Category Archives: Issue 41

Held, by Ian O’Reilly

Madu is a satchel who is in love with Eliza, who is a woman and who is also a princess. Sometimes Madu thinks of herself as a girl, and sometimes she thinks of himself as a boy, and at other times all she thinks is that she is just another thing that Eliza carries around with her. That’s okay because sometimes Eliza thinks of herself as a warrior princess who sometimes thinks she is a girl, and sometimes Eliza thinks she is neither of these things but a piece of flotsam on a swollen river, or a movable bank account beholden either to her parents or her job or the State.

I know it is confusing, but real life is seldom ever as simple as it is in fairy tales.

Eliza is 29, and she is standing by the banks of the old swollen river that runs through the city. She is smoking her last cigarette (although she doesn’t know this yet), with Madu at her side. It’s rainy season and the city on the other side of the river is shrouded by sweeps of grey, obscuring the house where she grew up, and the grave she came to tend. Eliza has come back to the city where she was born for the last time, and tomorrow she will return to the other, younger, noisier city at the far end of the continent.

“Do you remember when she gave you to me?” Eliza asks Madu, or perhaps the river, but neither of them answer. Madu remembers Eliza’s grandmother, though, even if she hasn’t got the voice to reply. Madu remembers hands as cracked and lined as old wood, warm and soft at the same time, testing her twine bindings and brushing her with restorative. A reassuring pat, and the croaking wood-fire voice, already laden with tobacco tar, telling Madu “Yes, you’ll do just fine” a moment before being handed over to the much softer hands of a younger Eliza.

She’s yours now, my old satchel,” Eliza’s grandmother had said. “You can keep all of your new school books in it, and your packed lunches, and anything else. But you have to take care of it! Take care of it, and a bag like this will serve you a lifetime.”

If the girl-Eliza had mumbled a thank you, the satchel didn’t hear the words. Its gaze was still fixed on its previous owner back then.

Hurry on now girl, I’ve put a little something at the bottom for you,” the tobacco-smoke words had said. It had taken Eliza her entire first, worrying day at Upper School to find the crinkle-wrapped candy sweets that Madu didn’t want to give up.

Back in the present, then: “Do you think it was bad, at the end?” Eliza asks the satchel or the world again, the sudden taste of nicotine grown stale and harsh in her mouth. Madu doesn’t know, but she is glad when she hears Eliza sigh, say “Bleurgh,” and spit out the stubby end of the cigarette, never to smoke again.

When Eliza stands, folding the picture of her grandmother into the old satchel, Madu handles it carefully and reverently, before storing it away with all the other treasures she carries.

“I will never serve you!” It was rainy season and Eliza stood on the grassy bank of the river, under the arches of the old cherry tree. She brandished a twig in one hand and swished at an imaginary foe.

Madu understood it was a rhetorical statement, and wisely said nothing. Eliza wasn’t the first human to talk to her; once the satchel had been quizzed by the King of Siam as to the whereabouts of his entire clowder of temple cats—to which questioning she had similarly remained silent.

“I’m going to be a princess, and I shall ride a dragon and free slaves and fight your evil kings!” the girl who was also a woman snarled.

Madu thought this was an excellent idea. She had met several such warrior princesses, and all without fail had told exceptionally good stories and thus made for very worthwhile friends. She rustled against the grass and produced from her infinite insides the brass compass that Amelia Earhart had once hidden inside, because Madu thought it was the bravest thing she had in her, and if you were going to fly dragons then you should probably know your course.

Eliza spent the rest of that afternoon dreaming of adventures and far-off lands. When the rain finally eased and Madu rustled that it was time for them to get home, Eliza threw inside her drawings of dragons and the satchel hungrily gobbled them up, storing them inside for a future rainy day.

Madu has eaten dragons and diamonds alike in her time, the golden treasure hoard of the King of Trolls, rose-water from Palmyra stoppered in crystal bottles, as well as the astronomical charts of Signor Giordano Bruno. She has eaten things that were not meant to be seen, like the pages torn out from Eliza’s diaries, one after another until all she could taste was ink and tears. Madu has also eaten things that were meant for some other time and place and someone else: the cocoons of silkworms left after they were smuggled out of China in 552, the alternative original lyrics to “Cross Road Blues” that explain exactly where in Mississippi your wishes can be granted.

The satchel never complained about the things that she ate through the centuries, each one after another until she was sure she would burst. But she never did burst a seam or lose a buckle. Her careful horsehair stitches always remained in perfect tension with the stiffened ochre leather. She lost a bit of the design and shine on the outside, of course—magic bags weren’t expected to last forever now, were they? But if you looked real close (and Eliza always did) she could still just about make out faded swirls and concentric scrawls, tiny flecks of the gold and lapis that could have been dyes or could have been the remnants of whatever astonishing hide she had once been made from.

Occasionally Madu would feel sick and nauseated in whatever physics-defying, quantumly unpredictable organ passed as her stomach these days. Especially when she had to swallow the handkerchief that Eliza had used to cry over Christian Jenkers, the blond-haired boy from Literature Class.

Christian Jenkers had been the first boy that Madu’s current owner had kissed, as well as apparently the first boy that Petra Olsen had kissed not three hours later.

The tears made Madu’s stomach feel upset and irritable, and the satchel had wondered if she could swallow the odious little boy entire so he would never hurt either of them again. But then, of course, Christian Jenkers would live inside of her forever, a tick of hurt feelings and disagreeableness she couldn’t get rid of.

She settled for eating his spectacles when no one was looking in class.

Madu and Eliza went everywhere together—they were inseparable. Through her owner, the satchel got to explore the old city with its swollen river and cobblestone streets, its colorful markets hedging the slums and the iron-wrought gates around the sedate colonialist war memorial.

Madu was always an armory and an arsenal. She contained within her water, money, the gaggle of fantasy novels that Madu had with her always, makeup, string, a comb, a pack of pens and a shell from the beach they had once spent the summer hostelling by—all the useful and the semi-useful jetsam that a nearly adult girl might require. Later she carried other things like passports, mobile phones, a pack of cards with pictures of dangerous plants, sanitary products, and a personal assault alarm.

When Eliza was 24, and two years out of college, Madu ate the keys to her new apartment on the other side of the city, and wouldn’t give them back for two days.

Madu had been scared, at first, by the move. She had seen the way that everything in Eliza’s life had been carefully boxed and packed away, slowly folding into smaller and smaller spaces until the entirety of her had disappeared.

“You’re coming with me, stupid,” Eliza whispered reassurances to her satchel of holding.

During the quiet times that Eliza slept, the satchel dreamed. She thought about all the good and bad things that she had contained through the ages, and wondered what such a thing she was. How could she have admired her owner Perseus, the youth who had given her the still staring, bleeding head of Medusa, with its still squirming head of snakes?

A magic bag that could hold anything was a prize to any religion, whatever your pantheon. During her early years Madu had thought of herself as a cornucopia, overflowing with good things for all of humanity. But then she remembered Pandora, and wondered if she were not instead something much darker. Madu wondered if she was a blessing or a curse, and whether they could be the same thing at different angles.

In her own dreams, Madu rather pictured herself as a house, but with never-ending rooms. Behind some of the doors she held storms and the keepsakes thrown from lovers lost at sea; in others, she held buttons and thread. Madu didn’t know what kind of thing she was, nor where, if ever, she ended.

In her own dreams, Madu walked through the halls and rooms of herself, each balcony another treasure-trove, another stratum in the minutiae of her previous owners’ lives. There were whole geological epochs down here made of love and loss and longing and not-to-be-forgot. Madu wondered how many owners she had once had and how many she would have in the future. Would they all care for her, never losing her, just as Eliza had reverently looked after her? How many things would she keep within her?

In the very center of Madu there hung a magic-word mantra, as fresh and as radiant as the first day it was cast into her bindings:

Hold, Madu repeated, and gathered all of the things to her in a warm glow.

Ian O’Reilly is a freelance writer from the wildlands of the UK, endeavouring to add more robo-jetpacks, old gods, and general mischief to the world. He is the primary writer for fantasy boardgame The City of Kings, a proofreader for Ravendesk Studios, and his stories have previously appeared in Into the Ruins, Solarpunk Press, and Third Flatiron. He blogs, somewhat erratically, at troublesomewords.com.

1800 words, published February 13, 2018, Shimmer #41

Me, Waiting For Me, Hoping For Something More, by Dee Warrick

Tiptree Honors List, 2018

I’m aware that there is an extra set of stairs in the basement that doesn’t usually exist. Behind the big silver ventilation pipes, past the row of tenants’ bikes parked down here until springtime: a long, dark hole framed by rusted banisters, stone steps leading thereinto. And I think I might be the only one who can see the new stairs. You’re dicking around on your phone while the washer thumps and rocks in the corner, trying not to think about all the spider webs down here, trying not to think about how Shelly refused to come down here because of them. You lean against the crumbling brick wall and scroll past twenty Facebook statuses without looking at any of them, drowning your senses in insignificant light and color and movement.

Maybe I’m the same as the stairs. Maybe the metaphysical state of being when you shouldn’t be is its own sort of secondary reality. Maybe there’s a whole bunch of shit that shouldn’t be but is out there.

It’s weird, being the ghost of the boy you never were. Being only because enough other people assumed I was that I had to be. Becoming only because you tried so hard to be me for so long that I became. This is what undead really means, what it has to mean. Having life without ever having lived. Haunting without ever having died.

Wait, though. Now you’ve slipped your phone into your jacket pocket, and you’re squinting past the ventilation pipes, past the bikes. For the first time since Shelly left, you look awake.

On the night she left you, I watched you chain-smoke on the couch, lifting cigarette after cigarette from the pack on the coffee table with shaking hands, placing them between your lips, lighting them, inhaling without enjoyment or relief, exhaling without losing any of the tension in your shoulders. Your lipstick stained the filters the color of a bad bruise. I didn’t exactly remember, but I could feel you remembering how earlier in your transition, seeing lipstick on the filter of a cigarette—your cigarette—was a source of joy, a moment of recognition and reassurance.

You kept replaying your last conversation with her in your head. Trying to find moments you could reshape or rewrite, trying to figure out if it was a game you lost through inattention and incompetence, or if you were doomed from the beginning. You kept thinking that maybe when she’d said, “I can’t…” and then allowed her sentence to trail off into cruel, heavy silence, maybe you should have said, “I know it’s hard. I know you feel like this happening really fast. But I’m the same person you fell in love with, okay? I’m more that person now than I was when you met me, really! I promise!”

I wish I could talk to you about all of this. To apologize, maybe. But I only sort of exist. And while I know you feel me in here with you, I don’t think you can hear me. It’s just, I know you think Shelly left you for me, but that’s not right. I can’t have her either. And while it’s nice to see you appear to give a shit about anything, I hope you won’t investigate the suddenly-there stairs. With you looking at them, the stairs feel cruel and hungry, and where before I thought they might be comprised of the same un-stuff as me, now, I intuit them as a different sort of wrongness. So, look, I know you usually can’t hear me, but don’t go near the stairs, okay?

You tuck your hair behind your left ear, bite your lip. You step away from the wall. The washing machine rumbles behind you, and although I don’t actually have any organs, my heart contracts and spasms in time with the machine. I watch you press your body against the wall and squeeze past the bicycles. I watch you touch the banister. I watch you lean in. If I had breath, I’d hold it, and if I could resist the pull of your movement, I’d stay up here. But I can’t do either of those things. So down we go.

I don’t sleep. Some nights, if I am very lucky, I just sort of skip eight hours and start existing again when you wake up. Other nights, when we’re both unlucky, you dream you are me, and I find myself inside your dreams with you, feeling the way you hate having my body, feeling your contorted revulsion at being stuck inside me, my beard, my voice, my flat, fuzzy torso. Tonight, and nights like it, are a weird sort of middle ground. When your sleep is uneasy but unmolested by dysphoria, I sit up in your room and wait for you to wake up again. I spend a lot of time looking at you and wondering how you could have ever thought you were me. Tonight, I’m mostly using that as an excuse to not think about what happened in the basement.

I don’t even recognize you anymore, even after you’ve washed your face and gone to sleep. There’s no more of me on your skin. Even the tattoos we share look like they belong to you. The hormones are changing your body in subtle little ways, making your skin smoother than it was when you were playing me, awarding you, finally, the breasts you should have received decades ago. You’re you now. I mean, you were always you, but when your brain and the world conspired to give birth to me, to assign me to you as an identity you had to wear, it was harder to see you.

You turn over in your sleep, and your face betrays how bad your dreams are right now. I wonder if you’re dreaming of the basement beneath the basement. I’m glad not to be in your dreams with you tonight. I followed you after you crawled down. Watched you pull your phone out and turn on its flashlight. We saw it at the same time. The yawning forever of the basement under the basement. A blank stone space, impossibly huge, held within the eight measly feet between ceiling and floor but stretching in every direction until it fell over the other end of an underground horizon. The only interruption, the stairs and the railing behind us.

I desperately wanted to go back upstairs, but you weren’t moving. You were just standing there, breathing, and everything was so quiet that your breath echoed back to us in waves. I was too busy trying and failing to take it all in to check to see if you were doing the same, but I know the face you were making. Eyes large and bright. Lips parted. Your tongue pushed forward and pressed to one sharp canine. You made that face when Shelly said she needed to talk. It’s the face we wear when the enormity of a stimulus won’t fit inside our minds all at once. If I had real eyes, real lips, a real tongue, and not just ideas of imitations of yours, I’d have made the same face. Breathing into the distance, hearing your breath respond to itself.

Finally, you said, “Jesus… Christ…”

Long J, breathy E, the SUS like an afterthought, and the CHRIST a percussive punctuation. Your curse travelled into the void and transformed, like your breath, its echo a failed, mutant imitation. We stood there and listened to it grow louder and meaner, each few seconds expecting that it would reach its peak and retreat and each few seconds realizing that it had failed to do so. God, that noise. Your voice, but ruined, coming at us like microphone feedback from every direction. I wanted you to run, but you stood there, jerking around to aim your phone in every direction, revealing nothing. I began to get the sense—and I think you did too—that the echo had developed physical form, that its new heft and weight were barreling down the underground plain at us, that the concussion of your tongue on your teeth at the end of CHRIST had become sharp and venomous in the chasm and that if we stood here much longer, it would run you through, and me with you. You turned. You ran.

And now you sleep.

I watch the corners of your mouth twitch. You say something, but

I can’t figure out what it is. Just your brain misfiring, nonsense tumbling out. It’s weird to feel like I know so little about you.

I wondered if this would happen. Shelly’s sweet. And she cares about you, even if you aren’t the you she thought you were. It was probably just a matter of time before she called you, right? To check up? You’re on the phone, pacing around the living room, one arm wrapped around your waist like you’re worried your guts will spill out of some invisible hole, and I don’t trust you not to fuck this up. You’re raw right now, and shit’s so weird. You spent the whole morning on your phone Googling things like “ghost basement” and “house has new room suddenly” and “cave under building” and “hallucinations on hrt?” I just… like… don’t take this the wrong way, but if there was ever a time when you probably shouldn’t be talking to Shelly, it’s now.

You say, “Yeah, good. I’m good. I’m fine. I mean, I’ll be fine, you know.” And, “How about you? You’re okay? Work’s okay?” And, “No, hey, we don’t have to like… I get it, you know? I’m not mad. It’s okay.”

And then, “Hey, do you—no, go ahead. I mean, I was just going to say, like… do you want to come over? You left a bunch of your stuff, and I’m going to be around today, so like…”

You’re silent for a second. And then your eyes are full of tears. And then, trembling, “Mmm. Yeah, I can do that. To your mom’s, or…? Okay. Okay, yeah. Hey, I should… Yeah.” There’s a space I can tell you want to fill with an I-love-you. “Bye.”

You stand in front of the record player for a second staring into space. It’s like the long nothings in the room beneath the building are superimposed over the walls of your little efficiency, and instead of your vision being interrupted by plaster, you’re seeing forever. And then you drop your phone on the floor, and lean over one of the record crates, start flipping through it, and I know what you’re looking for before you find them. Because I remember that date too, even though it’s not mine to remember. She’d hauled selections from her collection to your place, and the two of you spent the whole night taking turns holding up sleeves and saying, “Have you heard this one?” “Oh, you’ve got to hear this one.” “This is legit, like, my favorite record.” And halfway through Joy Division’s Unknown Pleasures, she’d said, “Dude, this is break-up music. Terrible date soundtrack,” and she’d put on Sweet’s Desolation Boulevard instead.

You stand with both records, one in each hand, your eyes wide and wet, and for a second, I’m not sure what you’re doing. I don’t think you are, either. And then you scream, throw both records onto the floor, and start stomping on the sleeves. You pick up Unknown Pleasures, bend the sleeve until you can hear the record snap inside. Toss it like a Frisbee at the wall. You fall to your knees, grab Desolation Boulevard by the corners, lift it over your head, and bring it down on the corner of the coffee table. Again and again. With each impact, “Fuck, fuck, fuck!” your voice somewhere between a growl and a wet whimper.

Your upstairs neighbors thump on their floor to shut you up, but I don’t think you hear them.

I can’t stop you. I can’t help you. I’ve always been useless to you. I watch until you’ve tired yourself out. But then you stare over your shoulder, right at the space I only sort of occupy, and it feels like your eyes are locked to where mine would be if I had any, and your lips are curled away from your teeth. And I know that if I’d ever actually been alive, in this moment, you’d kill me gladly and without regret.

The Meijer receipt you toss into the passenger-side footwell of your car itemizes the following purchases: one mop, one can of white paint, one head-mounted flashlight with adjustable nylon strap, and a Diet Coke. The lady who rang you out called you sir, and we both stink-eyed her for a few seconds before you handed her your credit card.

You smoke incessantly on the drive back home. It’s only a fifteen-minute drive, but you go through, like, five of the things. I’m trying to be supportive here. I really am. It’s just… okay, if Shelly hadn’t called, would you be doing any of this? Wouldn’t you have just built a mental wall around our experience in the basement beneath the basement and walked away? This feels like… it feels like you’re only doing this because it’s something to do, something to inject into the space in your day you’d otherwise spend hurting and remembering and listening to sad music. And I’d support that, usually, but the basement under the basement isn’t just some jejune distraction, okay? It’s not like it just exists despite the fact that it shouldn’t. I… since we crawled down those stairs, I’ve become increasingly possessed by the notion that it exists exactly because it shouldn’t. And I can’t shake the notion that we are both better off forgetting about it. So why is this so important to you all the sudden? Why this?

I wonder if, before she hung up, Shelly called you the wrong name. Called you my name. Did she?

“Shut up,” you say, tossing your spent cigarette out the window. “You’re not real. You’re not here.”

I try to shut up for the rest of the drive home, but I’m not sure how this works. The line between thought and speech is blurred for me, and I have no idea what you can and can’t hear or sense or whatever. It seems like you’ve only just become aware of me. There are lots of new rules to learn. But now the possibility occurs to me that you’ve known about me all along, that I’ve been carrying on for as long as you’ve known you weren’t me, observing, commenting, and that you’ve just blocked me out. Christ, how horrible for both of us. Is that it? Have I been driving you insane, clinging to you, a constant reminder of what you escaped?

You park in front of the apartment building and press your face into your hands. “Ugh,” you say. “Enough. Enough self-pity, already. Enough solipsism. Let’s go.” But I can’t be sure if you’re talking to me or to yourself.

So this is it. Expedition day. I’d sort of hoped that after you slept on it, you’d forget about exploring the basement. But first thing this morning, you grabbed the paint bucket and the mop and the headlamp and we headed down. You’ve been so quiet today. I’m usually very good at reading you, but today, you’re a wall to me, a stranger behind an opaque mask. I’m nervous. If I tell you that, if I explain to you how I feel, will you tell me how you feel? Will you break, even just a little? I’m nervous that you think there are answers down here, explanations for why you feel so angry and so sad, or maybe explanations for why the ghost of a boy that never existed is following you around, and what if there aren’t? What if there’s just impossibility, spitefully extant? What if something happens to you down here? What if something happens to me?

You’re not listening, or pretending not to. You’re just walking forward, dragging the mop behind you, leaving a white line you can follow back. Every once in a while, you’ll stop, glance behind you to make sure the line is straight, set the paint can on the ground, and dip the tip of the mop head into the paint. Then you’re moving again.

We’ve been walking for a while now. Twenty minutes? Thirty? What if this is all there is?

“It’s not,” you whisper. Your voice echoes, but eventually retreats.

Now I can see the fog filling up the place, dancing in front of the beam of your headlamp like cigarette smoke. Thick, and weirdly colored. Vaguely pink, the sort of light, chalky pink of the little compact Shelly’s birth control comes in. A disconcertingly medicinal shade of pink, and I wonder if it’s toxic. What would happen to me if you died? I’m not your ghost. You were never me, not really. Would I just hang around? Would I persist even after you ceased? Or would I snap out of semi-existence?

“Goddamn it, just…” you hiss. It sounds like you’re about to scream, but you catch yourself. Hold yourself. I’m glad. I didn’t realize how scared I am of the way sound behaves in this place until now. How terrified I am that another noise will escape your lips and metastasize into something hostile and hungry. I’m sorry if my questions annoy you.

“Asshole,” you whisper.

A, somehow consonantal, snapping like a snare drum under a brush, the sudden sibilance of the twin S’s quick and then gone, the HOLE noncommittal, a footnote.

There. There’s something. Oh god, there is something ahead of us.

I was starting to think we’d never see anything, that the pink fog would just grow thicker and thicker until it ate up the light from your headlamp, that after some period of wandering aimlessly in pinkness, we’d just sort of forget ourselves, and having been forgotten, functionally cease. But no, look at that. There’s something right there, maybe about a quarter mile ahead of us, a sort of shimmering luminescence reflected on the floor and ceiling, like how an outdoor fountain plays tricks on the sunlight, gives it form and movement. You see it, right? I’m not going crazy?

Now you’ve picked up the pace. Your strides are long and your shoulders are set, and your chin is tucked. This is happening.

Will you please just talk to me? Can we please take a moment to talk about this before we plunge toward whatever we’re plunging toward? It’s not really fair, don’t you think? I mean, I know you never asked to look like me, to be assigned me, and I don’t want to impugn your experience or whatever, but I never asked to be dreamt up either. I never asked to be attached to you. But here we are. And I hate to pull this card on you, but your actions affect me. Can we please just talk about this?

Nothing, huh? No response. Fine.

Well, here it is. Here’s what you’ve been looking for, I guess. A pond in the basement beneath the basement. The floor ends sharply, a circular pit filled with gently rippling water, and lit from below, as though someone installed waterproof floodlights at the bottom. This is the source of the fog, too. It roils out of the pool, rises in tendrils that twine through and between one another, like time-lapse photography of vines growing.

You drop the paint can and the mop, strip your headlamp from your forehead, take a knee beside the pond, glare into its depths. I feel like I’m about to watch one of the tendrils of fog suddenly solidify and wrap itself around your neck, pull you down into water, and me with you.

That doesn’t happen, of course. You steady yourself, slide your feet out behind you until you’re on your belly at the rim of the pond. I float down beside you, stare in with you, not because I want to, but because I am tied to you. I don’t want to. I don’t want to do any of this.

There are… I want to call them fish, but that’s not what they are at all. They wriggle like fish, and since they apparently live in water, we both register them at first as fish purely out of idiot association, but they look nothing like fish, really. They look a little like human hands, their fingers blooming outward and then suddenly pinching together, propelling them through the water the way squids move with their arms. Their skin is the same medicinal pink as the fog, the same sort of slimy, patterned texture as banana slugs. They each have one enormous, lidless eye protruding from the space where their wrists would be if they were actually hands, and those eyes roll and dart with manic intensity, and I don’t like this. I don’t like them. I don’t like you right now. I want to go home. I want to follow the paint trail back to the stairs, and up them, and into your apartment. I want everything to go back to normal.

And then—their voices pitched low and cracking, their words enormous and clear but, somehow, unaffected by the acoustic horrors this place commits on your voice—the fucking things start talking.

Oh, they say. Oh, we are made less alone now. This is good. We decide this is good.

For fuck’s sake, let’s get out of here. You’re scared too, I can see it. I can see it in your eyes, almost as wide and as wild as the eyes on the wrists of the hand-fish-things in the glowing pool. You scuttle backward, push yourself off your belly and onto your ass, curl your knees up to your chest. If only you’d stand. If only you’d run.

Don’t speak, say the things in the pool. Your noise behaves strangely. We will speak, and if you wish to speak, we will know what you wish to say. We will consider whether we wish to respond, and if we determine a desire to respond exists, we will take action based upon this hypothetical desire.

You swallow. The noise of your throat constricting turns into an echo, a wet glottal implosion, throbs once, then dies.

You are obscured by a false thing, say the hand-fish-things. That is bad. We have determined that it is bad because, while we are false, yet are, and he is false, yet is, he did not seek us out. You did. We wish to see you clearly.

You look at me. And I know you can see me now. Maybe all along. Maybe since forever. All that time feeling isolated, feeling rejected by reality itself, and we could have leaned on each other. You could have shown me kindness. We could have been friends. The living girl who was never born and the ghost boy who never died. We have so much in common, don’t we? Don’t we?

The pool has started bubbling, the subtle ripple at the surface becoming chaotic, uneasy, as though suddenly the floodlights at the bottom have heated the water to boiling. One of your hands leaps to your chest, claws at your solar plexus, and you moan through your teeth. I feel it too. An arthritic ache cross-bred with an electric, tattoo-needle gash. Your moan echoes, eats itself and grows, becomes hungrier than it was before, turns into a heartbeat (NG, NG, NG, NG, NG), swells to meet the boundaries of the world, and Jesus Christ, something is tearing, something is growing, something is happening and it hurts, and I fucking warned you, didn’t I, and now we’re both going to die, not understanding, not knowing anything new, there was nothing new to learn, just confusion and obscenity in a basement that shouldn’t exist and which we shouldn’t and can’t exist within, Jesus fucking Christ, it hurts.

And then there is silence. You gulp breath on the floor, your eyes closed, your knees held to your chest. You rock back and forth. And I am separate from you. Given form. Given meat. I look down at myself, at my body. My physical, actual body. I am hideous.

There, say the things in the pool. Now we can speak together.

My body collapses. I am exhausted. And all I can do is remember.

The first time you saw me—the first time we realized we weren’t the other—you were thirteen. Do you remember? Sitting on your bed with the TV on, watching some music video, seeing the woman on screen with her guitar, with her bright red lipstick, with her black hair messy and falling in front of her smoky eyes, you thought: She’s so perfect. I don’t even remember what band she was in, do you? Anyway, your computer dinged at us. Instant message from some shitty middle-school friend of yours watching the same channel at his house: ‘you seeing this?’ Of course we were. ‘god,’ said your shitty friend. ‘what would it be like to fuck her?’

But you didn’t want to know what it would be like to fuck her. Or maybe you did, but not just that. You wanted to know what it would be like to feel the spirit of your hands in her hands, to use her fingers to brush the hair out of her eyes. To look in the mirror and recognize yourself as her. You’d never really noticed before, not in so concrete a way that you’d be able to express it in words, but looking in the mirror had always been a nightmare for you. I lived in the mirror. I, with my jutting larynx and broadening shoulders, I with my barely-there mustache and—god, what a horrible betrayal—my cock.

That wasn’t you, and suddenly you knew it. You got up, rushed to the bathroom, allowing yourself to be seduced by the barely formed hope that maybe, this time, now that you’d acknowledged it, now that you’d given yourself permission to hope for anything, that when you looked, you’d see the corners of me, would know how to peel me off of you and toss me away, but when we got to the bathroom and looked in the mirror, all you saw was me. And looking back, I felt myself as discrete and unreal, a parasite gestating inside of you. I saw myself on your face, but I knew I was a mask someone else had fastened to your skull as a punishment for something you hadn’t yet done.

I can’t hear your thoughts anymore. I can’t feel your feelings. I don’t know what you’re asking these things, or why they’re telling you their story. I know you can hear me. I know you can see me. And now, I know you are ignoring me.

We are not ancient, they say. Isn’t that funny? Abominable gods, we understand, are meant to be ancient. We are gods newly born. Perhaps more obscene for our youth than we would be if we were very old. There’s something beautiful about obscenity, don’t you think? About violating the rules of an orderly universe.

Explain me to me. Explain to me why you envisioned me as such a horror. This body is repulsive, a grotesque cartoon of malehood. My limbs are long and gangly covered with thick, horrible, spider-leg hairs, scarred with vague, faded caricatures of your tattoos. My belly protrudes, my flat chest caves in, my cock looks like a monstrous cancer growing between my legs.

The space we occupy, and the bodies we possess, we are not sure how they came to exist. There may have been an external cause. Perhaps one with some intentionality. Or perhaps there was only an exceedingly rare cosmic glitch, and therefore, we.

I crawl toward the pool. The surface has stilled since these fucking things ripped me out of you, gave me form. I stare at my reflection. My eyes are little black scribbles, a child’s drawing of eyes. My beard a wiry thicket of rough, sharp quills, shining with repulsive grease. My hairline recedes pathetically. Why would you do this to me?

We are interested in deconstructing Supposed-To. We are interested in violating rubrics. We want to see more beautiful things that shouldn’t be.

You’re staring at the things in the pool and listening to them describe me—I am a beautiful thing that should not be, I am a magnificent accident. You’ve had a friend your entire life who fits their exact description, and you’ve ignored me. You’re leaning close to their glowing pool, tucking your hair behind your ear, staring at their horrible little fingers swimming through the water like you’re looking at something precious, something wonderful.

We enjoy visitors. This is good. We enjoy being surrounded by others who transgress. Whose nature is transgressive. It would be nice to have more. To form a strange family. A church. We will grant you favor. That is what gods do, isn’t it? Grant favor to their church?

Finally, you look at me. And I watch the wonder drain from your face, see it replaced with loathing, with resentment. What right do you have to resent me? I march toward you, around the rim of the glowing pond in the sudden basement under the building where Shelly left you. Left you because you weren’t me. Because you failed to be me. You stand to meet me.

Don’t mind him, say the things in the pool. You’re right. He’s not even false in an interesting way. We have an idea. It might be nice if, together, we remade the world to be more interesting.

Speak to me. I don’t need these things telling me what you think. I lived on your skin for twenty-nine years. Don’t try to stare me down. Don’t try to affect an expression that communicates defiance. That expression is my expression. Those eyes are my eyes. And if these ugly little monsters knew anything about existing outside of the parameters of existence, they’d see which of us really understands it. Which of us has really lived it. I deserve to be recognized for all the years I spent making room for you. I deserve to be called beautiful. I deserve to be seen. You think you’ve suffered like I’ve suffered? You think I’ve ruined your life? You are ungrateful.

But I have fingers now. Horrible, ugly, hairy fingers you designed for me, and they are mine, and I will wrap them around your fucking throat. I will choke you until the body that should have been mine, the body you ruined turning into yours, is limp and empty, and I will leave this fucking basement, and I will make this world tell me I’m beautiful. I will wrap my fingers around a thousand throats until they all tell me, in unison, that they see me. I will—

“For fuck’s sake!” you scream, and bat my hands away. You’re so strong. Jesus, you’re strong. “You self-absorbed, self-pitying child!”

You press your hands against my chest, push. I fall, scuttle backward on the cold stone ground.

“You took my entire life from me!”

You’re so loud, and your voice is turning into something. I crawl away from you, but you keep advancing. I’m sorry. I don’t know what came over me. I’m so sorry.

“You sucked my blood for thirty years, and then told me it was my fault when you were still hungry!”

Can’t you hear it? Can’t you hear the way the echoes are growing armor, growing teeth, venom sacs, and stingers? Can’t you feel the way this whole place shakes? I was wrong. Please. Just stop. Tell your gods to make it stop.

“After I started peeling you off, when you finished telling me I was crazy, you acted like you deserved a fucking medal for acknowledging my autonomy! And then you sulked, and cried, and told yourself a story where you were the one who was inconvenienced by me!”

It’s here. Born from your words, gestated in the horizontal void of this place. I can feel it all around me. Inside of me. The pink fog is growing thicker, turning solid, and I’ve already inhaled so much of it. But so have you. So just stop. We both need to stop.

“Fuck you! I hope you fucking rot!”

I am being torn apart from the inside. The echo, the fog, the little gods in the glowing pool, they’re all the same, and they’re all inside of my horrible, misshapen body, expanding. I feel the slick, sweaty skin of my chest stretch, tear. I don’t bleed. You didn’t imagine any blood for me. But whatever I am made of, it’s dividing, each molecule drifting away from itself, and it hurts, and if you don’t shut up, these echoes, this fog, these gods, they’re going to do this to you, too.

But you. The fog wraps around you, snakes under your hair, lifts you up. Your eyes are bright. Your lips are open. You’ve got your tongue pressed to one canine. You are held together. This place makes space for you.

“You’re not some magnificent accident,” you say, and your voice is low now. Almost a whisper. “You’re just the detritus of one.”

Your words rip me apart. And after so many years of being a ghost, I know what it’s like to die.

My afterlife is strange. I don’t exist much anymore. Sometimes, for just a second, I’ll find my way out of a pink fog and into your mirror. I’ll watch you do your makeup with your hair clipped to the top of your head. Sometimes I’ll hear other people in the apartment with you, other magnificent accidents recruited into the cult of the infant gods in the basement. All natural transgressives whose very existence violates cosmic law. Existing not in spite of the fact that they shouldn’t, but because of it. They seem very nice.

I don’t feel too deeply. Everything is very far away.

Tonight, you’re dressed in the attire of a priestess of your order. A sexy dress. A chaotic tangle of necklaces. Your hair freshly dyed. I watch you apply lipstick and notice a tattoo, an analogue of which I never possessed. A large, rolling eyeball where your hand tapers down to your wrist. You smile at yourself in the mirror. Not at me. You don’t see me. I can tell because you smile without proviso. You look happy in a way I never knew you to be.

Your doorbell rings, and you glance away from the mirror. Whoever’s here, you’re expecting them. You look excited. “Coming!” you say—long, musical O, warbling ING—and your voice is bright and joyful and playful and yours. You glance at the mirror one last time, then disappear into the apartment. And I disappear too.

Dee Warrick’s fiction has appeared in Tor.com, Apex Magazine, Daily Science Fiction, and a variety of other venues. She lives in Amsterdam, where she spends most of her time complaining about the behavior of tourists despite being an American expatriate herself. She is large and contains multitudes.

published January 2018, Shimmer #41, 5800 words

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

Mary Toft, First Part

Mary Toft is in the garden on an August morning rich with bees. Five months along, her belly presses against the rough linen of her skirt while one hand curves protectively around it, half support, half caress. She thinks: This time next year, what will she be? And after that? In the corner of her eye she glimpses a child—like a ghost, or a prefigure—running through the morning from the kitchen door to the garden wall.

She makes her way toward a field the mowers cut three days before. On the way she meets Margaret, and together they walk to their day’s labor. The mowers are already at work, crossing another field with the regular sweep of their scythes, the second load of the season. Mary and Margaret row the hay already cut and left flat to dry.

It is Mary who disturbs the rabbit, with no ill intention. An hour earlier the doe had fled the mowers, her heart wild and her eyes rolling white, and hidden among the fallen grass of the field now being rowed. Her breast and her tail are brightly white, and it’s the whiteness that stops Mary, as much as the movement, so she is first to look up and see the creature break for the edge of the field, speeding through the stubble and the brittle grass, her rear legs sliding from side to side in fear.

Mary watches the rabbit leap for the ditch. She cannot see it, but she knows—how does she know?—the rabbit stops, listening for those terrors above who would hunt her to earth, who would tear her to pieces and eat her, dragging her heart and stomach out through a rent in her belly. The other women return to their work, but Mary watches, and finds her mind returned to an earlier afternoon, some autumn when she was a child and her father brought home the bloody carcasses of three rabbits, their eyes blank in their sockets, and their paws limp. Mary watched her mother dismantle their bodies and consign them to the pot, their bones enriching a sauce of thyme and rosemary, their blood and livers added at the end to thicken. She remembered the slender and furless paws, the tiny feet, the delicate ivory bones broken in the dish, the sharp edge where her father’s knife, her mother’s cleaver, had split the powerful thigh bone, or shattered the ribs. How, taking a mouthful of the stew, she had also taken a mouthful of bone, and the points had scratched inside her cheek.

She can taste rabbit on her tongue, the fear and ferrous of its blood, or perhaps that is the taste of her own, where the bones pierced her cheek. She knows the rabbit still hides—white-eyed—in the ditch.

At that moment the child leaps like a rabbit in her womb. She returns to work, one hand often caressing her belly.

That night her labor begins, and what emerges is not a human child, not exactly. It is unsexed, its eyes sealed, its skin dark gray, like a hairless rabbit kitten, with an open pocket that runs from breastbone to privates, and its lungs and liver hanging outside its body.

In the light of a guttering taper it seems to Mary that the child draws one breath, but perhaps it does not. Perhaps his singular moment on earth was—like the morning’s prefigure—only a dream.

The Egg From Whence Hatched the World

In the beginning there was only water, and then the egg. The egg might be, for example, the product of a dove descending on the deep. From the egg might hatch a number of different entities, depending on the context. The universe itself might float from that original albumen. Or it might be a man, creeping from the shell on which a raven knocks to waken him. Or no creature at all might escape the cosmic egg, but rather the substance of reality itself, called by some ylem: the original material, the primeval atom.

In at least one instance it was Gaea who crept out of the world-egg, who conceived—with the aid of the waters—her son-lover Ouranos, with whom she populated the world.

The Monstrous Egg, First Part

New Mexico and the Trinity Test Site. In July, a young man climbs a hundred-foot ladder to where the Gadget, armed, awaits its early-morning detonation. He has been assigned babysitting duties in case of sabotage, though he is not sure what he is meant to do if anyone tries to approach his tower. The summer night seems to have arranged its own defense, anyway, and a storm blows in all thunder-struck, lightning-hatched. He spends the night alone, reading by the light of his TL-122-A, the dull yellow center of its beam illuminating half a page at a time, first one comic book then another, until—long before dawn—its narrow circle dims. After that it is only in sudden lightning strikes that he sees the whole page at once: the Human Torch, Captain America, Superman defeating fascists. All back-issues he’d picked up in the commissary.

Outside in the darkness and storm—so dark he cannot see the ground, only the wild and disordered air—the Gadget broods; it seems to him gravid and still, except when a high wind causes the whole tower to groan and sway and another handful of rain drenches the window, its drops caught in freeze-frame flash by lightning.

He is excruciatingly aware of the Gadget, and what lies within it, what chain reactions, what potential. It might be an entirely new world. Or an end to the old world. Or nothing at all, an empty egg, unviable despite their best intentions.

Mary Toft, Second Part

Mary buried the inside-out child. Once, she looked up from its little grave to see rabbits watching in the first rain of September, a flicker of drops across a bright sunset in a slate-colored sky. Her glance scattered the rabbits, and they peeled away from the gravesite where she had set a little bunch of cottage flowers—clove pinks, richly scented, from the warm corner beside the front door.

She thought of rabbit stew and early morning rabbits startled among the lettuces of her little garden. She thought of their white bellies flickering, as had flickered the belly of that rabbit who fled the mowers and haymakers, who had—in a flash of light—quickened within her. She thought: Perhaps the womb is transparent, like water, and perhaps the flash of light from a rabbit’s white stomach can quicken within, as the word of God quickened in Mary’s own womb.

She felt something move, a creature she could not name, and who knows what shape it took? From a smear of blood to a cluster of bones, from a frog to a hairless rabbit kit, to a monkey to a man, to the shape made by certain underground roots that scream when they are torn from the earth. Something moved in that internal darkness, enclosed by the shell of her belly.

The second pregnancy was easier than the first, and the tiny, flickering creature moved within her wild and skittish, so she wondered if she had not one, but a litter of kits inside.

The Prophetess Hen

In August of 1819, in a village outside of Manchester, a farmer announces the advent of a miraculous hen. She lays eggs of remarkable beauty that bear—in copperplate letters—words of hope and advantage: Love your Savior, says one egg. Fear God, says another. Hellfire Awaits.

The hen dies suddenly. The village doctor preserves the remaining eggs. It was not until 1837 that the Farmer—on his death bed—admits what many suspected: that he had written those messages on newly-lain eggs. When the ink dried he re-inserted them into the hen—well, into multiple hens, but the Prophetess of Manchester was the only one who survived the process more than twice—and waited for the mystery to reveal itself in his chicken coop.

Gaea and Ouranos

Together Gaea and Ouranos conceived Briareos, Kottos, and Gyes, lovely and powerful creatures with fifty heads and fifty arms each. While Gaea loved them for their strength and beauty, Ouranos was troubled by their perfection—their enormous shoulders, their great height, their hundred exquisite eyes. Rather than allowing their power to challenge his own, he pushed them back inside Gaea, who was also the Earth, locking them in the underground of Tartaros, which was also Gaea’s womb.

Gaea, she cried out in pain, as her sons dragged their fifty arms against the interior of her womb, which was also the deep region beneath the earth. She felt them return, also, to an earlier posture, since Ouranos’s violence twisted them into fetal creatures, their fifty arms wrapped around their bodies and their knees drawn up to meet the foreheads of their fifty heads. She felt each kick they made in defiance of her stony womb, each flip and turn as they sought some comfort in the tiny space their father had allowed them. She wept at both the pain and the perversion, and whispered to them: You will live in the air again; you will grow into your final form and you will be free.

Gaea and Ouranos continued to conceive children, and—once born—Ouranos returned them to their mother, until her whole body was occupied, womb and bowels, with creatures waiting to be reborn. With each child her body grew larger, the shell of her belly harder, and she could not move with the weight of them. She would burst, she thought, she would rupture, and all her children would run back out into the world again through her torn navel.

Where Children Thus Are Born With Hairy Coats Heaven’s Wrath Unto the Kingdom It Denotes

Monstrous births are prefigures.

In Towton, Yorkshire, in 1461 a child was born hairy from crown to foot, with a head made entirely of barking dogs. The child rose from the bloody sheets in which his mother lay, said Fear the flames! and expired. The dogs that constituted his head barked and whimpered a moment longer; then they, too, were still.

The obvious question is: What horror filled his mother’s eye or ear or mouth when he—enwombed—was still in flux, a protean creature awaiting his final form? The child’s shape is, of course, uncertain until the moment of birth, vulnerable to any number of outside forces. A vision of rabbits. A moment of insight. An internment camp. A refugee trail. A fat man or a little boy. A cigarette. A miraculous gadget. A sudden fright. A new passion. The presence of a beautiful man. The taste of honey. The uninvited touch of a stranger while one is walking through the grocery store minding one’s own business. The evil eye. The epigenetic triggers of famine and warzone. Fallout and trace mercury.

Elizabeth Johnson observed the First Battle of Bull Run with her sister, unaware that she had just conceived a child with her now-absent husband, a Confederate officer. Captain Johnson died in the battle, and although she did not observe his death by shrapnel, she did watch a man beheaded by a cannonball. Nothing might have come of it, had he not looked up the hillside in the moment of his decapitation, to where Elizabeth and her sister stood watching.

Should we wonder, then, that Elizabeth gave birth to a headless child in 1862? He lived for three years, and though his body grew, he was never physically competent, could neither walk nor crawl, and made only a whistling, mewling noise. Elizabeth remained a devoted mother to the end, dripping spoon after spoon of warm cream into the gaping sphincter of her son’s neck.

Mary Toft, Third Part

Dr. Graves, the man-midwife who attended the birth and death of Mary’s inside-out rabbit-child, wrote an account of the new sort of creature that scratched its way from her womb, part man, part Leporidae.

Dr. Graves did not subscribe to the old discourse of marvels and prefigures. He was a rational man, interested in the science of birth, particularly maternal impression, and not the mythology. He was pleased that a mystery had fallen in his lap, and he observed Mary’s symptoms with care, nodding sagely when he felt the fever on her brow and ignoring her rambling talk about the flash of a rabbit’s belly in the August morning, and the shadow of a little girl running to the bottom of the garden.

“Yes, yes, my dear, now you must rest,” he said. Her urgency did not trouble him.

The next day Daniel Toft sent word by way of his sister, Margaret, that Mary was again in labor. Dr. Graves arrived in time to see the aftereffects: the blood-soaked sheets, the fragments of pearly bone and tooth. The creature expelled was like the others, but more clearly a rabbit now, as though some progress had been made since she birthed its litter-mates. Dr. Graves took it away and sketched it: its delicate legs, the short ears, the tiny padless paws. If it were not for the blood, its belly would have been white. Not hairless like the earlier kits, this creature was small, but its eyes were open, its claws splayed and bloody in death.

Such well-developed claws must have scratched, he thought, on leaving the maternal seat. He could not determine how it died, but was not surprised at the death of a creature so unsuited to either human or natural worlds.

Dr. Graves combined his account of the birth, his sketches of the rabbit-child of Mary and Daniel Toft, his conjecture on the nature of maternal impressions, and sent them to an acquaintance at the Royal Society. He was gratified to receive a response within the week, an invitation to bring the Tofts to London for observation. Mary’s belly was swollen with her seemingly unending pregnancy, and she often talked of her desire for rabbit stew, of rabbits she often saw now, in dreams, fleeing from her, their white bellies flashing. When Dr. Graves examined her, a thick stench emerged from her womb, and there seemed, under the skin, some angry red distemper that spread down her thighs and up toward her navel. Her skin was hot to the touch, and she never seemed to sleep, only to lapse into unconsciousness.

The trip to London was painful for everyone. Mary gave birth to two rabbits on the road, attended by her husband. They sent these children back home with Margaret Toft, Daniel’s sister, to be buried with their siblings.

Mary did not know where she was, even when they told her “London.” She stayed in dark, closed rooms, refusing light as though it might pierce her, and when the blade of the sun did penetrate her darkness, she shrieked so that Dr. Graves relented, and examined her by the near-darkness of a candle. He touched her belly, and saw the torn skin of her secret parts, scratched as by claws, or broken bones, as though the creatures had not been born in a gush of blood, but had been dragged by rear foot from the womb, leaving the route of their egress written on her purpled flesh.

Mary was not often conscious. Her fever was high, and her eyes fluttered wildly in her sockets, as though she were troubled by constant, terrible dreams. When, in a temporary state of wakefulness, two gentlemen of the Royal Society interviewed her, she told them about a hay field, about the flash of a doe’s belly through the newly-turned rows, how the doe had gone to ground in a ditch, and Mary had watched her and—for a moment—felt herself akin to that creature, driven in fear from her home burrow when the mowers passed with their scythes. She described a terrible wildness of spirit, though the two gentleman were not clear if this was her own, or the doe’s. Mary asked them: Where was she now? Had she found her way back? She held onto their hands, as the tremors shook her belly. No one could answer her.

“Maternal Impression, a very definite case of it,” one gentleman said. “We’ll present it at the next meeting. Can you arrange for an inspection? Perhaps several—a number of our members will want to see it.”

“Yes,” said Daniel. “You tell us when, and we’ll have Mary ready. She’ll like to hear so many people are interested.”

Dr. Graves nodded sagely, and offered to let them read his recent treatise on the subject, as they withdrew, leaving Mary to her darkness, where—wriggling within her—the rabbits formed and died, formed and died, and she endured their birth and their return. In her half-waking state she saw not her husband, but a hulking and ancient devil who could not bear to see children born into the world, and so returned them to her after each bloody labor.

It was the landlady who found them out, when Margaret Toft visited the kitchen and asked her for a very small rabbit—dead or alive—the smallest she could find. When examined, Margaret wept and refused to speak. It was Daniel who admitted the deception, and Mary Toft began her long, slow recovery.

The Monstrous Egg, Second Part

This is an ancient recipe, not so much invented, as rediscovered in eras of dread: the Terror, the Year of Five Emperors. It flickered in popularity after the Trinity Tests.

Take two dozen eggs. Take a pig’s bladder, or similarly round, watertight mold. From here, execution will vary by era and taste: Do you prefer chicken or duck or ostrich? Do you prefer a wild boar’s bladder or the more delicate skin-sack of a loveable piglet or a huge egg-shaped mold from a Tupperware party? Some recipes call for yolks and whites to be separated, the yolks set first in a spherical mold, then removed to the bladder, after which the whites are poured over the top and set in simmering water. These differences are cosmetic. What matters is the idea: the monstrous egg that, once cracked, spills its contents across the dining table.

(Monstrous Eggs can occur naturally, as was the case in 1862, in Antietam, when a languishing hen refused to lay. When butchered, she was revealed to be hoarding one of these creatures in her oviduct, so large it killed the hen.)

In the 1950s the Monstrous Egg appeared in the guise of a celebratory centerpiece for a summer buffet, recommended in a least one issue of Woman’s Life Weekly where it was sponsored by Jell-O and called the Delicious Gadget. The recipe required four packages of lime Jell-O cast in an egg-shaped mold, swirled with layers of sour cream and grated carrot, and, floating in its green depths, boiled eggs—the yolks like pupils—staring as they waited to spill like a secret onto an unsuspecting diner’s plate. This was recommended as a centerpiece dish for buffets and barbecues, with a garnish of marshmallows.

In all cases, the appearance of such recipes prefigures a monstrous birth of another kind. That thing your hostess has placed at the center of the buffet, garlanded with marshmallows and water chestnuts? It is, in fact, the alchemical egg from which cracks the new and terrible world. No one knows if these eggs were ever eaten, or if they watched over the table like a prefigure of doom, l’oeuf monstrueux. The Delicious Gadget sits in the center of the suburban barbecue, awaiting detonation.

Mary Toft Had a Daughter

I have heard that there is, somewhere, a complex wherein these marvels, monsters, and prefigures are stored, or recorded, if their bodies have been destroyed. There are rooms full of jars in which float the pickled bodies of dog-headed children, and moon-calves, and mouse-eared cats. Beyond these nameable creatures, there are stranger bodies, which seem to our eyes incompletely imagined, interrupted at some mid-stage of development, neither man nor beast nor angel. There are diagrams on the walls, and books of two-headed flowers and insects with thirteen wings, and other early attempts to record the marvel of conception as it intersects with history. There are bodies stretched on pins in beds of wax, the remains of vivisected creatures, labeled by origins—mother and supposed father(s)—location, and date. The dates are significant: The children of plagues as well as comets find their resting places here; the children of Bikini Atoll, and the children of Trinity, the children of the Dutch famine of 1945, and children of the Gulag.

It was to this secret archive—the Museum Clausum—that Mary Toft’s surviving child was consigned by Dr. Graves’s machinations. Graves was present at this, her last birth—before Daniel Toft confessed—and had whisked the little rabbit-daughter away when he found her among the refuse of half-rabbits that Daniel and Margaret Toft had pushed into the birth canal.

Mary Toft’s daughter was a weak creature and smaller than the rest of her litter. The plan was for vivisection, so they might compare her anatomy to both rabbit and human models while still in action. At least two gentlemen of the Royal Society were eager to begin work, to slice open her belly and see, for a moment, her heart beat in the living air.

But rabbits are clever, and their hearts are wild. Dr. Graves left the child on the hearth in the Museum’s ante-chamber, and held an impromptu meeting about who would author the resulting paper, and where they would seek publications, and what the book might be called when it was done.

While they spoke, the new thing—part Mary, part rabbit, product of a flash of light, conceived in the intersecting glances of woman and doe—escaped from her basket and onto the warm hearth. She smelled formaldehyde and vivisectionists, and though her eyes were newly opened, some knowledge must have been inherited by her infant mind, as though the circumstances of her birth had written into the code of her being a profound fear of men like Dr. Graves and his company.

She crept from hearth to door, a creature so tiny she might be missed, this palm-sized daughter, this rabbit-homunculus. Her skin was liver-colored, dark enough to fade into the carpet. When a late-comer opened the door, she hid rabbit-still in the shadows and saw her chance. She darted with all the speed of her wild mother. This was a happy ending: a second birth for Mary Toft’s unnamed daughter.

A new creature quickens. A prefigure cracks the shell of the world: monstrous, miraculous, dog-headed, rabbit-bodied, conceived by the flash of a white belly in the dawn, the methylated DNA of a woman in duress, carrying her child through a famine or along a refugee trail from the flooded coast to higher land—from this crack will emerge something entirely new.

You might try to return it to its shell, but this time I do not think it will comply.

Rebecca Campbell is a Canadian writer and academic. Her work has appeared in publications that include The Year’s Best Science Fiction and Fantasy, The Year’s Best Dark Fantasy and Horror, The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, and Beneath Ceaseless Skies. NeWest Press published her novel, The Paradise Engine, in 2013. You can find her online at whereishere.ca.

 

published January 2018, Issue #41, 3900 words

More Miraculous Births

Fallow, by Ashley Blooms
They find the bottle in the barn. There are a lot of things there, whole piles of things: tractor-part things, tire things, cutting things and bolting things, all tired things, slowly fading toward the same color of rusty brown. The inside of the barn smells of stale hay and beer. Misty picks the bottle that is the least broken and William holds it between two fingers and lets the water drain from its open mouth onto the packed-earth floor. 

Hare’s Breath, by Maria Haskins
It’s Midsummer’s Eve, and even this close to midnight there’s no darkness, only a long, translucent dusk that will eventually slip into dawn. Britt and I are fifteen, and she has just come back from That Place, the one the adults won’t talk about even when they think I’m not listening. Something’s happened to her there, but I don’t understand what it is, and she can’t find the words to tell me.

The Atomic Hallows and the Body of Science, by Octavia Cade
A spear breaks its blade upon ribs and punctures hearts. It shines with ice-coated needles in the salt air, over breakfast. “I’ve had a letter,” says Lise to her nephew. He’d come to visit for the holidays so she wouldn’t be alone in the cold country of her exile. “I’ve had a letter and I don’t know what to make of it.” She thinks she might be worried. 

Black Fanged Thing, by Sam Rebelein

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

This was the bleak world in which Jude Ostermann was living when he did it. When he read the slip of paper and gave himself nightmares for weeks. Which makes sense, honestly. Bleakness breeds bleakness.

Jude Ostermann, thirty-eight, had himself a large white house on a quaint New England suburban lane. He had two children and a wife. He sold insurance every day at his father’s firm—started by his grandfather—or was it his father’s grandfather?—either way, some day it would be his. And he walked his dog every day in the empty hours before work. The dog, a young German shepherd, actually enjoyed the January barrenness. The damp made each individual smell stand up straighter, reach out farther. His steps bounced in January. Jude’s dragged.

Every morning, Jude passed by the same field. It was down a path behind his nice, pleasant house, through the woods and next to a golf course. The field had maybe been something once. It wasn’t now. Just dead grass and a half-broken, knee-high wall of slate chunks. A time-eaten wooden fence wound its shambling way around the field and back, vanishing amongst rain-stained trees.

He always took a few moments to look at it every time he passed, but Jude never thought anything of this field. What was there to think. Whatever the thing might have been, it was now just a goddamn field. Wasn’t it?

The dog, of course, thought it smelled great.

See, in Jude’s painfully ordinary, painfully drizzly town, there was one odd thing. Every evening at sundown, it passed. You could stand on your front porch and observe as it went by, and most people did. There were some who stood outside every evening to watch it pass. But you were by no means obligated to. Many people, in fact, did not. Some eyed it through their windows. Some made a game of it, trying to predict the exact moment it would approach. The time differed slightly day by day, but not by much. You could gamble in mere seconds, it was so precise.

Some never watched it. They stayed inside, staring at the floor with the TV turned way up. Played the radio loud, expecting it, dreading it. Jude’s wife, Heather, for instance, made a point of washing vegetables at the old kitchen sink, every day at the same time. The sink whined deafeningly. She did this to avoid seeing or hearing the odd thing. To escape the usual cacophony of hundreds upon hundreds of glass bottles rattling against the asphalt…

No matter what, though, you felt it. When it passed your house, that small round scar on your left temple would always itch. Ever so slightly. A tingle. It could catch you off guard if you weren’t ready for it. Make you gasp. Which is why most people were ready for it. Why most people stood on the porch, beer in hand, and waited patiently for the thing to pass. Eyes as glassy as the rattling bottles. They scratched the dull throb in their temple and afterwards, went back into their homes, back inside to the lives they chose. Or ended up with. Or whatever. And the cacophony of glass passed down the street, into the night.

Nobody thought about this odd thing. What was there to even think. Whatever yours had been, it was now just a goddamn scar. Wasn’t it?

And a minute a day wasn’t such a bad trade.

Tristan Ostermann was eleven and Delilah Ostermann was eight. Delilah didn’t have her scar yet. So in the year since Tristan had gotten his, she had been poking and prodding at it persistently. Probing him with questions.

“Does it hurt?” she’d ask.

“No,” he’d say.

“Do you remember what it was like when it happened?”

“Nobody does, stupid.”

Jude, in his armchair by the fire, would peer at his children over the local paper. “Don’t call your sister stupid.”

Delilah would flick at Tristan’s head. He’d pounce on her. They’d wrestle until Heather came in from the kitchen, pie-stench wafting behind her, and pull them apart.

Looking at Jude: “You shouldn’t let them fight like that.”

He wouldn’t even look up from the paper. “They’re not gonna hurt each other.”

“Delilah could slam her head into the table and pop an eye out.”

Jude would shake his head. “You shouldn’t have bought a table that’s all corners.” He’d snap the paper taut, pointedly, at the table. “The damn thing is a giant marble knife, for Christ’s sake.”

“Dollar,” the kids would say together. They’d point at the jar on the shelf.

None of it meant anything. It was all in fun, more or less. Happened every night. A complacent routine. And the whole thing was very pretty.

But sometimes, very rarely, Jude would find himself wondering, Is this nice? And…what was that thing? He’d scratch idly at his temple, hardly even noticing he was doing it. Thinking. What was that thing?

Rarely.

At night sometimes, Jude remembered the girl he dated in college. Not her face or her name. Simply that she was. That she left for…something. Somewhere. They fought a week before graduation. Or she fought him. Asked him to come with her. Asked him why he needed to follow his father into The Firm (which was always said reverently, with capital letters). Couldn’t he just give that up? Couldn’t he leave that town and…whatever she had suggested. Something vague about writing novels pressed itself against the memory, but failed to attach anywhere specific.

He remembered they were naked. Had just had sex, made love. Fucked. The distinction of what that had been wasn’t clear to him now. But the tiny room in his college-life apartment stank of it. Made the argument feel visceral and desperate, which it was. But, honestly, it was too late. He already had the scar. In fact, Jude remembered his temple throbbing horribly as she fought with him. Drowning out her words. Even in that moment, she was mist. Like he had no idea who or what she was. Whether he loved her eyes or wanted her body or needed all of it or what. It was too late.

“Leave?” he repeated, numb. “Why…why would I do that?”

She was from another town. She didn’t understand.

On a shitty evening in January, Jude stood on his porch. He still had his work suit on, but the paisley tie was loosened. He stared out into the street. The lane was silent. Inside, Tristan sat complacently at his desk, doing his math homework. Delilah, eight and unscarred, colored.

The sun was just about to set.

A screen door clapped somewhere off to his left. Jude listened to the familiar sounds of Phil coming outside. Phil, fifty-nine and fat, stood outside every evening with Jude as they observed the setting sun. The man held a beer in one hand, waved with the other. Jude waved limply back. They always did this.

Phil sipped from his bottle. Licked foam off his mustache. They stared silently at the hills in the horizon. Waiting.

“Weather,” Phil said.

The man had this odd quirk where he spoke almost exclusively about the weather, but never made any comment about it. Jude always kind of appreciated this. That you didn’t need to feel like you had to say anything about the weather. Just accept that you were going to be someone who was now discussing something trivial and small. In other words, it wouldn’t mean anything anyway. So why bother.

“Sure is,” Jude agreed. The two men smiled.

The lane was silent.

“Firm,” Phil said, as a kind of question.

“Good.”

“Kids.”

“Doing well. Tristan’s thinking about being a mechanic.”

Phil grunted. “Figures. Roger is about to retire. Auto shop’ll need somebody by the time he graduates.”

“He’s got seven more years yet,” Jude pointed out.

Phil grunted again, and said nothing.

Another, longer silence floated over them.

The odd thing that happened in this town every night at sunset happened then, and happened somewhat suddenly, as it always did. Somewhere far down the lane, out of sight, came the sound of glass sliding along the pavement. The jagged, staccato clack-a-clack of empty bottles bouncing against asphalt. The two men looked towards it. The noise grew. Became deafening. A wild roar. Finally, around the curve in the road, came the usual shadow. A small, slumped figure with short legs and long sloth arms heaved itself up the street. In the fingers coming down off its arms, it held countless lengths of twine. As it rounded the bend, the twine stretched out behind it and trailed, at a distance, hundreds of small glass bottles. The pathetic, hunched little figure shuffled laboriously past Jude’s home, tugging those bottles on twine behind itself. Sisyphus against thousands of boulders.

The thing passed, and vanished around the bend at the other end of the lane. The neighborhood became silent. And the sun sank.

Phil sniffed. “Tomorrow, then,” he said.

“Tomorrow,” said Jude.

They went back inside to their families.

When Jude re-entered the house, Delilah came running up to him with a picture she had drawn.

“I want to be a painter one day,” she told him, beaming.

“That’s great,” he told her, lying.

It was three days later when Jude did it. Approached the shadow and asked for his bottle. You could do that. Everybody knew you could. Everyone in the town had their own, and you could ask for it any night when the thing passed your house. You just walked up to it and held out a hand. You didn’t need to say anything. It knew you. It knew everybody. And everyone knew that. Didn’t know how, but they didn’t feel the need to ask either. Nobody actually approached the shadow, though. They all figured, “Why the hell would you want to?”

Jude, for one, had two or three reasons. But he only thought of them much later, months after the fact. Which was, obviously, too late.

Jude’s first reason came a week or two before he did it, just as the calendar flipped bleakly into the new year. It had been a typical night. The shadow had just disappeared up the road. The silence and the dark were deepening. Jude and Phil were lingering outside for a minute or so when, abruptly, Phil turned.

“Heard in town,” he said. “You know John.”

“Yeah.”

“Heard he never had his removed.”

Jude blinked. “How?”

Phil shrugged. “Don’t know. Guess he was out of school that day.”

“And they let it slide?” Jude couldn’t believe it.

“Guess so.”

“And he just lives like that?”

Phil laughed. “I know. Bizarre, man. I’m thinking, ‘No way, man.’ I would never do that. Don’t want to see mine ever again. Can’t even imagine having it in me. Not curious. Not at all. No way.” His voice cracked at the end of his speech. He swilled beer to steady it. He finished off the bottle and gazed into its bottom. He sniffed. They sank into a deep silence, thinking. Gazed out at the growing darkness and the rain.

“Weather,” Phil said, after a long time.

“Sure is.”

The second thing that probably did Jude in came the night after Delilah showed him her drawing. Ed, who lived alone across the street, was the one who did it. The smarmy bastard. Ed said things like, “What do you think about this cold front?” and “Think the Giants will make it this year?” God, Jude hated him. Unlike beautiful, simple Phil and his “Weather” and “Giants.”

This night, the rain came down in a fine mist, moistening everything before you even really noticed. Phil and Jude were the only two on their block who stood and observed the passing of the shadow. But on this particular evening, Ed marched out of his house the second the thing came before his lawn. He bounded down his front steps and approached it. Jude and Phil held their breath.

The figure stopped. The silence of the glass then was even more deafening than the sound itself. Ed held out a hand. The thing gingerly laid its bundles of twine on the ground. With slow and delicate movements, it picked one in particular. It reeled in the bottle. Handed it to Ed. Without flinching, Ed pulled the rubber stopper off the bottle. He grinned. The bastard. The thing watched him. He flicked the cork onto the grass of his front yard, tapped the bottle mouth onto his palm. A strip of paper slid out. He handed the bottle back to the figure. Unfolded the paper, and Jude could hear it crackling from across the street. The paper was yellow and old, had been folded up for a long time. Ed took some time reading whatever it said.

Then he laughed.

He waved the paper in the air at them. He called, “Hey! It’s…” He almost told them what it said. The men twitched, expecting the worst. But Ed stopped himself. He looked at the paper again. Smiled. He waved his hand like he was swatting a fly.

“Ah, shit,” he said. He tapped the paper against his palm. And went back inside.

The thing watched his house for a moment. No lights went on. Nothing. It picked up the pieces of twine, and went on its way.

Ed’s house remained dark after that.

What probably did Jude in the most happened five days later. He was walking the German shepherd past the same old field behind his house on that exceptionally bright, but still shitty morning, when he stopped dead in his tracks. Something new had appeared in the field. A prominent, shining black stone stood in the middle of the grass. The shepherd wagged its tail. Barked. Jude peered at the stone and realized, suddenly feeling very cold, that it wasn’t a stone at all.

He had never seen the shadow during the day before. No one had. The contrast between its usual half-unseen appearance and this full-on glimpse, in the clear morning light, was startling. Jude could pick out all its features. Could tell that it wasn’t a small man, or child, or whatever he had assumed it was. Nothing of the kind. It was a small, black-furred humanoid…thing. Its coat was matted and tangled. It crouched low amongst the dead grass, watching him. The black skin of its hairless face was stretched tight over the bones, giving the mouth and eyes an eerie, wide look. The eyes were lidless, flashing globes of yellowish-green. There was a stub of a snout filled with sharp teeth like rail spikes. It looked like a cross between a rat and a monkey and some homeless, demonic child, just sitting there. Gaping at him from the grass. Ugly and horrible.

What the fuck, Jude thought. Over and over. His heart hammered against his ribs. He was sweating, even in the dreary January cold. His mind screamed, How did I never see… Has anyone ever seen… What the fuck, what the fuck…

The dog barked harder. Struggled forward. Jude glanced down, tugged at the leash. When he looked back up, the thing was gone.

He tried to grapple himself back down to Earth, but the woods swam around him. It was a child in a mask. Had to be. A large raccoon. A fox covered in dirt. Scarecrow. Leftover Halloween decoration. Art installation? Surely, though, surely it was not the same thing that stalked through the town every night. Did it crawl out of the earth? Fall from the sky? Dig its way out of a dead pile of leaves? Did it live in this field? Were there others? Why had no one thought about this?

What the fuck, what the fuck, what the fuck…

For the first time, Jude wondered: What was that thing?

He thought about it all the way home. It made his temple ache, made the scar there sing with pain. And that’s what really did it. Him thinking. Seriously thinking, for the first time. Seriously wondering: What had that thing been?

Over dinner that night, Tristan spoke about school. His teachers, an upcoming field trip. He talked about his woodworking class and how he wanted to take shop class when he got to high school.

Delilah talked about her art.

Jude sat there, still thinking. Was this nice? Sitting at a candlelit table in a big warm room with the German shepherd curled up in the corner? Was this good, being able to be home with his wife and kids, eating a hearty dinner with red wine and laughter and being able to ask Tristan how he did on his math test, finding out he got an A-, looking over at Heather and loving her and loving Tristan, and Delilah with her adorable little paintings that he knew, secretly, would not last, blood pumping pumping pumping through his temple, the dog hoof-huffing as he dreamed, the clock in the kitchen ticking, pipes tinging as they heated up, and the whole thing nice and simple and perfect and his wife was saying something.

“What?” he blinked. The room seemed suddenly bright and crowded.

Heather blinked back. “Sorry?”

“Sorry, what were you saying?”

“I…” She frowned at him. “Are you all right?”

“I’m fine. Just tired lately, I guess.”

She nodded sagely. “Must be the weather. Everyone feels gross.”

“Of course,” he said, unsure. He rubbed his temple. From somewhere across the table, at the corner of his eye, the furry, black fanged thing leered at him.

That night, when Jude crawled into bed, Heather was already there. She folded into him as he laid down. Fit herself to him like a puzzle piece. She called to him from somewhere far away. He tried looking at her face, but saw instead the black fanged thing shrouded in a fine mist. In an instant, his blood was cold, his forehead damp. He found himself drowning in the same thought: It might have been something small, it might have been something important, it might have been grand or fun or…something. What the fuck was it? What the fuck was that thing?

“Jude.”

She cleared. The mist vanished for a moment, and he saw her.

“Hm,” he said.

“You okay?”

“Fine. Long day.”

“I love you.”

“I love you.”

She looped her arm over his chest. Moved it around, twisting her fingers in the curly black hair there. She kissed his stubble. Said his name. He turned to her. They dug into each other’s clothes.

What it ended up being was something vague, lost between making love and fucking.

Afterwards, they lay tangled together. All limbs. He closed his eyes almost peacefully, almost asleep, feeling almost good, and she shot out of bed. She padded across the carpet to the bathroom. Brushed her teeth, took a shower, cleaned herself. Came back into bed fresh and new and unmarred. She purred.

“That was nice,” she said.

The fuck-stink of his college apartment wafted into his memory. The black fanged thing leered at him from the window.

He had nightmares about it. Felt it eating him. He awoke still feeling the teeth. He stayed in bed, sweating against the flannel sheets, and listened to the sounds of his family. Tristan eating cereal downstairs. The wooden fracas of Delilah’s colored pencils. Theoretically, these were comforting sounds. Instead, they made him feel worse. Made the imaginary toothmarks down his limbs and across his belly burn.

Why did he keep thinking about it?

It was just a goddamn monkey.

Wasn’t it?

See, they did it when you were ten. They had a big day in April where everyone wrote essays on what they wanted to be when they grew up. What you truly wanted to be. You wrote it in history class, which was somewhat ironic, honestly. The history teachers, smiling, encouraged their students to be as ridiculous and as horribly truthful as they could. So the essays were all about astronauts and paleontologists, movie stars and world travelers. Every ten year-old in the entire town did this. Explained what their beautiful, ridiculous lives were going to be. Their craziest, truest, out-of-this-worldest dreams. Then they were filed into the gym, where they spent the rest of the day waiting their turn. They sat in the bleachers, clutching their essays, murmuring. They glanced anxiously towards the small white tent in the corner of the gym. They were called, one by one. And one by one, they went into the tent.

The tent itself is a mystery. Nobody knows who organizes it or what’s inside. It just shows up. And you have to go. All that is known is that you leave with a bandage on your temple. Your essay—the astronaut, movie star, pop singer dream—has vanished. And you are unable to remember what it was.

After it’s over, you go home and have a nice meal prepared by your mother, paid for by your father, and you really appreciate it, for the first time.

Delilah, of course, was eight. Her dream would not be taken for two more years. But when it did happen, inevitably, her mother would ask her, “Why don’t you color anymore?” Already knowing the answer.

Delilah would shrug. “Just don’t want to.”

And she would lead a simple, perfect small-town life.

So it happened that Jude got it all stuck in his head. Couldn’t stop thinking about it. About the college apartment and the girl and something about novels and not selling insurance. The black fanged thing. And the next evening, at sundown, Jude turned to Phil and said, “I’m gonna do it.”

Phil blinked at him across their yards. “Do what?”

“Look at mine.”

It was like he had stabbed Phil in the gut. The man made a large O with his lips. Shook his head. “Why?”

Jude shrugged. “I’d like to know.”

“Ed’s an outlier.” Phil pointed with his beer to the darkened house. “That’s not the usual. You shouldn’t… I mean, most people see theirs and…”

“I know,” said Jude.

“They flip.”

“I know.”

“That’s why nobody does it.”

“I know. But I could take it. Ed seemed to. I wanna know.”

Phil was quiet for a moment. He sipped his beer. Finally, without looking at Jude, like Jude was already dead, he said, “All right, man. Whatever.”

They were quiet. Waiting.

As if knowing it might be for the last time, Phil said, “Weather.”

Before Jude could respond, the end of the lane clattered. The thing came around the bend. Jude could now picture its eyes, fur and fangs clearly. And it made it worse knowing that Phil, who had never thought or wondered about it in the light of day, could not. Could not bring himself to ask the questions now eating at Jude from the inside out.

The black fanged thing approached. Trembling, Jude stepped off his porch. The thing turned to face him, still coming. Still rattling. Jude moved down the walk in front of his house in a trance. Shaking. Legs hardly obeying. When he got to the sidewalk, the thing stopped. Silence boomed down the block. Night deepened. From behind him, Jude could hear Phil muttering, “Jesus, man. Jesus.”

Jude held out his hand. From this close, he could smell it—the phosphorous reek rising off the creature’s hide. Could hear its rasping, hollow breath. Feel the sickly lemon-colored eyes. Gently, the thing placed its ends of twine on the ground. It took some time selecting the one that belonged to Jude. Finally, it picked one out of a large cluster. Jude’s bottle was stuck to three others, in a big clump. So, like it was moving through mud, the creature reached out a long, loping sloth-arm paw and peeled the twine free. It seemed to take years to reel in Jude’s bottle. When it finally rolled up the street and into the creature’s hand, Jude felt like he might fall over.

It might have been small. It might have been nothing at all. Or everything. Or… An even more horrible thought dawned on him. What if he read the paper, and it was exactly what he had now. Maybe that was what had happened to Ed. Or maybe the paper was blank. Maybe the dreams were all gone.

Jude took the bottle. The creature let its hand drop to the ground and it watched him. The bottle was small and round, sort of like a cannonball. Or an inkwell. A square rubber stopper was jammed into the mouth. Jude removed it in one smooth pull. Dumped it on the lawn. He shook the bottle by his ear. Paper tink-ed inside. He upended the bottle into his palm, and the paper dropped silently out. As Jude unfolded it, the creature gathered up its lengths of twine and moved on. Phil had already gone back inside, not wanting to see.

The paper shook between his fingers. It took him several tries to hold it open enough so that he could read it. When he did, he almost laughed, as Ed had. It was his essay. His goddamn essay. From when he was ten. He read it. Blinked. Read it again. And almost threw up. He couldn’t remember writing it at all. Couldn’t remember wanting…that.

He stood there for several minutes, alone, as darkness bunched up around him. Finally, he let the paper curl back up in his fingers. When he was ready, he brought it and the bottle to the garbage can next to the garage, and threw them in.

He wondered what Ed had seen. Wondered what Phil had written. Tristan. Heather. He knew what Delilah would write when her time came. He saw, now, the black fanged thing way too clearly in his mind. Saw it panting that phosphorous, horrible breath on him.

An alien. He tried to decide that that was what it was. An alien thing, penned by a ten year-old stranger.

Shaking, Jude went back inside. In the well-kept living room, his family was sitting around the television. Heather made room for him on the couch. He wrapped an arm around her, the other around Tristan. He tried to slow his heart. Clenched his hands into fists to keep them from shaking. Heather didn’t notice.

Delilah was on the floor, coloring. Jude forced himself not to look at her.

A small voice at his side whispered, “What did you see?”

Jude turned. Tristan gazed up at him with deep, wondering eyes. Jude put a hand on his head. The boy’s hair was soft and young. Jude pulled him a little closer.

“Nothing important,” he said, almost believing it.

Tristan looked back at the screen. He chewed his lip. Several minutes went by.

“I kinda want to see mine,” Tristan said.

Jude looked back at those eyes. So blue and unmarred.

“Nah,” he said. He offered a reassuring shake of his head. “You’re better off. Trust me.”

Tristan said nothing else. Jude tried to convince himself he hadn’t just lied. He was still trying when he went to sleep that night.

In identical houses throughout town, identical televisions buzzed and hummed. The town was content, now that the one minute was over. At least for the day.

In the morning, Jude would go to The Firm. He would sell insurance, as his father had. He would come home and be with his wife, and his dog, and his kids, whom he loved. He stopped walking by the field every day, and stopped standing out on the porch at sundown, because it made his scar hurt. Because he could no longer do so without seeing those shining, tennis-ball eyes. Without remembering what young, glorious things they held behind glass.

As January dragged itself along, Jude managed to put it all out of his head. Managed to stop wondering, again, what the thing had been. He managed to enjoy the complacency of his simple, small-town life, even with its one unbearable minute each day. He managed to enjoy the shitty and unending January rain.

He loved this life. He chose this life. He felt good about it. And it was nice. Really, really nice…

Right?

Sam Rebelein lives in Poughkeepsie, NY. His work has been published in Dark Moon Digest Magazine and in the May and June calendars of Every Day Fiction, 2017. It has also been performed onstage in collaboration with the play development lab A Howl of Playwrights in Rhinebeck, NY, of which he is an active member. He is a co-founder of the sketch comedy group Crebuland, which you can Like on Facebook. For whatever it’s worth.

Black Fanged Thing, 4800 words, published January 2018

 

Shimmer 41

 

Sometimes, it’s what you don’t see that is scariest of all. (But then sometimes you glimpse it? And it’s all teeth and claws and dripping light encased in darkness and you think shit I need a bigger flame thrower and then everything is dark forever.) These four stories pull the curtain back, and more.

Black Fanged Thing, by Sam Rebelein
January was a shit month. It never snowed. Sun barely came out of hiding. Instead, a death-cold rain dripped endlessly. Mist curled inwards from the fringes of the woods. It covered the town for weeks, as Christmas decorations slowly drifted back into garages and basements. Everything here, just off-road of the Connecticut wine trail, lived for the fall. (4800 words, 1/2/18)

An Incomplete Catalogue of Miraculous Births, or, Secrets of the Uterus Abscondita, by Rebecca Campbell
Mary Toft is in the garden on an August morning rich with bees. Five months along, her belly presses against the rough linen of her skirt while one hand curves protectively around it, half support, half caress. She thinks: This time next year, what will she be? And after that? In the corner of her eye she glimpses a child—like a ghost, or a prefigure–running through the morning from the kitchen door to the garden wall.  (3900 words, 1/16/18)

Me, Waiting for Me, Hoping For Something More, by Dee Warrick
I’m aware that there is an extra set of stairs in the basement that doesn’t usually exist. Behind the big silver ventilation pipes, past the row of tenants’ bikes parked down here until springtime: a long, dark hole framed by rusted banisters, stone steps leading thereinto. And I think I might be the only one who can see the new stairs. (5800 words, 1/30/18)

Held, by Ian O’Reilly
Madu is a satchel who is in love with Eliza, who is a woman and who is also a princess. Sometimes Madu thinks of herself as a girl, and sometimes she thinks of himself as a boy, and at other times all she thinks is that she is just another thing that Eliza carries around with her. That’s okay because sometimes Eliza thinks of herself as a warrior princess who sometimes thinks she is a girl, and sometimes Eliza thinks she is neither of these things but a piece of flotsam on a swollen river, or a movable bank account beholden either to her parents or her job or the State. (1800 words, 2/13/18)

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