Out of Water—Lauren Archer

Scooping out a hunk of fat with cupped fingers, I rub it between my palms. It gives way and melts. The smell is faintly meaty, a welcome warmth in the stiff coastal air. I smooth the blubber into the puckered flesh of my thighs, over my shins and down to my feet. As I rub between my toes, I picture a membrane of skin forming between the cracks, fusing the soft pink digits – the advantage that would give me in the water. 

I stand into my wetsuit, rolling thick neoprene up from my ankles to my waist, reaching around to pull up the zip. My thick hair is wound into a bun, and I pull my swimming cap over, hearing the silicone snap against my skull. The wetsuit and swimming cap hide my spindly limbs, my mess of black hair, the protrusion of my knees, my elbows, my hips. I am sleek and streamlined, ready for the unforgiving water. 

The flooding tide kisses my ankles as I wade in, the cold making itself at home in the hollows of my bones. I plunge my head under. My lungs catch and I rise back up in time to feel the sudden rush of a huge intake of breath. Then comes the second submersion, deeper this time, my lungs tight and full. When my body has adapted to its new surroundings and adrenaline has taken over, I swim out. 

I swim until my muscles ache, until I can no longer feel any of my extremities. I swim until the glimmering lights of the island dissolve into the sea. 

When I return to the shore, I see the orthopaedic walking shoes and compression stockings of the woman who feeds the rock doves. She is sitting on her bench, which looks out over my beach. Her little feet are swinging, not quite touching the ground below. I try to wave at her, to catch her attention, but her face is hidden behind a blurred curtain of frantic, hungry grey. Gnarled pink talons scratch at the air, at stale chunks of wholemeal bread that rain down like rancid confetti. 

When I reach the front garden, there is a rich smell leaking through the gaping seams of the kitchen. Tomato and garlic and chilli, pasta simmering in water bleached white with starch. This house always has a lingering odour about it, of wheat and dairy and other things he knows I don’t enjoy but cooks anyway. I can smell it when I read on the sofa, when I take a bath, when I lie in bed at night. Sometimes I think that I can smell it as far away as the water’s edge and I have to rush in to escape it. 

He sets me a plate silently; doesn’t ask how I filled my day or how my swim was. I look down blankly at the wheat shells swimming in their red sea, complete with extra virgin oil slick. We sit like this for a long while, the only sound the thin rasp of cutlery on crockery. I pick at the food, puncture a single pasta carapace with my fork and watch it weep sauce. 

It has started to rain. From out of the window, I can see water seeping onto the cracked paving stones of the back-garden patio, bubbling up in the crevices of the grouting. He tuts and sighs and speaks for the first time this evening. 

‘This shit highland weather,’ he says, grunting through a full mouth. ‘It’s costing us thousands.’

Personally, I like the rain. I force down another mouthful to avoid having to respond. He eats quickly. I watch a droplet of marinara dribble down his stubbled chin. While he finishes his plate, I picture the shells going down whole, landing in his stomach, releasing a hundred tiny hermit crabs inside. Serrated pincers ripping at him, tearing him apart so that I can build a new man in his place.

The food feels heavy in my stomach, and I leave the rest of my plate untouched. Later, from the next room, I turn the volume up high on the radio to drown out the sound of him angrily scraping the remnants into the bin.

While he is snoring by my side, I go downstairs and open the fridge. It’s one of those big, silver American types, which casts out a bright white glow when opened. I feel like a burglar caught in an automatic porch light, illuminated in an act of desperation. But we are married, and so the fridge is half mine, the contents too. I quietly part jars of jam and chutney, bottles of salad dressing and hot sauce. Toward the back of the fridge, I find a plastic package, layers of orange fish on a bed of golden card. Without hesitation, I pull thin ribbons from the mound and spool them onto my tongue. My mouth fills with saliva, with the sharp, wet ache of a long appetite satiated. I tear at layer after layer, barely chewing, swallowing whole. I wipe my sticky fingers on my pyjama bottoms and return to bed warm and full.

The next morning, I sit across from him and watch as he eats his plain cream cheese bagel in four bites. Crumb, butter and cheese fester like fungus in the corner of his mouth. He does not mention the empty packet languishing in the recycling bin. 

‘Maybe we should have some friends round,’ he says eventually. ‘That might give you something to look forward to.’

I do not know what to say, so I shrug. We have had people over for dinner just once since the wedding. Our friends, he calls them. The men he works with and the women they are married to. I try to picture the faces of these people, to match names with executive positions and children’s special talents and favourite football teams, to remember the events of the last dinner party that led to the cancellation of all others. 

I remember the wives homing in on me with coiffed curls and sharp stares, asking me questions about my childhood. They were fascinated by me, it seemed, because I was not Orcadian. Not even Scottish. 

‘So, where are you from?’ one asked me, looking me up and down like a freshly birthed lamb; adorable and fascinating, but somehow embarrassing, encased in yellow fluid and unable to walk. 

‘Sort of all over,’ I replied, which was true. 

He interrupted then to explain that I moved up to the island when we got married. A whirlwind romance, he grinned, which made me feel strange as that wasn’t how I remembered it. I didn’t really remember it at all. Although perhaps he was right, perhaps it was a whirlwind. Ever since we met, I have felt dizzy, after all, as though dropped by a sudden gust.

‘It might be good for you,’ he says, bringing me back to the breakfast table. 

He doesn’t mean that, not really. He means it would be good for him. Good for him if a few people came around and made us look happy by association. If they ate his pasta and drank his wine and laughed at his rambling anecdotes. If they craned their necks to take in my strange accent and my jet-black hair and my dark eyes. If the men complimented him on my stock, on my lean body and milky skin and the collar bones visible in the space between the straps of my dress. If, after a couple of drams of whiskey and the company of our friends, his friends, he could muster up the courage to place a hand on my thigh under the table and serve us a shared dessert with a single spoon. 

In the water, I practice breathing. I tread steadily with my face resting on the ocean’s surface, focusing on slow, relaxed exhalations. Three strokes in forward crawl, breathe, two strokes, breathe, three strokes again, breathe. If I were built differently, I could breathe underwater through the oxygen supply in my blood. Some animals can slow their heart rates from 100 beats per minute to just 10, gliding through the ocean without the betrayal of a racing heart or gasping lungs. I wish that I was one of them. 

Back on the shore, oystercatchers in crisp white shirts and black jackets gather in groups like tiny mourners at fresh burial sites. I can see the rock doves too, but not the woman, hidden as she is behind the coo and the clamour and the hollow flutter of wing.

Once, we came to the beach together. The woman was there then too and cooed like a rock dove herself when she saw us walking together, my limp hand gripped in his. On the walk back, he bought me a cone of chips. They were drenched in vinegar and glistening with salt. I tried one, not wanting to spoil the day. The hot mass of potato and oil clung to the back of my throat, and it took all my effort to swallow.

When I get back, he has already called them. He says their names slowly, as though I should be taking notes to prepare for the evening ahead. Giles and Rachel, Eddie and Camilla. Introduced in pairs rather than as their component parts. They will be coming over at eight, he will make a lasagne and he would appreciate it if I could help with the salad. I stand in the corridor while he tells me this, droplets of water collecting at the ends of my hair and dripping onto the imitation oak vinyl floor. By the time he asks me to go upstairs and put on something nice, a puddle has formed beneath my feet. 

I shove the muddied towel to the bottom of the laundry basket, remembering that he has warned me not to use the house towels at the beach. They are made with a supreme cotton pile, he often reminds me, and cost a fortune to replace. The last time I got one dirty, he stood staring at it in solemn silence until I felt compelled to apologise. 

He has laid out a dress for me, a black lace thing with spaghetti straps. I am not quite the right sort of woman for this dress, being too sharp and pale with no cleavage to fill it. But despite that, it looks fine. It looks like exactly the sort of dress a nice wife would wear to a nice dinner party that she absolutely wanted to throw. I practice smiling for one second, two seconds, three. Then, I relax my face and trace my sombre expression with lipstick. I look at myself for a moment too long in the mirror and see a strange thing staring back at me, dark eyes gleaming. 

He guides me into the kitchen and offers me up to the strangers.

‘Hello,’ I say to nobody in particular. 

One of the women smiles at me. The other is staring down at the floor. I realise, too late, that I have forgotten to wear shoes and my bare feet look flat and embarrassing against the tiles. 

While they sip champagne and talk about the intricacies of planning permission applications for extensions, I pull pinwheels of anchovy and olive from their toothpick skewers and unravel them, licking the remnants of salt-cured fish from my fingers. The discarded olives sit in a briny bath at the bottom of the bowl. 

He ushers us into the dining room where there is a lasagne waiting in the middle of the table. Eddie or maybe Giles jokes that I must have found the only man on the island who would do all the cooking and let me sit about doing nothing. It isn’t a funny joke, so I don’t laugh, but everybody else does and that makes my silence seem cruel by contrast. He chimes in, the other component part of my pair, leaping to my defence.

‘She made the salad,’ he says, too eagerly, his smile too sudden and wide.

He points at it, the salad, and everybody looks. Of course, I did not make it. I forgot all about it, our conversation that morning dissolving almost as soon as I stepped out into the sea. I wonder why he would want to give me credit for something I didn’t do, why it makes him feel like a better person to pretend to have done less. 

Camilla, or maybe Rachel, asks me what I do for a living. 

‘Last time we were over for dinner, you said you were between jobs,’ she tells me. 

After a long pause I tell her that I don’t do anything for a living. Either Eddie or Giles seems delighted by this and says there’s nothing wrong with old fashioned values, nothing wrong with a woman keeping the house. 

I excuse myself from the table. 

The terracotta floor of the pantry is cold against my bare thighs as I sit cross-legged, scraping out the hexagonal corners of a jar of tuna pâté with the edges of a teaspoon.  The salty paste fizzes on my tongue. I find another jar and then another.  Cured herring fillets in dill marinade. Albacore tuna loins in olive oil. Anchovies with basil and parsley. I squirm in anticipation with the popping sound of each lid. 

When I return to the dinner table, I follow our guests’ stares down to the diaphanous bones caught in my hair, the flakes of oily flesh on the neckline of my dress. 

When I am sure that we are alone once more, I go outside to read. 

In summer, the sun lingers in the sky for more than eighteen hours a day, on account of the high latitude of the island. It rises as early as four and sets well after ten, so it is still bright outside even though the day is long gone. When it does eventually descend, it lingers just below the horizon and bathes the island in a faint blue light which brightens to an amber glow in the northwest. The locals call it simmer dim, the twilight of a summer evening. 

I flick through one of his old copies of Men’s Health, pausing at an interview with a swimmer who represented his country in the men’s 1500m freestyle at the 2016 Olympics. The swimmer says that the greater your velocity, the more effectively you push through the resistive drag of water, the quicker you swim. The stronger you are, he says, the greater force you can apply to your propulsive action. 

I sense his presence before he arrives, fold the corner of the page over and slip the magazine between the seat and the cushion. In anticipation, I pull a blanket over me and reach for my neglected glass of wine. I am a perfect picture of feminine domesticity. He materialises behind me, resting a gentle hand on my head. 

‘Do you have any dumbbells?’ I ask him, staring up at his blank face.

He bristles.

‘Maybe in the garage.’ 

I wait, unsure of where the conversation is going.

‘Don’t go in there yourself,’ he tells me, sternly. ‘I’ll sort it out over the weekend.’

I nod and smile. He strokes my hair longingly, as though trying to peel back my outer layer and find something more palatable underneath.

I dream of the woman who feeds the rock doves. She pulls open a bag of bread and the birds descend in a fury of white and grey and red and pink and purple and brown. The wild, Caledonian ancestors of the urban pigeon. Then more birds appear. Guillemots and curlews and black headed gulls, a wake of buzzards and a murder of crows, all raining down on her. They rip the bread from her trembling hands, then come back for more. She scrambles through her tartan trolley, until its wheels slip. It tumbles down, and so does she. The birds squawk in a joyful chorus and swoop down, descending on their new feast with sharp beaks and toothed bills.

I wake. The room is dark, too dark, black-out blinds designed to block out the lingering solstice sun. Tomato sauce and cheese and pasta curdle in my stomach. I rush to the bathroom and am suddenly, violently sick. A mess of gluten and congealed vegetable, then bile. 

Another lurch. I look down to see a dark mass of scale and blood and bone. A whole fish head lies in the toilet bowl, glassy eyes rolling back in its thin skull. I realise that the knees of my pyjama bottoms are wet and muddy, that the soles of my feet are dark with dirt. 

When morning comes, the blinds are up and I am alone. I smile at the empty hollow on his side of the bed, stretching out to fill it. Then I get up and set to work. 

The garage is dusty and full of incomplete drill sets, stray bits of sandpaper and rusting metal. Layers of stepladder and blender and bike pump.  Dried-up pots of yellow paint, relics from a conversation about converting the spare room into a nursery. A graveyard of abandoned home and self-improvement projects. 

What am I looking for? I try to remember, but my mind is blurred. There is so much stuff here, so much rubbish, all the discarded physical evidence of our grim little partnership. I cut an incision through the belly of the garage and pull out its mangled insides.

As I go, I collect anything that interests me. The dumbbells, yes, alongside some resistance bands, a skipping rope and a pair of ankle weights. Amongst my prizes is a small box with a combination lock through the catch. I hesitate for a moment, but before I can make a reasoned decision, I am twisting the dials until they display the four digits that make up the year of our wedding.  The lock pops open. Within a moment, the contents of the box are spilt out on the concrete floor, seeming to glow beneath the flickering strip light.

The first thing I notice is pebbles. One that I collected on a trip to Copinsay Lighthouse, and another from the Loch of Stenness, where we spent a long day walking to see the standing stones. I brought back a pebble each time we went to a new beach or loch or other body of water and set them out in a neat row on the windowsill of our bathroom. He removed them during a spring clean, told me he’d thrown them in the bin because they were unnecessary clutter. We hadn’t visited anywhere like that in a long time anyway, so the collection had grown static, and I simply let it go.

Beneath the pebbles I find another layer, one of white paper covered in stern, black ink. I rifle through the documents with limited interest. Our marriage certificate, a photocopy of each of our passports, some contracts seemingly related to the house. I barely recall any of it – the marriage, the mortgage. They feel like things that happened to me, events at which I was merely an observer, rather than an active participant.

As I pull the final sheet of paper from the box, my hand touches something soft. I look down at what appears to be a small blanket or piece of upholstery velvet. I wonder if it is an old sample, from when he was designing the interior of our house. It is a strange design, a mottled grey, with darker and lighter patches and a faint spotted pattern, not a style I can ever imagine him choosing. 

I lift it out of the box and unfold it. The centre is darkest, with a deep grey line running down the middle, fading to light grey and then to white at the edges. On the other side, the material is stiff and smooth, covered in tiny pucker marks.

It is not a blanket or a piece of velvet, I realise, but an animal’s pelt. A skin. 

I leave the garage, walk through the garden gate, and arrive at the coastal path. I take turns left and right, propelled by muscle memory alone.

Soon, I am at the sea. 

I do not have my wetsuit or my towel, but I know, somehow, that I do not need those things, that I will never need them again. I unpack my bag and take out the pelt, rubbing it beneath my thumb and forefinger as the water laps at my heels. I drape it over my shoulders and feel the stiff hide yield, a warm sensation spreading through the matted fur and down through my own skin.

When I hit the water, I do not feel my lungs catch. I do not waver. I do not tread clumsily into the rippling tide. 

My heart rate slows, the world quietens, and I dive down into the dark water below. 

Lauren Archer is a secondary school English teacher and writer of short stories based in Liverpool, UK. Her work has been longlisted for the Mslexia Short Story Competition 2021. You can find her on Twitter at @laurenroarcher.

photo by Jeremy Bishop (via unsplash)

Feather Its Nest—Aleks Wittkamp

Potato pancakes, tomato soup, sweetbread—Jamie’s favourites. You set the table for two and you take your seat. You hold out hope that Jamie will come, right up until you hear the wings beating.

The first time it came, it flew in through the kitchen window. The next, it strutted in through the garage. You considered locking the house up, but you’d never. 

Jamie needs a way in.

This time, it slips in through the open skylight and alights opposite you at the table. It screeches once. It tears strips off the pancakes, stands in the soup, and shits a white-black streak onto the bread. Its eyes like black beads reflect your kitchen, but warped, dirtied—your own face appears drowned in tar.

You don’t look away. You invite the tar onto your cheeks, into your lungs, and throughout your veins. You shiver at the thought of thick black blood clogging your heart.

It screeches again, knocks the bowl off the table, and, with a flapping of its wings, darts forward. The tip of its beak catches the tender skin of your cheek. Then it’s gone, back out through the skylight.

You put a hand to the cut. Your breath catches in your throat. A blush warms you.

It’s a lie that you set the table for Jamie anymore. You set it for the crow.

Aleks Wittkamp writes when he writes, and he doesn’t write when he doesn’t write. It would be silly to write when he doesn’t. He lives his unsilly life in Toronto.

photo by Karen Sewell (via unsplash) and Nika Akin (via pixabay)

Two Poems—Gita Ralleigh

ritual for the longest night

night is here & i am opening my door to her,
summoning her in, quelling lamp, quenching flame, 
scattering incense: black cardamom, pepper, clove, black salt. 
i want her to enter in stealth, her feet to claw my threshold, 
moths to hover in clouds about her ebony head: argent 
& sable, feathered gothic, muslin, mullein, vestal, ghost.
i want her smoke not fire, her ink distilled from embers, 
limbs etching the chalked moon, indigo tinting my eyes. 
i jaw my mouth wide to imbibe her as medicine, as black milk.

the embalmer dreams of death

death of gloved palm/ death of cell & stain 
death of taint & harm/ death of stigmata & pain
death of rag & gunpowder/ death of bone & flower 
death of vessel narrowed/ death of breath choked
death riding a buffalo/ death swinging a noose
death hurling a mace/ death of green skin/ death 
of red-fire eyes/ death of boar tusks/ death with its
four-eyed dog/ death as minor god/ death as ruler 
death as judgement/ death as ten gilded gates to the 
underworld/ death as seven heavens/ death in his
ruby-glistered palace/ death in her lapis-lined tomb
death at twilight/ death at dawn/ death at noon

Gita Ralleigh is a writer and NHS doctor. She has been published by Wasafiri, Magma Poetry, Under The Radar and The Rialto among others. Her debut A Terrible Thing was published by Bad Betty Press in 2020 and her pamphlet Siren is forthcoming in August 2022 from Broken Sleep Books. You can find her on Twitter @storyvilled. 

photo by Corina Rainer (via unsplash)

Narcissus—Caitlyn Morrison

Life would be more bearable if every so often you could take your body off, Jules thinks, as she attempts to heave her legs off the side of the mattress. If you could just tuck it up in bed and exist as dust or whatever souls are made of. Pollen seized by the breeze.

Knock, knock.

At 76, all her body knows how to do is ache.

Eventually, she gets both feet to the floor. She can feel the chill that has always lived in the bones of the house but it’s distant. This must be how those soldiers with their missing arms and legs feel. Phantoms in places that no longer exist, unwilling to give up on lost things.

Knock, knock, knock.

Jules hasn’t a clue who the visitor could be. The clock tells her it’s 9.34am, on a Sunday at that. Her list of potential callers, beginning and ending with the postman, narrows significantly.

It crosses her mind that maybe it could be Abigail but she quickly dismisses the thought. Abigail is in Palermo with her husband, sipping wine through their teeth and spitting it out before the good bit. 

Jules tugs a heavy winter coat over her night dress, the sleeves stretching tight on her stiff arms. She remembers haggling for the coat at a market by the side of a cattle  road. Richard and Abigail had been mortified. Undeterred, Jules had blagged it for £20 less than asking and worn it proudly ever since.

During those weeks when she first started changing, Jules had worn the coat constantly, covering every inch of herself in thick fabric and fervent denial. However, as time went on she found herself reaching for it less and less.

It’s amazing what a person can get used to.

Knock, knock, knock, knock.

Before leaving the bedroom Jules puts on a pair of woollen gloves; some of the leaves sprouting from her fingertips tear off and fall to the floor. 

She’ll gather them up later. They’ll do for a stew.

As she hobbles into the hall, there is a clattering at the door. Darting eyes peer through the open letterbox. They spot Jules and quickly withdraw in surprise. The letterbox clangs shut. 

Jules opens the door. A small boy around nine stands on the step, a rickety pink bike by his feet. His knees are dirty and thick curly hair explodes out of his head.

“Hi!” the boy shouted, as if he had already determined that because she was old she must have a hearing problem. “I was playing and kicked my football into your garden! Can I get it back?”

“Oh right.” Jules coughs, her voice coming out gruff from disuse. She’s not sure when she last spoke out loud. “One minute, I’ll fetch it.”

Jules heads back into the house. She makes it to the kitchen before she notices the boy following behind, close enough to take the slippers off her feet.

“Why are you walking like that? Do you have arthritis? My grandpa has that. He has this chair that goes up and down the stairs because he can’t walk. He lets me go on it sometimes but it’s super slow.”

“Something like that.” She replies. “Has nobody ever warned you about stranger danger?” 

They step out into the garden where a morning sun is splintering  through the trees. Her garden, buried in the heart of the woods, shrouded by green quiet. Here she was more likely to see a deer than another person. 

The house used to be a small hospital. Why it was converted, Jules doesn’t know. If there’s one thing the world never runs out of, it’s sick people.  

The past  still resided in the walls. When they first moved in Richard had insisted on keeping some of the old features. He’d always been like that, romanticising the past, trying to build a house and live there. 

“I like your garden.”

Jules turns to the boy who is over by the fence admiring some delphiniums. Near death a few days ago, they have rebloomed beautifully. Bloody right. Jules had used what was left of her fingernails to ensure it. Their vibrant purple spires beautifully offset the white jasmine climbers that tumble down the fence like the foam of a waterfall. 

Her garden is almost perfect. 

“Thank you, it takes a lot of hard work.” She replies, “Those purple flowers are delphiniums.”

“Del-fin-e-ums.” The boy rolls the word around in his mouth like a mint.

“Mhm.”

“Why?”

“Why what?”

“Why do it if it’s hard?”

“Because I enjoy it. And because things are only worth doing if they’re difficult. You remember that. Any Tom, Dick, or Harry can do something if it’s easy.”

Jules reaches out to a lily growing by her hip and grips one of its glossy leaves between her fingers.

“Who’s that?” the boy asks but Jules barely hears him. 

Veins of vivid red run through the green of the canna leaf . So alive. Not a hint of rust. 

“I’m hoping to win a competition.” Jules says, mostly to herself.

“What do you get if you win?”

“The winner gets £5,000.”

The boy looks at her, stunned. “That’s loads! You’ll definitely win. Your flowers are so cool.”

The compliment takes Jules by surprise. She watches the boy hop down the path to the pond.

“I don’t have a garden. We used to before me and Mum moved in with Steve, but it didn’t have flowers like this. We had a trampoline but it had a big hole in the net and one time I did three front flips in a row and accidentally fell through it and broke my collarbone so I got to stay off school for a whole entire week—”

The boy rambles on as Jules scours the garden for the missing football. She finally spots it amongst some squashed daffodils. Her body creaks like the incline of a rollercoaster as she picks it up. She carries it over to the pond and hands it to the boy.

“Here you go.”

He takes it, continuing to stare intently at the fish.

“You squashed my daffodils.”

“Sorry.” He replies without looking.

Jules purses her lips at the boy whose own mouth is slightly agape in wonder.

“Aren’t your friends waiting for you?” Jules asks.

The boy shrugs, “I was playing by myself.”

Jules turns to the pond, its veneer still like a painting despite the life teeming just inches below it. “Those fish swimming near the top with the white spots, they’re koi carps. They come all the way from Japan.”

She leans down and points into the water. “And see those fish at the very bottom, the light orange ones?” She sees the boy nod in the water’s reflection. “They’re golden tench but people sometimes call them doctor fish.”

The boy finally looks up. “Why?”

“Apparently they take care of the other fish in the pond and stop them from getting ill. Like doctors.” Jules pauses. “They also keep the water clean by eating the fish poo.”

The boy grins. “Cool.”

Jules straightens up painfully. The boy watches her with wide, dark eyes. She imagines he makes people nervous. There’s something unnerving about children who see too much.

“What’s your name?”

“Kieran. What’s yours?”

“Jules.”

They turn back to the pond as a chagoi koi eagerly skims the surface of the water. It opens its mouth wide at them. Quick to trust, a chagoi will eat right out of your hand.

Soon the rest of the fish join it at the pond edge. The dull, copper chagoi is quickly swallowed amongst the brighter, more colourful fish swarming in a kaleidoscope like a pool of spilled oil.

Feeding time.

After Kieran leaves, Jules rests on the bench underneath the pear tree. Eventually she will have to go back inside and start her day properly but for now she sits, the sun warming her face. If roots were to grow from her feet and she became stuck in this spot forever, it wouldn’t be the worst thing. 

A swallow lands on the feeder beside her but upon finding it empty quickly flies off in further search. Jules keeps forgetting to buy more seed despite the notes she leaves for herself on the fridge. She forgets a lot nowadays. For two days she couldn’t remember what Richard looked like. Instead there had been a mushroom growing in her mind where her husband’s face should be.

Jules lifts her dress and stretches her naked legs out in front of her, etched with journeys like a road map. The bark which started at her toes has now spread up her shins, over her knees, and reached the joint of her hip. 

She thought she had more time.

Her legs are almost beautiful in the sunlight. Crevasses intricately twisting across her thighs. She rubs her hands down to the place where rough bark turns to pallid, veiny skin. 

What would she find underneath? She doesn’t think there would be skin anymore. Would there be bones? Maybe dirt? Could you chop her in half and count 76 rings?

Or maybe she’d be hollow, perhaps that would be worse. If inside of her there was a cavernous space things could crawl into. Where tree borers could make their home and lay larvae, eating their way through the last of her living tissue.

A long time ago they hung a swing on one of the trees in the garden. They hadn’t realised until too late that the branches were infested with clearwing moths.

It was almost dark. Jules had told Abigail to come inside but Abigail pretended not to hear. Moments later she screamed, the sound piercing straight through Jules’ ribcage as if it had come from her own lungs.

She found Abigail strewn across the ground, all jagged angles. The broken branch lay behind her and the swing between, connecting them where the rope was wrapped around Abigail’s limbs like a twisted marionette doll.

She always remembers the accusing  look on Abigail’s face  as Jules had tried to gather her back together again. As if the swing had been a trap to teach her a lesson. Listen to your mother or else.

The bones in Abigail’s arm never did heal properly.

Jules shakes the memory and stands. She walks inside to the kitchen where she takes a sharp knife out of the drawer. She should fix those daffodils now, before she forgets. 

The football snapped several of the stems and crushed most of the flowers. Jules doesn’t have any fingernails left but even if she did they probably wouldn’t be enough to do the job.

Luckily, blood works better than fingernails.

Two months ago,  Jules had slipped while deadheading a tropical canna lily.  The shears she’d been holding sliced through her glove and deep into her palm.

What had surprised Jules was the blood. How much there was. How hastily it ran.

It dripped in thick surges down the slopes of her fingers, cascading off the tips. She remembers watching with reverence as it flowed out of her to the dry soil where it was swallowed up in a desperate thirst. Something told her to let it bleed.

A day later the dying  lily had rebloomed. 

Trial and error has taught Jules that while blood works best, she only has so much to spare. Therefore, for plants that just need a pick-me-up, wrapping strands of hair around the roots does the trick. More serious problems like leaf spots or root rot require fingernails buried beneath the soil like fertiliser.

Plants that should be beyond saving, call for blood.

Jules holds her hand over the daffodils and brings the knife to her palm. She slices carefully, reopening the barely healed scar. A little should do it.

She moves the knife away but no blood comes from the wound. She closes her fist tightly and squeezes. It doesn’t hurt the way she expects it to. After a moment, a viscous amber liquid slowly oozes out. 

Jules watches, too stunned to move, as the amber pours  over the daffodils like syrup.

This isn’t right. She thought she had more time. One more week. That was all she needed. Just one more week.

Jules sits at Richard’s old computer in his office. The air around her is stale and deathly still. She rarely came in here even when Richard was alive. The office had been his and the garden hers. 

In this room he was a stranger. It was only at the end of the day when he would emerge overworked and gentle, and they would meet back in the kitchen that they would recognise each other again. He would unbutton his collar and she would wash the dirt from her hands and they would sit together eating dinner, chairs pulled close. 

Jules has eaten life, right down to the rinds. But if you were to ask her if there is a moment she’d like to go back to, it would be a moment like that. She would go back and hold it with both hands. 

After several attempts Jules manages to turn the computer on. She won’t make it to the shops, she can barely make it to the toilet. No, she’ll have to order daffodil bulbs online if she wants them in time for the competition. She just hopes that when they arrive she’ll have enough hair left on her head to give.

A couple of days later Jules hears a splash in the garden. She looks out the window and sees a football floating in the pond. 

There is a knock at the door. Jules puts on her coat and gloves. 

“Shouldn’t you be at school?”

“Nooo,” Kieran drones, as if it’s the most obvious thing in the world. “It’s the summer holidays!”

He must be telling the truth, the weather seems about right. Jules has lost things like school holidays to the spores of mould flourishing in her brain.

“Let me guess, you’d like your ball back?”

“Yes please.”

They make their way through the house. Kieran drags his feet, peering around curiously at the walls. 

“You had gloves on last time as well.”

“You’re very observant.”

“What’s that mean?”

“You’re good at paying attention.”

“I’m nosey. That’s what Steve says.”

Jules turns to Kieran and wiggles her gloved hand in his face menacingly.

“When you’re old your fingers turn into carrots. So I wear gloves to stop rabbits from nibbling on them.”

“That’s not true! My grandpa doesn’t have carrot fingers, they’re just really wrinkly.” 

In the garden Kieran spots the ball in the pond and rushes over in panic. Jules follows, stepping carefully on the wet stone. 

Kieran looks up at her, eyes brimming with tears. “Where are the fish? Did I hurt them?”

Jules peers into the water. “No, no, I think the ball just gave them a fright. Look there’s some hiding behind the rock. See?”

Kieran nods then rubs his eyes roughly with his sleeve, embarrassed. As he bends to gently lift the ball from the water, his t-shirt dips and covers his skint knees. It’s two sizes too big with a hole in the collar.

“Do you want to give them names?” Jules asks.

“The fish?”

“I’ve just been calling them fish one, fish two, orange fish, fat fish… They deserve proper names.”

Kieran examines the fish, a crease appearing between his eyebrows. Finally, he points at the chagoi that has bravely swam out from under a water lily.

“That one’s Sonic.”

The bulbs arrive three days before the competition. The delivery man gives Jules a strange look for how excited she is but she pays him no mind. Her garden is almost perfect. 

Jules takes the bulbs into the kitchen where she puts ten into a basket and the rest in the cupboard. In the garden, she sits on the grass and rips hair from her scalp  which she wraps tightly around the bulbs. Next, she plants them in a shallow pit and gently draws moist soil over them until they’re out of sight. 

She hopes it’ll be enough.

Satisfied, Jules goes to stand but as she does all the air leaves  her body in one sharp whoosh. The ground flies up towards her and she collapses to her knees.  Clutching at her tightening chest, she tries to take a breath but it only makes it as far as her throat before it is  violently spat back up again.

Her lungs are refusing to fill. 

They’ve forgotten how to. 

Jules presses her cheek against the dirt and tries to remind them. 

In. Out. In. Out. 

She’s running out of time.

Jules can’t remember Abigail’s phone number. She never bothered to write it down because she has always just known it, in the same way she has always known when Abigail would be home from school for the summer, or her own husband’s face, or how to breathe.

She flicks through Richard’s address book, passing names she no longer recognises. The pages seem to multiply every time she turns to the next, like some kind of cruel spell. It was hard to believe they had ever known this many people.

Finally, under ‘F’ she finds it.

FabbyAbby Home no. 

Abigail had hated when he called her that.

Standing beside the phone, Jules tries to plan what she’s going to say. Words that will close the distance that’s been growing between them ever since Abigail flew through the air with nobody there to catch her. 

Abigail my lungs have shrivelled to the size of prunes and my blood has turned to sap I’m pretty sure I’m dying I don’t mind that you left if it means you’ll come back we have always been too much alike it would be nice to see you one last time.

Maybe sometimes there are no right words, just words. Jules calls the number. 

It doesn’t even ring. 

“The number you have called is currently unavailable.”

Knock, knock.

She’s not going to answer, because it’s late and she’s about to start dinner.

Knock, knock, knock.

She’s not going to answer, because tiredness has rendered her blind and lame and the distance from here to the front door is much too great for just one person.

Knock, knock, knock, knock.

She’s not going to answer, because she isn’t his mother and it isn’t her job, not anymore.

Knock, knock, knock, knock, knock, knock, knock, knock, knock, knock, knock, knock.

Kieran doesn’t speak a word as Jules sits him down at the kitchen table. Dirty tear stains mark his round cheeks. His knuckles are burst and bloody. 

The disinfectant she dabs on them makes him hiss in pain. He tries to yank his hand away but Jules holds it firm in her own.

“Sit still. I need to clean them.”

She dabs them again and this time Kieran doesn’t pull back. Instead he lifts his other hand and puts it on top of Jules’s.

“I knew they weren’t carrots,” he whispers.

Jules freezes. With everything that’s happened, she forgot to put gloves on.

Kieran strokes a rubbery leaf between his fingers, then follows to where the stem is growing out of Jules’s skin. It sends a shiver up her spine. 

“Cool…” He says under his breath. 

They sit quietly for a moment.

“Are you hungry?” Jules asks. 

Kieran nods.

Jules makes mince and tatties. It’s what she would make for Abigail whenever she was sick. She chops up carrots, onions, and celery and fries them in the pan. She browns mince, and adds Worcestershire sauce, stirring until a familiar scent fills the room and trickles out into the hall, warm like someone’s home.

The windows fog and there’s nothing else but her kitchen where the food is piping hot and ready, ready to be plated, ready to be eaten, ready to be enjoyed. She hears the office door creak open, so she takes two plates from the cupboard and begins to scoop the potato in big, buttery heaps. Then with the back of the spoon she presses a small crater in the middle to put the mince in, just how he liked it.

It had always been their favourite. Hers and. Hers. And—and—

“Where is everyone?”

“What?”

“Where is everyone?”

Jules shakes her head as if she could physically dispel the confusion currently clouding her brain.

“Everyone who?”

“Everyone else who lives in the house. They’re never here when I come over.”

Her chest feels impossibly tight. She drops Kieran’s plate down in front of him with a thump. “It’s just me who lives here.”

Kieran’s face screws up in confusion, as if he can’t comprehend how anyone could live all by themself. “Alone?”

“Yes. I didn’t—not always. I had a husband. He lived here with me, but then he got sick.”

Kieran nods with understanding, absentmindedly moving a piece of potato around with his fork. 

“Do you have any children?”

“I have a daughter. Abigail.”

Kieran looks around as if Abigail might be hiding in the cupboard or under the stairs. “Where is she?”

 “She doesn’t live here anymore.”

“Where does she live?”

“With her husband.”

“Where—”

Jules shouts before she can stop herself, “Will you just—!” 

Kieran shrinks back as if he’s been struck. 

Jules tries to take a steadying breath but her lungs come up short. “Just stop asking questions and eat your dinner.” 

She turns away before she can see his reaction. She tries to heap some mince onto her plate, but the spoon shakes in her hands and the mince floods messily out of the potato crater.  

Her bones ache.

“I don’t feel well.” Kieran says in a small, quiet voice. 

Jules sighs. She hadn’t meant to scare him off but it seems that’s all she’s capable of.

Behind her, Kieran starts to cough uncontrollably. She turns to see that his face has turned a bright, blazing red. 

Potato sputters out of his mouth and across the table. Jules rushes over to where Kieran’s  writhing painfully in his chair. He looks up at her with wide, questioning eyes. 

Jules doesn’t know what to do. She doesn’t know how to fix him.

Suddenly, Kieran lurches forward, his tiny body straining violently. Jules tries to hold him together as he’s sick all over the floor.

The ambulance takes the young boy away. The sirens cut through the silence of the trees long after it leaves. 

It hadn’t taken the paramedics long to figure out what was wrong with him. It turns out the forgetful old woman had mistaken daffodil bulbs for onions and cooked them into the dinner. 

They had assured the old woman that the boy would be fine, that he had puked out most of the poison. 

So, when the paramedics leave, the old woman tidies her kitchen. She throws the leftover food in the bin, cleans the plates, scrubs the sick off the floor. Then she goes outside. 

She looks in the pond at someone she doesn’t recognise. She gazes at the host of daffodils, their heads just beginning to peek through the earth, green and new, soon to be golden. 

Then the old woman faces the house. Her house. Their house.

She imagines taking her body off. Shedding it like a heavy winter coat. Shucking it like a husk, along with everything else. The wilted lungs and decaying knees. The grief that has rooted itself inside her. The guilt that has stretched itself across her shoulders. She imagines taking it all off and placing it down on the grass, returning it to whence it came.

She imagines and then she is growing impossibly tall, stretching high into the air, almost amongst the clouds. From up here she can see over the house and everything beyond it. 

From up here she can see her garden in its entirety. It’s complete. Perfect.

A man and a woman drive down a solitary road through the woods. They arrive at a house and park outside. They get out of their car and knock on the front door. When there is no answer, they knock again. The man looks at his watch. The woman checks her clipboard. 

After the third knock goes unanswered they turn to leave.

A young boy cycles quickly down the road that the couple have just come from. When he reaches them he throws down his bike and they exchange a few words. The boy grabs the woman’s arm and pulls her over to a gate by the side of the house. The man follows behind.

The three walk through the gate and into a garden. 

The boy introduces them to a fish called Sonic that swims in the pond. Then he guides them over to some purple flowers which he calls delphiniums. 

The man and woman look at the delphiniums. They look at the jasmine climbers, and the pear tree, and the canna lilies, and the golden daffodils. The woman smiles and writes on her clipboard. The man nods and reaches out to examine a flower.

The boy walks alone down the path to a tall tree. The centrepiece of the garden. Hi, he says when he presses his hand against its trunk.

Not long later, the man and woman join the boy under the shade of the tree.

Caitlyn Morrison is a recently graduated Creative Writing Masters student at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow, having also studied English and Creative Writing as an undergraduate. She has previously been awarded the Rose Cooper Prize for Dramatic Writing by Strathclyde University, as well as the Major Project Prize for her Masters Dissertation.

photo by song xiaoguang (via unsplash)

This is the Place—David Hartley

This is the place. Right here. Where the wizards drowned the village.

Look at the lay of the land. Look at how it sweeps and how it curves. Something’s not quite right. You feel a tad dizzy. As if you suddenly can’t trust your organs. Any of them.

This is no place for a lake. That’s what’s wrong. The lake should not be here.

The wizards put it here. And down in the depths there are a hundred and eighty-six skeletons. 

Taste the water. Go on. Scoop some up and have a little sip. It is crystal clear and as pure as a mountain spring. That’s no way for lake water to be. You should not be able to drink this water without feeling sick. But you don’t feel sick. You feel revived. You weren’t even that tired, but now you’ve perked up.

The wizards were trying to create a story. It went like this: there were these greedy villagers who turned away a hungry beggar. The beggar knocked and every door was slammed in his face. Not a scintilla of sympathy from any of these rich folks. The lake was the beggar’s revenge. So say the wizards. As if they were there.

Have a little swim. Go on. Take a dip. Swim out as far as you like. Further. Go on. All the way to the middle. Try drowning yourself. You can’t. No-one can drown in this lake. Some get close and pass out. But they always awaken on the shore soon after. There are no undercurrents. Some unseen force will always push up anything that tries to sink down. The spirits of the dead far below who simply cannot sanction another death. No room left in their underworld.

They wanted a local legend. The wizards. This place had no myth. Intolerable. A lack of myth starves the aura needed for magic. The wizards pooled their powers and created their own fable.

But it didn’t work. Consider that tale. 

Wait. 

Turn your back on the lake first. Look out over the rolling fields. Look at that radio tower on the hill in the far distance. 

Now think about the story. Think hard. The beggar. The village. The wizards. The lake. It doesn’t quite chime. Doesn’t quite sit well.

And here’s another strange thing. You can’t hear the lake anymore. You have no sense at all of a body of water just behind you. Listen. Nothing. You’ve grown thirsty again. And your hair has dried. Consider: was it ever actually wet? Are you sure?

Now walk. Don’t look back. Keep going. Do not be tempted to turn or glance. Just keep walking. Keep heading to that radio tower. Don’t stop. Don’t stumble. Don’t try to catch a glimpse in any reflective surface. 

Trust us. Keep going.

Go on.

One foot in front of another.

Keep your head forward.

Eyes up.

Don’t turn around.

You really don’t want to turn around. 

Trust us.

You really don’t want to see what’s actually there, waiting.

David Hartley is the author of many weird and wonderful tales about things that hover in the back of your mind and the edge of your vision. His latest short story collection is Fauna (Fly on the Wall Press), a menagerie of bizarre tales about animals described by Lucie McKnight Hardy as ‘fiercely original’. His work has appeared in Ambit, Black Static, BFS: Horizons, Structo, and The Shadow Booth. He holds a PhD in Creative Writing from The University of Manchester and tweets at @DHartleyWriter. 

photo by Ian Keefe (via unsplash)

When the Dust Whispers—Chelsea Thornton

My sister is sleeping just behind this door. My hand trembles. Ripples undulate in small circles within the glass of water I hold onto as my knuckles pale. The door looms in front of me. I hate this room. I’ve hated it ever since my sister went to sleep.

The door beneath my palm is cold. I knock, even though I know my sister won’t hear it. I swallow and push. A rush of stale air assaults my senses, and it’s like stepping outside on a wintry morning. I step into the room, and the darkness envelops me as I tread over the line into shadow. The dim light from the hallway is barely enough to see by. I grasp around for the empty glass, nearly knocking it off the nightstand. I steady it and take it up, replacing it with the full one. My attempt at resistance fails, and my breath hitches in my chest as I peer over at my sister slumbering in her bed.

I falter and stumble backward. Dust escapes the armchair as I sink into it. I stare through the dense cloud. Sofia may appear to rest peacefully, but I can imagine her nightmares.

It’s been months since Sofia first went to sleep. There’s an empty glass and a full one because she wakes just enough to keep herself alive. The bare minimum. Eats, drinks, showers. We only know she does these things because of the evidence she leaves behind—empty cups and plates, damp towels. When she’s not doing those, she sleeps. And since our mother has been away, it’s my responsibility to make sure Sofia has what she needs.

I can’t bring myself to come into this room more than necessary, so a layer of dust has fallen over everything like a fine blanket. My reflection in the small television set across the room stares at me. I wait for the television to flicker on, to pull my sister or myself inside of it like in a particular Murakami novel. To be trapped in an inescapable room of white that feels as though it’s in the bowels of a ship rocking nauseatingly on the seas might be a kinder fate than this.

While I’m staring at the television, shadows move somewhere in my periphery. My gaze snaps to Sofia, but she remains motionless. There’s movement in the room, but I can’t pinpoint where it’s coming from. Not until I spot the shadows on the walls.

Silhouettes take shape in dancing forms with no discernible source. They’re hazy like television static or a piece of black and white artwork done in pointillism. It’s as though they’re cast by the very dust in the room, and I can almost make out wisps of clouds made from the particles.

I peer past them to see the shadows forming into imposing figures on the wall. Fists. Angry, sharp curves of faces. Open, furious mouths. The shadow figures float over my sister’s bed, screaming down at her with silent foul words, their lips moving around vulgar promises. The shadows of those demons coalesce with hers, the movements violent and obscene. Sofia remains perfectly motionless except for the faint frown and the furrowing of her brow.

I can’t take the sight any longer. I snatch up the empty glass and tear from the room. After I slam the door shut, I lean against it, needing something solid to ground me. I feel a tear slip and slide down my cheek.

I couldn’t save my sister from those monsters. Now I can’t save her from their ghosts.

Chelsea Thornton is a writer from Texas. She is a reader for The Forge Literary Magazine, an MS warrior, and a tea addict. Her short fiction has been published in Maudlin HouseBewildering StoriesIdle Ink, and elsewhere. You can find her on Twitter @chelseactually or online at chelseathornton.com.

photo by DAVIDCOHEN and Jr Korpa (via unsplash)

GIFTS FOR THE CRONE—Jessica Dionne

The good and fearful people of the village adorn their doorsteps,
leaving gifts they hope will deter the old fury from stealing
their babes from their beds—nine pieces of silver and nine
goat tears, a slab of venison, golden-yolked eggs. Weary of
the Evil Hour they scour their thresholds with a thimble of mother’s
milk, sugared as syrup, toss a scatter of their best millet-grain.
Lilac, cognac, burdock and bone—swollen with shadow. Tiny
pots of jams, both rhubarb and fig, tubes of rouge, a silken night-
gown. A goblet of brewed nightshade and honey, a hand-hewn rattle,
painted with stars. They call her Lilith, Edilta, Yamnos, Lamia,
twelve names in all and whosoever will write them and hang
them above their door will be spared of their green, green grief.
I take note. Write them all down in my book. Slip on the dress,
paint my face, I dip fingers into the rhubarb and gorge.  

Jessica Dionne is a PhD student at GSU and the production editor of New South. She received her MFA from NC State, and an MA from UNCC. Her chapbook Second-Hand Love Stories is forthcoming from Fjords Press. She was the runner-up in Meridian’s 2021 Editors’ Prize, and a finalist in Arts and Letters’ 2020 Poetry Prize, Iron Horse Literary Magazine’s 2020 contest, and Narrative’s 2019 30 Below contest. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Birdcoat Quarterly, Waccamaw, Hunger Mountain, Raleigh Review, SWWIM, Rust + Moth, Banshee (IE), and Mascara Literary Review (AU).

photo by Artsy Vibes (via unsplash)

Honey Trap—Maddie Bowen-Smyth

content warning: sexual content, light body horror

“You’ll adore the distillery, my darling,” Magnus promises, and Catalina knows better than to trust the pretty words of lovesick, stupid boys.

(Should know better, anyway. Yet here she is.)

She does not, in fact, adore the distillery. It’s a grimy, hulking eyesore on the horizon; closer inspection fails to reveal any grander beauty, but has the delightful accompaniment of a strange, sickly odor in the air. 

The Elwood manse sits at the junction of Middle and Nowhere, its gardens adorned with tumbleweeds, dirt and hay-starved horses. Sepulcro is fifty miles due east, Old Morty and The Dead Sea along with it, and her life before this mess fades into the honeyed sunset with whimpered fanfare.

Magnus brings her to her room. It’s a stately affair; there’s a large bay window, a four-poster bed, a well-worn armchair and a writing desk. He tells her not to stray too far from her room in her delicate condition. He follows this with a gentlemanly offer to escort her to the family dinner at seven sharp.

His eyes sweep over her dust-ridden clothes, lip curling in distaste at whatever he finds there. “I’ll send Minnie over to help you choose an outfit.”  

Once he departs, Catalina abandons her trunk at the foot of the bed. She sits down in a nearby armchair with a decisively fed up: “Fuck.”

The swell of her belly looms under hesitant fingertips. Catalina consults the mirror, turning this way and that. Her baby, somewhere beyond muscle and skin, kicks lightly. Her mouth curves upward, unbidden. “Shush, little one.”

“You can feel the baby?” comes a query from the doorway.

Minerva Elwood swans into the room without waiting for an invitation; Catalina supposes she doesn’t need one. Minerva’s immaculate blonde curls flow in a pinned wave down her back, resting against soft pink fabric that must last all of two seconds out in this desert filth. A pale white hand covers rose-red lips. “Maggy never told me you’re so far along now. Goodness! When was the last time we went shopping together…?”

“A few months ago.” Catalina arches an eyebrow. “Maggy, is it?”

Minerva’s delicate features pull into a brilliant gleam. She shares her brother’s beauty, though she carries it with far less arrogance. “May I, Lina?”

She shrugs. “I warn you, he isn’t very cooperative.”

Minerva, with earnest reverence, presses a hand to Catalina’s stomach. The moment stretches long, the girl’s perfume filling the air between them. Lavender and honeysuckle. She meets Catalina’s eyes. “He?”

“Intuition,” Catalina explains, her voice gentling. “Or so my mother used to tell me.”

“I’m sure my parents will be delighted if it’s a little boy,” Minerva says wryly. “Say, I’m supposed to be finding you an outfit, but Maggy didn’t give me your measurements, and I daresay what I have won’t fit you now. Let’s see what we can rustle up, shall we?”

The pastel frills and lace on offer don’t suit her complexion, designed for Minerva Elwood’s milk-white skin—does the girl ever go outside, aside from sparing trips to Sepulcro’s market?—but Catalina is forced to make do with a virulently green swathe of taffeta and silk. It envelops the warm brown of her skin in disapproving capitulation. 

It’s also several inches too short. 

Minerva is too polite to say it looks awful, but instead offers an appraising: “It’s unique, isn’t it? Papa bought it for me, but he’s never perused a fashion magazine in his life.”

The house is cold, quiet. Murmurs of noise drift from downstairs as servants attend to their duties. Upstairs, on the other hand, is a wasteland.

“The women’s rooms are up here,” Minerva tells her. “The men’s are in the east wing, closer to the distillery. And Mama is often out travelling with Papa or Uncle Ford.”

“So it’s just you?” Catalina asks.

“And now you.” Minerva links an arm through hers. “My future sister-in-law, I suppose! And, in a few months, a squalling infant. I’m quite certain it will liven up the place.”

“I don’t believe that’s the arrangement.” Catalina lets an insincere smirk amble across her face. “Though I’ll sorely miss your company—may I call you Minnie now we’ll be living in close quarters?”

(A few months, and she’ll be back in Sepulcro. And her baby—

She lets the thought hang.)

Minerva’s cheeks color, her brow knitting. “Yes, you may.”

The Elwoods are as glacial as Catalina expects from a well-to-do family in the middle of New Mexico. Earl Elwood is typical patriarch stock, puffing at a cigar over dinner and talking shop with his brother, Ford, who slinks around like a man looking to thieve whatever isn’t nailed down. It’s surprising, since by all accounts, he grew up in the very lap of luxury, but Catalina supposes riches aren’t enough for some. Neither of them bother to introduce themselves. 

Elora Elwood fusses over her and her belly, meanwhile, prescribing herbal remedies she swears by, and assuring her she’ll be well taken care of, and hasn’t she thought about what she’s going to do after this mess is—Elora lowers her voice—dealt with? Shouldn’t a nice girl like her settle down with a young man of her own station?

“Until the baby comes,” Elora says, patting Catalina’s hand and leaving her soup untouched. “Isn’t it better for you to be in the best possible hands? Sepulcro is an awful, lawless town.”

“Lina knows, Mother,” Magnus pipes up. “That’s why she agreed to come with me.”

(Like hell, Catalina thinks, and remembers Old Morty pressing a Derringer into her hands. 

“If you need it,” he’d said. “No one’s hearing gunshots out in the desert, are they?”)

“Yes.” Catalina allows Magnus to take her other hand. “I’m grateful, Mrs Elwood. You’ve shown me great kindness, despite the difficult circumstances.” The words are ash in her mouth. 

Minerva is quiet during all the fuss. She pushes her food around her plate, watching Catalina carefully while sipping at an amber-colored drink that fills everybody’s glasses except Catalina’s. She’s stuck with a horrendous herbal tea meant to be good for a baby’s growth, but it tastes the way a saloon’s outhouse smells.

“I hope you understand,” Elora continues, “there are certain expectations, and you and Magnus are so young. People will talk, my dear, and we absolutely wouldn’t want that to reflect poorly on you. So, we just don’t think—though I’m sure we can work out an arrangement for you to visit—”

“Mother,” Magnus interrupts, placing his cutlery down. “We’ve talked about this.”

Catalina is silent. From across the table, Minerva’s expression morphs from nettled to apoplectic. She stabs her fork viciously into her steak.

Elora is undeterred. “Magnus, sweetheart, you know your father’s thoughts.”

“I’ll marry her once I’m older,” Magnus says petulantly. “Once I’m in charge of the distillery.”

Earl Elwood is far too engaged in discussing the price of barley with his brother to be bothered with his wife and children. Ford glances sidelong at Elora for the briefest of moments, and the two share an expression of such naked heat that Catalina wonders if she isn’t the only one bringing mess and scandal to this family. 

Maybe fucking your husband’s brother is acceptable scandal in these parts.

“Maggy.” Catalina squeezes his hand. “I wouldn’t want to come between you and your family.”

(He hasn’t discussed this with her, of course. The grand proclamations of a swept-off-her-feet romance grow more tiresome by the day.)

“Isn’t she such a sweet girl?” Elora croons. “If you want to be close to the child, dear, perhaps we could even find work for you here.”  

“Her name is Catalina.” Minerva rushes to her feet, her chair scraping the hardwood floor. Her eyes blaze formidably. “If we’re going to be stealing a baby from its mother and employing her as a servant, at least have the decency to refer to her by name, Mama.”

“Minerva.” Elora stares at her, mouth agape. “Have some manners, won’t you?”

“Catalina looks tired,” Minerva announces. “She shouldn’t be staying up late. Come, Lina, I’ll walk you back to your room.”

Magnus’ anger spills between clenched fists and a taut jaw. But he’s nothing if not his parents’ obedient son—Catalina realized that swiftly—and so he acquiesces with moderate grace. “I’ll give you a proper tour of the estate tomorrow, my darling.”

Elora’s own grace is brittle. “Yes. Sleep well, dears.”

Minerva whisks her away from the table and its glacial welcome. They return to the quiet hallways, Minerva’s delicate hand pressed to the small of her back. 

Her breath mists warm against Catalina’s cheek. The wind rattles the window panes. The gas lamps don’t extend all the way down the hallway; the women’s rooms are dark upon their return. Minerva hovers in the doorway, casting anxious glances at Catalina’s belly.

“You can stay,” Catalina offers, to which Minerva offers her a pallid, tentative smile.

She sits primly on the edge of the bed, hands folded in her lap. Her brow pulls together. “I can’t believe you let her speak about you like that.”

Catalina lets her shoes clatter unceremoniously to the floor. “The Elora Elwoods of the world don’t tend to appreciate backtalk.”

“But you’re—” Minerva shakes her head. “You’re so… free. Independent! How can you stand it?”

(She doesn’t. 

Every inch of allowance pinions her throat, but women wind up dead for less.)

“Not free enough to afford making enemies.” Catalina tilts her head. “How do you stand it?”

“Where would I go?” Minerva muses. “I guess I might eventually exchange my father’s rules for my husband’s.”

“Or,” Catalina says, “you could always run.”

Minerva frowns. “Run where, exactly? Sepulcro?”

Catalina laughs. “There’s an entire world beyond Sepulcro, you know.” She shimmies up to the headboard, patting the space next to her. “Here. You look like a jittery foal over there.”

“I certainly do not.” Still, Minerva obliges, settling in beside her. She pulls a flask from the voluminous pockets of her dress. She sips at it idly. “Where would you run to?”

“California,” Catalina replies. “Sand and sunshine. What is that, anyway?”

“This?” Minerva pauses, the flask held to her lips. “Well, it’s Ambruixa, of course.”

Catalina glances at her quizzically. “Do you mean ambrosia?”

“Ambruixa,” Minerva emphasizes. “What did you think the Elwood distillery specializes in?”

“I’ve never cared to think on it,” Catalina says. “I’ve had more pressing concerns.”

(Like lowlifes traipsing into The Dead Sea as if they own the place; gangs angling for a fight; Old Morty giving her messages to courier, scores to settle, enemies to talk down; blood that needs scrubbing from the saloon floor.

Magnus, later. The look in his eyes when he watched her perform.

The morning sickness, after that.)

“It’s sort of…” Minerva takes another sip. “The distillery makes a concentrated syrup to add to sarsaparilla, you know, to make it alcoholic. Papa’s also trialing a version with honey at the moment, like a sort of mead. Uncle Ford picked the name.”

“Let me have a sip.” Catalina holds her hand out. “I was stuck with that vile tea at dinner.”

“Mama said it might be bad for the baby.” Minerva hesitates. “But maybe just a sip…?”

Catalina leans in closer. “Please?”

A blush powdering her cheeks, Minerva offers up the flask as deferentially as one might offer a sacrifice to the gods. Catalina lets the amber liquid spill into her mouth. It brings a rush of heat with it, scalding her tongue. 

Soon after, a pleasant buzz rings through her ears and reaches as far as her toes. Bright spots burst under her eyelids. She passes the flask back. “Sheesh, what’s in that?”

“Like I said.” Minerva’s blush darkens. “Mainly honey. And, er, a touch of alcohol.”

“No wonder people are eager for it,” Catalina marvels. “I’m glad The Dead Sea doesn’t stock it. We’d never get the regulars out.” She pauses. “Speaking of, you never did come to any of my performances. My invitation was supposed to be for you, not your brother.”

Minerva hiccups through her next sip. “I’m not allowed, am I? Sneaking out was no mean feat, you know, and that was just for the market. Maggy spoke highly of them, though. I wished…” She trails off. “I wanted to. But you seemed to enjoy Maggy’s company.” Her gaze falls to Catalina’s stomach.

That stings, just a little, but she laughs anyway. It’s fair, all things considered. “It’s complicated.”

“I’ll say,” Minerva almost huffs. “You’re in high demand.”  

She notices the way Minerva leans into her, like a wilting plant struggling towards sunlight. “I’m here with you now, aren’t I?”

(It’s dangerous; ill-advised.

The stir of—something.

She’d tried to ignore it. And instead—)

“For now,” Minerva says. “Until you—”

Catalina takes Minerva’s chin between thumb and forefinger. “Let’s not worry about the ‘until’, Minnie. Can I call you that?”

“Of course,” Minerva breathes. “Oh, Lina, you really shouldn’t tease me.”

“I’m not teasing,” Catalina replies, and kisses her. 

Minnie’s lips taste like lavender, honeysuckle and Ambruixa. A burning warmth spreads between them, flimsy as spun sugar, and all the more irresistible for its fragility. Minnie strains into the kiss, her hands curving gently around Catalina’s waist. She lets out the most diverting yelp when Catalina presses her back into the pillows.

“Lina—” She manages. “Should we?”

“I’d like to.” Catalina leaves a trail of kisses down Minnie’s neck and arms. “Before I swell up so much that I can’t entice you at all. Haven’t we dithered long enough?”

“That reasoning seems—” Minnie balls her hands in the silk of Catalina’s shift. “Absurd, but it makes a certain kind of sense. So—yes.”

“Then, may I?” Catalina looks up, waiting. 

“You may.” 

Catalina reaches Minnie’s thighs, pressing a kiss between them. Minnie gasps. “Oh.”

The night falls away to entwinement—Minnie’s hair tickling her cheek (and, later, her thighs). Minnie’s hands running over her body. The reverent treatment of Catalina’s stomach as the other girl presses gossamer kisses to it. 

The slow-spun sugar melts to something fragile, inescapable, necessary

They lie together, later. In sleep, Minnie’s expression smooths out.

Catalina sleeps poorly. Strange nightmares plague her, leaving sweat sticky on her skin, and a bone-deep exhaustion. In her dreams, gunshots ring out. Monsters howl and grab at her clothes; they push her down into dirt and dust. A crying baby is wrenched from her arms. Magnus’ face looms above her. He calls her darling and talks about how lovely it will be when they can run the distillery together, and she need never travel outside the estate again. 

Minnie disappears over the horizon in a carriage, begging Catalina to save her. Catalina tries, but her hands are bound and mouth gagged. Elora repeats what a sweet girl she is over and over—

She wakes. The baby kicks.

(You’ll know a love like no other, her mother had said, when you hold your child in your arms.

So far, Catalina thinks, it’s brought her nothing but trouble, misery and kicks to the gut. Yet here she is.)

She abandons the idea of sleep, exchanging the comfort of Minnie’s arms for the chilled gloom of the darkened corridors. If she can’t sleep, she might as well explore.

She finds a servants’ staircase at the other end of the hallway; it leads into a rabbit’s warren of anterooms and corridors. Catalina picks at random, guided by sleeplessness and a strange, prickling foreboding.

The manse sprawls outwards with disregard for its inhabitants. The atmosphere is odd. Here, the wind’s howling spooks even Catalina, who’s slept under the stars more times than she can count. Here, it feels more like she’s stepped from New Mexico straight into Hell, with no coin to present to the ferryman.

She comes to what must be the men’s wing. Ornate double doors bar the way. 

Down another corridor, a sickly-sweet smell assaults her senses, along with an undercurrent of chemicals and heat.

The distillery. A faded sign on the door reads: Authorized Access Only. Do NOT Trespass, By Order of Earl Elwood. Catalina pushes past the door; she’s carrying the man’s grandson, after all, and she’s also his semi-willing prisoner. She’s earned the right to snoop.

The smell is worse inside. If this is Ambruixa before it’s bottled, then God, it smells like shit. The baby kicks, as if in agreement. 

“Come now,” Catalina murmurs. “You should be sleeping, little one.”

The baby doesn’t heed her, continuing to kick while she makes her way further into the distillery. Pale moonlight slanting in through the windows is all that guides her. 

Tree branches scrape the glass. Floorboards creak. Everything rattles. The whole house feels like it’s braced for something. 

As Catalina rounds a corner, she hears a distant, muffled scream.

She stops, waiting. Several seconds later—another scream. Louder, this time.

She half-shuffles, half-runs down the hallway, scrabbling for the gun in the pocket of her shift. A third scream emanates from behind the doors ahead. This scream is the loudest yet; after a moment, it truncates sharply. A heavy padlock hangs loosely on one of the doors. Another sign reads: Do NOT Trespass Under ANY Circumstance. Volatile Chemicals in Use.  

Catalina reaches the doors, pulling them open with one hand while cocking her Derringer in the other.

The doors open into a cavernous room. The smell is overpowering. The room’s only partially lit, shadows stretching along the walls, and strange shapes rise up in the murk. While Catalina’s eyes adjust, she almost thinks she can hear a buzzing sound.

“Please,” a voice cries out. “Please, help me.”

Catalina steps into the room. “Hello? Where are you?”

(As Old Morty likes to say, she’s heedless: last time he’d said it, he’d cast his eyes over the emerging bump.)

The voice tries to answer. Instead, all they manage is a strange, horrific gurgling. Catalina hastens her pace. “Do you need help?”

She notices a figure prone on the ground. They’re dressed head-to-toe in apiarists’ clothes, but the clothes are ripped and torn, leaving patches of skin visible.

Catalina kneels next to them. Bile rises in her throat. Where the clothes are torn, weeping red pustules swell, leaking blood tinged with an amber fluid. The same sickly-sweet smell comes from the wounds, breaking a fresh wave of nausea over her. 

The figure’s face is hidden by a veil. When they try to speak, their throat gurgles uselessly.

“Please—help—me.” Their body takes another shuddering, wet breath, then stills. They don’t move again. 

“I…” Catalina feels her heart close up faster than a bear trap. In Sepulcro, there’s no use clinging to soft feelings. “I’m sorry.”

The buzzing noise grows louder. She looks up, trying to discern its source in the dimness. The mangled, disproportionate shape she’d seen in the doorway hangs above her. The buzzing grows louder and louder.

Something stings at her arm. “Shit.” Catalina bats at the pain.

A large bee falls to the ground, spasming for a few moments until it, too, stills. Its body is strangely elongated, almost distended. It’s completely black, as if it’s been leached of all color; its wings are spiked, its stinger long and sharp. Before her eyes, the skin of her forearm darkens to an angry red; a pustule starts forming.

Catalina staggers back to her feet. Something crunches underfoot. When she looks down, she sees that dozens of the bees litter the ground, their carcasses as dry as desert dust. They crumble to nothing when her slippers crush them. “What the…?”

The room sways; everything tilts perilously. She presses a hand to her arm and finds it clammy and warm. The gun hangs heavy in her other hand. 

The buzz is deafening. Catalina looks up at the mangled shape again. It finally dawns on her.

It’s a fucking hive.

It isn’t like any hive she’s seen, but these sure as hell aren’t like any bees she’s seen, either. She backs up further, trying to ignore the way everything lists to the side, the way the world somersaults around her.

(The baby, she thinks.

She can’t let anything happen to—)

More bees emerge from the hive, and soon, a swarm of them buzz overhead. Catalina swallows, her mouth dry, her hands shaking.

“No,” she whispers. “No.”

She shoots at the hive. Once, twice, thrice. She barely feels herself load the gun, digging bullets from her pockets and loading, firing, reloading, firing again. The bees scatter, the buzzing roars in her ears, and she trips over a carpet of crumbling carcasses in her haste to get the fuck out of this room.

She runs out of bullets too soon. The bees are closer now, too close for comfort—the buzzing rings cacophonously in her ears. It’s too much. Catalina opens her mouth to scream and doesn’t stop screaming until she’s hoarse.

The bees swarm, close enough to brush skin, close enough to sting—

And then, mercifully, rough arms grab her from behind.

She’s pulled from the room. The doors are slammed shut. The world spins in a haze of colors, from red to green to purple to black. Catalina thinks she might be lying on the ground, or else everything’s turned suddenly horizontal.

“Stupid girl,” someone hisses. “Doesn’t she realize what she’s done? You don’t think she damaged it, do you?”

Another voice joins them. “What happened? We’ve told them time and time again not to go in alone for the collection, then they go and leave the bloody door unlocked—”

“Well, we can’t let her go now,” says the first voice. “Just one shouldn’t be fatal, but God knows.”

The second voice mumbles agreement. “She’ll tell somebody in Sepulcro, and then what will the Raiders do? Take her back to her room. We’ll speak with Magnus later.”

“In the meantime, organize for someone to clean up that damn body, will you?” 

Somebody picks Catalina up, cradling her in their arms. They carry her up the staircase. She thinks it might be Ford Elwood. Elora Elwood’s severe expression drifts into view, her mouth pinched and eyes hard, but she soon turns on her heel and hurries off down the corridor. Catalina tries to speak; only gurgles limp their way out of her parched throat.

She hears Minnie cry out. “Lina? Uncle, what happened?”

“She’s ill,” he replies. “Bad fever. She must’ve collapsed. You’ll take care of her, won’t you, Minnie?”

Catalina thinks she’s carried to bed. She feels soft sheets, feels a damp cloth held to her forehead, a bandage placed cautiously around her arm. She hears the click of a lock as Ford Elwood departs. She hears Minnie try the door, sees her shoulders sag when realization sets in. Minnie returns to the bedside.  

When she can finally speak, Catalina slurs: “They trapped us.”

“Oh, Lina.” Minnie’s eyes well with tears. “What did you do?”

“Bees,” Catalina forces out. “Why the—what the fuck are—the bees?”

“Bees?” Minnie shakes her head. “Do you mean the apiary? I’ve never been. It’s not allowed.” She bites her lip. “Did you break something in there? Uncle Ford was so angry. Mama, too.”

“I need—” Catalina tries to sit up. “Paper. Pen.”

“Catalina.” Minnie grasps at her hands. “They said they’re going to keep you in here. I’m sorry.”

(Like hell, she thinks.)

“Paper,” Catalina repeats. “Pen.”

Minnie reluctantly obliges. She searches until she finds some in the writing desk and brings it to her. Catalina’s hands shake too badly to manage anything legible. Eventually, Minnie prises the paper gently from her hands.

“Here,” she says. “Let me help you.”

“It’s to be addressed to Bonnie.” Catalina’s chest heaves from the effort of talking. The baby kicks—less insistent now, almost sluggish. “A friend of mine. Bonnie Steele.”

(As Old Morty likes to assure her, there’s no shame in asking for help.

Well, she can’t go to him. She owes him enough already.) 

Minnie promises to try and sneak the letter out to a servant. At some point, Magnus stops by to check on her, but Elora and Ford intercept him. She hears Magnus’ affront from the other side of the door until he storms off; she’s glad for the reprieve.

Nobody comes to let Minnie back out, almost like they’ve forgotten her entirely. This arrangement seems to suit Minnie just fine. Still, Catalina notices the shadows darkening her eyes. 

The fever persists. The room swims in and out of focus. Catalina chokes on the water every time Minnie offers her some. She still hears buzzing in her ears.

“Who’s Bonnie?” Minnie asks eventually.

“A friend,” Catalina says. She can tell Minnie doesn’t entirely believe her, but it’s the closest to the truth. Her life is a mess. “She has a horse. And a gun. Maybe she can help.”

“Lina.” Minnie frowns at her. “You need medicine, not horses and guns.”

Catalina doesn’t sleep. Nightmares plague her regardless; pustules all over her skin, bursting blood and bile and a sickly-sweet smell. Monsters claw at her neck and stomach. She holds her baby in her arms, its skin blue and body cold.

They bring a doctor, eventually. Catalina doesn’t know what day of the week it is. How many weeks it’s been, even. The doctor doesn’t seem to know shit, either, but he forces a medicine down her throat that makes her gag and splutter and nearly throw up on him. She wishes she had. The door is locked behind him.

At some point, Minnie sneaks the letter out. She changes the cloth, brings Catalina more water, feels for the baby and quietly assures her, “It’s all right, it’s all right, I can still feel him kicking. He’s a rowdy little thing, isn’t he?” She addresses the baby sternly. “You should really be letting your mama sleep.”

Catalina pulls her in for a desperate kiss.

Days pass like this; Catalina as prisoner, Minnie as imprisoned warden. The house is still quiet. 

Ford occasionally comes to check on them. Earl and Elora Elwood are nowhere to be seen. Neither is Magnus. The hallucinations don’t stop. The nightmares worsen.

“It’s going to be just fine,” Minnie tells her. “You’re going to be fine, Lina.”

Catalina knows better than to trust the words of pretty, lovesick girls.

(Should know better, anyway. Yet here she is.)

“You’re lying,” she accuses.

“Well,” Minnie amends. “I want you to be fine.”

She does not, in fact, feel fine. The Elwood estate creaks and groans with age, with shadows, with silence. There’s nothing out the window but tumbleweeds and horses, and nothing nearby except dirt trails and, somewhere closer, a hive of fucked up bees.

What’s the point of wealth if it strands you between Middle and Nowhere like this?

Finally, Catalina asks, “Do you have any more Ambruixa?”

“A little,” Minnie says. “But I don’t know if it’s a good idea.”

“Nothing else has worked,” Catalina grinds out. “Let me try it. Please.”

Minnie lets her have some. It tastes like she remembers; warm, burning, overly sweet. Her muscles relax. Blessedly, the world stops oscillating. Her breathing evens.

“How do you feel?” Minnie asks, nervous.

“Strange,” Catalina replies. “A little better.”

For once, the nightmares leave her in peace. Minnie cuddles up next to her, her cornsilk curls sprayed across Catalina’s dark waves. For once, their evening is almost pleasant. The servants bring them more Ambruixa at Minnie’s request. The buzzing fades into harmless background noise. The house is brighter. The baby’s kick strengthens.

“You’re going to be fine,” Minnie repeats, and Catalina finds herself believing it.

As soon as Catalina’s strong enough not to wait around for Bonnie Steele, she doesn’t. Bonnie would give her shit for playing up the damsel angle, after all, and better to salt the earth than writhe with her nightmares, than submit to the heady peace of the Ambruixa.

(Even if her body craves it now; even if it aches badly in its absence.)

That night, Minnie sleeps softly. Catalina pads to the door, jostling the lock with an errant pin from one of her dresses. It isn’t quiet work, but the women’s wing is deserted, as always. The lock gives way to the shadow-bathed hallway.

She steps out. They might’ve taken her gun; still, Catalina has a few knives hidden in her shoes and underthings. They might think she’s a no-good floozy from a dead-end town—and sure, maybe that’s somewhat true—but they don’t really know her. 

Catalina heads back towards the padlocked doors. She thinks she can hear the buzzing. It jolts in her bones. 

“Darling?” Magnus’ voice strains behind her. “Whatever are you doing, wandering about in the middle of the night?”

“An evening constitutional,” Catalina replies. “The doctor recommended it.”

He doesn’t believe her. Nowadays, she knows better than to trust pretty, lovesick boys. When things fall into place, they use their power to cage.

(Pretty, lovesick girls, though—

Maybe they’re just as caged as she is.) 

“Let’s get you back to your room.” Magnus tries to usher her. “We wouldn’t want you getting hurt, not with our baby on the way.”

“I’m not your prisoner,” Catalina says.

“Of course not!” Magnus laughs dismissively. “But this is better for the baby, for us. I’ve had a very long discussion with Uncle Ford about it. My parents are particular about keeping the operation of the distillery a secret, and they do worry that you’ll run and tell your little gang in Sepulcro everything. So, the longer you stay here, the more time I have to convince them that we must be married. It’s the best way forward for all of us.” 

“My little gang,” Catalina repeats woodenly.

There’s a strange clunking from beyond the padlocked doors; Magnus pays it no mind. Footsteps sound on the stairs. Catalina presses a hand to her belly and grits her teeth.

Elora and Ford Elwood appear in the stairwell. There’s no sign of Earl, as per usual. Elora’s gaze meets Catalina’s. Her brows pinch and shoulders stiffen in disdain. Catalina sees the curve of her mouth, the shape of her dislike, and knows there’s no way in hell that Magnus is going to get the future he dreams of. 

(She’d thought it was better for the baby not to fight.

She should’ve known better.) 

Catalina slips the knife from her shoe. While Magnus turns to face his mother and uncle, she grabs him by the lapel and hauls him back, pressing the knife to his throat. 

“L-Lina,” he stammers. 

Elora gasps. “Unhand him!”

“If you step any closer,” Catalina says, oddly calm. “I’ll open his throat.” 

“Now.” Magnus gulps. “I-I understand you’re upset, but there’s no need to—”

“Girl,” Ford cuts in gruffly. “You’re signing your own death warrant by harming a hair on that boy’s head.” 

“Threaten me as much as you like.” She doesn’t want to kill him, not really, but if they think she’s a no-good brute from a gang-run town, then so be it. “You’re mistaken if you think it makes a damn difference.”

The strange clunking again. Closer, this time. The doors groan open behind Catalina. 

“What are you doing?” Elora snaps, her ire suddenly drawn to something past Catalina’s shoulder. “We’ve told you not to open the doors without proper precautions, just look at what happened the last time—!”

Slow, thudding footsteps come to an abrupt standstill. Catalina backs up, hauling Magnus to get a better view. A lone distillery worker—an apiarist—is there, the doors swung wide, their veil pushed back from their face. They sway with discomfiting unsteadiness, their eyes dim in the gloom of the gas lamps, and simply stare. Catalina feels Magnus’ pulse quicken under her fingertips; she keeps the knife pressed to his jugular, her jaw set. 

Ford makes a move towards the beekeeper. “Close the goddamn doors!” 

The apiarist opens their mouth—a low, uncomfortable moan resonates from the depths of their throat. It makes every hair on Catalina’s arms stand on end. She shudders.

Then, with a terrible burbling, dark shapes emerge from the apiarists’ open mouth. They tumble out in a great swarm; a writhing buzz fills the air. It’s exactly how she remembers.

Fucking bees.

Catalina hears Ford curse, hears Elora scream, distantly feels Magnus stiffen and instinctively try to get the hell away from the greater danger. The knife leaves a thin trail of blood along his neck, but she’s too fixated on the apiarists’ moan; the bees; the streaming blood and gore that follows the bees from their mouth, causing them to choke.

She pushes Magnus into Ford and Elora; the three of them tumble to the ground. She sprints past them. Nobody stops her. 

Elora’s no longer screaming by the time she reaches the women’s wing. Catalina doesn’t think about it. She cares about her baby’s safety more than Elora fucking Elwood’s. 

Minnie, with a silk robe wrapped around a thin negligee, opens the door blearily. “What’s happening, Lina? There’s a lot of ruckus.”  

“We need to leave.” Catalina grabs her arm. “Now.” 

Minnie’s bleariness clears. “W-What? What’s going on?” 

Now,” Catalina repeats. “I’m going. Are you coming or not?” 

Minnie hesitates on the landing. She tracks the blood-smeared knife in Catalina’s hand and the darkened path towards the distillery. She hesitates on whatever she finds in Catalina’s eyes, then nods tremulously. “Yes. I’m coming.” 

They head down through the kitchens; Catalina brusquely informs a surprised cook and several sleepy chambermaids that they should leave, but they don’t seem to heed the warning. Well, she doesn’t have time to be a bleeding heart, so she leaves them to their confusion and drags Minnie out to the stables.

The hay-starved horses are penned up for the night. Minnie tries to make some sort of protest about the dangers of horse-riding while heavily pregnant, but Catalina goes to them regardless. “You’d prefer I walk to Sepulcro?” 

Minnie just sighs. “Of course not. But you really aren’t good at saddling a horse—here, let me do it.” 

Her blood thrums, her body aches with tension, and the baby kicks with unforgiving relent. Catalina presses a hand to her stomach. “Shush, little one. We’re going, we’re going.” 

The Elwood manse is a hulking, grimy eyesore on the horizon as they depart. Catalina throws a cautious glance over her shoulder. A shiver trails her spine. At first, nothing looks amiss—but then, closer, she notices the distillery’s roof is covered in a haze of black. She can’t hear the buzzing from here, surely, but it jolts deep in her bones.

(Old Morty always tells her that fate is fickle; it’s no use concerning herself with anybody else’s. Her mother always told her she never learned.)

Catalina turns away. She pulls closer to Minnie, reaches for her fingers. “Let’s go.”

With dawn comes the sweltering heat. Catalina’s less troubled by that and more troubled by her trembling fingers—by the nausea, the sweats, the image of those fucked-up bees lurking in every shadow, every curve of scrub.

Her mouth is dry; instead of water, she thinks of Ambruixa. She’d kill for another taste of it, for the sickly sweet of it coating her mouth. She hears the buzzing again. It’s under her skin, between her teeth, as if the bees are about to come bursting from her own lips.  

Minnie fares worse than Catalina. She’s probably been weaned on the stuff, by all accounts, and the craving goes deep. Her flask is empty. She’s barely able to stay upright on her horse, holding the reins with white-knuckled fists. She doesn’t ask about the bloody knife, about the urgency of their escape, about her family.

(A few more miles, and they’ll be back in Sepulcro.

But what if—

She lets the thought hang.) 

They’re passing the broken wooden sign reading Sepulcro 2 Myles Yond’r! when Minnie slips from her horse. She tumbles to the ground, sending up a spurt of dust and dirt. 

 Catalina gingerly dismounts, kneeling at her side. “Minnie?”

“Oh, Lina,” Minnie breathes. “I’m having the strangest dreams.” 

“You aren’t dreaming.” Catalina presses a kiss to her fevered brow. “Come on, we’re almost there. Old Morty will put us up at The Dead Sea. We’ll drink plain sarsaparilla and eat weeks-old bread with beans.” 

“Oh dear.” Minnie’s eyes flutter open, her gaze—unfocused, Ambruixa-craved—meeting Catalina’s. “I really don’t know how to rough it, Lina.” 

Catalina smiles despite herself. The buzzing echoes. The baby kicks. Everything’s going to hell, but they’ll rustle up some coins for the ferryman. “Then I’ll teach you.” 

“Excuse me,” drawls a familiar voice. “I thought I was meant to be rescuing you from some ramshackle mansion.” 

Bonnie Steele looks down at them from atop her well-fed, well-watered horse. Her snarl of red hair is so unkempt it’s distracting—she really never brushes it when Catalina’s away—and she makes no move to help them. The only glint of worry is the slant to her mouth in place of a usual smirk. 

“Well.” Bonnie leans forward on her horse. “Good timing. Don’t you two look like total shit?” 

“Angels these days,” Minnie murmurs, “wear such frightful clothing.” 

Catalina laughs despite herself. She draws Minnie close. 

(She should know better than to hope, she knows that, and yet—

Here she is.) 

Maddie Bowen-Smyth is an indefatigable hunter of obscure historical facts and perpetually, endlessly tired. Her writing explores the lasting echoes of trauma and the power of bull-headed hope. In addition to Honey Trap, she has short fiction in The Birdseed, Quill & Crow’s Eros and Thanatos anthology, and Yuzu Press, as well as pieces forthcoming in Wrongdoing Magazine and the BONEMILK anthology from Gutslut Press. Born in Singapore, Maddie worked in Japan for several years and now lives in Australia with her wife. Check out her Twitter @calliopium and website www.journalistic.com.au for all the latest.

photo by JJ Jordan (via unsplash)

As the Blood Moon Burns—Kristin Kozlowski

She didn’t hear the gentle yip of the coyotes. She didn’t hear the cicadas vibrating against the cold trees behind her. She didn’t hear the mournful owl before he left his branch and swept past her like a silent train engine. She was too busy watching the spirits hovering above her broken body, wisps of smoky gauze, apparitions of mountain legends and conjured myths. She was too busy separating from her skin, pulling apart like honey from a hive, releasing her soul into the night air, leaving trailed blood and bent bone behind. She was too busy asking the stars for directions, holding out her weightless hand, and trying to find her way home.

Kristin Kozlowski lives and works in the Midwest, US. Some of her work is available online at Lost Balloonmatchbook, Longleaf Review, Pidgeonholes, Cease Cows, and others. Her piece, “Salty Owl”, will be included in The Best Small Fictions Anthology 2021. In 2019, she was awarded Editor’s Choice from Arkana for her CNF piece, “A Pocket of Air”. If you tweet: @kriskozlowski. 

photo by Jr Korpa and Chantal & Ole (via unsplash)

Dead Girl Famous—Caelyn Cobb

I’m the talk of the cemetery before I’m even in the ground. I don’t know it in the moment, being busy with other things, but it makes a certain sense. My story is all over. My body, tied up in the closet, missed in the first three searches. My mother on the 911 call at five in the morning, reporting me kidnapped. My modeling photos, coy and cute all at once, too adult for a young lady of only thirteen, how could my parents allow it. None of the dead buried there can turn on the evening news or pick up the Sunday paper, but they hear my story all the same. It blares from cars driving through, taking shortcuts from one highway to another. Mourners whisper about it as they trek from the parking lot to gravesites. 

“Did you hear?” they ask.

“What a tragedy,” they sigh.

Wonder if we’ll get her, the dead muse.

It’s always so sad when the young ones come, old ladies lament.

Her father played ball with my boy, several of the dead old men declare. 

Everyone always has something to say. I learned that as a living girl. It doesn’t surprise me that it’s true about dead girls, too.

The day they bury me is a loud one. Forty-six broadcast networks show up with cameras and crews and correspondents. So many classmates and neighbors and straight-up strangers pack St. Stanislaus for my funeral that the church sets up an overflow location with live TV in the Catholic high school gym next door. Afterwards, a vehicle procession roars out for miles to the graveyard, filmed from above by two whirring helicopters. There’s the pulley lowering me down, click, click, click. There’s the thud of the dirt that my father and brother throw onto the lid of my fancy white coffin. There’s my mother’s wail, like a siren, unceasing in the growing distance between us.

I expect it to be silent beneath the earth. I’ve been looking forward to a few moments of peace. For days, I’ve been flung—from bed—to death (sudden)—to zipped-up body bag, black and dark and uncomfortable—to exam table (cold, searing, exposed)—to morgue drawer, blacker and darker and more uncomfortable—to mortician (creepy)—to casket, closed—to casket, open—to casket, closed again, bumping along the old road to my grave. Death is supposed to be like sleeping, a soft pillow, white noise tumbling over me like a quilt. I want it. I need it. But, no, here they are: the dead, thousands of them. They chatter on, with no need to take a breath or pause.

What a day! they exclaim.

I told you she’d end up here, they gloat.

Hush, dead old ladies admonish. Let her get her bearings.

How’s your father? old men call out. He used to be friends with my boy.

They keep going and they won’t stop. Days and days and weeks and weeks. They can talk for an eternity. There’s no reason why not.

From the sound of it, I’m the most exciting thing to happen to this cemetery in years. Before I got here, I learn, the gossip mainly revolved around whose monuments are the ugliest. No one can top Enver’s tombstone, which is six feet tall and features a carving of the burning World Trade Center towers, where he died with ten other members of his firehouse on September 11th. Even Enver agrees that it’s a bit much. Mine is boring: name, lifespan, in our hearts. No one can be bothered to talk about that, though. They have other things to discuss when it comes to me.

My girls were saying that it was her brother who did it, some say. Hit her on the head with a flashlight.

A few dissent. It was her father who found her, they say. Probably he was diddling her and had to cover it up.

What a thing to say, old ladies gasp. It was likely a stranger. Maybe one who saw those pictures.

A few plots over from me lies another teen, a seventeen-year-old who died when a man who kept a handle of vodka in his glove compartment slammed his car into hers. I don’t know why they don’t just ask you, she says. Who was it, really?

The truth is, I don’t know. One second I was filling up a glass of water in the kitchen and then bam—someone behind me swung something hard at the back of my head. After that, it was all blurry, just sensations of being dragged, something itching around my throat.

I bring a lot of foot traffic to this place. All those reporters, updating the public on the non-developments in my case. People swinging by to look at my name in stone after putting flowers on parents’ graves. Podcasters. Cyber sleuths. Friends from school, murmuring about how I was so beautiful. 

The dead over on the far side of the cemetery, the ones buried here way back when it opened in the 1850s, aren’t pleased. All this hubbub when we’re trying to rest, they complain. 

I was the first woman to join the army in this state, and no one gave me half the attention they’re giving her just for kicking the bucket, Ida in section 32 grumbles.

If she wasn’t pretty and blonde and white, one guy says, she’d be forgotten.

Don’t listen to them, my fellow dead teenage friend on the row tells me. She had her share of chaos after her death, when the drunk driver went on trial and then later, when he got out of jail. They’ll get bored and move on eventually, she says.

My mom visits a lot, too. Sometimes with my dad and my brother, sometimes with a cameraman, sometimes just alone with flowers. Every time, she’s crying.

Will she move on too? I ask my friend. She doesn’t have an answer. Her mom lives in a nursing home and stopped visiting years ago. 

My mom’s tears on television don’t go unnoticed. A few years in, they’re all the sleuths above ground talked about as they tour my grave. “She always did want to be famous,” one of them says authoritatively. “Makes you wonder why she pushed her daughter so hard into modeling. Maybe she got jealous that her kid was having some success.”

“Or maybe she wanted out, and mom couldn’t handle it,” another suggests. 

It wasn’t like that, I protest. I wanted to model. My mom modeled when she was my age, and I always wanted to be just like her. It was our special thing. Sometimes we argued—we didn’t always like the same outfits or the same shots. She had her opinions, that’s for sure. But she was proud of me. She always looked out for me. If I’d wanted to quit, she wouldn’t have cared, if it was what I wanted.

You know, the old ladies in my section say, these kids are making sense.

Only some kind of degenerate would let their baby girl dress up like that for strangers, the women in section 21 agree.

I was thirteen! I exclaim. Not a baby girl!

Where was her father during all this, is what I want to know, the old men in section 6 say.

Shame. I always thought he’d grow up to be a stand-up guy, say the men who allegedly remember him from little league.

You’re sure you don’t remember anything? Don’t you want to? my friend presses.

What good would that do? I say. It makes me tired just thinking about it. Not like they could hear me tell them up there if I did anyway.

My daughter is a medium! shout two hundred and thirty-six Sicilian ladies throughout the cemetery. 

Don’t fall for it, Mrs. Raskin in the next plot whispers. That shit does not work.

It might be nice to have closure, my friend says. Maybe you should try it. 

You know who killed you, I point out. Do you have closure?

I imagine her rolling her eyes, if she had them. If there was such a thing as closure, none of us would be saying a thing.

When some men from the cemetery bring their backhoes over to my plot, my neighbors speculate that I’m being exhumed. There must have been a break in the case, the old ladies all assert.

But that’s not it. A crane pulls back the dirt, and then they’re staring down: the priest from St. Stanislaus; my dad, greyer; my brother, taller. They lower another white coffin down next to me. It lines up snug.

Hi, sweetie, my mother says. I’m glad to see you. I know it’s been a while.

It has been. Month and months and weeks and weeks. What happened? I ask.

I got sick, she replies. I hadn’t had any idea. I had thought she was getting on with her life. I was a little sad, then, but mostly relieved. There’s something wrong with living people spending as much time in graveyards as she did.

Did you do it? the old ladies ask her.

Shut it, my friend scolds.

Sweetie, I’m so sorry, my mom says. I’m so sorry all this happened. Are you mad at me? You deserved better. 

That sounds like a confession, the dead say.

You should have gotten to grow up, she laments. Get married. Have kids. Walk around up there like your dad and big brother.

Up there. It’s strange how little it comes to mind, really. When I first died, I thought I would be seething with a righteous vengeance at it all being taken away so early. Sometimes I do miss feeling the sun on my face. Having a face at all. Lipstick and eyeshadow: they were fun. But it is what it is. My place is here now, and there’s no need for makeup anymore. And from what I can tell, husbands and kids are mostly a nuisance. A few visit this place, but most dump their families in the ground and then forget about them until they end up getting dumped here too. No need for that, either.

Are you mad at me? my mom asks again, her voice very small.

She definitely did it, the dead all agree.

I thought I told you all to shut it, my friend says.

I ignore them all. Don’t worry, Mom, I say. I’m not mad. None of that stuff matters now. Everyone goes quiet. They all listen, waiting for what we’re going to say next. I hold onto it as long as I can and I don’t speak one little bit. Finally, I think: finally, peace.

Caelyn Cobb’s writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Passages NorthX-R-A-YWAS Quarterly, and elsewhere. She lives in Queens, NY. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram at @caelyncobb.

photo by Julia Kadel (via unsplash)