Category Archives: Issue 34

Now We’ve Lost, by Natalia Theodoridou

war01The war is over, we hear. We’ve lost. We look at each other in the dark. What does this mean? We’ve lost so much already. What is it we’ve lost now?

One after the other, we go outside. The sky is draped like a shroud over the town. The sun behind ash and smoke. From our houses. From our fields. Our gardens. A bird hangs in the air, undecided. Can birds still fly now we’ve lost the war?

The foreign boys who are stationed outside have heard they won the war. They drink wine. They fire their guns. They laugh, the victors. Horsed, they circle us. They hoot and jeer. The victors. The stallions. Last night they were weeping at our feet in the dark.

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The boys are gone. It’s just us now. Women. Girls. Every morning, we step out of what remains of our houses and collect the rubble in piles on the street. I used to grow chrysanthemums in my garden. Now it’s sown with cigarettes and shards of glass. The victors’ seeds. I wonder what will grow.

At night we retreat inside. I check on the little mummy that lives in the dark room in the back. Will it stop breathing now we’ve lost the war? I kneel by its side and watch its chest rise and fall, rise and fall, until I’m lost to sleep.

I dream of wedding rings. They come out of my belly button, dozens war02and dozens of wedding rings. I spread them out on the floor and search for my own, but I can’t find it. Then, I remember; it was one of the foreign boys, long ago. After he was finished, he took the ring off my finger. As payment, he said.

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We’ve piled the rubble high, gathered everything we can use: bricks and stones, cement, window frames and planks and metal rods. We stand by our piles and wait for someone to come and build everything back up. Not because we can’t do it ourselves, no. But if no one comes back, what would be the point?

The glass in my yard is still gleaming beneath the soil. It’s yet to bloom.

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The man comes early one morning. His khakis are worn and dusty. They hang off him, too large for his frame, or his frame diminished from wearing them for too long. We don’t know him. Is he a victor? Is he one of our own? He seems our age. His hair is black and sleek like a crow’s feathers. His features slender, his fingers long and thin.

war03He starts picking my pile of rubble apart. He loads the stones on his back, the planks, the rods. He kneels by my house’s crumbling wall while I look on. He nods at me. We don’t exchange any words. Do we even speak the same language? He mixes dirt with water for my wall. My glass garden catches the dim light of the sun.

At night, I pull him inside. He’s cut his hands on the glass. I clean them with water and soap. His skin is soft. I want to kiss it. Do we still kiss now we’ve lost the war? He cups my face in his palms. I trace the gentle outline of his chin, the beautiful angle of his cheekbones.

I take him to the back room, show him the mummy in its bed. Its breathing forever the same. “It’s been here a long time,” I say. “Ever since they took my son.” He looks at me, but I don’t know if he understands. “If you don’t mind it, you can stay,” I add.

When he slips under the covers with me, khakis shed and grime washed off, his body is warm and smooth and supple. His body like mine. We don’t make a sound. All I can hear is the mummy’s breath in the dark.

Later, I dream of crow’s feathers and silk.

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Months pass, but no others come to our town. We finish fixing my house, and together with the other women we rebuild the rest. The women ply him with gifts of whatever they can spare, but he accepts none. I fear they’ll find out how unlike other men he is when they touch his slender arms, when they stand too close to him, peering at his long neck, his beardless, stubbleless chin. But nobody says anything. They smile when they see him coming home to me every night. Are they bitter? Are they lonely? Do we get to feel lonely now we’ve lost the war?

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war04Soon, we marry. There’s no priest. No rings either. The women stand us one next to the other, shoulder to shoulder, same frame, same height. They rain flowers on our heads and wash our feet with cool milk. “You’re wife and husband now,” they say. “Kiss.” We still kiss, after all. The women cheer. They hug each other. Bitter. Happy. There are blades of grass sprouting amidst the glass in my yard. My man smiles, but he doesn’t speak.

Nobody wishes us children. “For all we’ve lost, there’s true joy here,” they say.

Back at the house, the mummy is still breathing. Despite all the joy.

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My man, he lets his hair grow out. He ties it into a ponytail when he goes outside to chop wood. I watch him from the door, how he swings his axe up and down. My man. He grunts every time he brings the axe down on a log. He hasn’t spoken a word in all the time we’ve been together. I wonder what his voice would sound like. He sees me and dries his brow, a solemn look on his face.

Later, I find him standing over the mummy, trying to smother it with a pillow. He’s crying. I touch his shoulder and slowly take the pillow from his hands. His hair cascades down his back, darker than ever.

“It doesn’t work that way, love,” I tell him.

At night, I offer to braid his hair like I do mine. He lets me.

“Speak to me,” I plead.

We lie in the dark, the mummy’s soft breathing droning on, lulling us to sleep.

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My man’s voice is deep, it turns out, like a river.

He never speaks to me, but he starts singing one night when we press our bodies together in bed. He sings all night long. Melodies I’ve never heard before, in a language I don’t understand. It makes me think of the boys, the victors, how they cheered and laughed all those years ago.

In the morning, I lay my head on the mummy’s bed, check if its chest is still moving. When he sees me, my man answers with a song of drawn-out vowels and sharp turns that cut like glass.

The mummy breathes in slowly, then exhales before the song ends.

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Theodoridou BWNatalia Theodoridou is a media & cultural studies scholar, the dramaturge of Adrift Performance Makers (@AdriftPM), and a writer of strange stories. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Clarkesworld, Apex, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and elsewhere. Find out more at her website (www.natalia-theodoridou.com), or follow @natalia_theodor on Twitter.

Lost & Found:

Red Mask, by Jessica Lin May – Before she jumped, Feng Guniang used to tell me about her suicide, during our cigarette breaks when we danced at the Green Dream, her white-lacquered nails trailing against the web of her fishnet tights. We smoked in the shadowy corners behind the opium dens on Jiameng Street, where the lights from the neon advertising boards couldn’t touch us.

Palingenesis, by Megan Arkenberg – Every city has an explanation. A strike of coal or silver that brought the miners running, or a hot spring that holds the frost at bay. A railroad or a shift in the current. Most people say this city started with the river. The water is everywhere you look, sluggish and brown most seasons, bearing the whiskey-smell of peat out from the forest, and carrying nothing downstream except mats of skeletal leaves.

Dustbaby, by Alix E. Harrow – There were signs. There are always signs when the world ends. In the winter of 1929, Imogene Hale found her well-water turned to viscous black oil, which clotted to tar by the following Monday. A year later, my Uncle Emmett’s fields came up in knots of blue-dusted prairie grass rather than the Silver King sweetcorn he seeded. Fresh-paved roads turned pock-marked and dented as the moon. Tractor oil hardened to grit and glitter, like ground glass.

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

To Mr. T.H., happy birthday.

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Welcome, honored guest,
to Ridley House; the acquisition of this charming 18th-century Palladian Revival villa has been something of a coup for our club and we are beyond pleased to present a wide array of tastes for your pleasure, if for a limited time. Take a moment to enjoy the grounds, particularly the stately elms with their attendant garlands of Spanish moss, and the mist rising from the ponds and nearby irrigation canals.

Before proceeding, we respectfully remind you to check the condition of your crystal spirit glass; it should be free of all cracks, chips, or blemishes to be able to properly capture and concentrate energies. Please take advantage of the sanitizer provided at the door, which will remove any lingering ectoplasm. Should your spirit glass develop an imperfection during the course of your meal, new ones will be available for purchase at a reasonable rate.

This menu will address the spirits in recommended tasting order for maximum piquancy, though our guests are of course welcome to explore the experience however they might like.

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The manifestation may be found over the lightly stained floorboards where the house’s pianoforte once rested. Warm flavors of charred wood and cloves harmonize over a dark mineral undertone that hints at a long history of violence perpetrated upon others. Sharp spiciness bursts upon the tongue, representing the surprise at the moment of death, a grace note of the unexpected. Note the floral scent that lingers after you’ve enjoyed your taste, the way it changes and enhances the preceding flavor.

Our historian believes this manifestation to be Martha Ridley, matriarch of the family, who was murdered in 1919 by a burglar, according to police records. A cane belonging to her has been brought down from the house’s attic, the smooth polish on the handle and the multitude of microscopic cracks throughout the shaft indicating vigorous use.

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Open the antique ice box to find our next manifestation in the darkened interior, which is far too small to contain the full body of an adult man. To the discerning nose, the metallic hints of blood and salt linger even to this day, contained in the scraps of stained rope that sit at the bottom of the box. This spirit is redolent of leather, woodsmoke, and high-grade tobacco, decadently masculine. An acrid taste lingers, as of burnt leaves in the autumn, an echo of more drawn-out agonies, overlaid with a sweetness of hothouse flowers, familiar from the first taste.

This ice box is believed to be the last resting place of handyman Edward Smith, thought to have left the employ of the Ridleys in April of 1917 after the declaration of war on Germany, intent on joining the army. Records show that he never made it to the recruitment office. A picture recovered from a trunk in the attic shows him to be an uncommonly attractive young man, posing unselfconsciously with an ax before the trees.

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Outside the kitchen stands one of the manor’s larger trees. Under its strongest branch you will find a manifestation redolent with gunpowder, gin, and orange peel, the strong relic of a man cut down in his prime. The flavor is, sadly, somewhat muddled with a cacophony of metallics unthinkingly inculcated at time of death. If you hold your glass to the moon, you’ll catch a hint of the olive drab color that had become the staple of army uniforms during World War I.

A few steps away the second manifestation waits, a much more subtle mix of greenery, ocean salt, and the delightfully domestic sweetness of bread. Fascinatingly, the orange peel of taste #3 carries over to #4, linking the two inextricably together. This subtlety is almost overwhelmed by a contrasting burst of bright mint and dark truffle, clarity and despair that make for a decadent, almost chocolatey finish—violence turned inward.

Taste #3 has been identified as Corporal Jeremiah Green, from archived picture postcards of his lynching on May 12, 1921. He had returned home for leave and was accused of assault by Elizabeth Ridley (daughter of Martha), despite having never before been on the Ridley House grounds. Taste #4 is thought to be where her brother Nathaniel Ridley committed suicide three days later, by means of Corporal Green’s service pistol. Rumor has it he had been planning to leave Ridley House within the week, departing for New York City—with Corporal Green.

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On your way to the final taste, we encourage you to stop by the vegetable garden, study, and nursery. The manifestations in these areas are not well-defined enough to offer the sort of experience we prefer for our guests, but will whet the appetite and sharpen the senses. In the nursery, see how many distinct presences you might find; our most experienced sommeliers have caught between seven and nine, not quite overwhelmed by the sweetness of hothouse flowers.

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A fitting end to the evening, this manifestation is the reason for our limited run at the Ridley house; not anchored by the dark chords of abrupt or violent death, we expect it to be fully consumed within the month. Strongly sweet and floral with satisfaction to the point of being almost cloying; seek below the surface to find the bitterness of quinine, the spicy heat of foxglove, and lingering almond.

This is the known manifestation of Elizabeth Ridley, deceased due to heart failure in 1992 at the age of 90. She was born in Ridley House and is never known to have left the grounds, though she found local fame by cultivating hothouse orchids. Drink deeply and you may hear her reported final words whispered in an incongruously young voice: “We are the same, you and I, but I enjoyed my feast while you have only the dregs.”
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rachaelAlex Acks is a writer, geologist, and dapper AF. They’re a proud Angry Robot with their novel Hunger Makes the Wolf forthcoming in March 2017. They’ve written for Six to Start and been published in Strange Horizons, Lightspeed, Daily Science Fiction, and more. Alex lives in Denver with their two furry little bastards, where they twirl their mustache, watch movies, and bicycle. For more information, see http://www.katsudon.net.

Other Tastes:

The Singing Soldier, by Natalia Theodoridou – When Lilia came into her parents’ bedroom one night, eyes sleepy and tin soldier firmly clasped in her little hands, complaining that his singing wouldn’t let her sleep, her Ma thought she’d had a nightmare. She pried the soldier from her daughter’s fingers, placed him on a high shelf in the closet, and locked the door.

The Law of the Conservation of Hair, by Rachael K. Jones – That we passed the time on the shuttle to the asteroid belt reading aloud from Carl Sagan; that we agreed the aliens were surely made of star stuff too, in their flat black triangular fleet falling toward Earth like a cloud of loosed arrows.

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

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Number One Personal Hitler, by Jeff Hemenway

Editor’s Note: In light of current events, our timing is strange with this release. A warning for content involving suicide (and metaphorical Hitlers).

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Dr. Francis Waxmann invented time travel in the summer of 2075. It broke the universe some sixty years earlier.

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…rubber bands tied to rubber bands tied to rubber bands tied to rubber bands tied to…

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Sitting in my room, at my desk, a fortress of textbooks in a semicircle around me, depleted paper coffee cups scattered like dead soldiers. I think it was nighttime. Jake’s stuff was in piles across the floor, but only on his side of the room. His was a methodical sort of disorganization; he always knew where everything was. My side of the room was fastidiously neat, but I could never find a damned thing. Yin and yang. I don’t think these things are accidental.

The portal opened behind me with a little gasp and I turned, nerves honed lancet-sharp by caffeine. The portal floated there, a sucking lamprey-mouth in reality, swirls of color licking the edges. Waxmann stood on the other side, a squat little man with interestingly parted hair. One hand held a smartphone-sized square of electronics, the other a gleaming silver pistol.

personal01That hole in the universe in the foreground, the black O of a gun muzzle in the midground, Waxmann’s flat gray eyes in the distance. Portals nested in portals.

The third edition of Principles of Piezoelectrics was sailing through the air before I even knew I’d snatched it up and flung it, and Waxmann stumbled towards the portal, through it, hand first. An alligator snap of noise and there was a severed hand on the floor, still clutching the smartphone.

From somewhere in the house, Jake shouted: Hey, is everything cool back there?

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When you discover time travel, the first thing you do is kill Hitler.

Hitler isn’t a person, though. Hitler is an idea. Hitler is the worst thing that ever existed, the evilest of all evils. In the first century, Hitler was the Roman emperor Nero. Four hundred years later, Hitler was Attila the Hun. Another millennium down the road and Hitler was Tomás de Torquemada.

In the year 2075, Hitler was a man named Clancy Rosemont. I don’t know what he did, exactly how many lives he destroyed; the doctor’s notes were vague and it’s hard to Google someone who won’t be born for seven years. What I know is that Rosemont was, at one point, the evilest of all evils. Right before a portal opened up in his bathroom and Waxmann put a bullet in his skull.

And then what? Hitler is dead, what do you do next?

You go down the list of history’s greatest monsters. Man by man, execution by execution.

Actual Hitler was number five on the list. I was number four.

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The bullet slammed through the portal, shimmering as it passed, wisps of another reality leaching through in its wake. It struck the belt this time. Bullseye. Jake dropped to the floor, gasping, clutching at his throat. The hole in space collapsed, but I thought I saw him look up for one moment. Maybe he saw me. Maybe he understood. Or maybe he just chalked it up as a near-death hallucination.

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personal02Imagine you draw a dot on a top, then set it spinning. Put it on carousel. Put the top and the carousel on a bigger carousel. Now fire the whole mess out of cannon and try to map the motion of that original dot. What you have is a simplified version of what you’re doing right now as you fly through space, whizzing about the Earth, around the sun, around the galaxy, cutting through a space that’s been expanding at near the speed of light for fourteen billion years. Now try mapping it through time, down to the nanometer, down to the picosecond. You’ll need a computer more powerful than anything on modern-day Earth by a couple orders of magnitudes.

Or you can make do with Doc Waxmann’s smartphone.

It also plays Tetris.

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My own personal Hitler was Jake’s suicide. We were inseparable growing up, sharing a room even when Mom’s financial situation improved enough that we could’ve each had our own. We spent long summers blasting cans with our BB guns, learning to read lips so we could hold silent conversations during church. Wrestling in the living room until Mom told us to knock it off already, then waiting until she left so we could do it some more, only quiet and sneaky-like.

I followed Jake to college, but something had happened after he left. In those two years between his high-school graduation and mine, we never really saw one another. We talked on the phone less and less frequently. He went from darkly sarcastic and coolly cynical to just dark, and just cynical, never laughing anymore, never smiling. After I arrived at the university, I lived with him for another eighteen months, sharing a room again. I thought he’d just lost his sense of humor, as though laughter was something you outgrew, like afternoon cartoons, or accidental erections during homeroom.

I came home one day and found him hanging by his neck in the doorway of our shared walk-in closet, my tidy piles on his left, his clutter on the right, and the exclamation mark of his body driving right between the two. He’d used a belt. The body was still warm.

I don’t know what my Number Two Hitler would’ve been. You can really only fathom one Hitler at a time. Maybe Dad walking out on us when we were still little. Maybe Queensrÿche breaking up.

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Time travel wasn’t so much time travel as alternate-reality generation. Think Back to the Future. Think Biff Tannen and sports almanacs. Making new timelines spontaneously, everything a copy of a copy of a copy. Hitler’s there one moment, and then he never existed, and suddenly the universe has to patch the hole.

There was something about wormholes, too, something about quantum, something about Many Worlds. Doc Waxmann’s digital logbook wasn’t annotated, but I doubt I could have deciphered the references even if it had been.

The smartphone actually was a smartphone. A modified one, little patches of electronics soldered to it, a few custom apps in its inventory. The app for generating a stable, localized wormhole connecting our universe to a spontaneously-generated alternate universe was called Timehole v2.71. I thought it was a pretty good name.

personal03The logbook started with technobabble about how the whole thing worked. Musings on the schematics of the room-sized machine that would generate the portals, musings on how the construction was proceeding.

Eventually, Waxmann ran his first trial. It involved a sandwich. The sandwich did not fare well. There would be many more trials.

I opened the first portal accidentally. Flopped in the chair in my room, the side Jake had once occupied still empty. The fourth edition of Introduction to Kinematics that I’d hurled at Waxmann was still splayed on the floor. I poked at the icons on the touchscreen just to see what they did; the classic arcade games were largely intact, but most buttons did nothing but flash dejected Network Not Found messages.

A tap on the Timehole icon, though, a few half-read screens of text and a hiss of air—and I was staring at the back of my head through a fist-sized hole in reality.

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A portal can stay open for a maximum of twelve seconds. A portal collapses if an object of excessive momentum passes through it. There were rules—of course there were rules, there are always rules. Some made sense, others were arcane declarations like MAXDIAM_100 and MINDIST_25 and PORTFIX_3 that I understood somewhere between very little and not at all.

When Waxmann successfully murdered his Number One Hitler, he took a lot of notes and drank a lot of alcohol. The first secret, he wrote, was finding that perfect point in spacetime and placing a portal right there, right at some pivotal moment in history. Say, in a certain bathroom in a certain hotel. Say, three months and two days and five hours and seventeen minutes and 53.1823 seconds before your target is going to initiate a sequence of events that kills twenty million people. The smartphone did most of the heavy lifting as far as that went; the magic box in Waxmann’s lab did the rest.

The second secret was probably very important, but it had been typed by someone very drunk. I refuse to judge, though. I got drunk, too, the first time I killed my own Number One personal Hitler. And the second time, and the third time.

Some Hitlers just won’t stay dead.

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On my inaugural mission, I opened a portal six inches away from Jake’s face, three seconds after he’d kicked out the chair. Bulging eyes, fat tongue swelling in his mouth, yellow snot bubbling from his nostril. He saw me, but I don’t know if he saw me. I don’t know if anyone in that position sees much of anything.

Twelve seconds later, the portal snapped shut, and I didn’t touch the smartphone for a few hours. I just sat there in the pre-dawn light in my half-cluttered room, a bunch of books and some leftover pizza on my desk, a bottle of Smirnoff in one sweaty fist, Waxmann’s severed hand rotting in the corner.

My next attempt landed the portal two minutes pre-death, a few feet off to the side, and I screamed the full twelve seconds before realizing that sound didn’t travel through the portal. After the portal closed I screamed at the room, screamed at Jake, screamed at Waxmann’s stupid, rancid fist.

That didn’t accomplish much, either.

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Doc Waxmann’s second assassination went down more easily, and he was ostensibly sober during the post-game. A major change in the timeline, the untimely death of a genocidal mass murderer—it slams into you pretty hard. Black-out hard. When he woke up, he had new memories. He had all the old ones too, but the old ones were like a movie you’d watched a million times. You can recite all the lines and visualize all the plot points, but it’s just this story you heard. It’s just make-believe.

personal04Once upon a time, a very bad man killed a lot of people, and everyone lived unhappily ever after. Roll credits.

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Jake’s gun was stashed in our closet, three feet away from where he killed himself. I was a pretty good shot; I split the belt just as he kicked out the chair. As the bullet sucked the portal closed behind it, I could see him tumble to the floor, and I knew past-me would get to him in time, no way could he rig up the belt again before past-me showed up.

I waited for the sledgehammer crash of my reality being overwritten, but it was really more of a flyswatter.

Once upon a time, a very sad man tried to hang himself with a belt. It didn’t work out very well. So he used his gun.

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How bad do things have to get before non-existence is the best possible solution?

After you’ve sat in a room for couple of days, not eating, not bathing, trying to reverse a suicide that happened six months ago, you ask yourself all kinds of questions.

How long is the battery life on this smart-phone thing, anyway?

How does this gadget still work when the actual time machine doesn’t even occupy the same universe?

Is that really Jake I hear talking in the next room, or is it a phantom, or a memory, or something else entirely?

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Eventually it came down to timing. Wait until he’s already hanging-dangling-strangling and then BLAM, sever the belt, and now he’s stunned. Can’t get to the gun, can’t get to the pills, just enough time for past-me to arrive and call 911, get Jake to a hospital where they can patch him up, good as new.

And they all lived happily ever after, roll credits.

For certain definitions of ever.

For certain definitions of after.

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By the time he knocked off Hitler Number Three, Waxmann was a pro. One trip back, bang, wait for the shockwave of alternate history, off to the pub for a rum-and-Rogers, whatever that was.

He’d been wrong about the true nature of spacetime, he wrote. It wasn’t copies of copies of copies, there was no spontaneous generation of alternate realities, and how monstrously silly of him to suppose otherwise.

personal05Everything was already there, see, every possible timeline weaving through the multiverse in an infinity of infinitely-long strands. The magic box just created a link from one possible universe to another. Shoelaces tied to shoelaces tied to shoelaces.

Also, he wrote: Very important! Utmost and paramount! The links are permanent. The wormholes close, but they never close-close. They persist, like scars. Too close together and they get tangled. They choke the life out of reality, making kinks, tears. Travel back to the same time twice, and who knows what might happen?

I didn’t know this at the outset. I didn’t read this bit until after.

For certain definitions of after.

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Never gaze into the abyss, for the abyss might also gaze into you. And it might be wearing your face. And it might be aiming a pistol.

Again.

And again.

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The hardest part was visualizing how the smartphone had come into my hands. When Waxmann will/would/had Rube-Goldberged his device into my lap, what would that look like, from the outside? A remote control stretching back through the hole it had just opened in the cosmos, connected to the magic box across space and time, reality twining around itself. Like someone trying to pull themselves through their own belly button.

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Waxmann never realized that the portals were less like shoelaces and more like rubber bands.

I only know this because I heard it from future-me, but then future-me told me a lot of things. Things I couldn’t hear, but I could read on future-me’s lips. I could see future-me pleading with me from some other when.

Future-me was the one who suggested one final portal, right in the temporal center of the whole mess. Throw up one last portal right in the middle of when-where and watch it snap all the other portals, make it like it had never happened, and everything springs back to normal. Put it up right in between Jake kicking out the chair and Jake’s heart pumping out its final beat.

Jake was sitting across the room when future-me mouthed this plan to me from inside the portal. Jake in his chair, cramming for some final. Or Jake wasn’t there and never had been. There and not there, done and undone, everything shimmery and feather-edged.

The Jake who survived sometimes smiled, sometimes joked. We sometimes had fun. And sometimes he told me I should never have saved him at all, that he wished it had all stopped fast at the end of a leather belt. Maybe these were all the same Jake, but maybe some were different. With an infinity of Jakes, at least some of them must be happy.

Do this, future-me had said, or it all falls apart. The multiverse collapses on itself. Reality will not just cease to exist, it will never have been at all.

Somewhere, somewhen, there will still be a Jake, and we will be together, and we will be happy. We’ll get married, have families, have barbecues and family get-togethers, laughing over beers or wine coolers or rums-and-Rogers.

Even if I never see any of that, it doesn’t mean it’s not out there.

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The bullet tore through my jaw. If I look closely, I can see a tooth embedded in the sheetrock on the far wall, a fleck of white in a mess of strawberry jam.

This final-me appeared just as I was about to key in one last portal, fingers hovering over a screen that was dimmer than it had been three/five/seventy days ago. Waxmann’s hand was black with ants.

I stared at future-me through the portal, barely visible in some preternatural dimness. I stared at the gun future-me was pointing, black or maybe chrome or maybe slate gray.

You can’t do this, he mouthed from across time.

I have to, I mouthed back. Just this one last portal. If I don’t, everything ends. Everything ceases to exist. If I don’t do this, there won’t be anything left.

I know, he said.

As he spoke, I noticed that something was very wrong on his side of the hole. Angles were off. Things seeped and shifted. I could see both his face and the back of his head at the same time, like a Mercator projection.

He fired, and half my face disappeared in a crimson spray.

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My finger still floats above an Enter key specked with dots of gore.

How bad do things have to get before non-existence becomes the best possible solution?

I guess I’ll find out.

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jeffBy day, Jeff Hemenway analyzes data for the state of California. By night, he still analyzes data, but he doesn’t get paid for it and people ask him to please stop. Somewhere in there, he finds the time to write. His work has appeared previously in such venues as Daily Science Fiction and in the award-nominated horror anthology, Dark Visions.

 

Browse the Personals:

The One They Took Before, by Kelly Sandoval – Rift opened in my backyard. About six feet tall and one foot wide. Appears to open onto a world of endless twilight and impossible beauty. Makes a ringing noise like a thousand tiny bells. Call (206) 555-9780 to identify.

Ellie and Jim vs. Tony “The Nose,” by Eden Robins – The afterlife resembles nothing so much as an old-fashioned automat. Just this long, narrow, possibly endless room. One wall is lined with shining chrome drawers and those tiny, cloudy windows where you can catch glimpses of sandwiches with wilted lettuce and sometimes more grotesque things, like gall bladders. A big oaf dressed like a 1920s mobster looms over the cash register and is forever giving you the stink-eye, like you might try to jimmy your way into the drawers and steal his gall bladders. The automat only takes quarters and wouldn’t you know it, I forgot my purse.

Methods of Divination, by Tara Isabella Burton – But visions are not prophecies, he told me. Prophecies come true. I sat him down and told him to tell me everything, and promised I would tell him what it meant. “There is a place,” I told him, “where time runs back on itself, where parallel lines converge, and where visions become prophecies. Where you will be not alone. There is a place where everything is reconciled, and the great mountains that cover you in shadow will be made flat before you. The valleys that make you dizzy when you teeter on their edges will be brought to your feet when you walk. There, you will understand your visions.”

Shimmer #34

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Sandro Castelli

This issue contains two things I never believed Shimmer would publish: a devil story and a Hitler story.

When we read submissions, we see a lot of stories treading a lot of familiar ground. The retold fairy tale, the mermaid story, which is related to the selkie story; the story where Death is personified, the deal with the devil story, the story where someone travels back in time and kills Hitler.

It’s not that writers can’t tackle these types of stories, it’s only that they should do something new with the very old idea they are starting with. Our authors do that, and how.

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Skills To Keep the Devil In His Place, by Lia Swope Mitchell – If you think about him, he’s got a way in. He’ll creep into your pupils, waft up your nose, croon through your earholes singing moody devil songs. From there, into your brain. I’ve seen it happen—it’s happened to me. And then everything you see starts to look like temptation. An object, something to use or destroy. Then you’re yelling at friends, telling lies, and stealing Mom’s credit card to buy $200 jeans off the internet and who even knows where all this ends.

Number One Personal Hitler, by Jeff Hemenway 
Dr. Francis Waxmann invented time travel in the summer of 2075.  It broke the universe some sixty years earlier.

Spirit Tasting List for Ridley House, April 2016, by Alex Acks
Welcome, honored guest, to Ridley House; the acquisition of this charming 18th-century Palladian Revival villa has been something of a coup for our club and we are beyond pleased to present a wide array of tastes for your pleasure, if for a limited time. Take a moment to enjoy the grounds, particularly the stately elms with their attendant garlands of Spanish moss, and the mist rising from the ponds and nearby irrigation canals.

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

 

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Skills To Keep the Devil In His Place, by Lia Swope Mitchell

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This is like some kind of idiot savant shit, totally impossible and totally easy all at the same time. You have to hear everything else, see everything else. Know when to get distracted and where not to point your eyes. So when he’s whispering in the corners, dancing around all fiery-sparkly and smelling like Drakkar Noir, only expensive—that’s when you put on your headphones, turn up the volume and watch videos on your phone. And try not to think a single thought about the devil.

Because if you think about him, he’s got a way in. He’ll creep into your pupils, waft up your nose, croon through your earholes singing moody devil songs. From there, into your brain. I’ve seen it happen—it’s happened to me. And then everything you see starts to look like temptation. An object, something to use or destroy. Then you’re yelling at friends, telling lies, and stealing Mom’s credit card to buy $200 jeans off the internet and who even knows where all this ends.

I try to stop, purify. Return the jeans, tell Mom everything. Maybe kneel down, beg God to take those bad thoughts away—if there’s a devil, there must be a God, right? But this never works.

So it’s best not to think about the devil at all. Really effective, if you can manage it. Take Julie, the new girl in study hall: she’s deep in her Autres Mondes textbook, writing flash cards in pretty cursive. Meanwhile, the devil’s bending his blood-red torso over hers, his long lips cooing around her name: Julie Julie Julie. She doesn’t notice, doesn’t feel a thing. Not even when he’s wrapping his hairy arm around her waist, not even when he’s got his tongue stretched out to tease her ear. That’s when she sticks her hand up and says, “Miss Turner? May I be excused?”

Later, in French class, she’s got the vocab down cold. So she was really concentrating. Like he wasn’t even there.

Me, though, I can’t do it. And believe me, I’ve spent hours on my knees. But God never answers. Mom just yells.

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Okay, say you’re like me. Say you can’t ignore him. Still, you can’t tell anyone. They’ll think you’re crazy, they’ll laugh. You can’t blame them for getting defensive—nobody wants to hear they have a devil inside. So it’s on you to protect other people if you can.

For example, here I am in the library and here’s Julie with a pile of books about Africa or something. And the devil is here, too, all smooth dance moves, circling and swaying and looking for ways in. But with Julie, somehow, he can’t do it. Like there’s a barrier, a protective coating on her skin. Like that Bath Works vanilla stuff but better, less vomity-sweet.

What I want to know is where she gets that. How she does that. So I sit down all casual and say, “Hey, Julie.”

“Hey, Rachel.” Her smile opens up, all bright and hopeful. “I’m doing this geography presentation. What about you?”

“American history. I got this stupid paper.”

She asks what it’s about: women in the Civil War. Oh cool, have I seen Gone with the Wind?

And while she’s telling me how much she loves Melanie and Scarlett, there’s the devil doing Rhett Butler, his one eye heavy and knowing, that smirk around his lips. I’m trying so hard not to notice, to agree that yes, it’s all about sisterly love and why do people always focus on romance but he keeps laughing at me so finally—

“How do you do it?”

Even her little frown is perky and nice. “Do what?”

“Ignore—”

He tells me go ahead, say his name, open my mouth and let him come in.

“Rachel?” Her eyes are soft cornflower blue, sky blue, angel blue. I can’t do it, I can’t break her seal and tell her he’s there.

“Um… distractions.” I take this big accidental breath and that’s how he gets into me—like a fire down my throat, scorching my lungs, lighting through my bloodstream to my heart. Maybe a few seconds before the thudding slows. “You’re always so organized. I really, like, admire that.”

“Oh, well, it’s all about priorities—”

I’m nodding and smiling and I can’t see the devil anymore because he’s in me.

She says how children in some countries don’t even get an education. She is so grateful. She wants to give back.

“Pay it forward, right,” I say. “You’re such a fucking saint.”

She flushes all perfect pink and I want to slap her, see my fingermarks printed on her idiot cheek.

“Oh, I never meant—”

“No, really. Those kids in Africa should just worship you. I mean, maybe they’re starving or working in diamond mines or dying of Ebola or something but you, you’re studying, you’re like a martyr—”

Her eyes are Virgin Mary blue and so, so confused. I get up quick and leave, carry the devil out to my car where I sit the rest of the day, smoking cigarettes and staring at my phone, choking on the evil he’s burnt on my breath.
devil03

It’s my own fault, that’s true, but I didn’t know. I wasn’t even afraid—we were both just waking. His face nestled on my other pillow, all scarred and twisted and red. His left eye was squinting at me, the other gone. Plucked out, maybe fighting some angel. I stared at him like he was an image on a screen, like he couldn’t touch me even at that close range. After a second, the devil smiled.

See, it’s not about meaning to, or choices. It doesn’t seem evil, there in that calm moment, the last of your dream. More like inevitable. Like fate.

But instead, this Saturday, instead I wake up to my mother’s head stuck inside my bedroom door. “Rachel? Honey?”

Another voice behind hers, higher and sweeter, offers to come back.

“No, she should get up,” Mom answers. “It’s almost noon.”

“I’m up,” I say. Wave an arm to quiet my critics, slap around for my phone. Four new messages. “Okay god, I’m up, I’m up.”

“Your friend Julie’s here,” Mom says all snappish.

Who?”

“Should I wait?” the sweet voice asks.

“No, uh… it’s okay. Come on.” I grab a hoodie off the floor and quickly assess the state of my room. No dirty dishes or anything, doesn’t look too bad. Until Julie steps in, all shiny clean, like a doll fresh from her plastic box.

“I’ll bring you girls coffee,” Mom says. “And muffins. Julie, would you like a muffin?”

“I’d love a muffin, Mrs. Meyer,” Julie answers as Mom turns. “Hi, Rachel.”

“Hey. Look, I’m sorry, I musta forgot we made plans—”

“Oh no,” she says. “We didn’t have plans. I just—well, I thought maybe I could help you.”

“Help me?” I thumb through Facebook on my phone. “Oh. That Civil War paper?”

Mom reappears with coffee and muffins, milk and sugar, the cloth napkins. She loves this shit, she’d wear a frilly apron if she had one. Julie gets a big smile but I get a frown for the phone, so I plug it into the charger.

“Thank you, Mrs. Meyer,” Julie says. “Blueberry’s my favorite.”

Poor Mom looks flustered: politeness, for once. “Well, you girls call if you need anything else.”

I dump two heaping spoonfuls of sugar into my mug, add milk. “Yeah, that paper, I haven’t even started, so I dunno—”

“Not the paper,” Julie says through muffin crumbs. She holds up a finger while she chews, takes a sip from her mug. “No, it’s—well, it’s about the devil.”

I focus on my coffee, the steamy sweetness, the spoon swirling the sugar around. My phone buzzes but I don’t even look.

“The thing is,” she says, with such sincere blue eyes, “you’re going about it all wrong.”

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She could tell, she says, from my eyes. Watching the air around her, then totally down or away. He’s been following her since, oh—almost a year ago.

“You learn to deal with it,” she says. “To keep him quiet.”

She can’t answer any questions, like why her, or why me. If there’s more than one, or how he manages to be everywhere if not, or any implications for humanity as a whole. If this is some kind of mass hallucination, like those girls way back in Salem. She doesn’t know anything like that. Just how to manage, like, the day to day.

“What’s in this closet?” she asks, polite fingers on the knob, then peeks behind the door. It’s all my outgrown and out-of-season stuff, my violin and tennis racket, old books—

“Hey, it’s Jenna Fantastic!” Julie squeals. “I watched that show every Saturday.”

“And all her friends.” Of course she watched it, we all did. “Nerds by day, superheroes by night, right?”

“Oh cool, you have the FantastiCar, too—well, maybe they can go up here?”

I let her arrange things while I peek at my phone. Last night’s message from Trina: beer+fire=yes! Three more since then: first, Luke asks do I want a ride? Second: That’s what friends are fooooor… Then a photo: Luke and Trina overexposed in headlights, shotgunning cans of Pabst. Where R U?

Finally, from Trina. Bitch yr no fun, plus three kisses. What up?

“Can I move these clothes?”

“Yeah, just a sec—”

Sry, i got aids or smpn, I text Trina, then go help Julie.

When we’re done, boxes hide a square yard of space in back under the ceiling slant. Julie steals a pillow and plumps it on the floor, takes an empty box and draws a fat red pentagram on the bottom, sets a candle in the middle. We both squeeze in, half a butt each on the pillow. The little flame rises.

“It’s easy to call him since he’s already around,” Julie says. Her white canvas sneakers glow bright and clean; her jeans have ironed-in creases down the front. Foil streaks sparkle in the Fantastics’ neon hair. “You have to watch the candle, though. You don’t wanna burn the house down—”

That’s when the devil crawls in, muscles sliding along tendons and bones, stretching under leathery skin. He curls up like a big red dog, drops his head in Julie’s lap. Her eyelashes flick downward. She sees him—I can see her seeing him. Her smile closes to a determined little pout. She lets her hand fall on his bald head, right between the horns. He leers. The points of his ears give a lewd wiggle.

“You can do your homework at the same time,” she says. “Or watch TV or something.”

“Okay, so… so you sit there and…”

The devil’s nuzzling up under her beige sweater like a hungry puppy. She pulls it up, flashing the white of her belly. Under her ribcage there’s a purple smudge like a hickey. His eye bulges as he goes in for the kiss.

“What? Oh, fuck no—”

“It doesn’t hurt, really. You get used to it. And then—”

The devil’s hand waves uncertainly, shiny-clawed, then lands on her breast. Kneads lightly. Like a kitten.

“—he’ll leave you alone a while. And maybe the people around you, too.”

In the candlelight Julie’s face is golden, peaceful. A perfect blank. From beneath her sweater, I can hear a faint rhythmic suck.

devil05She’s right, it doesn’t hurt, there’s no blood or anything. Just the circle of his lips all fever-wet, pulling on some invisible thread inside, a line that stretches from my belly through my chest, to some knot tied deep in my brain. And I sit and stare at that moist red skull, horns that crook and poke like fingers, as I let it happen.

Because I know what he does when he’s not satisfied. I’ve seen it.

Like one of the first times. Me and Trina were out smoking by the dumpsters, and there he was. I pretended not to notice, because I knew Trina didn’t. She was telling me about her English teacher, pretty hot for an old guy—like thirty? The devil’s fangs were pricking into her neck, his arms twined around hers. She didn’t see him, but I did. I saw his fingers creep into her mouth, then his whole hand, down to the wrist. Her mouth was moving like normal, her words falling out. But all garbled, nothing made sense. I stood with my cigarette burning down to my fingers, knowing I had to be crazy, as his arm slid into her throat, up to the elbow, to the shoulder, until he turned his head, gave me a wink and dove in headfirst—

I know how that sounds.

But if you’re reading this, well, maybe you’ve been there. Maybe you’ve felt your skin crawling off your bones while you try to decide whether and when to start screaming at something nobody else sees, whether to give up now and admit you’re fucking psychotic or wait and see how things play out. Maybe you know.

“What the fuck, Rach,” Trina said. She looked fine. Pretty, with little curls of hair blowing around her face. Inside her slitted eyes, I could swear I saw a flame. “Did I grow another head or what?”

“Uh, no—” I dropped my cigarette, ground it into the gravel beneath my toe. Shook another one out of my pack. “I dunno, I got distracted.”

“So what, am I, like, boring you?”

We’d had big fights before, all screaming and ugly tears. It was sort of like that, except this time we weren’t drunk—we were just skipping third period. And she was the only one screaming. About what a stupid bitch I was and how Luke only fucked me that time out of pity and if I had any self-respect at all I’d drown myself in a toilet. I was still staring when she threw down her butt and left.

I’ve known Trina forever, is the thing. My best friend since the fifth grade. So I knew Trina wouldn’t say that. I knew it wasn’t her.

“Guess I was on the rag,” she said later, like she barely remembered.

Same thing with my mom: that wink, that dive, and instead of a normal rotten teenager suddenly I was a shame, a curse, the wreck of her body and marriage and life. It happened with a couple teachers, other kids. Sometimes I was the one turned monster. Even if I knew better, it felt too good, too powerful—to see eyes go wide and cheeks go red, to say whatever shitty thing. Sometimes the truth, sometimes a lie. Whatever hurt worse.

In my lap the devil shifts, his eye flicking open. Almost done. Inside his pupil some part of me is burning.

“Why don’t you ever talk to me,” I say.

His mouth opens in a silent laugh, skeleton teeth gleaming from sharp points to the jagged gum line. His tongue waves around like a wine-stained, mesmerized snake.

I grab the candle and stumble out into my room, push the window open. The hickey on my belly itches. February air flows in, a damp chill that feels good after the devil’s sweaty skin. With a cigarette stuck between my lips I lean out into the gray light, try to find the sun. But it’s still winter. Up in the clouds there’s nothing.

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At least I knew not to talk about it, not like Julie. Granted, she had reason to think people would believe her, back in her old Catholic school. Her teachers invoked God and Satan on the regular, like the two of them were lurking around every corner, testing and tricking and watching to see how you dealt with all that temptation. So when the shadows of Julie’s vision began to redden and solidify, when the devil became a real, present, dancing and flickering thing, of course it was strange, surreal, scary—but not without precedent.

Julie hinted, she thought casually, to a couple close friends, tried to sound them out. “Do you think he could be, like, a real person? That you could see?” she asked at Sarah’s sleepover. “Like, did you ever see anything like that, maybe?” But Sarah and Joy laughed and changed the subject, so Julie let it drop.

Instead, she went to her religion teacher, Sister Marie-Marguerite from Senegal. She seemed nice, spiritual, intelligent. Like she’d know what to do. Julie told her everything.

Sister Marie-Marguerite listened, her eyes behind thick glasses getting bigger, the line between her eyebrows getting deeper. She asked some weird questions: did Julie ever get migraines? Bad headaches? No… How did she get along with her family? Her friends? Fine, except… well, some arguments and one fight, but that was the devil, it wasn’t Joy or Sarah, they didn’t mean it.

Did she ever hear anything strange? Like voices? Or maybe smells? Did she have any other hallucinations?

Hallucinations—that meant crazy. Sister Marie-Marguerite thought she was crazy. Julie clammed up and decided she’d never say another word, just put up with things as best she could. The way I did.

But it was too late. God and Satan might be ever-present but you weren’t supposed to actually see them, not ever. You definitely weren’t supposed to see the devil possessing people, that was way too weird. Sister Marie-Marguerite called Julie’s parents, who called a psychiatrist. A nice Catholic one, they said. And that was how everyone found out.

One Friday as Julie was leaving her appointment—fifty minutes of telling Dr. Kris that it was real and pills couldn’t change things that were real, could they, so why should she take pills that made her feel funny—as she stood wiping tears and blowing her nose right in front of the Sun Prairie Mental Health Clinic sign, Andrea Lindquist from Julie’s homeroom walked by, a tiny Pomeranian tottering along at her feet.

“Oh hi, Julie,” she said, her voice rich with suppressed laughter.

The devil grinned at Julie, his long fingers scratching behind Andrea’s ears. “Oh hey,” Julie faltered. “Um. Cute dog.”

Cute dog, the devil mouthed, his face twisted up to mock Julie’s: fake trembly smile, big sad eyes. Cute dog cute dog oh isn’t it cuuuuute

The Pomeranian burst into a furious yap, launching its fluffball body off the ground. Andrea caught it in her arms, where it twisted and panted with wrath. “Oh, Goofy—what’s wrong, Goofy? God, it’s like he’s possessed.”

Again that rich, knowing laugh.

Thank goodness, Julie thought, that her mom drove up right then, so Andrea only dropped her dog and strolled onward. A little joke, was all.

Then it happened. Over the weekend, on Facebook. First Sarah, then Andrea and Joy, then all the usual selfies, funny faces and fake kisses, disappeared one by one, replaced by devils. The one from Legend, the ones from Fantasia and Castlevania and Guitar Hero III, Hellboy, the rabbit from Donnie Darko. Voldemort and Meryl Streep. Julie’s newsfeed filled with red-tinted, pointy-browed sneers as they plastered her timeline with photos and videos, status updates about temperatures and torments in Hell, threats and greetings and obscene Google-translated Latin.

Just a joke.

For a second Julie watched an animated gif of Linda Blair’s head rotating over and over, that maniacal snarl with its soul stripped away. Then she hid the posts, changed her settings, unfollowed the devils—she’d follow them again later, she thought, when they turned back into friends. She shut the computer, swore she wouldn’t look at Facebook again all weekend—though of course she did. The devils were still there. It was a big stupid joke and her friends would get tired of it soon.

On Monday, Sarah and Joy were clustered, giggling with Andrea, when Shannon Kossowitz called out, “Hey Julie, how was your weekend? Make any new friends?”

They were watching later, too, between geometry and lunch, when Julie felt a small shove from behind, just enough to trip her forward. When she turned from her locker to look, another little shove came from behind her, with it a giggling voice: Sorry, the devil made me do it. She whipped around again. But then everyone started pushing her from wherever she wasn’t looking, their breathy giggles surrounding her, the devil, they said, he made me, voices swelling to laughter, unrecognizable. She slammed her locker shut and rushed to the bathroom, but from then on there were little shoves and giggles and balls of wadded paper bouncing off her head, “holy water” flung from little vials, and always, always the whispers following her: It was the devil, the devil made me do it, he made me.

It was all just a big stupid joke but it went on and on, for weeks, until one Wednesday, after a mostly uneventful morning—a few whispers and giggles, the new usual—Julie was hurrying to a safe-looking corner of the cafeteria when a jab in her crotch startled her lunch tray from her hands, her bowl of minestrone flying with a clatter and splash. “Let Jesus fuck you, let him fuck you,” said a gasping laugh, and Julie saw Tara Baker, a hefty tow-haired girl with a plastic crucifix in her hand. A nice girl, usually. But out of Tara’s pale eyes squinted points of red, a snaggle-toothed smile.

As soon as Julie opened her mouth the devil leapt. The spork in her hand twisted and snapped. She felt as though a barrier had melted; she felt as though her heart was on fire, like all this time she’d been weeping gasoline and now the flames were fed. Shades of fuschia developed across Tara’s round cheeks. Julie twirled the broken spork in her fingers and started laughing. “What an excellent day for an exorcism,” she said.

Tara began stuttering out an apology, but as soon as she opened her mouth Julie leapt.

She came back to herself with five girls scrabbling at her arms. Tara was sobbing and clutching a gouged forehead; the spork streaked blood across the white linoleum floor. Julie stopped struggling and started crying. She could barely remember the fight.

She spent her week of suspension numb, petrified, at the library. She did some research. That Saturday night after her parents had gone to bed, she locked her bedroom door, drew a pentagram on a box. Lit a candle. Waited.

The devil slid out from under her bed. His one eye glowed; his horns twisted over his pointed ears; his bald head glistened. Thick, curling fur darkened his torso. His grin was all yellow fangs and clot-colored gums.

Compared to Sarah and Joy and Andrea Lindquist? He didn’t seem that bad.

“Okay,” Julie said. “What exactly do you want?”

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It’s not our souls, it turns out. No. What he wants is the evil in people.

It has many luscious varieties, he told Julie. Many flavors. Deep ones, bright ones. Sour, acid, salty, sweet. Evil is his medium, his art. To see it, to evoke it—most of the time by slyly possessing, drawing out, and projecting what already lurks there. Unknown to his hosts. Most people do not sense his presence. Even those whose evil overruns its containment and rushes unseen through all the nerves and veins of the body, even they sometimes—often—do not feel him. Only in special cases, those who learn to see, who accept this special sight—

He doesn’t speak exactly, not with his mouth. He thinks the words into your head and they circulate there, repeating like a pop song. What Julie whispers, I think I’ve heard it before.

He’s a showoff, it’s true. Normally he operates in secret, but give him an audience and he’s a shameless ham. He’ll expose secret thoughts, unravel the bonds of restraint, unchain the evil flowing through one person to another. He’ll set off the most spectacular events, the most intimate destructions. He loves to perform, to impress. Appreciation has many forms. What humans call shame, anger, sadness, he simply considers a response. And he is addicted to the response. The way humans are addicted to food. He will do anything, just anything, to get it.

But he’s willing to do this another way. If we permit.

In my mind’s eye I can see his claws uncurl, a gentlemanly wave towards Julie’s belly.

The seat of evil in the human body, he said, is the liver. Taken directly from a young person—for a young person’s liver is fat with evil, untainted by years of experience or suffering—when offered freely, the flavor is perfect: deep yet delicate, light yet filling. It sates him utterly, for a while. He will seek nothing else.

On my belly the brown and purple ellipse of the devil’s kiss is a smeared bruise. Behind it I can feel the line itching from my liver, through my heart, to my brain.

But now when I meet Trina in the cafeteria, my smile blossoms like Julie’s does, big and open, full of affection. If only you knew, I want to say, the thing I do for you.

“Hey dopey,” Trina laughs. “Did you fall in love?”

“I wish,” I answer. Around us everyone’s milling through the food line, slapping orange pizza triangles on plastic trays. Nice kids, probably. But if the devil gets in, then who knows. Just imagine what kind of evil might out. Look at danceline Kelly, poking at her salad—imagine her terrorizing babyfat freshmen into bulimia and cutting. Or Miguel, Mr. Future MBA with Wall Street domination penciled in for 2019—picture party drugs and date rape. Or picture sweet, vegan Freya, blowing up science labs.

Shuffling along behind Trina, I look at each one and think, I’m doing this for you. And for you. And you, and you.

Look at creepy Steve with the birdskull strung around his neck and Autopsy lyrics all over his notebooks. Harmless, probably. But maybe not. Maybe the evil in Steve is Columbine bad, Sandy Hook bad. The kind that blasts in Trenchcoat-Mafia-style and splatters cheerleaders across the basketball court.

I’m doing this for all of you.

Under my ribs, the sore spot breaks open. And beneath it, the itch.

“Hey, I gotta talk to Julie Rourke,” I tell Trina. “We got this project.”

“What is it, feeding the fucking children?” Trina says, and heads over toward Luke.

I squeeze past Steve into the corner and say, “Hey, Julie Fantastic, you saving the world today?”

For a second she’s confused—we don’t really talk much at school. Then her smile engages, brightens, like the sun’s come up inside. “Just this corner,” she answers, watching me sit. “What about you, Rachel Fantastic?”

“Trying.” I take a bite of my pizza. Together we look out over all these ordinary kids in their ordinary cafeteria. Voices bounce off the linoleum, hoots and calls, shimmers of laughter.

“Well, everything affects everything, right?” Julie says. “A butterfly flaps its wings and all that.”

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So you reach a certain status quo: you’re allowing the devil to suck the evil out of your liver Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday, around eight or nine p.m. while Mom’s absorbed in TV drama. I pass the time—the long furry body pacified, vibrating with strange purrs—flipping around on YouTube or scrolling through clickbait lists of animated gifs. Staring at the Fantastics lined up on their shelf.

Once upon a time Jenna Fantastic was just some normal girl—nice, kinda nerdy, way into science and math. Until she and her three best friends (Jazzi, Jerri, and Jay) stayed late in chemistry lab and messed up their special energy drink experiment and kaboom, they became the Fantastics. Now at night they cruise around dressed like pop stars, using a mixture of psychokinesis, telepathy, chemistry, and geometry to save the world and solve crimes. Plus marketing dolls, t-shirts, and a whole line of promotional crap to the 8-to-11-year-old girl demographic, but whatever.

TV evil is so much simpler, so separate from everyday life. Kidnapping and robberies and piles of stolen jewels. They never show our kind of evil, not really. Jenna Fantastic never gets blackout drunk or wakes up next to Jay all sticky and unsure. Jerri and Jazzi don’t talk shit behind her back. None of them shoplift or do drugs or puke beer in the FantastiCar.

All the ways we fuck up, the ways we fall apart. All this ordinary evil.

Julie and me, we got no demographic at all.

Julie fights evil while doing flashcards with the devil Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, at exactly five p.m. She’s saving the world and getting straight As, all at the same time.

Sundays she goes to church. No devil on Sundays.

At my place, Sundays are Mom’s big cleaning day: wash the laundry! mop the floors! dust everything! Et cetera et cetera. She sticks her head in my room at eleven whether I’m awake or not, and tells me to do something about my disaster area or else. And I don’t need her coming in and “organizing” my stuff, finding cigarette butts in the windowsill or my stupid homework covered in red pen. Or the cardboard altar in my closet.

So this particular Sunday I get up, open the window to the new spring air, hug the goose bumps on my arms. My mother’s singing down in the basement, some Beatles song echoing through the vents. I feel good like I don’t usually feel on Sundays, clean like there’s no dirt in me. No hangover because I ditched Luke’s party, ignored Trina’s texts. Ignored also her posts about missing old friends, then friends who aren’t really friends, then what is wrong with people?

LOL, of course. XOXO.

What’s wrong? Nothing, really.

There’s a scratch and a heat behind me. Inside an itch like a monster mosquito bite.

Except.

The closet door hangs quiet in its frame, closed, painted butter-yellow. Mom’s still singing, folding the laundry while it’s warm. I could go in for a few minutes. I mean, it’s like totally revolting and all that—I mean, it’s not like I want to—but I’m fighting evil, right? And I’m imagining the nauseating suck of his lips, lifting my hand to the doorknob, when the doorbell rings.

Mom tromps up and says hello, her voice bright and anxious. A lower one answers, minus the fake cheer.

“Maybe you girls need some coffee?” Mom asks. “Or muffins?”

“I’m good,” Trina says, then, closer and louder: “Thanks.” When I open my door she’s at the top of the stairs, wearing Luke’s Hot Chip t-shirt, old mascara smudged around her eyes.

“The party was lame.” She flops onto my bed next to the open window. “I thought you were like dead or something. What’s up with you lately, anyway?”

“Nothing—God, hang on—”

Mom’s started singing again, so I quick-scroll through Trina’s Facebook likes to find her music. Sleater Kinney, okay. In my pause she lights a cigarette, blows a mouthful of smoke out the window.

“Are you still pissed about Luke?”

“No, god,” I snap. Why would I be mad, just because he dumped me and moons over her? “That was like forever ago.”

“You’re so lying.” She digs in her bag for her buzzing phone. “Wait up, I gotta…”

Somehow the closet door’s cracked open. Maybe I’m imagining it, maybe I feel it more than hear it: a slow, deliberate scratch on the wooden frame. In between my shoulder blades, this vibrating itch.

Not now, I think, banging the door closed. I can’t deal with you now.

“I told Luke to come up,” Trina says. “You’re not mad, right, so what do you care?”

“What? I’m like barely even dressed—”

“Oh come on.” Downstairs I hear heavy boy’s feet stomping upstairs, and there’s Luke hesitating in the doorway, his smile one-sided, half-shy. His eyes, clear amber, that know me and don’t want me.

“Hey Rach,” he says. “Everything okay?”

No, I’m not mad. I’m over it, totally. Done.

The closet door blows open untouched. On the threshold Jenna Fantastic lies face down, stick arms and legs all awkward akimbo. It’s dark as a throat inside, one red point of light shining out. A slow laugh breathes from the shadows. The itch in my liver’s swelling, I can feel it, the surface cracking like a rusty scab.

Luke’s saying something, Trina’s saying something, and what’s wrong, why am I acting so weird lately, staying home all the time, hanging out with that Jesus freak—

But I don’t care. All I can feel is this weeping infection. All I want is to get clean. And what am I doing, anyway, and where am I going, what’s in the closet, Rach, what are you—hey—wait, Rachel?

The door slams shut. In the dark there’s a howling embrace, a flavor rich and rotten flowing through my whole body. Out there let my friends fight, let the sun shine and the world fall aside, because in here, staring into the devil’s left eye, this is where I purify.

devil09

Tuesday’s one of those random spring days when everyone sort of wakes up blinking and remembers what sunshine feels like. Kids scatter across the dead brown grass, clump around picnic tables. Julie’s frowning and looking around, but the nearest ears are covered in fat headphones, the nearest eyes glued to tiny screens. Nobody hears me when I say we need to quit.

“Wait, why now?” she asks. “What happened?”

I try to tell her, but the truth is I barely remember. I know I went in the closet, leaving Trina and Luke to ask through the door what the hell I was doing, was this like symbolic or was I really hiding from them or what. I didn’t answer. Luke thought they should leave me alone if that’s what I wanted, but Trina said the whole thing was completely messed up and no way was she leaving. After fifteen minutes of debate, Trina opened the closet, found me knocked out on the floor, and screamed (she says) like a fucking banshee.

That woke me up, but of course it also freaked out my mother. So I spent the rest of the day in Urgent Care getting needlefuls of blood sucked out of my arm, peeing in a cup to prove I’m not pregnant or a junkie. “She’s little anemic, maybe,” was what the doctor decided after four hours of waiting and tests. “Eat more spinach. Get more rest.”

Julie’s shaking her head with this weird expression, like she forgot to finish smiling halfway through. “But that doesn’t make sense, it’s not a physical thing, so—”

“What if it is? Like a drug or something. Like sometimes I even want to. Do you—Julie, do you ever feel like you want to?”

She doesn’t answer. A breeze flows between us, cool on my cheeks.

“And it hurts—right where he, you know—don’t you feel that?”

One of Julie’s hands rises, asking me to wait. There’s a long silence. I want to fill it, I want to light a cigarette, I want to check my phone, see if Trina’s texted. But now Julie’s hiding her face, her forehead showing hot pink between her little hands so smooth and clean.

“Oh hey,” I say, totally awkward. “Listen. We can do this, okay? I got a plan.”

How?” Julie chokes out. “How exactly do you get rid of the devil? That’s impossible—and then won’t everything be like before, and I can’t deal with that again, I won’t—”

“We can’t go on like this, either,” I tell her. “Because whatever he’s taking? I think it’s something we need.”

She gasps a couple times, lets out a long sigh. A few deep and measured breaths. Her hands drop to clutch her belly, her mark, the kiss that makes a hole in her, keeps other evils away. Her voice comes small and mournful from her side-turned face.

“He’s my only friend,” she says.

“No.” I grab her arm to make her look, give her a shake and let go. “Hey. Julie Fantastic. No, he’s not.”

10devil

Privacy’s the main thing, and Luke owes me, so when I asked to use his place (what 4?—Satanic ritual LOL) he couldn’t say no. Too many nosy parents at me and Julie’s houses, but Luke’s basement is practically his own apartment. A kinda musty, ugly apartment with hand-me-down furniture and fake-wood-paneled walls. But private.

“What if you’re wrong?”

All week long Julie’s been asking me that. And where did I read about this, how do I know, and what if, so many what ifs I can’t possibly answer.

All I answer is I need her. She has to trust me. And anyway, I’m pretty sure the method isn’t so important. It’s the action, the intention, our willingness to go through with it. At least, that’s what I’m saying, to her and me both.

“You ready?”

We’re sitting cross-legged on the floor with our tacky cardboard altar between us. Underneath it we have a Bible (her idea) and Mom’s butcher knife (mine). On top, the candle. Julie’s eyes shine big and afraid, her lips pushed out and fretful, like she might cry. But she doesn’t say no. I flick my lighter, touch it to the wick.

The flame rises in a long yellow line, settles to a waver. Strings of Christmas lights loop around the ceiling; Twin Shadow dances across a poster on the wall. Upstairs Luke and Trina are playing video games. I can hear her loud laugh, Luke swearing, the crash of explosions and screeching tires.

Thirty seconds pass, maybe less. Maybe forever.

He’s in the shadows first, filling the corners, the cracks between wall panels. In dark hollows under the couch, in the wrinkles of Luke’s sheets. Even without a body, he’s there, lurking, observing, assessing our positions.

He has to be hungry, is the thing. He always is.

Are we assembled here to parley?

The devil’s voice grinds along the edge of my mind, through layers of distortion, like some ancient monster rising from the sea. Neither of us answer.

Girls, girls. Is this how friends act?

He can probably read our minds anyway. I try to smother the doubt, because what’s important is that me and Julie believe, and if I can do it, she can. Maybe. I think.

Are we not friends? Do we not trust each other? he whispers, still invisible but so close I can feel hot breath on my ear. My girls. I give you purity. Freedom. And in return ask only for a taste. Is that not fair?

Julie twists around, searching, then jumps a little in her skin at something I can’t feel, stares at something I can’t see.

Julie. Do you remember?

She shakes her head hard, like a little kid refusing vegetables.

I expected this from Rachel, he says. How could we trust her? She doesn’t even trust her friends.

“But that’s not true,” I exclaim. I grab Julie’s shoulder, but her eyes are focused somewhere on the wall. “You know that’s not—”

Remember, Julie. What it’s like to be alone. Remember the evil rotting inside you. Running through your veins, sweating through your skin. Remember the shame. The hate.

“Yes,” she answers. Her voice is tiny and choked; her fingers curl around her belly. I can feel it, too, the same vacuum, the itch that fills her eyes. Like a knife rusting under my ribs, a stab wound blackening with age. “I remember.”

But all may be forgiven among friends. These words aren’t for me; I have to strain to make them out. Julie. Let me forgive. And I will let you forget.

With a deep breath and a stretch, Julie pulls her t-shirt over her head. Her skin is bright as fire under her pink cotton bra, but his mark still stains her ribs.

The devil draws together into a body, solid shadows with claws and fangs spread out like snares. Julie leans back, opens her arms. And he flows between them. Her arm falls around his shoulders, her fingers in his fur. Her lips are moving, the words barely audible—our father, she’s saying. Some prayer I never knew. Then her arm shifts, tightens, locks into a bar around his neck. His face smashes sideways, his lips snarling empty and black.

She’s still strong. Still counting on me.

This is how friends act: I plunge the butcher knife into the devil’s waist, push it down hard to open a big flap there. The flesh hangs empty for a second then fills, pouring hot liquid black. Pain’s squealing through my brain, flaming through the hollows of my bones—but it’s not my pain and I need the cut wider. I need a hole. Julie’s still holding him for me, her other fist clenching a horn. I stab in again, carve out a chunk. And in the gaping void of his torso, I can feel it already, I can taste it, smell—I don’t even pause before I shove my hands inside and grab hold of his liver.

The devil’s howl is a garbled shriek of laughter inside my head.

I stretch the liver out, cut off a handful. It shivers like black Jell-O with a deep purple glow. The devil’s long teeth bare in a skull’s lost scream, his eye wide open and blazing like a spotlight.

“Julie, come on.” I shove some liver between her lips. “Here, quick—”

She tastes, swallows, makes this huge grimace through her tears. I eat a piece, too. The flavor’s like anise and molasses, mixed with the oldest, gamiest, and most congealed and burnt blood. After I swallow, this burst of pine tar and sugar. I slice off another piece, halve it and give one chunk to Julie. Close my eyes and get ready for the next bite.

The silence hits me. No pain, no scream, no words, just the quiet ticks and sighs of a hot water heater. Julie’s hurried breath, a gulp for control. Real human voices, murmuring upstairs.

“Rachel?” Julie says. We’re alone. She’s sitting up and she’s smiling, sniffling but definitely smiling. Her eyes shine at me, a red flicker deep inside.

“Yeah?”

“We should finish it.”

The liver’s still there, a messy purple-black blob staining the cardboard altar. I divide it as best I can, transfer one sloppy double handful to her. It drips and slips as she catches it, takes a big bite. Starts laughing.

“It’s so awful,” she says. “Oh my goodness, it’s so gross.”

We’re both laughing our asses off when Trina and Luke come downstairs to see what the hell’s going on, what are we doing, are we okay. They see Julie in her bra, both of us lying on the floor, our mouths and hands all smeared with black liver and blood.

We’re fine, we say, and laugh harder.

I make them both try it. I tell them what it is, but they don’t believe me. They think we’ve gone crazy, or it’s some weird joke. But I don’t care. I think it protects them anyway.

11devil

Maybe you can’t see the devil. That’s good.

But maybe someday you will. Maybe someday you’ll be surrounded, trapped, doing everything you can not to see the devil do his dance for you. Maybe he’ll drag your evil out of you, out of your friends and family, lay it out like some giant spider web to wrap you up and choke your whole life away.

Or maybe you can feel it in your liver, that hot acid itch expanding through your guts like a cancer, boiling off your good intentions.

That’s why I wrote this whole stupid thing. For people like you.

I’m not pretending we have answers. But this is what we did, Julie and me. Now we can see it, smell it, taste it: find the devil in people, feel the explosions coming, isolate the bombs. Oh, we’re vulnerable like everyone else, got our share of evil like everyone else. Maybe a little extra. But now at least we’re in control.

But if you have questions, if you want to know more, come find us. I’m usually out smoking by the dumpster during lunch and after school, and unless she’s at her church group, Julie’s usually with me. We look like the others, mostly. Like Trina and Luke, like everyone else. But you’ll recognize us. You’ll know. We’re the ones with the devil in our eyes, black holes like cigarette burns on the inside of our hearts.
end-of-story-nov

 liaLia Swope Mitchell was once a teenager who was way into creative writing and learning French. Today she is a writer, translator, editorial assistant at Univocal Publishing, and PhD candidate in French literature at the University of Minnesota. So, basically the same. She lives in Minneapolis. Find her online at liaswopemitchell.com.

Assorted Other Devils:

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

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.

States of Emergency, by Erica L. Satifka – Jack’s been driving all over Big Eye Country for weeks, warning of the coming infiltration of the Greatest Nation on Earth by the Alien Brotherhood League, but nobody listens to him. He goes to the parking lot where his truck, painted with a tableau of poked-out eyes, waits for him.

Shadow Boy, by Lora Gray

I am sixteen and sitting on the edge of an empty subway platform when Peter, forever small, reappears. His black eyes are bright, and he smells like licorice and cinnamon. He is wearing purple mittens and a pigeon-feather skirt.

“Who the hell dressed you today?” I ask.

“I did.” Peter tips his head as if considering. “My taste is terrible. Tragic, really, but I didn’t have much choice.”

“Everybody has a choice.”

“Do they, dear Prudence?”

“Don’t call me Prudence.” Tugging my jeans more snugly around my hips, I shift. Chains rattle over the metal platform, and a safety pin fingernails across the yellow line at the edge.

“It’s your name.”

“Nobody calls me that anymore.” I tap a cigarette out of my pocket. It takes me three tries to light up.

“I call you that,” he says.shadow01

“You don’t count.” I drag and exhale into Peter’s face.

Peter doesn’t cough. “Feeling sullen?”

“I’m lonely.” I grit my teeth and shrug.

“How can you be lonely?” he asks. “You and me, we have a whole city to play with.” He kicks his legs back and forth, heels denting the platform gleefully. Thump. THUMP. A grin stretches his mouth wide.

My skin prickles and I feel the familiar lurch, reality threatening to wobble around me. “Why are you smiling like that?”

Peter levels his black eyes at me and says, “I found your shadow.”

story_bullet

I am eight years old.

We arrive at midnight, Momma, “Uncle” Leon, my shadow and I, crammed into a Buick the color of old piss. The long stretches of upstate soybean peel away to reveal an army of high-rises marching into the light-polluted never-dark. My shadow surges up from the floor mats when the headlights hit him. He is excited and starry-eyed. He has never been to The City before.

He still believes in adventures.

“It doesn’t work that way,” I whisper. Adventures don’t begin with dodging landlords and eviction notices and shoving unwashed clothes into black trash bags.

“What was that, sugar?” Leon’s voice is Georgia-thick and he is dirty-grinning at me in the rear view mirror. He strokes the back of Momma’s neck, pressing greasy circles into her hairline, and my shadow bristles.

“I’m not sugar.” I tug my sweater over my fingers.

“Sugar and spice and everything nice.” Leon’s fingers dip beneath the collar of Momma’s shirt. “Isn’t that what little girls are-“

“I said this car smells like shit.”

“Prudence!” Momma whips around, but Leon’s hand turns vise-tight, and he glares the rest of the ride into silence.

My shadow seethes and I press my forehead against the rear window glass, neon lights flipping my reflection from infant to ancient. From ugly to divine. From girl to boy. I cling to that last like a secret as my shadow winds himself around me. Sinking into his embrace, I count cars until Brooklyn.

By the time we arrive, my shadow is strong. He hefts trash bags easily over his broad shoulders and pounds his new kingdom flat with giant boy feet as we walk to Leon’s apartment. I shuffle, but my shadow struts. He leaps up broken concrete steps and hurdles winos. He dodges dumpsters and conquers trashcan castles and ignores Leon’s angry shouts of, “Hurry up!” and “Oh for God’s sake.”

My shadow and I only stop when we reach the neighbor’s stoop. There is a small child there, huddled in an oversized trench coat, a paper bag lumped onto his small head like a fedora. For a moment, he seems to float, and my stomach swoops sideways, a boat tipping beneath my feet. My shadow begins to tiptoe around him when the boy looks up. Black eyes pin me.

“I’m Peter,” the boy says. His breath is licorice and cinnamon.

I lean closer to my shadow. “Peter?”

“Yup. Peter Pan. Peter Rabbit. Saint Peter. Take your pick.” He shuffles toward the edge of the stoop and squints, one pudgy finger inching over his nose. “What’s your name?”

“Prudence.”

Peter laughs like my name is a joke, the baby fat under his chin puckering. Then, very carefully, he shoves the brim of his paper hat back and looks directly at my shadow. “And who are you?” he asks.

Stillness.

Peter, perched on the edge of the concrete like a pigeon, waits, but by the time I open my mouth, Leon’s voice, belting bright and dangerous, jabs the world into motion again.

“We haven’t got all night!”

Goosebumps rocket me to where he and Momma are waiting before I can gather the courage to see if Peter is still watching me.

Later, when Momma and Leon are kissing, I peer out the window of shadow02my new room, bare feet on a dirty mattress, and look for Peter, but there is only a rumpled paper bag tumbling end over end down the lonely alley. I imagine an empty world, Peter flying with trenchcoat wings, tiny naked toes gripping the concrete like talons and lifting it up, up, up! Peeling the skin off the city like an orange.

And who are you?

I look down at my shadow and whisper, “P.J.”

story_bullet

I am twelve years old.

“You’re not wearing that.” Momma circles the living room in a pencil skirt and a broad, black hat. “It’s a funeral. Don’t you want to look pretty for your grandpa?”

“Why? What’s he going to do? Sit up and applaud?” I flop onto the sofa to avoid the pinch of her eyes. “Besides, he’s not really my grandpa. He’s Leon’s dad.”

Exasperated, Momma grimaces at my jeans, my t-shirt, my short hair. I tap my toe against my shadow’s long foot and brace myself for the inevitable, “You used to be so pretty. You used to have such nice hair. If you would just try to look a little more feminine…”

Before Momma can say it, Leon’s voice roars from the kitchen. “Change your clothes, Prudence! I won’t have a freak at my father’s funeral.”

I grind my fingers into the arm of the sofa. “I told you. It’s not Prudence, it’s P.J.”

“Now!”

For a breath, my shadow refuses to move. He stays stubbornly glued to the shag carpet until the memory of bruised wrists and a hard slap send him stomping to my room. I slam the door behind us.

It takes me five minutes to unearth the only dress I haven’t hacked into a t-shirt. The lace scratches my neck as I wrestle myself into it, my wrists torqueing sideways as I shove them through puff sleeves.

When I’m finally done, my shadow gapes at me. His hair is spiked at odd angles, fingers splayed, long legs awkwardly knocked under the wide bell of the dress. Biting my cheek, I turn slowly. Breasts jut out of him, sharp and pointy as new teeth. My shadow snaps forward again, boyish and narrow, but the damage is done. He is quivering and he tugs at my heels, trying to crawl inside me and away from that foreign, curving shape as I hurry out of the room.

shadow03At the funeral, Leon parades us through a church the color of old bones. My shadow shrinks further into me as Momma makes introductions. “This is my daughter, Prudence.” This is my daughter. This is my daughter. My shadow clutches at my little finger from the inside, frantic to shake the untruth of the word, but I don’t know how to comfort him and I close my eyes. It’s only when I smell licorice and cinnamon that I finally look up.

Across the aisle, dwarfed by the lily-white rental casket, is Peter. He is no bigger than the last time I saw him, but the trench coat and paper bag have been replaced by a daisy-print dress and combat boots. He lifts his head and winks at me, narrow lips pursed around a cigarette. Dizziness sloshes over me and, for a moment, the mourners, fat and watery and pale, seem to dissolve. I can’t look away as Peter jigs a circle around the casket, stomping a rhythm only he can hear. Black eyes shining, he laughs and then, very carefully, he leans over the casket and taps ash onto the body’s waxy cheek.

Nobody else sees him.

Nobody stops him.

story_bullet

I am sixteen years old.

The October sun tosses shadows across the fire escape. Ropes. Fingers. Cages.

And the shadow sprawled beneath me? It isn’t mine. She’s a wide and rounded thing, wasp waist, thick hips, and an empty space between her thighs. Four years of trying to escape her and, still, she clings to me like tar.

My true shadow has become a furious refugee in my own body. He claws at femurs, scrapes bone to marrow, tears muscle apart in bursts of rage. In dreams, he rushes through my pores like water through a sieve, but every morning he is still there, howling for a larger shell.

The howling never stops.shadow04

I flick open my lighter and pass the razor blade through the flame three times.

Through the cracked living room window, I can hear Momma and Leon, their voices, serrated and angry, cut through the buzz of day time T.V.

“Leon, please, it’s just a phase. She’ll grow out of it.”

“Like she outgrew that haircut? Or those clothes? Did you hear what Mickey Barlow said about her? The whole neighborhood thinks your daughter’s a dyke.”

“Prudence isn’t gay. She doesn’t even like girls.”

“I suppose she told you that.”

“Well, no, but-“

“You’re going to tell me the whole neighborhood is wrong? She’s disgusting. Don’t you look at me that way.” A beat of dangerous silence. “I caught her stuffing a sock in her underwear. You’re going to tell me that’s normal? You’re going to tell me your daughter parading around as a boy is normal?”

The razor blade is still warm as it opens my skin. Blood slugs down my forearm, swerving over the familiar cross-hatch of scars. My shadow strains against the shallow breach. If I just close my eyes and let him ease out of me, if I just let him out…

The window opens with a groan. “Prudence?”

Startled and guilty, I whirl around and the blade resting against my skin accidentally slips sudden and deep. I gasp. Blood fountains over the window sill and the rusted drain pipe and into Momma’s hair as she clamors onto the fire escape. There is a flash. Pain. No, lightning. Momma’s eyes are wide and inches from my own. Heat gushes over my hand.

The world smells like licorice and cinnamon.

There is a rush and a screech, a thousand tires peeling rubber. Above me, a trio of pigeons pause mid-wing, hieroglyphs punched into the autumn sky. Above me, Momma flickers out like a candle snuffed. Above me, the sky is changing from blue to black.

I look down and there, mingled with the blood rushing out of the slit in my arm, is my shadow. He crawls out, prying my flesh apart with long, dark fingers. He curls upward like smoke until he is facing me, dream-heavy and naked. Tension quivers between us and there is a deep, aching pull, a cable stretched too far. He opens his mouth, but there is no sound, no breath, and desperation swells behind his eyes.

He is only a shadow. He will never be strong enough to become a real boy. He’ll never speak. He is nothing but a wailing ache.

In a flurry of teeth and nails, he tackles me. It’s graceless and uncoordinated, his body too new for quickness, but his shoulder slams into my belly and I collide with the railing. A crack of pain, the sharp corner jarring my ribs. The fire escape shudders and we grapple, my hand jammed against his face, fingers full of inky hair, grunting and shoving even as we topple and fall.

We crash into the dumpster below, our bodies a snarling tangle of blood and shadow that bursts apart as we ricochet onto the concrete. My shadow staggers away from me, disconnected and confused. Hands clutching his head, he turns and sprints down the deserted street, dodging smashed cars and cabs, still smoking where they’ve rammed into telephone poles, street signs, each other.

Their drivers have disappeared. The sidewalks are empty. There are car alarms, but no sirens.

The city is silent.

story_bullet

I am crouched at the mouth of the Battery Tunnel when Peter appears beside me, the smell of him sudden and overwhelming. The can of spray paint clatters out of my hand and I scramble back until I hit the tunnel wall. Peter is backlit and wearing a polka-dot onesie two sizes too big. The sleeves spill over his hands, and the collar dangles off one narrow shoulder as he shuffles toward me. He is holding a dead pigeon like a rag doll in one hand.

With a thoughtful hum, he examines my graffiti, the faltering outline of my missing shadow boy, the uneven words. “‘Help, I’m still here.'” Peter snickers. Any part of me that might have been relieved at the sight of another person shrinks. “Oh, that’s cute.”

“They all disappeared.” Distantly embarrassed, I scrub the tears on my cheeks with the heel of my hand.

Peter shrugs and squats in front of me, resting his round cheek against his fist. “I’ve been looking for you for ages,” he says. “You’re shorter than I remember. Paler, too. But maybe it’s all that black you’re wearing.” He reaches out to flick the collar of my jacket, and I twitch my head against the concrete.

shadow05“You don’t understand,” I say. “Everybody’s gone. Momma. Leon. Everybody. Like they were never even here.”

“You’re here.”

My laugh is wild and unhinged. “So are you.”

“Oh I don’t know about that. Maybe you’re just imagining me. Maybe you’re still on that fire escape dribbling all your blood away. Drip, drip, drip.” Peter’s mouth splits into a rubbery caricature of a smile. He has too many teeth. “Maybe you’re the one who disappeared.”

After two weeks of screaming for help and sobbing in the corners of empty delis and bus stops, my brain is sluggish and thick. I blink hard. “Is this hell or something?” Nausea spikes through me. “Am I dead?”

“Do you want to be?”

I shake my head, trying to dislodge the memory of razor blades. “What kind of question is that?”

“A pretty simple one. How do you feel about morgues? Cemeteries? Funerals? You didn’t seem too keen about the last one. And that shadow of yours? He never shut up after that. Day and night, night and day. You know you hated it.” Peter cocks his head to one side. “Listen. He’s still at it.”

“Shadows don’t talk.” I try to believe it and coil my hand against my stomach as if I could stopper the empty space my shadow used to occupy. “And anyway, mine disappeared. I can’t hear anything.”

“He must be playing hide and seek with you,” Peter says and covers the dead pigeon’s eyes with his thumb. “Count to one hundred and we can look for him together. Oh! Or find a mirror and we can play Bloody Mary. Say his name three times and he’ll magically appear.”

Anger flares past the fog in my head. “This isn’t a game! What’s going on?”

“Everything’s a game. Just because you didn’t make the rules doesn’t mean you don’t have to play.”

A sharp gust of wind tumbles a fistful of newspapers down the vacant street. Peter’s black eyes make the world quiver.

“What do you want?” I finally manage.

Peter raises his finger. “Your shadow.”

My gut clenches cold. “My shadow?”

He swings the dead pigeon idly from side to side. “I don’t have one of my own.” I look down and his feet are completely surrounded by sunlight. He seems like he’s floating and, woozy, I avert my eyes. “Nobody trusts a kid without a shadow and you don’t want yours. He’s been nothing but trouble from the start. I’ll help you find him and then you’ll give him to me and then poof! All is right with the world.”

I hesitate. “If I do that, everything will go back to normal?”

Peter smirks and raises three fingers. “Scout’s honor.”

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After three weeks of searching, Peter is wearing a kimono and a ten-gallon hat with a pigeon feather tucked into the brim. The bird’s head dangles around his neck like a bloody talisman. He’s told me that the mannequins in the department stores dress him every night. A ball gown from Macy’s, a purple velvet suit from Barney’s, a pair of neon underwear and lipstick war paint from Bloomingdale’s. It’s hard not to stare, and I’m certain he knows it.

“You should feel honored.” Peter hikes the hem of his kimono up as he climbs over a mangled Yellow Cab.

“Why should I feel honored?” I kick at the dangling headlight and huddle more deeply into my jacket. “This is all a game to you. You just want my shadow. You don’t give a shit about me.”

Peter grunts as he stands atop the hood, hands on his hips as he turns in a slow circle. “My guts are made of chrome and feathers, goblin piss, and griffon tails. There’s no room for shit.”

“Poetic.” I snort and light another cigarette. “Come on. I want to search the West Side before the sun goes down.” I remember how my shadow had warmed when we sneaked into Chelsea last summer, his howling softening when a tall man in a white blazer called me son.

Peter clucks his tongue and leaps off of the car with a spectacularly loud thud. A street sign teeters from the impact. “You should feel honored because I don’t adopt just any shadow. Only the dark ones.”

I roll my eyes and begin walking faster. “They’re shadows. They’re all dark.”

“Oh, no, dear Prudence, they’re not.”

“It’s P.J.”

“Ah, ah, ah.” Peter waggles a finger as he falls into step with me, stubby legs churning impossibly fast beneath the kimono. “P.J. is your shadow boy. You don’t own that name any more than you own all those little boy bits you were convinced you needed.”

I keep my eyes fixed on the street ahead of me. “I named him. The name is mine.”

Peter waves a dismissive hand. “You’re giving him to me.”

“It’s my name!”

Peter tugs me to a halt, moon-round face peering up at me, black eyes narrow. “You think he cares what you named him? You think he cares about you at all?”

I shake myself from his grip and flip my cigarette against a rusted scaffold.

“He lied to you every day,” Peter continues. “Told you you were a boy. Take a look at yourself. Why, you don’t look anything like a boy! But that didn’t stop him from tricking you into believing it.”

“I know what I am.” My shadow’s absence is like a stone in my throat. I try to swallow. The stone rolls deeper.

“Of course you know what you are. You’re a smart girl. You don’t like lies. Your shadow is a liar. Why would you want him back?”

My fingers curl, but there is no shadow hand to hold onto. I tell myself that the sting in the back of my eyes is from the cold.

“Everything will be easier without him, Prudence.” Peter pats my sleeve with his tiny palm. “Everything will be normal.”

Jerking away from him, I duck my head and walk briskly down the abandoned street. As Peter patters after me, I try to ignore the emptiness lodged deep in my chest, abnormal and heavy and very, very real.

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“I found your shadow.”

Peter’s words propel me out of the subway terminal, through the arteries of the city, past the yawning windows of untenanted store fronts and the twisted wreckage of cars. Peter scampers beside me, laughing. He dances over drainpipes, scales streetlights to crow, hops over an upturned bus and squeals his way into Brooklyn.

I run.

The sun is melting over the skyline by the time we arrive, and I am wheezing. Tar webs my throat, wet and thick, and I pause to hack onto the pavement. When I look up, the familiar apartment building is crawling out from behind the shamble of dumpsters in the back alley. I half expect to see Mickey Barlow smoking weed on the corner or Leon and Momma kissing in the window.

But the only one there is my shadow boy. He is slumped against the apartment’s fire escape, his arms twined around his waist, head bowed. The tangled mop of hair obscures his profile, but I can see the plump of his lower lip, the flutter of his long throat as he swallows. He is trembling.

“Ah-ha!” Peter dashes past me and thrusts a triumphant finger at him, legs planted wide. “Get him! Get him, get him!”

My shadow heaves a sigh and I exhale and, slowly, we look at each other. Breath shushes between us, murmurs secrets through the back alley. Edging carefully around Peter, I heft myself onto the Dumpster and grip the lower wrung of the fire escape.

“Don’t let him get away!” Peter is hopping from toe to toe, hands clapping hysterical polyrhythms, but I don’t answer him.

Instead, I climb, fist over fist over fist until I am standing face to face with my shadow boy. He raises his head and, for the first time, I feel the weight of his eyes. This is the boy who for sixteen years has been screaming through the pockets of my lungs. This is the boy in my fingers, longing for a broadness that never was. This is the boy who sobs every month for five days when I bleed. This is the boy who scratches my breasts with sewing needles and demands to know why they are there because they don’t belong on his body.

They’ve never belonged on my body, either.

“What are you waiting for?” Peter is screeching and I can feel the earth quaver. Metal rungs creak. Brick and mortar moans. Window glass crackles. The sky begins to darken. “What are you waiting for?”

I look at my shadow. My shadow looks at me.

He raises one dark hand, my shadow boy, and touches my cheek.

And the moment before our arms and bodies and souls reconnect, I whisper, “I don’t know.”

end-of-story-nov

 LoraGrayBioPhotoLora Gray is a native of Northeast Ohio where they currently reside with their husband and a freakishly smart cat named Cecil.  A 2016 graduate of Clarion West, Lora’s work has most recently appeared in Flash Fiction Online and Strange Horizons. When they aren’t writing, Lora works as an illustrator and dance instructor.

Who Are Youuuu:

The One They Took Before, by Kelly Sandoval ~ Rift opened in my backyard. About six feet tall and one foot wide. Appears to open onto a world of endless twilight and impossible beauty. Makes a ringing noise like a thousand tiny bells. Call (206) 555-9780 to identify. Kayla reads the listing twice, knowing the eager beating of her heart is ridiculous. One page back, someone claims they found a time machine. Someone else has apparently lost their kidneys. The Internet isn’t real. That’s what she likes about it. And if the post is real, the best thing she can do is pretend she never saw it.

Caretaker, by Carlie St. George ~ A ghost took care of you when you were young. She made you peanut butter sandwiches without speaking, shuffled silently from room to room in her threadbare bathrobe and bare feet. She didn’t have eyes, your mother. Or she did, but they didn’t work because she always stared right through you, even as she cupped your face with her cold, dead hands.

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