Tag Archives: girls

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“American history. I got this stupid paper.”

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

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

“How do you do it?”

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

“Ignore—”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh, I never meant—”

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

Her eyes are Virgin Mary blue and so, so confused. I get up quick and leave, carry the devil out to my car where I sit the rest of the day, smoking cigarettes and staring at my phone, choking on the evil he’s burnt on my breath.
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It’s my own fault, that’s true, but I didn’t know. I wasn’t even afraid—we were both just waking. His face nestled on my other pillow, all scarred and twisted and red. His left eye was squinting at me, the other gone. Plucked out, maybe fighting some angel. I stared at him like he was an image on a screen, like he couldn’t touch me even at that close range. After a second, the devil smiled.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who?”

“Should I wait?” the sweet voice asks.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Can I move these clothes?”

“Yeah, just a sec—”

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

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

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

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

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

“Okay, so… so you sit there and…”

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

“What? Oh, fuck no—”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I know how that sounds.

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

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

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

“So what, am I, like, boring you?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Again that rich, knowing laugh.

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

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

Just a joke.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’m doing this for all of you.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Julie and me, we got no demographic at all.

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

Sundays she goes to church. No devil on Sundays.

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

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

LOL, of course. XOXO.

What’s wrong? Nothing, really.

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

Except.

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

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

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

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

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

“Nothing—God, hang on—”

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

“Are you still pissed about Luke?”

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

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

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

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

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

“What? I’m like barely even dressed—”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

devil09

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“He’s my only friend,” she says.

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

10devil

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

“What if you’re wrong?”

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

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

“You ready?”

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

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

Thirty seconds pass, maybe less. Maybe forever.

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

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

Are we assembled here to parley?

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

Girls, girls. Is this how friends act?

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

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

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

Julie. Do you remember?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She’s still strong. Still counting on me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yeah?”

“We should finish it.”

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

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

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

We’re fine, we say, and laugh harder.

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

11devil

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Assorted Other Devils:

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

Even in This Skin, by A.C. Wise – Mar has been binding her breasts for years by the time she starts visiting Jamie in prison. If the men stare, it’s at her ass; she can live with that. She isn’t packing today, so she doesn’t strut, just tugs her sweatshirt over her wrists before sliding into the seat opposite her brother. Today, she just wants to disappear.

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

Painted Grassy Mire, by Nicasio Andres Reed

mire01

Louisiana, 1915

Heat like a hand at her throat then a breeze kicked up from Lake Borgne to swat Winnie sweetly across the face. One of those breezes every hour. A muddy, warm thing that got her through the day. What would life be without a breeze off the lake? Nothing. Nothing, just everyone gone to moss and decay.

Late light on the cordgrass lifted up the red at its edges, sharpened it to spindle fingers plucking the brackish air. Winnie rode her oar low and turned along the fat curve of an island. Eight plump, silver drum shone on the flat bottom of her cypress-board pirogue. Enough of a catch that she could go off on her own business now, in that last hour before the mosquitoes and tappanoes claimed the marsh for their own night kingdom.

Winnie was Saint Malo’s bunso, the smallest, so morning and afternoon she changed the Spanish moss under the sleeping dorm, collected the eggs, and fed the chickens. They were wiry, hardy hens. Fifth-generation swamp creatures born with mud on their feet. Last night there were twelve of them, in the morning only eleven. Not strange to lose a hen to a gator in the night, but it was the third gone in a week. Most gators, they ate once a month, then lived on air. Sat out in the sun and swallowed air whole through their gaping mouths. This must then be a weird lizard, beyond the work and sleep and lost rounds of three-card monte that made up the total of Winnie’s life. She glided across the water in hope of the beast.

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Some things that Winnie knew about alligators:mire03

They were lazy creatures. An active hunt was against their nature, and if a skinny young girl slipped into the water, all unknowing that an alligator lurked a spare few feet below, the gator would leave her be rather than swim the distance between to swallow her up. But if a foolhardy older man, perhaps named Francisco, were to splash up a ruckus within reach of the gator’s snout, he would for certain live the rest of his life left-handed and lucky for it.

Gators were truly unsentimental. On a young girl’s first journey through the marsh, a big bull of a gator would demonstrate this by rising up a broad, algae-crusted snout and snapping the body of a youngster of its own species into two neat bites. Welcome to Saint Malo, it would seem to say. You will live and die here.

A gator was a solitary monster. A young girl in the marshes will find no alligator cities, no gator nations or schools, no broad alligator avenues, no matter how long she may look.

They were strict heathens. God formed them not to kneel, and so they worshipped nothing but the sun. Mid-morning to noon, punctual as priests to mass, they gathered in the half-dry dirt and needlegrass and prostrated themselves before that searing orb while Christian species huddled in the shade.

They cared not for the flesh of the dead, or else despite being irreligious they held Catholic rites in some awe or respect. Winnie’s mother had been safe in her mudflat grave now for more’n a month.

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mire04The bulrushes were in flower, round heads flaking into feathered cotton. Floating pollen landed on the water, in the mud, on the bow of Winnie’s pirogue, but nowhere onto the knotty hide of a gator. She turned her boat to home, the white canvas of Saint Malo’s two-sailed paraw visible as it slunk ahead of her beyond the mud bar that kept the lake from the marsh. It was then, among the high roots of the low mangrove, that Winnie saw dragging alligator prints in the mud. A mound of leaves, branches, and earth as high as her head resolved itself into a nest, with prints all about. Large prints, adult beasts, at least a dozen of them going to and from the mound.

Dark was coming on. The marsh made its warnings, and Winnie had to heed them. She headed for home, but she watched the nest for as far as her head would turn.

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Winnie couldn’t sleep that night. Her bed was double-large and empty. The men in the next room rustled and shifted. The frog and mosquito choir outside droned on, encompassing. Moonlight spilled through the window netting to dusk across her skin.

Winnie dreamed, these days, of her mother. She dreamt a hot, wet cathedral stretching darkly into the distance, and a vision of the marsh barred by moon-white teeth. Being carried; gently, gently. The muddy perfume smell of her mother and her tough, scaled legs. Her mother’s voice so low that it rattled in Winnie’s skin.

In the Saint Malo night, Winnie heard the thousand, thousand mosquitoes and felt the blood hot in her body. She got up and went to the door on cat feet. The moon was nearly full, white as a fish belly. Winnie’s nose to the netting, she could feel the night outside, the hum and the hiss of it. Out in the water: a rush of movement. She thought of the chickens. Quiet as she could manage, she lit and shined a lantern.

Across from the door was Hilario’s enormous house. On stilts, like all the buildings here. Its full twenty piles cast a jumble of spiderleg shadows skittering over the water. Winnie roved the light. And then she saw, as if in a dream after all, an eye as wide around of a grown man’s hatband. Bright as the devil, shining in the dark. Her hand shook; she lost sight of the eye, then couldn’t find it again. But she would swear, despite the size, she’d swear it was the gator.

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Winnie’s father, Tomás, was patching up a net across his knees. Loops and hitches, knots and diamonds. The net was hooked to the porch rail, and Winnie sat with her back to the house, her legs under the shadow of the net, her fingers seeking out gaps.

“Francisco asked after you again,” she said. Her father winced at the name.

mire02“Mm,” he said, and tugged at the net. She let him drag it his way.

“At the card table,” she said.

“You shouldn’t be there.”

“I’m old enough,” she said.

“No. Susmaryosep!” He shook his small head. “Only men there.”

“Of course there are men, I’m the only woman here.” Winnie found a gap in the net and marked it with a yellow ribbon.

“You are a girl. You are a young girl.”

“I’m a Manilaman,” she said, and he jerked with laughter. His face stretched wider to expel it. The noise cut into Winnie. “That’s what they said when we went into the city.”

“Where was your mamá from?”

Winnie shrugged. “Up Proctorville way?”

“Hm,” he said. It was the most he’d said about her mother since she’d died. “And ako, where was I from?” She shrugged again. “Batangas. So where you going to be a Manila Man?”

Some silence, and the breeze buzzing through the reedgrass. Then she asked, “What’s it like in Batangas?” And she knew she said the name all wrong.

“Hot.”

“Like here?”

“No. Hot, with a different sun. Flat as a foot, but for the mountain watching. A river, no marsh. Big mango trees and coconut. The rice. The priests. Very many priests.”

He ran out of language to explain, or memory to spare, and left her craving. She passed her eyes over the flat expanse of the marsh and the raised outlines of Saint Malo houses. She’d never seen a mountain or known the shape of a mango. A curl of her mestiza-brown hair fell into her eyes. She blew it up and away.

“Papa, you been to Proctorville? Where mama grew up?”

“No.” His fingers and knife threaded through the net without hurry. “She came to the marsh. Swam to Saint Malo, met me. Never went back.”

“Swam to Saint Malo?”

“Sailed,” he corrected, although it was the rare sailboat that could make the journey.

She wanted to tell him about her dreams, the dreams she’d had in her mother’s arms and out, but she didn’t have words that he’d understand. He didn’t care for her dreams the way her mother had. Alligator scales solid as Spanish tiles. Teeth as thick as the piles that held up Saint Malo, sharp as salt, lowering over her heavy as grief. She bit her tongue and searched out the gaps.

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Winnie’s mamá had been a strong swimmer, that much was certain. The two of them in the pirogue, she’d slipped over the side and into the lake. From the still air into the still water, her hair uncoiling, her eyes wide with pleasure as she dipped low so only her face was above the surface. She’d wanted Winnie to come in after her, to abandon the boat, to slip overboard and sink with her. Winnie never did.

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Another hen gone. To the mud bar again, to the gator nest. Winnie floated past on the lake side, where the pile of muck and grass intermingled with thick mangrove roots to form a thick wall. In the warm of the day there was a greater warmth emanating from the nest. A cloying heaviness that drew Winnie in like a memory. The smell was mud and rot, and familiar.

Winnie poled her pirogue over the bar and into the marsh, around the other side of the nest. Here it poured itself out into the water. Here there were lizards waiting for her. Three gators with wide mouths agape. Young, striped black and gold. They surrounded the nest entrance, sitting with that gator-stillness that no other creature could match.

She took ahold of the fattest crappie from between her feet and tossed it among the alligators, an offering. Its silver tail flapped twice, then lay quiet. It was a long time Winnie sat there, the water between them, while the beasts didn’t shift and the fish died. Beyond the brim of her hat, sunlight hardened into afternoon.

mire05Finally, the smallest of them made a move. Delicate as fingertips, its jaws scooped up the crappie. Shuffling and dragging, it ascended the nest and disappeared. From the water, Winnie couldn’t see all the way to the top, but there was movement there. A bump that she’d thought was a rotted log bobbed up and down. Then the small gator again, only as long as Winnie was tall, slid its way back out of the nest and into its old spot. It clawed at the dirt before settling. It turned one algae-dark eye on Winnie and, slow as the moon slipping behind a cloud, the creature winked at her.

The downhill tilt took her. Winnie slipped one leg, then another from her pirogue. Her feet found mud under the water and she sank to her ankles. Shallow, still. Her fingers trailed the surface. Raising as few ripples as she could, she advanced on the nest.

The lizards moved with sudden speed. They formed a barrier of their bodies, barring her from the entrance. Winnie stood in the marsh, mud advancing up her legs, and wondered what offering would be sufficient.

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Card games were held in Hilario’s front room, lit by lamplight that swayed to the steady rhythm of the men’s hisses and hollers. Winnie hooted and wailed with them, going from end to end of the long, low table to the other and making faces at the cards, elbowing between elbows to see the action. This is where they called her bunso, the littlest lizard darting among them. Or buntot, for the way her long braid wagged behind her head.

Her father didn’t come to the table often, one of the reasons Winnie did, but he was there that night, lit up, winning hand after hand. Smiling at everyone, even at her. He paid Francisco back the five dollars he’d been asking after for weeks, and threw in a nickel on top.

“Get you an ice cream cone,” he said. “Down at the hokey-pokey store!” The closest being a day’s journey away. Francisco laughed, though he’d wanted to win the money off him. He slapped Tomás on the back and dealt him into another round.

Outside the window netting was the living night, but it didn’t encroach here, it could not touch them. Winnie and the Manila Men were yellow in the lamplight, from their sun-brown faces to the whites of their eyes. The flowing rum was a virile red. Hilario’s boy Augusto let Winnie sip from his glass. She felt vibrational as a mosquito. She could have walked onto the marsh right then; she could have found her mother and danced into the bottom of the lake.

Money is money, but at the turn of the night it was time to bet on things that couldn’t be bought. Francisco wanted Winnie’s father to put up his pirogue, the one that was named Valentine after her brother who’d died a baby. Tomás said no, no, but he’s got just the thing. He stepped into Hilario’s back room that served as Saint Malo’s safe deposit, and came back carrying a shallow chest. Everyone got up and crowded around to see him open it. Winnie wended among their jutting hips to the front.

She’d never seen this chest, didn’t know her father had it, or anything at all in Hilario’s bank. It was a very fine chest, fitted with brass, the leather top gone a bit moldy from the weather, as everything did. Tomás made a leisurely show of unbuckling the straps, then running his hands across the top. He met Winnie’s eyes with a funny little twinkle. Then he flipped the lid.

Like Spanish tiles, or cracked mud. Black like a rotted log, and smelling old and sweet, it was an alligator skin. Tomás lifted it from the chest and held it high above his head, but still couldn’t unfold the full length of it. Augusto took hold of the other end and between them they stretched it near across the room. Fifteen, maybe seventeen feet. Wide as Winnie was tall. It was the grandest, blackest, most beautiful thing she’d ever seen. The men were afire with wanting it.

Winnie went to her father.

“No,” she said. “Don’t bet it away.” And she knew he would, as nearly every man there was getting dealt in. Tomás laughed and squeezed her about the neck.

“It was your mother’s,” he said. “No need for it anymore.” And he did lose the skin, lost it to Marcelo, who took it to drape like a hammock across his sleeping dorm.

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In the crowd of pirogues heading out of Saint Malo the next morning, Marcelo crowed.

“Oh, that lizard, my lizard,” said Marcelo. “She’s fat like the belly of galleon! Creaks in the night like one too.”

Winnie couldn’t speak. Her father rowed along in his Valentine with a smile. The bulrushes were heavy with summer bulbs and leaned arches over their path through the marsh. All breeze dropped out of the air, and even their movement against the water barely brought a wind to their faces.

“Storm coming,” said Augusto.

“When the storm comes,” said Marcelo, “I’ll crawl up inside my great big lizard! Come out with the sun, bone dry!” A thoughtless rage opened inside Winnie at his words.

Just like that, all the way onto the lake. There, the group scattered itself and cast their nets. Pulled in, cast again. This, more than any stilt house, card game, or line of drying fish, this was Saint Malo: the casting and the pulling. The whiz of the net through the air and the pish of it slicing the water. The flit of fiber through Winnie’s hands when she pulled it back and sifted it for prey. The dotted line of men and Winnie spread over the western edge of the lake, marsh air and marsh sounds hard at their backs. For this, her father and the rest had fled the Spanish whip, for this they’d lost Batangas, Manila, the Visayas, and a dozen other homes. For this heavy air and these low pirogues. For Winnie, perhaps, though they hadn’t known it. For that she could be born to the marsh with her muddy eyes.

Winnie cast and pulled and daydreamed tough alligator hide like a gnarled crowd of overlapping hands. White alligator night-eyes and deep alligator voices. The nest and the monster she’d fed. The downhill pull of that uphill slope.

By late afternoon the air hollowed out and the birds fled north. A pair of egrets cut a silent path right above Winnie’s head. The spread of boats cinched towards the mud bar and the marsh. Tomás drew up alongside her. His boat sagged with the catch. She wouldn’t look him in the eye.

“A hard wind tonight,” he said. “You sleep in the men’s dorm.”

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mire04The rattling walls, the jumping floor, the hot rip of the wind and rain at the shutters and the wet smell of the thatch roof. Winnie lay curled on a pallet in the middle of the room, the men unsleeping around her in their bunks. In the corner: the gator skin. It shuddered and swayed, its thick tail lashing. When the wind began there were prayers and singing, but now just the storm around them and Marcelo’s gasps as the gator swung from its hanging place above him.

Winnie spared a thought for the chickens, transported to Hilario’s living room and likely head-tucked and shivering. She spared a thought for her mother in her grave, drowning. The dorm went side to side. She closed her eyes and tried to sink. Heavy bones and thick skin, mud crusted over her eyes and salt sharp on her teeth.

A howl outside, a howl that didn’t end, but pitched up and up like the bow of a sinking ship. The noise of somethings flying through the air and smacking the walls of Saint Malo. The walls of the dorm, hit and hit again by the objects of her imagination. Turtles, crappie, trout, drum, uprooted mangroves, and unmoored rafts. The roof whined. The men muttered, but there was nowhere safer to flee.

There had been storms on the marsh before. Winnie had laid awake through them and poled through their debris on gray mornings. She’d tucked her head into her mother’s side and slept through the wind. She’d lost rounds of three-card Monte with the weather menacing among the stilts of their houses, pressing at their bellies and slipping through their boards. She was a marsh creature, born with mud on her feet and salt in her hair.

All this, and still when the back wall fell in and men and bunks and the gator skin tumbled onto Winnie’s pallet, she screamed. Limbs and the tail, bodies and the snout, a slick mess of swamp-stuff suffocating her. And the wind now free among them drove rain into their hides.

Drier arms reached into the jumble and pulled apart the wrecked bunks. They extracted Marcelo, Francisco, Bambol, and Florenzo.

“Winnie!” Tomás shouted. The others were at the door, making to fight their way to Hilario’s intact house. “Where’s my Winnie?”

They pulled apart the fallen wall, dragged away the wrecked netting, the ruined sheets and moss mattress stuffing. They accounted for every man. They flipped the gator skin onto its wide, white belly. Tomás called for his daughter. Winnie blinked her double-lidded eyes and took him gently between her jaws.

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The night path was lit for her. Everything alive, everything alight. Movement all around, sensed through the skin of her snout. The smell of home and of earth. The storm’s violence was muted and slowed underwater. Impacts rolled through the liquid and against her, inconsequential. Behind her, the dorm house collapsed entirely. Men sloshed into the water and mud. They were tempting, but her mouth was full of her father. He did not fit entirely, but his arms were pinned, and his head was tucked against her tongue. She could feel him struggling and screaming, but it was nothing to the power of her wide and sure mouth.

A power was upon her like an embrace. A quiet, uncomplicated power something like anger but more like an inevitable victory. She had slid downhill every moment of her life, and now was in the sure trench, the awaited valley, the lush prize. She was done with mourning.

Her body was her body and her body was her tail: a muscle stronger and more able than she had ever felt before. Movement smooth and quick despite her bulk. Skin like a crust, so thick that the world could not touch her. With one set of eyelids closed, the wind was nothing to her. Winnie tucked her legs close in to her belly and jackknifed through the marsh.

Reedgrass and fimbry were battered flat and sputtering. The mangroves stood stolid while they were stripped of their leaves. The bulrush bulbs that had so dominated the skyline flew here and there. Between Winnie’s teeth, the water seeped. She kept her head up, aware that Tomás must breathe frequently.

There were other gators in the water around her, heading in the same direction. A crowd, an alligator boulevard through the marsh, a procession to their only destination.

The mud bar had disappeared beneath the flood, but the nest still rose, a tower of detritus. The marshward approach was cut by a pitched glacier of mud. Winnie drew herself out of the water and up the slope. She found herself more awkward on land. She felt the weight of the offering in her mouth. She was flanked and preceded by other, smaller alligators. Young beasts half her size who rushed around her and over her. She clambered among them on her slick belly.

Up, up into the nest where waited a mouth more vast than even her own. A mouth that gaped like the doors of a cathedral and into which her sisters and brothers rush in a black stream of leathery bodies. Outside: the wind and the rain, the storm taking the marsh to pieces, Saint Malo in splinters behind them. Inside: a humid, cavernous hall with a fleshy scent that Winnie could taste through her skin.

She knew this place, this scent and this heat, this moist and crowded abattoir. Deep within was a pounding drumbeat that she recognized as intimately as the taste of her own breath. Her mother, her skin: This was their place. This was her place. She clambered deep inside, opened her mouth, and gave up her father’s struggling body to the family of her mother.

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Nicasio Andres Reed is a Filipino-American writer and poet whose work has appeared in Comma Press, Queers Destroy Science Fiction, Strange Horizons, Liminality, Inkscrawl and Beyond: the Queer Sci-Fi and Fantasy Comics Anthology. A member of the Queer Asian SF/F/H Illuminati, Nicasio currently resides in Madison, WI. Find him on Twitter @NicasioSilang.

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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.

An Atlas in Sgraffito Style, by A.J. Fitzwater – It’s the third month after the cities collide when the women dance out of the walls. They are the worthy women, the terrible, bright, ugly, and genius. Terrifying puppet vandals. Taking time to appreciate the black-and-gray stencils that scream Bristol or the hyper colors that ooze Valparaiso would require playing tag with the street chasing me down. So, see Béla run. See Béla search desperately for a ninety-degree turn. But the Bricks are hard at war with anything resembling a gap, and there are no intersections.

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

Good Girls, by Isabel Yap

This story contains scenes dealing with suicide and violence relating to infants, which some readers may find upsetting.

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You’ve denied the hunger for so long that when you transform tonight, it hurts more than usual. You twist all the way round, feel your insides slosh and snap as you detach. Your wings pierce your skin as you leave your lower half completely. A sharp pain rips through your guts, compounding the hunger. Drifting toward the open window, you carefully unfurl your wings. It’s an effort not to make a sound.

girls-pull1You’re a small girl, but it’s a small room, and though your boyfriend is snoring you can’t risk being caught. You look back at him, remembering how he’d breathed your name a few hours ago, pouring sweat as you arched beneath him – Kaye, baby, please. You wonder if he’ll say it that way when you eventually leave.

The half you’ve left behind is tucked in shadow: gray, muted pink where your intestines show through. The oversized shirt you’re wearing hides the worst of the guts that hang from your torso as you glide into the sticky night air. You suck in a deep breath as the living bodies of your housing complex flood your senses. A girl sobs in her bedroom while her father hammers at the door. A pair of elderly foreigners lie in each other’s arms. A stray dog licks its balls outside the iron gates while a security guard dozes in his cramped sitting room.

Manila is a city that sleeps only fitfully, and you love it and hate it for that reason.

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The first thing taught at the Bakersfield Good Girl Reformation Retreat is the pledge: “I’m a good girl. A good girl for a good world. And while I know it is not always easy to be good, I promise to at least try.” The girls are made to repeat this three times at orientation, and one girl seems moved enough to shout “Amen!” at the end. Or she could be mocking it; Sara can’t tell. The girls on either side of her are listless, mouthing the pledge without care or conviction. One scratches her knee then digs underneath her fingernails, puckering and unpuckering her mouth like a goldfish. Sara suspects she’s wearing a similar expression. She frowns and squints at the clear blue California sky, the same one from the home she was just forced to leave.

Afterward they’re herded onto the field for physical exercises and split into groups. Sara’s group starts running. She quits on the second lap out of five, short of breath and thinking nope, not worth it. She jogs off the field and is trying to disappear someplace when Captain Suzy, who is in charge of PE, catches sight of her. Captain Suzy frowns and starts heading for her, except the flag football team erupts in a hair-snatching free-for-all. Captain Suzy surges into the brawl and flings girls away from each other, so that by the end mud and grass is strewn everywhere and more than one girl has fainted from the heat.

Later, Sara learns the fight was because of a butterfly knife that someone had snuck in and stupidly showed off. Lots of girls wanted it.

They’re given Exploration time after lunch, with the stern reminder that they have to be prepared for Group Sharing (4:30 PM), followed by Journals (6 PM) in their respective rooms before Dinner (7 PM). After leaving the dining hall, Sara surveys the abandoned schoolhouse where all Good Girls are forced to stay. It’s mostly dusty classrooms with chalkboards. Tiny white bugs swirl in every sunbeam. Most chairs and tables are child-sized, and colored mats cover the floor. A mesh-wire fence circles the entire yard, and past it, a tall rusted gate. Beyond them lie endless fields, roasting under the sun. The fence is too tall to climb, and Sara is neither agile nor motivated. She heads back to her room and decides to Explore her bed.

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There are meals all over the Metro, so many routes to explore. You’ve mapped them out over years and months of nightly travels: countless delicacies, different treats for different moods. The only difference is your start point, your end point. You never last more than a few months in the same place. You always need to find someone new to take you in–to believe you’re human, just like them.

Tonight your hunger is confusing. You don’t know what you want, what will satiate you. You decide to start upscale and work your way down, so you veer toward the part of the city with its lights still on.

Music pulses loudly from a club. Three high school girls totter out on four-inch heels, standing awkwardly on the carpet to avoid the potholed road. One of them is holding a phone to her ear. A car comes up; a maid hops out of the front seat and opens the door for the girls, and they climb in, unsteady from lack of practice or too many vodka Sprites. You think about dancing, about what it’s like to occupy the skin of a beautiful party girl, something you can do with ease–-slipping into a bar with confidence, slipping out with someone’s fingers twined in yours, ready to point at the stars and laugh then lean in close for a kiss.

They can never smell the blood and sputum underneath the liquor in your breath. Humans make up wonderfully intricate rituals, pretend to have such control–-but they easily devolve into animal longing, just heartbeats flaring in their cage of skin and bones.

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Something is knocking at Sara’s door. A monster of some kind, an overgrown baby bleeding from the chest. Its clawed fist is tapping in a way that’s supposed to be quiet, almost polite-–then Sara realizes she’s asleep and scrambles out of bed.

She opens the door. It swings into the hallway and bumps into the girl standing there. “Sorry,” Sara says. Her shirt is soaked in sweat.

“No worries. I’m Kaye! Nice to meet you.” The girl’s hand is cold and dry in Sara’s gross sticky one.

“Sara,” Sara says. “So I guess we’re roommates?”

“Yep,” Kaye says. She is petite and gorgeous, with shiny black hair and flawless honey-colored skin. Asian, but Sara can’t guess which. She wears an easy, friendly grin as she wheels in her luggage. She stops to note which bed Sara has occupied, then throws her backpack onto the empty one.

Sara shuts the door and sits on her bed. She picks up her regulation Pen + Diary in a halfhearted effort to prep for Group Sharing, but ends up watching Kaye unpack instead. Kaye unzips her overstuffed luggage, displaying piles of neatly folded clothes and small colorful snacks: Sweet Corn, Salt and Vinegar Chips, Boy Bawang. Notebooks and papers are wedged between socks and shoes in plastic bags. Kaye fishes out a pair of slippers and slaps them on the floor triumphantly.

“So what’s your deal?” Sara asks, as Kaye peels off her shoes and socks and sticks her feet into the slippers.

“I eat fetuses,” Kaye replies. “If I feel like it, I eat organs too.”

Sara frowns and shuts her notebook. Kaye doesn’t elaborate, and starts sorting clothes on her bed. Sara leans forward so that she can better inspect Kaye’s luggage. There are stickers all over it. One says Fragile, another says Delta Airlines; three are written in Chinese Characters; two read Wow! Philippines. They’re faded, the edges picked off as if someone with long fingernails was extremely bored.

“You came from abroad?”

“A few months ago.” She opens a pack of chips and holds it out to Sara. Sara peers in; they look like shriveled corn kernels. She shakes her head.

“So you were flown all the way out here to stop eating babies,” Sara repeats. Her gut churns, and a voice in her brain goes no, no, no.

“Unborn babies,” Kaye clarifies. “But it’s not like I can help it.” She starts laying out her clothes on the bed, methodically. “I would tell you what they call me, but you wouldn’t be able to pronounce it anyway.”

“Try me,” Sara says.

Kaye smirks and rips out a page from her regulation Diary, then scribbles something on it. She holds it up for Sara to read.

“Manananggal?” Sara tries.

Kaye collapses onto her bed laughing.

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The sky is outlined by skyscrapers, some still in construction. A half-finished high-rise condo is fenced off with boards bearing the image of the newest starlet. She’s wearing a red dress, hair fetchingly arranged over one shoulder, glass of champagne in hand. The flowery script next to her head reads: Where luxury and comfort reside.

The giant open-air shopping complex next to it is almost empty. A few cafes remain lit, although the chairs inside are turned up. A barkada of young professionals staggers back to the parking lot, high on caffeine and the adrenaline of overwork. They are laughing louder than the silence calls for. One man swears he will kill their boss the following morning.

You like these declarations. They can only be made at this hour–-witching hour, your hour. You like them because they’re not true.

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The Group Sharing discussion leader is named Apple. Sara ends up on her right, legs curled on the pink-and-orange mat. Apple greets everyone with a giant smile, then takes attendance. There are five girls in the sharing group, including Kaye. Apple begins by saying how happy she is that everyone has come to the Good Girl Reformation Retreat, where all girls are expected to be supportive and encouraging in their journey toward goodness.

“In order to get to know one another better, I would like each of you to tell the group which particular circumstances brought you here. There is no need to be shy or secretive about it. While we know it is not always easy to be good, we are now at Retreat, and we are going to try.”

Tamika, seated on Apple’s left, starts: She knifed her last boyfriend in the ribs. Trang has a habit of setting small fires because they are very pretty. Lena stalked her favorite lab teacher and sent threatening messages to his wife. Dana doesn’t say anything, but she pulls up her shirt and shows everyone a scar that cuts across her extremely toned belly. Sara notices Kaye looking at the pinkish flesh marring Dana’s brown skin with a sad smile.

“You have to tell us, Dana,” Apple insists. Dana says, “It hurt,” and that’s all she can be persuaded to say.

“Maybe next time then,” Apple says, with too much hope. “And you, Kaye?”

“I was brought to the US to marry someone,” Kaye says, the perfect mix of defiant and ashamed. Someone gasps. Sara’s mouth drops open, but Kaye doesn’t notice, and adds: “I’m not as young as I look.” She gives a tiny, tired grin, before proceeding to tell them about the drug bust at her husband’s place, her illegal papers, how no one will pay for her flight back to Manila. How the US government took matters into its own hands, and sent her here. How she’s homesick and rattled and maybe it’s for the best that her husband of two months OD’ed, but really mostly she’s glad to just be here, it seems safe. Everyone nods solemnly, and Dana reaches out and holds Kaye’s shoulder, briefly.

Liar, Sara thinks, but no, this is the truth. Of course this is the truth, and Kaye was just messing with her. Kaye was just having a little fun.

Then suddenly Apple says, “Sara? What about you, Sara?”

“I-– “ Sara says, and wonders how she can explain.

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girls-pull2Manila’s gated communities, home to the rich and famous, swanky as fuck. You flap past some consulates, flags drooping from their balconies, but you’re not interested in foreign food today. You sweep closer, lower, appreciating the distinct features of each house: angels cut into columns, black iron gates with gold accents, circular driveways sweeping up to meticulously lit front doors. Gardens overflowing with gumamela blossoms and palm trees. All the houses are humming with electricity, air-conditioners running at full blast. The humans moving inside them are less electric: house-helpers clearing leftover party dishes, children stuck on their game consoles, everyone else asleep. It’s all boring boring boring until you smell tears–-so much sorrow in the saline–from the odd modest house, a little decrepit for the neighborhood. The sound of sniffling is amplified. You stop and circle the air with interest.

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Sara explains it like this:

“It started after I dropped my sister’s baby. Nobody knew if the baby would be okay. Then the baby was okay, after they’d checked it out at the doctors ‘cause everyone was convinced that the bruise was some kind of tumor. I was just playing with it. I just wanted to hold it for a little while. So anyway after that, I was forbidden to touch the baby. That was okay. I could deal with that.

“The problem was, I started always thinking about babies. Because a baby is this terrible, fragile thing, you know? And so many things can happen to it. I just kept theorizing: if you keep pushing your thumb into its head, won’t your thumb actually sink into its brain? Or if you hold it upside down for too long–-like those dads on TV you know, always swinging their babies around?—like, maybe all the blood fills up its little brain and it gets a mini-baby-stroke. It got so bad that whenever I saw a baby, any baby, I got the sense that, like-–me being alive–-like it could cause that baby to die. Them or me, you know, and why the hell should it be me?

“So I started thinking I should fix that. I started looking out of windows and thinking I’m better off-–you know–-out there. Like when I’m in a moving car. Or when I’m on the fourth floor corridor of my school building. I get this sense that I can jump out and all the babies in the world will be saved. I kept trying, but something would always stop me, and when they asked me what my problem was-–you see how hard it is to explain? So I would just tell them-–I want to fly. That’s all I could say. I want to fly.”

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She is pregnant, the private-school princess in her immaculate bedroom. The tiny thing growing inside her is incredibly fresh–-six or seven weeks old–-and she’s just found out, or just admitted it to herself. She doesn’t know what to do. She’s composing an email to her boyfriend, or maybe her best friend. She types in quick bursts, interspersed with falling on her bed and beating her pillow with impassioned fists. You imagine the taste of her child in your mouth; you consider sucking it up and sparing her the agony of waking tomorrow. Wouldn’t that be a mercy to this child? Not having to live with the shame of bearing her own, so young, and her parents so disappointed, and her schoolmates so ready to talk shit about her?

You settle on the roof, testing the tiles, positioning yourself above her bedroom.

Then she starts playing a Taylor Swift song. It’s blaring from her iTunes and she is wailing on the bed, and suddenly it’s so hilarious that you can’t bear to end it. Besides, you don’t want to wait for her to fall asleep. She might not fall asleep at all.

You sigh, take off again, and decide that it’s time for a change of scenery.

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“So that’s your story,” Sara says that night, eyes gazing into the pitch darkness (Lights out at 9, 9 is so early, do they think anyone can actually sleep at 9?). “Mail order bride. Drugs. Gross old man. That sounds really terrible, but that…makes more sense.”

“That’s why I’m here, but only you know the truth about me,” Kaye says, an undercurrent of laughter in her voice. She sits up in bed, looks across at Sara, and Sara’s just imagining the weird light reflecting in her irises. “Hey Sara, I’m glad the baby was okay, by the way. It wasn’t your fault you were careless. Well I mean, it kind of is, but can anyone really blame you? Babies are such fragile things. I don’t know why you girls keep having them.”

“Says the baby eater,” Sara says, with what she hopes is humor, but she’s exhausted and suddenly imagining a baby tumbling down the stairs.

“You don’t believe me, do you?” Kaye laces her arms across her knees. “That’s okay. I only told you because I thought maybe you wouldn’t–-haha. If you did believe me you probably wouldn’t like me, and I’d have to say it’s in my nature, and then we’d fight, and god I’d have to leave again, when I’m not even hungry yet. When I’ve got nowhere to go.”

“You’re weird,” Sara says, because clearly Kaye is more messed up than she lets on.

Kaye laughs. There’s so much laughter in her, it surprises Sara. Kaye crosses the room and sits on the opposite end of Sara’s bed-–so quickly, suddenly she’s there and Sara sits up and draws her knees back reflexively. She should be freaked out, but after weeks of being treated like broken glass back home, in school–-this proximity is not entirely unwelcome. Everyone sidestepping the baby issue, Dad and Mom hissing about suicide treatment in the kitchen after dinner, her meager friends suddenly evaporating.

A person who treats her like she’s real? It’s an odd relief. Kaye leans closer. She smells nice, and her eyes crinkle.

“Tell me about your home,” Kaye says.

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You head for a shantytown: homes made of hollow blocks, roofs of corrugated metal. It’s hardly a mile from the fancy neighborhood. The nearby river is peaceful, although the banks are still torn up from the last typhoon. From a distance you can already smell people, piss, dogs with festering sores, wet grass, shit, washing detergent. The earth is always damp here, soaking up rain, and the proximity of the houses makes everything feel warmer, more alive.

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They do this nightly talking thing a lot, exchanging stories, doodling on each other’s Diaries then laughing and ripping out the pages. Then shushing each other. There’s no TV and no nail polish and no ovens to bake brownies in–-only these, their words, their memories.

Sara finds herself in Kaye’s beloved Manila: garish colors everywhere, clogged highways, grimy naked children running next to spotless cars, in which the bourgeoisie sit with a driver, a maid, sometimes a bodyguard. Sara doesn’t have much to say about her own suburban neighborhood in Pleasanton, but Kaye seems fascinated by America anyway, so Sara tries. She explains the difference between Democrats and Republicans, and the nuances of California slang: Hella bomb, they repeat. Hella sick.

Kaye describes the parts of the body she likes best–-she eats the fetus pretty much whole because it’s the tastiest (“I take it down my throat, and, uh…it’s a little hard to explain,”), then the heart, liver, stomach. Kidneys are surprising flavorful. It must be the bile.

When she talks about her monster self Sara just holds the thought apart from her brain. It’s too weird. It’s almost funny, how earnest Kaye is about it.

Sara recounts her sister’s wedding in Vegas, which they couldn’t really afford, but it was cool to act touristy and kitschy, posing next to the unsexy French maids in the Paris Hotel casino. It was stupid, and that’s what made it fun.

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You count the number of warm bodies in each house you pass, considering the possible damage. Family of four, six, another six, three (absent father), four (absent mother), five (including grandmother). That one won’t manage if you eat the mother, because Lola is sickly and Tatay beats the children. Interesting drama, but you seem to be craving something else. Entrails won’t do tonight–-you want a baby.

You’re enchanted by the amount of closeness you find in many homes: sweaty couples pressed together, children crowded on either side, useless electric fans whirring. It’s love and hunger bound up in acceptance, minute joys punctuated by a mostly typical dissatisfaction, the longing for something better, some way out of this.

They’re not exactly unhappy, despite everything. You think you understand that.

girls-pull3Very lightly, you settle on a gray roof with a gaping hole in the corner. You look down at the man and woman tangled and snoring on a bed, their two-year-old squashed between them. The scent of fresh mangoes is just enough to entice you. There’s only so much time left to properly enjoy your meal, so after a brief consideration you open your mouth and let your tongue slip through the ceiling.

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The Retreat is all routines. After the first day, it’s only variations on a theme, and it gets harder to remember when they started, although that’s what the Diaries are for. Sara isn’t too worried. It must be expensive to run the retreat. Girls come in batches, sponsored by donations, desperate family or community members, and government money; they can’t stay forever. Three weeks, she figures. Four. In the meantime: free food, thirty other girls that are just as fucked up as she is, and even the daily exercise is starting to become manageable.

She figures things out. The cooks are on rotation, and the one every third day actually makes edible food. If you wake up at 5 there’s still hot water left in the showers. It’s okay to walk quickly instead of running during laps, as long as you finish all five. Apple expects you to write at least a paragraph in your diary every day, or else you’ll have to do a long-ass recap at the end of the week. If only there was more to say.

Most girls stay in their rooms during off hours. If the retreat is for repentance, Sara’s not sure how effective it is. At night she can usually hear sobbing down the hall, or hard objects (bodies? heads?) smacking against the walls (sex? Fights? A mix?). Girls who act out are given warnings and punishments. There are no field trips, but they do painting and basket weaving, and learn an alarming number of songs in different languages. If not for the fact that someone always showed up for music class with a burst lip and a black eye, it would almost be like summer camp. Even the Captains turn nicer, only harsh when someone gripes about exercise or doesn’t finish her tossed greens.

Still, despite the moderated peace, restlessness is starting to build beneath the monotony. Someone claims that on their last day the teachers will clear out, and they’re going to gas the place, kill all the girls. It’s a stupid claim, but it has its effects.

“What the fuck are we doing here?” becomes a common question, a chant: in between tooth brushing, or eating soft-but-actually-hard rolls, or making honest-to-god charm bracelets.

Sara asks it, herself, sprawled out on her bed. It’s Going to be Okay! is the motivational statement Apple has assigned them this week. It’s pretty weak, as far as encouragement goes. “What the fuck are we doing here?”

She doesn’t really expect an answer, but Kaye says, “Learning to be good girls. Right?”

“Well when do we get to say okay already, I get it, I’m good?”

Kaye shrugs. “What are you going to do when you get out of here, anyway?”

Sara doesn’t answer, but she pictures it: going back, holding up her nephew triumphantly, the mediocre joy of normalcy after so much exposure to other people’s shit. So she’s thought about killing herself and has a weird thing about babies. She’s never actually hurt anyone. I’m not like these girls, she thinks, and it makes her feel both proud and disgusted. Then she sees herself climbing onto a balcony, feeling the salt edge of the wind, wondering if there’s still a part of her that wants to leave everything.

“Hey Sara. Were you serious about wanting to fly?”

Sara feels jolted. Kaye’s eyes are opaque on hers.

“What do you mean?” Her heartbeat quickens. Kaye smiles and looks out their window.

“You get to decide. Are you going to be good when you leave here? Are you going to turn out all right? You could, you know. You could. There’s no need to stop trying.” She stands and stretches, then clasps her hands over her stomach meaningfully. “But not me. I don’t get to pick. I never get to say I’m good. I can try, but I’m powerless against my hunger. I mean, we all need to eat sometimes, right?”

Sara swallows. Her saliva sticks in her throat. She isn’t afraid of Kaye. Kaye is her friend. Her gorgeous, crazy, baby-eating, compulsively lying friend.

Kaye crosses the room, lightning quick, until she is standing before Sara. The setting sun turns her face a weird shade of orange. She crouches down so that she’s level with Sara, stretched on her bed.

“You know,” she says, face contorting, like she’s holding back tears. “I’m getting hungry. I’m going to need to feed soon. Promise me something. We’re friends, right, Sara?”

Sara pauses, maybe too long, before nodding. Then, to increase her conviction: “Yeah. Of course.”

“When I feed–-promise me that you won’t care. You can just-–sleep. It doesn’t really change anything. I’ve always been this way, you know? And all you girls-–” she shakes her head, stops herself. “You do that for me, I’ll let you fly for one night. It’s nicer here than in Manila. It’s cooler.” She pats the top of Sara’s head. Which is funny, because she’s shorter than Sara.

“What do you think?” she asks. “I can fly, you know. I’m pretty fucking great at it.”

Sara thinks of falling, of landing on the pavement and hearing her shoulder shatter, seeing her own blood streak out past her vision. Her mother sobbing by her bed at the hospital, saying I can’t do this anymore, honey. It has to stop. And after being released, how she’d had no idea, how the van had come one day, and in a haze of anti-depressants she’d stepped onboard. She’d come here.

If Kaye could fly–-hold her, dance her through the air–-she’d be able to see. If it’s safe to go back. If she’s tired of being this way, at least for now.

But more than that, Kaye just wants her to pretend everything’s fine. She can do that. She’s had a lot of practice.

She reaches up and puts her hand on top of Kaye’s, not feeling scared or threatened or awed. Just tired. Bonesucked tired. She squeezes Kaye’s hand and says, “Okay.”

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Your tongue settles on her stomach, and you start feeding, sucking greedily. You’re starving, and it tastes so fucking delicious. The woman squirms, and the child next to her utters a short, soft moan. You don’t want this. You do.

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Sara wakes up sweating. It’s sometime past midnight? It’s too early. She needs to go back to sleep. She shuts her eyes. The sound of her breathing is too loud. She decides to get a glass of water and stumbles out of bed, bumping into something in the middle of the floor. She falls backwards, landing on her ass.

The window is open, the metal fastenings they installed after some girl attempted escape somehow undone. A cloudy moonbeam streams through it, illuminating the lower half of Kaye’s torso and her legs, her feet still in their slippers. It is standing erect, perfectly immobile, like someone sliced a girl in half and left it there for fun. The insides are shimmering, grisly, unreal.

Sara crawls back under her sheets and goes to sleep. Sometime later something slides in next to her, nudging for space on her pillow. Something wraps its arms around Sara and puts its forehead against the small of Sara’s back. Sara smells blood mixed with the faint tinge of–-mango?-–and after a moment’s hesitation, she holds those arms against her. The back of her shirt grows damp with what might be tears.

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When you’re finished, when you’ve shriveled up everything inside her stomach so that your own is full, you spool your tongue back into your mouth and breathe deeply. The horizon tells you that you have about an hour before the sun rises. That’s just enough time to head home, rejoin your lower half, shuffle back into bed. Good girls don’t get caught with babies in their bellies; good girls don’t lie; good girls don’t sneak out wearing only their boyfriends’ shirts.

You know what you are; you know what you aren’t.

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In their twentieth session, Apple says they’ve all been exceedingly Good Girls, and they’re going to be moving on the following week. The girls have demonstrated that they’ve absorbed the values of the retreat and are ready to rejoin the good world. Once Admin gets their paperwork done, the Captains do their sign-offs, and the discussion leaders file their reports-–the girls will be free.

“You get to go back home,” Kaye says, while they’re packing.

“So do you,” Sara says, but she’s suddenly not sure.

Kaye flashes her teeth, feral. “I told you, girl, I don’t have one. I go where the wind takes me!” She flings out her arms, dramatically, and flops backwards on her bed. “This was nice,” she says. “Even when it sucked it was okay. I should hang out with girls more. They don’t want as much from you as guys do. I can stay full for longer! Girls are like fiber.”

Sara doesn’t like the wistful tone in Kaye’s voice. Sara doesn’t like how her own heart squeezes, or how lonely she feels. How afraid she is of going home to find-–but no, it’ll be okay. She’s different now. She’s going to do better.

You get to decide, Kaye said. It’s not that easy. But she can try. Some girls will break their promises, lose their homes, keep on rattling against the gates, biting and sobbing and breathing. Sara, if she wants to, can change.

Kaye rolls over on her bed, arm covering her eyes. She lifts it to peer at Sara. “I still owe you. How about tonight?”

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You’ve never detached with someone watching. You’re so fascinated by her gaze on you that you hardly notice the pain. Sara’s big blue eyes are an excellent mirror–-how there are stringy bits when you twist off, how the way your spine tears from sinew is fluid, almost graceful. Your shirt is short this time so she sees your entrails hanging out, nearly glowing with all the slick against them.

To her credit, Sara doesn’t vomit. You move slowly over to the window, keeping your wings folded, and undo the latches with your knifelike fingers. You drift out and motion for her to stand on the desk. She climbs up, shakily, and says, “Can you really carry me?”

You like to think your smile, at least, is familiar-–even if the pointed tongue between your teeth isn’t.

“Yeah,” you say. “Trust me.” This is you: this is your life, the strength that fills you as you fly, feed, move on. Spanning provinces, cities, countries, continents. Finding new homes to leave, new bodies to keep you warm when you’re not hungry, new strangers to suck dry when you are. And you’ll keep on doing this, as long as you can make it back in time. Before the sun rises, or someone finds the parts you’ve left behind–-something must always be left behind.

This is how you survive.

Sara will get to go home. You’ll just have to find a new one.

“You ready?” The trees are crowding out most of the wind, but you can still taste the breeze, drifting over the dormitories where so many girls are sleeping like wolves, retreating from the world. Just waiting to bare their fangs.

Sara nods. You can’t read her expression–like she’s about to scream or laugh or cry. You squeeze her hand as hard as you can without hurting her, and spread your wings.

end_of_story

isabel

 

Isabel Yap writes fiction and poetry, works in the tech industry, and drinks tea. This story is an ode to two places she calls home: Manila and California. Her work has appeared in The Best of Philippine Speculative Fiction 2005-2010, Tor.com, Interfictions Online, and Nightmare Magazine. She is @visyap on Twitter and her website is isalikeswords.wordpress.com.

 

 

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