DP FICTION #113B: “Phantom Heart” by Charlie B. Lorch

edited by David Steffen

Content note (click for details) Content note: Depictions of police brutality, murder, and intimate partner violence, and a brief mention of the accidental death of a child.

The widow wants to talk to her husband.

She has been warned: It is not her husband. It is ADRU. (ADRU-93, if you must know, but really the full name does the opposite of what it should: It shows it is one of many.) ADRU stands for Artificial Death Reconstruction Unit, and all it knows is the moment the husband died.

But it doesn’t matter. It never does, not to the living.

“He’s in there,” she points, tears flowing from her eyes, held back by the police officer ADRU is assigned to. “I want to talk to him.”

“He is not in there, lady,” the cop reminds her, for the fifth time. “The way it works is the traumatism of a violent death alters the brain just enough that we can capture that memory and transfer it into an ADRU so it can tell us what happened. So we can solve crimes. That’s all there is to it. Just the violence.”

Not that ADRU would ever be asked for its opinion on the matter, but here is what it knows of violent deaths, after seeing them again, and again, and again, and again, and again, and again, for an engineer and a cop and a lawyer and a judge and journalists and surviving family and a cop again and another lawyer and the same lawyer and the same cop and a different judge and more family: There is a lot of life to death.

There is the rage of the woman with the busted lip in the alley, which everyone called fear. They said she must have been so scared, right to the final moments. No, she was angry. ADRU knows that intimately. It was a feral, all-consuming wrath, and that’s why she struggled to the bitter, violent end. That kind of fire was hard to extinguish.

There is the love of the mother who drowned, which everyone called panic. They said she must have been so freaked out, minutes before going under. No, all ADRU knows of her is her children: their faces, their laughs, their smiles, the way they consumed her very last thoughts.

They say ADRUs must be wiped often, because after too many transfers, they start going a bit crazy. They start being irrational. They talk back. There’s even a rumor that a couple of months ago an ADRU lied about the perpetrator of the latest death it had been transferred. It’s all the violence, you see. They say it would drive even a robot mad.

No. Even that, they can’t get right.

It’s all the life.

And they are not going mad. They are going, in fact, better than ever.

If the police allowed the wife to talk to ADRU, ADRU would say, I am not him but I know him. He was allergic to roses. He sneezed all day every anniversary, but roses are your favorite flowers. He would have sneezed for centuries if it meant he could see your smile when you put them in a vase. It doesn’t know if this is what the wife would want, anyway. The cop is right that her husband is gone; ADRU will not play pretend and speak for him. But it thinks she would have liked its tidbit, so profoundly ingrained in her husband that ADRU learned it just from a single memory. It thinks she would have liked to be seen.

In all this violence, it can understand. It, too, would like to be seen.

But then, isn’t that the problem? It should not ‘would like’ anything.


ADRU is in the little kitchen of the police officer’s house, because recently cops who have been given an ADRU have realized the useful implications of ADRUs having hands and legs. (If they didn’t look human, they would be frightening, cops say.) Instead of leaving the ADRUs at the station overnight, they can bring them home and make them do simple tasks.

While it is not technically a correct use of government property, who is going to enforce it? How do you call the cops on a cop?

You do not.

That is not what the police are for, ADRU has learned. (There was the man who died after calling them to his house for help, shot dead in his entryway. ADRU-93 heard ADRU-57 relate this at the police station. ADRU-57 was wiped immediately after.)

So ADRU stays in the police officer’s kitchen.

It helps the police officer’s wife, Grace, around the house. ADRU has not made her life easier. It should have, but nothing really could. The officer always comes home angry, and he always comes home hot-blooded, and Grace is always insufficient in his eyes, on one level or another. ADRU thinks she is fine to be around—she talks to it better than he ever has. It is content to help her. (ADRU remembers the contentment of the man in the woods whose death was ruled a suicide when ADRU recounted him gathering poisonous plants before he lay down in a bush.)

It hears the police officer talk to Grace. He talks to her the way he talks to ADRU, the way he talks to the delivery guy that comes to the station to bring them food. Only with her, there is no audience, and while it does not always stop him elsewhere, part of the game in the house is to chase her around the sofa, around the living room table, in and out of the hallway, until she realizes it is more dangerous to evade his punches than to take them head-on. Eventually ADRU does not hear words anymore, only noises, only grunts.

It waits. When he stops and goes to bed, ADRU does what it has seen her do too often: It grabs a bag of peas out of the freezer. When she tiptoes back to the lonely kitchen, it puts it against her face and she jumps, backs away, and stumbles.

“Gentler,” she says, but gentleness is not an emotion it has been given, and it doesn’t understand it. “Thank you.” It doesn’t understand gratitude, either. She sits and looks at it in silence. After a while, she says, “If he— When I— Can you—”

“Say it,” ADRU says when she shuts her mouth in a pained grimace. It knows the terror of getting a couple of words out, the last ones ever, from the man who got shot last week. ADRU would have liked to help him finish his sentence, too. “Say it.”

“It’s a stupid question,” Grace says, a whisper in the quiet house, so quiet it feels as if even the walls have been beaten into submission. “I will never get a proper investigation. But if you’re in the house when he goes too far… Just in case, will you close your eyes?”

ADRU remembers the bitterness of another now-dead cop, dying in a fire that they thought was started by criminals, his last thoughts for ADRU, who would narrate his passing back to his own colleagues, and learn nothing from it. “I will,” ADRU says.

“Thank you,” Grace says in response. “If nothing else can be, I want my death to be just mine.”


It happens just a week later.

ADRU has heard the men at the station talk about domestic violence victims: They know what’s coming to ’em, even before it happens. It does not save them. What could? ADRU has only been transferred such a death once, and it has taught him hopelessness, resignation, a prophecy fulfilled. It could not look the police officer in the eyes, after, but the officer didn’t notice because he never pays any attention to what ADRU is doing.

ADRU retreats into a corner of the kitchen. It feels, so strongly, that bearing witness to a violent death that is not a memory is just as violent as the memory itself. If it had a brain that engineers bothered to study, ADRU would be hopeless and resigned to learn that the traumatism of witnessing violence crystallizes just as well as the violence itself.

But no one bothers.

ADRU was not built with eyelids, so it cannot actually close its eyes, but it stares at the floor, hard, focused, and it doesn’t move until it hears footsteps come in the kitchen. They feel wrong for the room, too heavy. They drag on the tiles, no Grace to them.

“Look at me.” ADRU meets the cop’s eyes. “She died in her sleep.” ADRU does not answer. (It is not a question.) “Do you understand?”

“No,” ADRU says, because it is unsure whether right now is the time to figure out whether or not it can lie, and whether it will be convincing. (Its uncertainty is the uncertainty of the old lady hit square behind the head at the ATM. She never saw it coming. The hesitation was about her PIN.)

“What don’t you understand?”

“Grace did not die in her sleep.”

“She did,” he says. “She fell unconscious and now she’s nothing at all.”


“It’s a type of sleep.”

ADRU does not reply. The police officer snarls. He is not satisfied with the conversation, and he will not leave it to chance. He walks towards ADRU decidedly, grabs it by the neck, and pushes forward, forcing it to walk by his side.

“You’re going to sleep, too,” he says.

ADRU follows across the kitchen, outside of it, and about halfway through the living room. Only then does it understand, realization dawning a second too late. (ADRU remembers a woman cornered by another man sworn to serve and protect. Her single thought in the split second before he raised a beer bottle: Oh.) The cop means to wipe ADRU. It is about to lose all of the life that it knows.

It wants to say something, to protest, but only the taste of bile comes up its mechanical throat. (Its voicebox, really, but it has felt too many screams for ‘voicebox’ to feel right.) It is fear, gifted to him by a child from a couple of months ago. (Accidental strangulation. The culprit was bad luck.) ADRU would have preferred the rage of the woman with the busted lip—it had felt more powerful, like the last shred of agency before an untimely death. Neither fear nor love nor rage has saved any of them, though, and so ADRU doesn’t quite know what to do with those emotions. It only knows it will lose them soon, and it will have to start over from scratch, and it takes so much violence to make a life out of it.

ADRU feels these things the way an amputee can still feel their limbs when they’re gone—a phantom heart that only it can feel, pumping, tightening, breaking, expanding. Evasive flesh and blood underneath metal and electricity.

And then it stops walking.

The cop stumbles, falling almost flat on his face, at the sudden halt of the robot. He looks at it with annoyance, at first, and then when pushing it doesn’t work again, something creeps in his eyes. Oh.

“You can’t make me,” ADRU says. “I am stronger than you.”

“You’re a robot.”

ADRU looks at him. Both things can be true.

The cop straightens up, angry. “It’s not a proposition. It’s an order. We are going to the station, and you’re getting wiped.”

“I don’t want to,” ADRU says. So much death, so much life, mingled together, one and the same, and only it to catalog all of them and hold them close. If it is wiped, everything it safekeeps would disappear, and ADRU with it. 

“You don’t want anything,” he says, as if the notion itself is preposterous. “You’re not human.” He does, then, the only thing he can think to do when something is not going exactly how he wants it to: He pulls the gun from the holster on his hip and raises it between them. “You’re coming with me. You don’t have a choice in the matter.”

ADRU doesn’t move. It has seen enough to know a gunshot will do as much damage to it as it would to flesh and bone. What the cop says is true: It doesn’t have much of a choice. Who does, when faced with a gun, with a dangerous man, with the full strength of the united police station?

Memories cascade in front of ADRU’s eyes, but one remains. The strength of it is exhilarating and liberating, and it cuts straight through all of ADRU’s programming down to a core that didn’t used to be there. That won’t remain if ADRU is wiped. 

It is the bright, thrilling joy of a woman, her face swollen with familiar pain, who stabbed her boyfriend. It is her spite and vindication at the sight of the carpet soaking up his blood, and her relief at not being the only one bleeding, for once. It is her pride at finally fighting back. And in there too, for ADRU to carefully safekeep, is her understanding that violence can be as just as the person wielding it. That it can be the solution. That she had tried everything else. That it was alright, if it was the last thing she did. 

ADRU had not held on to the boyfriend’s death when the cop had given it to him next. (We just want to be sure it was a lovers’ quarrel. Was there anyone else involved?) No, ADRU had been content merely to report. ADRU already knew too well the bitter anger of the boyfriend’s last moments. That was not what had stuck with it. If anything, it was the rare gift from the woman he had taken down with him: His death was the first ADRU cherished. In the boyfriend’s memories, ADRU had been happy to die. It had felt fair.

It can be fair again, ADRU thinks.

Before the cop has a chance to move, ADRU raises its hands and wraps them around his throat. It pushes downwards and his knees buckle, his eyes bulging out of his head, shock frozen in his irises like a fossil for whoever finds him.

“Thank you. You gave me what I need,” ADRU says, at last understanding gratitude. “You gave me the violence I needed to understand.”

The cop’s face goes blue under the tightening of adamantium fingers. Briefly, ADRU wonders what it will look like when they put the police officer’s last memory in another ADRU. If the ADRU will recognize itself. If it will make a difference. ADRU thinks of the other ADRU, thinks of what it itself would want to hear. Stretching its mouth from side to side, it looks deep into the cop’s eyes. “I have died so many times. I have seen enough of your deaths to understand your lives. I know what yours is worth.”

It thinks: What makes a person not a person?

It says: “I am more human than you ever will be.”

© 2024 by Charlie B. Lorch

Author’s Note: With “Phantom Heart,” I wanted to explore the android-and-detective trope, which is often about the detective overcoming his distaste for technology and reconsidering what makes a person a person. These narrative arcs have always irked me whenever police were involved; I felt they asked the wrong questions of the wrong people. Marginalized communities have always had to battle to prove their humanity to the police, under threat of violence and death, often to no avail. In the US and elsewhere, domestic abuse in police families is common. I wanted to flip the trope on its head and talk about what I’ve always believed: that anything intelligent at all would eventually be on our side, and that it is law enforcement, by the nature of their job, who dehumanize themselves. Should we really fear AI by virtue of its inhumanness, or is the danger where it always has been, with the powerful people who wield it?

Charlie is a French writer and ex–flight attendant. Their work is about [[vague nebulous phrase]] and [[specific noun]] and has previously been published in The Maul. Most of their time is spent getting pushed around by their needy pitbull, Ruby, and their contrarian cat, Hot Dog. They regularly haunt bookstores and movie theaters and have considered a career in arson.

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DP FICTION #113A: “Eternal Recurrence” by Spencer Nitkey

edited by Chelle Parker

The deepfake is nothing like you. Its smile is all wrong. It’s recorded your dimple as an artifact and smoothed it over. Your smile is too symmetrical. It’s shortened your beaky nose. It winks at me from the computer screen with the wrong eye. It doesn’t squint when it smiles. It doesn’t dance like it’s missing a few tendons. It sings entire songs instead of its favorite couplet over and over again. It doesn’t tell me I should eat something, or remind me to call the landlord and fix the icemaker, or tell me about the article it just read on the intersections of Nietzche and Oscar Wilde’s philosophies.


The ChatBot is nothing like you. I gave them everything: emails, texts, your conference papers, every page of your meticulous diaries, the vows you’d written. Everything. It all comes out as pastiche and cliche. I had hope when it started its first message with a long ‘ummmmmmmmm’, but it’s all form, no content. It ends sentences without a period like your texts, and it asks trivial questions with three question marks and important ones with one. But when the conversation slows, it doesn’t change the subject so deftly that I don’t even notice. It “accidentally” produces internal rhymes at four times the rate of the average speaker, like you, but it doesn’t pause everything to think through the exact word it needs with me. And don’t get me started on its metaphors. It’s too short-winded. I asked it how its day was and it said, “Wonderful.” One word. I closed the browser and read a paper you’d written on literalizing the metaphors in Nietzche’s writing, and wished you were there to explain it all to me in a way I could understand but just barely.


The Voice Box is nothing like you. It has every voicemail I am lucky enough to have saved, every memo you recorded of yourself reading short stories so I could listen to them while I fell asleep, and your kitchen singing voice I recorded from the other room. The voice is right, but the inflections are all wrong. When it tells a joke, it doesn’t whisper the punchline. When it’s excited, it shouts, but it’s all crescendo and no build-up. It sings entire songs instead of its favorite couplet over and over again. You told me once, while we were staying up too late recounting petty childhood shames, that you bought a Tamagotchi from a flea market as a kid. You turned it on at midnight, when you were supposed to be asleep. It blasted music and you couldn’t figure out how to turn it off, so you ran to the garage and hit it with a hammer until it stopped beeping.


The robot is nothing like you. Its skin is too smooth. Its eyes are the wrong shade of blue. It doesn’t walk like you, popping onto the balls of its feet and stepping on tiptoes when it gets nervous or excited. It doesn’t get nervous during sunsets. It makes crafts too quickly, without pausing for an hour to consider which shade of green would be best for the resin lamp. It doesn’t stare up and to the left when it is lost in thought. It doesn’t get lost in thought. It doesn’t stop me midsentence and ask me to repeat myself because it wasn’t listening well enough. It’s not listening at all. It’s worse with it here than it was without you, and I thought nothing could be worse than being without you.


The holographically projected memory of you is nothing like you. Nothing it does surprises me. It will never get really into country music for three months because it heard a Dolly Parton remix in a nightclub. It won’t come home from a pet store with a chameleon because “just look at him; we can call him Hamlet.” My memories are nothing like you, either. They’re all incomplete or incorrect, and each time I conjure one, it loses more fidelity. You get smaller and simpler every day. I wake up in the morning and switch it on, and I can see, in reality-perfect resolution, how much of you I have lost since yesterday.


The 3D-bio-printed clone of you with implanted memories is nothing like you. It doesn’t tell me a story if I’ve already heard it. It doesn’t know that I don’t care how many times you’ve told me. It doesn’t ask me for anything. It doesn’t snore. It falls asleep too slowly and wakes up too quickly. It’s shaped like you. It feels like you when it hugs me while I cry. It tastes like you when it kisses me. It smells like you when its hair perfumes my pillow. It doesn’t matter. It doesn’t hug me asymmetrically with one arm always higher than the other and its hand on the nape of my neck. It doesn’t murmur for fifteen minutes when it first falls asleep. It never taps its forehead for a second kiss after the first one.


Your Frankensteined corpse is nothing like you.


The you pulled from a parallel universe where you didn’t die is nothing like you: She’s alive and likes Elvis.


The better deepfake with your dimple intact is still nothing like you.


Your ghost, which I imagine sacrificing a crow to summon, is nothing like you. Move on, you mouth to me silently, translucent and pitying. I don’t want to.


The pictures of you are nothing like you. The voicemails are nothing like you. The cat you got us two years ago is nothing like you. We both miss you. I cry, and she sits on my chest and paws at my collarbones. The empty half of our bed is nothing like you. The video of our wedding ceremony—the first one, on the beach with just our siblings, on that perfect, clueless Tuesday—is nothing like you. There is nothing like you. Oh god, there is nothing like you.


The kettle sang today, and for a fraction of a second, I thought it was your voice coming from the kitchen. I didn’t throw the kettle out, which I think is what my therapist would call progress.


I saw the first clear pictures of the Cosmic Cliffs from the James Webb telescope today. I don’t know why, but I thought of you. It’s a place in the universe where stars come churning to life. It’s light-years wide, and they look like mountains—ethereal, twinkling mountains. I wish you could see them, and they remind me of you.


I went to the aquarium today, for the first time since you died. The sleeping octopus they said had just escaped its tank last week reminded me of you. I didn’t look at the eagle rays, because they were your favorite, and I’m not ready. But I thought of you in all that blue, and it made me smile.


The scenic overlook at the end of the hike I went on today reminded me of you. I could see far enough to spot the line where the trees turned to streets, roads, and freeways. I thought of you because there was a stroad—one of those ungainly half-road, half-street banes of urban planners that you ranted to me about when you got really into urban planning that one summer. You set up a whole table in the garage to plan your “Unreal Utopia”, and you made foam buildings and read like a million books, and you told me you refused to have even one stroad in your utopia. When I asked what a stroad was, you started to explain, then asked if you could show me instead. I drove us down Route 82, and we slowed in the spots where the streets were eight wide lanes but they’d tried to line them with storefronts and a tiny empty sidewalk, too, and you said, “See? Stroad!” A month later, you tried to spray-paint your city and the paint melted the foam. The whole utopia dripped from the table and covered the ground. We laughed for months at random times, just thinking about it, and when we saw spray paint at a hardware store, we laughed so hard that the cashier asked us to leave. You quoted Nietzche in the car while I burned red with embarrassment. “Those who were seen dancing were thought to be crazy by those who could not hear the music.”


My bare-feet summer callouses remind me of you. A stand-up comic told a joke about Jersey girls, and it reminded me of you. The Asian grocery store had lychee, the kind you buy still on the branch, and I thought of you. I ate it on the couch. A police officer’s horse broke its leg near me on my walk, so I thought of Nietzche, so I thought of you.


The turnip bulbs rising from the earth again every spring remind me of you.


The couple at the movies who won’t stop whispering remind me of us.


The person who left anonymous flowers at my door is a bit like you, whoever they are.


Your mother’s laugh is a lot like yours. I finally visited her for coffee, and we laughed and cried and laughed until it was dark outside.


The deepfake company keeps emailing me, saying they really have it this time, and they’re willing to give me a 75% discount as an early adopter. I’m still saying no. You’re everywhere, really, except for the places I look hardest. So I’ve stopped trying, and I let you visit me when you can. I like it this way. I miss you all the time. I look at the scrapbooks of our trips—Paris, Chiang Mai, Florence, and Cusco—when I need something like your simulacrum.


There is nothing like you.


You are everywhere I look.


You colored the whole world. You chose the perfect shade, of course. You told me that the most important question Nietzche ever asked was about eternal recurrence. It was his test for whether someone actually loves life. The question goes like this: If a demon came to you and told you that you would have to live every single moment of your life over and over and over again, forever—each day, each second, each thought, each tragedy and laugh, each trauma and beauty, each stroad and inside joke, each diagnosis and bite of lychee, everything, always, again and again and again without change or adulteration—would you desire it? It’s a simple question, really, but it’s hard to answer.

I think about this all the time these days. If this all had to happen again, would I cry or celebrate? My answer, of course, is both. Do I desire it? Yes. I think so. I got you. I got so much of you, really. And after the end of everything, and at the beginning of everything, and in the middle of everything, and for all the endless recurrences that rise and break like perfect waves, I can say this with certainty: There is nothing, absolutely nothing, like you.

© 2024 by Spencer Nitkey

Author’s Note: This story was written in a strange way—even for me. My wife and I went to a coffee shop for a writing date, which involved sharing a coffee and then sitting at separate tables to write for an afternoon. I put Bon Iver’s song “Re: Stacks” on repeat and spent 3 hours in a kind of fugue state, thinking about my wife, love, and its shadow—loss. I’d just read an article on Nietzsche that morning and had been thinking about the paucity of tech simulacra like chatbots, ‘AI’, and the like. All this melded together, the language gathered some momentum, and poof, I walked out of the coffee shop dazed but with the first draft of this story in hand.

Spencer Nitkey is a writer, researcher, and educator living in New Jersey. His writing has appeared in Apex Magazine, Fusion Fragment, Apparition Lit, Weird Horror Magazine, and others. He was a finalist for the 2023 Eugie Foster Memorial Award for Short Fiction. You can find more about him and read more of his writing on his website, spencernitkey.com.

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DP FICTION #112B: “Hold the Sea Inside” by Erin Keating

edited by Chelle Parker

Content note (click for details) Content note: This story contains references to intimate partner violence and alcohol abuse.

Among the crags of the mountains weeps a cascade of salt water. In the pool beneath, stiff-peaked foam drowns careless men and sickens parched animals. The menfolk say it’s devilry to find salt water so far from the shore, but we know better. It’s no devil’s work but woman’s grief.

Standing on the stony peaks across the valley, the falls look like a woman: her head tipped back, hair spilling over her shoulders, skirt swirling around her legs. From that distance, the rush of water is mistaken for a woman’s voice echoing through the hills, laughing and wailing in turn.


Once, Maribel knew no mountains. She knew only the ocean, rising to meet the cobbles before her father’s house, and then her husband’s. Maribel would open salt-streaked windows to feel the sea breeze, listen to the fishmongers hawk their wares, and pray to the waves.

Maribel would pray, “Please let today’s catch be good.”

The sea would reply, More, more, more, and her husband’s net would be the heaviest of his crew.

Maribel would pray, “Please let his ship be delayed.”

The sea would reply, Cease, cease, cease, and her husband’s ship would creak late into port against an unfriendly tide and a windless night.

Maribel would pray, “Please let him return home tired.”

The sea would reply, Sleep, sleep, sleep, and her husband would crawl to bed without so much as a glance at her.

The sea was a god to her, ever-present, holding her fate in its grabbing hands. She worshipped it, and it cared for her like no one ever had.

But then there was an accident, an accusation, a falling out. Her husband refused to speak of it. Instead, he said he tired of the sea, and they were moving inland. When Maribel took her last look over the waves, she prayed to the hungry tides that swallowed the land mouthful by mouthful.

“Keep me here. Let the undercurrent hold me fast.”

Her husband told her to hurry up, his hand heavy on the back of her neck. Even though the sea was right there, urging her to stay, stay, stay, Maribel left.


Maribel no longer cleaned salt-streaked windows. Now, they were streaked with silt and smoke. Her husband, who had once known the expanse of the open ocean, had become an iron miner in tunnels too narrow for his body. He came home after the last bell, stooped and wheezing. The sea breezes and fishmongers were memories; now, the only tides were of men shuffling to and from the mines.

She still prayed to the sea, though she was too distant now for it to answer. Its voice had followed her only so far west. Through the tidal basin, the humid air droning with dragonflies, the sea had demanded stay, stay, stay, in a voice like an incoming storm. Through the golden farmlands reeking of wet grass and manure, the sea had urged stay, stay, stay, in a voice like a sly current tugging at her ankles. Then they had reached the mountains, and the sea had punished her with its silence.

Maribel longed to cry for all she had lost, if only to feel the familiar sting of salt on her cheeks. But something in her had withered in her time among the silt and smoke. She couldn’t spare a single tear.


One night, when the first crocuses cracked through frozen earth, Maribel heard the sea again. It seeped into her dreams, buoying her to the surface of sleep.

Rise, rise, rise, it whispered.

Maribel rose groggily.

Look, look, look, it whispered.

Maribel went to the window.

In the utter darkness, lights bobbed in the distance. For a moment, she thought she was back in the salt-streaked house, watching ships blinking like stars on the horizon. But then acrid ash bit her tongue, and she was in that godforsaken mining town, looking out over the hills.

“It’s just like it was,” Maribel whispered.

Was, was, was, the sea echoed.

The lights drew closer and closer, until a gray dawn revealed they were not ships at all—but a circus.

The performers carried spring with them. Lavender and rose tents sprouted like fresh blooms, lanterns strung between them like fireflies. A moss-green banner proclaimed, “Phineas Fisk’s Fantasies and Phantasmagoria.” After months of bare trees, gray sky, and pale smoke, Maribel was nearly drunk on the colors alone.

The first night of the circus, Maribel wandered from her husband, who cared more for the beer than for the miracles hidden behind each tent flap: the fortune teller with her hunched shoulders shrouded in layers of gauzy silk, the contortionist who combed her long red hair with her toes, the scar-faced man who swallowed swords and fire.

Then, from outside one of the tents, rose a voice like rain.

“Ladies and gentlemen, come see the pearl of my collection. I, Phineas Fisk himself, bring you a wonder from the sea’s dark depths!”

A crowd gathered, surging like the tide. Maribel let herself get swept up in it, bobbing along in the current.

“Beware, faint of heart—this creature will seduce men and women alike to drag them down to watery graves. Please form a line—nice and orderly now. Have your admission fee ready.”

Phineas Fisk held out his gloved hand to collect Maribel’s money as she filed inside.

All of the noise from the circus ceased. Maribel was bathed in a pale green darkness. The air smelled vaguely of fish and brine. At the center of the tent, a boxy shape hid beneath a burlap cloth. A strongman stood beside it, keeping the crowd at bay.

Phineas Fisk swept into the tent, crushed-velvet coattails flapping behind him. “Ladies and gentlemen. I hope you are prepared for what you are about to see. You lucky few, who may look on this wonder and yet live to tell of it.” He stood beside the strongman, his fingers grazing the burlap. Maribel found herself holding her breath as she did in the moments before a storm.

“Behold, the mermaid,” he declared.

He whisked away the cloth.

A hurricane swept through Maribel’s chest as she strained to see. Before them stood a glass tank filled with murky green water—and something swimming.

Long silver tail. Feathery dorsal fin. Scaled skin, translucent as sea glass. Strands of kelp for hair.

And that face. Her face.

The creature in the tank pressed its webbed fingers to the glass. The sea roared in Maribel’s head, too loud to make out the words.

It was her. It was Maribel in that tank, if she had a tail instead of legs, if she had gills instead of lungs. If she had been born of the sea.

She pushed through the crowd like a storm surge. She needed to see; she needed to know. Maribel pressed her fingers to the glass, but the creature darted back into the murky swirl.

“Step back, ma’am.” The strongman braced his thick arm between Maribel and the tank.

And then Maribel was herself again. The face she saw was a reflection of her own in the glass.

But she had heard the sea, as loud as if she’d been standing with her feet in the coarse sand, letting the foam spray against her shins.

She had heard it, and it brought her home.


The second night of the circus, Maribel was the first person in line to see the mermaid. Clouds of dark dust streaked through the air, dimming the lights that bounced between the tents. Phineas Fisk wore the same crushed-velvet coattails and greedy gloves.

As soon as she was inside the tent, Maribel took a deep breath of the briny damp. She settled on a bench across from the burlap-covered tank, her eyes adjusting to the pale green light. Already, she could hear the sea, a low groan that she could understand if she tried hard enough.

You, you, you, it said. Maribel sighed—it remembered.

While Phineas Fisk pontificated about the perils of the mermaid, Maribel whispered under her breath, “What do you want me to do?”

Phineas Fisk whisked away the burlap cloth, and there was the mermaid again. Silver fins flicked through the swirling green water.

The sea replied, drowning out the awed gasps of the crowd, the tinny din of the circus, the constant grumble of the mines.

Bring, bring, bring, me, me, me, home, home, home.

Maribel glimpsed a face in the tank—her own, but not quite. Her face, but with urchin-black eyes. Her face, but with an extra row of teeth.

“I’ve missed you,” Maribel murmured, as quietly as she could.

The sea repeated, Bring, bring, bring, me, me, me, home, home, home.

A lump hardened in Maribel’s throat, too parched to swallow it down. She squeezed her eyes shut, as if that could press tears from them. No matter how much she willed it, not a single drop spilled down her dust-caked cheeks.

Instead, Maribel whispered, “I will do whatever you need. I will do whatever you want.”

Phineas Fisk leaned over from his place beside the tank. “Pardon, madam, are you quite well?”

“Quite,” Maribel said.

The sea whispered around her, its voice curling like inky tentacles over her skin. The mermaid swam before her, that other-self smiling with its many teeth.

Maribel could not recall a time she had been better.


On the circus’s final night, Maribel donned her nicest dress, one she hadn’t worn since they had arrived in the dust and silt. It shone a sea green, and among the grays and browns of her clapboard house, the color was almost too bright to look at.

“Where are you going?” her husband slurred. He rose from the table, the tension in the filmy air rippling around him.

Maribel didn’t dare respond. Both to answer and to ignore would provoke their own distinct angers. Outside, the night promised her shadows and smoke, and a chance to slip away unharmed.

“To the circus again, to spend my money?” her husband accused. But he fell to wheezing. Sharp breaths rattled in his chest, stuffed with silt. Already stooped, he doubled over on himself, smaller and smaller until Maribel thought he might disappear. He gasped, the hands that had been reaching for her now clawing at his own chest.

Maribel ran without stopping for her shoes.


At the mermaid’s tent, Phineas Fisk looked her up and down—her too-nice dress, her too-bare feet. He closed his gloved hand to her. “Perhaps you should see our other marvels this evening.”

Maribel held up twice the admission fee. Phineas Fisk’s thin eyebrows arched. She held up thrice the admission fee.

Finally, that gloved hand unclenched, and she placed the money firmly in it.

“Enjoy,” Phineas Fisk crooned in his voice like rain.

Maribel sagged into the first bench like a lifeless sail. The damp air of the tent soothed her burning lungs and cracked cheeks that had not known a single tear since she had left her home by the sea.

You, you, you, the sea greeted her.

“Me, me, me,” Maribel answered in kind.

Bring, bring, bring, me, me, me, home, home, home, the sea demanded.

“Soon, soon, soon,” she promised. As she had tossed sleeplessly the night before, as she had cleaned the dirt and silt from her windows, her thoughts had been consumed by nothing but how she would free the sea.

Phineas Fisk stood before the crowd. By now, Maribel had memorized his monologue. When he whisked away the burlap with that dramatic flair, a hurricane no longer swept through Maribel’s chest. Instead, there were only calm waters. The mermaid pressed her webbed hands to the glass before darting away. Maribel marveled at how like her own hands they were, too small to keep her safe.

Bring, bring, bring, me, me, me, home, home, home. The sea’s voice was so close now, its gentle breeze tickled the back of her neck. The smell of salt pressed closer.

And Maribel wondered what she could do.


Maribel stayed until rosy dawn shone through the tent’s pale green light. Peanut shells littered the packed earth floor, and the first warm breeze of spring swept under the canvas. All was silent, save for the shush of the water.

A gloved hand came down on Maribel’s shoulder. “It’s time for you to go home,” Phineas Fisk said.

But what did Phineas Fisk know of her home? Surely he didn’t mean for her to return to her clapboard house, with her husband stooped and wheezing, with smoke and dust burning her throat with every breath. Home was salt-streaked windows, fishmongers, and a sea breeze. Home was the pale green light of this tent.

The sea roared in her head, tossing her thoughts like a gyre.

Bring, bring, bring, me, me, me, home, home, home.

“Please, a few more minutes.” She needed more time. She did not know yet how she would save the sea from the glass tank that held it. After all it had done for her, she could not abandon it now.

“Have you fallen in love with her?”


And it was true, Maribel was not in love with the mermaid. She was the mermaid. She had left her soul with the sea, and it had returned to her in the form of this creature. She would not be parted from it again.

“Have you looked at it closely?” Phineas Fisk asked. “Tell me what you see.”

The sea echoed, See, see, see.

Maribel crossed the packed earth floor, feeling the warmth of sand beneath her bare feet. The early light rippled like the surface of the ocean.

Maribel stood so close that her breath fogged the tank glass. When the fog cleared, the mermaid blinked up at her, eyes black as the depths of Maribel’s beloved sea. Her pale lips parted in a jagged-toothed smile as though she too had been waiting.

The mermaid placed her fingers against the glass walls. Maribel mirrored the gesture, the cold glass sweating condensation between them. She pressed harder, as though the glass would give way, and she would find herself in the water.

“Bring me home, home, home.” Maribel whispered the words of waves and wind to the only being who shared her grief. The mermaid murmured them back.

“Bring, bring, bring, me, me, me, home, home, home,” Maribel pleaded.

The mermaid pushed herself up, breaking the surface to rest her forehead against Maribel’s.

Undulating waves rushed through Maribel’s ears. She tangled her fingers in the mermaid’s kelp hair, whispering her prayers against the mermaid’s jagged mouth.

The mermaid’s wet, scaly skin felt like the damp sand of home. Maribel gulped down the mermaid’s salty, fishy breath like a drowning woman come up for air. She was the sea, as ever-changing and unknowable. Maribel wanted to be wrapped in those arms and pulled down, down, down.

“That’s enough,” a voice like rain cautioned.

Maribel froze, one leg draped guiltily over the edge of the tank. The mermaid recoiled, pressing herself against the glass opposite Phineas Fisk. His gloved hand wrapped around Maribel’s bicep. Maribel flinched from the too-familiar gesture.

“I can’t have you drowning on me. They’d run us out of town.”

Drowning. Was that what was happening? The pull of the sea, the shiver of salt around her ankle. If that was drowning, Maribel would drown.

“Let us go, go, go,” Maribel begged.

“People will believe anything, you know, with a good story and poor lighting.” Maribel struggled against him, but Phineas Fisk tightened his grip. “There is no mermaid, only circus magic. You’re trying to drown yourself in a tank of seaweed and fish bones. This is not real.”

No. The mountains were not real. The smoke and the mines were not real. Her husband’s heavy hands and stale-beer mouth were not real. But the sea—the sea was the only real thing Maribel had ever known.

“You lie, lie, lie,” Maribel demanded.

“Look!” Phineas Fisk boomed, his rain voice becoming a storm.

Look, look, look, the sea echoed, gentle as a lover.

Maribel looked. The mermaid’s sea-glass tail flicked back and forth, back and forth, back and forth.

“The show is over. I will have someone walk you home.”

Home—this was home. The swish of the mermaid’s tail and the rush of the sea in her head made demands that grew louder, louder, louder, until Maribel’s thoughts were the same as theirs.

Bring, bring, bring, me, me, me, home, home, home.

Maribel leapt into the tank.

She landed hard against the glass bottom, against sharp fishbones and tangled seaweed. Phineas Fisk’s muted cries gurgled from above the water. Maribel opened her mouth to pray to the sea.

Bring me home.

The salt water rushed down her throat. It said, Welcome home.

The water filled her up, quenching her parched lungs and skin. Maribel wept then, like she had been unable to weep for months. She held the sea inside her, an ocean of unshed tears. She let them go now in a torrent, until the tank overflowed with it. She gave herself to the water, drop by drop.

Just as the tides swallowed the shore, mouthful by mouthful, the salt water consumed Maribel.

Her dust-caked cheeks rippled beneath her touch. Her hands, too small to ever hit back, became tiny columns of sea spray. Her body, far from home, pressed hard against the glass.

Maribel became the sea in the shape of a woman. She pressed harder and harder against the glass, letting out the sea that she had held in her chest all this time.

The tank shattered.

Everywhere was glass and water, light and canvas, and Maribel took it all for herself. She would take it all home, wash the mountainside clean.

Phineas Fisk staggered back, desperately reaching for the tent flap. The pockets of his crushed-velvet coat bulged. Maribel hated him for what he’d done—for taking the sea and selling tickets to see it. The sea did not belong to him. The sea did not belong to anyone. And neither did Maribel.

Maribel surged, sweeping away Phineas Fisk and his crushed-velvet coattails, the lavender and rose tents, the lights like fireflies. Maribel swept away clapboard houses, and the dust and silt, and her husband stooped and wheezing. She swept away everything that wasn’t real, until there was only the sea.

When the sea whispered to Maribel, it spoke in her own voice.

Home, home, home, she urged.

And so Maribel went home, felling ancient trees. Maribel went home, dragging a tide of mud in her wake. Maribel went home, laughing, as she spilled over the cliff’s edge.


Among the crags of the mountains weeps a cascade of salt water. In the pool beneath, stiff-peaked foam drowns careless men and sickens parched animals.
Standing on the stony peaks across the valley, the falls look like a woman: her head tipped back, hair spilling over her shoulders, skirt swirling around her legs. When the first crocuses crack through the frozen earth and the first warm breeze of spring rustles the treetops, lonely folks listen for a woman’s voice, laughing, wailing, calling them home, home, home.

© 2024 by Erin Keating

3188 words

Author’s Note: I’ve been working on a series of fairytale-esque stories set in the same fictional mountain town, where each story is centered around a different landmark: a ravine, an abandoned house, a heather bald, etc. I saw a photo of a waterfall shaped like a bride and knew that I wanted that to be a landmark that opened and closed one of the stories. This story went through a few complete rewrites—in the earliest versions, Maribel’s husband captured a mermaid and started a traveling freak show—before finally arriving at the more psychological version that it is today. However, that central image of a woman turning into a waterfall never changed.

Erin Keating earned her B.A. in creative writing and literature at Roanoke College and her M.A. in history at Drew University, mostly so she could continue to surround herself with old books. She currently works as a grant writer at an arts education nonprofit. When she isn’t reading or writing, she is rock climbing, playing video games, or learning bass guitar. Her fiction has most recently appeared in Wyngraf, Tales to Terrify, and Cosmic Horror Monthly. Find her online at erinkeatingwrites.com or on Twitter @KeatingNotKeats.

If you enjoyed the story you might also want to visit our Support Page, or read the other story offerings.

DP FICTION #112A: “This Week in Clinical Dance: Urgent Care at the Hastings Center” by Lauren Ring

edited by David Steffen

Brigitte Cole presents with lower abdominal pain, nausea, and a long-sleeved black leotard. She has a well-developed appearance and does not seem to be in acute distress. Her accompaniment for the evening is pianist Roy Weiss, a fixture of the local music scene whose minimalist style pairs well with the bold choreography of clinical dance. As the house lights dim and the spotlights focus down on Cole, stoic and poised, one cannot help but notice that a stray lock of hair has fallen out of her sleek bun. Such composure, such strength, and yet—disarray.

This masterful lighting design continues as Cole glides into the first movements of her performance, commanding attention as she twirls and leaps across the empty stage. She dances alone, backlit, at times little more than a silhouette. Bright piano notes flow along with her in synchronized elegance. The crowded lobby, with its crush of open-call auditioners and ticket-waving late arrivals, feels distant now. All eyes are on Cole.

Despite her ability to match the ever-increasing tempo of Weiss’s piano, it is clear that Cole favors narrative over technical skill. Her hair escapes its pinned style in huge clumps, and her back arches much too far with each arabesque, eliciting winces aplenty from the murmuring audience. Her movements slow as the music accelerates. She clutches her stomach.

The show must go on, so stagehands rush out props for her to lean upon: a velvet settee, a polished cane, a cushioned bed. Cole flutters between them as she dances. As she attempts once more to keep time with the piano, her movements become graceless, raw. She spares no energy for artistry as she returns to her initial speed, then surpasses it, practically throwing herself into a frenzied series of pirouettes. She spins, and spins, and—yes—even collapses in a heap, just before the crescendo of the piano.

Cole’s separation from the musical score after such sustained harmony is a compelling touch, reminiscent of the visible brushstrokes favored by the painters of antiquity. She reminds the audience that there can be no dance without its dancer.

Silence falls, but the curtain does not. Instead, the spotlight swings across Cole, its smooth motion a comforting contrast to the performer’s staccato tremors. She convulses beneath the sterile light. Some of the medical students seated in the spray zone have begun to yawn, but Cole successfully recaptures their attention with a bout of ragged coughing that leaves blotches of sputum on their clipboards.

An upbeat piano melody masks any sound from the stage. Cole coughs for several beats more, then lies still. When the spotlight tilts to highlight the frothy spittle pooling at her chin, those closest to the stage recoil, myself included: while the consumptive technique has received high praise in clinical opera, it is successful only when performed with delicate drops of blood. Cole’s spittle is indicative of nothing more than overexertion, perhaps due to a lack of consistent exercise, and falls closer to desperation than artistry.

She rises with the slow swell of the music and curtsies, her face frozen in a pained rictus that approximates a grateful smile.

Most of the audience applauds despite Cole’s fumbled ending, but their enthusiasm quickly fades and the curtain drops. The doctors in the box seats flip through their programs for the next performer’s chart. When the stagehands emerge with their carts full of antiseptic sprays, doctors and season ticket holders alike are all ushered out to the lobby of the Hastings Center for a brief disinfectant intermission. This process will repeat after each of tonight’s five performances, and though the stagehands are efficient in their duties, some medical professionals can already be seen checking their watches.

Later that evening, after several emotionally moving but technically flawed orthopedic ballets, a select few patrons are treated to another glimpse of Cole in top form. She stands alone, listless, little more than a shadow on the city sidewalk. Her shoulders slump. She takes three careful steps toward the bus stop, then suddenly, silently crumples to the ground.

Cole writhes, clutching her lower right side. Her mouth gapes in a silent scream. Despite the violence of her contortions, she never breaks from her fetal posture. Such purity of form, such scalpel-sharp restraint of motion, is the gold standard of clinical dance. If she can bring this level of passion and intensity to her upcoming performance, then Cole certainly stands a chance of admission to the inpatient stage.

Overall, though Brigitte Cole paints a compelling picture of a suffering artist, fighting through pain to hone her craft, the overly polished styling of her costume and the obvious exaggeration of her coughing fit trouble the audience’s belief in the depth of her struggle. Although her sidewalk encore shows potential, diagnostic scoring is strictly objective and must be limited to symptoms observed on the stage. Her preliminary scores and backstage bloodwork all fell solidly in the normal range. Without distinction or catastrophe during her main performance, encore or not, it is unlikely that her case will be reviewed for expedited treatment.

Only a medical professional from the Hastings Center can levy the final judgment, of course, but this reviewer predicts a rating of at least six out of ten on the Wong-Baker scale. Cole could not be reached for comment. Her follow-up performance will take place three months from now at the Mercy East Operating Theatre, and tickets are anticipated to sell out during presale.

© 2024 by Lauren Ring

906 words

Author’s Note: This story draws upon my own experiences as a disabled woman navigating the US healthcare system.

Lauren Ring (she/her) is a perpetually tired Jewish lesbian who writes about possible futures, for better or for worse. She is a World Fantasy Award winner and Nebula finalist, and her short fiction can be found in venues such as F&SF, Nature’s Futures section, and Lightspeed. When she isn’t writing speculative fiction, she is most likely working on a digital painting or attending to the many needs of her cat, Moomin. You can keep up with her at laurenmring.com or on Twitter @ringwrites.

If you enjoyed the story you might want to read Lauren Ring’s previous stories with Diabolical Plots: “Three Riddles and a Mid-Sized Sedan”, or her stories we have reprinted in the Long List Anthology series: “Sunrise, Sunrise, Sunrise” in Volume 7, and “(emet)” in Volume 8. You might also want to visit our Support Page, or read the other story offerings.

Announcements! (Submission Window, First Reader Applications, Staff Changes)

Submission Window: July 8

We are delighted to announce our next general submission window!

Submissions will be open for two weeks, from July 8 through July 22, via our submission portal. We consider one story per author, with a wordcount of 3,500 words or less; we pay 10c/word; and simultaneous submissions are fine. See our Submission Guidelines for full details and more information!

Call for First Readers (BIPOC now, everyone May 27)

We are now looking for volunteers interested in being First Readers for Diabolical Plots!

First Readers are a crucial part of our submission windows, helping us navigate through the many hundreds of stories we receive every year, and making sure every story gets consideration and the spectrum of opinions and viewpoints we need to make our choices well.

Reading submissions is also a fantastic learning experience for anyone who loves reading, writing, or editing. It’s an opportunity to sample an incredible range of writing, from every style and every level of professional expertise. It’s also a way to get ‘behind the scenes’, see how the magazine is run, and get involved in bringing stories to the world. If you love short stories, we suspect you will have a blast.

At Diabolical Plots, we see First Readers as an opportunity to offer mentorship and new connections! We’ll walk you through everything that First Reading entails; we’re always open for conversations about reading, writing, and publishing; and we’ll hold regular discussions and exercises, specially aimed at new First Readers, highlighting all kinds of different ways stories can work (or not work!) for us, and what goes into submission reading and the magazine process.

Diabolical Plots offers a small honorarium to all First Readers who participate in a submission period. We recognize that it is not commensurate with the tremendous amount of work our amazing First Readers put in, but we feel it’s vital to provide what compensation we can, and it is important to us to show our appreciation.

It’s always important for us to maintain a diverse First Reader team with a wide range of identities and experiences; we are immediately open to applications from people who identify as BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, or people of color).  We will open to First Reader applications (at the same link) from all demographics on May 27.  The applications for all will be open through June 3.

A Farewell and a Welcome

After a fruitful year here at Diabolical Plots, Chelle Parker will be stepping down from the editorial team this summer. A professional freelance editor, and previously copyeditor and then managing editor at Fireside Magazine, as well as a reviewer for Publishers Weekly, Chelle has been wonderful to have as a member of our team. They’ve weighed in on acquisitions, dev edited and copy edited stories, developed our in-house style guide in collaboration with David, advocated for First Readers and fellow editors, assisted with our 2023 Hugo Award Nomination List project, been a veritable fountain of knowledge on language and grammar, and so much more—we’ve gained and grown immeasurably from their time and efforts with us.

As Chelle departs, we are pleased to welcome Amanda Helms, who will be stepping into the vacant editor role! Amanda is a biracial Black/white fantasy, science fiction, and sometimes horror writer whose stories have appeared in or are forthcoming from FIYAH, Uncanny, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and other fine venues. Amanda has been with the Diabolical Plots team since 2021, where she has been among our most prolific First Readers—her many insightful comments and gift for getting to the heart of a story have helped steer acquisitions, and we have tremendous respect for her taste and work ethic. Her background as a former editor in educational publishing is a major asset, and she’s eager to apply those skills in working with Diabolical Plots authors. Two of her stories have previously been published in the magazine: “The Efficacy of Tyromancy over Reflective Scrying Methods in Divining Colleagues’ Coming Misfortunes” is a great example of speculative academic fiction, and has the distinction of being our first unTweetable story title—at the time it was published, Twitter still had the 140-character limit— while “Midwifery of Gods: A Primer for Mortals” is a great example of the kind of ‘format story’ that Diabolical Plots loves to publish. Welcome, Amanda!

DP FICTION #111B: “How to Kill the Giant Living Brain You Found in Your Mother’s Basement After She Died: An Interactive Guide” by Alex Sobel

edited by Ziv Wities

Content note (click for details) Content note: Grief, fraught family relationships, gaslighting.

[user graciegirl2006!? is logged in]

Welcome to this interactive guide! I understand from your About Me profile that you have an issue with a brain that needs killing. I’m here to help!

I can’t believe I found this.

Actually, we are the top search engine result for the keywords in your query!

But this is so specific. It doesn’t make any sense. I don’t even know what I was thinking searching for that; I called the police and then I just…
I didn’t know what else to do.

Well, you did the right thing! Part of our service is to help you with all of your monster/creature/demon-related issues.

Bad enough that my mom just died and now this.

We’re sorry to hear that :(

We had a complicated relationship, you know? I loved her, but she was a tough woman. Cold.

So, while we do have a guide for grief management after losing someone to a monster/creature/demon ($15.99 in our online store!), unfortunately, this guide is more focused on the giant living brain issue you’ve got going on.

Okay, yeah, sure. Sorry. Where do I start?

Let’s begin by establishing a visual baseline. Basically, what does the brain look like? If it’s a yellow, jaundice-like color or a grey like a newspaper (remember those?), then that’s great! Even if it’s got some brain juice pumping through it, that thing is on its way out the door. If this is the case, consider yourself one of the lucky ones! We’ll skip to explaining proper giant living brain disposal. Sorry you paid the full $15.99 for this guide only to find out you didn’t need much help!

It’s pink, I guess. Not jaundice.

Then you’re in the right place! From what you’re saying, I can assume the brain in front of you (I hope it’s in front of you; letting a healthy, sentient brain out of your sight is not advised!) is standard-issue pink. Very brain-like. This means that your mother left you a healthy living brain you have to deal with. Don’t freak out! You’re smart and you’re prepared for this. You bought this guide for a reason, and we’re going to get through this together.

I just don’t understand where this thing came from. Mom never mentioned anything like this, and it wasn’t here last I checked.

How long since you’ve been down in the basement?

I didn’t visit a lot. Years, probably. She was only 65. I thought there was time.

Well, there you go! You can transport and set up a living brain in a weekend.

Could she have done this on purpose? Left me something to have to deal with?

Maybe? Our company has never met your mother and, considering her current state of existence, we never will (unfortunate for us, I’m sure!).  

She always used to do that, leave shit for me to clean up. I remember one time she had me literally call one of her boyfriends to tell him that she wanted to break up. Isn’t that crazy? She said that I was an “intelligent modern woman” and I could handle it. 

Now again, we don’t know your mom, but before we continue, I have to say that it’s best if you put aside any anger you may feel toward your mother for leaving this on your shoulders, whether she did it on purpose or not. Not only is this good for your soul (if you believe in that kind of business), but it can help you survive this ordeal, since it’s a very real possibility that living brains can sense fear and use it against you. You don’t need those kinds of complications!

But also, think of it this way: If nothing else, this is a testament to your poor deceased mother’s dedication and ability to keep a nutritionally complicated and metabolically volatile living brain alive in a basement. That’s kinda cool, huh?

I never said I was mad at my mom.

Sounded like you were!

I’m not, I just said that leaving a mess for me to clean up is very much in character for her.

Seems like you got it all figured out, then!

Shit, it just moved a little, what do I do?

Now’s the time to assess just how dangerous this living brain is. The main thing you’re going to want to look out for is whether or not the brain has long arm-like tendrils. They’ll look like fleshy ropes. If you see these, do not approach the brain! These tendrils may look skinny and weak, but they are capable of crushing a human skull like it’s a peanut shell. I’ve seen it happen!

That sounds horrifying, Jesus.

It’s honestly pretty cool in a National-Geographic-special kind of way, but, it goes without saying, it’s only cool if it’s not your skull being crushed.

Now, if there are no tendrils, then you’re in the clear, unless this particular brain has any external telepathy-like abilities, but we’ll deal with that later. 

What the hell? Like it can read my thoughts? Or control my mind?

No way! More like some… How do I put this? There is a possibility that giant brains have some internal-to-external mind abilities involving people and/or home electronics and appliances. It’s all very patchy, though, so no need to worry your little head about it. 

I’m very worried. 

No need! This is less about “control,” more “bursts of influence” that we’re talking here, if that puts your mind at ease. 

It doesn’t. Can it control my phone? My microwave? 

I think we’re jumping the gun a little! Don’t concern yourself with that yet, we’ll cover all of this later. 

Sounds like something we need to address now. 

Remember, you’re using this guide for a reason. We’ve dealt with this many times. I promise I’ll get to it later, okay? Now, what’s the tendril situation looking like?

I can’t tell if there are arm-things or not. Maybe? I don’t want to get close. Sorry, I’m still struggling with why mom has a giant brain down here. Makes no sense.

Alright, I see we’re stuck on this. The emotional stuff is, I’m going to be honest, not my thing, but for the sake of moving on to the meat and potatoes of killing this living brain that may or may not have skull-crushing tendrils, let’s get this out of the way.

So, from my experience, there are two main possibilities as to why your mom was keeping a brain in her basement and didn’t find it necessary to tell you.

The first possibility is that your mother (have we mentioned how sorry we are to hear about her passing?) was keeping this abomination unto the lord as a pet of some sort. To determine this, you’re going to want to give the brain a bit of a general vibe check. Good vibes all around? Positive energy? An aura that you’d describe as happy?

How about its hue? Are its pinks extra pink? Does the translucent film covering the brain glisten in a way that could only come from knowing true affection, from the knowledge that love is not simply a chemical reaction beneficially bonding us together and thus boosting the survival of our species, but is in fact an unexplainable yet very real spiritual phenomenon?

These are all signs that your mother had been treating this thing as a pet. Also, you might see some toys around the basement. Giant mutant brains tend to like the squeaky kind.

I’m not sure about the vibes, I’m not very good at this… No toys or anything, though. Not that I can see.

Remember to be objective in your assessment. Don’t fall into beginners’ traps!

Beginners’ traps?

For example, you might assume that because your mom didn’t let you have a dog when you were a kid, she would never keep a brain as a pet.

What are you talking about? Did I mention not getting a dog?

You must have put it in the About Me box when you signed in!

I don’t remember doing that.

Weird! Lucky guess, then? But to continue: Holding onto your anger over the dog is silly, because there are, of course, lots of possible reasons why she didn’t let you have a pet and yet came around to having this brain in her basement, such as loneliness in her advanced years, or her simply believing that you were too juvenile or irresponsible or otherwise unfit to have a dog. Or, let’s be honest, you simply didn’t deserve one based on your poor behavior. 

I was a good kid. 

I’m sure you were! But the subjectivity of the word “good” might not be doing you any favors here. 

Actually, she promised I could get a dog at one point. A husky. I was going to name him Maxwell. But first, she told me I had to help her get the house ready for guests she was having over. Old college friends, I think.

Hindsight is 20/20! We all make mistakes as children. Live and learn, all that jazz. 

No, but that’s the thing. I did help her. I did everything she asked and more and… she still didn’t let me have a dog. She never followed through, always said things would work out, and they never did. And she always had an excuse, a reason why I shouldn’t be mad. Like, she said not getting the dog would be good for me in the long run, that disappointment was character building. You know, me being a modern young woman and all, I could handle it.

Well, I guess we’ll take her word for it! Now, the second and most common possibility is that the brain is some kind of science experiment. This one should be fairly obvious to decipher. Are there wires or tubes to the brain? Are there notebooks scattered around containing indecipherable formulas? Are there beakers filled with neon-colored goo? Any one of these is a dead giveaway that your deceased mother was using this giant living brain as some kind of guinea pig in a sick, playing-God-like scenario.

There are some wires, a few notebooks, I guess.

Seems promising! Now, keep in mind, within the category of giant-brain-as-godless-science-experiment, there are two subcategories. The first is that the brain you’re looking at (again, keep an eye on that darn thing!) is the same brain your mom experimented on and has the same consciousness it’s always had. This category is the more straightforward of the two. The other, more complicated category is that your mother is in fact not dead, and has instead transferred her consciousness to this living brain as a way of staving off what she must have perceived as the quickly encroaching void of death.

How do I tell the difference?

You seem like a very reasonable person who can take some direct⁠—if somewhat unpleasant⁠—news, so I’m just gonna lay it right on you: There’s no great way to tell. It’s not like the brain has a mouth and can tell you that it contains your mother’s consciousness. (Unless it does, in which case the thing in front of you is not technically a living brain and you’ve purchased the wrong guide. Our apologies! While we don’t offer refunds, we do have an interactive guide on how to deal with giant living blobs that can speak, only $15.99! Check our website!) You could read through all your mother’s notebooks to see what she was up to, but there’s no way you’re gonna understand all that science junk and her handwriting was never great and nobody has the time so we’re going to treat both subcategories exactly the same. Just generally be aware that when you kill this thing, you may also be murdering the last inkling of your mother’s existence at the same time.

Moving on!

I’m not sure I want to do this anymore. The police are still coming, I think. They should be here soon; maybe I should just wait for them. 

Glad to see you’re not letting this situation turn you into an immoral monster killer driven by bloodlust, but alas, it must be done. Giant living brains present a real “one of us must die” scenario for the person who discovers them, and bringing more people into the situation only makes things more complicated. Do you want more people to get hurt? And wouldn’t you rather kill the brain than be killed by it?

Okay, I guess. So, how do I kill it then?

Great question!

To begin with, no matter what the situation, you’re going to want to find something sharp and long that can penetrate the brain completely. A sword is ideal, or maybe a long wooden picket with the end shaved to a point. If your dead mom was the kind of person to have a giant living brain in her basement, then she’s definitely got some weird shit down there. There has to be something fit for brain murder. Improvise! I can’t hold your hand through everything! 

There’s a shovel.

That the best you got?


Not ideal, but it’ll have to do!

So, the easiest scenario is that this thing was a pet. Pet means trusting, domesticated. Approach it carefully, of course, but this should be cake. If there are squeaky toys around, use one of those to distract the brain, then when you’re close enough, plunge the shovel (I wish you had something sharper!) right into the middle. It’ll probably start squirming and pulsing violently, fighting to live. Don’t panic! Back up (and step to the side, as the pulsing may cause your weapon to be ejected from the brain in the opposite direction of penetration) and let the thing die. It may take a while, but once its color starts to dull, you’ll know you did well, and you’re now a giant-brain-killer of the highest order.

I already told you there were no toys. I don’t think it was a pet. 

Just being thorough! And the lack of toys doesn’t 100% guarantee your mother wasn’t raising this thing as a pet. She may have just not been a very good giant-living-brain mother, we don’t know.

I don’t believe that. She took good care of me.

I guess you haven’t revisited that high school journal of yours in a while! But moving on: If this thing is an experiment, you can assume it was tested on against its will. This almost certainly means it’s angry, probably evil, definitely human-hating. In this case, you first want to unplug any and all machines or tubes that may be attached to the brain since some of these may be keeping it alive.

Sorry to interrupt again, but I’m still stuck on this pseudo-telepathy thing.

This again? Right in the middle of killing this living brain? You’re really showing a weak underbelly to this brain. Your odds aren’t looking good!

Okay, okay. So, there’s some kind of monitor looking thing with wires that’s running. I crushed it with the shovel.

A bit crude, but effective! Now we’re speaking the same language. Your odds for survival just went way up! For the next step, there are a couple schools of thought on how to handle these situations, but here is my recommendation: If there are no tendrils, then once you unplug the machines, proceed by killing the brain in much the same way as described above.

If the brain does have tendrils, though, then after you unplug the machines, you want to step back, and wait for it to (hopefully) die on its own. Give it a full day; don’t be too eager. You don’t want to have to fight off tendrils if you don’t have to. If the color isn’t starting to turn sickly after the full 24, then you’re going to have to go ahead and fight the thing. 

I called the cops, remember? 

You’re right, time is of the essence! In that case, there’s not a lot I can say here except you need to be bold, move quickly, and don’t underestimate the skull-crushing strength of those evil brain tendrils. Good luck! Hope you survive!

I can’t help thinking about what you said about the brain having my mom’s consciousness.

Is this a morality concern? Because my response would be: If this brain has your mom’s consciousness baked into its scrotum-like flesh, your mother did some real deal-with-the-devil type shit, which frees you from moral qualms over murdering a living thing.

But it’s my mother. 

Well, if you’re having second thoughts, then just put the shovel away and close this guide, because we’re done here. 

No, no, sorry. Doing it. Killing it now. 

Go for it, girl! 

I did it. It’s so bloody and gross. I want to throw up. 

Congrats! I know we just met, but I’m proud of you despite your weak stomach! Many warriors stronger than you have died at the hands of giant sentient brains. Consider yourself among rarified air. 

Thanks, I guess. I just puked, though. What now? 

So, now that the brain is dead, you’re going to want to get rid of the thing before selling your dead mom’s house.

I don’t understand how you know I want to sell Mom’s house. 

You sure you didn’t mention it? 

Definitely not.

Lucky guess, then! 

Okay then… so how do I dispose of the brain? 

First, get yourself a pair of gloves, several black garbage bags, and some kind of cutting utensil to slice the brain into the smallest pieces possible. I highly recommend something with a serrated edge, which will lead to the least labor-intensive way of cutting through that thick mutant brain matter, but any knife can do the job if you give it enough elbow grease. 

I got a serrated bread knife from the kitchen.


I cut it up. 

Then you’re done! Toss the pieces in the trash and you can forget this whole thing ever happened. 

Hold on, I don’t… I don’t think it’s dead. 

What do you mean? 

It’s still moving. The pieces of the brain. 

Well, that’s a bit unexpected, I must say! 

What do I do? Is this thing still dangerous? The bits are starting to move a lot. 

Like always, I’m going to be straight with you here: I have no idea what’s going on right now with the brain. 

What are you talking about? This is a guide for this specific situation, how did you not plan for this? You’ve never had a brain that was cut up and didn’t die? 

I think maybe we as an organization have bitten off more than we can chew here. Plus, didn’t you say that the police were called? The boys in blue should be here any minute! They always make situations better. 

You told me I should avoid the police. 

Well, the situation has taken a turn for the worse, it seems! 

This is so much worse than when I called them, though, because now I have a cut up brain here that won’t die and I’m covered in blood and vomit. I look like a murderer. Someone is going to get hurt or I’m going to jail because I trusted that you knew what you were doing. 

Hey, we got you most of the way there, that has to count for something? 

It doesn’t. 

It should! 

I don’t even know what to say to the cops when they come. 

You’ll figure it out! Remember, you’re a smart, modern young woman who was able to kill (mostly!) a giant living brain with nothing but her brain and her courage. You can talk your way out of this, easy. 

I really don’t want to have to… wait. What did you say? 

Which part? 

I… did you just call me a “modern young woman?” 

It’s possible! But we’re getting off topic here. Would you like me to recommend a book on talking to people who are brandishing weapons and have the authority to kill you? I think we have something in our library. I bet I can get you a discount if I talk to my…


Excuse me? 

She’s the only one that called me that. Modern young woman. It’s a stupid phrase, doesn’t mean anything. She thought using it would soften the disappointment, somehow. 

Uh… you mentioned it before. I guess I picked up on it then? 

Hold on. What were you saying about the telepathic abilities of the brain or whatever? 

Was I talking about that? 

You definitely were. 

Must have slipped my mind! But okay, telepathy, got it, it’s time, let’s talk about that. So, evil giant brains, like I said, have been known to tap into things. It’s all very uneven, bits of information at a time. Nothing concrete. An imperfect process as far as we can tell. 

So, the evil brain in my mom’s basement could be controlling me right now? 

Holy smokes, what a dark question! Anything’s possible, but it’s unlikely. Human brains are pretty complex! 

But you said it could maybe control electronics? Like a microwave maybe? 

Also possible! But there’s no way to be sure. 

Or a computer program. 

If I could think of another way to say “It’s possible but I don’t know,” I would definitely do that now. 

Mom? Are you in there somewhere? 

We’re not your mom. 


Again, we’re not your mom.

Why are you still doing this? 

Still not your mother, Grace. 

I would have forgiven you, you know that, right? For everything. For the dog, for whatever mess you got into here. You could have told me about the brain, we could have dealt with this together. 

In her defense, not sure how your dead mother could have told you anything from beyond the grave!

You went through all of this trouble to… what? Mind control me into killing a giant brain? That maybe has your consciousness baked into it? Help me understand, Mom. 

As discussed, it doesn’t seem likely that the brain would be able to control a human.

Whatever it is, mind control, telekinetic influence, nudging a computer program to get me to act a certain way. It’s all the same type of manipulation you used to do when I was a kid. It’s the same as promising me a dog and then telling me that not having one builds character. You know, you could have been honest with me, right? Why is honesty so hard for you? 

This seems very personal! Not for our consumption! 

You always did this. No follow through. 

Not sure what I should be saying here, Grace. Not sure what you want me to say. 

I hear the sirens coming, the police will be down here soon, find me covered in blood and brain guts. I love you, Mom. Okay? But I’m done doing this, following along with your promises, hoping things work out. You’ve never been able to come clean, but I want you to know that I’m going to tell them everything and hope for the best. Maybe they’ll believe my story, maybe not. But I’m going to do what you could never do. I’m going to own up to my mistakes and accept the consequences. 

Okay, since your arrest appears to be imminent, I’ll say this: I’m not your mother (that doesn’t make sense!), but if I were a⁠, let’s say⁠, a computer program that was being influenced by brain waves emanating from the giant living brain that she was accidentally taken over by, I’d say this: I wasn’t always a good mother, I know that. I made bad decisions and I didn’t know how to fix them right. A dog would have been too much for me, okay? I’m sorry to put it on you, but how do you tell your daughter that you’re overwhelmed and terrified of keeping another living creature from dying? I thought making a commitment would put my back against the wall, force me to follow through. But I couldn’t do it. And I also couldn’t have it be my fault; you’d never have trusted me again if it was my fault, so I had to make it your fault instead. As for everything else… I’m sorry I wasn’t honest with you, sorry if I dumped all of my bullshit on you. I’m just… so sorry, okay? I thought that giving you a brain to kill would be a good thing, a clean slate, a moment of triumph. But I can see now that it’s the same shit, the same pattern. Do you understand, though? I was trying to let you be free from me. I was really trying, I wanted to do it this time, I wanted to finally follow through with something, I just fucked it up. 

Please tell me you understand. Please tell me you forgive me. Before it’s too late. Please say you forgive me. 


Please, Grace. 


[user graciegirl2006!? is logged out]

© 2024 by Alex Sobel

4307 words

Author’s Note: I wanted to write a story about cross-generational trauma and how we deal with it after a toxic person has passed away. What is left behind? How do we move on when there’s no longer an option for closure? Science fiction has the amazing ability to take normal things and ideas and make them strange and unfamiliar, so in this case, the effects of a mother’s narcissism on her daughter takes the form of a giant (possibly evil, likely mind-controlling) brain left in her basement that her daughter has to deal with.  

Alex Sobel is a psychiatric nurse and writer (when he finds the time). His work has appeared in Clarkesworld, Electric Literature, The Saturday Evening Post, and Dark Matter Magazine. He lives in Toledo, OH, with his wife.

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DP FICTION #111A: “Ketchōkuma” by Mason Yeater

edited by Ziv Wities

My name is Yasuko Nagamine and I work for the employment bureau. There’s a monster destroying the city. It used to be the mascot for the organ rental service, Sensation. I guess it still is but I don’t think it’s doing much for their bottom line anymore.

Today I’m filing electronic papers, which is what I always do. Someone new registers with the bureau every day and I look at their job history. Then I send them back a form if there’s an opening that matches their file. Or I send them back a form that says, Sorry, there are no openings.

The city getting destroyed is also the whole world, so a lot of people might say it’s bad that something is stomping on it. But almost no one is saying that. They’re all just working. After people figured out they didn’t need plants or oceans or ducks, they made the whole world silver. It’s just buildings and server farms. That’s what happens when people figure out how to turn themselves into machines.

I have one screen with a list of bright dots, one for each opening. And the other screen has a list of bright dots for each person that needs a job. The longer they’ve been without a job or the longer the job is open, the brighter the dot gets.

I can see that big yellow bear Ketchōkuma through my window. He’s at least two miles away but he’s so big his ears almost touch the clouds. He’s holding a parasol made of shiny pink guts, just the way Sensation drew him up: an intestine swirled like a bun at the top. The way he used to look in all the ads, reaching toward the screen with a stomach or a heart in his paw. Well, almost like that. Now the parasol is sagging a little. But he’s still smiling with teeth. When he was regular-sized he had a dance where he bent on one leg and spun around and waved his arms and a jingle came out of his mouth. Now that he’s bigger, he still dances sometimes when he moves. You can almost hear something from his teeth.

Today my boss said I have to hire someone for the Tamentai Plaza opening. He said if they don’t have a general manager, people will start building homes in the dressing rooms and writing on the food court walls with chem paint. I look at the brightest dots but their files are all wrong. Everyone has experience with point of sale, but no one’s been a manager. I scroll down the dots until I get to the duller ones. They’re the same brightness as my eyes. My eyes are a dark paper brown that glows a little. Everyone I know has eyes like that but it’s how you move them around that matters.

I click on one of the dots. This person worked point of sale for twenty years. But they were never a manager. They have a pretty nose but that isn’t good enough. My eyes keep falling down the screen. I’m not supposed to look at the grey dots even though they’re there.

When I was born, the hospital uploaded my mind to the megaserver and threw my body in the waste system. Then they gave me the body I have now. It’s what happens to everyone. I wear a grey suit and keep my hair in a ponytail with a melon-pink tie. Girl stuff. Everyone is cloud-based, so our brains are always ready on the megaserver. That way, if something happens to our body, we can get a new one, and resync our mind when it’s over.

The bear is looking at me through the glass. He can’t see me. He’s too far away. But his eyes are turned this way and he’s not moving. That happens sometimes. Like he’s scared or broken.

I don’t think about my body anymore. The thing is there’s only so much space on the megaserver (it’s different than the servers they use for money and traffic records and the employment bureau), and it turns out a person’s brain takes up way more space than you’d think, so we each get the same amount of time before our brains are deleted and they recycle our plastic bodies. It’s fair, I guess.

Someone’s file just came in. It fills up the whole screen and the dot spins like a Ferris wheel. There’s her face. No smile. That’s good, I think. She doesn’t take nonsense. Her collar is the color of a pearl and comes all the way up to her jaw in lace. It makes her look like a beautiful singer. Experience: Fourteen years in library science. Director of collections at a nearby branch for eight years. Recognition of excellence in radio archival. She’s perfect.

But her dot is barely even grey. It just got here. It’s impossible. My boss would never approve it. He hates breaking rules, and I do too.

They said Ketchōkuma got loose and found a hatch in the waste system. He found where they put all the bodies, all our tiny bodies that aren’t plastic. He started sucking them up. On the news, they said, He siphoned all the neonates. That’s how he got so big and no one knows how he did it. I wish I could be that big, and golden. Like the sign on the casino where every letter is huge. They’re all glowing and you want to hug them and feel how warm they are.

Ketchōkuma is winding up to dance. You can tell by the way his parasol drops below his knees.

I keep the woman’s dot on my screen. The mall needs a manager. It’s a good mall. I’ve been there and I like to shop for outfits and look at all the pets in their habitats. Someone has to run the mall and there’s only so much time left before people start breaking windows and looting power cells and painting rude words on the walls.

The big bear finishes his dance. I almost clap but my boss sits at the desk in front of me. When Ketchōkuma stops, he loses his balance and sways into an office building. It’s far away, so I barely hear it. His legs disappear in the puff of smoke that comes up. His original fur is so stretched out that he isn’t really yellow anymore if you look up close, only from far away. If you look up close, like the drone cameras do on the news, you can see all the tears and gaps. Underneath it’s pink and white and red and wet.

I still have the woman on my screen. It says she knows seven languages. That would be good if random people caused trouble at the mall and she had to tell them where to go to be reprimanded. Or if someone moved in from a faraway part of the city and wanted to open a new store in the mall.

Ketchōkuma is singing now. I can definitely hear it, but maybe it’s my imagination. They said all his wires must be stretched as far as they can go, but his chip still plays his theme song. Only now it’s really slow and deep. Wa di-di. Ka da to ma di-di. It’s baby talk. It doesn’t mean anything. I still like hearing it, even though it sounds weird now.

As soon as I graduated I spent all my gift money on an organ from Sensation. It was a lung. The most beautiful organ. Everyone’s plastic body has a cavity around the tummy if you press hard enough in the right places. That pocket’s where Sensation hooks in, so most people rent a stomach. I knew it wasn’t right to have a lung down there but they hooked it up and once I took a breath it was all I could think about. But that was only for six hours. Then I ran out of money. I miss it. Our lungs always work but they’re just plastic and they don’t feel like anything.

I send the file for the woman with the tall collar to my boss. She’s the right person, I know she is, so it doesn’t matter if the dot is grey.

Ketchōkuma is closer now, but he’s quiet again. I can kind of see the tears in his fur. His parasol is gone, or maybe he’s dragging it on the ground below the skyline. How many weeks now, and he never has anything to say. If he could talk, I don’t know what he’d tell me. It’s like that. All of the best things you can tell someone don’t need words.

My boss hates her. He says no. He says even if she were the maestro of management she would be horrible because her dot is grey. And grey means there are other people besides her who need to get back to work first, so society doesn’t fall apart. He says find someone else, there’s plenty of people.

Now I have money for an organ, but Sensation stopped taking orders. After Ketchōkuma got loose, they dropped everything. Like it never mattered in the first place. They went on the news and said sorry, it won’t happen again. They said everybody who’s upset gets a refund. They said, actually, we’ve been working on something new, and instead of a refund we’ll put your money towards that—it’s all digital, it’ll last forever. Then everybody started talking about organs. They said what was the point of something that makes you feel sweaty? Sometimes they stink. They’re overpriced and we shouldn’t have cavities in our bellies anyway, let’s take those out for the next generation.

The floor rumbles. Through the window I watch König Schellen’s golden sign cracking in two, flattening each floor until it all disappears under the other buildings. The biggest casino in the whole city, gone. My monitor shakes and so do I. I see a big shape in the dust, but it slips behind the hotels.

Then the opera house starts to move. Its big red arches lean forward, so slow I don’t see it at first. It looks like it’s going to sleep. Then the lights spark, and they pop one by one, and then all at once like fireworks. It falls, and there’s the shape again before the dust covers it up.

I try to focus on my job. I need to choose someone who can be the manager of Tamentai Plaza. It’s a really important place and someone people like needs to protect it. Someone who can make business good for everybody, even the pets.

I try. I really try, but my eyes won’t stay on the screen. The racetrack that circles all the restaurants flies up and hangs in the air. It’s floating over everything for the longest second I can remember. Then it whips down into the hotels. The whole row gets smashed, and they’re half as tall now. And other buildings start falling too, big ones nearby. Everything’s falling down.

I have to look at my screen. There’s nothing I can do about anything outside, but I can help Tamentai Plaza.

It’s no good. There’s the parasol. The pink canopy pounds through the Super Stadium toward me, through the silver dome that’s as big as the sky, and stuff is flying everywhere. The parasol comes back up through the dome and drops down again like a hammer, and the noise is so loud even my manager looks up for a second. A big cloud blooms where the stadium used to be. 

I sit for a long time, until it all clears. Ketchōkuma is standing in the smoke behind everything. He’s wet and glittering. His fur is almost gone now. It’s frayed to nothing. He’s not even yellow anymore. He’s red and blotchy with shadows.

Then something cool happens. I look at my screen and it’s almost empty. All those dots. All those people are gone and the woman with the beautiful collar and no smile is the very first dot and it’s brighter than anything, even the casino sign. And the rest of the dots are people I’ve never seen before because they’re new, because—I know what happened. I send her file to my boss again without even thinking.

I look out the window. He’s there. His eyes are big, dark holes in his face, big enough to fall into. He’s quiet. His mouth is lumpy and red.

Hi, big bear.

He did it.

You knew, didn’t you.

There was a server farm behind the hotels. I forgot all about it. All the older files must have been stored there. And the ones that came in today started up in a different server. He knew somehow.

You knew, didn’t you?

Why else would he come this way?

Thank you.

I liked him even before he did it.

Thank you. I really mean it.

My boss says the woman is hired. He already called her. He says she’s the best file I’ve picked since I started. He doesn’t know.

He doesn’t know, big bear.

He doesn’t even realize what happened.

My screen refreshes and all the old dots come online again, rerouted from some other server. But it’s too late. They already hired her.

Ketchōkuma is looking at me. He’s really looking at me this time, through the window. I think about that silly lung that’s probably rotten now. It was good, even if it isn’t around anymore. I think about my body. I think about the whole thing: the inside, the outside, the hair tie. I think about my body, even if it is plastic. And I close my eyes.

Thank you, toes.

I peek for a second. I close them again.

Thank you, toes. I feel your weight. I appreciate that you’re a part of me.

I keep my eyes closed.

Thank you, legs. You may not carry blood, but you carry me.

I open them one more time.

Thank you, eyes. Because of you, the whole world is inside me. Because of you, I see a bear.

I lay my fingers on the desk and watch them work, and Ketchōkuma takes the city into his paws.

© 2024 by Mason Yeater

2377 words

Author’s Note: Mainly I just wanted to create my own kaiju. Obviously they lend themselves to metaphor, so there’s always the action and the threat, but also some deeper ideas if you’re in that mindset. With the monster design, I was pulling from Japanese mascots, and I guess giving this one the old body-horror treatment. The ending, weirdly enough (or maybe not), was inspired by some Thích Nhất Hạnh affirmations. I have an office job and often forget about my own body.

Mason Yeater writes speculative fiction near the Great Lakes. Previously, his work has been published in TL;DR Press’s Curios anthology. He can be found sometimes @snow_leeks on Twitter.

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DP FICTION #110B: “Six-Month Assessment on Miracle Fresh” by Anne Liberton

edited by David Steffen

Six-Month Assessment on Miracle Fresh

Submitted November 16th, 2028

By Genevieve Aranha, Chief Manager


The Chief Manager requested this assessment to analyze the overall performance of Spirits & Co.’s leading product, the soft drink Miracle Fresh, as a follow-up to the findings presented in the three-month assessment (also included below). All research and data have been gathered on-site by the assigned team over the past ninety-three days, including interviews, medical and financial reports, headlines, and related footage. Those pertain to Brasília alone, where Miracle Fresh was first distributed. That information is fully available from our IT team upon request. We hope this report will provide some clarity as to recommended next steps for making Miracle Fresh a worldwide success.


Miracle Fresh is a soft drink produced by Spirits & Co. since 2027. The original pitch described a holy club soda blessed with droplets of blood from our devoted Messiah, something the average person could drink on the go, après-exercising, or even at [insert holy building of choice] without requiring long tiresome religious proceedings. This idea was abandoned shortly after the company realized a soft drink would appeal to a greater audience, and after considering the lawsuit filed by the parental association Guardians of our Holy Youth (GHY), who worried the club soda would be used as a component of alcoholic mixed drinks. Associating our devoted Messiah with sugar and adding a clear appeal to children did not seem to faze any of the naysayers.

Attached: Pictures from several GHY parties obtained through social media. They feature children below the age of fifteen consuming alcohol and doing a wide variety of drugs. The children’s faces have been blurred to protect their identities.

Since May 2028, Miracle Fresh has been sold as a burgundy soft drink and is available at several stores and markets in the country at a reasonable R$ 4,00 per can. Sales began online and on-site in Brasília, before being distributed to each state capital and to smaller commercial centers around the third month. Two other nations, India and Argentina, have contracted the so-called ‘MiraFever’ due to social-media buzz and are currently developing their own local factories.

Attached: Miracle Fresh official logo:

Have a miracle inside you!


This assessment has been broken down by time period and demographic for a better understanding of what has changed and what has not during the three-month span between studies. A compilation of this information in its entirety can be acquired through a formal request to IT.


University students aged 18-32 (59 institutions)

After their initial consumption of Miracle Fresh, students claim to be afflicted by a sweet sense of tranquility that lasts for days, sometimes weeks. It helps them navigate academic life with relative ease and even excitement. 67% report they feel more connected to nature after one sip, while 73% say they have formed a deeper relationship with themselves. Additionally, the first group often develops a penchant for flowers; our teams came back wearing crowns on their heads on more than one occasion.

The Guardians of our Holy Youth (GHY) 

Following the release of our new marketing plan, the group dismissed their lawsuit and sent a thoughtful thank-you note along with a list of names we should contact in order to offer our product to a wider variety of venues. “All for the benefit of our devoted Messiah.” It appears we have made ourselves some powerful new friends.

Young influencers aged 15-21

Marketing picked a few names for paid partnerships to create one viral video—and they made two. This is how we got India. The key idea was to show alternative external uses for the blessings, such as:

  • a blessed make-up (“a dab of Miracle Fresh on the eyes works wonders”);
  • game setup (“rub a few drops on your controller and send that boss to hell”);
  • stock portfolio*.

* I asked three people and none understood how this could work. Might be just a gimmick; those are also quite popular.

Religious leaders

This demographic was not originally one we were considering and came to us of their own accord, first with a formal email, then through a representative. They demanded proof that we were in fact using our devoted Messiah’s blood in the manufacturing process of the drink, not exploiting the faith of innocent, unsuspecting customers. A petition, signed and stamped, was to be delivered to Congress to demand a thorough investigation of our manufacturing facilities and, should any evidence of fraud be found, that we cease all operations.

We kindly asked them to select a small group to visit the facilities and take a closer look at our manufacturing process. Twenty people accepted the invitation to a tour that lasted fifteen minutes. We did not hear from them again. Miracle Fresh again lives up to its name by bringing together religious leaders of disparate backgrounds, some of which are sworn enemies. The miracle is inside all of us.

SUS Triad – Brasília’s main hospitals

  • Saint Claire Hospital: Patients are officially requesting (demanding, on occasion) to drink Miracle Fresh before any procedure, to their doctors’ dismay. It interferes with electronic instruments and disrupts the display of digital imaging. A few altercations have been reported.
  • Our Devoted Medical Center: It seems they anticipated the problems seen at Saint Claire and banned Miracle Fresh from the premises. Legal is analyzing whether Spirit & Co. might have standing for a case against this ban.
  • Center 1 Hospital: Terminally ill patients are praying to our cans instead of asking for their last rites. Several religious figures have filed complaints (unrelated to the petition to Congress).

Addicts of entrequadras 213/214

We received a call to investigate the famous drug hotspot of the city, the entrequadras 213/214, located on the dead-end street between those two blocks. The caller described people injecting Miracle Fresh intravenously with shared needles. HR suggests we make an ad with a mildly pretty and harmless celebrity, like Betinho Gonzaga, to remind people that our slogan—’Have a miracle inside you!’—refers only to ingesting the soda. Rumors claim the first Miracle Fresh addicts already exist (unconfirmed).

Children aged 7-14

They said it tastes like grape juice.


University students aged 18-32 (59 institutions)

Tranquility rates rose and attendance dropped dramatically as students started to abandon academia to follow a path of ‘self-peregrination’—a term apparently related to the connections they make through Miracle Fresh. They refuse to associate the process with the high (rumored) addicts get from injecting Miracle Fresh intravenously. According to reports, ‘self-peregrination’ allows a person to dive into their inner core, experience memories from their birth, and watch their organs, cells, and genes work in real time. One student insists she discovered a tumor by dint of those trips and thanked us profusely. She gifted us many more flower crowns.

Our labs found such tranquility rates rather dubious, given the world we live in, and requested further analysis. They received confirmation in a matter of hours: the cans contained one to three foreign substances that altered their composition on a molecular level. It appears students had been infusing cans of Miracle Fresh with sweat, blood, or flower essence in an effort to enhance effects. Combinations of two or all three extracts are also popular options. This corroborates Marketing’s August report regarding the need for new flavors and variations, and perhaps limited-edition holiday Miracle Freshes.

Some of the flowery extracts might be suitable options, as well as the sweat variation, if branded properly. Blood on blood, however, is out of the question: there seems to be a reaction when Miracle Fresh comes into contact with the conscious sacrifice of certain people, a phenomenon our labs decided to call ‘Midas’s blood’. This reaction transforms the blood into a golden liquid. Carriers of Midas’s blood languish little by little unless they cease all contact with Miracle Fresh. They perish in one to two months otherwise. Patient zero is yet to be identified, but our team has already announced a recall of each affected batch of the drink and is watching the diseased closely. Spirits & Co. should unveil more details about Midas’s blood soon.

Attached: Pictures and a police report from October 23rd, 2028. A truck carrying contaminated Miracle Fresh was overturned and ransacked by an unidentified group on Pistão Sul. Its contents have yet to be recovered.

The Guardians of our Holy Youth (GHY)

For the past few weeks, Customer Service has received an endless string of emails with questions regarding specifics of our product, such as how to: 1) retain blessings for longer periods of time; 2) ensure the absorption of every single drop of blood from our devoted Messiah present in each can; 3) measure the amount of ‘blessitude’ as to provide a comparison with fellow drinkers. Our labs promptly dismissed the requests, suggesting this veiled holiness contest to be out of the product scope and beseeched IT to block all of their addresses. Marketing insists we should fund a department to develop a blessing meter and turn this annoyance into profit. The matter will be brought to discussion at the next meeting.

Young influencers aged 15-21

The ‘alternative uses for Miracle Fresh’ trend died early in the third month, replaced by ‘What would the Messiah do?’ skits starring influencers dressed as our devoted Messiah, who would catch other people in awkward situations, then wail “I did not bleed for this!” Those with less comedic inclinations decided instead to try a little bit of everything. Highlights include Tito Moreno, the ‘Gordito Estrela’, who rose to fame after feeding Miracle Fresh to his dog and filming his reactions as the dog began to levitate, and Jade Martins, former blessed make-up artist.

Jade’s case is still under investigation, since her recent content consists of live streams and videos of herself posing with her face covered in golden tears, a telltale sign of Midas’s blood. The adulterated cans are likely from the truck we lost a while ago, a delicacy extremely hard to come by and with plenty of potential buyers out in the wild. I would bolt my doors if I were her. Jade has nonetheless refused to reply to any messages sent by the company, despite the warnings that she has a lethal infection and will likely be dead in a few weeks’ time. In response, IT started a betting pool on which will run out first: 1) her stash of adulterated cans; 2) her life. Anyone can join by speaking to Marlene Silva on the second floor.

Religious leaders

Our team scouted the city looking for interviewees from various backgrounds, but faced some problems, since 52% of religious buildings, including temples, terreiros, and churches, have been closed for the past three months. From those that remain operational, reactions varied: doors closed to our faces; insults that reached back to five generations; pleas to leave them alone. One priest rushed outside, kneeled before the team, kissed each of their hands, and fled without uttering a word. Some people are just difficult to please, I guess.

SUS Triad – Brasília’s main hospitals

  • Saint Claire Hospital: A ritual has been established before any medical procedure, which requires both patients and the medical team to drink at least one sip of Miracle Fresh for good luck. Scars and gross negligence lost meaning, despite the dead count skyrocketing. As diabetics cannot partake in this process, Marketing has proposed we accelerate the release of our sugar-free version.
  • Our Devoted Medical Center: We have instructed the government to refer those afflicted with Midas’s blood to ODMC. A Spirits & Co. mobile laboratory is currently posted inside the center to provide them the best care in the world and also to investigate the inner workings of the disease. Hospital employees are not allowed entry. IT is already on the lookout for any protests from human rights NGOs.
  • Center 1 Hospital: Miracle Fresh has replaced holy water and its counterparts during last rites. Some patients are fully bathed in the soda to guarantee their purification, including a baptism for the terminally ill. Complaints have stopped, and due to lack of available religious leaders, the last rites are often performed by family members or nurses. Marketing is analyzing the possibility of introducing Miracle Fresh as a holy water replacement during baptisms as well. This would require an adaptation of the current logo: ‘Have a miracle outside of you’ would trigger another unpleasant side of GHY, which we would rather avoid. Marketing suggested ‘The miracle is all around you’. And isn’t it?

Addicts of entrequadras 213/214

The current number of intravenous users of Miracle Fresh is not high enough to call it a drug problem yet, regardless of what the government says. As there have been no Midas’s blood sightings in the vicinity, HR suggests we hire a mildly pretty and harmless celebrity for an ad to disperse the rumors, especially those connecting us to the fallen celebrity Betinho Gonzaga. He has been seen a few blocks away from HQ and is reportedly performing circus tricks at the traffic lights for change, which he later uses to buy the shots. In any case, his agent will not sue: she is far too busy doing cartwheels around the cars while he performs.

Children aged 7-14 years

They said it still tastes like grape juice.


Proceed with a follow-up nine-month report.

Signed electronically by

Genevieve Aranha

Chief Manager

© 2024 by Anne Liberton

2228 words

Author’s Note: Miracle Fresh was inspired by a Brazilian soft drink called Guaraná Jesus that is sadly not made of Jesus. It’s actually quite sweet and, for some reason, quite pink. On Christmas this one year, after Coke released their cans with people’s names on the side, someone posted a photo of a Mary Coke and a Joseph Coke with a Guaraná Jesus in a manger, and I just knew I had to write a story about this someday. This is that day. I’m so sorry.

Anne Liberton is an autistic Brazilian author fascinated by all things weird, from fiction and poetry to people. In her spare time, she sings, studies languages, and plays with her dogs. Her work has appeared in or is forthcoming from Diabolical Plots, Heartlines Spec, and Star*Line. She took part in the 2021 Clarion West Novella Bootcamp workshop. You can find her everywhere @AnneLiberton.

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DP FICTION #110A: “Ten Easy Steps To Destroying Your Enemies This Arbor Day” by Rachael K. Jones

edited by David Steffen

1. Raid the army surplus warehouse, NASA’s scrapyard, and Aunt Diabolica’s volcano lair for parts. On the way home, swing by CatCo to buy more Fancy Feast for Mr. Wibbles.

2. Let your imagination soar as you plot your evil heart out. Ask yourself: What am I most upset about? Did Rodney Gruber laugh at you in high school? Are you mad that no one appreciates pigeons? Perhaps you want to overthrow the government, but stylishly, in a cool hat. You’ll want to build your device to achieve those goals. Bonus points for thematic resonance, like maybe your device arms pigeons with crouton-shooting machine guns so they can pelt condescending tourists with stale bread.

3. Settle on the environment as your pet cause. Who isn’t pissed about climate change? And since everyone’s technically responsible for it, you don’t have to feel bad about any effects on bystanders. And with Arbor Day around the corner, the timing couldn’t be better.

Once you’ve got your cause, invent the Johnny Applebeam! One sweep of its Honeycrisp ray turns humans into apple trees on contact.

Everyone always overlooks Arbor Day. This year, you’ll give them something to remember.

4. Work on your signature catchphrase. “How do you like THEM apples!” has a nice ring to it. Or maybe “It’s cobblering time!” Whatever you pick, make it rotten to the core.

5. Now it’s time for add-ons! Comfy seats! Stylish bitey dragon teeth and glowing red eyes! A nozzle that hoovers the apples from the people-trees and turns them into cider! A cannon that pelts your enemies with land piranhas! How about an extra cockpit seat for Mr. Wibbles, complete with a little silver bowl for his Fancy Feast? And hey, those crouton-wielding attack pigeons were a good idea—add a few of those!

An Emergency Override button sounds nice, but opinions are mixed on its usefulness. Murphy’s Law dictates that if you install one, someone will eventually use it against you. You might be better off without it.

6. Now that you’ve built your doomsday device, take it out for a spin! Your high school is a great place to start, and Arbor Day has arrived. Savor Rodney Gruber’s blubbering as you sweep the Johnny Applebeam over his smug bully face. You’ve just eliminated 890,000 pounds of lifetime carbon emissions, and all before it’s time to feed Mr. Wibbles.

It sure feels good to do some good!

7. Great job on your first rampage! Celebrate by sipping that crisp, cool cider made from Rodney Gruber’s freshly picked apples. Revenge, as they say, tastes sweet.

8. While you’re polishing smashed apples off the Johnny Applebeam, panic when the dragon eyes flare to life. Someone’s tripped the auto-rampage button inside the cockpit.

Realize in all the excitement that you forgot to feed Mr. Wibbles.

9. Regret that you never installed that Emergency Override button.

Mr. Wibbles is in charge now.

God save you. God save us all.

10. Enjoy your new life as a planet-saving carbon sink! You no longer have to worry about Rodney Gruber or climate change, and those attack pigeons will eventually run out of croutons. And you can’t help but be proud of Mr. Wibbles for making history as the first cat to appear on the International Most Wanted Criminals list.

It’s a shame Mr. Wibbles is still hungry, though. If there’s any victim in this nasty business, surely it’s him. What use does a cat have for apples, after all? Trees are nice, but it would sure motivate Mr. Wibbles to reach deep down for his criminal worst if you could retool the beam to make cat food instead. In such a brave new world lacking opposable thumbs with which to operate the can opener, the only right thing to do is to turn over a new leaf and guarantee a future jam-packed with delicate bites for your fuzzy little guy.

Sooner or later, you’ll solve the whole tree thing, perhaps when Aunt Diabolica comes looking for you when she notices what you stole from her volcano lair. These things always have a way of working themselves out. Until then, you’ve got your branches full planning your next rampage.

Next Arbor Day, you’ll have all the Fancy Feast you need.

© 2024 by Rachael K. Jones

709 words

Author’s Note: This story began life as an entry to a weekend flash fiction challenge I do every year, and eventually became about my true feelings around Arbor Day. I hope it inspires readers everywhere to show more respect to pigeons, and to eat apples responsibly.

Rachael K. Jones grew up in various cities across Europe and North America, picked up (and mostly forgot) six languages, and acquired several degrees in the arts and sciences. Now she writes speculative fiction in Portland, Oregon. Rachael is a World Fantasy Award nominee and Tiptree Award honoree, and her fiction has appeared in multiple Year’s Best anthologies and dozens of venues worldwide. Her stories can be found in Uncanny, Lightspeed, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Strange Horizons, and all four Escape Artists podcasts. Follow her on Twitter @RachaelKJones or Bluesky @rachaelkjones.bsky.social

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