Tag Archives: loss

The Ghost Pet Detective, by Ryan Row

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“He didn’t kill himself.”

“Who didn’t?” Law asks.

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

“Your brother. Who else is there?”

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

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

“That wasn’t in the paper,” Law says.

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

“How do you know all this?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Law,” he says, and the girl shrugs.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The girl’s name is Norma.

“Can I call you Normal?”

“Don’t call me anything.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You mentioned that.”

“I said no.”

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

“Why?” Law says.

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

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

“Is he here?”

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

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

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

“He didn’t kill himself.”

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

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

“If he did, he had a good reason.”

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

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

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

It feels exactly as you imagine it feels.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No.”

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

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

Law closes his eyes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Wait!”

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

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

fin

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

Published September 2018, 4100 words, Shimmer #45

Other Ghosts:

The Creeping Influences, by Sonya Taaffe

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

Blackpool, by Sarah Brooks

What the Skeleton Detective Tells You (while you picnic), by Katherine Kendig

You’ve heard your local skeleton forest is vastly underrated, worth a day trip, a nice place for wedding photos and relaxing hikes. You’re not much of a hiker, and not much for trends, but you’re trying to spend more time outdoors. Your forearms are no tanner than your thighs, which worries you.

There are old skeletons, brittle-looking, skulls bleached by the sun and moss halfway up their shins. There are new skeletons with dark stains on their bones, like sycamores just shedding their bark. Real trees, too: big spreading elms, shady maples. Paths crispy with fallen leaves that look, at first glance, like withered skin. Soft shadows and a few nice places to picnic.

You take a closer look at the skeletons: a missing tooth, many missing teeth; hairline fracture in the ribs, massive fracture in the skull; those eye sockets, my God, you could fit pool balls in those things (and now you want to); note the restless fidgeting fingers on that one; note the flaring hipbones here, indicating a female—maybe, what do you know, you’re not a skeleton expert—note the ultra-prominent jawline indicating, if not a male, at least an asshole. Ha ha. Every so often you see a hint of graffiti, a single carved initial completed before the carver got spooked. It is spooky, but not overwhelmingly. It feels peaceful, actually, all that stillness.

Except—

Except yes, you back up a little, that one, there—the fidgeter. You’re still not a skeleton expert but you’re pretty sure the dead don’t fidget; you’re pretty damn sure, because if they could move around on their own, there’s no way you’d be here nosing around and staring into their eye sockets.

You look more closely. Keep calm. Maybe it’s the wind? Maybe it’s a bug, crawling around, or—

“Hello,” says the skeleton.

Don’t faint. Don’t faint. Don’t—

The worst thing for Jamie is not wearing her hat. As a skeleton detective, the odds are stacked against her, but the hat always makes her feel more self-assured; the hat and the gloves and the trench coat, although she can’t tie the belt of the trench coat without it becoming obvious that her abdomen consists of nothing but a spine.

By all rights, she should be dead. “Most skeletons,” her doctor told her dryly when her condition reached its peak, “are very, very dead.” But not Jamie: they call it omniossosis, which as she understands it is Latin for let’s pretend science can explain this. Jamie is the twenty-ninth recorded case in history (the fortieth, if she counts references in literature) and the first to be afflicted after adolescence.

Before she was a skeleton, she was a lawyer. Only for six weeks—she had just passed the bar and moved to Chicago when she started losing weight, and she went on voluntary leave when she started losing skin. Now she’s a detective. It’s a job she can do mostly from home, mostly wrapped up (hat, gloves, trench coat); her doctor has a friend on the force who helped her get set up and sometimes passes tips her way. There’s a lot of research involved, which law school prepared her for. There’s a lot of down time, which she spends almost entirely on the internet, pretending to be other than she is and editing Wikipedia articles on anatomy. She thought about suicide at first, but thinking about the ways she couldn’t kill herself horrified her so much she has since decided to live. (She doesn’t question the logic; don’t do it for her.)

In the skeleton forest, she is pretending to be dead. It’s something she’s trying for her latest case. She didn’t realize she was fidgeting, although she sure was bored.

You don’t swoon so much as sit down abruptly. You don’t think that should count as a faint, but it’s a weekday anyway (you have flexible hours) so no one is around to see you.

No one except the skeleton crouching in front of you, that is. He—she?—leans back a little, dips his—her—head as if avoiding your eyes. Now that you look a little closer you see this one is only mostly a skeleton; are those arteries? Sinews?

“Sorry,” she says. She—definitely she—stands and backs away.

“Holy shit,” you say.

Silence. The skeleton raises a hand toward her head, drops it, crosses her arms.

“Who are you?” you ask. Not one of the articles you’ve read about skeleton forests mentioned live skeletons. The state park website you looked up directions on mentioned ticks and carry-out policies and lightning safety, but definitely not live skeletons. Perhaps there are fumes in this forest—degrading bodies. Perhaps you are hallucinating.

“Um,” says the skeleton. Her voice is thin, a little hollow. It sounds strange and inhuman at the moment, but if you heard it on the phone it probably wouldn’t faze you. The skeleton hesitates and then walks away. After a few steps she stops and looks back at you, arms still crossed, shoulders tipped forward. Hunched.

You are still sitting in the slightly damp grass. You think about standing, but your legs assure you they’re not even remotely up for that yet.

“I’m Jamie,” she says. She says it so simply that for a frozen, horrified moment, you feel as if every skeleton around you, big and small, is suddenly going to wake up and start stretching and introducing themselves and complaining about the damp. Silence, while you wait for the sound of scraping bones. Silence, while you wait for cold fingers to grab you from behind.

“Jared,” you say finally, when your heartbeats have proven to be the only sound for long enough. “I’m Jared,” you say again, as if it weren’t clear the first time, and then you say it one more time for safety, to prove you’re in sound mind for the moment, at least: “My name is Jared.”

“Well—” the skeleton says. “Okay. I’m going to get my hat.”

Jamie doesn’t solve murders or track down missing children. She usually works with husbands and wives wondering what their wives and husbands are up to. Sometimes she helps determine if a teen has a secret boyfriend or a drug addiction. Once she helped a man reclaim a stolen cello, and twice she has found birth mothers. She doesn’t make much money or much of a difference in the world, but she doesn’t feel the need to.

Her latest case is more interesting than usual: The target is a man named Paul Sheeri, either dead (murdered) or dead (suicide) or dead (accident) or, possibly, gone off somewhere secretly (Canada? Albany?). Her client is Paul’s friend Angela—not family, not a spouse, just a friend—who, over Skype, had appeared both worried and angry about being worried, not sure if Paul’s disappearance was a tragedy or another example of “his usual selfishness.”

“Are the two of you a couple?” Jamie had asked gently, careful to use the present tense.

Angela had narrowed her eyes, peering at her screen. Jamie Skyped with clients in near-total darkness; she made sure they could see a hint of her hat, a hint of the perfectly ordinary room behind her. She pretended it was a problem with the camera. “We were best friends,” Angela said harshly, as if Jamie had profaned their relationship. Jamie apologized. The room behind Angela was pristine, carelessly chic.

Paul’s family didn’t know where he was, Angela had told her. They didn’t like her. They thought she was overreacting.

Paul had always liked the Montrose Skeleton Forest, Angela had told her. It was the only place he ever went without her besides the grocery store and the laundromat.

After the call Jamie looked at the facts as she saw them. The facts were these: Paul was twenty-eight years old. He lived alone, worked from home, “depended” on Angela for “literally any social activity,” and had been out of contact for almost a month. (Twenty-four days.) Jamie had typed a “W” whenever she thought Angela sounded genuinely worried and a “P” when she sounded practiced; there were an equal number.

Quote: He’s usually totally reliable. He’s always where he’s supposed to be.

Quote: He doesn’t know anybody.

Jamie had typed in a heart and a question mark, whatever Angela might say about their being a couple.

“I’ll call you if I find anything,” Jamie had told Angela, “or on Thursday. Whichever comes first.”

You’ve never had a conversation with a skeleton before. You don’t really know where to look. The fedora helps.

In your backpack you have three Nature Valley bars and a bottle of Gatorade. You’re sitting at a picnic table near a sign that reminds visitors not to leave any trash behind. There is goose shit all over the grass and you noticed that Jamie avoided it just as assiduously as you did on the walk over.

“So you were pretending to be a skeleton when I walked up?” you ask. It’s a poorly phrased question.

“I was pretending to be one of those skeletons.”

There aren’t many questions that won’t come off as rude, but luckily, Jamie is a talker; the words whistle out of her nonstop. Growing up in Benton, law school, Chicago. The way it feels to look at her own bones. Detective work. Knowing that when she does die, there will be almost no difference. She tells you about her latest case, client confidentiality be damned.

“Would you like a granola bar?” you ask automatically as you grab one for yourself.

“No,” she says, and you are impressed at how little contempt is in her voice. You have never felt so awkward before, so uncouth, as if having flesh is a faux pas.

The sound of your crunching is deafening.

This is Jamie’s plan: She totes a plastic trash bag out to the edge of the skeleton forest, stuffs her coat and gloves in it and gently tucks her hat in after, and stows it in some brush. Then she picks a likely spot, stands in it, and…stays. The idea is that if Paul comes she will watch him, look for clues, maybe follow him home. She is vaguely aware that this is not the most efficient plan, but it doesn’t matter; being who she is, how she is, what she is, has to help with something.

It’s not uncomfortable. She doesn’t get muscle aches anymore; her feet don’t hurt. It is, however, extremely dull. Jamie likes to think she has a disciplined mind—she went to law school, after all, and if you can make it through that—but she’s naturally restless, and when she has to think about keeping still, it takes half her mind to do it.

It’s clear to Jamie that love is involved with this case somehow. It’s the way Angela talked about Paul—always trying to rein herself in. Jamie has a decent amount of experience with love, as much as any twenty-nine year old can hope to have. She’s had boyfriends, one-night stands, unrequited crushes and unwanted admirers; she’s never been (and never will be) married, but—she reasons—most of her law school friends aren’t married either, according to Facebook. She’s still current in the field, so to speak, for a little while longer. Angela and Paul certainly aren’t married.

When she thinks of Paul, her mind goes where it always goes now with men, any man, to a fantasy of meeting him and him falling in love with her. In this case he is blind and falls in love with her voice, but his love is doomed, because she won’t ever let him touch her. Not ever. At first it’s nice to have company but then it gets old, his constant desire for more, and she pictures herself having to break it off with him, his devastation, his desolation. She can’t help these imaginings; it’s not arrogance, especially not now, when she knows exactly where things stand with herself. It’s just morbid, really, like the way she sets up fake dating profiles when she’s bored; the way she sends a real picture of herself when men ask, and then passes it off as a tasteless joke. Morbid like how she brushed her leg intentionally against the leg of a tall skeleton as she walked in this morning, pretended the scrape of bone was electric, ran a finger down a forearm and clicked their teeth together. It’s amazing how different a kiss is, without softness.

This isn’t helping. She has to think about the case.

Paul’s disappearance, according to Angela, is oddly unexciting; he’s not even behind on work yet because his projects are long term. No blood, no guts, no trauma— Jamie is reminded, in fact, of herself. But it’s Angela Jamie keeps getting stuck on—it’s the fact that Angela contacted her, and not a girlfriend or a sibling or a parent.

All day people mill about Jamie, looking at the skeletons, taking pictures, their behavior halfway between zoo-goers and museum tourists. Their voices hush at random and then cycle back up to outdoor levels; they reach out to touch cold and sun-warmed bone with just the tip of one finger, the way children touch snakes after animal trainers insist they’re not slimy. They carry backpacks full of sandwiches and trail mix and bottled iced tea and take pictures quickly. The smallest skeletons get photographed the most—them, and the famous conjoined twins, a special attraction of the Montrose forest. A few pictures have Jamie in them, and it amuses her that they’ll never know the difference.

It’s not easy to get here: The closest parking lot is two miles away, where the regular forest hits the river. It takes a while, so most people make an afternoon of it, picnicking, speculating about who this or that skeleton might have been, reading all the informational signs around the perimeter. If Jamie listens for it she can hear the bitten-off shrieks when first-time visitors catch their first glimpse of a skull.

At sunset, when the forest closes to visitors, Jamie has seen no sign of Paul. She gives up. She goes home. She comes back the next day and fidgets.

You look at the pictures Jamie shows you: one of Paul and Angela, maybe mid-twenties, summer, relaxed, at a cookout; one of Paul in a cubicle, turning back toward the photographer half-smiling; one group picture Paul was clearly not happy to be a part of, his left arm visibly hovering an inch above the shoulder of the girl next to him rather than casually slung across it. Angela is at the other end of the group, wearing bright yellow leggings and red lipstick. She looks, quite frankly, more than a little drunk.

“No,” you admit. “They don’t look familiar. I mean, I don’t get out a lot, so that doesn’t mean anything. But I don’t recognize either one of them.”

“That’s okay,” Jamie tells you, but you still feel bad; you want to add something. Suddenly it occurs to you that maybe you can.

“Are these the only pictures she sent you?”

“Yeah. Why?”

“Well—I’m sure you noticed—I mean probably you noticed—but these all seem like—you know, public pictures. Not personal.”

Jamie looks at her phone. “Wow,” she says. “You’re right.”

Jamie sometimes wonders if her body fell apart because it had nothing to hold on to. She was done with law school; her new job was uninspiring; her friends had scattered across America’s major cities and disappeared into high-rise offices. Her mind knows that she was a fairly accomplished young woman, knows that if people became skeletons because they were unfulfilled it would be a much more widespread phenomenon. But she can’t shake the feeling. It was only six months after Greg had gotten engaged to someone else, and she’d finally had to let that go; her colleagues were still intimidating strangers; her parents were retired and perpetually cruising. Jamie had felt unmoored in a way she never had before.

She’s drifting into self-pity again, which doesn’t happen as often as it used to; maybe it’s the sheer fact of talking to another human, face to face, outside in the sunshine. She doesn’t want to solve this case; she wants to eat a damn granola bar.

But she can’t, of course, she can’t, so she looks at Jared where he sits across from her, looking at her, not quite the way one looks at a normal person but not categorically unlike either. She is a little embarrassed she didn’t think about the nature of the photos; she was so used to thinking about who Paul and Angela were that she ignored where they were.

And that changes everything, doesn’t it? Now she can see that Angela and Paul only happen to be in the cookout picture together; they are not posing as friends, but as consecutive patrons of the grill. It looks like an older picture, but still—hadn’t Angela said they’d been friends for years? Jamie had been so excited about the skeleton forest, about putting herself to use as more than fingers on a keyboard, hiding under a hat.

“Will you do me a favor?” Jamie asks Jared.

He looks wary and eager all at once. She feels a surge of affection for this skinny stranger who doesn’t hate her, doesn’t fear her. At least doesn’t fear her enough to run away. (For a moment she pictures him leaning in— “Anything,” he whispers, and takes her hand—but—no. She shudders at the thought of being touched, of her rough bony fingers under his pulsing ones, at the way the shrunken tendons that hug her bones would feel. She is disgusted on his behalf. She pushes all thoughts aside, all thoughts, every thought.)

“What kind of favor?” Jared asks.

You picture reconnaissance, or breaking in to someone’s apartment to steal a file. You want to do these things, and kick ass at them, and at the same time know that if either of these is the favor Jamie needs, the answer is no. You aren’t actually a detective or a spy. You can barely make it gracefully through your own front door; you would not make a good cat burglar.

“Will you be Paul? Just on the phone. Just for a minute. I just need an address.”

She sounds nervous. It makes you feel kind of cool, and you almost grin at her rakishly, but then she tilts her head up so that the hat doesn’t shadow her face and any desire to flirt dies instantly. Her skull is not quite—not only—a skull; but it’s wrong. It’s so wrong. You cough to hide a flash of disgust, and nod at her.

“Sure.”

(She’s used to this. She’s used to this. There’s no reason for this wave of self-pity; it’s crashed before, flooded her before, the water damage is still visible. Waves like this ought to flow right through her now.)

“His um, his credit card company—I have the number and the last four digits of his social. You just call and confirm that his new address is entered correctly. Okay?” She stares at the table. There are tiny twigs in all the gaps between the planks. She doesn’t look at Jared. There is nothing in her gaps.

“Okay. Why would it be entered incorrectly?”

She wants to scoff at that, doesn’t. “It wouldn’t. I just want to know if he’s moved.”

“Oh,” Jared says. “Right.”

He is clearly nervous making the call, but it comes off as distracted; either that or the employee he’s talking to doesn’t have the energy to flag suspicious behavior. Jamie writes down the address. She stands up.

“I’m going to go see him,” she says, as if this is something she normally does. She never sees anyone; when contact is needed she hires people through Craigslist.

“Good luck,” Jared says, standing also. “I should head out, too.”

Jamie realizes that if they leave at the same time they will have to walk the two miles to the parking lot together, but she’s had enough interaction for the day. She doesn’t want him to watch her walk. She doesn’t want to follow him. She doesn’t want to keep thinking about who she isn’t.

“Oh,” she says. “Actually, I’ve got to look something up first. It was nice meeting you.” She doesn’t hold out a hand to shake, obviously, but the gesture feels distinctly missing.

“You too,” Jared says, and sounds sincere. “I hope you figure it out.”

He walks away. Jamie sits down and plays with her phone, giving him a head start. He never gave his last name, but she looks it up based on his college t-shirt. He’s on Facebook and two online dating sites, although his profile looks dusty and half-hearted. She doesn’t friend him or anything. After fifteen minutes, she leaves.

The farther you get down the trail towards your car, the deeper your sense of vertigo – after a while your steps slow to a crawl, unsure of the ground they’re walking on. Was this morning real? Did all this happen? You start with the wild explanations: You were in a car crash this morning, and this is a coma dream; Jamie is a hologram; your life is The Truman Show. You have the vague impression that you can walk through solid objects now.

Eventually you reach your car, and climb in it, and turn the ignition. You make it about a quarter mile before you realize you’re literally not seeing the road in front of you. You might as well just pull over.

After ten minutes of trying to suppress the new twitching in your left eye, a car passes you—a little maroon Taurus—and all you see is a hat. You’re following its left turn before you’ve even realized you’re back on the road.

Jamie knocks on the door and feels, mentally, that she is about to throw up. She has put on her gloves and buckled her trench coat; her hat is pulled low. The door opens.

“Jamie Pierce,” she says, professional, holding out a business card she ordered on Vistaprint. “Private Detective.”

The hallway is windowless and fairly dark; it takes Jamie a moment to realize that a woman has answered the door. “What can I do for you?” the woman asks, polite, wary. The chain is still fastened.

Jamie takes a tiny, necessary step back away from the light of the apartment. “Paul,” she manages. “Is Paul here?”

The woman looks at her, or tries to; Jamie tips her head low and stares at the ground.

“Is there a problem?” the woman asks. “Who sent you?”

Jamie feels as if her bones are finally collapsing the way they always should have. She tips her head even lower, unnaturally low, petrified that she will be seen; oh, it was different in the skeleton forest—she was normal there, almost, she had numbers on her side; Jared was the oddity there, Jared was the freak. Jamie knows the woman will scream when she glimpses Jamie, will threaten to call the police; Jamie cannot bear the anticipation of the slamming door. Her back hits the wall of the hallway and she presses against it.

“Everything okay, sweetheart?” she hears from inside, a man’s voice.

The woman half-turns, hands over the card.

“I’ll take care of this. Just give me a minute.” The sound of a kiss, the sliding of the chain, and then Paul is in the hallway with her, shutting the door behind him.

“What do you want?” Paul asks.

“What are you doing here?” Jamie counters, shooting the words out like she’s been choking on them.

Paul ignores the question. “Listen, you have about ten seconds to explain yourself before I call the cops.” He takes out his cell phone to ground the threat.

“Angela,” Jamie whispers. She has to pull herself together; for Christ’s sake, she has to pull herself together. She stands up a little straighter, tilts her head up a fraction.

“I was hired to find you,” she says, more normally. She can do this. She’s found him; he’s clearly alive; she can leave at any time. If things get dicey. She wants answers but not that bad, not bad enough to have her mug shot in the newspaper.

Paul runs a hand through his hair. “By Angela. Jesus.” He looks like he wants to punch the wall, but doesn’t; he takes a deep breath instead.

“She thinks you’re missing or dead.” Jamie thinks she is starting to understand: Paul is missing only to Angela. He’s dead only to Angela. “I’m starting to get the sense,” Jamie says, trying to sound like Humphrey Bogart, “that you don’t want to be found.”

Paul shakes his head. “Not by her. Listen, I don’t know what she told you—but we’re not anything. We haven’t been friends in a long time.”

Jamie phrases it carefully. “She seems to worry about you.”

“She doesn’t fucking worry about anybody but herself. She’s… Jesus. She’s like a tick that won’t let go.”

Paul suddenly drops to a crouch, and Jamie is thankful she’s wearing galoshes. He buries his face in his hands, hums a sound of frustration. After a moment he stands again.

“I’m trying to make a clean break,” he tells Jamie. “I don’t care what you say to her. I don’t care what you tell her. But please, please don’t give her this address.” He flicks the business card at her and goes back inside. The chain and the deadbolt click a moment later.

You’re waiting in the parking lot, trying to look normal. You’re trying so hard to look normal that you almost miss her coming out; but then it’s back to tailing her, left, right, left, right. She pulls into a strip mall.

You’ve barely parked when she’s at your door, holding a closed umbrella like a weapon.

“Jared? What the hell? Why are you following me?”

Good question. You hadn’t really thought about it; you’d been running on instinct, on the preservation of your sanity by proving your insanity was real. And it is, isn’t it? You have to acknowledge, now, that Jamie is real, and your conversation with her was real, and she is really a detective working on a case. And with that you realize you actually care.

“I just… wanted to know how things turned out,” you say. “With Paul and Angela.”

She hesitates for a few seconds. The umbrella lowers slightly.

“Well,” she says. “I just talked to him.”

“And?”

“Well, his girlfriend opened the door, first of all.”

“Really? Did she—” You pause. You are sitting in your car with the window rolled down; Jamie is standing outside of it with a pointy umbrella. Your stomach rumbles.

“Hey,” you say. “Actually, do you mind if I grab some lunch and we talk about this somewhere else? Maybe at East Park?”

“…Sure,” Jamie says, as if she is agreeing to be shot. “Sure,” she says again, a little more enthusiastically.

“Okay. Let me just run in. Do you—want anything?”

Jamie rests the tip of the umbrella on the ground. She looks like the coolest supervillain you ever saw.

“I guess I’ll take a Vitamin Water,” she says.

“That’s all?”

“That’s all.”

“Okay,” you say. “I’ll be right back.”

They’re seated at another picnic table, this one covered in obscene permanent-marker conversations. “You’ll have to help me figure out what to say to Angela,” Jamie says.

“First tell me what happened!”

“I know. I’m just saying, keep that in mind.”

“Got it. Does Paul have a secret love child? Is that it?” Jared leans forward, two hands on his sandwich, eyes on her.

Jamie can’t smile. Smiling doesn’t happen in the bones.

But all the same.

Katherine Kendig lives in Champaign, Illinois, with her husband, her novel-in-progress, and an insatiable desire for brownies. Her work has received awards from Dartmouth College and the University of Illinois and has been featured in The Cincinnati Review and on PodCastle.

 

4700 words, published May 2018, Shimmer 43

Dead and That’s Okay

The Earth and Everything Under by K.M. Ferebee

Ellie and Jim vs. Tony “The Nose” by Eden Robins

The Cult of Death, by K.L. Pereira

Fixer, Worker, Singer, by Natalia Theodoridou

Fixer Turns On the Stars

The sky creaks as Fixer makes his way across the steel ramp that is suspended under the firmament. It’s time to turn on the stars. He pauses a few steps from where the switches and pulleys are located and looks down. He allows himself only one look down each day, just before sunset: at the rows of machines, untiring, ever-moving; at the Singer’s house with its loudspeakers, sitting in the middle of the world; at the steep, long ladder that connects the Fixer’s realm to everything below. He’s only gone down that ladder once, and it was enough. Fixer caresses the head of the hammer hanging from his belt. Then he walks to the mainboard and turns off the sun. The stars come on. He pulls on the ropes to wheel out the moon. There. Job well done.

Fixer senses the coil inside him uncoiling. He retrieves the key from the chest pocket of his coveralls and thumbs its engraving: Wind yourself in the Welder’s name. He inserts the key’s end in the hole at the side of his neck and winds himself up. In the Welder’s name.

The sky creaks.

Wound up and tense as a chord, Fixer sits on the ramp and rests his torso against the railing. He inspects the firmament under the light of the starbulbs. The paint is chipping—it will need redoing soon. He wonders whether it was the Welder himself who first painted the sky. It must have been him, no? Who else could have done it, before Fixer existed? Fixers, he corrects himself, and the coil tugs at him with what could be guilt, but is not. He imagines the Welder—just his hands; he can’t picture all of him, never has been able to—slathering on the blue paint, then carefully tracing the outlines of clouds.

Fixer pulls the wine flask out of the side pocket of his coveralls and takes a swig. It’s just stage booze, water colored red, can’t get drunk on it; he figured that out a long time ago, but he still likes to pretend, especially when the sky creaks the way it does tonight, when his coil is tense just so. What wouldn’t he give to feel things—what hasn’t he given—to be drunk, to be angry, to be excruciatingly joyful. But the world is so quiet now, quietly falling away, even emergencies are rare; and it’s lonely under the stars. He takes another swig from the flask. “Make-believe wine in honor of the Great Welder in the sky,” he says. Another swig. The coil eases some, his back slumps a little against the railing.

One of the stars didn’t come on, he notices; the bulb must have given out. Fixer gazes at the concrete shape of the moon haloed by the spotlight that’s reflected off its surface. There is rebar poking through at the sides, the back is crumbling. But that doesn’t matter. Only Fixer can see the back side. Things only have one good side, from which they are meant to be looked at.

Yes, the world is quiet now, but for the creaking of the sky. The hum of the machines below has stopped for the night. There used to be thunder beyond the firmament, but not any more. There used to be singing from the Singer’s house and the Welder’s voice blasting through the pipes of the world. Now there’s only the Singer’s rusty voice spilling out of the loudspeakers in short, shallow bursts.

“Tap into this thing, this ugly feeling of despair,” the Singer’s voice croaks, as if she knows, actually knows what it’s like to stare at the back side of the moon.

Fixer glances at the blown starbulb again. The coil inside his chest wants to spring forth, find the spare lightbulbs in the dark, fix it. Fixer fixes the sky, and if he doesn’t, he’s no Fixer at all, is he?

But, instead, he takes another swig from the wine flask, watercolor communion with the Welder who fashioned the world. He closes his eyes.

“I’ll fix it tomorrow,” he says out loud.

Singer: His Voice in Fragments

Your metallic voice. The wind rushing through me.

I remember when we voiced this pipe organ together, every flue, every reed, so it could breathe with your truth. Now everything is rusty and old. Falling. And apart.

I haven’t seen you in so long.

Fragments of your voice run through me and into your organ, my organ, when I least expect it. When I manipulate the pipes, aching to make each one sound the way it used to, I cut my fingers on the rough edges and fake blood comes out, mixed with grease.

And I have all these foreign memories that you planted my body with, these fragments I cut myself on every day:

An old man tuning a pipe organ.

A .45 round nose bullet fired from a handgun, tunneling through a body—and did you know the machine gun was inspired by a seed-planting machine, way back? Of course you did.

And there’s also the voice of a very young poet made great only by his self-imposed death. Why did you deem this story important for me to know? Am I to sing about it? Every day, I think about the poet. Is it because the poet-boy worked at a factory? Was it much like this one? Is it true he fed himself to the machines?

You are not forthcoming with answers to my questions.

And I have enough self-awareness to know I am falling apart, but I do not know why or why not or why I should keep myself from doing so. Yours was always a practical project first and foremost, yet you never lacked in poetry. Why else would you have installed a Singer in the middle of it all?

And why did you leave me here, all alone? Fixer always had a partner, each the fail-safe of the other, keeping one another from thinking themselves more than they are, and Workers are many, because you needed many. But there has only ever been one Singer.

Was I your most successful feature? Or the least so?

I press the loudspeaker pipe open. “Tap into this thing,” I say, “this ugly feeling of despair,” and not even I am sure who I am talking to any more.

Worker: Keep This Shop Like You Would Your Home

Pull, turn, press, says the coiled thing inside. So we pull, we turn, we press. The conveyor belt does not pause, and neither do we.

We work the line. We never blink. Our eyes close when the shift is over and only then. We never blink or we will miss the next beat. The next bullet. And the next.

Projectile, case, primer. The propellant container is empty, has been for some time, the great barrels that used to haul it in came empty for a while, then stopped coming in at all. Should we stop? Could we stop? We shouldn’t. We couldn’t. We didn’t. We don’t.

Pull, turn, press. Projectile, case, primer. No propellant. The bullets are lighter now. But the work doesn’t stop, the work doesn’t change. Handling the lighter bullets takes great care. Our hands are slowly accustoming to the new weight. Pull, turn, press. Don’t make a mess. We keep this shop like we would our home. Just as the sign on the wall says we should. We glance at it. Only glance. We never blink.

Our eyes are dry and our wrists hurt. They hurt so much we wish we could take them off, and the coil inside us slowly unwinds.

At night, when the moon comes out and our shift ends, we will close our eyes. We remind ourselves.

At night, when the moon comes out and the shift ends, we will wind ourselves up. One more time.

Then, a piece of the sky comes down with a thud.

We glance up.

Singer Sings of Holes in the Sky

There is a hole in the sky. Does this mean you’re coming back? Does this mean you’ve started dismantling the firmament on your way back to us?

I blow through a loose flue—disconnected from the organ like that, it reminds me of a long gun’s barrel, its speech as distinct as rifling, as fingerprints, as a person’s voice.

I hold my palms in front of my eyes.

Why did you make me without fingerprints?

I search my repertoire for answers, but I only come up with tidbits about wound ballistics instead:

Hollow-point bullets do not penetrate as deeply as round nose bullets, but they expand to almost twice their size within a person’s body, causing devastating damage to surrounding tissue.

Why did you want me to know all these things?

How can I still love you, knowing you made me so I would know all these things? Can I?

Are you coming back to me through the bullet wound in the sky?

Worker Prays to a Bullet

A piece of the sky came loose and fell to the ground and from inside us came the sound of a spring breaking.

Pull, turn, press. Projectile, case, primer. Something loose, above, inside. Pull, turn, press. We cannot look at the missing piece of the sky. We cannot look at the hole in the world. Instead we pull, we turn, we press. We don’t blink. Our wrists hurt. Tonight, when our shift ends we will close our eyes and we will step back from the conveyor belt and we will rub our wrists and we will hold our wrists close to the uncoiling thing inside. And we will feel it uncoil almost all the way and then we will wind ourselves up again. And we will look to the left, to the pile of all our other bodies rusting neatly one on top of the other. Did all our other wrists hurt like this before each of these other bodies of ours stopped working? Did we forget to wind all our other bodies up again before our coils unraveled all the way to their very end? This, we will wonder. One more time.

And we will sweep the floor around our other bodies, and we will polish every part of the machines, every piston, every cog. We will keep this shop like we would our home, and then we will look up and we will close our eyes and we will open our mouths and we will wait for the Singer’s voice to fill our insides, and it will be as if we have swallowed a piece of the sun with sharp, rusty edges that catch on our tongue, and even the rust will be good, and so we will praise the Great Welder in the sky who made the sun and the moon and the stars.

But thinking ahead to the end of the shift won’t do. Pull, turn, press. Our wrists hurt, something is loose, and we drop a bullet to the floor, scatter primers everywhere. We’ve made a mess. We should keep this shop like we would our home, even when there’s a hole in the sky. The coil inside strains as we pick the bullet up and hold it high above our head against the light of the sun and it is light and light and light. Its full metal jacket, its hollow point. We see it going into a person’s body. Inside the person’s body, the bullet blooms into a flower.

Who would think of such a thing, other than the Welder in the sky, who made the sun and the moon and the rust?

We look at the bullet and see it is a thing of beauty. The conveyor belt advances, the bullets unpulled, unpressed, unturned. Full metal flowers—do they dream of blooming?

Our wrists hurt. We think of praying. The words of the Singer’s song to the Great Welder in the sky flash in our head, as bright and comforting as the stars. The coil inside sings: O Welder, O Welder hallowed be thy name—but the words twist as the coil uncoils and the sky creaks and primers are at our feet and the conveyor belt conveys faster than our wrists can move and the bullet is beautiful today. O bullet, our coil sings, flying lead ricocheting off our tongue, O bullet, O bullet in the sky—

Fixer Looks for a Piece of the Sky

Fixer was changing the blown starbulb when the piece of the sky came loose, leaving a gaping hole in the firmament. The sound it made as it hit the ground sent a shiver down Fixer’s spine and caused his coil to tingle with tension.

But now he is calm, standing at the top of the ladder, looking down. The sky needs fixing and he is the only one to do it—and do it well. It might take a long time, looking for the piece, going all the way down and then back up again, it will throw the days and nights into chaos for sure, but what else can he do? There is no other Fixer to turn off the sun while he’s gone. Not any more. And so he sets out for the ground, to walk among the machines and the Workers and the noises of the world. It’s been a very long time since he’s last been to the ground. His hands feel like they might be trembling, but they are not. Is this excitement?

Off he goes. Down, down, down, for a long time.

His feet are steady on each step of the ladder, his arms are strong, but the coiled thing inside his chest is coming looser and looser as time passes, and he will soon need winding up again or he won’t make it. He’s almost to the last of his coil when he realizes he can see the sun from its good side. It is round and shiny and bright, despite the creeping rust at the edges of the metallic surface. It’s perfect.

The coil inside him creaks, and so does the sky. He takes out the key with unsteady hands—almost drops it, in fact, and then what would happen? What would happen to the world if he gave out and there was no one to move time along any more? He inserts the key into his neckhole and twists and twists, his body tensing with every turn, and he knows deep in his core that now would be the time to switch off the sun and to wheel out the moon so the machines can stop and the Workers can wind themselves up again under the sound of the Singer’s song. But he’s not there to do that any more, and it is still day even though it’s night. He wonders what an endless day might do to the world, what sights may be seen under this much unexpected light. He wonders if the other Fixer will be waiting for him on the ground, accusing, staring at his hammer, understanding nothing, stage blood coming out of his head.

Fixer chastises himself and speeds up his descent. It shouldn’t be long now.

And if the other Fixer is there, waiting, so what. Stage blood washes off easy.

When he finally gets to the ground, he lands amidst the loud, tireless machines producing garlands upon garlands of cartridges. It takes him a while to understand what the heap lying next to the ladder is. Then, he sees them, an arm here, a face there, the pile of Workers’ bodies stacked neatly one on top of the other. What has happened here? What has become of the world while he was up there taking care of the stars?

There is a single Worker tending to the conveyor belt. She moves slowly, unsteadily—she’s near the end of her coil, surely.

“Hey, you, Worker!” he shouts in order to be heard over the clamor of the machines.

She turns her head, only for an instant, but still her hands miss the next bullet, scattering primers all over the floor by her feet.

Fixer walks closer. “What happened to all the other Workers?” he asks.

“We’re all still here,” she says. “But not all of us talk and move any more.” She speaks slowly. She’s almost done, almost spent.

“You can stop working now,” Fixer says. “Your shift is over. Wind yourself, in the Welder’s name.”

“But it’s still day.”

“No, it’s not. It’s night.” He points at the hole in the firmament. “I just had to come down here, so there’s no one left to turn on the stars.”

Worker is still working, but she steals furtive glances at the sky. “But it’s not night,” she insists. Her voice quivers.

He approaches, his hammer swinging at his belt. He looks at this Worker, the tragedy of her existence, the completeness of her devotion. She will work herself to the end, and it’s all his fault. He gently takes her shoulders and pulls her away from the conveyor belt, letting the half-formed bullets fall off the end and clatter onto the ground. Her hands are still going through the motions, pulling, turning, pressing. He grabs them, steadies them. “It’s okay,” he says. “It’s night. You can stop now. It’s night.” He repeats this until she stops moving.

She holds her hands close to her chest and stares at the sky for a long time. Then she lets her body slump onto the floor.

Fixer sits on the ground next to her, his back against the unfaltering machinery of the world. He feels his coil uncoil slowly, looks over to the pile of Workers, and, for a moment, he wonders if this is it. If he should just sit here next to the last of the Workers, allow his coil to uncoil all the way to the end and stay there, let his body shut down, collecting dust under the relentless light of the sun.

But then his eye catches a glimpse of the hole in the sky and the coil inside strains because he needs to fix the flaw in the world. So he gets back up and goes look for the missing piece of the sky.

Before he starts climbing the ladder with the piece held tightly under his arm, he puts his key in the Worker’s neck and winds her up. For a moment, she looks confused. Then she’s on her feet again, pulling, turning, pressing, as if nothing has passed between them, or between her and the world. She doesn’t say a word.

Singer: His Voice Back Together Again

I thought the day’s length was a sign that you were coming back. I thought the hole in the sky was a sign that all of this was finally over—the constant fight against the rust with nothing but grease and a handful of facts that I no longer know how to assemble into songs.

But the hole is gone now and the sun no longer shines in the sky; the world is healed, restored, the creation you left behind intact, self-preserved.

The organ’s voicing is as complete and perfect as it is ever going to be without you. You made me well, but you did not make me to last forever, did you? Because, now, wouldn’t that be cruel?

Tonight, I will sing my best hymn to you. It has only one word, but it is the sweetest one I know, O Welder, O Welder in the sky, and the only one I know to be true.

Look, the moon is coming out.

Fixer Sleeps Under the Stars

Fixer’s limbs feel heavy and worn as he paints over the restored piece of the firmament under the faint shine of the moon. He could have looked through the hole in the sky, but he didn’t. The coil wouldn’t let him, he told himself; it jerked and strained at the mere thought. Besides, why would he? The world is fine as it is. Soon, everything will be as it was before, as if nothing ever happened.

As soon as he finishes the restoration, he turns on the stars, and each one comes alive, bright and familiar, their light soft and soothing.

The coil inside him is quiet now. The Singer’s voice spills out of the loudspeakers. Is it just him, Fixer wonders, or does it sound just as it used to when they first came into the world, before the rust, before the world started giving out, falling apart? She really does have the most beautiful voice, Singer.

“Welder, Welder, Welder,” she repeats, all night long, making everything okay.

Fixer decides to sleep in his ropes tonight, suspended under the stars, lulled by the Singer’s voice and the creaking of the sky.

In his dream, he’s carrying the piece of the sky under his arm. There is a great joy inside his chest. He takes a swig from his flask and it burns his throat as if it were no longer stage wine. It makes his coil vibrate with song.

“Could I sing?” he wonders. “Could a Fixer ever sing?”

Drunk on his joy and his wine, Fixer no longer thinks of the tired Worker below. He doesn’t think of the pile of bodies, or of the other Fixer’s head staring at what can no longer be fixed.

In his dream, Fixer runs his fingers over the surface of the sky. He traces its length, its chipping paint, the flat outlines of its clouds. Then he pulls his hammer from his tool belt and caresses its head while the coil inside loosens and loosens.

In Fixer’s dream, the flawed world creaks. Before nailing the fallen piece back in place, he peeks through the hole in the firmament, at the maddening beauty, at the stars beyond the stars.

Natalia Theodoridou is a media & cultural studies scholar, a dramaturge, and a writer of strange stories. Her work has appeared in Clarkesworld, The Kenyon Review Online, sub-Q, Interfictions, and elsewhere. Find out more at her website (www.natalia-theodoridou.com), or come say hi @natalia_theodor on Twitter.