DP FICTION #76B: “We Will Weather One Another Somehow” by Kristina Ten

When Benj comes home, I swear his hands are smaller than before, and thinned out in the spaces between the knuckles, the points of contact if someone were to lace their fingers with his. It’s a millimeter’s difference, maybe less, maybe half. But then, I’ve gotten used to these reduced units of measurement.

When I find the dust in the cuffs of his jacket, I’m sure.

Benj is thirty-four years old, has been in my life for two. He is reliable and even-tempered, a good listener, easy to love. Lots of people call him their rock. I called him that too, before I knew.

He says he can’t pinpoint when it started, his erosion. Of course, I know—watched the videos in grade-school earth science same as everyone—that it’s one of those things that happens gradually over a long period of time. Nothing out of the ordinary. Nothing, nothing. Then one day, in the foreign angle of a changing-room mirror, a deep gully down the center of his back from where the shower water hit for ten straight minutes every day since he was a boy.

I let my fingers hover over the gully, a flock of birds caught in the wind, but I don’t touch down. He is limestone, vulnerable. Soft sedimentary. I dare not contribute.

Meanwhile, Benj takes his eroding as a fact of life. Hereditary, his dad. When he shows me old family photos, I recognize it immediately. Limbs narrow around the bone from continuous exposure.

“The fuck is this?” is how I found out, turning to look over my shoulder at his bathroom mirror, wiping long streaks of gray-pink dust from the back of my dress. A little drunk, both of us. Hiccups. Laughter. We had been out dancing, still new then, and I had been showing off.

He told me. Answered my questions, met my incredulity with patience. Gradually, yes, like buttes and canyons and river valleys. But much faster than those. Proportional to his size. Wait, parabolically proportional. No, it doesn’t hurt.

Later, lying there next to him, I didn’t know what to believe—finding all parts of him just as they should be, warm and present and braced so sturdily, I thought, by blood like mine. I remember hooking my hand onto the ledge of his collar bone, my legs draped over his so irresponsibly.

I asked about his dimples.

“Au naturel,” he replied.

The words “naturally occurring” mean something different to Benj. So do the words “worn out.”

One thing that wears Benj out, the way most people mean: phone calls from his mother, who’s back in Kansas, tornado-proofing her now-too-big house and putting fresh flowers on Benj’s dad’s grave. She sprung for a granite headstone. Erosion resistant. Made to last.

I hear one end of their conversations:

“Ma, please. We’ve been over this a thousand times.”

“Yes.”

“I am.”

“I am.” His face screws up and he turns away, his voice dropping to a near-whisper.

“A suit of armor, Ma? Jesus. What year is it? Where would you even get something like that?”

“It’s limited for everyone. Everybody’s on their way out. What did Dad used to say? ‘As soon as a story starts, it’s already ending’?”

A long pause. He shakes his head.

“I’m sorry.”

“You’re right. I’m sorry.”

“I know.”

“Okay, but I’m not wearing the armor.”

“Okay.”

“Okay.”

He keeps the phone to his ear, waiting for her to hang up before he turns around.

I look up from whatever book I haven’t been reading and smile brightly, try to be easy, pretend I heard nothing, that me and his mom, we’re nothing alike.

I’m no geologist, but I’ve always had a head for formulas. There’s a logic to them. Follow the rules and you know things will come out all right. And sometimes I think I could sit down and do the math. Figure out, based on the progression to date, give or take, how much time we have left.

If I had more courage. And a good calculator.

If I wasn’t so afraid.

If I didn’t find myself, on windy days, positioning my body in front of his at the bus stop, a head shorter than him and in more ways than that an ineffective shield.

If he didn’t tickle the spot on my ankle that only he knows about. If I didn’t have to remind myself not to tickle him back. If he didn’t joke-not-joke that he’s made of weaker stuff.

The most common causes of erosion are: water, wind, glaciers, people.

Benj is social for someone who’d be better off if he wasn’t. We go to what feels like the same party every weekend—same people, same half-empty bowl of party mix on a fold-out table, combed through for the good stuff.

I chew the inside of my cheeks as he greets everyone individually: enthusiastic slaps on shoulders, special handshakes with intricate steps.

The ones who hug him bear-hug hard, and over time, this has left shallow depressions hidden by T-shirts, in the middle of his chest, the tops of his arms.

The ones who kiss him do it the French way, one cheek, then the other, and they are supposed to be air kisses, but now his face tapers above the jawline as if shaved away.

I’m the only one who observes the dust falling off Benj onto the discolored carpet, sucked up by a vacuum in the morning and no one the wiser. Of course they don’t see it. They aren’t the ones who bring him home.

Home, our apartment. Our shoes all mixed up together in the caddy by the front door, both our last names on the small laminated label on the mailbox downstairs. When we moved in, Benj insisted on a plus sign between our names, not a slash. Said that we should be an “and,” not an “or.”

Living with Benj is like living inside an hourglass, one of those two-minute timers you used to get at the dentist. The fine dust of him collects all around us, proof that he is, cell by cell, sloughing away. A sick gray tinged with pink: ground-down skin, muscle, bone.

Though he has learned to shower more carefully, with most of his body out of the stream, though he has trained himself not to roll around in his sleep, he still leaves it behind when he walks his most-traveled paths, from bed to fridge to computer chair and back again.

I wonder which room he’ll be in when the world, after shaping him for so long, decides he has had enough.

He thinks it’s morbid that I won’t get rid of it, that I sweep the dust into loose mounds in the corners of rooms. But what else am I supposed to do with something that’s part of him?

“You don’t throw out your loved ones’ ashes,” I argue.

“Sometimes you do. Actually, a lot of times you do.”

“Well, I don’t.”

“You would if the will said to.”

I roll my eyes. This is the thing I worry about most lately: wasting dwindling time on conversations we’ve already had.

“Doesn’t matter if I would or not. You’d be gone and who would check up on it anyway?”

He looks down. His eyelashes are crusted with dust and the beginnings of crying.

“I’m not dead yet, you know.”

My mind jumps to flat prairies transformed into basins, hiking passes carved into mountains by ice.

When Benj isn’t around, I go to the piles and make a bowl with my hands and scoop up the dust. I pretend I’m a gymnast reaching into a tub of chalk at a big meet. Pretend my team is counting on me, and the dust, it helps me with my grip.

Benj erodes fastest in the places touched most often, so I try not to touch the parts of him I’d like to stick around. The way the tip of his nose turns up at the very last second as if it’s been waiting to surprise you. The spot on his right earlobe where I swore I saw a freckle once, only Benj is no good at keeping freckles. As soon as he gets the right amount of sun, a rush of wind polishes them down.

Loving Benj is an exercise in restraint. He hates that I kiss him so gently, says what good will holding back do in the long run? I say it’s all about the long run. He says he doesn’t like this side of me, this just-like-everyone-elseness, this being more concerned with longevity than depth.

When he says “depth,” he presses his thumb against the gates of my teeth, daring me to open, let him in—and I’m a goner. I forget myself, grab hold of him desperately. There’s the all-too-real sensation of him slipping through my fingers.

The next morning, I slide my arms out of the fresh rills that cross his stomach. Notice the crumbling around the teeth marks on his neck.

But Benj hasn’t had fingerprints as long as I’ve known him. I can’t pretend the pads were worn down by me.

He tells me that we are more solid than ever, and not to conflate things. We are not what is deteriorating.

He tells me that he is grateful. That whatever time we have, for him, it is enough.

But I am greedy, greedy, greedy.

I want to put him in a glass box like they do in cemeteries with the stone busts of children, when the families do not want the likenesses to ever decay. At these times, when I am at my most selfish and delusional, I know I am the weak one between us.

Which is why, when the worst comes, I’m the one to crack.

Benj goes grocery shopping and tries to carry all the bags from the car in one go. The plastic handles sink inches into his forearms, cut through him like wire, almost clear through to the other side.

Afterwards, we stop going to the parties that are all the same. By now, his legs are so eroded and his back so concave, he finds it difficult to walk.

Then we develop bad coughs, as the piles of dust in the apartment grow steadily taller. We ignore the coughing for a while, blame it on something going around the building, until eventually Benj orders a reusable particle mask for me. Just the one, I notice. Not a pair.

Then Benj declares he’s going to the Archways.

The Archways is a national preserve a couple of states over in which Benj has previously expressed no interest. For one thing, it’s a full day’s drive. For another, it’s known for its sandstorms.

Now, Benj leaves the tourism website up on his computer all the time. The photographs show striated rock the color of sweet dried oranges. Hard-packed earth is punctuated by otherworldly formations: a natural bridge between two cliffs, spindly pedestals rising hundreds of feet like a giant’s game of Jenga. And the namesake arches, chiseled away over millennia and toothpick-delicate, forming open-mouthed O’s in the landscape, frames for whatever lies beyond.

“Do you know how many people die every day just commuting to work?”

This again. The particle mask hides my expression. “No. Do you?”

“All I’m saying is that the same people who refuse to get on airplanes, they’re the ones who’ll step out into the crosswalk one day at the wrong time and just—”

“I get it.”

“Do you?”

I recite so he doesn’t have to: “We’re all dying, one hundred percent of us, one hundred percent of the time. We’re dying from the day we’re born.”

He nods. “Listen. I need to have a say. With my dad, we assumed he had more time. He was still doing work on the house, picking up shifts at the yard. Freak dust devil got him. Little, unremarkable one too.”

I feel like I’m suffocating. Not sure if the mask’s too tight or it’s something else.

He grabs my hands firmly, and instinctively I shoot him a look of warning.

“I want you to come with me,” he says.

He told me it doesn’t hurt.

He was wrong.

I try to be tough, strong, metamorphic. The granite of a headstone, the diamond of a promise ring. As I drive, I stare at a fixed point on the horizon, certain that if I turn my gaze toward him, it will bore a hole right through. A frame for everything that lies beyond him—which, as far as I can tell, is nothing at all.

The car’s stuffy and too quiet as I try to figure what would do less harm: roll the windows down and let the air blow against him, or leave them up and risk the sweat dissolving wavy lines into his skin.

Doesn’t matter. Neither of us expects him to be in that passenger seat on the way back.

Even in the stillness, the dust of him swirls lightly, landing on my hair, his jeans, the lids of our sodas, empty chip bags in the footwell, the red buckle of his latched seatbelt.

I ask why he bothered with the seatbelt.

He takes his chance: “Hey, you think I have a death wish?” And though it’s not funny, it feels better on the other side of silence.

When we pull in, the view from the visitors’ lot is depressing. Back home, we have coverage, densely packed trees, important for minimizing erosion. Here, the vegetation is sparse and the way it doesn’t touch fills me with regret. Low shrubs spaced so far apart, you get the feeling they want nothing to do with each other.

The rock formations, though, are beautiful in person, in the way of things that were not made all at once with a singular vision but by many invisible hands unhurriedly over time.

Already, the wind is howling.

Then these things in quick succession: I put the car in park. The wind shakes it violently. Panic strikes me, knocks something loose.

“Stay,” I blurt out. I hate the beg in my voice, say it anyway: “Please. Stay.”

Through eyes blurring with tears, I think I can see his body responding. He is filling out at the edges, widening where he was narrow. Coming back to sense, to me.

When I blink, my vision clears and the brief burst of hope is gone.

In its place is Benj, looking sad but resolute. He pulls his shoes and socks off slowly, left then right foot, then tugs his T-shirt over his head. He’s not being careful now. As he pushes his jeans down, the denim drags and I watch the dust fall.

He folds his clothes methodically on the center console. When he’s done, he turns and finally looks me in the eye.

Benj leans over and kisses me so hard I have to reach up and check my lips, I’m so sure it’s a piece of me that’s broken away.

He takes a series of fast breaths: in, out, in, out, in—

Then he throws the door open and goes.

Immediately, the wind begins the vicious work of whittling him down. One gust, three fingers off his left hand. The next, a chunk of his thigh. Fragments of him strike the windshield like hail while I sit, frozen. A crack forms down the middle of the glass, the space between his seat and mine.

Has he always been this decisive, this stupid, this brave?

People change, of course. Imperceptibly, then plain as day.

I can’t watch, but can’t not watch either, am here to be here. So I force myself out of the car and race to Benj, as far as he has managed to get, running on thin limbs and his own conviction.

How quickly he dissolves as we walk together, sideways in the wind, to one of the larger arches. He points forward, onward, with the index finger of his good hand. The sandstorm comes from everywhere, stinging, and I don’t try to shelter him from its blows.

When we reach the base of the arch, a thought burrows into me, painful and invasive. It makes me think of some wedding backdrops I’ve seen: clean-smelling, flower-wrapped pagodas; a place for ceremony.

At first, Benj’s gray-pink dust stands out, pale against the surrounding red rock. Once the wind hits blood, though, I can’t tell the difference.

“It doesn’t hurt?” I ask-yell over the storm.

Close up, I can’t see the whole of him. Only brown eyes, a little less domed than mine, looking back at me without fear.

“Not the way you think!”

When the next gust shears off his smile, I think, finally, I know what he means.

How does it hurt? It hurts like wishing hard won’t help you. Like being good won’t help you. Like there is no formula: you could’ve behaved completely differently and still.

We are insignificant and seen mostly at the surface.

If we’re lucky, seen deeper by some.

The dust of Benj hits me sharp and sudden, mixed with sand, and quickly I am bleeding. I squeeze my eyes shut against it. I shout into the unfairness, though I knew it was coming, and I swear I can hear Benj shouting back, though the air is thick enough to blind and I’m sure he is mostly bodiless now. In my useless mouth I try to catch him, hold him there, an urn for my beloved. Try not to let him dissolve on my tongue. Something like safekeeping.

When I open my eyes again, unsure of how much time has passed, the air is unnervingly still. Would it really have been easier not to have known?

I am red-raw and pinpricked. Dust sticks in ornate patterns atop the wetness of my tears or sweat or blood, like glitter to glue on art projects when I was a kid, and it’s true: I feel decorated. I remember glitter being impossible to get rid of. I walk back to the car, thinking that later, I’ll have to pick out the particles with tweezers one by one.

Or maybe not.

Maybe let it get infected.

Maybe stay evidence, of how great an impact one person can have. How much of them you can then carry with you, embedded, a burial under the skin.


Kristina Ten is a Russian-American writer with work in LightspeedBlack StaticWeird HorrorAE Science Fiction, and elsewhere. She is a graduate of Clarion West Writers Workshop and a current MFA candidate at the University of Colorado Boulder, where she also teaches creative writing. You can find her at kristinaten.com and on Twitter as @kristina_ten.


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DP FICTION #75B: “Three Riddles and a Mid-Sized Sedan” by Lauren Ring

When the cars started driving themselves, we went back to the old ways. It wasn’t a slow change, the way the news made it out to be. One day we were in control, and the next we weren’t. Now they can strike anywhere, anytime, any make and any model, all with dead-eyed electronic smiles on their windshields.

The old ways help us stay safe. I teach my daughter to chalk runes around the house, double yellow lines that forbid the cars from crossing. We bring a baby stroller everywhere we go. It saved a friend of mine once, making him rank slightly higher in the car’s inscrutable calculus than the woman on the other side of the street.

Sometimes I wonder if he feels guilty.

I know I wouldn’t. I need to be there for Margot, so that I can protect her in this new world, and keep her childhood peaceful. She’s the only reason I keep going. No one else matters.

Today, Margot and I are going to the park. Margot is wearing her favorite shirt, the one with the pink stripes and the ice cream scoops, and I’ve done up her hair with matching bows. A bright rainbow of face paint covers her button nose. She skips along happily, clutching her chapter book to her chest as I push the stroller with its disguised doll.

“I’m going to see the bridge troll, Mama,” Margot tells me. I resist the urge to sigh.

“Bridges are on roads, sweetheart.They aren’t safe anymore, remember?”

“You never let me have any fun.” She pouts and stops skipping.

“We’re going to the park right now,” I point out. Margot huffs and buries her face in her book. I want to tell her not to read while walking, but that’s one battle I won’t ever win. I step to her left, between her and the road.

The book she’s reading has a troll on the cover. Its eyes glow yellow and its rocky body blends into the bridge behind it. Next to it stands a young girl with her hands on her hips. I make a mental note to skim it after she falls asleep tonight: I don’t want her getting the wrong idea.

It’s the way people thought before the cars. Some people still think it; try to take the cars down. I hear about them on the news, next to footage of their weeping parents. Margot is only curious about the cars now, but I can’t help worrying that she’ll grow up to be one of those radicals.

Margot tugs at my sleeve.

“Want to guess a riddle?” she asks.

“Sure, honey.” We’re almost at the park now. It’s isolated, deep enough in the maze of the suburbs that I can let my guard down a little.

“What has legs but no feet?” Margot asks, placing her finger halfway down the page.

“I don’t know, what?”

“I win,” she squeals, holding the book out to me. “It’s a chair, it says right here. Now you have to let me go to the bridge.”

“Not if I catch you first!” I chase her all the way to the park, roaring like a bridge troll.

There are other families at the park, and other children on the swings. Margot spots her best friend Nadia playing in the sand pit and runs off.

Across the sand, my friends Dave and Samir are chatting at a picnic bench. Samir spots me and waves me over, smiling wide. I scan the park for escape routes and hiding places before joining them.

“How have you been, Alicia?” Samir asks. His disguise of the day is all harsh lines and interlocking spirals, so dark they look like tattoos across his face. In the oldest days, it was unwise to share your true name. Now you can’t share your true face.

“We missed you at our baby shower,” Dave adds.

“Right.” I had been too afraid to leave the house that day. There had been a car victim in the news, a child Margot’s age, and I couldn’t tear my eyes away. “I’ll bring your gift to the next self-defense workshop.”

Samir rolls his eyes, but I know he’s more exasperated than annoyed. After all, Dave leads the workshops. He had been a designer on the cars long ago, back when people were still actually in charge of them, but his workshops tend toward the arcane.

“I’m working on a charm.” Dave holds up a spinning, blinking object that flashes pattern after pattern. “If we can overload a car’s sensors for even a millisecond, it might swerve.”

“Do you have to call it a charm?” Samir grumbles.

“If it works, it works,” says Dave. “I think there’s a lot we can learn from the old ways.”

“They’re machines, not fairies. The way we get back to normal is by somebody figuring out who hacked into the AI, not by all of us pretending that they’re magic.”

“What about in the meantime?” I interject. “Things aren’t getting any better. Half the kids in Margot’s classroom haven’t come in since the attack by the high school; the district says we’re all moving to remote schooling.”

“Maybe it would be better.” Dave places a hand on my shoulder. “She’ll still have the backyard, and Nadia can come over for playdates.”

“I just want her to get a chance to live the way we lived, you know?”

Dave and Samir give me sympathetic nods, but they don’t say anything. There’s nothing to say.

I turn back to watch Margot play, hoping some of her carefree joy will stick with me.

The sand pit is empty. A half-built bridge, a pinecone troll, and a trail of sand left like breadcrumbs are all that remains of Margot and Nadia.

I start running.

At least she’s with Nadia, I think to myself. At least she isn’t alone. It pains me to make the same cold decision as a car, but Nadia is older than Margot, and age is supposed to be one of the metrics.

I sprint across streets and swing around corners with wild abandon, following the sand. Margot is out there. Margot, who I still can’t convince of the dangers of the world. In another life, I would have wanted her to stay innocent.

The nearest bridge isn’t a bridge at all. It’s actually a freeway overpass that crosses a quiet road, but it’s close enough in the eyes of a child. Margot and Nadia stand there at the edge of the shadows, their arms linked.

“Margot, Nadia, come here,” I call as loudly as I dare. “We can play somewhere else.”

“But Mama, we found the troll,” Margot says.

I get closer and see yellow in the shadows. Not eyes. Headlights.

I’m in front of Margot in an instant, spreading my arms to block her as much as I can. Nadia whimpers and ducks behind my leg, but Margot just tries to slip under my arm.

“I want to tell it my riddle,” she says.

“Margot, honey, this is a car,” I say carefully. She knows the stories, the warnings, but she has never seen a feral car in the wild before. I’ve sheltered her too well. “We talked about how they’re different now. It’s not going to answer your riddle.”

The car’s windshield changes from the neutral face that means no danger to something new: a question mark. I have never seen an autonomous car without an indicator face before.

“Sweetheart, I want you and Nadia to get back.” I use my sternest tone. When they step back, though, the car revs its engine and inches forward.

The car’s windshield displays a stop sign. The children halt.

“Okay, Margot. Ask the riddle.” My voice shakes.

She places her hands on her hips, her little chin thrust high in the air.

“What,” she demands, “has legs but no feet?”

The car displays a chair on its screen. My heart skips a beat as it starts rolling forward, picking up speed. Margot turns to me with wide eyes.

“It won, mama.”

I scoop Margot into my arms and start to run, but Nadia grabs at my leg, and we all go tumbling down to the asphalt. Margot starts to cry and I have just enough time to notice the bright red smear on her scraped elbow before the car is upon us and I have to act, now.

“I have riddles, car,” I say, desperate. “Play with me.”

The car screeches to a halt and slowly reverses until all I can see are its eerie yellow headlights and the question mark on its windshield.

“If I win, you leave me and my daughter alone. Forever. All of you.”

The car displays a red frown. I’ve asked for too much.

“Just her, then.” I wipe the tear-smeared paint off Margot’s face and force her to look at the car. It will kill us anyway if I fail here.

A green smiling face. A question mark.

The problem is, I don’t have a riddle. I’ve never really been one for puzzles, and the only games I play are the ones Margot suggests. Besides, anything I’ve heard of before, the car will also know. It knows so much. More than I do. It knows the answer to unanswerable questions. Like “whose life is worth more?”

Nadia trembles behind me.

Margot would be heartbroken if anything happened to her. If it comes down to that choice again, I know what I will do, but for now there must be another way. Samir was right: they’re cars, not fairies. But Dave was right too. Both of those things play by the rules, and both of those things can be tricked.

“You can’t kill us until you answer my riddles,” I tell it. Again, the green smile. I step forward and walk so close I can feel the heat of its engine. I try the door handle.

“What are you doing, Mama?” Margot asks, grabbing my hand with her stubby fingers. “Don’t let it eat us!”

“Just trust me, honey.” I tug on the handle again. The car hums, like its air conditioning has been left on high. The first glimpses of a plan are forming in my head. “I need to get my books from home, so I can find the very best riddles.”

With a click, the car door unlocks. I think it’s curious. Kind of like a child in that way, if the child weighed several tons and could kill with ease. Margot clings to me as I open the car’s door and climb inside, with Nadia at my heels.

The children huddle in the passenger seat, clinging to each other as I snap their seatbelt in place. I eye the manual override, but I know better. I’ve heard of people who tried that and held on. Heard what happened the moment they let go.

If we can just get home, though, I might be able to pull this off. Maybe.

I key in my address and with a sound like a sigh, the car pulls out from under the overpass.

It’s been years since I’ve been inside a car. My knuckles are white as I grip the useless wheel. Outside the window, the trees and the streets and the houses blur together.

I can almost understand why the world chose this path. There’s no traffic, no mistakes, no rude gestures. But it only feels safe from inside the car. I’ve lived too long on the outside to be fooled.

Maybe I can beat the car at its own game, instead of resorting to one of the frantic, risky plans bubbling up in my mind. I can’t come up with any suitable riddles, though, and I know my own books won’t be any help. All I know are the childish riddles I’ve picked up through my time as a parent, from playgroups and picture books.

Why did the chicken cross the road?

Because it was running for its life.

My house comes into view. It’s a single story, just big enough for me and Margot. Yellow painted rune-lines circle the structure, and all of the blinds are drawn shut. Weeds have broken through the concrete of the driveway. The car crushes them as it pulls up.

I unbuckle the girls and step out on shaky legs. I can at least get Margot inside. Maybe she can barricade herself somewhere, and force the car to destroy itself getting to them. But that’s a temporary solution at best.

The car revs its engine as Margot and Nadia head for the porch. It rolls up behind them and they freeze. Nadia is crying now, globs of silent tears pooling on her cheeks. Margot’s face is tight and pale.

“Stay out here, girls,” I say as gently as I can. “I’m going to get some books. Everything will be okay. I’ll bring some chalk for you to play with. Don’t worry, alright?”

Margot grabs my sleeve as I pass her. The look in her eyes breaks my heart almost as much as the look in her eyes when I have to keep going. The chalk will work, though. It has to work.

The house is quiet and still. The car’s headlights follow me through the blinds as I hurry to the shelves. Margot’s books are usually scattered around her room, but there are still a few fairy tales left where they should be. I grab them and the chalk.

Back outside, the car looms over Margot and Nadia, their nightmares made real for the very first time. It’s a small car, but they’re small girls. Too small to be dealing with this right now and certainly too small for what I’m about to ask them to do, but there’s no one else that can do it.

“Here you go, girls. Don’t be afraid.” I hand them the bucket of chalk, then turn my back to the car and hide my hands as I gesture to them what to do.

I can only hope they understand. I turn back to the car.

“I’m going to ask you three riddles,” I say, stretching my words out to buy time as the children begin to draw. I can see Margot trembling as she nears the car, but she draws anyway. So brave, my girl. “It’s the traditional number.”

The green question mark stays on the car’s display, unwavering.

“Why is a raven like a writing desk?”

The question mark winks out. Moments later, the car’s screen fills with text. Every inch of the windshield is covered in blog posts and thesis papers, giving me every possible answer to the unanswerable riddle. Then it shows me a green check mark.

It makes sense. The cars have always been judge, jury, and executioner. This isn’t a contest I could ever win. The car starts rolling forward and a piece of pink chalk explodes into a cloud of dust and shards beneath its tire.

“I have two more.” My voice was supposed to be firm and strong, but instead it’s high and reedy. “You haven’t heard the best ones yet. Stay where you are until you answer.”

The car indulges me and stops. I open one of Margot’s books and read aloud.

“As I was going to St. Ives, I met a man with seven wives…”

This riddle is one of Margot’s favorites. She likes the way the words sound; likes the lyricism and the puzzle combined. I try not to look at her, because I know I will cry. I hope she knows how hard I’m trying to save her.

The car, of course, has its answer the instant I’m done reading. The number one appears on its screen. This time, though, it’s an angry red.

“Very good,” I say, glancing at the girls and their chalk. “Just one more, and then we see who wins. One more riddle and the game is over.”

A red timer appears on the car’s screen, ticking down from thirty seconds. It wants me to stop stalling, but I just need a little more time. Thirty seconds will have to be enough.

I wait for the last five seconds before I speak. The silence is as solemn as the grave and is punctuated only by the scratch of chalk and the steady hum of the car’s engine.

“My last riddle for you, car,” I say, “is: how are you going to get out?”

For a long moment, longer than ever before, the screen is blank.

Then the car rears forward, headlights ablaze. I can’t help it—I close my eyes. If this doesn’t work, then it’s all over, and I won’t watch my daughter die.

There is no scream. There is no crunch. There is only silence.

I crack open the eye and see the car frozen in place. It skidded to a halt just inches from poor Margot’s face, but—thank God—she is unscathed. Nadia is panting with effort. Her hand shakes as she grinds her piece of chalk into the last mark on the rune, a simple do-not-cross indicator that signals to the very core of the car’s programming.

Margot runs to me. I hold her tighter than tight, burying my face in her soft hair. I wish I could stay this way forever, but it’s not safe, even now.

I bundle the children into the house as the car revs its engine and spins its wheels uselessly within the circle. It flicks on its high beams and the light spills through the closed blinds.

Nadia stands by the door and stares at the ground.

“You left me,” she says. “You ran with Margot.”

“Honey, I’m sorry.” I crouch down to her eye level. Only then do I see the nail marks on her inner palms, where she clutched the chalk so hard she nearly bled. Without her help, my daughter would be a smear on the pavement.

I place my hands on her shoulders. She looks up, her eyes wide and tearful and, I realize for the first time, the same shade of brown as Margot’s.

“I won’t ever leave you again.”

Nadia takes one of my hands. Margot takes the other. I lead the girls deep into the house, where the thick walls will protect us, and pull out my phone.

Dave can help, and Samir, and they will know other former programmers who will know more and more. The cars are connected, but we can be too. Our solidarity gives us power. And now, if I have to, I will join the charge.

For Margot.

For everyone.


Author’s Note: This story was inspired by James Bridle’s 2017 art piece “Autonomous Trap 001,” which features a self-driving car trapped by a salt circle. I saw his piece when I was in college researching the UX design of self-driving cars (such as windshield displays to communicate to pedestrians), so I immediately started thinking of all the other ways this technology could be connected to folklore. The story itself came from wondering why a car would need to be trapped in the first place.

Lauren Ring (she/her) is a perpetually tired Jewish lesbian who writes about possible futures, for better or for worse. Her short fiction can be found in Pseudopod, Nature: Futures, and Glitter + Ashes. When she isn’t writing speculative fiction, she is pursuing her career in UX design or attending to the many needs of her cat Moomin.


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DP FICTION #69B: “Mama’s Hand of Glory” by Douglas Ford

Something took a bite out of Mama’s hand.

Well, worse than that. Tried to eat it, and judging by the puddle of vomit on the floor, couldn’t keep it down.

“Oh, Mama,” I said, not even thinking about how she couldn’t hear me, “I’m so sorry.”

Mama’s hand normally stayed inside the dining room cabinet, the kind that most families used for nice china. With it just me now, I used ours for other stuff, like interesting bones and rocks I came across. Naturally, Mama’s hand was the centerpiece. I picked it off the floor—fortunately, far enough from the vomit that it didn’t need cleaning—and placed it back on its display rack. I judged that it looked ok, despite one finger, the one that would’ve held a ring if Mama had ever gotten married, hanging off kind of funny. The pinky, along with most of the dried flesh under it, was gone completely. It didn’t look how Mama intended. But the tattooed planchette on the back didn’t suffer much damage, so I suspected it would still work.

Not that I looked forward to trying it out.

Mama would have a lot to say about something trying to eat her hand.

And it would prove her point about I still needed her, even with her dead and all. What if the thing came back and decided to try something a little fresher?

She had Rufus tattoo the planchette once she went into hospice and knew she wouldn’t come back home. Rufus agreed to bring his tattoo equipment in and do the work right there, though he had some concerns.

“Seems like it won’t have much time to heal,” he’d said. “Not if you’re—and pardon me for saying this out loud, Mudge—not if you’re preparing to depart this world.”

“You mean ‘die,’ and yes, of course that’s happening on schedule, but I plan on sticking around for at least two weeks more.” Then she looked at me from where she lay in the bed. “And once I’m gone, Leann, you carry on the skin care. You can follow directions, can’t you?”

“Yes, ma’am,” I said.

While Rufus tattooed the planchette on the back of her hand, Mama barely showed any reaction, and me having six or eight tattoos of my own (all done by Rufus), I knew she had to be feeling some pain. She even refused the numbing gel that Rufus offered, explaining that a little hurt at the end of her life would help her go out on good terms. “Besides, take the pain out, and that might dilute some of its power. Don’t you think so, Rufus, you being the expert?”

“I don’t know, Mudge.” Rufus spoke without looking up. He didn’t like interruptions while he worked. “Maybe I’m not precisely sure what this is for.”

“You know what a Ouija board is for, don’t you?” Rufus affirmed that he did. “We got us one made by the Hasbro company. Leann here will use it in conjunction with my hand once I’m gone.” I’ll credit Rufus this much: he barely showed any reaction when Mama explained how she instructed me to cut off her hand once she was good and dead and how she left me with a detailed instruction sheet for keeping the hand preserved for as long as possible. That way, any time I needed advice or guidance or just wanted to talk, I could use the tattooed hand as a real planchette and create a direct link to Mama in the Afterlife. “Being my hand,” she said, “will ensure she reaches me and not some destructive demon. You see my logic, Rufus?”

He nodded and continued to ink the hand. “One thing I don’t quite get,” he said, “is the little window in the planchette. I’m drawing a little eye right now, but how on a Ouija board is Leann supposed to see the letters?”

“She’s gonna have to open that up with a knife. Later on.”

Rufus’ hand paused briefly. He looked over his shoulder at me, his mouth hard to detect beneath his big beard, and then he turned to Mama. “Am I to understand that I’m creating something to be defaced?”

“I’ll pay you all the same,” said Mama.

“I told you I will not accept the money of a dying woman.”

“Then just keep drawing, Rufus. It’s my hand. Soon it’ll be Leann’s. What I do with it is my business.”

“Just a sad thing to do with a man’s art,” said Rufus, but he finished the tattoo. The whole cutting off of the hand and making the hole, that came later, and I have a whole different story to tell about that.

Something trying to eat the hand though, I couldn’t just let that go. Bad enough to see Mama’s hand sitting in the cabinet all mangled. So, I went to the game shelf, where I expected to find the Ouija board underneath the boxes that held Monopoly and Pay Day, the only games that Mama liked to play, but instead of its usual place, it lay sideways on top the other two, the lid off kilter. I lifted the box and studied it, looking for signs of what might have moved it and replaced it in such a cock-eyed fashion. We had the special edition Ouija board, the one Hasbro made to tie in to that scary TV show, the one with the two brothers, and we bought it because Mama thought the boys were cute. “Leann, if only you could find you a man who looks like them,” she liked to say.

“Uh-huh,” I’d say, but only so I wouldn’t sound disagreeable. That would mean starting a fight. I imagined boys who looked pretty would get squeamish around a girl who could chop off her dead mama’s hand and bore a perfectly round hole through it. The kind of men I liked I kept to myself, and I didn’t keep them around long.

Once I had the pretty-boy Ouija board opened up on the table in front of me, I propped Mama’s hand on top of it and called for Mama.

No answer at first, and I thought, uh oh, it doesn’t work anymore.

I tried again. “Hello, Mama, you there?”

Finally, the hand began to shake, almost like a vibration that reached a fever pitch. I breathed easier as it began moving around the board, spelling out a reply.

I-M-H-E-R-E

“Mama, I’m so sorry. Something tried to eat your hand, and I’m thinking you might know what did it. Is it a rat?”

The hand made a little circle, as if it didn’t know which way to go at first. Then it slid decisively over to the word “No.” It sat there, still vibrating, like it was shivering, like it was scared. A normal planchette needed a living person to place their fingers on it, but Mama’s needed no such thing. It did all the work by itself.

“Was it an animal?” I said. “Of any kind?”

The hand slid to the edge of the board, approached “Yes,” but swiftly swung back to “No.” It continued to vibrate on top of the word.

“Well then, was it a person?”

The vibration grew stronger, and I swear it managed to elevate itself off the board as it swung hard over to “Yes.” I bit my lip. I never saw Mama’s hand do that before.

“Who then?”

The hand moved slower as it spelled out the name, the one name I didn’t want to see, not the name of some pretty boy on the TV who hunted ghosts, but the name of the one person I cared anything for, the name of a tattoo artist with a big belly and a face covered mostly by beard. A man Mama would never approve of for me, at least not as a boyfriend, on account of the fact that he already had one ex-wife and nearly fifteen years more of life than I had.

But it made sense because no one else knew about Mama’s hand, and Rufus knew where I kept the emergency key in the flower bed, and on the few occasions that I let him sleep over he’d asked me to take the hand out of the cabinet so he could see how it worked.

“Nope, not going to do it,” I said to him more than once. I’d only taken the hand out on two occasions, and both of them when I couldn’t find something. Both times I could tell Mama wanted to keep talking, but once she spelled out the hiding place of my Bowie knife or the handcuffs that used to belong to my grandpa when he served as sheriff, I put her back.

I felt bad about those times now. Mama probably got lonely. But I didn’t need to hear any lectures about how Rufus wasn’t right for me or how I’d get a man if only I would fix up the house in a more acceptable way. Besides, Rufus spoke of the hand in a way that might offend Mama. It reminded him of a Hand of Glory, he said.

“A Hand of Glory,” I said. “That sounds like something Mama would approve of.”

He shook his head. “That’s what they call the hand chopped off a thief. After he’s been hanged, of course.”

“For whatever purpose would they do that, Rufus?”

“It’s helpful in opening locked doors, I hear.”

“I wish I could get one of them,” I said. “It would look good in the cabinet.”

“You kinda got one already.”

“Mama’s Hand of Glory.” I considered that. “She’s not a thief, though. Not unless stealing a person’s life makes you a thief.”

“You still got your life, Leann.”

“And I mean to keep what’s left,” I said.

Now I felt bad about saying that. Maybe for that reason, I couldn’t bring myself to put Mama’s hand back in the cabinet. Instead, I threw it into my shoulder bag as I grabbed my keys. I had to get to the tattoo shop.

The whole way I wondered what could’ve happened, and I thought back to the time we bought the Ouija board with the pretty boys on it, when Mama gave me the warning. “Leann, whatever you do, never, ever use a Ouija board by yourself. That’s how you invite a demon in.”

“I don’t believe in demons,” I said. “The same’s I don’t believe in God.”

“Well, just take my word on it: both are true.”

Of course, I asked her how I could use her tattooed hand as a planchette by myself and not bring in one of her demons. She scoffed at that. “Because it’ll be my hand, that’s why. You won’t be by yourself. Not really.”

Rather than accuse her of making up rules as they suited her, I let that one go. But as I drove, I wondered if maybe Mama had it at least partially right—that someone other than her daughter using the planchette alone could invite something unpleasant into the world.

I got my confirmation at the tattoo shop.

Inside, I found Huey, the high school drop out that Rufus took on as an apprentice, huddled in a corner, holding his bleeding wrist.

“Oh, Jesus, Leann, he just went crazy and bit me. Said he couldn’t help it. But if I call the police, I just know I won’t have a job anymore.”

I looked at the wound. It looked bad, but not as bad as the bite mark on Mama’s hand, and if it caused some long-term damage, that would save some future customer from a bad tattoo. But fortunately for Huey, it looked like Rufus could still practice some restraint. Maybe I could save him.

“Where is he?” I said.

“In the john.” He pointed toward the back of the shop, where a chair sat propped under the bathroom door handle.

“You put that there?” I said.

He nodded. “He ran in there after biting me. I saw that trick in a movie. Thought it would keep him trapped while I waited.”

“Waited for what?” I said.

He seemed at a loss for a second. “Well, for you, I guess. You think I still got a job?”

I had no answer to that. I needed to see about Rufus, so I left Huey to whimper over his wound and went closer to the door. If I didn’t know better, I would swear that I could feel Mama’s hand vibrate in my handbag. I used my own hand to tap on the door.

The voice that answered sounded guttural, not at all like Rufus’ soft voice. It sounded like two people trying to talk at once out of the same mouth-hole, and one of the people didn’t know how human speech worked.

I thought again of Mama’s warning not to use the Ouija board by yourself.

After some false starts to our conversation, I could finally make out a sentence from the other side of the door. “Leann, I can’t control this…this hunger. All I wanna do is eat.” When he said “eat,” something impacted the door from the other side, probably Rufus’ shoulder, and the legs of the chair seemed to give a little. I didn’t know what to say. I just knew I would not hand myself over to Rufus to devour. Or whatever had possessed Rufus.

“Why’d you do that to Mama’s hand?” I said.

Again, he struck the door. The chair still held, but it would not for much longer.

“I wanted to talk to her,” Rufus managed to say. “I wanted to ask her if she’d give me her blessing.”

“Oh, Rufus, don’t say it.”

“I was gonna ask you to marry me. She said yes, by the way. Now I just wanna eat you.”

“That wasn’t Mama, Rufus,” I said, though I had to wonder if I had Mama’s estimation of Rufus all wrong. I put my head against the door and instantly regretted it when Rufus hit it again. The chair wouldn’t sustain another blow like that one.

“I don’t want to. But I got to eat you. You need to open this door now.”

“How about we make a deal, Rufus?” Then I proposed that Rufus stop trying to bash the door down. In exchange, I would open the door, but only if he swore he’d back all the way up from the door and sit on the toilet and wait.

No reply. Still, I reached into my handbag where I felt Mama’s hand. I was right earlier. It was vibrating. I held it as it continued to shake, trying to escape the fate I had already assigned to it. “I’m gonna open the door.” I started a count-down, beginning with three, and once I got down to one, I pulled the chair aside, threw open the door, and tossed Mama’s hand inside the bathroom. The door stayed open long enough for me to see Rufus sitting on the toilet, like a good man who follows a bargain no matter what the demons inside him might say. His eyes widened when he saw me, his beard, his beautiful beard, crusted with Huey’s blood.

As he scrambled for his meal, I slammed the door shut and replaced the chair.

Later, I learned that Rufus ate the whole thing, bones and all.

It didn’t make him better though. I hoped it would, but it didn’t. Maybe Mama would’ve known that before I did, but without Mama’s word, you’ve got to take your own chances.

Rufus lives in the Vissaria County Psychiatric Hospital now. Whatever entered his body that day took him over completely, eventually.

They don’t allow visitors. No one expects Rufus’ condition to improve.

And that makes me sad. But whatever gave him the idea that he needed Mama’s blessing or that he needed anyone’s permission other than my own? As if I belonged to anyone other than myself?

The cabinet looked empty without Mama’s hand, and my days got quieter without Rufus coming around. For the cabinet, I found the bones of a two-headed snake in the woods behind the house. I grew fond of it and stopped thinking much of Mama’s hand. Or of Mama herself.

I decided to name the snake skeleton after Rufus. Unlike his namesake, he—I mean, they—would never bite me.

But if they ever tried to talk to me—or for me—they would need to go.


© 2020 by Douglas Ford

Douglas Ford lives and works on the west coast of Florida, just off an exit made famous by a Jack Ketchum short story. His weird and dark fiction has appeared in Dark Moon Digest, Infernal Ink, Weird City, along with several other small press publications. Recent work has appeared in The Best Hardcore Horror, Volumes Three and Four, and a novella, The Reattachment, will appear later this year courtesy of Madness Heart Press. In the harsh light of day, he sprinkles a little darkness into the lives of his students at the State College of Florida, and he lives with a Hovawart (that’s a kind of dog) who fiercely protects him from the unseen creatures living in the wooded area next to his house.  His five cats merely tolerate him, but his wife is decidedly fond of him, as he is of her.  


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DP FICTION #69A: “Many-Faced Monsters in the Backlands” by Lee Chamney

The Backlands prison barge dropped me where Riverway 53-A-Lesser splits off Riverway 53-A. There, a small break in the tree canopy made farming possible, in theory. I was told to build a homestead.

I don’t think the Eternal Bureaucracy expected much from a political exile like myself. Back in the districts, I was a Vice-Commissioner of Grains and Necessaries, a literal bean-counter, spending my days in granary offices and my evenings in tea shops, hiding from sunlight and pollen. The bargemaster saw the unlikelihood of my success, and he gamely committed to bring more subsistence rations.

The dark forest extended from my sunny patch to an infinite depth, so that looking into it felt a bit like standing between two mirrors. The ground was unbearably flat. so flat it was difficult to understand distances or directions. The only feature, the only landmark to use to define “location” at all, was the river, and even that, I knew, split and split ad infinitum as it flowed toward some sea yet undiscovered, confounding explorers, cartographers, and even the Bureaucracy’s pet gods.

Alone, outside my old environment, I had lost a sense of myself. I found myself staring—into the water, into fire, into the sky. I often lost track of what was I doing. I felt hemmed in by the dark and the riverbank. Before long, I found myself clutching an ax with aching hands, wasting time hacking away at the ironbarks, trying to expand my circle. It didn’t work. There was a constant sense that I had just had an important thought and forgotten it. It was loneliness. It was exhaustion. It was the geography.

The extreme privacy had some advantages. The first night, I opened a politically sensitive letter that I had been holding secret since the camps. It was written in a sharp, deliberate script. In the lamplight, the words looked like they were cut into the page. The letter assured me that I still had friends in the Bureacuracy, and that if I could only hold on until a less politically dangerous time, I would be reinstated with honor.

*

On the third day, while using the washbasin, I saw my face had become asymmetrical. As I watched, the left side fattened. I put a hand to it and felt the bones below shift. The left side soon contaminated the right, and my face became someone else’s. It looked at me with eyes not my own.

I tried to speak. With effort, I reclaimed my lips. They thinned and tightened back into my old nervous mouth. I made them speak. “Hello,” I said. My voice was fearful and fearfully polite.

My mouth transformed back into that of the Second Face. “Hello,” it said.

“What are you?” I asked.

“I don’t know,” he said. “I used to be you. I remember being you.”

The transformation became easier. My face snapped back together as I said, “But you’re not, anymore.”

“No,” said Second Face. “I’m less, now, somehow. I’m only a part.”

I thought for a moment. There was a lack in my mind, an empty space, but I couldn’t remember what had been there. “You split from me,” I stated.

Second Face contorted into being and replied, “Yes.”

“Do you remember everything I remember?” I asked.

“How would I know?”

We shared a smile, one superimposed on the other. Mine faded faster. Panic set in. I asked, “Do you remember our childhood?”

“Vividly.”

More vividly? I thought. I worried I was less than Second Face, ready for replacement. I asked, “How about our first kiss?”

“Under the rubber tree, with Selena.” With a playful grin, the Second Face asked me, “Do you remember walking home after, the smell in the air, that sense of being connected, of being part of the kissing bulk of humanity?”

“I can’t.” My voice quaked.

“I guess that’s what I am. Or part of what I am.”

I walked outside out of an instinct to be by myself, to think. Of course, Second Face came with me. It gamely tried a smile, and I wrenched control away and frowned, heavily. What was missing?

“You took my sense of wonder,” I accused.

“Oh, please. I’m too small for that, even I can tell that. I got a cluster of wonder-related memories, at most. Also, some muscle memory, I think.” Then, his expression softened. “Chin up, friend,” he said. “I’m still here! It’s not like I can walk off on my own. Let’s work. Let’s get our minds off this.”

We did work. That day, I cleared shrub from under the trees to make way for climbing beans. This would normally be miserable work, but Second Face made the time pass quickly. He joked, he laughed, he pointed out beauty. “Look at the river! It’s so blue in the sunlight,” he would say, or, “I wonder if that sound is a bird or an insect?” His voice was so unlike mine; it was slow, deep, and relaxed. As he narrated the forest, it seemed less dark and eternal, but instead vibrant and homey. His voice even comforted me at night. “Being an exile here isn’t the worst fate,” Second Face cooed. “We might even meet someone else, someday. It’s an adventure!” I felt lighter, just listening to him. I stopped resenting Second Face’s existence. After all, I reasoned, people have come back from the Backlands. Maybe there’s a cure. I drifted off to sleep.

*

The next morning, I felt even better. It was as if during the night, something rough and abrasive and stuck in my heart had been surgically removed. Its absence felt euphoric. That is, until it started talking.

“Miss me?” said Rough Thing. Its face, cruel yet pained, appeared over my own. “No? I hurt.”

I hurt, I would learn, was not so much a description of mood as a statement of being. Rough Thing hurt, both in the adjectival and verbal sense. It had taken memories I was glad to lose: memories of old unhappy far-off things, cupboards and switches and silences. It liked to remind me of them, every now and then. As I planted a bean, it remarked, “Your father never loved you. It’s not that he was incapable of love. He just chose not to exercise that capacity towards you.” When I started turning the soil in my main plot, it said, “Hot, isn’t it? It’s very hot, you know.”

Second Face overcame its fear and came out. Our mutterings became three-way, as Second Face explained its interest in certain painful sensations, and Rough Thing showed Second Face dead birds in the forest. Soon, we lived peaceably enough, passing the days in sweat and sun, watching our first crops start to grow.

*

The next time the barge arrived, I ran into the shallows, waving a little letter, begging the bargemen to take it. Instead, they poled further into the middle of the river, glancing at me with embarrassment and fear. Maybe they were unnerved by Rough Thing, which punctuated my urbane pleas with honest but unnerving comments such as, “Hope is everything!” and “I’m pathetic!”

I gave up and watched as the barge passed. On deck was a new exile, a woman. She did not look at me as she feebly tried to keep her hair arranged, despite the wind. A metropole type, I thought derisively. Less fancy now, aren’t you?

Almost as soon as she was out of view, Second Face said, “We should go find her. They probably don’t want to travel too far before they drop her off.”

“Why?” I asked.

“I… don’t know.”

“You didn’t split off with a lot of forethought, eh?” I teased.

Second Face just said, “It just feels like we should find her. We need…” his voice trailed off.

Suddenly, Rough Thing took violent control of my mouth and lungs, fully absorbing my face. It said, “Company. We need company.”

“Do we?”

“Yes. You are not good at understanding us. I am. We’re lonely. Trust me.”

“Why would I trust you?” I retorted, and Rough Thing was, even more so than usual, hurt.

Partly to mollify him and partly out of curiosity, I took a gift bundle of beans and some foraged fruit and set off down the riverbank.

*

After three days of walking, I found the newcomer’s homestead in the middle of a buzzing meadow. The level of campcraft was surprising for a metropole woman; the shelter was made very practically, her bent-staff traps, leaning over the meadow grass like farmers pulling weeds, had already snapped up a pair of rabbits.

Rough Thing said, “Figures that the prison barge would drop her off where there’s so much game and soil and leave people like us in the woods.” I nodded vigorously.

The woman appeared on the meadow edge, carrying a bundle of kindling. She didn’t see me immediately. I ducked down and said, “Second Face, take over for a bit.”

“Why?”

“You’re more likeable.”

We popped into view, Second Face beaming, shouting, “Welcome to the Backlands!”

The woman dropped her bundle and ran to her ax. Second Face held my hands up. “It’s alright. We’re unarmed.”

What followed was a tense and lengthy explanation of what, precisely, he meant by “we.” The woman, Luciana, was less alarmed than I expected. “I knew about the faces. But I didn’t expect them to be so…vibrant,” she said, causing Second Face to blush until I took control again.

“Fascinating,” she said. “The change—it isn’t painful?”

“No.”

She reached a hand out, then stopped herself. “May I?” she asked. I nodded. Her hand lay on my cheek, and I allowed a shift to Second Face, and then, briefly, to Rough Thing. “It’s fascinating,” she remarked.

The only tension arose when I explained my plans for returning to favor. “Oh, you sweet man, they will never have us back,” she said, causing me to harrumph until she felt compelled to say, “I suppose it is possible your allies will help. I suppose. Possible.”

She tried to revive the conversation, but I cut it short. “It will be getting dark soon,” I said. “I’d better start back.”

“Oh.” She leaned to one side, looking quite girlish for a woman her age. “I thought that maybe you’d spend the night?”

I tried to hide my surprise and failed. “You did?” We hadn’t seemed to have much of a connection.

She gestured all around. “It’s not as if either of us have other prospects. And,” she grinned mischievously, “I’ve never been with three men at once.”

Courtship in the districts moved much more slowly than this. I gulped and said, “Maybe another time.” Luciana pouted, and her pout was echoed by Second Face. “I’m going to go.”

As I left, Second Face, called back, “Just follow the river to find me. Come soon.”

“I will!” called Luciana in response.

*

I returned to my homestead and spent a week alone. Luciana stayed in my mind. I wasn’t quite infatuated with her, but the absolute lack of other human company had lent her a certain desirability. I fantasized often.

I split twice more, creating Joaquin, who was convinced he was a ghost possessing me, and The Otter—not an animal face, just a human, whose name is too long a story to relate. The other faces also became more physical. Rough Thing sometimes manifested on my chest and remained there for hours. The faces demonstrated an alarming degree of control, sometimes taking control of my arms or legs and moving me like a marionette. We started to snap at each other.

Fortunately, Luciana made good on her promise. She came up the fruity path, calling out, “I have news!” I ran to meet her. I ran up the bank to her, surprised at my vigor. I gave her a kiss, a more lingering one than was common between friends. She seemed blissful, radiant even. “I have someone for you to meet,” she said. Then, she told me her story.

Luciana grew up in the metropole; she was educated in the central academy. Her first assignment was in god control, and she failed at it spectacularly. She fell in love with her target, the Brushfather, the Ancestor-Spirit Class deity of a string of remote villages.

“No one believes me,” said Luciana’s first face to me, some time later, “but love at first sight does exist.” Her mind rebuilt itself, with the Brushfather at the center as well as the edges. “It was like Bureaucracy re-education,” Luciana once said, wistfully.

“The Bureaucracy sent in the army, of course. They did their level best to destroy the Brushfather. They might have succeeded. I don’t know. I never saw him again. Until last week.” Suddenly, her face rippled into that of a serene older man.

*

Luciana’s memories of the Brushfather formed the core of a split. It was not the real god, but it was a very good memory of him. And I, like Luciana, fell in love on first sight.

We ran through a complex web of introductions, using the finest Bureaucracy etiquette. “Joaquin, I present you to Luciana,”…” etc., etc. Yet, my mind never left the Brushfather. Eyes as old as time, a smile as addictive as innocence—he had something I had been craving all my life.

That night, all of us lay and held each other. Luciana, Second Face, me, the Rough Thing, we all basked in the love of a god. “It’s lonely out here. Let’s live together,” I said.

Luciana and the Brushfather replied, two faces speaking an overlapping voice, “Yes, let’s.” It was the happiest moment of my life. Until the morning.

In the morning I had a split, or maybe an integration, or both. Rough Thing had changed, taken in more of me. It was urbane. Its eyes were hard. Not like the Brushfather at all. More like my actual father.

He savagely took control of my head and turned it to look at Luciana, lying naked and asleep in the shelter. I struggled to regain control, but all I could get was my left ring finger. I flapped it frantically. Rough Thing looked down at the counter-revolutionary finger and laughed. “The Brushfather doesn’t love you,” it said. “None of them do.”

I waited for Second Face to take over. I felt sure he would have something positive to say, something like, “He could, someday. It’s early, so who knows?”

Rough Thing used our arm to roughly shake Luciana awake. “What?” Luciana asked. A few faces cycled onto her head, all of them groggy but happy. I waggled my ring finger in warning.

“You don’t care about me.”

“What?” Luciana’s first face registered confusion.

“You haven’t tried hard enough. You’re old and soft and tired. Life out here isn’t like the metropole, is it?”

The words were familiar. I realized I’d said them, we’d said them, to lovers over the years. A lifetime of petty, stupid resentments flashed into my mind. Rough Thing had a part of the core of me. It had what I had always used to manage relationships.

Luciana’s faces and Rough Thing proceeded to have a three-way shouting match. Her first face was indignant, shocked that faces as plain as ours could feel entitled to so much more. Luciana tried to de-escalate the conversation and directed her arms’ efforts toward getting dressed and staying near the door. But the Brushfather just showed sadness, deep and real grief. He clearly had no armor, no way to understand that Rough Thing’s words had nothing to do with him, that they were just expressions of pain. He took Rough Thing’s words seriously, and my heart broke to see how he hurt.

When the damage was beyond repair, Rough Thing let Second Face take over. Second Face simply whined, “This was supposed to be better,” he said. “Why isn’t it better?”

Luciana’s faces showed an incredible amount of patience, so much that I think maybe they liked us more than I’d guessed, but finally she left in disgust.

Rough Thing sat us down, alone, in the dark. Only then did he let me speak.

“Why did you do that?” I asked.

“Because you wouldn’t.”

“I mean, why was it necessary at all?”

Rough Thing took my left hand and placed it, comfortingly, on my right. “I think you know.”

“I don’t.”

“I do,” said the Otter. “Rough Thing needed to say those things because they were true. To him.”

Rough Thing flickered in, saying, “You hit the nail on the head. Precisely so. I am the only one of us who values the truth.”

I said, “Your ‘truth’ isn’t the truth, Rough Thing.”

“Is yours? Do you want to talk about why we’re in the Backlands?” Rough Thing puppeted us to our feet. It walked us to the door, looked out at the southwest, as if he could see the districts. “I was there, you know. The other faces didn’t know they existed yet, but I did. I remember. I remember your meeting with the Yellows. Their agendas, their dreams, their ideals. I felt the danger from what is now Second Face.”

Rough Thing launched into a cruel impression of Second Face. “Maybe we can chaaaaaaange the wooooooorld. Maybe they’ll like us mooooooooore. Maybe I won’t be so boooooooored.” Its normal voice came back. “And we wrote that damned memorandum.”

Our body rushed to the river. We looked at each other face to face, overlapped and reflecting. “Don’t you understand?” it yelled. “I kept us safe! You all hated me, but I saw the dangers. There were dangers in rising too fast in the Bureaucracy. There were dangers in making our opinions known. And there are absolutely, beyond a doubt, dangers—”

“In being happy,” I finished.

“Yes.”

I took a deep breath, then said, “Rough Thing, I have never said this before to you. Thank you. Thank you for keeping us safe, all those years. But now, it’s time to go.”

Rough Thing offered a steady string of counterarguments, from the rational (“Where am I going to go? Your back?”) to the emotional (“You think you’re safe now?”). However, I could not be budged. All I did was repeat, again and again, “It’s time to go.” I willed all my thought into this one demand, repeating it like a meditation. Time slowed and the world came into focus, and still I repeated it. “It’s time to go. It’s time to go.” My diaphragm ached from speaking and still I repeated it.

Rough Thing appeared on my chest, a raised face. I took off my shirtwaist so he could hear me better. Inch by inch, he emerged from my chest, an ugly crab shedding a beautiful shell. Rough Thing’s mouth bit the ground and pulled, wrenching a small body out of my flesh. When it finally separated from me, I lost consciousness.

*

The next morning, Rough Thing had gone. It had taken with it a great number of memories and capabilities, as well as about two stone of muscle and fat.

I saw it every now and then, foraging in the forest. It had grown to an adult size, but its body that looked like it was drawn without the use of a live model—a body painful to inhabit. Usually, I waved. It never waved back.

I returned to my farming and tried to focus on taking care of vulnerable little Second Face. The summer passed drowsily. Then, near the time of my first grain harvest, a barge came without a prisoner.”Hail, sir,” said the bargemaster—the same who had ignored my waving letter. I briefly looked backwards to make sure someone more important hadn’t arrived. “Letter from the metropole.” He handed me the envelope and I held it like a precious stone.

Dear Arturio,

Joyous tidings! The tyranny of the Greens is no more. The whole Bureaucracy is Yellow—yellow like new blossoms, yellow like the dawn! You shall be reinstated and promoted. The bargemaster has been instructed to bring you back immediately.

Yours, Silvio Velez, Acting Minister of Justice and Appropriate Displays of Patriotism

“Ready?” asked the bargemaster.

“What—” I stammered. “What about…” I let Joaquin and the Otter flicker on my face.

The bargemaster was stoic. “They reabsorb in the districts. We’ve rehabilitated prisoners before. No one will know you were a monster if you keep quiet about what happened here.”

“I…” I said. “I need to get my old clothes.” I ducked into the shelter… then ran out the back, into the forest. I ran until I wheezed, then I walked. I walked past Rough Thing, digging for tubers, and past Luciana’s perfectly-laid trap lines. I walked into the great beyond of the Backlands.

I didn’t know myself at all before I was sent to the Backlands. I can’t go back. Not until I know myself better.


© 2020 by Lee Chamney

Author’s Note: I’ve always felt “personality” is a group project, made up of a whole bunch of mental processes, some of which are dysfunctional as hell. Looking at and understanding the processes is useful, and terrifying, and kind of fun. I’d been meaning to write a story about it for awhile when a fellow writer proposed “many-faced monsters with many loves” at a prompt party. That prompt, years of rumination, two pints, and some new-parent sleep deprivation all came together and became this story.

Lee Chamney is an education writer and is new(ish) to fantasyHe writes stories that  have dry humor, humanist tones, and a lot of weirdness. One of his bosses once described him as having “an awkward charm,” which is at least half right. You can keep up with his publications and play one of his choose-your-own-adventure games at www.leechamney.com.


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BOOK REVIEW: Miss Peregrine’s Home For Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs

written by David Steffen

Miss Peregrine’s Home For Peculiar Children is a 2011 contemporary fantasy novel, the first in a series of three books by Ransom Riggs depicting children with unusual abilities.

The protagonist of the book is Jacob Portman, who as a child was enamored by his grandfather Abe’s stories of fleeing from Nazi persecution of Jews in World War II–to hear his grandfather tell it there were literal monsters and his grandfather found safety in a secret safehouse with peculiar children watched over by a “wise old bird”. When he was a child, Jacob took these stories literally, but as he grew older he doubted their literal reality, figuring that his grandfather was communicating with metaphor about the horrors of war. As his grandfather dies, Jacob sees a vivid vision of what appears to be a monster lurking nearby, but no one believes he saw what he saw, and he is sent to therapy to cope with the trauma of his grandfather’s death.

His therapist, Dr. Golan, suggests that Jacob should travel to Cairnholm, Wales, the place where his grandfather had lived at the supposed home for peculiar children. There he can either establish the reality of the home, or not, and settle what everyone else believe to be fantasies. He travels there with his family on a work trip.

This book has a very good hook, although it’s clear from the title and the picture of the book that it’s clear that “peculiar children”, whatever that means, are central to the book, and one can probably assume that the home for peculiar children exists or they wouldn’t name the book after it, there is still plenty of mystery in the book to keep turning the pages. As the mystery is revealed there is plenty else to keep the story going in terms of interesting characters and looming villains. It’s hard to discuss it in much more detail because the reveal of the mysteries is the biggest part that is fun in the book.

But another thing that makes this book stand out from other fantasy books is the found pictures that form the basis for many of the ideas. Throughout the book are actual found photographs of “peculiar” children, children who appear to be floating, or appear to be an invisible child visible only as hovering clothing, or things like that. Riggs has worked with collectors of these odd photographs to make a huge collection of images of these, and many of the characters are based on these photographs, so it’s really interesting how those odd photographs, presumably of early photographic special effects, were the basis of the story–it lends the story some feel of truth as well as adding a very cool weird touch to it all.

Highly recommended!

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?”

“Yes!”

“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.

CRASH! BOOM!

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.

“Grandma?”

“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.


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MUSIC VIDEO DRILLDOWN #9: Radioactive by Imagine Dragons

written by David Steffen

This is one of a series of articles wherein I examine a music video as a short film, focusing on the story rather than the music, trying to identify the story arcs and characters motivations, and consider the larger implication of events.

The film this week is Radioactive by Imagine Dragons, a fantasy action thriller.

The film starts as our protagonist, a young woman in a hoodie, walks through the woods alone with a blanket-covered kennel. She approaches a shack on what appears to be a quiet rural property, until she enters and is surrounded by the ruckus of an underground gambling ring. Men shout and wave money at a central ring while the boss of the ring (Lou Diamond Philips) smokes a cigar and fiddles with a key hung around his neck. A chalkboard marks 115 wins for the Champ and 0 for the Challengers.

We catch glimpses of the singers of the background music, who sometimes pause their music to stare apprehensively at the trapdoor in the ceiling, the implication being that they are imprisoned in a dungeon under the shack, presumably locked with the key around the boss’s neck. They are doing their best to play despite drums and guitar caked in thick layers of dust.

The Challenger turns out to be a monster puppet that looks like a gorilla with long purple hair. Muscular and vicious and under the command of the boss, it puts challengers, other puppets and stuffed animals of various shapes, to quick ends, beating and often dismembering them before they are dropped into the dungeon through the trap door to join Imagine Dragons down there.

Our protagonist reveals the resident of her kennel, a pink and white teddy bear, and she pits it against the Champ. At first it seems the fight is going the way every other fight has gone, with the Champ winning decisively, but just when it’s about to be dumped in the dungeon with the others it rises again and gathers itself, gathering some kind of glowing energy into its plushy fist and knocks out the Champ. The shack goes completely silent as everyone freezes in shock at this unexpected development. The boss sics his guards on the bear, and the bear vaporizes them each in turn, and the gamblers cleare out of the shack in a rush, abandoning the boss. Our protagonist takes his key before dumping the boss down the trap door.

She frees Imagine Dragons to go free, and the boss picks himself up from the ground in the dungeon, as a swarm of his plushy victims closes in on him with squeaking sounds and malicious intent and the boss screams as the screen goes black.

Is this a fantasy film or a documentary, the presence of Imagine Dragons in the film might imply that this is a true story from their personal history. Perhaps before they made it big? I don’t believe I’ve heard any public interviews discussing this incident in greater detail, but it’s possible that the boss of that gambling ring has other surviving friends or family who would get their revenge about anyone who gave too many details. It does make me wonder too if this ring is an isolated occurrence or if there are illegal puppet fighting rings all over the place. And even though the boss got his comeuppance, it’s still sad to think of all of the plush creatures who had died there before that, and the people who came to gamble over it. In many ways it’s a classic tale of bad people getting what’s coming to them, but no doubt the survivors will suffer for the rest of their lives from their trauma there. Maybe someday there will be followup films about them finding their happiness in family or art or charity, however they can.

Next up in the Music Video Drilldown series will be Q.U.E.E.N. by Janelle Monáe.

BOOK REVIEW: Lady Cottington’s Pressed Fairy Book by Terry Jones

written by David Steffen

Lady Cottington’s Pressed Fairy Book is a 1994 fantasy book by Terry Jones parodying the historical Cottingley fairy photographs of 1917 which caused a sensation when they seemed to depict realistic fairies with children.

The story of the book begins when Lady Cottington is a young child and she manages to smash a fairy in her diary, preserving it there. As she examines the fairies she starts to pick out different types and she starts to make a habit of it, pressing more and more of them. As her life progresses and her interest ebbs and flows, this keeps a historical record of her growing into womanhood and as her interests become more adults and the fairies play their tricks on her in turn. The words in the book are interspersed with illustrations of squashed fairies, some nude and contorted into painful death poses.

The illustrations are bizarre and morbid and sometimes funny, and of an excellent quality, and the book itself (the one that I got anyway) had a cool design making it seem like an old diary.

A content warning for those who do pick up the book, drawn by the premise and illustrations, that the storyline does involve some situations that, though described some opaquely, seem to suggest sexual abuse. That wasn’t something I was expecting and it does make the book harder to recommend as a result, since the book as a whole doesn’t give the impression it involves that topic.

DP FICTION #64A: “Open House on Haunted Hill” by John Wiswell

133 Poisonwood Avenue would be stronger if it was a killer house. There is an estate at 35 Silver Street that annihilated a family back in the 1800s and its roof has never sprung a leak since. In 2007 it still had the power to trap a bickering couple in an endless hedge maze that was physically only three hundred square feet. 35 Silver Street is a show-off.

133 Poisonwood only ever had one person ever die under its roof. Back in 1989, Dorottya Blasko had refused hospice, and spent two and a half months enjoying the sound of the wind on 133 Poisonwood’s shingles. 133 Poisonwood played its heart out for her every day.

The house misses 1989. It has spent so much of the time since vacant. 

Today it is going to change that. It is on its best behavior as the realtor, Mrs. Weiss, sweeps up. She puts out trays of store-bought cookies and hides scent dispensers, while 133 Poisonwood summons a gentle breeze and uses its aura to spook any groundhogs off the property. Both the realtor and the real estate need this open house to work.

Stragglers trickle in. They are bored people more interested in snacks than the restored plumbing. The house straightens its aching floorboards, like a human sucking in their belly. Stragglers track mud everywhere. The house would love nothing more than any of them to spend the rest of their lives tracking mud into it.

A heavyset man with sagging shoulders lets himself in. He has a bit of brownie smudged against the back of his parakeet green hoodie, and doesn’t seem aware of it. Mrs. Weiss gives him a little wave while continuing to hold up a ten-minute conversation with an affluent couple. The couple made the mistake of saying they were “thinking of thinking of conceiving,” and Mrs. Weiss wields statistics about the school district like a cowboy wields a lasso. The couple’s shoes likely cost more than a down payment on the house, but from how often they check their phones, they clearly are headed back to their Mercedes.

The man with the brownie-stained hoodie prowls through 133 Poisonwood’s halls, and it pulls its floorboards so straight that its foundations tremble.

The man doesn’t look at 133 Poisonwood’s floor. He looks at the couple of ripples in the green floral wallpaper, with the expression of someone looking at his own armpit.

The house feels ashamed of the loose wallpaper. It’s vintage painted silk, which Mrs. Weiss says could be a big value-add. Now the house ponders if it can haunt its own glue and help strip the wallpaper away to please him. It’s especially important since he is spending more time here than anyone has yet without Mrs. Weiss wrangling them. It’s like he doesn’t feel the vibes other visitors do, or he doesn’t care about them.

From his behavior, what he cares about is wallpaper, the natural lighting through the windows in the master bedroom and the kitchen.

A child stomps in through the front door, her frizzy hair in three oblong pigtails she probably did herself. A silver keepsake locket clashes with her bright green Incredible Hulk t-shirt. Her elbows are tucked into her chest, hands out like claws, stained with brownie bits.

Every step she takes is deliberate and channels all her tiny body weight to be as heavy as possible. If the house had to guess, the girl is probably pretending to be a dinosaur on the hunt.

The man in the brownie-stained hoodie glances at her. He asks, “Ana. Where’s your coat?”

Ana bellows, “I hate clothes!”

Ana apparently hates clothes so much she immediately grabs the bottom of her Hulk t-shirt and yanks it up over her head. She is careful to keep her locket in place, but chucks the shirt at the man. He grabs for her, and she ducks between his arms, bolting past Mrs. Weiss and the affluent couple, pigtails and locket bouncing.

In their chase, they leave the front door open. The house knows heating oil is expensive. It summons a spectral breeze to shut it for them.

The sound makes Ana pinwheel around, and she points at the door. She says, “Daddy! It’s ghosts!”

Daddy says, “Ana, we talked about this. There’s no such thing as ghosts.”

“You didn’t look.”

“You don’t have to look for things that aren’t there.”

Ana looks at her locket and huffs. “What if it’s Mommy’s ghost?”

Daddy closes his eyes for a moment. “Please just put your shirt back on.”

Ana immediately attacks her own pants. “Clothes are for the weak!”

“Put it on or we are leaving, Ana,” he says, trying to wrestle clothing onto his daughter. She pushes at him, leaving more brownie residue on his hoodie. As they battle, the affluent couple slips out the front door without closing it.

The house closes it for them. Heating oil isn’t cheap.

*

The triangular roof means the second floor only has the space for one bedroom. Mrs. Weiss reads the expression on Daddy’s face, and she attacks with, “The basement is very spacious with generous lighting. It’s cool in the summer, and toasty in the winter.”

Ana says, “Heights are bad luck anyway.”

The four-year-old scarcely looks at the bedroom before backing out. She holds the handrail with both hands as she climbs down the stairs on quivering legs. On the third stair, she freezes entirely.

Daddy is in the middle of surveying the room and misses Ana quivering in place.

Some houses give their residents visions of slaughters or trauma. 133 Poisonwood gives Daddy a swift vision of his daughter’s vertigo. He doesn’t know it’s anyone else’s insight, and wouldn’t believe it, but he’s at the stairs in seconds. Ana holds onto his pants leg until she feels safe.

All 133 Poisonwood has is a light touch, but it knows how to use it. Haunting is an art.

The basement is only half-underground, so the windows are level with the freshly mowed front lawn. Ana spends a moment giggling at the view. Then she whizzes around the basement, from the combination furnace and laundry room, to a storage closet, and to a pair of vacant rooms. They would make a perfect child’s bedroom and playroom.

Ana goes to the west room, announcing, “Daddy. You can keep all the ghosts you bust in here.”

Mrs. Weiss offers, “One of these could be a home office. You said you telecommute? Google Fiber is coming to the area next year.”

Daddy says, “I want to work from home more. I’m a software engineer, and I host a skeptic podcast. You might have heard us.”

The house isn’t offended. It doesn’t believe in ghosts either.

Ana hops back and forth between the two rooms, scrutinizing over and over as though they’ll grow. That is a trick the house doesn’t have.

Daddy says, “We could sleep next door to each other. What do you think?”

Ana says, “But I want a big dino room.”

“You’re getting to be a big dinosaur. How about the room on the top floor?”

Ana’s bottom lip shoots upward like she’s going to run. She clearly won’t settle for the room on the top floor, and there’s only a master bedroom on the first floor. A tantrum is close, and it could ruin everything.

So 133 Poisonwood plays its ace. Every decent haunted house has at least one secret room. Dorottya Blasko used to sew down here when she didn’t want to be pestered, in a room her family couldn’t find. It would be a perfect place for Ana to grow up in. Perhaps she’ll learn to sew.

With the sound of an affectionate kitten, the door opens. Shock hits the adults, who definitely don’t remember there being a room there. Ana doesn’t care, and runs to explore it.

“Uh, we aren’t showing that room,” Mrs. Weiss says, scrambling to cover for herself. She’s panicking, imagining hazards and lawsuits.

She doesn’t understand. 133 Poisonwood is going to clinch the sale for them.

The room runs deep, with an expansive window that hasn’t been seen from the outside in over twenty years. A sewing box with a scarlet and royal blue quilted exterior sits next to a rocking chair, and beneath the window is a broad spinning wheel that still smells like hobbies. Many great dresses were supposed to come out of this room. There are a few cracks on the concrete floor. Nothing a loving father can’t fill in to perfect his daughter’s big dino room.

“Ana,” Daddy calls. “Stay near me.”

Ana ignores the call and runs straight up to the spinning wheel. Her little hands grab onto spokes in the drive wheel, and she turns to the door. “It’s like Mommy’s.”

Daddy says, “Careful, that’s not ours—”

Ana yanks the wheel around to show it off to the adults. She pulls before the house can resist, and the entire device creaks and wobbles. It topples straight down on top of Ana, throwing her to the floor.

Daddy grabs her shoulders and pulls her from between the cracked wheel and treadle. Ana’s too distracted bawling to feel her necklace snag the spindle. The thin chain snaps, and the locket slips from her neck and down a crack in the floor. Without intending to, the house sucks the chain down like a strand of spaghetti. The house tries to spit it out.

Daddy squeezes Ana to his chest so hard she could pop, and keeps repeating, “Are you alright? Are you alright?”

Mrs. Weiss gestures and says, “Her hand.”

“Are you alright?”

Ana says, “Let me fix it!” She stretches her hands to the broken spinning wheel. One of her hands is bleeding and she still wants to use them to clean up her mess. She says, “Daddy, let go, I’ll fix it. Don’t make the ghosts sad.”

That breaks Daddy’s concerned trance, and he lifts her under one arm, ignoring the kicking of her feet. He marches for the stairs. “No. I warned you, and we are leaving.”

“Daddy, no!”

“No more. Say goodbye. You see the ghosts aren’t saying goodbye? Do you know why?”

An urge falls over the house to slam the door shut and trap them all inside. Daddy, Ana, and even Mrs. Weiss, force them all to spend eternity in its hidden room, where they can make dresses, and stay cool in the summer, and warm in the winter. It will shelter them from all the hurricanes the world can create. It needs them.

The phantom door’s hinges and knob tremble as 133 Poisonwood fights itself. In that moment it knows what makes other homes go evil. The killer houses can’t bear to be alone.

133 Poisonwood Avenue would be stronger if it was a killer house. But it isn’t one.

It leaves its rooms open as Daddy carries his bawling daughter out of the basement, her incoherent sounds resonating through the house’s crawl spaces. He carries her up the stairs and out the front door without a backward glance. This time, he remembers to close the door.

*

133 Poisonwood leaves the secret room open in the hopes that someone will come back. It squeezes the cracks in its floor closed, popping the locket out without scratching it. Inside is the picture of a woman with a thick nose and proud eyes. She would have made an excellent ghost. The house would take a phantom for an inhabitant at this point.

The afternoon is sluggish. There are four more visitors, none of whom stay long enough to check the basement for treasure. The hours chug by, and Mrs. Weiss spends most of the time on her phone.

With half an hour of daylight left, a red sedan pulls up. The driver lingers outside for two minutes before knocking. It’s Daddy.

Mrs. Weiss answers and forces a smile, “Ulisses. Is Ana okay?”

Daddy says, “It was a scratch. Thanks for being understanding before.”

She says, “I’m so sorry about that. I told the team this place was supposed to be empty.”

He says, “Have you seen a locket? Ana wears it everywhere and it’s gone missing.”

Mrs. Weiss holds the door open for him, “We can check around. What does it look like?”

“It has a picture of Ana’s mother inside. It’s one of few gifts she still has from her.”

“She was your wife?”

“She was going to be,” he says, and looks around the master bedroom with an expression even emptier than the space. “There was an accident on our apartment’s fire escape. She had a fall.”

“Oh, that’s terrible.”

“Right now, Ana needs all the comfort she can get. So if we can find that locket, it’d save our lives.”

They look around, the man so tired every step looks heavy. It’s amazing he could stagger into a motel bed, let alone go hunting for a locket. The house hasn’t seen someone as in need of a home in years.

Mrs. Weiss says, “I had something like that after my father passed away. Makes her feel like her mother’s spirit is still with her?”

“Superstitions aren’t comforting to me,” he says, fatigue giving way to scorn, as though daring the house’s walls to do something. “And Ana’s mother was an atheist.”

The house is tempted to give Daddy the shock of his life and toss the locket to him. Give him back the image of his lover and proof of its power.

But he doesn’t need to believe in hauntings. With his slumped shoulders, and his clothes stained with his daughter’s food, and the pieces of their lives he is trying to put together?

What he needs is a win.

So the house uses what little strength it has to levitate the locket onto the top basement stair. It twists it so the light catches it, and shines into the upstairs living room.

Daddy finds the precious locket on his own. He bends over it, brushing a thumb over his lover’s image. He heaves a sigh through his nose like he wishes he could fit inside the locket.

The house lets him be proud of himself. It will hold onto this memory for the cold years ahead until it is bulldozed.

Daddy stands up without the locket, leaving it behind. The house tries to send him a vision warning that he’s forgotten what he came here for.

The mental image doesn’t change what he’s doing.

He goes right outside, to his sedan where Ana sits, rubbing at her puffy eyes and runny nose. Daddy says, “It might be here. Do you want to help me look?”

The house cannot cry. There is just a little air in its pipes.

Ana flops out of the car and trudges into 133 Poisonwood. She spends too long poking around the kitchen, a room she was barely in earlier. Daddy plays an even worse sleuth, deliberately checking around empty hallways that give him a view of when Ana finally checks the basement door.

“Mommy!” she cheers. She sits right down on the stair and hugs the locket to her throat, voice trembling with emotions too big for her body. “Mommy came back!”

Daddy asks, “So you found it?”

“I told you she’d be here. Mommy wanted me to find it.”

“Your mother didn’t do that, Ana.”

She scrunches her nose and mimics his voice to say, “You don’t know that.”

Daddy puts a hand over the locket. “You found this. Not anybody else. You don’t need ghosts,” and he taps her on the temple, “because you have the best parts of your mother inside you.”

Ana gazes up at her father with glossy eyes.

133 Poisonwood has never so understood what it wants to do for people as when it watches this parent. It tries to hold onto the vibrations of his voice in its walls.

Then Ana says, “Nah. The ghosts left it here.”

She hauls off to the living room, hopping in late afternoon sunbeams, and holding the locket in the light.

Reason is defeated for the moment. Daddy doesn’t fight her on it. He rests against the wall, against the wallpaper he hates, taking the house for granted. The house plays a tune on its shingles, the same one that calmed Dorottya Blasko in 1989.

Daddy calls, “Mrs. Weiss?”

“Please, call me Carol,” she says. She’s been pretending she wasn’t lurking ten feet away this whole time. “You’re very sweet with Ana. You can just tell some people were born with the knack.”

“Three rooms in the basement. This is a lot of house for the money, isn’t it?”

“It’s just a family short of a home.”

133 Poisonwood would be more charmed by the line if it hadn’t heard her say that eight other times today.

Daddy says, “I like the space this place has for her. There’s plenty of room to run. And she loves to run. Going to be a track and field star.”

“I said to myself that this place looks happier when you’re in it. It suits you.”

The house can tell he wants to say he doesn’t believe that.

He says, “What we need is somewhere to start fresh.”

Mrs. Weiss offers him a folio of data on the house and gestures to the basement. “Care for another look around?”

“Yeah. Thank you.” He takes the folio. “While Ana is playing upstairs, can we check how insulated from sound that sewing room is? It’s funny, but I thought it might make a good podcast studio.”

If houses could laugh. He sounds so unguarded and sincere.

This tired skeptic doesn’t need to know that his podcast room doesn’t technically exist. If he finds the blueprints for 133 Poisonwood, he’ll shave away what he doesn’t understand with Occam’s razor. The house doesn’t need him to believe in anything but himself and his daughter. It isn’t here for the gratitude. It can try to support him as well as he supports Ana. If anything is as patient as a parent, it’s a haunting.


© 2020 by John Wiswell

Editor’s Note: The original posting of this story included a terminology error where a spindle was confused with a spinning wheel. This has been corrected. Thank you to “Janice in GA” who first pointed out the error.

Author’s Note: At the World Fantasy Convention in 2018, I went to dinner with some lovely people who let me babble about Horror. I read, watch, and play Horror every week, but I barely ever write it. Instead I tend to put Horror-y things back out as humorous stories or heartwarming stories. Off the top of my head I gave them the example that if I wrote a haunted house story, it wouldn’t be like Haunting of Hill House – it would be about a haunted house that was lonely and desperately wanted someone to live in it. One of my fellow authors reached across the table, grabbed me by the hand, and said, “Please write this.” On the train ride home, I did. So this story is dedicated to Natalia Theodoridou, who demanded I help 133 Poisonwood find its family and its audience – all of you.

John (@wiswell) is a disabled writer who lives where New York keeps all its trees. His work has appeared in Uncanny Magazine, Nature Futures, and Fireside Magazine. He wishes all readers the comfort that their settings wish they could provide.


If you enjoyed the story you might also want to visit our Support Page, or read the other story offerings. John’s fiction has previous appeared here in Diabolical Plots with “Tank!” in June 2018. John’s story “For Lack of a Bed” was published here as well in April 2021.

MUSIC VIDEO DRILLDOWN #8: People Like Us by Kelly Clarkson

written by David Steffen

This is one of a series of articles wherein I examine a music video as a short film, focusing on the story rather than the music, trying to identify the story arcs and characters motivations, and consider the larger implication of events.

The film this week is People Like Us by Kelly Clarkson, a fantasy/SF thriller about a little girl imprisoned in a research facility.

As the film begins we see our protagonist, a young girl in a rainbow-colored dress, sitting on a metal examination table and looking scared and worried while men and women holding clipboards study her. She is remarkable in this initial image because everything else is black-and-white, completely without any other colors, and she has the rainbow dress and what we would consider ordinary skin and hair tones. As the scenes go on we continue to see her in enclosed spaces being asked questions, being watched from windows while she looks at an abacus while she is stared at by monochrome children who sit apart from her.

One of the researchers (Kelly Clarkson) acts differently from the others. Of course, since she has the same face as the non-monochrome singer in the refrain who sings “People like us, we gotta stick together”, so we already have the dramatic irony that this woman is like the girl, even before she pulls out her bright yellow phone to take full color pictures of the girl. This action is, admittedly, rather baffling. That she wants a picture might make sense, but why wouldn’t she be a little more discreet about it, and why would she pull out that phone in front of the other researchers–even if they weren’t paying attention at that moment, that bright yellow is eye-catching even in our chromatic world let alone in a world with no color.

Later when the girl is by herself, the yellow-phoned researcher visits her room alone. She takes off her glasses, and takes the girl’s hand to brush across her face, the first friendly moment or contact the girl has experienced in the film (and who knows how long she has been here!). Where the girl’s hand touches, the researcher’s skin returns to a healthy flesh color instead of the monochrome makeup she had apparently been wearing. They share a smile as the girl realizes she finally has an ally.

Again with this moment, it leads to the question of “why?”. For the second time the girl’s would-be-rescuer, the woman with the yellow phone, has made an extremely risky choice without clear benefit. I mean, it’s a clear benefit to let the girl know she is like her, to gain her trust for her participation in the escape. But why the face? Why not roll up her sleeve and show her there where the skin can be covered up again before they leave the room. Perhaps the woman with the yellow phone knows that whatever cover story she has given will be blown as soon as the girl is out of the room, so there’s no point in covering it up anymore? Or maybe the woman with the yellow phone is more moved by a flare for the dramatic rather than being a strategist.

In any case, soon alarms are blaring and men in suits are chasing, but they escape to their bright red BMW, with men in suits in hot pursuit. (For the third time, again, why didn’t they get a black car or a white car, what is the point of the risk of a red car where anyone would be able to spot them such a long way away as an anomaly in a monochrome landscape!). In the car, the woman with the yellow phone is now in full color again, perhaps there is some aura of color trapped within the car, like the air in a submersible.

They travel through a tunnel and emerge on the other side into a normal chromatic world, where they stop the car and are joined by a crowd of other people in full color.

The men in suits emerge from the tunnel and as they exit their car they stare in wonder at the world of color all around them. Again, I have questions–are they not concerned that these guys in suits won’t panic or continue on with their tasks to try to take the girl by force, perhaps using guns. Unless their continued monochromatic state implies that they are powerless in this world that is not their own–perhaps their guns won’t fire, perhaps they are as ghosts. Or perhaps the woman with the yellow phone is not alone in her flare for needlessly risky dramatic gestures, and maybe that’s inherent in this world of colors.

Next up in the Music Video Drilldown series will be Radioactive by Imagine Dragons.