An Occurrence at Nantasket—L. Reed Walton

Due to their publication schedule, neither the Sunrise nor the Weekly Explorer had yet printed photos of the giant, pale, unmoving woman who had washed up on Nantasket Beach. Disappointed, Red considered checking the Post

The enormous body had come ashore that morning, but police cordons had so far prevented photographers from capturing anything more than a white lump on sand. As the event—as far as Red could gauge—was true and provable, reputable news outlets would have first crack. By now, the Post’s website might even have a slideshow with aerial photos and diagrams. All lay a few tempting clicks away.

Red, however, was no fan of reputable websites or of reputable news. 

Besides, certain places on the internet viewed their visitors as surely as visitors viewed them. Nothing Nietzschean about it; this was as much a fact as the marooned giant. One had only to take the example of customized ads to see the truth of it. 

Meanwhile, Lewis Ethelred “Red” Perry had made a life’s work of avoiding the gaze of others, whether electronic or no.

His preferred media elided reality. The back-alley websites functioned as a spyglass. Being electronic, though, this left open the possibility that someone might look down the other end and see him shrunken. Red might be unassuming, but he refused to be reduced

He liked the old-fashioned printed newspapers best. These were kaleidoscopes, or perhaps the faceted compound-eye viewers that put every image on fragmented repeat. The Explorer, World Weekly, the Weekly Sunrise: they lent a fanciful skew to the dour parade of true events, simultaneously veiling the mind and intent of those who consumed them.

But in this case, somehow, the avoided world and the invited world had merged. Accounts of the phenomenon at Nantasket bled over the borders of the fantastic, drawing Red out with an irresistible call. 

Because she wore white, they called her a bride. The Bride of Brobdingnag, a moniker that stuck because some too-clever word-wrangler put it in early.

Red knew Swift from school, but he didn’t agree with the name at all. First and foremost: the thing she wore was no wedding dress. In the few vague descriptions he’d allowed himself to read, it was said her garment had short sleeves and fell somewhat below knee length. Now, Red had two sisters and a mother besides, and he’d be damned if that wasn’t a nightgown.  

Thinking of the woman as having been interrupted in her sleep was more romantic. Not in the tawdry, ripped-bodice way, but in a way that was harder to pin down—hinting at something mysterious, something gothic. Had she been a pining lover on a foreign shore, swept from her balcony at night by a rogue wave? Some sleepwalker in an undersea land of titans, who had drowned in air as surely as we drown in water?

It should have been the stuff of sensationalist rags. Red’s purview. But this time, polo-collared types would discuss it in bars—and not neon caves full of dusty old crackpots, either, but the kind with sports on the TV and tap pulls shaped like fish or sheaves of wheat. People in cardigans would whisper in the grocery’s dairy section about the monstrous wonder on the shore. 

Red did not care to eavesdrop, to hear those discussions, for fear that intrusive perspectives might sop up the overspill of fancy and uncover cracks in this singular fairy tale. Cracks through which he might be spied and judged. 

His only remaining choice was to see her, in person, with his own eyes. More, if he could. He yearned to place his hands on the impossible made fact. 

Spring’s lingering chill would keep some spectators at bay, but Red anticipated the carnival would crank into full gear soon enough. Out would come the scientists in parkas, the politicians in wool trenches. Lines around the block. Up would spring the booths and the tents. Have Your Picture Taken with the Giant Woman! Souvenir t-shirts, helicopter tours high in the salt air above the smell of popcorn and the shrieking of children. Apparently, a handful of protestors had already gathered at Nantasket, preparing to oppose a not-yet-manifested response to the giant’s placid invasion.

So Red snatched up a few folded papers and not much else, aside from his wallet, to South Station, and boarded the train to World’s End. Taking MBTA let him avoid the traffic on Nantasket Avenue that clotted within the peninsula’s slim neck. Besides, “World’s End” was a romantic-sounding waypoint for a voyage. 

From the nature reserve next to the station, he thought he might try to hitch along with a fellow-traveler, but he wasn’t averse to making the walk, either. A part of him wanted to imagine he was the only pilgrim, to pretend that the beach would be empty of all but the woman and the wind.

With his ride underway, the train clicking over the tracks, Red examined the swags of bulbous cloud hanging over the marshy landscape. Now and then, they broke—a blue eye opening to watch cars hiss along the expressway below. There were fewer people inside the car than Red expected. He would look up from his paper often, losing track of words in the shape of his reflection on the glass. How the rushes and the inlets and the whole sky moved, but his face never did more than quaver. It was as if he’d become his daydream-self, approaching the body and sheltering in the soft L-shape where her shoulder met her neck, and perhaps muttering the lines of a World Weekly story toward her ear. If she never heard a word, all the better. 

Often, he didn’t want the people he spoke with to speak back.

As the sea passed on his left, Red took again to imagining the huge woman, alive, on some unexplored continent—if there was such a thing in the world these days. On the stage of his mind, he watched her brush her hair. She might pause to extend a hand beyond the balcony rail, summoning a songbird to her fingers. Dainty in her hand, it would nonetheless crush a human of normal size. Then again, how was Red to know her size was not the normal one and his the laughably small?

Perhaps her end had been one of despair. He could imagine her as the only one of her kind—a fluke, appearing fully formed and lost in a strange place. How easy it would be for a creature like that to feel aloneness building, flooding over the walls until her imagination became glutted in that trackless, rejected state. Borne on a tide of sorrow broad enough to break her giant heart, the literal tide could easily have taken her.

The waves of sympathy inside him soon frothed and broke into indignation. What right did anyone have to claim her? Even approach her? Far better that she melt into the breakers or swirl away like sand than have a crew of toughs strap her to a tractor-trailer and haul her away, the salt at the tide line drying into a landscape on her skin. Great minds with tiny hands would prod at her remains, reducing her piece by piece until only the sea-stiffened gown remained. Words and pictures and secondhand accounts would replace her, and she would return to the stuff of stories, those in disreputable print. 

An unfamiliar feeling, being angry on someone’s behalf. Red found injustice exhausting. It was far better in the world of his weeklies, where fates were deserved by buffoons and laughter at their expense encouraged.

Debarking in the rustic-looking station at World’s End, he clutched the newsprint in a sweaty fist. Across a tongue of water, George Washington Boulevard’s northbound lanes swarmed with cars, either stopped or moving so slowly they gave off the illusion of stillness. The faint gooselike noises of car horns over the estuary became a chorus as Red meandered through forested backroads. Along the main thoroughfare to Hull, traffic stalled in a bubble of warmth and exhaust. The snarling tension of each driver seeped out in flares of anger; some of them put their windows down to shout at Red as he passed.

Their broken voices were not worth looking up for. The sky had moved lower still and had begun spitting drizzle. Ahead on the parkway, Red slowed down when he caught sight of a gray-haired policeman, holding a clipboard and shaking his head.

“You live on the island?” the cop asked. His city accent was spread thick over the words. 

It was hard to resist the urge to correct his failed geography. “I don’t.”

The cop scratched his nose, a mushroom bulb growing spotty in the Irish tradition. “Can’t let you pass, friend.” He made a fist and poked his thumb toward the empty highway at his back. “Some kind of human rights protest, or something.”

“Is she human?”

“What? Who?”

“The woman,” Red said. “The big one. Is she human?”

Raising his bushy eyebrows, the cop looked down at damp, curling paper. “No idea, pal. I’m here to stop people from killing each other. The regular-sized people. Those are the ones I care about.” He added a chuckle that sounded less than altruistic.

While the mist settled on the cop’s epaulets, Red looked over them at the empty road. 

“Scoot, pal.” The cop stared from under a fuzz of short lashes, stubby as a push-broom, and used his nose to point the way back down the avenue.

And so Red turned. Seeing someone confronted, the drivers in their cars had settled, with few watching him make his pilgrimage back, head down against the wet wind. Some averted their eyes and put up their windows. 

The disappointment of others is a contagious, sticky thing.

What anger the soft mist had calmed flared up again as Red mulled over the policeman’s apathy. No, not apathy. Rather, a lack of curiosity. As a gift, curiosity is not evenly distributed among human beings. All manner of capacity for wonder is ascribed to children, but Red—who headlong since  made the happy shift from the factual to the fanciful—could easily identify an incurious child. Little CEOs, those were. Or nitpicky management types, computer programmers. Someone had to grow up and make the software, write the code that peered through screens and reaped ad data.

Not that a boon of curiosity couldn’t be lost or squandered. Red had noticed that once someone had authority over others, however little, their curiosity drained away to an untappable reserve. 

A man had to stay at the bottom of the ladder, invisible, and keep himself from looking up, to instead be afforded a view of the richness lying around him. 

When Red reached the trailhead, the afternoon was chilly and dark, with reluctant water trapped in the sagging folds of cloud, waiting for the first molecular domino to fall. Red didn’t have the shoes for the trek, but he had no choice, so he started up along the marshy water’s edge until a margin of shore appeared around the bulb of Rocky Neck. Abandoned on an inlet surrounded by vines was a blue canoe, hauled all the way onto the dark sand. Fingers of river water reached for and failed to catch it, over and over. Both oars were still in their oarlocks, broad paddles planted in the seeping dirt and foam-rubber grips crossed, defensive. 

Only the water and the wheeling shorebirds made any sound, the season’s first leaves too small for wind to wrap around them. Red looked for the owner of the canoe, but it was a cursory search. Satisfied, he shucked his shoes and tucked the socks inside them, tossed them into the boat, rolled up the legs of his jeans until the stiff denim squeezed below his knees, and pushed off into frigid water.

Able to board in without wading too deep, the chill on his legs made him shiver to the point of tooth-knocking. For relief, he spread one of his weeklies below his wet feet and tucked another around them. Words puffed and bled ink in little trails.

It was a punishing row against the tide, but he was grateful for the heat it ginned up in his body. Sweat rose, ran, then seemed to steam away as soon as it came. His arms burned before going numb. 

So it went until a break appeared in the rows of beach cottages. They were shuttered and lightless, but bloomed by virtue of their colors with the potential of habitation. A short, intense summer left the community fat with money it probably didn’t want to lose. 

Several feet up the bank, by the dock where Red tied off, were wooden racks holding more canoes: red, yellow, green. Some even the same blue as his, or close enough. Each boat had a canvas cover; all were in various states of detachment. In damp heaps, they appeared ready to slither away from the shore toward dry refuge. Sensation returned to Red’s arms, which felt like they’d been viciously pinched.

Beyond the racks squatted tiny cabins—each with its own poured-concrete stoop. Some kind of camp, these cabins painted a dull green rather than the hopeful colors of summer. Red tried each cabin door, but found them locked. It was too dark now for him to see his hand at arm’s length, so he hauled the driest of the canvas covers to a stoop and sheltered underneath it for the night, his head propped on one shoe. Rain tapped the tough fabric on and off until daybreak. 

Red woke sore and cold, with gray light seeping in underneath his makeshift tent. The clattering it made when it fell back against concrete sent a clutch of seagulls up hollering from the pilings where they slept with pinkish lizard eyes half-closed.

Nothing human was roused by the sound.

The poor weekly rags, which Red had used again to wrap his feet, were now as good as papier-mâché, an unreadable, gray clump that left soggy fibers in the hair on his ankles. The mass was half-molded in the shape of his feet, and deflated when kicked off, an abandoned wasp’s nest.

There came with leaving them a little sadness. Red used his socks to brush off his bare, pink toes and shoved his feet back into the shoes. He could tell it was early. The streets were barren of traffic—car or foot—and no food smells floated into the air from the cafés that stayed open for the few year-rounders. 

Red would be hungry soon; his stomach already knotting. But reaching the woman in white took priority. He did wonder how the protestors had crossed under the cop’s watch, or whether they had at all. Were they residents here, affronted at the gall of a floating oddity? 

Once, outside Quincy Market, Red saw a miniature city of  tents and sling chairs. People handed out flyers and sang along with poorly played guitars while shoppers walked around them. No signs or chants, but Red heard someone say they were protesting capitalism. Or commercialism—one of the two. Red had watched them almost all day: too-thin boys wearing round sunglasses with purple-tinted lenses, a girl in baggy, printed pants who spun a ribboned hoop. Sometimes people brought police over, who mainly spoke to shoppers and not to the protesters. No one raised their voices and everything smelled like burning hay. 

The next day, all signs of the transient city were gone. 

As Red walked up the J-curve of Nantasket Avenue, he passed one or two people: a woman wrapped head to toe in a spandex suit, hunched over and biking into the wind. A man smoked a cigar while sweeping the sidewalk in front of his shop. 

At last, he swerved right on A Street into a cold, salt-scented breeze that pulled the dank tendrils of his hair away from his face. It felt right; his skin naked and free and scoured by wind. 

Police had placed movable barricades painted in reflective orange along the line where the street met the beachfront road. Only one officer stood guard. His gaze was fixed on the spread of sand and the gray-blue waves beyond. One street north was B Street; it made little sense to Red why the alphabet-named cross streets began more than halfway up the peninsula, leaving extra letters to tumble off the promontory. At least there, the barricades were unattended. 

He walked, shoes squelching, past shops and cottages painted in candy hues. It was hard to tell one kind from the other—some homes had awnings and iron-barred windows while a few shops had weathered lawn furniture.

Red had only ever lived in apartments. It might be nice, he thought, to someday be in a place surrounded by grass, where he could put statues of mermaids or dragons as sentinels between him and the street. So much of Boston was concrete, or metal and glass that bent the wind around corners and hurried it along. He thought he might prefer this wilder place in its half-dead twilight season. Here, the sea gnawed at hard edges and the wind stole voices.

Edging past the barricade, he saw the bare expanse of gray sand and—breathtakingly—the white swell of a huge form. No movement or breathing from the giant woman, nor did he see her dress fluttering. Whatever drying the fabric had done in the breeze had been undone again by the overnight rain. 

For the first time, and with a cool liquid sadness that slowed his walk and made his shoulders slump, Red understood fully that she must be dead. He sniffed the wind for a hint of rot, but could smell only seawater. Sometimes, the two scents were similar.

More orange barricades and many more police gathered by a swell of activity spilling from the shoreline road to the beach. Familiarity straightened Red’s shoulders and made him crane his neck. As in Quincy Market all those summers ago, he caught sight of a cluster of tents, either pitched over colorful rugs or on the bare sand. Could it possibly be the same group? Now they might be a little older, but could still be roving the Massachusetts Bay area searching for worthy causes. 

As he watched, men and women emerged from the tents. They were dressed more sensibly than the ones at Quincy Market, in anoraks and beanies and jeans. Instead of guitars or hoops, they held electric candles with plastic flames molded against the wind.

Staying low next to the boardwalk rail, Red crept forward. The protesters had begun lighting their candles, many of them guttering and going dark as if the clouds had reached down and put them out with misty fingers. The sharp smell of cigarette smoke wafted by.

“You live here?” A woman’s voice.

Red stopped, sand spraying from his shoes as he turned. He could hear the thump of his pulse inside his ears. 

Down an embankment that fell away from the boardwalk where it arched over a drainage pipe sat a lady, her round, pleasant face looking up at him. The embankment was covered with gravel; pebbles shifted and fell as she twisted to get a better view. She held the cigarette in one hand and a candle in the other, only one of them lit. 

“I don’t live here,” Red said. “I came here on a boat.”

“So did all of us. Unless you’re Native American, I guess.”

“I meant a canoe. I rowed over from World’s End.”

“To see the girl?” asked the woman.

“Girl?”

This woman looked away from Red. She stretched her neck and then took another drag of the cigarette, staring toward the empty street. The lit tip of the cigarette was the same red-orange as her dreadlocked hair. “The big one. Don’t tell me you missed her.” 

Even sheltered from the wind, it was hard to hear her. Red sat on the edge of the boardwalk, then scooted down the embankment on his butt. Pebbles rained on woman’s back, but she didn’t seem to care.

“No,” Red said, “I didn’t miss her. I just thought she was a woman.”

“Looks young to me,” the woman said. “Not even a teenager. Like a tween.”

“What does tween mean?”

“It means ‘in between kid and teen.’” She finally turned her head to look at him. There were fine crinkles at the corners of her eyes, but she couldn’t have been any older than Red himself. 

A girl, then. It felt sadder, much less romantic. She was no lovestruck dreamer snatched away by a cruel wave. Just a dead child, a thing to gawp at and a perch for seagulls.

Red’s heart leapt, straining toward his ribs. He had felt his heart as a distinct entity, like something grudgingly trapped inside him, since boarding the train from South Station. It reached for the giant girl, an engine turning over and over as if it could offer a spark to restart hers. As much as Red knew he didn’t have that power, nothing mattered more than reaching the girl’s side.

Had anyone cleaned her? Snapped an umbrella to shoo the seabirds away? It was hard to see the gulls as comfort; their voices were too critical and their pink-rimmed eyes too sharp. 

He started to stand up, digging his heels into the gravel.

“Do you have a car?” asked the round-faced woman.

“No. Sorry.”

“I’m tired,” she said. “I want to go home.”

“I think the trains are running now,” said Red.

She looked at him again. A thin gold ring glinted on one nostril. A gold tooth glinted just past her lips. “I’m from Indiana.”

Red had no idea what to say to that, so he got to his feet and stepped through the cloud of the woman’s cigarette smoke to the road.

A couple of the protesters were singing, their voices going in and out like a bad radio signal. Suddenly, over the sound of the wind and the sea, came a raw, scraping noise. The song came to a stop, and a few protesters gasped or shouted. Red scrambled up the embankment, clawing great handfuls of stones underlain by cold dirt. The debris pelted his filthy jeans as if urging him back—down to the red-haired woman and the solid, workaday smell of her cigarette, her mundane, knowable needs.

His fingertips skidded on concrete, pushing his head at last above the boardwalk’s plateau. 

The giant girl was moving.  

Chatter rose from the crowd by their tents, caught by a switch in the wind’s direction and blown out over the girl. As Red watched with stopped-up breath, she rolled slowly toward the northward end of the peninsula. The movement gave new shape to her all-white form, and now he could pick out a shoulder heaving up bit by bit, tracing the curve of the sunrise from the level of the gray horizon. One pale foot rotated, slow and fanlike. 

Red leapt up to the boardwalk level and down into the scrubby weeds at the verge of the sand just in time to pick out the hand that rested on the giant girl’s belly. It stayed there only for a moment before slipping. The protesters’ cries sounded more anguished than awed as the girl’s elbow splashed into the shallows, raising mist and a cloud of birds. A second afterward, her limp hand fell with a thump Red swore he could feel quivering through grains of sand to the place where he stood. It seemed the ocean groaned in sympathy, but it was just the sluice of the retreating tide. 

At that moment, Red understood that she was not stirring to wake. High tide was on the way, claiming new inches of shore with every breaker and drawing sand out from underneath her body. Seeing the girl’s huge fingers, which curled gently toward her upturned palm, he felt another hand of similar size wrap around his chest and squeeze. His heartbeat split in two, charging up behind his eyes and down into his aching feet at the same time.

Nothing physical held him back; even the wind pushed him seaward, but he couldn’t raise either throbbing foot from the ground. From behind him came the soft slap of someone else’s running steps, and he saw the red-haired girl going full tilt, her dreadlocks bouncing along her back and the cigarette forgotten, still lit.

The noise behind the barricades had risen. 

When the tide turned the giant girl’s head north, Red saw the creamy underside of her chin. Its shape against the sky broke the hold of fear. Released, with air flooding his burning lungs again, he surged forward. Each step in turn pummeled the wet sand and rattled his bones from ankle to jaw. 

Those who were shouting and pointing at the girl swiveled their arms to follow his flight.

“Hey!” one of the cops called. “Stop!” 

Red flicked a glance sideways. The man was in motion, but he was pot-bellied and slow. Another quick look showed the protesters in their own separate tide converging on the line of police from the street side. 

A shrill whistle sounded. 

At the rate he was running, and by the direction he’d taken, Red would end up tangled in the huge, white fingers. Maybe he could struggle through them and shelter in the girl’s palm. Then, when he was a few dozen yards from the monumental corpse, tendrils of gray tidewater tipped in white pushed up under the girl’s knuckles and lifted her hand. Nothing, after all, was truly heavy or strong compared to the sea. 

The girl’s arm was swept in a helpless arc away from her body, to the level of her shoulder and then past it. She gestured out toward the open water, at the same time opening her embrace to Red.

He plowed, legs pedaling, first into the dragging surf and then against wet fabric with rigid skin underneath. Red’s lungs emptied, the air punched out by impact and the chill of the water.

He heard people, closer now. The purplish face of the chubby cop showed beside the girl’s bloodless toe, his mouth dark and shouting. 

Red heard the noise but not the words.

With strength he had never summoned before, he hauled the dead weight of his own frozen legs out of the churning sea and onto the girl’s shoulder. He planted his knees in a lock of hair thicker than a fire hose, the strands coiling around his legs right away. Soon, the water would tug that lock free to bloom around her head, a greenish tentacle, taking Red with it. 

He pushed the heavy hair away, sacrificing both shoes in the process. 

Even close by, the girl smelled like nothing but sea and cold. Her dress was high-necked and plain. Down at its hem, policemen and protesters bobbed in waist-high water, still shouting. 

“Don’t hold on!” Red yelled back at them. “Let go!”

Only the girl’s heel moored her to the shore. Red nearly overbalanced as a strong undercurrent deposited almost her entire body on the bare seafloor. Then the water boiled back in and the foot came free.

Seated near the notch between the girl’s collarbones, he turned his head, but all he could see of her face was the unblemished wash of white under her chin. 

Some of the people, those who weren’t struggling back to the receding beach, waved and cheered. 

Red waved back with both arms, baring chattering teeth. 

It was fine to be noticed now that he’d become unreachable. 

After he was tired of fanning his wet, wrinkled fingers in the freezing air at the spectators, he sat back and scooted up the hard, motionless throat to rest his back against her chin. He curled in close, but tucking his feet under him against the unforgiving fabric would only do so much to keep at bay the chill that sank under his skin and made his joints stiff.

Perhaps later he would pull part of the frilly trim over his body. For now, the sky was bled dry and he was tired. 

He closed his eyes as seabirds wheeled overhead, shrieking at the huddled passenger aboard his white vessel.

L. Reed Walton (she/they) is a writer based in Atlanta, Georgia, U.S. They have a Bachelor of Arts degree in English – Creative Writing and Master of Arts Degree in Journalism. She is currently querying their fourth novel, a science fiction mystery. They’ve recently published other speculative short works in Hellhound Magazine and The ScienceFictionery. She lives with her lovely librarian wife-to-be and four capricious cats.

photo by Peter Thomas (via unsplash)

Nightjar—Amy Stewart

Joanna couldn’t remember the first time seeing a pregnant woman felt painful. For a long while, they just weren’t relevant; she barely noticed them. When did each belly become pointed in its roundness? The thing with London was that they were everywhere; wearing their self-satisfied badges while waiting for the northern line to Balham, laid out on picnic blankets in Greenwich Park, cradling decaf cappuccinos in corner cafés. They felt deliberately, cruelly placed. She wouldn’t see any in Surrey, because she wouldn’t see anyone at all. 

Two weeks. Press pause. Start something.

The cottage was in worse shape than Joanna had expected. The toilet had a chain that felt a bit too loose when pulled, and she was convinced the roof was hiding a wasps’ nest. It would do, though, this run-down little cottage in the great green mess between Guildford and Godalming. She just needed a place to be safe. To wait. 

When she arrived, Joanna wandered from room to room with her coat still on. The cottage had a near-metallic damp smell and was poorly lit, full of dusty corners and cobwebs. Someone had made a half-hearted attempt to brush them away, but the thin, spongy centres remained. The window seat was admittedly lovely, looking out over a tangled garden fringed by conifers. There was a little shelf built into the seat, holding a predictable selection of inoffensive books: Danielle Steele, John Grisham, Tom Clancy. At the end of the row was a thin, battered hardback: Birds of Surrey. 

Joanna sat down and flipped through it. Out here, she would become the sort of woman who could identify a benign mushroom from a poisonous one, who foraged for wild garlic, who could tell birds apart by their calls. She looked at their little fat bellies and small eyes and read names at random. Firecrest. House Sparrow. Nightjar. 

Her stomach gargled. She hadn’t eaten since leaving Waterloo but she knew it was more than that. She rubbed her belly, fingertips tingling.  

If she was right, and she had conceived the night before, then the little cluster of cells could be forming right now. If she concentrated hard enough, she could feel it there, the fleshy stirring of something beginning. And when she really stopped to think, she did feel a little tired, didn’t she? Some women swore they felt symptoms from the day of conception, though you had to wait two weeks to get either your period, or a positive pregnancy test. She’d read it all on Mumsnet. 

She wouldn’t be checking Mumsnet anymore. It was a promise she’d made to herself. It had almost felt like an acceptable thing until Nell had seen it all open there on her browser; had looked at Joanna as though she’d taken a particularly bad joke too far. 

“You need to stop it, Jo.”

“It’s nothing,” she’d lied, shutting the laptop. 

It was starting to get dark, and Joanna hadn’t thought about food. According to her phone, the nearest shop was a two-mile walk away. She settled instead for the remainders of her train lunch: a bag of Quavers and half of an egg and cress sandwich from M&S. After brushing the Quavers dust onto her jeans, she pulled on her jacket and trainers to get some fresh air. 

The cottage stood alone on the lip of a dense woodland. There was just enough light for Joanna to navigate easily through it – she didn’t think about the journey back – in the direction of the heathland that rose up and down beyond, like something melted. The heather underneath her feet was purple as a bruise. Out on the heath, clouds stretched across the sky like frayed seams. Joanna didn’t know where she wanted to walk, but just kept striding over the heath, relishing the way the cold, sharp air made the shape of her lungs feel defined. She stopped when she reached a solitary oak. From here, she could see a scattering of little villages below, soaked in late, buttery sun. 

It would be nice to bring up a child out here. There was a lot to be said for London – salsa clubs open until 5am, after-work drinks overlooking London Bridge, that sense of being in the beating heart of things – but she was going to have to start being a little more responsible now.

She hadn’t been responsible lately, she realised. There had been too many nights lost to numbness, telling herself she was enjoying it, that she wouldn’t have to do it too much longer. Nell had asked her about it plenty of times over the last six months, under the guise of protecting her, but Joanna was more convinced that she just enjoyed the moral high ground. Nell liked to condemn Joanna having sex with a lot of different men so that she didn’t need to judge herself for having sex with none. 

“I just don’t understand why they all have to be arseholes,” she’d said to Joanna at Lucio’s last week, swirling red wine dregs in her glass. “Steve describes himself as ‘premier league in the bedroom department’ on his dating profile, for goodness’ sake.” 

“It’s sarcastic. He’s really funny.”

“He’s a loser, and you’re settling,” Nell insisted, putting her glass down. She’d been a bit drunk at this point; drunk enough that the careful veneer had worn off her words. “You’re trying to pin down any random prick because you want to have a bloody baby, even though you live in a rented shithole in Bethnal Green, shag men who still live with their mum and put away a bottle of wine a night.” 

They could have had the same argument again. That there was never the right time for a baby (a man who’ll hold your hand in public helps), that love and nurture were more important than fancy things (so the baby would sleep in big house made of nurture, would it?) and that she needed to start thinking about it now (you’ve got a good five years before your ovaries start to shrivel). But Joanna was tired, so she drank the rest of the bottle in silence. 

As Joanna leant against the oak, a bird chittered in the branches above her. Its call was mechanical, as if something with a poor connection were trying desperately to spark into life. It made Joanna feel unanchored. She strode back down the heath towards the cottage, one hand resting gently on her belly. 

The owner had left a bottle of white wine for her in the fridge. Joanna poured a generous glass before remembering she shouldn’t be drinking. She emptied the whole bottle down the sink, filling the tiny kitchen with a sharp, slightly sweet smell. 

The night was hot and stuffy. Joanna couldn’t find a fan, and most of the windows in the cottage were painted shut. She lay on top of the sheets, irritable. Ignoring Nell’s message – How’s the arse-end of nowhere? – she listened to bird songs on YouTube. It took her almost half an hour to find the nightjar’s call, that low, jittering chug she’d heard on the heath. It reminded her of locusts. Of bad dreams. 

Joanna left the bedroom for some water, rolling the cold glass against her head. She collected Birds of Surrey and brought it back to bed with her, flicking straight to the page about nightjars. 

The elusive nightjar, with its near-Reptilian plumage and haunting call, has been the focus of much folklore over the years. It goes by many names. Referred to as the Lich Fowl (Corpse Bird), it also goes by the moniker ‘Goatsucker’. As legend has it, the birds stole milk from nanny goats in the midnight hours, causing their milk to sour and them to go blind. 

Joanna imagined the shrivelled teats, the blind old cows with their huge bellies.

“Just get a dog,” Joanna’s mother had said once. “Some people aren’t ever suited to motherhood, and that’s fine too. It might, just, not be for you?” Joanna still remembered the horrible shock of hearing that; like she’d just banged her head and was waiting for the ringing to stop. She wondered why that particular part of her life, her anatomy – any woman’s anatomy – was so public, so inviting of opinion. She wondered if she’d always feel like a little girl borrowing a woman’s womb, begging to be allowed to do what she wanted with it. 

Joanna closed the book and ran her hand over her stomach. There was a fluttering there. The skin was soft and slightly wobbly, but she imagined it stretching taut, like animal hide over a drum. She wondered whether pregnant women wore the waistband of their leggings over or under the bump. She wondered whether they ever forgot they were pregnant, looked down and questioned why they were swollen, bulbous. 

Joanna woke up clammy and sick. Her hands clutched at the cold toilet seat as she retched. After a few minutes, she leant back against the wall, clenching and unclenching her fingers to bring life back into them. Too early to be a symptom, surely. Twelve days to wait. Twelve days until she could take a test. 

Speaking of which, she needed to buy the tests from Boots. The walk would do her good. She left the cottage and headed away from the heath, towards Guildford. The day was flat and heavy-feeling, wearing its heat poorly. Something felt different in her body – there was a sluggishness, as though it were trying hard to keep up. Part of the route took Joanna along the main road, where there was no pavement. She kept close to the bushes on the left side, holding her breath every time a car passed with a whoosh of warm air. She trailed the bushes with her left hand, cradled her stomach with her right. People passing might think she was already further along. She wondered why they wouldn’t stop, offer her a lift. She would, if she were in their position.

Guildford was busy. Joanna has almost forgotten it was a Saturday. People walked in the road of the hilly high street, and the pub gardens were full to bursting. Joanna smelled aftershave, cigarette smoke. She’d wanted to stroll along the river, not breathe second-hand air, but she needed to pass a few pubs before reaching the bank. One of the men hanging over the metal railing looked like Martin. He had the same close-cropped hair and was wearing a similar white polo shirt to the one Martin had worn a couple of nights’ earlier.

“I was surprised when you texted,” Martin had shouted to Joanna over the loud music of Bamba Bar. She hadn’t been able to stop looking at his mouth. It was pretty and defined – almost like a woman’s. “You didn’t really seem that bothered after we went out before.” 

She hadn’t appreciated him when they’d first gone out. He’d taken a phone call in the taxi back to his flat and it had annoyed her, had smelled faintly of cured meat when the packet’s first opened. He’d refused to wear a condom. But there were worse men out there than Martin – Joanna knew that now. He was at least a solicitor and had joked with her afterwards about the way the hairs were growing back on his shaved chest. He could laugh at himself. It was a good quality. 

“I’ve just been busy,” Joanna told him. They had two drinks at Bamba before she suggested they go back to his. This time, when he said he didn’t want to wear a condom, she’d said she was on the pill. The next day she’d surprised him by hugging him when she left. His bare skin was warm. She probably wouldn’t see him again. 

Back at the cottage, Joanna finished her cheese sandwich – she’d had such a craving for cheese, today – and checked Mumsnet. She’d said she wouldn’t, but there was little else to do in the cottage. It didn’t have a TV, but there was one bar of internet signal. She scrolled through the familiar two days post-ovulation symptoms. The tiredness, the achy breasts, the beginnings of sickness. She did feel tired. And not the muscle weariness after you’ve walked a long way – something else. Something on a blood level. 

She was getting into bed when she heard the nightjar. Its call was quiet at first, then impossible to ignore, as if it were chattering outside her window. Joanna pulled the curtain back to look out. She thought of the fat little speckled bird in the book and laughed at herself for letting it unnerve her. 

She fell asleep easily, not dreaming exactly, but thoughts skipping over words. Goatsucker. Corpse bird.

When Joanna had been at the cottage for a week, she sat out in the front garden on a camp chair, phone in her hand. She wanted to text Nell. She wasn’t lonely at the cottage – because she wasn’t alone, was she? – but the silence felt intense after London’s insistent noise. It hollowed her. She wrote out false starts of messages and deleted them.

I’m alright 

You won’t believe 

It’s quiet here

She looked up when a couple walked past. The cottage sat on a gravel path leading from the woods to Godalming but as far as she could see, was rarely walked. She could count on one hand the number of people she’d seen pass, and they were usually hardy, rambler-looking types with bulging backpacks and proper shoes. This couple had London oozing out of their pores, with their clean trainers and matching topknots. 

The woman was pregnant. Joanna waited for the sting, but it didn’t come. The couple said hello as they passed, and Joanna beamed, placed her hand on her belly. She saw it as though time had slowed; the slight widening of the woman’s eyes, the softening of recognition. The woman gave her a wide smile, a gentle shrug of the shoulders, as if to say, Both me and you, then. The warmness of belonging. Joanna wanted it, she wanted it always. She wanted to love something with the invisible strength and steadiness of sonar under the sea. She didn’t understand why anyone would deny her that. 

Two days left at the cottage, and the heat had broken. Rain hammered the heathland. 

The weather forced Joanna to stay inside. The air was claggy, and she felt restless, penned in. Something about the way the wind rattled the old windows in their frames set her on edge. She was almost relieved when she got a message from Nell.

Can you come back now, please? You’re starting to worry me. We can talk about stuff. I won’t judge (and have prosecco in the fridge). X

Another came two minutes later.

Jo, I know you read my message. Stop being weird. Is this still about the baby thing?

Joanna turned her phone off and went to the bathroom. The pregnancy test had been sitting on the side of the sink since she bought it; there was no reason to hide it here. She read the instructions every time she went to the toilet, though she could already recite them flawlessly.

She was starting to feel it properly now, the sickness. It woke her up in the morning. And by eight-ish every night, after coming home from the heath, she could barely keep her eyes open. At this point, she knew what the result of the test would be; but it would be nice to see it. To be able to tell people and have them not able to say anything, because she’d done it and there’d be no going back. 

She angled the stick in the toilet bowl and weed on it, counting a careful five seconds. Then she pulled up her trousers, put the cap on the test and sat on the side of the bath to wait.

Her mum would be happy about it, once things got underway. She’d buy clothes and impossibly small shoes, even come to see Joanna in London more often. She’d frame photos for the mantelpiece. Nell would help raise him or her, blend sweet potatoes and spinach when it was time for weaning. Outsiders would think they were a happy family. 

After about a minute had passed, Joanna heard it: the nightjar. Its call was loud even against the storm. Shrill, urgent. It made Joanna’s skin feel like the top layer had been peeled off; everything raw, tender. Fragile things exposed. 

Goat sucker. Corpse bird.

Nell could call her irresponsible and selfish. Her mother would demand to know who the father was. One day, the baby would ask.

Joanna wrapped a protective arm around her belly. It was impossible to keep everything together; impossible to block out future voices, stern and disapproving. 

She read the test, placed it in the bin and went to bed. 

Joanna zipped up her case and hoisted it off the bed, placing it near the door. Her taxi was still five minutes away, so she did a final sweep of the cottage to make sure she hadn’t left anything. She’d go to the toilet one more time, before she left. 

As she stood, she saw the smear of blood in the bowl. Brownish, dirty-looking. When she wiped again, there was more blood on the tissue, bright and undeniable, a cyclical stain. She stared at it for a long time, until the phone started to ring because her taxi was outside. Joanna flushed, walked outside and wondered, just for a moment, if the nightjars were watching her leave. 

Amy Stewart is a writer based in York. She was the winner of the New Writing North & Word Factory Northern Apprentice Award 2021, mentored by award-winning writer Catherine Menon. She completed an MA in Creative Writing at York St John University in 2019, for which she won the annual Programme Prize. Her PhD at the University of Sheffield centres around female circus artists and the carnivalesque. She was shortlisted for the Mairtín Crawford Short Story Prize in 2021 and received a Highly Commended Award in the 2019 Bridport Prize. Amy’s work can be found in Test Signal (DeadInk Books/Bloomsbury, 2021), The York JournalAurora JournalBandit Fiction and Ellipsis Zine

photo by Mark Stoop (via unsplash)

The Accident—Pascale Potvin

content warning: discussion of suicide

It was as he was slumped over the steering wheel that Frederick scratched at his collarbone for the hundredth time that day. The gift he was wearing was too appropriately from his mother; though it looked very warm, he knew how prickly it felt. At home he’d pull it off, ask his wife for her hot apple cider. The day’s burden hadn’t been the conference, really; it was this drive to, now from, the building at the other end of the city. It was a busy hour and he was stuck, yet again, in the slug of traffic.

He was somewhat stuck, too, in his petty grumpiness. He was forgetting that he’d known much greyer days—that if anything, this Tuesday had only been off-white. That was what was showing in the clouds, in the way that the sky seemed to be covered in craft paste: the city was dim, but there had been no rain. Compressed in his small Peugeot, though, Frederick had sweat forming in his underarms.

He cursed when the Volkswagen ahead made a stop, blocking the street unreasonably like a kidney stone. He braked and hit the horn; others also did the same, and the sounds of displeasure built up like grimy pus. The guilty driver stuck his head out of his window, yelling already—but Frederick saw, after a few moments, that he wasn’t at all addressing the street.

He followed the man’s attention towards the park, which faced north, and noticed the clumps of people forming on the thin and pale lawn. The crowd was all at once staring toward the cliff; Frederick focused to see over them and into the horizon, where the sky was finally ripping open. He spotted the man climbing over the fence, and his heart sunk to the brake pedal. 

He had climbed a fence of his own, once. On that awful spring night, almost two decades prior, he’d dangled a foot and his life off of the Hersenkam Bridge, in Antwerp. Thanks to the interference of another, however, his failure to jump had signified the last major failure of his life. He parked his car in the traffic as he thought of the near incident, and he pulled his heart all the way up. He had to be brave, now, or it’d be this poor stranger who’d be sinking. 

The cool breeze shocked his skin as he stepped to the sidewalk. The air was haunted by cigarette smoke; this slum, in particular, smelled most of all like death. It was worse as Frederick entered the park and jogged on the stone. 

“I’ve got it,” he yelled, approaching the cliff. “Somebody ring the police. I’ll keep him at bay.”

The crowd obeyed, stagnant. Sure, they feared death enough to worry for the approacher, but they likely dreaded it too hard to ever approach, themselves.

Frederick wiped the sweat from his cheeks once he’d stopped. The rabid waves below were blasting him with cold air, which felt good on his inflamed face. He leaned over the flat metal and looked over the man on the other side; though they were close, now, the stranger did not acknowledge Frederick. His arms clutching at the black bars behind his back, he stared only forward. He looked to be in his twenties: pale, flushed skin, a raging head of auburn hair. 

“Son? Hello,” Frederick tried. “What’s your name?” 

The boy gathered his tears, and then something else, not quite as identifiable.

 “Ansel,” he groaned.

“Hi, Ansel. I’m Fred,” Frederick spoke again, running his hands atop the cold metal. “I’ll be very simple about this. I don’t want to ask why you’re here, so don’t worry about all that. Okay? I want to tell you why I’m here.”

Ansel shied his head around. His pale blue eyes limped all over Frederick’s face, as if in judgment. Eventually, they fell into his eyes. 

“I can’t not think about it,” he spoke.

“What?” 

“That my life’s nothing.” His face was drooping like a sad sack of blood. “My soul is too tired.”

Ansel’s words weighed further on Frederick. He knew he shouldn’t show it. 

“The soul doesn’t get tired,” he said.

“Huh?” 

“There’s no such thing as a tired soul. An unhappy one,” Frederick’s hands trembled as he thought back to his time in the facility, to the things he’d been told.

“I don’t understand.”

“Souls are made of pure, vibrating joy,” Frederick said. “It’s our souls that make us want to live in the world.” His hands shook with more violence, yet he assured himself it was due to that vibrating power.

“I don’t—”

“The mind is what gets sick. Sick minds cover our souls over with dust and dirt. But that can all be swept away. It just takes some effort.”

Yet his throat turned to ash as Ansel stared back at the water. He probably wouldn’t have believed the words, either, at his deadliest point. These were only words. They were promises from a stranger. A grey, misty truth was now encircling him.

And, before he’d entirely realized it, Frederick was clasping the top of the fence with both hands, which were quivering further under the weight of the decision. He placed a foot on the bottom rung, lifted himself upwards; his heart was heaving. He raised one stiff leg over the top of the fence— another—and it felt like a plummet as he lowered himself. With sweaty hands, he clutched the cold posts now behind him, too. Pieces of his insides were ricocheting all over his body. 

The edge was so close, the water so far down—yet, somehow, the salty taste of the air overwhelmed him already. The glassy blue waves below were curving and sinking, too, like they were trying to grab at him. Frederick felt a crashing chill as he watched them, and yet it was almost thrilling. His heavy, sinking feeling was increasing, but it was filling him whole. A seagull as white as the sky passed over the water, and as it was only as it started to cry that he remembered what he’d meant to do.

“Now, the reason that I’m here,” he coughed, his head sticky with mud. His heart thrashed when he turned to Ansel, again; the boy’s sunken, watery eyes looked too much like the water below. “I was in this position before,” he managed. “At your age.”

“You’re lying,” Ansel said.

“No. I was ready to give up, because I thought that I had nothing left. And it was true. I had nobody.”

Ansel withered.

“But it made me realize that I had nothing to lose if I took another chance,” Frederick continued, feeling sticky in his stomach, now, and in his legs. “I agreed to take just one more. It was at my disposal. Now, I have a nice job. I have a wonderful wife, and two boys. So, this,” he nodded his head towards the water, “it just no longer tempts me.” 

Ansel blinked slowly, at that, and then he turned his gaze back over the fence—which gave Frederick a ring of hope. He looked over too for a moment, then another few: a new crop of people had cultivated on the grass, staring at them with scarecrow eyes. 

“You’re telling the truth?” Ansel muttered, his grip on the fence tightening. His voice was strained, which only meant that something in him was fighting and alive.

“Of course,” Frederick said.

The screeching sirens were approaching harder, too. Ansel’s eyebrows dipped, then curved.

“What are their names?” he asked Frederick.

“Huh?”

“Your family. Tell me about them.”

Frederick understood, finally, and he smiled vigorously. He’d have him, soon. He’d reel him back to land, like fish on a hook.  

It was only a moment later that he felt a hook had entered his own brain, had lobotomised him.

Ansel watched Frederick, with life in his eyes, as he awaited his simple answer—yet Frederick was waiting alongside him. The man was paralyzed, almost—though, internally, he was spastic and grabbing at the air for words that seemed to have evaporated. He became only concerned for himself. Any man would know the name of his wife, of course. Of his own children. He’d remember their faces. 

Heaving the increasingly salty air, Frederick was sure that everything would return to him, within only a few moments—but the moments left with increasing force. Soon, he wasn’t sure if he’d ever had children, or even a wife. He supposed that he didn’t. He’d been mistaken…

“Oh my god,” Ansel’s voice shook Frederick out of his mind, or his lack thereof. The boy’s face had been re-ignited with dread. His eyes had flatlined. “You are lying,” he spat.

“Wait,” Frederick struggled. He was too dizzy.

Ansel’s face screwed downwards, then, and he made the ugliest whimper that Frederick had ever heard. Such a sound could only signify death. 

“Oh, god,” Ansel repeated. 

He jumped a moment later.

Frederick was greeted that evening by the smell of burnt chicken, the noises of Nikolas and Emeric throughout the halls. 

“Darling?” Mary called, from the living room.

Frederick let down his briefcase. “Yes,” he said. 

“I’ve been worried.”

Frederick went to her, coming up beside the brown leather couch. She’d been sitting, her wavy black hair draped over a book. She looked up at him and smiled.

In the fourteen years that Frederick had known her, Mary’s smile had never burnt out a touch. Before his death, her father had warned him that many had looked down on her for it; she’d grinned, always, at all of the homeless people on the street, at every rude client or stranger. She was still always joy and giggles, in their home: whenever she played with her children, for instance, or every time she and Frederick tried for another.

Frederick didn’t mind, too much, if people believed Mary was odd, or even if she was. Her smile, as always, brought him a luminous joy—even if no flame would be catching tonight. 

“Work kept me,” he told her.

“You’re starving.” She put her book down on the couch. “Let me—”

“No. I’m tired,” he said. His mouth and throat were so dry, and every word was a razor blade. “We’ll talk tomorrow. Okay?”

Mary furrowed her brows. She approached him, touched his cheek. 

“You’re pale,” she told him. “I hope you’re not sick.”

He grunted, backing away from her and going to the stairs.

“Say good night to your boys,” she called. 

He did, but their faces hurt him harder.

Frederick and his family had been, for a long time now, the twinkle in the eye of all of their social circles: the literature club, Mary’s relatives, the church, their colleagues. They were the guiding star, the goal that everyone else was set to reach. It was always, remember Fred and Mary’s wedding? Fred and Mary are so in love. Aren’t their sons so beautiful? Most importantly, Frederick’s family was the light of his own spirit: the gaslight that had kept it alive.

The events of that afternoon had ruined him, now, had overturned all of the heavens in his mind.

In official terms, Frederick had always been an atheist. He’d participated in the church only because it pleased his wife, and pleasing his wife had been his only real religion. Yet things were changing, tonight: the turbulence inside of him was knocking down all of his sturdiest beliefs. He was certain that his amnesia on the cliff, that afternoon, had represented a grand act of God. There was no other real explanation to the fact. There had been the pressure of the moment to speak, yes, but that wouldn’t have been enough to crush his memory completely. What had happened to Frederick had been more than an idiot accident. This truth was as clear to him as the lake water, now: he’d been punished. 

And as he lay in his bed, that night, the guilt was growing in his mind like a sickly itch. He spent the night with his fingers in his hair, pulling at his scalp, trying to distract from his bursting pain.

It wasn’t long before he concluded that he should have gone and killed himself, all of those years ago in Antwerp. He’d been shown, today, what it was like to not know his own family—and for the very simple reason that he never should have come to know them. If he’d rightfully jumped off the Hersenkam, he wouldn’t have lived to later take Ansel’s life.

The boy, after all, had chosen to climb the fence during the day, when the park had been thickly populated. That was the behaviour of someone who needed attention. His acts had been but a cry for help, which Frederick had violently gagged. He’d decided that he needed to be the one, out of the crowd, to take control, to help the boy off of the edge. In consequence, he’d coaxed him off of the wrong end.

Frederick had tried to be the hero, and now he was guilty. Now, he had killed. It was undeniable: he’d used his sleeve to remove his fingerprints from the fence before he’d climbed back over. He’d run past all of the bodies of shock, back to his car, still before the sirens could get too close. There was no innocence.

The rash sizzled in Frederick’s mind when the sun reached his eyes. His hands hadn’t left his scalp; clumps of brown hair had gathered by his head. There was no worse agony, he’d come to find, than an itch underneath the skin, one that couldn’t ever be scratched. It felt like a taunt, a Godly mockery. He wanted to dig his way into his brain, to pull it apart. 

The static pain also reminded him, strangely, of what it felt like to have a limb burst from its sleep. It could only signify that his brain, for the first time in two decades, was awake.

“Fred? Are you alright?” Mary gasped, in response to the groaning that he could no longer cage. “What’s wrong?” she asked. “You’re in pain?”

Frederick clamped his eyelids shut. Mary’s voice was stomping on his brain, as would definitely her face.

“I’m fine,” he croaked. 

Still, he felt her approach. The bones on the back of her hand were knives to his forehead. 

“You’re sweating,” she tried. “I need—”

“No,” Frederick growled. He grabbed at her wrist, threw it to the pillow.

There was a pause. A cold silence came over Mary as she backed away off of the bed, then toward the door. 

“I’ll call your work, and mine,” she said, in a single breath. 

As she stepped out to the hallway, Frederick vomited.

Mary left him alone, after that, save but to clean up after him and to bring him food. He didn’t need to leave the bed to plan his death, after all—and he’d decided that he’d jump off of the same cliff as Ansel had. It’d be only right. And while he’d never before tasted this flavour of pain, Frederick and his previous self still agreed on one thing. Jumping to one’s death—jumping, hence, literally into death—was the most dutiful way to go. 

He decided that he’d drive to the cliff when it was dark, when there was no more audience. The cliff would be an open crime scene for another day, or maybe two. He couldn’t take the public’s attention away from Ansel; he’d already stolen too much from the young man. 

Frederick stayed in place for his two waiting days, but he also still didn’t sleep. Even once he had decided his fate, the shame in his mind kept growing like prickly bark on a tree. As much as he begged for sleep, the pain was much too grating. Now that his mind was truly awake, it wouldn’t let Frederick forget again—not even for a moment—that he was meant to die.

He never hungered, either. He didn’t thirst. Sustenance was for survival, and survival was no longer Frederick’s purpose. And so he hid all of Mary’s cooking under their shared bed. She’d be alerted to it when it began to rot, of course—but the smells were masked, for now, by his lingering vomit.

There was nothing left that Frederick wanted to taste except sleep. He thought of nothing but sleep. He lusted for it: for its curves, the ups and downs, the vivid feeling of it, of being inside of it. On his final morning, as he watched Mary change out of her nightgown, he felt even more sickness cooking in his throat. He didn’t know how he’d ever been attracted to that custard-like flesh; nothing at all was erotic to him, now, but the perfect softness of slumber. This was true, of course, because he was meant to have the best kind, the ultimate coma: the kind in which he’d soon plunge the deepest and never have to leave. 

He did nothing on that day but lay on his side facing the alarm clock, watching time die and waiting for the time to die. Sometimes, the numbers on the clock would start to swirl and curve, and he’d have to readjust his eyes. The world, in all of its corners, had become too ugly and deformed to bear.

Frederick woke the next morning in a bed that was not his own. Even his body didn’t feel like his own. He was swollen and smothered with pain; he moaned as he opened his eyelids.

He hadn’t thought that Hell would have tile ceilings.

“Sir?” a woman’s voice scraped at his mental wall. Frederick turned his head, with some expanding pain. Yet he noticed that the pain on the inside had cleared, and that the world was no longer turning. As he looked to the young lady, he saw her hair was in a tight bun that pulled at her skin, making white lines. She was wearing all white, too. Yet there was no way that Frederick had been sent to heaven. He looked down, next, to himself: above the blue cover, his arms were draped in yet even more white. His legs felt fatter. 

This is a hospital, he thought. Alright, alright, that makes some more sense.

“Do you remember what happened to you?” the nurse asked while Frederick squinted. With some distant nausea, he passed his eyes over her nametag: DANICA. 

“You were in an accident,” she informed him. “You fell asleep at the wheel.” 

Frederick looked back to the ceiling. 

“You’re lucky to have survived,” she told him, and she dampened her voice. “Can you remember your name, sir?”

“Was anyone else hurt?” he asked. Reality draped over him, a coarse blanket.

“No,” she told him. “Your name, please.”

 “Frederick Ivey,” he spoke. It was difficult. He felt as if he were breathing in smoke, again.

“Your wife?”

“Mary Ivey.” Ignoring the clawed rip of pain, he sat up as much as he could. “Where is she? My—”

“Your family’s waiting. They’ll be very relieved,” Danica smiled down at him. “Just a few more questions, first. Do you remember where you were going?”

“The park.”

“Which one?”

“I don’t know the name. It was by the lake, after highway E12.”

Danica’s face looked, in the next moment, to have jumped and drowned for him. “Oh,” she said.

Frederick felt a pull in his stomach. “What?” he said.

“You haven’t heard about…”

“I have, I have. Someone died there just the other day.”

“Many people have.” 

“What?” His patience was trickling.

She went to a large grey bin near the door, leaning down and fiddling through. 

“There.” She returned to him, presenting him with a page in a newspaper. The headline was, Hetistil District Shaken by a Self-Killing—Again. She pointed to the third paragraph. “Now. Your family,” she said, and she went to the door. 

Frederick took the news between his rough hands.

“My brother had precious things in his life. He had so many people and things that he loved. He was going to teach primary. We were meeting for lunch to discuss it,” Remi told us. “Above all things, he was terrified of heights. So, I simply can’t believe he would ever do this…  thing willingly.” When we asked him if he believed in the cliff’s supposed curse, however, he presented no pointed answer. “I’ve heard so much in this past day,” he admitted. “People insist Ansel touched the fence for too long and that it convinced him, somehow, in some way, to climb over. They say my brother probably didn’t know that he shouldn’t ever touch it. But I still have trouble believing that whole myth.”

“It’s no myth,” one superstitious local had insisted, earlier in the day. “Many of us call that fence Hell’s Gate, and it’s not just a funny nickname.”

Frederick’s confusion was a whirlpool in his chest.

“I am a bit offended by the speculation,” Remi had added. “But I’m glad that that man came to the fence when no one else would dare go near. I would have thanked him, too, if he hadn’t run.”

When asked what exactly this curse could be doing to convince healthy minds to jump—and to convince them so quickly—the local became flustered. 

“Well, I can’t know that,” he claimed. “That, you might want to ask the runaway man, if you can find him. He’s the only one, after all, who has ever climbed over that fence and then climbed back. Maybe he was too focused on the other fellow.”

Frederick’s confusion turned to realization, then, and then repugnance, and finally a widening relief.

It flooded his throat.

an earlier version of this story was previously published in New Reader Magazine, Issue 5 (March 2019)

Pascale is Editor-in-Chief of Wrongdoing Magazine and an Editor at a few other publications, including CHEAP POP and Walled Women Magazine. She’s also Staff Contributor for The Aurora Journal and The Jupiter Review and has placed further work in Eclectica MagazineMaudlin HouseBlazeVOXWitch Craft MagazineThe Bitchin’ Kitsch, and many others. She has a BAH from Queen’s University, and she is working on a budding book series. You can read more about her at pascalepotvin.com or @pascalepalaces on Twitter.

photo by Louise Hill (via unsplash)

Spinning Sugar—Fija Callaghan

Content warning: miscarriage, bereavement

The trains that rumbled up to Knaresborough station were rattly, conservatively-dressed things, not unlike the people who disembarked there. Nadia watched them from behind the window of the little shop. It was nestled on the open-air platform between the ticket window and a minuscule café that served American-style pancakes. She recognized most of the faces coming off the train. Many of them had come in when the shop had first opened, surreptitiously, ashamed of their indulgence, hiding behind words like ‘the train’s running behind is all, won’t be a minute…’

It had taken time for the staunch, stalwart Yorkshire people to trust a divorced woman running a business alone, and to trust the silky silver letters that spun across a banner the colour of midnight:

La Confiserie des Rêves.

The Candy Shop of Dreams.

Something more appropriate to a city like London, perhaps, than a little train station by the riverside. But the smells of sticky red fruit and smoky caramel were seductive, and besides, the trains were often late. 

Two passengers slipped into the shop. One was a retired teacher named Charlotte; she had moved north to be near her daughter, who was studying at a university in Leeds. The other woman was unfamiliar, a relative from out of town, probably. Nadia kept herself unobtrusively preoccupied as the women perused the displays nearest the counter, which were filled with mostly-harmless delights: melon and marigold pâtes de fruits to dream of childhood memories; bramble and hawthorn-berry for dreams of lost love. On a delicate glass stand, rose and lemonbalm caramels to mend discord as one slept. That had been a difficult recipe to get just right. There were some things even spun sugar couldn’t fix. 

Charlotte and her friend leaned over the sparkling array of pâtes de fruits, lined up like jewels in a treasure chest. Pale lemon and elderflower squares through all the shades of the rainbow to the deep, dark, blackcurrant and clove. Nadia cautioned against eating that one at bedtime. 

The woman gasped. “These look just marvellous! Do you really make them all yourself?”

Nadia smiled. “I do, yes.”

“However did you learn?”

“My grandmother taught me,” Nadia said. It had been her father’s mother, Mamie Antoinette, who had taught her the art of confectionery. Her mother’s mother, Nana Edith, had taught her the other things. 

They bought a box of the multicoloured fruit squares to share, and two caramels—maple syrup and tobacco flower, and golden apple kissed with lapsang tea. Later, in the safety of their own beds, in the in-between place just before dreamland, they would remember autumn sunsets and long-forgotten kisses by the bonfire. 

“It’s very peculiar,” Charlotte was saying, as the door drifted shut behind them. “Last month I remember eating one or two of these before bed, and I had the most extraordinary dreams.”

Nadia broke into the yawn she’d been stifling all day. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d properly slept through the night. She shook herself awake and went into the little storage room that served as her workshop. A cracked wooden kitchen island housed bowls, jars of light and dark sugars, and the harp cutter that dominated the cramped room. She’d been surprised to learn, years ago, that other candy makers called the stringed slicing apparatus a guitar, in English as well as the French guitare. But to Mamie Antoinette it had always been la harpe, the harp.

Nadia’s husband had never liked the obnoxiously awkward thing taking up space in their kitchen at home. When she had gotten pregnant she’d used it to cut up trays and trays of salmonberry pâtes de fruits with orange blossom and thyme, trying to elicit dreams of the daughter they’d soon be meeting. What would she be like? How would they spend their summers? She didn’t tell Michael what she was doing, or how she couldn’t understand why she dreamt only of darkness. 

She’d heard once that very, very few marriages managed to survive the loss of a child. By the time Michael left she was already too numb with loss to hear him go. One day there was simply a second hole beside the first, where her daughter and the love of her life should have been. 

All she had left were dreams. 

From the island she pulled out pots and bowls for the morning’s project: pâte de fruit of rosemary and juniper berry. It was the only thing in the shop that brought forth no dreams at all; rather, it welcomed a night filled only with gentle oblivion, sweet shadows that put aside the pain and memories until the light of morning. The recipe had come to her one night as she lay in bed, watching the moon wind its lazy way across the sky. 

The ground beneath her feet hummed. The front door rattled as another train pulled up to the platform, then stilled under the murmur of voices. Nadia mixed golden sugar into crushed juniper berries and stirred. The scent tangled itself in her hair. The train had moved on and the sounds of the station were still before she heard new footsteps in the shop. 

Sighing, she lifted the bubbling mixture off the heat and stepped out onto the floor, pulling the workshop door firmly closed behind her. Slick black loafers clipped against the old floorboards. The shoes met immaculately pressed trousers, then a blazer with broad shoulders that made the compact space look even smaller. He might have been the tallest man Nadia had ever seen. She tried to compare him to Michael in her mind and felt hollow all over again. 

“Welcome,” she said, brushing her hands on her apron. She had to tilt her head back to look up at him. “Can I be of assistance?”

The man turned, nearly too big for the room, and his shoulder caught the shelf against the wall. The stand with the rose and lemonbalm caramels shuddered, then leapt. Glass exploded on the wooden floor.

“Oh gosh, I’m terribly sorry.” The man knelt down and hit his head on the shelf. He muttered something slightly more colourful than gosh and put his hand to his head. “Sorry. Really.”

Nadia bit back a smile. Michael had sworn like a sailor. “Don’t worry. I’ll fetch the dustpan.” She maneuvered against the large man, rustling his blazer, and retrieved the small brush from behind the counter. The caramels had been on their way out, anyhow. She’d tried one earlier that day to see if it was getting too dry. 

“So what can I help you with?” she asked, as she swept up the glass shards and the caramels. Even in their wrappers, the ethereal scent of lemonbalm and rose reached for her, caressed her, whispered stories of forgiveness and peace and mornings full of promise. She brushed it impatiently away.

“I was looking for something to bring my daughter.” The man looked around at the glittering confections. “She’s been having bad dreams.”

Nadia looked up, startled. “Oh?” 

“Yeah. I thought a nice surprise would help her rest a little easier. You must know what children are like.”

She bit her lip. Not trusting herself to speak, she just shook her head.

She put the dustpan away and wandered over to the array of pâtes de fruits. A few of the last batch of juniper berry were left. Certainly they would help still the nightmares. Or perhaps loganberry and sea salt, for dreams of languid summer days by the sea. 

“How old is your daughter?” she heard herself asking. Hers and Michael’s would have been three now. Three last month. 

“She’s three,” the man replied. Nadia glanced over sharply. “And you?” he asked, “have you any children of your own?”

She hesitated, her fingers on the worn wood table. It wasn’t the first time someone had asked her that. Consider yourself lucky, a local woman had said, grinning at the gangly preteen she dragged along behind her. They both knew she didn’t mean it. 

“Almost.”

When she’d felt the sharp snap in her stomach and the wet between her legs, she thought she was going into labor. She looked around for Michael. Then she saw the blood. There was so much blood. 

“I see,” the man said. And he did, somehow. “What was her name?”

It didn’t occur to Nadia to wonder how he knew it was a her. It seemed as natural as her own understanding that it was a daughter that grew inside her.

“Anne,” she said. After Michael’s grandmother. Nadia liked it because it sounded like her own grandmother too, Antoinette. “She nearly made it. It was almost time, but she… I… wasn’t strong enough.”

The man stepped towards her. He smelled of Michael’s aftershave, and roses. Roses and lemonbalm. The tears in her eyes made the sharp lights blur. 

“Strength has nothing to do with it. It wasn’t her time yet. She knew it and just didn’t know how to tell you.”

“But I miss her,” Nadia whispered. Everything she could have been. Their family. The life they would never have. She wrapped her arms around herself and was surprised to see that her fingers were bloody. She looked at them curiously. They smelled like strawberries. Strawberry was Michael’s favourite. 

“Of course you do. She misses you too. And you’ll see her again one day, after you’ve lived a long, full life. But you’ve got to live it first. You need to collect all the stories you’re going to tell her.”

She squeezed her eyes closed, willing herself to stay standing. Tears escaped and rolled down her face. One sunk into her lips. It tasted of sugar-water. 

Nadia opened her eyes. The man wasn’t as tall as she’d thought, or maybe it was the shop that wasn’t so small. The corridor stretched out past the train tracks, over the river, out beyond the confines of North Yorkshire and towards Mamie Antoinette’s garden in Fontenay-aux-Roses. The confiserie was the entire world. 

The man brushed a tendril of hair out of her eyes, just as Michael had done so, so many times. Her heart broke all over again.

“It’s okay, Nadia,” Michael said. “It’s okay to start living.”

He might have said something else. She wasn’t sure. Whatever it was was lost in the rumble of the next train.

The light hurt her eyes. She had fallen asleep awkwardly at her work table, sitting on something that might have generously been called a bar stool or, less generously, a small coat rack. Something crinkled in her hand. It was an empty candy wrapper, still smelling of lemonbalm and rose. 

She came out to the front of the tiny shop, staggering on legs that hadn’t quite woken up all the way. The little glass stand piled with caramels still stood on the shelf, glittering invitingly. She decided she’d give the caramels a few more days. 

Nadia went to the front door and looked out. The air was cool and fresh. A train idled on the platform and commuters passed in and out. Some of them waved to her. 

Once the train pulled away, Nadia retrieved her keys and locked up the candy shop. Just beyond the hill the River Nidd sparkled. It was a lovely day for a walk.

Fija Callaghan is an Irish-Canadian writer who believes in embracing the magic of everyday moments. Her work has appeared in numerous venues including Bandit Fiction, Nightingale & Sparrow, The Caterpillar, Eucalyptus & Rose Magazine, Dodging the Rain Poetry Journal, Gingerbread House Literary Magazine, Steam Ticket, littledeathlit, Crow & Cross Keys, and Wyldblood Magazine.

photo by De an Sun (via unsplash)

Crater—Lucy Zhou

One morning, as Anna awakened from a moonless dream, she discovered a hole the size of a small child’s fist above her belly button. Crunching her stomach to get a closer look, she scrutinized the oblong cavity—about one-inch deep and freshly-pink like marbled ham. It was as if someone had picked up a tablespoon and swiped at the soft cream of her flesh, at the taut-skinned tissue and nerve fibers. A clean, decisive blow. As she probed the hole for any bumps or alien tenderness, she felt no pain, nothing but the warm, familiar hum of her body, rushing to meet her fingertips.

In the bathroom mirror, she surveyed her reflection—wide-eyed, a pink dash of a mouth, coffee-ground hair smeared wildly down her nape. As she turned off the faucet to splash water on her face, she could have sworn—if she closed her eyes and held her breath—that somewhere air thumped against a wire-mesh screen. A distant whistling, although the lone window in the bathroom remained shut. Undisturbed. Her eyes traveled south to the mirror’s edge—the shadow-indent below her small breasts—and then back up to her face. An oversized pore, she finally told herself as the cream-colored blouse swallowed up her torso—or the vestigial pockmark of a particularly deep-rooted pimple. Another hallmark of getting older that no one talks about, the slow uncoupling of your flesh from its velvet grip. She buttoned up her worries—for later.

That day, like any other, Anna commuted downtown to a high-rise flat that refracted the skyline’s grey and teal. There, on the top floor in the office closest to the yawning bay, she answered phones for a corporate lawyer named David, a man in his mid-fifties with the exuberance of a gangly teen. The day’s tasks consumed her—coffee filters to dispose of, various legal documents to photocopy and file, a steady stream of calls to field, and clients to smile for and appease. Burrowing herself in the requests and demands of others, she rode the circadian rhythm of the corporate organ, punctuated by David’s booming laugh—its familiar rituals making it easy to forget.

His bedroom door—first clumsily opened and then slammed shut—was hard and cold against her back. Clothing discarded like a trail of breadcrumbs crumpled at their feet. Anna closed her eyes, felt David’s hand moving inside her. A tug of desire pulled at her navel. His staccato breaths raining hail down her neck. Then his fingers withdrew, now slippery with her want. Turn around, he ordered. And Anna obeyed. As David furiously worked behind her, Anna thought back to the unspoken tension in the air during those first few weeks—like something you had to tease out, an ingrown hair, a pomegranate seed. Green-footed, unsure Anna, still new to her responsibilities and grateful for the health insurance, who observed the fit of David’s blue oxford shirt around his forearms, the sharp jut of his chin, the laugh lines around his eyes as light as a graphite drawing.

So when David propositioned her two months into the job, with that open, boyish smile of his, and assured her that his wife had previously agreed to this arrangement, Anna was surprised that her body had intuited what her mind could not—had dismissed as one-sided. Impossible. Although she would never admit it to anyone, a feeling of childish gratitude flooded her. That someone like him—attractive, successful, and self-possessed because of it, with a tongue that could shape words out of clay and acquit war criminals—would notice someone like her. A man whom she could never love.

The wet tarp sound of flesh on flesh echoed through the hallway. On the opposite wall hung a large portrait of David and a woman with warm, intelligent eyes and a shock of auburn hair. Her red mouth coiled into a squashed half-moon. His wife.

Their cheeks still damp from a tropical storm, Anna and David rose to get dressed. What’s this? He hooked a finger inside the hole. Careless. Anna quickly turned away and pulled down her blouse. It’s nothing. In the car ride back, David went on about his upcoming cases, the palm of his hand uncomfortably hot against her left thigh. But all Anna could think about was the shiver of pleasure that had captured and then released her like a wet sock. Later, when she got home and took off her clothes for a bath, she noticed that the hole had widened by a finger’s width.

Anna redownloaded a popular dating app. She figured enough time had passed since her last heartbreak two years ago when she caught her fiancé—her first love—in bed with another woman. The day had unfolded like a bad rom-com—her keys splattering onto the floor; their bare-slicked bodies cracked open like fleshy oysters, the sheets splayed around them in a makeshift altar; her spittle-filled scream to get out, get the fuck out; an overturned flowerpot, a keyed car, a returned engagement ring. Carved underneath her breastbone was the memory of that day—a weathered score on a tree trunk, scabbed over with silt and leaves. Before a warbly love song playing in a coffee shop would lash it open, or an artifact surfacing from the burial ground of their shared history—like when the washer spat out from its bowels her ex’s bright-yellow sock, left behind years ago in the haste of packing. Now, with the damp sock in her hand, she felt nothing but a hollow detachment—her sorrow finally bleaching into petrified wood, the clack-clack of dead branches scraping against an old worn-down house, her body.

Her first date stood her up at a tiki bar. Her second date was a graduate student in philosophy who spent an hour pontificating about authors Anna had never heard of and would never read. Her third date was a phlebotomist named Cat with spiky hair and a mouth that showed all her teeth when she laughed. Anna immediately liked her, and after a night of dancing under swathes of purple and blue light, they found themselves in front of Anna’s apartment. Hands running over silver clasps, untying hair.

In the dark against moonlit sheets, Cat gently took off Anna’s dress and drew a line from her chin down to her belly button. What’s this? Cat asked when her finger dipped inside the hole’s basin. But before Anna could turn away, Cat leaned down and pressed her ear against the hollow curve.

What the fuck are you doing? Anna pushed Cat away and quickly wrapped herself up in a blanket.

I’m sorry, I was just trying to help—

Get out.

Are you serious?

Cat left Anna alone in the slanted moonlight. Once the gunpowder of Anna’s fury burned itself out, a deep-gulfed shame crashed in and carried out to sea a soughing of batwings, a whistling.

The squelch of time was slow, Anna knew that. But the following days were unbearable—as if plunged underwater, and she gulped a lungful. Two weeks later, Anna climbed back into David’s silver Lexus after work. And they drove, like they had many times before, toward his house across the darkening bay. The air pulsed with the first autumnal chill. Branches raked an orange-crisp sky, preparing to drop their leaves. A few intimate sessions later, Anna realized he had stopped taking off her shirt. His eyes stared straight ahead as if still concentrating on a legal brief. Another stale ritual. A business formality.

Home alone, she started getting dressed in the closet—careful to avoid brushing against her torso—and showering in the dark, the beads of rainfall collecting on cave walls and sliding down her hips. The whistling licked at her eardrums at all hours of the day—and at work, to drown it out, she picked up the receiver and listened to the dial tone. At night, it gathered speed, rattling the small bones of her ribcage like wind chimes. She slept under a garbage bag of the first things she saw and grabbed—metal pots and pans, a stack of unread books, a vibrator, dirty laundry, and a velvet throw pillow—as if the combined weight of her life in these assorted fragments could press her into herself, flattening the hole into a dried daisy on parchment paper, and remind herself that she was still here.

Finally, one-midafternoon at work, the elevator dinged, and a woman with auburn hair stepped out. She headed for Anna, eating lunch quietly at her desk. Before Anna could even look up and whisper hello, David’s wife, her eyes full of shards, screamed and pushed Anna to the ground.

You little bitch! How could you do this to me?

Anna hurried to the bathroom and locked the door. But the wife’s ragged sobs still echoed through her ear canal. She felt a pang underneath her breastbone, the score on the tree trunk dribbling milky sap, tearing shrapnel. To her horror, Anna realized that the mangled wailing was rippling from her own mouth. The sound of a cornered animal.

She yanked off her blouse and gaped at the hole, now a gash-filled crater eating away at her midsection. Running her hand along the seafloor of her flesh, she stumbled upon an orifice the size of a quarter—a hole within a hole, thrumming with the energy of a wound-up clock—and stuck her thumb clean through. Her thumbnail protruding from her back—exposed to the sour bathroom air. 

The hole within a hole gripped her thumb before pulling her in up to her elbow. A second mouth.

Hunched over and panicking, Anna dialed Cat’s number for the first time since they argued that night. Strands of hair started to lift above her head like a ghostly crown, the whistling turning into a howl.

Cat, please, I think I get it now, I’m sor—But before Anna could finish, the hole ripped open with the sound of a toothpick snapping, and she was sucked in.

Lucy Zhou is a technical writer living in the San Francisco Bay Area. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Barren Magazine, Rejection Letters, and X-R-A-Y Literary Magazine. In 2020, she received an honorable mention for the Felicia Farr Lemmon Poetry Prize from the Academy of American Poets. You can find her on Twitter @lrenazhou. 

photo by Pars Sahin (via unsplash)

Weather the Storm—Callie S. Blackstone

content warning: death of a child (off-page)

Rain pounded down and plastered my hair to the back of my neck. My cable knit sweater grew heavy. The flannel I wore underneath it was slowly growing damp. I banged my fist on the door again. I paused and banged on the door again. I would make noise all night until someone answered. 

The rain blurred the porch light. I couldn’t see much of the house, but I knew it well enough. I had passed by many times. I would continue to do so, even after that night.  Each swing of my arm flung more water back onto my face. I almost lifted a foot to the door but the action was interrupted when she finally answered.

I pushed my way past her, perhaps shoving my shoulder against her more than I needed to. She jumped back at the contact, acting as if my body was cursed, as if I was some vessel of despair. 

In a way, she was right. 

I was wet, I was cold. The endeavor had not even started and I was already exhausted. I sat down in one of the kitchen chairs. My presence was accompanied by the slow dripping of water. Puddles began to gather at my feet.

“Tea,” I murmured.  It was likely the first time she hesitated to fulfill a request for a cuppa. “Tea,” I repeated. “I take it with lots of milk and sugar. Thank you.” 

Her brow furrowed for a moment. Then she moved to the kettle. Her shoulders relaxed slightly when she finally began working on the familiar task: filling the electric kettle with water, covering the tea bag until fragrant steam clouded her face, removing the bag and adding milk before the thing could get too bitter. She added the sugar last, so much that it bordered on saccharine. She placed the mug in front of me.

I held it in my hands and let the warmth slowly travel up my arms. I sipped the piping liquid. The heat unfurled in my chest.

“Sarah,” I took several sips and savored the warmth. My body slowly reanimated. “We both know I am here for Sarah. It’s time.” 

Maggie stared into the table as if I had not said anything. This is how they were sometimes. They were like the living dead, as if they wanted to join their loved one on the other side. As if life itself could not carry on when the one they cherished died. 

I had cut out the obituary neatly prior to my visit. The paper was flimsy and delicate. I placed it gently on the table in front of Maggie. I peeled off my sweater prior to moving forward. Maggie instinctually took it from me and held it close to her face. She ran her hands over every knitted row. She ran the garment across her cheek, her eyes closed to the roughness. I imagined Sarah in such a sweater. All the girls in our village had one.

Maggie took her time with the thing before she draped it over the back of a chair, which she pushed close to the roaring fireplace. It was the only thing that Maggie kept going after she received the news. She never allowed the fire to die.

Maggie returned to her chair at the table and I took my place next to her. I looped my arm around her, held it there. I was her preacher, I was her witness, I was the one true love she had never met, I was the grandchild she would never have. I was always whatever they needed me to be. 

Maggie shifted her shoulders towards me. This was my cue. I gently took her hand and placed it on a corner of the obituary. Maggie’s eyes seemed to flicker toward the paper for a moment, but that may have been the light of the fire. I turned my eyes to the paper. 

Sarah Ana Greshem born March 3, 1990, passed away on April 2, 2000. Sarah is survived by her mother, Maggie Greshem, and her cat Mickey. Sarah was a shy, sweet girl who enjoyed spending time outdoors. 

I continued to read the paper. The young girl’s funeral occurred the day before. Maggie’s body stiffened when I read the date and time aloud. She slowly lowered her head onto my shoulder. Her eyes began to fill with tears. The drops fell down her face and into the palms that sat open on her lap. The obituary had done its job. It helped her fully acknowledge the event, even if she could not speak about it out loud. 

The room was quiet save for the soft sound of tears falling on flesh, water falling from my sweater, and the hungry burn of fire. We sat together, the flames playing across our pale skin. My flannel was slowly losing its dampness, although it remained wet on my shoulder where she rested her head. That was ok. It would do.

After a long moment of silence, she spoke. “The wine. The cookies.” 

She began to stand up and I followed suit. She looked at me with confusion but I could not leave her alone in these moments, this close to death and ready to leave. Part of my role was being a safe keeper. I was only here to help those to the other side who had been called. It was not Maggie’s time.

She opened a door by the fireplace and flicked on a switch. The basement lit up with the dimness of a single naked bulb. She met my eyes and I nodded. It was time. We descended the rickety staircase together. I followed her through the basement, past shelves of home-canned fruits and holiday decorations. I  noticed that she had gained speed and her gait was now steady. She was better when she had a task to complete.

She led me straight to a chest in the back corner of the room, a dark place the light did not fully reach. Her hands ran against the wood in the dark, seeking the latch, which she had to ease open. The metal creaked loudly and violently. 

She propped the lid of the chest back against the wall. She murmured the traditional prayer as her eyes focused on the contents. I sensed her passion, the pleading nature of her words, from several feet away. She loved Sarah as any mother loves a child, diligently and blindly and with everything in her body. Maggie began to sob but she carried on, repeating the words over and over until her gut told her to stop. 

She took the black, lacy cloth that hung on a nearby hook and used it to pick up the first item in the chest. She presented it to me, a red that had been bottled in the year of Sarah’s birth. I nodded my head to indicate that it would do. 

I followed her back up the stairs as she cradled the wine. She took every step slowly, carefully, as if she was cradling her newborn and feared dropping it. She had one remaining task as Sarah’s mother and she was intent on carrying it out to the best of her ability. First, the wine. Then, the cookies. 

She placed the wine on the kitchen table before turning to the counter. I took in the row of baking ingredient—the new sacks of flour and sugar, the butter left out to soften. Maggie had been adrift after the loss, but she had still been able to purchase the necessary ingredients. She met my eyes briefly, before looking at the ground and taking several steps towards the counter. She took out a stepping stool and placed it in front of a cabinet, reaching for a series of bowls and measuring cups towards the back. While others were more accessible, these were the special tools she had purchased ten years ago, when her child was born, should she ever have to perform this task.

We got to work. I measured out everything and Maggie stirred and prayed, stirred and prayed. Her energy began to flow into the dough, an infusion of everlasting motherly love and sorrow. This was the last meal she would ever make for her daughter. She began to weep into the dough, but that is why the recipe called for unsalted butter. Something extra always found its way in. Once the ball had formed she rolled it out and cut out the crescent shaped cookies, placed them on the tray, and slid them into the hot oven. The almondy perfume filled the kitchen and intermingled with the smell of burning wood. 

When I encountered Maggie Greshem at the farmer’s market or the library after that night, she would avert her eyes and shift her body away from me. She would not acknowledge me again—her house would be empty, save for herself and the roaring fire which she would never let die down. She would have no need for me. There were no loved ones left to die.

She had to take the next steps of the journey on her own. I would finish the mission as I always did, alone. 

I walked down to the graveyard so there was enough time to get there for sunset. I counted my steps, I greeted the trees and their inhabitants. It was a familiar route and a familiar dance. 

When I arrived, I paused at the open iron gate. The graveyard was generally closed at sunset but tonight it would remain open. Only one person would be entering tonight. When I was done, three would be leaving. I paused at the gate and recited my prayers, explaining my mission and asking permission to enter. The place seemed to grow quiet and my soul settled into my body. All things became still. A gentle breeze picked up and rifled through my hair, pushing the gate open further. It was my sign. I crossed over the threshold.

The recognizable round face hung in the booth. Alden tipped his head so steeply that it felt like a bow. We both knew that is what it was. I always felt so beautiful in the graveyard under the mild moonlight, the breeze, and Alden’s gaze. Even when he stepped out of the booth and his diminutive figure was revealed, even when his clothes looked a little ragged up close. He extended an arm to me to lead me to the grave. Always the gentleman. 

I reviewed the scene. The headstone shone in the bright moonlight. A realistic cat was engraved next to her name. Mickey, I thought. The breeze picked up again. Sarah was restless in her grave and her spirit stirred. 

Mickey is ok, I thought. I pictured Maggie’s warm kitchen and thought of the black cat that watched us while we spoke that rainy night, that curled around Maggie’s feet while she faced the obituary and her daughter’s death. Mickey is taking care of your mom. The wind whipped up when Maggie was mentioned, carrying dead leaves and acorns. The objects pelted my arms. I pulled my wool coat tighter around me, hoping to take away some of the sting. 

“Sarah,” I whispered. “Do you know who I am? Why I am here?” The wind began to escalate, a flurry of leaves and sticks began to fly around. 

The young were often confused, afraid, enraged. They had pictured so much life in front of them. Sarah’s visions flooded my mind. She had dreamed of learning to sail, of spending her summers on the water. She had dreamed of traveling, of seeing America and China. She had begun to dream of how a boy’s lips may taste. All of it, stolen from her! The wind howled and I felt hard drops of rain starting to hit my head. I started to get a little grumpy myself. If this case had taught me anything, it was that I really needed to buy a raincoat.

Movement out of the corner of my eye made me turn. Alden was shining a light out into the dark in the agreed upon pattern that our families had used for centuries. He wanted to ensure that I was alright, that I could weather the storm. And I could. So I pulled the dense metal flashlight from my own pocket and signaled back. He quieted down. 

“Sarah, you’re scaring Alden, that poor old man. We both know that isn’t like you.” The wind and rain didn’t stop, but they didn’t increase, either. I was pretty sure I was getting hit with feweracorns and sticks, too. 

“Thank you, Sarah. I can take it, but sometimes I’m afraid Alden can’t.” Although we had both been bred and raised for our role in this production, Alden was getting older. But then I thought of what happened with the Enfield case and knew if he could handle that, he could handle this little girl. Or anything, really. Despite his reassuring presence and the fact we had both walked away from that case alive, I began to shiver. It was cold, I was getting wet yet again, and I was remembering the fact that pure evil can live long after human flesh has died. 

After several moments, the weather really had started to calm down. Sarah was always a kind girl at heart. Afraid, yes. Unkind, no.

“Sarah, I know I’m a little older than you, so I didn’t know you well. Your mother told me that all of your loved ones were at the services—even the neighbor girls you played with. The twins.” I had learned not to use the word funeral, at least not with spirits like this—spirits who were not at peace with their death, spirits who were not ready to move on. They were still upset and knew what I was talking about, but the language seemed softer. Gentler. It was easier to swallow.

“It sounded like everyone had such kind things to say.” And it was true. After the girl died there had been no whispers or murmurs, no clues unearthed that proved a bad temperament. She was considered to be a shy but well-behaved girl. The breeze lifted some leaves off the ground, gently moved them in a circle. 

“I remember seeing you in the park often. You seemed to love playing outside, no matter the weather. I’m sure if I was younger, I would have loved to join you. We were pretty similar, you and I—loners. But sometimes you need a friend. That’s why I’m here now.” 

“Sarah, do you know why I am here? Did your mother ever explain my purpose to you? Did she ever talk about my family, the Reeds?” The answering silence seemed to answer with its own questions. “I’m sure she didn’t explain that nice gentleman’s family, either—the Drydens.” There was no response. 

I shook my head slightly. Maggie had protected her daughter, who had already lived through so much—a father leaving his family with no explanation, no goodbye. In other parts of the world, “the talk” consisted of sex education. In our part of the world, “the talk” consisted of death education. Or, death how it worked here—how it works in small villages in England, a place that had not loosened its grip on all of the old ways.

Sarah did not seem to like these topics because the wind picked up again and sticks began to pelt gravestones around me. 

“Now, Sarah, that is just rude. You were raised better than that.” The wind died down. “You can think of me as your friend, as your big sister. I will explain everything to you now.”

I explained that the Reeds and the Drydens were two of the founding families of our village. We had been here for hundreds of years, and we would be here for hundreds more. Some family members had the luxury of choice. Some were able to leave whenever they wanted. Then there were those of us—the first born of either lineage—who could not. We stayed in the village, in the role, whether we wanted to or not. There were first-borns from either line that tried to leave, but they were always stopped, one way or another. I had always embraced my role, as did Alden—or so it seemed. We did not discuss the work at length. There were no after-work drinks for us. There were no midnight rendezvouses in graveyards. There were waves and smiles if we bumped into each other, as we gave anyone else in the village. That was it. 

I moved on. The next part of the presentation generally consisted of an explanation of my role and how it was conducted. But the fresh dead were still people. They were often intensely emotional people at that. Even those that were familiar with my role often stopped to ask questions, complain, beg for an exemption. It was difficult for many to understand that despite my seeming powerful, I truly did not have much capacity. I was just an actor in a natural cycle that had gone on for centuries and would go on long after my body decayed in its own grave plot. 

They seemed to think I had a choice in the matter, that I did not have to carry out my tasks. There were stories that have gone down through my family and the village at large. Stories of those who refused the task for whatever reason. Stories of what happened to them and the dead after the fact. These were stories no one wanted to hear, let alone star in. These stories scared even me, someone who commingled with the dead.

My comments about rudeness ultimately quieted Sarah, but there was a lingering  silence that seemed to act as inquiry. The dead were still unique and each had their own questions. She came to understand my role quickly without doubting it. She seemed to understand that her time to cross over was coming. Instead of bemoaning her inability to visit Boston or Shenzhen, she merely wanted to know what was next. 

I asked Sarah if she had sensed Alden leading me to her grave and a breeze shook autumn leaves down into my hair. I interpreted this as an affirmation. I explained that my role was similar to Alden’s; my role was to walk Sarah to the next place. That it was like walking someone to the porch of a darkened house. I could not see past the curtained windows and was not permitted entrance. I was merely a guide on a small part of her journey. 

Rain began falling again. It was heavier this time. It began to collect on my eyelashes and the night blurred. My body grew more and more tense and I tried flexing my muscles. I was still antsy with Sarah’s anxiety and felt myself doing a small dance on her grave, fidgeting, shaking out my limbs.

“Sarah, as your friend, I’m going to be honest with you. I don’t know what comes next. But part of my role is taking some of the bad things from you and carrying them so you don’t have to. Sarah, my people are called sin eaters. Now don’t freak out, I know it sounds weird. And if it’s your first time hearing about it, it is. Your mom made you one last batch of cookies and left out a bottle of wine for you. You aren’t really meant to eat the cookies, and I know for sure she did not let you taste the wine, so you won’t be drinking it, either.” I paused. “I’m sorry you could not taste wine in this life, that you could not experience the sensation of a boy’s lips.” 

My own lover flashed in my mind briefly and some of the tension drained from my body. “Cute, huh?” 

It seemed Sarah agreed that the man’s dark brown eyes were quite entrancing.

“Your mom did everything right. She made every cookie with her love. She walked down to the graveyard and placed them on the freshly turned earth so they could sit under the moon for a night. They soaked up the moon and they soaked up you. All of the wrongs you have done in this life—no matter what they are—all that has caused you shame or embarrassment, is in the cookies now.” My body grew tense again and I cracked each knuckle individually, despite my doctor’s warnings. 

“Now Sarah, you are a sweet, young girl. And I have done this for longer than you could imagine. I was even younger than you when I first started…” I trailed off, caught in the memory of guiding over a farmer who had been kicked in the head by his cow. My first time. 

“I do not know your secrets now, but I will when I eat. I am sure I have seen far worse in my brief career—murder and other unspeakable things—than what these cookies contain. Think of me as your big sister, listening to your secrets and taking your burdens for you. Then we will walk to the other side, and you will feel lighter than you ever have—lighter than playing on the swings, lighter than running in the summer sun.” 

I sat down in the soil, which was slowly turning to mud with the rain of her tears. I didn’t care, I was used to my wardrobe being encrusted with graveyard dirt, and I was getting used to being perpetually damp.

 How my lover could stand it, I didn’t know. I let my last thoughts of him linger, how his rough lips felt against mine, how he smelled of pine and his own type of earth. I wanted Sarah to experience it before she went. She was so young, and I would come to find she carried so little shame. She had done such little living. 

I closed my eyes and placed my hands in the soil of the young girl’s grave. Sarah’s presence grew stronger. I never saw the spirits beyond briefly glimpsing their memories. But I could sense them in other ways. Some spoke through the weather, like Sarah had. Some spoke through animals. Alden had even been used once or twice. Some used my body, causing pain or tension to express themselves as if I was some physical instrument. Whatever it was, it always got stronger as I grounded myself in the grass above their tomb.

I allowed my breathing to come long and slow until the feeling of leaves and dirt faded; until the heaviness of wet denim was no longer present. My human sounds died down, my soul settled in the bowl of my hips. I asked the universe for its guidance, for strength, for patience, for grace, as I always did. The things I would need to succeed. I sensed Sarah’s spirit rising from the grave, pushing through the earth, and hanging around the stone. If I was allowed to talk to Maggie again, I would have reassured her that her daughter loved the image of Mickey on the stone. But the woman would never want to see me again. 

“It is time, Sarah.” 

I opened the royal blue tin to find the cookies packed in loving rows. The powdered sugar became damp with the rain. Wet cookies were not pleasant but they were something I had come to endure. My job was a soggy mess. I pulled the wine opener out of my pocket and removed the cork from the bottle. It would be left on the grave as a final offering, a sign of completion. 

I placed the first cookie on my tongue and was hit with the sweetness of sugar. The flavor was something I associated so strongly with my job that I no longer enjoyed sweets of any kind. Sweets were for the dead. The cookie disintegrated in my mouth. The almond flavor was cloying.

The images began as soon as the cookie hit my tongue. I saw many things. Childish things, childish sins. I could have laughed at Sarah’s innocence if it would not have been disrespectful. I saw a 6-year-old Sarah stealing a fistful of chocolate cake; she would blame it on the family dog. Once, when her mother told her she could not have a chocolate bar, the child decided to steal it. I smiled and acknowledged that she loved desserts. The sugar burned brighter on my tongue. I took a swig of the red, a nice merlot. I held it in my mouth although it too had become something I disliked, something I associated with death. I wanted Sarah to partake in this, if only once. My body began to shiver, and my throat began to close in an attempt to evacuate the liquid.  I quickly swallowed and laughed, wiping drops away on the back of my hand. I hadn’t liked it either when I first drank it, a gulp I swiped at a party long before I set foot in the graveyard. She wouldn’t have the chance to acquire the taste.

Another cookie. More memories. A boy that constantly made fun of her, that pinched her, that snapped the straps of her training bra. A boy who cornered her when they were alone, who made himself big and scary. He was big and scary until Sarah pulled back and slapped him. As I swallowed I let Sarah know that the act was ok, it was just self-defense. That she didn’t need to feel guilty, she hadn’t wanted to hurt anyone. With each bite I took, Sarah’s soul became lighter. The cookies had soaked up all of her pain and shame. I was here to consume it before she left. It only took three cookies. Most took a dozen. I had met those who required more, who I had to sit with for days and days to cleanse.

Sarah had a good moral compass. Her life was short and she had not yet felt the intensity of love or wine or any of the strong things that make us lose it. Her ritual was short. When I swallowed the last crumb with more wine—I let it flow down the back of my throat so neither of us would have to taste it, as she preferred—she struggled to stay by her gravestone. I sensed that her spirit was now hanging several feet above me.

She was the one dancing now. Free of pain, free of sadness. 

Let’s go, let’s go! She cried with the energy of a young child who wanted to explore the world. She was free of the fear that had been holding her back. 

I asked the universe once again for guidance on our journey. I reverently placed the remainder of the cookies on the base of her headstone. They would be gone by morning. The earth soaked up the remainder of the wine as I slowly poured it out. I gently placed the container and bottle in my bag, ready to be disposed of once the work was done.

“Ok, ok,” I responded to the antsy dead girl. “Let’s go.”

Callie S. Blackstone writes both poetry and prose. Her work appears or is forthcoming in Plainsongs, Lily Poetry Review, Prime Number Magazine, and others. Callie is lucky enough to wake up to the smell of saltwater and the call of seagulls everyday. You can find her online home at callieblackstone.wordpress.com.

photo by Scott Rodgerson and Daniel van den Berg (via unsplash)

The Sextant and the Fish—Claire Hampton

‘Twas a long journey through the mountain pass, o’er desolate carpet of brown and green, tae the place where the sparklin’ cyan of the sea meets the powder sands of the west and the vast cleavage of Corrieshalloch – where ice parted the mountains long before the likes of us daunnered the lands -has ‘em all gawpin’. The North Coast 500, Scotland’s grand answer to Route 66. A loon went ‘round peddlin’ a penny farthin’, would you believe? 

Now, our newlyweds were almost there, one bar of fuel – bloody fools – headin’ for a wee hotel that sat on the banks of a loch, four-star reviews, and a restaurant exclusive tae the nephrops (langoustines to you and I, owned by a Frenchman of dubious character, if you heed the gossip of the village folk, mind).  Tin roofed croft houses welcomed them tae the village, abandoned ‘til summer when their keepers cast off their city shackles and the descendants of fishermen past make way for their fair-weather neighbours. But autumn it was, and twilight fell upon our weary travellers, for here, the sun falls from the very sky. 

A bent auld wifey in a woollen hat creaked along the road with a hound so rounded that its bristly undercarriage swept the ground. When approached, she gave ‘em fair warnin’: 

‘Aye, I know the hotel,’ she said, ‘it’s just doon the road on the left, but I shan’t think you’ll find anyone there, the owner ran off, you see, without a peep. Visitors amuck in the village findin’ new lodgin’s… where there ain’t nun to be found.’ She chortled.

Her sunken glare followed them intently as they turned down the lane, passing a church and pictish stone, engraved with sextant and fish. Along the shore they caught glimpse of their lodgin’s, just as the dashboard blinked red. 

Across the gravel, they cast an eye tae the grand hunting lodge that had graced the banks of the loch for three hundred years, the Laird’s extravagant retreat for he and his pals tae feast on their game and drink tae their prize far from the eyes of their fair, gentile wives. 

Centuries three of Atlantic gales forcing sea, salt and watter against its walls. Aye, she could blow a hooley, and fresh white paint was soon mottled and worn. Not this evening though, no… this evening there was an eerie calmness cast over the loch – tonight, the house sleeps.

No light pierced the darkness within as they tried the fashionable lavender door, the brass knob rattled but there it stood, stiff and fixed as a tombstone as they rang ‘n’ hooted ‘n’ hollered, yelling greeting through glass, yet none but an echo replied. 

He pulled out his phone and paced tae find signal, huffin’ n puffin’, his face all aglow. Raising it skyward as if it were Yorick – alas, it was not tae be.  His wife, seduced by her wild surroundings, stepped o’er a wall tae the beach. His disgruntled voice grew distant as she picked across the shore, drawn tae a glint washed up by her feet. A silver coin with tattered edges, worn but still visible, sextant and fish. She rooted ‘round for further treasures but found only this, but oh, ‘twas a fine souvenir indeed. 

And with that, came rain on a bitter sou’wester, and darkness fell like a widow’s veil. A crash and a whine came from above her as the sky led a dance with the sea. They ran for the car, their warm breath misting the windows opaque as the deafening rain drummed upon the steel. 

Yet through the din they heard the slam of the lavender door and with hoods o’er heads they set course for their beds when they noticed wet footprints upon the polished wooden floors. By torchlight they followed them tae a room of blue tartan, where they seemingly faded tae naught, and nothing remained but a banqueting table, dressed for a glorious meal. The blue walls were adorned with photographs of the Frenchman and his wife. As the woman drew closer, she noticed another of black and white, a large naval vessel and men with huge hammers breaking thick ice from the stern. 

Russian Arctic Convoys’ read the plaque, where villagers traded their line and creel for uniform and gun, as their loch was home tae depots of oil, on land and underfoot. The ships would fill their tanks for the long, brutal journey across the Atlantic, the hotel serving as an infirmary for the merchants of the soviet cause. Now the villagers strung nets tae capture the U-boats and swept the depths for iron creel, manning the battlements and protecting their home, kith and kin forever lost amongst the waves. 

Engrossed in the image, she heard a chink and a scrape, looking downward as a silver coin rolled up tae her shoe and stopped with a whirr. She patted her pockets, perhaps the coin was hers. 

She froze. 

Stood in the doorway, she recognised the Frenchman, translucent and slick as sculpted ice, his finger extended towards her, dripping, tracking her as she ebbed towards her spouse, who was lighting kindling and coal in the stove. She whispered his name with an urgent resonance and on sight of the spectre, he screamed. 

Tae the left had appeared a soldier, tae the right – a fisherman, then one by one the room filled with the lost souls of the loch until they were surrounded, corralled intae the heart of the room, outstretched, icy fingers creeping close enough tae touch. They closed their eyes and said goodbyes, then, with a splash, the apparitions collapsed intae puddles and the couple found themselves ankle deep in sea watter. Stunned, they began tae run, but as they tried they were dragged down by scores of cold, watery hands as if being strangled by kelp, the storm maskin’ their cries for help as they gasped ‘n’ gargled ‘n’ their bodies dragged out tae the hungry sea… 

Then silence fell over the tumultuous loch and the lilting waves washed gently ashore a silver coin with sextant and fish, a shiny lure… for some unfortunate soul. 

Aye, they say the loch found a taste for death in war, flesh o’ man quenching the bloodlust beneath, for once it lay still, fat on its riches, the fishermen may fear no more.

Claire Hampton is a neurodivergent writer from Teesside, England who once lived and worked in a small village in the Scottish Highlands. Her work has featured/is upcoming in VersificationThe Daily Drunk, SledgehammerThe Mark Literary Review, Full House Literary Magazine, Selcouth Station Press, and others. Check out her stories at clairehampton.com.

photo by K B (via unsplash)

What They Left Behind—Bradley Sides

Ash, not many years away from entering adulthood, continued with his morning ritual as he had since he’d been trusted to feed himself his own breakfast. Shirtless, he sat on the edge of his bed, stretched his arms above his head, and walked down the hallway to where the soft light from beyond the window barely lit the hard backs of the chairs at the kitchen table. He sat alone and reached inside the chipped porcelain bowl to grab an apple that was past ripeness. As he chewed around the browning spots, he dabbed at the edges of his lips with his open hand, trying his best to contain all of the fruit’s juices. Outside, the moon said goodbye to another night.

Ash’s father emerged with daylight and came into the kitchen. He, husky and balding, patted his son’s back. After wrestling matches and baseball games, it was the same—the unspoken language they both knew. 

As the father began to walk away to find his own nourishment, he turned again to his son. 

“What is that?” the father asked, harsher than he intended. His cracked hands pushed, again, harder as they rubbed his son’s back. 

“Haha,” Ash said. “I’m a beast, Dad. I told you that you should train with me.” 

“Yeah, that’s not happening,” the father said. “I’m serious, though. There feels like something’s on your back.”

Ash hugged himself trying to feel. “Are you joking?” he asked.

The father flipped on the light switch and led his son into the hallway to the mirror. “My God,” he said. His eyes bulged as he looked, not directly at Ash, but at the boy’s unusual reflection.

Ash slowly turned his head to see his image. Instantaneously, whatever sleepiness he possessed vanished. He swatted at his own body. Afraid of who—what—he saw. He spun in circles, bending his arms toward his shoulder blades and slapping at what sprouted from him. “Get them off! Get them off!” he cried. 

The father grabbed Ash’s arms and held him still. Ash struggled to catch his breath. But the father wrapped his arms around his son. “It’s okay. It’s okay,” he said. He drew his son into his embrace. Ash’s breathing slowed. 

This was the father’s job—to comfort his son.

“Let me look again,” the father said, his hands delicately inspecting the boy’s skin. Two small, translucent calamuses, sprouting pillowy barbs, dug into Ash’s back. 

“What’s going on?” Ash’s mother asked, appearing from the darkened hallway.

The father looked into his son’s eyes before he spoke. To reassure him. To tell him it would be okay. Then, he grabbed Ash’s thick shoulders, and he turned his son so she could gaze upon her son’s back. 

She didn’t speak. She couldn’t. Her hand clutched her lips so tightly that nothing could escape. 

“It’s wings,” the father said. 

The doctor looked away when Ash unveiled the pair of unusual wings from under his heavy shirt. But the old man recovered quickly, clearing his throat. “It could be a cancer. Or a benign growth,” he said sternly. “Either way, it needs to be removed.”

Ash and his parents agreed.  

The doctor didn’t hesitate when he took a pair of sterilized scissors to the boy’s back. He guided the blade into the boy’s sallow skin and snapped the thin stems of wing—first under one shoulder and, then, the other. The bloodied bundles of budding feathers fell atop the steel operating table and looked as if they were misplaced bouquets of tattered wild orchids. 

The doctor was still in the room, when a nurse called for him again. “They’re returning,” the nurse said. 

“Sew him up as best you can. We’ll wait on the results to know more.” 

The nurse did as he was told.

The father and the mother didn’t cry when the doctor told them the news. They wanted to see Ash.

The doctor led them to his hospital room. “Stay the night if you’d like,” he said in a tired voice.

When they opened the door, Ash was asleep, turned on his side. He woke only briefly—to ask how the surgery went, but before they could answer, he was already back asleep.

His sprouting new plumes fluttered in the cramped room’s manufactured breeze. His bandages were under him, broken apart, on the floor. His scars already invisible. 

An apologetic nurse finished tying Ash’s left foot to the edge of the bed. “Just in case,” she murmured. She grabbed a blue blanket from the closet and placed it on his legs. 

The father and mother went to hold their son’s hands. “I wouldn’t,” the nurse said. “He could be contagious.” 

She met their desperate hands with two bags. “His feathers,” she said. “They’ve been decontaminated.” 

At the father’s first attempt to doze, a pair of frantic voices in the hallway caught his attention. “What did they say?” he asked the mother. 

She didn’t answer him. Instead, she reached for the television remote. “I’m turning it up,” she said. 

There were more winged children. Boys and girls. Different ages. From countries all over. Canada. Tanzania. Spain. Bolivia. Thailand. Reports updated at the top of each hour. Dozens. Hundreds. Thousands. 

The father and the mother wept.

As the sun rose, Ash flew wildly in his room. His wings strengthening and growing at what seemed like each minute. The nurse who’d tied him down videoed him when he took flight. “It’s for the doctor,” she promised. 

“Try to calm down, son,” the father said, reaching for Ash. “Come on. Try.”    

Ash was still enough to hover above them—the father and the mother—these two souls whom he loved and loved him in return. 

His mouth opened. And closed.

Then, he tried again, but it was no use. 

His feathers fell on them, and it was as if they understood what he couldn’t find the ability to say. 

Before noon, broken farmers seeking the only thing they were capable of loving voiced quick solutions. They offered their empty barns and barren fields. Their containers full of nothingness could be made alive again. “It’s only temporary,” they insisted. “Until the kids are back to normal.” 

They could keep the winged children safe. They could care for them. They could watch over them. Their words, though, broadcasted on screens and speakers throughout the world were static variations of blind assurance. 

Of course, the powers agreed.

The farms were established before the weekend, with newly-ordained “keepers” at the helm. Cleaned troughs and assembled cages shined as the keepers awaited the children.

“We’ll keep him indoors,” the mother insisted to the nurses—and, then, to the doctors. “He won’t burden anyone. He’s our son. It’s our right,” she explained, her voice growing louder with each declaration. 

“He will not be going home. Your son isn’t your son right now,” the doctor said. 

“But he is. He has always been our son,” the father interjected.

“You’ve lost him,” the doctor said. Realizing his pitilessness, he corrected himself. “For now,” he added. 

The keepers went to retrieve Ash first. Boy 1 the paper said. The father and the mother stood at the entrance of Ash’s hospital room door and blocked the six protected men. A cameraman followed behind the keepers. “They are just trying to help,” he said. 

“Yes. Themselves,” the father replied. He stretched his arms from one wall to the other, his legs stout and firm. The mother did the same behind the father. 

But they were only stones to be stepped on by the new kings. 

The keepers did not speak. Not to the father. Not to the mother. And, when they reached him, not to Ash. 

The boy, flying, arched his body toward the men, his wings powerfully rocking the flimsy walls of the room and beating against the window. He looked majestic with his rolling golden wings, which were already larger than the bed below the boy’s body.

His mouth opened. He tried to call. To scream. To cry. Finally, his voice broke through. But it was a new sound—a shriek of otherness that pierced through the entire ward of the hospital that shattered the glass and buckled the tiles beneath him. 

As the keepers crouched, the father and the mother raced frantically to their son to clutch him. “Ash!” the mother called. “My boy!” the father followed. But they knew of nothing to tell the boy because they knew of no comfort they could utter. They sought to touch him—to calm his heart, but the gloved, cold hands of the keepers stole their embrace.  

The keepers unfolded the black tarp tucked under the largest man’s arms, and they stretched it across Ash’s outspread, beautiful body. His wings fought the heavy sheet, but the men swarmed him. 

He, this spectacular winged boy, fell to the ground and succumbed to their power. His feet twitched in submission.

The keepers injected him with a sedative and dragged him down the hallway. His feathers dislodged from his back and littered the floor. “We’ll follow the road to our boy,” the father said. The mother already was, picking up each feather as she went all the way to the fuming truck and its dirty trailer where the cameraman ended his recording.  

Two of the men stayed behind and strutted to the desk to sign the papers. Then, they went to the nearby rooms and grabbed the other recently-admitted winged children. 

The keepers took them all way. 

They were the ones, too, who received the praise when, on that initial transport day, only three winged children dissolved into the sun.  

At the local farm, after he awoke, Ash cradled himself in the back of his dark cage. Morning and night became the same. He didn’t want to see the others because he didn’t want to see himself. 

The father and the mother bagged Ash’s feathers and took them home. They made no distinction in the clean feathers the hospital staff had already given them from the unwashed. They were all priceless relics of the boy who held their joy.  

For the keepers, the feathers were a nuisance. Replenishing. Scattering. There was no easy way to contain them. 

In the hospitals, they were decontaminated and bagged. Eventually, they were sent away as keepsakes of the past. 

But on the farms, it wasn’t as easy. The keepers bagged and tied. Bagged and tied. Bagged and tied. Reminders of the present—and indicators of the unknown future. Incinerators arrived, but those contrived fires were only temporary relief. There were always more feathers in the waiting no matter how much the keepers swept, gathered, and burned. 

After the initial week of isolation, the keepers agreed on evening visiting hours. The only time Ash truly came alive was when the father and the mother came to see him, which was every time they were allowed. 

During these hours, the keepers unlocked the shiny doors and ushered the physically unchanged inside. “Welcome,” they sang. “Enjoy visiting your children.”

The father and the mother walked among many other families who came with the same purpose. 

Although the keepers prescribed specific clothing, few obeyed.  

The gray interior sparkled underneath the layers of bleach that permeated the air. Feathers and hay littered the walkway to each cage, which were placed side-by-side along the walls and in the center to form rows. 

The farm that held Ash held thousands of winged children split among seven barns. “We clean at the top of every hour,” one keeper explained, as he walked the facility in his protective attire. “It’s an ongoing task.” He laughed to himself.  

Ash’s wings flapped furiously against the dense metallic walls that enclosed him each time he saw his parents. He flew to them and rubbed against the bars, their hands petting his ever-growing back of wings. 

The father and the mother cried when they saw the linked chain that wrapped around his foot. 

“You are so beautiful,” the mother said.   

They slipped him apples. He squawked as he tore the flesh from the red fruit and tossed pieces into his mouth. 

He put his back to them and flapped furiously again and again throughout the visit, creating a storm of feathers that encircled them. 

They picked up each loose fragment of their son, and Ash cawed when they did. 

His voice grew louder when they dropped each feather into the bags they’d brought from home. 

“If we can’t take you, we take what you give us,” the father said. 

After the visitors left, the keepers wheeled the cages into the field, where they allowed the children recess. When the keepers loosened the locks, stretched chains polluted the play yard’s packed sky. A pile of cinder blocks polluted the corner of the open space. “Just in case,” one of the keepers warned the children.  

As their wings buzzed in the warm air, their voices cried loudly—creating words that only they could ever know. 

Their bodies flew to the peaks of the adolescent pines, and, then, toward the light of the moon. The metal clinked and broke their ascension. Their bodies collapsed to the ground, with their wings still beating. Defeated, but not permanently. 

When they gathered their strength, they lifted off the ground again, repeating until morning. Stronger by the hour.

Wars ended. New ones began. There was always something new to make a headline. The plight of the winged children lost its sensation. 

The father and the mother continued to visit. Some of the other most devoted did, too. But many who promised love and compassion gave up on their unusual children. 

The children, even those without visitors, continued to offer their feathers to anyone who would take them. 

It was no surprise when the father and the mother came to visit Ash with their own set of sewn wings, which they draped over their backs. “We got tired of you being the only special one,” the mother whispered. 

The other visiting families saw the parents’ display of affection and mimicked their winged creation. 

After a full week of no new diagnoses, the winged children rose with the sun and announced their departure with a synchronized piercing cry. From the keepers employed at the farms to the doctors wondering if their unusual surgeries were over, humans everywhere turned toward the sound.

The cages were broken. The barns were dented. The children were in the sky. Higher and higher. Some still had chains dangling from their legs. With others, it was impossible to tell if they still carried that part of the human world or not because the feathers clouded the sky and fell like rain.

So many of the humans hid under buildings to keep out of the way.

Others merely said, “Good riddance.”

Ash, leading the winged into the sky, looked below one last time. He was curious about what they, these uncompassionate humans, had become. But, then, he focused on love. It still existed. He knew so because he heard two familiar voices calling just behind him. “Ash, our joy. Our beloved boy.” 

Bradley Sides’ writing appears at BULL, Ghost Parachute, Occulum, Rose Red Review, and Syntax & Salt. He is an MFA candidate at Queens University of Charlotte and lives in Florence, Alabama, with his wife. His debut collection of stories, Those Fantastic Lives, is forthcoming from City of Light Publishing. For more, visit bradley-sides.com.

photo by Landon Parenteau (via unsplash)

“What They Left Behind” will be appearing in Bradley Sides’ debut short story collection, Those Fantastic Lives.

Coming October 2021 from City of Light Publishing.

Pre-order here from Bradley’s local bookstore!

Pal—Hannah Rovska-Strider

Sammy told us that it stayed in the old playhouse behind his stepdad’s deer stand. His Skeletor action figure went missing because of it, and it was responsible for another kid’s stolen bike. 

No one had ever seen it, but its presence was carried through passing voices in the hallways of the Northland community schools. Most of the kids said it was some type of troll or goblin. At the high school, the theories had evolved from mischievous fantasy creatures into depressed meth addicts. Supposedly, someone had found a dog outside of the tiny blue house a few months before we arrived in town. The contrast between its delicate face and the grotesque, bite-sized chunk taken out of its torso cemented the incident in the minds of the youth of Longville for that entire summer. 

We had just moved back into the neighborhood after our dad got his old job back, me and Carrie. The other kids accepted her as if she had never left, but I still had dues to pay if I wanted to be included in whatever mayhem they got up to on the weekends. 

That Saturday, I sat on the floor of my sister’s bedroom and begged her to let me accompany her to Janet Schezzworth’s treehouse. 

“But they’re my friends too,” I screamed as Carrie shoved various juice boxes and small bags of chips into her neon-green backpack. 

“No, you’re too little. Besides, they’re only your friends when the moms yell at us for leaving you out. No one really wants you there.” She grabbed her Nikon Coolpix from its box under her bed, the focal point of most conversations since her 10th birthday, snapped a picture of me sulking on the ground, and carefully placed it in her pack as I tried to wrestle back tears. My attempts failed though, and, after a four-minute-meltdown that ended with a guest appearance from our mother, my sister relented, and we went hand-in-hand to the treehouse.

We arrived to find that a meeting between the children had already been in session for some time. We were met with shouts being exchanged between Sammy and one of his cousins, the twinless twin, over the best course of action when it came to cornering the unseen force in the playhouse. 

“It’s not going to come out for us,” said the twin. “It doesn’t matter how much crap we leave it. We’re too big. It probably gets scared as soon as we open the door.”

“Then we’ll just send someone smaller in,” yelled Sammy through gritted teeth. By that time, a few of the other children in the wooden room began to look my way. I stared back as Carrie tried to covertly position herself in front of me. Sammy and the twin noticed her movement and then everyone was looking at me. Carrie looked horrified. I was elated. “Whatchu got there, Figteeth?”

“It’s just Lizbeth. Mom said that I had to bring her with me or she’d take away my camera,” replied Carrie.

“How tall are you, Lizbeth,” asked the singular twin.

“Thirty-nine inches,” I proudly stated. From the corner of my eye, I could see Carrie shifting her weight back and forth as I spoke, but I was just happy to be acknowledged by someone who wasn’t being forced to speak to me. “I’m very small for my age. In fact, I’m the smallest in my class. Most people who see me think I should be in pre-school. I’m also very good at running, following directions, hide and seek, counting backwards, and making owl noises.”

“Perfect. Absolutely perfect. You wanna do something important, Liz,” inquired Sammy.

“It’s Lizbeth, and absolutely. I’m very good at doing important things because I’m very trustworthy. I’m also very good at spelling things and remembering big words.”

“I believe it. I bet you’re also really brave.”

“The bravest.”

“She’s not actually brave,” interjected Carrie. “She can’t watch The Never-Ending Story without crying and she hates Scooby Doo.” 

Sammy and I both glared at her.

“Are you brave enough to go in the playhouse,” asked the twin. “The one behind Sammy’s—”

“Oh, I know which one it is,” I said. “I’ve been there before. In fact, I go there all the time.” 

“You’re lying,” Carrie hissed.

“I’m not,” I hissed back. I was.

“It doesn’t matter if she’s lying or not. If she’ll go in the playhouse then she’ll go in the playhouse,” said Sammy. He had seemingly managed to make a backpack appear out of thin air and was now filling it with a box of crayolas and a bumblebee notebook. “Hand me your camera, Figteeth.”

“Sammy, I’m not about to—” 

“Camera. Now.” My sister reluctantly handed over her most prized possession before moving to sulk in a corner. 

“Listen, Lizbeth,” said the boy as he turned to face me. “We’re going to drop you off by the playhouse, alright. You’re gonna go in there, camp out for a few minutes, and try to see if you can see the thing that’s been taking our stuff. We’re giving you a camera and a notebook. If you can, take a picture of it. If you can’t, draw it. Simple stuff. Got it?” I nodded. “Good. Let’s go.”

By the time they took me to the playhouse, it was already well past noon. Sammy and Carrie were the only two that accompanied me the entire way. The other children had formed an informal funeral procession for me that steadily diminished the further we walked into the woods. When we arrived at the playhouse, the two older children informed me that this was as far as they were going. I was to stay in the playhouse until the sun started going down. After that, I would go back to the treehouse to give them a progress report. They left and I entered the structure.

The playhouse had seen better days. Its wooden floors were rotted, its pastel paint faded. The entrance that led to the kitchen was adorned with various weeds and vines while the gingham curtains that hung from the four visible windows were spotted with holes and discoloration. A doorway that led to a bedroom was partially blocked by a once-purple cabinet that had fallen to the ground and various plastic cutlery was strewn across the floor.

 I began to walk deeper into the building when I stubbed my foot on something sharp and plastic. At my feet was the infamous model of He-Man’s greatest adversary. Waterlogged and covered in leaves and bitemarks, Skeletor had seen better days. I had picked him up and was examining the damages when something caught my attention from the corner of my eye. Standing to the right of me, right in front of the fallen cupboard was a large, gray, furry creature that nearly tripled me in size. Its white head tilted to both sides as it stared at me and twitched its long pink nose. My fingers loosened around the figure as the creature’s gray and pink tail hovered above the fallen furniture.

“Hello,” I said. Large, glassy, black eyes gawked at me as I slowly put the action figure down onto the ground and tried to rebury it with my foot.

“Hello,” the creature responded. It slowly shuffled towards me as I tried to speed up the burial process. 

“My name’s Lizbeth,” I squeaked. “I’m just here to drop some stuff off. I don’t want to bother you or anything.”

“You’re very small,” it said.

“That’s very rude.”

“I’m sorry,” said the creature. It was about two feet away from me at that point. I halted my attempt at concealing the action figure and tried to stand my ground. The creature’s matted fur resembled the carpet that my grandmother purchased for my dad’s den and smelled like sewage infused with spoiled leftovers from a creole restaurant. 

“It’s okay. I forgive you. My name is Lizbeth.”

“Yes, I heard you the first time.”

“Oh.” We stared at each other in silence for a while before I spoke again. “Do you have a name?”

“Maybe.”

“Oh.” More silence. “Do you live here?” I inquired.

“I suppose.”

“Oh.”

“Are you the one that’s been taking all of the stuff around town?”

“I could be.”

“Oh. Did you eat the dog?” I asked. 

The creature just shrugged. “I don’t know what that is.” 

I nodded and took the bumblebee notebook and a brown crayon from my backpack. The creature watched attentively as I drew nine circles and a face. When I was done, I passed the finished product to my conversation partner. I stared as its vacant, beady eyes scanned the blue-lined piece of paper for any trace of recognition. One set of fleshy fingers nervously traced the wax-based shapes as the other curled tightly around the parchment. 

“So, did you do it?”

“Maybe. I do a lot of things.” The creature handed me the notebook and walked over to the window. “Do you like living here?” Its long, fleshy fingers caressed the frayed gingham drapes before drawing them back to peek outside

“In the playhouse?”

“Do you live in the playhouse?” The creature looked alarmed. 

“No.”

“Oh. I didn’t think that you did.” Overgrown yellow toenails lightly scratched against the rotted floors as the creature nervously shuffled its feet. “I don’t remember ever seeing you before, so I would have felt bad if you had lived here the whole time and I hadn’t noticed.” I nodded and started sketching. “But do you like living here? In the woods? Or do you live somewhere else?”

“I live somewhere else. Near the woods. In a real house.” I said as I tried to compose an abridged blueprint of my home in crayola. “We have lights… and a refrigerator… and a bathtub.”

 “That’s nice.”

“It is. Do you like living here?” I was met with a shrug.

“Sometimes. I like when I find tiny things in the rooms under there,” it said as it motioned to the cupboard under a miniature, yellow rotted sink. It shuffled to the blue-lined doorway and ducked inside. I continued my masterpiece. 

“I have some here,” said the creature as it reappeared from the doorway, cradling a plethora of shiny baubles, single earrings, miniature cars, and sticky candies in its arms. It brought them over and laid them out on the floor before me. We quietly picked through and examined each trinket, unwrapped and tasted every candy before it spoke again. “A lot of people like you come through here just to leave these. I always mean to thank them, but they usually leave before I can get to it… I’m also very shy.”

“That’s okay. I’m shy too,” I replied through a mouth full of tootsie rolls. “I mean, I might be. I like to talk to people, but my sister says that I’m shy. I don’t know if that’s really true though. Sometimes I think that she says it so our friends won’t try to talk to me.”

“I see.”

“Are you lonely?”

“Sometimes. Not right now, but sometimes.”

“Then you should go to Mr. Leeroy’s.” I began to gently nudge at the leaf-covered Skeletor. 

“Is that one of your friends?”

“No. Well, yes. But no. It’s the toy store in town. The guy that owns it, Mr. Leeroy, he’s really nice. He always talks to you and gives you suckers when you buy stuff. And all of my friends go there, so you could go and see them and then you probably wouldn’t be lonely anymore.”

“Oh,” said the creature. “That sounds nice.”

“Yeah. You can get one of these,” I said, motioning to the half-buried action figure. “Not this one, because it’s Sammy’s, and I need to bring it back, but maybe you can find one like it.”

“I like that one,” replied the creature. It reached out towards the toy and pulled it from its hiding spot. I winced as I imagined Sammy’s reaction to my new acquaintance claiming his beloved Skeletor as its own but quickly whooshed the mental image away once I saw my conversation partner caress the piece of plastic in its hands. 

“I mean, you could probably keep this one. Carrie told me that Sammy’s dad got him a go-kart for Christmas, so he’s probably rich. I heard that we’re going to try to buy him a Beast Man toy for his birthday anyway.”

“Do you think they would like me?”

“My friends?”

“Yes.”

“Probably.”

“Then Mr. Leroy’s sounds very nice. I suppose I could come out for that.”

“I think you should,” I said. Our shadows grew bigger along the wall as we spoke for a little while longer. The conversation wasn’t particularly good, but I grew rather fond of the creature’s presence. When I noticed that it was growing dark, I informed the creature that I had to be going.

“Will you come back,” it asked.

“I will. We’re friends now, you and me. Buddies forever, pals until we die. That sorta thing.”

“That’s nice. I’ll wait to eat the rest of the stuff until you get back then. Goodbye.”

“Goodbye,” I repeated as I waved and left. When I met the others back at the treehouse, they asked me if I had seen anything. I told them that all I found was a bunch of unopened candy, but that I was sure that we would find something eventually. Sammy looked unimpressed, but Carrie was relieved to get her camera back. 

Two days later, a giant mound of gray and crimson fur was found splayed out on the road between the Shipley’s and Leeroy’s Toy Store. People would drive out of their way gawk and theorize about what it was. The adults said it was a bear. The kids said it was a werewolf. After a few weeks of rumors and speculations, the city closed the road off so that some guys in long cars could gather what was left of the carcass and take it off for examination. 

Before they took it away, Sammy held a meeting in the treehouse to plan a pilgrimage to the scene of the crime. Carrie said she would bring her camera to take pictures. I didn’t go because I didn’t want anyone to see me cry, but I still have the mangled Skeletor that Carrie brought me back as a souvenir.

Hannah Rovska-Strider (she/her/hers) is a queer fiction writer and MFA candidate at Stony Brook University. When she’s not writing about giant talking animals, she can often be seen walking the beaches of Long Island at 11pm, looking for sea glass and ruining the nights of young couples who just want to snog on the beach uninterrupted. She can be found on Instagram and Twitter at @Toadsoup_ and @Toad_soup, respectively.

photo by Chris Cooper (via unsplash)

The Serials of Rasmont Road—Lena Kinder

“What do you think, Wendy?” Laura asked as she twirled her pencil eraser in her mouth and wrinkled her forehead. “‘Rots slow’ and its got seven letters.” 

Wendy rubbed against the entryway before lifting her leg and licking her butt. Coffee burst from the tiny nozzle, and the smell of fresh caffeine filled the air. The telephone rang. And Laura ignored its chime. 

“Yeah, you’re right.” Laura tossed the newspaper and dropped five spoonfuls of sugar into her mid-morning coffee. “It’s probably something stupid, anyway. Like bananas or animals or—now don’t give me that look!” 

Wendy stretched with slanted eyes before strutting out of sight. 

“Shit,” Laura sighed. “I didn’t mean it like that, and you know it.” 

She held her cup to her lips and felt the steam opening her pores. She wondered how many blackheads she had and if this counted as a facial. She took a sip and heard a bubbling croak. Laura searched the kitchen table, pushing past piles of newspapers and looking in half-empty coffee mugs. 

“Hello there,” Laura said, lifting a cup with webbed fingers gripping its edge. “Let me guess, a fluffy dame kidnapped you, didn’t she?”

The frog croaked. 

“Thought so. Well, don’t you worry. I’ve got an escape route right here.” She opened the kitchen window, setting him on the ledge. “Now, if I were you, I wouldn’t come around here anymore. Reptiles, amphibians, rodents—you all just don’t last. Not around here anyway. You get what I’m saying?” 

The frog’s black eyes watched her for a moment, then he leapt away, vanishing in green blades. Laura heard knocks on the front door. She just knew it was her neighbor—Faye—who was unquestionably the culprit of the ten o’clock phone call. Laura turned on the kitchen faucet, pretending not to hear, washing the frog’s cup one, two, and three times. Still, the knocking grew louder. 

“Excuse me,” Faye yelled. “Ms. Villers, your cat did it again!” 

Laura turned off the water. 

“What did she do, Faye?” Laura called. 

“You know what she did, and if she does it again, I’ll have the Association take care of it.” 

“Will you?” Laura walked to the door and held her hand on the knob. “What would they do, do you think? Like they have any competency to begin with.” She could feel Faye twisting the copper handle. 

“I – I don’t want to call them,” Faye said, the knob twisting faster as she spoke. “But I will. Carcasses on doorsteps? There are children in this neighborhood. What if one of them saw? What would their parents think? What would the schools think? Do you know what kind of neighborhood this could turn us into?” 

“Carcass!” Laura opened the door, and Faye nearly fell inside. 

“What?” Faye stumbled back, and she straightened her Sunday hat. A large, frilly thing. Laura never went to church. But if she did, she knew she’d find Faye sitting in the front row, obstructing followers from some sort of salvation. 

“Don’t be. I think you just solved fifty-four down.” Faye gawked at Laura for a few very long moments, then finally, she shook her head. 

“Look at what your cat did.” Faye violently pointed down. Laura followed: a frog lying belly up, bled out on her cement step. 

“My vet says it’s a present,” Laura said, lifting the frog—by what she figured was its toe—and held the green body between them. “I’m not so sure, though. We’ve hit a bit of a rough patch, spats, and such. You understand, I’m sure.”

“I always knew there was something wrong with you—but this! I mean, do you think this is funny?” Faye asked, her thin lips pressed together until they reddened. “Dead things out where everyone can see them?” 

“Oh, of course not.” Laura smiled and tossed the frog into the yard. 

“Oh my God,” Faye said, mouth gaping. With protruding eyes, she watched the grass where the ‘dead thing’s’ leg poked out. 

“Don’t worry,” Laura continued before her neighbor could collect herself. “The kids will probably think it’s a blade of grass, and by next week I’ll have the yard cut! It’ll be gone—in a way—by then.”      

Nearly breaking her neck, Faye snapped back, and with a little wave, Laura shut the door.

The next morning Laura stirred her coffee and scribbled on her notepad, marking out old words and writing down new possibilities as she continued her crossword puzzle. Right as thirty-nine across tip-toed in her mind, several thuds came from her front door. 

“Oh, Wendy! What did you do this time?” Laura said, her concentration broken. “Just a moment, Faye!”

The house became silent. Laura scratched her brow, her eraser now gone, and squinted her eyes at the newspaper. “A way to say goodbye,” she pondered aloud. “Seven again.”

The front door thumped.

“One more second!” Several loud thuds followed, and Laura threw her pencil. “I said wait,” she yelled as she wrenched open the door. 

No one was there. Well, not no one, not quite. Countless frogs hopped across her lawn and crowded around the green body, which lay rotting in the grass. 

“Excuse me, ma’am,” a croak came from below her. Laura peeled her eyes away from the commotion and looked down. A toad stood on its hind legs, holding a tiny golden badge in her direction. “I’m Agent Fowler, from the Bureau of Investigations. We’re sorry to bother you this morning, but there seems to have been a terrible incident.” The toad’s arm gestured towards the dried blood on the stoop.

 “Now, I’m certain you had nothing to do with this,” Agent Fowler said. 

Laura felt the toad didn’t look so certain. 

“But I felt it was my responsibility to ask, considering the situation.” 

“Situation?” Laura said.

“Yes, ma’am. There has been a string of homicides these past few months. Have you not heard?” Agent Fowler seemed stunned in disbelief. 

“I might have,” she began but trailed off at the sight of fluffy hair sticking out of Faye’s azalea bushes just across the street. “My neighbor mentioned something yesterday, but I haven’t seen a thing.” 

“Well,” the toad continued. “I’m glad to see someone is keeping you informed. However, it seems that murder has reached your front door, and I must ask—” cries wailed from behind him. 

“What’s happening over there,” Laura asked, as she peered in the direction of the dead frog. A small group of frogs dabbed their eyes as another shoveled dirt. Agent Fowler’s mouth dropped, and his long tongue rolled out in shock. “I mean – I mean, will they be okay?” 

“They’re burying a loved one.” The toad’s words came in slurs as he grabbed his tongue and rolled it back up into his mouth.

“Funeral.” Laura grinned, realizing the answer to number thirty-nine across.

“Yes,” Agent Fowler nodded uneasily; his beady black eyes watched her with intent. Laura could have sworn she heard a hint of accusation in his tone. “Well, I was hoping you could tell me if you saw anything unusual.” 

“Oh,” Laura knew she had to choose her words carefully. “Not at all. Of course, if I do, I’ll let you know. We wouldn’t want our neighborhood to be a dangerous place for kids to grow up. What would happen to the schools? Oh no – what would happen to our community?”   

The toad croaked happily and gave a kind “ah-ha!” and “right you are” at that. As he did, Laura watched Wendy sprint across the road and jump through the cracked living room window. Still, the felines reptilian diet had left her less agile in recent days. The window slammed shut just as tabby colored fur vanished.  

“What was that?” The agent asked. His long legs sent him flying through the air. “It nearly sounded like a gun-shot!”

“No guns here,” said Laura. “Just a faulty window.” 

“Ah, well, you might want to have that looked at,” the toad eyed her again, cleared his throat, and continued. “Is there a mister of the house?” 

“Oh, no.” Laura watched as the group of frogs lined up one-by-one in front of a tiny casket. A ribbiting eulogy began. “No men needed here.” 

“Let me take a look at it for you,” he perused. “And for payment, we could further discuss neighborhood safety over din—”     

“To tell you the truth,” Laura interrupted. “Something about the case just popped into my mind. There’s a Labrador who lives down the road, in a cul-de-sac, I believe. He’s keen on retrieving turtles. God only knows what he does with them. Although, I’ve seen several brown patches in the owner’s yard.” 

“Brown patches?” Asked the agent, scribbling down notes as he listened. 

“Yes, brown patches. The kind you see when the ground has been dug up, you know?” 

“I know the very kind,” the toad croaked. “I’ve seen pictures during training but never thought I’d come across them in the field. But why would a retriever leave his prey out in the open? I’ve never heard of a canine leaving behind his victims.”

“I wish I could be of more help to you,” Laura said. “I’m not a dog person myself.”  

“Well, thank you for your time,” he said, flicking his notebook shut. “I’ll have to follow this lead, so we will have to take a raincheck on dinner.” 

“Such a shame.”

“I hope the Bureau can catch the killer before they strike again. For the safety of the neighborhood,” he said, turning towards the crying group of frogs as the undertaker buried the casket two-feet down. “And for the families of the victims.” 

Laura gave a nod in reply; she wondered if it was time for another cup of coffee.

“Well, it’s been a pleasure. I only wish we could have met under different circumstances, Ms—”

“Villers,” Laura answered with a smile. “I wish you the best of luck with your investigation and take your time with the funeral.” Laura shut the door with this and found Wendy lying on the couch, her tail flicking in the sun. “Now,” Laura began. “What am I going to do with you? Are baths called for in matters of murder?” 

The telephone rang.  

“You’d better answer that,” Wendy replied. 

Laura held the phone, imagining her neighbor—dressed in a nightgown, twirling a long seafoam-green telephone cord between her fingers. The image was always the same. 

“Faye,” Laura said, picking up the receiver, glad to have had the first word. 

“I told you so!”    

Lena Kinder is a writer, recently graduated from the University of Southern Mississippi. She hails from the suburban wilderness of Eagle River, Alaska, discovering her craft under the midnight sun. She is an enthusiast of the strange and meets her characters in the oddest of places. Her other works can be found in Prometheus Dreaming and Quest Log. Forthcoming tales will appear in the Sucarnochee Review.

photo by Thomas Oxford (via unsplash)