Tag Archives: Thriller

Riptides

By Leanne Su

Marina X was born by the sea.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Pretty spooky stuff, huh?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Marina X was not having a good day.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“We have a proposal for you.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Understandable.”

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

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

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

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

And Marina knew she would.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Something like that,” she said simply.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Some Way Out of Here

By Parrish

Mother says grace isn’t given; you fight for it. Charley smiles in the mirror as she drives. Ah, Mother, grace takes many forms.  Jimi, for instance, or Kristin. Definitely Blue. She’s otherworldly. You’d admit that. Then there’s Kat. What about Charley? Hmm. Definitely not Charlotte. That bitch is dead and won’t survive the second coming.  Sorry, Mom. Grace is a heaven of my own. 

Along I-75, the sun sinks into the sea redder than blood. Creation bleeding at the edges, and Jimi occupies her car speakers like a godly messenger from a lost world. He’s singing the way through. At 90 mph, she looks for that new sky and new earth that will come when the sea gives up its dead, and the copulators and murderers gather outside the new golden city to be damned. She’ll be among them if Mother doesn’t drag her through the gates to the golden city herself. Better turn up Jimi. Grace infected his guitar, and maybe it’s contagious. 

Graduation was tomorrow; unless it’s today, everything is always happening again. If she were eighteen, she’d wear a tattoo. Mother says no. She thinks any day now is Judgment Day when the dead will bury the dead before grace everlasting. Don’t defile your flesh, she says. As for girls, be one, don’t kiss one. She says together we’ll fight the beast until it’s cast into the fiery lake. But what if I’m the beast? May as well wear that black lipstick Mother hates. She sighs again. 

She quit her job today. She was going to try for the kingdom if she can. She wasn’t going to spend eternity cleaning comes. Fuck that asshole and his low rent peep show he calls a bookstore. And fuck his twenty bucks an hour and putting his hands on me, like Mother said he would. It’s happening now, Mother says. From Sarasota to Pensacola, people rehearsing the Rapture. Houses being built for the banks to fail, the insides stripped for materials, bathtubs stinking from shit.  Shells corroding in the sun occupied by the warlords of the Apocalypse mixing medicine to sell to zombie children. The coastline beckons in skywriting like ancient prophecy. 

BE ALL YOU CAN BE IN THE ARMY! 

ESCORTS NEEDED NOW! 

Jimi, what’s a girl to do? Soldier or whore? The fucking future. It’s been overtaking her every second since before she was born. Blue stopped time, but she’s not Blue. Mother thinks she’s my watch and I’m her minutes. 

In the mirror, Mother supervises her driving. Her reflection turns up everywhere. Her purse was not to mention random windows; puddles generally worked, and sometimes free-floating in space in her room. No mirror in the world—she has checked them all—can distinguish her eyes from her eyes forever watching her, forever talking to her, inescapable, behind everything, forever eating her through her own eyes. 

Jimi, there must be some way out of here, right? You found the exit ramp. 

Jimi never answers; he just plays on repeat since he took over her playlist. Blue was the one who put him there that day in the bathroom. 

And you were a soldier too, like my brother. Luke traded dealing drugs for the army. Didn’t listen to Mother. Why go to Afghanistan, she says, when Jesus needs warriors. No sign up needed for the Final Battle. The future’s here, Charlotte, and it’s murder.  

But Mama, I don’t want to be a soldier; I don’t want to die. Her hands gripping the wheel are clenched fists.

You’re already a soldier, Mother says, in the army of the Lord.  

   Jimi, you hear that? Mother Dearest! She’d eat everybody living and dead to save me.  Who’s eating Luke? 

Hush, sweet Charlotte. Luke’s ok.  He’ll live while others will die, and there’s always a lesson in that. Never forget we live in the Truth. Yes, it’s a burden to live among these billions of bodies waiting to be burned. And more being born each second! They multiply through vice so that Satan may lead them to the slaughter. Such a conflagration! I can smell it from here to Miami!

No point adjusting the mirror. Mother installed it inside her head before she could speak, and Charley can’t escape its reflection. Charlotte did. That’s because Charley killed Charlotte, so Mother wouldn’t. It was surprisingly simple. She let Kristin kiss her on the beach, surf licking their ears. Somehow, Mother knew. Mother’s the lover that’s hard to quit.

Before you were born, she says, I knew you. In the womb, I encircled you. Upon birth, the circle widened. Its circumference encompasses all of time and creation, arcing from the sizzling pits of hell to the misty azure of heaven.  She’s been grounded half of the calendar weekends since she turned fourteen. In Mother, she’s safe—from drugs, from other girls’ mouths, from marking her body with the tattooed ink Zombie-Goats wear in Satan’s army of the dead.

“Mother’s eyes bore into Charley’s skull; they share them, they share everything, one way or another.”

She’s been to six classmates’ funerals— three by hanging, two by overdose, one by car. The future really is murder. Ask Blue. She graduated herself. Charley met her one day hanging in the school bathroom. Blue Angel. Her face looked almost pretty in the mirror hanging from the ceiling. Charley rubbed her bare feet, and they discussed what was to come. She knew their friendship was fate.  Sometimes she sees the future in the present. It’s a gift from Mother. Blue knew Charley too—she spoke without saying hello. The afterlife is no different from this one. When the rent-a-cop came to cut her down, Charley clasped Blue’s knees and cried to keep her close. She wasn’t bothering anybody. They took her body but not her face in the mirror. Sometimes she can almost kiss it.  

Since Blue found her bedroom mirror, things are better. Her friend Kat comes too. Blue must have shown her the way. Blue’s great. She says the craziest things, except they’re not crazy. Like, time can’t cease, and grace won’t come until male and female become a single being and male won’t be male and female won’t be female, so kiss whoever the fuck you want. It’s hard not to laugh when Blue talks like that, but she doesn’t want Mother to see. And Jimi in her ears with his forever song. Blue was broadcasting it when they met. She heard it from the stall calling her. She removed the buds from Blue’s ears so Jimi might bloom in hers.  It’s almost as if Jimi brought them together, though Charley prefers to credit Blue’s generosity. Blue came to bring her Jimi’s good news, and that has made all the difference. The earphones, too, Mother is always tossing hers.  

Hush, sweet Charlotte, Charley says, so Mother won’t. Keep your body clean. Patience now, or you’ll die forever. The day ending all days is near. Until then, live among these dead as best you can. Grace awaits. 

Charley’s face pales like death. It’s her. But I killed her with that kiss.  No, she lives in Mother’s eyes, looking straight at Charley, dating proper boys and keeping her body pure of graven images.

I’m Charley now, she says, barely moving her lips so Mother won’t see, like a ventriloquist she saw once. She was concentrating on Jimi in her ears, praying, save me, let Charlotte have Mother’s afterlife, and letting me have grace like that time with Kristin on the beach, away from her voice. A voice that was falling over her like lava on Pompeii those words were bubbling and gurgling, saying, graduation’s soon, sure, but time is short. The form of this world is passing away. Better stay home with Mother. It’s more dangerous than Afghanistan out there. The drones are within— schools breeding zombies. Masks won’t save them. I’m a nurse, I know, I see the wires attached to their heads streaming filth. Dead to the world, dead to everything, dead dead dead. And the junk they read! Game of Thrones gobbledygook. Harry Potter prattle. Goat books for goat people. The living dream of being dead, and well they should. Men were marrying men; women were marrying women. Fire fodder. But not you, baby girl, never you, not if you stay close to Mother.

She’d turn up Jimi, but Blue already has. He gets louder when Mother gets closer. Her arm tingles so wildly she believes may be her tat’s coming now.  In dreams, she’s seen it, written in red letters she can’t remember. She wishes she could borrow the stars pressed on Blue’s eyelids. Charley had seen them in the morgue when she pretended to be her sister. Kristin wanted stars like that, but she spent all her money on heroin.  Look, Mother. Aren’t they pretty? Blue says if the spirit comes into being because of the body, it’s a marvel of marvels. That’s me when I get my tattoo. You’ll see.   

And if you’re worried about my life after graduation, Kat has ideas.  She’s not a whore, Mother; it’s called sex work. Not like the bookstore. Kat copyrighted her fine little ass! She used to work in a bike shop, but the men were such assholes. It’s a little-acknowledged fact, Kat says, Charley says, men go into heat worse than women. Existence for them is a mechanism cruder than a bike. A gear that runs all the other gears is always running them. It’s like what you told that new mom at church, how baby girls are better than baby boys because changing their diapers, boys get tiny erections shoot pee in your face. 

Never ends, Kat says. 

Master, the penis, master the man, Mother says.

Better off with girls, Kat says. Like you and Kristin.

I was her nurse, Charley says. She’s messed up.  

Girls are tricky, Mother says. You must watch them until they’re grown. And even then. 

Mothers, Kat says. I wouldn’t unblock mine from my phone for a thousand bucks—the price of an ass fuck.

Charley giggles. She loves it when Kat talks like that, even if she has to move her lips to make it happen. Mother isn’t giggling, though.  

Charley, I told you, Charley says, it’s not your job to clean Kristin’s bones in this life.

I know, we’re splitting up. 

Kat looks confused, so Charley puts the side of her hand next to her mouth and whispers words only she can hear. 

Mother says Kristin is a lesbian. My body is a temple, and L is Satan’s middle initial, and if Kristin pillages my temple, Jehovah will mark my forehead with Satan’s name. But that asshole’s not touching me. No way. If Mother doesn’t like it, she can suck my bones in the afterlife. 

Charley laughs since Charlotte never says such things. In the mirror, Charley’s lips move like Kat’s.

Speaking of money, that job you had . . . second hand come is not terrible. At least you didn’t have to watch them jerk off and clean your face. I’m almost sorry you didn’t get real hands-on experience. Sex work isn’t terrible if you work hard and have goals. Show up. Maintain your appearance. And carry a gun. If a client asks for your number, call that day’s number and tell whoever answers what happened, so you never see him again. That’s the benefit of working for a corporation. Beats the army. The clients are disgusting, but it’s not about you, Kat says, Charley says, while Mother frowns over her shoulder. The worst part is they talk when they finish. I’d rather put their dick in my mouth again than listen to their bullshit.  

Mother’s eyes bore into Charley’s skull; they share them, they share everything, one way or another, like roommates in the same cell. She closes her eyes and hears not Jimi but Mother calling from downstairs. 

Knock knock. Charley? You there? 

Sorry, she says, Mother wanted something. 

I quit talking to mine after I put my dad in jail. 

Charley’s mouth opens so wide she sees Blue peeking from behind her tonsils.  

“Mother stares, waiting for an answer. The L on Kat’s head pulsates like a neon sign.”

He molested me.  Aren’t words stupid?  Dad RAPED me. I couldn’t count the times. When I was sixteen, I quit trying.  I called 911. The funny thing is he had just given me that cell phone, the eternal asshole. The cops and the emergency techs found me bloody—it was my period—with evidence of his miserable need. I felt like I was the criminal turning him in. Crazy, right?  I don’t know how I did it. Jesus, maybe, but I don’t believe in Jesus, so I don’t see why he would care about me. 

Actually, Jesus—the words don’t come. The ferocity of Kat’s expression prevents Charley from mentioning that Mother says Armageddon is here and Jesus could be on her side.

He did my older sister too.

It brought you together, I guess. 

Sure it did. Big Sis was my first pimp! She was blackmailing him with me. Mom knew. Mom taught her the business. Mom had been extorting him for doing Sis. They begged me to withdraw the charges—said they’d cut me in. They said if Dad went to jail, we’d have no income. Sis said she’d have to hook. Fuck me! 

Charley gasped—not at Kat’s words, which she had repeated many times before, but at Mother’s absence. Usually, she drives Kat away now. 

Mom won, though. I caved. The prosecutor read my statements to me in court, and I said they were lies.  I lied about telling the truth.  I testified against myself! How sick is that? Thanks, Mom. Thanks, Dad. Kisses, Sis, you stupid cow-cunt!” 

Charley reaches to stroke Kat’s face, but the mirror’s words push back her hand. 

You’d never do that, would you?

What?

Lie against yourself?

And there’s Mother, a little off cue, standing behind Kat like a deep focus shot from Citizen Kane. She moves toward Kat! That’s never happened before! She nears, arms open, whether to hug Kat or break through the glass; Charley doesn’t want to know. She closes her eyes and dreams of graduation; it’s tomorrow unless it was yesterday. She’s back in the second row, wearing her blue gown, tasselled cap on head, waiting with hands crossed to be called. Above loom shadowy figures in black robes reading names. Behind her, everyone else. The theatre so vastly exceeds the limits of human endurance, but for Jimi’s singing her war song like a lullaby. Her head bobs; she’s falling asleep again. Charley! The voice jerks her awake inside of her dream. Come forward and receive your reward.  On the dais, she turns to face the others who have vanished like names erased. Among the countless empty seats, one rises. Mother, her sword tapping “All Along the Watchtower” on the metal chairs . . . 

Yo, Charley! You there? 

The bleary mirror blinks into focus. Mother, is that you?

I’m telling you, in court, everybody wanted to believe my lies.  Who wants to think Dad the hot shit lawyer is a serial rapist growing his own victims?  The judge ruled against my testimony. He must know lawyers are paid, liars. Dad went to the state prison, and I bolted the Mom-prison. Charley jumps back and sees Mother hiding behind Kat, a nearly perfect silhouette. 

Charley looks as deep into those eyes as she dares. When I die, she thinks, you’ll bring me back, and everything will happen again. 

In the Resurrection, everyone must come forward to receive their share of grace, Mother says over Kat’s shoulder. Fighting will be required. 

Oh, the fight’s on, Charley says through her ventriloquist’s lips. Kat would be an excellent ally, especially if Blue doesn’t make it.

I moved out, Kat says, to a friend’s house. Her dad was nice. He treated me like a family member. I tried to do him once, just because he was so nice he’d never ask; his wife was a total bitch. He turned me away, which is weird. Maybe he knew I’m a lesbian. 

In the mirror, Kat’s face freezes, arrested by Charley’s frightened face, which makes little sense since Kat can’t see what Charley sees, which is Mother’s L on Kat’s forehead, the one that caused Charlotte to use the word, Charley. In her panic, she wants to kiss Kat right now, to make that look disappear, but there’s Mother’s face, looking so much like her own, Adam’s apple bobbing because some words are as hard to swallow as they are to say. 

You’re a lesbian?

Haven’t we been through this? 

I forget.

I’m like you— or are you bi? 

Mother stares, waiting for an answer. The L on Kat’s head pulsates like a neon sign. 

Mother says I am. 

What do you say? 

It’s just that we talk a lot, every day practically: about the future, and other things. When I don’t, she talks to me from my mirror.

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A laugh that sounds like a sob, and she wishes Jimi would play louder, but it’s that silent moment before it repeats, and she doesn’t see her lips move when she speaks. She’s afraid Mother is going to answer her. 

Finding your mother in the mirror every day talking to you! I can’t think of anything more frightening. I’d have to break my mirrors and live like a vampire. 

She wants me to see a therapist.

Kat’s eyes narrow, and her face becomes comically prim.  You’re not skipping school to fuck your dad, are you? I wouldn’t want to call the attendance officer, young lady. 

Charley’s face cracks—into a smile. It’s so spontaneous, beautiful, she doesn’t recognize it or her own teeth, which she imagines belong to Kat. She’s licking them. Mother’s image seems to dissolve in the glass.

School’s ok. It’s just that Mother thinks I shouldn’t date girls. She says L is Satan’s middle initial, and Jehovah will tattoo it on my forehead for all eternity, or until Jesus tosses me in the flames on Judgement Day.

Girl, I don’t see it. 

Charley leans close to touch noses. She doesn’t see it either.  

Well, I’m not one. The voice sounds strange in her own ears—it sounds so much like Charlotte, who sounds so much like Mother. 

What about you and Kristin? 

That’s different.

I saw you making out at the mall. Looked pretty hot.  

She’s generally too stoned to get hot.

But you fuck?

I’m not—what Mother says.  

So what’s the problem? 

She didn’t know. 

Dump Kristin. She’s not good enough for you. 

Behind Kat, Mother nods her head. 

Any other girls you want to try?

Blue.

Do her.

I tried—but she found grace. She left me behind. 

Found Grace? Seriously? Do you believe in that shit? Well, you’re looking at grace, baby. No joke. Clients choose names for you. One called me Grace. The way he shouted that word when he came to my face, I almost believed I was it.  The last time I saw him, though, was terrible. His daughter had just died. He couldn’t get it up. He cried so much he couldn’t function. Pushing around his limp dick, I could almost imagine what it was like to have a parent who truly loved you, who’d mourn your absence. I would’ve let him talk, but I had another client soon. So I whispered, Grace is here, Daddy, come unto me. His dick became lifelike enough to screw, though he kept crying and mumbling her name. As he got harder inside me, I had a terrible realization. Grace was his daughter’s name! I couldn’t help it; I puked in his face. Then he hit me and came. After he left, I called the number. Fucking grace.

Charley grimaces like a punch to the gut. Grace isn’t a name or even a name for a name, she wants to say, you’re grace, she wants to say but can’t because she can’t breathe with Charlotte now looking at her so triumphant and . . . and Jimi getting louder playing new notes in new combinations because Blue’s speaking through the guitar, saying never lie to yourself, Charley, don’t do what you hate, all things are disclosed before heaven, and she exhales because Kat’s there, not Charlotte.  

You date dudes?

Some. I liked meth and ate bath salts and tried to eat his skin and another girl’s skin, but he was always nice to me. I was sorry he died. 

“Oh, to exchange that face for the one she had before Mother encircled her.”

Men are dicey. Better to stay away.

How do you stand it? 

Stand what?

Sleeping with them. 

Learning I didn’t have to fuck them was the hard part. It’s a job. I’m getting my GED, saving for college. Then law school so I can sue assholes like Dad. They’re everywhere, like cash machines. 

Talk of the future brings to mind graduation, which she almost remembers remembering, though, for the life of her, she can’t fathom Mother’s sword. 

Watch out for therapists; the court assigned me mine. I call him The-Rapist. At first, he was my dream friend—the one that listens to whatever you say and understands you no matter how fucked up you are.  And he was so typical—like my friend’s dad, I thought, except a fucking professional normal person. I started lingering after the sessions thinking some might rub off on me. It began with him making tea. And then he started telling me his problems. Who knew normal people have problems? It made me feel; I don’t know, smart or something. I didn’t get that he was telling me that he wasn’t who I thought he was. I thought maybe he was in love with me. 

It happens, right? Charley asked hopefully. 

You’re sweet, but who was I to him? I was pretty, and I was hurt, and I was fuckable. My parents fucked me! Therefore, I could be fucked by anybody.  That’s what my life said— the facts on my résumé and The-Rapist knew that. When I realized he was using his impressive framed diplomas to get himself next to what made him hot, I dumped the asshole. Sex work is my therapy. I’m the one getting paid. The firm has me in training for their B & D division. Apparently, I’m a natural. I have that something extra.

In the mirror, Charley blinked her through her crying eyes like an actress receiving the Academy Award. 

Thanks, everyone! Parental units? You watching? I owe everything to you! Hey Sis! Fuck yourself for once! Special shout-out to my therapist! Bruuuuuuce! Kisses, baby! Oh, you want a speech? I don’t have anything prepared, but . . . ok, here’s what every real-life actress knows. Once everything has already happened to you, anything goes! You can fake anything just to get through. I got there early. Just lucky, I guess.

The words, which Charley remembers perfectly, she was crying the first time Kat said them, leak from her lungs, her heart, her brain like she’s been punctured by someone else’s memories. Charlotte’s a bitch to play. Leaning across her childhood dresser, she wants to touch her hand, kiss her mouth, make her feel better somehow. She leans closer, lips ready to kiss. Kat turns aside as Charley talks out of the side of her mouth. 

I already have a girlfriend, girlfriend.  

The eyes in the mirror are vacant, from another world, one where Mother isn’t. Blue’s face replaces Kat’s like radio signals converging, and she doesn’t notice the earbuds fallen around her neck like a noose. 

What if you walked out of this reflection and gave no forwarding address? 

Mother will find you, a distant voice taunts. 

Who said that? Charlotte, are you there?  

If you know what’s in front of your face, Blue says, everything hidden from you will be disclosed.  

Charley slaps her cheek twice, hard, to unshape its mouth and to unmake its eyes. Oh, to exchange that face for the one she had before Mother encircled her.

Through the mirror, Blue returns the pods to her ears. Listen, girl, listen this time, please. Blessed is she who came into being before coming into being. Her words soar like Jimi’s guitar. 

Charley’s eyes flash, burning holes through the glass and penetrate the world behind the world. For a moment, just long enough, she can’t see anyone, not even herself, since the mirror is perfectly blank, but for the strange gravitational force pulling her forward into the black tunnels her eyes have made. 

“In her armour of light, she kneels, not in supplication, but to issue a command.”

In her armour of light, she kneels, not in supplication, but to issue a command.  

A rolling roar, a buzzing in her brain. School counsellors’ words, Luke’s letters from Afghanistan, dead bodies in the bathrooms were reading newspapers aloud. It’s not strange to have gone through the mirror, not at all. 

She expects light overwhelming but sees only her, broken glass embedded in that face like diamonds, eyes streaming red globs of blood like bleary mascara, motioning her forward with her sword. She looks for a place to run and recognizes the auditorium from her dream. Graduation night! This place is ginormous. Look at all these . . . at all these . . . people? A multitude whose number she couldn’t count, from every nation and tribe and tongue.  Most look like they’re dead. She wonders if everything exists just for her.

Throughout the theatre, Jimi’s guitar reverberates. Still, only she hears it, his wah-wah whispering, this way, Charley, you can make it, but Mother is greeting her with the promised sacred kiss and putting that sword in her hand, except now it’s a pocket mirror, saying, nice work, honey, but look at yourself, on this day of all days, can’t you just fix your face? Her eyes are sockets black and bruised above strips of hanging flesh. N,o doubt about it, she looks beat-up, emptied out, but wearing that black lipstick Mother hates. It looks cute. Her lips pucker as the lights go out like they had never been a light from within allows her to see her robe is white, not blue, and smeared with blood. Mother’s robe is white like hers but sparkling as if freshly washed. You can change later, she whispers. 

As she grows accustomed to the darkness, she discerns classmates naked but for the scars on their battered bodies. Her bloody eyes fix upon the robed figures on the stage. One sits upon a throne above the others. Around him are four animals teeming with eyes in front and back. A lion, a calf, an eagle, and a dog with a human face that Charley recognizes as Blue by the way it winks at her. He’s giving slips of paper to those whose names are called. Jesus, it’s going to take forever and a day to get through this thing. Her name rings out, but she hears only Jimi, while Blue seems to be barking and wagging her tail.  

Mother pushes her forward, whispering, it’s ok, baby, the dead are not alive, and the living will not die. Charley can’t hear, and anyway, she’s watching her arm where a feather quill writes upon it from inkpots filled with blood. A glowing graven image was raising up like goosebumps. She can’t believe it.  Mother said it would happen over her dead body. The letters emerging from her skin seem to be moving the quill until the pot disappears into the air. The quill, free-floating, drips blood on her bare feet and then goes where the pen went. The letters light up her eyes. G R A C E runs one direction and C H A R L E Y the other.  They intersect at the A.  It looks like a sideways cross.

In the second row among the chosen, Mother has returned with her diploma, cooing; you’ve earned it, baby.  I will choose you as one from a thousand and as two from ten thousand, and you will stand as a single one. Before she can ask its meaning, the paper starts to burn. Fire shoots through her fingers and into every strand of her hair as the throne rises heavenward. Fight your ass off, the ascending one yells, but Jimi drowns him out. The doggy Blue dissipates into the smoke. Only then does the terrible smell infuse her, the auditorium turning into the ashes from the burning flesh of women and men and the world darkening at the edges as its light disappears through the gap where the throne ascended.

On the beach, two remain. One holds two swords, the other none above neither sun nor moon. Still, the view seems familiar despite I-75 being gone. That’s ok. She won’t be needing her car anymore. In the sand, she notices shards of stars fallen like unripe fruit from a tree. The sea had been a bottomless pit, and the wind sounds like a buzzing of locusts. Her ear pods are gone. Mother’s voice pierces through the noise. 

You ready? They’re about to rise up. We’ll have to fight them again. 

Where’s Jimi? 

Here’s your sword.

Keep it. 

Don’t make me fight you. I’ll cut your arm off to save you. 

Through her arm’s muscle, the tattoo flexes like a taunt. Mother can’t help herself. The sword severs the arm at the A, and the A shatters the sword. Charley doesn’t blink. She has never seen Mother cry before. 

It’s ok, Mom. You have another one.  

In her armour of light, she kneels, not in supplication, but to issue a command.  

Mother, Charlotte cleft your body to enter this world. She now cleft me so that Charley can return. She bows her head. 

Jesus, in the name of Blue, she says, grace shall reign over me.  

As the sword comes down, the music swells in place of the disappeared sea. By her two ears and her one arm, Jimi carries her to that world where she meets the face she wore before the world was made, and they were one. 


Parrish is a Pushcart Prize-nominated writer and critic living somewhere in California and teaching. His debut chapbook, I Close My Eyes, and I Almost Remember, is forthcoming from Finishing Line Press.

Persephone of the Valley

By Dani Herrera

I was found unconscious in my little house on stilts over the sea.

There were claw marks on the windows. The chimney’s bricks were ripped off their foundation. The pipes were burst, and long strands of hair were caught on the jagged steel edges. 

That part I remember.

The dripping water, the yowls as those strands were ripped off the scalps, the slapping and the splashing of bare feet on their way to me.

I wish the water had smelled like rain or warm showers. 

All the past versions of me clawed their way up the stilts and into the house. They did everything I said I would never do.

So as they held me down and the water went up my nose and burned my sinuses, all I smelled was pain,

I wondered who they really were. 

The next morning I’m in the hospital, calling for nurses, doctors, other patients.

Please, could someone tell me what happened, someone that isn’t him.

Because, of course, Vincent was the one who found me. And he’s the one who sits on my bed, telling me what happened while I put my hands over my ears and hum. I hum so loud my teeth chatter. That’s what I tell myself, that I hum that loud. But really, I’m still cold. 

I never want to hear bad news from people I love. 

It’s the softness that kills. 

Vincent says,

I found you halfway out your window. Your head was upside down, and your eyes,

your eyes looked just like the moon.

I think that’s enough water. I think it’s time to bring you down from the peaks,

the peaks of thin air and clouds of your neighbours’ smoke.

Please let me carry you down to the valley,

where your feet can touch the floor. 

Once he told me what happened, I can’t remember anything else.

Right when I get to the end of the memory, me with my head resting on the sill, out the open window, right when it’s time to close my eyes and rest, it all restarts.

I saw the me’s swimming in the water under my house, clawing their way up the beams. I couldn’t hear what they said. Their words were garbled, so used to being underwater, their voices sunk in the air. 

They carried my limp body to the window, their seaweed skin slipping around me. 

I could hear Vincent calling for me as headlights shone through the front window.

No

I can hear Vincent calling me as doctors shine their flashlights into my eyes.

I’m getting stuck in this memory so often the water that drowned me is slipping out of my ears, mouth, and nose.

Vincent asks what’s on my mind. I’m afraid that if I tell him, he’ll drown too. 

As the water starts to seep out into the hallway, a woman comes in. 

She says,

Tell me what you can feel with your fingers, tell me what you hear, tell me what you smell; Ground yourself.

I feel the paper sheets, the rough cotton of blankets. I can smell sharp antiseptic; I can hear the beeping of machines and swishes of fabric. My skin tightens where the IV is, and my pulse pushes against my hospital bracelet. 

And there is so much beeping and screaming and tubes and claws.

I don’t know which place is worse.

The same woman comes in in the evening. 

I apologize for the murky water that is flooding my hospital room. I see her glancing down at my strands of hair that wave in the water.

She tells me to do the same exercise as earlier, but this time Vincent leans forward.

I smell lemons and mint and sweat. I see sea glass, his sea glass eyes; I skim my fingers over the roughness of his beard, the roundness of his knuckles. 

“I was in those shining buildings.”

For the first time, the memory ends.

And now there is the after:

Vincent yelling for me, 

Dragging me inside,

Carrying me to the car.

Playing my limp fingers like a piano.

When Vincent takes me back home, my body is fighting me. My ears are popping. My lungs are gasping; when we’re almost there, my nose bleeds.

He tells me,

It’s the elevation.

You don’t have to get used to it, or you’ll tell yourself you can stay. 

Stop climbing higher; you are not a bird.

Don’t you dare dive; you are not a fish. 

The floors are slippery with undried water and sea moss. The carpet is soggy. 

I can see fish swimming in the puddles of warped ground. Sea anemones latch onto the baseboards throughout my old tiny home. 

There is a wind rushing, and I can’t tell if it’s the ocean or the highway. 

And that salt air. It’s sharp; it stings, but it’s not dry enough to let me live.

Vincent packs up my clothes because I can’t bear to go to my room.

When I step out on the patio, I cough up all the water from inside. I gag and spit out the salt. 

This is the thin air I’m used to. 

My house is on stilts but is still shorter than my neighbours’. I can see the smoke from their cigarettes billowing down to me, and I try to pick out shapes. 

I look up, not down.

Down is where the sea of hands and feet are. 

I hear the door open as Vincent steps out.

I say,

I used to wave good morning to the me’s of translucent winter glow

and toss kisses goodnight to the me’s of laughing summer tans. 

I guess it wasn’t enough.

I thought it was better to live in the neighbour’s clouds than in those swimming shadows down below. 

He takes me away from the edge and out the door to the packed car.

All my things are so heavy they push the car down the winding roads faster and faster. 

Vincent says,

I know what it’s like, 

breathing in those clouds.

Across the way, over the water,

I was in those shining buildings. 

I was there long before I met you.

Wouldn’t it be nice,

to meet on the ground floor without sunburned skin and thinning air?

“I know the sun isn’t right outside the window, but I hope it feels like home.”

A place without bare, bending trees;

no dirt or dead grass;

no splintering sandalwood. 

So that’s where he takes me.

With the speeding car and boxes of clothes and drying and smudged books,

He carries me down to the valley, and with that drive, it feels like my first summer. 

Being so high up, the sun rushes to rise, and by noon is already stumbling to set.

I used to run up my neighbourhood, trying to get more sun, more time. I was told I would be closer to the sun, but it always seemed to be running from my grasp. I was supposed to be given more time. I was supposed to be given a time with sun kisses instead of shadows. 

Vincent takes me to his house, and we unpack my things into the entrance hallway. 

All day, I glance at the pile that is supposed to be my life. 

Vincent nudges me, saying, 

El que nace pa maceta, no pasa del corredor.

So we unpack, we rest on his front lawn, and I can’t help but roll around. I feel the gnats and spiders weaving through my scalp, and I shiver. 

I take off my shoes and socks and spread my toes, looking at the bottoms of my scarred feet from running on blistering sand and gravel. 

I get ready for the day to end as I am spread out like the angel I always dreamed of being, but he tells me it’s only 2 pm.

We eat lunch and move my books into sunlit spare spaces and fold my clothes into his dresser. 

I run through his neighbourhood even though I don’t need to chase the sun. I go further and further, pushing my lungs, waiting for them to quit, but they never do.

I am dripping in sweat; my face is red and beating. 

I am my sun, sizzling on the sidewalk, watching the sky grow dark. 

The day was hot, but the night is apologetic.

I can feel the dust and grime and sun kisses that coat my skin. I am cooled and crystallized.

I sit in the new living room, with its wind-blown curtains.

Vincent wraps his arms around me, putting his lips to my temple, says,

Look at the wind, 

asking not to be forgotten. 

It’s twirling the trees just for you, 

sending those flower petals into flurries just for you,

his singsong voice halts, “I know the sun isn’t right outside the window, but I hope it feels like home.”

We lay side by side in bed, and I close my eyes.

There is a low whimpering— a test of a whimper.

I want to sit up, but it’s not time yet.

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Light taps come from the living room. They make their way down the walls of the outside of the house.

Living room, hallway, bathroom, my room.

I’m on the other side, scratching on the window, asking for help.

I am dripping and blue, asking to be let in. And when I don’t respond, I smash the window. 

Other me’s come pouring in, picking up my fighting body and throwing me into the sea.

I think,

I should wake up now, now, now is when I will wake up.

Rocks are jutting out from the water under my falling body. Big jagged rocks and I tuck in my arms and legs, so I don’t get hurt.

I think,

I’ll just curl up so I won’t hit the bottom, so I won’t break.

I wake up, and I’m not in my house at all. I am at sea level, maybe below sea level now, but there is no water crowding over or around me. 

It’s morning. I go outside to smell fresh-cut grass. 

I sink my feet into the grass and let my body get lost in the morning glory vines along the fence. I whisper to the plants,

Please, take me in. 

Ground me. 

My voice cracks and I start to cry, and I hope my tears don’t poison the plants, “Let the leftover water in my lungs nourish you because it’s been killing me. Keep me.”

Then I look back at Vincent standing in the doorway. 

“Can you check the pipes?” I ask him, “I think they’re coming back for me.”

I pace the backyard.

It’s nice to step, to walk, to travel at my speed.

I think back to the car ride here. The car was speeding, everything of me so heavy I was sure we were leaving a path on the road.

Claw marks, really.

Long, unbreaking claw marks and I was being dragged down. 

Vincent comes back. 

He guides me inside and shows me how small the pipes are. Of course, they can’t fit through. 

Later, when I’ve wrapped my arms around myself, he leans in and whispers in my ear, “I know it’s scary. We’re taught, climb higher and higher. Crush the sky!” Then, when he has my attention, he says, “But we’re not meant for such pressure. Our bodies will explode. Same for being down in the depths of the sea.”

I interrupt him, saying, “So not a bird, not a fish.”

He whispers back, “Maybe just a snake. Maybe a lizard.”

I frown, and he laughs.

Vincent says, “There are worse things to be.”

And I can’t help but think of the me on the other side in my dream, in my memory.

I spent five years balancing in that house of stilts. I saw the water teeming with every possible version of me that was or could be, everything I loved and was afraid of.

But not once did they ever tell me to jump, to join them in that water. They never asked until they did. 

So I could be worse things,

Like the me’s that finally made it up that climb and dragged me out of bed, they’re drowning me and bringing me to the edge. 

That evening Vincent grips my shoulders and walks behind me down the hallway.

I give a short laugh when I see the tub filled.

“They waved to me and hooted, telling me to jump.”

He mentions how I haven’t showered since coming here.

I think of being in the ocean, the real ocean, not that sea of sharp smiles and gnashing teeth.

How I used to let the waves hit me, and there was never any fear in that. 

Because I would stand or drive or jump. And if I missed, the tide always brought me back. 

So I sit in the tub now.

And my boyfriend, my lifeguard, pushes mini waves of bubbles toward my curled up body till I laugh and let my arms and legs go loose because I will not hit the bottom, I will not break. 

He sets a wind-up turtle toy in the water, and it bobs along till it hits my shoulder. 

I’m standing on the ocean floor. 

My hair is floating above me. A black halo must mean death.

I see myself twirling toward me. 

The twirling me has nails so long they curve back into her palms, and when I see me, I cry and say,

Come back to me, my love. 

I turn, ever so slowly in the water current, and end up in my old kitchen. 

The other me is curled up in the living room. There are no doors, no windows. 

I hear a whisper saying,

Don’t you miss me?

And as I’m looking at myself, I realize that I am not me. 

I am some other person, dragged to the bottom, pulled so far into the water that the world turned upside down, and I was back on land. 

When I wake up, I tell Vincent.

I tell him the story before the story.

The beginning long before the beginning; he knows. 

Because there is always another start. Before him and me, there was me, and before me, there were millions of others.

The longer I stay in this valley with him, the more I extend my origin. I’m sure that one day I will tell my end before I finish my very beginning. 

We sit cross-legged, on the bed facing each other. I play with the tassels on the duvet and tell him how I got here, to be in this bed with him in this valley where its peaks are something I can look up to instead of being afraid of falling and spearing myself with their tips. 

And I finally start, “The sun had grown blistering hot. It grew hotter than anyone had ever told me it would be. I was delirious from the elevation, spinning on my house of stilts that I had climbed so long to get. 

I went outside on the patio. And as I looked down, I saw all those versions of myself swimming. They squirted water between the small gap in their front teeth. They spun and splashed. 

Most of all, they weren’t sunburned and gasping like I was.

They waved to me and hooted, telling me to jump. I’ve never gotten this invitation before.

My arms shook as I pulled myself onto the patio railing.

“You will rain back down till you sink into the soil of the valley.”

It felt so good, so refreshing, as the wind flew through my sweating strands. I hit the water.

I smiled underwater and at all my reflections. And now they didn’t smile or wave or hoot. They dug themselves into my flaking flesh. 

I swam to the surface, kicking away their claws. I climbed up the stilts, letting the old splinters anchor my hands and toes in place. 

I coughed up water the whole day. 

And at night, when I finally fell asleep, I heard them. They took the trail I left and found me.”

Vincent says I can pick the music as we drive back up those hills and mountains.

It’s not morning, but with these long days and nights of the valley, I’m not sure I can wait weeks till the sun rises. 

“Vincent, I wasn’t always unhappy there. In my defence, I first loved the sun that sat so close it burned my skin. See, I had been cold my whole life. It was magical to overlook the water, to peer over it and to see millions of my reflections. But every beat of the sun was an hour, and I grew so dizzy, so dizzy that I would lie on the deck and I was convinced I could feel the rotation of the earth; do you know how terrifying it is—to feel the seconds of your life evaporating yet there is no way to catch up possibly; it’s a panic of being on a house of stilts but still not being able to climb over it all, but underneath, underneath those reflections came to life and I saw so much of myself and I couldn’t abandon them as they called for me, begged for me, and most of all, promised me that if I just jumped—and I only had to jump once— that I would be okay. The funny thing is, Vincent, I never saw any older versions of me in those laps and waves.”

I look around to make sure that speaking of them did not attract them. But there is no water around. No pipes. No stilts.

I remind myself that they will not find me because I’m on my way to find them. 

I know we’re getting close to my old house because I said all that, and it seems like a week has passed. 

Vincent parks in front of my house, turning his tires in and putting on the emergency brake.

I’m panting by the time we reach the doorway.

Everything inside has been sundried; no more ocean residue, no water damage. Everything has been seared away. 

I’m waiting for something to come running out. I can see the pictures of dreams drawing themself into this moment. My eyes are searching for all the places I saw them.

Vincent goes out to the patio and waits for me.

I hear screams and howls, and I brace myself.

But it’s just the wind.

“Look down, “ he tells me, gripping my hand, “ They’re not there anymore. And I say they because they were just you in a single moment; it’s just that sometimes those moments add up, and there can be mobs and swarms.”

I think,

oh no, please. 

And I think that but I’m the first to jump, and he falls after me.

I use my right hand to plug my nose because I’m not sure if, at this point, I can survive with more of this water filtering through my lungs. 

We swim deeper and deeper and float, so the water settles, and there, right there, are all the bones of those reflections of me.

Their hair has planted itself into the sand, and now it’s just seaweed, just water reeds, and their teeth have become covered by their gums and turned into a coral reef. 

We kick and swim and flounder till we reach the surface, and I’m gasping.

We float on our backs and let the waves take us till we latch onto the stilts and use the claw marks as grooves to get back up. I take off my soaking clothes and leave them in the house. My trail will end here, just in case they ever come back and look for me. 

Back in my summer valley, 

Our car is flying through the streets.

And it’s so green here. Ivy is dripping off the houses and fences, trees are erupting through grass, flowers are spilling over sidewalks, and even weeds are winding through the cracks in the street. 

Our windows are down, it’s barely dawn, the sun is drying my hair into curls, and he looks over to me at a red light.

There are no other cars out, but we still stop.

Vincent says, “Maybe,  years and years from now—after a lifetime with me—you will step out into that howling wind and be carried to the clouds again. You will rain back down till you sink into the soil of the valley. Right there in midair, you will start over again. In hurricanes and tornadoes, earthquakes and eruptions, tsunamis and monsoons.”

And the thought of starting over again, even as rain or ivy,

I almost can’t bear the thought of it because I worry about those years down the line. Catching a reflection and it is me, with windblown hair, sprinting downward toward my valley.

So I smile wide and laugh so it will echo till I find this me again, in mirrors and oceans, in car windows and dreams. 


Dani Herrera writes her magical realism from the simmering Central Valley of California. She is currently a fiction candidate at St. Mary’s College of California and always strives to include her Hispanic heritage in her writing. Dani has been previously published at Crack the Spine. You can follow her on Instagram @dani.herreraa to see pockets of her life and her beloved border collie, Blu.