Watershed—Sophia Carlisle

In my town, there is a park where women disappear. 

I always thought Watershed Park to be lovely, with large oak trees that dripped leaves into a pond lit by oil lamps from a time long ago. My mother would take me there, holding my hand as I tried to run through the woods. It’s a confusing place, she said, one could easily be lost beneath the canopy of trees

When I grew older, I realized that it was not me who should have heeded my mother’s warning. On the night before I became a woman, she left to take a stroll through Watershed. It was an odd time to walk—the sun had long been swallowed by the horizon and clouds had subsumed even the brightest stars in the sky. My mother was a brave woman, and a little darkness was not enough to scare her. We were accustomed to this weather in our town, but the inky black of that night was not even punctured by a breeze. 

Still, she left. 

I watched my mother go, the door to our home closing shut behind her. I remember her hair was tied in a loose knot at the base of her neck, a few strands out of place. A small purple flower was tucked into the knot, and I found myself transfixed by this small detail. This should have struck me as a sign, for my mother was not allowed to be unkempt. But I was young and disturbed by my mother leaving for what I now know was the first and last time. 

The next morning, my father and I found her hair pins by the pond in Watershed Park but not her body. I suppose he raged and screamed and threw the pins into the water to teach her a lesson, but I was the only one who was learning. 

The years passed on slowly after my mother’s disappearance. More women followed after her, and I discovered that she was not the first one to vanish, nor the last. It was always in the night when women would leave. Sometimes accompanied by a storm so as to mask the latching of the door behind them, sometimes in easy skies, when their husbands slept off the alcohol from the previous hours. 

The days after the women would leave were the worst. Their husbands’ anger would ignite, the sparks singeing anyone who came too close. The walls would splinter beneath their pounding fists, food would go rotten, and babies left unfed. Life would eventually continue with the daughters and sons filling the role their mothers left. But soon the sons would leave too. 

It was just me and my father, alone in the house after my mother left, and I was no longer permitted to walk through Watershed Park. If I tried, the sky would not be the only thing to darken. 

Yet I still found myself drawn to Watershed. Drawn to the golden glow of its lamps, to the way the rain pooled on paths through the trees. When I walked the perimeter of the park, the only child with enough curiosity to do so, I saw not the wilting wildflowers that dotted our town but flowers in bloom, fresh and colorful. It struck me as beautiful that the lilies and fireweed could thrive in Watershed when there was so little light everywhere else in our town. But my favorite flower was one we called Farewell-To-Spring.

It was an elegant purple color, with bits of red floating around the edges of the petals. The Farewell-To-Spring was the flower my mother had worn in her hair the night she left us, and I always looked for it when I visited the park. I found it growing near the wrought-iron fence that had been erected by the husbands of our town to keep their daughters and wives out of Watershed. 

The flower’s petals poked through the bars, and I loved to admire the flashes of red that danced across its purple surface. I imagined that my mother loved the Farewell-To-Spring too. That she was also drawn to the flecks of red on the flower, that she saw something inside herself reflected in that color. 

By the time I was a woman, my father was eager to be rid of me. There was to be a marriage between me and a man of another town. The man was twenty-two years my senior with twenty-two times our savings. 

As the day of the union approached, I found myself wandering often to Watershed. The man I was to marry had looked at me with greed, and this frightened me as I was not a woman with wealth. 

 On the night before my wedding, the sky was still and dark. There was no moon and no stars. As I lay in my bed, I could hear the sounds of my father with his friends, hollering into the night and tempting the Devil to come out and play. But I also heard something else: the creak of an iron gate opening, beckoning. I untied my hair from its plait while I walked to Watershed. I plucked a Farewell-To-Spring from the fence before I entered the park and tucked its stem behind my ear. Its petals tickled my face, and I smiled wide and true. There was a clang that sounded through the night, and I knew the gate had locked behind me. 

I pretended that my mother was with me once again as I walked through Watershed, holding my hand as we picked a path through the trees. Careful, she told me, one should easily be lost beneath the canopy of trees. The lights of the lamps flickered as I moved through the wood. Soon the pond came into view. 

I sat at its bank and picked the petals from the Farewell-To-Spring, throwing them into the water one by one. My mother’s voice sang a quiet song from the depths. 

It called to me, if only softly. 

Sophia Carlisle is an undergraduate student at the University of Arizona. She enjoys wistful stories of all kinds and has a particular soft spot for the ghosts we let linger. 

photo by Johnny Briggs (via unsplash)

Follow Me, My Dear—Kai Delmas

“Come, follow me, my dear.”

Your brown curls danced in the firelight. They hid your face, but your hand tugged at mine, pulling me away from our bedroom, from our home, into the woods, into the night.

Burning timber snapped and popped, followed by the crack of plaster and debris coming down in a rush.

I wanted to turn around, but you drew me onward, dew-wet leaves and branches giving way as we wandered through the forest.

“Don’t, my dear. Follow me. I want to show you something.”

I followed your scent, your coconut shampoo pulling me along even without your hand in mine. We climbed a hill together where we could see above all the treetops.

This was serenity.

“Now, my dear. Look.”

The smell of smoke filled my nose and burned my lungs. Your charred face met my own and we turned together toward where our house had stood and saw not the devastation of a city burning, but the red-yellow rays of a golden sunrise.

Kai Delmas loves creating worlds and magic systems and is a slush reader for Apex Magazine. He is a winner of the monthly Apex Microfiction Contest and his fiction can be found in Martian, Etherea, Tree And Stone, Wyldblood, and several Shacklebound anthologies. Find him on Twitter @KaiDelmas.

photo by Thái Huỳnh and Rowan Freeman (via pexels and unsplash)

A Creation Tale—Maria Thomas

I cut the apple in two at the equator and hold each blanched hemisphere in my bleached palm. The nutbrown pips form a pentagram at the core, tips pointing towards the red rimed circumference like it’s the edge of the world. Here there be dragons.

When she arrives at the tree he’s waiting for her, just like she knew he would be.

I take the apple halves and slice them into papery thins on the mandolin, holding each up to the light, peering at their stained-glass opacity, the azure sky, star-shaped, fading to cornflower through the cloudy flesh.

She can see the sharp tip of his tongue between his lips, smell desire evaporating from his skin. The air is humid, viscous. She shivers under his hooded gaze.

I place each apple slice onto parchment, lining them up like plump, middle-aged women at the WI, brush them with melted butter until each slice glistens with an oily sheen. I sprinkle brown sugar across them, crystalline peaks soaring towards the heavens.

He points to the fruit above them, spherical, shiny, scarlet. I’ll get it for you, he says and she nods as he begins to climb. His flesh is sinuous as he plucks the fruit, returns, holds it out to her. The scent is overripe and dangerous. It penetrates her whole being, consumes her. She cannot help but take a bite.

The oven is already warmed, and the apple slices begin to curl and crisp quickly. The sugar melts, bronzing them suntanned. Sweet and sour fills the kitchen, and my mouth oozes with anticipation.

The fruit bursts and the juices cover her lips, her chin, and then he’s licking it from her, kissing, biting, devouring, and she’s already fallen, already lost, as they come together, long beyond any consequence or duty or faith.

The timer trills and I remove the apples from the oven, place them on a wire to cool. Each star now edged with caramel, each thin brittle and curved. I’d like to taste one, but know they’re too hot, will burn. The swelling within my stomach twists expectantly. I didn’t imagine I’d have to cultivate it alone.

Afterwards she walks home, juices sticky between her thighs, running down her legs; his seed quickening and multiplying within her.   

Maria Thomas is a middle-aged, apple-shaped mum of two. She has work in various publications and was shortlisted in the 2022 Oxford Flash Fiction competition and a finalist in the London Independent Story Prize (LISP) 2022. Maria won Free Flash Fiction’s Competition 13 and Retreat West’s April 2022 Micro competition. She was also a runner up in their AMOK themed quarterly flash comp, and took second place in Propelling Pencil 2022. She can be found on Twitter as @AppleWriter.

photo by Andreas Bodemer (via unsplash)

Plastic Heart—Anna Madden

Her name is as old as lichen-encrusted rocks and shallow cliffs. Its meaning forgotten, withered like the yellow bush poppies that once bloomed to reveal a path to paradise. 

She takes a shallow breath alongside the high tide.

Seabirds huddle as refugees at her feet, cold saltwater trapped against their skin and matted feathers. They try to preen, eating the darkness instead.

Boats come and go, their fat bottoms scraping her sheens, turning the reef to ghostly white. They drop offerings of nylon nets and treble hooks and six-pack rings. College kids with moonshine bright faces drink to her beside driftwood fires and take pictures of her dying form to post on social media feeds. By dawn, empty Budweiser shells are all that remains of them, the aluminum baubles left to corrode and pierce her skin.

In a low wave, she exhales, the sound crackling and wet. 

Her figure is hidden by cigarette butts, wood pulp, and candy bar wrappers. The sand weeps oil. The currents carry the globs to her like dyed pearls, until her scent is that of a gas station. Her heart is replaced with sun cream tubes and drinking bottles with faded labels, shredded wicker, sandalwood, sulfur, and dead alewives with silver scales and empty, staring eyes.

It’s hard to breathe. A scrub-jay calls out for a mate, wistfully, not realizing he’s the last of his kind. Soon, none will remember the color of his caerulean wings. 

Same as the world has forgotten her.

Anna Madden’s fiction has appeared in Tree and StoneSolarpunk MagazineLuna Station Quarterly, and elsewhere. In free time she makes birch forests out of stained glass. Follow her on Twitter @anna_madden_ or visit her website at annamadden.com.

photo by Ivan Bandura (via unsplash)

Better Clichés—Christopher O’Halloran

I walk the streets, the night sky twinkling with stars the night sky a shade of milky black, stars as discernible as maggots in cream. One wriggles, the unfathomable explosion manifesting as a glow barely seen through the light pollution.

“They’re listening to me,” says a wisp of a man dude so thin, a gust of wind could blow him away any self-respecting doctor would strap him down and pump him full of blended cookies.

He can’t afford a doctor; he’ll be thin until he isn’t anything. 

“They can hear my thoughts.”

“Can they?” I ask.

His eyes gleam widen like the sliding open of a manhole cover.

“You can hear me?”

“You or something making noises while your mouth moves.”

“Nobody ever talks to me,” he stammers.

“Because they know what you’re about to say.”

His mouth falls open like a landed fish and off, his jaw coming loose with a click and a rip. It lands in a puddle, dirty water spraying his bare feet. His tongue writhes around in his toothless mouth.

“What should I say, then?” asks the tongue.

Why must he speak? Why can’t he be silent?

“Would indifference hurt if you weren’t trying so hard to be heard?” I pick up his jaw and put it in my jacket. You never know when you’ll have to strike down a thousand men.

“I need that!” calls the man, or the man’s tongue, or whatever speaks for him. 

“Those in Hell need ice water,” I return as I continue on my search for better clichés.

We’re all using the same words, aren’t we? Shirley Jackson, Charles Dickens, Anne Frank. Kafka, Keats, Shakespeare.

I mean, Shakespeare fucked around and found some new ones, but that just won’t fly these days.

Do it once. Do it first. 

Here I am using the same words and trying to find something new. Something interesting. It can be done, but can I do it?

Question: What is the best I can hope for? 

Answer: Something original rare. Something said, sang, written less often.

Better clichés.

We exist in a culture where we say the same thing over and over and over and over and over and over until it becomes a dead horse beaten beyond recognition.

Ope. See what just happened? Did you catch it?

A cliché.

A dead horse.

I didn’t come up with it. I simply took an age-old concept and used it as a punchline. Not even a good one!

So I’m in search of better clichés.

Two women fight in the doorway of a condemned movie theater. Their hands, shaped like claws, flexed and full of holes, are repelled by the magnetism of two identical poles. Kept inches from one another.

We were supposed to meet at eight,” they whine, together, voices harmonizing, melodic in a minor key.

Why were you late?”

Do you not respect my time?”

Do you not respect me?”

They’re seconds away from tears. They can’t see how similar they are because those similarities are what’s keeping them apart that last inch. You can see the tension in their necks, jaws clenched, vice-like, locked like hyenas tugging on the same leg as they try to get through to each other.

I approach gingerly, mindful not to be caught between them. Extending a gentle shoe, I nudge the woman on the right, pushing on her knee with my soul sole.

She twists. Her face has no room for two emotions, so discards anger for shock. Facing the other way, she falls into the arms of her partner.

I leave them holding each other. Their platitudes and apologies make music.

Is it bedtime, yet? My shoes have worn away. The muscles in my legs plan mutiny. My eyes are drier than a Methodist. I’ve been down every street. I’ve seen people loving and loathing, living in squalor and dying in ecstasy.

I pass a man behind a mailbox, sniper trained on a courtroom.

“Fancy yourself a hero?” I ask.

A judge exits, not-his-wife on his arm. She laughs.

The sniper takes the shot.

A judge exits, not-his-wife shrugs.

“Gotta break a few eggs,” says the sniper.

Me and the universe groan.

The jawbone turns the glow from my child’s nightlight into fingers that stretch up the wall. It clicks down on the nightstand. My child stirs, smiles, sleeps.

I give up. It’s bedtime. The night has been wasted. I could have been sleeping. I could have woken refreshed with my family. Greeted their smiles and morning breath with my own. Happy.

There are no better clichés. There are no better clichés. There are people and language used to manipulate and support, cajole and caress, satisfy, stimulate, and simulate a sanctimonious presentation for—what? Whom?

Ourselves. I am Toni Morrison and Ralph Ellison and Ernest Hemingway and the baby born tomorrow. Making ethereal cocktails of whatever the Hell I can get my hands on. Pouring shampoo into body lotion into floor cleaner into a tube of toothpaste and asking you to like it.

Doing it every day like a madman. Walking the same path every night, in search of better clichés new ways to say I love you and I hate you. Searching, but coming to bed nevertheless. 

Christopher O’Halloran is a milk-slinging, Canadian actor-turned-author with work published or forthcoming from Kaleidotrope, No Sleep Podcast, Tales to Terrify, The Dread Machine, and others. His novelettes are in anthologies Howls from Hell and Bloodlines: Four Tales of Familial Fear. He is Reviews Editor-in-Chief, Social Media Co-Manager, and Discord Mod for the most active horror book club on the web, HOWL Society. Follow him on Twitter @BurgleInfernal or visit COauthor.ca for stories, reviews, and updates on upcoming novels.

photo by Janko Ferlic (via pexels)

The Lights at the Mill—J. F. Gleeson

I was sat atop the mill in the night.

I could look up, and I did, at a lot of stars. Some were red and pink. Some glittered more than did others. Some were like the wounds left by needlepoint in fabric. Some were dead but no other could know.

I could look down at the turn of the coloured lights in the night and the music that they spun to. The music shone off the front of the river, glassed the flowing of the liverwort. The mill turned the water.

It was strange, to look down and see me there, turning with those others.

When I looked up, I did not see the same.

It was not so strange.

J. F. Gleeson lives in England. His work has appeared, or will soon appear, in LigeiaMaudlin HouseSublunary ReviewOverheardBeneath Ceaseless SkiesBureau of ComplaintDéracinéergot.MandrakeWeird HorrorSpartanLamplit Underground, the Dark Lane Anthology series and other places. He has a website.

photo by Simon Godfrey (via unsplash)

Rat King—S. M. Hallow

In the morning your mother will say we were a fever dream.

We promise you, Clara, we are very real. 

Our seven heads. Our seven tails, tied together in a prince’s playtime knot. Our seven bodies, parrying as one against your cherished nutcracker, a rhythmic undulation of haggard gray fur. 

Watch carefully. Watch your nutcracker call his legion of toy soldiers to destroy us. Watch us dodge the cannonballs, the bayonet blows. Watch the riposte—have you ever seen such a gentlemanly duel to the death? 

We are gentlemanly, Clara. Gruesome to behold, we understand, but far more honorable than your Drosselmeyer’s treasure. Did you know he did this to us? That he condemned us to this snarl of flesh that made us not our own?

Eyes open, Clara. No turning away now. Watch

Watch and remember the moment we trip your nutcracker. The moment he breaks to his knees. Even the moment you pull off your slipper, scream NO, and throw it at us. Remember all of it, so tomorrow, on your crystallized Christmas morning, when you find your gallant soldier broken on the floor beside a single severed whisker, you will know the truth of what happened. No doubt your mother will blame your irksome brother. Flushed with the aftermath of fever, you will cradle his pieces in your palms, and try to tell her it was us. 

Too much Christmas Eve excitement, she will scold, then blame your imagination.

But you watched us plunge our rapier through the red coat painted onto your nutcracker’s chest, and you heard the wood of him splinter apart. And each night, as you pray to your God, you will hear us, too, scrabbling within the walls as we establish our kingdom of vermin, and you will know better than to dismiss us as imagination when all along you will keep our whisker tucked beneath your pillow, as a favor, as a gift, as proof. 

As—perhaps—an invitation.

Pushcart Prize nominee S. M. Hallow writes speculative fiction of all flavors, from horror to fantasy to romance. Hallow’s stories, poems, and visual art can be found in Baffling Magazine, CatsCast, Final Girl Bulletin Board, The Lovers Literary Journal, Prismatica Magazine, and Seize the Press, among others. To learn more about this part-time fairytale witch, full-time vampire, follow Hallow on Twitter @smhallow.

photo by Darya Tryfanava (via unsplash)

Homemade Gingerbread—Emma Charlotte Green

I was making gingerbread for my nieces, but when I took the trays out of the oven the little people shapes started walking around.

I watched them step awkwardly off their sheets of baking paper, nudging the gingerbread stars out of the way. Along the kitchen counter they went. They skirted around the jar of hundreds and thousands and the bowl I had put out for the icing. Blank faces turned to me one by one, then turned away. 

The gingerbread people set about climbing down to the floor, swinging from handle to handle between the cupboards and drawers. They crossed my kitchen floor, leaving dappled footprints in a patch of spilt flour. 

The big window by the pantry was open. They climbed on top of each other to reach the sill and then pulled each other up. They reminded me of ants or bees.

I checked that the oven was turned off then poked the star-shaped gingerbread with a spatula. 

They didn’t move. 

I considered eating one, to check I’d gotten the ratio of spices to honey right, but somehow that didn’t seem appropriate.

One last jagged line of gingerbread people hauled themselves onto the sill and jumped away. I closed the kitchen window behind them and watched them toddle around to the front of the house. I stopped for a moment, looked around my empty kitchen, then grabbed a pair of shoes and my house keys, and hurried out the front door.

I followed them past the church and the pre-school, the bus stop opposite the service station, the sports oval. They followed the footpath, moving around tree roots and weeds like a school of fish. It was a long way on their tiny legs.

I must have looked very strange, following a swarm of walking baked goods around the neighbourhood. But nobody seemed to pay us any attention.

The afternoon was darkening. What would I give my nieces tomorrow? Just a small batch of iced gingerbread stars? But they always liked my gingerbread people, the way I decorated them with sprinkled hair and different facial expressions. 

 A few of the gingerbread people threw me scathingly blank glances.

Eventually they led me up a short cul-de-sac at the top of a hill. They walked directly to the very last house, an unassuming place with a dark green roof and an almost overgrown garden. The front door was painted a glossy brown. What would I say to the people inside? 

But the gingerbread people veered off the driveway and went down a narrow passage between the garden fence and the house’s brick wall. Bushes lining the fence poked me with twigs and sharp leaves. There were spiderwebs too, and I cursed these gingerbread people, forgetting I was the one who had made them. Then I wondered, had they been born? Or rather created? 

At the end of the passage was a garden shed in the corner of a wide backyard. The shed had a sliding door and a latch to unlock. The gingerbread people built themselves into a moving mountain again, climbing up together to the latch. I reached over to help but they stared at me again, blank and warning. 

They opened the latch and inched the door open with a metallic screech.

I peered through the crack. There was only empty darkness and shadowy gingerbread people pouring into the corners. I shoved the door further open to let some light in. It was warm—the air inside was heavy against my face.

The wall opposite me was a smudged grey, blackened in places as though with charcoal, and lined with a pattern of horizontal ridges. I leant forward to run my hand down them. To my right the wall felt rougher, more like mesh, but to the wall to my left was as smooth as glass. I drew my hands away, fingertips nearly blistered.

The heat buzzed. I had one foot inside the shed now, the other on the grass. My clothes were sticking to me and each breath was a searing swallow. 

There was more scrabbling in a corner and the door squeaked in its metal frame as the gingerbread people started to push it closed. I watched their little shadows working.

I shifted my weight in indecision and pressed my hands to the walls to steady myself. They burned. I gasped and suddenly thought—had I left the oven on? I couldn’t remember.

I slipped out of the shed and fell onto the grass as the door caught at my knee. Out of that mad heat, the afternoon air was cold. 

I wiped sweat from my face and looked at the sliding door. I stared as a gingerbread person’s head appeared in the last few centimetres open. They reached their arms out towards me, face blank with anger, but—

The rest of their fellows pushed the door closed with a crisp finality. 

The lone gingerbread person was cut in half along their gingerbread waist. 

Their torso dropped to the grass, immobile. Inanimate homemade gingerbread. 

I sat there, looking between the shed and the broken piece of gingerbread. Then I remembered my own oven. Surely I had turned it off? 

Yes, I thought. I had. 

There was no need to hurry home. 

I picked up the gingerbread and made my way back through the tiny passage at the side of the house, down the driveway, out of the cul-de-sac. I turned left down the hill. It was nearing dusk. There was a flash in the distance as the bright lights over the sports oval came on.

I held up the leftover half of the gingerbread person in my palm. It didn’t look too bad.

I bit off its head.

The spices were perfect.

Emma Charlotte Green is a writer from Sydney, Australia. She lived in France for a few years and in 2021 earned a Master’s degree in comparative literature from Université Grenoble Alpes. Now back in Sydney, she is spending a lot of time reading, writing and laughing. 

photo by Jonathan Taylor (via unsplash)

The Woman Is Always Haunted Long Before the House—Amy O’Neil

She wafts in and out of endless rooms with mops and dusters, scrambling for pills in the medicine cabinet. Doors slam behind her. The house is extravagantly large. Wooden floorboards, seventies decor, creaky doors. She glances at the clock. When will he be home? 

She tells her husband about the noises, the shadows lurking in mirrors, the girl in the painting.

‘It’s all in your mind,’ he says cheerfully, kissing the crown of her head, as if being haunted from the inside out makes any difference.

‘The house is too big.’

But he must dash. He’s late for work.

She touches her belly. She prays. What other options are there? Her drinking habit is getting out of hand.

In the painting, a little girl sits behind a window. Raindrops smear her mouth into a frown. As the woman studies the girl, we study her. Uncomfortably close. We could count her pores if Hollywood hadn’t erased them. In any case, we are offered delicately parted lips, a pert nose, darting, frightened eyes. The lost gaze of nothing to do, nowhere to go.

Discordant piano music reaches a crescendo, like a toddler is clumsily slamming the keys. A warning. The girl in the painting twists her mouth, struggling to form words. But what is she trying to say? She must be evil.

The husband finds his wife sleepwalking dangerously close to the pond in a white, sheer nightie. Her only other garments are dresses he bought to cheer her up, necklaces he clasped around her neck while she watched him in the mirror. Now she reaches fingers towards the pond as if groping for something impossible and her hair is clotted with mud. She’s jolted out of her stupor at his touch. The fallen strap of her nightie tells us this can only end one way: insanity or death.

‘We’ll fix it,’ he says, drawing her close. She believes him. We believe him. He carries her into the safety of the house. ‘You must sleep,’ he says. 

Everybody is relieved when she’s unconscious.

He flushes her pills, pours the whiskey down the sink. He holds her wrists while she thrashes against him, eventually collapsing on the kitchen floor in ugly tears.

He resolves to end the affair with his secretary, to give her what she so desperately needs. We all know what she needs. The only thing a woman could need. The camera slides to her stomach.

It’s dark and the windows are open, and she wraps a shawl around her shoulders rather than close them. She puts the kettle on, gazes at the empty lawn stretching towards the forest. A thought holds her there. The camera zooms closer. We no longer perceive her as a whole; she’s an eye, a cornea, a stray lash. We can almost climb inside her skin.

He hacks at the painting with an axe. This will save them. 

The little girl is still trying to say something. Mouthing silent words between strokes of the blade with more urgency than ever. Her attempts are buried in splintered wood and canvas. The woman is crying, clutching her belly, crying.

‘You must sleep!’ he insists.

The little girl is begging her to listen. 

It’s no good. The husband has got into his stride and is grunting with effort. Piano keys crash and clamour. The woman’s face is warped by tears. The camera recoils. 

The painting is a heap on the floor, but he continues with the axe, smiling, laughing: catharsis. 

‘We’ll buy a new one,’ he says upon noticing his wife’s face. 

She searches for a dustpan and brush.

‘It doesn’t matter,’ she whispers. We nod. We understand. 

Even if the girl’s voice could raise itself from the rubble and tell a different story, no-one would believe her.

Amy O’Neil lives in Brighton, UK. Her stories have appeared in Mslexia, The Forge, Vestal Review, Flash 500, and others. She recently won the Grindstone literary Flash Fiction contest and Globe Soup Summer short story contest. She is currently working on her first novel. You can find her on Twitter @amygraceONeil.

photo by Maria Orlova (via pexels)

The Princess on the Glass Hill Becoming—Joel Hans

The princess on the glass hill mourning.

The three golden apples dropping from inside the princess on the glass hill.

The apple tree doing nothing but completing the façade.

The princess on the glass hill exhibiting the golden apples to the crowd.

The people climbing after the king’s promise: Secure the three golden apples, secure the princess’ heart, secure your future.

The people hungering.

The people climbing.

The people falling.

The boy wearing copper shoes.

The girl whispering I won’t be all alone, I won’t be all alone, her copper ice axe landing lamely on each alone.

The solar salesperson adjusting their copper tie, asking if the princess has heard about the upcoming rate increase for her traditional energy usage.

The sky sunsetting.

The king’s men picking up the bodies.

The bodies feeding the glass hill for a little while longer.

The trick succeeding.

The glass hill murmuring.

The cycle continuing for a seventh year after the apples arrived and the glass mountain clarified its intentions with a cough that burned a third of the metropolis. 

The mockingbirds calling before dawn.

The tank-topped boys waving silvery cans of Coors from the open frame of their raised Jeep crawling on beadlocked Dick Cepeks at 12psi gripping the glass no better than feet or hooves or gloves or talons.

The knight collapsing beneath the weight of his chivalry, or was it only his silver armor?

The botanist craving just one scion from the apple tree so that she can finish her PhD, not knowing that to find the apples’ true source, she’d have to use her silver loppers to slide the princess on the glass hill from flank to flank.

The princess on the glass hill standing from her perch only to let the king and his men drop the day’s bodies into the mouth of the glass hill that feeds the belly of the whole earth.

The king fathering his hardest.

The king clearcutting soot and blood from beneath his eyes.

The king soiling the princess’ dress when he drops to his knees and presses his cheek to her thighs and clutches to her calves.

The girl on the glass mountain remembering how, long before the glass mountain was just a demanding mound, they used to ride his golden full-suspension mountain bike together, the extra seat with the stirrups, her hands on his handlebars and her helmet batting his chin, how his arms felt like a glass encasement that would protect her forever, how his laughter was a retreat, and how as she got older, she wanted that glass shattered, the freedom to explore freely, how she didn’t even think to notice how quickly that seat cultivated dust in the garage.

The king wishing it could be any other way.

The sunsetting.

The dawning.

The woman pleading, from the back seat of a golden Range Rover: Buy the dip, hold onto it for dear life, and you’ll be set for life.

The runner flashing a golden pendant that crowns them fastest in the world, which doesn’t help when they’re falling off to their death.

The documentarian waving a golden statue and an everspilling flute of champagne.

The sunsetting.

The princess on the glass hill looking out over the empty land beneath her.

The people hungering for her now gone.

The people fulfilling their role, never knowing if they had climbed to the top and claimed her, they would have turned the world inside-out.

The flow pyroclasting.

The ashcloud chilling.

The princess on the glass hill keeping a delicate balance in her sacrifice. 

The king’s men arriving with all the bodies.

The glass hill feeding until it becomes a mountain.

How else do you think it got so tall?

The princess on the glass mountain rolling the three golden apples between her hands.

The might-have-beens glowing in the starlight.

The year ending and another beginning.

The king cradling her, eclipsing her hurt and trying to swallow it with shadow. 

The king apologizing.

The king telling the princess on the glass mountain to run.

The king throwing himself into the glass mountain.

The princess on the glass mountain becoming the girl on the glass mountain.

The king becoming just like everyone else who had hungered for her, only that what he wanted for himself and what he wanted were never clear until just now, and never could have been the same.

The girl on the glass mountain realizing that her shoes were slipless all along.

The girl on the glass mountain becoming just a girl.

The girl feeling the glass around her shattered, but it is only grass.

The girl trying to decide which path to take now that she is free to wander this fated world, meet everyone who had not thrown themselves at the promise of her—are they maddened or mourning or merely human?

The golden apples lolling between her hands.

The loam sponging beneath her feet.

The land craving to be the instrument for something new, even now.

The girl departing.

The question remaining: Was her father sad to lose the time they once shared, or proud to have watched her lose it?

The glass mountain remaining.

The time remaining.

Joel Hans has published fiction in West BranchNo TokensPuerto del SolThe Masters ReviewRedivider, and others. He received his MFA from the University of Arizona and continues to live in Tucson, Arizona with his family. He can occasionally be found on Twitter @joelhans.

photo by Seda Nur Korkmaz and Dustin Hume (via pexels and unsplash respectively)