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

edited by David Steffen

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

The widow wants to talk to her husband.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No. Even that, they can’t get right.

It’s all the life.

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

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

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

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


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

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

You do not.

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

So ADRU stays in the police officer’s kitchen.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


It happens just a week later.

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

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

But no one bothers.

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

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

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

“What don’t you understand?”

“Grace did not die in her sleep.”

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


“It’s a type of sleep.”

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

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

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

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

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

And then it stops walking.

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

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

“You’re a robot.”

ADRU looks at him. Both things can be true.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It can be fair again, ADRU thinks.

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

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

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

It thinks: What makes a person not a person?

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

© 2024 by Charlie B. Lorch

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

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

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

edited by Chelle Parker

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


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


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


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


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


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


Your Frankensteined corpse is nothing like you.


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


There is nothing like you.


You are everywhere I look.


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

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

© 2024 by Spencer Nitkey

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

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

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DP FICTION #106: “It Clings” by Hammond Diehl

edited by David Steffen

Of course a dybbuk is flat. Flat as a blini. All the easier for that damn ghost to slip under your collar.

Of course a dybbuk is colorless. That’s why, when you say you’ve got a dybbuk, most people say, no you don’t. Go see Dr. Weiner. Spend a few days in Florida.

And of course a dybbuk can stretch like a goddamn balloon animal. So it can stick. Sometimes to fridges. More often to living people, to their familiar messes and warm smells, but not always. Some folks insist that dybbuks full-on possess people, make them fly around, screeching, like giant fruit bats dressed in their funerary finest. Those people are yutzes.

So. We come to the first day of Louie’s shiva. All the expected mourners show up. Larry. Bekah. And look at this: Some kid. Marla. Bekah assumes she’s Larry’s torah student. Larry assumes she’s Bekah’s second cousin once removed. But let’s be honest: nobody cares. Nobody asks. After an hour or so of being thus ignored, Marla drifts into the kitchen and makes herself useful scrubbing dishes.

And that’s when Louie’s widow, Dory, spots a dybbuk. Happens just as she’s adjusting a sheet hanging over a dining-room mirror. There it is, inching along the wall toward the sideboard. Well, if you’re raised right, you don’t care whether that ghost is Louie’s or not. You stab it with a pickle fork and throw it out the window before it can stick to a full-on person, and that’s what Dory does.

Marla stares out the window, watching the dybbuk coast like a frisbee into a riot of neglected crabgrass.

“Good for him,” Marla says. “He loved green things.”

She’s just put her egg salad on the sideboard. It’s festooned with fresh dill and parsley and chives from her kitchen garden, and everyone hates it. Not because they’ve tried it, but because Dory asked what was in it, and who doesn’t bother to put Miracle Whip in an egg salad?

Marla goes back into the kitchen.

We come to the second day of the shiva. Larry comes out of the bathroom. It’s the one — and this is important — decorated in tans and golds. Larry announces that somebody’s kid needs to be sent to his room, because one of Bekah’s latkes is stuck to the bathroom wall next to the towels. The only reason Larry even spotted it is because he almost touched it. Could’ve gotten his hands all greasy.

Bekah hears this and says, “I didn’t bring any latkes.”

The whole shiva races to the bathroom. Bekah has the pickle fork this time.

The dybbuk goes sailing out the bathroom window, landing on a dirt smear that once featured a fennel plant taller than your teenager.

Marla says, “He did love that garden.”

Dory rolls her eyes.

“He was on oxygen,” she says. “Bedridden. Did you even know him?”

“Oh yes. We met on Reddit. In a group about container gardening.”

The whole room looks at Marla like she just landed in a pod.

Later, of course, they go home for the night. All of them except Dory, who is stuck living there, with her stinking, choking grief, and her utter certainty about everything. There’s also Marla, who, if we’re being honest, doesn’t have much else to do.

Marla goes outside. She finds the dirt smear. Now she has the pickle fork.

She brings the dybbuk inside. Dory’s eyes are swollen like golf balls and her nose looks like a sour cherry, but she manages to say, “He couldn’t grow anything anymore. The chives. The fennel. In the end. Couldn’t eat much of anything either.”

“I know,” Marla says.

Marla puts the dybbuk on the counter and opens the refrigerator. No one has touched her egg salad, but the constellation of herbs still shines up from under the plastic wrap, green and good.

She removes the salad from the fridge, peels the plastic wrap from the top of the bowl, balls it up, throws it away. Marla lays a hand on the dybbuk, feels its cool, shivering skin.

She picks it up.

“Louie liked it with Miracle Whip,” Dory says.

Marla says nothing.

Gently, like the pizza guy down on the corner, she stretches the edges of the dybbuk. She lays it across the top of the salad bowl, sticky side down.

It clings.

Then it sags in the middle, just a little, just enough to touch what’s beneath. There is no eating for Louie, not anymore, but there’s this, and I will not pretend to know whether any of it, in the end, did the poor bastard any good.

Dory can’t help it. She chuckles. Then goes into her room and pops two Ambien.

Marla rummages around in a corner and finds her tote bag. She lowers the bowl inside.

Tomorrow will be day three of the shiva. Marla will be gone this time.

And so, if Larry and Bekah bother to look, will be the egg salad.

© 2023 by Hammond Diehl

829 words

Author’s Note: I may have had a dream about a pancake with teeth, or a ghost that was shaped like a pancake. I think it was the latter, because I remember being stricken by how completely pathetic the thing looked, and thinking poor bastard. What if this is as good as it gets? 

Hamm’s work has appeared in Strange Horizons, Kaleidotrope and more. Hamm lives in Los Angeles and writes under the protective blankie of a pseudonym. 

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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.


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.


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.


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 #65B: “Bring the Bones That Sing” by Merc Fenn Wolfmoor

The bird bones arrived on Grandma’s porch every day at dusk with no warning. There were all kinds of skeletons, each distinct: finches, crows, goldfinches, tiny barn owls, starlings, and once, a blue heron that had covered nearly the entire stoop.

Muriel sat on her grandmother’s front porch each summer night, trying to spot when it happened. She never managed to see. She’d blink, or take a breath at the wrong time, or twitch her chin to flick hair at humming insects. And in that moment, the bones would appear on the cedar boards pocked with peeling white paint.

She tried every trick she knew. She propped her eyelids open with finger and thumb, held her breath, sat as still as a girl could in the heat of July and the buzz of mosquitoes hungry for a snack. Her eyes would tear-blur or a gnat would crash into her eyelashes or the porch would creak and startle her. And then the bones were there.

“But who brings them?” Muriel asked her grandma, frustrated.

“They bring themselves,” Grandma said with shrug. She’d scoop up the maze of tiny, brittle pieces that had once been alive, carry the bones inside, and Muriel didn’t see them again.

She had no more success finding out what Grandma did with the bones, either. It was like a dream: she would follow Grandma into the pine log cabin, across the faded welcome mat, through the hallway, and then…Muriel would find herself in the kitchen with a mug of hot cocoa, or up in her loft room with a glass of cold cider, or, sometimes, in the back yard on the tire swing with a juice box forgotten in one hand.


Muriel decided to be bad.

Grandma told her never to touch the bones. But everything else she tried failed. So Muriel waited, and when the bones appeared, she touched them.

The bones belonged to a chickadee, and there was a black feather tucked against the crown of its skull like a memento.

“You’re a patient one, ain’t you,” said the chickadee skull. Its polished beak clacked and its bones shivered in the muggy air.

Muriel gasped. Was this why Grandma told her not to touch? That was unfair! She could have made friends with all the bones if she’d known.

It was late August, and when September came, she would have to go back to the city. Back to her parents who argued and stinky buses clouding the sky and the downstairs apartment neighbors who broke glass and screamed all night. No bird bones ever showed up outside her window even once she learned how to remove the screen. She saw only pigeons vying for space on light posts, or sometimes seagulls before a storm.

“Hi,” Muriel said to the chickadee. “My name is Muriel.” It seemed polite to introduce herself first. “Who are you?”

The chickadee rustled, the scrape of bone against wood soft like dry maple leaves. “If I had a name, it’s been sucked like marrow from my memory. How about you call me Chip?”

Muriel nodded. She glanced over her shoulder, worried Grandma would come and scoop up Chip’s bones and she’d never get to talk to the chickadee again. She didn’t mind not having other people her age around to play with. She didn’t really like the way other kids did gestures and words and glances. It made her tired, and she just wanted to wander back into the woods behind the school yard until she reached a road and stop signs and loud trucks.

“Why are you just bones, Chip?”

The bird laughed—a whistling sound that wasn’t so high-pitched that it hurt her ears. “I died,” Chip said. “I think I was on an important quest. Delivering a message to the Queen.”

Muriel leaned forward, elbows jutting out as she clasped her knees and rocked back and forth on the step. “The Queen of where?”

“I wish I could remember,” Chip said. The skull sighed, sounding very sad. “But death takes odd things from us.”

“I’m sorry,” Muriel said.

She felt bad for Chip. Was being dead scary? Adults seemed to believe this. Her mom didn’t want her watching TV because there was too much violence. Not seeing bad things didn’t make them disappear, though. She’d seen animals die.

Once she’d spotted a falcon divebomb another bird, scoop it up in sun-sharp talons, and fly away. She wished she could be a falcon. Soaring over the skyscrapers, eating pigeons who were too slow, never having to go to school where she got laughed at because she couldn’t read at her grade level. Words danced like shivering bones, rearranging into the shapes that skittered about to evade her fingers and brain.

Here at Grandma’s, her grandmother read to her when she asked, and never sighed in exasperation if she couldn’t read the back of a cereal box at breakfast. Grandma’s cabin was a special place. Muriel was sure that was why the bones came here, and not other houses.

“Was the message all words?” Muriel asked.

“It was a song,” Chip said. “Five bars with three grace notes in the final coda.”

“Just music?” Muriel loved music. She especially loved her soft headphones Grandma had given her, the ones that wrapped around her entire ears, and not the prickly buds that hurt.

“Well,” Chip said, “you’ve heard birdsong before, right? Human words get so…tangled up and spiky. Used against or for, to harm or to take. Sometimes to heal. But human words are not nearly as eloquent as birdsong.”

“I wish I was a bird,” Muriel said, sighing. Then she heard the creak of the floorboards behind her and knew Grandma was coming to scoop up Chip.

She flapped her hands, frustrated. She had been told never to touch the bones. They were brittle and delicate, and Grandma said they lingered of the Old Spaces, which were not meant for small girl-palms to hold.

“Where do you go now?” Muriel asked, afraid that Chip would stop talking to her as soon as the chickadee saw Grandma. “Can I come?”

“Hmmm,” Chip said. “Do you think you can remember a song?”


“That would be helpful,” Chip said. “Maybe you could take the song to someone who can fly it back to the Queen.”

“I’ll try,” Muriel said, eager to do bird-things like remember music.

“Take my feather,” Chip said, and Muriel plucked it from Chip’s skull.

It was soft and felt nice on her fingers. She rubbed it across her hands.

“Listen…” Chip said.

But then the screen door hinges squawked too loud, and Muriel spun around. She looked up at Grandma, hiding her hands behind her back.

With the feather in hand, Muriel saw a different Grandma. This Grandma wore a dark gown spun with peacock feathers and hawk feathers and swan feathers. Giant black wings hung down her back. A hood pulled over her hair was shaped like a bird skull of indeterminate species. Her hands, too, had changed: now the fingers were long and curved like talons, heavy and pale ivory. This Grandma’s eyes were round and gold like an owl’s. Bird-Grandma blinked at her, slow and serene, and in her arms, the ghostly outline of Chip’s body rested at the crook of her elbow.

Muriel gasped. She let go of Chip’s feather as she clapped her hands over her mouth.

Bird-Grandma disappeared, and there was only Muriel’s grandma again: human and old and smelling of lavender and garlic. Grandma held Chip’s bones in her hand.

“Did you touch the bones?” Grandma asked, but not in an angry-voice.

Muriel quickly scooped up the feather to show Grandma the truth, and then the bird-woman was there again. Muriel realized this was her grandmother. The way the birds saw her.

“Why do you have wings?” Muriel asked.

Grandma’s owl-eyes blinked again. “I’m a Reaper of Air,” she said. Her voice sounded the same. Warm and kind like fresh-baked brownies. “Kin come here when they pass, and I carry them to the Forever Skies.”

Muriel liked Bird-Grandma. She wasn’t scary now that Muriel knew she was a grandma to both girls and birds.

“Chip was delivering a message to the Queen, and I’m going to help,” Muriel said. “What’s the song, Grandma?”

Bird-Grandma’s wings rustled like bedsheets hung to dry in the summer breeze. “Listen.”

Muriel held Chip’s feather up to her ear. A melody filled her head: a song that had no words. Muriel gasped. It was the prettiest music she’d ever heard, better than the piano sonatas mixed with loon song she had on CD.

The song stopped and Muriel knew it was missing the last few notes. She shook the feather, but no more music fell out. “Oh no,” Muriel whispered. How was she supposed to give the Queen the message if she didn’t know all the music? “Grandma, the song isn’t fixed!”

Bird-Grandma’s eyelids half-closed, just like Grandma’s did when she was sleepy but pretending not to be asleep. “Death takes odd things from us. But they can be found again if you wish.”

Muriel wiped her face and put Chip’s feather in her pocket. She needed to find the rest of the song to take to the Queen. This is what Chip wanted, and Chip was her friend. Muriel helped her friends. She didn’t have many. They were all important.

“Where did the death take Chip’s song?”

Bird-Grandma sighed, a great flutter of feathers. “Come with me, child. You touched the bones when I told you not to do so, but that is past. I will help you.”


Muriel followed Bird-Grandma down the basement stairs into a great big room filled with windows. So many windows, Muriel couldn’t count them all. She didn’t know they were in Grandma’s basement. The windows didn’t have glass and they came in all shapes and sizes—some so small even a hummingbird would get stuck. And there was one, near the ground, that was girl-sized.

Muriel crouched and peered through the window. There was a forest outside, with multi-colored trees like crayons that had lots of arms. It made her eyes itch. She didn’t like the feel of crayon paper or wax.

“You touched the dead,” Bird-Grandma said. “Your aura pulled away the last of the music.”

Muriel wrinkled her nose. “I didn’t mean to!”

“I know, my child.” Bird-Grandma laid Chip’s bones down on a towel spread on the ground by the small window. “You are a powerful force. It is why I asked you not to touch the bones. You pull things into your orbit, a moon influencing tides.”

Muriel looked at the crayon forest and shivered. “Did I put Chip’s song in there?”

“Yes,” Bird-Grandma said. “These windows are portals to different fears. At times, the dead slip loose and must be retrieved. I carry our kin to the Forever Skies so the dead need not pass through these other lands.” She pointed up, up, up.

Muriel peered at the ceiling. There was a vault of black sky and peeking between the fluffy clouds streamed beams of sun and stars and moon: brilliant night lights so the bird bones wouldn’t get scared of the dark.

“Are you bringing Chip up there?” Muriel asked.

“Yes. But if you wish to find the song, child, you must hurry. Music fades quickly if not remembered.”

Muriel nodded fiercely. She was going to help Chip and bring the lost song to the Queen once she found the missing notes. Then Chip would be happy.

Bird-Grandma bent down and placed a long, smooth feather in Muriel’s hand. “This will bring you back to me as soon as you let it go,” she said.

Gripping the feather tight, Muriel crouched and shuffled into the window in search of Chip’s song.


Inside the crayon-forest, everything was loud and crunchy. Muriel gasped. Scratchy sounds flew around her head like bugs. The trees swayed and whooshed, paper leaves bumping together in awful crinkling waves.

“Go away!” Muriel yelled at the noise.

Instead, the swoopy, itchy sounds popped and cracked and squealed like fireworks. Echoes bounced against her hair in big purple sparkles and stung her cheeks. She swatted at the air. The bad-sounds shrieked orange and whistled pink, swirling faster around her face. Muriel started crying. It hurt! There was so much interference she couldn’t think clearly. She clapped her hands over her ears and almost lost hold of Grandma’s feather. How could she find Chip’s song in this place?

The ground was full of sevens, sharp and pokey, and bitey threes that tried to eat her toes. She kicked the numbers away. The sevens made garlic farts when they melted. Her nose felt like Rudolph’s, shiny and round and made of mean bully-laughs.

She huddled down and banged her forehead against the softer sixes that puffed up like little flowers. These were minty and didn’t sting her nose. She should have brought her headphones. But then she might not hear the song through the squishy foam and soothing soft-static.

The feather whispered in her ear, Let go and come home.

“I can’t,” Muriel told the feather. Her palms were sticky, like when candy canes melted. She rubbed her free hand on her jeans. The fabric crinkled plasticky and so yellow it scraped her brain. She gripped the feather’s stem harder. “Chip needs the music.”

Before Grandma had given her the nice headphones, one of her favorite teachers, Ms. Eugene, let her wear a soft microplush headband when the sounds in class got too big and made her hit herself.

“The fabric will sing you a song just for you,” Ms. Eugene had said, and she guided Muriel’s hands gently so her palms pressed against the softness over her ears. “Can you hear it?”

The music was really coming from Ms. Eugene’s throat, but it felt nice on Muriel’s skin and she slowly calmed down. Ms. Eugene let her keep the headband, even though it was winter and she already had a hat. She wore the microplush under her beanie, humming Ms. Eugene’s song to herself on the bus. The headband memorized the music and played it back for her right in her ears, and the rumble of the bus and the outside-voices of the other kids weren’t so bad.

Muriel remembered Ms. Eugene’s headband’s music. She hummed it to herself until her throat felt too big for her skin, like it would pop out. The esophagus, she’d learned in school, was long and round and tube-like, so of course it would roll away if it escaped. She kept her lips together.

Slowly, the forest-sounds grew dimmer. Muriel peeked, still humming. The trees shuffled together, shiny with wax and dry paper, but the swooping sounds were further away. She got to her feet.

Suddenly, the ground went sideways—all the trees were on the ceiling, waving at her with confetti-leaves, and the sevens and threes danced like wiggly string cheese in front of her eyes.

Her stomach did a flip-flop, like when she spun in circles so fast she threw up. The sky was filled with white radio noise. It was raining polka dots that didn’t have any water.

Stop it stop it STOP IT! Muriel yelled at the world, silently, because she needed her lips to hum the song. You’re being mean!

Grandma said she pulled things into her orbit. If she could attract bad sounds, why couldn’t she be a magnet for good things, like music? She shut her eyes so the crayon-trees didn’t scratch her, so the numbers would stop being green, so the sky would fold back and stop being under her feet, and began humming Chip’s song. Over and over, stopping just before the missing notes made it crash into silence.

Nothing but the crunch-whiiish of paper. The screeches kept popping against her hands and arms, sparkly fingers that made her want to scream DON’T TOUCH.

Had the ground gone back to normal? Her hair still waved around like she was sideways, but her stomach didn’t hurt anymore.

Again, Muriel hummed Chip’s song, feeling the vibrations in her throat and up into her chin. She imagined herself to be a Muriel-shaped bird, covered in the softest of soft feathers, lighter than air. She would zoom around the sky and sing with the other birds and they would be her friends.

She opened her mouth and tried to sing Chip’s birdsong the way she’d heard it from Chip’s feather. The lost notes would want to come back to their song, where they belonged. Her voice was squawky and full of missteps. She wasn’t good at singing. Not like Ms. Eugene and Chip and all the birds.

Let go and come home, Grandma’s feather whispered.

“No,” Muriel said, and took a deep breath. She sat down so her knees didn’t wobble. The ground was a weird squishy sponge now, without numbers, but it was where it belonged. She thought of Chip’s bones and the sadness of missing the notes of the song. The Queen needed to hear the music.

She rocked back and forth and tried again. Her hair stopped floating.

For her friend Chip and for Grandma and for all the birds.

This time, her voice sounded more like birdsong and closer to the melody Chip sung for her.

A quiet trill made her jump. The lost notes!

Slowly, Muriel peeked her eyelids open and looked around. There, several big steps away in a waxy bush made from ugly taupe crayon-paper, trembled the music from Chip’s song. Giant twos and zeros loomed like cartoon skyscrapers over the bush.

A huge crash-boom of pea soup thunder swirled above the little notes. Muriel gasped. The enormous sound would smash the music and break it into shrill bits. She couldn’t let the lost notes get hurt.

Muriel leapt to her feet and raced like a peregrine falcon towards the bush. Air whipped against her face and she clutched her feather until her sticky hand ached. “Hold on!”

The crash-boom swooped down, thick as moldy oatmeal, but Muriel was fast—peregrine falcons could dive faster than racecars, and raptors weren’t painfully loud. She scooped the notes up in her free hand, humming the melody like her own birdsong, and jumped away.


The sound smacked into the ground, flattening the crayon-paper bush and throwing Muriel on her back from impact. She went rolling. Muriel screamed. Her ears pounded like drums and it hurt hurt HURT

All around her, the world wobbled like Jell-O stars and it was going to squish her and she’d be stuck like a gummy bear and she didn’t want to stay here, she wanted to go home and—

She clutched the lost notes against her shirt. They shivered, almost slipping through her fingers. “Hold on,” Muriel whispered, and before the huge sound could pounce on her, she let go of the feather.


Muriel sat on the floor of Grandma’s cabin, her ears still hurting from the loudness. But here by all the windows, it was quiet. Bird-Grandma draped her favorite blanket over her shoulders, and she curled up in the snuggly fabric. And there were her headphones! She put them on, but left her right ear open just a little.

The music notes wiggled in her hand. “Are you okay?” Muriel asked them, slowly uncurling her fingers.

The music trilled again, and suddenly they vanished. She sat up, grinning. “Grandma! I know Chip’s music!”

Bird-Grandma nodded solemnly. She still held the chickadee bones in her great palm.

“Sing for them,” Bird-Grandma said. “Let them take the music to the Queen of Air where they will be welcomed.”

Muriel clutched her blanket around herself and put her mouth close to Bird-Grandma’s hand. Then sang the whole song. Chip’s bones rustled.

“Thanks, friend,” Chip said.

“You’re welcome,” Muriel replied.

Bird-Grandma lifted her arm and her hand stretched like a huge wing unfolding, carrying Chip up into the vaulted sky.


Grandma and Muriel sat on the front step, drinking hot cocoa with extra marshmallows, and watched the sky twinkle with summer stars. They were nice and quiet stars, and the trees around Grandma’s house were good trees, with non-yelling leaves and plain bark. Muriel sighed, happy to be home.


“Yes, dear?”

“Can I help you collect songs if they get lost again?” Muriel had her headphones on, but she could always hear her grandmother’s soft, soothing voice. She was still bouncy from her adventure and happy Chip was safe, and the song for the Queen of Air was whole.

Grandma smiled. “Yes. I will teach you how to care for the bones so your touch does not pull them away.”

Muriel beamed. She swallowed the sweetness of melty chocolate and marshmallows, then leaned her head on Grandma’s shoulder. She would have to go back when the summer was over, but she would know lots of new birdsongs and would always have her friends.

© 2020 by Merc Fenn Wolfmoor

Merc Fenn Wolfmoor is a queer non-binary writer who lives in Minnesota. Merc is a Nebula Awards finalist, and their stories have appeared in Lightspeed, Fireside, Apex, Uncanny, Nightmare, and several Year’s Best anthologies. You can find Merc on Twitter @Merc_Wolfmoor or their website: http://mercfennwolfmoor.com. Their debut short story collection, SO YOU WANT TO BE A ROBOT, was published by Lethe Press.

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

DP FICTION #49B: “The Last Death” by Sahara Frost

I stare into the endless dark, watching, waiting. It’s like all those years ago, when I was a kid on Christmas Eve. Me, lying in bed, wide-eyed with anticipation, listening for the clatter of eight tiny reindeer landing overhead. Only this time, it’s not jolly old Saint Nick I’m expecting. Nor is it sugar plums that dance inside my head, keeping sleep at bay.

The silent night drags on, one moment melding seamlessly into the next until I think the world must have stopped. Only the stars show me different, each glance out my window revealing their gradual progress across the sky. Then, at long last, it’s over. The dull gleam of first light crests the horizon, and once more, the world begins to move.

“Well,” I say to myself, “Suppose I might as well get ready.”

Heart fluttering with a giddy tingle, I throw back the covers and sit up. Immediately, my poor old bones creak in protest, reminding me to slow down. “Easy, girl. Easy!” I chide, quelling the urge to spring from my bed like some youngster, “No sense in falling and breaking a hip. ‘Specially not today of all days.” I release my impatience with a huff and bob my head in a reluctant nod. Then I plant my feet firmly on the floor, reach for my cane, and carefully hoist myself up.

Once my balance is sure, I begin to move about my home, preparing for the day. There isn’t much to be done. There never is, these days. Still, I want everything to be absolutely perfect. So I throw open all the doors and windows to let in light and fresh air. Then I busy myself with one last tidying-up, straightening the bed, sweeping the floor, and wiping a rag over any surface that might have collected dust overnight.

The next time I look up, my heart skips a beat. Slashes of crimson and gold have already begun to streak the sky. It won’t be long now. Going to the front door, I search the skeletal remains of what had once been a thriving subdivision with bated breath. “Today is the day,” I insist, the words hissing through my teeth like a prayer, “Surely, today is the day.”

I sweep my eyes back and forth for only a moment longer before spying what I seek. There, where the empty street curves out of sight behind a thinning copse of bone white trees, is the stark outline of a shadow. A shadow with which I am now quite familiar. Every morning, it appears on my horizon and, throughout the day, makes its slow approach. When the sun sets, it runs away, but by the next morning, it’s back again, a little closer than the day before. Yesterday, it nearly reached my doorstep before it turned and fled. “It has to be today. It has to!”

Knowing there’s not much time left, I go to my bookcase and take down the lone photo album occupying its shelves. I turn it over and over in my hands, slowly tracing my fingers over the familiar creases in its soft, worn cover. When at last I crack it open, I do so with my eyes closed, breathing deep the sweet, musty tang wafting up from its yellowed pages. Then I open my eyes again and finally allow myself to look at the smiling ghosts trapped within.

An old pain twinges deep within my chest at the same time that a smile tugs at my lips. “Hello, loves,” I say, “It’s been too long, hasn’t it?” I gently turn the album’s pages, pausing to touch the faces captured in each photograph. “Yes, far too long indeed.” When I finish going through and greeting them all, I shut the photo album and clutch it tight to my chest. “But it won’t be much longer now,” I promise, “I’ll be seeing you soon.”

As the words leave my mouth, I am again seized by a giddy feeling. “Soon,” I say to myself, as though repeating the word will make it that much more real to me, “Soon!” Bolstered by my own words, I stand a little straighter and even allow myself a small, excited grin. Returning the photo album to its shelf, I let go my last earthly treasure. There’s only one thing left to do now. Just one last thing. Filled with a sense of renewed determination, I turn to go outside.

“Good heavens!” I cry, heart leaping into my throat when I see the pintsized, hooded figure now standing in my doorway. Thinking I’ve lost track of time again, I ask, “Is it that late, already?” and glance over its head. The sun’s bright eye meets my gaze through the open door. “Oh,” I say, understanding dawning with a bittersweet twinge of disappointment, “You’re early.”

“No, not early,” the figure sighs with a soft, mournful wisp of a voice, “Quite late, actually.”

“Ah,” I say, not entirely sure how to respond, “Well I’m sure you had your reasons.”

“Reasons,” replies the figure, a tremor now audible in its voice, “Excuses.”

“You’re here now,” I try, “That’s what’s really important, right?”

In a gesture reminiscent of a sullen child, the figure twitches its slumped shoulders in an indifferent shrug. I wait for it to say something, but no word comes, and soon, the silence grows awkward. I’m not really sure what it is I envisaged for this moment. A word or a beckoning hand. I just know I’m waiting for something. Anything. But the figure says nothing, does nothing, and we just stand there facing each other, a chasm of silent expectation growing ever wider between us.

Keen to go, my impatience starts to get the better of me. I begin to wonder if I shouldn’t say something. After all, maybe it’s not just me that’s waiting. Perhaps I need to give some sort of sign to show that I’m ready. “Or,” my second-guessing mind whispers. Or maybe I was wrong about today. Maybe my time hasn’t come after all. Maybe it never will. “Or,” it whispers again. Or maybe it already has. Maybe my time came and went long ago. Maybe I’ll wait here forever, suffering in this lonely hell. “Or.”

Panic twists my stomach into a knot and tightens its claws around my throat. I struggle to catch my breath, my lungs dragging painfully, desperate for air. My mind whirls, and I feel myself slipping into a tailspin. As the room seems to tilt around me, I squeeze my eyes shut and hold onto my cane for dear life. It is then, just as I think the chaos will devour me whole, that a sound cuts through the silent screaming in my mind, the soft sobbing of a weeping child.

Opening my eyes, I cast about for the source of the sound. But my home is empty. Nobody else is here. Nobody but me and my strange, small companion. A closer look shows me that it is, indeed, my visitor who weeps. Its shaking form is evident, even beneath the concealing folds of its several-sizes-too-large robe.

As I look at the pitiable creature trembling in my doorway, my panic loosens its grip upon me, giving way to another emotion. One I have not felt in far too long. Compassion. “Oh, come now!” I say, “No need for that! Here, why don’t you come in and sit awhile with me. It’s been a long time since I’ve had anyone to talk to.” Moving to my kitchen table, I slowly lower myself into one of the two chairs I had already pulled out in preparation for today. When I look up to see that my visitor has made no move to join me, I gently add, “Besides, you’re already late. I’m sure it won’t matter if you’re a little later.”

My words apparently afford some small measure of comfort. Though my visitor still hesitates in the doorway, its sobbing subsides into a quieter snuffling. “I suppose that’s true,” I hear it say, pinpricks of hope stippling its muffled words, “Maybe if it’s only for a moment or two.” Then, as though expecting to be struck by a divine bolt of lightning, the figure ducks its head, hunches its shoulders, and takes one tentative step forward. Then another. Then another. When it at last climbs into the empty seat next to me and still nothing happens, it allows itself to relax once more.

“So,” I start, only to discover I haven’t actually thought of what to say, and thus petering out with a lamely trailing, “so…” A moment later, I open my mouth to try again, but having failed to solve the initial problem, am forced to shut it once more. Again and again, this cycle repeats itself, resulting in a long silence that my visitor shows no intention of helping to break. Until, at last tiring of my tongue-tying indecision, I throw all caution to the wind and begin spitting out my every thought as it comes to mind.

“Huh. Well what do you know. Here I am with someone to finally talk to, and I can’t seem to find a single thing to say. It’s not like I don’t have anything to say. I’ve got loads to say! I just can’t seem to decide where to begin. After all this time to think about it—and believe you me, I’ve had plenty of time—you’d think I’d have that part figured out. And maybe I did, once. But now that it’s come to it, I just don’t know. I just don’t know!”

Laughing softly to myself, I shake my head and give my silent companion a wry smile. “Sorry, kiddo. Guess I’m a little out of practice with this whole conversation thing. What about you? What’s your excuse?”

A beat passes in silence. Two beats. Three. Just as I am ready to give up waiting for a response, my companion shrugs and says, “You humans don’t usually want to talk to me.”

“Really?” I ask, genuinely surprised, “Why not? I’d think they’d have all sorts of questions for you. I know I do.”

Another stretch of silence, then, “Some have questions. But they’re usually the kind I can’t answer.”

“And the ones you can?”

“They still don’t often lead to a conversation. Demanding. Cursing. Pleading. But not a conversation.”

“O-Oh. I…I see.” I falter, unsure of where to go from there, but I’m saved the trouble.

“But most people,” my companion continues without prodding, “don’t say anything at all. They can’t. They’re too shocked or sad or scared. And besides, I don’t get to be with any of them that long. So by the time they realize there’s nothing to be afraid of, it’s too late to talk. They’ve already moved on.”

As I listen to all of this with rapt interest, I become aware of a sensation like a knot being loosened within myself. It starts in my chest, works its way up the muscles of my neck, then spreads into my shoulders and down my back. I’m free, I realize. Free of a weight I hadn’t even realized I was carrying. Free of a fear that I’d long ago buried and forgotten. The very same fear that I now recognize being reflected in the figure sitting next to me.

“Sounds like lonely work,” I say, “Must be tough.”

“Yes, sometimes, but I don’t mind,” it replies, a new vitality entering its voice so that it practically gushes, “After all, I was made for this work, and it for me. Only I can do this. No one else was made to endure the responsibility. And besides, the reward more than makes up for the hardship. I know it might be difficult for you to understand, but there’s nothing quite like the sight of a soul when it realizes it’s been brought home. Nothing quite like it at all.”

“I can only imagine,” I say, wondering what sort of expression now hides behind the cowl, “It sounds like you really love your work.”

“I do,” enthuses my companion, then more subdued, “I did.”

“You did?” I question, a touch incredulous, “You mean to tell me you don’t love it anymore? I find that hard to believe.”

“Oh, no. Never that,” assures my companion, “Never that.”


For a long moment, my companion doesn’t answer, picking at its robes in silence. Then, in a voice so quiet I almost don’t hear it, it slowly whispers, “I always knew, even from the very beginning, that it wouldn’t last forever. That my work…my role…my purpose…would eventually end.”

“End?” I repeat, slow to understand, “But wait…then wouldn’t that mean—?”

“Yes,” interjects my companion, anticipating my question before I even fully realize what it is I’m asking, “It is exactly as you suspect.” Then, without warning, it begins to speak in a foreign tongue. “KAÌ Ὁ THΆNATOS KAÌ Ὁ HAÍDĒS,” it says, its tone deepening and expanding, “EBLĒTHĒSAN EIS TḖN LIMNÉ TOŨ PYRÓS.” Its voice continues to grow, reaching a powerful timbre of such magnitude that the walls around me begin to shake. “OὟTOS ESTIN.” And though I cannot understand the words, “Ὁ DEÚTERÓS THΆNATOS,” they reverberate through me, speaking to my very core.

In the silence that follows, my ears ache with a painful ringing. For a moment, I fear that I have gone deaf. But then I hear my companion, in a low voice, say, “Then Death and the Grave were cast into the lake of fire. This is the second death.” Almost as an afterthought, it adds, “The last death.”

“The death of Death,” I murmur, at last understanding. I pause, contemplating this new development, then ask, “So I really am the last?”


“I see,” I reply, inwardly marveling at how calmly I accept this confirmation of my long-held suspicions, “I had thought so, but there was no real way for me to know for sure.” I pause again, longer this time, reluctant to ask my next question. Finally, though, I manage, “So if I am the last, then that must mean when I…” Here I stumble, unable to bring myself to say the word. “…you also—?”


This time, the confirmation hits hard, and I am unable to say anymore for a long while. When I finally do find my voice again, it comes out weak and fearful as I ask, “Is that why it took you so long to come for me?”

The silence that follows is all the answer I need. All at once, I am overwhelmed by the powerful sense of relief that washes over me. Dropping my face into my hands, I cry, “Thank God! Thank you, thank you, God! I had thought that maybe…but no. Thank you, Lord. Oh thank you, thank you, thank you!”

I continue like that for a time, letting out all my years of built-up feelings in a catharsis of tears. When I at last finish crying out all my fear, doubt, frustration, and despair, I dry my eyes and start, “I’m sorry, I—”

“No,” interrupts my companion, its tone heavy with shame, “It is I who should be s-sorry.” Voice breaking on this last word, it sobs, “I’ve been so afraid. I let my fear get in the way of my duty and have caused you such suffering. I’m so sorry. So, so sorry for what I have done to you.”

I listen to these profuse apologies in solemn silence, unsure how to accept them. Part of me is tempted to wave them away with a blithely assuring, “It’s okay,” but that would ring false. Because the truth is it isn’t okay. It hasn’t been okay for a very long time. So rather than try to bandage over my pain with comforting lies, I instead reach out in the spirit of solidarity and say, “I think we all do sometimes. I know I’ve said and done things I’m not exactly proud of, all because I was afraid.”

“But you’re human!”

“And you’re…well, I guess I don’t really know what you are…but you’re not God, are you?”


“Then I think it’s probably fair to assume that you’re forgiven a mistake from time to time too.”

“Maybe,” my companion relents, though still sounding unconvinced, “I don’t know.”

“Well why not? You’re sorry aren’t you?”

It nods.

“And you’re here to repair your mistake, aren’t you?”

It starts to nod again, then hesitates.

“You are here to repair your mistake,” I repeat with a jolt of panic, “Right?”

It hesitates another moment, then finally dips its head, finishing its nod.

Releasing my held breath in a nervous laugh of relief, I say, “Well that’s all anyone can really ask for. Just gotta give it our best shot and trust God to take care of the rest.”

Speaking slowly, painfully, as though each word is a struggle to say, my companion admits, “What you say is true, but…” Its voice lowers to a whisper. “…but I am still afraid.”

Leaning forward, I reach out my hand and, with a small smile, whisper, “Me too.”

For a long moment, my companion sits there, staring at my outstretched hand. Then slowly, ever so slowly, it reaches out and takes my hand in its own. The moment our hands meet, my companion finds its courage. Before my very eyes, it undergoes a sort of transformation, straightening its back, squaring its shoulders, and lifting its head. Then, taking a deep breath, it looks me in the eye and bravely quavers, “Y-You have nothing to be afraid of. I-I’ll stay with you every step of the way.”

“And I with you,” I promise, giving its hand a gentle squeeze, “I’ll stay with you too. Every step of the way.”

“O-Okay,” it stammers, with a small frantic nod, “I-I’m ready.”

“Okay,” I say.

Getting to my feet, I help my companion down from its chair. Then, hand in trembling hand, we walk to the front door. When we step up to the threshold, we are met by a vision so breathtakingly glorious that I am momentarily stunned to stillness. As I look upon this final sunset, I am filled to overflowing with a profound sense of peace. I am ready.

We look at each other then, my companion and I.

“Together?” I ask.

“Together,” it agrees.

Then, holding fast to each other’s hands, we cross the threshold and step into bright, burning light.

© 2018 by Sahara Frost

Author’s Note:    I originally wrote this story in response to a call for submissions from Zombies Need Brains. They were looking for short stories to publish in a few themed anthologies, including one dedicated to exploring Death as a character. From the moment I read the prompt, I knew that I wanted to write Death as a sympathetic character, particularly as a child (or at least a child-like entity). The idea for my short story didn’t fully form, though, until I stumbled across a Bible verse in Revelations that describes Death being thrown into a lake of fire at the end of days. When I read that verse, I suppose you could say I felt a bit of sympathy for Death. The lake of fire struck me as a pretty raw deal for someone just doing their job. I thought about how if that was the future waiting for me, I would probably be living in constant terror. With that, an idea began to grow in my mind, and my story came to life.

Sahara Frost grew up in the foothills of Tennessee, reading anything and everything she could find. When books were not enough to feed her ravenous imagination, she began to write her own. An M.A. in English and an M.S. in Information Science later, she now supports her reading addiction by daylighting as a librarian while staying up all hours of the night to pursue her real job: writing fantasy. Fortunately, her supportive husband tolerates her many obsessions and makes sure her coffee mug stays full so that she can continue writing.

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

DP FICTION #44B: “Still Life With Grave Juice” by Jim Moss

“This is the real thing? None of that synth-sludge?”

“Yes, sir. Direct from Earth.”

“And it’s the best you’ve got?” Quincy eyed the glass on the robowaiter’s tray. He should have ordered a bottle. He would need more to help unravel the stress of his turbulent negotiations with the Wattlars, who had rejected yet another contract. At least this outpost had an overpriced restaurant where he could run up his company’s expense account.

“Highest quality and price, I assure you. You may access my Integriport–”

“Yeah, yeah…” Quincy waved his hand, the gesture cue enough for the robowaiter to spit out a coaster which landed on the table with a soft plop. In a ballet of hydraulics, the robowaiter plucked the glass off the tray and set it before Quincy with the exaggerated grace of a suitor presenting a rose.

“Will that be all, sir?”

“You know, on Earth, they pop the cork in front of the patron, so it can be inspected for dryness, and they show the bottle so that–”

“You requested a glass, not an entire bottle,” the robowaiter spun its upper torso away from Quincy and sped off. Quincy held up the glass by the stem, examining its deep burgundy contents by the overhead light. He brought it down below his nose and inhaled.


That word, that accent, the derisive tone — Quincy knew it referred to him. It made the scent of fresh blackberries he just inhaled turn rancid. He turned his head and expelled his breath away from the glass. There, seated the next table over were a pair of Arthruds. Common in this sector, especially at spaceports, they enjoyed a reputation as damn good mechanics despite being an insufferable race of know-it-alls. To Quincy they looked like a cross between an armadillo and a giant bipedal lobster, with outer bodies covered in segmented plates and a second set of arms beneath the first. The adult and child were eating what appeared to be shards of cardboard soaked in neon anti-freeze. The child could not be more than seven molts old. Both bobbed, jostling their plates, which made squeaky noises like balloons being rubbed together. They did this when laughing, or passing judgment, or both. Quincy rolled his eyes, turned away, swirled the glass and inhaled again. He tipped a sip and rolled it around his mouth with his tongue. Yes, yes, blackberries, currant, a touch of clover, anise, oak…

“What is he drinking?” asked the child.

“I believe it is called ‘wine.’ It is a death drink.”

“Will we get to see the Earther die?”

“No.” Squeaky balloon sounds sputtered out of the adult’s body plates. “I meant death as in dead. Wine is made from the dead. As I said, they are cannibals.”

“Should we leave?”

“No, don’t worry. They only eat their own.”

“If another Earther comes along, will they try to eat each other?” The child looked around the restaurant. Quincy moved his wine aside and turned to face the Arthruds. It was one thing for two adults to spout their ignorance, but quite another for an adult to imbue such bigotry on a child.

“Excuse me, I’m sorry, I couldn’t help overhearing…” Quincy stared into the adult’s face trying to lock onto the creature’s three eyes with his own two. “Perhaps you received some faulty information. Earth people are not cannibals.”

“It is well known throughout the galaxy that yours is a cannibalistic race.” The adult met Quincy’s stare, crossing his midarms across his midsection.

“You’re wrong. I don’t know where you heard this propaganda, but it’s false and insulting.”

“On your planet, do you not bury your dead?”

“We bury them, but we don’t eat them.”

The adult raised a plated brow above its top eye and turned to face the child.

“Earthers bury their dead in the ground in graveyards where the bodies decompose. They sow their strange plant life into these yards. The plants send their roots into the soil and suck in the fragments of the dead. Then the plant blooms and bears fruit. Fruit containing bits of the dead. Fruit they then eat.”

“Where are you getting this nonsense? We don’t plant fruit trees in graveyards.” Quincy could feel a vein in his forehead throb. The adult pointed at the glass of wine with the spindly third digit of his upper right claw.

“Is not your ‘wine’ made of grave juice?”

“Ahh! Here’s your confusion. Wine is made from grapes not graves. Grapes are fruit grown in vineyards, not graveyards.” Quincy reached for his glass. The adult raised two plated brows and leaned towards the child.

“The problem, Dewlis, is that Earthers have many words in their languages that mean the same thing. They use these to confuse others about what things really are. When you point out their error, they complain that it was a mis-understanding or a mis-interpretation. Beware when an Earther says ‘mis’.” The adult turned back, his eyes drawn to the vein now bulging on Quincy’s forehead.

“You are not the authority on Earth languages, Mis-ter. What is your name?”

“Spureb. And yours?”

“Quincy. And I’m going to prove you wrong.” Quincy threw his arm out blocking the robowaiter as it attempted to zip between tables. The waiter’s upper torso spun around twice before it stopped to face him.

“Yes, sir?”

“Tell us, waiter,” Quincy held up the wineglass. “What is wine made from?”


“And where does this wine come from?”

“Earth, France, the Bordeaux region.”

“St. Emillion? Pomerol?” Quincy took a sip.

“No sir, Graves.” The robowaiter spun back and zipped away.

“Bah Za!” Spureb pointed two digits and a folded claw at Quincy.

“No! Listen, that’s just the name of the region. The waiter mispronounced it. It’s pronounced ‘grahv’ with a short ‘a’. A different vowel sound. It’s French for gravel. It’s the name of a French wine growing region. It has nothing to do with graves. Don’t mistake a vineyard for graveyard.”

“The Earther said ‘mis’ twice!” Dewlis smiled at his father. They bopped in amusement, squeaky laughter reverberating like an orgy of balloon animals.

“Just stop and listen!” Quincy pounded the table. “A vineyard is a yard where grapes grow, a graveyard is a–”

“They are both ‘yards’ then, a measured plot of land, yes?” Spureb created a square using his four arms.

“Yes, but—”

“Yet you pronounce the ‘yard’ in vineyard as ‘yerd’. A different vowel sound. Is this a mispronunciation?”

“Uh… no, because, uh…”

“So yard is a word pronounced two ways, but means the same thing.” Dewlis said. “Like ‘grahv’ and ‘grave’.”

“No! They are two different things” Quincy threw his hands up, then grabbed his wineglass and poured a gulp into his mouth. “You know, even if a vineyard was planted on top of a dead body, we don’t eat dead flesh directly, so we’re not cannibals.”

“Suppose they are two different plots of land, as you say.” Spureb sat back in his chair and clacked the digits of his upper claws together. “You still contaminate your soil with your dead. If an insect eats a leaf from a plant in your ‘graveyard’ then flies into a ‘vineyard’ and dies in the soil and the vin plants eat the soil with the dead insect, then you eat the fruit of vin plants – you have eaten pieces of your dead.”

“No. Because what I’ve really eaten is molecular compounds. Someone dies, they’re buried, they decay. Maybe a bug eats some of it. When the bug dies it decays into simpler molecules, water, proteins, amino acids. So a plant uses these nutrients and produces fruit that someone may eat. So what? Everything gets recycled. Broken down and recycled. It’s the nature of the universe.”

“That may be the nature of your planet, but not the universe.”

“Oh yeah? What do you do with your dead?”

“Our dead become art. That is the proper way to honor them.”


“My great ahdmah won the Op Culbet for her work on great pahdah,” said Dewlis.

“He’s hanging in the Brachalach, our finest museum.” Spureb tapped his claw on his chest plate. “And what a stunning piece he is. Great ahdmah bent his spine into a semi-circle and beneath this, draped the flesh of his pale underbelly. Over this setting moon motif, she sprinkled the glittering shards of his shattered neck plate. His top abdomen is broken open and from the center, triangular strips of muscle are strung outwards in all directions like a blazer blossom. Here, his left claw, stained in ochre bile, is curled in a fetal ball. The fourth digit, bent impossibly backwards, protrudes like a stamen. And no matter where you move to look, that digit seems to follow you. His head top hangs upside down strung from a series of tendons like a rain basket that… Bah! I’m talking to a flabedah!” Spureb threw three of his arms up in the air.

“A flabedah?”

“That’s Arthruder for uh… you have no word in your language. It means someone who does not understand or appreciate what art does for a soul.”

“Uh huh.”

“Ah! I forget. You Earthers believe the soul leaves the body after the body is no longer self-animating.” Spureb flailed his four arms and swayed back and forth.

“That’s silly!” Dewlis squeaked a series of chuckles. “Soul is made of body. How can soul leave body? Silly!”

“Dewlis, this is what Earthers believe.” Spureb cooed in sing-song. “We should not ridicule their beliefs.”

“Ha!” Quincy plunked his glass on the coaster. “You cut up bodies to make rain buckets. So you chop up souls.”

“The soul may be divided, but it is not separated. It is recombined with the body into a more appealing form of art. Most souls find it agreeable.”

“And how do you know they find it agreeable?”

“In the silent hours if we stand before our ancestors and relax our minds we can hear their voices whisper to us.”

“Zul Ahdmah whispers to me,” said Dewlis.

“Yes, she tells you to stop slumping so much.”

“No, she tells me I am entitled to extra Kerzyhisses, for I will molt large.”

“She does not. You are only imagining that.”

“Yeah, you creatures molt,” said Quincy. “You drop off chunks of body parts. What happens to the soul of those parts? You couldn’t possibly save every single— “

“We re-ingest them. That’s what we’re eating right now.” Spureb speared a boiled body plate with his fork. “We eat only our own souls, not others’, thank you.”

“I don’t like the taste of my lower abdomen,” said Dewlis.

“Well, you better eat it, or you’ll be incomplete and never get displayed in a good museum.”

“What do you do when your art decays?” Quincy tossed a gulp of wine into his mouth.

“It does not decay. It is all how-you-say — varnished. We are not primitives that allow our dead to decay into pieces that end up in the food supply and get mixed in with other souls and eaten and—”

“Is that why his abdomen is so large?” Dewlis pointed his claw at Quincy’s belly. Quincy silently cursed the station’s greater-than-earth gravity, which made him heavier, compressed his breath and pulled his belly downwards, causing him look flabbier than he really was.

“Yes,” said Spureb. “That is where they collect. No soul, even a piece of soul, wants to be expelled as waste.”

“Alright, look, my… stoutness has nothing to do with souls in my body. Extra weight is caused by fat cells that accumulate because… Look, it’s not souls, OK?” Quincy’s grip tightened on the glass.

“You bury your dead in the ground, your plant life eats from this ground, breaking up souls and—”

“Your information is ancient. Burial is hardly done on our planet anymore. Real estate is too expensive. It’s more common that we cremate our dead.” Quincy twirled the wineglass by its stem. He felt tingly; the alcohol must be kicking in. He sat back and sighed, expecting another round of squeaks.

“Cremate?” Dewlis turned to his father.

“Cream is a white goo.” Spureb’s face plates shifted out of symmetry. “Earthers whip it up and serve it on their desserts.”

“No! That’s not what it is!” Quincy bolted upright.

“Cream-ate… ’Ate’ means that they’ve eaten it!”

“No, no, no! In cremation the body is burned into ashes.”

“What do you do with the ashes?” Spureb’s voice was low, his neck sunk into his upper torso.

“Scatter them in the wind.” Quincy turned away, took a gulp of wine, and clenched his fists expecting another round of squeaks. But the Arthruds were silent, the only sound, the grinding of Quincy’s teeth. Quincy turned back to find Spureb staring at him, eye plates askew, breathing hole frozen open. Dewlis turned to his father.


“Millions of Earthers die every year on your planet.” Spureb’s eye plates pinched together and his ears recoiled into their sockets. He held his upper claws close to his chest. “Your atmosphere is full of corpse dust. Your populace breathes in burned up pieces of souls!”

“That’s enough!” Quincy pounded his arm on the table and rose from his seat. “There are no…” He paused to catch his breath. “Souls in… dust!”

“Pahdah, the Earther is breathing funny.”

“He appears to be experiencing withdrawal. Not enough soul dust in this atmosphere for his cannibal addiction. Perhaps the grave juice isn’t enough.”

“You… No… Uh…” Quincy sputtered, struggling for balance, the tingling in his arm growing painful.

“He just spit dead Earther juice at my head!”

“Move back, Dewlis. I don’t understand what is happening. He may have angered the souls he has consumed by denying their existence.”

“You puchh… you achh…” Quincy grabbed at the table with his right arm.

“Look how red he glows.” Dewlis stared at Quincy’s face.

“He is blushing. Earthers do this when they have embarrassed themselves.” Spureb leaned in to whisper to Dewlis. “It may not be proper for us to view his shame, let us look away.”

Spureb and Dewlis turned their backs on Quincy. They heard a thud and waited a couple of minutes to allow Quincy’s fit of shame to pass before turning back.


“And he died, right there.”

“How awful,” said Kerlew, a lovely female Arthrud that had stopped by Spureb’s garage to pick up a replacement part for a centrifuge. Spureb led her on a tour, casually watching her shuffle along the corridor and smiling as she eyed his collection of shiny metal plates and polished tubes.

“The staff tried to reset-animate him by pulling his merry-cardio muscle, but they were so incompetent, they pushed instead of pulled. Apparently, his heart was attacked by his massive coronary gland. ”

“Such strange physiology.”

“Terribly awkward situation. Nearest relative some twenty light-years away, employer in debt due to careless expense management, neither willing to pay for transport. And you know Earthers – they would have just expelled him into space.”


“And despite his hubris and ignorance, he was amusing and we did feel sorry for him. We told the authorities we’d take him, and so, there he is.” Spureb waved his two left arms towards a corner in his garage gallery.

“Aja! Fantastic. Do their legs really twist like that?”

“No, that’s Spiasoc’s explication. He was able to make the tissue flexible through plastination. A preservation used on Earth during a brief enlightened period when–”

“You got Spiasoc?” Kerlew’s eyes widened with interest.

“Yes.” Spureb crossed his four arms over his torso and arched his back to raise his top segment just a little. “Spiasoc is quite eager to break convention with work on other xenophylum.” Spureb turned to look at Quincy and smiled.

Quincy’s body sat on a pedestal made of his leg bones. The flesh of his boneless legs, peeled in long ribbons and twined with muscle and tendon, spiraled in a double helix down to the floor. Thin slices of his brain, stained green, were attached along these vines; the flat sides of each angled upward, seeking light. The skin of his mid-section was shorn away. His intestines, flattened, dyed brown and cut into three by eight slats were arranged to form his torso into a barrel. Deflated lungs protruded from his back in a V spread, mottled fairy wings insufficient for his bulk. His arms burst out between slats, left switched for right with elbows bent backwards. One hand reached towards barrel bottom for a dangling spigot, while the other held up the aorta stem of a goblet carved from his heart. Quincy’s neck stretched out from barrel top, his crimson colored Adam’s apple rupturing through the middle. Above his furrowed brow, the top of his head was sliced off and thrown back like a jar lid. In the open skull, a helter-skelter tower built of brain matter cubes rose toward the ceiling, looking as if it might collapse at the faintest wayward breath. Quincy’s dead eyes stared at the goblet tipped towards his mouth. The pureed burgundy of his liver spilled over the goblet’s rim forming a long droplet that hung frozen in mid air. His tongue, stretched through parted blue lips, strained to reach the glistening drop, but only succeeded in tightening the knot at its center.

“Such an honor for the Earther,” said Kerlew.

“He finds it agreeable.”


© 2018 by Jim Moss


Jim Moss is a videographer and a playwright. His plays have been produced Off-Broadway in New York, and in theatres in Miami, Tampa, Orlando, Pittsburgh, Chicago, and London. His play, Tagged, was a winner of the 2018 British Theatre Challenge. Still Life With Grave Juice is his first published short story.








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DP FICTION #8: “The Grave Can Wait” by Thomas Berubeg

Old James McGrath was widely held to be the orneriest man on the frontier. They say he glared down a rattler so bad the critter’s great-great grandkids were afeared of venturing onto his land. They say that, once, a real big twister, one of them mean old suckers only found in the frontier lands, was sent packing straight back into its girlfriend’s arms by his bilious vitriol. They even say that tricky Coyote tried to swindle him out of his ranch, but ended up walking away missing thirty acres of prime real estate. It came as no surprise, then, that when Death came for McGrath in the shape of a late spring cold, he sent Old Boney packing with pant bottoms full of lead.

For a time, McGrath kept on with his ranching and riding and drinking and shooting and thought little of his close call. “Goddamned solicitors,” was the only thing he said about the incident, muttered between two slugs of whiskey and a cigarette.

Death was kept occupied by the rigors of the frontier. It was a busy time for the man, and he put old James McGrath out of his skull. Truth be told, no cowboy old or young came willingly, and Death had gotten used to dodging bullets and Indian curses. But they all came eventually, and so would McGrath.

A week passed in a hurry, and then another, and Death heard nothing. Surprised and not a little confused, Death went back to Tombstone, Arizona, where he kept his office. He usually tried to avoid it, if he could, preferring the open range and the starry sky, but these were peculiar circumstances.

Both Old Smokey and the Holy Gatekeeper kept regional offices nearby. Death checked in with them, just to make sure the old man hadn’t snuck through unnoticed. Peter, a mousy, bookish man, hemmed and hawed and checked a bunch of dusty ledgers and kept Death waiting, which is the main job of government men everywhere, but eventually admitted that, no, James McGrath hadn’t snuck in through the Pearlies. The offices of Mammon, Lucifer & Asmodeus, Attorneys at Law, were not really any better in Death’s opinion. He never left the place without the vague feeling of having been swindled.

Meanwhile, James McGrath had taken to being dead like a fish takes to water or fire to the scrublands of California. Even before his death he could drink anyone under the table, but now he could do that without breaking a sweat, and any young buck who challenged him to a gunfight had best have already sent his Ma some flowers and bought a plot at the church. In the two weeks after his death, Old James sent more people packing than the Union Pacific. Everyone but young McCauley, one of the old man’s drinking partners, had taken to avoiding him. While that suited McGrath just fine, even McCauley had been rather scarce in recent days.

And so he was surprised when one Sunday morning there came a knock at his door. Old James put down the bottle of watery and weak whiskey he had had the misfortune to have been cheated into buying, and cracked the door open, peaking out with gummy, unfocused eyes. There stood the Reaper himself, black robes draped over his skeletal frame, silver six shooter at his hip (Nobody on the frontier took you seriously unless you had a big old hand cannon strapped to your side, and Death thought the scythe was old fashioned anyhow: a symbol of the Old World he’d shed when he followed the masses seeking fortune in the New.)

“Now,” Old James said. “I know I sent you scurrying away not two weeks ago. What’re you doing here?”

“Well, Mr. McGrath, I’m afraid there must’ve been a mistake. See, you’re supposed to be dead. And, hmmm, while you are starting to look… smell… quite dead, I can see your body up and about and kicking. That leaves me with a bit of a problem.”

“Yeah? What d’you think you’re gonna do about it?”

“I was hoping to appeal to your better nature…” Death started.

The old man interrupted with a bark of laughter. “Haw, I ain’t got one of those.”

“I see that,” Death said pensively, riffling through the ream of papers shoved under one boney elbow. “How about a game? I see here you’re a deft hand at cards.”

A greedy gleam lit up the old man’s eyes. “Aww, hell. I ain’t that good, but I’ll play. What’re the stakes?”

“If I win, you come with me. If you win, I’ll make sure no one bothers you about this ever again.”

“Deal,” said McGrath.

Now you see, when Death’s papers said that the Old Man was a deft hand at cards, they weren’t lying. McGrath’s gimlet stare was known from Yukon to El Dorado, and in his youth he had left a trail of broken men, women, and ghosts in the saloons of the West. In fact, his ranch was financed by the honest winnings of half the frontier.

Not to say that the Great Equalizer was out of his depth: any game was old hat to Death. This method of dealing with the recalcitrant and the reticent was tried and true, and Death rarely, if ever, had to work hard to win. This, of course, led to a degree of indifference towards the game. Now, though, sitting across from Old Man McGrath, Death felt the same shiver as when he had sat across from old Methuselah, who had been adept at Sumerian dice back in his day.

What I mean to say is that Old McGrath and The Reaper himself were not unevenly matched. Billy McCauley, they agreed, would deal. They spit in their hands and shook on the terms. The sound of McGrath’s great phlegmy hock echoed off the mesas and started stampedes seven states over. When Death spit, fourteen stars and the spirits of the ghost riders in the sky blinked out of existence.

They sat at the table, pistols just out of arm’s reach. A solitary beam of sunlight bounced off the polished bone handle of Death’s pistol, then flicked the tip of McGrath’s greased up plugger, before stopping short and realizing exactly who it was in the room with. It respectfully tipped its cap and skedaddled outta there as quickly as it darn well could.

Death waved a skeletal hand, and a small heap of silver dollars, leering skulls embossed into both sides, rained into existence with a light jangle in front of Mcgrath. “These are the hours of your life, McGrath, and we’ll be playing for them.” With a second wave, a much smaller pile of coins appeared in front of Death. “These are the hours you owe me.”

“Bullshit. I don’t owe you nothing.” McGrath spit out. The Great Equalizer merely tilted his head to the side, looking at the decrepit old man curiously. McGrath glared stubbornly, but death remained impassive. Finally, he grumbled “Fine, if it’ll get you outta my house faster.”

The cards were dealt: five each, and the game was on. The cards did not favor McGrath on this day. Slowly, steadily, the pile of coins shifted towards Death, and soon both were equal. Barely suppressed rage glinted in McGrath’s eyes. He had never lost before, and he wasn’t about to start.

“All in.” He pushed his pile of coins to the middle of the table. Death responded in kind.

In McGrath’s hands were three aces and a queen, but Death was shooting for a straight flush. He had the queen and the jack and the nine and the ten of spades,but he needed the king or the eight to take the prize. He called for another card, and McCauley passed him an eight of clubs. McGrath grinned, and as McCauley queasily passed him another card, he slipped another ace from under his sleeve . He locked eyes with the shadowy chasms of his opponent, and nodded, once.

“It is time,” Death boomed, and one of the flies that had been buzzing around McGrath’s face shriveled up in a puff of smoke.

The cards were flipped.

“I win.” Old Man McGrath grinned. “Now get your sorry ass out of here, I never want to see you again. And take your damned chill, too.”

“That’s your prize and your right, but one day you’ll call to me and you will be mine,” a mighty peeved Death promised as he backed out of the shack. McGrath slammed the door in his face.

McGrath cracked open his best bottle of whiskey in celebration. “Come on, Billy, it’s not every day you pull a fast one over one of the manifested forces of nature. We’re gonna drink this ‘till there’s none left, and then we’re gonna drink some more.”

“I’d… uh, love to, boss, but I’ve got somewhere to be.” McCauley answered, a bit too quickly. He looked a bit green around the gills.

“When’s that ever stopped you?” McGrath asked.

McCauley looked anywhere but at McGrath. “I’ve just gotta be somewhere. Church.” He added, lying through his teeth.

“Suit yourself then, this here whiskey’s gonna be all mine then.” McCauley scurried out, and McGrath sat back down in his rocking chair by the fireplace. The cold held him tenderly in its embrace, like some soiled dove he had tipped handsomely.

He yanked the cork out between his teeth and spat it across the room. As he brought the bottle to his mouth, though, he saw the glint of something white lodged in the cork.

A tooth. His tooth. McGrath was no stranger to losing teeth, but this was the first time that it had happened without the taste of blood in his mouth, or the sharp pain of a knuckle to his face.

Not easily fazed, McGrath shrugged and brought the bottle to his mouth, taking a deep swig. In shock, he realized that there was nothing. He could feel the liquid pour down his throat, settle in a seething pool in his stomach, but there was no taste, no burn in his throat. “What the hell is this? Water?”

He opened a second bottle of whiskey and took a swig. Again, nothing.

Let it never be said that Old James McGrath was a coward, but, panicked, he ran from bottle to bottle, each time getting nothing. Finally, he skidded to a stop in front of the tarnished silver mirror hanging above his washbasin for the occasional shave.

The face looking back at him was not his own, of that he was sure. His own face was old, wrinkled, thin, and had hairs sprouting from where there shouldn’t have been hair. The face staring at him out from the mirror was bloated, green, and was peeling skin where skin shouldn’t have been peeling.

For the first time in a week, McGrath decided to make his way to town. He walked, ‘cause his horse was too scared to let him near. When he got to the village a little after noon on Sunday, as all kinds of respectable people were leaving church, the sight of him caused fourteen little old ladies to pass out, seven feared outlaws to turn themselves in to the sheriff, and one mortician to die of glee.

The real clincher, though, was that none of his friends wanted to sit with him in the saloon, and when he sat down to drink alone, the drink did nothing at all for him.

For, you see, when James McGrath had been supposed to die, his ornery soul had refused to leave the body he’d had for near on sixty years, even if it had followed the proper order of things. Resolving himself, McGrath made his way to the pastor.

“Father, I’m dead. I need me a grave.”

“Well, son, I’m sure I can help you.” The pastor said. “I’ve got some real nice plots, far up on the hill.” He pointed towards a distant lonely tree.

“That’ll do.” He handed the pastor a silver dollar and slowly shambled towards his grave.

“You can come with me, now, if you want.” James practically jumped out of his skin at the sound of the voice, before recognizing Death.

“I thought we had a deal,” McGrath fingered the gun at his side.

“Why are you here, then?” Death’s boney hand gestured at the cemetery.

“I’m dead. Dead people live in graves. This is my new home, and I’m certainly not going with you when I just got myself a new house.” Old Man McGrath’s tone was sure.

Death shrugged and disappeared with a sound like that of a thousand leathery wings beating once in the middle of a thunderstorm. Satisfied, McGrath sat in his grave, six shooter by his side and bottle of whiskey by the other.

Some say he went off with Death after a year, greeting him as an old friend, and others claim he got eaten by some coyotes, but I can’t believe that. Old Man McGrath, eaten by coyotes? Never.

Me? I’d be willing to bet my soul that he’s still sitting there in that old grave, rotten to the bone, waiting for Death to try to come and take him again.

© 2015 by Thomas Berubeg


Author’s Note:  The inspiration for this story was threefold. The character of James Mcgrath was one that I had been wanting to write for a while, lounging with a pistol and a scowl in my brain for months, the walking corpse simply refusing to die but not being malevolent came from a family member’s dream, and, finally, I’ve always found the concept of gambling with death an interesting one. In this case, the game of poker was inspired by the western setting (where poker felt more appropriate than the more traditional chess.)


5VZumXbThomas Berubeg is a twenty-three year old French-Canadian man currently living in these great United States. A recent graduate, he studied Archaeology and History, and is currently working on a number of short stories and a novel. This is his first published story.






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