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

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

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

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

‘The house is too big.’

But he must dash. He’s late for work.

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

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

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

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

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

Everybody is relieved when she’s unconscious.

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

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

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

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

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

‘You must sleep!’ he insists.

The little girl is begging her to listen. 

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

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

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

She searches for a dustpan and brush.

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

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

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

photo by Maria Orlova (via pexels), painting generated using Midjourney

The Princess on the Glass Hill Becoming—Joel Hans

The princess on the glass hill mourning.

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

The apple tree doing nothing but completing the façade.

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

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

The people hungering.

The people climbing.

The people falling.

The boy wearing copper shoes.

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

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

The sky sunsetting.

The king’s men picking up the bodies.

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

The trick succeeding.

The glass hill murmuring.

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

The mockingbirds calling before dawn.

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

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

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

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

The king fathering his hardest.

The king clearcutting soot and blood from beneath his eyes.

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

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

The king wishing it could be any other way.

The sunsetting.

The dawning.

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

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

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

The sunsetting.

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

The people hungering for her now gone.

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

The flow pyroclasting.

The ashcloud chilling.

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

The king’s men arriving with all the bodies.

The glass hill feeding until it becomes a mountain.

How else do you think it got so tall?

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

The might-have-beens glowing in the starlight.

The year ending and another beginning.

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

The king apologizing.

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

The king throwing himself into the glass mountain.

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

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

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

The girl on the glass mountain becoming just a girl.

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

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

The golden apples lolling between her hands.

The loam sponging beneath her feet.

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

The girl departing.

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

The glass mountain remaining.

The time remaining.

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

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

Bones of Time—Taylor Rae

The mountain is as cold and grey as your arms. I carry your coyote-gnawed vertebra. It pulses in my pocket, an ossified heartbeat. 

The wind kisses my neck, and I shiver.

Six years of bone-hunting, and every time you’re hidden better than the last. Each bonescrap brings you back for a few precious minutes.

The landmarks bristle with memory. Here’s the embankment edge I spilled down the mountainside. The thicket I landed in, leg broken. The brush you vanished into, looking for help. Beyond that, your unmarked grave, everywhere and nowhere.

Search and rescue found me, but they never found you.

Beside me, pine needles twitch. Your vertebra hums like a dowsing rod as I chase your ghost deeper into the forest. You hint me onward, crackling sticks, scattering leaves until there you are, in an abandoned foxhole: your left mandible, yellowed, meatless.  

I smile, vision blurring. “Found you.”

You murmur behind me, snowfall-soft, “Found you first.”

I lean into your foggy arms and whisper, “Did you meet any clever foxes?”

You’re only empty air, but I know you smiled. “Only you.” You pause. “That’s the last one, babe.”

I hug your jawbone. If I wait until nightfall, I might become a ghost in your arms. It wouldn’t be the worst fate.

“Let’s go home.” You wind-kiss my neck again. “Before it gets dark. You can tell me what we’ll do when we get there.”

We walk home together, and your fingertips feel like the sky just before it rains.

Taylor Rae is a professional cave troll, hidden away in the mountains of Coeur d’Alene, Idaho. She likes avoiding her neighbors, playing ukulele, and longboarding. Most of her stories involve spaceships and/or magic. She is the winner of the 2021 NYC Midnight Short Story Contest, and her work appears with Flash Fiction Online, PsuedoPod, and Fit for the Gods from Vintage Books. More at www.mostlytaylor.com.

photo by Ta Z and Annie Sprat (via unsplash)

The Words of Men—Rachel Canwell

It was Midsummer when she came, to stand under arching, aching Fenland skies. A place where the land truly met the clouds. Where slated marsh, churning river and open fields collided, suddenly as one. A trinity of folklore. 

From nowhere she appeared and would sit alone each balmy night, as dusk cast its mothy shadow over cottage gardens and sleeping babes. They asked her what she wanted, she stroked her burnished sunset hair and simply said, “Tell me a tale or two.”

From one village to another they talked of her. Whispered about the strange elfin girl, cloaked in silvery rags. Who seemed to want nothing. Who seemed survive on spoken words. 

Each evening the village green came to life, was lit by bobbing lanterns, held by eager men. Each competing to tell a tale, a tale that would be The One. The story to make this woman laugh, and dance. To lift her eyes and bind her heart. A tale to make her theirs.

But the girl, she merely listened. Quietly receiving tales of copper eyed hares, dancing beneath a harvest moon. Of river gods and nets filled with monstrous enchanted catches. Of gold spun wheat and magic beans. 

And as she listened her fingers twisted posies of weeds and pungent herbs. Bunches that she tied with ribbon pulled from skirts and quietly laid aside. 

Just once, from the shadows a young girl tried to speak. Attempted to add her voice to the chorus of rough male voices. But the other women, touched her arm, held her back and shaking their heads, stilled her eager tongue. 

Then one morning it was over. The girl had simply gone. 

But each woman found in their beds a spray of herbs, a head of tales and a silent man beside them.

previously featured on the National Flash Fiction Flood blog

Rachel Canwell is a writer and teacher living in Cumbria. Her debut flash collection Oh I do like to be was published by Alien Buddha in July 2022. Her short fiction has been published in Sledgehammer Lit, Pigeon Review, Reflex Press, Selcouth Station and The Birdseed amongst others. She is currently working on her first novel. 

Website – https://bookbound.blog/writing/
Twitter – @bookbound2019

photo by alleksana (via pexels)

My Aunt, the Witch, Tells People Their Fortunes—Elia Karra

I want to see her again so I go to her house down by the shore, the one with the stained glass windows and the crooning wind chimes. I put on the eyes she likes the most, brown like the earth that grows her magnolias and crinkling at the corners. The hands I pick are of a sturdy firstborn daughter, thick-fingered and made for duty. Big for my bony wrists, but sometimes she makes me knead the dough for her bread and my real hands are too small, too faltering.

I follow the path of not-dust on the hardwood floor of her foyer into her lime-green kitchen. I always find her sitting there, waiting among the invading wildflowers that creep through the cracks in her stone walls. One day, I’ll see cornflowers and daisies bloom in the wrinkles of her face, but not today. 

The smell of coffee greets me before she does, so strong I can almost taste the bitterness on my tongue. (It’s not the tongue she likes. This one is heavy and often refuses to speak.) On the bottom of the small, ceramic cup rests my fate. I come to her for this, and she gives it to me time and time again, though it never changes. 

“Welcome,” she says, and it sounds like I missed you. It must be lonely out here. 

I sit across from her and trace the lacey edge of the doily that’s spread over the table with my thumb. If she notices the nervous gesture, she doesn’t say it. She’s kind like that. Instead, she pushes the coffee cup towards me, and I take its little handle between two fingers. I drain it.

Today, it tastes like secrets, like things better left unspoken. It goes down my throat like tar. 

She covers the cup with the saucer and turns it upside down. She lets the sludge drip and the scum sit, trace images on the white of the cup. When she flips it again, she tells me of the day I will step into this house and sit where she sits. She tells me of the moment the wildflowers will shroud my body, bloom in my throat, and burst out of my mouth. She tells me of my past as though I’m meant to remember it. 

This again. This always.

I want to ask her what to do with all this sadness that nests in my guts. I want to say what did you do with it when you were left here? Where did you put it when you needed to rest? But she deals in prophecies, not truths.

When I am tired of listening to my fortune, she speaks about her own. When she is tired of that, she speaks about my mother as her sister, her sister as my mother, the destiny that she carries.

“So different from your own,” she says. It’s a good thing. I think.

 We sit until the sun goes down and the wildflowers drown the room in cloying fragrance. I hold her gaze with the eyes she likes. I make her tea with my sturdy hands. My tongue is stubborn and doesn’t speak, but she forgives me.

I leave her only to come back tomorrow.

Elia Karra (she/they) is an author and filmmaker from Athens, Greece with an MFA in Creative Writing from Lindenwood University. You can find her words in HAD, The Daily Drunk, Okay Donkey, and others. She lurks around eliakarra.com and on Twitter at @eliakarra.

photo by Anna Avilova (via pexels)

DUM VIXI TACUI MORTUA DULCE CANO—Emily Macdonald

WHILE I LIVED, I WAS SILENT.  NOW THAT I AM DEAD, I SING SWEETLY.

He starts by constructing the harpsichord spine, the tail, and the cheek. He steams the bent-side curve over the whistling kettle, moulding it to a jig. The triangular shape appears—tight flushed dove-joints perfecting the sharp corners.

I help to hold the pieces in place, widening my eyes, a smirk on my face as he names the parts. He laughs and pretends to linger, tender, puff-chested as a cooing dove, tracing a finger, cupping a cheek. I flush—perhaps from the heat of the steaming kettle.

He planes the Northern spruce for the delicate soundboard, curling the blonde slithers of shavings to achieve the resonant thinness.

Sometimes I help by sharpening the blade of the plane, grinding it on the whet stone as he’s shown me, being careful to keep my movements consistent—no nicks in the blade—to keep those curls falling in elegant whispers, paper thin. Curls falling like the hair I once had.

He asks me if I think the boards are thin enough? He says he needs flex but there’s a danger of the boards splitting.  

We both know what too thin looks like. I sense his anxious glance as he holds the boards, like x-rays, up to the light.  I indicate the darkened areas where he needs to shave a fraction lighter.

He builds the rib supports, and to prevent vibration—the soundboard buzzing—he uses animal glue and D-clamps, spinning the nuts for a tight, snug fit.  

I help to tighten the clamps and wipe away excess traces of glue.  

I won’t know, he says, if it’s fitted tight enough. Not until the instrument is played.

Won’t it ruin everything I wonder, if he finds then a buzz or a hum? I can see it irks him.  Despite his skill—his care and attention—he cannot change what’s ahead. Neither of us can change what is waiting for me.

He secures the bridge and cuts the rose hole in the soundboard. He layers the rose discs in wood and parchment, carving an intricate, infinite arabesque pattern.

He bends over his work, imitating the drooping heavy heads of the damask roses I’m painting, a wreath to surround the sound hole.  

I want the same roses when the time comes. They will be in bloom as they’re budding now, promising musky perfume.   

He marks the keyboard pattern and cuts the precise pinholes. He frowns in concentration as he cuts out the jack rail. He cuts and shapes the keys.

It’s one of the keys to helping him, I’ve decided—repetitive tasks to distract from the cutting and needle pricks in my skin. Tasks to concentrate on, creation giving him respite from my decline.

He uses a jig to cut out his jacks and waxes their sides to prevent them from sticking.  

I lie back on the feathered pillows while he recites his progress. I close my eyes to see better the uniform waxed jacks. 

He uses a scalpel, cutting the quill of the feather to shape the plectrum. 

It’s a precision blade, the scalpel—I sense his distaste—but it’s the tool for the job. We both know he’s shaping the voice I no longer have. The voice taken from me. 

He attaches the tongue to the plectrum with a pivot and a spring to the body of the jack. He checks the action to make sure it plucks, then hits the jack rail that he lines with felt to muffle the impact. 

I know he takes great care with this task. These are blows he can soften; pains he can stifle.

He strings the instrument running the brass wires in pairs, precise parallel lines over the bridge. 

I sense his sorrow, stringing pairs, now I have passed, and he thinks he is all alone.  

He trims the plectra to find the perfect harmonic voice.

I help him to hear the resonant tone. I guide his hands shaping the tip of the tongue. 

He tightens the strings, turning the tuning pins to achieve the correct pitch.  

The tension is terrible—hands poised over the keys—but when he plays, he weeps with relief to hear my sweet singing.

Emily Macdonald was born in England but grew up in New Zealand. Fascinated by wine as a student, she has worked in the UK wine trade ever since. Since going freelance at the start of 2020, she has started creative writing. Emily has work published with Reflex Fiction, Retreat West, Virtual Zine, Globe Soup and Hammond House. In writing and in wines she likes variety, persistent flavour, and enough acidity to bite. https://www.macdonaldek11.com

photo by Thomas Quine (via wikimedia commons on a CC BY 2.0 license)

The Night Circus—Kate Leimer

It will appear, as circuses do, occupying the bare grass with tents and caravans, stalls and a Big Top, with a small kiosk at the entrance. 

When it leaves silently before dawn, you may find something else is missing: your bicycle, your dog, your brother, or even your soul.

They say once a whole village disappeared, leaving only a circle of bleached grass. A cold wind always blows over that spot. Even on a fine summer day, a cloud seems to pass across the sun.

It starts the way these things always do, with the arrival of posters. They appear at night, of course.

Instead of the bright red-and-yellow grins of clowns and cheerful stripes of the Big Top, you’ll see a dark tent, below a sharp yellow moon. The tent flap hangs open like a maw, revealing a slice of pale light inside. A hunched, long-fingered shape waits at the entrance.  Figures with blurred faces beckon. Some might look familiar to you but it’s hard to tell.

Free tickets will appear in shops, under stones in the park, on windowsills. Each purple rectangle announces: 

ᴀᴅᴍɪᴛ ᴏɴᴇ:
THE NIGHT CIRCUS
VISIT IF YOU DARE!

The purple writing looks stretched—too tall, spiky and jagged, rather than friendly and fun. You might feel a cold breath at the back of your neck when you pick one up.

At midnight, the music starts. A steam-driven fairground organ plays ‘Danse Macabre’, evoking images of capering, skeletal violinists. The sensible among us will cover our ears and pull the bedclothes over our heads, having first checked the doors and windows are safely locked. 

Are you feeling cold yet?

The foolish ones will dare one another, eyes bright and feverish, their laughter nervous.  Others, stumbling home from the pub, cutting through the graveyard, pass the church standing dark, its stout doors locked and veer across the field, summoned by the music. 

The young—impulsive, curious, casting stones up at bedroom windows—will tempt each other to an illicit night adventure as the music speeds on, round and round, faster and faster. 

If you dare cross the cold grass and approach the kiosk, you find there an automaton stretching out a bony hand for your ticket. Whirr, snap! Ping! The register rings and a soft, distant cackle announced your arrival.  The tent beckons—black, iridescent, shiny, like a crow’s wing.

Inside, you see the audience in the raked stalls; their clothes ragged; their bodies motionless.  You notice a smell like graveyard earth, rotten wood, feel the tickle of beetles’ feet against your skin and the gossamer of cobwebs on your face as you sit, waiting for the magic to begin.

Don’t taste anything you are offered, even if it smells like bread, popcorn, beer. There is no nourishment there, only distraction, illusion.  

Returning, you may find you have aged, your home occupied by strangers, your face and name unrecognised, unremembered except by a mossy gravestone.  Yet for you only hours will have passed. 

If you return.

An emerging writer, Kate Leimer enjoys stories of all kinds. Her work has appeared in Hysteria 7 Anthology 2020, The Wondrous Real Magazine, TL;DR PressBluesdoodles, Idle Ink, Orange Blush Zine, Cabinet of Heed, 81 Words, and been shortlisted by Cranked Anvil. When not writing, she works in a library.

photo by Joshua Coleman (via unsplash)

Things You Find in the Forest if You Go Alone and Don’t Know Any Better—Laila Amado

When the boys, who have been making fun of your sweater—the one mom made for you last year—taunt you from the old bleachers stretching along the back wall of the high school building, you…

a. Go home. Kick off your sneakers and leave them by the door, the way mom taught you to do. Notice how the house echoes with the odd, empty sounds, now that she’s no longer here. Drag your bag upstairs and spend the rest of the night doing homework. 

Of course, you don’t.

b. Hit one of the bullies in the face, see his blood drip down onto the battered concrete of the parking lot. Shrug your friend’s hand off your shoulder and wait for the inevitable summons to the Principal’s office.

Or, perhaps, you:

c. Run. Run until you’re out of breath, until the intersections of your hometown have fallen far behind, run to the edge of the world as you know it, where the trees spread their luscious green canopy far and wide.

The forest leans over you, dry branches stretching forward like crooked fingers. Beyond the trees lies darkness. When a whiff of pungent air, warm and wet like an exhaled breath, touches your face, do you…

 a. Pull out your phone from the back pocket of your jeans and, when you find there is no signal, not a single bar lighting up, plop down on the crumbling curb at the foot of the towering trees and start sobbing?

Or do you

b. Come closer, peer into the murky shadows beyond the tree line, see the winding trails snake between the mossy boulders, notice the flickering green lights in the mist seeping over the knotted roots, and feel anticipation trembling in your throat like a captured bird?

Then again

c. You’re no longer scared of the dark. Not since that night in late October, when a man in the khaki uniform of the sheriff’s department rang the doorbell, waking you up. From the top of the stairs you watched your father’s stern face pause, freeze, and crumble.

You make the first tentative step, and the forest envelops you like a blanket. The broad, pointed fronds of ferns twitch and quaver, fiddleheads poking through the leaves like question marks. Soon, the ground of the trail turns sodden, and the brownish muck soaks through your sneakers. You hop off the path. On your way deeper into the thicket, you find…

Check all that apply

a. A squashed soda can, flimsy metal, twisted like the hood of your mother’s Camry.

b. A sharp, crooked tooth.

c. A flower, red like the blood matted in your mother’s hair.

d. A golf ball with a painted green dot.

e. A piece of glass, light blue and glazed over, like your father’s eyes when he sits on a rickety chair in the kitchen, whiskey bottle clutched in his hand.

f. A piece of bone, more white than yellow, and brittle as his words, when he says your mother wasn’t supposed to be on that road. Don’t you know that she lied to steal a few minutes with that man, the one dead in the passenger seat? This is why she never came back home to you.

g. A cracked eggshell, empty and broken like your heart.

When the forest parts like a curtain and the vast swamp stretches before your eyes, do you…

a. Remember the tales of the thing in the bog, its cold and hungry mouth?

Or do you

b. Think of all the times your father said she didn’t love you enough and what kind of mother gets herself killed in a car accident, her lover’s hand still between her thighs?

Or perhaps you 

c. See a silhouette in the fog—a woman sitting on a hillock—and run forward, feet sinking in the squelching quagmire?

Of course, it isn’t her. What did you expect? It’s nothing more than a crooked tree stump with exposed roots and yet, if you blink away the tears and squint really hard, you can see in the cracks of the bark the broken likeness of her face. You can fix this, if you…

a. Fit the golf ball in the empty wooden socket, the painted dot—an iris, green and bright.

b. Let the tooth and the bone complete her face, fixing the fractures.

b. Twine the red flower into the twisted roots, into the strands of her auburn hair.

c. Place the broken eggshell and the shard of blue glass into her mossy lap like an offering.

And when the thing in the bog rises, stretching its limbs, wraps its bony arms around you, and pulls you down into the cold, shifting darkness of the swamp, you will feel…

a. no fear

b. only love.

Laila Amado writes in her second language, lives in her fourth country, and cooks decent paella. Her stories have appeared in Daily Science Fiction, Rejection Letters, Milk Candy Review, Porcupine Literary, and other publications. In her free time, she can be found staring at the Mediterranean Sea. Occasionally, the sea stares back. Follow her on Twitter at @onbonbon7

photo by Balazs Kiss (via pexels)

The Roses Smelled of Copper—Taylor Rae

When she was fifteen, Joy cut out her heart so no one could find it. She thought it would hurt more. But once she pried her heart from the wet purse of her ribcage, she couldn’t feel anything. Not the blood dripping down her belly. Not her mother’s knifing words when she discovered the stains on her good towels.

Joy’s heart was still beating as she buried it in the garden, beneath the roses.

“I’ll come back for you,” she whispered.

Her heart drummed back like a fist on a grave: no no no.

But Joy left it there. Every year, the roses brambled thicker than the last; every year, her heartbeat went duller and duller.

Joy grew brambled too. Thorns bristled in her chest like secrets. No one, not even her mother, dared attack her now.

When Joy returned for her heart, she was no child anymore, nor was she alone. The man with her had no scar where his heart should have been.

The roses were bloodred and smelled of copper. Joy lifted the toothy vines. The ground was quiet and dead. Her heart unbeating. Joy clawed at the soil, rocks gouging under her fingernails.

“It has to be here,” she insisted.

The man reached out and squeezed her hand. He looked at her the way he had when he offered his own heart and she had nothing but thorns to give.

“We’ll find it,” he said. “If you let me help.”

Together, they started to dig.

Taylor Rae is a professional cave troll, hidden away in the mountains of Coeur d’Alene, Idaho. She likes avoiding her neighbors, playing ukulele, and longboarding. Most of her stories involve spaceships and/or magic. She is the winner of the 2021 NYC Midnight Short Story Contest, and her work appears with Flash Fiction Online, PsuedoPod, and Fit for the Gods from Vintage Books. More at www.mostlytaylor.com.

photo by Kristina Paukshtite (via pexels)

Nora Chases the Sea—Nick Tan

Nora chases the sea, spitting at the long, tattered line of foam curling away from her salt-scabbed feet. As she advances, the sea retreats, pulling out of the bay and putting itself away. Nora runs across the stripped littoral zone, shredding her soles on the rocks jagged with barnacles, kicking at the wriggling fish. The sea huddles as far back as it can, then stops. Then it surges toward Nora, released from the catapult of its own body.

Nora, please stop chasing the sea, the townspeople plead when their buildings and power lines are washed away, when their sewage pipes burst and their trains are derailed by the incoming surf.

Nora says, Not until it gives my sister back to me.

Nora poisons the sea. She sinks the crawling tankers and smears oil slicks across the water. She raises factories along the coast, churning out noxious brews, the effluent turning the sea orange and purple and black. The prawn farms die. The seabirds wash ashore in tarry lumps. The fish catch the edges of petroleum rainbows with their gills. The sea shawls itself in algae as thick and dark as stale blood.

Nora bathes in the burgundy waves, shouting, You take many but you always give them back, so why not her

In response, the sea retches out mats of rotting kelp tangled with dying luminescent things from the deep.

Nora stabs the sea: first with wooden poles, then with concrete piling, laying her foundations in the seabed. She builds a causeway, then a platform, then miles and miles of long-legged imitation land, upon which she sets the first blocks of her floating cities. She cuts the sea into canals. She drives the heels of her cities into reef and rock. She flattens the tides into languid swells. She skewers metal through the deepest trenches, straight through the beating, buried heart of the sea. The sea looks up through the grating of Nora’s cities, greased and groomed and tame as a pond.

The sea dies and Nora finds her sister half-submerged in the sand, desiccated sponges clinging to her skeleton. A starved hermit crab is using her skull as a shell. Her jawbone chatters as the crab shuffles among her teeth. Nora digs her sister out and cradles her fishbone ribs.

Nora, says her sister’s skull, the hermit crab creaking her sister’s teeth into speech, give the sea back to me.

It made salt and bones out of you, and still it wouldn’t let you come home, answers Nora. Ask for something else.

Her sister replies, Then how about a kiss?

Nora leans toward her sister’s bones and kisses where lips once bloomed, and the crab nesting in her sister’s jaw clips her and floods her mouth with salt and rusted iron, and she tastes the little cove where she and her sister used to dive off the rocks and emerge, spluttering, with fistfuls of jellyfish, their fingers and arms throbbing with the incandescent venom of the stingers, which they’d lick until their welts became infected, and if the tide was too low for swimming they’d lie by the rock pools and herd the tiny periwinkles into made-up constellations until their eyes were blurry with periwinkle-stars and the sun melted their brains into stupor.

The cliff collapsed. The cove is gone. The sea took it, along with her sister. And now, the sea is gone, taken by Nora.

Nora cries, and the sea ruptures through the membranes of her heart and pours out of her arid eye sockets, snatching away her sister’s bones. She steps ashore onto a new beach, damp sand streaked with stranded jellyfish. She moves inland, away from their stings. 

Neither sea nor sister follow.

Nick Tan is a Malaysian speculative fiction writer based in Aotearoa NZ. Their work has previously appeared in Apparition Lit, Translunar Travelers’ Lounge and Anathema. They can be found on Twitter @moxieturbine.

photo by Oliver Sjöström (via pexels)