Category Archives: Issue 45

Dead Things, by Becca De La Rosa

She comes to the manor screaming. Red hair, a tempest. Blood and bruises. Bare feet drumming the flagstones, disaster breeding disaster. Odile watches from her perch on the newel post. Marvels, shuffles. What a terrible creature, she says, to the oaken banister. The banister creaks in answer.

Today Odile is a black bird. Elsewhere in the manor there is washing to be done, dusting and polishing and sweeping, but she has spent most of the day admiring the green-blue glimmer of her feathers in the ballroom mirror. Against the glow of the candlelight she gleams and shimmers. Other black birds live at the manor, great moth-eaten things forever polishing their talons on the garden walls, but Odile is a bird of her own devising. She is unique, and resolute.

Dark falls: The girl appears, howling. Mud in her throat, skin under her nails. If she is saying words, they refuse to coalesce under her tongue; if she is capable of speech at all, she does not look it. Wild, filthy, snarling. A gasping, many-clawed thing. Safe on her perch, Odile regards the girl with first one eye and then the other. What do you see? she asks the banister.

Storm in a teacup, the banister says, dourly.

Odile laughs. The sound surprises her, too like a squawk, and she jumps, loses her balance, flutters her black wings. The girl on the flagstones coughs, only once. Stops screaming. Lifts her head, to look Odile in the eye. This is the end of the story. The end.

Seven thousand thousand years ago, a seed named Odile germinated in the cool black earth of the kingdom under the ground, called Uisce Dubh, or Death. Odile yawned and shivered and split herself to sprout and shoved green-elbowed and green-kneed from the soil, behold: the girl Odile, a black-winged bird. In the Kingdom of Death a girl might be many things. Bird, hare, moth, cornflower, cool-bellied snake. Handmaiden, scullery maid. Odile scrubbed floors. She baked bread. She rose and set like a moon, endless and changing, and no howling monster fell from the root systems above her to land on the manor tiles like so much wet washing, and she never stepped down from the newel post with her black feathers hanging, never, never, never.

The girl’s name is Anyechka. She says this, offers the epitome of herself whole as a fruit in her hand, as though she does not know any better, to the man in the black cloak. That cohesion of darkness, poised at the mantel. Smiling. “I know,” he says, gently. Voice like the depths of the black river plumbed at last. Voice like the infinite caress of nothing over nothing over nothing. “I know who you are, and what you have done.”

“You were there,” says the red-haired girl. “There with Livia. You—” Her voice cracks. “Is she alive? What—what did you do to her?”

“You made a bargain.” He tips his head to one side. “I kept my word. She is alive.”

“She—” The girl drags her curled fist across her mouth. “Oh god,” she breathes, and then again, and again, oh god oh god. From her hiding spot atop the lintel, safe in the shape of a gray-green luna moth, Odile cannot discern the extremity of Anyechka’s reaction, whether it is horror or relief. “I’m dead,” says the girl. “I’m dead. She’s—she’s alive.”

“Such was the tenor of your bargain.”

“And you’re—”

He laughs. It is not, and never has been, a comfort. “Yes,” he says. Soft, softer. “I am.”

Odile is given the task of caring for the girl. Of bathing her, and tending to the cuts and bruises on her skinny arms, and finding clothes for her from amongst Odile’s own things. The girl says nothing to Odile. Under the blood and dirt she is pale as a cooked egg-white, painted with ink in curious whorled designs, nipped through with hoops of metal. Silver hoops in her ears, one over her lower lip, two gold hoops shielding her brown nipples. Odile does not recognise any of these shapes. The girl’s cheekbones, too pointed; her knucklebones, across which blue ink spells out L-O-S-T on one hand, G-I-R-L on the other. Foreign as mold, and as unwelcome.

With nowhere else to store her, Odile puts Anyechka to bed in her own room: the peaked attic with its windows looking out at a sky riven by root systems. Only once, before she falls asleep, does the other girl turn to peer at Odile. Her eyes are the slightest, most silvery green. “Is that why you’re here?” she asks. Still hoarse from all her screaming. “Did you make a bargain, too?”

Odile stares. The question upends her, little blue teacup, spills her across the floor. “No,” she says coldly. “Go to sleep.”

Once upon a time there was a girl, Anyechka. Her hair was the colour of wildfire and she came into the world burning. Once upon a time (concurrently, impossibly) there was Livia: lovely, terrible Livia, her fingers always folded around a cigarette, or a bottle, or a needle. Anyechka loved Livia, not the way the Kingdom of Death loves its master but the way a match loves the phosphorous that catapults it into flame. Or maybe the way a cliff loves the ocean that abrades and erodes it, in spite of its own better judgment. Livia was good, bright, neccessary; without her the world would lack certain indispensable humors, or minerals, or alchemical processes. Without her the world would wither, and die. So when Anyechka came across Livia in the broken-walled building behind the abandoned playground, cold and pale-mouthed with her works still dangling from her arm like some gruesome vestigial limb, she did the only thing she could: She made a deal. She brought Livia back.

Time passes. Anyechka is there when Odile wakes, and there when she sleeps again, there when Odile leaves the attic in the shape of a bird or a moth or a snake or a slant of light and there when she returns, there as Odile moves through her work, sweeping and dusting and polishing the manor’s many strange surfaces. She does not speak much. At first Odile hates her, her impudent, ugly imposition, the shriek of her presence; after a while Anyechka becomes a familiar nuisance, like the skeletal mice that chitter and gnaw at the manor’s foundations. Just another moping shadow. Just another among the myriad dead, wherever they are. In the end Odile recruits Anyechka into helping with her chores. The other girl obeys without fuss, though she is silent still, and unbearably clumsy with the feather-duster and the long-handled broom.

“Watch!” Odile bursts out one day, after Anyechka has whacked her with the broom-handle for the third time. “Are you blind? Mind what you’re doing, won’t you?”

“I’m sorry!” Anyechka says. “I can’t see right without—”

“Without what?”

The other girl scowls. Twists over herself, leans up against the broomstick. Ashamed, Odile thinks, of showing weakness. “My glasses,” she mutters. “I broke them when—On my way—When I came down here. Can’t see much without them.”

Astonishment shears every other response from Odile’s mouth. “Why didn’t you say something?”

“Say what? Say maybe could you take me to the—the underworld optician, say maybe could you make an appointment for me so I can get a new pair of specs? It’s not—”

“Not what?” Odile laughs, though she stops herself when she sees Anyechka’s expression. “Come,” she orders. Takes the girl by the hand, leads her down through the kitchen and out into the vegetable garden, the bee-garden, down through rows and rows of swaying lavender to the greenhouse where Vasile the groundskeeper tends his clippings of sick rowan trees and exotic orchids. Vasile is tall and thin and stooped as a willow, and when Odile explains—chattering, talking over herself—he digs out his drum of geodes, raw gemstones, half-cut cabochons, clumped with dirt and shining dully. From the bucket he pulls a slab of beryl, blue-tinted.

The two girls watch him grind the stone down on his great foot-pedalled grinder. Standing, at first, a polite distance away, and then sitting neatly on upturned terracotta pots, and then lounging back against the wall of climbers, their heads swathed in clematis. Now and then Anyechka’s thigh brushes Odile’s. Now and then their hips graze together, light as insect wings. Vasile passes the crystal discs to Anyechka once, twice, three times, his spindly eyebrows raised. At last she nods. Hum, says Vasile, under his breath. He lashes the discs onto gold wire.

Wearing her new glasses, Anyechka is suddenly solemn, like a creature caught by an unexpected gaze; a fox by the river, a wild rabbit on the steppes, something discrete and self-contained. “What do you think?” she asks Odile, blinking up at her through shards of polished crystal, the kingdom’s fossilised blood curved to make her sight clearer; and is she not unknowable, fey and wayward creature that she is? Is she not unlike everything Odile has ever seen? Odile feels herself flush, and she mutters something incoherent, half-appalled. Anyechka kicks her heels against her upturned terracotta pot. Smiling. Smiling.

Four-eyes, says Odile.

Bug-face, says Anyechka.

Teacher’s pet, says Odile.

Maidservant.

Forest fire.

Poppet doll.

Ghost girl.

Ghost girl, Anyechka repeats. Her hands ghosting through Odile’s hair.

“It’s like,” Odile says. “Oh, it’s like. The thread of you. It is—inside you, a whole thing. The single whole thing, for inside you there is movement and motion and rushing and bustling, but there is a part of you that stays always still—can you feel it?”

“No,” says Anyechka. Swaying on her feet, her eyes shut, face creased with focus.

Odile breathes out frustration. “The body of you,” she says, impatient at her own ineloquence, “is false, is a—an elaborate fable, do you understand? Skin and bones and—and hair and all that, it’s not real, not really. The body is a lie it tells itself. There is only one true part of you, just that one small part. It’s—” Odile scowls, presses one finger to Anyechka’s stomach, the place where her ribs clasp hands. “There,” she says. “In there, the centre of you. If you feel that, if you learn it by heart, you can learn to shape it. Look.” She reaches inward, pulls out the form of a black bird, settles it around herself. Reaches again, shimmers down into the shape of a moth. Again: a black-hatched snake.

“Show-off,” Anyechka mutters.

They are in the parlor, beside the big bay window. Beyond them the orchards stretch out red and green and endless. On the floor at their feet the wash bucket and mop lie forgotten. Odile shudders back into her own shape, naked now, her clothes scattered. “Am not!” she says, indignant.

Anyechka laughs. It is not the first time anyone has ever laughed in the Kingdom of Death, Odile knows, but it might as well be: so like sunlight, so wholly unexpected. Odile’s eyes widen. She laughs, too, in astonishment.

The manor is old, old as the foundations on which it was built, old as the steppes beyond the orchard and the mountains beyond them, and like all old things it has a sense of itself above mortar and brick; like everything, everyone in his household, it carries him in its bloodstream. His demands, when he makes them, echo without words through the planes and curves of the vaulted ceilings, through the pitted grains of the floorboards sagging and sighing over their old secrets. He is not there beside them in the green parlor with its window wide to timothy and pendu plat apples, and then he is. Anyechka does not see him. Odile (black bird, singing scullery maid) is part of the manor, like any good joist or cornice. A girl is a house in which the god of death paces and stalks. She stiffens. The laugh catches in her throat.

“I am glad,” says the god of death, the black heart of the kingdom, “that you two are entertaining one another. It is wonderful to see,” he says, and now he is closer, now he looms and looms, “that you have time to amuse yourselves so thoroughly even despite your work about the manor. Odile?” says Death in her ear, a scintillating breath that coils throughout her musculature, her exoskeleton, the false self beyond the truth of her. Yes, she whispers. “Remember the gifts I have given you,” he says. “Remember how freely I gave them, and how freely I might take them away. Do you remember, Odile?”

Yes, she says.

“Good. Are there no floors for you to sweep? Anyechka, come.”

Odile watches the other girl trail after him, his long, inky shadow. She doesn’t move, not even when Anyechka stares back over her shoulder.

Moth is a gift. Black bird is a gift. White rabbit is a gift, centipede snake is a gift, and lotus flower, and dapple-backed spider, and girl, too; girl is the greatest gift of all, the first and most valuable. Odile does not own herself. In the Kingdom of Death, all people—all beasts, all creatures—owe themselves to the kingdom’s master, the man built from lack-of-starlight, the god of the dead. If he were to take her away from the center of her own center—if he were to unwrite her, swiftly as a bad poem—

The story goes: The god of death eats some part of Anyechka. A tiny thing, an almost imperceptible thing, but Odile notices it when Anyechka slips back into the attic many hours later, and Odile notices it the next day, and the next and the next, when Anyechka is quiet and distant and dulled as an old knife. Once Odile thinks she sees a seam of pink scar tissue elbowing out from the hem of Anyechka’s dress. At night Anyechka sleeps facing away from Odile, her back rigid, unreadable. So many paragraphs in an unknown language. So much Odile cannot parse.

What did he eat? Her soul, like a little bird between his teeth? Her will, that led her to sacrifice herself for her friend’s sake? Something else, something greater? Odile frets at the problem until it frays into silk noil. She takes to leaving the attic in the shape of an animal, returning with her beak or her claws or her hollow cheeks full of snail-shells, acorns, bright leaves, rose petals, smooth stones, river-reeds, owl-pellets, polished bones, and lays them all at Anyechka’s feet, lays them at Anyechka’s feet like gold, like a mirror, like a forest of needles, saying moth-voiced bird-voiced please, please. Anyechka steps over every offering. Behind her crystal spectacles her eyes are dull, cast always at some distant horizon.

Odile sits in the window-seat. Odile mopes over her wash bucket. Odile ties Anyechka’s shoelaces together, grim little hobgoblin, hoping to irritate her into something, something. Anyechka only picks her laces apart with delirious apathy. Beyond the manor the dead till their fields, harvest their apples, sing their songs to the root-split sky.

Where did Odile come from? What brought her here? What keeps her here, washing the manor’s floors, scrubbing the manor’s silver, polishing mirrors that never reflect anything but moonlight and dust? She imagines setting out into the kingdom with only her pack and her good brown shoes, but every imaginary journey feels raw, incomplete. Who will she point to when she sees a spindle-legged spider dancing on its web at dawn? Who will she sing to as she dips her feet in the black river of the dead? Who will sleep beside her, warm and real, their dreams twining together like smoke?

Now and then the lord of the manor calls for Anyechka to come and sit with him in the library. Now and then Odile filters herself down into the shape of an iridescent beetle or a hard-headed woodlouse and creeps in between the floorboards to watch, to listen. The lord of the manor lounges on the velvet couch, surrounded by his six black hounds; Anyechka kneeling at his feet, her head tipped downwards. Now and then the god of death sits quietly, watching the fire. Now and then he speaks.

Once upon a time, says Death, there was a king whose kingdom stretched from the furthest mountains to the distant black sea, and in which lived all manner of dead: man and beast, infants and adults, plants long extinct from the world above, prehistoric rhizomes lifting their curious bulbs from the earth in congregations like so many fields of wheat, or poppies. The king ate death after death after death until each one tasted the same, until nothing assuaged his hunger. No bloodshed, no tragedy, no heroism, no grief. Do you hear me?

Yes, says the girl with the cloud of red hair, her gaze fixed on nothing.

Death says: You do not know what it is like, to eat and eat and always hunger. You do not know what it is like, to look out at your kingdom and see only shadows. You do not understand.

I do not, says the girl.

Once upon a time, Death says, someone died. This was not revolutionary; no great bells rang, not for an event as commonplace as that. The king did not even send more than a fragment of himself to eat the death that had occurred in the world above. But when he arrived, he found an odd thing, an unprecedented thing: a girl with her hands clawed full of mud, screaming at him. At him, at him, her eyes meeting his eyes, her voice in his ear. Do you know what she said?

No, says the girl.

She said: Take me. She said: I give myself freely. She said: Anything, anything.

The girl does not speak. Her fingernails trail down the floorboards.

The king knew, says Death, that he had found something exceptional. That he had found something; love beyond life, faith beyond faith, a heart beating with sentiment more than sentiment, truth enough to be wordless; more, more, more, more, more than the gray stone, the grayest gray kingdom. What did he do?

What did he do? the girl whispers.

He ate her heart, says Death. He plucked it out and he ate it. How else could he taste it, the sweet blood in her chest? How else could he hold it in his own jaws? How else could he hold it, hold it? How else could he know?

Down by the hearth, shivering her maxillae together, Odile begins to formulate a plan.

Girl is death in her own right. Girl is a hall of mirrors. Girl is a star caught on the points of its particular brilliance, falling.

Odile dresses herself in spiderwebs. She dresses herself in silk, in sewn leaves, in moss woven to linen, in glossy black feathers. Odile braids her hair with strands of saltmarsh rushes. She laces her good brown shoes, and brushes the palm of her hand down Anyechka’s cold shoulder, and walks herself through the manor to the library door.

The door swings open before she has a chance to knock. Robbed of her dramatic entrance, Odile stares up at the lord of the manor, his cragged, starswept face. “Odile,” he says. In his mouth her name turns into a river, endless and black. “What brings you here to my door, little moth?”

“I have come to bargain,” says Odile.

Death nods gravely and steps aside to let her in, though now the room he stands in is not the library at all, it is the throne room limned in red and black, and now he is taller, less substantive, his skull a shadow split by curving tendrils of dark like ivy vines questing for sunlight, his eyes—a house with many windows, a mouth ever open, his tread soundless on the throne room floor, his throne rough-hewn from a vast slab of black spinel. “Bargain,” says the king of the dead. Evoking sibilance where there is none. Casting all words into obscurity. “What do you wish to bargain for?”

Odile straightens. “Anyechka’s heart,” she says.

An inscrutable silence. Death tips his head. “You believe,” he murmurs, “you have a claim?”

She steels herself not to shudder. “I do.”

“Then make it.”

Inside Odile’s own chest, her heart is a floundering thing. She stills it like a bird. “This kingdom, and everyone in it, is your right,” she says. “Because you know us, just like—like stories you have read. Like well-known stories, told from memory. Isn’t that true? The Kingdom of Death is you and we live inside you and that is the way you know us, hold us.”

Sitting on his throne of black crystal, the lord of the manor is a rent in the threads of the world. “Go on.”

“You ate Anyechka’s heart,” she says.

“I did.”

“You made her your pet. You preen and cosset her.”

“Odile.”

“You hunger for her,” Odile cries out. “Not her, but for what she did. For that one final act, for her sacrifice. You—it isn’t love, but it if were, it—you love her for the best thing she did; for the most noble thing she did.”

The god of the dead leans forward. Streaking the air around him with absence, drawing Odile closer, closer. Humming, roaring. “And if I do?” he says, gently. “If that is true?”

“You love her for the best thing she did,” says Odile, triumphant now, breathless with it. “What she stands for, the emblem of her. I love her for what she is. For—stubbornness and viciousness and how she kicks the covers off me at night and how she slops wash water on my feet and how she calls me names sometimes like, like bratbird, like sillymoth, how she frets over her hair and always leaves streaks in the glass when she polishes it and then blames me—I know her, I know her, if she lives in anyone she lives inside me, do you see? You ate her heart but it was not your right to do so, you see only a fraction of her. You do not own her, you never could.”

Death twists one hand through the air and the space between them collapses on itself, brings Odile to his feet. He presses a finger to her chin, tilts it up so he can look her in the eyes. It is not unlike being thoroughly examined by a supernova, or a feral lion, or a hurricane. After a moment—a harrowing, billowing moment—the king of the dead laughs. Effortlessly, he unseams himself; like an ear of corn shucking its own husk, or like a flower blossoming backwards from the knot of its non-existence. Inside: a ribcage made of glimmering celestite, calcified black sinter, speleothems in the shapes of teardrops, snakes, and sigils. Perched on the stony outcroppings, a dozen—a dozen dozen—gold-backed spiders. Death reaches for one; it steps readily onto his finger. “Mad little moth,” he says, though he says it fondly. “Lovely magnoliophyta. Sweet seedling.”

Warmth and light. The kindness of familiarity. Hush, says Odile softly, hush, hush. Anyechka’s ribcage open as a flower. The gold-patterned spider nestles into her red chest cavity. Oh, says Anyechka, her eyes full of tears. Her hands on Odile’s hands, her hands on Odile’s face. Both crying. Both laughing. Both reaching for one another. A sound not dissimilar to singing, to music, somewhere in the maze of the manor’s halls.

There are two girls. There are two birds, one white, one black. There is the Kingdom of Death.

fin

Becca De La Rosa was born in Ithaca, NY, though she has lived most of her life in Ireland. Her work has been published in numerous magazines and anthologies, including several best-of compilations. With her wife, she co-created and co-writes the acclaimed horror podcast Mabel (mabelpodcast.com). For more information, visit Becca online at www.beccadlr.com.

Published October 2018, Shimmer #45, 4000 words

Other Dead Things:

Raise-the-Dead Cobbler, by Andrea Corbin

The Creeping Influences, by Sonya Taaffe

Another Beginning, by Michael McGlade

 

Lighthouse Waiting, by Gwendolyn Clare

I am alone now. The gates mostly stand dark against the starscape; you are the first to come this way in some time. I hold myself together, hold myself out, and after so much practice I can do it almost without thinking. I sing my warning song made of radio waves and light. This, too, is reflexive. Before you, there was no one here to sing to.

But I won’t have to wait much longer. Guilhermo is coming back to me.

I am one hundred and forty-three stations arrayed elliptically around the rift. The rift was meant to be a gate, but the construction failed and now it is a ship-eater, what Guilhermo calls a death-trap. I asked him to define death, but his explanation confused me. In any case, if a ship enters the rift it does not come back, and this is a bad thing, or so I understand. Which is why I am here: to keep the ships out.

Hot and bright, I sing my warning call across the electromagnetic spectrum, flinging endless waves of energy through the frigid silent void. Once my signals fell upon a dozen ships an hour, repelling them toward the safest route—near gate to far gate and far gate to near gate, a trip of six standard days. I haven’t had much work lately, not since the war began, but if you like I’ll tell you of the ships I’ve seen while you travel.

The day Guilhermo left, a whole armada emerged from the near gate, moving in perfect glittering synchrony. There were battleships and cruisers and carriers and raiders. They looked quite beautiful and refined to my young sensors, nothing like the old dust-scratched white hulls of the trade ships I’d seen before.

Also unlike any trade ship, one of the carriers taxied close to Station 23—where Guilhermo lives—and matched orbit with me. It made me nervous to have a ship so close by. After all, it was my responsibility to keep them away from the rift. Nothing had approached me since my original deployment except a few erroneously named “airdrops” bringing supplies to Guilhermo. Just a little cube with thrusters and a rudimentary nav system, not a whole ship with a landing bay large enough to swallow one of my stations.

Thank the stars I had Guilhermo to handle the situation. He traded several rounds of communications with them. I hoped he was going to send them away, but instead, he began to pack a bag.

Guilhermo told me there was an uprising in the Chaian Sector, beyond the far gate. Guilhermo said they needed him to program evasion algorithms for fighter drones, and he would have to go with them for a while.

I was scared at the thought of being without him. He had never left communication range, not since he made me. He always says he likes retiring somewhere quiet—a joke, you know, since sound waves can’t travel in space? But I think he means it. They made him leave me even though he said he didn’t want to.

Guilhermo promised he would be back as soon as he could.

Next came the deserters, three ships with engines burning hot as they burst out of the far gate. I asked them if they had heard of an engineer named Guilhermo Vaz, or perhaps he would be called a strategist, now? They told me the Chaian War was going badly, that they had mutinied and run, and they wouldn’t have known someone important like a strategist anyway.

Even at high thrust they still had four and a half standard days’ travel between the gates, so I offered to display for them a light ballad I’d been composing in Guilhermo’s absence. They couldn’t see it properly—the human visual spectrum is too narrow—so I shifted the wavelengths up for the ultraviolet tones, and shifted them down for the infrareds, and did my best to cobble together a pleasing composition.

It was good practice, I thought, for when Guilhermo returns. By then I’ll have the ballad perfected for human eyes to appreciate. He’ll be so pleased at my creativity.

“Won’t you stay to see another?” I asked the deserters. I wasn’t accustomed to being alone, yet, and feeling rather desperate for the company.

The deserters declined to slow their thruster burn, and soon I was alone again. I wasn’t worried, though, not really. Guilhermo had promised.

Would you like to watch the light ballad? I’ve refined it through two hundred and thirty-seven revisions since then, so it’s even prettier now.

Shortly after the deserters left, the near gate opened again and produced some new company for me to chat with. It was a single ship, a fierce sleek black design I’d never laid sensors on before. I inquired about their purpose, and they confirmed they were reinforcements headed to the Chaian sector.

That made me feel better. I asked them to return Guilhermo to me when they could. They agreed to pass along a message for me if they saw him. Everything would work out okay.

I played the opening stanzas of a new light sonata for them, and their feedback was quite complimentary. They seemed so nice; everyone I’d met so far in my existence seemed so nice. I had a vague impression of what war entailed, and it strained the imagination that all these nice people would participate in violence. Probably they were all conscripted into service, as Guilhermo had been.

I asked them for details of their crew, curious about their motivations, but they declined my request. Theirs was a classified operation, they explained. I had to content myself with suppositions only.

When they reached the far gate, I wished them luck and good velocity.

I was alone for a while then. I improvised light compositions and played with new orbital trajectories for my stations. I imagined whole conversations I might have with Guilhermo when he came home.

Finally a ship arrived through the near gate. It was a dinged-up, patchily repaired older model. What Guilhermo would call a “rust-bucket,” though of course there could be no oxidation damage in space. (This is something called metaphor, he once explained.)

In any case, they did not look much like a warship. I asked them what enterprise they were engaged in.

They marveled that I did not have access to a police database with which to identify the ships passing through my region of space. No, I did not, I assured them.

They called themselves a salvage team. Then they politely inquired about whether or not I have anything of value to steal.

I told them yes, I am a unique and sophisticated lighthouse with many expensive components, including short- and long-range defense systems, and would they care for a demonstration? I spun my railgun turrets and flashed my targeting eyes, hoping to impress, but they declined my offer. I was disappointed, never having had an opportunity to try out my defense systems before.

I asked them if they were certain. They assured me that, yes, they now had sufficient data upon which to formulate their course of action, even without a demonstration.

I wished them well, and they departed.

Time passed uneventfully, until my sensors detected an object approaching through realspace. It was a chunk of debris, mostly ice and rock from the spectral analysis.

The space debris swung close to Station 65, attracted by the steady pull of the rift. I warmed up the nearest railgun and aimed the turret, tracking the object’s trajectory. It was not a difficult shot, but I was nevertheless very excited to finally get an excuse to use my defensive systems. How thrilling! How eventful!

I blew up the debris.

The pulverized remains rained down upon Station 65, too small and too diffused to cause any direct damage. However, a few tiny particles lodged in the station’s attitude jets—a circumstance I had not foreseen.

My self-repair modules were not designed to compensate for such a situation. Guilhermo would have invented a solution, but I did not have his help, so I spent many hours considering the dilemma.

The station’s orbit began to degrade. I attempted to dislodge the particles using centrifugal force generated by firing the unaffected attitude jets. It did not work, and I grew desperate. I fired the affected jets, hoping to force the offending particles out, but one of the jets broke instead.

There was nothing more to do. I could only watch as Station 65 lost altitude and gradually gave in to the unrelenting pull of the rift. I lost contact and it vanished, gone forever.

Before that, I was a hundred and forty-four stations; now I am a hundred and forty-three.

The universe offered me no comfort. I was alone, and facing the realization that what happened to a single station could theoretically happen to more. Is this what Guilhermo meant when he tried to explain death? A slow attrition of the self, losing piece after piece until I no longer possess the processing power necessary for higher-order cognitive functions. Until my last station falls into the rift and I cease to exist. I am still not certain I understand.

It was a very sad time. Not even light ballads could cheer me.

I dwelled in persistent melancholy until the next ship arrived. Strange, how a period of sadness can brighten the joy that comes after; greeting that vessel was the happiest I’ve ever been.

I was so excited I forgot myself and sent them an accidental onslaught of over-eager hails, which I imagine must have been rather shocking to receive. I had to calm down and gather my wits and remember to communicate at a rate slow enough for humans to process. Once they got over their initial surprise, they seemed quite eager to speak with me.

I asked them if they had heard of Guilhermo Vaz, a strategist in the war.

They said, what war?

The war in the Chaian sector, I explained.

They told me “Chaian sector” was an unfamiliar designation, and they knew of no major conflicts in occupied space. Privately, I thought they must be very ill-informed, but I was too polite to say so.

They also said they were explorers and sounded quite pleased to have “rediscovered” me. Those people were confusing. How could I be rediscovered when I was never lost to begin with? I’ve always been right here where I’m supposed to be, right here where Guilhermo left me waiting.

They requested permission to dock with one of my stations, for what purpose I could not imagine. I declined.

Persistent, they asked again, claiming they wished to study my systems architecture. I had to explain that unauthorized personnel were not permitted aboard my stations, which they should have known since it was a standard security protocol. But as I’d already observed, they did not seem to know much of anything. Confusing people.

I felt bad about refusing their request to board me, so I sent them a file of my design specifications and improvised a new light ballad just for them. My stations flashed with syncopated blues and glowed with a slow rising crescendo of reds. A quiet pulse of yellow, steady as a heartbeat, helped me keep time.

That was the hardest part. I’ve never been good at keeping time.

The next ship to arrive carried a crew who spoke an unfamiliar dialect. I spent most of their six-day journey learning to accurately communicate in their language of preference. They called my dialogue archaic, and marveled at my overall functionality.

This confused me. Why would I be anything less than functional? I am a highly sophisticated integrated system. I am a pinnacle of technological achievement. I am Guilhermo’s proudest, finest creation. Of course I keep myself functional to the best of my ability. My mission here at the rift is an important one.

Guilhermo would not like it if I failed to perform my function, and I could not bear to disappoint him. After all, he is my creator. He is the only one who matters.

The ship’s crew seemed perfectly nice, of course. I don’t wish to be rude and imply otherwise. It’s simply that, in your heart, no one can replace your creator. The person who gave life to you. Wouldn’t you agree?

The ship of the strange-dialect speakers passed into the gate and vanished from my corner of the universe. Then I was alone again.

And now, you.

Why thank you, yes—I have been practicing my dialectical variations in anticipation of another vessel such as yours. It is thoughtful of you to remark upon my linguistic abilities.

Tell me, what is this archaeology of which you speak? I’m afraid I don’t understand why you wish to study old things. Can’t you simply remember history? I remember every ship passing through the gates. I remember every word that left Guilhermo’s tongue.

It must make you very sad, this forgetting of which you speak. The concept frightens me, if I may be honest. I do not understand how you can function when the past runs from you, when your own memories hide away in the cracks of your imperfect minds. It seems a difficult way to exist.

Before, I did not know to be grateful for the flawless memory storage Guilhermo gave to me. Thank you for this revelation. Even if I still can’t comprehend what you do.

History is your occupation, so I suppose that is justification enough. It is good to fulfill one’s purpose. And in any case you seem very nice, if you don’t mind my saying so.

Have you heard of the Chaian War? Have you heard any news of the brilliant engineer Guilhermo Vaz? No, don’t apologize. You are too kind, worrying over my welfare, but there is no need to linger here on my account—Guilhermo will surely be here soon to keep me company.

He promised.

Gwendolyn Clare’s novels include the young-adult steampunk duology INK, IRON, AND GLASS (2018) and MIST, METAL, AND ASH (2019). Her short fiction has appeared in Fantasy & Science Fiction, Analog, Asimov’s, Clarkesworld, and Beneath Ceaseless Skies. She teaches college biology in central Pennsylvania, where she lives with too many cats and never enough books. She can be found online at gwendolynclare.com or on Twitter @gwendoclare.

Other Lonelys:

Birds On An Island, by Charlie Bookout

The Proper Motion of Extraordinary Stars, by Kali Wallace

Serein, by Cat Hellisen

Find On Your Body the Bruise, by Maricat Stratford

First, you are everything. Then, you are a drop of blood on a blade of grass. You are the grass, the dirt beneath it, the network of aspen roots buried in the dirt—no, not yet. Pull yourself together now. You are a network of neurons spastically misfiring inside a broken skull. You are a fading chemical reaction, you are a feeling, you are a collection of memories. You are dead. You are not surprised.

You are a lesbian and you are a poet. Even before you knew these things—knew what kind of woman you were— you knew there was no future for women like you, whoever they might be. Now, you feel a relief. The anxiety of waiting for death is over. You feel satisfaction that in the end, it wasn’t your fault. You have experience with funerals. Often, when it’s a suicide, people are angry with the deceased. No one will be angry with you at your funeral. Since you are a poet, you are very sensitive about these kinds of things.

The names of the people who will attend your funeral sound like a poem as they echo through your consciousness. One name aches with a specific familiarity. Remember your name. Remember who you were, who you might have been. You had, improbably, made a future for yourself. Or were working on it, anyway. You were open to the possibility of possibilities. You were going to foster stray puppies and take a ballet for beginners class. Remembering these things hurts.

Your therapist has said that dissociation is a coping mechanism for dealing with emotional pain. Try to spread out again, under the dirt. Can you reach into the aspen leaves? No, you cannot. The force of your anger keeps pulling you back into yourself. Now you are a small, dense ball of lightning scorching the grass. Everyone dies eventually, so you don’t think you shouldn’t be this angry, but here you are. Angry.

Your therapist has also said that there is no should for emotions and that it is okay to be angry. Listen to the remembrance of the voice of your therapist, soft and soothing: What is the root of this anger? Where, in your body, do you feel it?

You will feel the anger wherever he touched you. Look at your body, lying there on the grass. It hardly looks like you. It is swollen and bruised. You are not this. You are a lesbian and a poet. You are a name that your mother gave you when she saw you for the first time, red and wriggling, and whispered, You are my precious daughter, beloved in the sight of the Lord.

You wonder what the man who killed you saw when he yelled hey baby from his car window as he drove past. Maybe he didn’t see anything except a woman until he looked in the rearview mirror and saw you giving the finger to his car, and felt so ashamed—that he had catcalled a lesbian, that he had hurt your feelings, that he had not done what Jesus would do—that he had to back up and pull his car over, crushing the tall green summer grass and yellow and pink wildflowers which grow freely alongside the road, and beat you to death.

His touch still lingers on your skin. Become your sweat and his sweat. Go deeper. Sweat is not enough. Be your skin cells and his skin cells and the friction between them. Skin cells will do if that’s all you have, but blood is best. Blood calls to blood. You know this in the same way that you know your own name, and know what it is that you must do to be able to let go of the anger—your anger, your own pain that grips you tight like a fist. Find on your body the bruise that made the skin of his knuckles split open. A drop of his blood, now dry, still remains. Use it. Go to him.

He will be in his house, sitting at the kitchen table. Ice cubes wrapped in a paper towel will rest on his right hand. His left hand will hold a beer can from which he will drink in slow, ponderous sips. He will have an old dog lying at his feet on the yellowed linoleum floor. No matter what kind of dog it is you will think, what a good dog. When the dog notices you, it will whine, ears back, eyes wide. You are good with animals. You will want to offer up a biscuit in an open palm to reassure this dog that you mean no harm, but you don’t have any biscuits, nor palms. You will remember, with sudden clarity, why you are here.

The man will look at the dog. You will want him to yell or throw something. You love dogs, but it is very important that he is not kind to his dog. You don’t want to think about this poor dog, after you have left, all alone with the body of his beloved human. You don’t want to think about how the man who killed you could value a dog’s life more than yours. Trust me, you don’t. He will call to the dog, and scratch it under its chin, where age has turned hairs of its yellow fur gray. Don’t look.

This is the hardest part, now, to go inside the man. You will have to stop being the flicker in the ceiling light and get close to him. Close like two wafer-thin pages in your grandmother’s Bible. Close like two women when the heat of sex has melted the space between their skin. Get close. Closer. When it happens, you will know.

You will be in him and you will be him. You will hear the dog resume its howl. It will sound muffled in his ears. You will look out with his eyes and see the incomplete translation of the kitchen table into shapes and colors. To think, your whole life has been mediated by the same kind of fleshly proxy. You will not be tempted to stay in his body. But there are some benefits while, stretched out from the marrow of his bones to the edges of his fingertips, you are here. You will get to pet the dog.

Now pull yourself out of the man’s bones, muscles, and tendons. Let him crumple, slumped in his chair, torso splayed across the kitchen table, face down in spilled beer. Pull yourself out of his stomach, lungs, and heart. Those organs will keep working without your help; besides, they are big and strong, they are not where you should be. Instead, sink into his arteries. Flow, within the blood, inside his arteries. Find his weak spots. Is it the abdominal aorta? The ascending aorta, siphoning blood away from the heart? The anterior cerebral artery? Only you will know. Find the place where he carries his tension, and push.

Stay focused. You won’t want to leave this half-done. Soon it will be over. The artery wall will break and the blood that is you will burst forth freely, triumphant. Then you will feel it: the soft dissipation of your anger. The emotion falls away from you as gently as snowflakes dusting the needles of ponderosa pines on a windless, silent night. You will rise up out of the man and be a coldness in the air. Watch. Wait.

The dog will sniff around him and lick his hands. The man’s breathing will quicken, then slow, then stop. The dog will whine for several minutes, and bark sharply at the cold spot in the air, then give up. Settled under the kitchen table, the dog will go to sleep. It is, after all, an old dog.

You will be tired, too, but you will want to make sure that someone will come by to pick up the dog and, you suppose, the man’s body. His laptop will be on the coffee table, open to his Facebook page. In a series of small static shocks, sink into the computer. Then, post a simple message, writing as if you were him, taking responsibility for the death of a woman and asking someone to check on the dog. You won’t have the energy to write more. You knew how to navigate a human body; it is more challenging to find your way around a computer. Besides, the boundaries of yourself are already beginning to soften. In the few seconds you have left, check your own Facebook page. Look at the pictures of you and your friends, and your friends’ pets.

Think about how much you love each and every one one of them. Then float up, through the plaster ceiling, wooden beams, roof tiles.

It will be good to be outside. Be the breeze and the aspen trees and the rustle of leaves. Be the roots and the dirt. Be water and sunlight.

You are dead.

It will be okay.

Maricat Stratford is originally from the Mid-Atlantic region, and now lives in Arkansas, where she is an MFA candidate in the University of Arkansas Creative Writing program. Find on her twitter at @maricatmaricat.

Published October 2018, Shimmer #45, 1600 words

Other Ghosts:

The Earth and Everything Under by K.M. Ferebee

List of Items in Leather Valise Found on Welby Crescent by Alex Acks

Caretaker, by Carlie St. George

By the Hand That Casts It, by Stephanie Charette

If there was one thing Briar Redgrave hated most about her current profession, it was the clients.

“But I wish it to be yellow, and vibrant,” the client insisted with a shake of her head. The crown of ostrich feathers on her wide-brimmed hat convulsed as though the bird that died for fashion’s sake was near resurrection. “It is my signature color. How else will the Viscount know that the flowers are from me?”

“Madame,” Briar replied as demurely as she could manage, “you came for my expertise in the delicate art of communicating delicate matters. Yellow is a beautiful color—sincere, bright, hopeful.” The client might be hopeful, but in Briar’s opinion was neither bright nor sincere. “When the abstract is made manifest in a flower, the meaning changes. A yellow rose, mere affection. Tulip, hopeless love. And a yellow carnation all but screams no to an admirer. You do not, Madame, strike me as a woman who would scream for anything.”

Unless I were stabbing you. Briar kept a practiced smile on her face and wished the woman would let Briar do her job. “I am myself blissfully ten years wed thanks to just such a careful arrangement.” She’d used that line countless times since retiring, and it was true. She’d opened the shop on the heels of a romance that scandalized many back in the day and at just over forty still cut a dashing figure. But this ingénue? Too young to even have heard a whisper of it.

The ostrich on the client’s hat returned to a state of rest. “I suppose with a name like yours, you would know your business.”

Ah, that familiar ache of disappointment: There would be no stabbing today.

With the client’s begrudging assent, Briar set about assembling an appropriate bouquet for the would-be lover with a few pertinent yellows. Briar explained her choices as she worked: the long stalk of buttery acacia flowers for secret love, the dwarf sunflowers for admiration. Wordlessly she tucked in a single tall sunflower for pride and a scarlet geranium for stupidity when the client wasn’t paying attention. The Viscount was also a client and one passingly familiar with the fine art of floriography. He would at least be warned. She owed him that much.

So finicky, clients, and so often acting against their own interests. Days like this made Briar regret her choices post-retirement, until she remembered her prior profession wasn’t qualitatively so different—only with a better success rate.

The client at last left happy, and Briar was at last blessedly alone.

Was it happiness? When a door closed, it must surely open again. The silence always temporary, the wait always too brief no matter how much time might pass. Someone would come and buy flowers. Today, tomorrow, and the next. Forever.

Well, until someone brought a bouquet to Briar’s own grave after she’d had the temerity to die of old age, she supposed.

Interminable, absolutely.

Intolerable?

Briar sighed.

Nearly mid-day. Head aching from hair pinned halfway to heaven, hours yet until she might loosen it, go home, and find her young husband back from his rounds. She started to reposition the two weighty silver hair sticks—her faithful Thorns, she called them—that kept the bulk of her long, disagreeable hair tightly bound to her head when the bronze shop bell rang like an alarm. She’d be lopsided for the next customer, now! Briar longed to cut it all off, but polite society required otherwise, so for ten years her hair had grown. Her husband might be delighted with it, but still. Briar tugged her hair back into a semblance of order and reset her expression with a fresh if slightly pained smile—that slid off her face when she recognized who was framed in the doorway.

The Crimson Hawk: second-best assassin in all of Victoria’s London.

He stood there being ridiculously dashing, a head taller than her with nice shoulders, chestnut curls falling over his brow and a dimple that looked like it had been cleaved with a knife. He oozed a confidence that had as much to do with the twin pistols peeking out from under his coat on either side as it did with being born a Lord. Brash and loud, he was reported to be a natural shot, the envy of every marksman in the army, using a special gunpowder that produced a red smoke when fired.

Breath held, Briar found her hands wanting to reflexively reach for her silver hair sticks. Instead she kept herself quite still.

“I want to buy a bouquet!” This he shouted, as if announcing a coup to Parliament.

Briar, ever the professional, blinked hard once and reapplied her smile. She cut past him in a fluid movement and peered out at the street to make sure he wasn’t followed. “Private consultations are available on Sundays.” She flipped the shop’s sign from open to closed, then locked the door. “But since you’re already here…”

“Couldn’t possibly wait until Sunday.” His gaze hungrily roamed the store as his hand grappled the nearest flower, a rose so dark it was nearly black. “Not when I feel this way.”

“Of course,” Briar said, counting the bloom ruined. “Follow me.”

“Not any of these? Doesn’t it just have to be pretty?” The rose hung limp in his hand.

She hesitated. Had he stumbled onto her shop, wholly ignorant of her preferred clientele? Did he think her merely a florist for the wealthy? Had he no idea who she was?

Well, she thought sourly, who she had been.

Communicating via le langage des fleurs was a favorite way for the upper class to express interest in an object of desire, or interest’s wane to a paramour, in a tasteful, subdued and mostly secretive way. The vast majority of Briar’s clients wanted something invariably prosaic, everything from shy affection to more passionate requests.

Among assassins, her real clientele and secret thrill, flowers were a different game entirely. It had become fashionable some years ago to send a bouquet to a contracted hit. Soon enough assassins began sending them to each other for any manner of reasons: when their territories overlapped, when one stole another’s contract, or even when one had insulted another. Crafting an order for an assassin required privacy, more than her unassuming shopfront could offer.

The Crimson Hawk seemed utterly genuine. Irritatingly in the prime of his life. Taking in the shop like he was a regular customer out for a stroll. Not counting exits, not looking for traps. Had his back to her, of all things! The rankest of amateurs.

But no, she decided. The Hawk had been sent more than one bouquet since his debut mere months ago. She had the purchase orders! A firearm phenom with luck to match, he couldn’t be that ignorant of their ways and still be alive. Best to be tactful, and nudge him in the right direction, though it stung her pride that he didn’t recognize her.

“I think someone such as yourself would have…particular needs that these specimens wouldn’t suit.”

He flashed a smile. “Keen eye. Ladies first.”

“Of course,” she replied, smile brittling by degrees.

She led him to the back room behind a door designed to look like another part of the shop’s interior. Shortly after buying the place, she had split the main area in two, shrinking the storefront’s footprint to create a private garden studio with the remainder. There, the upper floor had been removed entirely, and the ceiling above replaced with greenhouse glass. A wet heat pervaded the space and every surface, horizontal and vertical, was lush with greenery held in check by wrought iron planters, stands, and trellises, punctuated with sharp bursts of color.

No roses, nor their facile counterparts, grew in the back room. A floral arrangement that promised death by the stroke of midnight took an entirely different breed of flower from the kind found in an English garden. Lilies, chrysanthemums, and bleeding hearts, while seemingly appropriate, were far too crude and obvious besides. A few of the old suspects—the tiny purple flowers of the belladonna or the deceptively fragile mandrake blossoms—had their place, but Briar’s collection ranged far wider than that. Death’s Head, Winter Cherry, Murderer’s Caul Lace, Wolfsbane, Night Whispers, Creeping Dread, Wormwood, Snakesfoot. Not traditionally pretty flowers, but each compelled the viewer’s eye. Beautiful in their own way and all capable of conveying something much more important than whether or not a viscount might deign to fuck a second cousin’s wife.

These were the tools of her trade, and familiar after all these years. It had taken bloody-minded persistence to carve out a place for herself in a new industry, even if it never felt as natural as her first. She had changed the destinies of how many political families? Blackmailed unfaithful lovers, settled trade disputes, ended entire dynasties. Now all of it was done second-hand, far from the danger, communicating the desire of others.

What of her own desires? Her own will?

Briar let her gaze fall to the floor.

She gave the Hawk a moment to take in the private room, mentioning offhand the secret entrance in the roof for guests such as himself. The rare breeds were arranged in a circle of planters. In the center, she’d taken a seamstress’s mannequin possessing her measurements, and set it in a planter of fine soil to be a trellis of sorts. It was completely overgrown with Barbed Promise vines and their fat, lurid blooms. A faceless caretaker completely rooted within the shop? The irony wasn’t lost on her, and it had long ago ceased being amusing. Briar’s place was beside the mannequin while the client circled the room and its offerings. She stepped into position, looked at him expectantly.

The Hawk paid her no heed. She might as well have been a second mannequin. Instead, he wandered the room, prattling on to no one about this and that as he gormlessly stroked at least three separate poisonous things.

She inclined her head, smiled.

And waited.

Study the mark, whispered a voice very much her own but from too many years ago to bear thinking on. The voice of a person who might barely recognize Briar as she was now and would perhaps be disappointed.

Hard to pin down, this Crimson Hawk. She had heard much about him from others in the field; some were admirers, others rivals. Newly minted to the work, already infamous for his lack of subtlety. He killed a man under contract while duelling another at a masque ball, the kind of over-the-top murder that would find him fêted by a community that loved beautiful distractions.

Distractions, however, wilt as surely as any flower. Only a matter of time before a true professional tired of it. She would be sure to mention it to her husband later, after she closed up.

Until then, he was Briar’s problem. What would he likely want? This was his first visit; sooner or later every assassin darkened her door. Hawk loved duels, challenged and was challenged often, and won them frequently. Had he finally deciphered the meaning behind all those bouquets with a single Barbed Promise? Briar picked up her favorite pair of silver shears and reached for a glorious example of its species: palm-sized, suffused with petals and a heady scent, with a single thorn piercing the center. Their transaction would be quick, which suited her; she had an assignation of her own to keep.

Whatever blather had been passing his lips stopped mid-sentence at the sound her shears made while cutting the stem.

“Oh, no,” he said, clearly recognizing the flower. “Not that.”

“Not…a duel?”

He laughed, rich and sure of himself. “I mean, it would be a lovely day for a duel. Shame to waste the flower. But I hope that no bloodshed will be required to satisfy this party.”

“Oh.” The Barbed Promise lasted only a day after being cut. Briar found a glass bowl, filled it with honey water from a nearby pitcher, and hoped someone might be of need of the flower soon. “What did you have in mind?”

He opened his mouth to speak and then his smile vanished, replaced by a contemplative frown. “I’m not sure. I’ve never asked for something like this. Never…felt like this.”

Ah, a customer who doesn’t know what he wants. Her day kept improving.

“How are you feeling?” Briar asked mildly. “What stirs the breast of an assassin so that he does not know his own heart?” And can’t be said with a knife to the jugular. “Is it a warning you wish to send to a rival?”

“A warning! Yes, a warning of intent!” He seized on that last word excitedly.

She waited a hopeful moment, then swallowed a sigh. She would have to lead him through every step. “And your intent…is?”

He gaped, he rolled his wrists. No words came out of his mouth.

With front-of-the-house regulars, this was common. Especially among men who would grasp and ferret about for the words that expressed both love and more carnal desires without sounding either vulgar or vulnerable. Of course, he was young and clearly infatuated with—oh no.

She’d seen this happen before on rare occasion, an assassin falling for their mark. It was something of a fever, but usually passed given enough time and self-reflection. The truth of it was that coin was coin, and steel was steel, and a job simply must be done. If an assassin couldn’t complete the hit, well, one could always count on colleagues to end it one way or the other.

This Hawk was, in truth, too pretty and too young to die. She berated herself for going soft, and here she was barely over forty. Besides, hadn’t Briar found herself in similar circumstances in her youth, infatuated with a dashing young man that she gave everything up for?

They were in the wrong room if she were to build a bouquet to bare one’s heart, but he was absolutely not going to leave as he came in. What did she have on hand?

“Describe how you met,” she said, heading to a basket of cuttings from the front shop that she’d been saving for herself. Well, saving for her husband. Anniversary plans. Her fingers went straight for the roses. Pale ones, white and pink, moving them out of his reaching hands.

He sucked at a finger pricked by a thorn. “Business acquaintance.”

“And she’s—”

“He’s.”

“He’s someone you know well, or?”

The assassin ruffled his hair while his mouth tried and failed to find an answer. Finally: “I’ve known him only a fortnight, and yet I feel as if I know him. And wish to know him more.”

Oh, not even lucky enough to be felled by mere lust. He was truly smitten! If word got out, it would ruin him. Assassins in love either became too free with their blades or gave them up entirely. No consensus among the community which fate was worse. A debate she was rather tired of, frankly.

She tried her best to steer him someplace productive: back to murder. “And this is a…warning of that desire?”

“We must meet. I wish to confess all.”

“You wish to meet?”

“Ideally.”

“All right, so we have great admiration, request to meet, and…”

The Crimson Hawk shrugged, of no help at all.

But since I’m trying to help you not get killed was usually taken poorly by paying customers, Briar persisted with a cheery demeanor. She needed to find out who his mark was and decide the danger. His folly could topple others.

“Tell me about him,” she said, her tone conspiratorial and coy.

He had sense enough to look wary at the question.

Briar gently continued. “I can’t craft the perfect message if I don’t know the man.”

The affectation of gossipy interest was enough to let his gaze slide away without seeing anything deeper. The Hawk let loose a torrent of words describing his would-be paramour — how he moved like a beast, how his blue eyes blazed, the first creep of gray into his temples, how his shoulders formed the perfect triangle to his waist, how his arms were powerfully sculpted. No open contract came to mind from his description as she listened. Familiar, but she couldn’t put her finger on it.

Ah, when was the last time she’d played this game? Often as not, a job was discreetly arranged. One couldn’t blurt it out. What if someone overheard? A clandestine meeting, carefully phrased instructions, and then the hunt was on. She bit her lip, enjoying the puzzle as though it were her own, but no gentleman came to mind.

Briar studied the Hawk instead. Careless, in the way he let his coat fall open so that the handles of his pistols could catch the light for anyone to see. He never once kept an eye on the exits, either the one they came in or the secret door he was supposed to use. Maybe it was all luck until now. So young. Irritatingly so. When had that started to annoy her? It hadn’t always. She thought of her husband, ten years her junior and still at the top of his game. Something she never failed to take pride in.

She decided on something simple: yellow-orange coreopsis for love at first sight, those yellow tulips for hopeless love, and forget-me-nots for true love. Save for the tulip, the other flowers had a youthful quality, as if plucked fresh from a field. She had one more in mind.

“The scar on his cheek,” he said, the words trailing off as if he’d been dumbstruck. “I wonder how he got it. Only a man that beautiful could sport a scar like that and be all the more handsome for it.”

Her shears were a hairsbreadth away from trimming the pale blue primrose for young love. “Scar?”

“Yes, a tiny cross.” His tone changed; all his playful idiocy gone, and instead hard amusement, an eagerness. He grinned with his eye teeth. “They call him the White Tiger. Suffocates his prey, the way a tiger would. Oh, how I want that man’s hands around my throat.”

Briar’s hands tightened around the shears as her stomach fell away to a cold place far below.

The blue eyes, the broad shoulders, the Tiger.

Ten years ago, there had been a duel. A smothering, moonless summer night. Perfume from the garden thick in their throats. She had wrestled that tiger, won that tiger, and carved that cross with her silver blade into his cheek one breathless moment before they shared a first kiss worth throwing everything else away.

Assassins only last so long in the business. Women, men, didn’t matter. Retirement was a luxury few were foolish enough to hope for, let alone live long enough to consider. How many lives had she ended, how many duels had she won, with no thought to the future? But every passing day since her retirement, those sharp shears goaded her. How nicely they fit the hand, how nimble still, her fingers. Her best years yet not lost.

Flowers were a poor substitute for the elegance of a blade. Who cares who loves or lusts, when who lives or dies is decided by the hand that casts it? Briar had spent years communicating the desires of others, hadn’t she, both before and after? Past time to communicate her own.

She set down the shears.

Briar left the simple flowers where they were. Her fingers reached for other blooms, pinching the stems with her own fingernails. It wasn’t something as simple as jealousy that moved her, but professional courtesy. Belladonna for silence, bold pasqueflowers for you have no claims, acanthus and yarrow twinned together for the art of war.

And with utmost care and gentleness, the Barbed Promise she’d cut earlier, not wasted after all.

She presented the bouquet, with the first unaffected smile she’d had in the shop since she’d traded steel for stems. “He’s quite taken, I’m afraid.”

Briar’s fingers slid the first of her Thorns from the intricate knot of her hair. The second came free with the barest of tugs, and the rest of her black hair fell to shroud her shoulders. The Thorns, made of the finest steel, gleaming like silver, with white quartz for each handle, once terrorized all of England. They were among her last vestiges of her former life, and she couldn’t bear to part with them.

As was true of her husband.

“Ah,” the Crimson Hawk said, sounding satisfied. “The Shadow Rose reveals herself.”

He knew? All this time he’d been playing with her? Cheeks burning, Briar cursed her complacency. She tightened her grip, then forced herself to loosen it.

Hawk looked her up and down with a mixture of bemused dismissal. “You’re supposed to be dead.”

“Some do call retirement that. But, no. Not dead.” She widened her stance. “The White Tiger is mine.”

He laughed, albeit politely. “Are you sure?”

Ten years retired. A lifetime. Too long. Briar and her new husband had argued hotly about what they would do at the time. There wasn’t room for two master assassins in the family, and she had already ten years of professional killing on him. So London’s best assassin had stepped aside, and her husband took her place. Why tempt fate twice?

“I think he needs someone younger to tame his tiger.” The Hawk bit his lip hard as his palms rubbed the polished wood of his pistol grips. “Someone with fresh blood on their hands. Still in the game.”

Sometimes, fate tempted you.

“Shall we see who plays the game better?” Briar spun her Silver Thorns with an effortless grace. They felt so good in her hands. She couldn’t imagine now, or ever again, setting them down.

A flash of bright white teeth, followed by a flash of light.

Of course, he pulled a gun. Only one, the pompous ass, shooting over her head and striking the wood panels above. Playing with her, underestimating her, the pretty dark-haired slip of a thing, like they all used to—right before one of her knives pressed under their chin. The cold kiss, they called it. But one has to be close enough to use it. Briar took cover behind one of the garden stands as he shot into the air, the sound cracking through the private room. Smoke poured out, began to drift. He coughed and she used the sound to cover the noise she made tearing off her skirt.

Under her breath: “Amateur.”

“Ah, the old cat has teeth! Good. I didn’t want this to be just murder.”

“It’s not the teeth you should worry about, love.”

She leapt to her feet and threw one of her Thorns directly at his right eye, the one she’d caught him aiming with. Dexterous enough, he jerked left an inch and avoided the blade, though it left a lovely red line across that sharp cheekbone of his.

It also provided distraction enough to bolt to the next bit of cover, the mannequin, with the remains of her skirt in one hand and the second Thorn in the other.

Another shot, this time the light painfully bright and too close for comfort. More red smoke, its crimson particulate drifting softly to the floor while its smoke thickened the air between them, becoming a shifting gray screen. The effect was rather striking, but no time for admiration. Nor could she count on it; the smoke moved like a slow, third partner to their dance, leaving gaps, stealing breaths. Not good. She kept low to avoid the worst of it.

Somewhere in the thickening smoke, he coughed hard.

Had the fool not thought what firing one of his flash rounds in a small and airless room would do? There was nowhere for the smoke to go but up, and she wasn’t going to be opening any doors any time soon. Not until she’d taken care of business, anyway.

Use what you have, she’d told her eager husband all those years ago. Time to take her own advice.

Footsteps, those grand boots of his a drumbeat on the floor as he surveyed the room from its center. Another cough, and then: “Don’t drag this out. I have plans to meet your husband shortly to deliver the terrible news. ‘Rival assassin breaks protocol, starts a war sure to clear out half the assassins of London by the time it’s all over. I couldn’t save your lovely wife in time!’” As he spoke, the sound of shot loaded by a hand so practiced, so smooth, she almost didn’t hear it for what it was.

“I’ll be a legend after this. And all I had to do what find and kill the assassin everyone told me was dead.”

The remains of her skirt across her lap, she felt around the mannequin along well-practiced routes until she found the secret latch on the rib cage. She had built the room for such an occasion all those years ago. Was it only to honor her past, keep those mementos close, or had she secretly wished for this from the moment she first opened the shop? That someone would come and test her.

The latter, she was prepared to admit. Finally. She grinned.

“Isn’t it foolish, to tell me all your plans?”

“You won’t be alive to tell anyone else, never mind him.”

“Confidence alone doesn’t confirm a kill.” Guided by touch, she reached inside the secret compartment and grabbed her gloves, their comforting steel tips all but whispering to her. She stashed the remaining Thorn in her hair with a deft twist and then donned both gloves. Still a perfect fit.

“I’m celebrating early.”

“And what about the grieving widower? You’d do this to the man you claim to love? He’ll be heartbroken at news of my grisly demise.” She gathered up the remains of the skirt in her hands.

“I’ll console him in the most gentle and attentive of ways.”

Briar rolled her eyes, then rolled her body to the left, toward the shelter of a free-standing planter.

He wasted a shot, striking the mannequin, which went down. The smoke from his shot continued to rise; she could no longer see through the glass above, the Hawk little more than a shadowy figure save for his legs. He stepped into the center of the room and she considered, then discarded, the idea of a simple hamstring. Those guns would still be a problem. Both were up now, the set of his legs saying he was prepared to face an onslaught of attackers as he made his slow scan of the room.

Time to test those shoulders. She leapt from her crouching position, skirt between both hands like a matador ready for a gun-wielding bull. He fired one shot blindly the moment the skirt fell over his face, then twisted to grab her; she was already gone.

“Or we can make this difficult. Difficult is fun, too.” His laugh was ugly. “I was trying to be a gentleman …”

She landed right in a blasted cloud of smoke. She coughed, couldn’t help herself, and cursed for giving away her position.

Hawk didn’t waste the opportunity; another shot rang out, and this time it razed the air near her shoulder. Lucky shot indeed, since he was still pulling her skirt out of his eyes and swearing like no gentleman.

She stifled a second cough and wished she’d kept some of the skirt for a handkerchief. It would be the only way she was going to avoid inhaling much more gun smoke.

Wait. Her heart squeezed. That wasn’t gun smoke.

She dared to look for the source and sure enough, true smoke was curling up from the dried moss in one of the wrought-iron planters. One of his shots must have sparked it. Damn him! Fire in a shop made entirely out of wood, a small room besides, and plenty of fuel. Every shopkeep’s nightmare. Not that she lived or died by her earnings, it was all just a way to spend her days, but did he not understand they were nearing their end game? Winning didn’t count if you weren’t there to see it.

Up was out of the question. She could climb the iron handholds studded into the wall and thick with twining vines up to the roof exit blindfolded (and had), but through the smoke? So out was through the only door they’d both used to enter the hidden room. Behind him.

Hawk, finishing a spin on his heels as the last of her tangled skirt fell to the floor, locked eyes with her. Behind him, flowers withered in flames, coughing up the last of their perfume.

His eyes shone. “Time to pick my Rose.”

There was no running. The room, the fire, him blocking the only exit he believed she would use. She tilted her head up at him. Made those eyes. Trembled her lip on cue. Showed him her throat.

He took the bait.

Strong grip, those fingers. She winced. Her instinct to gag as he squeezed got her nowhere. When she fluttered her eyes this time, she meant it.

She grabbed him with both gloved hands, and twisted, the metal tips effortlessly cutting through his white sleeves, leaving long red ribbons in their place. Blood spurted to the floor. He let go, recoiled, and Briar made for the door. Scrambling, coughing, trying to duck under the growing smoke. Behind her, the Hawk coughed and spat, and crashed into something.

The heat! How had the fire grown that quickly? The moment she was on the other side of the door, she slammed it closed, slapped the bolt—the metal hot to touch—and leapt back as he pounded at the door.

“Open the door, little cat.”

Briar laughed. “But I’m a frail rose, all but dead!” She clicked her tongue. “Think you can fly out of that fire, Hawk?”

One hard slam, and then only coughing from the other side.

She kissed the door, feeling the heat on her lips, and fled the shop.

There was screaming in the street. The fire brigade would be along too late to do anything. The same could be said of her day dress. She tore off the last hanging shreds of the skirt and thanked herself for wearing her custom leggings. How many times had her husband told her to put them aside? He loved her legs; he’d get to keep loving them at least for a little while longer.

The shop, or what was left of it, burned, a rosy glow in the growing dusk. Was that a figure escaping out the balcony exit as the rooftop frame collapsed with an orchestra of falling glass?

“Now he uses the exit,” she said with a snort. She patted out her smouldering chemise and took stock. Not bad at all, all things considered. A bit stiff, bit of blood. Lost a Thorn, but she still had the one. No shop. How many thousands of pounds were rising in the air as the fire burned? No point in staying to watch what was a forgone conclusion, or for the inconvenient questions that would be asked once it was smothered.

Ah, but the Crimson Hawk’s escape sent her heart to happy fluttering. She looked to the rooftops, biting her bottom lip. She’d have to do something about that. About him. Glorious. Briar had such good news to tell her husband.

But first: She lifted her Thorn to the back of her neck and cut off all her hair. She held it a while, the great, heavy length of it, and then, humming, tossed it through the fire-gutted window.

Retirement was at an end.

 

 

Stephanie is a raven-brained science fiction and fantasy nerd from the wilds of Canada. She’s an alum of Viable Paradise (Go Fifteeners!) and Taos Toolbox 2017. A cat fancier, tea sniffer, and wallflower with a taste for whisky, she’ll be off hoarding office supplies but not before asking you where you got that pen. Just don’t let her borrow it.

5100 words, published September 2018, Shimmer #45

Other Growing Things:

If a bear… by Kathrin Köhler

We Lilies of the Valley, by Sonja Natasha

Only Their Shining Beauty Was Left, by Fran Wilde

 

 

The Ghost Pet Detective, by Ryan Row

Art’s funeral is full of crying girls. Law thinks this should tip some of them off, but there it is. Crying girls everywhere. White flowers in their hair. Black dresses and the scent of clean underwear and Ivory soap. There’s a ghostly snake wrapped around one of the girl’s nylon ankles. It slithers up her leg like the white stripe of a candy cane until its flat head disappears under her skirt. She doesn’t notice. The ghost of a tiger lounges beside the coffin. It died in the zoo, maybe. Or else it came straight out of Law’s head. He rubs his neck. Through the tiger’s semi-translucent fur, he can see a tiny bird fluttering around inside the cage of its ribs like a weird, trapped heart.

Out behind the funeral parlor Law finds, leaning against a dumpster and furiously smoking a long black cigarette that smells like cinnamon, another crying girl. He wonders, fuzzily, if somehow his brother’s death has altered the composition of the entire human race, and that all girls are crying now and all boys are drunk and trying to find a place to throw up and get away from all the ghosts.

“Don’t cry,” he says. He puts a steadying hand flat against the warm dumpster and leans way over. It doesn’t steady anything.

The girl flicks her raccoon eyes at him. Black mascara in lines down her cheeks like dried rain.

“Fuck off,” she says. Her lips are a clumsy red, like fake blood.

“That’s fair, pretty lady,” he says. He closes his eyes. Under his eyelids, little red lines wriggle and writhe. It reminds him of ghosts, so he opens them again. A little cloud of ghost gnats hover over the dumpster, glowing faintly and mingling with the real ones.

“Death is everywhere,” he says. He feels exhausted, and also like there’s a chunk of vomit caught at the bottom of his throat. A little breeze blows the smells of warm garbage and cinnamon smoke all over the half-full parking lot. He’d like to take off all his clothes and lie down on the hot asphalt like it’s a black beach and let the wind tangle in his scraggly chest hair, but this girl is looking him up and down like she’s trying to find his slim, handsome brother somewhere inside his chubby, drunk body.

“He didn’t kill himself.”

“Who didn’t?” Law asks.

She looks at him now like she’s really seeing him. Recoils, a little. Her yesterday’s-rain eyes squinting in disbelief.

“Your brother. Who else is there?”

“Why?” he says. His hand against the dumpster is really hot now, but if he lifts it he’s not sure he’ll be able to stand. And if he can’t stand, he won’t be able to throw up. And if he can’t throw up, he might never feel better. The ghost of a fat horsefly buzzes soundlessly by his nose and he bats at the air with his off hand, wiping away smoke like smudges on the air. The ghost of the fly passes through his palm, and makes him feel cool and slimy.

“The newspaper said he had ligature marks on his wrists, but he was supposed to be alone in the basement. There were also bite marks on his shoulder and neck, and scratches on his back,” the girl says. She raises an eyebrow. “I didn’t put them there.”

“That wasn’t in the paper,” Law says.

“It also said his body was practically frozen. Like somebody had put him in a cooler and moved him.”

“How do you know all this?”

She looks at him, then looks at the sky, then the trash, as if trying to decide which is farther away and more useless. She plants her now-stubby cigarette with its fine cap of ash in her lip and digs in her purse. She pulls out a manila folder, creased and bent, with his brother’s name on the tab.

“I paid the coroner for this,” she says, looking at her feet. He looks too. Her black shoes are open-toed, and he can see chipped red polish that reminds him of high school.

“I’ll bet,” he says, reaching for the folder. She jerks it away and he grabs a fistful of air. He’s so disconcerted that he thinks, for a moment, that his hand must have passed through it. That it’s not a real file, but the ghost of a file.

“Don’t be a dick,” the girl says, then offers the folder again.

“Sorry,” he says. He pushes off the dumpster and stands up straight. The world shimmers and splits apart in his head. The ghost of a rat scurries over his shoe and under the dumpster.

“You are Arthur’s brother, right? You’re Lawrence? I need your help.”

Law makes a noncommittal grunt and takes the folder. The words swim on the page. The outline drawing of a bald, naked baseline man with little notes scribbled in the margins. This could be anybody.

“Law,” he says, and the girl shrugs.

“Why do they call you that?” She flicks her cigarette impatiently into the trash.

“Because,” he says, then turns away a little. The scent of hot trash and this little town, pizza and fryer oil and little corruptions like drugstore colognes, wafts up at him on a highway wind, and something unclogs in him, and he throws up onto the sleeve of his jacket.

She looks at him now like she’s really seeing him.

Hometowns are like memories. Coming home is like trying to remember something, but it’s all mixed up. His brother was thirteen, and Law was sixteen, and they were wrestling. He remembers the feel of Art’s bony shoulder blades against his chest like clipped wings. He remembers the ghost of their old cat, Cloud, who’d been run over by a school bus full of horrified children a few years before, lounging on the porch, lazy and transparent. He remembers the ghost of Cloud getting up and slinking through him while he and his brother rolled on some grass, chilling his spine and locking him up. His slim brother, already almost taller than Law, kneeing him in the gut. Being completely breathless on the lawn, pinned on his back. Humiliation, and that huge northwestern sky, as broad as the palm of God. They were already falling out of brotherhood and conditionless friendship and into the greater strangerhood of adolescence. Art, perhaps confused about what was supposed to come next after having pinned Law, slapped him across the face. And Law bit Art’s wrist hard enough to draw blood. The taste of pennies and the sea.

It’s all jumbled up. In his memory, it feels like he’s the one being bitten. In fact, now, in the girl’s car, watching the brick buildings of his childhood fall past them as if they are the actual crumbling bricks that built his childhood, it feels like he’s being bitten. His mouth tastes full of blood.

Law rubs his wrist absently. He wonders if he’ll be able to use his brother’s toothbrush when they get to his parents’ empty house, or if that would be considered macabre.

“Was that the jail?” Law says, spinning in his seat, straining to see the squat row of brown buildings as it blurs by. The power lines in town are thick with the shimmering ghosts of generations of pigeons and crows. “It looks different.”

“You’re remembering wrong,” the girl says.

He’s been gone a long time. Law’s only twenty-five. Art was twenty-two. Anyway, it feels like long time, the same way any life feels as if it’s been going on forever. His brother, that scrubbed, younger version of himself with a face like a fallen angel, the strong tongue of a snake, and the body of the first man, had stayed home. Had worked at their father’s hardware store. Sliding into his life like sliding into a bed. As if he’d laid down in it. Law had left at eighteen. He thought maybe there’d be fewer ghosts in other places. He thought that, surely, the greatest number of little ghosts lived close to home. Wrong. No matter where you went, the world was heavy with ghosts.

Also, he thought he might have better luck with women if he wasn’t always around his brother. Wrong again.

The girl’s name is Norma.

“Can I call you Normal?”

“Don’t call me anything.”

She wants to look around his parents’ basement and his brother’s room. She has this idea, this little paranoia, that anybody could be the killer. Maybe everybody. Maybe it was a conspiracy. It’s not like Law doesn’t know the feeling. She trusts him because, she tells him, she knows he lives far away, in the city, so there’s no way he could be involved.

“Do you know of anyone who would want to hurt your brother? Did he have any enemies?”

Law sits dizzy on the upholstered, bygone basement couch. It sinks under him like the fabric of a dream. “We weren’t really close.”

He’d found a beer in the basement fridge, probably his brother’s beer, which he’d have drunk with his girls, and he sips it now to wash down the taste of vomit. There’s vodka in the freezer, but he’ll leave that for later. This feels like a long-night kind of day. Norma traces the lines of the room with her fingers. Chewed nails. Small hands. The beer tastes like more warm blood, and he almost gags. The can is cold in his hand.

She looks under the fridge and behind it. Behind the old television. In the drawers of an old dresser. She looks at his old DVD collection and opens each one. Most of the discs are mixed up, and in the wrong places.

Norma flips couch cushions. Finds some change. A few ripped-open condom wrappers, which she holds between fingernails and frowns deeply at. A lipstick tube, which she grabs with an inside-out plastic bag, then seals, and writes on it “basement.”

When she comes to the cushion Law sits on, she sighs through her teeth and thrusts her hand under it without asking him to move. She’s kneeling between his legs. He can smell her hair, wood ash and some kind of plastic flower, the slightly sweet and chemical scent of her makeup or lotion. He can see the back of her pale neck, strands of her brown-bronze hair sliding off it as she moves. He feels her arm dully through the cushion beneath him. Her arm stops moving. It feels like her hand is right beneath him, almost like she’d holding him up, or maybe groping him.

“We were gonna get married, you know,” she says from between his legs.

He swings one leg over her and rolls off the cushion, off the couch, and onto the floor, so he’s sitting beside her. He’s spilled a little beer on the way, but so what. He offers her the can.

“Have a drink,” he says. His wrist really hurts now. It looks vaguely red in a small crescent shape. The ghosts of two mice chase each other over his ankles. “There aren’t any ghosts in here.”

She’s crying now. Little drops swimming with mascara like oil floating in rain.

“Yeah there are,” she says. “Yeah there are.”

She flips the cushion. Beneath it, wedged into the couch, are a pair of pink handcuffs with no key.

Law was born with a fleshy rope of umbilical cord tied around his neck. Still little newborn’s heart with all the potential of a tiny bomb. Human hands pressing and nudging his chest, his heart back to function, like an absent parent nudging a hapless child into the deep end of a pool to flail. Life’s full of chlorine and urine, so, Law thinks, it more or less works as a metaphor.

Law is a clairvoyant. Law is an alcoholic. Law sees only animal ghosts. Why is that? Maybe it’s because animals, unlike humans, are not ashamed. Maybe it’s because humans don’t have souls, or those souls shatter or go somewhere else. Or maybe Law’s just a bent antenna, a radio dial turned to a weird, pirate frequency. Anyway, no people. Never.

The older the ghost, the harder it is to see, they’re fuzzy. The more sober he is, the easier it is to see them. The further back he can see. When he was growing up, before discovering alcohol in his second year of high school, he used to watch exotic birds with feathers like scales and stubby wings like fingers struggle to fly in his bedroom. He’d watched a shaggy bear-like creature swimming in a dry river batting at long-gone fish. Two bison butting heads in the parking lot of the sketchy chicken place that served mostly truckers and families passing through on their way elsewhere.

Now, with the alcohol, it’s mostly rats and birds. Dogs and cats. Real things in unreal places. Sometimes, though, when he’s stone sober, or all the way to the other side of drunk, he’ll see the ghosts of things that never existed at all.

A unicorn once, in that same parking lot, grazing on asphalt. Sometimes he sees impossibly long dragon shapes flying across storm clouds in the distance. Sometimes the ghosts of giant spiders creeping through traffic and throwing weird, transparent non-shadows on the cars beneath them.

The thing about that is, he sometimes drunkenly concludes, is that the imagination can die. And that it leaves behind a ghost.

His brother’s room is upstairs, and it smells like old sex, just like the basement except sweeter and older. Dust settled on young skin. Norma wrinkles her nose. A square of light from the window falls on the floor like some ghost’s weird shadow. The bed is neat. A computer. A desk. There’s a poster of two girls from behind on a beach in black and white. Another poster, a row of girls against a blank background, all in thin two-piece bathing suits that make Law think loin cloths and pre-men.

“Where was this taken?” Law says, tapping the blank background. “Purgatory?”

Norma taps possible passwords into the computer. Law watches her type her own name. It stays locked. The hazy, beer-drunk outline of a ghost crouches in a corner of the room. Maybe a big dog. Law squints at it, but it doesn’t get any clearer.

“I cheated on him once,” Norma says. She stares at the locked screen. Her face is very still, and her makeup seems theatrical and purposeful. Her pink lips are starting to show beneath her lipstick. Her dark eyes beneath her washed-out eyelids. She looks like she’s in a trance, or dead. “It wasn’t a mistake. I wanted to. I didn’t want to hurt him, but I felt like I was disappearing into him. Like my body was being eclipsed by him. He had this huge personality. He had a good time no matter where he was. His smile was like a disease, it infected you. Whether you felt shitty or tired or hungover, after being with him for a few minutes, his mood sort of took over your mood, you know? But sometimes you just want to feel bad.”

“Did you notice all the other girls at his funeral, Normal?” Law turns away from the lump of ghost in the corner, it’s a little creepy even for him, watching him without a face, and he lies down flat on the floor and starts pulling shoeboxes out from under the bed. His wrist throbs.

“He was done with all that. You know he asked me to marry him.”

“You mentioned that.”

“I said no.”

One shoebox is filled with change. One with silk scarves and handcuff keys. One with photos of girls, some in their underwear, some in clothes. Near the bottom, Law finds the gray halo cone of an ultrasound photo.

“Why?” Law says.

“He told me you could see ghosts,” she says.

“Not those kinds of ghosts,” he says, quickly shutting the box of photos, though Norma still has not turned around. Instead she’s looking at all the corners in the room one at a time like examining pieces of fruit for ripeness and color.

“Is he here?”

Surreptitiously, Law stands and at the same time pushes the box of photos under the bed, along with the box of handcuffs and scarves.

“Sure.” And he’s about to say something sweet, because he’s feeling tender toward her. Something like He’ll always be with you. Or, He wouldn’t abandon you. Things that are untrue tend to have a certain sweetness. Take dreams. Take ghosts.

But before he can go on, Norma pushes back from the desk, stands and turns to him. Her little animal face tight and puffing up like there’s a thin fire under her skin. Her lipstick has been rubbed off in the middle, because, he’s noticed, she tends to stick her tongue out when she’s thinking. She looks as if she’s steeling herself for something.

“He didn’t kill himself.”

“I think he did,” Law says. He’s buzzing all over. It feels like he’s a balloon that’s been let go, and he’ll float around and around until he gets too heavy, and sinks into a powerline and causes a huge fire that spreads through the whole town and eventually the whole state. “And I think he cheated on you. A lot.”

She continues to breathe her little fire breaths through her flared nose. She steps forward. Her arm swings up, and her hand slaps the back of his neck and holds him.

“If he did, he had a good reason.”

She kisses him like she wants him to disappear. She’s all teeth. Even her small, pointed tongue feels like a fang on his neck.

She looks at him now like she’s really seeing him. But he knows, despite how much clearer her eyes are than his, and even now getting clearer as she rips her clothes off like ripping off the bandages of the past, she’s not really seeing him. In fact, she’s looking right through him.

What is the lifespan of the unreal? What is the half-life of a unicorn eating asphalt? At what rate does a dream decay? A fantasy rot? A crowd of ghostly moths, like disembodied Christmas lights, pass through the ceiling light. All this implies that Law doesn’t really know the world he lives in and will never know it. Will never understand it.

It feels exactly as you imagine it feels.

He wants to stop her, but he’s never been good at control. She sits on top of him like he’s a chair. The sun goes down on her skin. She bites his shoulder and holds his wrists and claws at his back. It’s all mixed up in his head. He remembers his brother in the grass. God’s sky. Blood on his tongue. Were they fighting, or were they in love? The moon rises in her hair. Silver moonbeams like fingers touching her face. His own fingers on her face. Numb with alcohol. Like they always are. They look like ghost fingers. Semi-transparent.

“If I get pregnant,” she says through gasps. Her breath tastes like cinnamon and cigarette smoke. “Do you want me to keep it?”

His back tightens. The ghosts of fireflies and moths spin in the moonlight. He comes. It’s like trying not to grow up. It’s like trying not to become who you already are. His whole body as stiff as a corpse, but he’s moving right along anyway.

When he left town, he thought he might become a vet.

Art laughed at that. “All those dead animals? What, you want to collect their ghosts?”

It was hard to argue with the logic of that. So instead, Law became a pet groomer, with a little bit of pet detective work on the side. It was quiet work he could do while maintaining a steady, baseline haze of yellow scotch and sugar syrup. On his darker days, he would place his hands on either side of a dog’s square skull and force it to look him in the eyes like two flat mirrors.

“Someday,” he’d say. “You’re gonna be a ghost.”

Art had confessed a few years ago to seeing ghosts, too. Not as clearly as Law, mostly blurry outlines like figures dressed in ultrasound static. Still, it depressed him and made him question his sanity and the sanity of nature in the same way. Ghosts in every corner.

When Law had jammed the last garbage bag of his clothes into the trunk of his rumbling Chevy, and it was just the two of them standing in the cracked driveway of their childhood, Art said, “You shouldn’t drink so much.”

“You know why I drink,” Law said. The ghost of Cloud, thinner and more transparent now, was rubbing its ghost body through his leg. It was slimy and cool.

“You should try girls,” Art said. He grinned, and tapped his temple. His grin was a little crooked, afraid maybe. “Sex is like disappearing. And afterwards, things are a little clearer. Shapes are a little clearer. And that actually helps. Know what I mean?”

“It’s not for lack of trying.” Law got in the car, window permanently down and the glass broken inside the door. When he closed it, he could hear the cubes of safety glass clattering against each other like people. He took a nip from a flask in the glove compartment. “Or maybe it is. Either way, it’s too late now.”

“Hey, you still just see animals, right?”

“Yeah?” Law said, brow drunkenly raised. “What else is there?”

“Yeah,” Art said, flashing that crooked grin. Like he wasn’t really smiling, more like he was grinding something in his teeth. “Yeah. Nothing else.”

“Hey, just forget it, okay?” Norma says. She’s dressing. Black bra like a rope around her chest.

Law doesn’t say anything. He sprawls out on his brother’s bed and tries to keep his mind empty. The shape in the corner does, in fact, look a little clearer now.

“Is Arthur still here?” she asks, but her voice is far away, like she’s thinking about something else.

“No.”

She nods. She’s fully dressed now. The moon is somewhere else. She’s lit in the weird off light ghosts. She glances at the corner. The corner with the ghost. It’s unfolding itself like a letter. It’s tall, maybe a big cat or human-sized extinct bird. Its shape is familiar, long-limbed and slim and unreal. Even though it is painfully real. He thinks about the tiger with the bird in its chest. He thinks about the unicorn in the parking lot. It is as rare and graceful as a dream. But whose?

“I was drinking, a lot. Other stuff too. I had a miscarriage. You know it was actually a relief. I wanted an abortion, but he proposed, and what was I supposed to do then? I loved him. You know he knew without me telling him. He knew right away. How do you think he knew?”

Law closes his eyes.

“It’s not your fault.” He feels slimy, and not just because he’s a bad person. It’s cold in here.

“He told me that if he ever died, he would come back as a ghost. And he’d haunt all the corners in the world, because the corner is the loneliest part of any room.”

“Goodbye,” Law says, sharper than he means. She’s filling up his head again. She seems to exude smoke even without her cigarette.

He hears the door open. He turns to look. She’s standing by the open door with her hand out at her side. The long shape, as long and as tall as him, moves toward her. It extends one fuzzy arm and softly takes her hand. He sees the corner of her smile.

“Is this what you wanted?” he says. The pain in his wrist is gone.

She turns back to him and smiles, then quickly looks away. Or maybe she was smiling at someone else.

Before she can answer, Law hears a car in the drive. His parents. He gets up and hastily begins to dress. Hopping drunkenly into his pants, though he can’t seem to get them up past his ankles, he looks up and sees them disappearing past the edge of the door.

“Wait!”

In a flash, he sees a life with her. In the shower with Norma, the hot water and the steam counteracting the cold, slick feeling of his brother. Their half-ghost child strapped to his chest in the grocery store. Laughing and pulling on his ears. Long nights solving pet deaths and putting pet serial killers behind bars, and long mornings sleeping in each other’s arms, his brother’s gray, static arm stretched over them all.

He wonders, his pants around his ankles and cold all over, his parents running into Norma downstairs and already starting to scream, what kind of ghost this fantasy will leave behind when it, too, inevitably dies.

fin

Ryan Row’s short fiction has appeared in Clarkesworld, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Interzone, and elsewhere. He is a winner of the Writers of the Future Award. He holds a B.A. in Creative Writing from San Francisco State University, and is pursuing an M.A. in Creative Writing at the University of California Davis. He lives in Sacramento, California with a beautiful and mysterious woman. You can find him online at ryanrow.com

Published September 2018, 4100 words, Shimmer #45

Other Ghosts:

The Creeping Influences, by Sonya Taaffe

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

Blackpool, by Sarah Brooks

Shimmer #45

There’s a fairy tale you half remember: a girl, a ghost, the memory of wood talking, telling her stories inside of stories. There’s a place you half remember: flowers and steam and a shadow moving toward you. There’s a feeling inside your ribs: anxious, fluttery, dying. That’s this issue of Shimmer.

The Ghost Pet Detective, by Ryan Row 
Art’s funeral is full of crying girls. Law thinks this should tip some of them off, but there it is. Crying girls everywhere. White flowers in their hair. Black dresses and the scent of clean underwear and Ivory soap. There’s a ghostly snake wrapped around one of the girl’s nylon ankles. It slithers up her leg like the white stripe of a candy cane until its flat head disappears under her skirt. She doesn’t notice. The ghost of a tiger lounges beside the coffin. It died in the zoo, maybe. Or else it came straight out of Law’s head. He rubs his neck. Through the tiger’s semi-translucent fur, he can see a tiny bird fluttering around inside the cage of its ribs like a weird, trapped heart. (4100 words)

By the Hand That Casts It, by Stephanie Charette
If there was one thing Briar Redgrave hated most about her current profession, it was the clients.  “But I wish it to be yellow, and vibrant,” the client insisted with a shake of her head. The crown of ostrich feathers on her wide-brimmed hat convulsed as though the bird that died for fashion’s sake was near resurrection. “It is my signature color. How else will the Viscount know that the flowers are from me?” (5100 words)

Find On Your Body the Bruise, by Maricat Stratford
First, you are everything. Then, you are a drop of blood on a blade of grass. You are the grass, the dirt beneath it, the network of aspen roots buried in the dirt — no, not yet. Pull yourself together now. You are a network of neurons spastically misfiring inside a broken skull. You are a fading chemical reaction, you are a feeling, you are a collection of memories. You are dead. You are not surprised. (1600 words)

Lighthouse Waiting, by Gwendolyn Clare 
I am alone now. The gates mostly stand dark against the starscape; you are the first to come this way in some time. I hold myself together, hold myself out, and after so much practice I can do it almost without thinking. I sing my warning song made of radio waves and light. This, too, is reflexive. Before you, there was no one here to sing to. (2400 words)

Dead Things, by Becca De La Rosa 
She comes to the manor screaming. Red hair, a tempest. Blood and bruises. Bare feet drumming the flagstones, disaster breeding disaster. Odile watches from her perch on the newel post. Marvels, shuffles. What a terrible creature, she says, to the oaken banister. The banister creaks in answer. (4000 words)

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