Tag Archives: Horror

The Widow

By C.L. Baptiste

Rosa, the widow of Andrés Romero, did not wear black to her husband’s funeral. Instead, she wore a bright red, skintight vinyl zip-up dress, bright red lipstick, and red faux-leather stiletto heels. Her mother-in-law gaped in undisguised outrage from behind her black lace veil, and even her own mother tried to usher her out of the church. It was no good. The new widow stood defiantly in the front row of the old Parroquia de Nuestra Señora de la Asunción throughout the funeral Mass, then took her place under the heavy black pall. Throughout the whole of the procession, starting on the steps of the church and proceeding in blistering shadeless afternoon sun along Cuesta de la Bolita, past squat barred-windowed brick apartments and dying gardens, Rosa was a glittering redfish in a sea of black ink. With her heels clacking and her bangles ringing, she gave the small Spanish town of Tarancón something to gossip about for the rest of the month.

Her husband waited to inquire about it until she came home and only did so with the utmost politeness.

“It’s not my fault you died,” she snapped, turning on the bathtub faucet at full blast. She unzipped her dress, shucked it off and tossed it on the floor. “I wanted to look how I did the day I met you. I’d been wanting to do that for one of our dates. When are you coming back, anyway?”

“I don’t think I’ll be back anytime soon,” said Andrés’ disembodied voice. “I’m dead.”

“Fuck you.” She sank into the bath so forcefully that water lapped over the sides.

On the edge of Tarancón, their apartment was one of many in a boxy, thin-walled brick building constructed back in the sixties. The couple had moved in a few months before their wedding three years ago. Rosa hadn’t cleaned often when times were normal, and since Andrés’ death last week, it had already become a chaos vortex of unwashed clothes and dishes.

They hadn’t meant to stay so long, in this town where both of them had grown up and where nothing much ever happened. Back when they were newlyweds ready to conquer the world, Rosa had assumed that their love would be enough to catapult them out of town in a few months. Her longtime dream of moving to Madrid to become a professional dancer had slipped away somehow, forgotten in her obsession with Andrés. Life happened: Andrés lost his job and spent months unemployed, and Rosa picked up the slack with her restaurant job. There was never enough money to move; it was never quite the right time. Her obsession with him turned into a clinging desperation as his eyes stopped following her, as he grew accustomed to a bride whose youthful body no longer held any secrets for him.

Now she folded her arms, still refusing to look in his direction. “I hear José’s still single. And then there’s your friend Antonio. Maybe I’ll call them both up.”

“Please, no. At least not José; he’s a scumbag.”

“These are going to charity today. I’ll have nothing of yours left in this house.”

“What do you care? You’re fucking dead.”

There was a long silence between them. Rosa leaned her head back in the water, washing the shampoo out of her hair.

“How’s the afterlife, anyway?” she asked. “Was it worth giving us up? It fucking better have been.”

“Haven’t been there yet. I’ve heard it’s good, though. Like being born again, but not into a place as sad as this. They call it the Land of Flowers.”

“Then why aren’t you there instead of here?”

“Well, no one can pass through that gate unless they truly want to go, and they can’t come back once they’ve gone. And I wanted to see you and say goodbye to you and make sure you’re all right before I go.”

“Why do you care all of a sudden? You should have cared when you were alive.” She almost looked back in the direction of his voice but forced herself not to.

“I did.”

“You didn’t show it. You ignored me.”

“It’s a little overwhelming to be drowning in an unlimited amount of Rosa while being expected to adore every atom of you the whole time.” His voice carried only a sad hint of the sarcasm that used to permeate most things he’d say when he was alive, but Rosa still felt the heat of rage rush to her face and ears.

“But I’m concerned, Rosa,” he continued before she could retort. “You ironed all my clothes and polished all my shoes before my funeral, which I appreciate, but you know I won’t be around to wear those anymore. You even made me a coffee and breakfast, which looked delicious, and I would have eaten them if I could, but I can’t.”

“Well, you weren’t here to do your own laundry or make your own damn breakfast, so here I am being the dutiful wife. Why’d you get into that stupid crash in the first place? How dare you do that?”

“It wasn’t my fault, Rosa.”

She jumped to her feet and whirled around towards his voice, water sloshing out of the tub. It was coming from the open window just outside the bathroom. Behind the thin white curtain, she could see the shadowy silhouette of the late Andrés Romero.

As soon as she focused on it, his shape disappeared.

“Get back here!” she cried, stomping over and yanking the curtain aside. When she leaned out the window, she saw not a single human shape up or down the street.

“Fine,” she muttered bitterly, shutting the window and locking it. She wrenched a towel off the bathroom rack and dried herself off.

His voice came again from behind her, as clearly as if he were inside the house. “I’m sorry I have to hide, Rosa. It’s just that I’m dead, and I’m a little insecure about it. I don’t want you to see me like this.”

Refusing to look back towards him, she marched over to the bedroom closet, still naked, pulling out armloads of his clothes and throwing them on the floor.

“These are going to charity today. I’ll have nothing of yours left in this house.” She lifted a framed photo from their honeymoon off the wall and smashed its glass pane on the floor. “Getting rid of that stupid project car of yours too. It’ll be like you never lived here. I’m twenty-four. I’m going to start all over again. I’m going to live a new life.”

No response came. She looked over her shoulder, saw no one, and let out a few more strings of curse words in case he was still around to hear them. Then she sank to her knees and gathered his clothes up against herself in bunches, clutching them as if ten of his empty shirts could somehow equal some fraction of a full embrace.

“When she woke in the evening, the room was empty.”

He next appeared two days later as Rosa woke up well past noon after a full twelve hours of sleep, finding herself splayed facedown in the middle of the bed and clutching the twisted blankets and sheets in a sort of nest. Back when Andrés was alive, she knew he would have scooted her back over to her side of the bed in an instant, grumbling under his breath. Now, all he could say was, “Feel better?”

“No.” She rolled over. “Let me sleep.”

She lay awake and stared at the ceiling for an hour.

“So…”

She glared. “What, you’re still there?”

“Yup. Look, Rosa, you can’t just keep living like this. Also, aren’t you supposed to be at work? Do they know what’s going on?”

“Guess I’ll just lose my job, then.”

“I know you hate working at that restaurant, but now that I’m dead, you really need to—”

“I haven’t had a break from anything since I married you, not from work or from cooking and cleaning or from hearing you talk your shit all the time, and now I am taking that break.”

“You shouldn’t be all alone like this. You should be with your mamá or your sisters. Or you could call my mamá even—she’s not easy to get along with, but she’ll at least cook a—”

“They all hate me, and they all think I’m trash anyway, especially after that funeral. Besides, I’ve told you a million times, I pushed everyone away when I married you because they told me it was a bad idea, and I can’t go back. I should have listened to them.”

“Rosa—”

“I wore what you wanted. I pretended to enjoy things in bed that I didn’t. I gave up going to dance conservatory in Madrid. I gave up my backup school plans….”

“We need to talk about what you’re doing with the rest of your life.”

“Are you going to keep micromanaging me like this for the rest of my life? Aren’t there plenty of dead whores in the underworld for you to enjoy now that death’s done us part?”

“That’s enough, Rosa. You need to figure out some sort of career now that you’re the only one taking care of yourself—”

“Like you ever had one!”

“—and you should probably start dating again. A hobby would be a good idea, too.”

She laughed. “What, start dancing again?”

“Isn’t that what you’d be doing if you hadn’t married me?”

“I don’t even want to think about how much I wish I hadn’t married you.” She lay back on the pillow for a while, then sat up slowly and looked around for him. She could see his silhouette behind the curtain again.

“How’d you get out of that coffin, Andrés? I saw them lock it. I saw them bury it.”

“I go where I want, when I want, now that I’m not one of the living. Though I’m the same man, they buried.”

“Why do you stand over there? Come over here.”

His shadow didn’t move.

“Come on,” she said again. “Can’t I see you and touch you?”

“Well, as I said, I’m the same man they buried.” 

“You can’t be that bad, and I need you now.”

“You identified my body at the police station. You know what that crash did to me.”

“I guess, but I don’t remember. My memory must have cut that part out of the camera roll. Besides, that wasn’t really you. Just a torn-up piece of meat.”

He gave a sigh, the same sigh that had infuriated her for the whole of their marriage, that always told her that she wasn’t about to get her way. “I will come closer, only if you agree to keep your eyes shut and don’t try to touch me. I will sit in the chair next to the bed until you fall asleep.”

She shrugged. “I’ll take what I can get.” Obediently facing away from him, she lay back down. She heard the floor creak under slow, careful footsteps, heard the chair shift as he settled into it. She lay there for several minutes, considering breaking the agreement and turning to see him before she fell asleep. 

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When she woke in the evening, the room was empty. Hauling herself out of bed, she picked up the red vinyl dress off the floor and zipped it back on.

“Where are you off to in that?” she heard him say.

“Going out. Going to have some fun.”

“Prowling for fresh meat tonight, aren’t you?”

She plopped down on the bed dejectedly, pulling her stilettos on. “I need someone to touch me. Someone I can close my eyes and pretend is you.”

“That’s a terrible idea.”

“I thought you wanted me to date.”

“Not like that. Take your time, find someone responsible and stable who’ll treat you—”

“I need someone tonight. You can’t stop me, not unless you’re willing to take my hand and drag me into that grave of yours and take me with you to wherever you people go. The Land of Plants, or wherever. So we can keep having stupid arguments like this forever and ever.”

Hearing a dead man sputter was almost enough to make her laugh. “You… I… Look, I’m… that’s not… don’t think like that… don’t make me think like that!”

“If you won’t take me with you, don’t you dare tell me not to look for someone else. I need… I need to be beautiful. To be treated like I’m beautiful.”

She waited through a long pause, then heard him give that infuriating sigh again. He seemed to do that more often since his death than when he was alive. 

“Careful, then. Don’t drink too much. I’ll keep an eye on you as best I can, but don’t you have any friends who can go with—”

“All my friends are fucking married.”

“… she heard a shrill male scream, and José rushed out with his pants unzipped and bolted for the door.”

A few hours later, she came home.

“You’re alone,” he said.

“Couldn’t find anyone I was into. Stupid idea. Anyway, I realized taking home some drunk idiot for a one-night stand won’t make me feel any better.” She could feel tears start to prick at the insides of her eyelids and hid her face in case he could see.

“Remember to think about your life, too.”

“Come here and touch me, Andrés.”

“I can’t.”

“Yes. Go, please go. I need… I need some time.”

The next day, she called José. That night, they went out to dinner.

She had dated José for a few months in high school before meeting Andrés. He’d been cool back then, a whole year-and-a-half older than her, an aspiring rapper, a real ladies’ man. Since then, he’d put on about thirty pounds and worked his way up to being a branch manager at a banking franchise, which suited her just fine. 

She tried to converse as a normal single woman, but found it impossible to talk about her life without mentioning Andrés every step of the way. She felt dull and superficial. José, on the other hand, did Andrés’ memory no favors, slurring on Andrés’ few months of unemployment, his later bartending job, even his music tastes. “Bastard thought he’d gotten you forever, Rosa, but we know who got the last laugh now, don’t we? Your good old first flame.” Rosa rolled her eyes but ignored the smear, because before they left the restaurant, José had at least told her what she wanted to hear: “Rosa, you are so beautiful and I have been thinking about you ever since we broke up. You should have been with me this whole time.”

She brought him home. When they got there, she poured two glasses of wine, then fixed her lipstick in the bedroom mirror while José stepped into the bathroom, saying he’d be just a minute. About thirty seconds later, she heard a shrill male scream, and José rushed out with his pants unzipped and bolted for the door.

“I saw him! I saw HIM!!” José cried, before bursting out the door. She heard his car engine start, then fade quickly into the night.

“You owe me a screw, Andrés,” she growled, moodily sipping her wine.

“I told you he was a scumbag. You never knew the things he’d say about you and your body, even after we got married—”

“He was the only man I could think of who’d be enough of a scumbag to go out with me a week after my husband dies.”

“I’m sorry. It’d be easier for me to watch you sleep with a stranger than with him. Did I tell you what he did at my bachelor party? Remember he was married to Manuela at the time—”

“I don’t want to hear a damn thing about your bachelor party. You told me you all you guys did was watch the fútbol game.”

“Well, I lied. Anyway, José lost his wedding ring inside the stripper and didn’t realize it until—”

“I didn’t pick him for his upstanding character, Andrés. Also, someone’s got to help me finish the rest of this bottle.”

“I can’t drink it. I’m dead.”

“I suppose you’re going to tell me you can’t get it up because you’re dead, either.”

“Excuse me?”

She put down her glass and wandered over to the bed, stripping off her red dress as she went. “We’ll see about that.” She slid her undergarments off, tossing them in different directions around the room. Leaving her stilettos on, she climbed onto the bed, posing on hands and knees, arching her back to tilt her hips upwards. She slid one hand between her thighs and slowly began to rub. 

“Still can’t get it up?”

She heard that sigh again. “Okay, Rosa. You win. You’ve given a dead man a boner. Happy now?”

“Of course not. I want a lot more than just hearing that you’ve got a boner.”

He was silent for a few long seconds. She swayed her hips in the air, still rubbing. In her mind, she played through all their best memories as vividly as she could: the night he’d first taken her home in that stupid red dress; the time she’d straddled him in the surf, on their honeymoon in Valencia; the few months of wildness here in this room, before it all started to wear off and before she was suddenly nothing but a wife.

He gave his signature sigh yet again. “Fine. But you have to promise not to look at me, okay?”

“Okay. You can even blindfold me if that turns you on.”

“Eyes closed is fine.”

She heard his footsteps move across the creaky wooden floor, and felt the edge of the mattress depress as he put his weight on it. She kept her eyes closed as she felt two hands take hold of her hips and run up and down her back. “Oh yes, Andrés,” she whispered. “Oh yes.”

The hands were cold, though. They were softer than before, too, and moist and slippery. Something in the air smelled strange; rotten and sickly sweet. 

She held her breath, letting her mind soar into a perfect world, letting the funeral and burial and the misery of widowhood melt away. She fantasized about his lips on hers, his hands tracing circles around her nipples. She pictured his strong hands and forearms, his lean, muscled chest and abs, the dragon tattoo on his left pec and the crucifix on his right. The image became so strong that she instinctively rolled over to face him, and in doing so, she opened her eyes.

Then she screamed, and pulled away from him and jumped off the bed.

“I told you not to look!” he shouted. She tried to run and immediately tripped over her stilettos, face-planting on the floor. A retch jumped up in her throat, and she pulled herself up on her knees again, vomiting the remains of her date-night dinner on the rug.

“I… I need…”

“You need me to go?”

The sweet, rotten smell was overpowering now, seeming to restrict her throat and choke her as strongly as a hand. The smell of a decaying corpse.

“Yes. Go, please go. I need… I need some time.”

She turned her face away from him and heard his footsteps rush across the floor to the window, and then she was alone.

“… blurring her vision and clouding her mind until her world went black from complete exhaustion.”

After he was gone, she leaned over the bathroom sink and finished clearing the bile from her throat, then stared at her face in the mirror for a long time. She’d looked good at the beginning of the night, but now her eyeliner ran in streaks, and her skin looked drawn and clammy.

The sight of his corpse wouldn’t leave her mind. She focused on her own face instead, trying to block out his mangled image, but instead saw the state of his face juxtaposed over hers. Her own face was torn up, with the nose missing and half the skin burned off, and the lips twisted up on one side, showing far too many teeth.

The memories that she’d clung to for so long were gone now, probably marred forever by what she’d seen. He was dead now and wouldn’t get any less dead. The night ticked slowly by. She finished the bottle of wine. Everything around her—the off-white walls of the apartment, the marriage bed, the pictures of them together on the wall—started to feel less and less real. Andrés’ ruined face kept intruding on her mind, and that was when she started toying with the kitchen knife. 

At first, she considered whether the knife was the best method and visualized which way was most botch-proof—just jab it in? Slit her own throat in front of the mirror and hope she’d have the nerve to cut deep enough? Or just prop the blade up somehow, use bookends or firm pillows, and fall on it? Maybe a knife wasn’t the best bet. She could use bedsheets to hang herself (from what? The shower curtain rod? Would it support her weight?) or try to make a reasonably fast-acting cocktail of over-the-counter painkillers. She could crash her car into a tree.

If you won’t take me with you, Andrés, then who says I can’t go after you myself? Be your bride in the afterlife? She couldn’t take the thought of him loving someone else in the Land of Flowers. And if she lived her life out until death found her in old age surrounded by great-grandchildren, wouldn’t she enter the Land of Flowers as an old woman while Andrés had stayed forever young? What was so wrong with her dying young and pretty, to be together forever in tragedy?

She tossed the knife away, watching it skitter across the floor. She made her way to the bed and lay down, then took out her phone and began scrolling through old photos of him, from back when he was alive and handsome and before everything was all wrong. All the date photos, beach photos, hanging-around-and-goofing-off photos. She began to cry. The tears came slowly and unnaturally at first, then the faucets turned on, and her face crumpled, and she sobbed and sobbed. She pressed her face briefly into the pillow, then kept scrolling.

There were wedding photos on her phone, too, which brought a sudden wave of bitterness now. She closed her eyes and let it pass, trying to understand what it was all about, letting the pain roll until she realized how badly she wished that she had never married him in the first place. Was it because she knew about the strippers at his bachelor party? That didn’t seem to fit as an explanation now—maybe if he was still alive, she’d throw a fit, but now the thought just bounced dully off her brain. Her longing to step into those photos faded now. She felt numb and lifeless.

She scrolled back before the wedding. Mostly dance photos now; a few semi-professionally-shot music videos; selfies with friends dolled up for a dance competition or a night out. A few date photos with Andrés. And here, she realized, was where she wanted to go back to. Not to the past days of their marriage—who knew how long they’d have lasted, anyway? Another couple of years?—but to those days before. Start over. 

She had loved Andrés, for sure, but there’d been something wrong from the start. She’d needed him or thought she had. She’d needed to be beautiful, needed it more desperately than she needed Andrés or dance conservatory in Madrid. However, they were both means to the same end. Being beautiful and perfect; feeling wanted, admired, desired. She must have thought marriage would give that to her because enough was never enough in dance. But it was the same in marriage.

She glanced again at the knife lying on the floor. 

Maybe she’d loved him, maybe he’d deserved every ounce of love and done the best he could with it, and maybe she had already committed some form of suicide to be with him, two years ago, at that wedding.

Her mind began to widen out as if stretched by holding thoughts that it had never held before. She saw realities and futures branch out like city streets leading in opposite directions. One led into the shadows of the life she could have had with him, which she would have taken for granted if he had never died, being ignored forever and indefinitely, nagging and begging until something snapped. Conversely, she also saw the life she could have had without him if she’d listened to her family and her friends and gone to dance school instead: the late, hard-partying nights in Madrid, in between competitions and performances and video shoots and relentless practicing, and the makeup and the staring at herself in the mirror and the dietary obsessions. It was gone now; she was years out of practice and too old to compete with eighteen-year-olds. She longed and ached for that future as she itemized it and boxed it up, realizing how much that unacknowledged longing had dug into their marriage since the beginning, deepening the pain under the numbness of being taken for granted.

But the one future that stayed dark was the one into which she was headed, without Andrés and without those youthful dreams. Every time she tried to see through that darkness, her mind hurt uncontrollably. The tears came again and again, blurring her vision and clouding her mind until her world went black from complete exhaustion.

When he did not, she pulled away from his grip, the opened her eyes and turned around.”

A few days later, the widow of Andrés Romero wore black.

She had emptied her husband’s closet, donating its contents to charity. She’d even fetched a fair price for his half-finished project car, letting some collector tow it out of the garage on a trailer. Now, early on a Sunday morning, she stood by his grave in her high-necked black dress and black lace mantilla, holding a bouquet of white lilies and roses, memorizing the sight of his engraved name and epitaph.

She bent down and laid the bouquet on his grave. Tied to the bouquet were a photo of the two of them—the one from the wall, whose frame she had smashed—and a thick cream-coloured envelope containing a several-pages-long handwritten letter. She’d tried to convey everything she needed to in that letter and had been up most of the past two nights writing it.

As she straightened up, she heard a voice from behind.

“I’m just here to look out for you, Rosa. I’ll protect you as long as you need me. Forever, if need be.”

She felt a hand trace down her spine. She closed her eyes, letting the ecstasy of human touch wash over her, but did not look back.

“Nothing can take me away from you,” he murmured in her ear.

“Andrés, I’ll be okay. It’ll be a while, but it’ll happen. I can’t move on with my life until you’re gone, and I want you to go to the Land of Flowers. Isn’t there a lot waiting for you there? This world isn’t the place for you anymore.”

“I’m afraid. To go. I’m afraid to be without you, to be alone. You’re my soul, Rosa.”

She closed her eyes, feeling the tears start to prick behind them, realizing she’d been waiting to hear words like that throughout their whole marriage. Why did they have to come now, of all times?

“Neither of us can stay here, standing between life and death. I’m leaving town. I’m leaving our home and your grave behind. You should go too.”

“No.” His voice had a desperate, trapped-animal edge to it now. She felt his hands take hold of her shoulders. “You need me, and I’m afraid of what will happen to you.”

“Andrés, I can’t be okay until you’re gone.” She kept her eyes closed. Her voice was almost a whisper. “Let go of me.”

When he did not, she pulled away from his grip, then opened her eyes and turned around.

No one was there.

“As she pulled out of the driveway, she found herself smiling.”

She had left the apartment in complete disarray after getting rid of his clothes and halfway packing her own things for a move. Still, when she got home, everything had been neatly put away, and the floor had been swept clean and scrubbed. The pile of dresses and blouses that she’d pulled out of the closet and tossed on the bed had been folded and packed into the cardboard boxes she’d brought home yesterday; all the kitchen utensils and dinnerware sat in two more boxes in the hall.

“Where do you plan to go?” She could see a shadow behind the curtains.

“Madrid. Going to start over, somewhere where no one knows me. Going to look for a job that I don’t hate. Think about putting myself through college.”

“What about dance?”

“That dream’s gone. I need new dreams. Don’t worry, I’ll get them. But what about you?”

“Dreams?” he murmured.

“Yes.”

He paused for a long time before she heard his voice. When it came, it was soft and distant. “…Without you, now there are so many.”

As she watched, the silhouette blurred and faded away until only rays of sun were left, streaming in through the thin curtains.

“Andrés?”

No answer.

She changed into jeans and tennis shoes, hauled the boxes into the trunk of the car, mailed the key and the final check to the landlord, and climbed into the driver’s seat.

As she pulled out of the driveway, she found herself smiling.


C.L. Baptiste’s short stories have appeared in Aphelion, Mithila Review, and Lamplit Underground under various pseudonyms. She resides in the U.S. Pacific Northwest and is currently working on her first novel.

The Tall Man

By Louise Wilford

Beckett knew he was being followed as soon as he stepped out of the bookies. It was an instinct you developed after a lifetime in the business – someone in your peripheral vision, standing too still or pausing too often, or the pale flash of a face turned in your direction.  

The instinct could go wrong, of course. He knew all the stories, and there’d been moments over the past few years when he’d wondered whether he was cracking up himself and would end up like Old Frayn, who – he’d heard – was now in a psychiatric ward, convinced that everyone who visited him was a North Korean spy.  

But this time, he knew it wasn’t simply paranoia.

Maintaining his usual slightly dour expression, he walked on, ignoring the urge to look ’round. Two doors down, he paused in front of the plate glass window of Greenberg’s Suits For All Occasions, pretending to examine their array of unimaginatively displayed men’s jackets but actually scanning the reflections to see whether he could spot anyone suspicious. Two people passed along the street behind him – a young woman pushing a pram and a middle-aged man carrying two plastic bags of shopping. Across the street, a couple of women were standing in front of the window of Marks and Spencer, deep in conversation, and three teenagers were lounging on the benches ’round the fountain in the square. No obvious North Korean spies there, he thought, his reflection smiling sardonically. 

Then he spotted what he was looking for – a tall, slender man in a dark coat, who stepped inside Boots just as Beckett’s gaze fell on him. It could have been a coincidence – or it could have been the action of an experienced agent or even a cop. But it wasn’t just his behaviour that snagged Beckett’s attention: the man looked somehow familiar. Beckett had seen him, or someone like him, before, though he couldn’t think where.  

What should he do? So many years after his retirement, it seemed unlikely that someone from his past would be here now to shake his hand and tell him he’d won the jackpot on the MI5 lottery. No one was supposed to know where he was, who he was, what he was. Even his wife, May, hadn’t known precisely what he’d retired from. If this guy was an agent, it couldn’t mean anything good; if he was someone from one of the terrorist organizations Beckett had infiltrated, it would be a great deal worse. And why hadn’t the guy just approached him in the usual way? It was broad daylight, and even spooks knew the rules of normal social interaction.

But maybe he was wrong. Maybe the tall man wasn’t following him at all. Maybe Beckett was succumbing to paranoia. A life like the one he’d led tended to take its toll.

Inside Greenberg’s, an assistant was straightening a jacket and glancing at him suspiciously. A better move, he thought. There’s only so long a man can gaze at a shop window convincingly. He took out a cigarette, lit it, and walked on. Before she died, three years ago, May had tried to stop him smoking, telling him it was bad for him, but he enjoyed it, so he compromised by smoking only outside. It soothed his nerves. 

As he walked on down the street, turning right onto Lowry Road, he desperately wanted to turn his head and check whether the tall man was following, but he knew better.  

There was a café at the end of Hogarth Row, where it joined Lowry Road, crowded at this time of day. Beckett ground the remains of his cigarette into the pavement with his toe, then – cursing himself silently – he bent down and picked up the squashed stub, slipping it into his pocket. Might as well leave a trail of breadcrumbs, he thought, allowing himself a quick glance ’round. He was out of practice. He dodged through the café’s doorway just as a family group were coming out, then slipped between the tables to the back where he knew there were toilets. The place was packed, windows misted with condensation; it reeked of hot fat and bubbling batter, a smell that would have made his mouth water any other lunchtime. The young man behind the counter nodded at him – he was a regular customer – and Beckett tried to force his grim face into a friendly expression. 

He pushed open the toilet door. The sharp smell of disinfectant met the salt-and-vinegar of the restaurant, and a wave of nausea rose in his gullet. The door swung shut behind him. The room was empty, a short urinal on one side, a single cubicle, its door open, in the corner beside a cracked sink. A large sash window, textured glass, half-filled the wall at the end, a twisted plastic Venetian blind doing its best to add an extra layer of privacy. Thank God he’d remembered the window correctly. It was open a few inches, the plastic blind rattling gently in the breeze off the sea. Using all his strength, he yanked it up as far as it would go. It squealed and grunted in protest, but he ignored the noise. It wasn’t much of a drop to the alleyway outside. 

As he clambered through the gap, the door between the restaurant and the toilet swung open, letting in the noise of conversation and the gurgling coffee machine, and again the pungent odour of frying fish. A boy about thirteen stared at him in astonishment, his mouth falling open to reveal multi-coloured braces on his teeth. Beckett put his forefinger to his lips. The boy continued to stare at him. Then, with an agility unusual in men his age, Beckett slid through the aperture and dropped carefully and quietly to the ground. Glancing up and down the empty alley, he made a rapid decision to head towards the seafront. As he began to run, he heard the window behind him rattling. Someone was leaning out, but he daren’t look back to check whether it was the boy with the braces or the tall man.

“The man gave a weird half-smile, the edge of his mouth twitching as if Beckett had made a feeble joke.”

The alley led out onto the promenade, not far from the pier. It became a different place here, the sober Victorian town centre giving way to grubby bunting, garishly striped awnings, and kiosks piled high with boxes of fudge, kiss-me-quick hats and sugar dummies the colour of old-fashioned prosthetic limbs. Beckett skimmed the street, taking in his surroundings swiftly. Every third shop seemed to be a newsagent’s with racks of postcards in its doorway and inflated beachballs hanging over its windows. The pavements were crowded with strolling families in flip-flops and shorts, holding ice-creams and plastic buckets and spades. Hot, sugary smells – doughnuts and candyfloss – drifted above the sour scent of seaweed, making him feel nauseous again. Bursts of pop music from the arcades accosted him, a bingo caller’s amplified voice reverberating from across the street (‘Are you ready, ladies and gents?’) – and he could hear a more distant, older cry from the fairground further along: ‘The louder you scream, the faster we go!’.  For a second, the world felt uncanny to Beckett, like he’d stepped into an old Joseph Losey film, or the dislocating cacophony of a Graham Greene novel.

And there, standing in the shadow of an old lifeboat across the promenade, was the tall man, dropping a cigarette stub on the pavement and grinding it out with the toe of his shoe, as if in mockery of Beckett’s earlier actions.

He was staring straight at him.

But how could he be there? Beckett knew the man hadn’t passed him. If he’d taken a different route, how had he anticipated where Beckett would go?

At least there was now no doubt that the man was following him.

He felt himself trembling. He’d never been a nervous type; it didn’t go with the job. But there was something about that long-boned figure that made the hairs on his neck rise, digging out memories he’d rather stayed buried. 

His training took over. He looked away, glanced down at the floor, stuffed his hands in his pockets and fell into a casual amble, threading through the crowds that spilled off the pavements into the road. When Nash Street branched off at a crossroads, he took the left turn, down the main high street in the town, then darted across the busy road and headed off down Turner Lane, a narrow, cobbled alleyway between a mini-mart and a pub. He knew this was a shortcut to Dadd Street, which ran ’round the edge of the Old Town, parallel to the high street, and he could dart into one of the quiet shops there before his pursuer could get down the alley. 

On Dadd Street, moving quickly but not quite running, he crossed the road to a small gift shop with a dark interior. The door tinkled as he pushed it open, and an old man reading a newspaper behind the counter looked up, without interest, and muttered a brief greeting. There was no one else in the shop. It was a dusty, gloomy sort of place, shelves holding second-rate souvenirs and cheap children’s toys, mugs decorated with photographs of the seafront, little ships and miniature lighthouses made out of painted driftwood. Pretending to examine the dreary merchandise, Beckett lurked behind a display of plastic ships-in-bottles and fake Scrimshaw near the window, inspecting the street.

Though he knew he was right to think the man was tailing him, it was still a shock when the tall, slim figure emerged from the mouth of Turner Lane, scrutinising the street quite openly now. He was the kind of man you’d expect people to notice, with his exceptional height and that skinny frame, but no one on the street seemed to give him even a first glance. Beckett had a sudden feeling that maybe only he could see him, but he dismissed this idea immediately. No point in giving in to such ideas. His next impulse was to confront him, to step outside, walk across and ask him what he wanted, what he was doing here, why he was following him – but he knew this was just the adrenaline coursing through his veins. He’d learned years ago that, sometimes, there are moments when it feels easier – when it feels like it might even be a relief – to give yourself up rather than endure a second more of excruciating terror. These are the dangerous moments, the ones you need to guard against. The moments when you need to regulate your breathing, focus on the task at hand. Fear is the killer. 

Besides which, he had no weapon, not even a knife. When he left his house that morning, to visit the bookies and pick up a newspaper, he hadn’t expected his past to creep up on him in the street, on its spidery legs. He’d thought he was free of all that. And, anyway, he suddenly knew, with a shivering certainty, that he could never voluntarily confront this man. There was something about him that was quickening his heartbeat and making the gooseflesh rise on his arms. 

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Beckett pulled his head back into the shadows, but he was sure the man had spotted him, as he had begun to look for a gap in the traffic so he could cross over to the shop. Seeing the man’s angular features clearly now, a newly-lit cigarette cupped in one bony hand, Beckett realized where he’d seen him before. He’d been there when O’Leary was killed. He’d been standing a little behind the gang leader, off to one side, in the shadows, when Beckett shot the sadistic bastard in the chest and then in the head, just to make sure. Presumably, one of O’Leary’s entourage, though not one he’d recognized. A new guy, perhaps. He’d darted away, deeper into the shadows, before Beckett could shoot him too. When Beckett chased after him, he’d vanished into the shadowy alleyways ’round the docks. The other agents said they hadn’t seen anyone running away in that direction, but they hadn’t been as close to the gang. Beckett remembered that gaunt frame and that cruel face – small, deep-set eyes peering out from beneath a bony brow, above prominent cheekbones. A large, hooked nose and solid, heavy jaw. He looked like he’d been carved from granite. In fact, Beckett wasn’t sure, now, how he could ever have forgotten that face.

O’Leary’s death had been just over a decade ago. His final undercover mission. He retired soon afterwards. Infiltrating the IRA cell had won him a commendation. Later, after he discovered that the man he’d killed hadn’t actually been responsible for the kidnapping and torture of two fellow intelligence agents, as he’d been told – that in fact, he’d killed the wrong man (though a man who surely deserved to die nonetheless) – his previous certainties had crumbled like sandstone. Beckett had killed a lot of people in his career. Still, even though he knew how much of a scumbag the Irishman had been, he’d never quite shrugged off the unease he’d felt when he pulled the trigger that last time. On some level, he’d known they’d got the wrong man. He’d killed him out of fury, a reckless sense of anger and a desire for retribution, punishment for all the sordid brutalities committed by men like O’Leary that had discoloured Beckett’s world.

It had faded over the years, this sour lump of disquiet in his gut. Still, he sometimes dreamt of that winter evening, in another, much drearier, seaside town, so far away from here. That greasy wharf, the creak of the sea against its struts, pushing the tied-up boats up and down in the darkness, casting peculiar moving shadows. The look of surprise on O’Leary’s face when a man he trusted put a bullet through his chest. He dreamt about it sometimes.

And he remembered, with a sick sense of inevitability, that the tall man had been in all those dreams.

You could never really shrug off the sort of life Beckett had led. It always followed you, close as a shadow; however, many years passed by.

The tall man had almost reached the shop’s door. Beckett stepped back towards the counter, pushing the shopkeeper’s newspaper aside so he could look straight at his outraged face.

‘Is there a back way out?’

‘I beg your pardon?’

‘A back door? Is it through here?’

‘You can’t go back there! That’s private, that is!’

Beckett shouldered the man aside, pulled open a door behind him, and stepped into a tiny kitchenette. Thank God it wasn’t just a storeroom. There was an external door at the other side of the room, with a cat flap. To Beckett’s relief, the door was unlocked, though it was stiff and took some tugging before it opened. He half-fell down a short flight of concrete steps that led into another cobbled alley. A black cat scooted behind the tall dustbins which stood at either side of the steps, overflowing with junk. Beckett could hear the sound of the tall man following him through the shop, through the back room. Panicking, he decided to head right. He knew that way he’d be close to the promenade and the pier, again – lots of people around, potential safety.

However, before he reached the end of the alley, he heard the tall man’s feet on the cobbles behind him. And suddenly, he was engulfed by a giddy black sense that it was all over. Instinctively, he felt for the gun he no longer carried. Why would a grandfather like him need to carry a gun?

Slowly, he turned.

The tall man was standing only a few feet behind him. Beckett could see now that, beneath his long black coat, he was wearing threadbare jeans, patterned with dark stains, and a loose-knit woollen sweater with holes in it. The coat looked new, and it flapped around the man’s long, thin legs, in the wind tunnel of the alley, with the noise a flag makes in a strong breeze. A black beanie pulled low over his forehead accentuated the sharp ridges of his bone structure. Except for the coat, which Beckett remembered him wearing when he’d seen him standing behind O’Leary – so it couldn’t be new, after all – he looked like a weather-beaten fisherman. It was almost a caricature, a fancy dress ‘seaside town’ outfit. But he was too thin, the thinnest man Beckett had ever seen. He looked like a man in the late stages of cancer, but he also looked – somehow – immensely strong.

And there was something else odd about him.

‘Who are you?’ asked Beckett, his voice thin with stress. The man gave a weird half-smile, the edge of his mouth twitching as if Beckett had made a feeble joke.

Then Beckett realized what it was about the man that looked wrong.
The sun was shining on Beckett’s face, making him squint a little and stretching his own shadow out over the cobbles behind him.
But there was no shadow in front of the tall man.

“his nostrils and drifting off on the breeze, and began – slowly, relentlessly – to walk towards Beckett.”

Panic overwhelmed Beckett. Stumbling slightly as he turned, he fled down the alley, desperate to getaway. He moved now like a hare fleeing from a fox, giving no thought to others, his mind a swirling chaos of terror. His training deserted him as he sped along the promenade, clattering down a flight of wooden steps onto the beach, scrambling across the expanse of pebbles that marked the edge between manmade and natural, past groups of astonished sunbathers. He could hear the scratchy rattle of the stones as he ran, and slipped, and ran again over them, then a kind of silence as he reached the edge of the screen and his trainers slapped against the smooth wet sand by the sea’s edge. All he could think of was escape and sanctuary.  

After a few minutes, with no evidence of pursuit, he began to calm down, the worst of his panic subsiding and rational thought kicking in. Feeling exposed on the sand, he cursed himself again, dodged ’round two children staring into a rockpool, and began to slow down. The crowds were thinning out at this end of the beach, where the tide seemed to be coming in a little faster, waves foaming over the sand like fingers clutching at a life-raft. Beckett fell into a brisk walk, glancing around and behind frequently. Eventually, he forced himself to stop, to turn slowly, scanning in all directions. Off to his left, back along the beach, a child was throwing a frisbee for a border collie to chase, and a family group was packing up their deckchairs and windbreaks. Further inland, a young couple were strolling arm in arm, and three bikini-ed women were lying side by side like steaks under a grill. The gaudy noise of the seafront had receded to a background hum, like a fading recollection, and the smell of the seaweed draped along the sand in dark green strands was more intense.

The tall man was nowhere to be seen.

Half-sobbing, half-laughing with relief, he looked out over the grey-blue waves and tried to pull himself together. He made a conscious effort to slow his breathing, steady his heart rate. He’d kept a low profile in this town for ten years, so he didn’t want to draw attention to himself now by galloping over a crowded beach like a madman being pursued by demons. A lone seagull swooped through the air above the sea’s edge, screeching loudly, the sound filling Beckett’s head with images of screaming children. He gritted his teeth and shook these thoughts out of his mind. Got to get a hold of myself, he thought. Get my bearings. His hand went to his forehead, pushing his sweaty hair from his face as he peered around desperately, then down at the sand around his feet, like a man who’d lost his wallet. Scraps of sweet wrappers, crisp packets, lollipop sticks embedded in the sand; the straw from an empty orange juice carton; glossy pink shells and rounded pebbles; sea glass smooth as a jewel. 

Beckett looked up, squinting against the sun. Between the beach and the road, a familiar higgledy-piggledy collection of black, clinker-built fishing-net huts stood. He’d seen them often on his walks, and he’d always found them slightly disturbing. They were unusually tall and thin, and he always felt they might topple over and crush him, their horizontal black weather-boards filling his thoughts with distorted images of endless parallel lines. As he stared at them, the tall man stepped out from the narrow, shadowy space between the closest two. He took a long inhale of the cigarette held between his lips, tendrils of smoke curling out of his nostrils and drifting off on the breeze, and began – slowly, relentlessly – to walk towards Beckett. 

Beckett heard his own voice muttering ‘No, no, no!’ and felt water slosh over the tops of his brogues as he stepped backwards into the waves. Soon the sea was above his knees, but he continued to stare at the tall man, who maintained his unhurried stride towards him. 

Then, with a sudden terrifying movement, Beckett turned, splashing through the deepening water until his feet felt only the movement of the sea beneath them – then swimming, with wild, determined strokes – then, at last, breathless and hopeless, waiting for the current to carry him to freedom.


Louise Wilford lives in Yorkshire, UK. Her poetry and short stories have been widely published, most recently in Bandit, Failbetter, Jaden, POTB, Makarelle and English Review. In 2020, she won First Prize in the Arts Quarterly Short Story Competition and the Merefest poetry competition. She was awarded a Masters in Creative Writing (Distinction). She is working on a fantasy novel.

Re:Birth

By Amita Basu

All day, I’ve struggled not to remember the day, but my cramp has been building, and I sit clutching my belly. I confront my dinner, seeking the culprit: another thing to eliminate.

My coffee’s decaf. (Decaf is safest after heart surgery, so I’m hoping it’ll help prevent heart surgery.) No dairy. (When I was five, I had diarrhea after a pint of ice cream: I might be lactose-intolerant.) White bread-and-vegan-mayo sandwiches. (Grandma has high cholesterol.) 

Nothing left to eliminate: everything that could hurt me is already gone.

All day, I’ve kept my eyes on my work, but now they steal towards where Aurora’s portrait used to hang. We got an old-fashioned studio portrait on her first birthday. Afterwards, I was desperately relieved to have one more thing to hold on to. But it became one more thorn in my heart: so the portrait’s gone, leaving behind its spot on the wall.

Microwave explosion! 

I stare at the telly. I’ve muted it: less scary so. A microwave has exploded in a Munich flat. “This was probably an accident,” says the reporter in the subtitle, “Though police are considering arson….” The resident had a vengeful ex-boyfriend, who’s been spotted lurking in the neighbourhood. Fortunately, the resident was dispatched on a last-minute work trip last night. 

“The property damage is minimal, though the noise frightened neighbours….”

My throat clamps closed. Forcing it open, with swallows of sugar-free milk-free caffeine-free coffee, I absorb the news. Munich’s just 6,000km away. What if Savazios had blown up my microwave? Aurora’s death wasn’t my fault, but he blamed me: I saw it in his eyes. 

Time to lock away my microwave. Why have I deferred this? Grandpa warned us about microwaves. He was prescient: splashed across every newspaper, now, is Cancer! I confront my Sunday dinner. Yes: I’ll make do with cold sandwiches and cold-stirred decaf every day. Hot food today isn’t worth the risk of being blown up tomorrow. I unplug my microwave oven. I’ll eBay it later; for now, I haul it out of sight: to the storeroom, formerly Savazios’s office. 

It’s a small room; it’s been a long three years. I nudge the door half-open. Photo frames, anniversary gifts, rocks and twigs picked off the forest floor on weekend walks half-spill out. (We didn’t call our walks ‘hikes’ or ‘forest bathing’ – that was hipster, and we felt smug together, resisting fads. But our smugness was airy: it left room for laughter and fresh air.) I thrust the microwave oven into the clutter. I relock the storeroom-door, and slump against it, massaging my belly. 

I’m used to grief cramps – what the doctors call psychosomatic symptomology. Now I get them only on significant dates. I’ve locked away the calendars: but my gut masochistically marks time. 

Today’s cramp is worse. It’s sapped my self-control: I’ve allowed myself to say their names. I swore not to do this to myself. Someday I’ll confront the past. Meanwhile, it’s only sensible to lock away the things that can cripple me. Microwaves and photo frames. From my cardigan pocket, I dry-swallow another paracetamol. Tomorrow I’ll awake cramp-free and memory-free. I heave myself up and clear away my half-eaten dinner. 

I finish my assignment: blueprints for Manchester’s first pagoda. I sign my name. Anna Rossi. I seal the blueprints in an envelope. I can’t face leaving the flat today. I’ll nip down to the lobby early tomorrow, when only the guard’s nodding, under his cap, over his desk. 

I was an architect. Good enough that when I became housebound, they let me draft from home. I am an architect. I can still see a few buildings through my windows and as many buildings as I want in the books I get delivered to my lobby.

Time for bedtime checks. Windows: now opened a chink (don’t want to suffocate); opened no more. (Last December, in Tours, a pigeon flew through a window into a flat, couldn’t fly out again, shit and flapped all over, terrified, and terrorized the old couple, one of whom then had a heart attack.) Rubbish-bin, lidded and lifted for the night onto the counter. (Yesterday, in the lift, a resident told her great-grandson there’d been rats on her honeymoon ocean-liner in 1923.) Rat-traps: set. Radiators: not leaking. Power-sockets: not afire. 

Bedtime. I spend the first half of the night drifting in and out of nightmares. They’re abating: now, when I awaken, I remember them for a half-second – then they’re gone.

Sleepless, I run checks a few more times. There’s not much left, now, to check. 

“Her jaws close on my forefinger. Playfully, pressureless – but lightning-fast.”

Past midnight, I awake, gasping. My gut feels ready to slip out my backside. Convulsions sit me up, then double me over. Even gasping hurts. Is it my gut? I’ve eaten nothing unusual. Nor does this feel like grief cramps.

Suddenly it’s here, and I’m on my feet, and I realize what this is. Arms clutching my abdomen, I stumble to the bathroom. My head swims. How can it be? Savazios left weeks after Aurora died. I’ve been alone for three years.

In the bathroom, I lower my pyjama shorts. With a final convulsion, my body ejects something. I feel it in my pants: a puddle, slimy soft. Well, I know what to do. I didn’t know I was pregnant; I can’t possibly be, yet here we are. I perch on the bathtub’s edge and plant my feet, knees apart. I ease my pants down around my knees. In a puddle of mucous and blood – swim two mites of flesh: hairless, obscenely nude, squirming.

What have I given birth to? Another monstrosity. Panic cramps my larynx. Vividly I see myself fleeing the scene. That’s what I should’ve done three years ago: fled this flat, where only guilt lives, bashing its head against the empty walls.

I massage my larynx. Gently I lower my pants to the white tiles. I squat. I peer. The mites of the flesh are two creatures, each about an inch long. Their skin is a transparent sac: taut over pink-and-black innards, sealing in the black dots representing eyes and ears. I know what I’ve had. Rats.

Does their skin seal in their mouths, too? How will they eat? I offer a fingertip. Breath, tiny but warm, scopes me; then two tiny mouths nudge my fingertip, and toothless gums nibble me. So: the sacs don’t seal the mouths. They can eat. 

I withdraw my hand. I must make this decision rationally. Undecided, I squat and stare. My cramp disappeared the moment I ejected these things. I could flush them down the toilet, incinerate my pants – and, tomorrow, resume a normal life. I didn’t ask for any of this. I am not guilty.

My hand’s found its way over to the mites again. They nose blindly around my fingertip, seeking a teat. They whine.

If I were thinking, I’d be again overcome with revulsion, paralyzed. I’m no longer thinking. I scoop them up in a white terry hand-towel, clean them up as best I can – they’re tiny, and I’m afraid of squishing them – and carry them in the palm of my hand to the fridge. 

Here’s the milk carton. (I still keep milk: in case a starving street cat sneaks through the window-chink, and only a milk-offering can save me from her wrath.) In my palm, the two morsels wriggle, rearranging themselves, seeking the warmest crannies. They’re cold. I must heat the milk.

I reopen the storeroom. The microwave oven topples into my arms. I microwave the milk, one second at a time. I remember: it must be warm, not hot. I’m not used to microwaving a thimbleful of milk. But I remember to check the temperature with my elbow. 

My babies love to sniff! 

I’ve set them down right at the saucer: still, they sniff blindly around, wriggling away; it’s sniffing that brings them wriggling back to the saucer. They sniff while they drink. They knead the saucer as if it were rat-teats; they must knead to release milk. Sniffing, snorting, they get milk-soaked. All through this, they’re fully blind, half-asleep. After their meal, I swaddle them in a fresh hand towel, tucking it around them, their noses unobstructed.

Again I confront the storeroom door. For three years, I’ve been half-opening the door, shoving things in. Now I need to step inside. I thrust the door open. Things spill out. I kick them back in. Then, remembering, I kneel, pick them up, fight my way in, and lay down further inside the things that’ve toppled out. Here’s Muncher’s crate. 

After a short illness, Muncher died peacefully at 21: he felt no pain, and I felt no surprise. Still, his loss, treading on the heels of the others, overwhelmed me. I vowed: no more pets. 

I dust Muncher’s crate, bed down inside it, my babies’ towel-swaddled, and lock the door. I’ve never raised rat-babies: better safe than sorry. Dog-crate by my pillow, feeding-alarms set for every half-hour, I go to bed. Perhaps this is just another nightmare.

I half-hope it isn’t. I’ve been clinging to what my life has become. Now I see what my life had become.

The alarm awakens me. I’d fallen asleep! Fully asleep. I lie, in the darkness, waiting for the nightmares to recede. Looks like this time, I wasn’t having any. Through the grill, I check my babies under my two forefingers, two tiny heartbeats race.

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All week, my babies’ bodies stay pink-skinned, their eyes and ears skin-sealed. All day, I watch them: sleeping, feeding, whining, squirming. Checking again for abnormalities, I run my finger down their tiny bodies, palpitating with their heartbeats impossibly fast – but normal, Google reassures me. Their bones are spongy as cartilage. Again I count their appendages: four toes, plus one ankle-hoof. Tiny toes whittled by microscopic elves.

Skilled elves: my babies are perfect, and there’s nothing wrong with them.
Under the translucent skin-sacs, their facial features grow. Then they protrude. Into the smooth eye-sockets protrude rubbery black raisins. From either side of the skull protrude tiny rosebuds. Their eyes and ears are coming.

I tried putting my babies in the kitchen, in the sun, while I worked: but I kept nipping around to pore over them. So now I keep them by myself. I peep at them every minute – but my work’s getting done, too. Details over which I’d vacillated for hours now fall into place. How was I ever so silly as to agonize over trivia? I carry them around, even on bathroom breaks: tucked into my cardigan pockets, lined with paper napkins. This phase – I remember – won’t last this blind, deaf, total dependence.

They mustn’t suffocate. So, instead of closing the windows to a chink at night, now I leave them half-open.

The eighth morning, my final feeding alarm awakens me from sleep, still nightmare-free but awakens me to panic. Across our bed, sunrays fall, aslant, on something sick-shiny. My babies have wriggled, out of towel and crate, up against my calf. But what’s wrong with them? Why do they lie, unmoving, where Aurora lay that morning? My heart is preemptively bursting, preparing me for tragedy. But, this time, my resolve is steeling me to deal with it. Nobody knows about my rat-babies. If they’ve died, again for no fault of my own, I shall flush them down the toilet.
I sit up and fumble at them. My eyes adjust to the sun in them. Now I see. Fur!

It’s just fur that they’ve begun growing: still thin and colourless, but already lustrous. That’s all the sick-shine was. Laughing, I clutch my babies to my bosom. They wriggle and squirm. Flush my babies down the toilet, indeed! I hear the hysteria in my laugh; only now that the terror has passed do I feel it shaking me. My hysteria ebbs, leaving only soft relief.
At two weeks old, their eyes open: black and sleepy. Their ears pop free of their skulls and nestle, still flat, in their fur. The fur’s gray now, but still just a dusting, just shielding their raw pink nudity. Babyfur, softer than safety.

Three weeks. I run my finger down their backs, neck to tail. They’re as long as my index finger. Springy muscle, and bones no longer spongy, resist my finger, now. Life is growing up against. But they’re still babies: they whine with pleasure and squirm into my fingertip massage.
I watch them constantly; still, again, their next metamorphosis happens overnight. I bid my half-nude mites goodnight and awaken to find them in fur coats big and fancy. They’ve been playing Castle between the crenellations of my toes. Hearing me laugh, they come scurrying, nosing my lips, welcoming me to their new day, unself-conscious of their new beauty.

At four weeks old, the dull gray of their infant fur differentiates into their adult colours. One baby is mostly Cocoa, the other wheat. I give Cocoa and Wheatie the run of the flat. Hither and thither, they scurry and scamper: whiskers quivering, pink noses glistening.

Always their globe-trotting expeditions terminate at the Bermuda Triangle: the storeroom door. They rear up: forepaws hanging, fore-wrists lax. They turn on me, black eyes glistening, begging. I open the storeroom door – but don’t let them in. If they got in amongst my life’s rubbish, I’d never find them again.

I go in alone to retrieve toys for my babies. The books I bought after my losses. Books on trauma, grief, and healing. Cocoa shreds them into ribbons.

I retrieve Muncher’s toys. To a rubber chew-ball textured, tennis-ball-sized, Wheatie clings two-handed, like a drunken pilot, whiskers wriggling like Medusa’s snake hair. Heart in mouth, I watch her. What if she topples backwards and gets steamrolled by the tennis ball? But, dancing awkwardly, she stays aloft.

They fish out a fountain pen from the calligraphy set I gave Savazios on our first anniversary. Savazios never filled the pens: he’d always wanted to try calligraphy, but even with a set, he never got around to it. And he took nothing with him when he left: not even his clothes. He had the right idea: walk away from everything. When did I appoint myself museum-curator of our lives?

“I’m the world’s worst museum-curator,” I confess to Cocoa, scratching her neck with the pristine gold always-empty nib. “Exhibits all tossed away in the backroom, unlabelled.” Cocoa’s got an idiosyncratic pleasure point right of centre from where her skull meets her torso; a brief scratch here has saved me many reward pellets during training. As I scratch, Cocoa’s eyes close, hoarding the privacy of her pleasure. Her right hindleg windmills: she thinks she’s scratching herself.

I laugh. When will she outgrow her silliness? Muncher never did. Affection surging, I squeeze Cocoa. Her jaws close on my forefinger. Playfully, pressureless – but lightning-fast. My babies’ nonhumanness astonishes me.

Also astonishing: I’ve remembered what to do.

I thought I’d forgotten. I thought forgetting was my only hope.

“As the tears stand in my eyes, refusing to fall, I laugh at my own folly.”

Wheatie spends hours peering out the balcony door on hind legs, which I’ve kept locked since the prank. 

A harmless prank: but, coming when it did, it did me in. First, we lost Aurora weeks before her second birthday. She’d been born with a unique heart defect: the doctors had given her two years. Savazios and I blamed one another when she was born. Not in words: but, for us, there were no more walks-not-hikes. I awoke one morning to find Aurora, as usual, in our bed – she was always crawling out of her special crib into our bed – but that morning, she hadn’t made it past my calf. After the first shock of grief, Savazios and I again blamed one another, again not in words.

Then Savazios left. Then Muncher died. Then, one morning, alone in the flat, I awoke, shivering in the draught, to find the balcony door ajar. A sticky note on the glass: I took a plastic spork from your takeaway in the trash; sorry, I was dared to climb up here and take something, and your door won’t close from the outside, sorry.

I opened the balcony door, leaned over – we’re on the third storey – and retreated, shut the balcony door, had a lock installed that evening – and it’s been locked since. For it was after the prank – which shouldn’t’ve mattered at all, which I should’ve laughed at – that I finally heard the universe shouting at me: ‘Enough. Life is not for you.’

Now I watch Wheatie watching the world through the glass. I prostrate myself behind her, wondering what she can see. She promptly abandons her studies and climbs into my hair. I give her a hand to battle. She’s as big as an adult, with the energy of a teenager. She roughs up my hand; I sit up and cease play. Acknowledging my that’s-too-much signal, she sits back at once: but her whole body quivers, pleading. She darts back to the balcony door, standing again, peering out, now scratching the glass. Cocoa, distracted from her mid-afternoon treasure-hunt under the bed, joins her. 

They’re nine weeks old. For six weeks, I’ve wondered: Should I open the balcony door? I’ve made a series of concessions. I’ve let them root in the rubbish bin: there’s never anything spoiled or sharp in there. I’ve let them in the bathtub: they seem immune to drowning. But, about the balcony door, I’ve vacillated.

Back at work across the drawing-room, I watch my babies still scratching at the balcony door. Fully grown, but noses still pink, quivering with the moist curiosity of babes fearing no tomorrow. Have I the right to fear, for them, what they don’t fear for themselves? 

Scratching the glass, they look like they’re running. Running nowhere, trapped here with me.

If I were thinking, I’d be again vacillating, paralyzed. I’m no longer thinking. I cross the drawing-room. Hands clasping the balcony door handle, I brace myself. Do Cocoa and Wheatie know what door handles are for, or is it my stance that cues them in? They jump onto my socked and slippered feet: meerkat-standing, sniffing the door-crack. Craning their necks up at ridiculous angles, they beseech me with galaxy-bright black eyes. 

Open!

Air rushes from the world across the balcony into me. I stumble out and steady myself, hands-on banister. With slow forceful breaths, I massage my gut out of its clench. The breeze stirs on my face: sun-warmed, autumn-sharp, bursting with smells red, blue and yellow. My senses are overwhelmed; I close my eyes and slow my breath. 

Cautious, quivering, my nose sniffs the world’s scrambled smell-rainbow, picking out memories. Honey-roasted peanuts. Wine. Leaf-fire, smouldering.

I used to be able to identify leaves by their smell. After the flames envelop them, they all smell the same, but they smell different when they’re just smoking. Hickory. Chestnut. Oak. Had I known I’d be hibernating for three years, I would’ve hoarded these smells for my long winter.

I open my eyes. The sky’s too blue: I can’t face it yet. I peer below. The vendor across the street is hawking honey-roasted peanuts in paper cups and mulled wine in styrofoam cups.

‘Mulled.’ ‘Styrofoam.’ Out here is the world, still. In my head are the names for things, still. The tide surges up my throat. The joy that it’s all still here. Sorrow that I’ve wasted three years of it. Joy and sorrow compete in my throat, threatening to choke me. 

Squeals at my feet half-awaken me. Stunned by memories and the world, unthinking, I shut the balcony door behind my babies, who’ve scurried away.

Motionless above my head, now in my face, a wingspan wavers, blotting, briefly, the afternoon sun’s indolent gold. A falcon lands on my banister, a foot away from me. Fully awake now, I look him in his golden eyes. His wings fold away and under. He regards my babies, safe behind glass, and turns on me eyes fire-bright, ice-cold. 

I stand paralyzed, waiting for the panic to rush me into action. A microwave oven exploded 6,000km away? Quick, lock away my own. I lost a fetus, then lost a baby, then lost my husband? Quick, lock me away. I wait for my panic, but instead, up my throat rises something else. I recognize it when I hear it.

Laughter. Not hysterical, this time. Raucous. 

The falcon starts, flaps a bit, then steadies himself and glares. I laugh harder, clutching my stomach: but my stomach is all loose now, loose with laugher. There’s nothing to hold onto: and that’s alright, for there’s nothing to hold in anymore. 

I wipe my eyes and clap my hands. “Boo!” The falcon flies away.

I reopen the balcony door. My babies scamper back into the wine-drunk sunshine and huddle against my ankles. “So, my explorers, is that the end of your intrepidity? You’ll stay near me, now, eh?” They will, but perhaps not forever. And that’s alright.

It wasn’t my fault. Birthing a sick child. Losing her. Losing my husband. Losing Muncher. Getting pranked. None of it was my fault. But neither was it the world’s. So why, to punish the world, did I lock myself away?

The instructions the universe shouted at me three years ago were right: for three years ago. As the tears stand in my eyes, refusing to fall, I laugh at my own folly. The tide that was surging up my throat, threatening to choke me – ebbs, dissipated by my laughter. Leaving only soft froth. Leaving, in grief’s wake, rebirth.

My first life was terrifying. So would this second life be if I were alone? Thank god my babies are with me.


Amita Basu is a cognitive scientist by day. Her fiction has appeared/is forthcoming in CommuterLit, Bandit Fiction, Toyon, Bewildering Stories, Flash Fiction Magazine, Gasher, and other magazines and anthologies. Her nonfiction has appeared in The Curious Reader, Deccan Herald, and other venues. She lives in Bangalore and blogs at http://amitabasu.com/.

THE ATONEMENT

By Gisela Woldenga

“Slow down, Paul, it’s slippery!”

Tina braced her hands against the dashboard of the car and looked into the snow-covered landscape.

“Okay, okay, don’t worry. I’ve got good tires.” Paul eased up on the gas.

“But not front-wheel drive like Dad’s car.”

Paul smirked. “If you weren’t so skinny you could give the car more weight.” He shot a sly glance at his stepsister.

“Oh yeah, very funny!” Tina tried hard to sound annoyed but she was used to her stepbrother’s quirky sense of humour. She expected a certain playful immaturity from a high school senior. Tonight he had treated her to a movie, a belated birthday present. During those two hours new snow had fallen. The streetlights stood like sentries along the road and gave off an otherworldly glow. Random snowflakes tumbled towards the headlights as if they had lost their way and were searching for a home.

Paul steered the car around the corner.

“What’s that?” Tina pointed to something by the side of the road. “Maybe you should stop.”

“You really want me to stop?”

“Yes, I saw something.”

Paul gave the brake pedal a quick touch and skidded to a halt. Tina opened the door and looked back.

“Paul,” she whispered. “It’s a person. Oh God, is he dead?”

Both stepped out of the car and stared at the figure in the snow bank.

“He might still be alive. We can’t just leave him here The least we can do is to call an ambulance.” Paul fumbled in his pocket and looked at his cell phone. “Damn, it’s dead.” He looked down at the figure. The man’s eyes were closed. Was he smiling?  

The dead man smiled. What a title for a movie. Come on, let’s go to the house there. They can phone the ambulance.” 

Paul pushed the chime button on the front door. A man answered. His eyebrows shot up in surprise when Paul told him of the find in the snow.

“My wife will call 911,” he offered. “I’ll come with you. Let me get my jacket and a flashlight.”

When they arrived at the snowbank, he shone the light into the face of the figure sprawled there. “Hm. Strange. He looks familiar. Couldn’t be sure, though.” He shook his head. “I wonder how he got here. Very tragic.”

Far away, they heard the sirens of the ambulance. That was fast despite the icy roads, Tina thought. She shivered in the cold wind. That smile, it’s unreal, as if the man had been glad to die.

“No pulse!” one of the attendants shouted as he knelt by the frozen man. “Let’s get going and try to revive him.”

The man from across the road looked at Paul and Tina. “Glad you stopped. Good of you to care about this person, even if it might be too late.” He waved and walked back to his house.

Neither Paul nor Tina spoke during the last stretch home. At the front door, Tina looked at Paul. “I have a funny feeling about that man. He might not be dead.”

Paul chuckled. “You’ve seen too many movies. Better sleep on it. Want a sandwich?”

“No thanks. See you in the morning.” Cold shivers still ran down Tina’s spine. I probably dream about it, she thought. Before she drifted off to sleep, thoughts about her mother came to her. She had only been two years old when her mother died. Death caused by a drunk driver, her father told her when she was old enough to understand. Tina’s dad had married again, and her stepmother was the only mom she knew. 

Sometimes she would look at the picture of her mother. It was displayed in the hallway next to the portraits of her grandparents. Tina wondered, do I look like my mother, do I act or talk like her? 

Her father never spoke of the accident. All the information Tina got came from her stepmother. She was grateful for that. Why am I thinking of this nowIs my mother giving me a sign? Tina pulled her blanket up to her neck and finally fell asleep.

“Could this mystery be solved? It would be useless to phone the police or newspaper.”

Nothing had prepared Tina for the news that awaited her the next morning. A picture in the newspaper caught her attention. It showed an ambulance with its front tires halfway down a snow-filled ditch. The caption under it read, “Not even an ambulance is immune.”

Tina sat down and read how a man, found frozen in a snowbank, revived in the ambulance, started thrashing around and tried to attack one of the paramedics. In the confusion, the driver lost control of the vehicle and slid into a ditch. They weren’t seriously hurt, but the frozen man disappeared.

Paul ambled into the kitchen. “You look like you’ve seen a ghost.” 

Tina pointed to the newspaper. Paul let out a whistle.

“Holy cow! Where could he be now?”

“This whole thing is too weird,” Tina mumbled. “I don’t know why, but this is not the end.”

“For now, he’s disappeared.” Paul snatched some cookies out of the cookie jar and headed out the door. “You coming, sis?” he called. “If you go with me, he might not nab you.”

In spite of herself, Tina had to smile. Paul and his jokes! She grabbed her school bag and followed him.  

Even though school had her favourite subjects that day, she had a hard time concentrating. Again and again, the face of the frozen man appeared before her mind’s eye.

After supper, the T.V. news had another surprise. The announcer reported, “A pedestrian has been killed by a car during rush hour. The man carried no I.D. Anyone knowing this person, please, call your local police station.”

Tina gasped. “That’s him! It’s the same man we found yesterday.” What was going on? One does not die and live and die again. And then what?

Paul got up. “Death number two. Any more? This confuses me.”

Tina shook herself. Could this mystery be solved? It would be useless to phone the police or newspaper. The man would be long gone by now, just like he disappeared from the ambulance.

More from Goat’s Milk Magazine

The next week flew by, filled with schoolwork and a snowstorm. Tina hoped never to hear from the mystery man again. However, a few days later, the newspaper carried a headline, “Dead Man Disappeared.” While police were still waiting for friends or relatives to identify the body of the hit-and-run accident, the morgue had lost him.

“Lost him?” Paul chuckled. “Man, he was lying on a slab with a tag on his toe. How could they lose him? How about the autopsy? I hope he is still in one piece.”

Tina’s stomach felt like a hand was squeezing it. “It will start all over again.” Like Paul, she had her doubts about the whole thing. How could it be the same person?

The next day was warm and sunny, with a hint of spring in the air. Tina decided to take the long way home from school through a nearby park. The sun felt good on her face. This will bring out my freckles again, she thought. Her friends and Paul would tease her about it. She sat down on a dry bench under a big cedar tree and watched busy sparrows scurrying through the bushes and around her feet. As she got up to continue on home, a shadow fell across the walk. A man approached and stood still. Tina looked up and froze. Her heart jumped into her throat. She heard a deep calm voice.

“Yes, it’s me. Please, don’t be alarmed.”

Tina swallowed; she had a hard time breathing. Did this deep, calm voice really belong to the mystery man who had occupied her thoughts all these days?

“May I talk to you, Tina?” the man asked.

She could only nod; she was unable to control her voice. How did he know her name?

As if reading her mind, he said, “When you and Paul found me, I knew you were sympathetic souls. If I tell you my story, will you help me?”
Tina looked up at him. His dark-blue eyes were kind and a bit sorrowful. How old was he? Forty, fifty? She was not afraid; she was calm now.

“I will make it as short as possible,” the man promised.

“Okay, go on.” Nothing wrong with listening, she thought.

“I have to die to atone for things I did – or neglected to do. It has to happen once more. But don’t worry about it. The important thing is that you come to the playground near your house one week from today at seven o’clock in the evening.”

“What am I supposed to do there? Why do you need me?”

“I need you to be my witness and to forgive me,” the man answered.
Tina was puzzled. “Forgive you? For what?”

The man sighed. “Let me start at the beginning. My three deaths are ones I should have prevented but didn’t. My friend fell drunk into a snowbank and froze to death. Instead of carrying him to shelter, I laughed, staggered home and went to sleep. The second time I was drunk again, ran down a pedestrian with a car and didn’t stop.”

“The police didn’t catch you?” Tina’s looked at him wide-eyed.

The man shook his head. “That punishment would have been easy. The third death started with a fight in a pub over a girl. I pulled a gun I had hidden in the inside of my jacket. I didn’t even remember whether it was loaded or not. I pulled the trigger. Instead of shooting the man, the girl fell. I ran, left town, got rid of the gun. Then strange things began to happen. A voice told me, ‘You must atone for those three deaths.’ I didn’t want to listen. Every night the voice came back. I didn’t know what to expect or where it came from. After my first death, I knew that I had to experience all three of them.” He paused and looked at Tina. “What I have to tell you now will shock you. You might not be able to forgive me. The pedestrian I killed was your mother.”

Tina stared at the man. “My mother?” she whispered.

The man nodded. “Do you remember her at all?”

Tina shook her head. “Only from pictures. I was a baby then. My stepmother is the only Mom I’ve known. When I was older, she told me that my real mother was killed in an accident.”

The man looked away. “I was the one who killed her. Now you might understand why I chose you to find me in the snowbank. I realize that it is a lot to ask you to forgive me and be my witness when my own time comes. It’s all part of my redemption.”

Tina still struggled to understand it all. “How do you know all this about me, how to find me . . .”

“The voice told me.”

“But what do you mean by ‘when your own time comes?”

The man took a deep breath. “That will be my real death. My life has been
bad. I was callous and a coward. I want to try again for a new life.”

“How can you do that?” Tina remembered reading about reincarnation once and how she had been intrigued by it. “Is that possible?”

“That’s my only hope. I believe I’ll be granted that much.”

Tina looked down at her hands. “How are you going to die?”

“Don’t worry about it,” he answered. “Just be there, please. My next adventure will be on the news. But – can you forgive me? If you do you’ll be my saving angel.” The man got up, gave Tina’s arm a light touch and was gone.

She sat still for quite a while. This encounter was too fantastic. Should she believe this man? Could he really be the drunk driver who robbed her of her mother and her father of his wife? Again, she tried to imagine how horrific it must have been for her dad. What would happen if she decided not to forgive him and not show up at the playground next week? No. Somehow she didn’t find it in her heart to condemn him. To go through three deaths was suffering enough aside from the guilt he must have felt all those years. And now, he was facing his own demise. The man would be gone forever.

At last, she got up and made her way home. She had made up her mind not to talk about her mother’s death to her family. What good would that do? Everyone would just be upset all over again. And they wouldn’t be able to understand the man’s plight and his connection to her mother.

“Only a black circle showed in the grass, and a strong smell of something burning lingered in the air.”

“Tina, where have you been?” were the first words she heard on opening the front door. Her mother looked worried. “Are you okay? You’re two hours late.”

“I’m sorry, Mom. Something’s happened. Are Dad and Paul home?”
Her mother pointed to the living room.

“Okay, come and listen.”

Paul stood in the door. “Can’t we eat and listen? I’m starving.”

“It won’t take long,” Tina promised. “Your stomach has to wait.”

“It’s this strange guy again, right?” her father asked.

“Yes, and even if you don’t believe me, please, listen, ‘til I’ve finished.” Tina related the events of the afternoon. She was careful not to mention her mother’s accident. She realized how sympathetic towards the man she had become.

“You’re not going to the playground alone,” her father stated. “Whatever
crazy idea this guy has; I’m going to be there! This is rubbish.”

“No!” Tina almost shouted. “That might spoil it for him. It’s going to be all right. If he’d wanted to harm me, he would’ve done so in the park. Sometimes –“ she paused, then “things are not what they seem.” She saw Paul going over to her father and talked to him quietly. Then her father nodded.

Paul switched on the T.V. “Let’s see if he’s died again.”

“Too early,” Tina said. “It’s going to happen tomorrow.”

But neither the newspaper nor radio or T.V. mentioned anything out of the
ordinary the next day.

“The day isn’t over yet,” Tina persisted. “He wouldn’t lie to me.”

Paul looked at her. “You’re so convinced; it’s amazing, almost annoying.”

“If you had met him, you would believe him, too!” Tina shot back.
Against her normal routine, she stayed up that evening to check on the late news. She almost jumped out of her chair when the announcer reported, “There has been a shooting in a downtown bar. A fight over a girl ended in the wounding of a man in his forties. He was last seen staggering into the street. Police have not been able to locate the victim. Hospitals have been alerted.”

Tina flew up the stairs. Without knocking, she burst into Paul’s room. He
stared at her open-mouthed.

“He’s done it! He’s been shot!”

Paul turned off his CD player. “Really? Man, that’s cool.”

“Now, are you convinced that I’ll have to go to the playground on Monday?”

Tina felt triumphant.

“Yeah, maybe that’ll be finally the end of it. You have a way of shaking
me up – again.”

Tina tossed and turned that night with images of guns and speeding cars threatening her dreams. In the morning, she had only one regret: Monday was still five days away.

On that day, the weather was again mild and sunny. Small groups of
parents and children played ball and had fun on the swings in the playground. Tina started to worry. What if their presence interfered with the man’s fate? What if he did not come because of them? Go away, she thought, please, go home.

She leaned against a tree and tried to take a few deep breaths. How must he feel knowing he had to die? “God, let it be fast,” she prayed.
She checked her watch. Ten minutes to seven. Through the pounding of her heart, she heard laughter and children’s delighted squeals from the play area. At five minutes to seven, the atmosphere changed. A breeze came up, and dark clouds appeared in the sky. Tina could have sworn that she heard a faint rumble like thunder. The people looked up, and words like “Let’s go, it’s going to rain” drifted towards her.

She huddled closer to the tree and checked her watch again. Seven o’clock. The air felt heavy. Clouds hung directly overhead. The rumbling got louder. Then she saw him. The man walked from the entrance into the middle of the field. He raised both arms as if to greet her. Tina’s knees were shaking. The next moment a blinding lightning bolt shot out of the cloud, followed by a crash. Where the man stood, flames shot high into the air. Tina covered her ears and screamed. In an instant, the flames subsided, and a deep quiet surrounded her. The dark cloud had disappeared. Then she felt an arm around her shoulders.

“It’s okay; it’s over.” Paul’s voice brought her back to reality.

“Where is he?” A sob bubbled up in Tina’s throat.

“He’s gone. The lightning got him,” said Paul. “I was too curious to stay home. I saw it all.”

They walked over to where the man had stood. Only a black circle showed in the grass, and a strong smell of something burning lingered in the air.

As Tina got closer, she felt a slight touch on her arm, and a voice whispered, “Thank you, Tina, we’ll meet again.”

She wiped away her tears and smiled. He had given her a sign. She knew his atonement was complete.


Gisela Woldenga was born in Germany, came to Canada in 1954. She has published seven books (Black Opal Books, Scholastic Canada) and various short stories and poems in many magazines. Book no. eight is at Black Opal right now. Most books are sold privately, at launches, at Amazone’s etc. She lives in Coquitlam, BC, Canada.

Sunk

By Cat Dixon

It was deemed necessary 
to evacuate the submarine—
oxygen levels low and water
flowed through the vents.

Legends of ghost ships with ghost mates
circulated—men who hunkered in the head, 
munching tangerines as they flipped through
ream after ream of blank saturated
pages as if reading magazines. 

Our motley crew caught without a ship,
from a distance, looked like
little dots keen for water—fish
fighting the net, the hook, the land. 

What we sought in the waves had
rusted and sunk. What we found 
inside of each was rot. I wished 
for a massive yacht—sails that touch 
the sky—eighty meters long with 
an inflated lifeboat like a tumor at its side.


Cat Dixon (she/her) is the author of Eva and Too Heavy to Carry (Stephen F. Austin University Press, 2016, 2014) and the chapbook, Table for Two (Poet’s Haven, 2019). Recent poems have appeared in LandLocked, Anti-Heroin Chic, and Abyss & Apex. She is a poetry editor at The Good Life Review.

Riptides

By Leanne Su

Marina X was born by the sea.

Her full name wasn’t Marina X; it was Marina Xingqi Shui, but she had found that introducing herself as Marina X was much more efficient than going by her full name. She was born by the ocean in the middle of winter, and she didn’t cry once, not when the wind howled through their cabin and rocked her crib, not when her mother fell silent with blue lips and pale skin, not when her father almost drowned her in his anguish. The ocean had robbed Marina of her tears the moment she was born, and it continued to pick at her pockets for the rest of her life.

“It should have been you,” her father said with slurred words and clear eyes when she was old enough to understand and young enough to still be scarred. He set out to sea the next day and died on his fishing boat; authorities ruled it an accident, but Marina knew it was a suicide. She mourned his death and paid her dues like any good daughter would because he never raised a hand against her, and she deserved the words that cut her like a knife because she already knew she had outlived death, and this was her punishment.

Marina X lived and loved by the ocean, by the pushing and pulling of its deadly tides. She swam in its waters and envied its rage, tempted fate again and again. She already knew she would die by the sea. She had since the day she was born.

“I think you’re full of shit. Either that, or you found a better dealer.”

“Did you hear the news?” Indigo asked without preamble, sliding into the seat next to Marina. Indigo had a face like a fox and a smile like the sun, light freckles against dark skin like flecks of sunlight through the trees. She had bullied Marina into something resembling friendship with her years ago, and even now, the only reason Marina retained their relationship was out of some masochistic proclivity.

“No,” she responded curtly without ever looking Indigo’s way. Marina always had a sort of gravelly, glottal scrape to her voice, even when she didn’t mean to. She sounded ragged and discordant, a sharp contrast to Indigo’s melodic voice.

“Cool, ‘course not, ’cause you’re above gossip, aren’t you. Whatever, I’ll tell you anyway because I’m nice like that.”

Marina sighed and resigned herself to listening to whatever bullshit Indigo was going to regale her with today.

“So, you remember how last year at that robotics competition in Vegas we got our asses kicked by that uppity little shit from Japan? Shoji Nakamura? Of course, you remember, you remember every time you lose. Apparently he got involved with some aviation project, pretty big stuff, but last week he fucked up bad. Like, baaad. Idiot got him and seven other people killed when he drove their plane straight into a mountain.

“Now, you don’t care about any of that because you’re a soulless husk of a human being incapable of sympathy. This part, though, this you might like—”

Indigo leaned in and lowered her voice as the lecturer took his place. The lights dimmed, and she looked fey as the fairies of old.

“They checked the black box, and it wasn’t mechanical or anything; Shoji was too fucking smart for that shit. Two minutes before they crashed, he went completely off-course. Didn’t say anything. His copilot loses his shit, obviously, all ‘what the fuck are you doing’ and ‘I have a wife and kids’. And Shoji just—doesn’t say anything. At all. And then he flies them into a fucking mountain. Totally goes Icarus on the bitch. No sign of psychosis, no drugs or alcohol or anything else in his system. It was just like a switch flipped in his brain, and then—boom. Loses his shit completely. The recording pretty much stops there, but right at the end, it sounds like he might be crying.”

Indigo smiled, saccharine sweet, and sat back in her seat.

“Pretty spooky stuff, huh?”

Marina finally looked over at her, tucked a lock of wavy, grey-black hair behind her ear.

“I think you’re full of shit. Either that, or you found a better dealer.”

Indigo tipped her head back and laughed, the crinkling of her eyes and the curve of her neck so lovely and joyful that no one, not even the professor, had the heart to call her out.

“Well, you’re not wrong about that,” she responded cheerfully, squeezing Marina’s arm so tightly her fingernails left crescent moons in her skin.

“The cranes had become immobile once more, no longer the behemoths they were a moment ago.”

Marina kept thinking about Indigo’s story throughout the rest of the lecture, as their professor droned on about controls and feedback loops. It was almost certainly fictitious, as Indigo lied about anything and everything simply because she could. Still, it settled in Marina’s heart like a storm on the horizon, a malaise that crept into her bloodstream and circulated throughout her body until every move she made felt jittery and overshadowed by some impending catastrophe. She considered looking it up to verify that it was real, but some part of her feared the idea that it was true.

She thought about Shoji—cocky and brilliant, a sneer always on his face and the bitter resolve to prove himself behind his every move. He put too much gel in his hair, and his cufflinks were too cheap for someone of his supposed standing. Marina thought that the two of them could’ve been friends, perhaps, kindred souls of misanthropy and resentment if either of them were the type of person inclined to have friends. They weren’t, so Shoji was nothing but a rival and a nuisance to Marina.

The sun was already low in the sky by the time the class ended, and Marina wandered down to the port with a tin in her pocket as she always did, sitting on a slope of hardened earth and dead grass leading down towards the water. It had been a dreary, overcast day, the kind that asked for rain and was found wanting. She lit a joint with deft fingers, her plastic Bic a tiny, flickering light in the melancholy blue of the evening.

Inhale, hold, exhale, the school counsellor she saw exactly twice used to say. Marina did just that and watched the smoke billow out across the cold night air, dissipating into the sky. The port was shutting down for the night, the last crates stacked and documented, a few lingering boats turning off their engines and the rushing of the waves echoing in the distance, relentless and unceasing. The shipping cranes loomed over everything as always, their silhouettes imposing against the dim haze of residual sunlight. It was warm out for spring, but it was a stifling sort of warmth, muggy and charged with unease.

Marina sat on the slope and watched the horizon fade to black, the figures in the shipyard thinning out until she was the only one left. Finally, she sighed, lingering and tired, and stood up, preparing to head back to her shitty apartment with its miserable ventilation and aggravating roommates.

“Hello, Marina X,” she heard a low, soothing voice. Marina stopped in her tracks. Inhale, hold, exhale.

“Hello?” she responded cautiously after a nervous silence, eyes darting around in the darkness in search of the speaker.

One of the container cranes shuttered, trembled. It arched its neck like a misshapen, mechanical giraffe and unmistakably turned so that its gantry was facing her.

“We’ve been waiting for you. Just for you,” the voice said again, the sound rumbling like thunder across the shipyard.

“Oh, what the fuck,” Marina muttered in disbelief, “what the fuck did Indigo give me? What the fuck?”

With an aching, ancient groan, a second container crane turned to face her the same way, then a third; before long, every crane in the port was turned in her direction in a cacophony of creaking and moaning, the bodies eerie and ethereal in the harsh fluorescence of the stadium lights dotted throughout the shipyard.

Marina felt her legs give out from under her and sat down with a thud.
“Shit,” she whispered, shaky and terrified.

“We need you, Marina X,” the cranes said as one, and she heard it like an indistinct murmur as if she were underwater and someone was trying to talk to her from above. A roaring noise was starting to overtake their voices; it was the sound of the ocean, she realized distantly.

“What? Why?” she asked faintly, but she received no response. The cranes had become immobile once more, no longer the behemoths they were a moment ago but mere structures of steel and gears. But the roar of the ocean persisted and increased until it pounded against her skull and the inside of her eyelids, and she fell back with a thud.

“She left through the window and kept the door locked, just to spite him.”

Marina X was not having a good day.

A seagull, bleary and disoriented, had rudely awoken her. Its beady little eyes pinned her with a judgmental stare before screaming in her face and flapping away. Marina remembered the events of the previous night, but they felt muddled and far away, like a half-remembered dream, and she felt hungover and hazy despite a complete lack of alcohol the night before. She’d cast a suspicious look at the container cranes—silent and immobile, as they ought to be—and stumbled her way home and straight to class. She spent the entire lecture fiddling with her pen and absorbing absolutely nothing that the professor said, choosing instead to mull over the container cranes and what she had heard them say.

Perhaps Indigo had put hallucinogens in her weed; Marina wouldn’t put it past her. This wasn’t Indigo’s typical brand of cruelty, though. She liked to watch her victims suffer, and she knew for a fact that Marina smoked almost exclusively alone. Then, a fever dream was brought on by weeks of restless sleep and a general sense of weariness. She could almost hear the voices of the cranes, still echoing in her skull, but the timbre of their voices wasn’t quite right. She couldn’t remember—she couldn’t let herself remember because if she remembered, that would make it real, and she wasn’t ready for that. Instead, Marina finished her class, went to the library, and went home. She sat in the bathtub for an hour and ignored her flatmate’s angry pounding on the door. She left through the window and kept the door locked, just to spite him.

“If anything, she felt numb, liker her mind had fallen asleep but left her body awake.”

The night air was colder than it had been before, and Marina was seriously starting to reconsider her life choices. There was no sane reason to sit by the ocean and shiver in the wind, waiting for a hunk of metal to speak to her. She’d decided not to smoke tonight in a facsimile of the scientific process. It seemed, however, that the missing variable was the cause of her bizarre conversations, as it was approaching one in the morning, and Marina still hadn’t conversed with anyone, mechanical or otherwise. Just as she heaved a sigh and got to her feet, a familiar voice rang out.

“Leaving so soon, Marina X?” she heard, and once more, she heard the guttural creaking from the night before. She turned to find dozens of container cranes warped and twisted to face her head-on. She felt herself humbled in the grip of unspeakable horror, yet at the same time, she felt something settle into place, some universal offset click into alignment.

“Hello again, you wretched bastards,” she said pleasantly and tucked her bony hands into her pockets.

“Hello to you too,” the cranes responded, again in unison, and Marina somehow knew with sudden and complete certainty that each and every one of them had her mother’s voice.

“We have a proposal for you.”

“Sure,” Marina responded, easy and familiar. The fear and existential dread that she had felt the day before were still there, but it felt muted now. She had been here before; she knew it. Maybe in a dream, maybe in a past life, but the voices filled a void she hadn’t even known existed. It was like coming home after years overseas; the details were lost to memory and time, but the impressions were still there, the familiarity and ease settling into her soft and easy.

“You could forget all your pain, Marina. Be free of all that plagues you. Forget about your mother and your father and all those who you hurt. Doesn’t that sound nice, Marina?”

Marina stayed silent, but she could feel her heartbeat pounding in her throat. It sounded too good to be true, and it had to be too good to be true, but their soothing, dulcet tones seeped into her skin and under her fingernails and itched at her scalp until she thought to herself, you know, that does sound nice.

“And what do you get out of it?” she finally asked, no longer questioning the logic of what was happening or how they knew who she was.

“We just need a friend. We’re lonely, you know. We need you to take a little trip.”

“And where am I supposed to go?” Marina asked, although she already knew the answer.

“To the bottom of the ocean. Right here in the bay. We’ll be waiting for you. Waiting to free you. You could be free, Marina.”

The wind whipped her hair across her face, but Marina didn’t feel cold anymore. If anything, she felt numb, like her mind had fallen asleep but left her body awake.

“I’ll consider it,” she said at a moment’s length and turned to walk away.
She looked back once she reached the top of the hill, and the cranes were silent once more; the night air was cold, the wind was biting, and she felt the beginnings of an insatiable drive prick at her heart.

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“What’cha thinking about?” Indigo asked, chin resting on her hands and eyes boring into the side of Marina’s skull. Instead of staring blankly straight ahead at a spot on the wall right above the lecturer’s screen, Marina ignored her.

Marina felt a sharp pain in her left forearm, and she pulled away from Indigo with a scowl. Indigo had pinched her hard enough that Marina knew it would bruise, although not hard enough to draw blood.

“You’re so spacey today, Marina,” Indigo whined, cloying as ever. “C’mon, pay attention to me.” She batted her eyelashes a few times for good measure.

“Whatever,” Marina muttered, looking down at her blank sheet of notes. Sometimes when Indigo got like this, Marina would wonder about her, about them, about Indigo’s persistent companionship and her own emotional attachments and the time in freshman year when they hooked up once and never talked about it again. Marina wondered about what they could be if either of them were inclined towards anything except cynicism and acerbity.

Indigo huffed and turned away, her afro radiating indignance. Marina resolved to focus intently on the lecturer just to piss her off. He’d moved onto fluid dynamics and was presently discussing the use of hydrostatics and the need to factor in buoyancy when designing watercraft. Nautical engineering was one of the few things that piqued Marina’s interest. She’d thought it was morbidly funny, the idea of building a vessel (a coffin, really) to propel herself straight into the maw of the ocean.

The cranes came to mind, then. She mused a visit to the bottom of the ocean, and a nebulous idea began to form. Marina put her pen to paper for the first time that day and started to sketch, periodically looking up at the instructor and jotting down a few notes. She felt a little lightheaded, but she ignored the feeling, concentrating instead on what the cranes had promised her— a way to forget and a life free of regret. A path to move on.

“The cranes said nothing, but it wasn’t their usual dead silence.”

She visited the cranes once more the next night and could physically feel her body settling into a routine, bones aching with the rumbling of the cranes.

“Evening,” she said quietly to the night air, once their usual cacophony had died down.

“Hello, Marina X,” they said in unison. “Back so soon?”

“Nothing better to do, really. All of my other friends are also busy talking to unearthly shipping cranes.”

“Understandable.”

Marina nodded silently, content to sit in the cold and watch the harbour lights flicker. She felt more at peace here than she felt anywhere else in the world, her mind empty and calm.

“Would a boat work?” Marina asked abruptly. “To get where I need to go?”

The cranes said nothing, but it wasn’t their usual dead silence. Instead, it felt as if some ancient gear was turning, and they were considering her offer, running it through their cogs and wheels.

“Perhaps,” they said at last. “If you do it properly.”

And Marina knew she would.

“For once in her rotten, godforsaken existence, Marina X had a purpose to fulfill.”

Her next three weeks were spent in mundane repetition; she would sleep from dawn to dusk and wake up in time to see the sunset over the horizon to begin work on her submarine. Her cramped room was now filled with scrap metal and blueprints, and she had taken to bringing in more supplies through the fire escape to avoid the disdainful looks from her roommates. An even more ragged sleeping bag had replaced her ragged twin bed to make more space for her work. She had stopped going to classes, stopped talking to Indigo, stopped doing anything besides what was necessary to keep herself alive and work on her boat. Once she felt satisfied with her work, usually hours after midnight, she would meander her way through town and towards the port.

The first time she waded into the sea after dark felt like a revelation. She had never quite enjoyed swimming, especially in the ocean, partially out of fear and partly out of respect. Swimming at night now, though, felt like an otherworldly experience. The water was murky and deep, an endless void that rebuffed any moonlight daring to venture more than an inch below the choppy surface. Bioluminescent algae covered the shallows, sparkling every time she passed through them. She marvelled at the light and wondered if they were there at the bottom of the ocean if her submarine would glide through them and cast glittering shadows in the deep as they did in the shallows, if when she drowned—and she did intend to drown—they would cover her body in a gossamer casket. She swam every night until the sun rose.

Marina’s face had always been angular, but now she looked almost skeletal, exhaustion working away at her skin. The shadows under her eyes crept darker and darker, and her skin developed an unhealthy pallor; her world was swallowed in blues and blacks, pinpricks of light shining in the distance but never coming near. The idea of death had become a romantic fantasy for her, a beautiful and poignant thing that had sunk deep into her mind. It would be a lovely death. She was sure of it. She imagined herself like Ophelia, lips parted and skin pale and arms outstretched, covered in not in flowers but in coral, seaweed tangled around her legs and fish nibbling at her fingertips.

It was all for the best. For once in her rotten, godforsaken existence, Marina X had a purpose to fulfill, and if that purpose was ending her own life, then so be it.

“I feel good. Good about it. Maybe if you’re lucky, I can show you one day.”

“So, what’s the occasion?” Indigo asked, legs dangling off the cliffside. Marina lay splayed out on the grass besides her, eyes closed against the bright glow of the overcast clouds.

“Hmm?” Marina mumbled, cracking open an eyelid and accepting the pipe the Indigo passed to her.

“Come on, this is the first time you’ve ever asked me to smoke with you. Or anyone else, for that matter. The fuck’s up?”

Marina said nothing. She sat up, brushed grass clippings off her back, and lit the pipe. Inhale, hold, exhale. She stared vacantly into the bay below them— this was a spot she would come to often when she was younger and more vulnerable when she still found the world overwhelming rather than simply disappointing. The hike was difficult but worth it for the view, and this was the first time she had taken someone up here with her.

Indigo snatched the pipe and lighter from her, huffing in annoyance.

“God, I fucking hate hanging out with you; you never even talk,” she snapped, tossing her head. Her hair looked like a gentle cloud, swaying in the breeze and backlit by the light of the sky.

“I think I might be going away for a while,” Marina said quietly, voice almost lost in the wind.

Indigo turned to level a look at her, one eyebrow raised in incredulity and disbelief. She snorted.

“Where to, the gas station in the next town over? Like you have anywhere to go.”

Marina smiled faintly. Where Indigo’s particular brand of abrasiveness normally chafed, she felt almost soothed by its familiarity and iciness, like she had applied a sheen of tiger balm to an open wound.

“On a trip. Just for a while. See what there is to see.”

“What, you’re gonna try to find yourself?” Indigo snarked.

Marina stared out over the water, gaze pale and serene.

“Something like that,” she said simply.

Indigo snorted but didn’t respond. They lapsed into silence, the distant crash of the ocean upon the shore the only sound breaking through.

“Where do you—go?” Indigo finally asked, and for the first time, there was a note of uncertainty in her voice. “You don’t come to class anymore; I hardly ever see you. You look even worse than you did before you started this little zombie routine. What do you do?”

The wind rustled through the grass. In the distance, Marina could see the pier. It was a Saturday, and the port was busy, ant-like figures in the distance weaving between the containers on the docks.
“It’s—a personal project. Something really cool.”

Marina turned and smiled at Indigo, a real smile that wrinkled her eyes and pulled back the skin from her teeth.

“I feel good. Good about it. Maybe if you’re lucky, I can show you one day.”

“No, no, no,” she whispered, deliriously slamming her limbs against the windshield.

The right time crept up on Marina stealthily. The days had been getting longer and longer, the summer solstice now only days away. There was a full moon that night—a blue moon, as it so happened—and Marina tightened the final bolt on the hull of her boat before taking a step back to look at it in wonderment. She hadn’t thought she would ever really finish, despite the project being the sole focus of her life for months now. She had taken to calling the submarine Ophelia, a rather unimaginative name but one she was nevertheless fond of. It was an ugly, bulbous thing, a portly amalgamation of sheet metal and rubber seals. There was no periscope, or sonar, or radar, just a single headlight embedded in the front. She fit inside, but only barely, with her spine folded, and neck tucked so that she could still peek through the windshield.

Marina didn’t know if it would work. She didn’t know if it mattered. As the clock started ticking towards the wee hours of the morning, she heaved the sub onto a trolley she had stolen from the shipping docks and set off towards the port.

It was a balmy night, sounds of frogs and mosquitoes buzzing through the air, slowly overtaken by the crashing waves of the ocean as she approached the shore. It was eerily quiet for a summer night like this, no bonfires or parties by the beach; no one had stopped to question the solitary figure carrying a hunk of misshapen metal on a wagon towards the water. Marina stopped at the end of a barnacle-laden boardwalk, trolley handle still in hand and watched the waves crash against the dock. She realized with a kind of detached interest that she hadn’t worn shoes, and her feet were now covered in cuts from glass and rocks along the shore.

With a bit of effort, Marina managed to heave Ophelia over the side of the dock and was relieved to see it bob gently in the water instead of sinking straight down to the bottom. She popped the hatch in and squeezed in, the suffocating quarters of the boat already pressing in on her. She hadn’t rigged up any life support systems— figured she didn’t need it— but by her calculations, there was at least enough air to last her a few hours. With a final look at the wan moonlight filtering in through the clouds above her, Marina took a deep breath and plunged into the submarine, the hatch coming to a close above her with a grim thud. She fumbled around in the dark for the light switch and instead found the latch that allowed her ballast tanks to fill with water, her stomach swooping when she realized she had indeed started sinking into the water.

So this is really happening, then, she thought dimly to herself.

A memory came into her mind, unbidden. It was the first time she had seen Shoji at some engineering tourney a few years ago. He had been standing by himself in the middle of a crowd of his teammates, an invisible bubble around him from the way people unabashedly avoided crossing his path. Marina caught a faint whisper of gossip, something she usually would have tuned out but caught her attention this time.

“—you hear about his parents?” came the quiet, furtive question. A pause. “They both died on some hiking trip up Everest. They couldn’t even find the bodies. Really sad, honestly. He hasn’t been the same since. Cut him some slack, you know?”

As she passed by his booth, Shoji looked up from the pile of scrap metal to glare daggers at the two girls talking about him. From the abrupt silence and hurried footsteps that followed, Marina presumed that they saw him. She caught his gaze on accident as he turned back to his work. They held eye contact for just a moment before she nodded at him, cordial at best, and he waved back with a strange familiarity.

Marina didn’t know why she was remembering this now, as the last glimmers of moonlight faded above her, and all she could see was the murky waters in front of her, illuminated by the faint glow of her headlight. She didn’t remember turning it on. She started feeling the water pressure above her and heard an ominous creak from the structure of Ophelia’s hull.

Her heart was pounding in her chest. She could feel herself begin to hyperventilate.

“Wait,” she said, feebly, then louder, “wait!”

She pushed against the sides of the submarine. It felt like the walls were closing in. Her feet were wet—she couldn’t tell if it was from blood or seawater, although surely if she had sprung a leak, the pressure would’ve killed her already. She felt her head spinning, eyes blinking rapidly to try to stave off the vertigo but only making it worse. This wasn’t how she had envisioned it. This wasn’t how she had wanted it. She had thought she would be regal, poised for death, fully prepared to die beautiful and sad and alone.

There wasn’t anything lovely or romantic about where she was now. Marina felt like a haze was lifting from her mind through her adrenaline, her thoughts now crystal clear and amplified tenfold. How the hell had she gotten here?

“I changed my mind,” she cried out. “I don’t—I don’t actually want to die, I didn’t realize—”

Her boat creaked again, and this time she heard a hollow, mechanical laugh, the same voice she had been listening to for the past few months.

“It’s too late, Marina X,” it crooned. “A deal is a deal.”

“I didn’t promise you anything!” she said frantically, now jamming at the latch in a desperate attempt to empty the ballast tanks of water and bring her back to the surface. The laugh came again, the groan of shifting metal thrumming underneath it.

“You were born of the sea, Marina X,” the voice came, becoming distorted and warped. “You were promised to us long ago.”

Marina couldn’t see through the water anymore. The light had gone out. She kicked against the dashboard, chest heaving from the exertion.

“I don’t want to,” she sobbed. “I didn’t mean it; I don’t want to.”

“You’re free, now, Marina X. Can’t you see? You’re free.”

With a bone-deep rattle, the bottom of the Ophelia struck something unyielding and firm below her. The light flickered on and off, and Marina tried to see through her tears and the blood streaks on the dashboard to what lay beyond.

A graveyard of desiccated boats and rusted cars and half-buried mechanical equipment vaguely took shape through the glass. With a sick lurch in her gut, Marina realized that the impact of her landing had been from the wing of an airplane; the rest of its body extended beyond her field of view.

“No, no, no,” she whispered, deliriously slamming her limbs against the windshield. She couldn’t breathe. She couldn’t see. She couldn’t feel.

She could only hear, and what she heard was the creak of the flimsy metal hull around her, the hiss of something leaking and breaking under the crushing weight of the water above it. Water started streaming in from above her, below her, from all sides. It tasted coppery as Marina coughed it into her lungs, hands still scrabbling for purchase at the unforgiving metal walls.

“Welcome home, Marina,” a thousand voices sang in unison. “We’ve been waiting for you.”

With a final, earsplitting groan, the Ophelia caved under the pressure, and Marina X was returned to the sea.


Leanne Su (she/her) is a second-generation Chinese American woman from Seattle, WA. Currently she is a Ph.D. candidate in aerospace engineering at the University of Michigan studying electric propulsion. When she’s not breaking or fixing thrusters, she’s usually embroidering, swimming, or taking cursed pictures of her cat Pudge. She can be found on Instagram or on the world wide web at leanne.space/.

Daemum

By Gina Bowen

Evenings were the only time that weren’t the gallows. The air would lift from its heaviness, and light would appear, offering a sign of relief. Elaine’s fingers would curl around the edges of the windowsill of her burrow, and she would peer up at the sky. The light would shine, and it would bathe her. Every night, when it was the worst, there she would be.

Somewhere, in the silver that streamed down upon the earth, would-be mother. Her skin was pure, milk shine, and smooth. Celestial in her wake, her white hair melted down to across her body, cradling every single curve. She was silvery-white and radiating with love. Elaine could see it set from the smile that beamed across her full lips. She would hold out her arms and bid Elaine come.

In her light, Elaine would bathe. She would shut her eyes and dream the dreams that only her heart could possibly wish upon. She would ache for an alternate life. She would be loved, and she would be happy. Mother would embrace her in the way only a mother could and lay down the crown of her head upon Elaine’s. The whispers would come in the form of lullabies, and they would transport her elsewhere. To the Better Skies.

The deepest of Elaine’s dreams encouraged her to believe that there was a chance she was adopted. That Mother was needed to hold in the palm of her hands all of the other broken children and was forced to flee through the forest and up into the night sky to watch them all. To rock them to sleep every night. To be able to love, provide, and support as a mother should.

She concocted a fairy tale that she might have been left on the doorstep. Perhaps Mother was distressed. Perhaps she felt bad for the couple who desperately wanted a little girl at the time and felt she was performing an act of charity. She couldn’t imagine Mother to be so careless with a daughter she loved so much, especially when she sent her the moon every night to dress the wounds that would lash her skin during the day.

The day. The Gallows Times. The Long Twelve Hours. The Times of the Lashings. Elaine winced as reality crept into her thoughts, and goose flesh began to raise beneath her skin.

“Mother,” she would moan. “You must not have known what would become of me. You must have thought this was best. You must have trusted too much.”

She would rest her small head upon the sill, where Mother would keep her light, a watch to calm her nerves. To encompass her in a sense of security and safety. That was, of course, until the morning came.

And mornings were when she remembered the darkness when shivers settled into her bones and stayed there. When her lungs burned inside of her chest to embody the screams that should have been pouring from her throat. The mornings were the Gallows. And that is when She haunted. She plagued. And she terrorized Elaine.

The shrieking came up with the sun.

Elaiiiinnneeeee.  Elaiiiinnneeeee.

She would hear the shrieks cracked and pitch, piercing away at her eardrums. The onset of harsh reality burst the dreams she had of Mother descending to whisk her away in trails of white chiffon. The mouth of Hell would open wide. As the door to the tiny closet where she was kept creaked open, Elaine’s eyes would squeeze shut. Her breathing shallowed. Every small puff would cling to every last inch of her nerves. Elaine would brace herself, knowing what it was she would see once she readied herself to open them.

Yellow eyes with glints of red would flash from in the doorway. They were startling enough to make Elaine’s blood turn icier than the drafts that were allowed into her small burrow at night. These eyes were eyes that moved. That followed. That remained within the cloudiness of the day and burned into Elaine’s back. They stained her brain with every word, every curse, and every sputter from Hell that was uttered beneath the sharp growl that struck at her back during the day’s work.

There was no longer Mother when daybreak came. The was only The Rehtom.

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And The Rehtom had claws. They were long, curled, and splintered. They terrified Elaine in a way she had never known.  They sent tremors throughout her skin. And although they made the small girl incredibly uneasy, no terror matched the kind Elaine would feel whenever she saw The Rehtom’s mouth.

The lips were twisted and blackened from the bone-ash retrieved from the children she had terrorized before Elaine. Moving like wraiths, they emanated a rank smell from the wide hole filled with pitch that contained entrance to her mouth. The open, cracked, salivating jowl was the most disturbing and unsettling of all. That mouth would wait, it would suck, and it was all-consuming.

This face did not look as such to the outside world. The Rehtom appeared to have the gentle, kind demeanour of a regular mother. It carried grace and poise. Only Elaine was able to see the Hell-Daemon that hid from behind the stretched, plastic elastane of its outer layer of skin. Whenever the Rehtom stalked her during their errands about town, Elaine would have a moment where she seemed to be free from such horrors. Her body, however, would ache from tiredness, and her mind would dwell in anxious anticipation over the nightmares that awaited her once they returned home.

After daily duties, Elaine’s heart would thump when she heard the latch of the wooden shack shut. It would shoot straight up into her mouth, and The Rehtom would remove the mask, slowly, with relish. The skin would peel off her jutted, rotting bones and create tiny piles of fresh flesh upon the wooden floors. And there would be her mouth. Those lips would curl into a wretched smile. And that smile was almost worse than the teeth. It was maniacal.

Come, child, she would wail in her cracked, dusty voice. Come.  I need you to fill me.  Obedient girl, I need you to feed me once more, as you have done all these days, and as you will always.

With any last ounce of energy she had left in her small body, Elaine would feel compelled to push her way toward The Rehtom. The Rehtom would release a chuckle and bend her head low. Vampiric in nature, she would suck. She would suck until Elaine saw darkness, selfishly slurping Elaine’s life force for herself until Elaine had nothing left. Obedience would come mechanically for Elaine. Her fingers and toes would move numbingly as though yanked by puppeteer’s strings.

Every day, Elaine would be further weakened. Every day, Elaine would lose more and more of what was left of her already dwindling life.

There was only one small grain of hope that kept Elaine clinging onto if she even had anything left in her to cling at all.

She clung to the evenings. The evenings that were not the gallows. And whenever The Rehtom’s assault was the worst, that was where she would be.

Mother.  

Mother who loved and wanted her, if only even just in her dreams. Elaine would know Mother would be coming, ready to take her away. Finally.

In the evenings, Elaine waited.

Soon, Mother.

This hope would fill her heart until there was none of it left.  

Until The Rehtom would come again to stalk once more in the morning.


Gina Bowen lives, breathes, and photographs the mountains of Eastern Tennessee.  She spends her time writing poetry and short stories on her porch and getting lost in the woods with her pups to photograph the beautiful landscapes. Her work has been published in Pussy Magic Magazine and Blood Moon Journal.  Additionally, she volunteers as a poetry editor for Outlander Magazine.  More of Gina’s poetry and photography can be found on Instagram and follow her on Twitter.

Things That Save You

By Corey Davis

Like it is to all children, bedtime was oppression to the boy. Banishment to his bedroom so soon into the night with teeth brushed and pyjamas donned was almost too great an offence to the inexhaustible kinesis of youth. How could he possibly be expected to wind down with the ontology of that constantly whirling in his body? 

So then, the stroke of nine P.M. turned into something that needed to be shrewdly negotiated into a perpetual extension of fifteen minutes more: to the end of the half, to the end of the chapter, to the next commercial break, please, please, please. If this strategy were met with opposition, then the boy would be forced to push it further and implicate his elder siblings, claiming for the sake of fair and equal treatment that, if they got to stay up, then he should be allowed the same God-given freedom. But his narrow miss of their God-given teenagehood was what usually sunk his case. The final verdict was always a kiss planted on the top of his head by his mother, followed by a sympathetically amused ‘sleep-tight-don’t-let-the-bedbugs-bite.’ By that point, there was no use in looking to anyone else for a bailout; the boy’s father made sure to exclude himself from all bargaining sessions, preoccupied as he was with the Cowboys or the Celtics or his nightly beer sweating in his insurance broker grasp. Thus, the boy had the floor no more.

Foiled, he would sulk back down the hall to his room, sprawl out under his covers, stare at the posters on his walls in the dark until the images started to disfigure, listen to the even-paced murmur of the TV still going in the living room. Sometimes, in an attempt to put his encumbered energies to use, he might close his eyes and splice together a highlights reel of the school day’s happenings. He considered the kickball game that had dominated recess. He considered the chicken tetrazzini the cafeteria had served for lunch. He considered the silent reading period when JP Walburn caught a salamander by the sink in the back of the classroom and managed to keep it hidden in his desk for the rest of the afternoon without getting busted. This recollection he liked best. It naturally led to a rumination on what else might be successfully stashed in the inner compartment of one’s desk: a terrarium of playground wildlife? A box-sized jungle habitat? A whole miniature scientific ecosystem? 

Sooner or later, as always, the purpose of this mental exercise would backfire on the boy. His eyes would droop. His mind would grow foggy. His breath would even out into a soft, buzzy snore, and an enemy slumber would prevail. 

Sleep was a sneaky and potent incapacitator. Sleep was a heavy hitter and a fleet runner. One instant, the boy would be holding a clear thought in his head, and, the next, he was being jolted awake by the inopportune honking of his alarm clock, the whole night having already trundled past without him even knowing it. Only occasionally did its tranquillizing power wane halfway through the night, interrupted by a bad dream or a sick stomach or, more commonly, the excesses of whatever liquid the boy had last downed before being sent to bed.

Those halfway spells were the ones sought after at sleepovers and campouts—the silliest of hours. They gave off the same feeling as did standing on one’s head to the hilarity of one’s friends, blood rushing down and delirium filling up like helium. But alone in a pitch-black room, entombed within the stuffy heat of one’s blankets? In that case, one and two and three in the morning were odd, quiet tourniquets of time existing in their own freestanding dimension, belonging neither to the old day nor the new one ahead—only to the no man’s land in between. 

On one such occasion, what did it for the boy was the bottle of Yoo-hoo with which he had washed down three Oreos for dessert during the evening cartoon block. Even though he had taken care to empty his bladder before begrudgingly hitting the hay, his body must have nevertheless hoarded water, because he awoke abruptly from a deep sleep to pressure in his gut, and, of course, when he studied the digits on his clock with scrunched eyes, it was no earlier than two-thirty. Strange magic indeed.

The boy shuffled down the hall, past his brother’s room, past the linen closet, past his sister’s room, and to the bathroom. The house was as still as the night outside was, disrupted only by the tonal music of the toilet bowl. The boy was careful to keep one arm slung over his eyes to ensure that he stayed primed for sleep against the better wishes of the hall light shining in through the doorway. Once his relief was procured, he reached for the flush lever, and that was when he heard the noise. It was coming from elsewhere in the house but carrying down the hallway right to his ears: a slow and rhythmic creak-crick, creak-crick, creak-crick. 

“You’re like a watchman?”

The boy stopped and listened. It sounded like a frog’s two-tone belch or the squeaky hinges of a trunk lid being worked up and down. He didn’t think to call out for his parents as if it was in any way probable that the two of them might be busy oiling up the living room furniture in the wee hours of the night. He didn’t think to arm himself with a weapon either—his sister’s nail file within arm’s reach on the bathroom counter or the can of deodorant to wield as a pepper spray. Like a bloodhound dutifully tracking the scent in front of his nose, the boy hiked his pyjama pants up and sought the noise out himself, curious yet alert on all fronts.

When he stepped ever so lightly into the living room, he saw amongst the shadowy arrangement of sofa, chairs, coffee table, and a television set that a man was sitting there. In the weak reaches of the hall light, the boy determined that he was dressed in a deep grayish-green, with a wide-brimmed hat and a long trench-like coat and boots—like a homemade Halloween costume of Zorro, minus the mask. The noise in question was coming from the rocking chair that the boy’s mother usually read her historical fiction novels while his father snoozed in the La-Z-Boy while waiting for the sports segment of the nightly news. The man was rocking placidly in it with one leg propped on the opposite knee, and the creak-crick, creak-crick sound carried on even as he raised his gaze and caught the boy frozen in the doorway. 

“W-what are you doing in my house?” the boy asked, his voice shrunk down to a whisper. 

The man didn’t startle. He smiled wryly, never once stopping his rocking. “Ho, ho, ho, I’m Santa Claus,” he answered not in a whisper but a low and rough-shorn voice. He let the joke settle without reception from the boy and then stiffened up slightly. “I’m on the job, mister sir. What about you? What are you doing up with the bats and the beetles at this hour?”

The boy suddenly remembered the hunting knife that his brother kept atop his chest of drawers and considered bolting back down the hall to fetch it. Instead, he said, “Um . . . if you broke in, I’ll call the cops.” 

The man feigned offence. “Mister sir! What a gross misunderstanding of what I am! That kind of thing is what I’m here to prevent. So I have not broken into your house, no, no; I’m guarding your house. And what a nice house it is. Always a pleasure to guard.” 

He rocked on. The clock on the mantelpiece ticked the time along at an awfully sluggish pace. Apart from that, it was so quiet that the boy couldn’t even hear the faint bell-chatter of crickets or cicadas coming from outside. It was as if he and the man were the only ones awake on the planet, having awkwardly run into each other during the night’s programming gap.

“You’re like a watchman?” 

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The boy stepped forward into the living room, and, as soon as he did, the man pinned him in place with the beam of a flashlight that had been concealed in his coat sleeve. Then, with a soft chuckle, the man turned the beam up into his own face, illuminating a stubbly jaw and sparse but deep-cut wrinkles and gray eyes and long, curly, wet-looking hair. Like a flame confined to a lantern, the light was blocked by the sides of his hair and the brim of his hat from reaching the ceiling or spreading outwards into the room.

“Of sorts,” he replied, face pale and bright, expression bemused. “There are hazards. There is a call.”

“You do this every night?”

“I make my rounds.”

“How do you get into people’s houses if you don’t break in?”

The man smiled. “Up on the housetop, click, click, click, and down the hatch. Don’t all children know that one? Or else I walk through walls. Works well enough for ghosts, don’t it?” 

Now the boy was insulted. After all, he was no baby; the Santa record had been set straight for him at the ripe age of seven, as his sister’s idea of revenge after he planted her failed math test in their mother’s sewing kit to be found out. Thenceforth, all other holiday and seasonal mascots promptly lost their credibility: the Easter Bunny, Cupid, Jack Frost, even the Tooth Fairy. As the logic of the fiction went, these pleasantly conceived night visitors were permitted free reign of one’s home and possessions, so long as they left thoughtful treats in exchange for cookies or carrots or juvenile incisors. But what was the darker equivalent of such? A drop-in house caller with no mythos to abide by and no goods to deposit under a tree or a pillow, who therefore had open access to any plunder of the boy’s household that might pique their interest? The boy was the only man of his house currently conscious. He supposed he had some guarding of his own to do. 

“So you’re here to keep burglars away?” he asked, sharpening the question to a point. 

“Burglars indeed. Skeptical, are we, mister sir?” 

The man’s tone was mildly jocular, but his face sobered as he sheathed the flashlight beam in his coat sleeve once again and leaned back into the shadow. 

“The night is so old.”

“You’re at that age, I suppose. Bombastic age it is. Bumps in the night become just squirrels in the attic. You start to need answers for everything, and, worse yet, you start finding them.” 

The boy had no clue what a ‘bombastic age’ was supposed to be, but he couldn’t help but wonder what was so disappointing about seeking the truth of things? Growing up was a process rooted in a proud tradition of fact-facing. And, yes, organically and sensibly, the boy had started to come around to his mother’s even-toned insistences, not the least of which involved the scratching noises beyond his bedroom ceiling, which she assured him were nothing more than a rodent problem his father was too lazy to call pest control about. What was so dissatisfying about having answers? Along with the authority to heckle those of your peers still invested in their fanciful childhood lore, answers were essential passes into adulthood; any sixth-grader waving a magnifying glass over his chest in hopes of finding an even a single sprig of hair knew that. Answers were the things that saved you when you were confronted with the fearful kryptonite of any age. They performed the necessary maneuver of ‘bringing the situation back down to Earth,’ as the boy’s mother was fond of saying. 

“You mean ghosts and Santa Claus?” the boy said, chuckling with as much seniority as he could simulate. “Is that what you’re talking about? You know, I’m not so little.” 

Of all the boy’s statements thus far, that last one seemed to sit strangely with the man. Back and forth, he rocked in the boy’s mother’s chair while his eyes glinted with sharp intrigue. His mouth twisted as if he were humouring the boy with a smile, but there was a pocketed sadness in the final form that it took—an apology, even. Not for spurning the boy’s maturity, but for something beyond the control of both of them. It was the same way the boy’s parents held their mouths when he parroted a joke he had picked up from his brother, the suggestive meaning of which he did not fully grasp then but undoubtedly would someday soon. It was the way children held their mouths the very first time the joy of taunting drew tears from the taunted, the seminal moment when pleasure turned to regret in the yet-undeveloped realization that they would be hurting people too fast to stop for the rest of their lives.

Although the man was now hidden completely in the shadows, his voice was still very much present. “But the night is so old, mister sir,” he said. “The night is so old.”  


Corey Davis is a young emerging writer living outside of Jackson, Mississippi, USA. Davis is currently working on their first novel. You may find them on Instagram and Twitter.

Day Race

By Felicia Zuniga

It trickles away helplessly

wordlessly

without warning

Who knows the things you could have

accomplished

if it didn’t jolt away

your lifeblood

if it didn’t slash

your face with wrinkles

if it didn’t choke

you of the talents

you knew

were harboring inside

somewhere

The sun performs its

perfunctory duty

The moon sneaks into

work on time

The seasons play their parts with

alarming bravado

How come you can’t keep up?

always lagging behind, winded

they are powered from within

You’re evidently unplugged

Leaking consciousness

evaporating fickle cells

that were once filled with

something

Blink and you’ll miss it

the idea that could have

brought you great fame from

today has just floated away

on a wisp of goodbye

on a strand of yesterday


Felicia Zuniga is a writer and communications specialist who lives in Calgary, Alberta with her husband and two young sons. She has been writing poetry for over a decade and has been published in a variety of journals including Contemporary Verse 2 – The Canadian Journal of Poetry and Critical Writing, The Antigonish Review, Montreal Writes, Existere – Journal of Arts & Literature and FreeFall Magazine. She has a Master of Journalism degree from Carleton University and a Bachelor of Arts degree in English Honours with a Creative Writing Concentration from the University of Calgary. Learn more at www.feliciazuniga.com.

The Wait

By Felicia Zuniga

The wait seeps into your skin
stretching it into rivers of worry

It pours into your stomach
tightens knots and tosses acid 

The wait pulls on your hair
until it strips it of colour
Muscles and memories become dull
corroded by the salty licks of wait

It erases sunlight from your eyes
spring from your step
definition from your days

The wait creeps into your bones
Your jaw becomes tight from the grind
of teeth every night
The wait happens in your mind
but it takes your body too

You never know if today
will be the day and your heart
sits up like the sun every morning
then slinks back into darkness at night

You install routines you can set
your hands to
They shove you through the day
even when you try to stop them

You keep moving even when the wait
bites and stings and scratches
You still wait and you hope
in the mornings


Felicia Zuniga is a writer and communications specialist who lives in Calgary, Alberta with her husband and two young sons. She has been writing poetry for over a decade and has been published in a variety of journals including Contemporary Verse 2 – The Canadian Journal of Poetry and Critical Writing, The Antigonish Review, Montreal Writes, Existere – Journal of Arts & Literature and FreeFall Magazine. She has a Master of Journalism degree from Carleton University and a Bachelor of Arts degree in English Honours with a Creative Writing Concentration from the University of Calgary. Learn more at www.feliciazuniga.com.