DP FICTION #83B: “Delivery For 3C at Song View” by Marie Croke

Sometimes, and I’m stressing the sometimes, wishes muttered within my hearing come true. I’ve invested in a good set of earbuds, noise-cancelling headphones, and have an over-spilling jar of earplugs, yet accidents still happen.

“Wish you’d always be my Dasher,” this young guy in a neon orange slouch hat says and I swear if he could blow me a winky-kissy-face emoji he would.

“Just take your food,” I say, not desperately at all, and turn to flee the apartment complex, my phone pinging another delivery option before I’ve made it to the elevator.

It’s no problem. My delivery rate on pizza and French fries and Styrofoam is far higher than my delivery rate on half-assed, wishy jokes. No problem at all.

By the time I go home for the night, my twin braids looking slept-in rather than freshly woven, I can’t say I’m too worried. That woman who wished her kids grown didn’t suddenly have teenagers (or abnormally large toddlers). That man who’d wished the neighbor’s dog would shove a sock down its throat still complained of the yapping every time I came by. My success rate is something like one out of fifty, or maybe even worse.

Yes, hopefully worse.

It’s a coincidence that I deliver the same guy Thai food three days later. 3C at Song View Apartment complex is just hungry while I’m on call. People get hungry a lot; I’ve delivered to plenty of repeats. Plenty of them.

It’s also a coincidence that I’m back the day after with a bag of cheap tacos.

“We’re going to have to stop meeting like this,” he says. “People will start to wonder about us.”

“I already wonder about you.”

He laughs, hands me a cash tip with graphite-stained fingers, and disappears behind his door. I remain on the other side for a few moments more, just staring. Not glaring. Just…wondering.

When his name pops up a few days later with an order for crab legs from a local marina restaurant, I resist. Just because I can. Because I’ve got plans and they include a credit transfer, a bachelor’s and a small studio in any city that sits on the coast. Those plans most definitely don’t include always being some jokester’s delivery girl.

Get out of the bathroom to Andromeda (renaming the cat Devil Spawn) having sat on my phone and accepted the delivery for me. What are the odds…

Pretty freaking good, it seems.

There’s a “bug” in the system the next time. A call from the company threatening termination the time after. A few times after that a rent bill looms because my savings got swallowed needing a transmission replaced and people kept swiping other orders out from under me. But not him. No, 3C at Song View is all mine it seems. All mine, forever and always and I’m not at all comfortable with that.

Late May, when classes are finalizing and my decision to transfer to Salisbury is having me throw down a deposit on an apartment four hours away, I find myself stuck at home after a car accident. I guess an F-150 destroying my backend is major enough to keep me off the road and turn my check into a wire transfer. Minor enough the car is magically fixed at the shop and back on delivery circle hell within 24 hours.

Because Mr. 3C at Song View needs his gods-damned General Tso’s.

When he opens the door this time round, he does a double-take. Eyes going bowl-like, round and saucer-shaped. “What happened to your arm?”

“Accident. Tore a ligament.” I keep the bag of food by my side.

“You doing all right?”

“Yes, thanks for–” What the hell am I doing? Consorting with the enemy. Acting like his empathy matters right now. I clear my throat and take a menacing step forward. At least, I go for menacing. My menacing might need work. “I need you to do me a favor.”

His eyes go from milk saucer-round to cat-slitted within a fraction of a second. “Oh?”

“Yes. I need you to speak the words: ‘I wish Dana Utepi is never my Dasher again.’ Better yet, just stop ordering out. In fact, I’ve brought you some recipes to get you started. Simple things: spaghetti, chicken and noodles, chicken and rice, chicken and–”

“I ordered delivery, not life advice,” he snaps and ho boy, I think I’ve hit a nerve because the man flushes. Heh, comes with the territory having skin that light I guess. Wonder what he’s so sensitive about; it’s not as if he’s living with his mom.

“First of all, the point of this is to not be your delivery driver. Ever again.”

“Just don’t take my requests then, jeesh. Not like someone’s forcing you to accept them.”

Okay, that snippery deserves a glare, so I give him the glariest glare ever in existence. “You are. And I’d like you to stop.”

I think at this point the word “crazy” probably crosses his mind, does a triple flip and lands with both feet square on the “back-away slowly” response. At least, he gives his bag of food a morose and longing glance and nudges further into his apartment.

“I’m descended from a djinn, way back, my mother’s father’s great-times-twenty grandfather a full-bred desert-dwelling not-quite-human or so the tale goes. Things get a little broken and diluted this far from the source though and wishes said in my proximity have a one in fifty chance of coming true. Or thereabouts.”

He is still standing there. The word “crazy” is now blinking at me backward out his corneas.

“You wished for me to be your Dasher always and now I’m not going to get to transfer to a better college and go on to live my life if I don’t find a way to fix what you’ve done. Or what I’ve done. Inadvertently.”

He shifts his weight and fumbles with his phone. “Can I have my food? I’ll give you a twenty if you leave.”

“Not until you say, ‘I wish Dana Utepi is never my Dasher again.'”

“If you don’t give me my food, I’m going to put in a complaint with the company.”

“Won’t work. They won’t fire me because of your stupid wish.” At least I hope so because delivering to 3C at Song View with no assurance I’d get paid doesn’t sound appealing.

When he begins typing something one-fingeredly, I lean forward to peek at the screen. He lifts his head marginally and I get a glance at those mix-and-match hazel eyes that don’t look as if they know what color they want to be. Cute. Actually, they would be cute if the owner wasn’t the bearer of my doom, the bringer of never-ending deliveries, the ender of my education and dreams.

Not cute.

“Can you maybe remove yourself from my personal space?”

“Sure thing. ‘I wish Dana Utepi was never–'”

“–never my Dasher again. Yeah. I said it.”

“You must start from–”

“I wish Dana Utepi never delivers food to me again! Happy?”

I hand him the food because I am happy. Quite happy. That had been a really strong wish. So forceful.

He slams the door in my still-grinning face.

Now, on top of tuition and rent and all the other basic necessities of life, fancy medical bills begin to stream in. This one for the doctor, that one for the tests, another for the room, and I just lose count at the piddling, growing amounts after seeing the hundred dollar charge for what amounted to liquid Tylenol. Which means more dashing. More deliveries. Longer on-call times.

3C at Song View shows up on my app a little over a week later.

Eight days. He shows up exactly eight days later because I was counting that. He even left a note on the delivery instructions: “Dana Utepi need not apply.”

Heh.

I resist. For minutes on end, I walk away from my phone, always drawn back to see if his order has been scarfed up. Other deliveries come and go and come and go. But not his. Not his.

It sits forever in the queue, his food likely gone cold, him probably steaming mad. Or maybe not. Maybe he’s studying. Maybe he’s overworked, exhausted, falling asleep on the couch, if he has a couch, while waiting for supper.

And I…I have crafted a version of events that make me feel damn guilty.

So I go pick up his sub despite his “Dana Utepi need not apply” message.

He stares at me, his hazel eyes all owlish and the stubble on his face like gloomy prickles of death. “What are you doing here?”

I probably deserve that. In fact, when I look down at the bag in my hand I can’t even find it in myself to be angry. “Guess your wish didn’t work.”

He sighs and collapses against his door frame, his fingers softly rubbing together as if to wipe away the graphite stains drawn across his skin. “I wish Dana Utepi was never my Dasher again. Did I get that right? Have you spit in my food?”

“Of course not,” and I do not hide my affront. “I’m only here because no one else snatched up the order and I worried you’d go hungry.”

“You were worried about me?” The half-hearted smile says he doesn’t much believe me.

“What kind of a person do you think I am? If my arm wasn’t in this sling I might have smacked you upside the head for that comment.”

“That’s what kind of person I think you are. The kind who casually displays violence against strangers.”

“I didn’t mean it. I was figuratively talking about what I would have liked to do.”

The look he gives me says that my defense isn’t much better.

“Okay.” Now I scowl, more because I don’t know what to do about my frustration anymore. “I don’t have time for this. I’ve got a move to plan and job applications to fill out because I want to get out of this bastard of a town. Take your food. Have a good night. Bye.”

But he doesn’t take the bag. So I stand there like an idiot holding out this condensation-heavy bag so that it hangs between us like some metaphor hovering over both our heads.

When he finally reaches out, he turns his hand sideways and slips his fingers through the hole in the bag to grip me in a pseudo-complex-not-quite-handshake. “My name is Donovan Lin. Nice to make your acquaintance, Dana Utepi.” He pulls away, taking the bag with him. “Want to come in for a cup of coffee? Or a beer? Or, hell, I learned how to make tea if you’d like some flavored sugar-water.”

“Sugar-water?” I gasp in mock outrage, some of the prickling frustration that had been beginning to sting at my eyes fading. Then I follow Mr. 3C at Song View into his apartment and he doesn’t even attempt to murder me after all my obnoxiousness. That’s magnanimous of him.

We end up sharing his huge meatball sub (not a euphemism) and he shows me his comic panels about poor kids who become superheroes while struggling to put enough food on their tables. Then he waxes on about his worries that they’ll never sell. He mentions his mom and how she’s so hopeful he’ll be an amazing success, and he doesn’t want to disappoint her.

I change the subject to our favorite movies to cheer him up because he’s speaking too much sense, and that leads to us watching an old Batman movie, which I find ironic given the subject matter of his comic, but I don’t tell him so. After that, it’s some time after eleven and we fall into a talkative state as we raid his barely-filled freezer for the dredges of ice cream.

That’s when the conversation lands on topics best left out of first dates, like slavery and wish-fulfillment, and okay, I stomp around crying out about the absolute injustice over having my entire life upset because someone (not naming any names) only ever thinks in terms of their own selfish desires and never for the people around them.

“Why don’t people ever casually wish for peace? For health? For safety? Is it too much to ask that I hear wishes for me to have any of those things? ‘I wish you a good day.’ See how easy that is?”

From where he’s curled sideways on the couch, Mr. 3C at Song View nods along, stubble rubbing against the cushion.

“No! Those are things they only think about after the fact, after they’re lost.” I ignore the fact I hadn’t even considered my own personal freedoms until they were yanked from me because, quite frankly, I don’t find it fair. It’s not as if my wishes are ever truly mine.

“It’s always ‘I wish the weather was always perfect for me.’ ‘I wish that someone would fall in love with me.’ I wish, I wish, I wish that the whole world revolved around me, me, me!” Then I dramatically collapse in one of his broken armchairs with all the grace of a prima ballerina. At least that’s how I envision it.

“I wish I could fix it all for you. I really do.” He looks it too, the sleep gone from his eyes though he now has graphite smudges along his hairline where he’d been rubbing.

“I don’t want you to fix it. I want you to stop fucking things up in the first place.”

“One in fifty, right?” He doesn’t even let me answer before he begins to repeat, “I wish Dana Utepi to be happy and successful” ad nauseum. It almost becomes a song as he repeats it over and over and when I cover my face and my embarrassed laughter, he slips those stained fingers of his over mine and peeks behind my hand.

This is where things are supposed to do the “big change,” right? Where I say happily ever after! That Dana Utepi no longer has to dash to deliver food, where she successfully moves to her new college, where she gets amazing grades and lands a dream job after graduation.

But…none of that happens.

My apartment falls through, something about them not receiving the wire transfer. My car decides that the accident really was life-threatening, at least for it, and only after I’d spent the money to fix the backend. And then I have to get surgery on my arm in order to make sure I don’t have future issues. I’m going to be swimming in bills and I don’t have any way to pay them.

All I really have is a new boyfriend to show for all those wishes for Dana Utepi to have a happy and successful life.

A new boyfriend named Donovan Lin who happens to have a friend living in Salisbury who happens to have just lost their roommate.

A new boyfriend with a graphic novel about working-class superheroes that goes to auction with enough of an advance he buys me a cheap replacement for my car as an unbirthday gift.

A new boyfriend who drives me to and from my surgery appointment and makes me the grossest soup I’ve ever tasted before using Grubhub (on pain of pain) to fetch something far more palatable.

A new boyfriend who, while I lay beside him in bed, all groggy from painkillers, I realize wished to be able to fix all my problems for me. Right before he’d wished for me to be happy and successful over and over and over.

One in fifty.

Sometimes it’s the casual wishes that ring truest.

Half-asleep and snuggling closer to him, I think about taping his stupid mouth closed. Might be the only way to keep these wishes we must fix from tumbling haphazardly out of it. Otherwise, we’re going to have to have a serious conversation about removing the word “wish” from his vocabulary. Permanently.


© 2022 by Marie Croke

2600 words

Author’s Note: Casual wishing is a dangerous pitfall, because, not only does it shift our focus on what we don’t have instead of what we do have, but those wishes, whether we realize or not, can affect everyone around us. We can’t all win the lottery, sell the story, win the game, so if you do, that means others had wishes that likely didn’t come to pass. This story came from reminding myself to be thankful my own casual wishes have not all come true, because that means a different wish has come true for someone else.

Marie Croke, a graduate of the Odyssey Writing Workshop and a winner of the Writers of the Future Contest, has had stories published in Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Dark Matter Magazine, and Cast of Wonders, among other fine magazines. She lives in Maryland with her family, all of whom like to scribble messages in her notebooks when she’s not looking. You can find her book recommendations online at mariecroke.com or chat with her @marie_croke on Twitter.


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DP FICTION #83A: “Tides That Bind” by Cislyn Smith

Content note (click for details) Content note: eating disorders

The wifi is out in Scylla’s cave. The four dog heads around her waist whine as she scutter-paces, twelve feet tapping on the cave floor. Scylla wants to check her email. She wants to see if that jerkface troll is still active on the disordered eating board she moderates, and catch up on her feeds, and check the status of her latest online orders, and all the other things she has in her morning routine these days. She stares with half her heads across the water, three long necks stretching toward the mouth of the cave. She is trying to be subtle about it.

She won’t bother Charybdis for this. They used to go for years not speaking—decades sometimes! —and Charybdis loved that silence. She is the ultimate introvert, on her little island of rock. Scylla can wait. It’s fine. She’s had time beyond measure to work on patience.

Across the strait, Charybdis squints against the sun at the restless shadow in the cave. She peels herself off the rock and undulates over to the shelter where she keeps precious things—carved bone and wood mementos, solar panels and electronics, a tea set for guests. There she delicately pokes the router into resetting with one fin.

The whorling motion in the gloomy cave settles as the lights blink back to green. Charybdis smiles a nearly mile-wide grin and goes back to basking.

This is how they are with each other.

*

They get drone-dropped deliveries, to the rock or the cave mouth. Some things come by crate, floated in on little recyclable rafts that Scylla gleefully pops.

There are no ships. No boats, no tankers, no submarines or skiffs. Not for a very long time. Scylla makes due with copious amounts of fish and protein shakes. The dog heads prefer kibble, but she has standards. She may have ten total mouths, but there’s only one stomach, after all. The kibble is just for special occasions.

She desperately misses eating sailors.

Charybdis has always been a vegetarian. Phytoplankton is her favorite. In copious amounts.

Neither of them really get what they want anymore—the crush crack of wooden ships in the whirlpool, the screams of men. They’ve found better ways to sate their appetites.

*

Scylla’s typing rate is proportional to her fury. Today, she is expressing bone-crunching anger at BroAcles69, the jerkface of the day. She is working on yet another paragraph about why he should be permabanned (and eviscerated, iced, and delivered to her cave in bite-sized pieces, please and thank you) for how he treated vulnerable community members, when a whine from near her hip breaks her concentration. Charybdis is in the mouth of the cave, half out of the water, watching her.

“How long have you been there?” Scylla spits some of her shark teeth into the bucket by her stool, surprised to find it overflowing. She must have been grinding for a while. All six of her necks are tense and whipcord tight.

Charybdis’s voice is a whisper of gravel. “That’s my line.”

Scylla gestures at the screen, all grasping claws and emotion, eloquence lost as she realizes she’s been at this for days now without a break.

“You take it all too personally. You always have.” Charybdis pushes off the ledge and lets the current take her. Scylla notices then that she brought gifts, just like in the old days—there’s a long twist of sturdy rope for the dog heads to play tug-of-war with, and red nail polish in Scylla’s favorite shade. Best of all, there’s a new pair of boots.

She deletes all but the first seven lines of the screed, posts, and turns away from the computer. He doesn’t deserve any more than that anyway. Charybdis is asking her to come back to the world, and there are new shoes to try on. Scylla flexes the tips of two of her tentacles into the right size and shape for the new boots and smiles. She’ll need to find some suitable gifts, too. This volley will not be unanswered.

*

Charybdis is coughing off her rock, retching out the sea again. Scylla sits, twelve bare feet all dangling into the rapidly rising water. She scritches Enki and Adapa between the ears, waiting. The waters will be swirling with powerful currents until sunset. It’s been a while since Charybdis drank down too much and had to purge like this—a long while, honestly.

When Charybdis is done, shriveled and shivering on her rock, Scylla counts slowly to a thousand, and then calls across to her in six-voiced unison over the roaring waters between them. “Snack time, Chary.”

She waves fins in an exhausted but complicated looping gesture. It roughly translates to “Leave me alone, I couldn’t possibly eat, ugh, everything is terrible.”

Scylla smiles toothy grins. “I know. But you need your strength. There’s miso soup and a seaweed salad over near the shelter for you. Just a few bites and I’ll leave you be.”

Charybdis relents and slowly slouches toward the food. They’ve learned over the long ages that having something after the purge helps moderate her appetite. It means the next cycle will be slower, gentler. Anything slow and gentle in this world is to be cherished.

Scylla sucks at moderation, herself. Affectionate extremes, though, she excels at. Behind her, the computer dings repeatedly. She ignores it, watching to make sure Charybdis eats, muttering encouragement under her breaths. The monsters in the world will wait. Her friend is what matters, and today, they’ve got this.


© 2022 by Cislyn Smith

900 words

Author’s Note: I studied classical civilizations in college, and have long had a fascination with the monsters of Greek mythology. When I was presented with the prompt “What does the monster think?” for a writing challenge, it didn’t take me long to fall into the what-ifs of Scylla and Charybdis and their long, immortal relationship.

Cislyn Smith is a speculative poet and short story writer who likes playing pretend, playing games, and playing with words. She calls Madison, Wisconsin home. She has been known to crochet tentacles, write stories and poems at odd hours, and gallivant. Her wordy work has appeared in Strange Horizons, Daily Science Fiction, and Flash Fiction Online. She is a graduate of the Viable Paradise workshop, a first reader for Uncanny Magazine and GigaNotoSaurus, and one of the founders of the Dream Foundry.  She wears a lot of hats both metaphorically and literally.


If you enjoyed the story you might also want to visit our Support Page, or read the other story offerings. Cislyn Smith’s story “The Dictionary For Dreamers” has appeared in Diabolical Plots previously.

DP FICTION #82A: “There’s an Art To It” by Brian Hugenbruch

I approached the mighty gates of Folmaer with holes in my cloak and soot-covered fingers. The road was warm through the soles of broken boots. I could not think of a part of me that did not ache. Still, with rest so close at hand, I could surely turn one more page. A foot moves, one after the other, for twenty years.

Twenty years! It had taken me all this time to find every bookhouse in the Valenthi Empire. The borders expanded as I worked, conquering every city between the far mountains and the Endless Sea. And now, the last one: the greatest one. Folmaer, conquered by the Valenthi not one year ago, held the largest library in the known world. The Bibliothedral—a series of spires said to contain the whole of the human mystery—had accumulated written words for longer than the Empire had existed.

I came to burn it.

I squinted against the rising daylight. Even through the glare, I could see the gates sat open. Song wafted joyously from somewhere within the walls.

I did not fear armies. Armies, I could handle; had handled, in fact. But time and pain had long since taught me to fear the unknown. Every other village, town, or city in the domain of Emperor Hamand IV (all praise his name) had tried to bar my path. Folmaer seemed not to care.

I readied myself to make fire at the first sign of danger.

As I crossed under the portcullis, though, and into the promenade, I found nothing awry. Indeed, men in white robes recited poetry to me as I marched into the central square—spitting couplets and quatrains as fountain water arced behind them, catching the sun brilliantly.

Was this meant as insult?

If I were a younger and angrier man, the one I was when I was made Poemfire all those years ago, I would have scorched them where they stood. It was easier than breathing: a flick of a wrist would have sent gouts of flame to shame the sun. Their villanelles would have been as dust amongst the cobblestones.

Now, the thought made me tired. I’d left too much dust in my wake already.

Still, they knew who I was and what I was there to do: they expected a performance. So I marshaled my strength and grabbed one of the books perched by the fountain’s edge. The orators neither balked nor cried out. They didn’t even try to stop me—though the quatrains trailed off, at least. It was a small favor; not all of them had reasonable pitch.

Curious, I glanced at the page—and then I stared, for only taxes lay there. It was a ledger to the eye, tracking grain and cattle in equation rather than couplet. None of the words they’d spoken; none of their nonsense about comparing love to the sun, or roads to a summer’s day.

“What is this?” I demanded.

“Poetry,” the man answered.

“Are you daft? There’s naught written there but economics.”

He shrugged his shoulders. “There’s an art to it?”

The Emperor, all praise his name, had told me to suffer neither opposition nor insolence in my task to rid his world of poetry. But the man seemed so sincere, so idiotically simple, that I could scarce ignite him out of spite. I let him go, disgusted. He stumbled backward and landed on the cobblestones. I tossed the book at him; it bounced off his head and landed beside him.

All I could think, as I stormed down the broad, tree-lined avenue, was that something had gone horribly wrong in Folmaer. And if I were going to find answers, it would be at the Bibliothedral itself.

The stairs were of a rare kind of marble I knew the Emperor favored. They baked my feet through my boots, though, so I had to step lightly despite my aches. Robe-clad women and men walked in the other direction, curious in a disinterested sort of way.

Memory summoned a thousand pleas for mercy, as they passed. Those cries had gone unanswered. These folks knew me naught.

I found scholars roaming in cool chambers under the vaulted ceilings. Tomes and scrolls surrounded me on shelves higher than the city walls. Sickening. Nauseating. Criminal. I pulled a book from the nearest shelf… and tossed it aside when I found only tables of coin weights. The cover, with its scales and five coins, splayed across the ground. A young man scurried to pick it up, perhaps to rescue the binding; one glare sent him running in the other direction.

The next book I pulled had four coins on the cover, but it tracked funds sent to Valenthi. The one after had three coins: donkey exchanges.

Was I in the wrong building, somehow?

“May I help you, child?” an old woman asked. She wore an ornate robe with nonsense symbols etched onto the side.

“I am Hjarad of Valenthi,” I told her. My voice sounded tired even to my own ears. “The Emperor’s Poemfire. Hamand IV, all praise his name, has ordered all art in his domain destroyed.”

“We know his command,” the librarian said. “All kingdoms he conquers learn to fear it; we assumed it would come for us someday.”

“I’m surprised you didn’t bar the gates, then. No one here seems to care.”

“To be clear,” she answered, “we know who you are. We didn’t bother to scare our citizens. Why would we? What have we to fear?”

I gestured toward the shelves, frowning. “Where is your literature?” I demanded.

“All around you,” she said. “Poetry, sciences… even tomes of magic from Lost Trakkan.”

“…it’s taxes,” I said. “All of it.”

“May we not find the beauty of the world in such?” she asked. “Is not a balanced budget a song in its own right, and a perfect ledger not a sonnet?”

“I am commanded,” I told her, with teeth clenched, “to burn anything that is not taxes.” While Hamand’s decree, initially, had been to turn to cinders all that had once been paper, the Treasury convinced him that the Empire could not survive without accounting. I, and those who followed in my blackened footsteps, never had much trouble finding the books—there was scarcely a territory without a library. The harder part was determining what we might reasonably set alight.

The city of Folmaer, jewel of enlightenment, had been the Emperor’s most recent—and perhaps final—conquest; news of its burning would be the dearest prize I could offer to the man who had pulled me from poverty to do his will. I half-imagined the bed-ridden man clutching at a scrap of paper with the news, feebly, whilst life fled from his fingers.

“By Emperor Hamand, all praise his name,” she agreed.

“You will show me which is which.”

“No.” She took a step back at the look that crossed my face, but she tilted her chin defiantly upward. “I shall not.”

“Burn them all,” a young citizen called over. “I wouldn’t mind not paying taxes.”

My fists clenched by my hip as musical laughter rang around me. I was tempted. By Hamand, I was tempted! I needed but will and tinder, and books provided plenty of the latter. I could not torch the taxes, though—all such had to be moved to safer places ere the rest cindered. Those were my orders. I dared not disobey.

Some smaller towns, especially border villages, raised weapons to try to save their art. I commended their bravery—but I let their corpses burn in the pyres to knowledge. It seemed fair commemoration, and most peasants lost their taste for blood after seeing smoked brains on the cobblestones.

Knowledge could hurt a soul. Hamand’s wars taught me that. I was tired… so, so tired… of knowing the smell of burned flesh.

“How long,” I asked, “have they been disguised as such?”

“My entire lifetime,” the old woman told me. “We created this alphabet when Hamand’s grandfather was young. Your Empire is dull and stupid and hates that which it does not understand; we made ready for this long ago.”

“I could kill and torture your people,” I told her.

She nodded solemnly. “I know. But you don’t want that.”

“I don’t?”

“No. It’s clear from your voice. How long have you burned?”

“Twenty years, and pages without number.” My voice was dry as dust in my ears.

Hers too, it seemed, for her face twisted into what I could only assume was pity. “A long time,” she murmured, “for a fire to burn. I expect, poor child, that the will to do this work left a long time ago.”

I shrugged. It was true. It changed nothing. “Fire,” I reminded her, “does not take break or plead for leave. It burns until it is done.”

Her eyes narrowed. “Do you know your letters, Poemfire? Can you read these?”

“Yes, of course I do,” I snapped. I was older, though. The rank soldiers of the Empire, who’d been raised without books, were taught naught but slaughter. Their approach to this work was one of far less finesse—and if they were summoned, the conclusion was inevitable: the city would be emptied of all those who dared to conjure untruths—artist or no.

But they weren’t here; I was. And I’d learned enough to know the revenue Folmaer could bring in taxes and trade was desperately needed by Valenthi. All this would bolster an Empire that had burned itself out upon war and conquest. Folmaer sat against the Boundless Sea; there was no one left to conquer, and no one else left to tax. If anyone replaced me, they’d do Hamand’s will… and kill the Empire in so doing.

If I saved Folmaer, I saved my world. They’d forced my scorched hand.

“Well?” the librarian asked. “Are you here to burn something? Or to learn something?”

“How do you know,” I asked, “that I won’t burn your library—hells, your whole city—once I know your ways?”

“We don’t. But if you can read a thousand poems from a thousand cultures,” the woman said, “truly read them, and find nothing worth saving… then perhaps we deserve to be turned to ash.” She smiled gently. “Perhaps our poetry is worth the risk?”

She sounded so smug. I could feel the will to burn rising in me: volcanic fury from far below the bedrock of my being. They could learn what I already knew: the screams, the charnel stench, the sight of bodies melting. The work of twenty years had taxed my soul to ruin. There were no emotions left in my heart to conquer.

But…with a single missive back to Valenthi, I could open my world to something other than carnage. And in so doing … I would preserve all that Hamand had created. Did I dare to disobey him to do his will? Did I dare read a poem to save society?

When I had no ready answer, the old woman patted me on the shoulder. “Get some rest, Poemfire. There is an inn down the street where you may stay. Tomorrow begins your first lesson. It will, I’m sure, pay dividends.”

I turned and stormed out of the Bibliothedral. The gall of their ploy had a certain artistry to it; I had to admire it, even as I seethed. I’d run out of fuel to fight them, and their logic had doused what rage I had left. Still… I could sacrifice myself to art, if it meant saving the Empire. And if it came to pass that soldiers were sent to bring the death I’d declined… this city would have no better ally in preserving the good of the Empire.

Hamand IV (all praise his name) would never understand that. In his youth, he’d also been a man who acted, rather than weighed consequence. Now he lay in his bed, waiting for one last gift. When I wrote back to Valenthi, I would need to weigh my words carefully. He was near to death, and while I was honor-bound to the truth, it could be couched carefully. None knew better than I how knowledge could hurt a soul. My only hope, as I glanced back at the gleaming spires in the center of this strange place, was that knowledge could save a soul, too.

I sought out a quill and began to write a letter that, twenty years ago, I would rather have died than understood.


© 2021 by Brian Hugenbruch

2100 words

Author’s Note: I play a lot with cryptography and steganography at my day job, and I love the idea of finding text and meaning being hidden deliberately.  And after spending too long looking at tax papers, I wondered if I could find a sonnet in there.  I failed, but it seeded a larger idea…

Brian Hugenbruch is a speculative fiction writer and poet living in Upstate New York with his wife and their daughter (and their unruly pets).  By day, he writes information security programs to protect your data on (and from) the internet.  His work has also appeared in Cossmass Infinities, Apparition Lit, and the anthology MY BATTERY IS LOW AND IT IS GETTING DARK.  You can find him on Twitter @Bwhugen, on IG @the_lettersea, and at the-lettersea.com.  No, he’s not sure how to say his last name, either.


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DP FICTION #81B: “Lies I Never Told You” by Jaxton Kimble

Shanna’s father was psychic on paper. The first time she saw it, Shanna was eight and Dad sent her to the corner store with a list:

  • skim milk
  • barbeque chips
  • Wait ten extra seconds after the light changes at Canal Street and Vine.
  • toilet paper
  • cereal (no sugar!)

It wasn’t that Shanna thought anything would happen. She wasn’t sure she thought much about it at all. She didn’t understand why Dad ate tuna fish with mustard, either, but she mixed it when he asked. Shanna counted (one Mississippi, two Mississippi…) as a young woman in squeaky shoes and an older man with a light ring of sweat at his collar jostled around her with twin glares. Even if she’d been crossing, she’d have been in their way: Dad always told her to walk, don’t run. Young Black people running made white folks nervous, and badges suspicious, and it was dangerous enough without that. At four Mississippi, Shanna noticed her left shoe was untied. At nine Mississippi she straightened up from tying a double knot.

At ten Mississippi, the red SUV ripped through the intersection. Squeaky Shoes and Sweaty Collar were on the other side; Sweaty Collar screamed out something Shanna wasn’t allowed to say and called the driver a maniac. Shanna crossed the third item off her list and debated whether Fruity Hoops were a sugar free cereal.

*

Shanna was twelve the first time she was out of school sick. She’d never missed a day before. It was hard to catch something when Dad packed her lunch with notes:

Avoid the water fountain outside gym class today kept her out of the line of fire when Felix Ditmier blew chunks. Switch seats with Carolyn Nettleford moved Shanna to the back of the class the day Mrs. Cho sneezed all over the front row.

“You’re lucky you only have a dad.” Nelson Parks came to walk to the bus with her the day Shanna cried stomach ache. “Moms always know when you’re faking.”

“Did she?” Shanna asked Dad when he checked her temperature.

“She who? And did she what?”

“Mom. Know when people were faking?”

“You need to drink water.”

Shanna let him leave because then she had time to hold the thermometer on her side lamp. When he came back, she worried she’d held it on too long, that Dad would scoop her up and run her to the hospital. She forgot to ask again.

The next day Dad wrote the note:

Please excuse Shanna’s absence yesterday. She was not feeling well, and I decided it best she stay home.

Her legs had the good kind of ache, the one that felt like stretching, when she held the note that had “s” in front of “he.” The one with the name she knew was hers but had never told anyone.

“How did you know?”

“Know what, kiddo?”

Shanna held the note up, paper crinkled in fingers that ached from clinging to it.

“Excuse notes were a thing even back in dinosaur days when I went to school.” Dad’s laugh had just that bit of rumble in it. He kissed her on the forehead. Shanna ran for the bus.

She shook when she handed the paper to Ms Garber in the school office, but Ms Garber glanced at it quick as she did anything, then shoved it in the file labeled with the name that wasn’t Shanna’s and issued the excused absence slip with the file’s name. Shanna had no trouble at all handing over that slip of paper. Because that one would wind up in the garbage, but Shanna was now part of her permanent record.

*

Shanna’s fourteenth birthday card came with a different bus number than she usually took. She had to leave for school early that day, but she didn’t mind after her regular bus broke down in rush hour traffic. Lunchbox notes avoided hallway spills. Valentine’s cards found Judy Edgarton’s pit bull. Whatever the notes said, though, Shanna learned just as much from them about the things people didn’t say.

Judy’s aunt, Ms Sanderson, sidled up to Dad at the bowling alley one league night. She giggled and played with her tawny hair and told Dad to call her Karen. He smiled, but his back locked up when she teased one glittery acrylic nail along his forearm.

Shanna had taken a break from the DDR in the alley’s small arcade and was so focused that Bento and Iria, laughing together on their way back from grabbing drinks, made her jump. They looked the most like twins when they were laughing. It put the same warm flush into their copper cheeks. Shanna didn’t usually like talking to grownups, but the Ramires twins were Dad’s best friends. Bento had even made Shanna flower girl when he married Paul.

“Doesn’t Dad think she’s pretty?” Shanna asked. Okay, they also twinned when that worry line showed up between their eyebrows, as they studied Dad and Ms Sanderson.

“I don’t have a note to give Karen. Did he give you one?” Bento asked Iria. She shook her head.

“What about you, Shanna?”

Shanna never forgot getting a note. “Only thing he wrote lately was the little bits for the homemade fortune cookies we brought.”

Bento and Iria knelt on either side of Shanna. She wasn’t sure if she liked the calla lily in Iria’s perfume more than the leathery musk of Bento’s, but they were both better than the nachos and old hot dogs that filled the rest of the alley.

“I know it’s not the last set, but I think maybe we do dessert early tonight. What do you say?” Bento whispered. Iria gave a wink. Shanna giggled at the conspiracy.

“Fortune cookies?” Shanna scooted up to Dad and Ms Sanderson with the basket. Ms Sanderson wrinkled up her button nose. Dad rubbed his forearm and gave the briefest shiver at the back of his neck.

“Homemade, Karen,” Bento said. “Even the fortunes.”

“Oooh!” Ms Sanderson snatched one from the basket, eyes locked on Dad. “You know what you’re always supposed to add to the end of a fortune?”

“What?” Shanna already knew the naughty version of that. Iria had told her. Which was probably why Iria giggled until Bento nudged her side.

“I … uh, well.” Ms Sanderson blushed and opened the cookie, then frowned. She gave Dad an entirely different kind of look before excusing herself to make a call. The next week Judy told Marianne Bixby how lucky her aunt was for making her mammogram appointment early.

*

Dad’s back locked up the same way later that year, at the science fair. Shanna had been wanting to introduce Dad to Mr. Gonzalez for months. He was her favorite teacher, and not for the reason Grace Hansen said—although it didn’t hurt that he had a lantern jaw and a beard trimmed just so and that lock of thick black hair that sometimes fell into his eyes so he had to blow it out of the way. He was smart and funny and nobody dared pick on anybody in Mr. Gonzalez’s class.

“Hell of a daughter you’ve raised.” Mr. Gonzalez shook Dad’s hand. “And all on your own.”

“Not all on my own.”

“Oh, you have a partner?”

“No he doesn’t.” Shanna put her hand on their still-held handshake. “And neither does Mr. Gonzalez, do you?”

There it was: the lock in Dad’s back and the shiver at his neck. No cookies this time, though, just the paper airplanes they’d folded for her presentation on aerodynamics. Shanna had made sure nothing was written on them. She’d even given the one with random numbers on it to Bento and Paul when they had been helping fold two nights ago.

“I … ” Mr. Gonzalez was even more adorable when he blushed. “My boyfriend and I did separate last year.”

“Jackpot!”

Dad broke the handshake at Bento’s yell from the cafetorium doors. Bento ran in waving a piece of paper with geometric folds all over it. The airplane.

“Bento?”

“I’m confused. And you are?” Mr. Gonzalez’s gaze ping-ponged from Dad to Bento to Shanna.

“Some of the help I was talking about,” Dad said. “With Shanna?”

And if luck holds, the new school board president.”

“You said it cost too much to campaign?”

“16, 42, 8, 29, 63.” Bento waved the paper again, then hugged Dad so hard he lifted him in the air. “A five number lotto win, you beautiful man.”

“Congratulations.” Mr. Gonzalez had his own kind of locked-up look. “I should … I have to go get the kids lined up for their presentations.”

*

No one in the neighborhood knew Mr. Theodore was adopted, but it was a local postmark on the letter that pushed his long lost birth mother to call the day they all thought he’d be objecting to the bathroom policy the new school board enacted.

“I wonder what it’s like,” Shanna said. She and Dad were working on a jigsaw puzzle of Big Ben. Vanilla and brown sugar warmed the air from the cookies in the oven.

“What’s that?”

“Mr. Theodore. Getting to talk to his mom when he thought he never would.”

“Mr. Theodore got to talk to his mom every day growing up.” Dad kept studying the sides of his piece to check for a match in the black and white bits of clock face.

“I mean, his real m—”

“Real is where our hearts live,” Dad said. “Two people decide to raise a child together? They’re parents. Doesn’t matter what bits of goop got together to make the baby.”

Shanna clicked another piece onto the long border line she was building. “Did you and Mom always want a kid?”

The oven timer buzzed.

“Cookies!” Dad hopped up and scooted for the kitchen. “Don’t want to scorch another batch.”

*

When Shanna was seventeen, Mrs. Ditmier got a postcard with a picture of Hawaii on it. The address of her husband’s other wife was scrawled on the back. She handed off the prom committee to Mr. Sanderson, who was more than happy to sell Shanna her ticket, along with a free discount card to his sister’s dress shop.

“Any idea who you’re going to ask?” Dad folded towels on the kitchen table. The air swam with lavender.

Shanna squirmed. The ask was obvious. The answer wasn’t. They liked the same music and lent each other books. They agreed the tie-breaker between Ms Rosenfeld and Mr. Lau for cutest teacher depended on which blouse Ms R wore and if Mr. L had short sleeves that day. None of those were a dance. Shanna busied herself scratching at the little bit of leftover tape where the postcard from Hawaii used to hang on the fridge.

“Did you ask Mom, or did she ask you?” It was always better for Dad to squirm.

“She asked me,” he said.

“And?”

“And what?”

Normally Shanna wouldn’t press. But somehow the prospect of sharing this moment with Dad bubbled up Shanna’s throat until it tumbled out in a frantic surge:

And how did she do it? Were there flowers? Witnesses? How did you feel? What did you wear? Was that the first time you kissed? Did you fall in love right away?”

“Was that the mailbox clanking?” Dad said. “Do me a favor and fetch it? I need to get dinner started.”

The grocery store had a heavy fan that kept bugs out when you walked through the front door. It pushed down on Shanna whenever she walked in, though she couldn’t push back. The silence as Dad got up from the table felt the same.

There was never anything for Shanna in the mail except on her birthday, but she flipped through it all the same. Bill, bill, flyer.

A letter addressed to her. In Dad’s writing.

She opened her mouth to ask, but the clatter of pans and utensils cut her off. She looked back down at the envelope, then scuttled to her bedroom.

Shanna crossed her legs on the bed. Slid a finger under the flap and ripped open the letter. A small key fell out as she unfolded the notebook paper.

Dear Shanna,

I’m making spaghetti for supper. I’ll need you to run to the store for grated parmesan in about half an hour. Until then, check out the lockbox under my bed?

She’d wondered about the lockbox, because she was a girl and not a goldfish. But she also wasn’t a locksmith, and there was only so curious to be about a metal cube. Besides, Dad hid the Christmas presents in his closet, not under the bed.

But notes changed things. Notes saved Shanna from sniffles and stomach bugs and locker room bullies and traffic. And notes lead to updated files, to tickets through a door, to treatment recommendations. To signatures on petitions and revised policy documents. Even when it wasn’t one of Dad’s notes, what got committed to paper shaped the world.

Shanna pinched her nose closed against the hoard of old sneakers Dad kept for yard work under the bed. Hooked the box with three fingers to half slide, half spin it across the bedroom shag into the light. Despite the note, she flinched at the squeak as she turned the key. Dad didn’t come to stop her, or Bento or Iria or Paul. She flipped the latches and lifted the lid.

The envelope said “Shanna” and had today’s date, though the number seven had a line through its middle, which Dad stopped using when Shanna was thirteen and told him it looked like he was punishing it by crossing it out.

Shanna slid her finger more delicately under the flap on this envelope than she had the first. The glue on the seal was old and dried. It didn’t so much rip open as strain and pop. There was a whiff of musty perfume that curled up and disappeared. The paper had curdled to cream over however long it had been inside, but the pen ink—in the same writing as on the envelope—was still dark enough to read.

*

Dear Shanna:

Today you asked how your mother and I got together. I’m sorry I was cross with you. I don’t want to lie to you, but I’ve never been good at saying true things. I wrote it down, instead.

We knew each other, your mom and me, as long as I remember knowing anyone, and the world assumed we’d wind up together. We never felt it, but it was easy letting them write our story that way until we knew how we did feel. And for whom.

The problem with letting everyone else write your story is the way it teaches us to tell each new person’s story as if we know them, too. Mom did that when she met Riley. He had a bright smile and an easy laugh and strong hands. They kept it secret because he was up for an overseas appointment. His PR manager said he should be single or married, but dating would make him look like a gigolo. The secret made it more romantic for Leanne. 

Shanna hovered fingers over her mother’s name. She licked her lips, a salty line along her tongue, and closed her eyes. She whispered the name and hugged the warmth of that inside her. She turned her eyes back to the note before she let herself imagine Leanne’s voice or what names she might whisper.

I helped her cover, even wound up riding along on a few of their dates. Saw the way he didn’t argue when she called it love and snuggled up to giggle plans about the future, her fingers laced in his, a knot both tender and fast. Maybe he was like us. Maybe it was easier to fall into the story Leanne spun. He had a brilliant career ahead of him, so it was quite a story to be told. Maybe she could even have been part of it. It was not, however, a story he could tell with an unwed pregnant woman on his arm.

Leanne and I, though. Everyone already thought we were together. Thought we would always be together. Would it be so bad, she asked (when she could talk again without hitching sobs stealing her voice), if we were?

I didn’t answer that night. Didn’t say I couldn’t be the man she wanted. That she didn’t know me all the way through, because I’d kept that from her the same as anyone else. My heart doesn’t live there, in a world that yearns for clasped hands and whispered devotions and the tender caress of another.

It was too important, now, to keep hiding from her. But my throat closed up and my tongue swelled shut too tight to make the very first A sounds, let alone say asexual and aromantic. I decided to write it down. People talked all the time, but they listened when it was down on paper. Only, when I sat down, what I wrote was “This is the last year you will have with Leanne, and you won’t regret anything as much as if you abandon this time to fear.”

I showed it to your mom, and that’s how I found out I wasn’t the only one holding a secret from the other. She swallowed, loud. Took my hands in her shaking own. Told me it was true. As was everything I wrote after. Lists and notes and cards, all of it told us the truth even if we didn’t want to read it.

She did, your mother, want to read it. Especially about you. I told her I couldn’t promise it would shine with hope and joy, that ever since that day I couldn’t write a thing that wasn’t true. I didn’t want her to despair in the end if it all came out wrong.

“When the baby is born,” she insisted. “When there’s no more going back, I want to see everything that’s ahead, good or bad. If I were here I’d see it all anyway, but I won’t be here. Least I can do is to leave knowing. Promise you’ll have it for me.”

When she finished feeding you the first time, when we signed the paperwork that claimed you ours, she asked for it. In between feedings and diapers and her own coughing fits, she read what I had written. Read giggles and first steps and tantrums. The story of scraped knees and fights and fears and heartache, but also victories and triumphs and a community which was sometimes confused but always had a heart. I had written until my wrist was sore and the side of my hand stained with ink. Written more than I even remember, but know it was true, because I wrote her the story of you, and you are the truest person I know.

We buried it with her. I wrote it about you, but for her. So she could leave knowing, and we could be left to live it instead.

Now it’s Mom’s turn.

*

Shanna turned the last page over, holding her breath, but there was nothing written there by her mother. Nothing else in the envelope.

In the lock box, a single, faded piece of paper remained: her birth certificate. There was Mom, and there was Dad, but she flipped it over to dismiss the third name, the one that wasn’t hers, which is when she saw the name that was: Shanna. The S ballooned on its top half and flattened on its lower. The A‘s had that fancy curlicue on top like when you were typing. Handwriting that wasn’t Dad’s from then or now.

Under it, in that same style, said I don’t have your father’s gift, but I promise this is true: knowing the future doesn’t make you brave. Or strong. Or safe. Facing it is the way to have that. Mom.

*

Shanna let Dad drag himself out from a deep dive in the fridge. He gave a huff and slammed the door. He took in breath to call out, turning toward the door, when his eyes fell on the cracked cream letter dangling in Shanna’s hand. Whatever he was about to say lost steam before he voiced it. His lips thinned, the creases on the side of his mouth deepening. The plop of simmering sauce filled the space between them.

“Grated parmesan?” Shanna asked. He hadn’t let out his breath until it rushed from him now. He opened his mouth, closed it. Nodded.

“We might be out,” Dad said.

“Won’t take a second to run down the street.”

“Walk. We don’t run.” Dad turned back to the pot on the stove.

Shanna folded the letter from the lockbox, stuffed it in her back pocket. She stopped half a step outside the kitchen, spun on her heel, and leaned back in the doorway.

“I’m going to ask Trini Walters to the dance,” she said. Dad smiled into the bubbling sauce.


© 2021 by Jaxton Kimble

3500 words

Jaxton Kimble is a bubble of anxiety who wafted from Michigan to Florida shortly after having his wisdom teeth removed. He’s still weirded out by the lack of basements. Luckily, his husband is the one in charge of decorating — thus their steampunk wedding. He has far too many 80’s-era cartoon / action figure franchises stored in his brain. His work has appeared previously or is forthcoming (as Jason and Jaxton) in Cast of Wonders, It Gets Even Better: Stories of Queer Possibility, and previously in Diabolical Plots. You can find more about him at jaxtonkimble.com or by following @jkasonetc on Twitter.


If you enjoyed the story you might also want to visit our Support Page, or read the other story offerings. Jaxton Kimble’s fiction has previously appeared on Diabolical Plots: “Everything Important in One Cardboard Box” (as Jason Kimble).

DP FICTION #79B: “A Guide to Snack Foods After the Apocalypse” by Rachael K. Jones

Jaffa Cakes: 4/10

The Jaffas haven’t aged well. The orange jelly went runny while the box sat trapped in the trunk of that abandoned car sunk in the ditch. A whole ant colony died glorious chocoholic deaths trying to carry them off. There’s all these little antennas sticking out of the cakes. I took a bite so I could rate them, but left the rest alone.

Jordan finished his whole cake, antennas and all. He’ll eat anything.

We’re camping in Retro Games overnight. Jordan needs a new d4 for his dice set, and I want to forage for better snacks. It’s risky—the Ganglies like buildings, and this one’s only one story tall—but we haven’t seen any of them in a few days, so we’re taking the chance.

Anyway, I’m a yellow belt in Taekwondo. Just let them try to eat our bones. I’ll kick them to bits.

*

Gulab Jamun: 8/10

They’re canned donut holes soaked in rosewater syrup. I’ve added “roses” to my Master List of Things I’ve Eaten, after “poodle” and “roaches.” Jordan says stuff from dented cans might be full of bacteria, but the dent was pretty small, and we heard a Gangly scritching against the supermarket doors from our rooftop perch. Figured we might as well die with a sugar high.

The donut holes had mostly dissolved into the syrup, but they tasted so good I almost finished them before I remembered to offer Jordan some.

He rolled his eyes. You’d think he was my actual little brother and not just my pretend one. “You’re gonna be sooooooo sick tomorrow, Nadia,” he said. But he ate them too. I guess dying from bacteria together is better than fleeing Ganglies solo.

We sat on the roof after dinner and watched for Ganglies in the parking lot. Jordan got this huge sack of fancy unicorn dice from Retro Games. Probably a thousand of them, d4 through d100, shiny ivory like polished teeth. We were taking turns chucking them at bullet casings on the sidewalk, trying to see who could get the closest, when Jordan spotted a dust cloud from the street.

Then we were both on our feet, jumping and waving and screaming as a whole convoy rumbled past. We hadn’t seen that many adults in weeks, not since the Ganglies raided the last shelter we’d been in. Big trucks, a couple of tanks, and a semi with the windows covered in steel plates with holes cut in them. Gangly-proofed and then some. The convoy rolled into the parking lot, crushing shopping carts and abandoned bikes. My tummy flipflopped, half from excitement and half from imagining all the snacks those trucks must have. Beef sticks, baked cheese, maybe even BBQ potato chips (I was craving things that start with B).

The lead tank’s hatch popped open, and a lady with a buzz cut and camo pants climbed out. “You kids alright?” she hollered, cutting her eyes toward the pockets of shade near the cart return. Ganglies liked to unfold themselves from shadows when you weren’t looking.

I liked her. She reminded me of Officer Laws, my old middle school security guard.

“We’re orphans,” Jordan said, which was the truth, but also the best thing to lead with if you ever need adults to trust you.

The Camo Lady popped back down into her tank. These days nobody wants to share their food with strangers, but everyone makes exceptions for kids. There aren’t that many of us left, after all. We don’t run as fast as adults. A few minutes later, she came out again. “Can you climb down to us?”

“The store’s clear,” I told her. “We’ve been foraging. I found donut holes. Kinda.”

We gave her a tour of the ruins. I guess she liked what she saw, because she radioed her people, and they all piled out, twenty-one total and not one kid, and began stripping the shelves onto the checkout counters.

It was getting late, but Camo Lady (everyone called her Lily) said we could ride along. So Jordan and I scrammed back to the roof to get his dice and my backpack before we joined them.

I was halfway down the ladder when the Ganglies arrived.

The shadows between the shelves got real, real dark, like a cat’s pupils under the bed. Then out shot a long, thin spiderleg, then half a dozen more, and then whole Ganglies hoisted themselves up from the darkness onto the supermarket floor.

The Ganglies skittered long and tall right over the shelves on those long bony limbs, knocking jars to the ground and slamming shopping carts against the walls. They looked thin even for Ganglies, like if a skeleton married a spider.

Someone fired a gun and a window shattered. People were screaming everywhere, but it was over almost as soon as it started, and the Ganglies were dragging the bodies back down into the shadows. The final Gangly limped toward that shadow-portal more slowly since one leg-joint had been blasted off.

I hated it for killing Lily just when we were about to get protected. I threw a fat white d20 at it. It bounced off the floor and came up natural 20. Critical save. Instead of charging like most Ganglies do, it sat on its haunches and picked up the d20. Not coming after us, not calling for its friends, not scratching claws on the ladder, none of your usual Gangly stuff. Nibbled the d20 and watched us. Then it hooked the dead man again and crawled into the shadows, folding back into wherever they went when we weren’t watching.

I dropped to the floor and did a roundhouse kick at its dragging hind legs, and for just a sec my foot whiffed through the floor into somewhere else, somewhere damp and chilly and not-here. It was silly and dangerous. I braced for a Gangly’s claw jabbing through my shoe, but nothing happened except the shadows closed, and it was just the supermarket, quiet and empty.

At least until all the bodies came back 30 minutes later, minus their bones.

Jordan and I discussed our new D&D swag while we combed the abandoned convoy for food.  It gave us something else to think about besides the flat deboned sacks of meat that used to be Lily and her people. “Maybe these dice really are made from unicorn horn,” he said. “Horns are kind of like bones, right? Teeth too. I bet that’s why the Gangly liked them.”

“Unicorns aren’t real, though.”

“That’s what they said about the Ganglies,” said Jordan.

*

Twinkies: 1/10

Threw them up. I’m sick. Jordan’s sicker. Stupid dented donut hole cans.

He didn’t say I told you so. That’s why we’re best friends.

*

Zebra Cakes: 7/10

Jordan taught me how to sleep in trees tonight. We found the Zebra Cakes suspended among the branches in a dead pilot’s bag. The box showed a happy cartoon unicorn zebra—zebracorn?—saying, Magical Munchies for One-of-a-Kind Cravings!

The pilot’s mummified skin hung limp and empty inside the flight suit. Not Ganglies this time—all the bones were still there, just a little jumbled up. Ganglies can reach pretty high, but they don’t climb trees.

To sleep in a tree, you tie your hammock between two big branches and let the wind rock you to sleep. We used the dead pilot’s parachute. Jordan and I curled up together like the Zebra Cakes, two in a pack. The cakes had gone stale, but we didn’t care. Everything tastes great when you’re swinging peacefully under starlight with your best friend.

The dead pilot had a dog collar in their bag too, a worn pink one with a brass buckle, tucked in a pouch with some photos and a wallet. I hoped that meant the dog got away safe.

“I had a dog once,” said Jordan. “Back before.” He didn’t usually talk about the days before the Ganglies. “Dogs used to be wolves, you know. Before we tamed them.”

“We should’ve let them stay wolves.” The Ganglies had picked the dogs off pretty quick. Dogs didn’t have the sense to keep quiet and climb trees like people did.

I miss dogs.

I thought about wolf-taming while I lay there stargazing with Jordan warming my back, about cavemen huddled around bright fires to keep the howling wolves away. Except one day a hungry pup scooched close enough for somebody to toss it a bone. You had to tame things a little at a time. First step: don’t kill each other on sight.

After Jordan fell asleep, I licked one of his unicorn horn dice. It didn’t taste like much of anything, but neither do my teeth, and they’re probably made of bone too.

I’ve added “bone” to my Master List of Things I’ve Eaten. I’d take another Zebra Cake over bones any day. But there aren’t going to be anymore Zebra Cakes, are there? Or zebras, for that matter.

Someday zebras will be like unicorns. Nobody will believe they were ever real.

*

Pocky: ??/10

We shouldn’t have slept in the tree. The Ganglies can’t climb, but they can sniff out crumbs. Must have been ten of them down there by morning.

We threw down the dead pilot to distract them. They picked the bones one by one out of his mummified skin like a plastic wrapper.

Wish I hadn’t seen that. It’s all I could think about when I opened the Pocky. They snap in half just like old bones. Chocolate-dipped old bones.

Jordan tore open his shin sliding down the tree once the Ganglies left. I had to sew it up with twisty-tie wire from a bag of moldy hot dog buns. Jordan cried a little. I gave him the whole box of Pocky to make him feel better, which is why I can’t rate them. I hope we don’t have to sprint again soon.

“You ever feel bad for them?” he asked, once he stopped crying.

“The Ganglies? Nah. Bunch of evil aliens. They ate both my moms. I hate them.”

Jordan crunched the chocolate off his Pocky stick. The sound made my teeth itch. “I feel bad for them. My theory is they’re starving. They crashed here with no way home, and nothing but bones to digest. Being hungry sucks. Like, if we went to Candyland, we’d be serial killers, right? The Licorice King and Gumdrop Princess would run screaming from us.”

Stupid Jordan. I want to write about Pocky, but now my Master List of Things I’ve Eaten just makes me feel like a Gangly.

*

Strawberry Twizzlers: 10/10

Okay, Jordan was right. I’d totally eat the Licorice King. Sue me.

*

Pickle in a Bag: 8/10

They have such a good crunch it doesn’t even matter they’ve turned pee-yellow from age. Their mascot is a cartoon pickle with big googly eyes. We ate so many we both smell like librarians now. We needed it after such a close call.

Jordan and I fell in with a minor league baseball team, the Ferndale Razors, while foraging at the old stadium. I thought maybe the stadium would have fried pickles, and I don’t have many things under “P” in my Master List of Things I’ve Eaten, especially after skipping the Pocky.

Instead we came across the Razors’ secret base in the concession stands. They told us they don’t normally show themselves because the Ganglies don’t know to look for them down there, which keeps them safe. But Jordan was crying because his leg hurt, just sat in the bleachers bawling, and they felt so bad for us they made an exception.

See? Everyone makes exceptions for kids.

The players helped us down the bleachers to the lower levels, which wasn’t easy for Jordan, since the elevators were out. The Razors gave Jordan a shot of medicine in his leg, then let us eat whatever we wanted from the concessions stash, which was good because I’ve been tightening my Taekwondo belt a whole lot recently.

“What I don’t get,” said Mr. Aaron, their catcher, in a comfortable drawl, “is how y’all have survived this whole time just the two of you, without proper shelter. The Ganglies track just about anyone not locked down deep these days. It’s why most of us have gone underground.”

“Jordan’s lucky,” I told him, because it’s true. Just yesterday he found a four-leaf clover.

Staying with the Razors was the luckiest thing of all, though. The Razors were strong and smart, and Jordan and I were tired of running. And if we stayed at the stadium, we could have popcorn and donuts forever.

We didn’t have the chance to even try the donuts because the Ganglies attacked that night. The sound of bones getting slurped from bodies just below your bunk bed will wake up anyone. Jordan raced up the ladder and burrowed with me deep under the sheets like the monsters might overlook us if we kept a blanket over our eyes.

That’s how my moms died. Burrowed under the covers while I watched from the closet. Blankets won’t protect you from anything but the cold.

I thought I’d try to help the Razors, or at least make them forget about Jordan. I cinched my yellow belt tight, counted to one hundred Mississippi, and ninja-rolled out of the bunk bed. I threw some punches at the long spindly legs retreating into the dark. One of the Razors—the pitcher, I think—was yelling bloody murder. I grabbed for his arms as a Gangly dragged him by the legs, and for a few seconds I thought we were both going straight into the shadow realm. But I lost my grip and the monster took him.

It was dim, almost dawn I guessed. A Gangly squatted over the dead baseball players, rummaging through the corpses. It fished out a small white skull, popped it into its razor-tooth mouth, and chewed it slowly, like those half-popped kernels you find in the bottom of the bag. You don’t really notice how small a skull is until you see it outside someone’s head.

I was real mad, and figured we were about to die anyway, so I started chucking bagged pickles at it just as hard as I could. “Go away! Get! Begone, you!”

It poised, rocking on mismatched hind legs for a sec. That stumpy walk again!  Then it threw a pickle in a bag at me. The package exploded, splashing pickle juice all over my Taekwondo dobok. The pickle slid under a chair, leaving the wrapper empty. Just a cartoon Mr. Pickle staring up at me, flat and boneless. The Gangly folded up into the shadows, and was gone.

Jordan and I stuffed our pockets and bags full of food and went on our way. It sucked to lose all the free donuts, but no way were we living in there with all the bodies. Not when the Ganglies could come back at any moment. Instead we gorged on pickles and hit the road.

If the same Gangly that killed the convoy people also killed the baseball players, maybe there aren’t that many Ganglies after all. But why are they following us? Do they hunt in packs? Did they take a shine to us? Are they waiting for us to ripen like stale candy canes after Christmas?

Sometimes when we bunk down for the night, we find a bagged pickle somewhere neither of us remembers leaving it, right where the shadows are thickest.

I wonder what we taste like to a Gangly.

#

Star Crunches: 0/10

I was crying so hard the Star Crunch just tasted like tears and snot, but it’s all I had in my pocket when I led the Ganglies away from poor hurt Jordan.

We’d stayed up all night playing D&D on the roof of an elementary school, which isn’t the best spot to hide from Ganglies since you can’t clear out all the classrooms. But the nurse’s office has medicine for Jordan’s leg, and the big flood lights keep the shadows away, so we risked it.

How come they keep finding us? How come we’re still alive when everyone else is dead? I miss my moms. I miss my dog. I miss not knowing what people look like on the inside.

I woke up when Star Crunches began pelting my sleeping bag. They arced sideways from over the edge of the building like hail in a windstorm. Some Ganglies down below had one of those rotating metal snack trees you find at gas stations. Our old stumpy-legged friend was working them off and lobbing them at the roof.

Jordan and I lay really quiet underneath a blanket, fending off the snacks, because really, what could you say about that? “They’re just trying to bait us,” I decided. “It’s a new hunting technique.”

“I bet they learned it from you,” said Jordan irritably, “when you threw them my unicorn dice.”

“Seriously, Jordan? No way you’re still mad about the dice.”

“Obviously. You can’t roll initiative with two d10’s. It’s not mathematically correct.”

Jordan’s such a punk, but you should never stay mad at anyone after the apocalypse. He looked really bad, honestly. He’d been getting paler and sweatier ever since we’d left the baseball stadium, and our food had run low. Jordan was already pigging out on Star Crunches.

Then a tree crashed into the rooftop. The Ganglies must’ve worked all night digging it up. They strolled right up the trunk like pirates on a gangplank, all spindly and uneven in the moonlight. So thin and a little wobbly, like when you’re fall-over hungry and can’t even make it to the table.

Maybe they’re not naturally gangly at all.

No way Jordan could run from them, not with his hurt leg. I whooped and hollered at the Ganglies, and bolted toward a spot where trees overhung the roof. “Go for the door, Jordan!”

I caught the sagging branches of an old elm leaning over the roof and climbed up as high as I dared. “Jordan? Jordan, you there?” I hadn’t heard any running, or the rusty door clanging closed. The Ganglies hung thick around the spot where I’d left him.

More Ganglies gathered around my tree. One of them gnawed on something. Maybe a dead deer. The shadow around the roots thickened, and another Gangly climbed out right underneath me.  I tossed the second Star Crunch into that shadow, into their dimension, but I missed, and it just glanced off the dirt. I felt just like a Gumdrop Princess in Candyland, begging it to please fill up on something else, please don’t notice Jordan, because I need him and anyway I’m not done with my journal yet.

I was all set to climb down just as soon as my heart stopped racing. Maybe if they ate me, they’d leave Jordan alone. But before I could pick a way down the branches, they unzipped the shadows again and slipped away ahead of the morning.

I ran all over the school looking for Jordan, whispering for him, screaming his name, lying on the rooftop sobbing while the sun dragged all the shadows long and spindly. But I didn’t find him. When I finally ran out of tears, I lay peering at the patch of leaves where the shadows had unzipped, waiting for the return delivery, the one they always made of the… unused bits. I didn’t want to see Jordan like that, all flat and empty without even his skull, but when it’s your best friend, you don’t really have a choice.

I waited all day, but they never sent him back. I’ve been waiting ever since.

Where are you, Jordan? Where did they take you? Are you in the shadow dimension still? They could’ve eaten us a billion times by now, but they always spared us. Are they finally out of adults to eat?

Whatever it is, I’m sick to death of running. I’ve got a plan to get into the shadow dimension. I’m saving Jordan if it kills me. And if he’s already gone? Well. I’d rather be eaten than live without him. There’s a reason they always come two in a pack.

Jordan, if you’re reading this, I’m really really sorry about your unicorn dice.

*

Gummi Bears: 10/10

My moms always used to say there’s good news and there’s bad news—which do you want first? You’re always supposed to ask for the bad news first. So here it is: I could only think of one way to get the Ganglies to open the shadow dimension, and I’m not proud of how I did it.

I had to walk a long time to find some adults. It was nearly a week of searching the outskirts of the city before I found it: the sleepy hum of generators, running water, and twinkling lights at dusk. I traced the sound to a complex of three greenhouses surrounded by a barricade of overturned semi trucks, patrolled by adults with guns.

I waved an empty foil wrapper to get their attention. “Help! Help me! Over here! My parents died, and I’m lost.” I made a big deal out of crying and wiping my grimy face on my Taekwondo uniform, which wasn’t so white anymore, and I slumped my shoulders so I looked really small and pathetic.

That got me brought inside real quick. Everyone makes exceptions for kids.

I liked how they’d Gangly-proofed their home. They’d rigged huge floodlights like from a football stadium all over the whole compound, especially inside the greenhouse. You had to sleep with a mask over your eyes to shut it out, but it kept the shadows away. I had salad for dinner for the first time in who knows how long. I’m adding something called kohlrabi to my Master List of Things I’ve Eaten. It looks kind of like Yoda if he turned into a vegetable.

I pretended to sleep until really late at night, curled up in a sleeping bag in the floodlit greenhouse next to the strawberry bed. When the guards swapped shifts at midnight and the compound got quiet, I crept on my knees to the wall socket and pulled the plug on the lights.

The Ganglies piled in immediately, sixseveneightnine before any of the adults could find the plug. I forced myself to crawl toward the Ganglies. They were coming in from under the snap pea bed. I didn’t even wait for them to get out of the way. I just threw myself between their legs into that blackness.

Which means I hit the ground in the shadow dimension face-first and bashed my nose. I’d landed on a walkway running along a series of pits or compartments open from above, almost like honeycombs. I pinched my fingers to stop the blood flow from my nose. A Gangly stepped over me on the walkway and dumped a pile of small, shiny packages into the nearest pit. Then it lowered itself into the compartment.

The Gangly’s long claws shot every which way, performing a thousand tiny chores: refilling a water bucket, organizing the snacks into a neat basket, and tucking the blankets around the kid who lived in the pit.

And this is where I have good news, because the kid was Jordan.

I made a huge mistake then and yelled his name. I was just so happy I couldn’t keep my voice quiet. A lot of things happened very quickly. The Gangly in the pit whirled around and skittered toward me, stumping on its shortened limb. Jordan tried to stand up, but he fell over. His leg was in a cast now. I realized all at once what horrible danger I was in and spun to find the way out, but other Ganglies were streaming back home, each with a shrieking adult in tow.

The stump-legged Gangly caged me in its limbs, pinning my arms to my side, and dropped me into Jordan’s pit. Hitting the floor didn’t hurt like I expected because all the snacks broke my fall. I kicked away a bag of gummi bears, unopened and undamaged, with that little air bubble inside from some far-off factory before we ever knew about Ganglies.

“Nadia?” Jordan crawled right into my arms. He was shaking so hard I thought his skeleton would shred his body and leave his skin-sack behind. “They got you too. I thought you got away.” He sounded wrung out, like he’d cried all the tears already. He looked good, though. Better color, stronger, even gained some weight. That chilled me, because you don’t have to be a serious brain genius to remember Hansel and Gretel.

“They’re going to eat us,” I said. “They’re saving us for dessert, aren’t they?”

Jordan slowly shook his head. He’d stopped trembling. “No. No, it’s nothing like that.”

My stomach turned in on itself, but you can’t digest fear. “Then what’s the deal?”

Jordan shushed me. “Nadia. Just hush a sec. Listen.”

The Ganglies trooped back from our dimension on the walkway under a dim gray sky that pulsed with red lights. A whole forest of legs, all of them gripping bones and skulls and more snack bags. Salted peanuts, chocolate-covered cherries, fun-sized potato chips. They distributed the treats into the pits, absolute masses of them, so many I wondered if they had a factory of their own. Then I heard it: high-pitched voices, kid voices, talking or crying or yelling bad words. All those honeycomb pits running out into the darkness.

“The kids didn’t get eaten,” I breathed. Jordan nodded, wide-eyed. I dropped to my knees and pulled him into a hug, just to feel him as close and warm as in the hammock that night under the stars. “Jordan. Jordan, what is this place?”

Jordan’s eyes glinted red in the weird light. “Can’t you tell? It’s our kennel.”

I didn’t understand what he meant until the stump-legged Gangly climbed back down into our pit and held out a clawed appendage. A pearly white bone gleamed there. It was one of the unicorn dice. It nudged a pack of gummis toward me. Gummis As Special As You, said the pink bear on the bag. The Gangly lifted a claw and gently, so gently, traced over my skull right through my hair. I’d expected it to be cold like an insect’s, but it was warm and velvety against my cheek. The gentle hand on a kitten’s head as it burrows, shaking, into your lap.

“Watch,” muttered Jordan. “It’s already sent me out once. That’s how I got my cast. You stay out as long as you’re working, but they like to bring you back between runs.”

It drew a pattern on the pit’s wall. The shadows ripped open. It was an asphalt road to a faraway town where the roofs sloped weird and I couldn’t understand the signs. Streetlights lit up every inch of the pavement, driving back the shadows, and beyond that a castle wall patrolled by adults with guns.

And as one type of fear died in my heart, another one replaced it.

“You just have to go through and get the adults to let you in. The Ganglies don’t hurt kids,” Jordan added blandly. “We get plenty to eat. They don’t eat our food anyway, so they just give it all to us.”

I didn’t need his explanation, because I knew the truth in my heart. It had happened a few times already, after all: we starve, we move, we find adults.

And when we eat, so do the Ganglies.

The Gangly handed me the bag of gummi bears. It nudged me toward the portal. Everyone makes exceptions for kids, but dogs have to earn their keep.

“Let’s get out of here, Jordan,” I pleaded. “We’ll find some adults. We’ll tell them what happened. We’ll stay with them. We don’t have to summon the Ganglies.”

“Doesn’t matter what we want,” said Jordan. “Didn’t matter with the Razors. The Ganglies will find us. Just a matter of time. How long did it take them to eat all the dogs, anyway? A year?” His head slumped to his chest. “I’m sick of running, Nadia. I’m tired.”

I opened the bag of gummi bears and shoved one of the green ones between my back teeth. It was tough at first, but the more I chewed, the more it softened and released its sweetness.

Suddenly I wanted to barf. All that gross and nasty junk food only ever filled you up for a while, and then you were hungry again, and you had to keep eating.

Jordan, Jordan, this isn’t what we wanted. We were supposed to grow up, go to high school, learn to drive, get black belts in taekwondo. We were supposed to run, fight, and survive together. Now we’re giving Candyland tours to Ganglies, and I can’t run away because every step I take would be away from you, and you’re all I have left.

But I realized something, Jordan. They don’t know us at all. They never should’ve let us get so close.

We are not pets. We are not the friendly cartoon wolf on a wrapper. We are the real thing. We have teeth and claws, and when we bare our teeth, it is not to smile. It is not just cakes that come in packs, you know.

They want to snack on us? Well, snacks come at a price, Jordan. And we will make them pay.


© 2021 by Rachael K. Jones

4900 words

Rachael K. Jones grew up in various cities across Europe and North America, picked up (and mostly forgot) six languages, and acquired several degrees in the arts and sciences. Now she writes speculative fiction in Portland, Oregon. Her debut novella, Every River Runs to Salt, is available from Fireside Fiction. Contrary to the rumors, she is probably not a secret android. Rachael is a World Fantasy Award nominee and Tiptree Award honoree. Her fiction has appeared in dozens of venues worldwide, including Lightspeed, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Strange Horizons, and all four Escape Artists podcasts. Follow her on Twitter @RachaelKJones. 


Previous stories by Rachael K. Jones that appeared in Diabolical Plots are: “St. Roomba’s Gospel” in December 2015, “Regarding the Robot Raccoons Attached to the Hull of My Ship” co-authored with Khaalidah Muhammad-Ali and published in June 2017, “Hakim Vs. the Sweater Curse” in December 2017, and “The Day Fair For Guys Becoming Middle Managers” in April 2021. Her story “Makeisha In Time” was also reprinted in The Long List Anthology. If you enjoyed the story you might also want to visit our Support Page, or read the other story offerings.

DP FICTION #79A: “Rebuttal to Reviewers’ Comments On Edits For ‘Demonstration of a Novel Draconification Protocol in a Human Subject'” by Andrea Kriz

Dear Editor,

We would like to thank the Reviewers for their, as always, insightful comments and you for submitting our paper to a third round of “blind” peer review—a rarity for the Journal of Molecular Magecraft! How fortunate that such an excellent team of biologists and Magi have dedicated their no doubt highly sought after free time to subjecting our manuscript, out of dozens accepted by your journal daily, to special scrutiny. We have addressed the Reviewers’ concerns on a point-by-point basis below.

Response to Reviewer 1

1. We have duly cited your the indicated study and apologize for our omission.

2. We would like to emphasize that the aforementioned study only demonstrated efficient Draconification in mice. Humans treated by the previous DNA modification spell only manifested secondary Draconid features, i.e. claws. In contrast, our Draconification incantation (which included both genetic and epigenetic components) resulted in complete homeosis of our human subject. In particular, this included spontaneous growth of wings from scapulae (Fig. 4a), transformation of the germline into fire-producing organs (Fig. 4b), and overall growth (Supplemental Video 1). Therefore, our manuscript does not represent, as the Reviewer seems to suggest, a merely incremental advancement in the field.

3. Even if our manuscript is only an incremental advance, the publication of the aforementioned study, with all its limitations, in Magica journal (average number of article citations: 40.33) demonstrates that our study is more than worthy of being published in the Journal of Molecular Magecraft (average number article citations: 11.01)  even if the corresponding author is not a Nobel laureate like the author of the aforementioned study.

4. We apologize for and have corrected the typos. The corresponding author takes responsibility for these mistakes. Unfortunately, typing has become much more difficult for the corresponding author as of late.

5. Unfortunately, we are unable to address this point as we are uncertain of its intent. We are aware of the whereabouts of the corresponding author of this study. She is one of the co-authors of this rebuttal. That last comment was entirely unnecessary.

6. The increased shipment of livestock to our Institute is entirely irrelevant to the goals and aims of our study and does not need to be explained to the Reviewer. Again, we have the situation under control. [Zu can u PLS c0nvince I.T. t0 c0me d0wn t0 my new 0ffice I kn0w its a trek but the damp/c0ld is g00d f0r my migraines –JD]

7. The Reviewer displays alarming Draconist tendencies in this comment. We would like to remind the Reviewer that Draconids do not frequently exhibit hoarding behavior and in fact this is a common misconception arising from Western legends of antiquity, cast, as is typical, through a lens of systematic bias and exploitation of magical beings. In special cases, a Draconid may cherish an especially undeserved and coveted possession and remove it from its owner’s grasp for a limited amount of time. But even in this case, the Reviewer’s Nobel Prize in Magecraft or Medicine is in no danger of such attention.

Response to Reviewer 2

Response to Major Concerns:

1. n=1 for all experiments, unless noted otherwise. We are aware that such a small sample size makes analysis difficult. Nevertheless, we have consulted numerous statisticians and oracles to ensure our interpretation of the data is as robust as possible. [Zu put a pl0t here t0 make this c0nvincing. –JD] Unfortunately, we were not able to find additional human volunteers willing to undergo the Draconification procedure in the limited time given for revising our manuscript.

2. Our Draconification protocol is completely reversible and any other presentation of the facts is blatant fear-mongering. However, we have added the requested supporting experiments to Figures 1, 4, and 5. If the Reviewer is still unable to appreciate that the results are thoroughly supported by the data then we advise the Reviewer to take download the raw data we have uploaded to the GEOMANCER public repository and shove it analyze them using xir own custom pipelines.

3. We can ASSURE you the Draconification protocol is reversible for reasons totally unrelated to the corresponding author’s last minute cancellation of her talk at the Immortalization Session of the 2021 Eternal Spring Harbor Laboratory Meeting last month. We resent the Reviewer’s implication that we are censoring data in favor of publishing our results ‘on the court of public opinion’, e.g. antagonistic Tweets at 2 a.m. [seri0usly when d0es xe find time t0 run xir lab between all this s0cial media? –JD]. We note that it is highly ironic that Reviewer 2 feels the need to lecture us on ethics when xe felt the need to forensically dissect the deep sequencing data of our subject and point out its epigenetic consistency with that of a 46 year old biological female of Eastern European ancestry subjected to high amounts of stress such as being scooped by a shoddily put together manuscript whose only merit is its sheer number and idiocy of mouse experiments. It is extremely inappropriate to compare this signature to the medical history of the corresponding author. We respectfully point out that millions of people live in the Greater Boston area (with millions more preferring not to live in the Greater Boston area and commute via portal). Thus any similarity between the Draconified subject data and any persons the Reviewer xe is familiar with, real or imagined, is entirely coincidental.

4. We acknowledge that it may appear, to the untrained human eye, that the time course in Figure 3 shows acceleration of the Draconification process in the subject in terms of claw/tooth length, scale coverage and, indeed, total lack of human features at the penultimate time point. [Zu did u get the new RNA-seq data d0 u think a repressi0n spell f0r the magically m0dded DNA may be viable? –JD] However, analysis in Supplemental Figure 7 shows that these changes are not statistically significant. The Reviewer does NOT need to remind the corresponding author of the 1945 Runestone Convention on Transmutation, vis-à-vis the Accord that humans not be transmuted for frivolous or combative purposes (with the exception of treatment of otherwise intractable disease and internationally beneficial scientific advancement). A violation has not occurred here. In any case, the corresponding author definitely values ancient agreements made by out of touch Magi over  real-life, pressing, matters, such as timely publication of any manuscript  instrumental to a successful-tenure evaluation.

5. It is completely inappropriate to bring up incidents that may or may not have occurred at a conference decades ago in a professional scientific review. There are no witnesses.

Response to Minor Concerns:

6. We have added the requested Western blot control (see Supplemental Figure 8e).

Response to Reviewer 3

We are sorry that Reviewer 3 was unable to comment on our edited manuscript due to tragic, unforeseen circumstances. We would like to point out that independent investigators have found no link between Reviewer 3’s injuries and the whereabouts of the corresponding author, and that anecdotal accounts of a particularly large Draconid flying over the Boston Helioport district are entirely coincidental. In any case, Reviewer 3 was left mostly unharmed by the incident and his airship definitely not funded through ill begotten grant money suffered the brunt of the fire damage.

We hope this rebuttal has sufficiently addressed the Reviewers’ concerns and look forward to your timely response regarding the status of our manuscript. Above all, we trust we have made it clear that it will not be necessary to send our manuscript back to the Reviewers for further comments. In any case, regardless of your final decision, the corresponding author looks forward to meeting you in ‘person’ at the International Congress of Organic and Magical Beings next week!

Best Regards,

Dr. Jane Dráček, corresponding author

Assistant Professor, Department of Chromatin Engineering

Massachusetts Enchanted Institute of Magitechnology

Zu Heiko, first author

PhD program in Alchemical Biology

Massachusetts Enchanted Institute of Magitechnology

et al.

[Zu pls fix typ0s and fig margins remove auth0r c0mments ESP THIS 0NE + send t0 editor. als0 PLS can u ask I.T. t0 come t0 my 0ffice an install Illustrat0r agin. sry for n0 0’s. br0ke new keyb0ard. damn claws. -JD]


© 2021 by Andrea Kriz

1300 words

Author’s Note: In academia, it’s typical to send research papers to journals where they undergo blind peer review. After the reviews are returned, the authors are given a chance to respond to reviewers’ comments, which can help the journal editor decide to accept or reject the manuscript. While these peer reviews and responses have historically not been published, there has been a recent movement to do so to make publishing more transparent. Reading some of these, as well as going through the process myself, it struck me how much of a story is often apparent from the peer reviews themselves – completely apart from the science. Academic rivalries can rear their heads, research fields can split apart, and even entire careers can hang in the balance. As a scientist, I also wondered how researchers would study magic with the scientific process if it existed in our world. Especially, how would these magic researchers get their papers through peer review? What kind of extreme experiments might they be pushed to do in the name of novelty and getting published? The answer is, of course, absolutely none and there is nothing wrong or suspicious about the peer review and response above 🙂 [this is the version with track changes and comments removed right???]

Andrea Kriz writes from Cambridge, MA. Her stories are upcoming in Clarkesworld and Lightspeed and have appeared in Cossmass Infinities, Nature, and Interstellar Flight Magazine, among others. Find her at https://andreakriz.wordpress.com/ or on Twitter @theworldshesaw. 


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DP FICTION #78B: “The Art and Mystery of Thea Wells” by Alexandra Seidel

The interest in Thea Wells even outside of the circle of art lovers and connoisseurs remains strong, and conclusions about her work range from the normal, technical approach of art critics to the downright strange explanations of the ardent believers in the paranormal. To give a brief overview of her art, it does not do to linger too much on either end of this spectrum. Instead, a few key paintings of Wells may be seen as markers of her arc as an artist, of where she started, of where she ended. These paintings also show the overlap between the mundane and those who seek the supernatural in Wells’s work. Other pieces, such as Watercolor of an Ash Tree or Sketch of a Cityscape from the Ledge may have sold for five figures, but they never wove that aura of mystery around themselves.

The evolution of Thea Wells’s skill does not just lie in the brushstrokes and her increased mastery of light and shadow, but also in how she approaches her subject. Most art critics agree on this, and they will point to Shadows of Winged Insects Before a Flame or Breath, from the Inside. Her skill is best savored through select prints of her work, viewed in chronological order. The prints, while they allow paintings scattered in museums and hidden away in private collections all over the world to be seen next to one another, do not convey the vibrancy of the originals and the enchanting quality that makes people stand in front of a Wells and examine it, sometimes for hours.

*

Féli in Nightgown

This is the earliest painting that shows Wells’s lover Félicity M in the classic odalisque pose. Even to this day, no one was able to find out what this elusive muse’s real last name was, where she came from, how she and Wells met. She would usually introduce herself without giving any further details about herself, brushing off curiosities in a polite and joking manner.

In the painting, Féli looks away. She reclines on a lavender colored ottoman, and looks at the observer with her green eyes half closed. Her phone is on a cushion on the floor, her left hand just hovering over the screen.

The door to a balcony is open in the background, and light spills in on a gust of wind that stirs the curtains.

Wells took great care to let us know what we can’t see under the nightgown. Féli’s breasts are delicately outlined against the thin, silky fabric, and the strands of dark hair that run over them reveal more than they cover. Her waist lets the nightgown flow like cream, and the long legs, though they are covered, are tensed as if in pleasure.

Notably, this painting was Wells’s breakthrough. Ever since it went on display it has been targeted by thieves—though thankfully none have succeeded.

*

The Masque

The Masque was painted perhaps a year after Féli in Nightgown at a time when Wells had made it big in the art world, when her paintings were fetching five or six figures (though only the works painted after Féli in Nightgown. Her paintings prior to this are a completely different style, and they lack the later works’ pull.)

The Masque not surprisingly shows a masquerade, but Féli is the only guest, repeated nine times in nine different costumes.

She is an emerald-feathered bird with beak mask, a golden shimmering queen, a harlequin in chequered dress that shows her smooth skin generously.

As a ballerina, her legs are elongated by pointe shoes, she captivates with khol-lined eyes as a mystic with a custard pale snake draped over her shoulders and scales held in on hand, and enchants as a fairy princess with a necklace of black beads coiled around her neck.

Dressed in a robe of stars, she is the night, and with a milky sunrise costume that begins to let Wells’s light and dark mastery show, she is the day.

The ninth costume is unusual. It is hidden in the back, near a curtain and the darkness at the edges of the painted room. Féli is wrapped in a dark robe, a dark hood, and a white mask covers her entire face. She holds a book in the crook of her left arm, and we cannot see much of the volume, except that it appears heavy and old. The mask seems to follow the onlooker. It is a haunting shape, and it could be someone else entirely watching the scene unfold and the observer alike but for the pale hand that reaches up as if to pull back the black hood. It is a woman’s hand, and it looks like that of Féli hovering over her phone in Féli in Nightgown.

The Masque was first owned by a museum, but not for long. A private collector acquired it, and some sources have come forward over the years to claim the museum sold the piece because the people handling it, the people working in the museum and walking past it every day, suffered nightmares in which a hooded shape wearing a white mask featured prominently. The veracity of these claims is doubtful, even if Internet forums are full of stories of people who say they saw The Masque on display and also had the dreams.

*

Sunbathing

This is a captivating piece that attracts crowds, so much so that museum authorities decided to keep the painting in its own room and allow visitors in only in groups, each group being allowed just thirty minutes with the painting.

Sunbathing is, at first glance, quaint. It was painted probably less than a month after the completion of The Masque. Féli is the very center of this painting. She sits, cross-legged, on a green and white beach towel, sand and beach grasses around her, the ocean a distant haze of blues in the background. She smiles. It is a very subdued smile and has been likened more than once to that of da Vinci’s Mona Lisa. Féli is wearing a black bathing suit. The color is harsh against the pastels of the towel and the beach, but her green eyes are sharper still as they look outward, to the observer.

A bag by Féli’s left knee spills over with things people do not normally take to the beach. There are old-fashioned metal scales, beads bound on a string, a mechanical music box. The strangest thing entirely about this painting, however, is the tome that lies open on Féli’s lap, big and old, its pages possibly parchment, bound in leather. It pulls one back immediately to the book the dark figure cradles in her arm in The Masque. Experts have studied the open page. It is covered in the same script that has baffled scholars in the Voynich Manuscript for decades, and just like that enigma, what can be seen of Féli’s book remains untranslated and not understood. The book was not among Wells’s possessions, and it might be entirely a figment of the painter’s imagination.

*

The Diners

This painting is seen as the first sign in Wells’s art that her relationship with Féli was coming undone. It is dated to almost two years after The Masque and Sunbathing, and experts have long speculated that there must have been other paintings of Féli between these two. Whether they remain in private collections, tucked away from the eyes of the world, or whether Wells herself destroyed them is uncertain but a matter of great debate.

In The Diners, Féli is seen having dinner with a stranger. The table is elaborately set, there are glasses one behind the other, and they twist and reflect the room, the table, the food; more than one enthusiast has found hidden symbolism here, like messages glimpsed in a crystal ball.

Red flowers spill their petals on the white tablecloth and the pinkish bloody meat served on a silver platter. Féli’s guest is a man of supreme beauty. He outshines Féli entirely. His hair is dark like hers, as are his eyes, but his lips are flushed with color. Between the two, on the white tablecloth and hidden behind the glasses and the wilting flowers, there is the book again, now closed, and Féli’s guest has his palm flat on the cover, fingers splayed. Neither Féli nor he spare the book any more attention than that; they are focused on each other.

They are leaning in close, caught in conversation. Underneath the table, Féli’s hand is resting high on the stranger’s thigh, and his free hand vanishes under her dress. There is much speculation as to whether this really happened, or whether it was some sort of vengeance, whether Wells put this scene on canvas for all eternity to see Féli as unfaithful. No one knows who the stranger is, and the painting was sold to an unknown buyer at an auction ten years ago.

*

The Chef

This shows Wells’s mastery of light and dark. Féli has her back turned and stands in Wells’s kitchen over pots and pans bubbling on the stove. She is wearing a figure-hugging dress, long and black, and her shadow can be seen on the floor, stretching beyond where the canvas ends.

The light in the kitchen appears ephemeral, there is no source for it, no lamp, and no window. On Féli’s left, ingredients wait to be tossed into the pots, onions and carrots peeled and chopped, chunks of glistening, bloody meat in a dish, the legs and head of a rooster.

Féli has a dark teal vial in her left hand. It could be an oil or spice. She is about to pour it into a pot.

Her hair is coiled and piled on top of her head, and strands spill out like Medusa’s serpents.

After The Chef, Wells’s erstwhile prolific nature changed; she became even more of a recluse and produced only two paintings to sell, though it is speculated these were older works from her private collection. Several dozen unfinished paintings begun after The Chef all show Féli, though they fail to move beyond a mere sketch.

The Chef was loaned to a gala opening at one point, for a single evening. There are reliable sources saying that all the meat dishes served at that opening were spoilt and inedible. Yet, the food had been freshly prepared on that very day. While meat going bad can be more likely attributed to other factors such as temperature and improper handling, some blame the painting for it.

*

The Finale

The Finale is the title given to this painting by curators. Some call it The Last or even The Omega. Wells herself never gave it a name.

This painting was discovered in Wells’s atelier along with her corpse, though the date of its completion is uncertain. The painting is large, ten by seven feet, and it seems to be a riddle inside a riddle inside a riddle.

It shows a circus ring, and many things are happening there at once.

One of the first things that we see is the book, the big tome Wells so often added when she painted Féli. It is once again being held by a figure in black, robed and hooded, wearing a white mask. This time, the hooded figure reminds us of The Masque, but appears decidedly male and is looking toward the center of the ring. In his arms, the book is open. He holds up one finger as if he were reading from it and commanding the listener’s attention. We also see Féli opposite the robed figure. She is dressed like a belly dancer. Most of her skin is visible. Snakes wreathe and slither around her body, her waist, her breasts and ankles, and the expression on her face is one of boundless joy and ecstasy.

A white tablecloth catches the light in the background. It is set on the ground almost as if for a picnic, though plates and silverware and glasses indicate something more elaborate. There is wine in one of the glasses and a pinkish shimmer on one of the plates. The teal vial from The Chef sits on the tablecloth, unstoppered, though whether it is full or empty, we cannot see. Apart from that, there is no food.

Seemingly random items are scattered on the ground. Black beads are spilled like breadcrumbs, and paper has been torn and strewn alongside them, old paper with traces of writing on it that has, unsurprisingly, prompted unsuccessful efforts to reassemble the torn pieces seen in the painting and decipher their meaning. Other things we are shown are the tools of Wells’s trade: brushes, paints, all strewn haphazardly, including one canvas that has fallen face down so that we cannot say what painting it is. Another item that has caused speculation is an envelope. On it there is once more the indecipherable writing from the Voynich Manuscript, and we are left to wonder what message it contains.

In the center of the ring, drawn in shadows, is Wells herself, dressed in red and gold as the ringmaster. She is facedown, and her pale brown hair scatters in the puddle of blood under her. All of the fingers in her right hand stand at odd angles, broken. Her costume bears traces of paint, and it is torn in places. The violence is tangible.

An urban legend surrounds this painting, which is now housed in the Thea Wells Museum after it spent long years in police evidence. The legend says, when you focus your gaze on the figure in black who is reading from the book, you will dream and the dream will have no color at all. You will find yourself in perfect blackness, and there will be music around you as if heard from a distance, carnival music that echoes strangely distant and metallic, as if it echoed from an old music box.

*

That last, untitled painting is disturbing. It becomes even more so when viewed side by side with the photographs taken by the police of the scene they found in Wells’s atelier, or at least those that were leaked following her death. While those crime scene photos say nothing about Wells as a painter, they bear mentioning because they seem to echo The Finale. Wells can be seen facedown in her own blood. In reality, Wells wore a simple red shirt and no costume, but the tears in the fabric, as far as visible in the photographs, match up with the tears we see on the ringmaster’s costume in the painting. Wells’s blood has dried to a dull maroon, not the scarlet seen on the canvas. She was cut and bruised, her right hand—the hand she painted with—revealed to have been broken extensively.

Wells had been attacked. In the police report, leaked shortly after the photographs, one officer said they had only ever seen wounds like that in the mountains, when a bear found a hiker and took them down with claws and teeth. No wild animals were reported in the area of Wells’s residence, and no other signs of them were found in Wells’s atelier.

One thing that is different in reality is the negative of a shape in the dried puddle of Wells’s blood. It appears as if something large and rectangular was there when Wells bled out. When she was found, it had been removed. Some claim it was the tome, that leatherbound strangeness, that kept the floor clean where it lay because it drank all the blood that touched it.

Thea Wells’s murder remains unsolved.

Féli has never been seen again, not even at Wells’s funeral. However, if you look closely at all the photographs taken of that event, you will see a figure among the celebrities and pedigreed royals who have come to say farewell to a genius artist who defined a generation. The figure is in only one or two photos, and they seem to be wearing a long, dark robe. While their face is shadow-wrapped, it appears pale, smooth, mask-like. It could just be one of the mourners, seen from an odd angle with unfavorable lighting. Or not.

The question of the dark man, Féli’s alleged lover, also remains. When The Diners first sold—minutes after it was hung in the gallery—people asked Wells about him. Wells refused to say anything about the painting or its subjects, having become eccentric and like a modern-day hermit by that time already.

To this day, Wells’s paintings attract not just art-lovers and historians but also believers in the supernatural. The police are regularly called to Wells’s grave to break up séances held by self-proclaimed mediums and their congregations.

Féli remains a mystery as well. Yet, one art historian has told this author, in confidence and on the condition that their name not appear in this article, that they have seen Féli, her face, her dark hair and green eyes, her uncannily pale skin and distinctive features. The historian found her on another canvas, which cannot be clearly attributed to an artist. Yet, that canvas was confidently dated to more than 300 years ago. It is the portrait of a seated woman who looks exactly like Wells’s Féli. Far in the background, one can just make out the sinking bulges of a circus tent, a harlequin in their chequered dress walking inside through the flap. This painting’s basis in reality, just like its creator, is not clear. How it managed to capture the woman that appears in Wells’s paintings 300 years later, is unknown.


© 2021 by Alexandra Seidel

2800 words

Alexandra Seidel writes strange little stories while drinking a lot of coffee (too much, some say). Her writing has appeared in Future SF, Cossmass Infinities, and Fireside Magazine among others. You can follow her on Twitter @Alexa_Seidel or like her Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/AlexaSeidelWrites/), and find out what she’s up to at alexandraseidel.com. As Alexa Piper, she writes paranormal romance books which have been rumored to make people laugh out loud in public.


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DP FICTION #78A: “Fermata” by Sarah Fannon

Content note(click for details) Content note: abuse

The week I moved into my old family home, the brick one that sat like a triple-layered cake at the end of the street, I spent each day and into the night repainting every wall. Mint living room, yellow bathroom, pink bedroom. I chose gaudy colors that would have sat like a bad taste on my mother’s tongue anytime she thought of it, were she alive. Colors that felt like touching sunshine.

It was strange to stand in my childhood bedroom as a woman who was starting to find her first gray hairs when the light hit her head just so in the bathroom. It wasn’t like going back in time, exactly, but like finding embarrassing photos of yourself. I looked at the walk-in closet and could almost feel the clothes brushing the top of my head from all the times I hid in there with a flashlight and book on nights when I wanted to muffle the sound of my mother’s clarinet floating up through the house. My memories of nighttime, even ones that didn’t involve the house or my mother, always carried a sharp echo of that instrument. It wasn’t the sound I’d hated, but the dread that each note might be her last. The final trill always led to a fearful silence.

She’d left me the house in her will, and with its mortgage paid off, it was a bigger and better place than I could ever hope to afford on my own. I couldn’t resist the illusion that I could transform it and make it mine, but so far I felt naive for thinking repainting would be enough. I left my old room, newly pink from yesterday’s efforts, to enter the room I’d put off until the end. Every day I’d painted until I was too drained to carry on, and then left to pass out on an air mattress in the apartment I was leaving. I didn’t want to stay in the house until it was finished. But the apartment lease was up and I only had her room left to refresh.

I stood over my mother’s bed, which was still covered with her garden of pillows that were only there for decoration. She would have been furious to know that her death wasn’t some dramatic crescendo; that it had no flair. One unmarked evening a few weeks ago she fell asleep like any other night and just never woke up. The boring nature of it delighted me. I lay on top of the covers and smiled up at the ceiling. I thanked God that I hadn’t been guilted into a hospital bed visit where she would have taken my hand in her wrinkled claws and sent me off with one last conversation that felt like a slap in the face, desperate to have the last word. Instead, she’d simply died.

Despite living in the same city, I hadn’t seen her in years. Family friends and neighbors cheerily asked me about her in grocery store aisles or when I was in line to drown my popcorn in butter at the movie theater. We don’t talk much, I’d tell them. Hell has a bad connection. I liked watching them fumble with the words like they were a squirming cat they didn’t know how to hold. They might laugh nervously or sometimes sincerely, but across the board, they all seemed to study me for a sign of which of the two of us was in hell.

After resting in her bed, I began to paint her eggshell room forest green. My arm was tired, but the up and down movement of the paintbrush was soothing. Avoiding this room until the end made it feel like the cathartic cherry on top. With each stroke, I painted over her with the deep color of trees, of summer days at the park with my dad that I could barely remember outside of the blurry shape of happiness, like watching a family video. Green dripped onto her jewelry box and I made a note that I’d need to take nice photos of the contents to sell. I was going to sell everything of hers, except for her clarinet, which I’d thrown away first thing in the neighbor’s trash bin.

I spent the whole day in that room in a sort of trance. In an odd, sleep-deprived moment as I looked at myself in her dresser mirror, I painted over it too until I disappeared under the dark square. When I finished, I collapsed on the bed again, paintbrush still in hand, and the next thing I knew, I was opening my eyes with the heaviness of having fallen asleep by accident. The darkness was unsettling, and I had the strange urge to turn my body and make sure there was no one sharing the darkness with me. I turned my head slowly and was relieved to find an empty bed. Still, I got up quickly, dusted myself off from my mother’s death spot. She was getting to me without even being there.

On my way out the door, a childhood habit moved through me unconsciously, and I looked toward the dresser mirror. Growing up, I was usually crying when I left my mother’s room, and since she tutted at me for being an ugly crier, I often checked my reflection on the way out to see if she was right. But this time, there was no reflection, just self-created blankness.

I was worn out from the day but didn’t want to fall asleep in my own sweat and grit. I headed to the bathroom at the end of the hallway and turned on the shower head, then ran downstairs to grab towels from the properly labeled moving box. When I got back to the bathroom, something felt off. Steam pressed against the mirror and I could feel the heat, so it took a moment to realize what was missing: I couldn’t hear the water. I peered into the shower and watched the stream of water pummel into the bathtub, but it made no noise. Rather than being paralyzed by this fact, it put me into erratic motion. 

I moved naked through the house with paint splotches like bruises on my body, looking almost pagan. The floors didn’t creak beneath my feet, not even the loud spot I used to tread so lightly on to avoid waking my mother when I was up past my bedtime or running away, only ever making it a few blocks before I snuck back in and returned the supplies to their rightful spots.

I went downstairs and into the kitchen, and there was no hum when I opened the fridge. I wandered the house knocking on cabinets and slamming doors and every action was met with nothing but stone cold quiet, as if I weren’t even moving. It gave me the unnerving thought that there was no way to know if there was anyone or anything around each corner or hiding behind doorways or even stepping right behind me, far enough to not leave their breath on my neck. I thought about how I’d woken up in my mother’s old bed with the feeling that I was not alone, and how much easier it would be for a thing to slide to the ground and under the bed if I couldn’t hear it move.

Once I’d had enough of testing sounds that never happened, I slipped into a bathrobe and ran out the front door without even closing it, my feet brushing against hushed grass. There was no wind, no whoosh of a car even as I watched one drive by, no suburban choir of dogs. I ran in circles in the yard, senselessly thinking that enough speed might jumpstart noise. I was grateful that it was late, and the neighbors were hopefully asleep. The same neighbors who used to see my mother and me on weekend walks when I was young and would tell me in chirpy, “adult” voices that my mother was a saint for all the work she did for the neighborhood association, and how I was lucky to have such a strong person to hold down the fort in a single-parent household.

At the time, I thought maybe they didn’t notice how I was skittish as the bunnies they captured in their front yards so they wouldn’t nibble on their gardens. I used to stand in front of those metal traps and consider setting the rabbits free, even going so far as to check each house window for spying faces, but I never went through with it, just like I could never commit to running away. And maybe the neighbors didn’t notice that the “darling” outfits my mother dressed me in were always long sleeved, even in the baking summer. To this day, I gravitate towards long sleeves, even with nothing to cover, because she used to tell me that my arms and legs were fat and that was the real thing worth hiding. Over time I realized it wasn’t necessarily that the neighbors were ignorant, but that it was just easier to keep their eyes moving and mind their business. Despite the way they treated my mother like queen bee, the neighborhood was nothing like a beehive. Too many closed doors. Better for the neighborhood.

It suddenly occurred to me that many of those neighbors were probably gone, whether by death or relocation. I’d moved into an old home and an old neighborhood that had very little trace of my past left, and yet, I still managed to feel like I had willingly walked back into the rabbit trap.

I gave up on the front yard and ran out into the street, where I suddenly heard my feet thump against the sidewalk, as well as a late-night sprinkler taking care of a neighbor’s lawn. I got on my knees and leaned my head against the ground to take a moment to revel in the weird whisper of summer bugs and a faraway ambulance cry that rang like sweet music right then and there. If I hadn’t felt so exposed, I would have stayed there all night until the birds sang the sunrise into being. But I knew I had to go back to the house.

When I re-entered, I closed and locked the door behind me with relief, but then felt my heart plummet as the door didn’t make a click. I stayed still and realized that being back on the property meant I was back in the void and the kind of emptiness I always associated with outer space. Upstairs, the silent shower was still running. I got into the bathtub and sat under its stream, but I didn’t scrub with soap or wash my hair, just let it run over me.

The new bed I had ordered wouldn’t arrive until the next day. I had planned to sleep in my childhood twin bed that was still there for some reason, my old bedroom untouched like my mother’s shrine to what she considered better times, but when I wearily got to the doorway, I imagined twisting and turning myself onto the floor and made my way to my mother’s room instead.

I got under the covers on what would have been my father’s side. My damp hair left a mark like a lake on the pillow. Even though I tried forcing my eyes to stay closed and my body to calm down, I started to cry, and it felt good to see the pillowcase getting wetter, as if proof in this muted landscape of what I was feeling. I opened my mouth and screamed into the house, into its guts, feeling my jaw get sore and my throat get hoarse without a single sound ever touching the air. I started to project things into the gaping silence. I became convinced that if I turned around, my mother would be right there, or at least some part of her, able to exist through pure spite and disgust of me. I turned as much as I dared and could see something in the dark. Maybe it was her, maybe it was just the dark wearing itself like a costume. I decided to close my eyes and bury my head in the pillow.

And yet, despite the crushing sensation of silence, the way it pressed down on me like so many years of built-up hatred, I could not shake the imagined sound of that damned clarinet echoing against the walls. Once it started, I only prayed that it would never stop. The shape in the bed, whether my mother or a nightmare, would move as soon as the music ended; would take the bell and the barrel and the keys and the mouthpiece to turn my body into a score only I could hear.


© 2021 by Sarah Fannon

Sarah Fannon is a graduate of George Washington University’s Honors English and Creative Writing program and she continues to live in the DC area. Her work is featured in SmokeLong Quarterly, Dark Moon Digest, Divination Hollow Reviews, miniskirt magazine, The NoSleep Podcast, and the LGBTQ+ horror anthology, Black Rainbow. You can find her on Twitter @SarahJFannon and Instagram @ampersarah


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DP FICTION #77A: “Along Our Perforated Creases” by K.W. Colyard

Content note (click for details) Content note: domestic abuse

In my earliest memory, my mother folds in half. It couldn’t have been her first time. She was already so small by that point, so diminutive, that it’s hard, even now, to imagine her big, unfolded to her full size, giving birth to me. It was not her first time, and probably not even the first time she folded in front of me, but it is the first time I remember, and it happened when my father hit her.

I am six years old, sitting backward in a chair, watching between the spindles as my father takes a swing at her. Or tries to, the drunken bastard. He throws a wide right that turns the kitchen tiles into mortars, his fist into a pestle. The left arm, holding a handle of whiskey at length, acts as his ballast, keeping him upright as his body teeters like a wobbly top.

His fist crashes toward her. She ducks and covers, like a child in an Atomic Age cartoon. Instead of crawling under a desk to hide from my father’s bomb, my mother folds. Her forearms melt into her shins. Her hips roll up and sprout arms from their sockets. Her head rises from the floor to sit on her new shoulders, which she still hugs close to her neck. In a moment she is half the size of the woman my father tried to hit, and so he misses.

The swing drags him forward into the laminate kitchen counter, where he pauses, panting, wide-eyed. He turns over his shoulder to stare. I’m not sure that his booze-addled brain could make sense of what had happened. He stands up straight and takes a long swig from the bottle, never breaking eye contact with her.

Her whole frame trembles as she gazes up at him. Even when he slams the door to their bedroom, she remains taut as a piano wire. Not until we hear specters from his television cry out through the wall does she sag and collapse a little, into herself.

I am not surprised, in this memory. I think I already knew, at that point, that women could fold themselves into forever smaller shapes.

It was a hot topic in those days: to fold or not to fold. Unfolded women intimidated male interviewers. Folded women had trouble climbing stairs and using public toilets. Almost every day, tabloid shows interviewed folded women who had been assaulted by their bigger and stronger children—often boys, but sometimes girls.

You could go almost your entire life without meeting an unfolded woman. Pregnancy necessitated a certain amount of upsizing, and childbirth demanded complete unfolding. Almost no newborns were folded, and no one wanted to imagine what would happen if a folded mother gave birth to her unfolded child. You heard rumors, of course. Many stores did not stock folded clothing sizes in their maternity sections, because they feared the campaigners who might boycott them for encouraging unhealthy behaviors and body standards. No one mentioned the magazines, the ones with cover stories about postpartum celebrities who were already back to their shrunken, idealized selves.

Childbirth aside, it was preferable for women to remain folded for most of their lives. Tiny brides were all the rage then, although the exact, en vogue size changed often. I have a distinct memory of a wedding tape, played on one of those funniest-video shows, in which a husband pretends to eat his bride, who is no bigger than a jewelry-box ballerina. It got a lot of laughs.

At some point, I’m not sure when, I swore that I would never fold myself for anyone. It might have been when I saw my mother trembling on the kitchen tile, or maybe when the toy bride appeared to disappear behind her groom’s teeth. I didn’t know what it meant to fold or unfold, not really. All I knew was that I didn’t want whatever they had. It sat wrong with me, like when you interlace your fingers but put the wrong thumb on top.

And then it happened. I never planned it. I don’t think anyone plans out the day they will diminish themselves. I broke my promise to myself in the way that we break all such promises. Long before we swear that we will never be like our parents, we hold ourselves to other standards that we haven’t yet realized are impossible to meet. Remaining unfolded was one of them, at least for me.

My father was dead of sclerosis by then, and my mother had folded herself for other men, until she was the size of a walnut—a Thumbelina of the city. We lived in an efficiency apartment big enough for unfolded people, which was expensive in the city at that time. She never said anything, but we both knew that we could improve our financial situation if we—if I—could fit into one of the micropartments available a few blocks away: the provenance of single moms and daughters.

Maybe that’s why I did it. Or maybe it was just time for me to fit into spaces that no longer accommodated my full-sized self.

It happened on the train. I sat next to the door, four stops from home. He had been staring at me from one end of the car for the last six stops, but I was too afraid to leave the safety of the train. It was a long walk home. I had no chance of making it, not if he followed me.

I waited, and so did he. I gritted my teeth and prayed to every god I knew for protection. It did not help. The only other passenger got off two stops before mine, leaving us alone together in the car.

We were so close to the next stop when he began stalking toward me that the train’s braking threw him into me. I don’t know if I screamed. I couldn’t feel my body. He steadied himself, propping one ursine arm against the tall shaft of a rail, swinging the other toward me like a grappling hook—palm open, fingers clawed.

I panicked, threw myself backward toward the railing, and folded, not once but twice, as I slipped through it. I joined my limbs as I once watched my mother do, and then twisted to fold one side into the other. For brief moments, I was a column of a person: a scepter with my bowed head in place of a gem. Then my body split apart again into new arms and legs.

The doors opened behind me and I bolted, leaving the man just as bewildered as my father had once been.

Everything burned—not hot like an iron, but sharp, as if a thousand tiny paper cuts had been made along the seams of my body. It hurt, this folding, and I realized that, despite all the media buzz, no one ever talked about the pain.

*

It hurt, but I lived. Diminishing myself was the price I paid to not be accosted by strange drunks on the subway. It pleased my mother, in a sad way, because my double-folding put us two steps closer to a micropartment. Survival was the trade-off for pain.

Before downsizing could happen, though, I needed to fold again. The next time was seven months later. Picture a bodega, robbery in progress. I hid behind an endcap of Manischewitz and MD 20/20, praying no one had seen me yet, and I folded, just once. I could always fold again if I needed to crawl beneath the shelves, but once was enough to condense the bulk of my body so that it didn’t show around the corners of the aisle or between the gaps in the wine bottles.

I lived again, and again received that same mixture of radiating sadness and hope from my mother, who had ceased to look so tiny to me. I needed to fold at least once more to fit into the micropartment. Maybe that was why the next time came so soon.

Three months later, the robbery remained unsolved. I was walking home late at night, bringing milk and bread from the market. Maybe it was because I was only a few blocks away from that bodega, because I was alone, because the robber was still out there. I can’t say. But I heard footsteps behind me—heavier than mine and just out of sync—and when I tried to speed up on my shortened legs, the footfalls trailing me only grew louder.

I dove into the next alleyway, folding myself to fit behind the dumpster. My heart pounded in my ears as I waited to face my assailant, but my pursuer—if they even existed—never came to the alley. The footsteps faded off in the other direction, leaving me alone.

I slid out into the alley, slick with foul grime. I left the now-too-heavy milk behind the dumpster and cradled the bread, looking for all the world like a small child holding its new sibling. When I walked through the door, my mother hugged me tighter than she ever had before.

We were approved for a micropartment the next week.

*

The Internet made the Unfolding possible.

I came from a generation of compulsive bloggers who poured out their hearts to nobody in particular on LiveJournal and Tumblr. YouTube made everyone feel like a star. Things that we’d once spent years whispering about were confirmed at full volume, and with increasing regularity, in grainy 270P. In addition to videos of police brutality and child abuse, we began to see people unfolding themselves.

At first, it was just candid bystander videos. Someone would whip out a camera phone to film a man harassing a folded woman and wind up capturing footage of her unfolding. It looks nothing like the process of folding. She becomes twice her size in every dimension, globbily at first, then smoothly. She yells, her voice louder and deeper now that she’s of a certain size.

Women—mostly young and pretty ones—took over the blogosphere with messages of “conscious unfolding,” the precursor to the capital-U Unfolding. People called it a movement, lauded and vilified it.

A consciously unfolded person did not wait for harassment or abuse before they decided to grow larger. They took up the full amount of space their body was allotted from birth. Unfolding was about reclaiming the space they had once given up for safety or acceptance.

The media labeled some of the unfolded as frauds, mostly the idealistic teens who lived in micropartments, who unfolded in train station restrooms on school-day mornings and shrunk themselves down again before going home at night. Or the actors who unfolded for the red carpet but folded for roles. Then there were the actors who didn’t fold for roles, but looked as if they did, thanks to cinematographic trickery. The women who folded for work every morning. The sex workers who folded for clients. The sex workers who unfolded for clients. Everyone was suspect and no one was pure.

But more of them unfolded every day. To fold, to unfold—these became political decisions. Perhaps they always were. My mother and I could not afford to unfold, which was a different matter of politics.

We were still calling it “conscious unfolding” when the real Unfolding happened. The first person to do it was a nonbinary teenager named Tash. The authorities would never identify the cameraphone’s owner, but he, or someone close by, could be heard saying, Tash is gonna get it.

Tash was not, in fact, gonna get it.

Fourteen-year-old Tash Clemmons had never folded, not once. But when three older boys came at them, promising violence, they Unfolded. It wasn’t supposed to be possible, and yet it was. They stood eye-to-eye with the tallest of their attackers, fists clenched by the hem of their shorts, holding their ground.

The boy paused before swinging his bookbag at them. Tash deflected the blow and Unfolded again. Then, looking down on him, their voice booming, they said something, one thing, something we realized then that they’d been saying all along, ever since the camera started rolling: Leave me alone. Get out of my face. Leave me the fuck alone.

Tash’s attacker was arrested for assault, but the charges were dropped. They did the news media circuit to talk about how they planned to never fold themself back into their original, 5’4” frame. They said they were 7’2”, and doctors confirmed it. They said they had scholarship offers from colleges, positions on the basketball and volleyball teams at their school. Officials confirmed that, too. Some people called them a monster. Some called them an inspiration.

And so the Unfolding began.

It was the teenagers first, just as it had always been. They pulled themselves apart, pushed the limits to see just how large they could become. Rumor had it that one girl in New Delhi was able to walk across the city in ten steps, but there were no videos to prove that she existed.

The old ladies were next. Women whose wrinkles became the size of subway tunnels when they stretched themselves out. Women whose backs were still bent, even at eight or nine feet tall. Grandmothers whose grandchildren clapped when they grew larger. Old, Southern women who Unfolded as a party trick to step up into their great-grandsons’ lifted trucks with ease.

Some countries tried to outlaw it. Doctors were paid to debate its safety on television. Some states warned that Unfolding could affect fertility or increase the risk of cancer, but there was no evidence to support either claim. A bald TV psychiatrist asked one teenager what she got out of being called a monster. She told him: Power.

The men complained, as they always did. Could you really charge a husband with domestic violence, one lawyer argued, when, sure, he hit her, but then his wife exploded into an eight-foot-tall harpy, smashing an egg pan against his skull? Could it truly be called self-defense then? The Unfolded argued that the very act of growing larger was an act of self-defense. They lost many cases. Then they began to win.

Micropartments gave way to macropartments gave way, eventually, to mixcropartments. The Unfolded lived with their original-sized and folded roommates in areas built like nesting dolls, growing larger from the ground up. It wasn’t unusual to see an Unfolded person climb over buildings or step around traffic jams to drop their folded friends off at work or school.

I was still very small when I signed the lease on our mixcropartment. The woman who handed me the pen cup had fingernails taller than me. She smiled, teeth long as piano keys, but it was a warm smile, and full of hope. I thanked her and grabbed my purse—that purse, for the last time.

I would need my mother to open it for me at home. It was about to be too small.

I stepped outside, in the fresh air of the autumn morning, and I stretched

out

wide.


© 2021 by K.W. Colyard

2500 words

Kristian Wilson Colyard grew up weird in a one-caution-light town in the Appalachian foothills. She now lives in an old textile city with her husband and their clowder of cats. Her nonfiction has been published on Bustle and Tor.com, among other places. She’s on Twitter and Instagram @kristianwriting, and you can find more of her work online at kristianwriting.com.


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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.


© 2021 by Kristina Ten

3000 words

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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