“I caught him red-handed, that bastard,” your mother wails during her nightly call to your grandmother.
In your room, you sprawl on a mattress on the floor and remember the night she confronts your father about his affair, her small frame wobbling from alcohol and momentary triumph as she waves the damning picture so close to his face, it slaps him across the cheek.
She rails into the receiver that life is unfair, that a tramp with crooked teeth stole him, that she is stupid for marrying him so young. Well, now she’s stuck with you, and who’s going to want her now. She drones on like a half-dead bee trapped in a house, lumbering and erratic, but her stinger still sharp.
You slip on your headphones and jack up the volume. The pulsing bass matches the thumping of you heart as you work to ignore the familiar tang of stomach acid in your throat, bitter and meaty, filling you up like the dinner you miss that night.
“No way. You’re like apples and oranges,” she claims the time you ask to move with your brother to your father’s house.
“We are the girls; they are the boys. He belongs with him. You belong with me,” her arm chops the air, severing you from them in desperate authority.
“Remember, it’s you and me against the world. It’s our anthem,” she pleads, fixing you with a wild stare, her watery blue eyes partially hidden by her hair, once a stylish auburn crop, now shaggy and gray. She and grips your hands in an unescapable vice as she sings the Helen Reddy hit, her slurred voice cracking,
“When all the others turned their backs and walked away, You can count on me to stay.”
You do stay. Because you have never been without your mother before, not once in your twelve years.
“You yellow-bellied brat. Get out here and talk to your grandmother,” she shrieks, shards of her wrath hitting you like shrapnel.
Your bedroom door explodes, and you throw the covers over your head, burrowing under the blanket to hide from the monster, praying that if you squeeze your eyes shut and chant, she’ll disappear. Like an exorcism. Go away. Go away. Go away.
“You ungrateful slob. I said, get over here.”
You say you are tired. You say you have a stomach ache. You say you will talk to Grandma tomorrow.
But she is strong with vodka and rage and rips the blanket off like a band-aid of an unhealed wound, leaving you raw and exposed. She grabs a fistful of your shirt and yanks you from the bed, where you hit the floor with a thud. She drags you along to the kitchen and reach the phone to croak, Hi Grandma.
“Oh, so you think the grass is greener on the side, Missy?”she says when you explain that you called you father while she was in the bathroom. You cannot look at her face.
You are leaving, you say. He is coming for you.
But, you are afraid. Afraid of your father, who does not speak to you in the affair aftermath. Who does not contact you when you move hours away to your aunt’s house to make a new life, only to be evicted six months later thanks to your mother’s drinking. Who does not leave an address, so when you return, you wander the streets for days, an inept but dedicated stalker, until you finally spot him, and he gives you a hug and his phone number.
“I begged him to stay, begged him until I was blue in the face.”She sobs and squeezes your arm so hard you know it will leave an angry bruise, a black and blue imprint on your skin and on your heart.
“Fine. Go. I don’t need you.”
But she blocks the stairs and, when you slip under her, throws her short, plump body against the door. You use your bags to pry her away, and she latches onto your sleeve and tugs, sucking you back in, to stay, to imprison. Fueled by adrenaline, you wrench the door open. The gush of air shocks you both. And now she kicks and shoves you outside, out of her life. Into the rain. Into the dark. Into the waiting headlights. And you rejoice because you are free, and you are no shrinking violet.
Connie Millard is a full-time working mom of three who once made it to the final callbacks for the reality television show, Worst Cooks in America. After much practice and perseverance, she now spends her time writing stories in between stirring risotto. Her work has appeared in or is forthcoming in Potato Soup, Tales from the Moonlit Path, and Black Ink Fiction Drabble Anthology, among others.
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.
“What do you mean you’re not going to tell Charles?” I can feel my mouth hanging open; disbelief etched on my face like crude graffiti.
“Exactly what I said. I’m not going to tell him.”
I shake my head, trying to dispel the words attempting to lodge in my cerebrum as solid fact. My new husband’s proclamation hovers between us, something nearly corporeal, the first invisible obstacle upon which our fledgling marriage has stumbled.
“I’m not going to tell David either.”
At this, I close my eyes briefly, struck with a jolt of visceral psychic pain. He closes the door behind us as I toss down my black handbag and kick off my black heels, pulling the clip from my hair. It springs free and resumes its natural state of frenzy, a lifelong burden which Mark requested I tame prior to his ex-wife’s funeral.
“What’s that look for?” he asks guardedly. I’m certain he already anticipates the objection I’m about to draw. He does not anticipate these feelings’ ferocity; how quickly and deeply I have bonded with his sons.
“Mark,” I begin and pause, taking a breath and placing my hand on his bicep before I start again. “I love Charles and David like I grew them in my own womb. They are not my stepchildren; they are my children. You know that, right?”
“Of course,” he says tersely, shifting slightly, so my hand falls from his arm to lay by my side. “They love you, too,” he adds, an afterthought as he turns to walk down the hallway.
“Well…,” I start, trailing after him, fully prepared to advocate all night for these children – for my children. “I’m glad to hear that. I think…”
Mark stops abruptly and whirls around to face me.
“But they’re not your children. They’re my children and Candice’s children, and this was always our decision.”
I reel back. It has been so long since he has said her name; when absolutely necessary, it is only ever “Charles and David’s mother.” Now, it seems sacrilege to have spoken something we’re always forbidden to utter, like it will jinx the boys; like it will rub off.
“But…” I protest uncertainly. “But I…”
“Just drop it,” he commands and disappears into the gloom of the kitchen.
I know he does not mean this the way it sounds. He is grieving. He is in shock. But he is wrong because Charles and David are my children now. Their future is irrevocably tied to mine; their happiness is my happiness.
And I truly believe they both deserve to know.
And I truly believe they both deserve to know.
“Because there is no cure.”
The old name comes from the Greek word for “dance.” That word is “chorea,” and thus this hellish disease used to be called “Huntingdon’s Chorea.” It is a macabre moniker; it refers to the involuntary jerks, and tics patients suffer as their nerves literally break down. Unfortunately, that’s only the beginning because the condition is degenerative. Eventually, patients cannot move, unable to speak, unable to swallow as their mental faculties decline into dementia.
Nowadays, it’s called “Huntingdon’s Disease,” and it is genetic. It is very, very genetic. It takes only one carrier to pass on the gene responsible for Huntingdon’s; only one mother or father, only one of the men and women who answer that Darwinian drive to reproduce, nurture young, and propagate the species. It takes only one chromosome to ruin generations, to ruin human lives. It is hard to grasp the true tragedy of the disease through the sterility of Mendelian genetics, but nonetheless – as dictated by that good old Punnett Square – any offspring born to a Huntingdon’s carrier has a fifty percent chance of inheriting the disease.
You’d think it would be more complicated than that, but it’s not. Fifty percent. Yes or no. Heads or tails. Life or death. A future, or the lack of one.
Because there is no cure.
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“Do you want to know how it was?” Mark challenges. “Do you want to know how bad it got before you were even in the picture?”
“Please!” I say desperately. “I’m not trying to hurt you, or undermine Candice, or insult your parenting!”
We have been fighting for hours.
“But you are,” he states firmly. “You’re saying you know what is better for my boys than I do; than their own mother did.”
“But I’m not!” I exclaim, begging him to see my point of view. “I just think Charles and David need to know what could happen. They deserve to know if this is something they will face.”
“You don’t know anything,” he sneers, anger emanating from every pore. “They had to watch their mother die. Even after we moved out and I married you, they had to see it. And there is no way I’m going to tell them the same thing could be in their future. They’re too young!”
“They won’t be young forever,” I say quietly. “They’re going to ask questions eventually.”
“But they’re not really going to get it,” Mark yells, and I understand everything in a flash of insight. Never underestimate, of course, the power of compartmentalization, the power of denial.
“They’re not going to get it,” he repeats, and turns his back on me to retreat into the bedroom.
I sigh heavily, disturbed and deeply exhausted. I think of Charles and David, safe at their grandparents’ during Candice’s funeral, and feel a flash of terror. I wince; my breath hitches. My emotional mind spirals – I think of them stumbling and stuttering, quality of life draining away, unable to communicate, unable to move – and I have to force my brain away to contain the bile that rises into my throat.
Finally, I toss my wine glass into the sink and walk into the dark living room to collapse on the couch. Right now, I have no desire to sleep next to my legal partner, the father of the children I am legally adopting. Instead, I lie awake until morning.
“Mommy is dead,” says Charles witheringly
There is a test.
It is, to be clear, only a test. It only predicts; it does nothing to heal. It is good for identifying the genetic marker; it is good for letting an individual know what is in store.
A child, for example, who has a parent with Huntingdon’s can take this test; they can see the 50% into which they fall. They can know, as early as infancy, if their life will devolve into something unfathomable before they’ve even had a chance to come into themselves; they can know if they will die young.
But – and here’s the existential part – is that a good thing to know?
Does it help to know the future? Does it help to know now what will come to be? Does it help to risk the loss of hope for the chance to end up with all the hope in the world?
And who gets to make that decision?
“I realize, suddenly, that I will have to make a choice.”
I spread peanut butter on bread, smiling at my stepsons over the breakfast bar. I am making school lunches the next day while my husband showers for work.
“Eat your breakfast,” I encourage.
“I don’t like oatmeal,” complains Charles, the elder boy. He is opinionated and stubborn, the spitting image of his father. David is several years younger, the rainbow baby after Candice had a series of miscarriages, from what I understand. He is thoughtful and soft-spoken; he looks like his mother.
“I know,” I say. “But eat it anyway.”
“I miss Mommy,” says David, apropos of nothing, and I pause with the knife in the peanut butter jar.
“Mommy is dead,” says Charles witheringly, and I hear the agony under his words.
“But I want her,” says his brother, tears starting to fall, and my wise mind suddenly glimpses the future.
I see my stepsons’ graduations. I see their weddings. I see daily life, and vacations, and New Years’ Eves. I see their blissful ignorance to the monster in their DNA. I see the birth of my grandchildren (step-grandchildren, I suppose, but that still makes them mine); I see those grandchildren grow.
Then I lose wise mind, and I see Charles and David, confined to their beds, trapped in bodies which no longer work. I see their funerals before either has reached the age of 40. And then I see the same story yet again, the same tragedy, only it is the grandchildren; and on, and on, until I have to physically dig my nails into the flesh of my forearms to stop the vortex.
“Hey, guys…” I say hesitantly, new to parenting, new to grief. “Your mom…”
“Was very sick!” interrupts my husband, entering the kitchen. He shoots me a glare for mentioning her, then picks up his coffee and briefcase and lays his hand briefly on each of his son’s heads. “But your stepmother and I are healthy, and we will never leave you.”
“That’s right,” I agree, for lack of anything else to do. “We’re always here for you.”
Lunches are collected, and the bus is caught, and I wash the breakfast dishes, deep in thought. My feelings have now surpassed concern, or love, or personal opinion. Now, I feel an ethical obligation; I feel a moral duty. My sons need to know what killed their mother; they need to know before they plan for careers and mortgages before they procreate and unknowingly pass on a death sentence.
My phone beeps, interrupting this musing. It is Mark apologizing for his bad mood, for yelling at me, for making me feel inadequate. He is sorry, he texts, for disrespecting me as his co-parent.
There is a rush of love, of gratitude for this wonderful man – these wonderful children – choosing me. I was alone before; I was lonely. Now I am a vital part of a family, and I realize I also have an obligation to the integrity of this intimate unit.
The hours pass. I clean; I pay bills; I fold laundry. Mark calls, offering to stop by the store to pick up dinner ingredients. He tells me he loves me; that I am a wonderful wife and mother.
The boys return from school, bounding off the bus and bursting through the front door. I give snacks, exclaim over art projects, set them up at the table for homework. My husband texts, saying he was pulled into a meeting; he suggests ordering pizza and promises to be home soon.
The boys and I have dinner. We watch a show, and I draw a bath. The whole time, my emotional mind is focused on Huntingdon’s like a laser; it conjures up what I will wear to their viewings when I am an old lady with custody of their children. At the same time, my logical mind reflects on my husband, on our relationship. It remembers our courtship, our vows; it reminds me of orgasms and security and affection and a lifetime of tomorrows together.
I am torn between duty and respect, between love for my children and love for my husband, between all that is right and all that is easy. Just like Cassandra, I am doomed to know the future but never be heeded; I am the only one who knows what might actually come to pass. I cannot stand this dialectic of truth and falsehood, the conflict deep in my soul. It feels like nails on a chalkboard, like a cat pet the wrong way.
I tuck them both into bed, the door downstairs opening and closing as Mark returns. I hear him enter the kitchen, drop his briefcase, check the refrigerator.
I realize, suddenly, that I will have to make a choice.
I look at the sleepy children beneath their comforters; I think of my best friend downstairs.
“Boys…” I say weakly. “I…,” and I trail off as I realize I have no idea what to say next.
“Which came out of the open door – the lady or the tiger?”
Frank Stockton, 1882
Shannon Frost Greenstein (she/her) resides in Philadelphia with her children, soulmate, and persnickety cats. She is the author of “Pray for Us Sinners,” a collection of fiction from Alien Buddha Press, and “More.”, a poetry collection by Wild Pressed Books. Shannon is a former Ph.D. candidate in Continental Philosophy and a multi-time Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net nominee. Her work has appeared, or is forthcoming, in McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, Pithead Chapel, Bending Genres, Epoch Press, X-R-A-Y Lit Mag, and elsewhere. Follow Shannon at shannonfrostgreenstein.com or on 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/.
Evenings were the only time that weren’t the gallows. The air would lift from its heaviness, and light would appear, offering a sign of relief. Elaine’s fingers would curl around the edges of the windowsill of her burrow, and she would peer up at the sky. The light would shine, and it would bathe her. Every night, when it was the worst, there she would be.
Somewhere, in the silver that streamed down upon the earth, would-be mother. Her skin was pure, milk shine, and smooth. Celestial in her wake, her white hair melted down to across her body, cradling every single curve. She was silvery-white and radiating with love. Elaine could see it set from the smile that beamed across her full lips. She would hold out her arms and bid Elaine come.
In her light, Elaine would bathe. She would shut her eyes and dream the dreams that only her heart could possibly wish upon. She would ache for an alternate life. She would be loved, and she would be happy. Mother would embrace her in the way only a mother could and lay down the crown of her head upon Elaine’s. The whispers would come in the form of lullabies, and they would transport her elsewhere. To the Better Skies.
The deepest of Elaine’s dreams encouraged her to believe that there was a chance she was adopted. That Mother was needed to hold in the palm of her hands all of the other broken children and was forced to flee through the forest and up into the night sky to watch them all. To rock them to sleep every night. To be able to love, provide, and support as a mother should.
She concocted a fairy tale that she might have been left on the doorstep. Perhaps Mother was distressed. Perhaps she felt bad for the couple who desperately wanted a little girl at the time and felt she was performing an act of charity. She couldn’t imagine Mother to be so careless with a daughter she loved so much, especially when she sent her the moon every night to dress the wounds that would lash her skin during the day.
The day. The Gallows Times. The Long Twelve Hours. The Times of the Lashings. Elaine winced as reality crept into her thoughts, and goose flesh began to raise beneath her skin.
“Mother,” she would moan. “You must not have known what would become of me. You must have thought this was best. You must have trusted too much.”
She would rest her small head upon the sill, where Mother would keep her light, a watch to calm her nerves. To encompass her in a sense of security and safety. That was, of course, until the morning came.
And mornings were when she remembered the darkness when shivers settled into her bones and stayed there. When her lungs burned inside of her chest to embody the screams that should have been pouring from her throat. The mornings were the Gallows. And that is when She haunted. She plagued. And she terrorized Elaine.
The shrieking came up with the sun.
She would hear the shrieks cracked and pitch, piercing away at her eardrums. The onset of harsh reality burst the dreams she had of Mother descending to whisk her away in trails of white chiffon. The mouth of Hell would open wide. As the door to the tiny closet where she was kept creaked open, Elaine’s eyes would squeeze shut. Her breathing shallowed. Every small puff would cling to every last inch of her nerves. Elaine would brace herself, knowing what it was she would see once she readied herself to open them.
Yellow eyes with glints of red would flash from in the doorway. They were startling enough to make Elaine’s blood turn icier than the drafts that were allowed into her small burrow at night. These eyes were eyes that moved. That followed. That remained within the cloudiness of the day and burned into Elaine’s back. They stained her brain with every word, every curse, and every sputter from Hell that was uttered beneath the sharp growl that struck at her back during the day’s work.
There was no longer Mother when daybreak came. The was only The Rehtom.
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And The Rehtom had claws. They were long, curled, and splintered. They terrified Elaine in a way she had never known. They sent tremors throughout her skin. And although they made the small girl incredibly uneasy, no terror matched the kind Elaine would feel whenever she saw The Rehtom’s mouth.
The lips were twisted and blackened from the bone-ash retrieved from the children she had terrorized before Elaine. Moving like wraiths, they emanated a rank smell from the wide hole filled with pitch that contained entrance to her mouth. The open, cracked, salivating jowl was the most disturbing and unsettling of all. That mouth would wait, it would suck, and it was all-consuming.
This face did not look as such to the outside world. The Rehtom appeared to have the gentle, kind demeanour of a regular mother. It carried grace and poise. Only Elaine was able to see the Hell-Daemon that hid from behind the stretched, plastic elastane of its outer layer of skin. Whenever the Rehtom stalked her during their errands about town, Elaine would have a moment where she seemed to be free from such horrors. Her body, however, would ache from tiredness, and her mind would dwell in anxious anticipation over the nightmares that awaited her once they returned home.
After daily duties, Elaine’s heart would thump when she heard the latch of the wooden shack shut. It would shoot straight up into her mouth, and The Rehtom would remove the mask, slowly, with relish. The skin would peel off her jutted, rotting bones and create tiny piles of fresh flesh upon the wooden floors. And there would be her mouth. Those lips would curl into a wretched smile. And that smile was almost worse than the teeth. It was maniacal.
Come, child, she would wail in her cracked, dusty voice. Come. I need you to fill me. Obedient girl, I need you to feed me once more, as you have done all these days, and as you will always.
With any last ounce of energy she had left in her small body, Elaine would feel compelled to push her way toward The Rehtom. The Rehtom would release a chuckle and bend her head low. Vampiric in nature, she would suck. She would suck until Elaine saw darkness, selfishly slurping Elaine’s life force for herself until Elaine had nothing left. Obedience would come mechanically for Elaine. Her fingers and toes would move numbingly as though yanked by puppeteer’s strings.
Every day, Elaine would be further weakened. Every day, Elaine would lose more and more of what was left of her already dwindling life.
There was only one small grain of hope that kept Elaine clinging onto if she even had anything left in her to cling at all.
She clung to the evenings. The evenings that were not the gallows. And whenever The Rehtom’s assault was the worst, that was where she would be.
Mother who loved and wanted her, if only even just in her dreams. Elaine would know Mother would be coming, ready to take her away. Finally.
In the evenings, Elaine waited.
This hope would fill her heart until there was none of it left.
Until The Rehtom would come again to stalk once more in the morning.
Gina Bowen lives, breathes, and photographs the mountains of Eastern Tennessee. She spends her time writing poetry and short stories on her porch and getting lost in the woods with her pups to photograph the beautiful landscapes. Her work has been published in Pussy Magic Magazine and Blood Moon Journal. Additionally, she volunteers as a poetry editor for Outlander Magazine. More of Gina’s poetry and photography can be found on Instagram and follow her on Twitter.
Like it is to all children, bedtime was oppression to the boy. Banishment to his bedroom so soon into the night with teeth brushed and pyjamas donned was almost too great an offence to the inexhaustible kinesis of youth. How could he possibly be expected to wind down with the ontology of that constantly whirling in his body?
So then, the stroke of nine P.M. turned into something that needed to be shrewdly negotiated into a perpetual extension of fifteen minutes more: to the end of the half, to the end of the chapter, to the next commercial break, please, please, please. If this strategy were met with opposition, then the boy would be forced to push it further and implicate his elder siblings, claiming for the sake of fair and equal treatment that, if they got to stay up, then he should be allowed the same God-given freedom. But his narrow miss of their God-given teenagehood was what usually sunk his case. The final verdict was always a kiss planted on the top of his head by his mother, followed by a sympathetically amused ‘sleep-tight-don’t-let-the-bedbugs-bite.’ By that point, there was no use in looking to anyone else for a bailout; the boy’s father made sure to exclude himself from all bargaining sessions, preoccupied as he was with the Cowboys or the Celtics or his nightly beer sweating in his insurance broker grasp. Thus, the boy had the floor no more.
Foiled, he would sulk back down the hall to his room, sprawl out under his covers, stare at the posters on his walls in the dark until the images started to disfigure, listen to the even-paced murmur of the TV still going in the living room. Sometimes, in an attempt to put his encumbered energies to use, he might close his eyes and splice together a highlights reel of the school day’s happenings. He considered the kickball game that had dominated recess. He considered the chicken tetrazzini the cafeteria had served for lunch. He considered the silent reading period when JP Walburn caught a salamander by the sink in the back of the classroom and managed to keep it hidden in his desk for the rest of the afternoon without getting busted. This recollection he liked best. It naturally led to a rumination on what else might be successfully stashed in the inner compartment of one’s desk: a terrarium of playground wildlife? A box-sized jungle habitat? A whole miniature scientific ecosystem?
Sooner or later, as always, the purpose of this mental exercise would backfire on the boy. His eyes would droop. His mind would grow foggy. His breath would even out into a soft, buzzy snore, and an enemy slumber would prevail.
Sleep was a sneaky and potent incapacitator. Sleep was a heavy hitter and a fleet runner. One instant, the boy would be holding a clear thought in his head, and, the next, he was being jolted awake by the inopportune honking of his alarm clock, the whole night having already trundled past without him even knowing it. Only occasionally did its tranquillizing power wane halfway through the night, interrupted by a bad dream or a sick stomach or, more commonly, the excesses of whatever liquid the boy had last downed before being sent to bed.
Those halfway spells were the ones sought after at sleepovers and campouts—the silliest of hours. They gave off the same feeling as did standing on one’s head to the hilarity of one’s friends, blood rushing down and delirium filling up like helium. But alone in a pitch-black room, entombed within the stuffy heat of one’s blankets? In that case, one and two and three in the morning were odd, quiet tourniquets of time existing in their own freestanding dimension, belonging neither to the old day nor the new one ahead—only to the no man’s land in between.
On one such occasion, what did it for the boy was the bottle of Yoo-hoo with which he had washed down three Oreos for dessert during the evening cartoon block. Even though he had taken care to empty his bladder before begrudgingly hitting the hay, his body must have nevertheless hoarded water, because he awoke abruptly from a deep sleep to pressure in his gut, and, of course, when he studied the digits on his clock with scrunched eyes, it was no earlier than two-thirty. Strange magic indeed.
The boy shuffled down the hall, past his brother’s room, past the linen closet, past his sister’s room, and to the bathroom. The house was as still as the night outside was, disrupted only by the tonal music of the toilet bowl. The boy was careful to keep one arm slung over his eyes to ensure that he stayed primed for sleep against the better wishes of the hall light shining in through the doorway. Once his relief was procured, he reached for the flush lever, and that was when he heard the noise. It was coming from elsewhere in the house but carrying down the hallway right to his ears: a slow and rhythmic creak-crick, creak-crick, creak-crick.
“You’re like a watchman?”
The boy stopped and listened. It sounded like a frog’s two-tone belch or the squeaky hinges of a trunk lid being worked up and down. He didn’t think to call out for his parents as if it was in any way probable that the two of them might be busy oiling up the living room furniture in the wee hours of the night. He didn’t think to arm himself with a weapon either—his sister’s nail file within arm’s reach on the bathroom counter or the can of deodorant to wield as a pepper spray. Like a bloodhound dutifully tracking the scent in front of his nose, the boy hiked his pyjama pants up and sought the noise out himself, curious yet alert on all fronts.
When he stepped ever so lightly into the living room, he saw amongst the shadowy arrangement of sofa, chairs, coffee table, and a television set that a man was sitting there. In the weak reaches of the hall light, the boy determined that he was dressed in a deep grayish-green, with a wide-brimmed hat and a long trench-like coat and boots—like a homemade Halloween costume of Zorro, minus the mask. The noise in question was coming from the rocking chair that the boy’s mother usually read her historical fiction novels while his father snoozed in the La-Z-Boy while waiting for the sports segment of the nightly news. The man was rocking placidly in it with one leg propped on the opposite knee, and the creak-crick, creak-crick sound carried on even as he raised his gaze and caught the boy frozen in the doorway.
“W-what are you doing in my house?” the boy asked, his voice shrunk down to a whisper.
The man didn’t startle. He smiled wryly, never once stopping his rocking. “Ho, ho, ho, I’m Santa Claus,” he answered not in a whisper but a low and rough-shorn voice. He let the joke settle without reception from the boy and then stiffened up slightly. “I’m on the job, mister sir. What about you? What are you doing up with the bats and the beetles at this hour?”
The boy suddenly remembered the hunting knife that his brother kept atop his chest of drawers and considered bolting back down the hall to fetch it. Instead, he said, “Um . . . if you broke in, I’ll call the cops.”
The man feigned offence. “Mister sir! What a gross misunderstanding of what I am! That kind of thing is what I’m here to prevent. So I have not broken into your house, no, no; I’m guarding your house. And what a nice house it is. Always a pleasure to guard.”
He rocked on. The clock on the mantelpiece ticked the time along at an awfully sluggish pace. Apart from that, it was so quiet that the boy couldn’t even hear the faint bell-chatter of crickets or cicadas coming from outside. It was as if he and the man were the only ones awake on the planet, having awkwardly run into each other during the night’s programming gap.
“You’re like a watchman?”
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The boy stepped forward into the living room, and, as soon as he did, the man pinned him in place with the beam of a flashlight that had been concealed in his coat sleeve. Then, with a soft chuckle, the man turned the beam up into his own face, illuminating a stubbly jaw and sparse but deep-cut wrinkles and gray eyes and long, curly, wet-looking hair. Like a flame confined to a lantern, the light was blocked by the sides of his hair and the brim of his hat from reaching the ceiling or spreading outwards into the room.
“Of sorts,” he replied, face pale and bright, expression bemused. “There are hazards. There is a call.”
“You do this every night?”
“I make my rounds.”
“How do you get into people’s houses if you don’t break in?”
The man smiled. “Up on the housetop, click, click, click, and down the hatch. Don’t all children know that one? Or else I walk through walls. Works well enough for ghosts, don’t it?”
Now the boy was insulted. After all, he was no baby; the Santa record had been set straight for him at the ripe age of seven, as his sister’s idea of revenge after he planted her failed math test in their mother’s sewing kit to be found out. Thenceforth, all other holiday and seasonal mascots promptly lost their credibility: the Easter Bunny, Cupid, Jack Frost, even the Tooth Fairy. As the logic of the fiction went, these pleasantly conceived night visitors were permitted free reign of one’s home and possessions, so long as they left thoughtful treats in exchange for cookies or carrots or juvenile incisors. But what was the darker equivalent of such? A drop-in house caller with no mythos to abide by and no goods to deposit under a tree or a pillow, who therefore had open access to any plunder of the boy’s household that might pique their interest? The boy was the only man of his house currently conscious. He supposed he had some guarding of his own to do.
“So you’re here to keep burglars away?” he asked, sharpening the question to a point.
“Burglars indeed. Skeptical, are we, mister sir?”
The man’s tone was mildly jocular, but his face sobered as he sheathed the flashlight beam in his coat sleeve once again and leaned back into the shadow.
“The night is so old.”
“You’re at that age, I suppose. Bombastic age it is. Bumps in the night become just squirrels in the attic. You start to need answers for everything, and, worse yet, you start finding them.”
The boy had no clue what a ‘bombastic age’ was supposed to be, but he couldn’t help but wonder what was so disappointing about seeking the truth of things? Growing up was a process rooted in a proud tradition of fact-facing. And, yes, organically and sensibly, the boy had started to come around to his mother’s even-toned insistences, not the least of which involved the scratching noises beyond his bedroom ceiling, which she assured him were nothing more than a rodent problem his father was too lazy to call pest control about. What was so dissatisfying about having answers? Along with the authority to heckle those of your peers still invested in their fanciful childhood lore, answers were essential passes into adulthood; any sixth-grader waving a magnifying glass over his chest in hopes of finding an even a single sprig of hair knew that. Answers were the things that saved you when you were confronted with the fearful kryptonite of any age. They performed the necessary maneuver of ‘bringing the situation back down to Earth,’ as the boy’s mother was fond of saying.
“You mean ghosts and Santa Claus?” the boy said, chuckling with as much seniority as he could simulate. “Is that what you’re talking about? You know, I’m not so little.”
Of all the boy’s statements thus far, that last one seemed to sit strangely with the man. Back and forth, he rocked in the boy’s mother’s chair while his eyes glinted with sharp intrigue. His mouth twisted as if he were humouring the boy with a smile, but there was a pocketed sadness in the final form that it took—an apology, even. Not for spurning the boy’s maturity, but for something beyond the control of both of them. It was the same way the boy’s parents held their mouths when he parroted a joke he had picked up from his brother, the suggestive meaning of which he did not fully grasp then but undoubtedly would someday soon. It was the way children held their mouths the very first time the joy of taunting drew tears from the taunted, the seminal moment when pleasure turned to regret in the yet-undeveloped realization that they would be hurting people too fast to stop for the rest of their lives.
Although the man was now hidden completely in the shadows, his voice was still very much present. “But the night is so old, mister sir,” he said. “The night is so old.”
Corey Davisis a young emerging writer living outside of Jackson, Mississippi, USA. Davis is currently working on their first novel. You may find them on Instagram and Twitter.