On the Inside, Moon pulls without water. Head batteries go dead, and time stalls. Angie strikes the match inside her brain. Shield the flame, she tells herself, capture the gleam. Watch wind stir sea oats by the bay. Let the seagulls wail and the engines of small craft sputter. Seek a secret place to exult.
A soul-search by first-person Angie has tanked in a wide ocean of conflicting currents. Third-person Angie needs to sort muddle from mistake in a new plan of redemption, meaning escape. She images the license-plate outline of the State of Florida. An inlet, a toe of the sea would do her fine, but here she is.
All hail the slammer, the maceration facility, the Women’s so-called Reception Center. No meet-and-greet tea parties or covered-dish mac and cheese in this fishbowl run by men, done up by men, dumbed down by men.
On quest, Angie’s mind wanders, bumps, and bounces off concrete walls like the talk radio piped-in to keep the inmates amused. In the noisy off-on, she hears a song of siren’s warning.
Adrift at sea, beware ease. Teach your fins to walk, your mouth to please. Canvas empires with grander mer— manatees in senior years.
She composes a refrain to honor Trichechus manatus, the state marine mammal, once called the sea cow and pictured as a chubby mermaid:
Rash boaters, rethink speed and wake. Propeller blades lacerate. Manatees, awake! Vacate dredged channels and shallow lakes.
She feels like she’s shouting Fire! in a movie theatre, but her clarion call, her angelus, falls on deaf ears. Other sounds drown her out with second-hand words—ad jingles, jive, hymns…soul-search detritus left unswept, unwept.
Boaters who hit manatees gripe about their marred hulls. No one serves time for killing s sea cow. Angie’s cell mates include baby-snatchers, check kiters, and arsonists, but most of the women are murderers, lifers like her with a twenty-five-year turn-over. They come in slick young killers and leave prison as wobbly old ladies, rank as smoked mullet. Few on the Outside remember them or the fishy details of their crimes. Cep maybe the dead man’s people, an extended family of beloved junkies who have moved their tents to the intersection of Meth and Opioids. Who wants to put a nostril to their damn straw?
Talk about bad. Angie knows the official go-low drill: Find a ditch, head down, stay in place. She also knows under is only as safe as over. What goes up must come down. Angie wants to turn back the hands of time and go home to her backwater digs. So that the man she bludgeoned to death might fall in love with her. Bashed, he’s too broken to haunt her, but she wants to haunt him, drive him wild as penal statutes have forced her to become in prison.
Skip the brake fluid, the so-called psychiatric meds. She’s not thinking to catch a ride and get high on a bestie’s dope. Her escape, tricky for the average upright biped, involves force of will, iron-clad attitude with mile markers and rest stops. She reviews the three-part plan: female human to mermaid median to finny fish finale. As needed, she will remix her dots into different energy fields, tinted flesh tone to aquamarine to golden green.
These changes from human to poetic to feral bypass justice. Mermaids make their own rules. Fish swap out genders in crowded or polluted conditions. But who gives the ass-pass to a female convict, a felon? More than the mercury levels of the water, grammar is at issue. She can linger in first-person mer, but the odds are stacked against her survival as a third-person fish—he, she, or it. Angie has done her pronoun research. A woman isn’t a captive guppy. Or, a flounder with eyeball crossed anon as fountain fill, femmepurloined.
Angie flat out rejects a portrait painted by dead white male artist, Pablo Picasso. On the Other Side, the Seated Woman will cut him bad, pay him back for her trashed face. Like she’s turned flounder, crying a river over him. Wrong weep, wrong playbill. At Pablo’s hands, poor lady endured the searing grill. Not the Fountain of Youth. Only look-space on a museum wall. What with private-hire guards and alarm systems, Seated Woman might as well be in prison. Well now, Angie could repay society as a painting, set an example, hang by a wire and, real still in fester-mode, set the gallery on fire.
But she remains soleful, ha, ha. She can shimmy fins, fan the flatness of sand. She can hope a dreamy boy will admire her mottle and, by mistake, graze her scaled skin with his cherry lips as he bends to buss his vain reflection. Perhaps, kiss-boy will toss coins—small change for immortality, bubbler bliss. Hey, money’s money—all contributions welcome.
Love, luck, charity, ah fantasy. Life in the Big House is a dim font—chamfered with no second chance, no second glance. Spring-fed to pan-fried, Angie recognizes the harsh truth of her sentence. As is, her female self is too stubborn, too persistent. To break free, she must shed the feminine and do deep-sea time wending a switchback, reminding light sleepers of lost glory. But whose eye chink can fathom steep couloir?
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Practice makes perfect. Come evening, Angie will slip into the sea wash and swims for miles. Come dawn, she’ll takes a breather on the return trip and turn flying fish. Picasso can like lead paint. How pretty the tourmaline flash above crested waves!
For now, nearly merly in broad daylight, Angie tarries on the strand. Fiddler crabs, lefty maestros, rendezvous with careless clams. The sky is clear, and the sand cool under her belly. Rolling over, she tastes the sea on her lips and remembers her younger smelty self, still confident of flounce.
Behind bars, she has become a tad near-sighted. No big deal. Stranger things have happened than a tadpole in the eye. Think moat, no, mote, motel where she, tired, tired of him and smashed his brains like spermaceti across the pillows.
From habit, she squints as fleet dots become human joggers. She bares her bosom so they’ll run in place, show out, pant. They don’t. They watch man-meet-water, that primordial kingfisher saga about tall waders and cast flies reeling lures in wide zigzags across the surface.
Angie chides herself, sunbathing on the block, unloading human adages of self-help:
Pack a spare beach toga for upstart gene pool party. Tamp down your cunning sea comb. Learn to like beach volleyball.
She knows flirty banter is but merry pastime in the vast playground of the sea. As if mer girls cared about coastal hookers, arched back, famed snatch. Our tribal thing, she reassures herself, is certain dive to test leader, break line.
She craves revenge, a nonstop ballad of a small-town woman wronged—her. Given adequate food and shelter, she can make a comeback. Merness will fill out her ungainly spaces and starved innards. Full-figure for her return, she can loom in his eye salt, trespass in his everyman’s dream. Nodding off, he will ache for her wavy auburn hair, smooth shoulders, firm breasts.
On fire, he’ll gladly plunge into benthic trenches forging continents. Let him surface with the bends. Doubled over with lust, he won’t feel bliss. He won’t even feel wet. His lungs will snap like burning branches, again and again, as schools of carnivorous minnows devour his sleep.
Let him cry to the rock for succor. She’ll dart into the shallows. No need to hold her ground and stay on scene like the last time. With luck, a fish her size can make her way north through inland wetlands to the St Lawrence Seaway. Under the stars, she can follow cod and navigate the Outer Banks to North Sea landings made magical by Hans Christian Anderson.
Angie bursts into song. She has done her dunce time on crappers without seats. On her voyage, she’ll miss springtime on the river and fringe trees abuzz with bees. Such sweet haze, the drifts of pollen. Let cell-rats twitch their whiskers with envy. Bubble-gazers will proclaim that she, the fish bitch with adipose eyelids, schools at Wit’s End, the brink trolled by monsters, sea monks and swirlpools. Wit’s End, wherein ends reasonable doubt.
Angie must stay on plan. She’s worked hard to keep river green against ocean blue with silver moonbeam ladder for up and out. She checks her brain feed re: offshore breezes and sea chop. Soon she’ll be swimming past wetlands drained for golf courses downstream to the bay.
She must wait for the riptide. In a house without change, she needs tidal turmoil at the river’s mouth She imagines discharge of 155,000, 000 gallons per day. What math! What mouth! Fish spew. Phosphenes implode.
Gaol or goal?
Should be a picture postcard of a powerful fountainhead, right? A bold female numen, a potent avatar with red-eyed eels for hair. But doing time messes up the head poem. Sentence turns every variance into crime.
Or pulp fiction.
When the inquisitors arrive with stun guns and options for parole, Angie, dripping on the wet cement, proves uncooperative. She tucks in her gills and forgets how to talk. They poke, but she doesn’t wince at mention of the prince of a man she bludgeoned. They prod, she burps. She doesn’t let on that tough girl turned lifer destroyed what she loved.
She leaves them no choice. They throw her back with the others.
Charlotte M. Porter lives and writes in an old citrus hamlet in north central Florida. Look for her short story collections on Amazon and her flash fiction and poems in literary journals. Literistic publishes her serial novels. Her recent work, an adult puppet play, is part of a COVID anthology in press with Archway Publishing.
My husband left me for Pat Tillman’s mother. You know Pat Tillman; he of the long blonde hair flowing out from underneath his football helmet before it became de rigueur. The one who famously walked away from a multimillion-dollar NFL career to fight the bad guys after 9/11. The one who was killed in Afghanistan by friendly fire.
I never met Pat Tillman, but his ghost haunts me. I cannot get away from him. Even after all this time, hardly a month goes by that his name, his apparition, doesn’t bedevil me. My grandson wears a hat bearing Pat’s Run’s logo, an annual fundraiser for the Patrick Tillman Foundation. My sister texts me that on her Facebook page, someone posted it’s the anniversary of Pat’s death. After moving away from the San Francisco Bay Area, I find myself in the same city as one of Pat’s two brothers, the name Tillman periodically conjured up in conjunction with his wife’s law practice and his children’s books. If I only watch one college football game the entire season, it’s a sure bet that some footage will show Pat’s statue at Arizona State. At least once a semester in the college library I work at, I’ll get a rush of students looking for Jon Krakauer’s book, Where Men Win Glory: The Odyssey of Pat Tillman, which is required reading in some classes. “That’s with two L’s and one N,” I say as they type his name into the online catalogue.
My husband had broken it off with Pat’s mother right before Pat died, but his death brought them back together. Why did he have to die just then? As far as I was concerned, my husband could be with any other woman as long as it wasn’t her, she who was a colleague of my husband’s and sat at my kitchen table drinking beer before I knew my husband had already left me emotionally, pretending nothing had changed. A friend of mine who believes in reincarnation says I’ve probably been enemies with Pat’s mother for many turns on the wheel and, no doubt, sometimes, friends as well. I suppose I could be friends with her in another life.
But not this one.
I wasn’t gleeful when Pat died. No one would wish that on another mother, let alone a young man just starting out in his adult life. But it felt like karma, retribution. After all, I had lost someone I loved, so should Pat’s mother. The scales were in balance.
This is hard to write, and I’m not proud of how it makes me sound. And maybe you’re wondering why go there at all? What good does it do to dredge it all up? It’s been years, you say, and, of course, you would be right.
But that’s not how the human heart, this human heart, works.
What I’ve discovered, after all these years, is that grief isn’t linear. You don’t move away from it in a straight line. You orbit around it elliptically. The ellipses get bigger as the years pass, but sometimes the gravity of your life slingshots you back into the heart of your hurt and anger, and it feels almost as intense as it did when it happened.
I seem to be back at the perigee now.
I’m not sure what’s pulled me in so close this time. I’ve been pretty good lately about letting the past lie, looking at all the brilliant things in my life now that wouldn’t have come otherwise. I wouldn’t be living in this home that feeds my soul. I wouldn’t have this job that satisfies me. I wouldn’t have this loving (current) husband, wonderful (step)kids, fabulous grandkids, a whole new branch to the family tree.
Perhaps the coronavirus triggered it. Maybe it’s the fact that my (current) husband and I are snapping at each other, worn down from months of working from home, sharing broadband and printer time. (I still think of my (former) husband as my husband, and both of them are just my husband in my head.)
It might be because my subconscious is playing havoc with my sleep. I’ve been dreaming crazy lately: intense, sometimes violent, occasionally lustful, always anxious and featuring my (former) husband. The dreams are so confusing. Sometimes we’re still together and in love, and sometimes we aren’t. The pendulum swings from profound sadness to vicious hatred and, when I wake up, those feelings are roiling in me still.
I’m having a rough time of it lately, and I’m exhausted.
I’ve written about that time in my life many times before, trying to make sense of it, to find some epiphany, some tidy resolution, a way to corral it into a container and box it up. I’ve fictionalized it. I’ve written essays. I’ve created PowerPoint on it. Seriously. I’ve even written pretty pathetic poetry—with amazingly awful alliteration. But the peace hasn’t happened yet, and I keep trying. And, as I try, I am always reminded of a line from a made-for-tv movie, F. Scott Fitzgerald and the “Last of the Belles,” I liked when I was a teenager. Zelda says to her husband, “Seems like no matter who you start out writin’ about, it always turns out to be about us. Poor Goofy. I reckon you think that if you write the story often enough, maybe some time, some way, it will have a happy ending.”
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I think I’ve been writing for that happy ending for a long time.
I need to go deeper this time. I’m trying to be as honest to my feelings as they were then as I possibly can. I tell myself I need to get this shit out in the open, turn it over, and maybe it will finally compost into fertilizer, feed something good, and Pat can leave me alone. I will have exorcized him. And everything else.
Anger, I find, is so much easier to deal with than sadness. With anger, you have the crust to protect you from the core, but with sadness, you’re just split wide open. I think I’m scared to find out how much hurt I still feel because of them.
Them. There I said it. Not him.
So why is Pat Tillman at the center of my rage? He’s a goddamned national symbol. He didn’t have anything to do with my husband leaving me for his mother, yet somehow his spectre has come to symbolize it.
Pat was a defensive player, and I think I’ve got him protecting his line, his mother in the backfield. But I can’t go after her. Her son was killed. I spoke of karma before. I’ve got children I would be devastated to lose as well. It’s just too close.
Of course, the primary target’s deeper down the field than she. My husband. But I can’t go after him either. My children, my grandchildren, love him. I loved him once too. He was my best friend.
He was my best friend, and he left me.
And there it is, the molten core of my anger and the pith of my sadness.
I’m getting frustrated because dredging up these feelings isn’t helping. So, yes, I unearthed them, but some things are too tender to expose.
It doesn’t matter how deep I make myself go; I can’t change how I felt.
I can only change how I feel.
So, instead of being annoying, maybe these hauntings are my mind’s way of getting my attention about these emotions—not necessarily to do anything about them, but just to acknowledge that they exist. Maybe all the anger and hurt wants is to be seen and heard, and then maybe my subconscious will be appeased; I’ll have executed an effective end-around.
I’ve been sleeping much better as I write this, my dreams benign, so maybe I’m on to something. I’m watching the planet of my pain recede in my rearview mirror as the trajectory of my orbit pulls me away. I’m headin’ out—until I lose the tug-of-war between inertia and gravity, past and present, and get catapulted again around that corner, heading back on in.
But maybe I can lengthen the duration it takes for that to happen.
Life has no ending, happy or otherwise. It’s life that moves on, moves forward, and you need to go along with it, or it will just go along without you. These reminders that pop up in my feed, the memes of my previous life, I’ll just have to look at them differently. Feel them differently. Embrace them, if you will.
Yesterday I was texting my daughter, and I mistyped until and my phone’s autocorrect replaced it with I Tillman. There’s no way I could make this stuff up. But it made me laugh, and that made a difference.
It seems I’m going to be stalked for the rest of my life by Pat Tillman, for good or for ill, right or wrong, literally or figuratively. He’s never going to leave me alone.
But when I hit that next point of apoapsis, and I head back in towards the pain, I hope I’ll know how to deal with it better. When Pat Tillman’s shade appears again, I hope I’ll be able to say, Hi, Pat. Thanks for checking in. I’m doin’ okay.
It may not be peace, perfect peace, but maybe it’s a start.
Note: Pat Tillman was killed in Afghanistan on April 22, 2004. The initial report from the Bush Administration and the Pentagon was that he was killed in an exchange of gunfire with the enemy. Five weeks after his death, it came out that Pat was killed by his fellow Rangers, and officials had gone to great lengths to keep the circumstances secret. Six investigations were conducted, but none entirely satisfying all the contradictions. Pat’s mother, Mary Tillman, wrote a memoir, Boots on the Ground by Dusk, that details those proceedings.
My husband and Pat’s mother are still together.
Laurel Doud is an academic librarian at Fresno City College in Fresno, California.
Most mornings, I awaken sweat-soaked and coverless. A lumpen heap of pillows and blankets amasses in the vacancy where Patrick, my husband, used to sleep.
I go to the kitchen, followed by a menagerie of animals I began accumulating shortly after the quarantine began, a few days after Patrick’s death. The thought of being alone has always terrified me. Asked the ubiquitous question as a little girl, what do you want to be when you grow up? I always answered, married. Perhaps I was a halved zygote and have yearned a lifetime to feel complete.
Three once feral cats, a possum recovering from a head wound, and a one-eyed dog follow me into the kitchen. I fill five bowls with Kibble and then sit contentedly amongst the animals, drinking coffee that I boil on the range. When the animals are done, Walt, our dog, follows me into the pantry, and we discuss which pasta we should have today. Penne? Walt barks. Excellent choice, I tell him. Soon, the wine berries on the back fence will be ripe. Fresh fruit pleases everyone. Occasionally, Walt gets wild hair and eats grass, but he always regrets it.
Later, I open the wooden front door, and we six sit behind the glass stormer to watch for any weary souls who might venture out. We wave at the masked citizens who look up while plodding along. There have been fewer coming out. Last week, an angry mask-less young man gave us the middle finger and grabbed his crotch. He took a menacing step onto the front walk, but Walt bared his raggedy teeth. The possum and I laughed as the miscreant ran away.
Sometimes, the power sputters on for a few minutes. Lights and fans, blinking clocks, once the blender I forgot I was using, roar to life. We rejoice, run around the house, turning lamps off or on. Music for the masses, I will yell, and we gather in the study to dance to Lucinda Williams.
Not long ago, perhaps on a Tuesday, there was rain. A menacing sky lowered to the lawn, and Walt refused to go out and relieve himself. The possum and the cats morphed into a fuzzy ball on the sofa. I stood alone at the bay window and watched the rain wash down the abandoned street. A single child–size shoe sailed down the gutter. I suppose that is when I got the idea.
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Before Patrick died, before anyone was sick, when power was a given and socializing was normal, we had electric outlets installed on the façade of the house so we could light it up at Halloween and Christmas. Our house was a beacon for trick-or-treaters and carolers.
So, the day after the rain, I find every power strip we own. I plug outdoor extension cords into the exterior outlets. Then, I gather the lamps and the portable fans, the digital clocks. I pick up the blender and the food processor and set both to On. Walt, the only family member, allowed outdoors, follows me into the yard. The cats and the possum watch dutifully from the storm door. Walt chases his own tail as I plug the appliances in, but I know he keeps his eye wary for any strangers. When I am finished, I sit on the front stoop as Walt rolls on the walkway and survey my handiwork. We have a veritable barricade of electronics ready for our defence. I ask Walt to come inside, and then I let the gang know about my surprise. The animals wait politely at the door as I run down to the basement. He is a little unwieldy, but I manage to get Santa up the stairs. Patrick, who dabbled in welding, made him a few years ago from chicken wire. I painted him and wove the fairy lights into his form. For good measure, I grab a Santa stocking cap Patrick used to wear on Christmas and mash it down over Santa’s chicken wire hat. The animals step aside, and I muscle Santa onto the front porch, where I plug him in. There, I say to my assembled furry family: Walt barks and the possum smiles. The cats never really have much to say, but one weaves in between my legs, so I interpret that as applause.
It is while Walt and I are picking wine berries and gathering dandelion leaves in the backyard that we hear the ruckus. The possum, which we have decided to call Elmo, is scratching at the screen door, smiling at us. Walt and I enter the kitchen, following Elmo, who makes his crooked little way to the front of the house. All three cats are poised on the back of the sofa, fixated on the scene in the front yard.
Every fan, lamp and clock has roared to life. The blender, in a buzz of activity, has fallen onto its side. Santa is divine. Even in the bright, hard light of the midday sun in summer, sheltered as he is between the rhododendrons which flank the front porch, Santa is alive in his electric glory.
Here is the interesting thing, though; if I had thought I was constructing a barricade, I was indeed quite wrong. It turns out our assemblage of appliances has beckoned our dormant neighbours. Little clusters, pods of families and friends who hunkered down together, have gathered in the street. Walt makes happy yelps, and Elmo and I wave as everyone marvels at our display. Most wave back. A few brave children break away from scolding parents and run up to Santa, tap him to make sure he is not an apparition, I suppose.
After 30 minutes, most of the groups have dispersed. It seems the power is back on for good. I turn off all my toys, unplug them and bring them in except for Santa. Walt and Elmo agree; Santa should remain to remind everyone that faith and love are electric.
Fannie H. Gray lives in Montclair, NJ with her husband, two children, Mac the Boston Terrier, and Neo the Tuxedo. Her poem The Trick was included in Beltway Poetry Quarterly’s Langston Hughes Tribute Issue. Her fiction can be found in The Tatterhood Review, Sledgehammer Lit, Sad Girls Club and K’in. She prefers coffee with chicory and a damn fine Rob Roy.
“Your bones are made of sugar because you’re just so sweet!” my mother said the first time I was sent home from school. I was seven years old. My wrist had snapped during recess, the jagged bone jutting out of my skin and into the air. It was amber-coloured and slightly sticky and smelled sweet, like solid honey. My mother had to keep pushing the dog away so she couldn’t lick it.
“Don’t cry, love,” she said, wiping tears from my cheeks. “We’ll fix you up in no time.” She sat me at the kitchen table, still cradling my wrist. Then she pulled out a small saucepan and added sugar and water to it. She put the pan on the burner and turned on the heat, stirring the mixture until it began to bubble. I could smell the sugar cooking, a sweet, burning scent that matched too closely with what wafted up from my wrist. It made me hungry and nauseous. After a few minutes, she pulled the pan off the stove and brought it over to me.
“My candy girl,” my mother said lovingly as she forced the fragment of sugared bone back into the skin of my wrist. She whistled as she poured the molten liquid into the wound. I blacked out and, hours later, awakened to find myself in bed. Clawing at the bandage on my wrist, I ripped it off and saw how the sugar had hardened, attaching bone to bone again. The skin would grow back in a few weeks, and it would look exactly as it always did.
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It’s not so hard, living in a body like this. I like to tell people that I’m sweet to my core. I always laugh. They rarely get the joke.
I had a boyfriend once who was obsessed with the idea of my bones. When I told him they were candy, he said he didn’t believe me. But he couldn’t stop thinking about them. Sometimes he would spend whole weeks barely touching me, as though I would snap if he held my hand too tightly. Other times he got rough out of nowhere, gripping my arm or the back of my neck as though he could crush me into sugar granules with his bare hands. I imagined him fantasizing about turning my bones into crystals and stirring them into his coffee.
Once, when he was drunk, he got on his knees and grabbed my foot and sucked on my big toe like it was a lollipop. He gently, so gently, bit down. He begged me to let him eat one of them, just to see if it were true. To see if my bones would crunch like candy between his teeth.
I stopped telling dates about my bones after that. There are a lot of weirdos in this world.
“My father once told me that I should donate my body to science to examine the candy girl when I die.”
Do you ever think about what your skeleton looks like? How it sits inside you, gleaming and perfect as a Halloween decoration? I’ve always been a little jealous of people who can walk into museums or rob graves and get a look at their future. It sounds dreamy to know exactly what you’ll look like when you’re dead and gone.
I haven’t seen my bones since I was seven. It’s not that I’m careful. In fact, I’ve been trying to break myself for years just to get another look at what’s inside me. No luck, however. Apparently, candy is quite hard.
I think my skeleton must be beautiful, like some macabre confectioner’s masterpiece. Every Día de Los Muertos, I look at sugar skulls and think, that’s what I look like, underneath all this. I hope I’m decorated just like that, a riot of colours against my caramel bones. I will be the loveliest skeleton at the cemetery one day, even if no one will be able to see me. My father once told me that I should donate my body to science to examine the candy girl when I die. But I think I’ll keep these sweet bones to myself. I’ll be a treat for bugs until the day I melt, leaving only some sticky earth to mark that I was here.
Shaun Byron Fitzpatrick (she/her) lives in Philadelphia with her husband and black cat. Her fiction has appeared in Maudlin House, Ellipsis Zine, New Gothic Review, and Coffin Bell Journal, among others. Find her on Instagram at or on Twitter.
Rose Phillips stands in front of the full-length mirror and stares: cheeks stained salmon-pink and skin glowing like it’s been spritzed with dew, her hair artfully curled and worryingly flammable with the amount of hairspray holding it in place. She doesn’t look anything like herself, which is fitting in some way – this is, after all, the day Rose Phillips dies.
She scowls at herself for thinking so macabrely, but the thought won’t leave her head. It’s true, really. A part of her brain insists as it had done for the past year. After today, Rose Phillips won’t exist anymore, and Rose Wilson will take her place. She will become someone else entirely after saying a few words and signing a piece of paper, a simultaneous death and birthday wrapped up in a pretty white dress.
She really needs to stop thinking like this.
It’s funny that today, of all days, everything that made Rose Phillips Rose Phillips seems to be demanding to be acknowledged. It’s as if returning to Cumbria has prompted her to pull back all the layers of her life that she had built up over the years since she left. In the week leading up to now, she had shown George around all the places that held the moments that shaped her, a whistle-stop tour of her life before him. Naturally, there were some places she couldn’t bring herself to take him to, like Penny’s. It would have just been rude, intrusive in some abstract, unexplainable way that she wouldn’t let herself contemplate.
It had been strange, taking these pitstops around her old life with someone who was to be her future. But she was glad for it – relieved, in fact, to be getting married here rather than in London or even somewhere else. It’s like the closing of a chapter, a cyclical release that she didn’t perhaps even know she needed.
It’s good to be here again. She has never grown to love living in the London as much as George does – although Rose supposes that’s to be expected, seeing as though he’s lived there his whole life. Rather, she tolerates the city: the grey streets peppered with spits of chewing gum and pigeon shit, the dirty air, the hard water. The nightmare that was the tube at rush hour. The rats. The rent. The rude people. Sure, there were theatres and quirky bars and their entire bloody professional lives, so they stayed and were mostly happy. Rose had to admit that the rush of it all could be sweetly addictive, and returning to the lumbering lanes of Cumbria only seemed to slow her down; over time, her visits home grew less and less frequent until they finally stopped completely.
So it’s been seven years since she was last here, and she’s happy to be back on what is to be one of the most special and pivotal points of her life. It’s funny how it all works.
Rose has always been told that she has her head screwed on straight. And it holds truth – after all, her life is on track. Here she is, in step three of her life plan (move to London – done; get a career in journalism at someplace that’s not The Sun – done; get married – imminent; have kids – pending; dream of buying a house – eternally pending.) Rose thinks that if little Rosie Phillips could see how her life was turning out, she’d be pretty satisfied, especially in this very moment standing in front of this mirror in her nauseatingly expensive (but totally worth it!) white gown. Growing up, Rose had always dreamed about her wedding day – the floating down the aisle, the fairy lights, the fanfare – but had never really given much thought as to who it was that she would end up marrying. Every time she had pictured her wedding, for all her planning and dreaming, only a faceless smudge of a shadow would be hovering at the end of the aisle.
And then she met George. A good man, kind and patient, who listens to her and all of her eccentricities. Steady as an ox, unflappable. Someone she can build a life with, someone she loves enough to sacrifice her name on the altar of their marriage and create a whole new sense of self. She has her head screwed on straight, and it told her that he’s the right one for her.
Her reflection looks at her, expressionless from behind the mask of makeup.
It’s inexplicable, the human mind. It likes to remind you of things you truly thought you had forgotten or would rather not remember at all. Rose doesn’t know if it’s back her hometown or her impending last minutes as the person she has spent close to three decades being, but in this moment, the past has woken up and is fully wrapping itself around her, hungry to be acknowledged, a serpent waiting to devour her in memories.
And who is she, as sentimental and self-flagellating as she is, to deny that great snake of times gone by?
“It was bitingly cold, a tonic to the sunshine.”
She lived down a winding country lane that you would miss completely if you didn’t know to look out for it, in a small cottage laced with honeysuckle that sat squatly in front of a cluster of trees that led out to the woods. They met in the summer before Rose went to university, both working at a local boho-esque café with large, leafy plants in the windowsills, chalkboard menus, and an eclectic mix of tables and chairs.
Rose could tell that she didn’t like her at first. Perhaps, with all her chattiness and naïveté, Rose came off as annoying and too eager to be liked, or maybe she just liked to be judgemental about new starters. Whatever it was, Ophelia Deane did not rate Rose very highly at all in those early weeks at Penny’s. Ophelia barely spoke to her beyond asking her to check on a table or fill up the sugar bowls, no matter how much Rose persisted in trying to draw her into a conversation.
Ophelia was one of those girls who was so comfortable in her own skin that Rose almost wanted to peel it off and wear it herself. Rose was mesmerized by her. She exuded a quiet confidence, watching the world from behind the café counter and giving no indication of the thoughts forming behind her dark, unforgiving eyes. Ophelia dressed in a way that Rose wished she could pull off but knew she never could – the ends of her long black hair were dyed a loud magenta, and she wore Doc Martens with floral skirts that would sometimes hike up a bit and show her thick, hairy legs. She wore statement earrings that she had made herself out of clay, and a fuzz of hair grew underneath each of her arms, which Rose noticed one day when Ophelia was restocking the shelves. Ophelia was content to say as little as possible to her and to anyone, scribbling poems on the back of her notepad instead of talking. Rose spent hours wondering what she was thinking, what she could maybe say to end this coolness that seemed to exist between them despite the heat of the summer sun.
But it wasn’t as if she was entirely unapproachable either. Ophelia was warm and genuine to customers, and sometimes some of this would even extend to Rose herself if she happened to be nearby. It was moments like these that threw Rose’s brain into a scramble, frantically ticking through the right thing to say to make the conversation last longer, to find a way to peer behind the thick curtain that always, inevitably, descended back over Ophelia again as she would go quiet, back into herself. Rose found herself hoping that there would be more and more moments behind that curtain as time went on.
Two weeks after Rose started at the café, Dan from the kitchen had a birthday picnic gathering on the banks of the River Eden, and he invited everyone from Penny’s. Rose was surprised to see Ophelia there, lounging on a tartan blanket with her legs stretched out in front of her and a small, almost knowing smile on her face as she saw Rose arrive. Rose ended up sitting next to her as they all clustered on the blanket, passing fruit punnets and sipping tinnies and soaking in the sunlight. Though she laughed openly and smiled at the others with what she hoped was a carefree look, Rose could feel her heart thrumming in her chest like the bumblebees that drifted by them, the heat of Ophelia’s knee as it pressed casually against her thigh. Her skin was so warm, warmer than the sun.
The next shift they had together, Ophelia greeted her with a crooked smile and an actual hello. Rose blinked, surprised and strangely relieved that she seemed to finally be making progress, although also unable to figure out why it mattered so much.
‘I take a while to warm up to people,’ Ophelia said out of the blue a few days later. Rain pattered softly against the windows; thick clouds blocked out the sun, so they had the lamps on. A classic British summer. It was cozy inside and slow. They both nursed cups of tea in clasped hands.
‘I can tell,’ Rose said to her, flashing her a smile that she hoped wasn’t too much. ‘I know I can be a lot to start off with, so I guess I’m used to it.’
‘You shouldn’t think like that, Rose,’ Ophelia said soberly, her fathomless eyes not leaving Rose’s face. Rose suddenly found a brochure on the counter advertising local produce very engaging and started to leaf through it. Ophelia set her tea down on the counter and went to clear a table, and nothing more was said. Rose chewed over the words she should have spoken for hours after.
It came as a pleasant surprise one afternoon when Ophelia invited her to the cottage where she lived. Rose felt her heart fall into her stomach and leap back up again as she accepted, only managing a wordless nod and another overly-excited smile that she proceeded to agonize over for another length of time. She couldn’t explain these feelings – all she wanted, somehow, was to impress Ophelia, for Ophelia to like her, but she couldn’t help but dissolve into nerves at the thought of being alone – really alone, no customers – with her. She was effervescently anxious but couldn’t dream of saying no.
It was one of the hottest days of the year when Rose went to the honeysuckle-draped cottage for the first time; grateful Ophelia had met her at the café to guide her else she would have never found it. Inside, the cottage was refreshingly cool and light, with low ceilings and exposed wooden beams. Flowers sprouted from ceramic vases on almost every available surface.
‘My parents travel a lot for work, so it’s just me here a lot of the time,’ Ophelia told her, offering Rose a glass of water freshly poured from the Brita filter. ‘I’m staying here until I find my own place.’
‘Are you going to live on your own?’
Ophelia shrugged. ‘Maybe with someone from work, I don’t know. When do you leave for Goldsmiths?’
It suddenly struck Rose that she didn’t know much about Ophelia, but she herself was such an open book. Rose often felt that everything she was sat plainly on the surface, ready for anyone to know with a glance. It was this way, no matter how hard she tried to be elusive and enigmatic, like how Ophelia was.
‘Mid-September,’ she responded.
‘A month away,’ Ophelia said. Rose couldn’t tell if she was stating a fact or expressing disappointment.
‘Didn’t you want to go study somewhere?’ Rose asked, leaning against the kitchen counter with what she hoped was an easy air.
Ophelia shrugged. ‘There’s time for that whenever. Maybe I’ll travel. I don’t know. We’re so young, you know? We don’t have to have everything planned out. There’s no rush.’
‘I’ve always been told that I have a good head on my shoulders because I know what I want to do.’
‘Who says that?’
‘My dad. Everyone.’
Ophelia scratched the tip of her nose. ‘What’s your plan then?’
‘Ah, go to uni. Work hard. Get a good job. Get married. House. Kids.’
‘I’ll be honest, it sounds pretty vague. Basic even.’
Ophelia laughed, a deep belly laugh that made Rose giggle too, feeling heat rush to her face.
‘Hey, if that’s the best you’ve got. I’m happy you’ve managed to squeeze me into your schedule.’
‘Yeah, don’t make me regret it.’
Ophelia smiled at her, the corners of her eyes crinkling. ‘Let’s go foraging,’ she said suddenly, and she took Rose’s hand in her own and wheeled her in the direction of the back door. She paused a moment, briefly letting go of Rose’s hand to throw a bag over her shoulder, before clasping her hand in hers once more and pulling her out into the garden that spilled out to the woods.
The sun was bright and hot in the sky, beaming down on them as Ophelia and Rose half-ran, half-skipped, exuberant, down a small trail into the trees. Rose had no idea where they were going but couldn’t care less. She could sense their sweat mingling on the palm of her hands and felt nothing but free as the light summer breeze on their backs seemed to propel them forward.
‘What are we looking for?’ Rose asked, her voice breathless in the wind.
‘Whatever we find,’ Ophelia called over her shoulder.
Soon, the trail began to wind its way along the river. Ophelia let go of Rose’s hand, and they slowed down to an ambling walk, the birdsong and gentle bubbling of the stream over the rocks filling the comfortable wordlessness between them. Sometimes, Ophelia would pause to gather dandelion stems or nettles, wrapping the folds of her long skirt around her hands to protect herself, lips tightly pressed together as she concentrated on not getting stung. Once safely stored in her bag, she wiped her hands on her skirt and tucked a loose strand of hair behind her ear.
‘You have the strangest look on your face, Rose,’ Ophelia said, turning back to her. ‘And usually, I can tell what you’re thinking.’
‘Am I so easy to read?’
‘You know you are.’ Suddenly Ophelia was taking her shoes off and treading across the grass to the river, her sandals held aloft in her hands. She plonked herself on the riverbed and dropped her feet in the water, leaning back to rest on her palms. Rose followed, sitting down beside her and folding her legs over themselves.
‘Aren’t you going to put your feet in?’
‘Maybe in a sec.’
‘So go on then. Tell me what you’re thinking.’
‘I hardly think that’s fair.’
‘I never know what you’re thinking.’
Ophelia laughed, throwing her head back to the sky. ‘Ahh, Rose. You really do make me smile. I should show it more.’
Rose twiddled some blades of grass between her fingertips. ‘I just really enjoy being out in the sun with you, that’s all,’ she said, regretting it almost instantly, looking straight down at the water in front of her. But Ophelia’s smile widened, and she said, ‘Me too, with you,’ so calmly, kicking her feet gently in the river. The words fell from her mouth as if it really were nothing at all.
It was getting uncomfortably hot. They shifted downriver slightly so they could sit underneath the shade of a river birch tree, but after only a few minutes, Ophelia announced that she was too warm and stood up.
‘Where are you going?’
‘I’m cooling off. You can too if you want. No pressure though,’ and she pulled her vest top over her head, tossed it on the grass and shimmied out of her skirt so that she was standing only her knickers, pubic hair peeking out the edges. Rose watched at the way Ophelia moved, the way she held herself, completely at ease in her own body and almost nakedness in a way that Rose herself had never felt before. Ophelia turned to the river, the skin on the backs of her thighs kissed with dimples, and lowered herself slowly in, breathing deeply, floating, the water gently lapping at her breasts. Rose had never seen anyone quite so content to be themselves, anyone quite so beautiful.
‘Are you coming in?’ Ophelia asked her. ‘It’s really refreshing, I promise. It’s quiet here, too, you don’t have to worry. Come on, be Shakespearean with me.’
‘Oh, God. Please don’t drown.’
‘I guess I should probably read the damn thing. I really have no idea what I’m talking about.’
‘I can tell. Spoiler: Ophelias and rivers don’t mix well.’
‘Well, this time, they do,’ she said, tracing patterns on the water’s surface with her fingers.
‘It’s on at the RSC soon, I think. We could go. Or there’s a Kenneth Branagh movie. It’s four hours long, though.’
‘Is he in it? God, I can’t stand him sometimes,’ she splashed water in Rose’s direction.
‘Hurry up and get in. Live a little. Or is that not in your grand-and-super-important-yet-also-kind-of-vague life plan?’ Ophelia grinned before leaning to float on her back.
Rose took a moment. She saw the dappled patterns of sunlight on the grass, how the water glimmered like it was surfaced with diamonds. The fresh air, hot sun, the scents of summer caught in the breeze. She saw Ophelia floating, her eyes closed, completely at peace in the river like her Shakespearean namesake. Birdsong floated around them, a soundscape of melodies and wings fluttering across leaves. And there, in that moment, it all started to feel a little bit magic.
Rose wriggled out of her shorts and top, pulled off of her shoes, and marched herself to the river.
‘It’s cold!’ she said as she dipped a toe in.
Ophelia opened her eyes and pulled herself up, so she was resting her feet on the riverbed once more. ‘You know you’ll get used to it, just have to get in.’
Rose put one foot in front of the other and lowered herself down into the water. It was bitingly cold, a tonic to the sunshine. Rose submerged herself completely underwater once, the water rushing over her ears, coming up smiling so hard she thought her face muscles might spasm. It was like something had loosened in her belly, something that she hadn’t realized was wound so incredibly tight.
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They listened to the sounds of the wind in the trees. After a while, Rose said, ‘I wish I could be more like you.’
‘You’re just so… you.’
‘What’s wrong with you?’ Ophelia asked, frowning.
‘I’m too much. Annoying. You even found me too much, to start off with.’
Ophelia’s frown deepened, but she said nothing.
Clouds drifted across the sun, casting shadows over them and hasting their decision to get out. They pulled their clothes back over themselves and sat beneath the tree. They made daisy chains and draped them across each other. Ophelia, resting against the tree trunk, scribbled in a notebook she pulled out of her bag. Rose lay on her back and watched the clouds journey across the crystal-blue sky.
After a while, Ophelia gently closed her book and let it rest on the ground and came over to lie down next to Rose.
‘About what you said earlier,’ Ophelia said. ‘About you being too much.’ Her voice was low, serious, filled with an intensity that Rose hadn’t heard before.
‘I don’t think you’re too much,’
‘You don’t have to say that,’ Rose said.
‘I’m not. I think it’s a beautiful thing for you to be so open. To have your heart dripping on your sleeve like you do. Don’t let my standoffishness be the reason you want to change yourself; I’d hate that.’
‘So you didn’t find me annoying to start off with?’ Ophelia paused.
‘You see? It’s fine, don’t worry.’ Rose sat up, drawing her knees to her chest. Ophelia did the same, lightly moving her wet hair over her shoulder.
She spoke slowly, choosing her words carefully. ‘I didn’t find you annoying,’ she said. ‘It wasn’t you. I just – I’m closed off, I guess. Maybe I knew how much I would like you, and I was afraid.’ ‘Of what?’
‘You’re not going to be around, and you’re going off to uni. Which will be so great for you, a whole new life, the next step forward in your grand plan. I guess I didn’t see the point in us becoming friends because we wouldn’t have much time to enjoy it.’
‘That’s silly, that’s not a way to think,’
‘That’s silly, that’s not a way to think,’
Ophelia fidgeted on the grass. ‘I know. But sometimes it’s easier for me.’
‘Okay,’ Rose said, not knowing what else to say. Then: ‘Do you regret it then? Getting to know me?’
‘No,’ Ophelia said softly. ‘No, I’m having a great time.’
‘It’s not like I’m going to disappear, you know,’ Rose said. ‘I’ll come and visit. Keep in contact. It’s not too far, in the grand scheme of things.’ Ophelia smiled a small smile that didn’t warm her eyes like it usually did.
‘Sure,’ she said.
‘I think you’re wonderful,’ Rose said. ‘I’m really glad I know you.’ Ophelia stared at her for a lingering, charged moment before shifting a little closer to Rose. Rose could count the freckles across her nose now, see her wet eyelashes clinging to each other.
‘And I’m glad that I wasn’t too much for you,’ Rose said softly. ‘You couldn’t be too much,’ Ophelia murmured. She was so close. Rose’s heart pulsed electricity through her veins, and she was tremoring ever so slightly.
‘And I think that you’re wonderful too, Rose Phillips,’ Ophelia breathed, her eyes wide, spilling open. And then slowly, she leaned in so close that their noses were almost touching, waiting, watching for Rose’s reaction. Rose kept very still as if waiting for a butterfly to settle on her mouth, her gaze never leaving the dark pools of Ophelia’s eyes.
Slowly, Ophelia brushed her lips against hers. It was a light touch, barely there, and she pulled back after only a few heartbeats.
The corner of Rose’s mouth lifted.
‘What?’ Ophelia asked an eyebrow arching.
‘You look so serious,’ Rose laughed, and she kissed her again.
The world seemed to shrink and hold only them. All Rose could sense was Ophelia: the heat of her body through her damp clothes, her breath hot and falling on her face as their lips parted. The sun emerged from behind the clouds, and they were cast in dappled shadows as they pulled each other close underneath the tree.
And the rest of the summer days passed much in the same way: when they weren’t working, they were foraging, swimming, falling into one another and their sun-kissed skin. Some days, they lay in the grass under the sun in Ophelia’s garden and paint with watercolours. When it grew dark, they would retreat inside and dance to Dolly Parton or ABBA, drink red wine and make nettle soup. Occasionally they would curl together under a blanket and sit beneath the stars, and count as many as they could before they drifted off to sleep.
It was a dream, another life, a pause. Rose had never been so happy or so afraid. While she had no reservations about keeping in touch and visiting when she went off to university, as the day slowly approached for her to leave, she could sense Ophelia pull away from her, as if she was slowly and gently starting to untangle herself. The thought of losing Ophelia because of something as small as university filled Rose with concern, but she didn’t know what to say.
Time moved inexorably onwards, and too soon, it was the last night before Rose was due to leave. They were sat in the garden, on the grass, Rose in Ophelia’s arms as the sun started to go down. She tickled the palm of Ophelia’s hand with her fingertips, the atmosphere between them sombre, heavy as if waiting for a weight to fall.
‘I’m going to miss you,’ Rose murmured.
‘I’m going to miss you too,’ Ophelia said, and she sighed.
‘You’ll come visit?’
‘If you want me too,’
‘Of course, I will,’
‘You don’t think I will? Want you to visit?’
Ophelia sighed again. Rose sat up and held Ophelia’s hands in her own. ‘Talk to me,’ she said. ‘Please.’
‘I don’t – I don’t fit into your plan, Rose,’
‘Are you joking?’
‘You and your screwed-on head. You’ve got it all figured out. Uni. Marriage. House. Kids. I’m not like you. I don’t know if I want all that. I don’t know what I want.’
‘As if we have to know all that now! You said it yourself – it’s all vague. It can all change. You’re worried about nothing, nothing at all. I want you in my life; that’s all I know right now for sure.’
‘You’ve got a whole new chapter starting. You don’t need one month with me to shape so much of it.’
‘But I want it to.’
Ophelia let out a huff of surrender. ‘Okay,’ she said. ‘I will suspend my disbelief.’
‘Why don’t you believe me?’
‘I don’t not believe you. I just – I know how things go, you know? Sometimes worlds are just too different. All I’m saying. Some things have to get left behind.’
‘As if you’re calling yourself “something,” Ophelia. You will never be that to me.’
Ophelia chewed her bottom lip and looked down. Rose hadn’t seen her look this unsure of herself before.
‘I actually can’t wait for the day, years from now, when I’ll get a chance to say that I told you so,’ Rose said teasingly, trying to draw Ophelia out of herself.
A small smile twisted her lips as Ophelia stared somewhere beyond their conversation. ‘I’m sure you can’t.’
Rose cupped her palm on Ophelia’s cheek, lifting her face, so their eyes meet.
‘I love you,’ Rose said for the first time.
Ophelia kissed her softly on the mouth, an echo of their first embrace, and they didn’t need to say anything more.
“She does love him. She wouldn’t be standing here if didn’t.”
It won’t take too long, Rose thinks. The ceremony will be over quickly, and then it will be a fun party, and she won’t have to spend long thinking about the fact that she has just killed/replaced Rose Phillips with a brand-spanking-new and completely unknown edition. She’s erasing her whole history, her whole life, in a way. Isn’t she? She imagines what George would say to her if he were in the room right now, and she let her mind spool out to him: he would kiss her forehead sweetly and tell her it was her silly little brain that he loves so much running away with nerves. But she doesn’t feel nervous, not really. If anything, she feels kind of numb.
This is everything she has always planned for. Everything is falling into place. Another life milestone to check off the list. This is where she has always been heading to, the path she’s been walking since she left Cumbria behind.
And George is a good man. A wonderful man. She does love him. She wouldn’t be standing here if she didn’t.
Someone calls for her outside the door. The car’s here. It’s time for her to go.
Her reflection stares back at her blankly as the seconds tick on, rushing her to the future she has always thought she wanted. Rose holds herself in her beautiful white dress, unmoving, and dreams of the honeysuckle cottage at the end of a country lane.
Maxine Meixner (she/her) is a UK-based writer, poet and floral print enthusiast obsessed with the moon. She holds an MA in Creative Writing from Royal Holloway, University of London and her work has previously appeared in small leaf press, Second Chance Lit, and Analogies and Allegories Literary Magazine. Follow her on Instagram and Twitter.
My first memory is of a large white woman with bleach-blond curls, pale pink lips, and stained teeth saying: “Is that really your name?” Phil had left me behind at the store, again. By the time my dad came for me, I had had three chocolate milks and was playing with a litter of newborn kittens in the back. I can still picture his blue overcoat and apologetic expression towards the clerk.
As a precaution, all my clothes had our phone number sewn in the back. The line has long since been disconnected, but like a lapsed catholic, I was able to recite that 202-… phone number as if it were the Hail Mary.
My grandparents had owned a bar at some point; Grandma Nola would sit at the head of the counter and give out drinks to anyone she fancied. That was until the grandfather comes into the bar and instructed whoever was working that night to cut her off.
She got into debt after the grandfather died. My parents had forced her to sell all the memorabilia from the grandfather’s hay day as a semi-professional boxer and move into our house at 16th St Heights. On Sundays, I helped her cook breakfast; it was then that I learned that the trick to a good waffle is a little bit of bourbon. According to Nola, the trick to everything was a bit of bourbon.
When my dad’s mother died suddenly, my dad dropped everything and travelled back to Pittsburgh in order to sit shiva and make arrangements. We — my sister Bema, Phil (my mom was one of those do-not-call-me-mom-people), Nola and I — were supposed to join him the next day.
We only made it to a motel right outside of Germantown. Nola slept with the night manager in the room while Phil lay next to them in a catatonic state. Bema took a marker out of my bag and started to draw on Phil’s face. Vertical lines over her eyelids, long whiskers on her cheeks and a line from her nose to her mouth making her look like a cat.
I called the house till the answering machine was full. In order to eat, I waited in the parking lot of the strip mall across the street until I spotted a catalogue family and followed them into the convenience store. I made sure the person at the cash register saw me getting in with this nice-looking family and followed them while they got groceries. I had to fill my pockets with as much food as I could find without it being too obvious. Then walk out, trying to shield myself from view by hiding in the crowd. The spiel held up a couple of times; I just had to make sure it was a different person at the cash register before walking through the door.
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My sister had her first psychotic episode a few hours before my high school graduation party. Apparently, she had been spiralling at her menial job for some time, but her boss had assumed there was some trouble at home, and no one said a thing. She had gone to bed with a ‘migraine’ and fifteen minutes later appeared in the kitchen naked; my scarf wrapped around her head, chewing on a straw, red lipstick covering half of her chin as if she was a five-year-old playing dress-up.
“It’s really nice of them to throw a party for me, but I can’t handle it right now.”
No one reacted. Even Nola was dumbfounded. Bema kneeled down beside me, “they are throwing a party for me, isn’t it nice? Really…” under her breath, “nice” “It’s nnniiissséeeh” letting every single letter fill the room, bouncing off of the balloons, “But I can’t …. I can’t handle it right now.” Phil ushered Bema back upstairs. I could still hear her repeating the words to Phil as my Dad pushed two on the speed dial.
“Doctor, it is Yves Levin,” a beat. “No, my wife is fine, it is my oldest; I think she is having a psychosis” A pause “Yes, I know, doctor, but I’ve been through them all and think I’m a pretty good judge when it comes to these things….”
Nola shoved a glass of Dr. Pepper towards me. She knew that I didn’t like fizzy drinks but presented me with them whenever she thought social convention dictated the offering of a tasty beverage. I took a reluctant sip and noticed the warm aftertaste of bourbon. She had gotten into the liquor cabinet again and had given me her spiked Dr. Pepper can by mistake.
“I don’t care about protocol; I want her committed!” Dad yelled into the receiver before hanging up. He turned towards me, “we better cancel the party.”
From all our years of experience with Phil, my Dad and I had gotten the cancellation phone call down to a less-than-two-minute-conversation:
“Hi [insert name], it’s [insert own name]”
[Wait for response]
“Yes, I’m sorry, but we have to cancel [insert event].”
[Wait for response]
“Phil is not feeling too well, and we have to take care of her.”
[Wait for response]
“Thanks for offering, but we’ll be fine; we got it all under control. We’ll keep you posted if anything changes. Bye-bye.”
Nola, on the other hand, kept saying how awful the situation was for her. How she had lived through so many horrible things and how much she missed her husband. Did the person on the other line know how much she suffered when her dear husband Phil died? And when she had all those miscarriages? And when her son was stillborn? How much they wanted a son but ended up with a girl, her little Phil. O, her life had been so hard, she said. She ended up taking this poor person on the other end of the line hostage for a good 30 minutes and barely let them get a word in.
She was still talking when the doctor called my Dad on the other line to say that he could see my sister directly. I threw her stuff in a bag as my Dad got her dressed. We put her in the car, and Dad drove her to the clinic. She didn’t return to the house till three months later. The balloons from my cancelled graduation party were still dangling from the tree in the garden like dried grapes on a vine.
Dad made four serious attempts to divorce her; he moved into an apartment across town each time. Inevitably she would go off her medication, disappear into a manic phase followed by a long bout of not leaving the bed, and then my Dad got her back on her medication, after which he stated he would give up.
I asked him, after Phil succeeded in killing herself, why he kept coming back. He said, “it would have been cruel and unusual to leave such a sick woman out in the cold.” I asked, “who would have found it cruel and unusual, you or other people?” But he didn’t answer.
So after I moved out, he spent his days in a shed in the yard, a little stove for warmth in winter and my childhood bed tucked in the corner. He went up to the house three times a day to make sure the women there showered, ate and cleaned themselves.
During Phil’s funeral, Nola kept me prisoner talking loudly about every person there. “M-darling look, look over there, that woman has mosquito bites for tits.” She would laugh and point to Mrs. Johnson from down the street. I looked down in embarrassment.
“Here,” she said and handed me a nondescript bottle. “No thanks,” I said.
“But it will help you with the weight. You really look very plump today.” Tears started to well up, but I didn’t let her see them. I stopped talking to her after that day. She died not long after.
“My name is Monday Levin,” I used to mumble my first name under my breath, even tried to only go by ‘Levin’ for a while. But it doesn’t matter anymore. I will have the conversation head-on.
“Monday? Is that really your name?”
“Where you born on a Monday?”
“No, but my mom thought it was.”
“And no one corrected her?”
“She wouldn’t listen. It could have been worse; my sister is named Alabama because Phil decided to drive down to Alabama when her water broke. She never made it, had my sister in the car right off the I-95.”
LJ Kessels(she/her) is a writer based in Berlin, Germany. She has a MA in Philosophy from the University of Amsterdam and has worked for various (film) festivals, events, and whatchamacallits across Europe. Her work has previously been published in Bull & Cross, Stadtsprachen Magazin, Elsewhere: A Journal of Place, and more.
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. Murayamais 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.
Sometimes I wonder how little they knew of Jason. We were all friends, but did they really know him? Everyone saw the football star, the tough guy who knocked out Randy’s teeth in middle school for being an asshole and that buzzcut who walked down the hallways. Everyone saw these things, but did his friends really know him? I’ve known Brett and Brandon for 50 years, and they are smart guys, always have been, and I wonder if that was enough to put it all together.
Brett, Brandon and I all sit in this diner every morning and spit stories about the past, mostly about Boone’s farm and all those dares. I’m quieter than them, and I wonder if they think it’s because I can’t tell stories the way they can, but it’s mainly because I’m here thinking about who isn’t.
We have our time at the diner now, but back then, Jason and I were the only ones that really drank, and I had him over for beers on Friday nights to watch the game or sit on the porch. Most of the time, we just talked about Jordan, Magic and Bird. There were times others crept in, but that was our ritual during basketball season. We didn’t talk a lot about football, mainly because I didn’t know enough and he knew too much, but the night that stood out to me was a fall night in September, and neither sport crossed between us. I remember it because he’d gone through the Bud Lights a lot quicker than normal. He’d downed about four of them in the first hour as that sun began to sink behind those maples across the street. Normally, we were both good for about two beers or so an hour, but he was moving for some reason.
I remember looking over at him as he sat back in that rocker. His body had an extra layer of fat, but you could still tell he was a mass of muscle from all that weightlifting he did back in high school for football. His hair wasn’t buzzed anymore but straight razored instead. Jason was a calm guy when the two of us hung out, but I remember noticing how his feet were crossed, and they shook a little between rocking. He looked nervous tonight, and I wasn’t exactly sure what it was. The night was growing cool, but that’s normal for September in New England. He tipped the beer back, took a sip and placed it between his thighs. I remember a silence that lingered longer than it normally did between us. They always got filled with some off-center joke or a quick story about a girl he met at a bar that we were never introduced to, but tonight we could hear that breeze send whispers through the wind chime at the far end of the porch.
His voice finally touched the night air, after what seemed like twenty minutes, “you know, I think about that day a lot.” No one ever talked about that day. We all had regrets from what happened, and he had his secrets. We all remembered the dare and Boone’s strong arms pulling him toward that chicken coop. I remember the lingering time where we didn’t intervene with what was happening behind that closed door. Mostly, I remembered his scared eyes, his collar that hung loosely around his neck after Boone had dragged him by it and those two trenches cut by his feet toward the coop. I still wonder why we didn’t step in, but I was sure we didn’t want to become one of those famed stories that we all knew, even though that meant Jason would be one. Old man Boone’s truck finally rumbled up his driveway and backfired as it did, and Jason’s tear-soaked cheeks are burned in my memory as he fell out of that coop. We all wondered what happened, but he never told us.
“I do too.” I cut in, trying to let him know I was listening and sometimes thought about that day too.
“I wonder if it would all be different if I hadn’t taken that dare.” I saw him close his eyes for a moment, open them again and take another long gulp of beer. “Sometimes, I wonder if I’m a little like that story we all remember. You know, the one with Eli and the hay bales.” My mind ran back to one of the stories about Boone’s farm. We all knew them, and he didn’t really need to elaborate. “You know,” he paused, took another sip and looked into the opening in the can. “You wanna hand me another one of those?” I reached over to the cooler, popped the lid open and handed him a fresh can. Chhhh. “Eli and me, we’re kinda similar in a way.”
“What do you mean?” All I could think about was the story about Eli and the one that happened to Jason, and really, they didn’t end the same way. My mind slid back for a moment to what I knew about Eli’s tale. It was similar in the sense that his friends had dared him to check out a piece of Boone’s property, but he was dared to enter that hay barn and bring back something that showed he was there, and Jason’s task wasn’t in a building. Eli entered and saw those stacks upon stacks of bales, dust hanging in the air like a low fog and suffocating him because the hay pulls any semblance of moisture out of it. I could imagine him looking around for some kind of object to prove he was there, taking in the enormity of that place. Jason’s task was a little easier in a way; he just needed to pull something from the back of that truck that was parked outside the barn. Both stories happened at different times, but both boys were jumped at that point in their story. Jason dragged to Boone’s chicken coop as we watched, feeling like helpless spectators, and Eli whacked with a rusty shovel by that same infamous man that haunts our town.
Jason interrupted the thoughts, “the isolation, I mean.” “You’re out, though!” My voice rose a little, and I saw him wince.
“It doesn’t feel that way. To be honest, I feel like Eli every day. I feel like I’m stuck in that coop with Boone, and I see those eyes under the low brim of his cap and those yellow teeth in a smirk. I remember his hands and feeling like the situation wouldn’t end. Sometimes it’s a little harder to take than others, and sometimes I feel like I need to get away.” In that moment, I wondered what wasn’t being said, what words he was holding on to that would have unravelled the rest of the story for me and helped me reach out a hand to respond to this beacon in the night, this indication that something still wasn’t right in Jason’s head.
I thought back to the relief we all felt when he was all right, alive at least. He went into that coop and came out, and that was what we saw; that was all he allowed us to see. Eli woke up gasping for air, seeing only the yellow spines of the hay bales bristling in all directions. The last thing he remembered was looking at that hay barn and thinking how vast it was. He felt his head pounding, thumping on those hay bales. He turned it to the right and saw hay, turned it left and saw it again. He couldn’t lift his body because the space was too tight, but he knew there was hay at his feet and hay behind his head. He was trapped on all sides, consumed by that stack of hay bales. There was a wetness under his head as he shifted it from side to side, and he realized that was where the pounding originated. We all knew the stories of the old farmer, and now Eli was sure he was in one. He could only imagine how he became trapped between those bales. Eli knew Boone had hit him with a blunt object that knocked him out and then stuffed his body in the stack of bales and stacked the others one by one around him.
The story goes that he remembered flits of those strong hands before being closed in, strong hands on his body and then those strong hands stacking the bales. He could imagine the constant smirk as Boone lifted bale after bale until he was no longer visible. I’m sure he felt that hay closing in, pressing him tighter and tighter. All the yells for help, but no other houses were within shouting distance, and the road was a country one that not a lot of cars had a reason to take. The way I heard the story, he pushes on those bales trying to get out, and he yells and yells, but no one hears him. We could all imagine how the story ends, and I still wonder if kids may have gone digging for him in those haystacks; maybe it became another dare associated with Boone’s farm. I wonder if Eli’s bones are still buried in that stack of hay or if the bales finally pressed in on him, and he became one of them, destined to feed the farm animals.
“It was terrible, and we all felt bad after that dare.” I didn’t know what else to say. We all did them; we all threw dares out and took them and succeeded or failed, but this one ended differently. It wasn’t like the silo for Brett or the concrete barn for Brandon. Jason was frozen in time, a relic of his younger self lost in the immense glacier that froze the moment in his mind and moved inch by inch closer to a place where he couldn’t come back.
“It’s not that. I just sometimes feel like I’m screaming in that stack of hay bales, you know?” I sat for a moment, thinking about this statement. He seemed like he wanted to help me along, “we’re not the smartest, not like Brandon or Brett, but I’ve been thinking about that story a lot lately and how Eli was just yelling and trapped in that stack of hay. He had nowhere to go and nothing he could do. He was just trapped with his thoughts. No one could help him, and he was just waiting for it all to end.” He leaned back in the rocker and drank another long sip of the beer. He looked out across the road at those silent maples and didn’t say anything for a long time. I sat thinking about how to respond to that. We weren’t in there; we didn’t know what happened or what sort of thoughts were still stuck in his mind.
When I think back on Jason and all that he went through, I think the image of him in the porch rocker is the one that sticks with me. I no longer think of him as the linebacker or the enforcer; I think of him screaming silently in his head and waiting for someone to hear him or stitch him back up before it was too late. I know it’s one nobody else saw, but I think it was telling, even though I didn’t know it at the time. He was so silent after sharing that comparison, and I’m sure the connection between the stories ran deep. If I could do it again, I wouldn’t have let him sit in that silence for as long as he did. If I could do it again, I would claw through those hay bales and pull out my friend who was screaming for help when no one was listening.
Matt McGuirkteaches high school English and laughs at his own puns by day, and scribbles stories at night. He lives with his wife and daughter in New Hampshire. Find his upcoming stories in Drunk Monkeys, Literally Stories, Sleet Magazine, The Dribble Drabble Review and Versification.Follow him on Twitter and Instagram.
Children’s toys litter the grass, a bicycle laying on its side; water flows between the wheel’s spokes, tarnishing them, the same thoughtless action of a tampon caught in a sewer pipe. There is blood. There is always blood. I flinch when he kisses me forcefully, and all I say is how sorry I am. Sometimes he chokes me, wringing my neck like a chicken, my halfhearted sighs acquiescing my regrets. I was always destined to meet the devil in disguise. They find my car abandoned outside the carnival, the key still in the ignition. I’m bleeding out in the woods, watching a hare, its long ears detecting the sound of a boy pushing his fingers inside everything that reminds him of his mother’s mouth, dry and twitching. I think of giving birth to a son, how effortless it would be to expel him, his body dropping to the ground, limbs clumsy like a newborn deer born with its eyes open. Partitioning a daughter is harder; she will plunge her claws into your cervix, delay the delivery, make you shit in front of a man. You feel an ache every time you look at her, her hand inside the wolf’s mouth.
Chimen Kouriis a writer based in Cliffwood Beach, New Jersey. Her writing focuses heavily on horror, crime, and femininity. She has been published in Brenda Magazine, Verses Magazine, Jawbreaker Zine, The Luna Collective, Zanna Magazine, and Emotional Alchemy Magazine. She is currently editing her chapbook, Peach Milk, and hopes to have it published by 2022.
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.”
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/.