Whose Woods These Are—Carrie Vaccaro Nelkin

You first spot the boy on the industrial side of town, off the highway.

The windows of your old Pontiac are rolled down to the sound of cicadas bouncing off the auto repair shops and plumbing supply stores. The sun-broiled air is humid and hard to breathe.

He’s sitting on a cinder block in front of LiMandri’s Vehicle Restoration, which is closed because it’s Sunday. You notice him before he notices you. His shirtless torso is thin and white and his skinny little arms fold across his knees as he watches the cars go by. When he sees you he sits up the way a cat would, expectant and alert. He stands slowly, pulling up the jeans that have fallen low on his hips, and starts walking toward you as you brake for the light.

He’s no more than eight or nine, and to your surprise he extends his right arm and sticks out a thumb, gazing directly at you. The light turns green at the last minute and you coast through the intersection, eyeing the boy.

You drive to the next block and pull to a stop, discomfort in your gut. Why is he trying to get a ride in front of a deserted body shop at the height of the day’s torpor, small and fragile as he is and only half dressed? No kid around here goes shirtless even on a day like today.

You know you can’t pick him up. He could be some sort of setup. And if he is just a little kid hitching, you can’t stop for him. He needs to learn this is a bad thing to do. But how can you just leave him there? 

Not until much later do you recall how he seemed to be waiting for you, letting every other car pass until your faded blue coupe pulled close, reaching out with his twig of an arm while pinning you with his stare.

You make an illegal U-turn and head back to LiMandri’s, where the cinder block now sits empty. The smell of tar and cat piss rises off the road. This area is like the one you lived in not long ago, bare and shadeless, harsh to the senses. Pulling into the lot, you decide to wait for thirty seconds. If he doesn’t show up, you can leave with a clear conscience. 

Fifteen minutes’ drive from here your cool and shady house awaits you, a Cape Cod with dormers that look out on linden trees. Behind it is state land, an uncultivated swath leading to woods a half-mile deep, a refuge for deer and hawks and Canada geese. At night often the geese set up rowdy parties full of cackling and chattering—and you feed on it, having been starved of nature for so many years. 

A shadow at your side makes you jump. The boy is by your window, staring into the car, face smudged and nose dripping. A beaded metal chain with a soldier’s dog tag hangs around his grimy neck. You reach for the box of Kleenex next to you and hand him a couple, which he takes without a word and uses to wipe the offending mucus off his lip.

“Are you lost?” you ask. “I can call your mother or father.”

He continues staring, the dirty tissue clutched at his side.

“What’s your name?”

He uses the snotty tissue to swat at his arm. A smear of black and red appears where a sated mosquito has met its end. You pull another Kleenex from the box. He cleans his arm with it and then swipes it across his nose.

“Don’t do that! Here.” You hand him the box. “Listen, honey—” You can’t help yourself, he’s only a little boy. “I saw you trying to hitchhike. That’s very dangerous.” You glance at the sky. Not a single cloud to impede the white intensity baking your car into the asphalt. “Do you live around here?”

He tugs at the beaded chain as if it irritates his skin. What large irises he has, the color full and deep, hazel burning into gold.

“Can I look at that?” You point at the tag on his chest.

He hesitates, then lets you squint at the single name and phone number engraved on it.

“Why didn’t you tell me?” you start to say, then bite it back because maybe something is wrong with the boy and he doesn’t know what he can or should do.

You key the number into your cell phone, and a man answers on the first ring.

“Is this Mr. Gallagher?”

“Yes?” The voice is guarded.

“My name is Laura Valentine. I live in the Mahogany Run area—”

“Yes?” 

You pause. “I’m at a place called LiMandri’s Vehicle Restoration off exit—”

“I know where it is,” he snaps. “What do you want?”

You take a deep breath. “There’s a small boy here, all by himself, and he’s got a chain around his neck with your name and number on it.”

“Brown hair? Skinny?”

“Yes.” A glance at the boy catches him running the back of his arm across his nose. “He won’t talk to me. Does he belong to you?”

The man groans in an obvious mixture of vexation and relief. “I never thought he’d wander so far.”

“Can you come get him? I’ll wait with him.”

He pulls up in an old maroon Chrysler that looks as if it’s never seen better days even new. The car is familiar.  

Gallagher must have come to fatherhood late, or maybe he’s the boy’s grandfather. Or—you realize with a chill that you didn’t establish the relationship between them—he could be a pedophile reclaiming his charge. The boy immediately runs to Gallagher and buries his face in the man’s sweaty tee shirt.

Gallagher offers you a hand slick with perspiration. The thick glasses sliding down his nose give him an abstracted air, and his general scruffiness seems to have little to do with the heat. No wonder the kid is running around half naked.

“I think I know you.” You try to place the face as well as the car. “Where do you live?”

“By the woods,” he mumbles, clutching the boy.

The odd phrasing makes you consider a moment. “You mean Mahogany Run?”

He nods so vaguely it is obvious he’s not happy talking about it.

“Graham Road?” That’s the only street that backs up on the woods. “So we’re neighbors? Left end or right? I’m number 31.”

He shakes his head. The movement is more like a tic. “Other end.”

“Wait a minute—have I seen you walking a beautiful white Husky and a giant schnauzer?”

“I have other dogs too,” he says, averting his eyes. He takes the boy’s hand and they turn away. Gallagher glances over his shoulder at you as he opens the Chrysler door, but his “Thanks again” sounds like an afterthought.

You linger a moment after they leave. You should follow him, but what would that prove? Will it quash the unease bubbling inside, the unmistakable feeling that you’ve done something terrible by handing the boy over? What choice did you have, anyway?  The kid went willingly.

You get into the Pontiac and go, half expecting to overtake Gallagher. You arrive home just as a car is pulling out of the garage next door.

The man inside lowers the window and waves. “We just came back from Cape Cod.” Everett Clark is dressed impeccably, as always, shirtsleeves rolled up slightly, silver hair neat. He and his wife are good next-door neighbors, the kind who offer to take your mail in if you’re going away. 

“Everett, you know somebody on this block named Gallagher?”

“First name or last?”

“Last, probably.”

Everett thinks. “Oh, him!” he says suddenly. “He’s a real nut job. Why do you ask?”

You tell him about encountering the lost boy and calling Gallagher, but before you can even wonder how to ask discreetly if Gallagher is on the up-and-up, Everett shakes his head and says, “He’s certifiable. I mean it. Ever since his wife died—”

“When was that?”

“About ten years ago.”

“Any kids?”

“No.”

“So, no grandkids?” The sweat on your neck feels cold.

Everett shakes his head. “I was going to ask you who that boy was.”

“A nephew, maybe?”

“All I can tell you is nobody around here bothers with him. He doesn’t cause trouble or anything, he’s just weird. No joke.” He makes a looping circle with his finger near the side of his head.

You say goodbye and he pulls off before you realize you should have asked him which house Gallagher is in.

All afternoon you’re uneasy, thinking that maybe you should call the police. And tell them what? Wouldn’t Everett, an upstanding and trustworthy individual, have suggested that if he thought it a good idea? You phone his wife, Joan, but voice mail picks up and you don’t leave a message. You’re left alone with your concerns and disquiet.

After  dinner, the August sky darkening, you step outside and walk slowly up the block toward the dead end, feeling conspicuous as you study every house on either side.

Your efforts are soon rewarded. A tumult of yips and baying rises from the very last house, on the same side of the street as yours. A white face with pointed ears stares out from the living room window, ghostly and beautiful in the soft dusk.

For a long while you stand there watching the Husky watch you. A smaller, leaner face appears at the dog’s side, but in the fading light its features are hard to make out. Now what? Now that you know where the man lives, what happens next? If Gallagher were observing you from a window, would you even know? You tell yourself he probably wouldn’t recognize you in this interstice of day and night, when colors and shapes blend.

There is nothing distinctive about the house, nothing that sets it apart from its neighbors or betrays seediness of character—or maybe the gloaming has removed the edges, the small discordances that would indicate unseemly things happening inside.

Finally you turn and head home. Soon crickets will start chirping, spiders will weave orbs in the cool damp of the dark.

Later, you float in and out of sleep, loving the pattern of moonlight spread across the sheets and the way slumber flutters over you like a proprietary bird. When at last it tucks its wings about your head, a sound from outside chases it away. 

A yip, downstairs near the back deck—but not a dog’s yip, and you don’t know how you know but you do. It’s followed by a single thin howl, a high-pitched offering that is neither lament nor threat.

The skin on your neck prickles as you swing your feet over the mattress and look out the window. The moon is high and full and everything below is drenched in its light—and there is nothing, no one, there. 

Yet you know what you heard. The coyote as interloper, as wild other trying to make its way through the detritus and perils of civilization, holds allure for you. Your sympathies are with the animal, whose only crime is to find itself in a world not of its own making. Who among us is any different?

A ripple of tall grass opens on the left, and a shadow with two bright eyes reflecting the moonlight looks up at you. The eyes burn into yours, and then the shadow leaps away in the direction of the woods, emerging from the grass into the scruffy band that runs along the trees.

When you get back into bed you have forgotten about the hitchhiking boy for the first time all day.

The next morning, as if attuned to some primal resonance in the air, you wake up before the alarm and step to the window. August’s fullness already cradles a harbinger of autumn.

As if on cue, as if you’ve heard their laughter (and maybe you have), two boys burst from the woods at the far right and caper through the grass. Even at this distance you can see they’re barely dressed, and you’re pretty sure one of them is the kid you found yesterday. In high spirits, they head toward the far end of the block, probably the Gallagher house.

Before you can give thought to what you’re doing, you pull on jeans and a tee shirt and rush out the front door. One house from Gallagher’s you cut through a yard, and there they are, right off Gallagher’s back porch—the white Husky, the black schnauzer, several other mixed-breed dogs with vulpine faces, and the two boys. The whole pack of them, dogs and boys, are play-wrestling like a huddle of puppies squirming all over one another. 

Gallagher comes out dressed only in baggy shorts and leans over the porch railing. “Get inside! Come on, hurry up!”

No one on the ground listens and, obviously annoyed, he comes down off the porch and grabs the two boys, separating them from the waggling, festive mass. “Let’s get you cleaned up.” His words carry on the stillness of air already dense with humidity. 

One of the boys breaks free, howling playfully—and the sound chills you. It’s the boy you’ve met. He bolts toward you.

“Come back here, dammit!” Gallagher stiffens when he catches sight of you. 

The boy stops a few feet away and stares at you, not afraid, not threatened or threatening, a little timid but curious. His chest and face are filthy, his shorts tattered, his hair flecked with leaf bits. You intuit rather than smell a feral scent coming off of him. The mucus dribbling down his nose smears across his face as he drags an arm over it. In your head a thousand thoughts jostle. Are these the eyes you saw last night from your window?

The idea is dismissed the moment it forms. 

Exasperated and very angry, Gallagher holds the other boy under his arm and yanks one of the vulpine dogs by the collar. The dogs are torn between following him up the porch steps into the house and assessing you. Your vulnerability hits you and you back up.

The boy raises his face and sniffs the air before giving you one last look and loping to the four waiting dogs, who surround him like a wave up the porch stairs.

As they enter the house you remain immobile, half afraid Gallagher will push open the back door with a shotgun in hand. Then you head back up to the street.

Everett Clark is pulling out of his driveway. 

“You’re up early,” he says. 

“Who lives next to Gallagher?”

He eyes you. “That still bothering you?”

“Yeah.”

“That why you’re up this way?”

You nod, and he sighs. “Call the police, if it’s going to eat at you.”

“I don’t want to be a bad neighbor, in case it’s nothing.”

“Call anonymously.”

“I don’t think you can do that.”

“Yes, you can.”

“People find out. They always do.”

He scratches his chin. “Well, to answer your original question, the Rosens live next door to him.”

“What do they think of him?”

“I don’t know. I never see them. They spend their summers away.”

“So they’re not home now?”

“I don’t think so.”

You let Everett go and rush home to shower and dress for work, which will give you a reprieve for at least eight hours.

That night, after a busy day made gloomy by rain, you fall asleep fast and heavy. There is no opportunity for conflicts of conscience or ruminations over what constitutes good sense. 

What dreams! The night is filled with dogs, squiggling pups of every description biting each other’s ears in a tussle of paws and wagging tails, a mound of canine babies playing, terriers and dingoes, jackals and bat-eared foxes and mutts. Twice you get up to pee and twice you slip back into the dreams.

Again you wake before the alarm, this time a half hour before sunrise. The full moon, no longer visible from the window, shows as a faint glow in the contrast of sky and trees. Your gaze lowers to the thicket of long grass.

You sense him, of course, though after several minutes staring into the dark it occurs to you that maybe this is another dream—and then the eyes flicker below, catching the indirect light only a second or two.

You wait. The tops of the trees briefly bloom pink and then it is more day than night and the chirping of birds overtakes the fading bustle of tired insects. You grab the binoculars you placed on the windowsill last evening. A dark little face looks up at you, a triangular shadow in the grass.   

You watch each other, not moving, barely breathing. You try to blink away the thoughts of boys and pups, unwilling to acknowledge what you’ve been thinking, what your heart tells you, the thing that defies logic and pulses like a firefly inside you.

“It’s okay, little one,” you whisper.

The coyote looks suddenly to the right at two small animals running out of the far woods, where the two boys emerged yesterday. With the distance and the light you’re not sure but they look like . . . puppies. Pointy-faced, long-limbed puppies.

Of course! Baby coyotes. A foolish relief flushes through you. It’s the mother below.

But why has she been at your window two mornings in a row?  

Coincidence, naturally. She runs a circuit each night, hunting for food, and she ends up below your deck just as you wake up.

The mother quickly turns and tries to leap away, but she looks injured. Dragging herself amid the wild tangle, she heads not for the pups but for the trees. You swing the binoculars to see if the pups have noticed her, but they’re out of sight, hidden in the grass and the sprinkle of wildflowers.

The mother is fighting her way through a snarl of stalks and reeds. A sound of urgency escapes her. Pity wrings your heart, for both her and the pups. You glance their way again.

But instead of pups you see two familiar boys wading though waist-high grass and coming out the other end near Gallagher’s house. The dreams, the absurd thoughts of only moments ago, come back, and you keep your eyes on the boys until they’re beyond your vision.

In your heart, the little hitchhiking boy was the coyote below your window. 

Clearly you were wrong. But something is not right. You sweep the field with the binoculars. There are no puppies following the two boys home. Baby coyotes came out of the woods and small children appeared in their place shortly after. 

The coyote below has shown no interest in the boys and seems to have relinquished its interest in you. Its apparent preoccupation is attaining the woods. It reaches the perimeter of the trees and lies panting, turning its head to look back—at you. The binoculars do not deceive. The coyote is on its side catching its breath and gazing at your window. 

You put the binoculars down to process what you think you saw, then hold them back up. The face is now patchy with ragged hair and dirt, revoltingly familiar, attached to a body it can’t possibly be connected to.

The creature rises to its wobbly legs. It tries to push up on its hind limbs but falls. It has no tail. Clearly it is male—and large. It shudders broadly, letting out a groan of anguish that cuts the morning air, and the earth around it seems to quake. The sky and vegetation are the same as before, but the creature’s torment is like an overlay that changes the scene for you. With a rush of forced energy, like the last push before birth, the russet coat blanches and thins in a matter of seconds. You stand riveted in the center of the window.

Several yards before the trees, the rest of its body transforms and a pale, naked man stands slightly hunched until he whirls around and faces your house, your window, you. Gallagher watches you watching him. He makes sure your binoculars have a chance to linger on his scraped skin and flaccid white body. Now that you’ve caught him, he wants you to get a good look. You were not afraid of the coyote, but you are afraid of this man. Your first thought is that he wanted you to observe this display. “I’m number 31,” you’d said to him.

Your second thought is accompanied by a sharp intake of breath: What if he didn’t want you to see it? What if he blames you for distracting him from a discreet metamorphosis in the woods?

Does it matter which is true?

Gallagher turns and disappears into the trees. A piercing sound—half wail, half keening—swells from the dark thicket. It is a taunt, a demarcation of territory. The land behind the house, a restful stretch of nature only moments ago, is now mocking and grim. 

You back up into a corner of the room and stand there a long time, unable to think beyond the distress banging around inside you like a ball in a metal chamber. At some point the mechanical impulse to make coffee stirs you downstairs to the kitchen. A few hot gulps and you may see more clearly what to do. 

The coffee brews strong and you sip and pace from one end of the house to the other. The white Husky watches your movements through the low window in the dining room, and when you first catch his blue-eyed gaze you start. Only a few feet away on the front walk, he appears to be smiling, or laughing. He turns from you briefly as Gallagher saunters into sight beside him, close enough for you to see the gashes in his wrinkled shorts and dirt crusted around the abrasions on his belly.

Gallagher seems taken aback, as if not expecting to find you at the window. “I want to talk to you,” he shouts.

But you’ve already leaped into the kitchen for the phone, which drops to the floor and clatters across the tiles as another voice sounds outside.

You creep to the window and see Everett on his side of the walk, pressed slacks and crisp shirt a sharp contrast to the other man’s dishevelment. “Did you hear me?” Everett says. “What do you want there?”

“Mind your business, Everett Clark.” Gallagher is stooping slightly and appears to be looking up at Everett even though they’re on level ground. The Husky is gone.

“She’s my neighbor. She is my business.” Everett walks toward him but stops. “Are you in trouble? You’re all cut up. What happened to you?”

“Nothing for you to mind. Nothing’s wrong with me.”

Emboldened by Everett’s presence, you open the front door and step outside. Something grotesquely carnal wafts off of Gallagher and then is gone.

“He’s been watching my house from out back,” you say. “Today and yesterday.”

“That right?” Everett steps closer and Gallagher draws himself up to full height. “You watching Laura’s house?”

Gallagher’s hands wander over the scratches on his stomach, his eyes glued to the other man.

“I asked you a question. What are you doing out back? You watching my house too?”

A mewling sound escapes Gallagher. The insight hits you fast: He’s not a bold man, and whatever he’s been up to is out of character, something that ballooned up fast inside him and could deflate just as quickly.

Your insight also tells you he may be erratic, and you pull back. “Are you trying to threaten me, Mr. Gallagher?”

He glances at you, but his gaze drops to the ground. When he picks it up again his eyes are flecked with the sunlight that’s already heaping itself onto the back of your neck. Your nostrils flare at the smell he throws off.

The white Husky appears suddenly at the end of the walk, accompanied by the little boy you picked up at the auto body shop. Dressed in jeans and a red tee shirt, the boy looks almost clean as they approach. His eyes are on you. 

There he is, the child who isn’t yours, the child who could be yours, the one who might have been. And all at once you understand the twisting in your heart. 

Everett, sensing your moment, watches the boy and the dog but says nothing.

Gallagher looks at them too, but sideways, as if trying to keep one eye on you.

“Where did you get them?” you ask. 

Gallagher reaches a hand to the boy, who takes it and stands beside him like a dutiful son, though his eyes never leave yours.

You clear your throat. “Who are the boys? Where did they come from?”

Gallagher hangs his head, chin to chest. “I found  ’em.”

You signal to Everett with your eyes and hope he reads them correctly. He does, crossing over and standing near you.

“Found  ’em in the woods,” Gallagher mumbles. “Tiny little pups, shivering without a mother.”

“The woods back there?” Everett indicates the direction.

Gallagher nods. “Took them in after a few days. I didn’t know they were little boys.”

Everett’s face registers confusion. You hold up a hand and he says nothing.

“What about you?” you say gently. “What happened to you?”

He looks down at his abdomen, flustered, hands fluttering over the scribble of blood and soil.

“Not that. I saw how that happened. How did you . . . become like the boys?”

At this the little boy reaches for your hand. He is now holding yours and Gallagher’s in a bizarre family tableau, clutching your fingers firmly.

Gallagher looks at him sadly a moment. “Puppies bite.” 

The boy lets go of Gallagher and throws his arms around you, burying his face in your tee shirt the way he buried it in Gallagher’s the day you found him. He holds you close. 

Automatically you hug him back, maternal instinct warring with prudence as if you’re holding the essence of nature in your arms, a tender wild thing that needs mothering even as it clamps the teat between its teeth and rips it off. He smells of fur and feathers and all things untamed, with a strange maple overlay.

“I knew he liked you.” Gallagher’s voice is resigned. “Animals have their favorites.”

Everett scowls. “What the hell’s going on? Laura?”

The burning in your side takes a moment to register, but when it does you push the boy away, feeling betrayed but knowing it’s your own fault. It’s not right to blame an animal for its nature. You touch the tee shirt and blood sponges through. Not much, but enough for you to understand your whole world has changed.

Everett yells, “Get that kid out of here!” He takes a phone from his pocket and punches in numbers.

Gallagher’s eyes glitter, and for a moment you think he’s crying. He sniffles hard and runs the back of his hand across his nose, pulling the boy close to him. The boy gazes up at you softly, without guile.

“The paramedics are coming, Laura.” Everett puts his arm around you as if to hold you up, but you’re still erect, merely shivering in the sunlight.

Your fingers move as if to touch Gallagher’s arm. “Is this why you came here?”

“No.”  He looks at you directly now. “I was threatening you. No point in that now, is there?”

“No.”

Everett’s eyes narrow at the other man. “You are one aberrant bastard, and I’ll see to it that you pay for what that kid did.”

Gallagher ignores him. “If anything happens to me, will you take care of them?”

You glance down at your tee shirt and the red smudges on your hand, and for the first time it occurs to you to lift the shirt and look. It’s not a bad bite, more like a nip. A love nip, you think.

“Yes,” you say as the ambulance wails down the street toward you.

previously published in Rose Red Review (Winter, 2014)

Carrie Vaccaro Nelkin is author of the horror novel Snare and a member of the Horror Writers Association. Her short fiction has appeared in Supernatural Tales, Luna Station QuarterlyBards and Sages QuarterlySkulls & Crossbones: Tales of Women Pirates, and other publications. Carrie also writes poetry, which has been published in The Orchards Poetry JournalThird Wednesday, Writing In A Woman’s Voice, and other places. You can find her at cvnelkin.com, on Twitter at @cvnelkin, and on Facebook (Carrie Vaccaro Nelkin, Author).

photo by Annie Spratt (via unsplash)

Living With Crows—Jaclyn J. Reed

The doctor’s office is cold. It’s always cold, and no matter how I sit in the firm fabric chairs my tailbone hurts. Orange-scented disinfectant lingers in the air, but it doesn’t entirely cover the dank ripeness of disease.

“I’m bored,” Reaper squawks. “You’re bored. Let’s leave.”

“We can’t leave until we see the doctor.”

He screeches. A couple people look over. One woman pulls a toddler towards her.

“Please be quiet.” I say it like a prayer. Please be quiet. Just this once.

Reaper is a crow – a big crow, like the ones that haunt Japanese shrines and cornfields full of homicidal children. He landed on me ten years ago and has since nested on my shoulders. I thought he’d go away after the therapy and the pills and the sobbing, but he hasn’t shown any signs of leaving. He’s heavier than other crows. I mentioned this when he first landed, told him I thought birds had hollow skeletons; I asked if he shouldn’t be lighter. From time to time, he still laughs about it: how stupid I was think I knew anything about his kind of crow.

The glass door opens with a tonal bell. A teenage boy waddles in, his jeans too long and dragging on the floor behind his Converse. A piranha hangs off his right elbow.

“Good morning,” the woman at the front desk says. “How can I help you?”

“I have an appointment.” When the boy moves to sign-in, the fish’s scales almost look silver or blue. He winces. A bit of blood drips down the piranha’s belly. He pulls out a tissue and catches the blood before it can fall. This time, when he moves, the scales look less blue and more gold.

The receptionist runs down her list of questions: prior physicians, conditions, what kind of fish, when it latched on, how long he’s been coping on his own. I can’t make out his answers from this distance, especially since he tells them more to the floor than he does to her. She takes his insurance card and runs it. Asks him to keep a handle on the piranha; they have a zero-tolerance policy for aggression. She makes a joke about someone’s hyena, but she glances towards me and Reaper.

“They’ll call you from over there.” The woman points towards the grouping of chairs in front of me.

I’m alone in this section. The new mothers and old folk group on the other side. It’s better that way; Reaper gets antsy when people get too close to me. He’s been known to bite. He bit my ex-boyfriend the night we broke up. That’s what did it, that final bite. He already had so many scars; he couldn’t take another, and I couldn’t blame him.

I’ve grown too used to my scars. The ones on my hands are the worst – from when he first landed and I tried to shoo him away. He doesn’t gouge out flesh anymore, but sometimes he’ll break skin biting at my necklaces. Lately, Reaper’s been going for the eyes. I keep a band aid over the mostly healed cut under my right eye, otherwise he’d pick at the scab.

I can feel Reaper eyeing up the boy as he comes over and sits in one of the chairs across from me. There’s a squarish gap between us, an empty space filled by silence, the occasional door tone, and blue-speckled carpet with a suspicious spot. He puts the piranha on the armrest, and his shoulders relax a bit. Piranhas aren’t big, not like Reaper, but I bet one feels really heavy after a while with its teeth in your bones.

The boy smiles at me. It’s awkward, polite. I try to return it, but Reaper squawks again, and the boy cringes away.

“I’m sorry,” I say, as gently as I can. “He doesn’t like places like this.”

“Neither does he,” he says, gesturing to the fish. He keeps his eye on Reaper now, braced against whatever he fears comes next.

“I haven’t seen you here before,” I say. “Are you a new patient?”

“Yeah. I was handling him okay before but… you know.” He shrugged, wincing again as his elbow moved up-down, hitting both upper and lower rows of teeth. “My therapist recommended him. Is he good?”

“We like him.” Reaper goes for the little gem in my earring. His beak scrapes the top of my ear. I hit him away. “No.”

“Wow.” I turn back to the boy, his eyes wider than before but just as heavy. “You can talk to him like that?”

“It takes a lot of work, but I’m doing much better than I was. Dr. Newman has really helped me.”

“Good to know.” He wipes more blood from the piranha’s mouth before it can drop onto the chair. “Oh,” he says, “you have a little blood on your ear. Here.” He hands me a fresh tissue, manages to pull away before Reaper can move down my arm to peck him.

Reaper shimmies back up to my shoulder, behind my head, and onto my other shoulder. He picks at the bandage under my eye as I blot at my ear.

“Thanks,” I say.

He nods. “I always have extras. I feel bad if it gets on anything.”

“Have you tried moving him?”

“Once. He ended up moving back while I was asleep. He likes it there for some reason.”

“Yeah, I can’t get Reaper off my shoulders,” I tell him. Reaper clicks his beak and preens himself, forgetting the band aid for now.

“Reaper?” the boy says.

“Oh, yeah, Dr. Newman likes us to name them. He’s big on ‘accepting’ them.”

“I named me,” Reaper hisses. He likes hissing now. He learned it from the neighbor’s cat.

The boy leans back a little and presses his lips together. He chews on the bottom one in his mouth, and I know he’s drawing blood because Reaper’s excited.

“We should bite,” he whispers in my ear, scrapping the top with his beak. “I like that.”

“No,” I tell him, petting his wing with two fingers.

The hallway door swings open and a tiny nurse in pink and purple scrubs with some sort of pattern steps out. “Caroline?” she says.

Reaper shifts to my other shoulder when I stand to keep between me and the boy with the piranha. I nod to him anyway. Reaper pecks me on the cheek bone, not hard enough to break skin, only to bruise.

The nurse smiles at me. There are multicolored cats all over her shirt, climbing, rolling over, sleeping. She leads me back down the hall, making small talk, ignoring Reaper. He gets mad when people ignore him. He switches to my other shoulder to be closer to her. I’ve never seen this nurse before, so I’m not surprised by her discomfort. She obviously hasn’t worked with patients like me. She stops us at the scale in the hallway and seems genuinely shocked at the number that comes up.

“He weighs about 35 pounds,” I tell her.

She writes on the chart and smiles again, this time without her teeth.

We go further back down the hall and into a small exam room. They’ve redecorated recently, switched the fish motif for more medical posters, vaccination and medication diagrams, and an abstract mess of green and yellow swiped across a canvas.

The nurse asks how the medication is doing. Is my libido okay? Do I feel dizzy? Any unpleasant side effects?

“I haven’t been in the mood to have sex, but honestly that’s probably just because I don’t have anyone. Otherwise, it’s okay. Sometimes I don’t feel like eating for a day or two.”

She makes a note. “What about…” She searches the chart. A couple pages in, she looks back up. “What about Reaper? How are the two of you getting along?”

‘Getting along.’ That’s another one of Newman’s phrases. ‘Coping,’ he says, ‘sounds like these companions are a burden rather than a part of our personality.’

I look up at the bird, met only by his beady black eyes and the clicking sound of his upper and lower beak rubbing together. The sound used to drive me crazy. Now it’s kind of comforting.

“We haven’t been sleeping well,” I tell her. “He’s been restless and pecking more at night. I have to sleep with a pillow over my face to make him stop.”

Reaper squawks and fluffs himself. Just like a bird to boast.

She makes another note, asks a couple more questions: Do I smoke? Do I drink? How much do I drink? Could I be pregnant? Then she moves towards me. “Can I see that cut under your eye?” She doesn’t get within a foot before Reaper is there, his head in front of my eyes, screeching like a banshee. The nurse backs away quickly. She tries to smile, but it’s shaky.

“It’s okay,” I say, petting Reaper again. “It’s pretty much healed, I just don’t want him picking at it.”

She nods, gathers her laptop, goes to the door before saying, “Dr. Newman will be in shortly.” She closes the door on her way out.

I wonder how she’ll handle the piranha.

“I’m bored,” Reaper says. “Let’s go home.”

“We can’t yet. Soon.”

He pulls at my sweatshirt and nuzzles up against my hood. He likes the soft insides, flattens his feathers on it. Sometimes, when I’m in the office at home working or on the phone, he perches under my hood and sticks his head up in it to nap. After a while, I can’t feel his talons on my back and leaning forward doesn’t bother me. I prefer that to him picking at the phone case or chewing on my jewelry.

Knock. Knock. Twice, hard. It’s like his calling card. He never waits for a response either. Door swings open. Dr. Newman saunters in with a big grin. “Hello Caroline. Hello Reaper.” He plops onto the rolling stool in front of us and flattens his tie. He stares at us a moment before looking over the chart. I wonder what he sees. “So, the nurse said you haven’t been eating much, and it says here you lost about ten pounds since your last visit.”

“Good,” Reaper says. “No more fat.”

Dr. Newman is good with Reaper. He smiles, lets a second pass, then says to me, “You really can’t lose any more weight. Your BMI is already 15. That’s three points lower than the low end of normal.”

“It’s not that I don’t want to eat. I just get really nauseous.”

He thinks a moment, watches Reaper pull at my hair to preen it, running his beak down the strands to keep them together. I tried explaining that human hair doesn’t work like his feathers, that they’ll never stay together no matter how much he does that, but he just hisses and keeps going. Sometimes he pulls too hard and yanks out a couple strands. I think he does it on purpose.

Dr. Newman looks at the chart again. “I think maybe we should change your dosage,” he says. “Let’s take you down to 100 milligrams instead of 150, see if that doesn’t help with the nausea.” He makes a note of it. “It also says here you haven’t been sleeping. Is your insomnia back?”

I glance at Reaper. “No, he just doesn’t let me sleep. He’s always pecking at my eyes or my neck.”

“Now, Reaper, we’ve talked about this. Caroline needs her sleep.”

Reaper squawks and bobs his head. He likes playing games.

“Let me take a look at those new cuts,” Dr. Newman says. He puts on gloves and stands.

Reaper steps down my left arm, the tips of his claws going through my sleeve and scratching against my skin. Dr. Newman’s the only one he moves away for. Maybe it’s because the last time he tried to bite him, Newman slapped his beak, or because he knows when he’s good at the office, he’ll get sunflower seeds when we get home. Either way, he watches the doctor examine me, pull away the band aid and poke the skin. Some of the scab comes off. Dr. Newman blots the cut gently with some antiseptic. It stings, and Reaper likes that. He nods and dances a little. Sometimes, he leans forward like he might try to bite one of us. While Dr. Newman’s looking at my ear, and wiping off some of the leftover dried blood, Reaper lunges and takes a pen out of the lab coat pocket. He clicks it between his teeth.

“Reaper, no.” I try to grab it, but he dodges. He puts the pen in his foot and screams at me. I look back at Dr. Newman. He’s still smiling. He’s always smiling, and I wonder how he does it. “I’m sorry.”

“Don’t worry about it. I have plenty more. He can keep it.” He tosses the used cotton swab into the red-bagged waste basket, along with the gloves. “None of those look too bad. I’m going to prescribe you a strong antibiotic cream to start using on fresh cuts; we don’t want any infections. And I want you to be more strict with him at night. Remember, this is a partnership, not a dictatorship.” He hands me the chart for check-out and a new prescription before walking us to the door. “I want to see you in a month, okay?”

“Okay.” Reaper and I walk back down the hall and into the lobby. The boy and his piranha are gone, replaced by a woman about my age and a middle-aged man. Only the man notices Reaper when we come out. He stares for a minute before going back to the magazine in his lap.

I hand the receptionist my chart and schedule another visit in four weeks. As I’m walking to the car, Reaper squawks, “I don’t like it.”

“Don’t like what?”

“Everything.” He scratches under his wing. A black feather falls and blows away. “Don’t like it.”

When we get in the car, he pushes himself against my head and picks at my hair.

“Do you have to do that?” I say. I push him away and tie my hair up.

He pulls apart the bun on my head and bites at the hair tie still tangled in the mess.

“Don’t like it,” he says. “Don’t like it.”

Jaclyn J. Reed received her MFA in Writing from Carlow University and her BA in English from the University of Pittsburgh. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Adelaide, Northern Appalachia Review, The Sunlight Press, and Prime Number Magazine, among others. She lives vicariously through fictional characters and works in e-commerce from the comfort of home, across the way from Hershey’s chocolate factory.

photo by Kevin Mueller (via unsplash)

The Snow Fell—Jasmina Kuenzli

A year ago, the snow fell.

It descended in thick flakes, pasting themselves against the window of the Jeep. 

Thomas wasn’t supposed to be out in it, but I had asked him to come over, and he didn’t want to leave me alone on my birthday. He figured it was only a mile or two away, and what could the snow hurt?

He was dead before he got there.

The snow fell.

Sometimes at night in the winter, it’s too quiet. The rustle of birds in the branches, the hooting of the owl, even the sigh of wind in the trees, halts. It’s as if someone has pressed mute on the world, as if even the animals are holding their breath.

Only, you can never tell if it’s from awe or fear.

The snow falls. 

A few weeks after Thomas died, I saw his Jeep in the middle of a clearing, the headlights still on, music blaring through the speakers. As though Thomas would emerge at any moment, apologetic and hopeful.

The closer I got to the Jeep, the more it shimmered. It flickered, and the music faded in and out, the headlights switching on and off like a foolish prank. 

I ran home without looking back.

I tried not to go out in the snow ever since. I made excuses, claimed poor circulation or asthma or plain dislike.

I held all of my beliefs close to my chest, because I didn’t want to seem crazy. 

And for every Jeep in the middle of the woods, there are a thousand parties I went to out in the middle of nowhere, that ended happily, that tended fine.

And when the snow melted in April, I never saw Thomas again.

But I still felt like if I walked into a blizzard alone, I might not come out again.

A year later, just before my birthday, a new girl called Hattie sat next to me in chemistry class.

The snow fell outside, turning the world to white. 

I tried not to look, but I could swear that I kept seeing a flash of headlights, a gleam of metal. My stomach sank.

I thought that Hattie would be just like the others. She wouldn’t understand. 

After all, who doesn’t love snow? Snow is magic.

But while the rest of the class stared dreamily, Hattie sank back in her chair, glancing over at me warily. She made a sign with her fingers. 

Our eyes met.

The sun came out, and the snow began to melt.

“Do you like the snow?”

Hattie looked up from the beaker of sulfuric acid, eyeing me carefully. “My aunts say that cold weather is bad for the circulation.” 

“Are they doctors?”

“Of a sort.”

“So why do you hate it?”

“I don’t hate it.”

“You’re cringing away from the window.”

Hattie laughed. “It’s cold. This school is drafty.” She turned back to the beaker.

“I think the snow has something dark living in it.” I whispered.

Hattie stiffened, and a drop of acid splashed onto her bare skin. She shrieked, and we spent the next few minutes thoroughly flushing it out.

She never answered my question. 

The next day, Hattie sat next to me in sullen silence, speaking only the usual science-related phrases:

“Should we add the baking soda next?” 

“What is your prediction for the experiment?” 

Any time I tried to drag her into a conversation, any time I even looked out the window, she shot me a reproachful glance. She wouldn’t say a word.

They never found Thomas’s body. Just a wrecked Jeep on the side of the road, and streaks of blood like wine stains across white linen. His parents held a funeral a few weeks later, and it was assumed by the police and medical experts that he’d died of exposure, somewhere in the woods.

Animals had probably feasted on the remains. 

Only, he was less than a mile from town.

Only, there still should have been some kind of body left to bury…

Only, the snow fell.

It got worse the closer we got to my birthday. By the week before, every time it snowed, I heard him. I’d be walking alone, or just passing in between classes, and he would call my name. 

It was soft and distant, as though it came from a great gulf, some kind of impossible distance. But it was there all the same.

I tried to turn, squint into the distant trees. I even walked to the edge of the woods and peered in, looking for a gleam of metal, listening for the booming stereo.

But whenever I tried to find him, whenever I really looked, I only ever saw the steady coating of flakes as they stuck to the ground. Only felt the inexorable, inevitable cold.

The day before my birthday, I followed Hattie home. I couldn’t wait any longer.

It wasn’t snowing, just sleeting: that uncomfortable, cloying wetness, which seeps into your skin. Our breath steamed in the air, and my hair was damp and clinging to my neck.

Hattie, somehow, seemed perfectly dry. Not a blonde wisp out of place, not an ounce of makeup smudged. It was ethereal, the way she seemed to glide through everything, stepping around the assorted potholes and passersby on the sidewalk as though she were barely there herself.

The longer I followed her, the larger the distance became, until I had to run, the cold air stabbing my lungs, just to keep her in sight. 

One moment, I was panting, running as fast as I could. 

And the next, I was around that corner, sitting on a bench, even as the wind howled with another approaching storm. Hattie sat next to me, stiff and uncomfortable.

“You need to leave me alone.” 

“I need to know the truth.”

Hattie sighed. “It is not my truth to tell.”

“There’s something in the snow, isn’t there? It—takes people.”

Hattie looked down. “My aunts would be so furious if I were even entertaining this.”

“You’re—”

“Stay out of the snow.” She snapped. “Don’t you want everything to go back to the way it was? Just—leave it alone, please.”

“What the Hell does that mean?”

“Just go!” Hattie shouted, her voice magnifying until I was suddenly at the end of the street, only a few blocks from home, my ears ringing.

“Please. You don’t want it to go this way.” Her voice was a whisper, as though she were leaning over my shoulder.

But when I turned for her, she was gone.

The next day, I cornered her after school, shoved her up against the wall. I could see the Jeep now, nearly every time I looked out a window, and I felt like I was going insane. 

The snow had fallen overnight, and it was still falling, coating the ground in its depth, its muffled quiet.

“Just answer one question—”

“I can’t—”

“Did the snow take my boyfriend?”

Hattie’s cheeks went pink, and her eyes widened. “I shouldn’t tell you—”

“Did it take him?”

Hattie bit her lip. 

I nodded. I thought of Thomas, insisting on surprising me for my birthday. The way he held me when he kissed me, like he thought I might disappear if he let go. The comfort I felt next to him, and the life that we should have had, taken away before we could even know whether or not we wanted it. 

A smear of red blood in the snow. That horrifying feeling of being watched. 

The sting of ice in my lungs. 

“Alright, then.” I said. “How do I—”

But Hattie was gone. 

The night swept a storm in with it, and fresh flakes started to fall from the sky around 4am. 

While Hattie did not arrive at school, I drove to her house.

Hattie lived at the end of a long, winding lane, on the side of town mainly dedicated to restaurants. Her lane really looked more like an alley, sticking out between two food trucks until it spilled into the surrounding woods.

I drove down the trail, making sure that I didn’t stray off the road. The snow was deep on the verges and I didn’t want to be stranded.

And, there was Thomas.

I couldn’t stop thinking about him, the closer I got to Hattie’s. It was an avalanche of memories, as vivid and absolute as if I were actually reliving them. Stronger and stronger, they kept coming. The first time Thomas had asked me out. Our first kiss. The first time we’d made love, in the backseat of his truck. The sense of belonging I felt with his arm around me. The sight of blood in the snow, like wine stains—

I closed my eyes. 

And when I opened them, my car was rolling to a stop outside of a little cottage. 

For a few moments, I stayed there, wondering what might happen if I closed my eyes again. Would the car simply roll back home? 

Would I ever go back into these woods again?

Finally, after the wind began to pick up and I could see the trees waving with it, I got out of the car.

Hattie was waiting for me at the front gate, her mouth set in a quizzical half-grin. “You decided.” She said. “Come in.”

The gate swung open.

I stepped across the property line warily. The hair on the back of my neck stood up, and chills raced down my spine.

Before we could cross the threshold, I stopped.  “Just tell me—is Thomas dead?”

Hattie looked up at me, and her eyes were wide and sad. “Yes, he is.”

“Then why is he standing right over there?” I pointed, and Hattie whirled. 

Just beneath the snow-laden trees, there was the faintest silhouette of Thomas, in the same clothes he always wore, his letter jacket and jeans. His hair was sticking up like it always did, and I was set upon with a sudden familiar urge to run my fingers through it. 

“Thomas.” I whispered. 

He was looking right at me, and I shivered. 

“Begone!” Hattie shouted, her voice trembling. 

Thomas shifted his gaze to her, looking confused. 

“Begone, I said!” 

He vanished.

Hattie took me by the arm. “Come inside.” 

Her aunts greeted us at the door and immediately ushered us into the dining room, which had one window thrown open to let some light and fresh air in. In spite of the cold outside, it was disturbingly hot, and the smell of sage permeated the air.

“What has Hattie told you?” the taller of the two asked.

“Nothing. Except that Thomas—”

“You can see his ghosts.” The shorter one interrupted. “That’s not a good sign. Usually the ones who see the ghosts are Marked.”

“Marked? What do you—”

“No stopping that now,” Hattie interrupted. Her hand gripped mine. “How do we save her?”

Her taller aunt looked at me sadly, a tear glistening at the corner of one bright blue eye. “There isn’t any way to save her, I’m afraid. The snow falls, and it takes.”

The snow falls, and it takes. 

I sat at their table in stunned silence, noticing only vaguely the arguments of the women around me, the color rising in Hattie’s cheeks, the finger pointing and gesticulating, the sage blowing away through the open window. 

I looked outside, and I could hear him.

“Thomas.” I whispered. “I never loved you.”

“Isn’t that the problem? The snow falls. It takes.”

And the next thing I knew, I was in the thick of it. 

In a moonlit clearing, snowflakes falling thick and fast around me.

The entire landscape had turned silver, and then I heard it.

The coughing of the Jeep’s engine.

The scrape of boots in the snow.

I turned to him, and I could feel my heart breaking in my chest. 

“Thomas.” I whispered.

“I died for you.” He said.

“I know.”

“I shouldn’t have.”

“You shouldn’t have.”

There was a warm gust of breath against my cheek, and then the wind turned, blowing the snow directly into my eyes. Wet and stinging, like a thousand tiny knives against my skin. “STOP!” I shouted. “I’M SORRY.”

That only enraged him further. The wind picked up, and I fell to the ground, tucking my head into my arms. 

Was it my imagination, or did it feel warmer, and warmer? 

I was so tired. 

Maybe I should just lay down.

The snow falls. It takes. There is nothing that can stop it.

“You should be sorry,” a voice that was like Thomas’s and wasn’t whispered in my ear, as soothing as a lullaby. “You should be more than sorry. The snow falls. I take.”

The pain receded, the knives turning into flickers of warmth like that of a fire. I could feel my breathing slow as calm radiated around me. 

The snow fell, and it was a blanket, a feathered pillow, the soft bed where I would lay with Thomas until mid-afternoon, wishing never to be anywhere else from that moment on. When we were younger and everything was simple, and I had everything I ever needed, so what did I know about want? 

“Want.” I said, and the word tasted cold and bitter in my mouth, like the snow had at the beginning. “I want—” I began, and pain erupted in my limbs, like a thousand tiny needles come to life. My knees, which were on the verge of buckling in the snow, straightened.

And I remembered my birthday more clearly. 

The days before. The long remonstrances. The sullen silences. 

When Thomas had suggested we run into the sunset after graduation. Kids, a cabin next to his parents. Stable and secure and solid.

And nothing had ever repulsed me more.

I wanted to tell him, but not over the phone. 

So when he told me he wanted to see me for my birthday, I figured it may as well be then. It was better than doing it at school, and the snow was falling. Perhaps he wouldn’t be able to see me again, even if he wanted to.

“I—want—” I said again, and the words were ice creeping down my throat, stealing the breath from my lungs. 

“I want to live.” I said, louder than I had before. 

Thomas appeared in front of me, in the middle of the blizzard. “You didn’t end it when you could have. You left me, driving through a fucking blizzard. The snow fell.”

“I—I’m sorry.” I whispered, my teeth chattering. “I—I didn’t—want—”

“WHAT. WHAT DO YOU WANT?” The howling resounded through me, stronger than my efforts to stay upright. I fell to my knees in the snow.

“I don’t know.” I sobbed helplessly. “I don’t know, Thomas. I’m so sorry!”

“Tell the truth!” a voice shouted, and I turned around to see Hattie over my shoulder, her hair billowing behind her, her hands outstretched in the blizzard. She was creating a kind of funnel, the wind a living thing that clawed at her, but she had eyes only for me.

“What do you want?” she shouted.

“I don’t understand.”

“What do you want?” Hattie screamed again, and I realized what she was asking.

“Not like this,” I looked up at Thomas. “Not the kind that holds you hostage in the snow. Not the kind that takes. I want the blizzard. I want the wind. I want—”

There was a sudden rush inside me, a great inhale, and when I exhaled, screaming out my fury and terror and desire…

There was only the gentle flurry of snowflakes. 

I got to my feet. 

Thomas was gone.

There was no Jeep. 

There was just me, watching ice crystals form from my own tears. I flicked my fingers, and a cascade of cold whooshed into the nearby trees. 

Someone coughed.

I turned. Hattie was still there, breathing hard. 

She held out her hand, and a gust of wind flew out with it, winging up to brush itself against my cheek like a pair of icy lips.

The softest, coldest kiss. 

I ran to her and took her hand. 

“I knew the minute I saw you,” Hattie whispered. “They all told me it was impossible, that I must be mistaken, but I knew what I saw. What I felt.” She pulled our joined hands to her chest.

“I know what I want.” I said, watching as my breath raised frost on her skin. 

The snow fell. 

Jasmina Kuenzli is an author of poetry, creative nonfiction, and fiction and has been published with Capsule Stories, Pidgeonholes, and Literati Magazine, to name a few! When she isn’t writing, Jasmina can be found weightlifting, running, and holding impromptu dance parties in her car.  Her life goals include landing a back flip, getting legally adopted by Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, and being a contributor on Drunk History. She would like to thank Brenna and Sarah, who hear all these stories first, and Harry Styles, who is sunshine distilled in a human being. 

photo by Brady Cook and Jessica Fadel (via unsplash)

memento mori—Astrid Vallet

The bell tolls; their vigil ends, my workday is upon me. I peek through the curtains – drawing them lets in too much dawn –  and I squint. It snowed, it snowed a lot. The family are gathered at the doors, mourning and weary faces are pale against the black outfits. The little one is with them, she yawns and holds onto her mother’s sleeve. The community slowly starts to crawl into the church. Cold hands are patted, handkerchiefs dabbed at the corners of dry eyes. I brush crumbs off the front of my sweater and clasp my hands around the warm mug. I walk out and the thick carpet of snow crunches under my boots. The cold is good, I suppose. For the flesh. The cold wakes me up, bites my skin, but it won’t wake up the dead. I’ll listen to the ceremony from here. Nobody wants the bonesmith around for their last goodbyes.

I dip my fingertips into the tea, I can’t let them go numb. The bell tolls again; the ceremony is over, the church empties itself out into the winter morning. I leave the mug on the windowsill. I can’t exactly be too casual with the family, but I figure that if they see I drink tea, just like them, maybe I’ll be that bit more of a human, in their eyes.

The family trail behind the two men who carry the small casket. I stand in front of my door, straight as a cross. The mother’s eyes cross mine and we exchange a nod, she sniffs bravely and steps up to open the narrow gate for the men; they don’t proceed right away. They pause, spare the family no mind. It takes but a moment. A kiss on the polished wood, a fond caress, smiles. They clutch their ancestors, their bone jewelry, they are ready. The men move forward. I didn’t sweep the snow off the little paved path that leads to my door, so their feet sink and don’t slip, they march on safely. I open the door and step aside, they know full well where to carry the casket.

I wait for them outside, the family linger by the gate, relieved and wary faces looking up to me. I am taking the burden off their shoulders, but it is taking, still. The mother nudges the little one forward, my heart clenches. She’s so small, she rubs her eyes as she wobbles through the snow. Does she realize, does she even know? Maybe I should have swept it, after all. I don’t move. She reaches me and holds out an envelope. I take it, should I smile? She looks at me with big eyes, as tired as they are.

“Promise to make her pretty?”

Now I smile, and nod. She smiles, too, mouths a ‘see you soon’, and makes her way back to other pained but smiling faces. She hugs her mother’s leg, the mother rubs her back. Without looking at her. The men exit, carrying a lighter casket, my workday begins.

I look down at this little one, who just looks so much like the one who handed me the envelope.

“It won’t hurt…”

I would like to work fast, faster, so she would get home sooner, but I hardly can. This is sacred. I light candles, so she won’t be scared; I burn incense, so I won’t smell like iron.

There are scars around her knees, on her shins, likely mirrored on her twin, there is past pain and fond memories, they don’t belong to me, they are not for me to immortalize, there’s no such thing. There are moles and freckles, games of connect-the-dots, constellations, they are not for me to trace, they are not for me either. I do not concern myself with the ephemeral.

I slice through layers upon layers of flesh, nothing bleeds, nothing hurts. All is cold.

I discard the strips of her, her features, her figure, the shape of her are not for me to remember.

I am not a carrion bird, I am a digger. I dig, I discover, I strip the bones; they must be bare.

Without the blue of the skin, the red of the flesh, after much peeling, much cleaning, there they are. White, white as china.

Time can hurt her no more. There is calcium, there is carbon, stardust and earth; there is soul in the marrow, there is her.

I wrap the bones in her clothes. She’s little, she and I met too soon; but her ribcage is large enough to hold the nests of birds, her skull their morning tea, or a houseplant. They’ll make crosses and walking canes with her femurs, humeri and tibias, necklaces with her vertebrae, phalanges, teeth, a wedding crown with her pelvis. The bones that held her up, the bones that hold her in; she’ll be with them, in different shapes.

 I find comfort in knowing the family won’t see her wither. I find relief in sending the bird to summon them, so that they may return their little one home. It’s only been a day, I worked through the night – my own vigil – because the little one said ‘see you soon’. I brew tea, I know they likely will not share it with me.

The family hesitantly hover at the narrow gate. Their cheeks are rosy, their eyes vivid, their clothes whiter than the melting snow. I step aside, I don’t have to say anything. The little one rushes forward, dragging her mother along, they all follow. None greet me.

They settle around my coffee table, with their hands on their laps and their eyes on the bundle, not the kettle. The tea can wait. I unfold the clothes the way one draws the sheets from a still sleeping child. They all lean forward, though not towards me – I think maybe I do smell like death. The little one softly gasps. She looks at me, I smile, I nod. She takes the skull in her tiny hands, her big eyes gazing into the big sockets. She beams, there are cries of joy and wonder. The little one hugs her sister. She won’t let go, but she asks if she can have honey with her tea.

Astrid Vallet (she/they) is an English graduate from France, currently pursuing a Master’s degree in Cultural Studies. Their work is featured in Sonder Magazine, The Shoutflower and Hecate Magazine among others; it usually revolves around queer, neurodivergent women like her, and she’s decided that that’s okay. They tweet at @astriddoeswrite.

photo by Anne Nygård, Priscilla Du Preez, Alexandru Acea and Annie Spratt (via unsplash)

Like Déjà Vu—Alyssa Jordan

Pasha died on a warm spring day. 

She spent some time staring at her body, the slope of her neck, hair pink like a strawberry milkshake. Several clumps looked downright garish inside the crater where her head met the staircase. 

Of all the ways to die, it just figured that the ordinary would kill her.

Pasha sighed and spent hours scrubbing blood. Sunlight trickled through her windows, syrupy sweet, but muted by bleach fumes. She wrinkled her nose—did she still have a nose?—and lit candles that made the cabin smell like apple-bleach-pie. 

At dusk, a knock echoed through the quiet. 

Pasha closed the hall closet and slipped off her gloves, chucking them into an empty vase. Even though it had a two-story layout, the cabin was fairly small, making the hallway a straight shot to her front door. 

A short man stood on the porch. He wore a three-piece suit, which looked odd against the tree line. 

Pine needles carpeted, well, everything. 

“Hi there.” Pasha tried to subtly inhale the piney freshness. “How can I help you?”

“I should be asking you that.” He smiled. It only lifted half of his mouth. “I have a business proposition. May I come inside?”

Pasha shrugged. She was already dead; what could happen?

In her living room, they sat on large sofa chairs that faced one another. A cold mug of coffee had already left a ring on the table. Pasha picked it up, rubbing at a speck of red. 

The man cleared his throat. 

“Oh, sorry. Do you want something to drink?”

He smiled again. “No. Listen, Ms. Anosova—” 

“Pasha.”

“Right, Pasha. My name is Burim. I know this will be hard to understand, but I’m here to help you make a difficult transition, one that all people must take.”

She tapped her mug. “I’m dead.”

“Well, yes.” His smile fell. He sat back on the sofa and crossed his legs, revealing an inch of sock. It matched the mossy green of his eyes. “This must have come as quite a surprise.”

“Not really.”

“That’s unusual. Where did it happen?” This time, Burim’s smile bordered on encouraging, but it never touched his eyes. 

“On the stairs.” Pasha gestured behind them. “I cleaned up, though. My body’s in the closet.”

His smile froze. “Excuse me?”

“It was getting morbid to look at.”

A beat of silence passed. “You put your body in the closet.”

“Yep. You mentioned a proposition?”

Burim rubbed his forehead. “Normally, I’d cover clauses one through five with the recently departed, but I can see you’re… comfortable.” 

He pulled a pamphlet from the inner pocket of his jacket. A man and woman laughed near a lakefront. Their teeth were toothpaste-white. On their clothes, nary a grass stain was in sight. 

Behind them, mountains crested the horizon with dollops of snow. 

“This particular package is a bestseller. Housing may be competitive, but I still have a few places with a water view.”

When he unfolded the pamphlet, it grew ten times in size, revealing more faces with big smiles and perfect haircuts. One woman clutched her chest while staring at a Victorian house in pure wonderment. 

Burim pointed at the woman’s head. “We’ll design your dream home, all the way down to the shower curtains. We also take your neighbor preferences into account.”

“Huh.” Pasha lifted her eyes. “Just out of curiosity, how do people pay for this?”

With a flick of his wrist, Burim procured something else from his pocket. It looked as tall as a stack of pancakes (the eating challenge kind). 

“Not in money or soul. You’d only need to sign a contract that states you chose to live in my district.”

Pasha laughed. It shook the mug in her hands. “What, do you work on commission or something?”

“Or something.” He smiled, extending the pamphlet toward her. “Do I have your consent?”

Upstairs, her grandmother’s clock sang. It was long past dinner time. 

For many years, the scent of rising bread had called her to another kitchen, far away in another place, surrounded by red sand and sun-split rock. 

Pasha stood. 

“It’s a nice dream,” she murmured. Her fingers skated over the pamphlet. “But you can keep it.” 

For the most part, death didn’t affect her life all that much. 

Pasha tried to leave her cabin several times. At the tree line, she always felt like her stomach had bottomed out. Everything would grow fuzzy until she retreated inside. 

It wasn’t a huge deal. Aside from monthly trips to town, Pasha didn’t venture into the world. There was no one to miss her. 

So, Pasha cleaned. She aired out the rooms and scrubbed the counters and dusted the corners. She swept the porch no matter the season. Nothing changed except for her company—they arrived every day. First, it was the head honcho, then the underlings. 

“…If you would just consider this package, you could have as many bathrooms as you wanted! Or what about a nice kitchen? I can get you diamond countertops. Diamond.”

Pasha smiled at Burim’s 67th trainee. The woman—reaper, thing—gestured with every movement, blowing yellow hair from her eyes. 

It only got worse. 

“…What about a unicorn? Say the word and I’ll get you a giant unicorn. What’s your favorite color?”

In the summer, Pasha pinned her hair back, brushing sweaty pink clumps from her neck. Apparently, the dead didn’t have to bother with hair dye. 

She vaguely remembered buying boxes in bulk: Cotton-Candy Pink.  

“So. Are we going to do this, or what?” A reaper by the name of Vera asked one day. 

This time, they sat with mugs of coffee in the kitchen. Morning light set the white table aglow. It also highlighted every nook and cranny on Vera’s face. She looked like an extra from a zombie show. Or the History Channel. 

Pasha fidgeted with her mug. The speck of red looked impossibly bigger. 

“Well, what’s your offer?”

Vera canted her head. Otherwise, she didn’t move a muscle. Not even her navy pantsuit would budge. 

“Sign the contract. I get you out of here. Done.”

Sighing, Pasha abandoned her mug. “Look, I just… I can’t yet. I’m still waiting on the right deal.”

Vera stood. She towered over Pasha. “This won’t stop.”

“I had a feeling.”

For months, dozens of Vera’s underlings knocked on Pasha’s door, one for each day of every week. They all wore suits and spoke with a bored or plain tone. Usually, their eyes were brown like the earth, or some shade of rust. 

The red ones made Pasha think of a desert long gone. 

Whenever her mouth filled with the steam of bread, the rush of salt, she would clutch her mug a little harder, stare at the hall closet a little longer. 

Qiu—or “Call me Q, darling”—appeared on her doorstep at the start of autumn. Tall and slender, he stood with a grin on his face, casually brushing dead leaves from his shoulders. Unlike the others, he didn’t wear a tie, and his shirt was unbuttoned at the neck. 

“What’s this I hear about a difficult customer?” His grin settled into a smirk. “You look like the sweetest of souls.”

Pasha smiled too brightly and led him inside. 

“My colleagues make the mistake of going too big. Oh, do you mind, darling?” He paused mid light, a cigarette dangling between his fingers. 

At her nod, Q lit it with a snap of his fingers. 

He smiled around the flames as she gaped. Even in the smoke, his eyes gleamed orange. 

“Here’s my offer: We create your afterlife together. Tell me what you want, I build it, we tweak it. Sound good?”

Pasha tore her eyes from his general vicinity. She coughed. “I haven’t offered you anything. How about some coffee? I don’t have cream anymore, but there’s still sugar. I think.”

“You think?”

“I went through a pie-baking phase.” She shrugged. “It was comforting.”

Flicking his cigarette, Q sprinkled the carpet with ash. It disappeared before Pasha could open her mouth. 

“Oh, dear. You’re one of those.”

By the end of autumn, Pasha was ready to bar her door shut, half mad from Q’s underlings singing 80’s pop songs at the top of their lungs. 

They got stuck in her head every time. 

A part of Pasha didn’t want to admit it, but she avoided the hall closet. 

It wasn’t the perfectly preserved body that freaked her out. It wasn’t the lingering smell of apple-bleach-pie, either. 

Ice frosted the windows when Pasha opened the closet again. She stared at her body. It was something familiar that had become alien, like running into a broken friendship years later. 

Half of her wanted to walk away, but the other half burned to say hello.  

A beaded bracelet encircled her body’s left wrist. It was pink and yellow and very, very chipped.

Pasha slammed the door shut. 

Some kind of tapping sound echoed through the cabin. It sounded as if this reaper knocked with their fingers. 

Dragging her feet, Pasha shuffled toward the front door, opening it with confidence her living self would have envied. 

The reaper of winter looked like a forty-something man. He was broad. Brownish hair. Two-colored eyes: one blue, one white. On his shoulders, he wore a heavy coat over the customary suit. 

Snow crystallized the trees behind him. 

Pasha never thought she’d miss cold weather searing her bones. 

Stepping aside, she followed him to the kitchen, where he started a pot of coffee. He seemed to find everything easily enough. 

As he handed her a mug, the coffee froze solid. Grimacing, he grasped the bottom, warming it enough to hiss.

They drank for a few moments. 

“I’m Vetle.” After a beat, he added: “It’s Norwegian for ‘winter traveler’ or ‘bear cub.’ Thought it was fitting.”

“That’s nice.”

He nodded, lifting mismatched eyes. “Why pink?”

Pasha swallowed a too-large mouthful of coffee. She cleared her throat. 

“Lots of colors you could dye your hair.” Vetle looked thoughtful as he sipped his coffee. “Why that one?”

“It’s… pretty.” 

“You don’t think so,” he said slowly. “But someone else does. Maybe your mother, or a friend.”

Without meeting his eyes, Pasha rose to refill their cups, forcing a smile on to her face. “No offense, but what does this have to do with your offer? Aren’t you going to give me the whole spiel?”

Vetle gazed back at Pasha. “Was it your sister?”

Her smile fell.

“You don’t want to move on. The people you love are still here, but they want nothing to do with you. You’re stuck.”

“Nothing new,” she whispered. 

It felt as if the air had been sucked from her lungs. Somewhere, past Pasha remembered that feeling; it started the first time a soccer ball hit her in the stomach, but it hurt more when she left, after her sister had said words too true to take back. 

It felt like that every time she wore the bracelet. 

Soft footfalls reached Pasha’s ears as Vetle joined her by the counter. The sound reminded her of falling snow.

“I remember what this was like.” 

He put his mug in the sink. “Here’s my proposition. I’ll help you get to your sister. After you speak with her, we go beyond. Agreed?”

Pasha studied his outstretched hand. Around them, the bones of her cabin still stood. A home that was never really hers. 

She took his hand. 

“Deal.”

Previously published in Lumiere (March, 2021)

Alyssa Jordan is a writer living in the United States. She pens literary horoscopes for F(r)iction Series. Her stories can be found or are forthcoming in X–R-A-Y Literary MagazineLEON Literary Review, and more. In 2020, she won The Molotov Cocktail’s Flash Monster contest. You can find her on Twitter @ajordan901 or Instagram @ajordanwriter.  

photo by Peter Hermann (via unsplash)

Tree of Shared Water and Sun—J.R. Allen

Voice crooned in low-throated groans when we buried boy in sterile dirt. And there, between broken stumps where grass won’t grow, us two stood over quenched son with paper-dry skin. Only his face still left all unsoiled, all chipper-tune and wound tight at cheeks, skin taut over young bone frame. This where he die, where he lie without father’s arms for comfort, unhinged, gone. Where we found him like limp fish with no more raging against air, open-mouthed and marble-eyed and rot. I set down sad shovel, one that did somber work of burying. I wiped sweat from brow, scratched hair on my grey face, and looked around.

Surrounding us: scattered tree bones, all grey-dead and withered. Sun hung low and amber on horizon. Pink sky above saw no carrion birds, no flesh to peck on ground save for boy and his tight-wound doll cheeks, all apple and white rose. 

I said to Voice, This place once called Forest, my eyes trained in place—turning to ground, I stooped over fresh-dug grave, rubbed dirt between thumb and fingers. Soil once fecund, barren now, I let out from gravel-throat. 

Voice said nothing.

I lifted head to find Voice’s jaw open toward sky. He’d bounded past me, wailing impertinent over shallow burial. He had youth forgotten by land, these lowland plains that haven’t seen green springs nor red autumns since before Voice was born. Lot of song since then, Voice now tall and hairy-faced. I called to him, beckoned him return, and like birds in forgotten spring, he returned.

“He go with us, Blue?” Voice moaned. I cast my eyes down, back to boy: shame. Boy just one of lost people now, boy gone. I have no song for gone boys. 

Out of my throat came a raspy cough, and I doubled over in my effort to slake my lungs. My throat cleared and I expelled something yolky and yellow, with texture of curdled milk. Voice tugged at my rough arm, eyes wide like spreading roots, and I looked up. 

“Blue, where he go now?” Voice’s face: all apple and rose wood, like boy but warm and flush with hot blood boiling beneath his cheeks. All I can do to not weep for him: here he grows where there was nothing else. And loneliness for company. I swallowed. Once a time I thought maybe there somewhere to go after. Then, world still green and bright. Now, world dead as its trees. And this only world Voice knows.

He go nowhere, I said to Voice, picked up shovel from dirt to finish its cold work. He go nowhere, Voice. 

Then I covered boy’s face, put shovel back to bag, and we went on our way.

Voice and I walked for long song, until Voice complained of aching feet. I said to voice, Keep walking, we can’t have gone far, boy, with last primal syllable that rang like heartbeat’s hum, or water in rusted bucket. 

I’d kept head down whole way, brow furrowed and stony. For first time in long song, I looked up. There had been no life to pass—without tree or person or animal to mark our route, it looked as though we hadn’t left where boy was now buried. Like world turned backwards beneath our worn-shod feet. Were we going right way? Or were we lost in this thorny havoc-ridden bramble?

I gaped up at moon to find song of night. Late, moon high in sky. And Voice, tired and shorn of his day’s ardor, and I with no breath, what else to do but wait for sun to return fresh and newborn?

Here, long after green left land, heat of this dead prairie shrank to cold like blight. Grabbing axe and telling Voice to stay where his feet stood as if rooted, I left to pick dead wood for fire and let it burn to stave off freeze. 

Here you stay, I said, and Voice turned his chin down to me. 

As I left, he followed close behind. 

Stay here, Voice, I demanded, but Voice would not listen. He who crooned low and sorrowful at boy, now swoon and unwound between ribs.

“Where to go without you, Blue?” His eyes filled like Robin’s eggs, and he went all chin-up and sullen and dropped like stone in water, moaning his guttural fears.

This where you belong right now, Voice, I said, kneeling down and squeezing both of his shoulders to comfort him. I’ll be back, you’ll see me whole time in this dead bosk. 

I gestured to rotten trunks and uproots, caved in like hollow veins. These dead trees all naked for seeing through. 

Dangerous work, cutting of limb and branch, I added with a smile, and this seemed to lull his anxieties. He rooted himself where he stood, this dumbly brave son of staggered world. And in return of my smile, I noticed small twitch of his cheeks.

Alone with these rotted giants hunched around me, I noticed many stumps of fallen wood-brothers. Men and their cruel work left their mark, and what remains is still there until men gone. During the Green, people didn’t worry about pocked face of land as it slowly turned brown, dust-covered. How we took world for granted, and shame in realizing that ground couldn’t be fixed. All left now for rot, us dwelling here until world begins again. We sons of darkest fathers who left us no world, we left to blight this land until drummed out by scorched song.

What I gleaned of skeletal forest: names of trees. Cedar, fir, pine, and hemlock. Their scarce water chanted in low tunes behind bark I could only hear because I stopped and listened. Trees, even dead, always talking, patient for us to listen. Faint smell of citrusy pine still clung to air like moss. I set my sight on what once was hearty pine, with its knots and rust-orange bark. Singing ancient intones of the fathers before me, I gripped my axe in calloused hands and took joy in slicing air until iron head hit trunk of wood.

What happened next was all hollow, all air and bark. Pine was gone, and in its place was molted skin of tree left behind. No sap or heartwood to speak of, only phloem and thin layer of bark. I sliced through like sickle through sheaf. I was felled by momentum, left laying on dry soil. 

This awoke some primal sickness inside me, my stomach turned over and lungs churning. I turned to my side and retched out bile and sickly chunks. My nose left on fire, full of rotted sweetness. How easy it would’ve been, to let myself lay there until overcome by cold, to expunge myself of all that was left inside me and flicker out like smallest of flames. But I thought of Voice, of him finding my body crusted with foul sickness, of him, helpless and lonely, in these damned lands, and staggered back to my weary feet.

After vile song, I was astounded by what little bit of tree was left. Axe left sunken groove in bark—like shod foot kicking in rotted gourd. Looking into abandoned husk of tree, core was all turned to soft humus. Returning itself in slow way of trees to earth. This tree was felled by ancient forester and had reclaimed its place in horizon without waiting for body. And same for other trees. 

I spent long song taking axe to other pines, to sparse-branched tamaracks, all left only thin-bark without heartwood. Not much to burn, but need wood to warm Voice’s rosy cheeks.

As I did work of felling bark, I remembered stories told by fathers about these false-limb trees, of elder foresters and their toothy misery whips. How they did their work, building home, table, and hearth with knotted lumber—what pride they took in this murderous labor. These woody boreal-beasts, how they toiled for centuries to grow branch and leaf, grew tall to shade sapling and understory and beasts below branches; and now, left all twig and stump, these diminutive sprigs of their proud forebears. 

Over longest of songs—several hundred years but two generations for these ancient tree-fathers—bark began to sprout without help of heartwood or phloem, these trees so desperate for their place in sky. Tangled roots beneath held one another, forests becoming single tree of shared water and sun, they all hollow and unwound at the outset, gone blue. They called these Hollow-stumps, called them Trickwood. There was time whole world was one forest, and what joyous din that lush green was. But now earth diseased and rotted, blighted by hubris.

I thought of Voice as I continued—his proud youth, now almost eighteen years, no longer sapling. Taller than me, so much song behind him, so little left ahead. He with stubble on chin, without much wood left to burn. Because of me, of men like me and our selfish ache not to die. Voice has no word for Father, no cradled croon of Mother on his tongue. He’ll grow up not knowing love of parent nor child. Too young to remember my rearing him, of his mother felled by cleaving childbirth, and with somber-soil earth we have, he with no use for parents. Only me, quiet father left to dredge same ancient green-tune for Voice, to sing him warmest song until he joined lost people with me and his mother and Boy. Trees went for rot, but we became lost, too, in branches we broke—it was ourselves we felled in each severed stump.

Wood bark tucked beneath my arms, I looked for Voice in distance. Peering through branch and trunk, tree arms too thick to see through to tree line. If I couldn’t see him, Voice would be humbled and alone, also unable to see me. I tightened my grip upon bark and headed in direction that would lead me back to Voice.

And it was then men made themselves seen. From behind half-limp branches they came, all knife-face and stone-brow, gripping shivs to pierce flesh and make red rain. I leapt with start, trying to circumvent these pain sons. One cut me off in my path and coolly raised his shiv above his head. Look of hunger in his eyes.

I dove and fell to ground. He reached for me and the other drew his sharp object. My hands searched for whatever last glimpse of life they could find on ground, came up with holy stone. And for first time in long song, I felt grateful for earth, for what was left here after all else died. I rolled and rose to weary feet. One man flashed vicious smile, this struggle fun for him. He licked his lips and took closer step.

Inside my guts were on fire, and more than anything I suddenly wanted to give up, to let these horrid men fill me with what little sunlight was left. But then what might happen to Voice?

I rushed man with malicious smile, swiping with stoned hand. As I did, he drug his shiv across my arm. Small red pearls blossomed from cut, giving way to thick threads of blood dripping to ground, covering me in that thing that gives us life. 

Man fell to ground, and I straddled over him, bringing heavy stone down on his head. Other man let his shiv bury itself in my shoulder blade as though he was clipping my wings. I shouted out in agony, hoping dearly that Voice was too far to hear my pain. Man with malicious smile lay still, his head turned pale red pumpkin. I drove stone into his concave face again, panting heavy and hard and mewling like lost cat.

Man no longer smiled.

Other man’s blade stung in my back—he twisted it. I swept at his legs, trying to bring him to ground, too. 

History is full of these men who want nothing but to take, to dominate. In these men I saw my own father, all fathers who took world and relieved it of life. 

Other man staggered over me, grabbing my shoulders and digging his teeth into my neck. He bit down hard. I pulled away and touched spot where he’d bit; soaked in blood. I turned to face him and his teeth were chewing. He looked at me with indulgent swallowing, and he licked his bloody lips. 

I let out roar, went all animal and ragged. I ran into him and we both fell to ground. And there we rolled over one another, gritting our teeth and tensing our faces, clawing and scraping at one another like pair of coyotes. He and his bloody mouth nipped at me, wanting always for more flesh and wide-eyed at the thought. But I had no song to cower, to fear other man and his cruel intention. I only had to react, to struggle against him, to get back to Voice.

He was on top of me and pinned my arms to cold ground. I fought to raise my chest and rage against him, my anger so hot as to singe his wretched skin. He came down on me and bit at my shoulder. And in this he untensed in joy, his hunger being slaked.

It was then I overpowered him; I rolled and found myself atop him. For moment blood dripped on his face and he lapped at it with his foul tongue like dog at bowl of water. Out of corner of my eye I saw stone, and in one fluid movement grabbed it and brought it down on his vicious head. He struggled; strove to upturn me and further sup from my flesh. 

This couldn’t happen.

Again my stone met his head, and again, and again, until he lay still as trees surrounding us. I wailed and breathed until all of my insides felt outside. Until I, too, was hollow as trees, as these men and their hungering eyes.

My stomach churned, and I upturned what little was left inside me—forest reeked of things meant to be inside us. Coppery blood, sour bile, atavistic fear. 

I tore cloth from other man’s shirt and wrapped my wounds, small rubies dotting the dirty bandages. And again I thought of Voice, hoping men had found me first. In way of parents, those child guardians, I had no song to wonder or worry at what may have happened. All I could do was rise.

I strode gape-jawed over to where I’d dropped bark, returned it safely to my grasp, and headed briskly toward tree line where Voice was surely waiting.

When I got back with bark under each arm, Voice still stood tall where I’d left him, singing a somber-throat song. Night made its way over land, and Voice swathed himself with his arms for warmth. 

“I-I stayed r-right here, Blue. Didn’t m-move.” His voice stuttered as he spoke, cold settling deep in his bones. I set down hard worked bark.

It was then I felt cold, realized with shiver how sun had left us to wither and freeze.

Good boy, I said, ruffling his dirty hair with my hand, small smile creeping across my face. Blood made its way through my bandages—I tried to hide my pain by covering bandages with my clothes, in not letting it fill my voice. 

Voice looked at my toothy smile all curious and wide-eyed, his own lips attempting to do same. So few reasons for my boy to smile, his muscles not made for happiness. After short song of twisting and contorting his face to mimic my own mirth, he gave up. How sorrowful this sad act made me, that Voice, my boy, couldn’t offer grin nor simper, simple twitch of cheeks.

I shook my head, busied myself with work of fire. From my bag I pulled flint and steel, and set to striking one to other. Block of steel almost gone, I knew it wouldn’t be long song until fire making became more arduous, if possible at all. While I worked, Voice toiled with dirt, using thinnest bark to draw lines, last utility of these barren lands. Eventually, I struck steel just right, and sparks latched onto wood, growing until they were flames. 

Voice, I called, Voice, come warm your bones

But Voice wouldn’t listen, content to push dirt in freeze of night. I let him play for now, my boy, and let myself tire and feel weariness of day.

I thought of where we’d go next day. Headed north, where land grows coldest. Where I was told lived others, people to take care of Voice when I finally joined lost people. Short song left for me—I reeked of death down to my marrow. My duty was done once Voice was safe, once I knew his song would be sweet and warm and full of smiles—way mine was with Voice’s mother before she was all lost and cold and limp-bodied. Death couldn’t take me until then; I still had work left undone.

Voice was nestled beneath crook of my arm when I awoke. Over course of night we’d folded and huddled together. I turned my eyes to where fire was, left all coal and ember, still hot beneath ash but dim against early rays of morning light. In greener times, boy his age wouldn’t slumber so tightly with his father, but earth so cold now—few places elsewhere to find warmth but people around you. 

Before I rustled him awake, I took in his face: crooked, gaunt, with sharp-angled hook nose like greenest hill slanting up to eyes that were shut, but that I knew were river-blue and bright as my own. He and his boyish innocence seemed out of place in world so void of life, so harsh and bleak, making vagrants and hungry nomads of all of us but Voice, last vestige of what was once pure in this world. 

Newborn sun hummed light on our faces, which stirred Voice from his dreaming back to this hellish nightmare of day that awaited him. His youth lifted him to his feet before I noticed he was awake. 

“Blue, sun is high, Blue!” He shrieked, his flute-toned voice brighter than new day, slicing air with his finger, pointing to his bright-brother sun. “New day, Blue, where we go now?” 

He bounced as he spoke.

I grimaced at light, my aged bones too heavy to force myself up. Slowly, I rose, smelling memories of moist morning air. This scent once called morning dew, once called sweet grass and lilac, now just dirt. 

Noting sun’s fixed place in sky before me, I turned left, pointed, said That way, Voice. We go north. 

Voice was impatient as he waited for me to ready myself for travel—stretching, packing my bag, putting off leaving. After short song, though, we went north, and Voice sang bright morning tune. I didn’t bother stomping out embers from fire, nothing left around to burn.

What accompanied us then but Voice’s gleeful croons, his joyful growls echoing across plains. Morning that came as unwanted friend left as welcome traveler through thicket, field, and brittle-dry bramble. Following this long and chipper song came solitary bluebird. 

Voice, without name for feather-brother, asked what she was called. 

Creature called Bird, I let. Listen for her warble, Voice. 

And after came sweetest notes from Bird, and like some ancestral stretch, Voice’s lips went corner up, thin smile like curve of axe head, just for shortest song. If only I could freeze this moment, could slow and drone until each tensile chirp was strewn across our lives, to watch forever my son’s timid smile and newfound friend-bird and see it awash with its quiet, colorful vibrance, how green that moment was, and how it held me dying in its very grasp.

But Voice, silly and mercurial, trotted up to Bird, scaring her until she fluttered away.

“Why’d Bird leave, Blue?” Grin was gone, and Voice was left all lonesome and groaning.

And how inconsolable Voice was when I told him he’d scared Bird off. 

Bird is delicate thing, I said, and how sorry that made Voice. 

He threw himself on ground, moaning his remorse to dirt. Pity of young boy learning how much he can hurt, of his unwanted dominion over smaller things.

He raised his fist like stone and struck his head in anger, in loathing. Something in me turned and I ran over to him with jolt. Men and their faces I’d stoned just one night earlier came into my head. And in that moment I felt same as those fathers who served only death, who fought and murdered and consumed what life there was to dominate. He raised his fist to hit himself again, and I grabbed it from air. 

No Voice, I said and shook my head, though he couldn’t see from his place in dirt. My own voice shook with sorrow at seeing Voice hurt himself. Soil soaked up his tears, was perhaps thirsty for nourishment.

I looked to sun for song; it hung high in sky. But Voice still unwound. 

We have to go on, I tried to say stern, but what came out was all cracked and woeful. All I wanted was to hold my boy in my arms, to weep with him over his folly, to console him. But I felt sickness in my bones, and there was no song for comfort. I lifted Voice and carried him in my arms until eventually his sorrow tired him out.

I walked for as long as I could, but Voice was larger than me and we only made it short distance before I had to stop, rest. We did this for song after song, me carrying my boy for far stretches, then laying down. For whole song Voice didn’t move, only stared ahead at cruel future that would only continue to hurt him.

Shortly after, I heard thrum of water rushing in river. It was afternoon by then, beads of sweat dripping salty onto my lips. Voice rose to calming sound of water slicking in cascades across wide rocks. I set him down and we slaked our dry throats. River was clear and clean, without filth of alewives and trout to muddy it. Far afield were does teaching their fawn to forage. We washed our faces like our ancestral fathers once did, when earth was greenest. This was first time in long song Voice and I were clean-faced. 

To the north were large hills that would prove burdensome, but for that moment, we were blithe and unsullied.

And what else but steep incline that followed—what but largest hill for walking. We toiled uphill for long song—passing rock and dirt and little else—until we reached hill’s crest. Pain in my chest that followed our ascent, like swollen apple between my ribs, thumping dull and harsh until I was left wheezy and heaving. 

I bid Voice to wait, to be patient as I stalled death’s slow stroll along shore of my body. I dropped to my knees and allowed myself to purge. And with each retching hack, I hoped to find source of my malady, that my body would reject the malcontent bile inside me and I would be done with it. Death glinted in red lights before my eyes, casting Voice’s shadow on ground against plot of blood.

But that simple release never came.

Voice—young boy too docile for words, who watched me quiet and gloomy as I clawed at dirt for life. Who wept at frightening gentle Bird, this young lad whose only friends were death, sickness, and this ill-father not long for world. Who knew neither mother nor tree, not as either was meant to be. Who seemed to shimmer in this gone world, who looked like boy buried in dirt. He who was hushed melody and whose single smile left me reeling and my chest stumbled. What would he do if I died here? 

“It’s okay, Blue,” Voice said as he placed trembling hand on my slumped shoulder, as though he were giving me permission to die and leave him cold and alone. “It’s okay.”

It almost killed me to pull myself back to my feet, but after several agitated moments, I stood with Voice at top of hill. 

You’re what’s good here, Voice, I said, here in these infertile plains, and he contorted his face back into his thin half-smile. I turned to find song of day near sung, dark crowding from west. From there, from highest point in sight, we saw these plains ready their slumber.

I was surprised to see death still flashing in red before me. This vicious color surrounded Voice, blackened him until he was all silhouette, until he became light’s blinking negative space. This light I thought was called Death blinked in steady rhythm, mechanical in its promise to return. “Where we go now, Blue?”

Finally, I shook my head, looking up from Voice and winking away fog in my head. Death was nowhere to be seen, and what stood tall to our north were metal trees, dozens, with long, smooth trunks that punctured sky high in air. In place of crown there were spinning blades, birling quiet hum as they did. And nestled at their top like birds’ nests were red lights flickering with each other, some synchronized, ocular chorus. How foreign these machinations, how sweet their sight, like Voice set against sorrowed lands from which we’d come. From where he’d been born and since seen little else. 

My boy and I stood slack-jawed for what felt like longest song, like salmon gasping after being hooked. These small beams of mercy were still furlongs away, our work not yet done. 

But in distance, longer song even still than metal trees, I noticed fence and fire and small shelters, what I once knew as Home. I formed word with my mouth, how ancestral shape felt, full of breath in its huh that bled into good holy O and soft hum of mmm. There was work of men in field following this steel thicket.

Voice looked to me, bewildered, he who hasn’t seen men other than his sorry father since song he can’t remember. And in that moment, I felt lighter in my shoulders, as though soothing balm came over me. 

“That where we go?” Voice’s head hung in disbelief. My throat felt clogged—I cleared it, red-coated mucus coming up for me to spit out. 

I nodded to Voice and let to him, Almost there, Voice, little song left to go.

J.R. Allen is a writer currently living in southwest Ohio. He is the editor-in-chief of Ox Mag, as well as the fiction editor of Great Lakes Review. He’s currently working on a collection of stories about the natural world and humanity’s place in it. His work can be found in Ample Remains, Wretched Creations, Daily Drunk Magazine, Chaotic Merge, No Contact Magazine, Dunes Review, and elsewhere.

photo by Dikaseva (via unsplash)

Thread the Bones—Emma Deimling

content warning: depictions of mental illness and self-harm

My daughter finds the bones after she falls off the swing set. Jane points at them, and I nod. She points again and I nod. 

She begins to play with the bones, picking up a clavicle and smacking it against a dorsal bone next to her skinned knee. The skeleton was a small thing, the bones lean and fragile, the whiteness startling even in the cloudy midday light. 

Andrew wouldn’t have wanted her to play with the bones. I let her. It’s not like it matters to the dead thing. I wonder if the bones are mine. 

The bench splinters beneath my fingers as I pick at it, the wood pulpy from the rain the night before. Across from the swing set, Alice is ordering ice cream from the ice cream truck she had waved down just after we arrived. She’s smiling at the vendor whose face even from here is a mottled red as he blushes from her attention. I pull Alice’s jacket closer around me. The leather smells of stale mint and crushed lavender. 

I hadn’t realized how cold it was until halfway to the playground. Hadn’t realized until I felt Jane shivering in my arms, but by then it was too late to go back. Andrew probably wouldn’t let us go a second time. I gave Jane my coat even though she wouldn’t fit into it for another ten years. She didn’t mind. She liked playing with the sleeves, flopping them in front of her. 

The chill has finally settled in, and it gnashes its teeth at the little bits of stray sunlight visible through the bruised clouds.

By the time we arrived at the playground, my arms were numb, and the hairs on the back of my neck prickled. Alice took one look at me then at Jane before she shrugged off her own jacket and wrapped it around my shoulders without comment. 

I wonder if bones can get cold. If, without any skin, I would still feel cold. I wonder what it would be like if I didn’t have skin, if I was just bones raw and open to the world, stripped dry and hollowed marrow. Hollow. I always wondered what it would be like if I were hollow. But I don’t have to wonder. I already know. 

I watch as Alice makes her way over to hand an orange-colored ice cream to Jane who pauses in her effort to disentangle the rib bones from the spine. I’m pretty sure now that it had been a cat. Too small to be a raccoon, too big to be a squirrel. 

I blink and Alice is next to me, a vanilla ice cream held between us. I take it without comment. Alice slumps down onto the bench beside me, her hands empty. “Eight dollars for two ice creams. Can you believe that?” 

I try to hand the ice cream back to her, but she waves me away. “It’s fine, Ella. It’s fine,” she says again as the ice cream wavers in my grip. Gently, she pushes my hand towards me. 

Two women, one pushing a stroller, walk past Jane. Jane picks up a tail bone and shows it to them. The women stare, their eyes flicking around the playground until they land on me. Their gazes harden knowingly. I don’t look away as they whisper to each other and give Jane a wide birth as if she is contagious. As if they are afraid of the bones. I’m afraid of the bones, too.

“You shouldn’t have let her go near that,” says Alice, tugging me out of my thoughts. She nods to the pile of bones in my daughter’s lap. “It might have fleas. Ella?” she prompts as I continue to stare without blinking. 

“Do you think those women know?” I say and tilt my head in the direction of the women who have disappeared around the ice cream truck. 

Alice’s brows furrow, and I have to fight the urge to smooth the wrinkles away. “I don’t think anyone knows. Do you?” 

I shrug. 

“Ella—” 

“I wonder what they would do if they were me,” I continue as if Alice hadn’t spoken. I wonder if they would hate themselves like I do. 

Alice snorts. “They probably wouldn’t know what to do with all the free time on their hands.”

My attention lingers on the bones again, pale and fragile in my daughter’s fists. I think about how I want to put my bones in a box, so I can become any shape, anyone. Anyone but me. Without my skin, I could thread the bones together, thread and thread until they are strong, unbreakable, unable to be stolen. 

Jane drops her ice cream onto the pavement. It oozes out of the cone, and she giggles as she watches eagerly. “There goes the ice cream,” Alice says.

A handful of pigeons peck their way towards her, unaware of Jane’s sticky fingers and even stickier attention snapping to them. Arms flapping, she runs at them. The birds startle upwards and backwards, aghast, their wide red eyes rimmed with exhaustion and fright. Jane giggles again. She looks back at me and points. I nod. 

Now, Jane is standing in the melted ice cream like it is a puddle. She jumps, and the ends of my coat sully in the mess. The pigeons eye her, waddle around her, glancing at one another like the two women had done. 

“Pigeons are lucky,” I tell Alice. 

Alice raises an eyebrow. “Do I even want to know?” 

“They can’t be caught. See?” I say as Jane races towards one of the birds only to watch it hurtle into the air out of her reach. 

“But they can be shot,” argues Alice. 

“Yes.” I have not touched my own ice cream, and smears of it trickle down my wrists like iced blood clotting. Alice takes the cone from me and hurls it into the trash can next to her. She pulls out a wad of napkins from her pocket then wipes off my fingers. 

My mind drifts again, and I clutch the needle hidden in my right fist a little harder. I think about how sometimes I wish I could take the needle and thread I keep underneath the mattress for emergencies when I feel the words curdle in my throat and finally sew my mouth shut like Alice did last November. Sometimes, I clutch that needle hidden in my right fist like I am now. 

I watch Jane and think that a good mother would sew her mouth shut before she learns to speak clearly. But I know I never will. 

The freedom of not having to speak only lasts a few days anyway if the threads aren’t extracted. Only a few days before the woman would wither away. 

After I heard about what Alice had done, I visited her for the first time since Andrew and I moved to the neighborhood. I wanted to see it, see how she did what I couldn’t. What I never will do. She let me press my fingertips against her lips, let me touch the thread carved into the soft mounds of flesh. After that, Alice had the stitches taken out. The first thing she said was “fuck.” 

Alice finishes cleaning my hands but doesn’t pull hers from mine. 

“I asked Jane if she thought I was beautiful the other day,” I say, my voice crackly like I had swallowed a handful of fire poppers. 

“And what did she say to that?” asks Alice, her shoulders relaxed, her face turned up as if she were a flower luxuriating in the sunlight. 

I look up. The sky is glazed with clouds, leeched of sunlight. I wonder if Alice is doing alright. “No. She said I wasn’t beautiful.” 

Alice sighs. “Ella, she’s four. She probably doesn’t even know what the word ‘beautiful’ means.” 

“She will never know if her mother is beautiful then.” 

“Ella,” Alice says again, firmer. “It’s going to be okay. You know I’m a good lawyer. I know we can get Jane back.” 

Jane has moved on from the puddle of ice cream towards the ducks sequestered around the pond next to the playground. The ducks squawk, and Jane squawks right back. 

“Do you think I’m beautiful?” I ask. 

Alice rolls her eyes. “Of course I do,” she says without hesitation. 

I tug her jacket closer around me as the back of the bench cuts into my spine. “Maybe we’re too old to know what the word ‘beautiful’ means.” 

Alice laughs. “Maybe.” Her laughter softly dies out as she watches me watch Jane clamber closer to the edge of the pond. The ducks have quacked themselves hoarse and have decided to find another spot to preen. 

“Do you want to be alone with her?” Alice whispers. 

I clench her hand involuntarily. “No.”

Alice doesn’t push. Instead, she straightens her jacket on my shoulders with her free hand. The sun continues to sulk behind the clouds, but I don’t mind. Alice gives me a small smile. 

“Do you think she loves me?” I ask, and the needle between my fingers warms against my skin. 

Alice’s smile tightens. “You’re her mother.” 

“That’s not an answer. Yes,” I add before she can continue. “I know what you’re going to say. ‘Ella, she’s too young to know what ‘love’ is.’” 

“I wasn’t going to say that.” Alice’s smile gentles again. “Of course she knows what love is. You love her. And she will remember that for the rest of her life.” 

I force myself to smile back, a smile pockmarked with childhood scars, the only remembrance of my own mother. “Will you love me for the rest of your life?” 

“I hope I will,” says Alice. 

My smile wilts. “That’s not an answer.”

“Yes, it is. Ella, what do you want me to say to stop you from worrying? I’m here for you. I always will be.” 

I scowl. Silence slouches down around us when I don’t respond, thick enough to choke on, thick enough to smother. We both know the truth is I will never stop worrying, stop waiting for the other shoe to drop. For her to hurt me. Like everyone else has. Everyone—except for Jane. But she will soon be old enough to know how to hurt, how to puncture through skin to get to my heart without even making me bleed. Or she would, if I ever get to see her again. 

The ice cream truck rumbles past. Under my breath, I hum along with the twinkling song that blares from its speakers, the cadence reminding me of the nursery rhyme my mother used to sing to me. Thread the bones and stitch the soul, she used to murmur as she rocked me in her lap, her grip bruising my arms, Thread the bones and stitch the soul, she crooned as she held me down and began to sew my lips together, the thread weaving in and out, in and out with each rise and fall of her chest. 

My father arrived a little after dusk, a little after my mouth was sewn half shut. He had torn me from her arms, torn me as if from the womb, screaming and covered in blood. I never saw my mother again after that. 

I wonder where they put her, in a home or a cell or the bottom of a grave. But I never asked, even after my father took me to the hospital and had the stitches removed. I still have the scars though, faint ones that run like teardrops over my swollen lips. Alice likes them. I like them, too.

“Are you sure you don’t want to be alone—?” Alice begins to ask again. 

“Do you know what the first word she ever spoke was?” I ask before she can finish. 

“‘Mommy?’” Alice guesses, her eyes wary but unworried. 

“’Bitch.’ The first word she ever said was ‘bitch.’ She just kept saying it. Over and over. And when Andrew came home, he thought it was funny. He said she was bound to learn the word sooner or later. No, she won’t remember that her mother was beautiful or that she loved her. She will remember that one word. ‘Bitch.’” 

Alice squeezes my hands in hers, and her grip forces me to meet her gaze. “He won’t get away with this, Ella. We’ll get her back.” 

I let my head droop onto her shoulder. “Maybe I don’t want her back. Maybe I never want to see her again. My mother would have sewn her mouth shut for saying that.” 

Suddenly, I want to know what Alice would say to me if I told her what I am thinking right now. What I still think in the moments before dawn bleeds across the skyline; before Andrew wakes up, his alarm bleeding in my ears, his voice bleeding into my soul, and my thoughts bleeding out into the recesses of my mind.

He would get up. 

Sometimes I would, too. 

Sometimes I wouldn’t. Instead, I would let the world weep around me, let it buzz, let the sun scuttle across the sky until Jane started screaming. More often than not, I wished her screams would stop. That I would just stop moving until she did, too. But I always got up. Always went to her, fed her, changed her. Loved her. 

I think she loves me, but you can never tell at her age if she is just curious about me or needs me. I need her. And that need is like a punch to the gut, like a hand grasping inside my chest and wrenching out my heartstrings in one yank. Because I know that need will kill me. 

But I won’t have her for much longer. I have minutes now. An hour if I’m lucky before they come. And take her away. 

“There is a garden growing in my mind,” I say to Alice. “And everyone always wants to kill it. They say if I don’t cut it out of me, it will take over.”

Alice stiffens, but her smile remains. “What kind of garden? A vegetable garden? A flower garden? I always liked flower gardens.”

“I don’t know. I don’t think it’s alive.”

“It has to be alive,” Alice protests. “If it isn’t, there would be nothing to kill.”

“Do you want to kill the garden?” I ask. 

Alice rests her hand against my cheek. It’s warm. Warmer than I expected. But I’m still cold. “No,” she says, “but either way, without tending, gardens can’t live for long.”

My ribcage rises and collapses as if with every breath it loses another silent battle. Alice notices but doesn’t comment. Instead, she says, “They’re here.”

The slamming of a car door startles me. Alice’s hand tightens around mine. I don’t look back, but she does. Footsteps crack against the pavement. I flinch. 

“I’ll try to delay them as long as I can,” Alice says and disentangles her hands from mine. She stands. “You should say something to Jane.” 

I squint up at her, my head still angled sideways from where it had been resting on Alice’s shoulder. “What?” 

Alice halfheartedly throws her hands up. “I don’t know. That you’ll see her soon.” 

The needle digs into my palm, not enough to puncture but enough pressure to know it’s there, to know at the slightest of slips it will pierce my skin and, if I keep pressing, sink against bone. I am losing a battle. But I don’t know which one. 

I don’t want to lose her. 

I don’t want them to take her.

When I don’t respond, Alice shakes her head and turns to the two people making their way towards us. Shakily, I get to my feet. I fist my hands in my skirt, the needle still pressed against my skin. 

The morning weighs heavily on me, like wet grave dirt on my chest. Only hours before my thoughts had been a blur of almost-happiness as I walked the five minutes from the post office back home, my hands gratefully empty. I had done it. The papers had been sent. I fingers itched to call Alice, to run my hands through her blonde hair and tell her I was free. But then I found the front door unlocked and the sounds of voices slithering out from the kitchen. 

Andrew looked up as I walked in and fisted his hands on his hips. The man next to him straightened, the sudden motion making his glasses slip down his nose. My eyes lingered on him, on the frown lines and pale skin like oatmeal that had been left out too long. 

There were more papers on the kitchen table, Jane’s yellow and green crayons inches away from them. I glanced down under the table to find Jane there, a gleeful smile on her lips as if asking for permission. I didn’t nod, and every happy feeling I had felt shriveled in my chest like butterflies with their wings torn off. “Andrew?” I said, returning my gaze to him, “what is this?

Andrew patted the seat beside him. “Ella, sit.” 

I did not sit, but let my hands dangle at my sides, my eyes flicking between the two men who in turn were sharing a knowing look. “What’s going on?” 

“Sit,” said Andrew, a little more forcefully. 

I did not sit. 

Andrew gave the other man another pointed glare, but the man shook his head and stepped forward. “Mrs. Albers—” 

“It’s Ms. Lindell now,” I interrupted. Andrew’s face was turning a yellowy-greenish color as if Jane had smeared her crayons over his face. 

“Ms. Lindell,” the other man continued slowly, “I am Robert Johnson, your husband’s—” 

“Ex-husband’s—” 

“Ex-husband’s lawyer.” 

“And?” I prompted before the beat of silence could swallow me whole. 

Robert Johnson crinkled his nose to keep his glasses from sliding down further as he attempted to peer down at me even though I have a good three inches on him. “And he is here to pronounce that you are unfit to have shared custody over Jane. There is clear evidence that you have become an unfit parent.” 

My heart had stopped beating or it was beating too fast for me to feel it. Absently, my hand slipped into my dress pocket, but it was empty. “Evidence?” My voice cracked like dried bones left out in the sun. 

“You are mentally unfit,” Andrew said, the words thrust out of his mouth, and pleasure curled his lips. “God, Ella. You even left my child home alone without discussing it with me first.” 

His child. His child. The words were harsher than any slap. His child. Jane was still looking at me, but I couldn’t meet her gaze. My other hand slipped into my left pocket. “She’s four. And it was only to go to post the mail.” To file the divorce papers. 

Andrew shook his head, but his lips trembled from holding in a smile. Robert Johnson didn’t notice. “You have one day,” Andrew said simply. “One day to say goodbye.” 

“You can’t do this.” The words were out before I could stop them. 

Robert Johnson looked at his shoes, the leather toes scuffles and freshly polished. “It is in the child’s best interest to sever the parent-child relationship.” 

Severed. Like an umbilical cord. Thread the bones and stich the soul, my mother’s last words raked against my thoughts, against the wall I had put up around me to keep from remembering my childhood. My fingers dug deeper in my pocket, and finally I felt the calming texture of thin metal sucking the warmth from my skin. “You can’t do this. My lawyer—” 

“Don’t speak of that woman in my house,” spat Andrew and even Robert Johnson jumped at the harshness in his tone. 

I wrap my hand around the needle. “You do not get to tell me what to do.” 

Andrew’s face remained impassive but his right eyebrow said don’t I

“Jane will be placed in Mr. Albers’s care until the court hearing on April 29th,” said Robert Johnson, his breaths shallow as if the will to not run out of the house was a workout in itself. “Where you will plea your case to have your parental rights reinstated.” He extended his hand with a simple, white piece of paper with black letters that smear together as I forced back my tears. I let his hand dangle between us and instead crouched down and pulled Jane out from under the table and into my arms. 

“Where are you going?” Andrew spluttered, but I continued walking to the door. Thankfully, Jane didn’t squirm in my grip but instead clung to me as if she could tell something was wrong, clung so tightly I couldn’t tell where her skin began and mine ended. “You said I had a day,” I said without looking back. I flung open the front door, and a bit of wind hissed past me. I could hear the papers swish off the table.  

“Ella—!” 

I stepped out of the house and quietly shut the door. But he doesn’t stop me. He knew he has already won. 

Back in the park, the ground squelches underneath me as I make my way towards Jane. She is at the edge of the pond now. Mud cakes her shoes and ankles. Cautiously, I approach her and kneel in the mud beside her as if she is a wounded animal. As if I am the wounded animal falling to my knees at the feet of my slaughterer.

Alice had said it would be alright, said I could move in with her until everything got sorted. She was a good lawyer, good enough to get Jane back. 

But that means Jane has to be taken away first. 

Jane points at the water’s surface, and I forget to nod. She points more pointedly, and I nod slowly. My gaze catches on our reflection blurring up at us. Her face is so small compared to mine, so open. Mine is pinched and pale, my eyes distant, unfocused. So are Jane’s. 

They said I wasn’t mentally fit. Not mentally fit like if my mind had run more consistently it would be able to keep up with my daughter. 

A bone garden, I think now. There is a bone garden in my mind, and no matter how much I water it, it will never sprout anything but doubt.  

“I’m sorry,” I say to Jane, my voice barely above a whisper as I continue to stare at our reflections in the pond. The mud is cold against my skin, a chill that settles deep in my bones. I’m sorry I wasn’t good enough, nice enough, quiet enough.

But I don’t say that. Because deep down I know if I did, it would be a lie. “I’m sorry,” I just keep saying, the needle so warm in my hands, it’s like it’s burning. 

Jane turns to me then, her green eyes full of laughter. She points at me. I nod, and the motion makes my tears tremble down my cheeks. 

Jane tilts her head and watches them fall. Then she steps forward and wraps her arms around me. She is so small, I think. Hesitantly, I put my arms around her, and I begin to shake, shake so much I can feel my bones rattle inside me, clatter and crack, the splintered ends slicing into my heart. 

“Mrs. Albers.” 

I startle back and barely catch myself from falling into the pond. A woman stands behind us, her suit smooth and unruffled. Closer to the parking lot, Alice is talking furiously but quietly to a man also in a suit smooth and unruffled. “It’s time.” 

“Mommy?” says Jane, her voice only loud enough for me to hear. Only loud enough to keep me from wondering if she really said it. Instead of answering, I look at my hands fisted at my sides and say nothing as they take her away. Jane grasps my hand in hers, forcing the needle harder against my palm, her fingers dry and crusty like sand scraping against skin. Skin. 

I always have known my daughter is my skin, and without her, I am just bones, an open-wound. 

She is in the car now, her fingers pressed against the glass. The car engine coughs once, twice. Then she is gone. 

I let the needle puncture my skin.

Emma Deimling currently works as a writing tutor at the Ohio State University’s writing center. She has been published in numerous magazines, the most recent being in Anamorphoseis Magazine. She lives in Columbus, Ohio. You can find her on Twitter @EmmaDeimling.  

photo by

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)