DP FICTION #101A: “Glass Moon Water” by Linda Niehoff

edited by Phoebe Wood and David Steffen

It’s a Kool-Aid summer. We’ve gone through grape and cherry and fruit punch and blueberry. Even tried dying our hair with them. And for about three days we had pink and blue and purple strands. Didn’t turn out in Finley’s. Her hair is too dark, but she tried.

The afternoons are sprinklers in the backyard and ice-pops while our sisters and mothers watch flickering soap operas in cold, tomb-like rooms, cold from the AC cranked so low. The nights are sleeping out in the backyard in a tent or a sleeping bag unrolled on porches and decks or even in the grass and looking up at the stars. Listening to the AC click on and hum its silver song through the night.

And late late late sneaking into the pool and swimming with the dead.

There is a rash of them this summer. For some reason they all want water.

At first, the mothers got on the phone during commercials of The Guiding Light and chattered about what to do.

No pool, they said in unison when we walked through our doors.

No creek. No water of any kind.

What would summer be without sunburnt skin? Half-frozen Snickers bars when the life guards blow the whistle for afternoon swim check?

You can set up sprinklers, they said. Because that wasn’t really like being in water.

We met on bikes down at the big empty lot by the post office and each of us reported the same thing.

“Sprinklers,” said Marc and spat in the dirt.

The mothers must have come up with that all together.

Hoses were hooked up in every backyard behind every wooden privacy fence and even in the two trailer parks. We went to each other’s houses and ran through their sprinklers which were much the same as ours — even if that mother had bought a ladybug one at the Dollar General. The water shoots out all the same.

Sprinklers are fun for about five minutes and less fun when they are your only choice. Play in one up at the First National Bank’s yard and that’s fun. It’s dangerous and forbidden. Plus you’re in your regular clothes. Mr. Hahn might come out personally to yell at you. But in your own backyard?

We bike in packs past the pool, slowing down, craning our heads dramatically. We rarely stop.

Once we do. We even hook our fingers into the chain link fence, looking for the dead. Hardly anyone is there.

Nothing in the shallow end.

We follow the sidewalk along to the deeper end with the diving boards. We try to peer into the depths of the water. But Erin Grimley sees us and tells her mother. By nightfall, all the mothers have names of the ones who were down there.

“But Erin Grimley gets to go!” we whine to each of our mothers in each of our kitchens while they fry hamburgers and mix Kool-Aid, toss salads and slice onions.

And are we Erin Grimley’s mother? They say in a chorus that we don’t hear all at once but piece together later in secret calls and porch visits and bike rides.

Eventually, even Erin Grimley isn’t allowed to go.

But she tells us what she saw. And we want to see, too.

We slow pedal bikes as we crane our heads. Lovelorn and despondent over the blue rippling water. Over the summer that is lost but waiting for us over the chain link fence, untouched.

The lifeguards in their matching red one-pieces and trunks twirl silver whistles unblown over the empty pool from up on their stands or while pacing the sides while the dead float underneath.

The city won’t let the pool close.

The mothers won’t let us go.

A stand-off.

We drink enough Kool-Aid for rainbow mustaches, the endless pitchers born of the mothers’ guilt even though their rule was non-negotiable and unchangeable.

We ride loops around town, out by the silver water tower and then back again, and always patrolling the pool. Meeting up at the post office. Dashing through sprinklers in each of our backyards when it gets too hot.

Then Finley gets the idea: we could all camp out, meet up.

Then Johnna says: we could go down to the pool.

Then Iris says: we could go swimming in the dark.

#

We are used to the dead.

They’ve always been with us. They leave messages on the community board down by the pool, sometimes on yellowed paper. We don’t know if the messages are for us. The edges are crumbling and torn. Mostly indecipherable things. Words written out of any kind of order.

We’ve stood in shivering huddles, chilly from evening swims before the mothers forbade it, goosebumps prickling our arms and legs, our hair slicked back or spiked in all directions. Lips blue. The lush green trees turning black with the night all around us. Katydids haunting the air.Trying to make out their words in the last low light of a summer evening. Trying to figure out why they’re suddenly floating in the pool.

“Maybe the dead just like the water,” Derrick finally said. “Maybe it’s just the same as we do.”

But it feels like there’s more to it than that.

Like they’re gathering for something.

#

Iris thinks their words are secret codes. As far as I can tell they are only lists. Maybe memories. Marc says they look like poems we’ve read at school. There’s a rhythm that seems like it’s supposed to be there but you can’t really understand it.

Sometimes when no one is looking I reach out, touching the fragile paper. My hand tracing the words.

Appleglass. Meanwhile reticent things. Happens over and once a lot.

“What does that mean?” my fingers ask, tracing the crooked lines. “What are you trying to say?”

Maybe they are simply saying, We don’t want to be gone.

#

They all wear sheets in the afterlife. Or something that looks like that. And we speculate. Is that what we have to look forward to? Sheets? Sheets and floating in the pool?

They are different in death than what they were. The place for eyes is dark, their faces are featureless, smooth flesh so you can’t tell who they were. It’s like if someone were painting a picture and used the same pattern for all of them. Only their height is different and their hair — short or long or brown or bald. Some have tried to guess at who they are. Some have looked for loved ones, but you never can be sure. They are no one and everyone all at once. Sometimes one of them becomes familiar like a casual acquaintance. Then after a while you don’t see them anymore. Maybe they’ve found the thing they were looking for. The thing they wrote on the board. Maybe they’ve moved on. But we don’t know where “on” is or what it looks like or why it’s not good enough for them to go to in the first place.

We find them everywhere. Drifting along the highway. Hovering in the frozen food section at the store. In the winter they blend in with the snow. In the summer they sometimes stand in night windows. They are at the school in the trees and behind the library and now at the pool.

When I was little I thought they’d scrape at my window. Try to get in.

But all they ever do is drift.

#

We pedal hard right in the middle of the road, in and out of puddles of street lights full of leaf shadow. We ride silent. ACs pop on all around us as we pass, singing their silver hum. Cocooning all the sleepers inside. The outside air smells like earth and sky. Our breath is Kool-Aid sweet. We are coasting down hills, some of us riding no-handed, our arms folded over our chests as we glide. We are in and out of formation. Single lines and clusters. No one watching over us. No one telling us no. The whir of pedals and speed and night air rushing past.

We are free.

We are floating in the air.

#

From the chain link fence, we see them hovering underneath. From here it looks like the greenish pool is a stormy sky and they are wispy clouds floating through it. The city has kept the underwater lights on all night. For us? For them? We already know about the lights from our twilight patrols. We’ve already seen the ghoulish water lit from below.

We stand looking, our fingers hooked in the chains like the day when Erin Grimley caught us and told her mother.

We don’t make a move to climb over, not yet.

We’re not afraid exactly.

The dead won’t hurt you.

Everyone says that.

They’ve never done anything to any one of us.

But still, the mothers don’t like us near them.

It’s not that what they have is catching. It is and it isn’t. We’re all going the way they went. But we won’t get there by being near them. Still it’s not right, the mothers say. Not yet.

#

We spread out all over the pool.

Finley by the slippery slide.

Marc wading in the shallow end.

Iris waist-high, walking across the lap lanes.

I swim to the deep end to scare myself.

Because I like the shiver of not being able to see all the way down. Of knowing there are shadows there.

Underwater, they’re all flowy, like the ragged edge of a tattered sail fluttering in slow motion in an invisible wind. The underwater glass globes of pool light mixed with the blue water make an eerie green. Graveyard light. A strange Kool-Aid flavor.

The one I find is beautiful. Or so she looks, emerging from the deep. She was huddled in the corner underneath the high dive where it’s murky and with the light this low you can’t see the bottom. She was a jagged outline that glided toward me.

I can’t say why she’s beautiful.

Maybe because she’s my age, I think, though it’s hard to tell. She seems smaller than the other ones. Both of us hover in the water, lit by a glass globe like moonlight on a green water night. Our hair undulating. Her sheet flowing. Regarding one another.

She is a mystery, hovering there. And maybe I am, too.

And maybe that’s why they like the water.

Maybe in the water, we are all floating.

Maybe in the water, we all look the same.

I run out of air and kick to the surface.

“I’m sorry,” I say after I burst back up, gulping air, water falling from my lips. “But I have to breathe.”

#

We emerge dripping wet, one by one. Leaving the dead like they are clouds floating in the glass moon water.

Silent. Because any words would break this.

We pedal slowly home to backyards and porches and grass-stained sleeping bags.

This night is the story we’ll tell over and over to ourselves and to each other. Huddled down into sleeping bags. Around a campfire when we’re old enough for stolen beers and sneaking out in cars. When we light our fathers’ Marlboros and pass them all around.

When we’re older still.

Passing each other in the grocery store, pushing silver carts, our eyes purple-stained, tired. Worn. Older.

We’ll nod at one another. Stop in front of rows of canned peaches. We’ll remember:

The way the underwater looked like a night sky with ten full moons shining in.

The way you could feel the creek water running past outside the fence, dank and murky and full of dark things.

The way we could feel the mothers wishing us still young and asleep in backyards under stars and not out looking for anything. Not out wanting.

The story will get told and retold, sitting on barstools, standing in frozen food aisles. Over the years it will get shortened down into the barest possible words. That night, the dead, how we floated.

We’ll say, Remember when there was nothing between us and them?

Then it’ll all get cut down to just: Remember? And a nod, nod, nod will be the answer.

And that one bare word will conjure the whole night.

We’ll wish it back. All together and one by one.

And maybe.

Maybe one day we’ll scrawl it on a yellowing piece of fragile paper, tack it up on the community board:

Glass moon water. Kool-Aid summer. Floating. Floating. Floating.

And someone else will trace the words and wonder what we mean.


© 2023 by Linda Niehoff

2099 words

Author’s Note: Years ago I was walking through the East Village in New York and saw a community board along a side walk. I was instantly smitten with it – how the notes left on it had yellowed and were curling at the edges. Nothing about it seemed modern or even current. I snapped a photo and took the memory home with me. For several years I wondered on and off about a strange community board in a small town and what might be on it besides the usual babysitting offers with pull tabs and the notices for lost cats. Community boards seem mysterious, almost sinister, to me. Anyone can walk out of the shadows and leave any kind of message to anyone else. Both the sender and the receiver are invisible to each other. And so, for me anyway, the next natural question is: what if you could leave a message after you’d died? What would you say? What memory would haunt you so much that you needed to write it down? To say it to someone, to anyone? Somehow that morphed into a small town where the dead live right alongside the living. And how one strange summer they come together at the pool, right next to that community board and its offbeat words.

Linda Niehoff is a writer and photographer living in a small Kansas town. She loves ghost stories, severe weather, and is an accidental collector of vintage cameras. Her short fiction has appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Daily Science Fiction, Weird Horror, and elsewhere. Find her on Twitter: @lindaniehoff


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DP FICTION #100B: “Interstate Mohinis” by M.L. Krishnan

edited by Kel Coleman

Content note (click for details) Content note: gender-based violence, sexual violence, domestic violence, death

In the way of Death runs the Vaitaraṇī river. We are flayed open to its woe. We are always aware of its currents in gurgling lungfuls of unease.

Time spun in recursive loops since I died in a scream of metal and flame and asphalt on the Parthibanur State Highway. There was no cremation. What could they consign to the flame? A scorched knob of my torso? My jawbone, still glued with tissue? A lone filling snugly hidden within a lone tooth?

Sometimes, I dreamed about flowing water. About where I would be—not here, anywhere but here—if my body had survived the accident. Mushed, but still recognizable. With its vestigial humanness that demanded respect, especially in death. My ashes would have been tossed into an ocean or a river in a coursing procession of night-blooming jasmine garlands, women who keened and thumped their chests, and drunken louts who gyrated around my urn until they foamed at the mouth. Until they collapsed in exhaustion or pleasure.

When I first began feeding, I wondered if I was a vetāla or a piśāca. But I felt no urge to sway from bael trees or dart into a hedge of thathapoo with its ray-toothed flowers. Besides, I did not have an appetite for birds or small rodents. I only hungered for certain kinds of men.

Maybe I was a mohini.

Still, I had no idea of what that involved. My life before death kaleidoscoped in and out of my field of vision, shimmery and indistinct. My knowledge of mohinis was from B-grade movies that appeared in torn lesions of memory—of sullen heroines with thick, kohl-rimmed eyes and billowing hair who always wore chiffon saris, leaving little to the imagination. Their dark areolas were signal-flares, beckoning the film hero through transparent fabric. And they always ambushed him along a quiet road, devouring the hero in more ways than one.

I did not know how to seduce the men I wanted to eat, but they came willingly enough as soon as they recognized a somewhat feminine shape under my soiled clothes. The lorry drivers who were lean and sharp as machetes, with their drug-glazed eyes and arrack breaths. The college students tweaking on tabs of acid who slid off their motorcycles and into my arms. The married men in respectable cars who were the easiest, who didn’t even pretend to notice the windshield wiper piercing the larvae-rimmed void in my neck. I gorged on them all, sucked the marrow out of each knuckle and each toenail until they were reduced to papery, crumbling husks.

For a brief moment, my hunger would lessen. My skin felt supple, but I distrusted this newness, this heft, because I was nothing. A nothing death for a nothing life that I couldn’t even fathom. So, I walked and fed along the highway, along this momentary emptiness. This was all I knew.

***

The Vaitaraṇī yawns into a chasm of blistering liquid. We have valleys to ascend. A darkness like pitch, cupping our throats. We drink.

Three relevant details marked the day I first saw her.

1.

I was irritated. I had just eaten a middle-aged auditor in a safari suit; a tuft of a man with an unnaturally distended face. His skin held the waxy quality of an ash gourd. He had grabbed my windshield wiper the moment I approached him, trying to nail me in place as he frantically undid my salwar with his free hand. I snapped his neck clean in half and fed on his corpse in haste; before he inflated into a fleshy, putrescine balloon that squirted post-mortem gases and fluids everywhere. He tasted rubbery and sulfuric.

2.

Post-feeding, I began to walk. I took my time on the Parthibanur highway corridor that yoked the big city with an industrial waste landfill, a polytechnic college that was also a homeopathic dispensary after sunset, and a shantytown that buzzed with a thriving opioid trade. Flyovers latticed the sky as far as I could see. This was a slim keyhole of space carved by rushing streams of traffic. And yet, shops and tiffin centers mushroomed out of necessity along the sides of the road.

On this day, I avoided the streetlights, only weaving through deepening puddles of dusk. I stopped behind the biryani center, hoping to smell the food—crescent moons of slippery onions, sizzling fat, goat carcasses hung from hooks arrayed across the tin roof. My efforts never amounted to anything. I could only smell my human prey right before I fed—their fear and lust coating my tongue in a gummy residue.

I crossed a construction site wadded between a fancy store and the biryani center, where laborers were splayed atop one another in a ganja-induced fog. At least someone’s having fun, I thought.

Finally, I arrived at the Sri Annai Fancy Store that sold everything from hair clips to bluish-hued stage jewelry that glimmered in various states of oxidation, to jumper cables for car batteries and even tickets to the latest political rallies that zigzagged through this area. I moved behind the store where I melted into the gloom of the urine-soaked wall. Its surface was papered in flaking Kanneer Anjali posters; giant cartoon tears embellishing a printed photo of the newly-dead, so every passerby could mourn the end of a stranger’s life. I watched people mill in and out of the shop for a long time.

As the night wore on, I became restless.

3.

A sudden quietude. My irises cleaved with visions of a bloated river in spate. And just as quickly, a wall of heat sliced through the mist, chasing the images away, snapping me back into the here and now.

And then I saw her, the Beautiful One.

A Benz pulled in front of the shop. She stepped out of the car in a sari that was bioluminescent, flashing green as she moved. A tight braid sheathed in nerium buds swung down to her buttocks. Welts mapped the sides of her hips and circled around to her back. Her left eye was a faceted ruby under the streetlight, burst capillaries tinting it red.

As I watched her, my loneliness opened under my feet in a sinkhole, taking me unawares. At first, I thought it might have just been my hunger. But it turned out to be something else entirely.

***

The riverbank softens into caustic sludge. A forest winks on the far shore. The iron-leaved trees ring ceaselessly.

From that moment onwards, I staked my days around the locus of her. My life had now bisected itself into two clean halves. The first, an endless conveyor-belt of time and repetition and grasping men. And now, every moment attuned to the Beautiful One’s presence. I could not allow myself to believe that I would never see her again. Every day, I tried to observe smudges of traffic for a gunmetal-hued Benz.

Luckily, I did not have to work too hard. She had a routine, as I soon learned.

The Beautiful One visited the fancy store twice a week. Her shopping done, she would glide into the cool tomb of the Benz and leave. But sometimes, she would walk down to the biryani center and order a packet of mutton trotters and rice.

I ached for those moments when the night blinked to a standstill; the Beautiful One sheathed in green silks, waiting for her food, almost immobile. I would dissolve into the long shadow of a concrete pillar at the construction site. I could have spent several lifetimes in that ribbon of time, of vehicles and mutton parts and the form of her illumed by headlights, every time a car passed us by.

And in those instances, I would always hear rippling water, a low hum that filmed over me.

Some weeks, the Beautiful One arrived at the biriyani center with a man. I soon realized that this was the man that owned the gunmetal Benz. Piecing together an overheard mosaic of conversations, I learned that he was an up-and-coming Big Man, a land mafia goon who also nurtured a fierce political will. With the Beautiful One by his side, he would hold kangaroo courts for his oily sycophants after he had sated himself on flattery and food. He had a wife and eight grown children.

Big Men always had perfect families, and the Beautiful One was not his wife.

Every time the Big Man visited the biryani center with his entourage, he would be seated on a clean bench as befitting his status. His hangers-on arrayed themselves around his feet. He would then present a knotted length of fresh oleander to the Beautiful One, his face slicked with anticipation. She would untie it gently. The Big Man would jerk her closer as she squirmed in his thick arm, as he bound and fastened the oleander around her hair. This was a regular show, a marquee-lit warning to his followers that were mostly made up of young men with hungry eyes and hungrier ambitions. A show to remind them that she was utterly off-limits, belonging only to him. She never spoke a word through it all.

The first time the Beautiful One saw me through the grease-grimed windowpane of the biryani center, she did not scream or flinch. She continued eating; a placid metronome of movement from hand to mouth. I had become careless, wanting a closer look. But I couldn’t help myself.

Her pale green sari faded white against the fluorescent lamp on the wall. Her neck shone purple with bruises. The Big Man was making a joke about her engorged lips, about his biting habit, about how he wanted to swallow her whole.

I do what I have to, he said. If I want a midnight snack, I must eat.

His sycophants laughed and hooted as if on cue. The Beautiful One continued to eat in silence. She never looked away from me.

As the night wore on, one of the hangers-on had whipped out a phone. Something about a cricket match. Vast, liquid streams of money being moved around in gambling bets overtook the conversation. While the Big Man hissed threats and growled sequences of numbers into several cellphones, the Beautiful One escaped onto the back porch to wash her hands.

This was my chance. I swiftly emerged near the water drum.

I’m sorry, I whispered. Please, please don’t be afraid. I’m sorr—

There you are, she said, without surprise. Valikkarutha? Does it hurt?

She gestured at my throat, the bent rod. I suddenly felt self-conscious.

No. Not really.

She smiled then. Do you have a name?

I don’t remember.

Ah, I also had one name. But he—and she pointed to the Big Man inside—gave me another.

Naa usuruoda illai. I blurted. I’m not alive.

She looked at me for what felt like a long, unbearable flue of time. A glassy-skinned lizard darted across the floor.

I know, she finally said, and walked back into the biryani center.

***

The moon is a thin, curved line over the way of Death. A smile ripped from an unwilling mouth.

The Beautiful One and I started talking to each other. Our exchanges were quiet and unobtrusive while she waited alone in the semi-opaque dimness for her mutton trotters. No one seemed to notice.

Once, she even offered to buy me food.

No no, I don’t—I can’t eat this.

She was thoughtful. If you’re dead, then you can eat rice?

I’m not sure.

At my grandma’s funeral, I made ellu saadam urundai, rolled balls of black-sesame rice.

She spoke of her grandmother often. Of how the old woman stubbornly refused to wear a blouse, choosing to only drape her sari on bare skin. Of her saucer-wide earlobes that were adorned with thandatti; earrings floating over her clavicles in tetrahedrons of gold. Of how she meticulously prepared paaya—a goat leg broth simmered for hours in coconut milk.

I used to hate it, The Beautiful One laughed.

I tried to hide my smile. But, this is what you always order.

She told me that she had despised its viscid collagen taste, its phlegm-green hue. However, once her paati died, she began to crave its smooth pepperiness. Now she ate it whenever she could.

It’s okay ma, she said. This is all I want to eat.

In that moment, I understood the shape and contour of her particular craving for this dish. I wanted to tell her that my appetite was singular as well, that I could only consume one thing. That, like her, I was also bound to a hunger not of my choosing.

It makes sense, I said.

Another night. The Beautiful One pushed a steel tiffin box into my hands.

Just try it.

Later, I opened it when I was alone. Greasy, undulating mounds of black-sesame rice spilled out of the container. I attempted to eat one, but it gummed over the section of the windshield wiper that cored my flesh. I coughed out what was left of the rice, and as if on cue, flesh flies immediately glazed it in mucus. 

I closed the box tightly. I wanted to preserve its contents for as long as I could. I wanted to ask her if I could keep it, because it was hers, because it tethered me to her in a connective skein, a talisman for when she was gone.

Maybe next time, I promised myself.

***

A well of laments, a hillock, and a cascade of spear points. How do we rent ourselves asunder?

The Big Man was angry. He twisted through the biryani center in gales of unshed rage. Back and forth, back and forth he loped, toppling chairs when his fury dribbled out of his mouth in expletives. No one dared to approach him. He crushed three cellphones in his fists.

Fear sent his entourage skittering for cover.

Investment failure.

Land deal pochchu. He is finished.

CBI raid.

I caught some murmurs from the sycophants. It appeared as though the Big Man had lost a lot of money. I did not care about the erratic ticker tape of his businesses or his ambitions. I only sought the Beautiful One. I found her on the back porch of the biryani center, leaning, as always, against the water drum. A motionless pillar wearing silence.

Inside, the beatings began.

The Big Man’s anger had detonated at last. A sycophant lost an eyeball. Another one got his nose broken. A veshti-clad octogenarian tottered up to the Big Man and softly touched his arm. This was an expensive mistake. The Big Man broke a bench over the man’s head. The octogenarian crumpled into a mess of flesh and exposed bone with an odd, burbling sound.

This was when the Beautiful One decided to intervene, decided to unsnarl the tangle of the Big Man’s brutality somehow, decided to drape herself over the octogenarian in response.

Before I could stop her, before I could shield her from the unerring finality of the Big Man’s fist, before, before, before, before everything, this night, the biryani center, the gunmetal Benz, the known arc of his violence, his hand sliced across her face. Once, twice, thrice.

The Beautiful One’s body bent at an impossible angle and folded in on itself. Her teeth rattled out of her mouth in a gasping breath. I rushed over to her and pinched my way up her arms, her neck. I begged for a thrum, a pulse, its percussive hope. There was nothing.

In that instant, madness undid me from the vacuum of survival.

I scratched away my clothes and wailed until the tin roof peeled from the scaffolding. I leaped onto the Big Man’s shoulders and held him still between my thighs. He continued to thrash with his bulk. I blurred into a wreath of hair as my jaw unhinged into his, as I impaled him in place with the windshield wiper, its usefulness finally telegraphing into view. A soupy, maggot-infested gush slopped around our feet.

I was ravenous.

But in this instance, there was no polypeptide rush that seared my bowels with hunger, no apathy at the conveyor-belt looping of men that I usually fed on. Instead, my skin thrummed with newness—a fury, lined with teeth. 

I took my time in consuming the Big Man, his innards roping over my knees in glossy coils as I slurped through every tendon and nail and gristle. I saved his hands for last.

***

We bring no payment, no supplication, no penance. The opposite of the Vaitaraṇī river cannot be seen. Twelve suns glare overhead.

At first, I was nothing. Then I felt the throb of something in me, someone even, in the presence of the Beautiful One. And with her gone, I had heaved over the cliff-face of nothings and somethings and someones altogether.

I crawled to her corpse and pulled it close, her skin to my skin. The Big Man’s blood hammered inside the double-jointed cavern of my gaunt frame.

I lay there for a long time, letting the Beautiful One’s body stiffen in my arms. Her anguish blushed into focus because I perceived her. Like tuning into the radio at the right frequency, the wavelets of our isolation looping into a mutual current of existence. A woman could succumb to a five-lane mash of traffic, and people would continue to drift along their lives, her death a transient blip. Another woman sat, her skin strobing with wounds, and everyone pretended not to see. But I did. And the Beautiful One had perceived me too. In that, we were one.

At last the river arrived, as I knew it would. 

It coursed through my body in long, deafening sheets of sound. And then the heat, rupturing the eventide and the stars and the deepest dark as it split the night wide-open across the waters.

We waded into the boiling flood, the Beautiful One and I. I held her corpse taut against mine. The river scoured away the last bits of us in burning rinds of flesh and hair. Marrow-laced foam filled my throat. It tasted of smelted copper ore, the embers of a long-ago life. It tasted of relief. Maybe even joy, though I could not remember what that was anymore.


© 2023 by M.L. Krishnan

3030 words

Author’s Note: I wanted to write about a kind of visceral loneliness that underpins queer identities, especially in spaces where concealing yourself is both necessary and integral to survival. I wanted to write about left-behind women, about being unseen—the invisibility that cloaks over a person even with their flesh-and-blood presence in the room. Growing up in Tamil Nadu, I have always been fascinated by the Mohini mythos whose lore continues to weave through the axes of the divine, the profane, and almost every cultural mundanity in-between. My memory is very visual, so I knew that I had a story in my hands when I kept seeing a persistent image of a woman in my head, trawling a highway in order to sate her hunger. And so I found a way to weave all these threads together when I sat down to write her into existence.

M. L. Krishnan originally hails from the coastal shores of Tamil Nadu, India. She is a 2019 graduate of the Clarion West Writers Workshop, a 2022 recipient of the Millay Arts Fellowship, and a 2022-2023 MacDowell Fellow. Her work has appeared, or is forthcoming in The Offing, PodCastle, Baffling MagazineThe Best Microfiction 2022 Anthology and elsewhere. You can find her at: mlkrishnan.com.


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DP FICTION #100A: “They Were Wonderful, Once” by Lily Watson

edited by Maria Joannou and David Steffen

Content note (click for details) Content note: body horror

Even by the third hot, sticky day into our road trip, the humans in the back of the transportation trucks remain fascinating. Theoretically, we know where our blood comes from. But this is different, seeing the little bits of them, poking through the slots on the sides of their container, pressed against the grates for lack of room.

“They didn’t used to be like that, you know,” our grandma shouts at us over the wind of the open windows for the third time in ten minutes, as another truck passes by. “They used to rule the world, back in the day. They were wonderful, I think.”

In the middle of the country, it seems that there’s nothing but trucks. There’s not even humans in the vast fields they pass, just dead grass and the occasional wild pig. They’re kept inside, but none of us can guess where.

Grandma is losing it, Mandy speaks into our minds from the front seat. Max is behind grandma, knees pressed to the fabric of the seat in front of them, to accommodate grandma’s long legs. None of us got this trait from her. The car is tiny, solar-powered, rented from a shop in Colorado Springs, where we started our journey.

Our grandma is getting more restless by the second, making us three restless along with her. There was no stopping our grandma from going on this trip, despite all of us knowing it would be bad for her. We’ve seen the pictures in school, the ones that she’s apparently avoided, of the Statue of Liberty, the surrounding water at her navel. And yet, grandma had the mindset of someone that would go back to the exact same city, livable, superb, bustling with humans, filled to the brim with life of all kinds.

And then we arrived. Suitcases in hand, grandma wearing a sunhat bought from a yard sale from Ohio on her hand. We found the city destroyed, in tatters from a hurricane, most of it underwater, the only tourist attraction a boat tour of the city that ran through the streets. We could look down from our spot on the dock where we drove up to the cars at the bottom, stalled on the road a hundred feet below, rusted and warped by the brown water.

Our grandma’s expression was so desolate it scared us, and we all piled back into a car, without a word said.

We don’t understand our grandma, exactly, as much as we would like. We’ve spent lots of our lives fantasizing about what it must be like to be an old vampire, as few and far between as they are. The kind that stopped popping up around a hundred years ago to make way for the new kinds of vampires, the ones that we are.  Grandma’s type can go into the sun without an enormous amount of fanfare, where we cast light like prisms. Where grandma can speak clearly aloud, we talk into minds, finding it difficult to make our mouths form words. Grandma has always walked and danced with grace, where every time we try to dance, our limbs hurt from twisting and we feel so self-conscious we could die, even if it’s just around each other.

Grandma is fascinating and worldly, and everything she says could be either very true or completely made up. We’ll never know, and that’s the best part of her stories. She can’t hear us speaking into each other’s minds and, though we can talk, it takes an incredible amount of energy, and makes us almost as self-conscious as dancing. We can’t hope to make those captivating facial expressions that grandma can make, eyes widening when she’s shocked, or wants us to be, nose scrunching when she’s disgusted, taking big deep breaths to throw her head back and laugh.

Our grandma requires every single window in the car rolled down so she can “get some fresh air, finally,” but we’re pretty certain she’s claustrophobic in the car with us. We’re the best company she has, and always say yes to spending time with her, but we’re silent and still and casting rainbows all around the tiny car, our dark skin refracting the sunlight. We never think much of it but our grandma, whose skin is lighter than ours and altogether different in texture and strength, is shocked every time she sees it. In the sun, her skin only glows a little bit, as if a candle is lighting her from the inside.

We never think about how we look more than when we’re with our grandma. She’s lighter than us, her skin a warm brown rather than an inky near-black. And our skin has little texture, smooth as glass, where grandma has a scar on her left temple, freckles on her nose. But what really sets us apart, if grandma’s reaction is an indication, is the intensity of the way our skin reflects the light. In the sun, her skin only glows slightly, as if a candle is lighting her from the inside.

To talk to us, our grandma shouts over the noise of the wind rushing in via the open windows, pushing her dark sunglasses back up her nose, as close to her face as possible, so that the light we cast won’t impair her ability to see the road.

We pass another truck, and the four of us ease our bodies to the right, trying to peek in to see the humans being transported. All we can see are dimpled thighs, matted golden or red or brown hair, the occasional freckled elbow. Our grandma, who slows the car down to specifically let us see into the back of the truck, speeds up once more, and we relax back into our seats.

“Why were they wonderful?” Mandy asks quietly. Our grandma jumps in her seat at the sound of another being speaking, whipping her head around. She smiles brightly then, and we’re reminded that everyone she would’ve been able to talk to, the vampires she went to Broadway shows with, had since died, too bored or anxious or depressed to continue.

Our grandma rolls all the windows up so she doesn’t have to shout. We all lean forward in eager anticipation, happy to see our grandma in such high spirits for the first time since we left New York.

“They moved, girls. They all had knives to their throats, they had expiration dates, so they moved. They innovated and they dreamed and they…made things.”

“They dreamed?” Max asks, slowly enunciating every letter. “You dream.”

We nod, remembering all the times grandma tells us about her dreams. Only old vampires like our grandma could dream or sleep at all. Only old vampires could put their minds at rest for hours on end, could do somewhere else while they were laying down. Oftentimes we watch over grandma when she sleeps, peeking in every once in a while to put our finger under her nose, leaving only when her soft breaths cooled the skin there, to make sure she was still alive.

She wants to continue speaking as another truck comes into view and, again, she slows down as we pass, lingering so we can all have a look. We see long, elegant fingers with dirt caked underneath the cracked nails, hairy shins, the sides of breasts. The car is silent while we look through the fist-sized holes on the transportation container, until grandma speeds up again. The truck gets ever smaller in the rearview mirror until we can’t see it at all. Grandma pushes the car to just over one-twenty.

“The dreaming I do is minute in comparison, barely even worth mentioning. I dream moments, they dreamed worlds.” She pauses, taking a sip from the bottle  of blood in the cupholder, shuddering at its “god-awful flavor” that she claims is much worse than the blood of the old humans that she would get “straight from the tap.” Farming them, she tells us constantly, makes them taste like chemicals, like bleach. The rainbows we emit blink out as we pass under a cloud, blocking the sun completely for a few moments before it reappears.

We mentally nudge each other, trying to figure out what to say to her, knowing that her mood has fallen again. Grandma accelerates, faster than we thought the car could go, and we come across another transportation truck. We see bellies, the dips of lower backsides and…an eye. A green one, looking directly at the three of us. It’s squinting at the sun on our skin, but not looking away. Its plump fingers rise to grip the edges of one of the holes.

“And they were all so loud! The world was loud back then, the streets filled with music and conversation. I was never bored, not one time. Now it’s like…to be alive is to be bored. You’re bored or you’re dead.”

I roll my window down, and lean my torso outside of the car, and grandma drifts towards the truck seamlessly, knowing exactly what I want without having to say so. I extend my hand, rainbows arching through the air as I move, and everyone in the car watches as the soft hand of the human, so dull and pink, stretches towards mine. Grandma gets a hair closer, and then closer, until finally my fingertip gently presses against the human’s.

The violent honk startles us, and I quickly retract, pulling my body back into the car as the truck veers off the road, flinging up dust before careening onto its side. Grandma slams her foot on the brake as the truck lands, our tires screeching on the pavement. We’re out before it stops all the way, running over to the truck. Before we can get there, we see the back door pop open, and we freeze.

After a few moments, a head of long, red hair peeks up over the side of the truck The human’s face dripped with blood its lungs inflating and deflating so rapidly that we can see them move under its flesh. One by one, other humans peek out, disoriented and wobbly on their legs as they walk on hot pavement for the first time. We watch, transfixed, as the humans begin, one-by-one, to run hard in the opposite direction, not looking back, sprinting into the cyan blue of the methane in the sky.


© 2023 by Lily Watson

1730 words

Author’s Note: This story started as an assignment for a class I took senior year of college — Eating Animals — when I was deep into my vampire phase (still am). It was inspired by my road trip from Washington to Connecticut, and how many trucks I saw transporting cows to slaughterhouses, particularly as I’ve been vegan for my whole adult life. 

Lily Watson is a writer based in Seattle. Her work has been published in the Baffler, the Longleaf Review, and Fiyah Litmag. She graduated with a degree in Sociology in 2019 from Wesleyan University in Connecticut. She is beautiful and kind. Everyone loves her. 


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DP FICTION #99A: “Six Reasons Why Bots Make the Worst Asteroid Miners” by Matt Bliss

edited by David Steffen

1. They think they know everything. Like your twenty years of mining experience is useless compared to a high-acting neural processing drive. Like you’re nothing but a softer, weaker liability, and the only thing you’re good for is greasing their joints and blowing out their compressors. Just one bot and one human to babysit them.

2. They have no personality. Stuck on an asteroid is bad enough without having a pencil sharpener as your only company. Every joke goes over their finely-polished head. Every vent of frustration is met with a vent of auxiliary heat instead. They tell you their name and pronouns, but it doesn’t help. They don’t know calloused hands. They don’t have a family back planetside who depends on that paycheck, hoping every day that you make it back in one piece because they are the only reason you left in the first place.

3. They don’t understand privacy. They’re always there, always watching, even when you don’t want them to be. When you eat and their lens follows each bite. When you sleep and hear their parts whirring in the bunk beside you. They never leave you alone. Even when news of your father’s death comes, and you miss him like hell and just want to scream in the blackness of space because the next resupply ship is forty-two light-years away and won’t get back in time to make the service. Even when you’re at your loneliest, they never leave your side.

4. They squeeze too tight. When you finally give in and cry on their shoulder, they hold you and somehow squeeze every buried memory to the surface. Even as tears leave rust splotches along their dented casing. You start to think that maybe this box of nuts and bolts knows you more than anyone. Maybe they’ve been piston to shoulder with you all along, and are as hardworking and caring as any other miner you’ve known. Maybe you’ll get through this… together.

5. They leave too soon. When you finally get home, you think of them each night you stare into the sky. Because you know everything about that arrogant prick by then. The way they laughed at your bad welds. The way their lens retracted when they were glum. So when the drill bit was stuck, you knew they’d give you that funny little chortle as they worked the stubborn thing free. But neither of you expected it to roar to life, catching their shell in its carbide-teeth. How you tried to stop it, but seconds too late. How you could only watch as your co-worker, friend, best friend perhaps, was mangled beyond repair, and all that’s left is an oil stain on the asteroid’s mine face. Leaving you alone, with no one to hold you too tight, or buzz in the bunk beside you at night, or even laugh at your bad welds. Alone… until it’s time to go home.

6. Because bot or not, they become family, and losing them hurts. And it should’ve been you left out there. It should’ve been you.


© 2023 by Matt Bliss

512 words

Author’s Note: I have worked in mining and construction for nearly twenty years, and have unfortunately seen firsthand the impact of death and injury among my colleagues and coworkers. With this story, I wanted to capture some of the complex emotions that arise from such a loss, and reflect upon the true toll of working in a blue-collar industry.

Matt Bliss is a miner and construction worker (on Earth) turned speculative fiction writer. His short fiction has appeared in MetaStellar, Cosmic Horror Monthly, and a number of other magazines and anthologies. When he’s not daydreaming about robots or rocket ships, you can find him on Twitter at @MattJBliss.


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DP FICTION #98B: “Bottled Words” by Carol Scheina

edited by David Steffen

When Dad sent me into the kitchen for a container—any lidded vessel at all—to bottle Grandma’s voice, all I could find were lonely lids.

That wasn’t unexpected. When Dad cooked, he turned the bottom of pans into crusts of blackened rice, resistant to any amount of scrubbing, eventually slipping them into the darkness of a closed trash bag. He somehow managed to explode our ovenproof casserole dishes when baking. Thus our pots and dishes had vanished, though he’d kept the lids, vowing to find a match at the thrift store. He never did.

I spread lids over the white kitchen tile like a buffet of metal and ceramic, these orphans of failed dinners. Wondering what would work best to capture a sound.

Not knowing what would work best for, in truth, I’d never actually heard a bottled voice. I didn’t want to risk it. Not with hearing aids.

Unbottle a voice and it would vibrate through air, giving you one—just one—chance for your brain to turn those waves into recognizable words. But for me, it’s not like I could stop a bottled voice and ask, “Can you say that again?” There was no listening over and over, trying to see if I could recognize a new word here or there. There was no telling a disembodied voice that yes, I could hear it with hearing aids, but no, the sound wasn’t clear enough, or my brain wasn’t able to piece the sounds into words, or that I’d much prefer to read its voice on paper.

Dad wanted to bottle Grandma’s voice while she stayed with us, these three summery-melty days before her room at the memory care facility opened. Three days of feeling sunshine through windows and trying to catch a glimpse of warmth in Grandma’s eyes. It had been so long since I’d seen that warmth.

Three days to bottle words I’d never risk listening to.

I couldn’t tell Dad that, though. People can keep words bottled up too.

When I finally dashed upstairs, I carried a cereal bowl with a yellowish Corningware casserole glass top sliding around like an oversized hat. But I was too late. Grandma’s words had vanished into silence.

Silence never really bothered me much, since all it took was a little click-off of my aids and I’d be in silence again.

Except with Grandma, the silence from her was also in the way she sat, the way she looked and didn’t see you.

Dad’s sigh was too soft for my hearing aids, but I could see it, the way his shoulders sagged like one of those droopy thrift store sweaters you see slipping off the hanger. “I wasn’t expecting Grandma to be lucid, but she came back to me for a bit.” He looked at the cereal bowl and casserole lid. “I’ll see if I can find some secondhand pots at the thrift store tonight. We’ll be ready next time.”

I watched Dad’s mouth as I listened. I’d been watching that mouth since birth, connecting the sounds I picked up along with mouth movements in some strange dance that formed words in my mind. Even if I didn’t always get every sound, I could always nod like I understood everything.

I nodded.

Grandma shifted in her chair, the one that had given Dad that wide, excited grin when he’d brought it home from a yard sale. It was exactly like the chair Grandma used to have in her house, but this one was too stiff. Grandma’s chair had rings from the stains that had been washed out, a few threads pulled here and there, but it had always smelled like clean lemons and molded around your butt like a soft hug.

Grandma used to be hugs and smiles, and now we were all shifting around uncomfortably like we were in stiff chairs of our own.

Grandma didn’t look up when I popped a kiss on her cheek and stepped out of the room.

Dad tapped my shoulder to draw my eyes. “We’ve got time. I want to make sure her voice is there with all our family voices. We’ve got a lot of bottles. A lot of family history waiting for you.”

I nodded.

“Your mom’s waiting too.”

I don’t exactly hear when a voice cracks, but I can see it. The cracks were there in Dad’s eyes, blinking a faster-than-usual rhythm. They were there in his clenched jaw. The little ways a body can crack and show the sorrow under the surface.

I couldn’t do a simple nod-response to those cracks, so I muttered, “Soon.” I’d been muttering that since I hit twelve and Dad thought I was finally old enough to be able to remember the voices. To remember Mom’s voice.

More cracks in Dad’s face.

I slipped into my room with an echo of “soon” around me. I didn’t want to hear that. That was a lie. I turned the aids off, the abrupt silence ringing in my ears until that faded.

I sat on my bed and felt like a lid in our kitchen. Unable to hold any sound.

***

I lived in a house with a never-ending game of Telephone keeping the family stories alive.

Nearly every free wall had vintage bookshelves that Dad purchased from online yard sales, estate sales, antique shops. They all veered toward shades of dark brown, shiny with oils and age, with scents of dust and cigar smoke and bitter wood settled in like a house guest you’d never be able to evict.

Those bookshelves held our ancestor’s bottled voices. The oldest containers were rusty tin cans, the lids held on with yellowed string that Dad had reinforced with duct tape. A family member whose name has long blurred to forgetfulness in my mind (Dad remembered them all) had been organized and put voices in clear mason jars topped with round lids and a square of plaid fabric. I liked to trace the swirly glass patterns with my eyes and imagine what a voice looked like.

Oh, people wrote stories down, of course, but as Dad always reminded me, with that eye-sparkle he got, “It’s powerful when you hear a bottled voice. You get the feel of their breath in your ear. The smell of oranges or spaghetti sauce or whatever they’d last eaten. Bottling a voice is more than just words on paper, or a video or tape recording. You can hear more, feel more. You get to sit down with someone in the past.”

Seems like a lot of stuff wasn’t the same unless it came straight from the voice, but I wouldn’t know about that.

The family rule was when you heard a voice, you remembered the story and told it again in a new container. One day, I was supposed to bottle my own voice—probably into a pot with a mismatched lid.

Our family stories would literally speak-and breathe—for generations to come.

Except Grandma had stories she still hadn’t bottled. Dad had found Grandma’s records and knew there were stories that were missing. Stories he wanted to save, stories for me.

***

On Grandma’s second day at our house, the sky grumped gray clouds at us, matching Dad’s mood. Grandma stayed silent.

Come evening, the three of us sat at the dinner table—one of those vintage white Formica tables with aluminum legs. All our chairs were different shades and shapes of wood, as Dad hadn’t found matching chairs just yet at his weekly thrift store visits.

While Grandma ate, she kept her eyes aimed at her plate, fork moving up and down with the regularity of a machine.

Dad pulled up old videos to watch on the computer. He watched videos most every night—old family tapes converted to digital, YouTube videos on ancient wars, past methods of food preparation—you name it.

A lot of stuff wasn’t professionally captioned, and the auto-captioning was just cringe-worthy. I used to get angry over the lack of words on the screen, but … no, to be honest, I still get angry. A whole online world that shut me out simply because I couldn’t hear well enough. But I didn’t like feeling angry all the time, or making Dad feel guilty about enjoying his videos. It wasn’t his fault the captions sucked. So as Dad watched his videos, I turned my hearing aids off and opened a book.

Slipping into a book was like slipping into Grandma’s old, familiar chair. It hugged my brain.

Until Dad tapped the table to get my attention.

I looked up. His mouth moved. I nodded, but he knew I wasn’t listening, his fingers pointing at my ears. Sometimes, I couldn’t bluff at hearing. I turned both aids on.

Dad waited for my thumbs up confirmation. Sound had been activated.

“I burned another pot.”

“Oh, Dad.”

He grinned. “Saved the lid! I’ll try to find a new pot next time I go shopping. But hey, scoot your chair closer to Grandma. I’ve got a video I want us to watch together.”

“Is it captioned?” I stepped into that question carefully.

“I’ve got this new captioning plug-in that should work. Besides, it’s good practice for you to hear her voice. You’ve been doing great with the hearing aids.” Dad fiddled with the computer. “I remember when you were born, doctors thought you wouldn’t be able to hear at all, and now look at you.” Pride in his voice.

What could I say to that? I nodded.

The video on the computer screen showed Grandma with fewer lines in her face, more blinks in her eyes. There were no stumbles in her voice. I could hear the rhythm, the surety as she spoke. Yet Grandma’s voice was a pattern of rising and lowering pitches that my brain couldn’t fit into words. Puzzle pieces that couldn’t be pounded into place.

I shifted over to the captioning to help: “Prince esterable knowing five anna into the sea.”

How I despised auto-captioning.

Dad rarely noticed the words onscreen. I don’t think he’d notice if a tornado screamed next to our kitchen, to be honest, so lost he became when it came to history. I didn’t want to break the mood and bug him once more about the indecipherable words on the screen.

Instead, I watched Grandma’s face as she watched her younger self on the screen—the way she leaned forward on that stiff chair, lips moving as though reciting the story along with herself. She’d grown softer in just a few moments of video.

Dad had an aluminum pot ready when the video ended.

“Do you remember that story? Can you tell it to me?”

But Grandma had gone stiff again.

Dad slumped back into his chair. “I want to at least get one of Grandma’s voice to put up there. So many voices up there for you to hear. See that ugly tin up there? That one’s from the 1890s. Not sure why no one’s opened that yet. I’ve always wanted to be the first, but figured I’d wait for my kid so there’d be another generation to hear it.”

I gave a quick smile and nod.

Dad didn’t let up, though. “At some point, I bet you’ll be ready to hear your mom.”

“At some point. Soon.” I pushed my chair back from the table.

Dad looked at the shelves. I didn’t want to look at him.

Grandma looked at her food. Her eyes didn’t move as I kissed her cheek.

In my room, my eyes slipped back into my book. People talked on pages, but you didn’t have to hear them. I never had to worry if a hearing aid battery died mid-sentence, or if I didn’t hear the sentence properly. I never had to say, “I’m sorry, I didn’t understand that.”

I never had to smile and nod and pretend.

***

On Grandma’s last full day with us, Dad’s mouth had gotten all tight and pinched at the ends.

Dad was convinced that even though we’d still visit her at the memory care center, it wouldn’t be the same. If she was ever going to open up again, it would be here, surrounded by family.

He settled into a chair beside her, videos of Young Grandma speaking. Several times, he started the opening of a story and waited for her to continue.

I could feel the pressure building like one of Dad’s casseroles in the oven, his voice bearing down on Grandma’s thin shoulders.

No wonder she never spoke. Stories should be comfortable places to slip into.

Dad called me in close to dinnertime. “I need a break. Can you watch her while I make dinner? Call me if she starts to talk?”

I nodded.

Grandma’s eyes focused on a book, thin and tall, the cover’s bright colors rubbed to pastels. It looked like one of Dad’s thrift store finds.

Book in hand, I sat into the seat opposite Grandma, and we settled into our worlds.

Silence nestled around us like a warm blanket. She looked comfortable in her chair, for once.

***

Dad tapped the table that evening before I could start eating. “Are you plugged in?!” Not shouting, but his lips over-enunciated every syllable.

“My aids are on. Sound’s activated.”

“I noticed you two were reading earlier. She say anything about that?”

“No. Maybe she just doesn’t want to talk. Maybe she just wants to read her book.”

Grandma’s fork moved up and down.

Dad’s eyes sparkled. “Our family stories aren’t like anything you’ll ever find in a book. I got to hear an account of our ancestors during the 1700s, told by my grandmother, who’d heard it from hers. I listened after my grandmother had died, and hearing her voice again, feeling the breath against my cheek, the smell of her rose perfume… It was powerful.”

I nodded.

His eyes shifted to the shelves of Our Family History. “Time goes by so quickly. Things change, a jar accidentally breaks, and the opportunity is lost. Look at your grandmother. Her stories are gone, and I wonder if we’re ever going to get them back.”

I mumbled, “It’s okay.”

“What?”

Voice a bit louder. “It should be okay if Grandma doesn’t talk. We don’t have to bottle everything.”

Silence, and this one stretched an oily film of discomfort over the table. “Those bottles are our connection with the past. People we’ve lost. Your mother’s voice is up there waiting for you.”

“I know. I’ll listen soon.”

“When is that going to be?” Cracks in his face.

“When I’m ready.”

“Why don’t we listen to something tonight. If you practice more at listening, you’ll get better.”

My knuckles turned white gripping the fork. “Practice is not going to magically restore my hearing.”

“Your hearing aids…”

But I’d tipped a ball down a mountainside, and I couldn’t stop it from rolling. “I can’t even understand videos without captioning. I don’t catch every word that’s said. I don’t hear like you!”

Grandma looked up, fork frozen.

Dad’s eyes shifted to the bottled voices, then back to me. I wonder if he was thinking the same thing I was: I would never be a part of the family history.

Who could swallow dinner after swallowing that truth? My chair scraped back as I scrambled from the vintage table, past the vintage shelves. Past a history that would never be mine.

Into my room. Onto my bed, the bedspread soft and welcoming, a book with words I could dive into and always follow.

I read. I understood every word.

Like Dad didn’t understand me. Like I’d never understand Mom.

I couldn’t read any more; not with a face full of wet.

***

When my face dried off, I realized Dad had slipped in and out without me hearing him. The only way I knew that was because of the note on my bed. My eyes still felt blurry, and I had rub them a bit to make out his sloppy word shapes.

Your mom liked to make up silly songs. Like Grandma. These are the words your mom bottled for you:

Little baby, sweet as ice cream

You are why I’m craving ice cream

Gonna send your dad to pick some up for me

Chocolate chip or cookies and cream

Having you is such a dream

Little baby, you’ll be my sweetest ice cream

All these years, he’d asked if I was ready to hear Mom’s voice. Had he unbottled Mom’s container now?

Why did that hit me so hard?

I didn’t want to open it anyway.

I wouldn’t hear it properly.

But I’d never have the opportunity now.

That hit like every one of our vintage bookshelves were pressing down on my chest.

I threw off the soft bedcovers.

Dad sat at the Formica table alone, forehead resting on a green jar with a neat gold lid. He heard me coming in. Of course he did.

He spoke first: “I never told you which container held your mother’s voice. I just realized you’ve never asked.”

“Did you open it?” I asked.

He shook his head. “I listened to every single other voice she bottled. I went through them all in a few weeks. But this is your jar. She made it just for you. I was there. Three days after she bottled this, she went into early labor and …”

I knew this story. Dad didn’t have to tell me any more. I’d been born too early, with ears that didn’t work right. The birth hadn’t gone right, and her story ended shortly after mine began.

Dad’s voice sounded full of lumps. It took all my lipreading to make the rest of his words out: “I’ve been trying to remember her voice all this time. The past, it just … slips away, no matter how hard I try. It’s so hard to find things to bring it back.”

Silence can be knowing there’s a river between two people and wondering how to build a bridge across it.

Into that quiet, Grandma walked in, the thin rubbed-cover book in her hand. She placed it on the white tabletop and looked at me with a hug behind her eyes. Let’s read together.

So much can be said without words. Grandma was proof.

And sometimes, you need those silences to form words that can’t be kept inside.

I let the silence linger before taking a deep breath. “Dad, even with aids, I still don’t pick up everything you do. That’s why I like reading. Captions, books, anything. It’s my way of understanding things. Not through sound. That’s why I’ve never asked which bottle was Mom’s. I’d never hear it right.”

Dad’s turn to step into the silence. “I always liked to think you couldn’t bluff me. That I’d know if you weren’t listening or just pretending to understand. You bluffed better than I knew.”

He gave a lopsided grin before growing serious again. “When I found out you couldn’t hear, someone recommended I use sign language with you. Maybe it’s time to look into that.”

Sign language. What would stories be like through that? I knew about sign, but my world had always been voices, lipreading, hearing aids. What if I could be a new pot, ready to be filled with new words and stories and … signs?

A future tickled at my thoughts, but first—

“Can we open Mom’s jar?”

Dad’s lips tightened. “I don’t want to pressure you. You don’t have to listen.”

“I’m going to read. You’re going to listen.”

Did people feel all fluttery when they uncorked genies in bottles?

When the gold lid came off, Dad, Grandma and I sat around the kitchen table. I squeezed Grandma’s hand. She squeezed back as sound vibrated through the air. Dad listened with soft lips, eyes closed, holding my other hand.

It didn’t matter that I didn’t hear every word. Family surrounded me.

I read my father’s words, eyes tracing every letter of Mom’s song.

I felt my mother’s breath.

Vanilla ice cream. She smelled of ice cream.


© 2023 by Carol Scheina

3324 words

Author’s Note: The overwhelming majority of deaf children (around 90 percent in the United States) are born to hearing parents. A large number of those parents do not learn to sign to their children. I fall into that statistic, as I grew up a deaf child in a non-signing family. Many families – mine included – have traditions and songs from generations past. Those traditions are a beautiful thing. But for me, with a 90-100 decibel hearing loss in both ears, I struggled with words to religious ceremonies and lyrics to songs. I struggled to explain that hearing aids didn’t fully restore my hearing. Those experiences formed the basis of this story.

Carol Scheina is a deaf speculative fiction author who hails from the
Northern Virginia region. Her stories have appeared in publications
such as Escape Pod, Cossmass Infinities, Daily Science Fiction, and
more. You can follow her work at carolscheina.wordpress.com.


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

DP FICTION #98A: “Re: Your Stone” by Guan Un

edited by David Steffen

From: sisyphus.ephyra@hadescorp.com

To: human_resources@hadescorp.com

Hi HR,

Just letting you know: I moved the artwork “Higher, Faster, Boulder” from the ground floor lobby up to the Second Floor Cafeteria as per Asset Movement Request #5340 from Asset Management, could you please let me know why it’s been moved back to the ground floor?

Thanks,

Sisyphus

***

From: do_not_reply@hadescorp.com

To: sisyphus.ephyra@hadescorp.com

Your email is very important to us. This is an automated email to let you know that your request will be seen to by the next available Personal Human Resource Allocation Consultant as soon as possible.

Please do not reply to this email.

***

From: human_resources@hadescorp.com

To: sisyphus.ephyra@hadescorp.com

To Sisiphus,

Thanks for your enquiry. In order to assist us with assisting you in a fast and timely fashion, could you please reply with a reply e-mail (electronic-mail) including ALL of the following details, including:

– Your name

– Your email (electronic-mail) address

– The ATIN Number (Asset Tracking Identification Number) of the asset

– The AM (Asset Management) AMRN (Asset Movement Request Number)

– Photos of the artwork after you moved it

– Photos of the artwork before you moved it

Failure to include the correct details could result in cancellation of the processing of your request.

Warmest Regards,

Tad,

Personal Human Resource Allocation Consultant

***

From: sisyphus.ephyra@hadescorp.com

To: human_resources@hadescorp.com

Hi Tad,

Thanks for finally getting back to me. Here’s some of the details you requested.

– My name is SisYphus of Ephyra, and my email address is there. At the top of this email. That’s how email works.

– I don’t know where to find the ATIN number. It’s a boulder. Do we really have more than one of those that we need to keep track of?

– The AM request AM number is 5304 as I said.

– I don’t usually take photos of boulders after I move them because I’ve never needed proof that I moved a boulder. But I guess I’ll take a photo of it next time I’m down there, because it should look much the same as it did before I moved it since it’s IN THE SAME SPOT.

Sisyphus

***

From: asset_management@hadescorp.com

To: sisyphus.ephyra@hadescorp.com

Hey Sisaphone!

We’ve just received a complaint that the artwork we asked you to action vis-a-vis resituating location-wise is still in the same spot in the ground floor lobby?? Could you let me know ASAP as possible current status of the artwork, re: physical location and any potential blockages you see moving forwardly?

I’ve attached an attachment with the original request we requestioned.

Warmthly yours!!

Tod

Senior Asset Solutions Coordinator

<Attachment: Asset Management Request #5340.docx>

***

From: human_resources@hadescorp.com

To: sisyphus.ephyra@hadescorp.com

Hi SisYphus,

I have registered request #4305 with the following details.

Asset Tracking Identification Number: > 1

Asset Management Request Number: 5304

Name: SisYphus Ephyra

Email: there@thetopofthis.email

Photos: None provided.

You should receive a notification as to the outcome within 5-7 working days.

Warmest regards,

Ted

Personal Human Resource Allocation Consultant

***

From: sisyphus.ephyra@hadescorp.com

To: human_resources@hadescorp.com

Hi Tad,

No, no, no – it was a typo. The Asset Management Request Number was #5340 not #5304. Please correct it!

Sisyphus

***

From: do_not_reply@hadescorp.com

To: sisyphus.ephyra@hadescorp.com

Your email is very important to us. This is an automated email to let you know that your request will be seen to by the next available Personal Human Resource Allocation Consultant as soon as possible, or within the next four to twenty-four hours.

Please do not reply to this email.

***

From: do_not_reply@hadescorp.com

To: sisyphus.ephyra@hadescorp.com

This is an automated email to inform you that Request #4305 has been marked as Concluded.

Reason(s):

– Asset Tracking Identification Number >1 did not correspond to any assets in our system.

– Asset Management Request Number #5304 was invalid and did not correspond to any outstanding requests in our system.

– No photographic evidence provided.

***

From: sisyphus.ephyra@hadescorp.com

To: human_resources@hadescorp.com

Hi Tad,

I’m trying not to get frustrated. COULD YOU PLEASE create a new request with the following details.

Asset Tracking Identification Number: 0345 (It was carved in tiny writing at the bottom of it—boy did I look crazy trying to look for it haha)

Asset Management Request Number: 5340

Name: Sisyphus Ephyra

Email: sisyphus.ephyra@hadescorp.com

Photos: Photos attached.

Thanks,

Sisyphus

***

From: sisyphus.ephyra@hadescorp.com

To: human_resources@hadescorp.com

I forgot to attach the photos! They’re attached now.

<Attachment: Boulder.jpg>

<Attachment: Cafe Where Boulder Should Be.jpg>

***

From: human_resources@hadescorp.com

To: sisyphus.ephyra@hadescorp.com

Hi Sisiphus,

I have registered Request #4306 with the following details.

Asset Tracking Identification Number: 0345

Asset Management Request Number: 5340

Name: Sisyphus Ephyra

Email: sisyphus.ephyra@hadescorp.com

Photos: None received.

You should receive a notification as to the outcome within 6-9 working days.

Warmesting regards,

Tad

Personal Human Resource Allocation Consultant

***

From: human_resources@hadescorp.com

To: sisyphus.ephyra@hadescorp.com

Hi Sisophus,

I have registered Request #4307 with the following details.

Asset Tracking Identification Number: N/A

Asset Management Request Number: N/A

Name: N/A

Email: N/A

Photos: 2 Attached.

Once this request has been registered, you should receive a notification as to the outcome within 7-15 working days.

Warmestly regards,

Tad

Personal Human Resource Allocation Consultant

***

From: do_not_reply@hadescorp.com

To: sisyphus.ephyra@hadescorp.com

This is an automated email to let you know that Request #4306 has been marked as Concluded.

Reason(s):

– No photographic evidence supplied.

***

From: do_not_reply@hadescorp.com

To: sisyphus.ephyra@hadescorp.com

This is an automated email to let you know that Request #4307 has been marked as Concluded.

Reason(s):

– No valid Asset Tracking Identification Number supplied.

– No valid Asset Management Request Number supplied.

– No valid Name supplied.

– No valid Email supplied.

***

From: asset_management@hadescorp.com

To: sisyphus.ephyra@hadescorp.com

Hey Sisaphino!

Just got word in a message that instead of actioning our request that you were rolling the asset around the lobby muttering about a number?? Just a GENTLE reminder that all asset management, number-wise or not, must be approved via approval being permitted by our department vis-a-vis being allowed with the proper permissions and allowances.

All the bests!

Tod

Senior Asset Solutions Coordinator

***

From: do_not_reply@hadescorp.com

To: sisyphus.ephyra@hadescorp.com

To Siysphus,

Despite adequate notification you have not processed Request #5340 in a timely fashion. Thusfully, we have logged a warning on your personal record. Any further warnings will result in a one-on-one Disciplinary Career Rehabiliation session with a Job Quality Assurance Regulatory Faciliator.

For any follow-up on this issue, please contact one of our friendly Personal Human Resource Allocation Consultants at human_resources@hadescorp.com at any time. Don’t forget, they’re here to help!

This is an automated email. Do not reply to this email.

***

From: sisyphus.ephyra@hadescorp.com

To: human_resources@hadescorp.com

Hi Tad or whoever’s there

All I need you to do is PLEASE put this request through and only this request. if there’s anything you can do to speed up the process and push it through AS SOON AS YOU CAN. I really don’t know if I can take much more of this.

Asset Tracking Identification Number: 0345

Asset Management Request Number: 5340

Name: Sisyphus Ephyra

Email: sisyphus.ephyra@hadescorp.com

Photos: PHOTOS ATTACHED.

Sisyphus

<Attachment: Boulder.jpg>

<Attachment: Cafe Where Boulder Should Be.jpg>

***

From: human_resources@hadescorp.com

To: sisyphus.ephyra@hadescorp.com

To Sisephus,

I’m happy to let you know that I’ve been able to personally create your request #4308 and approve it forward for resolution. As a next step, I’ve actioned a request to Asset Management in order to actualise a solution to this issue. You should receive an email (electronic-mail) soon regarding finalisation of the outcome.

However, in future, PLEASE refrain from using All Capitals in email (electronic-mail) correspondence. It is regarded as rude and/or potentially offensive and/or threatening. I refer you to the attached HadesCorp employee manual regarding proper inter-office communication.

Regards,

Tad,

Personal Human Resource Allocation Consultant

***

From: do_not_reply@hadescorp.com

To: sisyphus.ephyra@hadescorp.com

This is an automated email to notify you that Asset Management Request #5341 that has been created in our tracking system. Please find attachment attached.

Task Details: Move artwork “Higher, Faster, Boulder” from ground floor lobby up to the Second Floor Cafeteria.

Task Status: Incomplete

Requestee: Human Resources Re: Request #4308

Job Assigned To: Sisyphus Ephyra.

Please do not reply to this email.

<Attachment: Asset Management Request #5341.docx>


© 2023 by Guan Un

1424 words

Author’s Note: This story was directly inspired by the particular modern calamity of clicking send on an important email, and realising, inevitably, thirty seconds later, that you forgot to add the equally important attachment. From there, it was a short jump to the sort of labyrinthine system that would invoke this feeling, and the sort of mythic character that would be striving against this machinery. Particular readers might note this is a series of sorts, with “Rider Reviews for FerrymanCharon” which appeared in Translunar Travelers Lounge. The writer does not promise that this series will not continue in some form.

Guan Un is a writer living in Sydney, Australia. His works have appeared in Strange Horizons, khōréō, The Dread Machine, and Translunar Travelers Lounge. He lives with his family, a dog named after a tiger, and a non-sentient sourdough starter. He is occasionally at @thisisguan, but is not currently open to stone-based enquiries.


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

Issue #97: Our Special Telepathy Issue, Diabolical Thoughts!

Welcome to Diabolical Thoughts. You have one (1) transmission pending.

To receive this transmission, please hold still, and visualize the following items:

A roadtrip in an Oldsmobile.
A faint buzzing sound.
Sand; so much sand.
The entire world.

Thank you. Beginning transmission; please stand by.

~Diabolical Thoughts~
March 2023

Editorial: Thoughts on Thoughts
Ziv Wities, 410 words

Rattenkönig
Jenova Edenson, 3650 words

The Hivemind’s Royal Jelly
Josh Pearce, 860 words

The Desert’s Voice is Sweet to Hear
Carolina Valentine, 3870 words

A Girl With a Planet in Her Eye
Ruth Joffre, 870 words

DP FICTION #97D: “A Girl With a Planet In Her Eye” by Ruth Joffre

This story is part of our special telepathy issue, Diabolical Thoughts, edited by Ziv Wities.
Click here for the entire Diabolical Thoughts transmission.

For the first thirteen years of her life, the planet was silent. No birdsong. No construction. Only the gentle sway of an ocean pushing and pulling against the aqueous humors of her left eye. Late at night, while her parents slept, she often lay awake and listened to the dense water solidify itself, the salts forming crystals, the crystals becoming pillars in a great, cavernous hall populated at first by no one, and then: music. A pure, high note so sudden it woke her from her slumber and conjured the image of a miniature flautist performing deep in the canal of her ear. Only the sound was part of her, she realized—the first beat in a rhythm she had been unknowingly teaching these crystals as they coalesced in the spaces between words and breaths. Her body was their language. Her heartbeats, her sneezes. Her haphazard attempts to mirror her mother’s Spanish. The crystals absorbed it all and played her life back to her to say: We’re here. We exist.

If she closed her eyes and listened, she could hear them communicate with each other. Mi nombre es Adagio. I’m Sharp. I’m Grave. I should eat. I must. I am. They fed on light through her pupil, synthesizing crystalline energies. Sunlight was best, then moonshine, then fluorescent, incandescent, and halogen. Only when starving would they eat the light from her phone, that pale ethereal glow providing no nutrients, no sustenance—just a desperate act of survival. Go outside, the crystals would shout when she stared at the screen too long, and once outside she would have to stay there an hour, maybe two, to feed them. Hungry crystals clamoring in the dark.

She hated to hear them shatter. All the little pieces lodging in the planet’s crust.

Her eye was becoming a graveyard.

Her crystals were outgrowing their castles. No one would say it out loud, but she knew. It was painfully obvious in the way their bodies hummed at night, that sullen way they poked at the crumbling pillars in the great halls, the way kids kick at pine cones, knowing how much potential for life they once held.

After so many years, she knew what they were thinking: More light.

I’m hungry.

I have to get out of here.

She didn’t know any ophthalmologists, nor any crystallographers, and when she thought of looking for one, the crystal bodies vibrated with panic, broken prisms in a microscopic lattice. No photographs, their humming said. No petri dishes, no tuning forks, no experiments. Through her, they had seen too many movies about encounters with extraterrestrial life; they knew that their sentience would be a death sentence. That in the absence of predators to keep it in line humanity viewed all other intelligence as an existential threat to its self-image. She could not allow scientists to poke and prod and strike a tuning fork to determine the exact frequency necessary to shatter the crystals from within and eliminate the enemy.

No, she would have to extract the planet on her own.

It should be simple enough. According to the internet, ophthalmologists routinely poked holes under patient eyelids to drain the eye of excess fluid and, thus, relieve the pressure that caused glaucoma. She could do much the same with only a hypodermic needle and the eye patch from last Halloween’s costume, which would help speed recovery.

While taping open her eyelids, she soothed the crystals with simple chatter. Did you know the human eye heals faster than almost any other part of the human body? An anatomical marvel produced by millions of years of evolution. Imagine the injuries my ancestors must have had and healed from; imagine their wonder in looking up into the mouth of a saber tooth tiger. The blood! The carnage! Just a little pinch. She slid the needle in so easily it frightened her. She thought the process would be more painful, the planet more difficult to extract from the universe of her body, but it just slipped out of her like a tear, all that salt whispering away before she could think to say wait.

How will I know if you survive this?

She felt the loss like a gulf opening between them. A great silence where once was music.

Is this death? She could not know. All she could do was inject the aqueous fluid from her eye into the tiny glass snow globe she had drained and refilled with saline. If the planet settled (if without the benefit of her gravity it careened through the snow globe, ricocheting off the walls as inertia drew it inexorably to the floor), she could not say. Its new container was still and quiet, no humming, no vibration. Just a pinprick, a miniscule glint of light, like a rainbow before it decides to form. Give it time, she told herself. Her planet might have survived and her crystals might well be growing in the happy medium of saline. She hoped so.

She set the snow globe down gently. Tucked it behind a potted plant on the windowsill so it would always get enough light.

And then she waited, dreaming of the day the crystals were big enough to say hi.


© 2023 by Ruth Joffre

870 words

Author’s Note: To be perfectly honest, the title of the story comes from something my girlfriend said while we were cuddling: that a reflection in my glasses made it look like there was a planet in my eye. Obviously, I had to turn that phrase into a story! What would life be like for a girl with a planet in her eye? The story went through a couple false starts—a Star Trek: The Next Generation-inspired crystalline entity, a scary foray into the world of surveillance biometrics—before I landed on this more intimate, personal approach. Often, when we write about something growing inside us, it turns into a story of illness as invasion or pregnancy as body horror (see also: Alien). In this story, I wanted to counter that trend with something both haunting and fulfilling. Something, ultimately, hopeful.

Ruth Joffre is the author of the story collection Night Beast. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in LightspeedNightmarePleiades, khōréō, The Florida Review OnlineWigleafBaffling Magazine, and the anthologies Best Microfiction 2021 2022Unfettered Hexes: Queer Tales of Insatiable Darkness, and Evergreen: Grim Tales & Verses from the Gloomy Northwest. She co-organized the performance series Fight for Our Lives and served as the 2020-2022 Prose Writer-in-Residence at Hugo House. In 2023, she will be a visiting writer at University of Washington Bothell.


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

DP FICTION #97C: “The Desert’s Voice is Sweet to Hear” by Carolina Valentine

This story is part of our special telepathy issue, Diabolical Thoughts, edited by Ziv Wities.
Click here for the entire Diabolical Thoughts transmission.

The desert had been trying to kill her for two days. Gently. Lovingly.

Come drink. The water is cool and sweet. The desert’s voice sounded deep in her mind, deeper than the ocean.

Zazy tugged her hood forward to get a sliver more shade. Not today, my friend, she replied. She spotted the bonecrawler nest the desert wanted to convince her was a bubbling spring. Heat fatigue washed through her. For a moment, her eyes unfocused and the trickle of insects did resemble running water. Zazy closed her eyes. No, thank you.

Always be courteous to the desert, Grandmother had said, for it is very old. You had to deflect its entreaties softly, with just a puff of mental energy. A harsh response earned the desert’s rage. Instead of suggesting she scoop up the venomous insects, it would force her over there, and she’d waste energy resisting.

She didn’t have any energy to waste, not since the bandits shot her hat off. The bone-studded band had kept her safe, blocking the desert’s voice nicely. So nicely. Almost like being back home. But home was many miles and years away…

You are home, Izazyl.

That name—

Zazy started awake. Her head whacked the boulder she’d slumped against, and she nearly clunked her skull again with the pistol she’d drawn. Around her shimmered a mirage—a blue tiled courtyard, a golden door. Zazy focused on her mental shield, which was far too thin. It’d been strong, once. A glistening sphere around her mind, iridescent, blue and pink and violet and orange, the color of a desert sky at sunset. But it had worn away, losing its luster. And with her hat gone, she’d had it up constantly, and it had waned further. Now it was translucent, gray, and thin, thin, thin. She slid the deep voice out of her mind. You are my home, desert. She had nothing else, no one else.

Except Khoko.

The bandits had caught up with them two days ago at twilight. One of them had been a strong duelist. He’d gotten her own mind to throw her body off her longscale mount—and into a ravine. It’d taken her all night to climb out. She shouldn’t be traveling during the day’s heat, but she wasn’t leaving her mount in their hands.

“I’m coming, Khoko,” she croaked.

Lurching forward, she crawled over baked white earth until she reached the lip of the gorge where the bandits were waiting out the day. Zazy dropped to her stomach and peered over the edge.

The gorge was deep. Bands of color striped the walls: indigo, violet, vermillion. Proof the desert had once been an ocean, its coral now buried.

From the shadowed depths, a legion of eyes stared upward. The bandits had put up their tents, emblazoned with wide eyes on a red background. These were the Bloody Eye Bandits. Twelve men with the light- or golden-brown skin of those native to the desert. No one with Zazy’s pale skin or pink hair, inherited from her foreign ancestors.

Khoko wasn’t among the bandits’ mounts. No flash of bright blue among the scaled backs and thick tails.

You’ll never lose track of him, Grandmother had chuckled. She’d given Khoko to her in a lush courtyard tiled in gold and pink. Grandmother had cooled her brown feet in the water channels while Zazy delighted in her new friend. And you’ll have to think of a name before his crest bone can be painted.

Khoko, Khoko, Khoko. The only one she had left.

Below, only one tent was big enough to hide a fully grown longscale. At the far end of the gorge. It bore golden-rimmed eyes. The leader’s tent.

***

She hit the bottom of the gorge and clapped a hand over her mouth to smother a shout. Pain flashed bright. She’d crawled along the edge of the gorge and begun the climb down, which had been going great until a bandit yelled at someone for being late for a perimeter scan. In an instant, they’d be searching for nearby minds. Without her hat, she’d had no choice but to drop and hope she landed inside the bandits’ protections.

Panting, Zazy craned her neck. Her breaths stirred the fabric of a tent—gold-rimmed eyes on red. And dangling from metal wire strung across the gorge were bare white rib bones. Zazy had fallen inside of the bone perimeter. Safe.

The bones of some desert creatures shielded their brains from telepathy. The bone perimeter kept any minds from reaching across it. No outside minds could affect anyone in the camp. It also meant the sentry had to step beyond the perimeter to scan their surroundings. Zazy’s mind was as shielded as the bandits’.

Stifling a groan, Zazy dug out her knife. It was a battered thing scavenged off a corpse, but it pierced the tent fabric. A peek revealed joyously blue scales—and no bandits. Her aches sang as she sawed a bigger gap.

Khoko’s tail began thumping on the blanket floor before she’d shimmied her hips in. He’d curled his lean, twelve-foot-long body tight around his strong, scaly legs and heavy paws, tipped in curved claws. His great square head lifted as she cupped his snout and kissed his scales, his nose, his boney brow ridge.

Then a glint of dark blue blood caught her eye.

“Oh no.” Zazy laid Khoko’s head down. A ring of blood encircled one of the bone knobs that ran under his jaw and down his deep chest. More blood rivered down his scales. The bandits had tried to cut out his crest bone, the biggest knob, permanently inked with his name and Zazy’s sigil. It was normally hidden by a saddle strap.

“I’m so sorry, Khoko.” Zazy kissed his brave face. She should’ve painted over the sigil. It didn’t mean anything anymore. “We’ll clean it later.” Who knew when the tent’s resident would return. Luckily, Khoko’s saddle lay in one corner, and there was water in leather bags.

But she didn’t see her hat, and the manacles on Khoko’s legs and neck were locked. Zazy searched the tent. No key. She knelt to wrap Khoko’s injury before saddling him. Could she go look for the key? It could be right outside.

Before she could decide, footsteps scuffed nearby.

Zazy drew her pistol as the flaps parted. A tall man strode in, dark hair in a short tail, head brushing the tent ceiling.

He didn’t seem surprised to see her. Maybe he’d sensed her mind. Maybe he’d expected her to come. Either way, he regarded her—and her pistol—with nothing more than a quirked brow. Gold glittered in that brow. Three gold studs. He was a skilled telepath, then, though not the duelist who’d bested her yesterday.

Zazy heightened her mental senses. A shimmering sphere surrounded his mind, his mental shield. But he hadn’t reached out to his companions. He wasn’t calling for help. He didn’t think she had strong telepathy, or any. The pink hair. It signaled foreigner. Even if her brows were just as thick as his own, her nose just as arched.

“Where did you find a royal longscale?” he asked, conversational. He gestured to the crest bone, now covered, and its sigil. The sigil of the Emprash, which named Izazyl, fifteenth generation of the royal line, as Khoko’s rider.

Khoko growled.

“He’s mine,” Zazy replied, stalling. If he thought she had no abilities, then maybe… She uncoiled a thread of mental energy. Her training had been interrupted by the coup. She knew the basics of telepathy, and then some tricks.

The bandit chuckled and bent to retrieve a fruit from his saddlebags. “He was yours,” he agreed. “But where did you steal him from? The palace?” His smile flashed bright as his knife as it cut into the fruit. A prickle pear.

 “I got him at the palace.”

As she’d hoped, that made the bandit chuckle again. And he didn’t notice the brush against his shield. A little turn of it, not enough to make anything happen. Yet. 

“From the Emprash herself, right?” The bandit chewed and grinned.

“That’s right.” This time, Zazy spun his shield, a full revolution of the sphere, smooth and undetected by his distracted mind.

“Then you’d be Izazyl, no?”

“That’s what it says.” Another easy spin. .

“People will pay a hefty sum for any piece of the Emprash, you know.”

“I know.” Spin.

“Well, then.” The bandit sketched a bow and stumbled. He had to catch himself on a tent pole. “Apologies for not recognizing you, Highness.”

“The Emprash did marry a foreign prince.” Spin.

The bandit nodded, wavering on his feet. Pear forgotten, he touched a hand to his forehead, closed his eyes.

Zazy clubbed him in the temple with her pistol. He thudded to the floor. Aunt Taza could have dealt the final blow telepathically, but she wasn’t here, and Zazy hadn’t gotten that far in training.

Heart pounding, Zazy rifled through the man’s pockets, found the keys, and freed Khoko. She snagged all the water she could find before leading Khoko deeper into the gorge. If she remembered right, there had been a fortress nearby, built to watch the mountains. It would have protection bones in its walls. Maybe they could reach it.

***

Zazy’s throat ached, thick and swollen. The water had not lasted. The blazing sun sapped her strength, heavied her limbs. She alternated between riding Khoko and trudging alongside him. She stumbled when she didn’t remember to pick up her feet.

Zazy squinted at the hazy mountains. They seemed to undulate like the ancient sea creature legend said had died when the ocean dried up. Its bones supposedly formed the spine of the mountains. Some said the desert’s voice came from it. With the white ground shimmering, Zazy couldn’t estimate how far off the mountains were. Was there a fortress? A pale smudge wavering at their base?

She needed a sanctuary, somewhere with protection bones, like the bandit camp. Her mental shield was flickering as she walked. The desert’s voice slipped in and out of her mind, deep and soothing. Sit down, Izazyl. A pricker bush morphed into a chair. The desert wasn’t supposed to know your name, but her shields had been failing for years, wearing thinner and thinner. She didn’t know why. And without her hat…

Lie down and rest. Zazy spotted the snake burrows before the desert unrolled a beautiful woven carpet, stacked with plush pillows. Still, her legs wobbled. Only her hand on Khoko’s saddle kept her upright.

Have a drink at least, the desert said, and a pool appeared, clear as aquamarines. Zazy crashed to her knees and lifted a scoop to her lips before Khoko’s tail walloped her back. Zazy spilled forward, sprawling in hot sand. It coated her lips and soaked up valuable moisture.

She was going to die today. The thought flitted through her mind, too fast to stop. Only a nudge from a heavy nose got her back on her feet.

Zazy mounted Khoko. He carried her onward while the air began to sing. The merry splish-splash of a fountain met her ears. Zazy forced herself not to look for it, the fountain from her childhood, the one in the palace’s grandest courtyard. How many hours had she spent chasing the flashing golden fish? Zazy clapped her hot, swollen hands over her ears. It didn’t help. The splashing was in her mind.

Yellow flower petals twirled through the air at her side. Grandmother had tended her flowers so lovingly. She’d watered them by hand and gathered the fallen petals to toss over her children and grandchildren. Blessings upon blessings. Bless you, Izazyl. The petals twirled toward her, as if tossed by gentle hands.

Zazy threw herself off Khoko. She wouldn’t let those petals touch her. They weren’t real. None of this was real. Her family was gone and could not help her. Climbing to her feet, Zazy waved off a concerned Khoko and scanned the thrumming horizon. A pale protrusion rose from the ground. She could almost pick out walls and roofs. That had to be the fortress.

She took a step. Her foot landed on blue tiles, shiny and smooth. A golden door gleamed before her. It swung open to reveal that familiar violet-lacquered table, scarred from generations of family meals. A dozen people gathered around it, passing bowls and papers and books. Familiar jewels glinted on foreheads and throats.

Zazy spun on her heel. She would not go in there. It wasn’t real. That was not her Aunt Taza, her pink eyebrows studded with gold all the way across. And that was not her mother, dark haired and graceful, dodging around her father to reach the prickle pears. And that was not Grandmother, tossing petals at her cousins.

Zazy made it a few steps before a nudge came at her stomach, turning her around, pushing her toward that violet table. She distantly recognized Khoko’s bulk, but she was focused on covering her eyes, her ears. She didn’t want to see their faces, hear their voices. They called to her, as if she’d just woken for breakfast. Good morning, Zazy. Come have something to eat. How did you sleep?

I had terrible dreams, she wanted to say. One long nightmare. You were gone. You were all gone. They murdered you on the front steps. They cracked your skulls and let your blood run and run.

That sounds awful, her mother said. Come have some tea. Your favorite today.

Zazy shook her head. This wasn’t real. Her family couldn’t help her. She broke into a run. She flew by the violet table, shrugging off reaching hands. She burst onto the gold-columned terrace, ran down the steps, splashed through a shallow pool. Palace halls flashed by until she reached the grand front doors. She ran through them like they were made of mist, and there were the front steps, right where they were murdered. Her foot slipped.

But the ground that hit her was sloped and rough. She tumbled down a hill, dust flying. When she finally stopped, her vision was swimming. Even so, she could make out the smooth stone walls of a building. A square archway. Weathered doors hanging askew. The fortress.

She craned her neck, looking toward the insets beside the doors. Where long femur bones should have been, to protect any minds inside.

The insets were empty. The fortress had been pillaged. The protection bones had been stolen.

Zazy shut her eyes. Khoko’s padding footsteps caught up to her. His nose nudged her ribs, rocking her dry, empty body. No bones here. No protection.

In the distance, a longscale howl pierced the air. The bandits were coming for her as the day slipped toward twilight. She had to keep moving.

With effort, Zazy rolled to her front. A last burst of willpower got her to her knees. But no more. She was empty. She slumped forward, forehead resting on the hard ground, and felt the last tatters of her shield wink out.

Eventually, movement flickered in front of her. She didn’t lift her head. Khoko, probably. Or the first bandit. It didn’t matter. If the bandits didn’t kill her, the desert would.

Look at me, Izazyl. The voice sounded like Grandmother’s. Zazy’s eyes stung at the endearment humming through the words, like Grandmother was still here to love her, to find humor in Zazy’s plight, serious to Zazy but solvable to Grandmother.

This was what happened when you didn’t have good shields. The desert plundered your mind, your memories.

It does indeed, Grandmother said. But the desert is not why your shields are failing.

This was new. The desert never referenced itself. And it did not offer telepathy tips. Zazy mustered the strength to roll her head, gravel biting into her skin, so she could see the mirage. Grandmother knelt with her hands in her lap, the sun gleaming off her steel gray hair. Every strand of hair, every line in her face, the downward slope of her shoulders—it was just how Zazy remembered her.

Grandmother pressed her hands to Zazy’s forehead. Zazy gasped. Those hands were warm and dry and real. Zazy came to a kneeling position at the urging of those familiar hands. What is this?

Grandmother’s eyes twinkled. Your shields are failing because you haven’t taken care of your mind. You’ve let it unravel into despair because you think you have nothing.

It’s true. Zazy lifted a limp hand. I have Khoko but no home, no family. You’re all gone.

Grandmother tapped Zazy’s forehead, and the tap echoed in her mind, on the memories Zazy kept locked away. Not in here.

That’s not real.

Grandmother laughed. Not with that attitude.

This was no trick of the desert’s. If anything, it was one of Grandmother’s.

Real is a matter of perspective, Granddaughter. I may not be real enough for anyone else, but I can be real to you. As long as you’re not keeping me out with those shields of yours. 

The gentle reprimand had Zazy opening her mouth to protest, but Grandmother continued,You weren’t old enough to understand back then, but listen: all telepathy springs from one principle—your mind determines its own reality. Your mind perceives the world only through the signals it creates. If the world seems bleak, it is because your mind has told itself so. Grandmother brushed her thumbs over Zazy’s brows. Your thoughts have been bleak for too long, Izazyl.

Zazy shook her head, dislodging Grandmother’s hands. My thoughts are bleak because things are bleak. I can’t control the world.

Grandmother smiled, understanding. Of course not. There are limits to a mind’s power. The desert exploits them—it convinces your mind that a rock is a pear, but it cannot make the rock into a pear.

But much of your life has no connection to the physical world. If a duelist convinces your mind that it’s flinging your body into a ravine, it is. If your mind thinks it has nothing, it does. And it will become nothing.

Was that true? Her own thoughts were eroding her shields?

We’re still with you, Izazyl, Grandmother said. We still love you just the same. We’re only a little farther away. Yellow flower petals appeared in her cupped hands. You haven’t lost us.

She tossed the petals, which whispered softly against her skin. Tears squeezed out of her eyes, and Zazy closed them. When they opened, Grandmother was gone.

Or was she?

In the distance, paws thundered and men shouted. They’d spotted her.

Zazy looked inward, to the memories she never touched. Her mother, her father, aunts, uncles, cousins. Smiling and arguing and loving her as they breathed. Passing her fruit without looking, pouring her favorite tea without asking. Her cousin tossing her on Khoko while her father held off attackers with his worn blue pistol. Aunt Taza slamming the fighters marching through the gates with telepathic blows so Khoko could race by. Her mother watching from the palace walls, distracting any minds who noticed Zazy.

A hand grabbed her arm, yanked her up. Zazy’s eyes flashed open.

The Bloody Eyes had arrived. They watched from their longscales, arranged in a semicircle, trapping her and Khoko against the fortress. The man holding her was the one from the tent. The leader.

Khoko lunged for him, but Zazy wrapped her free arm around his neck, holding him tight.

“Hello again, Highness.” The man’s mental shield radiated strong and firm—she wouldn’t be spinning it again. “Out of tricks?”

Zazy smiled, lips cracking. “Not quite.”

Reaching into her memories, she imagined Aunt Taza standing next to her. She manifested every detail, from her sunset pink hair to her fourteen gold studs to her uneven collarbones. The effort felt good, like the rush of using a healthy muscle.

She remembered how Aunt Taza’s lips twitched before she struck a blow. She remembered how the mental plane rippled, how her opponent’s shield would warp and buckle. She remembered.

Next to her, Aunt Taza’s lips twitched. A tremendous force struck the bandit’s shields. The man reeled backward, releasing Zazy before he keeled over. Blood dribbled from his nostrils.

Zazy turned to the rest of the bandits, who shifted on their longscales. She hadn’t displayed this kind of telepathy last time.

The duelist dismounted, his brows completely studded. He launched his first attack before his boots hit the ground. It glanced off her shield, off the memories Zazy had pulled into a golden wall around her mind. The duelist’s brows rose.

Zazy’s smile widened. She remembered her family members, standing in line with her. Her mother appeared next to Aunt Taza, her father on Zazy’s other side. Cousins and aunts and uncles appeared beside them. She remembered them so well. She remembered their telepathy, too.

Mental attacks rained down on the bandits. Aunt Taza crashed through shields. Zazy’s mother slipped mirages into minds, causing men to duck low or topple over. Uncle Raro sent strikes zinging with so much energy that shields shook themselves apart. Zazy thought back to all the times she’d seen her family practice their telepathy, the moves and countermoves, the lightning-like exchanges. The bandits shouted as they struggled to defend themselves, as they began to fall. 

The duelist fought hardest to maintain his mental protections. He sent back blows that could’ve had Zazy throwing herself into the fortress’s walls. But Zazy remembered how Kila would shrug off such attacks. Her cousin stepped forward now, and Zazy heard the echo of her voice as Kila had led her patiently through the motions. Reach forward, hook the blow, and twirl to the side. The duelist’s strikes spun off course and hit other bandits.

Now to return the favor. A twitch of her lips, and Aunt Taza landed a hit so brutal the duelist stumbled. He grunted with the effort of keeping the shield together, but a crack appeared. Zazy pushed her own mind into the crack, bringing the duelist into her reality.

His eyes widened at the sight of the royal family. Zazy grinned and looked to her father. The duelist followed her gaze in time to see her father raise his blue pistol–and fire. The bullet wasn’t a physical one, but the duelist’s mind perceived it nonetheless. He flew backward into his longscale, and his mind blinked out. Not dead, but unconscious, convinced his heart had been pierced.

When all the bandits’ shields had cracked, Zazy remembered her grandmother, and she coalesced beside her, that twinkle in her eye. Gently, Zazy thought. Grandmother had always done things gently. With a flower-petal touch, Grandmother reached into the minds of the Bloody Eyes and pulled out any memory of Zazy. Gather your wounded and go. Do not look back.

The bandits did as ordered, slinging unconscious men over longscale saddles before riding off into the deepening dusk.

Zazy slumped against Khoko, steady at her side. She had not expended that much mental energy in a long while. Yet her shield buzzed stronger than ever, her mind lush with memories of love. Thank you, she said to her family. I’ll see you later.As she let the projections fade, she plodded with Khoko into the abandoned fortress. Sweet dreams, desert.


© 2023 by Carolina Valentine

3870 words

Author’s Note: “The Desert’s Voice Is Sweet to Hear” has many things that I love to write about: close-knit family dynamics, beloved animal companions, and lush, colorful settings, to name a few. With this story in particular, I wanted to lure readers into a story about a desert that had more to it than hot sun and burning sand. Zazy’s desert boasts vibrant colors, an oceanic history, and creatures that have cleverly adapted to living in a place haunted by an ancient sea monster. If you had the proper tools, Zazy’s desert would be a gorgeous and thrilling place to live. (Please let me know if I succeeded as a tour guide!) My other goal with this story was to cheer myself up. At the time of its writing, I was living away from my family, and I missed them dearly. I wanted to write about the balance between the ache of missing your people and the fierce gladness that comes with having people to miss that much in the first place. To help illustrate that, I borrowed a few techniques from the “Once Upon a December” scene in Anastasia (1997). It’s one of my favorite scenes in any story, with the shimmering ghosts and the transformation of the shabby ballroom back to its former golden glory. I loved doing something similar with the hallucinations of Zazy’s family and their palace. Thank you for reading!

Carolina Valentine has never been lured to her death by any desert. In fact, she’s quite fond of the Arizona desert, with its tangerine-pink sunsets and coyotes who lounge in the yard like bunnies; she has only had to pull cactus prickers out of herself a few times. Carolina writes speculative fiction, usually when she’s supposed to be doing something else. Her work has also appeared in Strange Horizons. Find her on Instagram @valentine.deplume and on Twitter @carolinawrites.


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DP FICTION #97B: “The Hivemind’s Royal Jelly” by Josh Pearce

This story is part of our special telepathy issue, Diabolical Thoughts, edited by Ziv Wities.
Click here for the entire Diabolical Thoughts transmission.

The figure seated on the other side of the plain metal table has a blank look on its face, like its creator gave up halfway through forming its features. It is dressed in an orange jumpsuit, white socks, black slippers. The handcuff that secures it to the table cuts deeply into the waxy pale skin of its wrist.

You’ve handled plenty of robots and AIs, even species whose very existence Deep Thought has classified Top Secret, but a wax man is a first. Still, that’s why you’ve got protocol. You flip open the file. “We have you at the scene of the crime, we found the murder weapon. All we need from you is the names of your co-conspirators.”

The suspect lifts its hands, every movement deliberate and fluid, blood slower than honey. Its left hand jerks to a stop on the end of the handcuff chain and more waxy skin flakes drift onto the table. “You saw somebody who looked like us, perhaps. You have a murder weapon that certainly doesn’t have our fingerprints on it. And we have never conspired with anyone.” When it speaks, a breath of hot air washes over you. You start to sweat. “Also, no one is dead.”

It takes some gall to say that right when you’re laying out the autopsy pictures. The cross-section of the skull is mesmerizing—it’s filled with hexagonal honeycomb cells, some of which are the same pale empty color as its skin, others darkened with the husks of bees that had crawled in and died. With a red pen, you circle the darkest spot on the honeycomb.

“This was the point of death. It’s a hive, isn’t it? And here, at this point, a killer bee got inside, and caused a catastrophic cascade failure of the mind.”

The figure leans forward slightly and looks at the photo with polite interest. It leans back and looks at you. Something with very small, quick wings buzzes past behind its eyes.

Continuing, you say, “That killer bee was fired from this weapon.” Photo of a fat-barrelled pistol. “Just tell me why you did it. Who ordered you? Who hired you?” This is what you need to get out of it. It’s the first time Deep Thought has one of the wax men in custody. They have almost no identifying marks, no fingerprints, and they’ve been linked to four different contract killings. “And why have you murdered one of your own kind?”

“We are not murderers. We are messengers.” A honeybee crawls out of its ear, flits around the room, and lands on its cheek. Crawls back in through its nose. “Our brains are biological cellular automata. Our thoughts are encoded in a three-dimensional binary lattice according to whether or not the honeycomb cell is filled. Thoughts fly from our minds into the heads of our hive-siblings where they dance out their message and affect the inner workings of the recipient’s brain.”

You pause for a minute to absorb the implication. “All right, messengers. So you’ve got to have some kind of a dispatcher. Who is your leader? Who is the queen of the hivemind?”

“There is no leader. We are decentralized. Information spreads equally between us, though at different rates of speed, so we are not always entirely in sync. When one of us acts… out of character… correction is needed. If that one does not respond to the dances—” It indicates the picture of the gun.

“You kill it.”

“We merely destroy the container. We each contribute drones and other thoughts to the restructure. They eat the old waxwork and create a new one. Only the original queen survives, starts to build a new hive within it. That is how we reproduce. In fact,” its eyes defocus, “I’ve just had a new thought. It is almost ready to break free and find its own place to nest.” The persistent sound of buzzing that this whole time you’d thought was the noise of the overhead light increases sharply, and only now can you tell that it’s coming from the creature sitting in front of you.

“But then why kill species that aren’t part of your hive? What happens when….” Suddenly, you have a new thought. A frightening one. “…when you share your thoughts with a human?”

Bees fly from all its orifices and cover your face. You feel them poking at your nostrils and ears. You freeze in your seat, afraid of provoking them to sting you, but that’s not the real threat. They probe deeper and deeper until one of them breaks through the earwax barrier and fills your head with royal jelly dreams.

You have a fat-barrelled gun—the Deep Thought police gave it to you with your badge. The bullet inside it buzzes. You’re standing in the commissioner’s office, and he’s looking up at you from behind his desk with a puzzled look. He chairs the board that drafts all laws governing semi-sentients. He says, “Was there something you wanted?”

You want to share with him the new thought you’d had. All you have to do is release it from its six-chambered cell, and you can change his mind.


© 2023 by Josh Pearce

860 words

Author’s Note: This flash piece came from a combination of: the Biblical story of Samson finding a beehive in a lion’s corpse; the bee-firing rifle from Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles; adipocere (also known as corpse wax, or grave wax); cellular automata; and the idea that if there are laws of robotics, then there must also be law enforcers. This story ties in loosely with another of my flash fictions, “Further Laws of Robotics” in Nature, which introduced the Deep Thought Police.

Josh Pearce has stories and poetry in Analog, Asimov’s, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Cast of Wonders, Clarkesworld, IGMS, and Nature, and he frequently reviews films for Locus Magazine. Find more of his writing at fictionaljosh.com. One time, Ken Jennings signed his chest.


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