Tag Archives: ghosts

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

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

Bleeding Through the Shadows, by David Rees-Thomas

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I stand aside, and let him in.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Salvation.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I resolve to do something about Idris.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But it never came.

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

And, perhaps, so have I.

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

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

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

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

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

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

I go home.

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

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

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

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

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

Published July 2018, Shimmer #44, 3300 words

Dark Shadows:

The Creeping Influences, by Sonya Taaffe

Fallow, by Ashley Blooms

Extinctions, by Lina Rather

The Passenger, by Emily Lundgren

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

Eerie.

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

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

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

Miranda and Ludwig broke up.

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

That’s when I get the text.

Not from Wig, but from her. Miranda.

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

Gross.

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

I can see the shadow of him inside.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But then he didn’t go back this Fall.

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

Buying gum and beer and smokes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maybe Wig says, “I like you, Kara.”

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

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

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

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

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

I guess he doesn’t hear me.

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

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

He wont respond

Tell him kara

Tell him to leave me alone if ur with him

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

Why were we so nice to Miranda?

Fuck Miranda.

But still. I don’t send my text.

Then it comes out of nowhere.

He throws it.

His phone.

Hard.

Into the windshield.

It spiderwebs.

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

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

Kara he is missing that’s why Im asking ok

Did u hear he is missing do u know

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

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

Kara he told me about how u r into him

Kara

answer

He keeps texting me I am having a thought

I am having a thought

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There, we sit.

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

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

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

Kara his mom thinks he killed himself

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

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

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

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

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

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

He looks like a ghost.

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

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

I am having a thought

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I am shattered. I am pinhole stars.

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

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

For now.

I’m having a thought.

I am having a thought and.

I will have. More thoughts.

Infinite thoughts.

 

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

The Imitation Sea, by Lora Gray

You find the dead Angel at five a.m. in the slurry of broken bottles and rotting fish on the Lake Erie shore. It almost looks human in the morning light, a ten-year-old, maybe eleven, boyish, face bloated, limp and blue and doughy.

You can smell the rot, sour-sweet like flowers left too long in vases and chemical-sharp like gasoline. It reminds you of that abandoned gas station you and Jack first fucked in, the one with the chains looped over the doors and the gaping, fractured windows. The one with a musty stock room and flattened cardboard boxes that greased your shirt with motor oil. You still have that shirt, unwashed and stained, in a shoebox under your bed.

You know that smell.

It takes you ten minutes to wrestle the Angel out of the cold sand. It’s heavier than you anticipated. Maybe it’s the soggy wings. Maybe it’s the waterlogged tubing buried beneath its skin. In any case, the weight resigns you to dragging, and you shuffle backward past galleries of picnic tables stacked and upended for the off-season, the Angel’s feet snaking through the late autumn scrub.

Its legs kick out at inconvenient angles as you wedge it into the trunk of your Dodge, but eventually the Angel fits, its face slumped against the wheel well, lips shucked away from pale and unnervingly even teeth. You almost expect it to speak. To sing.

Of course, it’s silent. It’s dead. But you still roll down the window and strain to hear it over the road noise and shush-shush of Lake Erie waves.

You never told Jack, but when you were a little boy, you thought Lake Erie was an ocean, a long blue-black tongue lapping its way into Canada. You were convinced there were sharks in that water. Whales. Jellyfish. Sunken pirate ships. Lost cities. Mermaids. Squid the size of buses. Sea monsters the length of football fields. Underwater kingdoms five fathoms deep.

In second grade you learned real oceans didn’t stink like melted rubber and rotting fish. Oceans weren’t peppered with warning signs about toxic algae and unsafe levels of bacteria. They didn’t have that conspicuous line of land squatting on the horizon if you squinted your eyes just so.

Lake Erie was just a lake.

That summer, when July settled its fat green heat over Cleveland, you watched the freshwater waves suck at your toes and imagined the lake devouring you. Jack was on vacation with his dad in Saint Martin. Your mom had abandoned you for the afternoon (this time for a lifeguard named Todd), and it wasn’t as if she could afford an Angel to watch over you. You were all alone. Nothing could stop Lake Erie from swallowing you if it really wanted to.

It would lick the meat from your legs, slurp your bones away, and you’d march home on the stumps of your thighs, a victim of an imitation sea. Later, you’d find the remains your dismembered shins, next to the ‘sea’ shells and ‘sea’ glass, picked clean by ‘sea’ gulls. You’d sell your toes to tourists and hawk tickets to the spot where the tragedy occurred. You’d use the money to fly to Saint Martin and spend the rest of the summer with Jack.

As smaller, richer kids tottered past you, carrying half-melted popsicles and buckets of pebbles, Angels floating dutifully behind them, you closed your eyes. Under the water, your legs grew cold. Weightless. Numb. When Mom finally reappeared and called for you, you cracked open one eye and carefully, carefully, you looked down.

Your legs were still there.

You shuffled, sunburned and silent, back to the car and wondered how you would tell Jack about it when he finally returned. You tried to pull comfort from the fact that the rocky sand left toothy dimples in your thighs. You rubbed at them the whole ride home as if you could press them into your bones as evidence.

You remember the day Jack told you about selling dead Angels. You were fifteen and huddled under his back porch, pot smoke in your hair and eyes, the afternoon light spilling golden through the tight, even slats. You remember how he plucked the joint from your fingers, his lips plump and flushed around it. His Angel hadn’t found you yet. You managed to ditch it for thirty minutes. It was a record.

“There are these scrap dealers that buy dead Angels for parts,” Jack said. “And these upcycle sites that make clocks out of their guts. Tables out of their faces. Reduce. Reuse. Recycle. All that shit. You remember my cousin in Utah?” You nodded and nestled your head against Jack’s shoulder. He fed you a drag. “He collects them. He’s got this walk-in freezer with rows of them tacked behind glass like fucking butterflies. He wants to buy mine off my mom when it dies.”

Jack wrapped one arm around your shoulders then, the other around your waist, like he was clinging to a buoy, like he was afraid he’d drown in porch dust and flaking paint. His eyes darted toward the crooked opening beneath the steps. Every passing car could be his Angel’s wings. Every flying bird, his Angel’s shadow. His parents had put him on house arrest the last time he’d ditched it and then they had taken him to a doctor because they thought he was ‘exhibiting alarming behavior patterns.’ Jack had just wanted twenty minutes alone with you.

“I don’t want them making money off any of it,” Jack whispered.

“So what do you want to do with your Angel, then?” you asked.

Jack tightened his arms. “Burn it,” he said.

On the drive home, you think about how you want to tell Jack that there’s a market for that too now. There’s the Angel Memorial Crematorium on Sixth Street. And there are megachurches that will pay to burn them on their live streams. You’ve seen the popup ads, the preachers with oily hair and slick designer suits shouting about sacrilege while heaps of feathers and flesh stamped with “Heaven’s Helpers INC” smoke in the background. Cash for unwanted Angels! Save the children! Save your soul! Subscribe subscribe subscribe!

You could use the money, but you won’t sell the Angel you found in the lake. As you pull your Dodge into the long, uneven driveway of your apartment, you already know what you’re going to do with it.

You heft the Angel out of the trunk and into your arms. You aren’t going to scrap it. You drag the Angel through the back door. You aren’t going to sell it. You lay the Angel on the kitchen floor in the nook where a refrigerator once lived and you watch sunlight spill onto the ruined cherubic face.

You’re going to resurrect it.

Angels were still toys when Jack moved to town. You were only seven, but you remember the commercials, the jingle, the bright white boxes plastered with cartoon halos and broad, smiling faces. They had feather wings. Or fairy wings or bat wings or airplane wings that dusted glitter onto sidewalks and kitchen tables. They were customizable. Some of them had fiberoptic hair or bellies that doubled as nightlights. They sang lullabies and pop songs and came preprogramed with Angel Apps and links to the official Angel Accessories site.

Jack was the first kid you knew who had one.

He walked into your classroom like a whisper, spindly arms crossed behind his back as if he were trying to fold himself inside out. His Angel floated behind him like a balloon child on an invisible string, round face beaming, pale eyes fixed solely and forever on Jack.

After the teacher had introduced him to the class, she told Jack to leave his ‘doll’ in his cubby until the end of the day. Jack’s cheeks flushed as he grabbed his Angel by one fat ankle and tugged it to the back of the room, wrestling it into the narrow space between parkas and muddy yellow boots. The class giggled. One of the back-row boys threw an eraser at him when he took his seat.

Jack was ‘the kid with a doll’ after that. He sat alone at lunch and spent recess huddled against the side of the building, staring at faraway places nobody else could see. You wondered what he was looking at, if he came from a school where all the kids had Angels. If he had any friends there. If he was lonely like you.

When the art teacher sat you next to each other, you asked if Jack wanted to borrow your scissors. He looked at you like he wasn’t sure if it was a gift or a trick, so you smiled. He smiled back. Together, you ripped pages out of old magazines, the real paper kind, splashed with jewelry ads and bright toothpaste smiles. A closeup of a gecko’s eye. Two men on a sailboat, leaning together as if they were about to share a secret. You cut them into pieces, giggling as you pasted them back together, upside down and inside out, hilariously monstrous and perfect.

Two years later, when the Angels became ‘tools not toys,’ Jack’s parents were the first to buy a safety camera attachment. Retina recognition. Imprint technology. Jack’s Angel became his babysitter and tutor. It recorded his sleep patterns and monitored his cognitive development and growth percentiles, his caloric intake and expenditure. His play. But even when half the kids at school had Angels hovering over their shoulders and you didn’t have one of your own, you were still the only one who played with Jack. You were the only one who knew how many times Jack tried to drown his Angel in the bathtub or trick it into flying into traffic. You were the only one who went to the lake with him in fifth grade when he hacked his Angel’s GPS and ordered it to fly to the moon.

You sat beside him on the cold, November sand, his hand brushing against yours as you passed a bag of stale corn chips between you and watched his Angel ascend. You craned your neck, hand shielding your eyes, watching as it went higher and higher until it became a slowly circling dot, a speck, and then, gradually, nothing at all.

You held your breath, wondering if the Angel would break apart because of the altitude or just keep going up and up forever.

“Bet it can see Canada from there,” Jack said, his hand poised at the lip of the chip bag even though there was nothing left. His profile was still, his head tipped back, his eyes fixed on an empty, blue sky.

When the Angel descended ten minutes later, mission aborted but intact, ticking off facts about Apollo 11 and the 1969 moon landing, you were the only one who saw Jack cry.

You tell yourself you are doing this because your therapist says new hobbies are normal and healthy. Don’t you want to be healthy again? Don’t you want to be normal?

You don’t mention the dead Angel in your therapy sessions, though.

Instead, you dismantle the Angel’s arms in secret, peeling away synthetic skin and tugging out wires like worms onto the kitchen floor. Then it’s the chest, flayed into wide sections, white and gelatinous, heart a fist of tubes and pumps, lungs like purple sponges. The brain spills over the linoleum like soup. The eyes are delicate as uncooked eggs. The wings are so rotten that, when you finally pull them out to clean them, the stench drags your breakfast out of your gut in one startling heave. It takes you an hour to clean up the mess.

The Angel is a collage of circuitry and organic layers that you don’t really understand, so you begin reading tutorials. Angels 101: A Complete Guide. The Heavenly Phenomenon. Angels for Dummies. Gradually, you lose yourself in textbooks about bioengineering and computer programming. Robotics. Design. Anatomy. Alchemy. Religion. You begin surfing the deep web for secrets. You plot how you might trick dormant organic tissue into repair and regeneration mode without original purchase codes. You learn how to substitute plastic bags for air bladders, fan blades for propellers, a marble for one hopeless eye.

For months, the Angel consumes you.

Some nights, you fall asleep beside it, slumped against the kitchen cabinets, a dislocated hand nestled in your arms. Sometimes you don’t sleep at all and you are never quite sure if the memory of soft whispers is a dream or if you somehow miraculously teased the Angel to life in the middle of the night only to have it die again before sunrise.

You work on it through your morning coffee, cup in one hand, wrench in the other. You turn its half-formed head toward the kitchen door when you leave and you imagine what its voice will sound like.

“Goodbye.”

“Have a nice day.”

“Stay. Just a little longer. Please. Please, stay.”

When you were fourteen, you became fascinated by Jack’s voice. It tripped over itself when he laughed. It broke toward something deeper and dangerously adult when he whispered and everything inside you curled. You couldn’t stop thinking about the veins emerging on the backs of his hands, winding like secret rivers toward his fingers. You wanted him to touch you. You dreamed about him touching you. And you couldn’t look directly at him when you wrestled anymore because he was breathless and flushed and on top of you and awkwardly, impossibly beautiful.

When Jack first kissed you, under a Lake Erie dock where his ditched Angel hadn’t found you yet, he told you he was going to leave his eyes open because he’d never kissed another boy before and he wanted to see if it was more or less real than kissing girls.

You kept your eyes closed.

You knew how real it was.

As he leaned in close, the world inside you capsized and you were certain your heart was going to beat out of your chest, tumble end over end past the orange safety net and empty vodka bottles at your feet and down into the hungry water. You imagined it breaking into a thousand digestible pieces. How would you ever be able to survive without it? When your chapped lips collided, the entirety of you shattered like a ship against a breaker wall. You became flotsam. Jetsam. Lagan. Derelict. The pieces of you scattered so deep you knew you’d never be able to recover them all.

You weren’t sure you wanted to.

It’s an April afternoon when you finally begin stitching your dead Angel together again. Torso propped between your legs, you tenderly tuck the restored parts back into its skin, the plastic gears and motors and layers of wet muscle. You reposition regenerated organs. You reunite wires. You secure delicate bolts. When the Angel is nearly whole, you deposit the voice box deep in its narrow throat, a waxy pearl swaddled in meat and electrical tethers. You key in the final, pirated code and murmur “please work, please work, please work” like a mantra.

There is a rattle and the Angel begins to hum fitfully against you. You stroke its hair, try to imagine the hacked nanites diving into the Angel’s veins and cavities, connecting organic tissue to inorganic armatures, weaving one world into another and bridging the gaps your hands could never hope to mend.

Jack died three days before his seventeenth birthday. You told yourself then that it wasn’t real. You didn’t see it happen. He hadn’t taken you with him when he went to the beach this time. He only took his Angel. And a can of lighter fluid. And book of matches and a bottle of pills and his dad’s handgun. You didn’t see him burn his Angel, torching it so it couldn’t save him. You didn’t see him take pill after pill after pill. You didn’t see him panic. You didn’t see him pull the trigger.

It couldn’t be real.

Reality wasn’t Jack laughing sadly against your shoulder one day and dead before breakfast the next. Reality wasn’t a closed casket because Jack had blown half his jaw away. Reality wasn’t a funeral with Jack’s uncle lamenting a dead Angel instead of a dead nephew.

Reality was a dirty lake pretending to be an ocean.

Reality was six months of Xanax and broken dishes and flunking out of math because you threw up the day the teacher called you Jack’s name by mistake. Reality was sneaking into an abandoned gas station to mourn, and crying and jerking off instead and hating yourself for it. Reality was a dock with vodka bottles and an orange safety net lodged so deep in the sand the waves couldn’t dig it out. Beached fish tangled in it instead. Every day you watched their slow dissolve into silence.

And as six months became a year, became three, and your loneliness never healed, you began to believe that your reality, too, must be silence.

It’s after midnight when the Angel begins to sing.

You’d fallen asleep with its body cradled in your arms, its forehead pressed against yours, the smell of ozone and plastic and regenerated flesh all around you. It’s the sudden intake of air that wakes you, the thin, reedy inhalation buzzing through a reconstructed throat. Your head is on the linoleum, your neck is cramped, but you don’t move. You are terrified that this isn’t real, that the sound will dissipate like smoke or sea foam if you jostle it. So you lie there, barely breathing, anticipation trembling through you. You watch as the Angel’s throat quivers. It swallows. It smiles.

It sings.

It’s a tuneless sound, broad and soft as whale song, static fizzing distantly behind it like an incoming tide. The Angel’s lips are slightly out of sync, forming O’s and A’s a beat too late, and there are no consonants, only round noises swelling through the moonlit kitchen like slow, summer air.

When you were kids, Jack brought you back a conch shell from Saint Martin. It came wrapped in bright paper, a sailboat and a sunrise repeating forever around the uneven shape. You sat together on his bed, shoulder to shoulder, and he showed you how to hold the shell against your ear, how if you listened carefully, you could hear the sea roaring toward you. You passed the shell back and forth, waves flowing between you, deep and steady and real as a pulse.

Now, when you finally gather the courage to move, you press your ear to the Angel’s lips. You close your eyes. You listen to it sing until the sun comes up, willing the sound of the ocean into you until all you hear is the rush of salt waves and the truth of deep sea water.

Lora Gray’s writing has appeared in various publications including The Dark, Flash Fiction Online, Liminal Stories and Strange Horizons. A graduate of Clarion West, Lora currently lives in Northeast Ohio with a handsome husband and a freakishly smart cat named Cecil. When they aren’t writing, Lora also works as an illustrator, dance instructor and occasionally moonlights as a voice over artist and musician. You can find them online at www.loragray.weebly.com or on twitter @LoraJGray.

Other Angels:

The Earth and Everything Under by K.M. Ferebee

Anna Saves Them All, by Seth Dickinson

Serein, by Cat Hellisen

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Finally, you said, “Jesus… Christ…”

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

And now you sleep.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Asshole,” you whisper.

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

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

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

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

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

Nothing, huh? No response. Fine.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You took my entire life from me!”

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

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

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

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

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

“Fuck you! I hope you fucking rot!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

published January 2018, Shimmer #41, 5800 words

Raise-the-Dead Cobbler, by Andrea Corbin

The air was muggy, a heatwave burning through the spring, on the night that we met to conjure two people out of almost nothing at all. None of us could’ve done it without the others, and none of us would’ve dared, except Mason said please and I said maybe and Jun said we could, and so we did. You need a few materials first, then follow a sort of recipe. Call it Raise-the-Dead Cobbler.

INGREDIENTS

  • Three tired so-called witches, of flesh, of time, of dreams.
  • Bone fragments, stolen reverently.
  • A lock of hair, kept for years and years.
  • An old book, passed down from mother to son to daughter to niece, and so on.
  • A dark night, with a new moon, and as many clouds as feels right.
  • A secluded room, in a lakeside cabin far from the city’s bustle and traffic’s roar, where owls hoot plaintively and a cool wind rustles the leaves. (A cramped attic in an apartment on the edge of the city, with shouty neighbors, will work in a pinch.)
  • Flint, not matches.
  • A stone bowl, low and wide.
  • Dry kindling.
  • Floor space, as much as you expect you’ll need. You know who you’re looking for. You can measure, move furniture, sweep, mark out the space. Lay out a pillow, in anticipation. The floor is hard, after all.

INSTRUCTIONS

  1. “Is your roommate home?” Mason asks, braiding his hair back, lightning fast. It gets warm in the attic. Mason wears none of his usual jewelry, only a locket on a thin chain, which dangles outside of his shirt. You say no, of course not. Your roommate is out of town for the next six days. That’s why this is the perfect new moon, even though Jun has a deadline at work tomorrow and shouldn’t be pulling an all-nighter.
  2. In a flurry of motion, Jun arrives, drops her bag on the floor and her iced coffee on the table, then says, “I can’t do anything in this skirt” as she kicks her heels off. She shimmies out of the skirt and changes into red leggings, pulled from her bag. “Do you really have it?” she asks, pulling pins out of her hair and letting it fall loose. You steal a long drink of her coffee.
  3. On the way up to the attic, you worry. Mason worries. What will they think of you? Will they be happy to wake up? Will they be scared? What if they hate you? How long will it last? Jun said it would last, but what if they decide to leave you? After all you did? Would that be okay? When they wake up in the dark room surrounded by three witches, if they scream, will you be able to comfort them, or make it worse? Will it work? Will they come back wrong? Different? Can you really do this? Should you? God, what if everything does work, and they want to stay, and be with you? What then? Can they get a job? Should they? How will you support them if they can’t? Shit, is this a terrible idea? Is it selfish? What if coming back gives them health problems? What if they had health problems before that you didn’t know about, and coming back is nothing but suffering? Will they hate you? Will they love you? Will you love them?
  4. Jun strikes the flint and lights the fire.
  5. Chant words after Jun, with Jun, words that can’t be spelled or written down, and yet she reads them from a book in her lap. Her book is filled with drawings and paintings, and you can never find the same one twice. Once you saw a page and read the drawing; there was a burst of light, and a small creature appeared, like an oviraptor, feathered and colorful but the size of a hummingbird. That was the day Jun said it looked like you were a witch of time. You’re still learning what that means. The oviraptor is named Magda and lives on your porch for most of the year. You take her for walks. You should take her for more walks. No one would notice.
  6. The shards of bone rattle. The lock of hair dances in no wind. You close your eyes.
  7. Nothing changes, except the room feels smaller. You haven’t opened your eyes. Your eyes are closed, and the attic room has shrunk, and if you reach out you don’t know what you might touch.
  8. Open your eyes.
  9. To your left is Jun, then Mason. They open their eyes too, breathing timidly. You’ve been holding hands for a while, grip tight, tight on Jun’s stiff prosthetic. Next to Mason, in the space laid out on his side of the attic, is—
  10. There is someone to your right.

Once I explain what happened, he decides to go by Joseph. Why? Well, it is his name. No, but why? Because this isn’t his life, now is it? It’s something different. He’s something different.

Because of his movies, I’ve always thought of him in a particular way, kinetic and silent. He rubs the back of his head, an overwhelmed look of concern furrowing his brow. But I can’t read his face. The problem is he puts on that face so easily, so often on film, that I don’t know if it’s just a face or how he really feels. Sweat drips down my back, makes my shirt cling. He sits very still.

“Why is this happening?” he asks, voice so much deeper than I always imagine.

“I—” don’t have a good answer.

“What are you?” Joseph asks, and again I stutter and don’t answer. In my head I hear all the times Jun told me you’re a witch, you jag, but I can’t say it.

We all go downstairs because the attic room is boiling; Joseph trails after me, and I trail after Jun. Behind Joseph is Mason and his mom. Angela, I think.

“Well, that’s that.” Jun picks up her discarded skirt.

“You’re leaving?” I ask.

“Do you need me to stay?”

“Yes!” Mason sounds desperate. He’s not quite looking at his mom ever. Eyes skidding around the edges.

Jun takes a long swig of her watered-down iced coffee. “‘Kay.”

“So this is the year 2016?” Joseph asks. That was part of what I told him upstairs. It was real, it was his far, far future, and it was okay. He took it in stride. Now he looks around the kitchen, which is a mess. I should’ve cleaned up. Why didn’t I clean up? It’s fine. Why would he care? But I care. I care that the first thing he sees are my dirty dishes and moldy fruit, the mail covering the counter, and the oh my god, the bra hanging over the back of the chair.

I slide in front of it.

Angela pulls out a chair and sits down, pressing her hands flat on the table.

Mason hovers. “It’s okay. It’s me. I’m your—I’m your kid. You have a kid and that’s me.”

“You said that,” Angela says slowly. “I don’t get what’s happening.”

Mason looks helplessly at Jun, who exhales through her nose before speaking. “You know photocopies? We found a moment and made a photocopy of you, then brought that you to our present. Call it magic, call it time travel, call it a great big lie and a weird dream you’re having. I don’t care. It’s happening. Mason is your kid. Congratulations.”

Angela is quiet a long time, staring at Mason. It’s got to be a lot to take in, skipping twenty-odd years of society and tech and life and then bam, your grown-up kid, Mason, not much younger than Angela is probably, Mason with his long black braid, big worried eyes lined with black, tattoos crawling over his bony shoulders and under his shirt. Mid-nineties life versus grown-up Mason now must be battling it out in Angela’s brain, but during the silence I realize we pulled Angela from before she got pregnant. Maybe before she met Mason’s dad. And Angela’s working out what all that means.

“Okay,” she says, shaky. “Well, don’t tell me how I died, and I think we’ll be okay.”

Pretty soon, Jun drives Mason and Angela away, leaving Mason’s car on my street where I promise to make sure it isn’t towed.

I make coffee. Start tidying, washing dishes. Joseph wanders my rooms, looking at the shared mess my roommate and I live in, coming back to check my progress. Hands clasped behind his back, leaning forward to inspect a poster or a bookshelf. Always with that stone face.

A plate slips from my hands, hits the counter, crashes onto the floor. “Shit!”

Joseph pops his head into the room, eyebrows raised in question.

“It’s fine. Plastic.” I pick up the plate and spin it in my hands. “I don’t have to do this right now. I should’ve done it earlier. I could leave it. It’s not important. Are you hungry? I don’t think, it’s not—” When words start crashing and failing before they reach my mouth, I turn back to the dishes.

“Isabel. Are we related?”

“No.”

Joseph paws through some of my mail. Pages through an Anthropologie catalog. He looks at me, barely moving his eyebrows. “The other one brought his mother.”

When I squirt soap onto the sponge a little too forcefully without a word, he goes back to the catalog. Even with the astringent lemon suds, Joseph’s close enough that I can practically smell the years on him, this weird ozone scent of a hundred years. It’s soaked into his clothes, permeating his skin, this invisible sense of time.

Fuck the dishes. That ozone smell is making me dizzy. There are clean mugs. That’s enough. I sort out my coffee, then gesture weakly at the milk and sugar for Joseph to figure out.

The living room is more like a nest and less a rat’s nest, and comes pre-loaded with snacks I forgot to put away, so by the time Joseph joins me I’m gnawing on a hard gingersnap. He sits on the other end of the couch.

“We’re not related,” I say.

Joseph gives me a look, one eyebrow barely raised, eyes glancing down and back up, and I laugh, this nervous snuffle into my cookie—and he laughs too. It’s kind of stunning. This side of him almost no one gets to see. Except me, I’m seeing it.

“Then why?” Joseph asks.

“It’s hard to explain. We can undo it.”

He digs into the box for a cookie, dips it in his coffee. “Why?”

“If you don’t want to be here. It was maybe stupid of me. Selfish. Or hubris. I don’t know. I’m a little, you know, it was a rough spell.” My chest is tight, and I’m starving but can’t imagine doing any more than reach for another cookie, and there are little sparks of a spell migraine flecking in my vision, so I can’t really, I can’t think of what to say to explain myself.

“We’ll see how it goes, I guess. So far you have good coffee and bad cookies, and other than that I don’t know.”

“You hungry?” I ask again, though I’m not completely sure I get the words out.

At some point I take a long blink and when I open my eyes, Joseph’s setting my coffee down on the table next to the cookies. He says my name once, I think, quietly, “Isabel,” hand on my shoulder.

“What is this?”

I wake up on the couch and not on my bed, as happens way more often than it should. I’m an adult. Why can’t I make it to my bed?

“What is this?”

My eyes won’t open until I rub them hard with my fingers, and my mouth tastes like trash and my phone is being thrust in my face while my shoulder is shaken. I had a plan for this. I should’ve planned for the spell migraine to take me out, but I didn’t, and now my plan to introduce Joseph to the modern world is ruined because he’s already poking around while I was dead to the world.

“It’s my phone,” I say, and as the words come out I can’t bear the taste in my mouth. After I brush my teeth and wash my face, I join him back on the couch. Joseph presses the button on my phone, screen going bright and dark. Like this is all perfectly normal. Magda, my oviraptor, is sitting on his head.

“This is a phone?”

“Gimme,” I say, and unlock it. Magda chirps. Without looking, Joseph puts a hand up for her to jump on, and I wait for the inevitable question—

“How’s it work?”

Not the inevitable question. I shrug. My coffee is stone cold but it’s right there and caffeinated, so I gulp it and make a face of pure regret.

I was going to show him how the phone works, but there are messages from Mason and Jun, not to mention family and one of my few non-witch friends and some guy I’ve been meaning to ghost.

  • Mason: I can’t believe this is happening
  • Jun: Congrats. Mother’s day is in two weeks

While reheating my coffee I ignore the rest of my messages. Joseph sets Magda on the table, where she nests in a pile of mail.

“About a hundred years to catch up on.” I yawn.

With Joseph around, time tumbles past so quickly I almost forget the sensation of it, until a moment catches against my skin, lingers like an echo.

In the park, Joseph listens to me explain things poorly, strides over a bench because it’s in his path, steals my phone out of my hands. He unlocks it, swipes the screen. Walks backwards in front of me.

“This,” Joseph says, pointing my phone at me, his eyes on the screen, “takes pictures?”

“And videos. Movies.”

He turns it around and around in his hand. “This?”

“People shoot whole feature films on it.”

He laughs like a kid at Christmas, pure delight spread across his features.

Another day my ancient laptop is spread out in pieces on the coffee table, and Joseph prods at the soldered base. I tell him a probably inaccurate version of how it works, then tell him to look it up on the internet if he’s interested. “But don’t take apart anything else, please.”

He pieces the laptop back together and turns it on. “How do I look up the internet?”

When I tell him how easy it is to watch movies, Joseph gets a wild look in his eyes. “On the computer?” he says, and “Well, it’s a disappointing screen to watch on, but—” and he finds a list from the AFI, then says with determined joy in his eyes that he’s going to work his way through the whole thing. While he studies the list, I catch up on more texts.

  • Mason: I don’t know what to do! She’s like our age.
  • Jun: What did you expect?
  • Mason: IDK!!! I just wanted to meet her
  • Mason: She’s nice though
  • Mason: Funny too she’s funny like my aunt
  • Jun: aunt like your mom’s sister
  • Mason: …yes
  • Jun: what a SURPRISE Mason
  • Jun: Well just be a person and stop expecting a mom and let me know if anything weird happens
  • Mason: Weird??
  • Mason: Is sleeping alot weird
  • Me: Jun if there are side effects you didn’t tell us about I’m going to send you back to the twelfth century.

“Isabel,” Joseph says, his voice low. My phone lights up.

  • Jun: You don’t know enough to do that
  • Me: Not yet.

“Isabel,” more insistent. I put my phone aside. “You said I’m a second me. I didn’t think about it before, that I’m still… I’m a part of history.”

He scratches his jaw. Stares at the screen. Pushes the laptop to me, points.

One of his movies is on the list.

“Would you watch it if you were me?” he asks.

“I wouldn’t want to know too much about that other life, you know?”

“You do know about it.”

His eyes fix on mine, which seals it in my heart: I can’t tell him, either the good parts or bad, because this him will never have them. All those things aren’t Joseph, they’re him. And that’s the point. But, God, I want to assure him and I can’t. I can’t tell him you’re a genius and deserved better or I brought you here because a hundred years later you’re still impossible or I’m awful and chose you because I’ve always had a crush on you.

So I just nod.

After that, Joseph always refers to the life we split him away from in the third person. Someone else.

My roommate comes back. I tell her Joseph is a friend from out of town. She doesn’t recognize him. Out of context, I guess, or more likely not everyone would recognize him like me. Not without the suit and the soundtrack, the house falling down around him.

I tell Jun I’m too busy helping Joseph adjust to meet. She texts back, Don’t you think J&A mean it’s esp important to meet and get yr ass over here tomorrow.

I don’t reply.

I don’t go.

“The future is disappointing,” Joseph says after I tell him about space. We’re both in pajamas on the couch, the night’s movie long since over. We’ve settled in, he and I, uncertainly into whatever this new life of his is. When I got home last week he had scrapes on his palms and a bottle of wine on the table. Something about street performing, which made me want to quit my job to go watch, but I have to make money somehow and tech writing pays better than anything else I’m capable of.

“We went to the moon!” I protest.

“Not recently.” He looks tired. He says the couch is fine, but I don’t think he’s been sleeping much. “You can bring me out of the past, but no one’s living on the moon?”

“Our spells aren’t exactly public knowledge.”

“Then what do you do? I haven’t seen you do any magic. What good is it?”

I gear up for a furious defense because we have rules, the three of us, but my phone trills, lighting up with Jun’s photo. “Shit,” I say, because Jun hates calling. It can’t be good.

Jun says, “We have to meet, right now. Leave him at home.”

“What is it?”

“Mason and Angela. My place. And be ready for…” Jun exhales loudly. “Mason says we’re just talking, but stuff a protein bar and some coffee in your face on the way over. Might be work to do tonight. Another new moon.”

“Shit,” I say, hanging up. “I have to go.”

“That other person,” Joseph says. “It’s not going well, is it?”

The look in his eyes is so tired that my heart plummets, and I don’t think twice about my rules or anything else before I kiss his forehead and tell him to try and sleep. “Mason is… they’ve been having issues. It’s probably nothing. Try and sleep. It’s gonna be okay. I’ll be back by morning.”

Lying and not knowing are indistinguishable sometimes, even to the person talking.

Mason is a mess.

“I keep having these dreams,” he says, like he doesn’t always have these dreams that hound him. His hair is in a high bun, no make-up, ashy tired skin, hunched over in an old sweatshirt I don’t think I’ve seen him leave the house in before, though it’s summer and we’re out on Jun’s porch. “When I wake up, my mom, she’s always gone. But then I wake up again. I’ve never had that happen before. I’ve never woken up and still been dreaming. What does that mean?”

“Did you really get me out of my house for dreams?”

“Have you been listening for the last month? Let him talk,” Jun says. Leaning against the railing, she doesn’t look at me, only Mason. It’s a scolding without the scolding; we all know that I haven’t seen either of them for a month.

And Mason talks. Tells me how they’ve been fighting, Mason and his mom. How Angela left for days. How she came back and apologized but never—she never quite looks at Mason fully. Won’t see him. Oh, she’s talked to him and been kind enough and civil and in some ways it seemed like Angela was trying to live, trying to be in the world, but ultimately she won’t talk, she just won’t talk to Mason. Mason yells and cries, Mason makes dinner and tries to connect, Mason asks questions, Mason tries not to expect her to be a mother, but still, he wants a person there.

There’s a reason we discuss every act of magic. There’s a reason we meet every week. There’s a reason we have rules.

“Isabel?” Jun lobs my name into the silence.

“Oh, Mason.”

“I wanted her to be happy,” Mason says.

“Where is she now?” I ask.

“Inside.”

“You asked her?”

Mason looks at his fingers. Jun shakes her head.

“You gotta ask her. If she wants to stop—”

Mason jumps up, chair legs scraping across the wood porch. “I know.” He goes inside, door clattering shut after him.

“Can he do it?” I ask.

Instead of answering, Jun adjusts the straps on her prosthetic hand. It’s a good way to shut me up, since I always watch and say nothing and try not to think about how she got it, try not to think about that spell. The way we looked at the image in the book, how the sun seemed to go red. How we talked for weeks, but kept coming back, hungry for it—if we prepped, if we studied, we could do so much more. Why shouldn’t we try to summon familiars?

Somewhere is a lion-headed dog with a small portion of Jun’s flesh, a small portion of her power. They’re still connected. I don’t ask Jun if she can feel it.

I try not to think about it. The things we’ve done. Maybe I should. This is the worst yet, or the best. Too early to tell. Even if I strain, I can’t hear anything from inside, and time ticks by. I can feel it, every second. I can always feel it.

The seconds feel heavier tonight.

“Maybe it would’ve been better if we never met each other,” Jun says. “We’re a potent combination. This won’t be the last wild idea one of us has, the last time we manage to break something.”

“What’s broken?” Like I don’t know. I listen harder for any sounds inside.

“After this, maybe we should go our separate ways.”

“You could never let go of Mason,” I say.

“No,” she agrees, “not now.”

“We can’t do this again. We have to stop each other sometimes.”

Jun stops fiddling, folds her arms. “Mason wanted this so bad,” she says. Her voice strains, directed more toward her bare feet than to me, none of the matter-of-fact confidence she usually wears. All that’s worn away tonight.

Mason deserved this spell to go right. I didn’t need it at all. I desecrated a grave for it, for my own damn childish fixation.

“You’ll make him stay here tonight? He shouldn’t be alone,” I say.

“Yeah.”

A siren carries through the air, invisible. Cars roll by, and somewhere nearby, a party blares music, muted by walls and distance. There’s no such thing as silence, except inside the house.

“If Joseph stays, if he’s happy…do you think Mason will hate us for it?”

Jun looks up. “Is he happy?”

The door opens.

Inside the house is dark, and Mason has been crying. So has Angela. According to Jun, this part doesn’t have the same requirements. She and I push furniture out of the way in the living room, roll up the area rug, wipe away old chalk streaks, and get to work.

There’s the slightest hint of dawn in the sky when I get back to my apartment. At the sound of the door, Joseph blinks awake, looking at me from the couch, and he sits up. The clouding dots of the spell migraine have already come and gone, and now it’s settled in as a tight nausea in my stomach, all of it less than last time, but I stop with keys in my hand, looking at Joseph and not really looking at him. What has he done with his days? Why can’t he sleep? Is he happy? I’m not sure what matters and what doesn’t. Intention is garbage, hope is garbage, love is garbage. All of us are. It doesn’t matter when it leaves someone you love clutching a lock of hair and sobbing in the dark, until you cast sleep over them like a blanket, and hope that maybe when it wears off they might be okay. Or be able to find their way to okay.

If I keep my hand on the wall, I can keep my balance. Small steps to keep moving, small breaths to contain my nausea.

We uncreated her, and it was terrible. It felt like murder. Angela asked us to, and all we had to do was light the fire, speak, and she was gone, but it was—there was a lock of hair, threatening to disperse in the wind of our breath, where she had been. Mason dove for it, gathering the black hair up into his fist, clenching it until sleep fell on him, and Jun tucked the hair back in his locket.

It wasn’t just hitting undo. We split her off and made her new, and then we ended her. A month’s worth of a new life, and now oblivion. The old her, Mason’s mom, all that story unfolds like always, but this month, it’s going to shadow Mason forever. We’ll all remember Angela, but Mason most of all.

Once Mason was asleep, Jun told me she cast an extra spell at the end to move the body. She didn’t want Mason to see it. By midnight, Angela was gone and Mason was asleep, but Jun and I stayed up a while, spinning complicated spells, because a body is no easy thing to deal with, even when it’s only a shell, even for a witch. It has to go somewhere. It has to be dispersed.

I sat shaking in Jun’s kitchen for an hour, her and I taking medicinal sips of whiskey until we could speak again, and all I could say was, “I can’t do that again.”

I had to take a cab home.

Pressing my forehead to the wall and squeezing tears from my eyes, that doesn’t help anything, but that’s where I’ve ended up, halfway to my room, shivering.

Joseph slings my arm over his shoulders and grabs my waist.

“Please be happy,” I mumble.

“It’s gonna be okay,” he says, and we shuffle toward my bed. I realize, fuzzy as I feel, that even this close to him, I can’t catch the smell of years anymore. He smells like smoke and dryer sheets and some faint aftershave. Quietly, he helps me into bed, and before I’m fully in, I drag him in after me.

“Go t’sleep,” I say, curling into his chest. His fingers find their way to my temple and brush gently.

Here’s another recipe. It takes longer than the other. I don’t know what to call it. I’m not sure about the last step yet.

INGREDIENTS

  • One witch of time.
  • One man who shouldn’t exist.

INSTRUCTIONS

  1. After you undo what you did, after you uncreate who you created, call in sick to work again. Your roommate asks if Joseph is staying much longer. Say, “Well, he’s helping me now that I’m sick, so I don’t know.” You look bad enough that she accepts this, but not for long, you’re sure. Maybe, you think, Joseph can get a job, and you can find your own place. You feel a little better in the mornings, if you wake up in his arms, and you think he sleeps better too. It’s just sleeping. You don’t talk about it.
  2. Mason stays at Jun’s house. You help him move his stuff. Joseph helps too, setting up a system of rolling carts that nearly works, except for the laws of physics and the existence of porch steps. Mason swears he’s never doing magic again, but at least he’s sleeping without help, and the bags under all your eyes are fading.
  3. The three of you, Mason and Jun and you, meet a lot. More often than before. You only talk.
  4. Joseph disappears some evenings, goes out and comes home with dessert, a bottle of wine, leftover food.
  5. “Where were you?” you ask, eating baklava. It’s not that you’re mad, or want him to stay home, or begrudge him the fact of his own life. You’re curious. He says, “I’ve made some friends. A theater troupe.” You say, “Oh, good! I’m sorry I—” though you don’t know quite what you’re apologizing for. That you haven’t taken him out on the town? While he’s been learning about a changed world, and while you were knocked down by a spell again? You didn’t know if he was ready. You figure apologies are in order somehow, in case he thinks you’re assuming he owes you an explanation.
  6. “Look,” Joseph says, sitting next to you on the couch, pressed arm to arm, starting a video on your laptop. A straight shot of him in the park down the street, performing a routine not quite like any of his you’ve seen, with a tall broad man who makes Joseph look smaller than he is. Someone else is holding the camera, and you see it shake a little when they must be laughing, but the only sound is music. While you watch, an audience ebbs and flows and grows; some of them hold cell phones up to grab a snippet of him, or come forward to drop money in a hat on the ground.
  7. He counts his earnings from street performing, and then counts his earnings from the theater, and then comes home with a cell phone, a camera, a flexible tripod, and a new hat, which he reshapes with water until it’s stiff and familiar. Then he leaves it on the table unworn.
  8. You start to do magic. Little spells. You still have a line drawn, but it’s not as solid anymore. “If we’re a little more flexible,” you tell Jun, “maybe we won’t be so tempted.” But really you think, who’s stopping us? Mason watches you wrap a time bubble around the oven, because all of you are starving, and Jun’s casserole is taking too long. Mason watches you very carefully.
  9. You find a new apartment, one that has a dishwasher and no roommate, and you buy some furniture new for the first time instead of finding it on the curb and hoping it isn’t infested. Sure, you don’t have frames for the posters, but you have a coat rack and you vacuum once a week.
  10. While Joseph makes small movies to post online, and Jun and Mason start being a proper them, you work and read and practice with time, and wonder what you could do with the right fourth witch. Wonder if that look that Joseph gives you sometimes means he wants to kiss you, or if that’s you being hopeful. Watch one of his movies—not Joseph’s, the other him. One where he’s still young and beautiful and vibrant but a little older than Joseph, then you watch another, and another, until you feel glutted on that face, absolutely full to the brim and not sated. When you see Joseph the next morning, it does nothing for the sensation, hits a completely different spot, so you kiss him, unbrushed coffee teeth and all.
  11. After that, while you’re avoiding each other, spend a lot of time with Jun trying to read her book. She says you’re doing really well, considering you’re not a blood relation.
  12. Fight with Joseph. Little fights. Everyday fights. Then a big one, when Joseph’s asking what you think of his next idea and it spins out into something about debt and freedom and desire; you say, he doesn’t owe you this; he asks, do you think that’s why he’s still here? He leaves and doesn’t come back that night, and you figure, that’s it. At least you had this much. At least you didn’t have to undo him.
  13. Alone with Magda, make a token. Use grains of salt, the last drops of the wine you had shared during the argument, a scrap of paper that you very carefully draw on. Seal it all up in a locket, then fuse the clasp together.
  14. If he comes back, give it to him. Tell him that it’ll keep him safe when he’s away. Tell him you’re sorry. Tell him you hated every second he was gone. Tell him you made some of them last twice as long, and then sped up others, because you couldn’t decide whether you deserved more pain or not. Tell him Magda missed him and built a nest in a hat he left behind. Tell him you think he’s a jerk for staying away so long. Tell him he better come back again and again. Tell him that you love him.

Mason says he had a dream that I could tell the future. Coming from him, that makes me choke on my wine, but then he says it wasn’t that kind of dream. “Maybe start with that,” I say.

“You could tell the future because you found a spell that let you turn time backward. You could do it, you know. It wasn’t that kind of dream, but if anyone could do it, you could.”

“Would you want to know?” I ask.

Mason shakes his head. “No way.”

“Me either.” Lies. Everyone does. I desperately want to, and don’t, because it’s been a month that Joseph’s been gone and I’m carrying around this token. I’ve resisted looking at his feeds—if there were new clips, I’d watch, but how could I bear his face?—and I haven’t called him. But I’ve still got this token in my bag.

“I’m glad you had us over,” Jun says at the end of the night. We’d planned tonight before the fight. One year since the big spell, as some sort of commemoration. Not exactly a celebration, but Mason wanted it. We barely talked about Joseph or Angela, but it was good to be together, all of us thinking about them and thinking about what we did. We talked about other spells we might want to try some day, about Magda’s penchant for stealing food from unattended plates, and about a boy that Jun met who she was certain was a witch and did we want to meet him.

Before they leave, Mason asks if I want to try a charm he’s been working on. There’s one for dreamless sleep, and one for positive creativity, and one that he’s not sure what to call, but it helped him after… After. It was the first charm he made after.

I take dreamless sleep, because I keep dreaming in black and white, and wake up unsure of what I’ve done and haven’t done; did we bring them? Did we end her? Did he leave? I’d like to sleep and wake up sure of myself.

“Isabel,” Mason says, “How are you doing? Really?”

His face is so concerned it’s almost funny, after all we put each other through, and how uncertain I was that he’d ever sleep or eat or do magic again last year. This last year, none of us would have gotten through it without the others, and none of us would’ve had to without the others; most of the time I don’t regret any of it, not my part. Not even his leaving. And if Mason’s okay, I don’t regret that either.

Besides, we’re terribly powerful witches. If I really want to, I can make anything happen.

Andrea Corbin lives in Boston. Her work has appeared in Crossed Genres Magazine, Sub-Q, The Sockdolager, and Recompose. Her interactive fiction, design work, and the occasional blog post can be found on her website. She talks a lot of nonsense on Twitter as @rosencrantz. She’s working on her magic powers, mostly so she doesn’t have to wait for a delayed train ever again.

The Atomic Hallows and the Body of Science, by Octavia Cade

Lise Meitner
Co-Discoverer of Nuclear Fission

A spear breaks its blade upon ribs and punctures hearts. It shines with ice-coated needles in the salt air, over breakfast.

“I’ve had a letter,” says Lise to her nephew. He’d come to visit for the holidays so she wouldn’t be alone in the cold country of her exile. “I’ve had a letter and I don’t know what to make of it.”

She thinks she might be worried.

They walk across a frozen river, across the flood plain and into snowy woods—at least Lise walks, while her nephew glides on skis beside her, under crisp, frosted trees that smell of sap and pine and holiday gifts. Her fingers tingle in the cold, and their tips shine oddly in sunlight.

The letter is from Otto Hahn. She slits it open with nails grown sharper than knives.

Lise used to work with him, but is now at the point where she thinks we were better friends, once.

Hahn has been working uranium: pelting it with neutrons to split the center, but he doesn’t yet understand what it means.

Lise sits with her nephew on a damp and chilly tree trunk sifting snow out of her way, making frantic calculations on odd bits of paper. Together they nut out the process of fission, publish a paper roadmap with directions writ in fear and ice and sunlight, a cold capacity for power.

It is widely read.

Lise is visiting Copenhagen when Denmark is invaded. Niels Bohr arrives on an early train: he woke early to hear the news, and together they plan to throw a line across the North Sea, to hurl and hope for the best.

She sends a telegram from Stockholm to friends of Bohr in Britain. It’s obscure to some but it’s clear that this is not the first spear sent, that there’s a black cloud of them hurtling over Europe, and their heads are all familiar.

Her fingernails are spears now as well, hard and pointed. Lise rips them out at the roots, one by one, but they always grow back by the morning, and the floor around her bed is littered with cast-offs.

In Berlin her work is being used to try and make a bomb.

This keeps Lise awake at night. There’s a wrenching in her chest, like all her breaths are frozen solid in her ribcage, making pale clear statues of her questions.

Hahn is working in Germany—not on the bomb, they’re of one mind on that, but he’s working still. Hahn, who once helped her escape the Nazis.

She wonders what would have happened if he’d made a different choice: turned away, sent her somewhere other than north.

(There were some she worked with who would have done it, when the memory of the times they spent together faded into ashes, fit only for fuelling that which would melt any ice and burn the trees to black shadows… She wonders if some fondness would remain for her, enough for those former familiars to spare her the camps and run her through themselves.)

Her nights are cold and sleepless; she’s speared upon the empty hours, and can’t close her fists without blood loss.

Lise knows about war. It’s camps and commandants and compromises, the long slow defeat of the self.

It’s escape and humiliation and death. It’s exile in a colder country, it’s someplace without a home, always remembering the time when she had one—a home built of atoms and equations and friends when all of them were free from shame and her hands were clean enough under natural light.

Now even cleanliness is gone, and no matter how she scours herself in snow and ice, the thin sheen of guilt still stains her palms. The nails are now too strong to pull out; she covers them up with polish to hide the shame, but the gray steel bleeds through anyway.

“I will have nothing to do with a bomb,” she says, even though she is wanted in the waste land, and war is not being wanted, not anywhere.

Lise is in a small hotel in Leksand, central Sweden. She finds the woods a respite from her work, from pain and prejudice and the sure, shuddering horror of what is to come.

When it happens, when Hiroshima is covered in clouds and silence and tiny spearheads all singed round the edges, a journalist calls for her reaction.

This is how she first hears of it.

(The hotel mirror is like ice, and when she looks in it all her ribs are broken.)

She puts the phone down, gently—with still-stained palms and hands that have never forgotten what the haft felt like before she passed it on—and leaves the hotel, leaves to walk alone for five hours in the snowless country before she can face another person; before she can face herself.

Her fingernails are spears, and too heavy for her hands.

Robert Oppenheimer
Scientific Head of the Manhattan Project

A waste land is a draw card and a trapdoor.

It has rock paintings and petroglyphs and pueblos—beam holes and old ladders that bring the scientists in and make them tourists, make them gawp and gape like schoolboys.

Robert shows them around—he came to New Mexico before all of them, chose the site specially. He feels at home there, feels that it fits him; he walks the cliff dwellings bloody-legged and limping, leaves his pattern in the rocks, feels those rocks imprint in him. The markings grow stronger, deeper, the more time he spends on the mesa. There are glyphs on the back of his neck, paintings in the hollows behind his knees, and dust sifts from the holes that appear in his chest, in the bony protrusions of hips.

He feels the land in his flesh, and builds a castle of his own for questions.

The land around is made of tuff, of lava lumps and welded rock, of ignimbrite and mesas, a base of black basalt, all eroded into canyons and steep slopes and tracks worn into hill sides.

(When he lays his hands against the rock, he can’t tell which is flesh and which is stone.)

The ground can be treacherous and stony-slippery, and one false step can mean separation from friends, security breaches and revocations, falling from a great height and breaking his knees on the ground.

(Like comes to like, in the end.)

The gypsum sands are cool to the touch, and the dunes run like clouds beneath him. Robert feels the crystal granules erode into his shoes; they slough from his feet when he’s busy with calculations and construction and consequences. There’s squeaking in his socks… the grinding of a thousand tiny spearheads blunted down by bone and friction.

It’s as if the cloud has broken down beneath him, then been built up again from fragments into a cutting edge with a blade as fine as fire.

The desert seeds are made of knowledge. They are bitter. Hard-won, and unhappy.

Robert wouldn’t dig them up—not for anything, not even when they leach the earth and make it difficult for other things to grow (he’s lost friendships, and trust, and some likings will never come again: They cannot tolerate the ground he’s sown with salt and slaughter and dead suns).

He’d still never dig them up, those seeds that are sad and glorious and grind sand into glass. They’re part of him, and he can no more unearth them than he could trowel up his heart.

Los Alamos is a high country, one surrounded by mountains, and the air, for those not used to it, is thinner and sharper than blood.

Robert is used to blood.

He sees it on the mountains, the Sangre de Cristo, where it shines in the east every evening—scarlet and blue-black and purple. The rocks are thick with it, and burning.

It’s on his leg, and his hands, and when it seeps past the bandages and into the soil he can’t tell where he leaves off and the land begins.

In the worst of it, the white dunes, the hard alkali of soil, there are plants that survive the sands. Stems lengthen above the shifting surface, keep their leaves in sunlight; are quick and bright and blooming.

Robert is no gardener, not really, but there’s iron all through him like the sympathy of sap, and what he builds in the waste land is beyond piñon and desert gypsum flowers.

Charlotte Serber
Head of the Technical Library of the Manhattan Project

A sword is forged with paper and silence.

It doesn’t look sharp, but a single page can slice into soft bodies as well as any steel—and more, it can tell other people how to slice into them as well.

One must be careful with paper. It can be stamped down, pressed into a mold and sharpened round the edges, but even holding by the handle it’s still not safe. Someone can always take it away for themselves unless it’s shut up tight in an armory, with shelves and safes and stillness.

Charlotte handles it gingerly. Part of her care is paper cuts and poison edges, but she’s most concerned with precision and reproduction. These documents are the basis of their efforts, marking signposts and dead ends, and they can’t be relied upon if the metal type forging through her fingertips impresses on paper and distorts the message.

Books come from Berkeley and Oak Ridge and Chicago, packed in black suitcases and sent with a special courier to keep them unopened and out of the hands of children with their too-soft flesh that’s too easily cut.

Charlotte has communication embedded in her flesh, her fingertips crowned like typebars with little metal letters, but these keys aren’t always sufficient and she has to use others. The metals catch as they move together.

When unwrapped, the swords go to shelves where they’re crammed between blades made of journal paper, of yellowed leaves, of reports and endless snarky queries for detective stories… or to a vaulted reading room with locks, or to a safe so old and hardened that its three tumblers have succumbed to inertia and Charlotte has to kick at the crucial point of opening or it will shut up tighter than suitcases.

The blacksmiths are members of the Women’s Army Corps, or are married to the scientists. They wear blue jeans, or Lane Bryant’s latest (black rayon with little white buttons on the pockets and a matching stripe down the front), bras of armored cones with a sweater stretched over top like chain mail, or olive uniforms with gold insignia on the lapels (Pallas Athene, for strategy and skill and making just war).

Their hammer strikes are the keys and levers and springs of type, the clank and carriage of return strokes—every day there are reports, and every day the armory copies and collates, distributes new arms.

(Not everyone can hack it. There’s one, a journeywoman by trade, who sees a tottering tower of chemical documents to be classified by heft and height and weight and runs away to drive a truck. Charlotte sees her later, in a corner of the mess, with a file and a determined expression, sanding down.)

Some papers are left out overnight, left to rust and damage and the red oxidation of exposure, by chemists and physical forgers gone home for the night. There are fines for this, and extra duties looking for the lapses of other—their discards left as prey for theft and sabotage. (“I don’t deserve a fine,” says one bitter culprit. “That report’s all rubbish anyway. If only it were stolen…”)

There’s no process for disposal, no ceremonial burning. It’s a discretionary thing, and discretion is weather-based. It’s unpleasant to stand in the waste land amongst the labs and the green army huts and burn in the blistering cold, the blasting heat. (They’re more conscious of security on cool evenings when there’s not a lot of wind and the incinerators are warm-hearted.)

When she holds her hands out to the fire, the letters on her fingertips heat and glow. She feels them all the way down to her bones then, the molten marrow. Others might try and take the type away but Charlotte is not one for looking askance at print, so she picks each letter out, carefully, with red nail polish; skimps on her nails so that there’s enough for alphabets.

Charlotte is sent to Santa Fe with Robert’s secretary, Priscilla. They go to misdirect the locals: “Make them think we’re designing electric rockets.”

They take their husbands, make a night of it, find bars and hotels that are perfect for subterfuge—with drinks and drunks and dancing, and many levelled roofs ripe with shadows.

Type sinks in and out of her fingers, adjusting to audience. She’s manipulated it before—the letters float almost like her kneecaps do when she’s relaxed and can push them around with her thumbs. She’s only got ten fingers, after all, and there are more letters than that.

She’s used up the last of the nail polish on them. This is not a time for subtlety.

“Take my sword,” says Charlotte. “It’s electric.” But the man she’s dancing with talks of nothing but horses, compliments her moves like she’s a mare on the trot—he has no interest in false information, even when she dips her fingers in sauce and stains his collar with symbols. No-one has any interest—not even the rancher her husband traps by the lapels as he flat-out lies to his face.

The information they give is blunt and unwieldy; it must be smuggled back to Los Alamos, and melted down amidst the stacks.

Charlotte’s days are spent with letters—even more than when she was a child with fat fingers, learning the alphabet.

A receipt from the library at Berkeley shows that more than twenty percent of books that come to the waste land are not in the English language. More come from Strategic Services, who seize copyrights from warring Europe, reproduce their journals, smuggle out the flat blades from field agents in Scandinavia or North Africa or France.

Her days are spent with letters, and for many years Charlotte will sharpen her swords with her fingers first, with spelling before speech. “That’s P, H, Y, S,” she says, enunciating, and tapping each fingertip in turn. “That’s Physikalische Zeitschrift.”

Niels Bohr
Danish Physicist, Scientist at the Manhattan Project

A question is a wave and a lonely particle.

It is complementary, existing in parallel with an answer. More, Niels has der Kopenhagener Geist, the spirit of inquiry, and all its questions are the chorus What will come from this?

He sees two answers to be taken from a box with uranium ribbon. The first is war and all destruction (brief suns that storm the beaches and boil the water sterile); the other an unbroken age of peace (a single sun reflected in a calm pool, and all its images put quietly away). Both have their birth in the bomb.

In 1939 he walks like a man carrying something too heavy for him, too heavy to be answered. He sees the coming war, and he sees the German bomb. It weighs him down, makes him mumble-footed, and he places each foot carefully, as if stepping into a future full of green-fused sand and spears.

Later, in the waste land, the storm is bearing down and he feels himself the only one who notices, the only one who sees a time when everyone is cloud-handed; when what they’re building will birth a different world where all politics are resolved with suns.

What will you do? says the Geist. What will you do?

Niels had helped Lise Meitner escape from Germany, never thinking he was to be her mirror. A German woman, sympathetic, slips him news that the Gestapo are coming for him. He will soon be arrested and put to the question.

But there is a fishing boat, and then a trawler. There is resistance and taxis and a twin-engine bomber that leaves him light-headed and dreaming a different life. There are liners and trains and false names: Baker, as if he is bringing bread instead of the hope of ending ovens.

His presence calms the younger scientists and they come to him with questions: Are we doing the right thing? they ask.

Look at what I left behind, he says. Look at what is coming.

It keeps him from looking at himself, at the Geist. He sees his edges fraying, his flesh becoming translucent.

Niels misses his family. He misses his home—the sober streets of Copenhagen, the water and the wide horizon. He misses the connections, and how solid they made him feel.

In the waste land, he wanders the mountains, scrambles through canyons and piñon trees and the red dirt, and talks. Always he talks, though it’s low and muttered and half to himself. People have to huddle close to hear, and he likes it; likes the feel of crowds and company, being close enough to feel their breath.

(It helps him forget that his wife isn’t with him.)

But at night he lies in a cold bed, his conscience square before him like a block and he doesn’t know how he should place his head on it. No one is there to tell him.

Comfort is for children. Niels left it behind long ago. He does not want it back. Comfort comes with warmth, and that is something that’s foreign to his bones now. All a Geist feels is chill.

He does not believe that everything will be all right, that everything can be made up for. Even necessities have a cost—and one that can’t be paid with rosy cheeks and unlined skin and the blind unstinting certainty that everyone is good.

As a child he thought science was for children. It was exciting, the world spread out before him to explore, to be dissected and delighted in and imagined by him. There was no question he couldn’t ask, and then he learned what questions could do, and the innocence was over.

“I tried to be a comfort,” said Robert. “I was not.”

It is hard to comfort a spirit.

The right words would heal the waste land, mend his friend’s spear-splintered thigh, stop him from slopping in blood—and if Niels knew the question he would turn away and never, ever ask it.

The waste land represents a hope and danger both, he says, and he cannot fathom one without the other.

A Geist is meant to linger, and so he does.

He thinks of Lise, who lives as far from the desert as she can; who will not compromise herself and finds her faith in that. He thinks of Edward, who would turn the waste land into charcoal if he could, and grind it down to dust when he was done. He cannot make himself into either, but sometimes…

Sometimes there’s a shadow on his leg.

Dorothy McKibbin
Manhattan Project Office Manager, Santa Fe

A platter is wafers and consolation and service.

“What am I to do here?” she asks. She had agreed to take the job before she knew what it was—had met Robert briefly, and that was enough for her, enough for them both. Trust sprang up unstinting.

She thought he felt the land as she did—that his limp and her widow grief could come to the waste land and be useful, be comforted by the creation of something new, something that bore the mark of canyons and bare rock and a sun so bright it could kill them if they let it, bleach the last life from their bones.

Her job, as it turns out, is to never question, to never repeat a name but to bring people together regardless as if they were strangers sitting down to a meal.

“If you want me to get them all broken in and breaking bread, you’ll have to give me a free hand with the baking,” she says. A platter doesn’t fill itself, and if she is to tie the coming pilgrims to Robert then she needs to work his flesh with her own. All those dust trails he leaves behind him… the powdery flesh, the little bloody trails.

Land has a dark taste, and a bitter one, but it binds together. Dorothy’s tongue grows, is covered over by little armored plates, armadillo-like. They’re sensitive to flavor, and far more silkily flexible than meat.

Dorothy sits at a desk behind the door at 109 East Palace Avenue: There’s a heavy wood lintel set into stone, thick calcimined walls to keep out the sun and hollyhocks in the courtyard.

She’s the stop before the Hill, the guardian of the waste land and the gate-keeper of Los Alamos. She welcomes them with plates of crispbreads, of little thin crackers the color of tuff and skin cells, of petroglyphs and atom shadows. “It’s been a long trip for you, I’m sure,” she says. “Get that down you, you’ll feel better for it.”

Her newly armored tongue can sense their saliva, can taste it on the air. They’re greedy for the bread and when their mouths water, Dorothy’s waters with them, because hunger is contagious and armor can only do so much.

All the scientists come through her, and the WACs and the women, and nearly all of them think Santa Fe is their destination, want directions and dance halls and a shoulder to lean on. They’re all very tired, and nearly all very young, and she thinks some of them need a mother very badly.

“Ask me if you need anything,” she says. “I’m here to keep track of you.”

(She tastes them in the wind, every one, long before they get to her office.)

In the high country of the waste land, Dorothy has a name: She is called the Oracle, the one who knows and tells and shares, in an environment where sharing has become a strictly limited thing. Consult the Oracle, they say on the Hill, and her disembodied voice through the crackling lines is a consolation.

She can find for the children camps and kittens; find a doctor who will perform abortions; find sewing kits and pack horses and hotel reservations that serve something other than commissary food. A good cook herself, often up to her armpits in dough, mud and blood under her fingernails because spears may be sent up from the earth but a platter contains the fruits therein, in whatever shape Dorothy can find them.

The women of the waste land find her counselor and confidante, and take her advice in all things, use her house for their weddings and try to make a home as she has done. It’s her tongue they find most helpful.

“You’ve got to learn to make do,” says Dorothy. Secrecy and silence together have forced her tongue into other roles.

Dorothy is invited, with two couples, to take an evening meal at Albuquerque, on Sandia Peak—the giant red rock that shines at night with colors like the bloody mountains.

She takes bread to break with them—the last supper before the test—her picnic basket a paten; takes blankets and a mackintosh, for the sky is black with clouds and cunning.

At 5:30 a.m., a light from the sands flashes towards them, a spear from the waste land stabbed out and shining. The leaves are transubstantiated and the trees turned to brief gold about her—lovely and gleaming in the sterile sunlight.

“I’d never have thought that light had a taste,” she says. That taste is lemony, with undertones of burning. When she stands in the early morning with her armadillo tongue stuck out straight as if wavelengths carry snow instead of the shadow of ashes, all the little plates are slickening.

For all the time Dorothy spends ferrying food up to the Hill (pumpernickel bread and picnic baskets, Christmas geese and warm rolls with butter) her favorite meals are with Robert, and they are nearly always the same: oven-baked potatoes, near-lethal martinis, shoots of green asparagus and Robert on the patio broiling beef, fork in hand and standing back from spits.

“Why didn’t you make a fight of it?” she says, of the trial. “Why didn’t you ask me for help?”

She would have kept talking ’til they threw her out, she says, and the plates hit the table with a thump, as if carrying heads other than their own.

Betrayal, it seems, also tastes of lemon and ashes. No wonder she couldn’t tell it apart… Dorothy wants to take her steak knife and scrape the little armadillo plates from her tongue, leave it red raw and screaming, because what use is armor if it can’t protect someone she loves?

Dorothy has travelled all over the waste land. She has been to the Valles Caldera, the springed and smoking domes in the mountains, knows what it’s like to seethe below the surface.

It’s in this land that she finds affinity—for Robert and for silence both. She bubbles while he bleeds; it’s a hard thing to be silent, when you don’t want to be. She doesn’t always manage it, would spit lava if she could, superheated (and does). And her words burn going out, as much as they burned the recipient, but the armor-plating is spreading through Dorothy’s mouth, her cheeks and esophagus and gums, and she knows the words that burn because they taste like light in the waste land, like seared sand and her little cracker breads together.

Edward Teller
Hungarian Physicist, Manhatten Project Scientist and
Subsequent Father of the Hydrogen Bomb

What is a dandelion? says Dorothy, of Edward. It’s something coarse and in need of kicking up, before presence turns to supplantation. A weed. A curse.

(“If it is a question of wisdom and judgement…. one would be wiser not to grant clearance,” says Edward, on Robert and security, and will forever wonder if people will think it was jealousy speaking.)

A dandelion’s not like an orchid, not delicately designed, sweet-smelling and subtle, with petals like a pork pie hat.

(“I’m sorry,” he says, and Robert is left gray and grave in a room grown untrusting, and too dark for him.)

They’ve a sour taste, dandelions. Edward coughs one up in the middle of the night, bright and gleaming with saliva, with stomach acid, and marvels at how familiar it feels on his tongue.

No one has ever told Edward don’t mess where you work, don’t drink a diuretic tea of dandelions even if the pretty color makes you think it’s a good idea, it isn’t, so he comes back to Los Alamos, after the trial and finds, all unexpected, the cafeteria a Coventry.

The other scientists shun him, turn their backs. They refuse to shake his hand. Rabi is the first, and particularly cutting. He gives Edward nightmares of a great black bird, of a raven that struts over him while he sleeps, snappish and sneering, a dreadful beaked bird’s smile of cold iron ready to pick out his eyes.

He wakes on cold early mornings and his mouth is clogged with petals, stuffed with them, and he’s asphyxiating on bitterness, his heart beating out of his chest with choking breath and the shadow of wings.

Edward is always noticed. When he and his wife Mici first climbed the crawling knife-road to the mesa, they shipped with them a baby grand called Monster. Edward plays sonatas late into the night and though his infant son sleeps through them, the neighbors do not.

He is heard in the theoretical lab as well, where he’s famous for fluttering, electron-like, from one unfinished atom project to another. He considers himself a bricklayer, an architect and dreamer; has no patience with brick-making physics. The plodding brute force of it strikes him as shambling and cold.

But no matter how loud, he never stands out as much as he does after the trial. Saints have flowers come up under them when they walk, but he knows of no saint who leaves dandelions in their footsteps.

Dandelions are too bitter for sainthood.

A dandelion is not an orchid, but they are small and hardy and Edward feels a kinship. Not such a bad thing, to be a dandelion.

And they are bright, bright like little suns, like playing Liszt and Bach and Mozart—and the lights in happy memories of Budapest, before the ravens came to pluck them out with ruined petals and love me nots.

Edward gathers the flowers he’s brought up out of himself and makes bouquets of them. He sets them on his piano and plays and thinks of new worlds, and old ones.

“Fuck you,” he says.

“A danger to all that’s important,” says the raven, perched out of reach of damp sheets as Edward dreams in a red sweat, covers his eyes in dreams. “It would have been a better world without him.”

It is hard to be seen as noxious. Edward vacillates between remorse (he confesses himself to Fermi when the latter is on his death bed, and gentle in his condemnation) and raving defiance, the bitter grief of a man who has left all behind, his home an ocean away, and is now without friends. (“Daddy’s got black beetles in his brain,” says his daughter.)

Beetles and birds and words that can’t be taken back, the half-sweet scent of flowers. The only way to drown them out is with another bird, and bigger—he’ll fly with the hawks for the rest of his days, make second-best friends amongst them.

(Perhaps they’ll like small yellow flowers too.)

(Even tolerance he would accept.)

The hydrogen bomb is to be his redemption. But when it’s built, there’s no new waste land, no desert community tied to him with chains of unbreakable orchids, fragile and delicate and stronger than atoms.

(He wonders what he’s done wrong in his success.)

So he takes his bomb, the new monster of his mirror dreams and breaks open his thigh with it, cracks bone, rips flesh: tries to make himself a Fisher King reborn, capture character with black blood. It’s the new dolorous stroke.

But the wound heals without much fuss at all, though dandelions burst from the scars and his once-torn flesh smells of them forever.

Kitty Oppenheimer
Botanist and Wife of Robert Oppenheimer

A grail is green fertility and the blood of others.

December, 1944: Kitty gives birth to a daughter. She’s not the only one—by this time over one hundred people work at the hospital, and Los Alamos is baby-mad. Army disgust sparks a popular poem: “The general’s in a stew, he trusted you and you…” but the average age there is twenty five, so what does he expect? A scientist is not a sterile thing.

Toni is born despite disapproval, born in midwinter, a Christmas child, and Kitty sits with her window looking outwards to the snow, drinks in the baby scent. It’s almost too much, too powdered sugar-sweet, and soon she’ll be sick of it.

“Do you want to adopt her?” Robert will say to another couple, as if the grail had nothing to do with him. As if the bits and chunks that fall into the infant blanket—the fused sand and seared flesh and ignimbrite—have nothing to do with him, and are something to be kept separate instead of evidence of the rocky bloodline that runs through them both.

Kitty wants to slap him.

Science is too busy for visiting hours, so husbands stand on packing boxes outside the hospital windows and peer into maternity, peer through the glass like they’re staring at a country made foreign to them, at a new and strange creation, cupped with blood and blankets (and Lord, how it squalls).

Compare to the glass after Trinity, the emerald blasted glass that lurked hot and bubbling in the crater; the blinding light of boom and blast dropping trinkets in the sand.

(“Look at it! Look what we made!”)

A spear to be thrown into the future, a weapon for her daughter’s days, the blade hard and sharp as nails.

Kitty sees both glasses, sees well enough to measure the drams of her husband’s interest, and how ill-matched it is. She wishes she could care for one so much more than the other, as he does, but one of them speaks so much more of winter to her that love is impossible.

Kitty’s parties are famous, with bottles and cocktails and the five-foot punch bowl—a giant jar for chemical reagents, stolen from the lab and weighted down with ice cubes.

There’s no reason not to drink. Kitty knows she is difficult to like. She is called a bitch, but an elegant bitch—with a bathtub and a kiva stove and oak floors, so that’s something, marooned on that bloody rock as she is with dust and dreary dirt, the hideous stoves that never light, the constant bitching about housework. She’s a botanist, for God’s sake, or was, so what is she doing now organizing contracts for the home help in a place where the grass is drowned in mud and sun?

It’s no wonder she drinks. The alcohol is an armor to her, plating over her tongue and numbing her lips, and when she drinks enough even the armor is stunned, and she can taste nothing around her, see nothing around her, and even the baby-scent is drowned in it.

Flesh of her flesh, bone of her bone: that’s marriage—bound by straining sinews, by faith and fidelity and resentment. Tiresome sometimes, but familiar.

Kitty leaves the waste land with her husband. Leaves it for the gray land, the courts and charges and tape that would be red if it hadn’t been bleached into pale lines and quicksand. One look at their faces and she knows it’s rigged: She may be sick of scientists, but few in the waste land wear such surety in their colorless eyes, wear certainty like a pin-striped suit. (They’re less cunning at home, if red-eyed and bloodshot from vodka and insomnia.)

“Kitty was such a support,” he says afterwards, after the gray men cut him to pieces and she held him up regardless.

His shirts smell of dandelions and heartbreak, as if he’d been rolled in them before betrayal.

A cauldron can restore the dead to life, or so they say—but sometimes… Sometimes it’s a saucepan—something utilitarian, and used to make soup.

Kitty is with her husband in the Virgin Islands, where he is recovering from hearings about his loyalty. (She sympathizes, but underneath, where she’d never admit it, his mistresses are raising their glasses to her. Well, let them. She’s outlasted them all, sex and state and science.)

A turtle is caught, a leather-beaked monster that sees better in water than out of it and tastes best of all in soup—but Robert pleads for clemency; pleads with a slow turtle-vision of his own to lift it from the pot and into life. It’s as if he sees himself in everything now, contaminating: all the information of his life’s work welling up under his fingertips and dropping into the simmering broth, an alphabet soup of suns and slaughter.

“All the little creatures,” he says. “I saw them in New Mexico after the test. Please,” he says, “I can’t bear it.”

Try drink, thinks Kitty, and you’ll be able to swallow anything then, darling.

Toni is in her crib, asleep, when her father waits miles away, at White Sands, and yet the sun that sears his eyelids imprints onto hers.

She spends the rest of her life looking for it, looking and not finding, the image and the resurrection of her parents.

(“Look at it! Look what we made!” they said.)

She follows the sun to the Caribbean but it’s not bright enough, no, not nearly, to blind her as well as her father was blinded, and she’s left seeing all too well the land that she was born in and the blood that she shares with it.

(“Look Mom,” she says, looking back, “Look Dad, look what I can do.” She’s talking to dead people, their bodies crumbled to dust and leaving her behind, with her flesh that bubbles with type and tuff and the memory of treachery, with questions under her fingernails and the remembered taste of a consolation that’s never quite enough.)

She hangs herself with rope that smells of dry dust of old dirt and waste lands—for a grail might be life and love and blood, but that blood comes from spear wounds and salt and knowledge that is never, ever lost.

Octavia Cade has a PhD in science communication and loves writing about oceans and science history. She once backpacked around Europe with so much telescope in her pack there was hardly any room for clothes. Her stories have appeared in Asimov’s, Clarkesworld, and Apex, and a poetry collection on the periodic table, Chemical Letters, has recently been nominated for an Elgin. Her latest novella –not about science at all!–is the highly disturbing Convergence of Fairy Tales, because when she’s not messing about with seagrass or dead scientists she’s having fun with all the horror she can get her hands on.

[Editor’s Note: Octavia submitted to us twenty-eight times before we bought this story. Never give up, never surrender. Keep going.]

En la Casa de Fantasmas, by Brian Holguin

I.

Everyone knows about La Bruja.

They say she lives somewhere down in the Avenues south of Eagle Rock. She is a tiny thing, short and round. Always dressed in black no matter the weather or time of year. Draped in mourning, they say, like La Llorona. Black wool dress, black coat, black shawl. A black veil that falls like a cobweb over her ancient face. Ask the abuelas in the park and they will tell you they remember her from when they were young, and that she was an old woman even then.

You can spot her from a mile away, carrying that odd little dollhouse of hers. You know the one: it looks homemade, simple and boxy, with a peaked roof and a handle at the top. It is painted in bright candy colors, as cheerful as she is somber: lemon yellow and valentine pink, mint green and robin’s-egg blue. There are those who say the house was made for La Bruja by her father, or perhaps even her grandfather, and that they each bore it for many long years before her. But there is no one alive today who can answer for sure.

Go talk to the vatos who hang out behind the pool hall, the dark-eyed boys with grease under their fingernails and tattoos on their knuckles, and ask them about La Bruja. They will tell you she loves nothing better than to sneak into children’s rooms at night and steal their hearts. She comes while you are sleeping and never makes a sound or leaves a mark. You won’t even know it happened. You’ll just wake up in the morning feeling strangely numb and hollow. You will walk around blank-eyed and shivering, with no notion of what ails you, until you drop dead at the stroke of noon. Later, when they cut you open at the hospital, they will see that your heart is missing and find a smooth, round stone in its place.

They say La Bruja carries the hearts around in that crazy little house of hers, ready to eat at her leisure, like ripe, juicy apples.

But it’s all a lie. Those boys are only trying to scare you.

Everyone knows the house is for the ghosts.

It’s late August in L.A. The last mean stretch of a summer that feels like it will never end. Everywhere are brown lawns and shimmering stretches of black asphalt. Posters and billboards show angry red thermometers reminding you not to waste water. No sprinklers to run through. No inflatable pools to laze in. For children, August is doubly cruel. Too hot to do anything fun, too close to the new school year to waste a single day in idleness.

In the heat of the afternoon, La Bruja beetles her way along York Boulevard. The children outside the corner store shout “Bruja! Bruja!” and drop their Popsicles and soda cans on the sidewalk. They sprint for their bikes and race down the alleyway, daring to look back only when they are blocks away. There is no point, after all, in taking chances or pretending to be brave. If she were to lift her veil, La Bruja could freeze you to the spot with a single glance. You’ll stand there, stone still, until a perfect stranger walks around you three times, counter-clockwise, and says “wake up, wake up, fly away home.” If you are careless enough to let your shadow cross hers, she can snatch it in her hand and claim your soul. She’ll slip into your dreams at night and make herself at home, rummaging through your memories, your fears, your guiltiest secrets. Once she’s there you can never make her leave, no matter how many candles you light at St. Dominic’s or how many Hail Marys you say. That’s a simple fact. Everyone says so.

At the bus stop on York, La Bruja sits waiting, dollhouse at her side. She tosses a handful of sunflower seeds onto the sidewalk in front of her and makes a rhythmic “chk-chk-chk” sound with her tongue. It is less than a minute before the crows come. They descend by the dozens, squawking and flapping. They peck madly at the seeds and then perch silently on the seat beside the old woman, and along the backrest of the bench, until the whole thing is camouflaged in night.

When the bus comes, La Bruja steps aboard. The driver never charges her and she never bothers to ring the bell to call for her stop. The other riders get up so that she may sit in the frontmost seat all by herself. As the bus heads west and turns right onto Eagle Rock Boulevard, the noisy dark cloud of birds follows close behind.

No one knows exactly how La Bruja manages to conduct her business or knows when to show up for her appointments. She doesn’t have a calling card or advertise her services on bus benches. She’s never owned a telephone. But she always knows when she is needed. When you get desperate enough, frightened enough, you will find a way to contact her. Some say it is the crows who carry her messages for her. Others say you must approach her in your dreams and ask her for her help. If she agrees to help you, you will find a simple message—unsigned, unstamped, no envelope—somewhere in your home. In a kitchen cabinet behind the cereal boxes, perhaps, or tucked under your pillow.

But everyone agrees on this: You must take care to follow her instructions precisely. If you do not, she’ll turn right around and go home, and you’ll find yourself in the same dark place you started.

  1. The house is to be completely empty. Take the pets if you have any.
  2. Place the money in a plain envelope, along with the house key, and leave it under the mat. You’ll know how much to pay—after all, how much is it worth to you to live safely and peacefully in your own home? If it’s not enough, she will turn around and go home and you will never hear from her again.
  3. Do not come home until after sunset on the third day. This is most important.

It takes three buses today to get her to the desired neighborhood, and another twenty minutes of slow, steady walking to reach the house itself. It is on a clean, shady street high up in the foothills, so high that the smog doesn’t reach and the sky is a bright, endless curtain of blue. The lawns are all green and neatly manicured, and the swimming pools are full and crystal clear. Everyone knows the rich can afford to be wasteful.

La Bruja doesn’t need to check the house numbers to know which is her destination. The crows have already marked it. She finds them perched on the mailbox, standing sentry on the crest of the roof and along the telephone wires. They strut up and down the sidewalk, across the front lawn, and gather squawking below the eaves. La Bruja looks under the mat and finds the envelope. Inside is a stack of crisp bills and the house key. She unlocks the door and crosses the threshold, but doesn’t bother to count the money.

It is getting late and she has work to do.

II.

If the time ever comes to buy a house, be sure to ask if it is haunted. A house with a ghost is a far worse bargain than one with termites or dry rot or bad plumbing, and much trickier to make whole again.

This particular house is grand and tacky, built in a style the architect imagined to be vaguely Spanish. Clay tiles on the roof, pinkish-beige stucco walls and lots of large, arched windows that look out on palm trees and sprawling bougainvillea. A vague chemical scent greets La Bruja as she steps inside, a blend of lilac air freshener and pine-scented disinfectant.

Chk-chk-chk,” she beckons as she moves through the entry and into the living room. The home is immaculately clean; you’d scarce believe anyone lived here at all. Everything looks expensive and uncomfortable. Lots of heavy glass and wrought iron. Lots of hard surfaces. No comfy armchairs to fall into, no plump ottoman to rest your feet on.

She sets her little dollhouse down on the glass coffee table and looks around.

Chk-chk-chk.”

The back of the house is all glass: floor-to-ceiling windows and French doors that open out onto a tiled courtyard and swimming pool. La Bruja moves slowly towards the glass wall, taking tiny, careful steps. Mustn’t scare anyone.

Chk-chk-chk.”

She can smell chlorine and chewing gum now, and the faintest hint of cheap, stale beer. Her eyes shift back and forth behind the veil, scanning the room carefully. It is a few minutes before she finds what she is looking for: a set of faint, wet footprints on the polished wood floors, glistening in the late-day sun. They are rather small and shimmer slightly at their edges. Right away she guesses that this ghost is fairly old, even if the child itself was young. Children are surely the saddest part of her job, but in many ways they are the easiest. They don’t seek lost loves or plot vengeance. They just get lost easily and need someone to guide them homeward.

La Bruja steps out into the courtyard. She settles into a boxy rattan deck chair and keeps perfectly still. And she watches. From time to time, the little shimmering footprints pace away from the pool, then return. They move from this corner to that one, into the house and then back out again. Like a mouse in a glass cage that doesn’t understand why it can’t escape. She sits without moving a finger or uttering a word. She waits unmoving until the sun drops below the mountains, the first moment of twilight. Then she lifts the veil from her eyes.

The world swims and shimmers before her. Everything seems strange and distorted, like a television viewed through a fish tank. At first it is difficult to understand what she’s looking at. Echoes… memories… past… present… all competing for attention. But soon her eyes adjust and she can see things clearly. She can see exactly what happened.

There are four of them, three boys and a girl, gathered around the pool. It’s the late afternoon of a summer day not much different from this one. The youngest is a blond boy, skinny and tan, who looks to be eleven or twelve. He wears blue swim trunks and a red-white-and-blue tank top emblazoned with “USA ’76.” The other two boys look to be fourteen or so. The taller one is slightly awkward, still unused to his growing limbs. The smaller one is wild and wiry, with long dark hair and lots of coiled energy.

The girl is also fourteen but looks considerably older than her peers, the way teen girls often do. She is wearing cut-off jeans and a macramé bikini top. She is pretty and she knows it, more’s the pity. She is well aware of the strange power she has recently acquired, even if she doesn’t fully understand it. It’s the power to make boys stumble over their words just by looking at them. To make them do stupid, risky things to impress her, like shoplifting cigarettes or breaking into empty homes. She knows for certain it is a power she didn’t have last summer, and she already suspects it will not last long.

The home doesn’t belong to any of them. The tall boy knows this house because it is on his paper route, knows that the owners will be out of town till Monday. It was easy enough to sneak down the side yard to the swimming pool at the back. The four of them splash and swim in the summer heat. They have a cannonball contest to see who can make the biggest, loudest splash. The girl declares the wild boy to be the winner and the tall boy demands a rematch. They listen to music on a tinny transistor radio and take shallow, unconvincing puffs on cigarettes, trying hard to look cool and dangerous.

As evening approaches, they luxuriate in the borrowed sense of freedom they’re all sharing, imagining this must be what it feels like to be grown up, having no rules to obey, no one to answer to.

Once darkness falls, the wild boy gets the idea of prying open a window and raiding the kitchen. In his absence, the tall boy stretches out on a chaise longue and recites a string of filthy jokes he learned from some comedy record. The girl rolls her eyes and takes a slow drag on her cigarette, pretending she is too mature for such things. The blond boy laughs loudly, even though he’s not exactly sure what all the words mean.

The wild boy returns with a bag of tortilla chips, a six pack of cold soda and another of warm beer. They all pretend that beer is their customary first choice, even the blond boy. He quits after less than one can. At first the beer makes them all relax, floating on a mellow buzz, but then it makes them rowdy. The girl has finished her first beer and is pestering the wild boy for some of his.

Suddenly everything slows and the smallest details come into sharp focus. La Bruja’s attention is drawn to the little radio sitting on the patio table. It is blaring some silly gringo rock song, some nonsense about the “Fox on the Run.” The girl, splashing manically in the shallow end, yells to turn it up. The tall boy drains the last of his second beer and fumbles to light a cigarette. The blond boy is on the diving board and shouts to the others, “Look at me!” He attempts to do a front flip off the board, but in the failing light he misjudges the distance. La Bruja hears a crack—loud as the day it happened—as the back of the boy’s head strikes the edge of the diving board. It is a clean blow, like being struck by a baseball bat.

Already the boy is sinking to the bottom, already blood spreads like a plume of ruby smoke, staining the clear blue water. In that instant, the teens all drop their shallow veneer of adulthood, reverting back to the children they are, scared and helpless. They don’t discuss a plan. They don’t say anything at all. They don’t even look at each other.

They just run.

They run all the way home. They say nothing and try desperately to think of nothing, choking back the terror and the tears until they are each safe in their beds where they will sob all night into their pillows and wake in the morning wishing it was all a horrible dream. Not one of them ever says anything about the boy. Each is sure the others will do the right thing, the brave thing, and tell their parents or phone the police.

A week later, at the blond boy’s funeral, they don’t even acknowledge one another. The body, they are told, floated in the pool for at least two days before the homeowners returned. By that time, the water was as red as the sun and the corpse was so bleached and bloated it was difficult to identify. Although they share classes and sports teams all through high school, the three of them never say another word to each other or willingly glance in the others’ direction.

Those three children will all be grown up by now, and parents themselves. Perhaps grandparents. But none of them will ever see a single day pass without thinking of their young friend. About the things they did, and the things they didn’t do. They’ll carry that memory around with them forever, dragging it like a ball and chain. It follows them to school, to work, to Christmas parties, on honeymoons and vacations. It’s with them at the grocery store, at the movie theater and at their children’s school plays. Each of them is every bit as haunted by the past as this house is. But there is no sure remedy for their curse. They will bear its burden until the day they die. Only then will they be in a position to ask forgiveness, even though they don’t honestly expect to receive any.

Looking closer, La Bruja can see that traces of blood still linger in this pool. You can’t miss it once you know to look for it. Let your eyes soften and look below the surface. Pints of blood. Buckets of it. Vast oceans of blood, churning and roiling in the moonlight. No matter how many times it has been drained and refilled, no matter how many gallons of chlorine have been poured in over the passing decades, it is still tainted, still infected.

Some blood, you must surely know, never washes away.

It’s well past dark by the time La Bruja begins her working. To start, she removes a number of items from the pockets of her coat and from the leather bolsa she wears around her neck. She takes three votive candles and places one each along three sides of the swimming pool. She lights the first candle and blesses it in the name of San Jeronimo, patron saint of abandoned children. The second she lights in the name of San Alejo, who looks after those who are imprisoned. The third is for San Cristobal, patron saint of travelers. Now she takes a larger candle and sets it at the far end of the pool, the end with the diving board. This last candle is for blessed Madre María, who watches mercifully over all of us sinners, now and at the hour of our death.

La Bruja stands over the pool and begins to chant in an odd sing-song voice. She takes a small crystal vial and removes its silver cap. It contains holy water, again blessed in the name of the virgin Santa María. She sprinkles it over the surface of the water and counts slowly to nine. Then, she takes a golden sewing needle and pricks her own ring finger. Three perfect crimson drops fall into the pool. They mottle the surface for a moment, but are quickly diluted and subsumed, and the water appears clear as glass.

Blood for blood. No fairer trade.

The second part of the working requires no blood, but it does require patience. She takes eleven tea candles, one for each year of the boy’s short life, and spaces them in an arcing trail from the pool, through the French doors, and into living room. Once each is lit, she sets the dollhouse on the floor in front of the last candle, the one furthest from the swimming pool. She squats on the floor next to it and waits.

Chk-chk-chk,” she intones, tapping the wood floor with her finger nails.

Chk-chk-chk.”

After a few minutes the first tea light goes out, sending a little gray wisp of smoke trailing in the air.

Chk-chk-chk.”

The second candle goes out a few minutes later. Then the third. But the fourth candle lingers. Its flame flickers from time to time, but it does not extinguish. La Bruja is patient. She knows the boy must take each step in his own time, cross each threshold and close each invisible door behind him. This is his path to walk and he cannot be rushed.

It is more than an hour before the fourth candle finally goes out. But it is quickly followed by the fifth. And the sixth.

Chk-chk-chk.”

The little house is hinged at one gable end, and there is a bright pink padlock in the shape of a heart at the other. As the ninth candle goes out, La Bruja takes a key from around her neck and unlocks the padlock, but leaves it dangling in place.

Chk-chk-chk.”

Again the procession stalls. It is nearly another hour before the tenth candle dims and dies. Very carefully, very slowly, La Bruja removes the padlock and opens the front of the house just a crack.

Chk-chk-chk.”

The eleventh candle fades slowly… slowly… and then grows. It grows brighter and brighter until at last, with a blinding flash, it goes out. La Bruja quickly shuts the dollhouse and snaps the lock in place.

It is too late now to catch a bus back to the Avenues, so La Bruja will sleep here tonight. She will help herself to cold beer and whatever palatable thing she can find in the fridge to eat. In the morning she will rise early and burn a wand of sage leaves and smudge all the rooms in the house. She will throw wide the curtains, open up all the windows and leave the front door wide open.

She will place the key back under the mat, gather her things and head back down the hill.

III.

In La Casa de Fantasmas, there are many mansions.

True, there are only four windows on the exterior of the little house and those are merely painted on. But inside there are countless doors and windows. There are cozy libraries, suffocating closets and tight, bricked-up tunnels. There are comfortable rooms with en suite bathrooms. There are endless dim corridors to wander down, lost in romantic torment, if that is your preference. The dollhouse is small, but the spirits take up so little space. Even La Bruja has lost count of how many ghosts presently dwell inside. But there is plenty of room for all of them.

You must know that ghosts become ghosts for many reasons. For some it is the trauma of a violent death. For others it is love for the ones they left behind. For a great many it is guilt: Guilt for letting down their family, for not making more of their lives, for all the wicked things they may have done but still can’t bring themselves to truly regret. Guilt is a great anchor that holds spirits earthbound.

Still, most spirits don’t move on because they simply aren’t ready. They haven’t said their piece or made their mark or danced one last dance. But all have one thing in common: They hate to be reminded they are ghosts.

At the front of the house is the large salon, where the walls are lined with bookshelves and heavy chandeliers hang from the wood-beamed ceiling. It is one of the oldest rooms. A wood fire burns in a stone fireplace, and there are leather sofas and armchairs nestled around well-worn Persian carpets. The more gregarious of the guests gather here, to swap stories or gossip, to play chess or try to cheat one another at cards.

Standing by the fireplace, puffing on a cigarillo, is the one they call the Fox, an over-the-hill gentleman with a watch fob in his waistcoat, Cuban heels on his shoes, and a ludicrous beard he keeps waxed and styled like a cartoon devil. He loves to dance the tango and the tarantella, and pesters all the ladies until one of them acquiesces.

The Irish Tinker scrapes out a Romani ballad on his fiddle while Sister Agnes plays a game of backgammon with the Quiet Man. The Doctor watches from a corner. He sits sipping brandy, his smooth bald head hovering over the pages of a Thomas Mann novel he’s never managed to finish. He mutters under his breath how one day they will all be sorry. One day, they will regret underestimating him.

Darla sits by the front door waiting for her gentleman caller. She is wearing her best dress, the one the color of summer apricots. She can’t help but worry. There are no clocks in the house, but surely he should have been here by now. If you asked her, Darla couldn’t tell you the gentleman’s name or how they met. But she knows he is a kind, handsome man and knows in her heart that they are truly made for each other.

Her mother never approved of gentleman callers. Darla doesn’t care to divulge her age, but her mother was quite fond of reminding her that if a woman hasn’t hooked a man by this stage of the game, she had best give up the ghost. Better an old maid than an old floozy. The minutes pass and Darla grows certain that something bad must have happened. An accident or an emergency. Or maybe he just decided he doesn’t want to see her. She tries to hold back the tears, but it isn’t long before her mascara runs in black rivulets down her cheeks.

She gets up and checks herself in the mirror. She looks a fright. You’re such a silly thing, Darla. Always letting your imagination get carried away, always making things a bigger deal than they really are. Take a deep breath. Stand up straight. Think good thoughts, and good things will happen to you. She dries her eyes, reapplies her mascara and touches up her lipstick. Darla wants her smile to be the first thing he notices.

She can hardly contain herself now. He’ll be here any minute…

The blond boy has been living in a tree fort. He knows his parents must be worried, but he’s not ready to go home yet. Besides, the fort has everything he needs: a sleeping bag and flashlight, a stack of old Marvel comics, and a transistor radio that only ever plays his favorite songs. He gets hungry sometimes, though never enough to make him want to leave. He likes the quiet and the cool breeze that smells of jasmine. He looks at the stars and listens to the radio. He naps for long stretches at a time. He’s not sure how long, but when he wakes up the sky is always dark.

He knows if he went home now, his parents would be furious. The boy has a cousin, Darren, who is three years older than him. Years ago, Darren ran away from home and was gone for the better part of a week. For the first couple of days, Darren’s folks were in a rage. His dad promised take his belt and thrash that boy to within an inch of his sorry life. But the days dragged on and phone calls were returned from friends saying they hadn’t seen him, flyers were posted around the neighborhood and the police kept asking more troubling and embarrassing questions. By the time Darren finally was found—sleeping in an old camper parked in a neighbor’s driveway two blocks away, living off Pop-Tarts and RC Cola—his parents were so relieved they forgot they had ever been angry. That’s the trick of it, the blond boy reasons. Stay away long just long enough for your folks to stop being mad and start being afraid.

His cousin is easily the coolest person he knows. Darren can do a handstand on his skateboard for nearly half a mile straight, swear to God, and is always smooth when it comes to talking to girls. When he is older, the blond boy wants to be just like him.

The radio plays a song by Paul McCartney & Wings. The one about Venus and Mars: red lights, green lights, strawberry wine… The boy finds himself drifting into sleep again. Funny, he can’t even remember why he left home in the first place. It’s not like things were ever that bad. Still, give them a little more time to worry before heading back. One more day should be enough.

Tonight he will dream strange dreams about an empty beach on a crystal blue sea, and a dark red sky rolling above. And a weird little house that could hold everyone in the world if it had to. Tomorrow he will go home. Just as soon as the sun comes up.

Tomorrow.

Always tomorrow.

IV.

Tonight is Halloween. The eve of All Souls’ Day. A night for revels and mischief. When the veil between this world and the next is thin as gossamer. Tonight is the night the ghosts come out and play.

All along the Avenues, pumpkins grin from porches, and paper ghosts and witches hang in windows. Little kids are already out tricking and treating, even though the sun hasn’t gone down yet.

Every year, La Bruja sets out a plate of pan de muerto—a sweet pastry flavored with cinnamon and anise seed—on the stoop of her little house at the end of her crooked little street. These goodies are free for the taking, but no one ever comes to her door. They won’t even walk past the front her house. Not even the adults, not on a dare. But that’s all right. By morning, every last morsel and crumb will be gone.

Behind her house, La Bruja has set up for a party. Streamers are hung and luminaria are lit. At one end of the little yard stands a lopsided table decorated with brilliant sprays of marigolds, colorfully painted miniature skulls and scores of candles. Two figures stand at the back of the table: a two-foot porcelain statue of the Virgin Mary, smiling beatifically in blue and white robes, and the carved wooden figure of Queen Mictecacihuatl, skeletal empress of the underworld.

Once the sun sets, La Bruja will remove the heart-shaped lock from the little dollhouse and open it wide. All those inside are invited to join the festivities.

It is an unruly scene: La Bruja sits on a wicker settee, smoking a fat cigar and drinking whiskey from a communion chalice. She claps along as the Tinker plays a wild Irish reel on his fiddle and Crazy Bobby, who was once this close to being a rock ’n’ roll star, strums along on a battered guitar. The Fox and Darla manage to dance a lively tarantella to the rhythm.

There is music, laughter and toasts to absent friends. Grudges and worries are put aside for the evening. The guests allow whatever burdens they carry to slip from their shoulders. Even the Doctor puts down his book and dances the foxtrot with Sister Agnes.

After a time, some of the ghosts desert the party and venture into the wider world. From sundown to sunrise, they are free do as they please. And they are not alone. Countless ghosts from centuries past walk the earth tonight. They come to stand watch over their children or grandchildren, to comfort a spouse they left behind, or to simply remind themselves that they too were briefly among the living. But the ghosts in the care of La Bruja are bound by a particular rule: They must return home to the little house before the sun comes up or be forever banished.

The Fox drifts to a favorite haunt near Olvera Street and sits at the end of the bar, boasting of the beautiful women he has danced with. Sister Agnes will wander back to a little nowhere town in Montana, sit on the steps of the house she grew up in and marvel at how much her street has changed, and how little. She will reminisce about a tall, blue-eyed man she once knew and how she almost gave up everything for him. Funny, she can’t even remember his name now.

Every year there are some who choose not to come back. They find their graves and lay themselves to rest. They walk into the sea at daybreak, glitter upon waves for a brief, golden moment, and then are gone. Or they simply drift away like smoke on the breeze. Most, however, will return home, to the comfort of old patterns, and resume their strange half-life. Many don’t even step outside the little house in the first place, not even for the party. And that’s all right. It’s just not their time. They simply aren’t ready to let go.

The blond boy doesn’t bother with the party. He’s never felt comfortable around grown-ups, especially those he’s never met. Besides, it’s been forever since he felt the ground beneath his feet and he wants badly to stretch his legs. He wanders out into the street and is delighted to find that it is Halloween, his favorite night of the year. He snatches a piece of sweet bread from the plate on the door stoop and wolfs it down in three quick bites. He hadn’t realized he was so hungry. He grabs two more pieces and heads out into the night.

He joins the throng of children going from door to door. It would be nice to have a costume, but he doesn’t mind. He is too absorbed in the wildness of the night, awed by the sounds and scents, the garish, lurid colors. He doesn’t have a bag or pillowcase, so he stuffs candy into his pockets or, more often, eats it on the way to the next house. He’s only gone to six or seven houses when he hears voices calling out to him:

“Hey! Kid! Over here!”

He sees them standing at the end of the block. A pack of boys, a half dozen or so, all about his age, give or take a year. Their hair is shorter than his and some of their clothes are so old-fashioned he mistakes them for costumes. They in turn have mistaken the blond boy as one of their own, just another departed soul playing hooky on All Hallows’ Eve. Back for one more run through the candle-lit streets, one more night of mischief and abandon. They don’t bother with introductions, yet right away they all feel like old friends.

“Are we all here, now? Let’s go!”

They move with single purpose, like a flock of crows, crossing the city side to side and back again in less time than it takes to think. They throw eggs at police cars and run hooting like the madmen. They set off firecrackers in the underpass below the freeway, so they echo like thunder. They find a carnival at the YMCA and go through the haunted house three times in a row without paying once. They eat cotton candy until their tongues are blue and their fingers stick together. At the face-painting booth they all have their faces made up to look like skeletons. They are a tribe now, a band of merry pirates. Drunk on the mad, wild joy of youth that doesn’t think even a minute ahead or waste one moment’s thought on the past.

In the park, they run like wolves and howl like devils. They do handstands and back-flips off the picnic tables. They race and they wrestle. They laugh till their sides ache and eat candy till they are sick. By now, their make-up streaks bizarrely down their faces from all the sweat, tumbling and roughhousing.

Late into the night, when the city has fallen silent, the boys gather in a circle on the grass. They pass a flashlight around, counter-clockwise, and swap spooky stories. They tell the one about the hitch-hiking axe murderer, and the one about the teenagers and the bloody hook. They tell that old story about the Weeping Woman, the ghost mother who steals lost children away, believing them to be her own.

A little before dawn, when they can’t hold their eyes open a moment longer, they stretch out in the grass and lie side by side, like a neat row of graves. No more playing now, or even talking. They just lie there too tired to move, but still too alive to sleep. This is the happiest the blond boy has ever been. The best night of his life. The world could end and he wouldn’t even notice.

There is no other thought in his head when the sun finally rises.

Ghosts become ghosts for many reasons. But surely it could never happen to you. You are too sensible and too clever. You know to go to bed each night fully content with how you spent the day. You do not leave important things unsaid or undone. You never wait for tomorrow—always tomorrow—to speak your piece, make your mark or dance as much as your heart desires. You know to live without fear or regret, unburdened, so that any day may be a good day to die.

It’s simple, really. But simple and easy are hardly the same thing.

Anyway, everyone knows there’s no such thing as ghosts. There is no crazy witch woman with a funny little dollhouse full of lost souls. How could there be? They’re just stories. They’re only trying to scare you.

Remember that, should the shadows ever come for you. When your life slips from your control and you wake one day feeling strangely numb and hollow, like a faint echo of yourself. Lost in limbo, treading the same old ground in ever tightening circles. When fear turns your heart to stone and freezes you to the spot. Remind yourself that it’s all pretend. It’s just your imagination getting carried away with things. You can always move on, as soon as you are ready.

Wake up, wake up, fly away home…

Brian Holguin has been a professional writer of comics and prose for more than two decades. Highlights include the award-winning urban fantasy series Aria, the ground-breaking independent comic book series Spawn, and the Dark Crystal graphic novel prequel, Creation Myths. He lives in Southern California.

Other Strange Houses:

Hic Sunt Leones, by L.M. Davenport
It’s true that the house walks. It’s also true that you can only find it if you don’t know about it. Once, a boy in my high-school art class drew a picture of it, but didn’t know what he’d drawn; the thing in the center of his sketchpad had ungainly, menacing chicken legs caught mid-stride and a crazed thatch roof that hung askew over brooding windows. I knew it was the house right away because his eyes had that sleepy, traumatized look that people get once they’ve seen the house. I was used to seeing this look, mostly on my mother’s face.

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

A July Story, by K.L. Owens
Iron red, linseed-cured, and caked in salt, in a place where the mercury never crept much above fifty Fahrenheit, the two-room house chose to keep its back to the sea. A wise choice, given the facing of the windows and the predilections of the wind. Still, in other Julys, Kitten had stood naked between ancient trees or buried his toes in sun-warm sand. In this new July, he donned the buckskin jacket from the peg by the door and used wool socks for gloves, swaddled his head in a gaily-patterned scarf given to him by a gray-haired marm in some other July on some other island. Shivering on a shore made of black cobblestones—waves did not break, but clattered and rumbled—Kitten watched a bazaar of common murres bob on the wind and wondered which side of what ocean the house had selected this time.

Shadow Man, Sack Man, Half Dark, Half Light, by Malon Edwards

You keep running even though you know you can’t escape the fifty-foot-tall Pogo. But you were built for this.

You are taller than all of the girls and most of the boys in your Covey Four class. Your legs are longer. Your steam-clock heart is stronger. Your determination is unmatched. Even against the rocks they throw. Even against the insults they hurl. Even when they entimide you and chase you home after school every day, all because your mother could not save their friends.

They have not caught you yet. And they never will. Because you will not let them.

But you are trying to do the impossible here. You are trying to outrun the Pogo, a kakadyab, an ugly, hideous entity no timoun has ever escaped. Not even your best friend, Bobby Brightsmith. And he knew the chant to send it slinking back into Lake Michigan.

Yet, you are confident. You have just rescued Bobby. You hacked his writhing, tentacled body off the Pogo’s scaly, diamond-shaped face with your machete, Tonton Macoute. You wrapped Bobby’s slimy, bloody snake-form around your torso. And then, you ran like you have never run before.

Kounye a la, your lungs burn, your legs are wobbly, and your steam-clock heart is going tanmiga tanmiga tanmiga in your chest. It has never beat this hard. It has never beat this fast. You can feel the overdrive of its tiny springs. You can feel the rotating thump of its miniscule cam.

You are worried.

You have one more block to run before you make it home. You’re almost there. When you arrive, you can ask Manmi to look at your heart. After all, she did design and build it.

But when you round the bend leading to your street, you see, through the gloaming of the half dark, a shadowed figure standing in front of your house. You stop. Or you try. But you can’t. Not at first. You have underestimated your own determination.

Your momentum continues to propel you forward. Only a meter or two. Your arms flail. Your legs give way. You skid across the hard, uneven cobblestones.

Your hands and knees press against the cold ground, bruised and skinned by your fall. It is in this position you heave—sèl fwa, de fwa, twa fwa—before you retch sticky, ropy bile that turns invisible in the weak light of the gas lamps when it hits the dark cobblestones. The gas lamps have never been this dim before. Not on your street. Not on Oglesby.

Your mother and father made sure of that when you moved to La Petite de Haïti in Chicago from La Petite de Haïti in Miami. They do not mind giving a few more pièces de monnaie to the Lamplighters Guild. They want you, Michaëlle-Isabelle, their ti fi cheri, to feel safe, especially on your walk home from school within the heavy shroud of the half dark. They want their patients to feel welcome when they visit, pandan jounen an, during the day, and a leswa, at night.

But this is not welcoming.

It is not safe.

It is not comforting.

And this is all because of the man standing in the middle of the street in front of your house.

You are certain the shadowed figure is a man. A woman would not participate in this awful game. A woman would not play jwe lago—hide-and-seek—in the darkness between the downcast lights of the gas lamps, clothed in shadows, hoping you find her. She would not even consider the notion, knowing an eleven-year-old girl would be walking home by herself in the half dark.

An plis, you have never seen a woman radiate such malevolence. It is apparent in the way this Shadow Man holds himself. It is apparent in the way he stands, hunched and menacing. You are quite certain you will never, in your lifetime, see a woman adopt this evil, wicked stance.

The Shadow Man is, as your mother would say, pa bon ki nan kò l. He ain’t no good.

Epitou, as if to confirm this, you hear the Shadow Man say, “Ah, ti chouchou, I thought you’d never come home from school.”

And he says this in your father’s voice.

You are a smart girl. You should not be surprised your father is the Shadow Man. Not if you had been nosy when you were living in La Petite de Haïti Miami. Not if you had been paying close attention. Not when it was just you and him.

You look confused. Allow me to remind you.

Your mother was called to La Petite de Haïti Chicago by the old and wizened Lord Mayor himself, John Baptiste Point du Sable. He enticed her with anpil lajan (more money than you or she had ever seen) and the title Surgeon General. He needed her to help him combat the polio outbreak in the city-state.

He wanted her to build steam-clock hearts for the children whose sweet flesh hearts had been withered by the disease. He assured your mother he had people who could implement an assembly line production to churn out the mechanical hearts faster.

He was desperate. Eighty percent of the children in his city under the age of twelve were stricken with polio. Limbs and organs, but especially the heart had no chance. He did not want one more timoun to die.

You were sad to see your mother go, but you are more your father’s ti chouchou than your mother’s ti fi cheri. An plis, you and he would join your mother in Chicago as soon as she stemmed the tide of the polio epidemic there.

Those were fond times for you, despite your mother tending suffering, faceless children one thousand three hundred miles away. Your father laughed a lot. He let you do anything you wanted. He had no rules.

Save two: Go to school every day, and don’t leave your room until daybreak after he tucked you in for bed.

Ah. You remember now. It has been three years past, but you remember. I see it. M ka wè recall in those big, beautiful brown eyes of yours. But you don’t know.

Not yet.

You take three steps forward. You are hesitant. You are tentative. You are wary.

You refuse to believe the Shadow Man is your father.

And yet, your father’s rich, melodic baritone has just slipped across the cobblestones and through the half dark from him over to you. This was the same comforting voice that wished you fè bon rèv—beautiful dreams—after he pulled the covers up to your chin each night in La Petite de Haïti Miami.

You do not think about how he did not do this often for you in Chicago. Soon after you two arrived, he disappeared.

In La Petite de Haïti Miami, you told yourself it was the coziness of your father’s voice that made you stay in bed until the sun painted the horizon with soft strokes of morning warmth and fun, and not the dark shadow that skittered across his face before he turned, left your bedroom, and closed the door behind him. But you cannot lie to yourself in La Petite de Haïti Chicago.

“Do you see what he is holding?”

Bobby’s husky voice startles you. The last time you heard it he was screaming as you cleaved him off the Pogo’s face when the Pogo crouched down to eat you.

You squint into the half dark, but you cannot make out any details. You believe the Shadow Man to be tall, trè wo, but the half dark plays with your eyes and the light from the gas lamps. The half dark is a tricky thing. It is a dangerous thing.

But you already know this.

You realize Bobby’s eyes, as small and black and beady as they are, can see far better than yours in the half dark now that he is one of the Pogo’s face tentacles. Was one of the Pogo’s face tentacles.

“I can’t tell,” you whisper to Bobby, hoping the Shadow Man does not hear you. “What is he holding?”

Bobby slithers around your ribs, across your chest, and up to your neck, leaving a trail of coagulated black blood, but not as much as before. He wraps himself around your throat, like a scarf, and tugs you forward, another step or two. His touch is cold and slimy, but gentle.

Enpi, you see it. The Shadow Man is holding a gunny sack.

Once, and only once, did you leave your room after your father had tucked you in for the night.

You were a bit of an odd child then. The dark did not scare you. But you were more of a curious child. An intrepid child.

When you think back upon that night, time has dulled your memory. You are no longer sure if you truly saw a shadow flit across your father’s face. The thought of it does not bring you unease. Not much unease, manyè, since the more you think about that night the less defined that memory is.

It does not make sense for such a malevolent cast to have been upon your father’s face. That comforting voice you know so well is also playful, always hinting at an oncoming laugh. An infectious laugh. A belly laugh. A laugh you associate with your father more than anything else.

An plis, as you play that night through your mind over and again, for what seems to be the thousandth time, you only remember being eksite. You only remember the flip-flop thrill in your stomach as you disobeyed your father and got out of bed.

The house had been dark. It felt empty. It felt lifeless. You and your father had said so the night your mother left for Chicago. But the night you sneaked out of bed something was different.

You knew where you were going: to your father’s side of the house. You knew the route to his office by heart. It was forbidden to you, one of only two such areas in the house. The other was your mother’s office.

Your parents barred you from their professional space because they thought you might play with the sharp, stainless steel instruments. They were concerned you might open the dark bottles of medicine or uncap the flat tins of unguent, and smell and drink and taste.

You were curious, but you were not foolhardy. Except for this one time.

You made walking through the darkness a game. If you bumped into something, you lost a point. If you stubbed your toe and cried out, you lost five points.

That did not happen, though. You knew that house like you know the lines on your palm—every turn, every corner, every hallway. You arrived at your father’s office with all of your points intact. Your glee did not last long, though.

The gunny sack was in the middle of the floor, knotted tight. Something was in it. It bulged. It moved. It seemed to be stained dark and wet in places.

You could not tell by the sputtering light of the kerosene lamp, but the dark and wet looked like blood. And that’s when you heard it: the whimpering, the crying.

Someone was in the gunny sack.

You gasped. You heard the sloshing of water in next room. In your father’s bathroom. He was in the bathtub. He was washing off the blood. He was the Sack Man. He snuck into houses at night and carried naughty children away. You were sure of it.

You heard sloshing again. Louder, this time. Your father was finished bathing. He was getting out of the bathtub.

His bathwater would be pink. Its warmth would have dissipated. He would be cold. He would want to warm up. He would want to eat. He would want a full belly. He would walk back into his office any moment now. He would eat the child in the gunny sack. And if you were still here when he stepped again into this room, he would eat you, too.

His daughter. His only child. His ti chouchou.

So you turned and ran back to your bedroom. You did not lose your way. You did not make a wrong turn. You did not run into a wall. You did not stub your toe.

You jumped into your bed. You pulled the covers over your head. And you never got out of your bed again after dark.

“I’m not a naughty child, Papa.”

You say this to your father from quite a distance away. You still cannot see his face. You do not want to see his face. It may not be the face you remember.

“Ah, ti chouchou, I know you got out of bed.”

Your father’s voice has its familiar playful tone, as if he’s admonishing you with a smile. You believe, if he is smiling, his teeth are long and sharp and dripping with saliva. Not like the teeth you remember.

“Papa, you cannot eat me. It would not be right.”

You do not want to cry. You refuse to cry. But you have never been so scared in your life. Not when your father went missing after you came to Chicago. Not when you liberated Bobby Brightsmith from the Pogo. Not even when you saw the gunny sack in your father’s office three years ago.

“Come here, ti chouchou. Come closer.”

“Wait.”

Bobby’s whisper is close to your ear. He uncoils from around your neck, glides down your left shoulder, and twines himself around your left arm. His severed end rests in your palm, and his mouth latches onto your bicep. He bites down, hard, with his many small, needle-sharp teeth. You cry out.

“Don’t worry,” Bobby whispers. “If your father eats you, my poison will kill him soon after.”

You do not have much time, so you move forward and halve the distance between you and your father. You can see his face now. It is lean. It is gaunt. He looks as if he has not eaten in days. Weeks. This is not the hale, handsome father you know.

“Pa kriye,” your father says. “Wipe your tears.”

“I’m not crying!”

You have never screamed at your father before. Not in anger. But it is true; you are not crying. Yet, you are close. Your eyes burn with tears. You refuse to let them fall. You do not want to show your father or Bobby or the half dark just how afraid you are right now.

Instead, you reach behind your head, between your shoulder blades, and slide Tonton Macoute from the sheath you sewed into your knapsack. Your father gave you this machete. Your father taught you how to use this machete. And if he tries to eat you, your father will die by this machete.

“Pitit fi, eske ou sonje—”

Your father switches to English. You have always thought he sounded unlike himself in that language.

“My beautiful little daughter, do you remember when I gave you Tonton Macoute?” You nod. “Do you remember what I told you?” You nod again. “‘I give this to you so you will always remember and I will never forget.’ Do you know why I said that?”

He does not wait for you to answer. Your father bares his teeth, and in two quick strides he is standing over you. He is as tall as the street lamps. His empty gunny sack is slung over his shoulder. His teeth are as long and sharp as you imagined.

“Well, it’s time for you to remember, pitit fi, because now I am the Sack Man, and I have forgotten my daughter.”

The Sack Man lunges at you, his hands wide, holding the gunny sack open to swallow you whole with it. But your father taught you well. You are faster. You unleash three swift Rising Butterfly strikes with Tonton Macoute and rend the gunny sack to shreds.

The Sack Man is surprised by your ferocity. But you do not pause.

You sidestep the Sack Man as he tries to snatch you up with his thin, gnarled hands. You let him go by you. As he does, you step into Form of Queen Alexandra’s Birdwing, whirling to gather momentum. Your footwork is precise. As you complete your turn, facing the Sack Man again, you disembowel him with one vicious slice.

Your father falls to the cobblestones. He holds his intestines in his hands. He looks small. He looks frail. He is dying.

And so are you.

Your legs give way. You collapse next to your father. Bobby’s venom is swift and powerful. The cobblestones are cool against your cheek.

Enpi, the half dark gathers above you and your father, coalescing into an opaque, full dark cloud. You cannot see this, for your eyes are now closed as you lie dying, but black, wispy tendrils of the half dark rush from every part of the city-state to be here. To be here with you. To be here with your father. To be a part of this cloud.

To become one with me.

For the first time in the three years since I have arrived in Chicago, I can see the half-light of dusk. I can see the evening as it truly should be, for the half dark no longer obscures it.

La Petite de Haïti Chicago used to look this way, especially now, especially in winter. Enpi, I arrived, and I did not save the children of Chicago. I could not save the children of Chicago.

It was not my fault. The Lord Mayor’s assembly line production was flawed. It churned out defective steam-clock hearts. Those hearts—my hearts—killed Chicago’s children with their brittle springs and their wobbly cams.

And so, the half dark descended. And with it, came the Pogo. I was distraught. My despair was great.

This must be a shock to you, finding out your father is the Sack Man, and your mother is the half dark. But the Children of Night are drawn to one another.

Sometimes, the results are horrible—like the Pogo.

Other times, the results are lovely—like you.

But never did I think the repercussions would be catastrophic—like this.

But this I can fix.

Do not be alarmed; that cold you feel entering your nose and your mouth is just me. Just the half dark. Just La Sirène de la Nuit, healing you, removing the poison.

And do not worry; your father will be well. I will get him a child. A sick one. A dying one. One whose heart is flawed.

That is what the half dark does. That is what I have been doing here. Your father will heal once he has eaten. His strength will return.

You may not like this. You may hate your father for who he is. You may hate me for who I am. But you are of us. You are a Child of Night. And now, you have found your way.

The people of Chicago do not love your father and me, but they will love you. You are brave. You fight well. Their children will no longer be terrorized by the Pogo.

But you will not be able to save them all.

Do not fret. Pa enkyete w. Do not worry. Do not feel guilty. You cannot help this. You are not like me. You cannot be everywhere in this city at once. You must sleep. You must eat. You must go to school.

Tandiske, you will save enough of them. Mothers will thank you in their bedtime prayers. Fathers will commission machetes from the local blacksmith for their precious ti chouchou. Children will chant your name out on the schoolyard. You will become their champion.

So get up. Pick up Tonton Macoute. Go reclaim another tentacular child for her mother. Go fight your monster.

Malon Edwards

Malon Edwards was born and raised on the South Side of Chicago, but now lives in the Greater Toronto Area, where he was lured by his beautiful Canadian wife. Many of his short stories are set in an alternate Chicago and feature  people of color. Malon also serves as Managing Director and Grants Administrator for the Speculative Literature Foundation, which provides a number of grants for writers of speculative literature.

More Shadow Men:

The Half Dark Promise, by Malon Edwards – Something moves in the half dark two gas lamps ahead of me. I hold fast at the edge of a small circle of gaslight cast down from the street lamp above me. I don’t breathe. I don’t move. I just hold my breath so long that I get lightheaded as I try to drop eaves hard into the half dark around the gas lamps ahead. But all I hear is my steam-clock heart going tanmiga tanmiga tanmiga in my chest.

Cantor’s Dragon, by Craig DeLancey – Georg Cantor waits while his wife Vally pulls at the heavy door to the Nervenklinik. The crisp air smells of leaves and wood smoke, but as they pass into the white-tiled halls disinfectant envelops them. The nurse comes and introduces herself. Cantor says nothing. He has not spoken in a month. He rarely even focuses his eyes. The nurse leads them down long passages. Their shoes snap at the marble floor. After many turns, they stop at a white door that opens to his room: a narrow bed covered with taut white sheets, a comfortable chair facing a window that looks out onto a lawn edged by waving oaks, a round rug on the cherry floor.

The Seaweed and the Wormhole, by Jenn Grunigen – Three months ago, Peregrine had started sleepwalking. He said his night’s mind was always full of abandoned taxidermy shops, and tea brewed from obsidian dust and anise and silkworms. But his waking mind was full of these things, too, so they hadn’t worried Ebb. It was something else—other—that was making him anxious. After a month of the sleepwalking, he’d started to wonder what Peregrine wasn’t saying. He could tell when his lover was holding back; it was their nature to know each other. When he realized Peregrine was keeping something he couldn’t have, Ebb knew it had to be wrong. Invasive.