

No, am I? she wants to say, but the words don’t come.

Her power is gone entirely, she realizes. She’s empty, drained dry. How is she alive?

Her woods-thing brushes the backs of its knuckles butterfly-wing-light over her cheek. “Do you even know how much you gave us? Everything. You brave idiot. What will I tell your mother? What will I tell your bird-witch?”

What’s going to happen to her?

“But we’ll take care of you,” her woods-thing goes on.

The earth is softening under her, slowly but surely. Swallowing her down. Peace steals over her.

Artificial. Imposed. The woods are doing this.

Harry licks her lips. Manages to whisper, “What are you doing?” Her voice is a barely-coherent rasp.

“Sending you to sleep.”

“For how long?”

“Shhh.” It lowers her to the ground gently and stretches out beside her, curling an arm possessively around her middle. “For as long as you need,” Harry’s woods-thing whispers in her ear. “Until you’re well again.”

Oh. That sounds nice.

The earth closes over them.

She sinks into sleep.

Months later, as autumn marches onward to winter, Amy Dove and Evelyn Kang stand beside a long low mound. Despite the cold, despite the frost, despite the pine-shadow it lies in, it grows with tiny blue-white flowers and nettles and tangled ivy. A many-eyed, many-jointed fox lies lazily atop it, watching them, motionless but for the lazy flick of its tail.

The woods are quiescent.

“I wish I could see her,” says Evelyn. “I wish Michael could.” He knows, but he doesn’t understand. He doesn’t understand that Harry will wake again, a line of code rescued from the cache, a bulb flowering in spring after a long winter. To him, she’s just gone. Reg knows better, but Reg is so far away.

Amy sighs. “Me too.”

They are silent a moment. Then they turn from the sleeping witch, and leave the woods whispering behind them.

In four years’ time, while summer rages green and hot, one short-nailed olive hand breaks up through the dirt of the mound.


kathleenK.M. Carmien is currently a full­time student in Princeton, New Jersey, where she attends Rutgers University. She currently reviews books for SFRevu. This is her first published story.

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Even In This Skin, A.C. Wise

Mar has been binding her breasts for years by the time she starts visiting Jamie in prison. If the men stare, it’s at her ass; she can live with that. She isn’t packing today, so she doesn’t strut, just tugs her sweatshirt over her wrists before sliding into the seat opposite her brother. Today, she just wants to disappear.

skin1“How are you doing?”

“Same old.” Jamie offers a lopsided almost-smile, lifting one shoulder to match.

Shadows tuck beneath his skin. His gaze cuts right, a pointed look to the empty seat beside Mar; neither of them are surprised, but it still hurts.

“Did you bring me the shiv I asked for? Or the cake with the file baked inside?” Jamie looks pointedly away from the empty chair, smile broadening into a grin, but one without real feeling.

The joke falls as flat, same as the last three times. Mar places a pack of cigarettes on the table.

“Mom did ask about you at least. She wanted to know if you’re eating okay.”

“Nice of her to call you to check.”

“It was an email.”

“Three squares a day, since she asked.” Jamie pats his stomach.

It’s flatter than hers; his jumpsuit hangs loose around an already narrow frame. His hair is buzzed short, and there’s a new mark above his ear, dark ink beneath the shadow of stubble.

At fourteen, with Jamie sixteen, Mar had come down the basement stairs to find Jamie’s friend Val giving him a homemade tattoo on the inside of his left forearm with a broken pen. Most of the tattoo had washed away, not deep enough to last, just deep enough to leave a faint scar from infected skin Jamie couldn’t stop scratching. This is how they’ll know you’re one of us, Val had said.

She doesn’t look away quick enough, but Jamie seems unfazed. “You like?”

He turns to show the stars marching crookedly up the back of his skull. At least none of them look infected.


Her hand is already halfway across the table between them, wanting to touch the stars. She pulls her hand back, and Jamie’s smile falters.

“They look great,” Mar says.

Hurt flickers in his eyes, but he schools his expression, the smile coming back at half force.

“It doesn’t mean anything,” Jamie says. “Promise. I’m done with that shit. Really. They’re just stars.”

“I know.” Mar answers as quick as she can, but it’s not fast enough.

At sixteen, with Jamie eighteen, the flat crack of a gun -a sound like a branch breaking, like a fracture dividing their lives into then and now and no way to build a bridge between them – is indelibly imprinted on Mar’s mind. She ran, feet thudding on the pavement, trying to be as swift as she’d been when they were young and running through the woods, but she was too late to tell who fired the shot. Val and Rico and Tommy and Jamie all stood around the boy on the ground, and Jamie looked at her with stricken eyes, I didn’t do it, Mar, I swear.

Jamie pulls the cigarettes across the table.

skin4“Don’t spend them all in one place.” It’s her turn for a joke that falls flat, smile feeling tender and bruised.

She plows on and they talk about nothing as the time ticks down. Then chairs scrape back from tables.

“Same time next week?”

“I’ll be here.”

Mar’s heart turns over, wanting to escape; only the comforting press of the binder keeps her heart in place. She leans in for a quick hug, tight and hard, because it’s easier than looking Jamie in the eye.

“Be good.” She brushes lips against his cheek.

At the door, Mar looks back. The angle of sunlight slanting through the barred windows washes out Jamie’s face. She steps outside, leaving her brother and the other faceless men in the prison behind.

A ghost dogs her footsteps across the parking lot, the echo of a gunshot. I didn’t do it, Mar. She’s never doubted him, but he still chose. He put the gun in his hand at some point; his fingerprints were on it. Val and Rico and Tommy’s fingerprints were on it, too, and none of them were fast enough when it came time to run. Mar hurries her footsteps, doing her best to outrun the ghosts, though she knows she’ll never be fast enough either.

At six and eight, Mar and Jamie are in the woods behind their house, running. Even this young, they understand their mother doesn’t care if or when they come home. They are hungry, not just because the groceries haven’t been bought for the week, and their mother forgot to leave money for a pizza before she went out. It’s a different kind of hunger, tied to the one in their bellies, but separate. They fill it with wild motion, the sleek burn of their muscles and the relentless pulse-beat of their footsteps in the dark.

In their future, Jamie will try cutting. Mar will be the one to find him, flimsy disposable razor in hand, blood plinking against the white curve of the sink. Later still, Mar will try starving, something she can control even though food is scarce. But with no one to see, and no one to care but each other, they will give up these things. They will revert to the knowledge they have now – that their hunger is deeper than skin or food, and they will learn different ways to cope.

But for now, at six and eight, they run. Tucked beneath the leaves and roots closest to the cul-de-sac where they live, there are rotting tires, broken bottles, worn-out porno magazines. Mar vaults over a fallen log, crossing a boundary where, if she looks back, she won’t be able to see the softly-glowing crescent of houses anymore.

Between one heartbeat and the next, the night shifts. The space between the trees thickens to blue-black, then the purple of a bruise. The trunks stretch taller, slender and silver smooth. Footsteps drum around her, a steady rain of shifting, fleet shadows.

Hooves and horns, wings and claws. Skin. Hybrid, impossible creatures. All running toward something Mar doesn’t understand, but wants so badly she can taste it, a salted sweetness on her tongue.

Then a flat crack, the sound of a branch breaking, draws her up short. Mar stumbles, knees barking leaf-rot and hands catching her fall. The shadows slipping past her fall to silence, leaving only the drum of her pulse in her ears. A shape moves ahead of her in the dark.


No answer. Light spills between tree trunks, outlining a tall, slender figure. Not Jamie. Not human? Mar doesn’t know how she knows this; the truth of it is simply down in her bones. A catch of breath and Mar realizes the figure is animal and human, bound in one flesh.

For a moment, her heart refuses to beat, and when it starts again, the tempo is strange. There are two hearts inside her skin, and for once, the hunger in her belly is still.

Mar stretches out a hand. Another crack, a bone-snapping sound of more branches breaking as Jamie blunders through the woods, calling her name.


She can’t see her brother, only hear him wading through undergrowth, clumsy feet tangling in low branches, roots, and dead leaves. The impulse to shout go away rockets through her. The shadows seep back, retreating. She wants to beg them to stay, but Jamie is ruining everything. Her pulse rabbits, and a terrible thought strikes her. If Mar curls herself small, if she holds very still, Jamie won’t see her; she can stay and hide forever in this magical version of the woods that aren’t the woods she left behind.

“Mar?” Panic edges Jamie’s voice.

“I’m here.” Guilt twists and she jumps up, heart slamming back into its normal rhythm.

Jamie rushes toward her. The tall, thin figure is gone. All the shadows with their horns and hooves and feathers vanish. Cold seeps in around the edges of the night. Mar shivers, and Jamie throws an arm around her shoulders. He’s limping, and there’s a long gash on his shin.

“A branch. I tripped,” he says.

Mar lets him lean on her, despite being younger and shorter, taking his weight.

“Come on, let’s go home.”

She looks back one more time, but the light between the trees is only gray now; dishwater-dirty, touched orange by the city’s glow burning through pollution. Headlights sweep by beyond the trees, and the woods are finite again, bounded by the neighborhood on three sides. No mystical shadows pace them in the dark, no two-hearted creature waits for Mar to take its hand.

With her arm around Jamie’s waist, and the weight of his body against hers, they walk slowly home.

The line outside the club inches forward. Mar jams her hands into her armpits, trying not to shiver. The men around her – and it is mostly men – are under-dressed. They breathe steam in the cold night air. She imagines them stamping hooves. Bulls. Minotaurs. Ready to run.


She’s packing tonight, but the strut isn’t there. She keeps thinking of Jamie, lost and falling behind, his face washed out by the sun in the prison visitation room. She fingers the outline of her phone in her jacket pocket. There’s an unanswered message from her boss, trying to change Mar’s mind. Before she left work on Friday, he offered her a new position, a transfer, with a higher salary and relocation costs paid.

Mar turned it down, hunger gnawing in her belly as she did. A new city, a new life, but it would mean leaving Jamie behind. A half a dozen times tonight, she’s pulled out her phone to erase the message. A half dozen times she’s been poised to call her boss and turn in her resignation. She’s been sick, her mind running around it in circles. Tonight, she doesn’t want to think about anything at all.

A fug of cigarette smoke and pot hangs in the air. Light from the club’s neon sign tints the bodies around her cool blue. It highlights the bulk of shoulders, the line of jaws. Looking at them stamps an ache into Mar’s skin. At the same time, she can’t stop herself from scanning the crowd for someone she recognizes, but doesn’t know. Someone like her who isn’t just one thing, but everything. Someone who will understand.

Mar reaches the front of the line, fumbling bills into the bouncer’s hand with chilled fingers. Inside, lights strobe, shocking her blind. Then everything kicks loose all at once. Bodies pack tight, sweat-sheened and writhing. Heat pulses from Mar’s groin to her throat; the bass thumps inside her ribs, replacing her breath and heartbeat. She’s un-fleshed, her whole body a raw nerve, open to the night.

She doesn’t bother with a drink. She flings herself into the fray. It’s as good as running. The only important parts of her body are the muscle and sinew moving her limbs, her feet pounding hard against the floor. She doesn’t have to care about moving forward, or turning back, making a choice. There’s only here and now.

The bass-thump moves her blood to mirror her feet flying over the forest floor, over fallen logs, dodging roots, showing her teeth to the night. She’s not looking behind to see Jamie’s eyes, wide in the mirror, blood plinking against white porcelain. There’s no ink on his skin, and she doesn’t have to ask how he suddenly has extra cash to buy a car that isn’t a piece of shit, get her new clothes – tight layers, sports bras doubled up, one backward one forward, bandages, and finally the binder, anything to change the curve of her body. There’s only running, and if she’s fast enough, the gunshot sound will never come. She’ll outrun it this time. Outrun the stricken look in her brother’s eyes, wordlessly saying I need you, help me, please don’t leave me behind.

A hand touches Mar’s arm. She whirls, lips peeled back from feral teeth. The man flashes teeth in turn, mistaking her expression for a smile.

“Buy you a drink?”

She has to lip-read the words for the ear-shattering music. Mar crashes back into her own too-human skin, dizzy. The hand on her arm becomes a steadying one, holding her up.

“You look like you really need one.” He screams the words next to her ear.

Without waiting for her answer, the man guides her to the bar. Mar sips the blue-sugar sweetness pressed into her hand. It steadies her long enough to take in a square jaw, frosted hair, eyes that would still be blue even out from beneath the flashing lights.

Mar forces herself to smile. It’s only slightly quieter away from the dance floor. They shout an exchange of names. Chad – at least she can put a word to her regret, if it comes to that. A second drink, one she doesn’t remember asking for, and more, continually finding their way into her hand. Alcohol blurs the edges of the night; she forgets to be afraid.

The reassuring bulge between her legs makes her widen her stance, broaden and square her shoulders. In the flickering light, she can believe she is the wild, changeable thing she wants to be. Narrow hips, sharp cheekbones, a creature straddling two worlds. Chad’s hand strays to the small of her back. His lips find her ear.

“Wanna get out of here?” His breath raises hairs on the back of her neck.

The music steals her words, but she follows him, sweaty fingers tangled in his. They stumble into the alley behind the club. It’ll be okay, Mar promises herself, directing Chad’s hands carefully, her hips, her shoulders, her ass. Keeping him away from her shirt, the binder wrapped tight around her chest. Keeping him away from the front of her pants for any touch longer than the faintest, teasing brush of fingers against denim. Then she’s on her knees, his fingers in her hair as he groans, thrusting into her mouth. This is good, it’s safe, she can do this.

Then he says, “Wait.”

Mar’s stomach flips, sick with excitement. Chad’s eyes are liquid, unfocused. “I don’t want to come yet.”

The husk in his voice suggests otherwise, but with remarkable self-restraint, he pulls her up.

skin5“I want to feel you.”

His fingers go for her fly, surer than hers, despite the drink. Mar’s whole body is a string, taut. She almost lets him. Because, oh god, she fucking wants this. Just bodies. Contact. Flesh against flesh. Pleasure the only definition between them, and no need for Mar to be this or that, to choose.

Her mouth crushes his – the taste an echo of too-sweet drinks and the memory of ash from a cigarette hours old. Mar wants to melt into him as his hands slide lower on her body, but panic slams adrenaline through her brain. The bulge in her pants feels wrong, not because it isn’t her, but because it is still a solid choice. It defines her and pins her when she wants to be liquid, quicksilver, wild and strange.

“No.” She slaps Chad’s hands away, shoves him hard.

His eyes widen in confusion. Mar wraps her arms around her body, holding herself in. Her jaw clenches tight, tensed for a strike. Whatever he thought he would find when he unwrapped her, she won’t give him the chance. If the disappointment of not knowing is too much for him, maybe she can define herself by pain instead. Bruised flesh is still flesh. Bones cracked in rage are only bones. Everyone is red on the inside, no matter their shape otherwise.

Chad shakes his head in disbelief, stuffing himself back into his jeans.

“Fuck you, then.” He slams her with his shoulder as he moves back into the club, but nothing more.

Mar sags against the wall, letting the bricks take her weight. The trembling starts at her feet, making its way up her body until she’s clenching her teeth against the enormity of it. As much as she wills them not to, tears come, and she’s a mess of salt, wiping at her face.

It’s a moment before she registers the scent of cigarette smoke. Not soon enough to brace herself against the soft voice that comes in its wake.

“What if you could have everything you wanted?”

Mar jumps, scrubbing her eyes until black spots burst behind them. The owner of the cigarette melts out of the shadows – tall, sharp-featured, and with gold eyes that must be a trick of the light.


“Everything you want.” Two slender fingers, holding the cigarette and trailing smoke, point at Mar’s chest.

Mar’s breath stalls. Even though the club’s blue neon still shines on them, the stranger’s hair is shockingly red.

The ghost that has been dogging her since leaving the prison crashes into her. Mar is back in the woods, looking through blue twilight at an impossible figure, tall and thin, a flickering creature refusing to hold its shape. She blinks, shaking her head. Too much alcohol.

“Where did you come from?” Mar looks around, pulse skittering; was she being watched the whole time she was on her knees, the whole time she cried?

“I smelled your tears.”

The stranger closes the distance so smoothly, Mar doesn’t have time to step back. A tongue sweeps over the wetness of her cheeks like a dog licking her pain away. But the hands framing Mar’s face and holding it still are human.

“Honey,” the stranger says. “Your tears taste like honey.”

Mar shakes her head again, huffs a sound that isn’t quite a word. A hollow ache presses against the back of her eyes.

skin3“I’m Fox.”

“Okay,” Mar says, voice squeezing up from the depths of her.

For the first time since she started wearing it, her binder crushes her. Or maybe it’s only her heart beating too hard in her chest, her lungs going haywire. It occurs to her, over the frantic drum of her body that she doesn’t know whether the stranger said ‘Fox’ or ‘a fox.’

“Okay,” she says again.

The drinks catch up with her and Mar turns away, dropping to her knees to be sick this time. A hand touches her back, comforting, or merely keeping her in place. After a moment, a napkin is offered. Mar wipes her face, cleans herself up as best she can, and climbs shakily to her feet.

“What do you want?” Mar asks.

“It’s what you want that’s the question. Do you know?”

She’s about the say she wants to be left alone. The words are like her boss’s, still saved on her phone. What do you want, Mar? You need to think about your future, and what’s best for you. The world won’t wait for forever. Don’t let opportunity pass you by. Before Mar can say anything, Fox steps close again.

Lips graze Mar’s jaw, sharp teeth behind them. Fox’s cigarette vanishes, leaving hands free to roam. Mar braces for the panic, but it doesn’t come this time. Fox’s touch is gentle, a question Mar’s flesh shivers to answer. There’s a scent like fallen leaves, like earth, tucked just under the cigarette smoke. Beneath her clothes, Mar’s skin pulls taut, her bones shifting, her body hollowing and swelling in accordance with each movement Fox makes.

Mar catches her breath, an audible sound. Fox draws back, amusement shining in gold eyes, a half-smile resting upon lips. The shivery buzz recedes in the absence of Fox’s touch. A cigarette flicks back into place between long fingers, conjured from thin air.

“Shall we find out?” Fox asks.

Mar doesn’t trust herself with words, not yet. Instead, she follows; Fox leads. The streets twist away, the city becoming unfamiliar. In Mar’s peripheral vision, houses and buildings stretch tall into the sky, thinning into smooth trunks with branches and leaves lost deep among the stars. She stumbles over a tangle of roots, or her own feet. Streetlights blur in the afterglow of rain, making everything shine.

Through a door, up stairs, and through another door into a messy, close space smelling faintly of animal musk and juniper berries. Mar allows Fox to lay her down on a bed, push her into a nest of covers. She’s dizzy, but in a pleasant, dream-like way – past sickness and back to buzzed. The edges of everything are rounded and vague. Safe.

She lets Fox undress her. Fox sets the prosthetic aside. At least Mar thinks so; a ghost weight lingers beneath her legs, stirring to heat and proximity. Fox leaves the binder in place – even when everything else is stripped away – with a preternatural understanding that it is essential to Mar. It was her first act of defiance against the shape she was born into, her last line of defense against the world. This simple act leaves Mar shaking with gratitude. Gratitude and desire. The shaking doesn’t stop as Fox’s hands trace over her again. Tremors wrack her body, tiny earthquakes smoothed or awoken by Fox’s hands.

The world blurs further; not just the edges, but reality itself loses cohesion. Mar’s skin and bones are liquid honey, made soft by Fox’s touch. Malleable. Her flesh changes, solid one moment, rising to Fox’s hand, hard flesh to be grasped; concave the next, so Fox’s fingers sink into her and Mar answers with a shuddering gasp.

The only thing Mar is certain of is that Fox’s eyes are indeed gold; it wasn’t a trick of the light. Then Mar surrenders, ceases thinking at all. Nothing matters but muscle and blood. Like dancing. Like running. Pure motion. She lets her body talk, scream, and arch into Fox’s touch.

When the shuddering is done, Fox reaches for a pack of cigarettes, showing shocks of red hair sprouting from beneath armpits. Gold eyes assess Mar; Mar gazes back, blinks. Fox’s chest is smooth, but swelling slightly where breasts might be. Or not. Fox’s nipples are small, hard, dark like winter berries. Mar cups a hand over one, then runs her palm downward. Her breath snags, thrilling to find a whole line of equally hard bumps beneath her touch. Fox pushes her away, not unkind, but business-like.

“Now,” Fox says, breathing a stream of smoke. “Do you know what you want?”


She wants to melt under hands that touch her the way Fox does. Always. She wants to feel her bones stretched like taffy, her whole being infinitely malleable and capable of remaking itself from one moment to the next. She wants to flicker and run and never have to choose.

“The world doesn’t work that way. Not quite.” Fox places a finger against Mar’s forehead, between her eyes, smiles sly.

Mar squeezes her eyes closed, lashes rimmed with tears harder than the ones she shed before. These are like frost, unfalling.

“Not choosing is still a choice, but every body has to take a path, sooner or later. Every choice comes with a cost, but if you don’t step onto the path, you run the risk of being dragged along it.”

It sounds like a fairy tale, but Mar knows that isn’t what Fox means. In the woods, she chose; she turned toward the city and a wild, strange thing slipped away from her. Jamie chose to put ink on his skin, a gun in his hand. It’s not as simple as trading the name of a child for straw spun into gold.

Jamie sits behind her eyelids, small in his prison jumpsuit, shoulders curled inward and ink marking his skin – the image printed there like a bruise. It isn’t fair. Any choice she makes seems to leave Jamie behind. But if she doesn’t choose, if she stays here forever, then she’ll curl inward too. She will grow smaller and fainter every day until finally, she disappears.

“I don’t know.” Mar breathes out, opens her eyes.

Fox rolls slightly to face her, propped on one elbow.

“I could eat your heart.” The words are matter-of-fact. Mar stares as if the words will show in the curls of smoke circling Fox’s red, red hair, waiting for them to make sense.

“Think how much easier it would be to go through the world heartless.” Fingers trace the edges of Mar’s binder, but do nothing to pull it away.

Gold eyes watch Mar, unblinking. If any tears should taste like honey, they should be from those eyes, not Mar’s, but she can’t imagine Fox crying.

Is that what it means to be heartless? Never in danger of tears, but never in danger of love either? Mar studies Fox’s narrow face, the impossibly sharp cheekbones. A wild animal, a myth. Both. Neither.

The suddenness of Fox’s body over hers startles Mar. Fox’s teeth rest against the edge of her binder; gold eyes pin her in place.

“I could bite through,” Fox says, “and you wouldn’t feel a thing.”

“Before, or after?” Mar says.

She means the words as a joke, but they don’t sound like one.

A shadow flickers beneath the surface of Fox’s gaze. Hunger. Wanting. A space that can’t be filled devouring by hearts; an emptiness too big and complicated to name.

skin6“Yes,” Fox says.

Mar’s pulse trips, insistent at her wrists, between her legs, in her throat. Fear, real, sweeter than any she’s felt before.

Her body responds. Heartless. Yes, she wants this. But she needs time to think, and right now, with Fox’s lips grazing her belly, and moving lower still, she doesn’t want to think at all.

“You look happier than I’ve seen you in a long time,” Jamie says.

The hard plastic seat cups her uncomfortably. A hum of voices surrounds them, a susurrus of conversations half-held, everyone saying too little and too much in the short window of time they’re allowed. Her cheeks warm.

“You finally meet someone?” Jamie’s grin is sly.

But there’s an edge to it; the corner of his mouth quivers. Guilt needles her. She hasn’t made a choice, but sitting here feels like a lie, like she’s hiding something good and secret when Jamie has nothing at all. Jamie runs a hand over the stubble field of his scalp. One leg bounces, restless, under the table.

“Are you okay?” Mar leans forward.

“You know me, I’m always okay.” The lines of Jamie’s smile dig deeper, determined, like he’s got something to prove. The stretch of his skin shows his skull. Mar’s heart cracks, her binder too tight again.

She reaches across the table, catching Jamie’s fidgeting hands.


Her voice fails. She can’t look him in the eye, not just because she’s afraid he’ll see the shadow of her leaving, the possibility that she’ll choose something that will pull their worlds apart. She’s afraid she’ll see a shadow in his eyes, too. Doubt. Guilt. And some sick part of her wants to see it there. She wants to know he chose, that some action led him here and not random chance, being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Would it make it easier if Jamie confessed? Could she walk away with a clean conscience? No. Jamie would still be written on her heart, her brother, no matter what he did or didn’t do. If she lets Fox devour her heart, what happens to Jamie?

“Don’t,” Jamie says before she can even try to go further. “One of us should be happy, Mar.”

At the pressure of his fingers on hers, Mar can’t breathe. She closes her eyes. They’re running together in the dark. The smell of churned-up leaves, the trees lengthening around her, the light bruising to a new color. His legs are longer than hers, but hers carry her ahead. A branch cracks under his weight; Mar’s heart cracks. Jamie trips, tangles, and Mar is alone. At six and eight, a shadow comes for her, and Mar turns away, back toward home. And now? Her heart cracks again, fracturing beneath the binder, drawing a line through Jamie’s name.

“Just keep running,” Jamie says. “And don’t look back.”

The fact that he knows her so well, can read her thoughts even as Mar hides her eyes makes it hurt all the worse. She forces herself to look at him, she owes him that much.

The smile sliding across his face is almost real this time, shadow-touched, sorrowing, like he understands. Jamie releases her hands, and it’s a moment before the world rights itself.

“Jamie.” Tears thicken the name in her throat. She doesn’t try to go further this time.

When the time is up, Mar hugs Jamie as hard as she can, feeling the bones move under his skin, letting the pressure of her touch say goodbye for her where the word itself refuses to form.

Mar doesn’t know where to find Fox, but she knows where to be in order for Fox to find her. The woods behind the house are a little more unkempt, the trees a little more ragged, a few more years of secrets and discarded things lodged among the roots. Empty bottles, cigarette packs, used condoms. The woods are where people come to test personalities, passions, and vices before they let the world see them.

“You’ve made a decision,” Fox says.

There’s no cigarette to herald the appearance this time. Fox is simply there in the space between two trunks, hands in the pocket of a long coat that nearly brushes the ground.

“What are you?” is what comes out of Mar’s mouth, a question instead of an answer.

“You already know.” Fox’s head tilts to one side.

Fox presses a hand against Mar’s chest. Mar’s pulse thumps beneath her binder and her skin. She imagines sharp teeth, biting through muscle, through bone. Fox promised she wouldn’t feel a thing.

“Are you ready?” Fox asks.

Mar nods. Fox takes her hand, leading her deeper, where the trees grow straighter, less ragged, where stranger secrets than sex and addiction are hidden between their roots and their leaves. There’s a hollow where the earth has been tamped down by the shape of a body curled nose to tail.

The sky is flat white above trees whose branches have been stripped for winter, but shadows still dapple Fox’s cheeks. Broken sunlight filters between the non-existent leaves and a wind warmer than the one Mar left behind stirs over them. The shadows in between the patches of light on Fox’s skin are the color of a bruise.

“Will you let me eat your heart?” Fox asks. “All your wanting, all your pain?”

Dark lashes lower over eyes the color of amber with insects trapped inside. Beneath those lowered lids, something shifts and flickers in the gold crescent of Fox’s eyes. Fragility, hope, love, fear. None of the words sit easy on Fox’s shoulders. They slide around, come back to Mar like a flutter in her belly. Not one thing, but all of them. Old and young, terrible and lovely. Human and not.

What would it mean to let Fox eat her heart? And what kind of creature would want such a thing? A dangerous one? Or simply a tired one, wanting to be hollow instead of full, soft instead of hard? Mar catches her breath. There’s another choice she can make, with a different cost attached to it.

She could eat Fox’s heart instead of offering up her own. It’s what she’s always wanted. Two hearts in one skin. Animal and human. Male and female. Both and neither. Melting and changing, swift and quicksilver and remaking herself at will.

But with the swiftness come the shadows. If she keeps running, she leaves Jamie behind. If he picks up the gun, there’s a flat crack, the world sundered and they can never go back again.

There is infinite patience in Fox’s honey-colored eyes. And impatience as well, jaws snapping at Mar’s heels.

Hunger. Wanting. Mar knows about hollow spaces that cutting and starving can’t fill. She knows that some desires go beyond skin.

She closes her eyes, breathes out. She conjures Jamie’s face, his voice calling to her through the dark of the forest, his eyes fixed on hers saying I didn’t do it, Mar. Lying curled small in the forest, wishing for the shadows to stay, it wasn’t only guilt that needled her to turn back home. It was love. Jamie is her brother, and he’s always known her. He will know her still, even in this skin. Her heart, beating strong and true beside a second heart, wild and strange. Together, they will be enough to fill her. She wants this. She is sure.

Mar opens her eyes.

She presses her lips against Fox’s mouth. She tastes salt and honey. Liquid gold, Fox’s heart melting on her tongue.

Far distant in the woods, there’s a flat sound – a gunshot, a branch breaking, Mar cracking wide. Breathless, she leans back, licking clean the last drops of salty sweetness with her tongue.

“Don’t worry, you won’t feel a thing.”


A.C. Wise
A.C. Wise

A.C. Wise’s short fiction can be found scattered around publications such as Uncanny, Apex, Shimmer, and the Year’s Best Dark Fantasy & Horror: 2015, among other places. In addition to her fiction writing, she co-edits Unlikely Story, and contributes a regular Women to Read: Where to Start column to SF Signal. Her debut collection, The Ultra Fabulous Glitter Squadron Saves the World Again, was published by Lethe Press in 2015. Find her at or on twitter as @ac_wise


Shimmer 28

Even In This Skin, Sando Castelli

Growing up, two things weave their way in and out of our lives: loss and discovery. Sometimes, a loss can be a discovery, and sometimes a discovery is also a loss.

The stories in Shimmer #28 take you on four such journeys — journeys closer toward our more authentic selves, journeys away from what we thought we knew, and beyond what we know without a doubt.


Even In This Skin, by A.C. Wise
Mar has been binding her breasts for years by the time she starts visiting Jamie in prison. If the men stare, it’s at her ass; she can live with that. She isn’t packing today, so she doesn’t strut, just tugs her sweatshirt over her wrists before sliding into the seat opposite her brother. Today, she just wants to disappear.

In the Pines, by K.M. Carmien
“You stink like city,” the woods-thing says. The pines close around them, a green wall, filtering the light to dim and gray, cutting off the world. It looks like a girl, this one. Waxy pale skin, lank dark curls, shabby blue coat. Most of them don’t. They look like trees, or thickets, or wolves, or cats, or patterns of shadow. But this particular one, which always claims the right to deal with her, wears the skin of a girl who was murdered by a drifter four years ago. 

To Sleep In the Dust of the Earth, by Kristi DeMeester
Lea and I met Beth when we were thirteen. That was the year Lea had legs that wouldn’t fill out her shorts. The year I started sneaking Marlboro Lights from my mother’s purse to share with Lea  in the back corner of Benjamin Harper’s abandoned lot.

A Drop of Ink, Preserved In Amber, by Marina J. Lostetter
Amber knew normal girls didn’t have drawers in their chests. Or in their stomachs, or backs, or thighs.  She knew her parents had had her specially designed by a geneticist in Pakistan, where the international genome-manipulation laws were more difficult to enforce than in the U.S. In the history of the world, there had never been another human like her. And she was human, even if she didn’t look it on an X-ray.


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