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Ghosts

Previously Published online at Dumpster Fire Press.

By Kaci Skiles Laws

My mother was crazy. She was crazy in love with my dad long after he started ‘working late hours.’ She loved him even after his broccoli casserole was too cold, and he hit her for the first time, two years into their marriage. 

There were times the biscuits were overdone, the ice cubes had not fully set, and the sweet tea wasn’t chilled when he came home at random hours drunk. He choked on a chicken bone, and she stared into his face, a little void, a few seconds before saving him. She could have let him die. 

I came as an afterthought. 


I stared at the oatmeal hanging onto my mother’s chin. Mom. I started to say, annoyed. A reflex inside my arm swept the oatmeal into a napkin and placed the wad next to a bottle of Zestril, prescribed for her high blood pressure. 

Seeing the bottle, I couldn’t remember if I’d given her one. It was like all the times I’d driven the hectic stretch of road between my work and her house, unsure, after I arrived or once the streetlights disappeared into my rearview if I’d stopped at any red lights, unable to remember any green ones. 

I looked at the antidepressant, Celexa, sitting next to the Zestril, as dazed as my mother, the reason I’d stopped at the pharmacy on the way over.

“Your doctor,” I said it as if my mother was going deaf and paused, searching for recognition in the lines of her forehead, “He prescribed them for your mood.” I had the antidepressant’s cap in my hand and was shaking one out. Her jaw slid open, and her tongue was flat, white. I stuck it on and asked, “Did I already give you your blood pressure medicine?” 

She closed her mouth and made a slight sucking motion. I glanced at the bottle again and watched the napkin full of oatmeal disappear under the table. Her Shih Tzu, Hannah, was there eating the entire thing. Oh, well. I thought. Just this one time. It had happened other times too. 

Mom kept sucking but never replied. Her eyes were lost marbles. She carried on that way every day after my dad died.


On the way home from her house that night, tired and struggling to see through the patches of low fog settling around my Jeep like a sinister cloud, speeding up and slowing down in frustrated intervals, I clipped an animal or what I assumed to be an animal. 

I started to cry as sudden as the impact, a well of black water that had been rising inside of me so hard I had to pull over. Outside I recognized the turn-off point my dad referred to as Goatman Road and the dying dagger-shaped tree illuminated in my headlights. In my mirror, I saw a mass stumbling near the cornfield. A person? “No, I saw fur,” I said out loud. A fur coat? It was late winter, and though the days were warming up, the nights were still cold enough for a coat. 

I got out and yelled, “Hello?” and hoped for no answer. I heard stumbling. Hooves? Yes. Hooves. I wasn’t certain, but I wanted to believe it was an animal. 

“I’m sorry. I didn’t see you. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.” I ran back to the car and tried to cry more but couldn’t. 


“I hit something by Goatman Road last night,” I told my mother as I spooned a dumpling into her mouth the following evening. The bite was small and her chewing even smaller. She swallowed and opened her mouth again.

A few years ago, she would have spoken in whispers about the legend of Goatman Road, how it was rumoured there was a man who bred with goats that used to live at the end of the road, that there was more than just one Goatman and possibly even a goat-girl or two running loose in the fields.

She would’ve said it’s a bad omen or a curse, the Goatman’s ghost or spawn that I’d hit. She would have gone out and danced around my car with a bundle of burning herbs. I wished she would, but she sat borderline comatose. 

“How is it?” I asked and looked back at the thick soup, scooped up a carrot, had it spit back, a contrived confetti spray across my face to celebrate my incompetence, some in my hair and on the floor. No carrots. Okay. It made me forget about the thing I’d hit and my fantasy of Mom coming back to life. 

Hannah licked at splatters. You’ll be all orange tomorrow—I thought, looking down at her, fishing out the rest of the baby carrots, letting them plop down onto the linoleum like Oompa Loompa fingers. 

In the kitchen, I tore a bag of instant pudding open, happy to steal a moment away from my mother. Trying to push aside the creeping thoughts of last night, I thought of all the times Mom made pudding for me as a kid, as a different mother, one that became a distant memory, a person I must have imagined or dreamed up. 

I stirred the pudding with a wooden spoon, letting some spill out. I started to say something towards the doorway of the living room where my mother sat, a sea cucumber, about throwing the spoon out because of the bacteria breeding in its porous skin but didn’t because it would’ve made me feel more alone.

Once the pudding was thick enough, I used the spoon one last time, licked it and threw it end over end at the trashcan. It didn’t make it. The kettle whined, and as I poured its contents into mugs next to identical bowls, I remembered another thing, something funny, for the first time in six months since my father had died. My mother refused to speak or eat unless I was the one feeding her.

“Nancy,” I said, referring to my dad’s widow, setting the tray down on the coffee table. My mother looked at me for the first time in a week. “You’re going to like this.” I placed a dollop of dessert onto her tongue. “Not the chocolate pudding, Nancy…I was in high school, and it was Dad’s weekend.” I motioned towards the tea, “And Nancy had a cup of Earl Grey steeping on the end table. She went out to have a smoke while it cooled. Her cat, Sammy, came over to see what it was, realized he didn’t want it and turned to jump down, but before he did, I saw a tapeworm fall from his butt into the tea. I got closer and watched it sink. Sammy left the room as Nancy came back in. She must have seen the look on my face because she demanded—What? I was going to tell her, but I could tell she was disgusted.”

The corners of my mother’s lips crawled up higher than they’d sat in a month, and her eyes twisted green and yellow in the light. “Mom,” my eyelids grew like a camera lens on zoom, “She drank the entire thing and never said a word.” I saw my mother’s teeth start to form a smile for a second and heard her almost break the silence.


Driving home, I regretted my decision, worried I should’ve turned back even though the fog from the night before had lifted; the quiet inside my Jeep and warmth of the heater was making me drowsy. I rolled down my window, and the rush of air was unexpected and jarring. I kept it down as I drove along more sombre and sober, grateful for the biting wind keeping me awake. 

I noticed the crooked tree that on this night looked less like a dagger and more like a finger pointing, followed by a sense of dread. I drove on, subconsciously backing off the gas pedal in search of something my morbid curiosity couldn’t stop picking at, afraid I’d not only injured an innocent animal but killed one when I saw something at the edge of the cornfieldI had to know if it was a deer or stray dog or, worse, someone’s pet. The Goatman. 

Getting closer, I could make out sleek brown fur and thought it must be a poor deer. I got closer and was at a crawl on the shoulder of the road when I saw the human hair splayed out, blowing. Surely not. Then I saw a hand sticking out from the edge of the cornfield, its bright red nails glaring back at me. In shock, not sure of anything, but certain I could not have hit a girl the night before, I turned around to go back to Mom. 

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(Story continued below)

Back in her driveway, I sat staring into the house. It was all dark except for a soft glow, a touch lamp by her chair stuck on its dimmest setting, one with a tarnished silver base and stem, a shade made of frosted glass plates which over time had become so grease-stained no one could see the flowers underneath. 

Years ago, we’d seen it on display downtown, where everything was half-off. The same day I found gold lipstick in the basement of the store. It became my most prized piece of makeup. I took it to a slumber party when I was ten and never saw it again. It reminded me of all the things I loved the most that were stolen from me.

I didn’t know why I was there. I knew I couldn’t go home. I was supposed to be her best baby, most obedient, caring, not killing.

I called first, knowing I wouldn’t get an answer. I wanted the ringing to send a crack up the wall and make the roof cave on one side to survey the damage and fix it. I could hear the telephone from outside, shrill—screaming, screaming—me losing count.

I used my spare key to get in, hoping she might just shoot me dead. I stood at her bedroom door knocking, could hear Hannah’s muffled barking, my mother shuffling, the old knob making a racket in her hand. She looked at me, tired. She had not heard until now.

“I was drifting. I can’t drive. I’m going to sleep in my room.” I lied.

Mom reached, her hand oblong and unexpected from the crack. I drew back. She squeezed, and it was cold, intending to be comfort.


Her spare room, dusty and gray, had not been mine in years. It wasn’t long after I’d laid in my old bed, stiff. My doubts surfaced; the thing on the road ran across the ceiling. Dark vines spread like arthritic hands. I watched the familiar shape of the oak tree outside. After years of summer storms, it was bigger, all-consuming, being spared by lightning and Dad’s bullets and everything that could’ve killed it.

I didn’t make it until morning. If Mom was awake, she heard me saying, “I need to report a hit and run,” over the phone outside her room. I imagined as if stuck in a story, her listening for something beating loose inside one chamber of my heart, an ear pressed into the door that in the story was a floorboard. I saw myself slump as I said it.

I needed someone to blame, but there was no one.

As the police investigated my call, the road where the deer had been a girl, the road where she was running confused before I hit her, she had somehow vanished.


At sunrise, I searched the edges of the cornfield. The police were gone and probably wouldn’t be back; they said they got pranks like this out by Goatman Road all the time. Probably just kids messing around

I got out and walked long stretches inside the cornfield next to where I was sure I saw her body, half-expecting to find blood and fur, some confirmation that it was a deer and not a girl. Afraid I’d find a shoe or earring, purse and ID. There was nothing there, not even a dead deer. It seemed unlikely to hit a girl on a semi-desolate expanse of road. Unless it was a prank gone wrong. Unless it was a goat-girl. 

I looked at the fur still stuck in the grill of my Jeep and grabbed some out; I folded it inside a napkin to send to the forensics lab to prove it was synthetic or mink or cow, whatever they make real fur coats out of these days, so I could say—see, see, I told you, I’m bad. I deserve whatever I get. I’m not crazy. It’s from the girl I hit. I hit her, and I ran. 

I called into work first a few days, then indefinitely. I insisted they keep searching for the girl. Maybe an animal had dragged her body away. 

Restless, I thought about the kids in my homeroom, how I’d disappeared without warning, but I was in no shape to be teaching. I didn’t know if I could go back, feeling as though I was without conscience, disposable. I wouldn’t allow myself to go back. If they found a body, it wouldn’t be a choice. I was relieved at the thought.


After a week passed, exasperated from conducting my own strenuous searches and nobody to show for it, I took my fur sample to the police department. They said they’d—humour me—and ran a test. It came back inconclusive. I think they lied about it and threw my sample away to shut me up and close the case. 

They asked if I’d had my vision tested if I was on any prescription meds. I shook my matted head—no. They told me no new missing person report had been filed. They made me black tea and suggested a psychologist; it was the most mothering I’d gotten my whole life.


“I try not to feel the exhaustion and emptiness, pretend it’s not there or that it’s normal, but I’m not okay. I’m tired, and I’ve been tired, and now I’m certain I killed that girl. No one believes me.” And what about the legend. What about the Goatman? I wouldn’t mention it. My psychologist was a great listener. In our sessions, I realized that psychologists are just people you pay to care about you.


It all rose up over time as I continued on with my appointments. I would do something unacceptable and feel confused by the setbacks. My lack of control scared me. Feelings were a foreign language; they came as nightmares climbing from the well of my esophagus like a cough, spilling into the air. 

I’d lay long under the bent tree limbs floating over the ceiling like a projection and try to listen in my room where it all started, and soon I stopped looking for the phantom girl. She was lost and forgotten in the cornfield because nobody cared to find her, and I had failed. Nothing would be left of her but eventually bones. The Goatman carried his daughter away to rest to bury the legend. Nothing would ever be the same. 

In the daylight, I did normal things; I cooked and cleaned. I fed Mom. I grew resentful and didn’t know what to call it or why, so I asked my psychologist; I witnessed deadly nightshade sprouting up like veins, violet-blue and violent, buds that never should have come at a time so cold, afterthoughts, swallowing the house.

I stared at the wooden spoon on the floor next to the trashcan covered in brown for days, angry that I’d be the one to clean up the mess and it’d be there waiting until I did. It all seemed juvenile and shameful. I didn’t know what to do with myself; I didn’t want to feel anything. I had to practice presence and sitting with myself. I organized the silverware and plates, and cups. I watched shadows to feel less afraid and worthless. I let the sadness twist within me; I identified it coming up. I stopped caring if Mom ever spoke again. I knew it wasn’t my responsibility. 


“When Dad’s liver failed, I was relieved because I didn’t want him to override any more good memories,” I said, setting a plate of eggs and bacon before my mother. “I’m not feeding you today, not your medicine either.”

I looked back for signs of life before I walked towards the door and said, “I killed someone.” There was none, so I started to say—Nancy—to jolt her, but I knew it was mean like I knew the plate would be untouched except for what Hannah could curl her tongue around, and my mother wouldn’t stop her. The certainty of it all was reassuring.

The silence, deafening at times, became bearable. The shadows in the spare room told me what I needed, the same way a cobweb tells you it needs to be wiped. I never knew what I needed before because no one ever asked me. I didn’t know how I thought I was supposed to go on that way forever like people do, like ghosts.


Kaci Skiles Laws is a closet cat-lady and creative writer who reads and writes voraciously in the quiet moments between motherhood and managing Crohn’s Disease. She grew up on a small farm in a Texas town alongside many furry friends, two sisters, and a brother. She has known tragic loss too well, and her writing, which is often dark and honest, is a reflection of the shadows lurking in her psyche. Her work can be viewed here.

Voluntary Ineptitude

By Doug Van Hooser

Nick’s body gave him the cue. It was nicotine time. He turned off his workstation and headed for the side entrance. The cool evening air had its own intoxication, and he relished it almost as much as the cigarette. He leaned back against the wall, letting it support his bad habit. Someday he would have to quit, maybe if he met a girl who didn’t like it but liked him, an incentive to displace one pleasure for a better one. This part of the evening was relaxed, an exhale, the bustle of the daytime gone, the sounds of the city subdued, people at home letting the day drain. But it was also the best time for him to work, actually accomplish something other than going to meetings and reading emails.

Nick inhaled deeply and purveyed the windows of the building across the street. Would she be there? It had become an incentive to take his break after the dark had nestled around the buildings. Back-lit windows afforded a view of the interior of the apartments, the televisions and the occupants. Some closed their curtains, but many neglected to shut out the world until they prepared for sleep. He didn’t see her, but then a light came on. She was in the kitchen, headed for the refrigerator.

Debbie fumbled her keys, dropping them, clanging against her foot. She took a deep breath, another frustration to pile on her twelve-hour day. She should be happy. At least she had a job, and it paid well. But life as an attorney at the bottom of the pole left her with money and no time to enjoy it except for purchasing blouses, shoes, and swimsuits online. At least once a week, it allowed her to escape the office to deliver items for return to the UPS Store; half the blouses, most of the shoes, all but one too revealing bikini. She set the armload of work she would not look at down on the floor and picked the keys up so she wouldn’t fumble one-handed to find the right one. It was dark in the apartment. She missed the days when she left and arrived back home while the sun still shined. She turned on a light so she could find her way to the kitchen. She went to the refrigerator and got a Diet Coke. She popped the top and stepped over to the window, and looked down on the street. There was the glow of a cigarette and the outline of the smoker leaning against the building across the street. What a lousy habit, she thought, but it reminded her of her favourite films from the forties and fifties when cigarettes were cool: a prop, desirable men used. She could make out the man’s face when he inhaled. She watched him take another drag, then she turned and went to find the light switch. She opened the freezer, took out a frozen meal, put it in the oven, and set the temperature and timer. She looked again toward the window, but with the light on, she couldn’t see the man. She realized with the backlight he would now be able to see her, but she did not draw the blind. There was really nothing for him to see except an overworked, tired woman. At least someone saw her, noticed her.

She was getting her meal from the freezer as usual. Even from this distance, she looked tired. That stack of folders meant she didn’t leave work when she left work. She was probably an eight to eight-person. The only way he avoided twelve and fourteen-hour days was to come in after lunch. She should try that, but maybe she didn’t have a job that allowed it. She peered into the oven. Her eating habits were a step down from his, or maybe not? Eating at sub shops and fast-casual restaurants probably was less nutritious than frozen meals. He wondered if her place of employment, like his, had bowls of fruit?

She came to the window and peered out. Did she see him? Probably she could tell someone was there but wouldn’t be able to see him well enough to recognize him. Or point him out in a lineup if he was a criminal, someone who had assaulted her. Stolen that stack of folders as if they had some value. Then a sudden thought crossed Nick’s mind; could be standing on the street smoking a cigarette gazing through an apartment window make him a peeping Tom? Was he breaking some law?

Was it his imagination? Was she looking at him? She turned and sat at the table, shoved her work product out of the way and started punching her phone. Was she calling the police? There’s a strange man standing across the street smoking a cigarette? Nick threw his smoke to the sidewalk and crushed it. No, she wasn’t talking. She must be looking at email or some social media site. She had to have a better social life than he did.

Debbie gazed at her phone. It was like the phone had become her best friend, certainly a constant companion. How many times a day did she check it, hoping it would connect her with someone, something? But it was mostly banal. She was a voyeur. Looking at other people’s lives. At least they had things they wanted to relate even if they were just everyday occurrences. People found happiness in such mundane things. She had stopped “liking” things people posted. What did she have to post? A photo of the contract she hadn’t finished? Her five hundred calorie meal? The glowing cigarette of some man down on the street?

Debbie stood and looked out the window. Was he still there? She couldn’t see him. She brought her hand up to the top button of her blouse and idly ran her forefinger and thumb around it. Maybe she should change into her nightgown while her meal warmed up? She unbuttoned the top of her blouse and pressed her nose against the window. He was still there. She could feel it. There was an orange glow that brightened then faded. Her fingers found the next button and fondled it. She thought, I love the smell of burning tobacco, but it’s such a filthy habit. She turned and left the room.

Was she looking at him? Probably not, just idly looking out at the world, though God knows there was nothing to look at, just another building and a nearly empty street except for a guy with a bad habit. She had to be about his age. She looked attractive from this distance; he liked her hair, probably was intelligent judging from that stack of folders. But how do you meet someone like her? She had to enter and leave the building from the other side of the block. Go stand outside the building early in the morning and wait, try to catch her leaving for work? Coming home from work? That would be like stalking her. There was his second crime, the man charged with creepiness in the first degree, stalking and peeping.

What if he could take a photo of her? Maybe he could post it and tag it, and somehow, that would lead him to her social media? Get her name. But that would not get him her phone number. Try to friend her? No, that was really bizarre. Any woman with half a brain would run from that. She wasn’t a naïve fifteen-year-old. Even if he could meet her, what would he say? “Hey, I go out for a smoke every evening and see you eating frozen dinners and thought maybe you would rather go out and get a sub sandwich?” There was a word for that: loser. He pulled out another cigarette. He shouldn’t smoke another one, but he didn’t finish the first one. Maybe it would help him think of another way? There had to be some way of meeting her.

She went to the bedroom, drew the blind and loosened the cord holding the sheer curtains, and got her nightgown and housecoat from the closet. She kicked off her shoes and started to unbutton her blouse. What a ridiculous thought. Give the guy a cheap thrill? Stupid, ridiculous, not her. It was autopilot, privacy, close out the eyes of the world when you undress. She started to sway, twirled, bumped her hips, unbuttoned one button, then another, dancing; she pulled off her blouse and waved it overhead, spinning, kicking her leg in the air. She stopped. She stared at the blank movie screen the blind made. What was she doing? What kind of goofy fantasy was this? She took a deep breath, exhaled, mumbled, “screw it,” and started to dance again. She bumped and ground her way to the window and grabbed a curtain wrapping it around herself. With the blind down, no one could see. If he was still out there, she would just be a shadow. She unfurled the curtain and spun back and forth across the screen of the blind. She started to laugh and fell on the bed, trying to catch her breath, the laughter swelling. What a dumb way to act. After twelve hours of reading and writing boring contracts, come home and do a bad strip act in your bedroom for no one. She took a deep breath, got up off the bed and slipped out of her skirt. She reached around to unclasp her bra. She turned to the blinded window, then crossed the room to the light switch. She hesitated for a second, then threw the switch. In the dark, she wouldn’t be seen. She closed the bedroom door to make sure there was no light and went to the window, pulled the curtains back and let the blind up. She looked down and across to the other side of the street. A few seconds passed. Then there was a small, bright flash. He was lighting another cigarette. She shrugged and let the brassiere fall. She put her arms overhead and stuck out her chest. She held the pose and watched as the glow lit his face and then faded. She turned and struck another pose. The cigarette glowed again.

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The light in the bedroom came on. Nick fumbled with the cigarette, rolling it between his thumb and forefinger. Should he or should he not? It was tempting. He could just light it and not really smoke it. It would give him an excuse to be out here leaning against the building in case someone came by or out of the building. She closed the blinds and curtains. He could make out a faint shadow. What was she doing? Getting ready for bed to sleep off the grind of her day? What size was her bed? Queen, king? Maybe it wasn’t large enough to accommodate two? The shadow was moving, an apparition that was flowing, twisting, turning like a fantasy. Was there music he couldn’t hear? Rock and roll, hip-hop, an old Viennese waltz? He stood off the wall, his body rippling as he imagined dancing with her. Then the shadow disappeared, fell out of the light. His disappointment surprised him. How could he be disappointed? It was all in his head. There was no reality here. The light went out. He stared at the blankness, leaned back against the wall and stuck the unlit cigarette in his mouth. He deflated like a balloon. He flicked his lighter on but continued looking at the black hole of his fantasy.

He lit his cigarette. Did she open the blind? He took a drag, transfixed with his imagination. He inhaled again.

One pose, then another. She stuck her chin in the air, hands on her hips. She leaned over and gave a look only a camera could interpret. She threw her arms out to the side and smiled as if proud of her bosom’s display. She pivoted and bent over, mooning him. Then stood up and went to the window, sticking one fingertip in the side of her mouth, her tongue between her teeth. She took the other hand and cupped her breast like an offering. Then both breasts. A pose she had seen when she was twelve and found an old calendar hidden under underwear and t-shirts in her Grandfather’s clothes chest. She had wondered why anyone would find such a thing interesting to look at and why keep it hidden in a drawer? And now here she was, mimicking that lady. She was a lady, wasn’t she? A woman just trying to make a living, using the assets she had. But here she, Debbie the stripper attorney, was, in the dark, collecting her fee in an indulgent fantasy. She sighed, looked down at the street and the small orange glow, a hole in the dark.

She turned and put on her nightgown, started putting on her housecoat, stopped, picked up her clothes, and looked in the closet. She put the blouse and skirt on hangers, hanging them in the already been worn end of her closet. She looked back to the window; her eyes were adjusting to the dark. She put on her bra and panties and got blue jeans and an old sweater putting them on. How well did his eyes adjust after standing outside with the city’s ambient light and the flash of his cigarette lighter?

She returned to the kitchen. She came to the window. Was she looking at him? Could she see him? She must be looking at something, or did she enjoy the blankness of the dark? Maybe there was something romantic about the city at night, the sky reflecting the city’s light as if the moon was glowing behind thin clouds. She was contemplating something, thinking, not seeing. He dragged on the cigarette. Maybe he could use the cigarette to send an S O S? Save me. I don’t want to go back to work. I’m lonely. I need to meet you. She turned and walked back to the table, sat down and looked at her phone. Send me a message, Nick thought. My phone number is 312-822-9202. What is yours? My name is Nick, what is yours? Can I call you?

This was insane. If they were kids, he would find some pebbles, stand below her window and toss them against the glass. She would come to the window and smile as if she couldn’t contain herself. Her teenage prince had come. She would throw the window open and lean out. They’d start talking and lose track of the distance between them. Then start plotting how she could climb down from the window and into his waiting arms. Oh, my, lord, what a load of crap. He threw the cigarette on the sidewalk and scrubbed it out with his shoe, stuck his hands in his pockets.

He had coins. He pulled them out and looked at a penny, a nickel and a quarter. He looked back up at her window. She was peering in the oven. He crossed the street.

As Debbie peered in the oven, she thought, why did I inherit this habit? One thing she picked up from her Mother. Heat things in the oven, not the microwave. It heats more evenly. A microwave is about speed, and for her Mother, speed implied impatience. That’s what Debbie needed to do: take her life out of the oven and put it in the microwave. She turned, glancing out the window, seeing nothing and sat down at the table, picked up her phone. Email or Facebook? A decision she made every morning and evening. Even that was stale.

She had already checked her email, so she went to Facebook. Her Mother had downloaded new photos of her father. That’s where she had acquired her infatuation with the scent of tobacco. When she was growing up, he’d sit in his recliner reading and smoking until he turned on the television. Then one night, he came home and announced, “It’s time to throw out this bad habit.” And he quit, just like that. He made up his mind to change, and he did it. She needed a change. She could give up frozen dinners and start cooking. But that would never work. She didn’t have time to buy food and plan meals. Maybe she should switch to the microwave? No. That would be like switching brands of cigarettes. Quitting her job wasn’t an option. If she found a position at another law firm, it would be the same thing. Same old same old: her life’s mantra.

There was a ding at the window. Had a bird run into it? It was dark. Birds wouldn’t be flying around. Some big bug?

Nick took up position directly below her kitchen window. He looked at the small change in his hand, looked up and thought, what the hell. What was the worst thing that could happen? She could ignore it. Or, she could call the police. Was he breaking some law? Misdemeanour coin tossing? Felony: hey, what’s your name? Second degree: I couldn’t think of another way to meet you?

Nick took one step back and threw the penny at the window. It clanged against the glass, then two seconds later bounced off the sidewalk away from him. He looked up. Waiting. Wondering: what is she thinking? She didn’t appear. Well, that didn’t work. Maybe he should up the ante? Go with the nickel? He flipped the coin a foot in the air, caught it with his right hand, and turned it onto the back of his left hand. Tails. Give it a whirl. He threw the coin at the window. It made a louder noise than the penny. He looked up at the window, smiling.

There was another clunk. What the hell was going on? Debbie pushed back from the table and stared at the window. Something had definitely hit it. But whatever it was, was gone. That’s pretty spooky. This had never happened before. Never in all the nights, she sat there waiting on her dinner. Was it her imagination? Was it louder the second time? Was it some big beetle attracted by the light? Some life form that didn’t comprehend glass was a barrier. What was on the other side you could not touch? Debbie stood up and tried to peer out the window. But the darkness was blank. She couldn’t see a thing. If she went to the window, maybe she could get a better view?

Nick stood with his head tilted back, counting. He reached twenty. She had not appeared. So, this was a bad idea that had failed. They weren’t teenagers. Maybe the natural curiosity of youth had shrivelled, been overtaken by the caution of maturity. He stuck both hands in his front pant pockets. One coin left. He flipped the quarter between his thumb and forefinger over and over. Three’s a charm? He took his hand out of his pocket, kept his eyes on the window, and twisted the coin on its edge as if there was a message there his fingertip could read. He put his arm behind his head, hesitated, then fired the quarter at the window. It hit so hard he thought for a second he might have broken the glass.

Debbie jerked back when the coin hit. She saw it, but it was just a silver glint and then gone. She picked up her phone and dialled 911.

“911, what is your emergency.”

“Hi. I live at 908 West Jackson on the second floor, and something keeps hitting my kitchen window. It’s happened three times. I don’t know what to do?”

“908 West Jackson. I’ll dispatch a patrol car to check it out.”

“Thanks. Oh, the backside of my apartment faces Clinton.”

“I’ll have a squad car check the 900 blocks of Clinton. Please stay on the line.”

“OK.”

“You say you are on the second floor?”

“Yes, in an apartment. It’s an apartment building.”

“Do you have any windows or other access on the first floor?”

“Not on this side of the building.”

“You see anyone outside the window?”

Debbie hesitated. Why had she not looked? “I’ll look.” She could hear a siren. They were not close but on the way.

“That’s all right. Stay back from the window. The squad car should be there very quickly.”

Why had she not looked? The siren was getting louder. She crept up to the window and looked across the street. The man smoking was gone. She leaned closer to the window and looked down.

There she was. Nick waved, a large sweeping motion as if she were a hundred yards away, not twenty feet. She saw him. Gave him a timid wave back. Maybe she couldn’t see him clearly. Nick took out his lighter and flicked it on, held it by his face, and motioned with his thumb to the other side of the street.

Debbie could tell the man was waving. His lighter flared. It was the guy from across the street. She couldn’t be sure, but it had to be. He must have been watching her watching him. The siren was loud. What had she done?

“The car should be arriving, miss.”

“Ah… it is.” What should she do? She hung up the phone, pivoted and rushed to the door, opened it and hurried toward the elevator. She would have to go all the way around the building. Why was she waiting in the elevator? She headed for the stairs.

Nick saw the patrol car around the corner. Lights and sirens, was there an accident? Hopefully, no one was hurt. The car came to a stop right in front of him. Nick looked up at the window. She was gone.
Both officers got out of the car, each had a hand on their gun. What had he done? He raised his hands, palms open, up to his shoulders and mumbled, “Half guilty, your honour, of trying to get a women’s attention: voluntary ineptitude in the third degree.”


Doug Van Hooser writes and resides in the Chicago area and southern Wisconsin, where he cycles, sculls, and uses an alias when Baristas ask him his name. He’s a graduate of the University of Illinois, married with two children. His poetry and fiction can be found in over fifty literary publications in print and online. A number of his plays can be read on The New Play Exchange.

Riptides

By Leanne Su

Marina X was born by the sea.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Pretty spooky stuff, huh?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Marina X was not having a good day.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“We have a proposal for you.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More from Goat’s Milk Magazine

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Understandable.”

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

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

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

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

And Marina knew she would.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Something like that,” she said simply.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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