Category Archives: Issue 44

Rapture, by Meg Elison

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He hits send.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She smiles back. “Goodnight, Oscar.”

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

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

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

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

2100 words, Shimmer #44, July 2018

Other Poets:

Held, by Ian O’Reilly

Hare’s Breath, by Maria Haskins

Itself at the Heart of Things, by Andrea Corbin

Now We’ve Lost, by Natalia Theodoridou

Bleeding Through the Shadows, by David Rees-Thomas

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I stand aside, and let him in.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Salvation.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I resolve to do something about Idris.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But it never came.

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

And, perhaps, so have I.

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

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

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

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

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

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

I go home.

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

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

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

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

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

Published July 2018, Shimmer #44, 3300 words

Dark Shadows:

The Creeping Influences, by Sonya Taaffe

Fallow, by Ashley Blooms

Extinctions, by Lina Rather

Milkteeth, by Kristi DeMeester

 

Daddy told me to keep to myself after the foxes disappeared, but there’s only so still you can keep your hands when your belly’s rumbling, and you think you’re seeing claws at the ends of your fingers instead of skin.

“What’d I tell you, girl?” he says, and his touch is rough as he wipes at my crimson-smeared lips. I nip at the iron tang on his palms, and he frowns when he sees the broken body of the mouse I caught and snatched up before it knew how to take its last breath. “You should have been a boy,” he says, scratching at his beard. “At least then I could have taught you how to use a gun.”

I don’t have the heart to tell him that we would still have gone hungry. There is no number of bullets that’ll bring back the dead so you can kill and eat them all over again.

“Come on,” he says and shifts the pack on his back. “I want to get to the ridge before sundown.”

I walk behind him, stepping in his footprints on the ice-crusted ground, and watching my breath cloud out of me. It’s too cold to snow, and this means the animals that are left are caught up in keeping the soft parts of themselves warm. It’s what Daddy and I should be doing, but there’s nothing left now but movement and touching my tongue to my teeth to see if they’ve gone any sharper. Some days I think they have, but there are other days when they are just as dull as the gray sky above us.

It’s a good thing my mouth is closed to hide my doing it. The last time Daddy caught me, he gave me six licks from his belt, and that was enough for me to remember to keep it from him. Mama had only been gone for a few months, but there was still food back then, and I’d had no real need for teeth meant to rip and tear meat from bone, but I longed to be something more than the girl I was. That was two years ago—only thirteen and unable to control the need to check—but I know how to fold that secret into myself now and touch my teeth behind closed lips.

My mouth still tastes of velvet warmth, and I try to hold the feeling for as long as I can, but soon enough there’s only ice and rot, and I hold my eyes open wide and sweep them back and forth across the ground in case there are any other tiny-boned things that have ventured outside. Of course, there’s nothing. The mouse is the first creature I’ve seen in weeks, and before then we hadn’t caught wind of anything larger than a squirrel, and even those were thin and rangy looking, but I went after them anyway with Daddy shouting behind me to stop. My belly cramps around the smallness of what I’ve eaten, and I slow.

“Pick it up, Henni,” Daddy says but doesn’t turn to look.

“My stomach hurts.”

“It’s the blood. The meat. Your body isn’t used to it, and it’s cramping. Breathe deep. It’ll pass.”

He always tells me this. Even back when there were still rabbits all sleek-bodied and shivering in the field behind our house and chickens in the coop that would let us take them up and cradle their necks in our fingers before we twisted until we felt that pop that told us we would not go hungry.

It has been a long time since then. For a while, I counted the days, and then the months, but then there was nothing left to count, and we left the house behind to look for something Daddy won’t talk about. It has been three days of walking with nothing more than a trickle of water from Daddy’s canteen to wet my tongue every five hours.

I double over, my hands digging into my sides as if I could claw the pain out of me, and keep walking. “How far until the ridge?” I say. Ahead of me, Daddy shuffles his feet like it hurts him to pick them up.

“Two, maybe three more hours. At least that’s how I remember it. ’Course, I wasn’t walking back then.”

“When was the last time you were there?” I say, but Daddy goes quiet, and I know better than to ask anything else because it’s better than him yelling about how he’d wish I’d learn to hold my breath, and I think back to the time we don’t talk about, and I know how it looks when someone forgets how to breathe and wonder if he’s trying to not think of it, too.

There are probably other people, living on in this famine with different earth under their feet, and I wonder if they’re walking, too, or if they stayed put, huddled together in cramped apartments surrounded by the smell of mold and rot in the cities I never wanted to understand. Once, Daddy wanted me to go to college. He’d talk about it, and Mama would smile and nod, but she knew I was as tied to this place as she was. There was only one way for us to leave. If nothing else, I was proud to have given her that.

Daddy is moving slowly even though we aren’t going uphill, and the terrain is dotted here and there with fallen branches, the earth drained of any color. What grass remained died off long ago and even the pines that should be evergreen are tinged with a kind of brown death that marks every living thing. I’ve wondered if the entire world looks like this dying forest.

My fingers twitch, and I pass my tongue over my teeth. If Daddy’s heart were to burst like overripe fruit, I would not be able to keep myself from eating. I flex my hands, dreaming of dark, hooked claws.

The cramping passes and settles back into the same aching hunger that has been pitted in my belly for so long. The skin on my legs burns and tingles, and I stamp my feet, try to get the blood moving even though it hurts. I hum something tuneless, anything to drown out the lack of sound. No birds crying back and forth to one another, no scurrying feet. All of that silence is louder than a scream, and I clamp my hands to my ears. It does no good. The only thing I hear is the hollow sound of my own heart.

It’s late afternoon when Daddy points ahead of us to the brown, peaked earth that rises toward the sky. “There,” he says, and touches his chest, his thighs, as if he’s looking for something he’s misplaced. A pocketknife or a handkerchief or the letter he’d carried with him since he met Mama after the War. Before we left for the last time, he folded it and buried it in the backyard. He didn’t wash his hands when he came inside, and we left the next morning.

I crane my neck, and the movement makes me dizzy. “Do we have to climb it?”

“No. We wait.”

“For what?”

“Hush now,” Daddy says, and his eyes are clear and bright and the color of lake water, and he jerks his head left and right, but there’s nothing else here. I sink onto my haunches. “Don’t sit like that,” Daddy says when he sees me, but he doesn’t jerk me to my feet like he usually does, so I stay that way. It feels better to let my muscles mold themselves into this movement that should be unnatural, to bend and stretch into a shape that fits my body.

Twice, Daddy brings his hand to his hip to touch the gun he carries, and I dig my fingers into the ice-crusted earth and think of my teeth against smooth throats. “I can help if you’re hunting. I know what to do,” I say.

When he looks at me, I tell myself his eyes aren’t distant. “I know you can, Henni. I know.”

We wait until the sun has almost vanished. Daddy keeps his hand on his gun the entire time, and I can taste the fire of it in the back of my throat and remember how he’d wanted to be the one to help Mama to the other side. But it was my duty. I was her girl, and she’d taught me what to do. Daddy could never understand. Not really. But he knew better than to hate me for it. I reckon when he married Mama, he understood what was to come but hadn’t been ready for it when it came. We aren’t supposed to live past forty. It’s not how our bodies work.

I smell them before Daddy hears them, and it sets my mouth watering. Two of them. A man and a woman who carries something dark inside of her. Not disease but something else that smells like nothing I’ve ever experienced before. Sharp and earthy, like the underside of mushrooms mixed with lavender, or like blood and honey that has ambered and lacquered the surface of wherever it has come to rest. I clamp my teeth together with a sharp snap, and Daddy unholsters the gun but doesn’t raise it.

“Just us, Paul. I got a gun on me, too, but it’s not out or pointed at anybody. No reason for all that, is there?” The voice is male but high-pitched and tinny and out of breath as if whoever owns it isn’t used to walking over such terrain, and my heart swells with pride for my Daddy, who’s broad shouldered and quick and can still run over uneven ground for miles without tiring out.

“You alone?”

“’Course not. You know that.”

With one quick movement, Daddy puts his gun back into the holster, and I’m almost disappointed, but I have my body, and that’s all that’s needed when the time comes.

The man is average, his stomach not bulging but not flat, and his hair is cropped close to his skull so it looks as if he’s just escaped from some kind of hospital. The woman is small, mouth pinched tight and dark hair flowing past her waist like water, eyes beady and set close together. Her hands are chapped and look bloodied, and even from all that distance I know she is watching me.

“Is that your girl?” the man calls, and I look up at Daddy, but he’s watching the man and woman and won’t turn to face me even though I’ve started up a whining in the back of my throat as warning.

“Henni. Her name is Henni,” he says in a voice too quiet for them to hear, and I know he’s not telling them but himself.

“This is Beth-Anne,” the man says. They are close enough now to see that the woman isn’t a woman at all but a girl probably just a bit older than me. She’s dressed plainly in a denim jumper that reaches her ankles that are covered by heavy boots, and a too-thin coat, but she doesn’t shiver.

Daddy nods, and the pair stop about fifteen feet from us. The man doesn’t look at me, but the girl, Beth-Anne, stares at me and chews at her lips. I sniff at the air and roll her scent over my tongue. She’s hungry, too. I can smell it.

“Well,” the man says and rocks back onto his heels, his hands stuffed into his pockets. “That’s all there is to it then.”

“I reckon so.” Turning, Daddy kneels down, pulls off the glove on his left hand, and cups my face, but he’s distracted, his eyes roaming back over to the man or down to the dirt. “Listen to me, Henni. You’re going to go with Beth-Anne now.”

“No. No, that’s not how it’s supposed to be.” My throat has gone thick, and I bite down on my tongue so I won’t cry. “Mama said.”

“Mama’s gone though, ain’t she?” Daddy’s voice is quiet, and I curl into myself because even though he knew what would happen, it was still this thing that lived inside the women in his life that robbed him of the happiness he’d found.

“It was supposed to happen. And one day it’ll happen to me,” I say, and Daddy shakes his head.

“Not again, Henni. It won’t. Not if I can help it. Go with Beth-Anne now.”

Beth-Anne has taken a step away from the man, and he has unbuttoned his coat, the glint of metal at his side too bright in this bleached-out landscape, and I understand the hollow sound that comes from Daddy’s side when he stands, the deliberate click that spells out everything he will not say to me.

“No,” I say, and Daddy raises his hand. His eyes are wet, but the meaning behind it has vanished.

“Go with her.” His finger is against the trigger, and I watch the muscles in his hands flex.

I stand up. I run.

I don’t wait for Beth-Anne but streak past her, the world a blur of dead colors. Behind us, one of the men fires a warning shot. I do not look back to see if it was Daddy. I do not look back to see if he’s calling to tell me he’s sorry, to tell me to come back, and we can go home, and keep living the way we’re supposed to. To tell me he can be strong the way Mama had hoped.

Only once I am deep within the trees again do I slow, and I can hear Beth-Anne panting behind me, but she keeps her distance. “We shouldn’t stop,” she calls. “They’ll give us a head start, but they’ll find us again.”

I pause but keep walking. “He let me go.” There are other words I want to say, but they dig into my belly like thorns, and I cannot pull them from me.

Beth-Anne pushes past me and turns to block my path. Up close, her eyes aren’t dark at all, but a light brown that is almost yellow. “Think what you like, but we have to keep moving and put as much distance between us and them as possible.”

“He would never do that to me. Come after me like that.”

“Being hungry does strange things to men. You should know that better than anyone.” Beth-Anne grins, and her teeth are sharp in the way that mine are not. She grasps my hand and tugs me forward so that her face rests against mine. She inhales, her cheek passing over my jaw, my neck. “You smell like my mother. Like me. I’ve never done this with another girl. Maybe it will be different this time,” she says and darts away.

By the time the sun has set, I’ve fallen into the rhythm of my legs pumping beneath me, and the burn in my lungs. Already, I can smell Daddy and the man behind us, and they smell of sweat and fear and metal. Now and then, Beth-Anne glances back, but we run on into all of that gathered darkness, the trees looking like bits of bone reaching up into nothingness. I imagine we are ghosts. I imagine we are still the girls who looked at our mothers in wonder the first time she explained what we were. I imagine our mothers have not left us, and what kind of golden world that would be.

I don’t notice when Beth-Anne stops, and I plow into the back of her, our limbs tangling as we fall. She clamps a hand over my mouth, and it’s almost as if we are not separate bodies but the same creature lying on our backs, four legs and four arms and two pairs of hungry mouths gasping into the night air. “Listen,” she whispers.

I do. For the first time since Mama died, all of the mechanistic parts of me roar to life, and I am nothing more than an extension of what’s always lived in my blood.

“Two of them. Big,” I say, and I catch the curl of Beth-Anne’s lips even through the dark.

“Good girl. What else?” she asks, but I cannot bring myself to answer her because it is something that will upend the sky and send me tumbling even though I’ve scented him this entire time.

Beth-Anne digs her fingernails into my cheek until I answer her. “Daddy,” I say, and she drops her hand, but we stay on the ground, and our breath rises and falls in the same pattern.

“It may be that he won’t kill you. Mine never does, but each time, he swears that he will. When he’s done with the thrill of finding me and hungry enough…” Beth-Anne presses the tips of two fingers to my forehead and makes a small popping noise. We lie there quiet for a moment longer, our heartbeats sliding against each other, and Beth-Anne wraps her fingers through mine. “We could have been together. Once. When there were many of us, and no one to hunt our skins. We could have been in love,” she says, and I try to crush her hand in mine, but I am not as strong as she.

“What are we?” I say, and she turns, her eyes flashing yellow.

“Wolves. Foxes. Bears. The mountain lion creeping through the night. We are fury wrapped in meat.” She brings wet lips to my ear, and her breath is hot across my neck. “We were girls. And now we are not.”

In the distance, a twig snaps, and two men mumble in low voices filled with a violence I still cannot understand. Mama did not explain this. She only told me what I would need to do to honor her memory. How I should take her into myself piece by piece until I was filled up with her. And so I had. She had not told me, though, how love can grow into something duplicitous. How a husband, a father, can look at his child and forget how he once cradled her fragile body and swore to her mother and to himself that he would follow her down into the dark, his protection the only thing that mattered.

“My mother got sick when I was seven. Too early, but she took the time to explain. How there is something alive inside of us. How beautiful it is and how that even with the world dying around us, we would carry on. And then she died, and I gobbled her down the way in the way she had her own mother. The next morning, my father took me into the woods and turned me loose, told me that if I could outrun him, he’d let me live. Back then, I knew he was brain-sick from losing my mother, but then it was more than that, and he did it again and again, and I wasn’t his daughter anymore but something to hunt. I kept coming back because the house was still warm, and there was still food, but there hasn’t been anything close to that for a while. And now, there’s you.”

She pauses and traces her fingers over her lips. “They’ve been talking for months, you know. I stole the letters and read them while he was sleeping. Our mothers knew each other when they were younger and had written for a few years after they’d gotten married. Your daddy remembered and sent the first letter to my father. Wanted to know how he could look his girl in the face when all he could see was his wife’s blood on her hands. He had itchy fingers, he said. So he wrote and asked how he could put you in the ground. Or at least, he wanted a way to be rid of you that didn’t mean covering your mouth while you were sleeping or pointing his gun at your head while you built a fire. Hunting makes what they’re doing a very different thing,” Beth-Anne says.

“He won’t kill me,” I say, and Beth-Anne laughs deep in her throat so that it sounds like a snarl.

“They can’t hunt the way we can. Looking for the small things that creep over the ground. And there’s so little meat left. So little for them to eat. They’ll die out before we do, and they’re scared and hungry.” Beth-Anne tugs at my arm. “We should go.”

My mouth, my teeth, my throat ache, but I stand and nod. “Yes.”

We run until our feet bleed and then still, we run, our eyes on the sky, waiting for the sun so that we might hide ourselves from the men who were once our fathers, but night is something we are caught in now, a great dome that cannot be lifted.

When the shot comes, it is not for me. Beth-Anne jerks and grunts, but she does not stumble.

“You have to stop,” I call to her, and she turns back, her teeth painted vermilion, and I feel only cold and hunger seeing her blood, but she reaches for me, and we run together. On and on and on into what seems like the quivering thread that separates this world from the next, but there is the crack of another shot, and Beth-Anne throws back her head and laughs and screams, and I open my mouth and scream with her. Sisters, mothers, lovers, born out of things husbands and fathers cannot comprehend.

“We take back our own, and the doing of it makes us stronger, makes us able to move through this world that has forgotten us. When the time comes, you will eat of my body and drink of my blood, and I will always be with you,” Mama had said, and now Beth-Anne looks at me, her teeth still bared. I bare mine back and know that they are now as sharp as hers.

When we double back, we go through the trees. Quiet and deliberate and without a sound. They do not know when we are behind them, their shoulders hunched against the cold, the only sound their ragged breath in the frozen air. We have stripped ourselves of our coats, our boots, anything that will keep our bodies from moving in the way our mothers had intended. We are hungry, and we go silently.

I have not forgotten the shape of my mother’s face. I have not forgotten how she placed her eyeteeth in my palm and told me to eat them first.

My father calls my name once, twice, but of all of the things I remember, I have already forgotten what it means to live inside the girl he should have taught to shoot a gun; the girl he carried out of the forest when she sprained her ankle; the girl he found covered in his wife’s blood and weeping tears dyed scarlet; the girl who became the ghost that would not vanish from his sight.

When we have finished, Beth-Anne licks my face clean, and with the beginnings of claws, I dig the bullet from her shoulder while she sits in silence, and we turn away from the trampled earth.

We leave the guns behind. We will not need them, and our bellies are full and cramping in the way my father explained, and I lift my eyes to watch the trees shape themselves into things I no longer recognize. “Will it always be like this?” I ask.

Beside me, Beth-Anne is silent, but she looks back at me, and it is enough.

 

Kristi DeMeester is the author of Beneath, a novel published by Word Horde Publications, and Everything That’s Underneath, a short fiction collection from Apex Books. Her short fiction has appeared in several places, including Ellen Datlow’s The Year’s Best Horror Volume 9, Stephen Jones’ Best New Horror, Year’s Best Weird Fiction Volumes 1 and 3 in addition to publications such as Black Static, The Dark, and several others. In her spare time, she alternates between telling people how to pronounce her last name and how to spell her first. Find her online at www.kristidemeester.com.

Published Shimmer #44, July 2018, 4000 words

Other Teeth:

The Triumphant Ward of the Railroad and the Sea, by Sara Saab

Black Fanged Thing, by Sam Rebelein

Define Symbiont, by Rich Larson

The Passenger, by Emily Lundgren

I try to take a picture of the eerie. The power’s out, so I’m like, okay, standing outside the Pump n’ Stuff, looking at the gas pumps. My last customer was twenty minutes ago. Down the street by the McDonald’s, the black veiny power lines seizure under the blinking traffic lights. I listen to the curdles of wind. There’s no one around. No one at the Kum & Go across the way. No one in the dirt parking lot outside Toby’s bar. Just cars rumbling along on the I-29 overpass.

Eerie.

But the picture I take is just a spread of grainy nothingness, boring, and I sit on a milk crate, and I mope: so much for the camera on the new LG EnV, sigh sigh sigh. But then at least it’s got the flip-out keyboard, at least I don’t have to look slow and stupid texting Wig anymore.

He’ll be here soon. I just ended my shift and he’s the early type.

My palms start to sweat. This is it, Kara. Even though he hasn’t been texting back since Friday after our quasi-date at Taco John’s, and even though he didn’t show up yesterday like usual to share a joint during break and make up jokes about all the customers. Still. He’ll be here. Because it’s finally happened. Myspace post and everything.

Miranda and Ludwig broke up.

There’s a kid working McDonald’s that goes out by the dumpster to try lighting a smoke. He cups his hands, I can see the sliver of flame—then it’s gone, snuffed by the wind. There’s the customers, all leaving. The street bathed in green traffic light. Then gold. Then red. Leaves whirling from ditches. There’s an honest-to-god-no-shit tumbleweed going see you later, dude.

That’s when I get the text.

Not from Wig, but from her. Miranda.

This is Miranda feldman, the text reads, like she forgot she gave me her number senior year of high school as I signed her yearbook. Have u seen wig?

Gross.

Then there’s a car. This real shitty ass car. This crappy ass two-door, green Cavalier. The same one that’s picked me up after work every Tuesday since August. It runs red. Pulls up on a slam of brakes.

I can see the shadow of him inside.

The door opens. I pocket my phone and climb in.

Here’s the thing about Miranda. From high school. From math. I try not to think about her more than I think about Wig. But they’re sort of hand in hand sometimes. Especially because she’s with this other guy now and sometimes, like yesterday, I go creeping to the public library just to look at stuff like Miranda’s Myspace page. There was a picture. Black and white. The two of them. Miranda and this other guy. This other-Wig. This guy with this whole swooped-bang look and dyed black hair. This Gerard Way look. But Wig can’t even do that style because Wig’s got a widow’s peak.

I swallow, anxious, because I figure how Wig must be feeling. Right now. Why he hasn’t been answering my texts since after our Friday sort-of-date. Thanks to my local library I know they broke up on Facebook and Myspace sometime around Saturday afternoon. So here he is. Right here, right now, all mine. Ready for an official date, maybe, where I’ll finally, actually get laid. Except something is wrong. Wig looks um. He’s gone all pale. More than usual. He’s holding onto the steering wheel sort of like if he lets go he’ll throw up. He runs another red.

Main street’s nothing but traffic lights. Tick, tick, eerie.

“Hey—um, how are you feeling, are you okay?” I say. I try to play it all casual. Last week he didn’t talk much, but that’s normal and he looked okay. Hawkish hair, dyed this sick color. Dark green so it does look a convincing black in the dark. By sick I meant sick. That kind of sick. But the rest of him does look like the other kind of sick when we pass yellow. The um kind. “Wig,” I say. I joke, “are you high?”

He rubs his eyes. “Fuck,” I think he says. His eyes are bloodshot. It’s hard to tell. He always smells weird. Not like pot, not all the time, but other stuff, too. Like incense sticks, all cinnamon, daydream, lavender. I always avoided him, in school. I knew him back then. He was in the same class as me. The same class as Miranda. Sometimes I wonder which one of us changed the most. I guess you don’t grow much, only two-ish years out. He’d show up to chem and paint his nails with Sharpie. It was like. Very strange.

He turns up the music. He’s listening to uh, some real loud ass shit. Per usual, I guess.

“I’m having a thought,” I say. But he doesn’t hear me. Good. I take a drink of my Joose.

Wig flips his phone open. His very own EnV, only the green color’s worn off and there’s duct tape. I try to side-eye for the reflection of his screen on the glass of his window while he texts. Balancing the wheel with his knee. I’m not spying. But I’m trying to. Just when I think I catch something he chucks it. His phone. Into the cup holder. Picks up the PBR from the holder next to it. He rubs his nose and takes a drink. I’ve never seen him drink in his car before.

I guess I should try to make small talk. Maybe ask if he’s going to do a spell tonight, at the beach. Even though the wind is bad. But I kind of… Shit. Don’t want to ruin the surprise. Just the two of us. In his car. The music. The town silent. Dark. Every house window reflecting Wig’s headlights back at us. Reverse-deers. Even though I’m sort of getting anxious about how he’s drinking the PBR at the wheel. Which. I mean. It isn’t really like him. We pass Duke’s, my trailer court. The little square of the community college. Wig runs another light. My eyes close.

This guy shreds. On his vocals. The bubble of guitar. I can’t shake this little feeling…

Wig and I talk about music all the time. I grew up on my dad and mom’s stuff. But he’s more into the alternative trends. When we first started hanging out this past summer, I was like: “I’m into your music but.” And he was like: “But?” And I was like, casual: “But they’re sort of like. Really shitty towards girls?” In reality. This was a thing my English teacher said senior year before we graduated. Posed the question. Sort of about, like, all rock n’ roll music ever. But particularly, Wig’s kind. The emotional kind. Everyone in class was like: bullshit! But I tried it out on Wig to see what he’d say. Maybe it’s sad but it’s the truth: I’d like him to think I’m smart.

I guess I shouldn’t care stealing what the teacher said. Because it worked. He was like: “Maybe. I don’t know. So what’s your stuff about?” I shrugged. Then I made him a CD. With that one Neil Young song about Charles Manson. That Black Sabbath one about doing heroin and Vietnam veterans. Then that one by Iggy Pop that’s about David Bowie. It made him think. I think? He liked the CD. I think. But then I see it on the messy floor of his car. Scattered with the rest. My sloppy sharpie: Kara’s. Scratched to shit by my Converse. I glance at him.

I’m not so sure I’m right—that my English teacher was right. I mean, about his music. To be fair. If I’m honest and all. I’ve been listening to it a lot more lately and mostly it seems like these screaming guys are all dating the wrong girls. Or it’s about hate-loving their dads.

My phone vibrates. I jump-scare, Jesus. Slide it open. It’s Miranda. Fucking Miranda.

Kara please, it reads, this is important …r u with him ?

I want to tell her to fuck off, but I don’t have the guts.

I take the biggest. Fucking. Drink. From my Joose. I wipe my mouth with my sleeve. My heart is like: Do I bring it up? The breakup? What will he say? It’s stupid, I think. He was ever even into her, I mean. Miranda. From math. In math, freshman year of high school, she told him to slit his wrists. Kids laughed. Being teenagers, at the time, we were into that. The idea of death, I guess. For sure. There was this whole mood, this whatever about it, go Plath yourself, etc. But. Miranda’s hot shit. Really, I mean. If I were gay. Long legs, long neck, this real beautiful jawline. No acne. She could’ve been on America’s Next Top Model. Everyone thought so.

What I’m trying to say is, I’d forgive her too, for bullying me, if I were Wig. If she just apologized one day out of the blue after we both got into the same college. If she were going to live on the same campus I’d be living on for four years and I was overwhelmed about living in a place like the Twin Cities. Miranda’s ACT was 30, I heard. I even heard she cried about it.

For comparison, I didn’t even take the ACT.

Looking at Wig now, I don’t know what he’s thinking. His slouch. He keeps fidgeting with his phone. The PBR’s tab. He’s even singing. Kind of, under his breath. Yeah, you were right about me… and we’re on the edge of town, now. Past the Cherry Street Grille, past the dentist whose daughter was featured on 16 and Pregnant. Past the empty lot by the evangelical church. The town’s sign: Home of the Tanagers. I’m having a thought. I want to say… I’m thinking. No. I’m thinking just let him be. For now, just let him be. Deal with it all at the beach.

I look down, my phone vibrates, Miranda: Kara and wig hey this isn’t fucking funny ok I no about ur beach thing—I fiddle with the buttons, figure how to get my phone to stop vibrating.

I guess he told her. I wonder how much he used to talk about me. What he said. I think about responding. I think about saying to Miranda: yeah so if you know you should leave us the fuck alone, and I would spell out all my yous because I actually care about language. I guess. I even type it out. Just to try out my keyboard, but then I’m like. No, fuck her. Fuck Miranda.

Sometimes I forget how Wig got into Macalaster after high school. How he spent two whole years at a private college, taking classes like qualitative literature. For real. He and Miranda had been a thing since the summer before they left for college. I knew this from web sleuthing, even though I didn’t talk to either of them, ever. Facebook, LiveJournal, Myspace trifecta. Miranda, rebel: look at my hot boyfriend, into lighting black candles and smoking pot and really into the Used, into Bright Eyes, The White Stripes, Linkin Park, also, hi, he studies philosophy at Macalaster, full ride. Wig, Wig. Ludwig.

But then he didn’t go back this Fall.

He spent more time hanging out at the Pump n’ Stuff gas station.

Buying gum and beer and smokes.

In other words, now he’s a college dropout.

This is weird, maybe, but at first I was mad at him. I wanted to say. Why are you staying here? In town? This town? You can’t be here! I heard what you were given. Smarts, tuition. Do you know what you’ve done, Wig? Do you? But I shudder just thinking about saying those things. I’m not his fucking mom. I get this feeling. Keep getting this feeling. Like he knows. Like knowing has fucked him up. Every day. Who is Wig, I mean, if he isn’t the college type?

Then out back, by the dumpsters. Splitting a joint on break a few weeks ago, he said: “I’m having a thought.” That’s our thing. I’m having a thought. Like it’s beamed down to us by aliens. I’m having a thought. This thought. He went: “Get this. Senior year. Back before I left for college, I did one of my mom’s spells. This love thing. I didn’t really believe in it, Kara. I don’t think I believe in anything, to be honest. But. You know those three wishes fairy tales…when all your wishes go wrong? How payback’s a real bitch, if you’re stupid about what you wished for? And everyone is, you know… Everyone’s always super fucking stupid…” He shook his head.

I just nodded. I didn’t say what I guessed or that he should chill out, you know. There are logical explanations as to why a popular supermodel like Miranda would date a scrawny emo kid like him. For instance. I would’ve said to him: your SAT/ACT scores were through the roof, I would’ve reminded him, and you grew up below the poverty line so you got all those scholarships. Then, there were his entry essays, probably. A+’s. How he did policy debate for the debate team. How they usually choose two kids a year from our town. So the love thing. I mean. They were accepted to the same college. It wasn’t a wish. It was because they were smart.

Maybe, too, his Myspace. He started it up his senior year. Miranda had one, too. He hung out with the local bands. 2k friends. Pictures of altars. Tapestries. He had a good eye. Tarot readings. Maybe I did one of his spells. Maybe two. Maybe a love thing. I didn’t tell him: pretty sure Miranda did, too, Wig. Pretty sure you had all of us doing black magic in our closets summer after senior year. Because no one knew what the fuck they were doing with their lives.

But he dropped it. The Myspace, just last month. The same time he dropped Macalaster.

Then it was all: hi, Kara, what’s up? At the Pump n’ Stuff. More and more often. Until it was September and I realized he never went back with Miranda to the Twin Cities. They were doing a “long distance relationship” before he went back to school in the spring. I can’t believe we all bought that, looking back. But then I remember this one afternoon. Out back. By the dumpster during break. I remember him going: “I don’t know if she really loves me, Kara…”

“Lol,” I’d said. Then he got kind of mad. I guess it was mean. But I said sorry.

So I guess he did believe in the long distance thing. For a little while.

Wig, now. In the car. He mumbles something.

Maybe Wig says, “I like you, Kara.”

But the guy shredding his vocals is too loud. Be my serene… Okay. I can’t tell for sure.

Still, now I’m just drowning in my sweatshirt. It’s hot. Like, temperature hot.

“I like you too,” I brave, sudden, into my half-finished Joose, but already feeling a little woozy, a little more daring. I say: “Hey, um, doing a spell tonight, Wig, in this wind?”

Wig and I have been doing “the beach thing” every week since August. Even when it rains, even when it’s October, like now, and it’s getting colder and we probably should find a better spot. Even when the power’s out. Even when he doesn’t answer my texts for days. It’s like going to church, I guess. I mean, I don’t know. Maybe it’s weird, but he told me he used to do this all the time, visit the beach like this, back when he was in high school. He told me he wanted to try to like, get into it again. He has these candles and a lighter and he builds an altar out of driftwood and actually it isn’t that weird. I swear. I always feel super calm afterwards. We just sit in the sand and we listen to everything around us and I try to empty my mind of getting laid, usually unsuccessfully, but I try. Afterwards, the first time he took me out here, we got drunk and went swimming fully clothed. But still nothing happened. He’s so good to her, I’d thought. Miranda. At the time. I’m so good to her, I’d thought, too.

Now the song is all pitched up, and the guitars are tapping, and Wig is checking his phone.

I guess he doesn’t hear me.

I look down. Miranda and her stupid texts. Jesus.

Kara im worried since friday he keeps sending me the same texts

He wont respond

Tell him kara

Tell him to leave me alone if ur with him

I’m not so warm anymore. Reading these texts. They make me freezing cold. Like the wind is rattling right through me and I’m ankle deep in mud. Wading bramble. I delete what I’d written before, about fucking off. I re-write it: why don’t u leave *us* alone miranda, but then I have to try to edit the text because I forgot about how I was going to write out all my yous.

Why were we so nice to Miranda?

Fuck Miranda.

But still. I don’t send my text.

Then it comes out of nowhere.

He throws it.

His phone.

Hard.

Into the windshield.

It spiderwebs.

The windshield. My heart spikes up into my throat. Then he’s finishing off the PBR. Crunches it up. Tosses it at my feet. With all the CDs. My CD. His CDs. The crumpled-up trash of fast food. Bags. Cups. Beer cans. His notebooks with their stupid doodles. He’s shaking. Trying not to cry. I know he’s upset. But I’m shaking. Too. Honest, I’m kind of scared. I want to say: what, the fuck. What, the fuck is your problem, Wig? But I don’t. Because of the way he looks. About to sob. And. Actually. I’ve never seen a boy cry. This is mean. But I don’t want to.

I look back down, into my cold hands. Into the cold light of my phone. The alerts. Going off, one after the other. Blink, blink, blink. There are so many texts, now. From Miranda. There are missed calls. I frown. The time is all wrong. They’re marked from hours ago. My phone says it’s near 3AM. But it can’t be. I read through the messages. Each of them is like a tiny sliver. My mouth draws open, but there are no words that come out. Just a stifle. That wind and panic.

Kara he is missing that’s why Im asking ok

Did u hear he is missing do u know

They can’t find him Kara u should turn on the news

Kara if u guys ran off 2gether please tell his mom ok

Kara he told me about how u r into him

Kara

answer

He keeps texting me I am having a thought

I am having a thought

Wig lights up a smoke. On Friday, on the weird night of what I considered our sort-of-date, I’d finally asked him. About the college dropout thing. I wanted to ask: will you really go back in the spring? Like you said? But I didn’t. While we walked the 24-hour Taco John’s drive-thru. I’d said, instead: “What happened—why did you drop out, Wig? For real, this time. It had to be better than bumming around here.” I acted all casual, after ringing the window door-bell.

He’d said, shrugging: “I couldn’t do it anymore. The homework. The classes. I got sick. Brain sick, I guess. Like I just. Um. I get sad all the time. Sometimes, I mean. I didn’t leave my room or go to my classes. I’d sleep until dinner time. But it’s okay. I’m taking care of it.”

I’d just nodded. But now. I should… I think. I should turn down the music. I should talk to him. About it. All of it. These texts from Miranda. The breakup, too.

I should turn down the music. I should ask: what did you mean, Wig? What did you mean on Friday about getting sad all the time? Why does Miranda think you’re missing? And mean it. But he reaches for the dial. The same time I do, and his hand moves through mine in a shutter of light-play and cold air. He reaches past. To his phone. On the dash. Spider-webbed glass. The singer croons. I am not your friend… I blink. I just saw something? Everything is all wrong.

It’s dark out. Now. Real dark. Not power’s out dark, but far past the traffic lights of town, dark. The stars are rolled out, the storm clouds all blown past. The trees small signposts. And I’m shivering. Bad. Teeth chattering bad. It’s like all the windows are down. The wind clattering straight through us. My heart hammering like I’m running a marathon. I need to say something.

Wig turns onto the gravel road heading towards Burbank beach. High schoolers still come here on weekends to party. To have bonfires. We used to, too. No. By we I really mean, the Mirandas. I went only once. With my friend and her boyfriend. We were seventeen. Ripe for partying. For letting go and doing crazy stuff we’d regret later. But we never did. Then they left. For college. Bye, Kara. I should say something. I should say something but when I open my mouth I just gulp down a gasp of wind.

There’s another car parked in the ditch off the gravel road. There aren’t any stars. The trees are all creaking.

There, we sit.

For a while, in the guitars, in the car.

It smells like Joose. My BO. Like sour PBR. Like old pot smoke. But. Still. I think he might kiss me. I want to kiss him. I want to tell him I was into him, since senior year of high school. Really. He grew into himself that year. He stopped wearing those stupid sock gloves. Because of the new dress code. He got a tattoo. This skull, on his knuckle. He was smart. Too smart. But he doesn’t kiss me. He shuts the car off. Power’s out. If I’m honest. Now that I’m thinking about it. Now that I notice. He hasn’t looked at me all night. He looks fucked up. In a trance. He finishes his smoke as I’m looking down in my sweaty palms at my phone’s cold light.

There’s no service. I stare at Miranda’s last text until it goes dim.

Kara his mom thinks he killed himself

Then we’re out. Of the car. But. Was I standing? This whole time? I feel. Like I’m splitting. Apart. I double-take, notice. The other car. The car that’s parked there, in the ditch. It’s our car. Wig’s car. His shitty ass Cavalier. Green, two-door. The same rust spots. The same license plate. What. The Fuck. There are two of his car. How. How are there two of his car?

“Wig?” I say, finally. I step away. But he’s already climbing. Through the ditch. Back turned to me. Fuck, fuck. I blink. “Wig, seriously, I’m not joking—what’s going on?”

He ducks under the barbed fence. Heading for the path to the beach. I mean, it’s not really a beach. But we call it a beach. It’s a riverbank. The Missouri. But the sand’s thick. There are sandbars. But then there are these dips. These undertows. Places where you can’t touch. Then you can. You have to walk. A ways. Through this grove of trees. Down the slope. By this guy’s pasture. Then you’re there. Driftwood. Beer cans, smashed. Broken glass. Dog collars.

I glance over my shoulder. The car. The one we drove in. It’s gone. There’s a tremor. Through me. This. Absolute. Dread. My heart is. That guy’s vocals. The drop beat. The pour of where you been? Like a douse of river. I am guitar, drum, bass. Ache. Whirlpool. I am running. Running after. Him. Gulping wind. Tripping. Over the scatter of branches. Of leaves. Then when we’re on the beach, round the bend of trees: the sand stings. My face. The trees aren’t creaking. They’re moaning. I’m sort of. Scared. I think. I. I catch up. He’s at the white-capping. River.

“Hey!” I say. I want. Him to. Look at me. But he. Still won’t. “Wig. Please. Look,” I reach for him. “At me…”

He doesn’t hear? Maybe. I stop. My reach. He’s undressing. His favorite button-up. With the flower-pattern. On the pocket. The dark green that matches his hair. Then his jeans. I’m standing there. Saying his name. Saying: “Wig? Wig! Ludwig…!” Maybe. It gets all wet. My voice. It gets all high-pitched, scrambled, whiny like it’s through a scream of wind. He looks at me. But not at me. He looks not good. He looks more than um. He looks more than uh or huh.

He looks like a ghost.

He takes off his jeans. His legs are skinny, dark hair. He leans over. I think he might kiss me. But he doesn’t. He whispers in my ear. But I don’t hear words. I only hear shiver. Like dead skin like dead eyes like dead fingers like dead lips. “What?” I say, “Wig, I can’t hear you!”

He pulls away. He takes off his shoes, socks. Then he holds up his phone. He texts. He waits. I’m. Really. Dizzy. I reach. I look. There.

I am having a thought

He looks at me. He turns. He throws it. His phone. He throws it out, far. Far. Out. The streak of spider glass glow. Then gone.

“Wig—?” My voice breaks. He’s sprinting. Into the water after it. His phone. I blink, watching him. Fuck. He’s running. Into the water. “Wig!” I almost follow. But I stumble. My shoes weigh me stopped. Sopped. Sand stings. My eyes. They water, I blink. Over and over. He’s out in the water. Moon-skin, no pull, like the water isn’t even there. Like he can’t even feel it anymore. Bye, Kara. He’s all light, he’s all mist over the water. Black water. Swimming. He’s.

Then I can’t watch. I can’t watch, I can’t watch this.

My panic cuts me into a sprint. Back, over the bank. The beach. The bend. Up the slope. I’m just. Thinking, still: I have to call. Someone. There’s no service. I need service. Like connecting might make a sandbar. Might make the water glow like summertime. Bring him back.

Like he wasn’t already dead. Like he didn’t already do this. Days ago, maybe Friday night. After. After he held my hand. Because I’m gasping. For. Breath. Fucking. Gasping. There are no words. Just snot. Shaking. Shivers and I look down at my knees. My feet. My shoes. My knees. Bleeding. Legs on fire like I ran through thistle. Ran through ditches. My shoes, muddy. Ankle deep in it. Torn sleeve. Scratches. Knotty burrs tied up in my shoelaces. Prickling. With each. Step.

Like I ran. Like I ran the whole way here. Out of town. Miles. In the dark. In the wind.

Then. His car. His real car. Not the ghost car. Not the dream car. The whatever it was car. The only car. His shitty Cavalier. Bye, Kara. I am reeling at its handle, I’m screaming. In shock. Maybe. In denial. It’s dark. Power’s out. I am opening the door. It’s a mess. Inside. There’s beer cans. Baggies. Lavender. Daydream. Keys in the ignition. No phone. But. I’m leaning, into the passenger’s seat. Hands digging up the floor. His CDs. Some split, shards, scratched. Mine. My CD. Kara’s.

I am shattered. I am pinhole stars.

Anyway, he’d said, right before our quasi-date night, out behind the Pump n’ Stuff. You want to get McDonalds when you’re off, Kara, maybe walk over? I’d smiled, face heating up. Yeah, but no, haha, how about Taco John’s, I’d suggested, there’s this kid over at McDonalds, he spits in all the food. I imagined holding Wig’s hand. It’s a date, he’d said, like it wasn’t a joke, like he actually meant it. Like we agreed, finally, that Miranda didn’t deserve how good we are. Were. Then he’d grinned. He’d even paid, after I asked. About his dropping out. After he said the words brain-sick. Made a joke of paying. Like what is this, a date? We walked through the park. Then I did. Held his hand. We ate our tacos on a bench. I was full of sound.

Now. I will get in his car. I will turn the key. In the ignition. I will collapse. I will come together. I will collapse. I will riot my voice away. But.

For now.

I’m having a thought.

I am having a thought and.

I will have. More thoughts.

Infinite thoughts.

 

 

Emily Lundgren resides in southeast South Dakota with her person and their dog. Her works have previously appeared in Shimmer and Luna Station Quarterly. Emily is a recent graudate of the Northeast Ohio MFA and attended UCSD’s Clarion Workshop in 2017. She is currently working to finish her first novel about necromancers in a post-apocalyptic Nebraska. Find her online at emilylundgren.com
Shimmer 44, published July 2018,  5000 words
Other Eeries:

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

 

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

 

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

 

Shimmer #44

Sandro Castelli, The Passenger

It’s the final countdown…

The Passenger, by Emily Lundgren 
I try to take a picture of the eerie. The power’s out, so I’m like, okay, standing outside the Pump n’ Stuff, looking at the gas pumps. My last customer was twenty minutes ago. Down the street by the McDonald’s, the black veiny power lines seizure under the blinking traffic lights. I listen to the curdles of wind. There’s no one around. No one at the Kum & Go across the way. No one in the dirt parking lot outside Toby’s bar. Just cars rumbling along on the I-29 overpass.  (5000 words)

Milkteeth, by Kristi DeMeester 
Daddy told me to keep to myself after the foxes disappeared, but there’s only so still you can keep your hands when your belly’s rumbling, and you think you’re seeing claws at the ends of your fingers instead of skin.  (4000 words)

Bleeding Through the Shadows, by David Rees-Thomas
The store has been here for a hundred years. It’s outlived the coal mines, the dead of world wars, the indecencies of Thatcher, the indiscriminate violence of South Wales valleys youth. (3300 words)

Rapture, by Meg Elison 
Elizabeth Barrett Browning wakes up again. It’s the third time today. She thinks awakenings are far more common in springtime, but all year long she is called this way. She sighs and tucks her dark hair back under her cap. She will not refuse the call. (2100 words)

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