Tag Archives: Mystery

Afterlife

By Anna Elin Kristiansen

Is she okay?

This is the first thought that forms in my mind as I come to after my afternoon dozing, surprised, as usual, that I have fallen asleep at all. My naps never last long, but lately, I have succumbed to taking them in my bed rather than having a lie-down on the sofa. There is simply no use pretending I’m not going to give in to sleep. I wake up with a feeling of having seen her face, that mysterious half-grin that I never can make head nor tail of. She wasn’t the only one, though. She was with others, others I didn’t care for. 

Rousing myself from short sleep in my state is no small feat. There is delight at managing to wake up at all, but there is also discomfort and a little of that familiar fear. Where, oh where, is she? I know now that she can manage by herself on the floor while I nod off, but still, I’m not entirely at ease with letting my consciousness float away from her needs. You need to have a lie-down, mum, can’t always be looking after her like you do. You’ll get too tired.

My mind is incapable of quelling echoes these days. Comments of the more hurtful variety are always ringing in my ears. Now, I keep her away from prying eyes. I want her close, though. I need her with an urgency that summons even the oldest of atom bonds, calling on them to unite yet again. As I rise from bed, my body faithfully reminds me of its limitations. It groans and creaks in protest as I grip the bed rails to pull myself up. Then, there is that dizziness spell. A nap can bring it out full force, sometimes flooring me for a day or two. It seems, though, that my brain still has the tenacity to beat it, given enough time. 

I’m trapped in a wasteland between reliving days gone by, unguarded memories threatening to overtake reality at the slightest opportunity, and disbelief at the state of me. Where I am now doesn’t quite qualify as life, but at the same time cannot be non-existence, based on the pure logic that once oblivion descends, there can be no perception of morning or evening. There is the seemingly irreversible routine of waking up at five-thirty or six. There is the post-lunch lull that descends on me like clockwork, slowing my entire organism in anticipation of the mid-day nap. And there is dusk that brings loneliness closer to my door and makes the darkness, ever so present in the vaults of my memories, thicken. There is also sadness. Quite a lot of sadness.

The afterlife is not a place appealing to visitors and those that come I can place in two categories. A pity visit I can smell from that first ring of the doorbell. The momentary pause before their greeting and their chirpy tones confirm my original instinct. We would have been better off alone, I whisper in her ear before tucking her away. Mother! How lovely to see you. Don’t you look dashing today. May I come in?

How I crave honesty. I would give my left, now useless arm, for a few minutes of real conversation that doesn’t shy away from the destination that breathe down my neck every minute of every day. But every time I try to voice what really weighs me down, my visitor will steer the topic to safer ground. We must not dwell on the negative, mother. Let’s enjoy our tea and out chat. Here, have another biscuit. I wish they wouldn’t fob me off with a cookie. Let me have it, for god’s sake. I deserve it. Throw your anger at me. Long ago, my taste buds performed an act of self-preservation and stopped tasting the bland sweets of today.

The second category of visitors is the paid ones. I can’t keep track of when, exactly, they are due. Any inquiries into the matter only produce mumbled responses that tell me nothing of importance. Their offerings are hardly more exciting than the boring biscuits, but they are warm and slightly more nutritious, so I eat from their plates. And they come with pills that keep my pain in check and my dizziness more manageable. It’s what I need if I am to take care of you, sweet-pea. If I’m to cope with all your demands. This second kind of visitor tends to bring a certain air of lost hope. It’s a shame, really, but why should they wash their hair and mind their looks? They pay no attention to what kind of opinion their appearance might evoke in the likes of me. When it comes down to it, I suppose the afterlife boils down to these two words: Not mattering. 

A part of me is fine with that, is perfectly at ease with being a no-body, just like I was once a busy-body in charge of a bustling household of six. Even though I’m now an old croon, a tucked-away particle still remembers the way my body swelled as a result of life multiplying inside. First, I dreaded what was to come, cursed the months of being fat and puking into the toilet. I still wince at the memory of how I panted and cried and groaned – I had welcomed my final hour after twenty-one hours of hellish labour – before finally being broken, so I could become a gateway into this world. Four times a mother taught me this: Life – irrevocable, unapologising – comes with its own agenda, and there is no taking back control again. Life takes what it needs without question; it nurses and latches on, greedily sucks in strength and reaches its chubby little arms out for independence sooner than any mother could possibly imagine. It sets you up to fail, you know. That’s why I need you, I need your dependability, your presence.  

How I had loved them, though. How I still love them, though I have learned long ago to let them go, to set them free so they can make their own mistakes. Despite my shortcomings, or perhaps because of them, there is a thing or two I could teach them about the way they live their lives, always on the go and rarely at home, lost in a screen but not in conversation, consulting psychologists instead of sitting down alone with a cup of tea, letting their own mind unfold. But I have also learned to keep silent, having caught on to the glances that pass between them whenever I broach the sensitive topic of how to live. She’s lost in the past. She doesn’t know the ways of today. Be patient with her, poor thing.

I used to host dinners for my family, twelve people at the table and me scurrying back and forth to the kitchen to put the final touch on each dish. We were happy then. Look at us, squint, concentrate and take a good look at us through the rear mirror. There we are, gobbling up turkeys and potatoes and green beans and puddings. Now, I’m incapable of such tiresome feats. 

Ah, there she is. My little darling. Relief floods my system as I bend over to pick her up, preparing to hoist her up on my hip with that second-nature movement, but instead – and this has never happened before, not with her – I lose my balance and take a tumble. A pitiful sound, somewhere in between a whine and a frightened-animal-groan, pierces the silence of my small living room. In no time, I’m just a heap on the floor, clutching her, panicked at the thought that I might have landed on top of her small body. My good arm is throbbing with pain. She must not be hurt. Please, don’t be hurt. I can’t live with myself if I don’t do right by you.

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Of the physical demands motherhood makes, I had heard a lot. I knew, for example, about the lack of sleep, the endless rocking and walking, the sucking, the ache, the relentless needs babies and children had. I knew about the bond, too, that mildly amusing description that could only be used in mother-to-mother conversation unless you wanted the other person to stifle a yawn. I hadn’t known, however, that mothering would require me to dive to the bottom of my own psyche and emerge with boxed-up emotions that erupted in frustrations, failures and disasters. It had been one series after another, one child after another, and I had yielded to its force. Alone, I had bobbed up and down in a raging ocean, thrown this way and that by nasty waves that made me choke and splutter, and him – him, who had been the source of all this in the first place – offering me no lifeline whatsoever. 

But it won’t be like that with you.

I stroke her, the pain in my arm slowly giving way to a numbness usually induced by the pills I can easily get my hands on these days. Back then, when I needed them more, it had been a struggle. 

With you, I’ll do it all over again. And I’ll do it without regrets.

Her clothing is beginning to fall apart, I need to mend the buttons doing up her dress in the back, but I can’t do anything about it now. Fear grips my heart. What if I die here and we’re found this way? I couldn’t bear it, not with her looking so shoddy.  She hasn’t been with me for a while, not in plain sight. The last time I exposed her to prying eyes, her appearance was much more to my liking.

Perhaps it’s jealousy on their part. Jealousy that I might get it right this time. That they got the short end of the stick, and she is blessed with perfection. They don’t rub my nose in it, not anymore, me being an unspeakably old lady and all, but I know what they think. What they should think. Because I had also hated them. Most days, I couldn’t stand them. With my own hands, I had beaten them, smacked their naked bottoms, pinched their chubby thighs, thrown them into cupboards and slammed the door. I had yanked their soft hair, punished them by letting them go hungry, I had shouted, screamed and raged at their folly. They had driven me mad, and they had known all about it. 

The floor, my immobility, my inability to rise and put an end to my pitiful situation offers me a glimpse into how time can curl up into itself, take a somersault and then settle down peacefully, slowing down to a barely noticeable crawl. She is a bulky pillow, not being made for anything of the sort, and I fight the urge to throw her across the darkening room. My stomach growls. Perhaps one of the second-kind visitors will save me. The thought offers a ray of hope before I realize that they’re done for the week. My dinner has been placed in the fridge under a plastic lid, ready to be heated in an idiot-proofed microwave that switches off automatically after fifteen minutes. They do this sometimes when they’re hit by a wave of staff sickness.

Pity comes first, then shame. I’m ashamed over my obvious ability to live so long but do so badly with all this superfluous time. And then there is fear, fear so strong it makes me whimper. This is the moment I have been neglecting, the moment an arrogant corner of my mind thought didn’t have to be reckoned with, the moment I’m to be strung up and stripped of my affiliations, weighed and measured by my actions and deeds alone. When all is said and done, this is a fitting ending for someone like me. I know it, my old and worn body knows it, my eyes know it as they produce hot tears that wet my face, melting into my deep lines and finding ways to trickle down my sagging face.

I try finding comfort in her, try caressing her back the way I have done so many times before, try stroking her cold and lifeless cheek. At least we’re together. But it’s as if the enchantment surrounding her has bid a hasty goodbye and disappeared through my depressing ceiling. It’s not her cotton-filled body that I need, not her staring blue eyes, nor her once-glistering blonde curls. This bland fake, this impostor, can’t save me from anything. I need real flesh. I want the version of life that I failed, the humans that grew inside of me. It doesn’t matter which one; I love them all the same.

Time on the floor creeps backward, takes me back to moments I thought I had covered in veils or packed up in boxes marked with ‘oblivion.’ With them, I can always claim amnesia, but here on the floor, I relive every rage, every punishment I inflicted on them, every mean remark and insult meant to scar and serve my own purpose. As the surrounding darkness closes in on me, I have to let my dignity go and allow a trickle of warm liquid to seep out and soak my underwear. I weep anew. The night wears on, and I drift in and out of restless sleep, trying unsuccessfully to make my body crawl, so I can snatch one of the woollen blankets covering the sofa. It is cold down here, and the wetness doesn’t help.

After an eternity, early morning rays illuminate the sad scene. I lie still, watching the sun climb higher. Breakfast, I tend to manage on my own, but lunch gets delivered. Someone will come in time.

Not long after, I hear the heavenly sound of the doorbell. 

All dust particles floating around in the air hang suspended for one tiny moment, waiting for me to draw a sharp intake of breath. At once, my senses are on full alert, trying to work out whether the visitor whose index finger produced the vibrations in my dull apartment is of the first or second kind. Of course, it’s one of mine, oh thank the lord – it’s one of mine, I know it!

From my place on the floor, I make a move. I reach with my good hand for the table, pulling myself a few inches closer to the hallway. Sharp pain stabs at my hip. My entire body opposes the movement, shrieks in deep protest. I whimper, I groan, I fart from exhausting my last strength, but I send my arm back out again, grasping at the armchair legs. My other arm wakes up from its temporary slumber, sending jabs of pain towards my epicentre, but I recognize them only by crying out, persisting instead in crawling towards the hallway and towards the end goal: The door.

I need to tell them that I’m sorry. Sorry for hurting them instead of protecting them always, for thinking they were splendid but never telling them anything of the sort, for slapping them when I should have taken them in my arms, for yelling at them when they did nothing but behave like kids. Most of all, though, I’m sorry that I never took a moment to pause and weep and look at myself, to look at them; that I never seized life by the wrists so I could take them along for the ride when I was in the throes of it.

The doorbell rings again. Whoever is downstairs is growing impatient, is perhaps gripped with a that’s-not-right sensation, wondering whether to call one of the neighbours for assistance with the buzzing-in. I manage to creep another inch forward, crying out as I do, whimpering at my pain. How will I ever reach that door? Suddenly nothing else matters. I can die; I can go in peace if I just make it to that door. If I can share just a few moments with the child of mine downstairs who still comes, the child that still spends minutes and hours listening to me whining about life when I should be intently focused on their perspective. My children, who still have their fragile lives in their hands, choose to spend some of it with me. And not just one of them; all of them. They all come. I’m gripped with a gratefulness so huge it sucks me in, makes me gasp.

“Mother?”

Oh, I hear him, my first, the one who broke me when he burst into this world, the one who almost died of pneumonia, the one who kept me up for forty-two hours straight watching his blue lips part and shiver as air left and entered. How I alternated between fretting at his bedside and cursing my unfamiliar vulnerability. If I lose him, there is nothing left in me. He took everything that was good when he was yanked out of me. 

He speaks through the letter-hole, trying the door handle hesitantly.

“Mother, are you there?”

I take in a gulp of air, lift myself up on my elbows, hold my head still, trying to stop it from shaking.

“I’m here!” I repeatedly croak until some of my unintelligible sounds break through the keyhole, the letter-hole, the door separating me from him. 

“I’m here. I’m here, angel. Mummy’s here.” The last two sentences I can only whisper. It’s kind of amazing, the fact that I’m still here. And whether I have a glorious hour, a dazzling day, a whopping whole month, or a full, amazing year, it doesn’t really matter. What matters is that I’m here.


Anna Elin Kristiansen is a reader, writer, mother and the universe masquerading as a human being. She makes sense of the world – and creates her own – through her own writing. In the evenings, she writes literary fiction, and when inspiration strikes, she writes poems about the experience of being alive. You can find her words at On Mama’s Mind and her Twitter.

The Sara Chain Letter

By Mariah Eppes

That evening, Kaitlin and I were together for the first time in a while, sitting on her patio. While I tried to think of something to talk about, she alternated between taking small sips from a glass of water and waving invisible pests away from her face. Her kids were with their dad, and the cat was dead, so there wasn’t anything obvious or innocuous for me to land on conversationally. 

I have a bad habit of bringing up inappropriate topics if there’s nothing obvious or innocuous to rely on (kids, pets). I wouldn’t have come to Kaitlin’s at all if I had known my nieces weren’t there. But the point is that I did go to Kaitlin’s, and since there was nothing to inhibit my bad habit, I brought up the Sara Chain Letter.

The Sara Chain Letter was something that happened to us when we were kids, in the summer of 2004. I was a few weeks away from turning twelve, and Kaitlin was thirteen. I remember it was before my birthday because Kaitlin was teasing me about the short few months in which she was “two years older” than me. I’d also had my appendix removed that same week—maybe just a few days before the incident—because I remember being sore and a little woozy.

I couldn’t do much activity, which was why Kaitlin and I were spending so much time on the computer. My dad usually kept a time limit on our internet usage, but he must have felt bad for me after the surgery because the rules had been temporarily lifted. This benefited Kaitlin more than me, since she was healthy. The internet was our main source of entertainment at that time, and she took full advantage of having control over the mouse. I didn’t have the energy to do much else besides sit on a kitchen chair next to her and watch.

In 2004, lots of kids at our school were into weird stuff on the internet. Most parents had no clue what we were doing. Including ours: our dad had only recently gotten a laptop, and it was for work. The kids in my computer lab impressed each other with methods for getting past school-regulated firewalls and shared new sites that hadn’t yet been detected, flagged as inappropriate, and blocked. Despite the school’s best efforts, plenty of explicit stuff was passed around. Mostly sex-related. But scary things were also popular.

One type of school-inappropriate content was called a chain letter. I’m sure you remember. A bunch of text, on a forum post or in an email, telling the reader they had four minutes to send the letter to ten people or else they would drop dead in a week. And other multitudinous variations. Chain letters were the most ridiculed and simultaneously the most feared because back then, it was one of the only things on the internet that threatened to have an impact on your real life. 

It was Kaitlin’s idea to find the Sara Chain Letter.

“Connor dared me to look it up,” she said.

Kaitlin liked Connor. I was supposed to feign ignorance until she properly admitted it.

“So do it,” I said.

“He said it’s scary,” Kaitlin said.

“It’s just a chain letter,” I said.

Kaitlin leaned back in the desk chair and peered through the threshold of the office, presumably to see if our dad was in listening range. When she was satisfied that he was at a safe distance, she said, “So you wanna do it?”

Mostly I wanted her to go to the virtual pet website we liked so I could watch her play. But I was too tired to call her out for trying to impress Connor. So I just said, “fine.”

Kaitlin stared at me, testing my sincerity. I stared blankly at the computer screen. Then she went to a search engine. Or, I assume she did. Searching is so ubiquitous now that it doesn’t sound right to say she “went to” one. In any case, she searched Sara Chain Letter, and we were brought to a sparse white webpage with a block of black text.

I am Sara. I am 13 years old. I was murdered by my neighbour. I went to his house after school. My parents were at work. He murdered me with a knife. He stabbed me over and over. If you’re reading this, then send this message to 13 more people in 13 minutes. If you don’t, I will HURT YOU. I will come to your house tonight at 3 A.M. I will be by your bed and kill you like I got killed by my neighbour.

I started to giggle, but it didn’t have a chance to leave my throat. Kaitlin scrolled down, past the text, and there was the image. The photograph. Kaitlin said, “oh,” and scrolled back up quickly. But we both saw it.

The dead girl in the photograph was lying on her back, naked. The frame contained everything above her belly button. She barely had breasts, I remember. Her neck was turned at an unnatural angle, and her mouth was too wide open. Her eyes were round and staring away from us. Her skin was tinged green. Her hair was stringy and dark, and there wasn’t that much of it.

I’m sure Kaitlin screamed first. But we were both screaming when my dad bolted into the office, yelling, “What? What? What happened?” Kaitlin was hysterical. I remember it oddly as if there were two of me, one hysterical and one watching, seeing all three of us. Kaitlin sank to the floor, on her knees, sobbing; I sobbed in the chair and wondered if I was going to throw up; my dad rubbed Kaitlin’s shoulders because she was closer to him. I remember that everything hurt like hell.

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“It was probably fake,” I said to Kaitlin. 

My dad had set us up in front of the television with plastic cups of water and slightly burnt frozen pizza. Neither of us were watching TV. Kaitlin shrugged and nodded. Her face and eyes were still wet. 

My dad was on the phone arguing with our cable company, demanding that they take down the page. This was a time when people still thought someone out there had control over what went online. The idea of the page being gone didn’t make me feel better. We’d already seen the letter. We’d already seen her face. 

I recovered myself enough to eat the pizza and then sought out Dad. He was sitting at the desk chair, fruitlessly reading the user policies of our internet service. I sat down in the same chair I had so recently, so innocently inhabited; it now had an ominous energy. 

I don’t remember the details of our conversation. But I know I asked him, “Is that picture real?” Because Dad looked at the computer screen, at the bouncing geometric screensaver, and said “Yes.” 

I went back to the living room.

“Kaitlin,” I said

“What?” Kaitlin said sullenly. Her water was still undrunk. 

“I was right. Dad found out the picture was fake.”

Kaitlin said nothing. I took the lie further. 

“It was a movie prop.”

A cartoon character on TV screamed Oh my god!. I remember that because the voice had the cadence of natural speech as if the character had responded to me. 

“Okay,” Kaitlin said. 

I felt it was my responsibility, a new role that I’d acquired, to protect Kaitlin from the disturbing truth. I used this new role to bolster me that night, lying awake as the clock got closer to 3 AM. I was strong, Dad had decided I was strong—and obviously, I was stronger than Kaitlin. I did not need to be afraid that the thing I had seen would appear. And Sara did not appear. 

I didn’t tell Kaitlin the last part when I mentioned the Sara Chain Letter on her patio. But that didn’t stop her from wrinkling her nose, swiping at another invisible fly, and saying, “I do not want to talk about that.” 

It was fair of her to say since I knew this was not something I should have brought up on a perfectly nice summer evening. Bad habit. We had not discussed the Sara Chain Letter since it happened, not once in seventeen years. To be frank, we hadn’t discussed much at all in at least fourteen of those seventeen years. Since our mother died—not long after the chain letter incident, actually—we had grown apart. We were very different people, and grief had made that obvious.

Kaitlin took a sip of water. “Also, you remember it wrong.”

“What do you mean?”

“You fell asleep on the couch. Dad told me the photo was real. Not you.”

“That’s literally impossible,” I said.

“You must have overheard us while you were sleeping,” Kaitlin said. “And then dreamed it was you.” 

Something about her matter-of-fact tone made me suddenly, viciously angry. I knew I had to temper my reaction. Flying off the handle would only give her a greater sense of superiority. 

“I didn’t tell you because I didn’t want to upset you,” Kaitlin said. “But I guess you knew all along.”

So much for tempering. “Okay, this is stupid,” I said. “Because that is just not true.”

The moment had stayed with me—Dad confiding in me that the photograph was real—because it was evidence that I had a stronger emotional constitution than Kaitlin, a resilience she lacked. I’d held the suspicion for years as a kid, but this memory represented the first proof. It must have been me, or else how would I have felt secure in the belief all the years after?

“You were on painkillers,” Kaitlin said. 

“I remember.”

“You were coming off anesthesia.”

“I couldn’t tell you because you would have been upset.”

“Well, obviously, I knew, and I’m still here. So.”

“And am I too.”

Kaitlin rolled her eyes. “Don’t be like this.”

“Be like what?”

“We’re trying to have a nice evening, and you’re starting a fight.”

“Just because I think you’re wrong doesn’t mean I’m starting a fight.”

“Jesus Christ.”

“Let’s just call Dad and ask.”

“This is ridiculous,” Kaitlin said. 

I was already dialling. Dad answered; we exchanged short evening hellos. 

“It’s nice that you two are together,” Dad said.

“Yeah. Can you settle something for us?” I said. I heard Kaitlin scoff. “Remember the chain letter website? The gory one that me and Kaitlin saw when we were kids?”

“Chain letter?”

“Yeah, the Sara Chain Letter. It was, like, a scary letter, and there was a picture of a girl’s body at the end. We saw it and freaked out.”

 “I don’t know….”

“Dad. The dead girl. On the internet. There’s no way you forgot about that.”

“I never had anything to do with the computers in our house. I hated all that stuff. Still do.”

Kaitlin and I exchanged glances. 

“Dad, you didn’t forget. It was such a big deal,” I said.

“Put him on speaker,” Kaitlin said. 

I did, with some familiar resentment. Kaitlin always thought she could accomplish whatever it was I had failed to do. That had not changed, not since we were children, not since she told me matter-of-factly that I didn’t care enough, and that was why our mother wouldn’t visit me in dreams.

“After the appendectomy, Dad,” Kaitlin said. “That summer. We were in the office, and you let us play on the computer with no time limit.”

“Oh… wait.”

He paused. 

“Yeah. Oh, hun. The picture of the dead body? Oh. Hun, that was your mom.”

“What?” I said.

“That was your mom. She was home with you two. I was on that big work trip. ’05, right? ’04?” He paused as if in reminiscence. “She didn’t give you a time limit? Ha. She never told me that.”

Kaitlin stared at me. 

“She didn’t tell me what happened until I got home. She didn’t want to upset me. There was nothing I could have done,” said my dad. “Plus, she knew I was sensitive to that kind of thing. I could never do blood.” 

“There wasn’t any blood.” 

Said Kaitlin and I, at the same time. 


Mariah Eppes is a writer in New York City. You can find more of her work around the internet and at birdbyrocket.com. She’s on Instagram and Twitter.

The Hanged Men

By Owen Schalk

“The present conditions of the country are no more than the threshold of a profound…and most important examination of consciousness.

– Pasolini on the eve of the Italian Civil War (1943-1945)

They found a man with bricks in his pockets hanging under Blackfriars Bridge in London. His name was Roberto Calvi. He was the chairman of Banco Ambrosiano, which was in the midst of a historic collapse following revelations of financial irregularities worth billions of lire. The main shareholder in Banco Ambrosiano was the Vatican Bank, which led many Italians to dub Calvi “God’s Banker.” Some joked upon his death that his main investor had finally lost patience with his management.

Calvi had been missing for seven days, and much like Michele Sindona, it seemed like everyone who mattered wanted him gone: the Holy See, the Sicilian Mafia, the political establishment, and associates of Banco Ambrosiano ranging from Polish anti-Soviet groups to Nicaraguan drug traffickers. There were so many suspects that it took people ages to notice the clue right under their noses. Calvi was hanged from Blackfriars Bridge. “Black friar” in Italian is frate nero.  Frati neri was the internal moniker of members of the Propaganda Due (P2) Masonic lodge, a subcutaneous organism within the Italian body politic that sought an extreme rightist restructuring of the country’s political and economic life based on the model of another hanged man, Benito Mussolini. Its members included prominent businessmen, media moguls, military officials, intelligence officers, representatives from Southern Cone dictatorships – and Roberto Calvi himself.

P2’s Venerable Master was Licio Gelli, a financier and card-carrying fascist since his youth who assisted in the failed Borghese coup of 1970 and subsequently fled to Condor-era Argentina, where he built close relationships with many high-level junta officials. According to the P2 theory, the complete exposure of Calvi’s financial indiscretions would lead to the unmasking of the lodge’s long list of crypto-fascists, some of whom had public profiles to maintain. The organization covertly murdered Calvi and dangled him from Blackfriars Bridge as a not-so-subtle “keep your mouth shut” to other P2 members who might be thinking of abandoning the sinking ship.

Everyone had someone to blame for Calvi’s murder, and every suspect was connected by one or two degrees of separation. Nobody was on trial, but in the minds of the public, the defendant was both multitudinous and singular: it was the arcane, cabalistic, Svengalian knot of deep power that pulsed and steamed and continuously expanded in the core of postwar Italian society.

Susanna Betti was unique. She blamed someone nobody had thought to accuse of Calvi’s murder. She blamed herself. She’d never met Calvi or Gelli or any of the other revenants of fascism burrowed in the country’s power centers – what use would they have for a Friulian professor of Marxist literary theory? – but within her was a latent premonitory gift that had revealed the place and manner of Calvi’s death two weeks before he’d fled Rome. She knew he was marked for death.

The first time she saw tarot cards was at a street market in Testaccio. She was thirteen. She made her parents stop so that the fortune-teller could reveal her future. She later learned that he used a rare pack – the Tarocco Siciliano – in which l’appeso, the hanged man, was depicted as hanging from the neck, not the ankle. Susanna remembered the card so clearly because it was the first one he flipped after she asked, “Do I have the Betti gift?” He gave her a five-card reading. She didn’t remember if the hanged man was upright or reversed, and she couldn’t recall the following cards, but she was pretty sure that the final one was the Fool.

She thought of the hanged man once more, on the morning of May 28th, 1982, after a dream illuminated her hereditary clairvoyance. She was seated under an ebony bridge, watching the black water roll by. The glow of a streetlamp made faces in the ripples, an ever-shifting visage of light that occasionally rhymed with the features of a family member or friend but otherwise remained a stranger. She looked up and realized that the face was not actually a trick of the light but the reflection of the hanged man, who was dangling from the bridge. His face was turned down as though he was expecting Susanna to tell him something. “Well?” he asked, raising his hands inquisitively. There were bricks in his palms. “Am I upright or reversed?”

The upright hanged man represents reflection, growth, and the possibility of uncovering a new understanding of one’s place in the world, which is the ultimate goal of all fortune-telling, not just tarot. The reverse-hanged man embodies stubbornness, the intellectual blockage produced by over-analysis, the opposite of intuition. Susanna didn’t know what to tell him. To make him feel better, she joked, “You look pretty upright to me.” That only made him sadder. He stuffed the bricks into his pockets and closed his eyes. Then she woke up.

She didn’t realize that her dream was a premonition until it was too late. That was the Betti curse.

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Her family had long understood that one member of each generation would receive a preternatural awareness of the death of an epochal figure in Italian life. The recipient could either stop it or allow it to proceed – that is if they were able to figure out who the marked person was, which was a difficult task in and of itself. As far as she knew, no Betti had ever been able to stop the death. Her father, Luigi, claimed to have foreseen the shooting of Communist leader Palmiro Togliatti in 1948. According to him, he had waited at the rear entrance of Palazzo Montecitorio every day for three weeks until, one sweltering July afternoon, he spied Pallante creeping up behind the PCI chief as he walked to his car. He was holding a small, rusty revolver. Luigi dove into action, grasping Pallante’s wrist just as the would-be assassin put one bullet in the back of Togliatti’s skull. He wrestled his hand down, directing the next two shots at Togliatti’s torso and saving him from a fatal trio of headshots. Togliatti was rushed to a hospital and revived. Luigi ended up regretting his actions when Togliatti abandoned the factory workers who went on strike in his honour, urging them to stick to democratic means rather than wildcats and vandalism. “He’s a bureaucrat,” Luigi resolved. “He doesn’t want revolution. He cares more about getting invited to Stalin’s dacha than helping us proletarians.”

There were several problems with Luigi’s story. Firstly, Susanna’s mother Mira claimed that he wasn’t even in Rome at the time of the shooting but visiting his parents’ farm outside Tarvisio. By the time he hurried back to the capital, the strikes had already been broken. Secondly, Luigi was in his thirties at the time of the shooting. It was unheard of for Bettis to receive premonitions before their sixtieth birthday. And lastly, it had been accepted familial knowledge since the killing of Cola di Rienzo that only one member of each generation could experience a vision of an epochal death. His story was further undermined in 1978, two years after Luigi’s death from lung cancer, when his younger brother Pieri received a vivid forewarning of the kidnapping and murder of Prime Minister Aldo Moro. Pieri chose not to intervene, of course: he was the family’s fascism nostalgist, and he hated Moro for supposedly compromising Italian democracy by negotiating with the communists.

Growing up, Luigi and Pieri lived in the Friuli countryside on their father Jacum’s poultry farm. Jacum was a pragmatist, an antifascist liberal who had foreseen Mussolini’s hanging a la l’appeso and allowed it to proceed “for the good of the nation.” He didn’t like Togliatti because the Americans didn’t like him, and in 1948 he voted Christian Democrat to secure US reconstruction aid, which Truman vowed to withhold if the PCI won the presidency. Luigi called his father a coward and cast his vote for Togliatti. He’d been a communist ever since stumbling upon an outdated issue of l’Unità, the PCI newspaper, in a Tarvisio alleyway while delivering his father’s chickens to the butcher. He flipped through it, read a disquisition on the plight of rural workers that resonated with the struggles of his youth, and registered with the party that week. He briefly convinced his younger brother that communism was the only equitable path for Italy. Still, when Pieri turned eighteen, he fell in love with a girl from a staunchly Catholic family who lived in the hills around Udine. Her father, one of the city’s largest landowners, liked to talk politics with his daughter’s suitors. He imparted to the impressionable teenager a worldview that valued law, order, and rigid hierarchy above all else and romanticized the era of strongarm fascism over the turbulent electoralism of the immediate postwar.

A few months later, Pieri married and moved his wife onto the farm. Luigi argued with the couple so viciously that eventually, he couldn’t stand it. He packed his bags and marched off to Rome. Jacum died five years later, baffled and heartbroken that politics had the power to tear his family apart.

For a rural migrant, Rome of the late 1940s wasn’t a miracle waiting to happen. It was the home of crime and poverty and the borgate romane, wherein lived those whom Pasolini called the sottoproletariato (for his part, Luigi thought Pasolini was a degenerate and an individualist, and once said that if he’d been lucky enough to foresee the writer’s death, he wouldn’t have changed a thing about it). Susanna’s earliest memories of her father were of a weary, heavy-lidded factory worker coming home late to their ramshackle hut on the urban fringes and smoking at least a half-pack of cigarettes before dinner. He rarely spoke except to lambast Togliatti and Berlinguer as “sellouts.”

Mira was a communist too and a dedicated PCI supporter even after Luigi grew disillusioned with the party. She didn’t work outside the home. Like the PCI leadership, she believed that the Catholic nuclear family was the heart of Italian society. She did her part in this regard, staying home each day to make meals and to keep the shack in pristine condition for her husband’s return.

Unlike her mother, Susanna saw the appeal in earning her own way. She graduated high school and worked a variety of dead-end jobs, earning enough money to pay her way through one year at the University of Rome (her father covered the subsequent costs). Her first year was 1968. Bloody, sweat-soaked ‘68. The sessantotto. It was a pivotal moment for Susanna’s political development. Not only was it her first year at university, her first year of lucent left-leaning history classes, which gave structure to the communist doctrine she’d been weaned on as a girl, but it was also the year that her father told her of the Betti gift.

It was family custom to inform each generation once the youngest sibling turned eighteen. As an only child, Susanna didn’t have to wait for anybody. The gift was on her mind during those months of protest. She saw death everywhere: in the news of peasant revolts across the countryside, in the Molotovs of agents provocateurs, and in the snarling barrels of the policemen whom Pasolini defended. At the time, she misunderstood her father’s explanation. Susanna thought that she and her friends were all epochal defenders of the Left, and every time one of them approached danger. She envisioned the worst; she took credit for their survival. She didn’t realize until years later that “epochal” didn’t mean those with potential, those who might one day achieve something: epochal meant power, and power meant the knot. It meant Calvi, Togliatti, Moro, Mussolini – it didn’t mean Susanna Betti and her boyfriends Silvio and Alessandro, whom she’d met at a student club for tarot enthusiasts. Those boys weren’t powerful, era-defining figures. They made it safely through the summer of ’68 and settled into cozy teaching jobs at the University of Rome, maintaining their friendship, if not their relationship with Susanna. She had long ago accused them of being sellouts of the petit-bourgeois.

Susanna aged into comfort too. She graduated with honours and took a job as a teaching assistant in Naples to avoid the awkwardness of working alongside Silvio and Alessandro. Eventually, she became the head of the literature department. Every year, she taught a seminar called “Pasolini and the Making of Italian Neo-capitalism.” Now that she had aged out of youthful dogmatism, she had a new appreciation for his work – although she still held a grudge against him for “The PCI to the Youth.”

She was thirty-seven when her premonition of Roberto Calvi’s death welcomed her into the upper echelon of chosen Bettis. She felt lucky. She had often thought that it was cruel for her family to receive visions when they were so old and had so little time to comprehend the death in its broader historical context. That was how she felt about Calvi, her hanged man. His death was distinguished, epochal, but without a historical distance, she didn’t know what it had meant or how Italian history would have changed if she’d been able to stop it. She looked forward to understanding the death in its proper context in the coming decades.

While thirty-seven was unusually young for a premonition, the giver of visions must have had a keener eye for the future than she did. On December 23rd, 1984, Susanna was on the 904 express train to the University of Milan, where she was scheduled to deliver a lecture on Pasolini’s final film, when a bomb in the ninth car detonated, killing her and fifteen others and injuring over two hundred passengers. The perpetrator of the 904 bombing, Giuseppe Calò, was arrested the next year for ordering the murder of Roberto Calvi.

At the moment before the bomb tore her to pieces, Susanna understood something. Maybe it was the Betti gift, or maybe a religious epiphany courtesy of the God she’d shunned her entire life, but in the instant before her particulate evisceration, she understood the nature of the knot. She understood that Calvi, Togliatti, Moro and Mussolini, Luigi and Mira, Pieri and Jacum, Silvio and Alessandro and Susanna herself were all the hanged man. Power was the knot on the noose around their necks, tied by the hands of an executioner whose name they all knew. She saw ahead to the arrest of Giuseppe Calò and Licio Gelli, their trial for the murder of Roberto Calvi, and their surprise acquittal due to what the court deemed “insufficient evidence.” She didn’t care. She understood who killed Calvi, and even if it wasn’t the same man who killed her, she knew that their nooses were tied by the same hands.


Owen Schalk is a writer from Winnipeg. He grew up in the countryside surrounded by rural emptiness, abandoned houses, and farm-loving German Canadians who tried and failed to instil their love of farming in him. He found his artistic curiosity while reading the usual canon. He found his voice while reading Pynchon, DeLillo, Bolaño, and other authors who write with a critical eye for dominant social and political doctrines.

HARD TIMES

By Nancy Machlis Rechtman

No one knew where they came from. It seemed they just appeared out of nowhere one day. It was hard to tell at first, but it turned out there were seven of them. Orphans, all of them, though we never did find out if they were all from one family or, if not, how they came to be together.

When they showed up that day, just as the last snow of winter was disappearing, the town went wild. I mean, you’ve got to admit, it’s a pretty strange sight to see a string of orphans, all in clothes that didn’t fit properly, suddenly appearing out of the clear blue sky at the edge of town like some ragtag band, and then setting up camp. That’s what my daddy called it – “setting up camp.” But I never did see any tent or anything.

To tell the truth, no one actually saw where they settled after they arrived. They must have built themselves some kind of a shelter deep in those woods because that’s where they disappeared every night. They never let anyone close enough during the day to follow them. And, you better believe that no one was going to follow them into the woods when it was pitch black, and you couldn’t even see your own hand in front of your face.

Folks in town didn’t exactly welcome strangers with open arms. They usually kept pretty much to themselves and regarded outsiders as intruders, to be treated with suspicion and mistrust. That suited the orphans just fine since it was obvious they felt the same way about the folks in town.  

In the beginning, a few of the women clucked about the orphans being “savages” who should be dragged into town, given a good scrubbing and forced to go to school like the rest of us poor miserable kids. They even went to the mayor about it. But since no one in town really wanted the orphans in their midst, the idea died a quiet death, and the orphans were left to themselves.

My family lived on the edge of town, as close to the woods as was possible while still being considered part of the town. My mama said it was positively spooky having those “wild Indians” living so close to us. Daddy just laughed and told her to stop being afraid of poor, homeless children. Mama told me she better not catch me near any of those “barbarians” or else. But I used to sneak out of my bed when I knew she and Daddy had fallen asleep, and I’d creep outside and look around, trying to see if I could see anything in the moonlight. I never could, but boy did my imagination run wild.  

I imagined what kind of a home the orphans had made for themselves in the woods and what it must be like not to have any adults around to make you listen to them and tell you when to go to sleep, and what it must be like inside those dark, forbidding woods, and what kind of wild animals must be watching and waiting… I’d finally go back to bed, too wound up to fall asleep, and I’d walk around the whole next day like a zombie. Mama always looked at me suspiciously on those mornings, but she kept her mouth shut, thank goodness.

Although we lived on the outskirts of town, we did have a few neighbours not too far away. The closest was the cat lady. That’s what we called her since no one could pronounce – or even remember – her real name anyway, and she was always taking in strays. All of us kids thought she was the most ancient lady in the world. She never paid any attention to what anyone said or thought, although I wonder if she even knew. Most of the people in town called her “eccentric” when they were being polite.  

One of the cat lady’s peculiarities was her habit of waking before dawn every morning and taking a walk down to the woods. People felt that no person in her right mind would go alone to those woods, especially when it wasn’t fully light. But the cat lady had been doing it for as long as I could remember, and nothing had ever happened to her. Secretly, I always wished I could join her. And, rumour had it that the cat lady was bringing food to those “barbarians” on her pre-dawn journeys.

I sure hoped that the rumour was true because I wondered how in the world the orphans were managing to eat unless they were just living on tree bark and acorns. I guess other folks were wondering the same thing, and it was making some of them awfully uneasy. Actually, it was as if they were looking for any excuse to make themselves uneasy about the orphans. It was like they knew, deep down, that they should be doing something to help them, but they didn’t do anything, so instead, they decided that the orphans were trouble and that something had to be done about them.

Rumours started flying that the orphans were stealing food from the grocer or from “honest, hard-working folks’ homes.” The mayor’s wife swore she had set a hot apple pie to cool on her window ledge and only left the room for a minute. But when she came back, the pie was gone, and she insisted that she saw one of those “ruffians” racing down the alley, carrying her fresh apple pie. Didn’t matter if it was true or not. She was the mayor’s wife and elected herself to be in charge of all the moral behaviour in our town.

People started grumbling and told the mayor that he better do something about the orphans. Of course, they meant that he better get rid of them, but no one would actually come out and say that. And, he was getting all that pressure from his wife, which, knowing her, must have been worse than being tied to a chair for several days straight and listening to someone’s nails scraping up and down a chalkboard the whole time. But he couldn’t just go and kick them out of town. Although, as I said, they weren’t really in town.

So, he decided to give them some kind of an ultimatum. Since he didn’t know exactly how to contact them, he decided to leave a note pinned to a tree at the edge of the woods. He brought the sheriff and his deputy with him since he didn’t want to go near those woods alone. The note said the orphans should appear at the courthouse at 2:00 PM that Friday. Word spread, and people took bets on whether or not the orphans would show up.

Friday came, and I’d never seen that courthouse so packed. Seemed as if they’d stuffed the whole town in there like one big can of sardines. Just as the clock struck 2:00, the courthouse door opened. There were the orphans, all seven of them, dressed as raggedy as ever but looking like they had scrubbed themselves as clean as was possible for them. The oldest led them in. Looking at them, their ages probably ranged from fifteen on down to maybe two.  

It was the littlest one that you noticed right away though – he had the face of an angel, and his curly hair was so blond, it was as if the sun itself had come to rest on his head. As they walked in, they all looked straight ahead, and I swear, I’ve never again seen all of those gossips and loud-mouths from town so quiet.

The orphans marched themselves to the front of the courthouse, where the mayor (who was also the judge) was waiting for them. He motioned for them to sit down, but they stood. The mayor was obviously uncomfortable, and he kept clearing his throat. Finally, he came out with it. Basically, it was a lot of legal mumbo-jumbo, but it all boiled down to the fact that since the orphans were all minors, someone needed to take care of them. The mayor said that they couldn’t go on living in the woods – it just wasn’t natural – and besides, rainy season was coming on, so what would they do then anyway? And, if they couldn’t find someone to take care of them, they’d have to move on; it was as simple as that. He sat back and wiped the sweat from his forehead. The whole town seemed to breathe a sigh of relief, thinking who in the world would want to take care of a pack of orphans.  

But their relief was cut short when the cat lady stood up. She said she’d be happy to take the orphans in if they’d like to stay with her. Somebody yelled out that these weren’t a bunch of her damn stray cats. The cat lady ignored the outburst and told the mayor to let her know what she had to do to make things legal.

The mayor slumped down in his seat like she had just punched him hard in his gut. His face looked kind of greenish-blue. The cat lady walked over to the orphans and asked them if they’d like to come live with her since she wouldn’t mind having some human company for a change. The orphans didn’t hesitate. It’s like they had this instant bond with each other. They saw something in that old lady that they recognized and instinctively knew they belonged with each other. And they had probably figured out that she was the one who was leaving them food every day. The oldest boy nodded his head, and that was that. The cat lady said he knew where to find her, and she turned and walked out. The orphans followed, like seven little ducklings.  

When the door shut behind them, it was suddenly like the 4th of July in that courtroom – sparks were flying, eyes were flashing, tempers exploding. But there was nothing they could do. Not legally, anyway. Well, they consoled themselves; the cat lady lived so far on the edge of town that it really didn’t matter much since no one ever had much dealings with her anyway. Some of the ladies still clucked about how the orphans should be forced to go to school. No one really cared as long as they kept out of sight and stopped stealing food – although it had never been proved that they were actually taking food from anybody.

So the orphans moved in with the cat lady, and I was glad because the rainy season came on like a bat out of hell, and I would have worried about them if they were still living outside in those deep, dark woods. They seemed pretty happy with the cat lady. I’d see them every once in a while, and they all looked sturdy and healthy, and I was relieved I didn’t have to worry about them anymore. The town seemed to have forgotten about them, too.

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I think the orphans really loved that old lady. After they moved in, they did everything they could to help her. I heard that they cleaned up the house, took care of the yard, repainted the outside, and helped her take care of all those cats. No one knew exactly how many cats she had since she was always taking more strays in. Whenever you passed by that house, you could bet that if you saw one of the orphans, there’d be at least one or two cats with him. The strays were adopting the strays. That’s how I liked to think about it, although which strays adopting which strays was still a question in my mind.

As the year wore on, I saw my daddy smiling less and less. Mama started looking more and more like my sister, always putting her lips together real tight, with the worry lines digging themselves deeper and deeper into her face. I knew something was up even though they kept telling me that everything was just fine. But Daddy got paler and paler and weaker and weaker, and I think I knew even though nobody said anything. It took a few months, and then one day, he was gone, just like that. But it wasn’t really just like that.

My sister invited us to stay with her and her husband in town for as long as Mama needed to “readjust herself.” I didn’t want to go. I had never liked my sister – she was always so prim and proper and never smiled at all. Even Mama admitted that she considered herself lucky to have married her off in the first place. But somehow, she convinced Mama that it would be good for her to be in town with other people around, so we went. I guess Mama was lonely with just me for company.

But I was never so miserable in my entire life as I was living with my gnarly old sister. And, I hated living in town – I never thought I’d miss those giant, spooky trees at the edge of our property that led into the woods, but I did. The only decent surprise was that my sister’s husband turned out not to be half bad. That really surprised me since I had never had much respect for him, marrying my sister and all. But after a while, we even kind of got to be friends, and life there wasn’t so bad after that.

No one knew how long she had been dead, but somehow it was discovered that the cat lady had died. The orphans had buried her and all; they just hadn’t bothered to tell anybody. Which kind of makes sense when you think about it. I mean, who would they tell? But it was found out, and it turned out that she had left a will, all signed and notarized. Only problem was that she had made it out before she met the orphans and obviously forgot to change it before she died. The house and everything she had was left to some nephew who lived several hundred miles away in the big city. Of course, the will also made sure that the nephew would take care of all her cats.

So, the lawyer contacted the nephew. He arrived in town with the most expensive shiny black car anyone had ever seen and the most beautiful wife you could possibly imagine. Everyone stopped dead in their tracks as that car passed them by and pulled up in front of the lawyer’s office. Later that day, the nephew and his wife drove out to the cat lady’s house. The orphans and the cats were all there to greet them. The wife was horrified and asked her husband if there wasn’t something he could do to get those “filthy vermin” out of that house. And she wasn’t talking about the cats. The husband said he’d work on it.

Word was that the wife decided the house was “quaint” and said she thought it would be quite a lark for them to leave the city and move into the house. She stood in front of the seven orphans and all the cats and ordered them to be out of the house by the next day – or else. The nephew reminded her that the cats would have to stay. On their way back into town, they passed our house, which was all boarded up, and they decided on the spot that they wanted to buy it in order to own all the land between the two houses. Mama didn’t want to sell at first, but they offered her enough money to fix her for life, and since times were as hard as they were, she didn’t have much choice.

The next week, after settling all of their business in the city, the nephew and his wife moved into the cat lady’s house. They found all the cats still there, but the orphans were gone. The nephew’s wife wanted to get rid of all the cats, but since that was part of the will, she was more or less stuck with them. But she did the very best she could to “encourage” the cats to run away. And, I guess the cats knew they weren’t wanted, and eventually, they did run off. Some found homes in town, but most just disappeared. The nephew’s wife decided to keep one little kitten which she thought was just the “cutest little thing.” It was just a little fluffy baby and didn’t know any better, so it stayed.

The nephew hired men to tear down our house. I snuck by one day to see for myself. It looked like someone had dropped a bomb on it, but it was hard to feel sad since it didn’t even look like my house anymore. It didn’t look like anything recognizable – it looked like the woods had taken revenge on it for trespassing, and now the woods were reclaiming it as their own.

The nephew and his wife didn’t associate with the people in town more than was absolutely necessary. They preferred to bring their friends in from the city. They were always having big parties that seemed to last for days on end, and every once in a while, we’d get a glimpse of another shiny black car as it roared down Main Street on its way to or from their house.

Now that the weather was getting colder again, I was curious to know how the orphans were doing. I figured they were somewhere in the woods, although no one ever saw them anymore. We lived too far away now for me to sneak out at night. But I worried about them. And we had one of the bitterest winters ever that year. The air was so cold it hurt just to breathe. And the snow was piled so high I was afraid I’d disappear into a giant drift one day and never be found. As much as I hate to admit it, it was actually a relief to walk into my sister’s house after being out in that awful cold.

About that time, the rumours started. I guess the orphans were having a pretty bad time of it, alone in the woods in the middle of that bone-chilling weather. It seems that they figured the nephew might want to help them, that he might have a heart, so they came to him, only asking for blankets and food and that kind of thing. And it wasn’t like the nephew was broke – he had plenty. But the wife would have nothing to do with them. She chased them away with a broom whenever they showed up. Or she slammed the door in their faces. Soon, rumour had it that the orphans were doing poorly – that they were thin and sickly looking, and some were having trouble walking. And that the littlest one had gotten a cough that just wouldn’t quit.

One day when there was finally a break in all that snow, the nephew and his wife decided to take a drive since they were getting cabin fever stuck alone in that house all that time, except for the orphans showing up. But when they got to their car, they discovered that the tires had been slashed. Now, there were lots of people who resented them and all their money while the rest of us were dealing with such hard times, but they immediately blamed the orphans. And, if they had done it, I sure wouldn’t have blamed them.

The orphans kept trying to get some kind of help from the nephew and his wife. But the wife was so upset about the slashed tires that she screamed that they were dirty filthy animals and they should be rounded up and shot, and that one day they just might find a shotgun right between their eyes…

Winter wore on, and rumour now that the orphans were slowly starving to death, if not freezing to death. It was too cold for them to make it to town to try to get anyone else to help them. I asked Mama if there wasn’t something we could do for them, and she said not to believe all those rumours since no one ever saw them anyway. I told her I was worried that they were going to starve. She told me to stop talking so much and to go do my homework.

A few days later, we heard sirens heading toward the edge of town. They were able to save the house – just an upstairs bedroom was damaged since that’s where the fire started. The rest of the house was fine. The nephew said he couldn’t imagine what caused the fire since no one ever used that room. The chief said it looked like faulty wiring. The wife went into hysterics and screamed that it was those “seven devils” in the woods, and she wanted justice to be served. And she became even more hysterical when she discovered that her precious little kitten had disappeared. They tried calming her down and told her there was no evidence that the orphans had anything to do with the fire or the kitten. But she knew what she knew, she said.

Next day, the orphans showed up. From what we heard from my second cousin, who was working part-time as a maid for the nephew and his wife, the oldest boy was carrying the littlest one who had become too weak to walk. The wife saw them coming, threw a bucket of ice water in their faces, and started screaming about them starting the fire and stealing her precious little kitten. Even though they told her they didn’t know anything about her kitten, as they turned and left, the wife screamed that they were going to pay for what they had done.

The next day, when the wife looked outside for her newspaper, there was her darling little kitten scratching at the door. She shrieked with delight and let the kitten in, not noticing the orphans shivering at the edge of the woods. As the day drew to a close, she was happier than she had been in ages, relieved that there had been no visit by the orphans. When the nephew arrived at his home, he was awfully surprised to get a big kiss from his wife. She told him she wanted to throw another party, that she needed something “terribly extravagant” to take her mind off all the awful trauma she’d been through. The nephew agreed, anything to keep her happy. So she called all of her fancy friends and told them to come over that Saturday night for the party to end all parties.

She was so busy that week ordering everyone around and getting ready for her big extravaganza that she actually forgot about the orphans and the fact that they hadn’t shown up at all ever since she had thrown that ice water at them. On Saturday, she got herself all dolled up, and the nephew was happy to have his beautiful, carefree wife back to normal.

In town, we knew something big was up when we saw lines of shiny black cars making their way down Main Street. We had never seen anything like this before. There was so much music and fun that I’m sure I was able to hear all the celebrating from my room. I was up half the night imagining what it must be like to eat all that fine food and wear those fine clothes and not worry about going hungry…

I guess sometime the next morning, the wife realized that her precious kitten was missing again. She told my second cousin to help her look in the yard and all through the house, but there was just no sign of her little darling. The nephew said that all the noise had probably scared it away and it was probably hiding somewhere, but that it would surely show up now that all was peaceful once again.

The wife had trouble sleeping that night and woke up very early the next morning. It was a dull grey day, the kind where the clouds are hanging heavy in the sky, making it clear that they’re up to no good. The nephew and the guests who had stayed were all still sleeping, and so was my second cousin, who had stayed overnight to help out. The wife went downstairs to get the paper. She opened the door and then she screamed. A scream like you hear from a wounded animal, everyone said. A scream that could wake the dead. The nephew and the guests, and my second cousin ran to see what happened and found her frozen at the doorway. They looked down, and then everyone saw. Lying on the doorstep was the littlest orphan, carefully wrapped in a worn, torn blanket, as dead as can be. And, tucked into his arms was the little kitten, fast asleep.

The doctor came and gave some kind of sedation to the wife, and then the nephew drove the wife back to the city, never to return. They had their belongings sent to them. Rumour has it that the wife had to be put in an institution for a while. The nephew tried selling the house but had no luck. So it just stood there neglected, at the very edge of the woods. The orphans could have moved in at that point since no one would’ve known or cared. But they just kind of disappeared. I couldn’t really blame them.

Every once in a while, I gather up my courage and head down that way. It’s hard to tell now that there ever was a house there. Just like my house, the woods reclaimed something that never belonged there in the first place. When I’m there, I always stop right at the edge of those woods, where there are only a few moss-covered trees before the dense growth takes over. I’ve never been able to enter those woods to find out their secret. But I still do wonder whatever became of those orphans.


Nancy Machlis Rechtman has had poetry and short stories published in Literary Yard, Paper Dragon, Page & Spine, The Thieving Magpie, Quail Bell, Anti-Heroin Chic, and Academy of the Heart and Mind. She wrote freelance Lifestyle stories for a local newspaper and writes a blog called Inanities.

The Docent

By Jennifer Springsteen

The Docent strode into the exhibit hall on soft-soled clogs. She had finished the last museum tour of the morning but had heard a stirring in this room earlier and returned to stand before La Confidence by Bouguereau. 

The composition portrayed two young girls with bare feet and a sensuality that held itself in their coloured lips, thin necks, and full hair. There was a painted whisper between them, and the Docent stepped forward to hear. The hall quieted; her shoulders relaxed. 

“Je vais t’attendre.”

Wait for you? Had she heard correctly?

There it was again.

The Docent stepped closer still. A kiss to the ear. First a whisper and then a kiss. 

It wasn’t the only time the Docent witnessed the movements of paintings. The fluff of a skirt. The rustling of arms in starched sleeves. A cur chewing his paw or scratching behind an ear before relaxing again by his master’s side. She’d grown used to them and their restlessness. It’s what invited her to look more closely, more deeply, more devoutly. 

The Docent hadn’t heard the patron enter the hall or the question she asked. But she felt her now at the south entrance. “Did you find a scarf?” The Docent kept her position with her hands holding one another, listening to the parting of the girl’s stained lips, the wetness in the kiss, the whisper. She didn’t turn from the painting. “No,” she said, and the woman clomped away. How many times would this flushed girl be kissed? How many times would she be told the other would wait for her? The curve of her lips, the calm of her face—she’d heard it a thousand times and would hear it a thousand more. Never would she tire.  

At home, the Docent’s own young daughter waited for her. Waited and itched her scabbed arms, wanting the allowance her mother stopped giving when she’d dropped out of college, and it became clear the allowance went to drugs. Meth or heroin. The mother wasn’t clear about what drugs her beautiful daughter had been taking. Only that by taking them, she’d spoiled her looks and ruined the education she was so lucky to have been offered. The father wouldn’t give her another chance. 

The daughter rose from the kitchen table when the mother came in. “Mom,” she said, “I still have my key.”

“I see.”

The daughter didn’t know where to put her hands. They hopped uneasily at her sides and waist. 

“Are you high right now?”

“No. A little, yeah.”

The mother’s heart pushed at her ribcage. A swelling that would break bones. “Look what’s happened to you—.” The mother pointed at her daughter’s sweet arms. Her arms had been flushed and puffy as a baby and slender white when she was a teen, reaching to play the piano.

“They’ll heal.”

“Not until you stop.” The mother had been reading on the internet. She knew about the ice bugs and the endless scratching. 

“I want to stop,” the daughter whispered. “I want to move back in with you and daddy.” She came around the table and touched the back of a chair. The mother recognized something familiar in that voice, the gesture. The child she knew occupied that body alongside the chemicals, underneath this portrait of an addict, the daughter sketched of herself. 

The mother put her purse on a chair and her jacket behind it. She noticed her daughter’s gaze fall on the purse. “We’ve tried that before,” the mother said. 

“I want to try again,” the daughter said, more desperate than before. “Please let me try.”

“I need to talk to your father. Where are you staying now?”

“You’ll talk to Dad?”

“Yes,” said the mother. She told her daughter there were apples in the bowl and yogurt in the fridge to eat something healthy, for Christ’s sake. She went to her bedroom to change from her museum clothes. 

When she returned, her daughter –and the cash from her wallet—were gone. 

“Je vais t’attendre,” the mother said. 

The museum the next day echoed with shouts and the scuffling noise children’s sneakers made on the polished floor. They sped walked from hall to hall, barely noticing what hung on the walls. The paintings held their breath until the whirl of activity left, school bus after school bus. 

The Docent found herself before a Hopper painting, Table for Ladies. How bright and ripe the fruit, the gold of the waitress’ hair, her delicate nose, her attention to the arrangement on the table. Beyond her, a man and woman sat together, comforted by the wood panelling, the crisp white table cloths. The Docent imagined herself stepping in. The hostess at the register looked up, which was a surprise since her downcast face had not until now revealed the largeness of her brown eyes when they gave one their full attention. Nor how they sparkled. 

She gave a brief look over the Docent’s shoulder. “One?” she asked.

The Docent hesitated. It was only three-thirty, past lunch and far from dinner. But she could take a little something. Cut fruit, a glass of champagne. “Yes,” she said and took another step forward.  

The wooden chair creaked as the Docent sat, causing the man with the mustache to glance her way. She avoided his eyes and instead spread her hands across the smooth white cloth. She placed her purse on the floor beside her chair and remembered her daughter had taken all her cash the day before. Would she be able to use her debit card here? It was an old wooden cash register. A flush rose from her throat to her cheeks. She couldn’t order and then be embarrassed for having no way to pay. She’d never be able to return. 

“Oh dear,” she said, lifting her finger to the hostess who had just turned from the table.

“Yes, Ma’am?”

“I’ve completely lost my head.” The Docent reached for her purse and pushed her chair back with a scrape. “I told my daughter we’d go to the museum this afternoon. How silly of me to forget.”

The hostess smiled pleasantly enough. 

“I look forward to coming back soon,” the Docent said, standing. “I’ve been meaning to dine here for some time.”

The Docent’s husband phoned early evening at home. “I’m still at the office,” he said.

“Okay.”

“Guess who just called?”

She could guess. “What did she want?”

“Bail.”

“Bail?” The mother stumbled backward to the arm of a living room chair, let her legs buckle.

“She was caught stealing again. Arrested.”

“What are we going to do?” the mother asked. 

Her husband huffed. “Leave her in jail.”

“She needs rehab, not jail.”

“Well, this will be a lesson.”

“She needs rehab.” This was a conversation they’d had before many times. The mother could say her lines and her husband’s. He’d say they tried it already, and she’d say it sometimes takes several tries, and he’d say he didn’t have money for several tries. Eventually, she’d conjure an image of the daughter as a youth, and the husband would be willing to try once more. 

“I’ll go to court,” the mother said, “I’ll ask to get her into rehab.”

The husband huffed again and said he’d bring pizza home for dinner. The mother knew he’d get pepperoni, and the mother didn’t like pepperoni. He and the daughter did. The mother liked plain cheese. 

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Seeing the daughter in court had been difficult. The daughter cried. The judge agreed to treatment, but the lockdown kind: one step removed from jail. Conditions. The mother and father wouldn’t be able to visit often. 

There had been days and weeks when the mother hadn’t heard from the daughter and thought the worst. In bed at night, anticipating a knock on the door, the police holding out an article of clothing. “Is this your daughter’s?” Eventually, the daughter surfaced. The mother struggled between wanting to slap her face or place her hands on the daughter’s cheeks and kiss her forehead over and over. 

The Docent arrived late. She hadn’t told her boss she’d been to court, only that she had family business. Several tours led by other Docents snaked through the museum. She wiped her eyes with a tissue and reapplied liner with the pencil she kept in her purse. She’d worried off her lipstick and redid that as well. Her hair looked fine. It always did—her best asset. Curly without being unruly or coarse, she wore it below her shoulders, a little girlish for her age, but why cut away a feature just because of one’s age?

She was to meet with the head of security about the upcoming fundraiser and then a tour at three-thirty. She had a little time to herself to gather her thoughts from the morning. The painting that called to her—Corot’s Rocks in the Forest at Fountainblue—hung on the second floor, so she stood quietly in the elevator with several chatty patrons. 

She loved to say the name aloud: Fountainblue with the accent she thought sounded sophisticated. The way a Docent should sound, not like some mother who allowed her daughter to become a drug addict and slip further and further away. 

Rarely did she sit at the museum. But the rocks in the painting looked as if they’d been sun-warmed; through the trees, it would be cool and shady at this time of day. The bank inclined. She felt the pull in her thighs as she climbed to the rocks and sat on the one that made the most pleasant-looking seat. After some repositioning, she found the right spot, leaned back on her hands, and closed her eyes. The sun shone in blue flecks between the green leaves. A breeze ran its fingers through her hair at the base of her neck. Birds called and changed branches. 

She let herself relax. 

In the quiet, she heard the distant bubble of river water. She checked her watch—ten minutes before her meeting. She rose and crested a small hill, then followed a deer trail to the source. The mossy banks snuggled right up close to the water, looking like velvet cushions in the light. How nice the water would feel on her bare feet. Regardless of the time, she removed her stockings and waded in, her sheer hose a ball in her hand. She steadied herself with the bough of a thin tree and then let go. 

The water came up to her calves, slow-moving, and while the larger rocks were mossed and slippery, the river bottom was finely broken stone. She lifted her skirt and walked downstream. The whistle of a red-tailed hawk turned her gaze up up up to where the river entered a wide canyon with tall smudged walls. 

Someone called her name. 

The water just outside the canyon rose to her knees; she lifted her skirt in her hands. There is was again, the calling. Oh God, the head of security. Her meeting. 

The trek upstream kept her off balance; her ankles ached with the effort. 

When she returned to the bank where she’d stepped in, and to the rocks at the forefront of the painting, and out of the painting itself, she’d lost her breath. Her stockings had twisted, they were heavy and wet, and she’d caught her fingernail at the back of the knee getting them on, causing a wide run down to her foot. It split again as she pulled at the waist to straighten them. Her clogs clung to moss and hummus from the forest floor, and the edges of her skirt darkened in a damp rim. 

She found the head of security in the exhibit hall off the lobby and watched his angry face change to shock at the look of her. “My word,” he said.

“I’m sorry,” the Docent said, “Rarely am I late for a meeting.”

“Where have you come from?” 

Her shoes, the pantyhose. She ran her hand through her hair and caught a piece of pine between her fingers. “The Corot,” she said. 

He shook his head, “I was just there,” he said, “Calling for you.”

“Yes,” the Docent replied. 

The walls tightened in colourful Steve McCurry photographs. Faces splashed with paint, finely dotted and decorated, bejewelled or smudged with the dirt and grime of poverty. The Docent heard the ripple of a Sri Lankan woman’s shift. Shells clank on a Nigerian man’s neck. A small child splashed in a washing bucket and cried from the chill. 

The Docent deepened her breath. There had always been such movement in this exhibit, such clattering and chaos. Hush, she wanted to tell them. Hush. 

“Where are we meeting?” she asked the head of security and slid her shoulders down her back, tilted up her chin to keep his gaze from the wreck of her shoes and stockings. (But ah! The cool of that river. The blue and white splattered sky. The tree leaves sponged by the broken bristles of Corot’s thoughtful brush!)

“The faculty office,” he said. She followed him there, tasting the wet of the canyon walls on her lips. Her feet stung from the nips the rocks took. She had almost gone too far. She had almost lost her way.

At home that night, she sat at the table with her husband and described the painting to him, best she could. 

Her husband poked his rice pilaf with the tips of his fork, meaning to fluff it, to give it rise, maybe. Meaning. “I don’t know that painting,” he told her.

“It’s in the new exhibit,” she said, “That’s why I’m describing it to you.”

“You get too much time,” he said.

“I must know the art,” she sniffed, “Or I wouldn’t be a good docent.”

They continued through dinner without much to say. As she cleaned the dishes, she said, “I called the treatment facility and arranged for a visit this weekend.”

The husband said, “Humm.” 

“Don’t you want to go?”

Her husband drank his wine and didn’t offer to help load the dishwasher like he used to. When had he stopped? “You enable her. Giving her money, letting her walk all over you.”

She ignored him, too tired to argue, and eventually, he left the kitchen and turned on the TV news. 

Her daughter’s skin had pinkened, the cheeks plump. A light back in her eyes. 

“Mom.” Her daughter ran to her in the visiting room. They embraced hard and clinging. The mother rubbed the daughter’s hair and her small back. A month before, the daughter would have shrugged her away. 

They sat at a small table under a crooked frame of the serenity prayer etched in purple thread. 

“It’s not bad,” the daughter answered the question the mother wanted to ask. “Food’s okay. I can’t have any caffeine.” 

“No coffee?”

The daughter laughed. “Nope.”

The mother took her daughter’s hand, rubbed her thumb along the chipped and bitten fingernails. 

The daughter said, “Sometimes I just want to escape. To disappear from everything.” There were tears on her cheeks.

“I know,” said the mother, “Me too.”

“What if I screw up again?” The daughter pulled her hand away.

The mother thought of the girls in the Bouguereau. The whisper. “If not this time, next time,” she said. “I’ll wait for you.”

The daughter nodded and wiped her tears with thin fingers. 

The museum would close in a half-hour, and the husband texted that he hadn’t been feeling well. He’d gone home early and would lay down. The thought of him being home when she got home— of not having that counted one hour without him—angered the Docent. She shouldn’t be angry at someone sick, but she was. 

She finished her paperwork, took her sweater from the break room, and headed straight for the Hopper. Once inside, she greeted the hostess. “Hello again.” Maybe too excitedly.

“Hello,” said the hostess pulling the hand-printed menu from beside the register. She smiled at the Docent and led her to the same table as before, where the chair moaned at her weight, and the same mustached man looked up at her as she adjusted herself. 

The hostess brought a glass of water and left the Docent to herself at the white-clothed table. When the blond-haired waitress arrived, the Docent said, “I’d love a champagne.”

The waitress nodded. “To eat?” she asked. The Docent detected an accent. Dutch perhaps. 

“Bread and butter.” The Docent pointed at her menu for reference, “And what is the soup?” Before the waitress could answer, she waved her hand through the air. “No matter. I’m sure it will be wonderful.”

When her champagne arrived, she sipped and watched the comings and goings of the brightly painted patrons. The Dutch waitress and the big-eyed hostess. How many years had she spent with them already in this familiar scene?

With her soup finished—a lovely clam chowder—the Docent checked her watch. The museum closed ten minutes ago. Security would walk through one last time. If she left now, she’d raise questions. If she waited until security left, she’d trip the alarm. 

“Anything else?” The waitress cleared the table of the empty bowl. The couple remained at their table, and the hostess showed no signs of breaking down her station. In fact, the restaurant remained in its mid-afternoon cheeriness. 

“Another champagne,” the Docent ordered. “And the cup of fresh fruit.”

“Certainly.”

The Docent finished her fruit, her champagne. She placed her money and a nice tip on the table and stood, collecting her belongings. This time, the mustached man nodded at the Docent, and she nodded in return. She looked out into the museum, but it was difficult to distinguish much with the lights shut off. She turned from the emptiness of the museum and entered the brush-stroked world beyond the painting’s yellow door. 


Jennifer Springsteen is a seminary student at Starr King School for the Ministry in Oakland. She is the co-founder of PDX Writers. Her writing has won several awards, including Regional Arts and Culture Council grants, an Oregon Literary Arts Fellowship, and two Pushcart Prize nominations. She is represented by Joanna MacKenzie of Nelson Literary Agency. She writes, teaches, and studies in Portland, OR.

Ruth

By Robin Foster

Rifling through the fridge and considering dinner possibilities from what remained of the weekend’s takeaway containers, Veronica’s doorbell chimed a twenty-two-note melody. When she answered the door, the tune was still playing.

“Say, Polly, there was a two-for-one sale on Entenmann’s cakes at the Stop and Shop today. Can I give you one?” Veronica had stopped correcting her neighbour as to her actual name long ago. In fact, she liked answering to a name that sounded to her exotic, a throwback to another time that meant big band music and sitting under one of those big-domed dryers at the hair salon while your curls set and your nails dried, clutch purse neatly resting at your feet. 

Ruth stood on Veronica’s front stoop with a canvas bag slung over her shoulder, tucking a handful of crumpled tissues between the crook in her elbow and her tiny body, car keys clutched in bony fingers. The blue of her veins threatened to leap free of the delicate, parchment-like skin that only barely contained what was beneath. Veronica considered her private assertion that Ruth probably shouldn’t be driving at her age, and certainly not after dark. She had watched as Ruth’s car careened down the street many times, wondering when Ruth’s son might take away the keys to her ’75 Mustang. But Veronica felt the validity of Ruth’s driver’s license wasn’t really any of her business.

Veronica followed Ruth next door to her driveway, where three double-bagged paper grocery bags sat in the back seat of the Mustang. Ruth tossed her car keys into the canvas Paris Review bag that she used for a purse. “Take those around the back, would you? The front door is stuck.” Veronica could see that the front door wasn’t stuck but was rather slightly ajar, amber light from inside the house spilling out into the evening twilight. She headed up the walkway, but Ruth was surprisingly fast for a woman in her eighties. Ruth scampered around back and entered her house through the kitchen. Ten seconds later, her tiny forearm emerged through the crack at the front door. A delicate gold watch, tiny oval face on a thin, bracelet-style band, slid down her wrist. 

“If you’ll put the bags down on the front step, Polly, and push against the door, I think we can get it to budge.”

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Confident that one or two good shoves would dislodge whatever was preventing Ruth’s door from opening any further (were the hinges rusted out, or was the door off-kilter?), Veronica didn’t want to knock down a ninety-pound woman with her brute force. She advised Ruth to move away from the door. “Stand over by the window, Ruth. I’ve got it.” Ruth’s arm, which Veronica just then noticed was mottled with a fading but sizeable purple and yellow bruise, disappeared from the crack.

“I think you’d better just go around back, Polly. It’s not gonna be any use. Just come around back.”

Before she could get close enough to peer in through the three-inch crack between the door and the jamb, the smell hit Veronica like a tsunami. There was no anticipatory hint of a scent, no inkling in the back of her mind that some as-yet-to-be-identified scent molecules were just beginning to attach themselves to the smell receptors lining her nostrils, requiring a few seconds to relay sensory input to the brain for interpretation. The half-step required to lean her shoulder into the door crossed an invisible threshold between nothingness and onslaught. The transformation was much like the moment when The Wizard of Oz switches from black and white to colour. A new reality. What she smelled was very clearly on the spectrum between urine and spoiled milk. 

A quick glance inside revealed what Veronica estimated to be twenty years of yellowed issues of The New York Times, piled up in two and three-foot stacks around the perimeter of the room and creeping inward like clover across a meadow. The only clear path leading toward the kitchen was a crevasse formed between dozens – hundreds? Weathered moving boxes, each with varying degrees of pried-open top and marked Wilson in thick Magic Marker. The sofa against the back wall was piled high with an assortment of baskets, dinner trays, and Danish cookie tins. A midcentury television set, a hulking piece of furniture, stood beneath the bay window and a set of heavy damask drapes, tightly drawn. Veronica took in these images as she body-checked the door with her shoulder and forced it back another foot or so. A dozen or so badly stacked cases – flats, really – of generic Nonfat Vanilla Yogurt prevented the door from going any further. The individual containers bulged at the seams. The source, perhaps, of the sour milk smell.

“That’s just fine, Polly.” Ruth reemerged from around back, startling her neighbour with her stealth maneuvering, and stood behind Veronica with the Entenmann’s cake in hand. “I think the cat was blocking the door.”


Robin Foster is a writer and historian. She teaches history at George Mason University and is currently enrolled at Bennington Writing Seminars, class of 2023. She is the author of Carl Van Doren: A Man of Ideas, National Indie Excellence Awards Finalist for 2019.

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.

Home Resurrection

By Allison DeDecker

I am a house with bees in the walls.
Beneath these sun-bleached boards, 
inside the jagged, gaping holes 
hums life.

Sweetness drips,
spills out of splintering wood.
The once silent halls 
buzz with a chorus of thousands.

I was naked bones unburied
abandoned to decay.
I’ve become a house of royalty.
A waxen kingdom gilt in honey.


Allison DeDecker is currently based in Yuma, AZ. She draws inspiration from day to day life, current events, and the natural world. Her work has been published in the Colorado Crossing Literary Journal and is forthcoming in Pile Press. She can be found on Instagram.

Infiltration

By Shareen K Murayama

Tomorrow they will scrape and sell the last salt blocks, crusted on the volcanic crater called Aliapaʻakai. Sandwiched between sun and Pacific, the salt will be shipped abroad. No one on Oʻahu will smell the burning resin of trees, the briny smoke trailing from incense sticks.

But today, two sisters celebrate a new homecoming. They carry salt, red dirt, and a bird from Kauaʻi. Or they drop the items and scallop two craters: Aliamanu (salt-encrusted bird) and Aliapaʻakai (salt-encrusted lake). Two homes for two goddesses.

Tomorrow the Salt Lake community will learn that a town hall was held, approved by a majority. The lake will be sold and filled with a golf course, a country club.

But today, we celebrate the new high school opening up. We race our bikes along the lake’s snaked edges. We are invisible like the wind that scores lines on the lake, reminding me of my grandmother’s wrinkles.

Tomorrow 27,000 gallons of fuel will leak from the U.S. Navy’s tanks below Red Hill, which is adjacent to the now-filled Salt Lake. Nothing will be done to rectify or prevent it from happening again.

But today, we believe someone is looking out for us. Someone is doing the work for us as we reuse utensils, plate our tongues with inclusivity. We worry for our ageing kupuna, while the dying live on a different schedule than the workers.

Tomorrow Oʻahu’s main aquifer will be contaminated, a hundred feet below Red Hill. Over 400,000 residents, from Halawa to Maunalua, will receive an emergency text alert:

WATER QUALITY EMERGENCY FOR THIS AREA. All Oʻahu residents with medical conditions and children under age six should refrain from drinking tap water from their homes until further notice.

But today we hold our breath over water. We close our eyes, hold out for a different ending.


Shareen K. Murayama is a Japanese American, Okinawan American poet and educator. She’s a 2021 Best Microfiction winner as well as a poetry reader for The Adroit Journal. Her art is published or forthcoming in Pilgrimage Press, 433, MORIA, SWWIM Every Day, Juked, Bamboo Ridge, Puerto del Sol, and elsewhere. You can find her on Instagram & Twitter.

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/.