DP FICTION #88A: “Timecop Mojitos” by Sarah Pauling

So what happened was, I’m back from clicker training Ms. Jordan’s dogs over on Dexter, sitting on the porch with a mojito, thinking how fucked up it is that the Old West Side Association stealth-planted tulips in our garden (because the yard looked so shitty without them, I guess—sorry for having a rental in your high-value neighborhood, Evie) when the Viking or whatever comes down Eighth.

He doesn’t have a horn hat or anything—I just thought he looked like a Viking, with a brown tunic with a hood over it and an axe at his belt. But he’s dirty, you know? The kind of dirty they can’t just smear into actors’ pecs on those historical dramas you hate. He’s history-times dirty, and he’s coming down Eighth with a brow furrowed all self-important like he’s as lost as the freshmen on campus downtown but pretending not to be.

I call over to him, looking for something?

And he says well met, Lady, all deep and smooth like the words wanna settle low in your tummy. You know what I mean. He’s all: I am tasked to subdue a witch who has taken refuge in your century. He has conquered time by dreamwalking to the dawn of man to bind the wings of the Bird of Something-Fuck and destroy the Cave of blah blah etcetera.

Stupid, right? That is super not what happened.

So I’m all, I don’t know him. Like a liar.

Then he looks at me with these piercing grey eyes like Lake Erie in bad weather—you remember, like when we were in Cleveland for that dude you met on Hinge?—and I swear to god we have a moment. Like, destiny. Like chills down my spine. The goddamn wind chime starts going, even.

Then he says, kind of desperate now: his name is Marshall.

And I’m like, oh, that’s my roommate. Do you wanna come in and have a mojito?

Don’t get that look. You know I wouldn’t sell you out, not even for a guy with a low-cut tunic and a well-polished axe who I decided was my soulmate. I just figured we’d have a nice chat and resolve our differences one way or another before you finished teaching your 4pm downtown.

I mean, why not? If I can stop Mr. Kincannon’s Mastiff from chasing the neighbor-kid from here to Ypsi, I can tame one timecop. They’re prettier than Mastiffs, but smarts-wise nobody comes out ahead.

I do not, he says, want a mojito.

I’m like, well, Marshall’s not getting back until six-ish depending on traffic, so let’s you and me get to know each other in the meantime.

Now he’s looking at me all suspicious, which is super unfair of my new soulmate to do. But he comes up the porch anyway, tripping on the loose plank on the steps. I keep calling the property manager to get that fixed, but you know how he is.

I get him settled on the sofa and I’m shouting from the kitchen while I make the mojito: you look like you work out. How long you in town? Wanna go to the gym sometime?

He asks, are you the witch’s apprentice?—definitely trying to distract me while he snoops around the living room—so I laugh at him. Like no, dude, I’m seriously his roommate! He’s a lecturer and I’m a dog trainer! He hired me one time and we hit it off and now I live here! Ann Arbor rent, am I right?

Maybe he’s worried for me—sweet, right?—because he starts trying to explain himself again. Like, your companion is sooo dangerous, subduing the Bird of Thingie let him borrow its power! He used it to destroy the Cave of Eons so no army could pursue him through its temporal caverns!

I’m like, why would a whole army chase one history nerd through a time cave? He only started doing the whole Doc Brown thing so he could win an argument about the Hapsburgs with his department chair.

And before he can talk about how terrible you are again, I drape myself on the kitchen doorway—it’s about the angles, I keep telling you—and go for teasing, like: maybe, once he found it, he just didn’t think an immortal army should have that cave.

And he’s all, the Guild’s military has a right to the Cave, and I’m like okay, buddy, drink your mojito.

These jeans do nice things for my thighs, so I sit on the couch and twist my hips towards him, but so far my goo-goo eyes are starting to look like a wash and I’m maybe giving up on the soulmate thing.

Don’t say I told you so. Swear to god, this one could’ve been different.

But I figure I’ll give him one last chance to be chivalrous or something, so I say, what if I told you that cave’s still around?

He doesn’t believe me, so I get up and grab my purse. I open the door that’s supposed to go to the front closet and shout ‘til I hear the echo.

He says something angry in Viking-language, which is sexy. Then he follows me in like, impossible! He took the Cave with him? For power like this, he must have killed the fell Bird for real or whatever!

And the words echo, of course—through the first ginormous cavern, then down through the tunnels and across the Ageless Fountain and up between the Teeth of Dark Time. The sound shakes through a million billion moments, and I can see him figuring out the size of it as his face goes pale. He’s tiny in this cave. We both are.

How did he do it? he says all shaky. How did he slay the Bird?

I say, are you going to be all weird about it?

He gives me a look like, yes, he’s gonna be as uptight as Ms. Primeau was when Princess shat on her basement stairs.

I’m like, you’re not gonna let him go, even though he didn’t destroy the cave? and his hand goes straight to his axe, which starts humming hard enough to make my teeth hurt. So, ugh. Timecop.

The thing about animals, I say, and the cave doesn’t let my words go—they bounce softer and louder again. You just gotta have some patience and they’ll do whatever.

Then I take the training clicker out of my purse.

The click’s echo stretches into a hawk’s cry. The cave lights up like a techno concert.

And then his pretty face goes all twisted under the dirt and he gets rude. Like, sorceress! Lilith!

Why do all the men I connect with turn out to be assholes? I help another guy with a pet behavior problem one time and your stereotypical alpha male gets all threatened for some reason. Makes no sense at all.

Static pools in my palms, and the Bird of Something-Fuck pulls herself from between the atoms. She hovers like a colossus of lightning, her wingtips stretched from one end of the massive cave to the other.

And he’s waving the axe around all, did he use the Bird’s power to corrupt you? Or did you follow him willingly through the ages on his path of evil?

I’m like, No! and my voice booms as thunder fills me—as Birdie tips over like a falling tower and turns to molten light and pours herself down my willing throat—We met on Craigslist!

He looks at me—up and up at me—like I’m fucking eldritch, which I guess is fair but it’s not my fault, and books it out the closet door like a hellhound’s on his tail.

I watch him—but not, like, with my eyes—as he barrels over the living room sofa and smashes into the mojito glasses on the side table. He stumbles down the porch stairs and trips over the loose plank and goes sprawling. I keep telling the property manager to fix that.

A car clips him, but he makes it out okay. Sprints down Eighth.

And that’s when you got home! How was class?

Oh, now that I think of it, maybe you can give me some witchy advice. I keep meeting all these guys—timecops, usually (I know, I know)—that feel like soulmates. Like something exciting’s about to happen. Like I’ve gotta do something important. Turns out, that feels an awful lot like static in my palms and a time bird in my lungs. Do you think that means anything? Like, cosmically?

Anyway, I’m gonna teach Birdie to fly through hoops once I’m done getting mojito out of the carpet.

She’s in the cave if you wanna say hi. I think she’s hungry.


© 2022 by Sarah Pauling

1500 words

Author’s Note: I was sitting on my run-down rental’s porch on Ann Arbor’s Old West Side, feeling blocked and nudging my Word document occasionally to see what would happen. I started writing something that I expected to be deeply boring: a woman on the same porch to whom, presumably, interesting things would happen. Once I found the story’s voice, it pulled me along like little else could. What’s more, since I had been about to move out of the state, the piece became a silly little goodbye to Michigan and Ann Arbor. I never did figure out who planted those tulips in our garden.

Sarah Pauling is a recent transplant to Seattle, WA, where she manages a university intercultural exchange program after many years sending other people to distant places for a living as a study abroad advisor in Michigan. She was shortlisted for the James White Award for new writers and is a graduate of the Viable Paradise workshop. Her work is published in places like Strange Horizons, Clarkesworld, and Escape Pod. If approached without sudden movement, she can be found at @_paulings on Twitter, where she natters on about writing, tabletop gaming, comics, and books.


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DP FICTION #87D: “Mochi, With Teeth” by Sara S. Messenger

Editor’s Note: This is just one of the items in the Diabolical Pots special issue.
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June leans against her kitchen counter and stares at the little package in her hands. It’s encased in clear plastic that crinkles at her touch and boasts kanji she can’t read: 餅菓子. Under those, and a picture of small pillowy circles resting on a bamboo mat, are English words, looking suspiciously like Times New Roman: RICE CAKE with BEAN JAM. Then, smaller: (Mochi).

She bought it from the nearest Asian supermarket in south Georgia, an hour’s drive away. Beneath the cellophane rest eight flour-powdered green mochi, shaded in the center with red bean filling.

Her mom’s not here to tell her what the kanji mean. June could text and ask, but that seems troublesome. June lives on her own now, working as an underpaid web designer to make rent on an apartment with old, clinical tiling. Plus, her mom would ask why she had visited the Asian supermarket when she usually doesn’t, and then June would have to mention, offhandedly, the battered Japanese spellbook she’d rescued from her local thrift store.

She had pulled it from the shelf to examine it. On the front cover was more kanji she couldn’t read, but her fingers had tingled when she traced the characters, and she’d caught the passing scent of her mother’s hair. The owner, a white woman, had commented at the register that June was so lucky to be able to read Japanese, wasn’t it such an interesting culture? Is that where you’re really from? Sad to see this little thing go, no one was ever interested in it.

June felt lucky to have escaped whole.

So now the spellbook is spread on the kitchen table. It’s slim, written in all Japanese; some entries were translated in small text on the bottom margin, but even these feel arcane. When June first read the book, or the parts she could read, she’d gotten the impression that it taught less about how to cast magic as how to think about casting magic.

June glances from the spellbook to the package in her hands. Then she opens the cellophane, slides out the plastic tray of mochi, and pinches one between her fingers. It’s cloud-soft, but firm.

There is only one trick she wants to do. She doesn’t have her grandmother’s magic, and by doesn’t have, she means she never learned it. Her mother had stopped practicing when she came to America thirty years ago, and they’d last visited Japan when June was nine. When June was born across the sea, magic was lost in translation.

June knows lacking magic doesn’t make her less Japanese. But she craves it anyway — more now that she’s an adult, growing disillusioned with American culture, painfully aware that her grandparents are getting older while she still can’t speak their language or conjure their ability.

She sighs. She’ll look into online courses for Japanese, once she has more money. The magic is less straightforward, but it feels more immediate and urgent: an access that could chase away her shame. A validation, that even though she was far removed, she could still cast. She could still do this.

But fear, breathing hot down her neck: what if she couldn’t do it at all?

Her grandmother could do many things, June remembers, like set the tomato vines into bloom with a touch, or spin flames into pleasing shapes when she burned the stinging centipedes. These were all too daunting to try — all but one, the smallest one, the one that had most delighted June.

Her grandmother, knees stained from weeding the garden, would present her a piece of mochi. Then, her grandmother would bite into it, and crouch down so June could watch.

From the bite mark, the mochi would sprout blunt little teeth.

It reminded young June of the piranha plants from Mario Kart. It would try to bite anyone who wasn’t the spellcaster, so her grandmother never let her get too close, but it was still so cool — and when her grandmother hummed to it, it even hummed back. Her grandmother would feed the mochi little bits of homegrown tomato, weaving a tune of repetition between them, then, when the spell wore off and the teeth disappeared, she would feed it to June. The tomato added tiny umami bursts.

June picks up the spellbook and flips through it, to the footnote that had felt the most helpful on her first read. A good intention is important to creating and cannot be grown without ripe ground. A good intention. As in, a convincing one? A moral one? Who decided that? And was the ripe ground a metaphor for an open mind, or a receptive environment?

Well, she needs to try to find out.

June lifts the mochi to her mouth and bites. Soft dough yields against her teeth, and she pulls against a slight stretch. She chews. The red bean is sweet and earthy. As she chews, she concentrates on her intention: little teeth, just like her grandmother had done. They can even be molars, if it wants. Then she sets it on the counter.

Five seconds pass. Then fifteen. Then a minute. The mochi, dark bean paste exposed in a crescent, stays unchanged.

June rubs the flour between her fingers and exhales, disappointed. She can’t help feeling like the mochi has delivered a verdict, or seen her as lacking in some way, even though she knows that’s preposterous. She isn’t sure if she can take another bite — she only saw her grandmother do it with the first bite, but for functional or aesthetic reasons, she does not know. This is a question she can’t ask — she can’t read or write Japanese, won’t know the right words when she only speaks simple household terms, and besides, her grandparents only keep a landline. Nor are they big on calling.

So she picks out a new piece of mochi.

She flips to a different page of the spellbook. The strings that tie objects together are in the air, invisible, and can be tugged by a forth-willing mind.

This, too, is mysterious, approaching spellcasting from the side. Did it mean she should touch something that channels that connection, like a souvenir from Japan? Probably not. Or, is it that she has to feel that connection from Japan to herself, to her surroundings? This connection feels frayed to June, stretched across a language and a generation and an ocean.

A flash of fear, then doubt. But she closes her eyes, plants her feet on ripe ground, and digs down.

In her mind, June casts around, softly, without urgency, and a thread surfaces: her grandmother’s house. It’s hard to grasp, but she holds the taste of red bean on her tongue and tugs. Memories come slowly, then quicker, until she’s apace with them, then grasping them, then folding in:

Lush ferns sprouting from the mountain’s moss-darkened retaining wall, rice fields feeding into small gutters, with tadpoles floating down into brisk streams, the bright blue of the afternoon sky before it clouds gray — then, the sweeping humidity, barn swallows flitting across the front yard, sharp dark shapes in the dimming light before the storm.

Inside, the whistling of the kettle, the smell of fish frying on the nearby stove, the flickering light from an old lamp swaying above the kitchen table. Young June sets her plate in front of her seat, self-conscious in her grandmother’s presence, and sits down.

At the stove, her grandmother shakes the skillet and turns the fire off. June picks up her pair of chopsticks and clicks them together experimentally. The tatami creaks as her grandmother turns to look. Their eyes meet, and June almost looks away.

Then her grandmother smiles.

Her cheeks pull into apples, deep wrinkles frame her mouth, and crow’s feet crinkle the corners of her eyes. She looks at June with nothing but love.

The warmth of it sweeps June away. How could young June have not understood this? How could she have forgotten how it looked? Now, as an adult, the recognition rises in June’s chest, spreads to her fingertips, slackens her shoulders and unknots her stomach. The catharsis brings tears behind her eyes. I see you, that smile says. You are exactly where you need to be, and you are always, always enough.

June’s eyes fly open. She is back in her kitchen, standing alone on the cold tile.

“Grandma?” she whispers. Her voice cracks.

Then she crouches down.

Then she begins to cry.

Big, heaving sobs wrack her shoulders. Tears run down her nose, her chin. Her lips taste like salt, and she can hardly see the tile through the hot, watery blur. Grandma. Grandma, I miss you. And I’m enough. I’m enough.

June realizes she’s still clutching the mochi in her fist.

She squeezes her eyes shut, raises it to her lips, and bites.

She focuses on the mochi’s soft weight resting in her palm, on the sweet dough against her tongue. Fear curls hot in her stomach. Every breath is a shudder. What if it doesn’t work? What if she opens her eyes and there’s no change at all?

She can’t bring herself to look.

So, carefully, haltingly, June hums.

Silence stretches for a beat.

Her heart starts to sink–

Little teeth nibble her thumb.

And the mochi hums back.


© 2022 by Sara S. Messenger

1550 words

Sara S. Messenger is an SFF writer and poet residing in Florida. When she’s not playing fetch with her cat, she reads poetry collections in the sun. Her short fiction is forthcoming in Fantasy Magazine, and her poetry has been published in Strange Horizons. If you enjoyed this work, her full portfolio and other musings can be found online at sarasmessenger.com. This is her first short fiction publication.


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DP FICTION #87A: “A Strange and Muensterous Desire” by Amanda Hollander

Editor’s Note: This is just one of the items in the Diabolical Pots special issue.
Click here to see the full Diabolical Pots menu.

Sept 3

New boy in school today. Someone was whispering that he comes from a mysterious family that bought the old Klappenhoffer mansion. Maisie said he stared at me with “a dark and piercing gaze” when we passed each other in the hall. I did not notice as I was writing down ideas to perfect my recipe for the state fair grilled cheese competition. I don’t care what Eli Barajas comes up with. This year I will WIN.

*

Sept 8

During my taste testing in fourth period, Dr. Washington confiscated my small grill and said competition or no, I was not allowed to burn down the school in pursuit of glory, which I think shows a real lack of vision. Dr. Washington said I was welcome to take my vision to detention, so I had to have Maisie and Dee try the cheeses unmelted, which defeated the whole purpose. But it didn’t matter because no one could focus on cheese. They just kept talking about the new boy. 

Dee said his name is Byron, which is “so romantic.” I pointed out that the poet Byron slept with his half-sister and had venereal disease. Maisie told Dee my soul is bereft of romance. New guy Byron came to palely loiter over us while I had Maisie try Irish versus Wisconsin. He looked deeply into my eyes and said that he was hungry too and licked his lips. I offered him some of the cheese, but he refused, saying his is a tragic and eternal hunger. I guess he’s lactose intolerant?

*

Sept 9

Madame du Pont is from one of the best cheese countries in the entire world, but does she even appreciate my struggles to elevate her nation’s greatest export? She caught me reading Fantasies of the Fromagerie during class and confiscated my copy! Then she dumped a massive tome on my desk called Vive le fromage which was in FRENCH. Madame du Pont said if I had to read about cheese, I could do it in the proper language, which I said was a complete waste of time and that she had no camembert in her heart. 

Anyway, after I got out of detention, the Drama Club was still around, so I had them guinea pig my new recipe. Byron watched from the shadows, which I guess is his thing. I had set up the table with some samples when Eli—I swear he can smell competition from a mile away—came by, grinned at me, and while I was in shock, the bastard swiped one. I tried to snatch it back, but he popped in his mouth too quickly. My nemesis may taunt me, but I will not be distracted. Victory is mere weeks away and there have been some promising developments with baguettes.

*

Sept 12

Parmesan, I suspect, may be the key to winning. I was telling Maisie this in study hall when Byron slipped in. Maisie leaned over and whispered that four people from town have disappeared since Byron arrived, and that Madame du Pont is now missing. Maisie said something about how the missing people have nothing in common—different neighborhoods, different ages, which naturally led me to wonder how aged the Parmesan should be. Would the judges be partial to twelve months or twenty-four? I asked Maisie, but she said I was missing the point, then threw a sharp look at Byron, skulking in the corner. After that, she left to go to field hockey practice and Byron appeared next to me (I didn’t even hear him move, such is the reality of one immersed in the Jarlsberg of life) and said we should study for our math test together. I truthfully told him that I’m flunking calc, so I wouldn’t be much help. He said we should hang out anyway, that he was intrigued by me. I told him I was intrigued by Parmesan and, actually, what did he think of Gruyère? He seemed very confused.

*

Sept 13

Byron randomly slunk over to my desk—again, which was annoying because he is quite boring—at lunch to ask if I believed in immutable destiny. I realized that of course he must be talking about the state fair grilled cheese competition, so I said yes. I told Byron that soon I would live forever, immortal in triumph. Byron got all excited and asked, then, did I agree that “two people bound in an undying fate must be yoked beyond the valence of time?” I don’t know what a valence is, but I looked down four desks at Eli, who has annoyingly nice hair, and said, “Yeah.” For some reason, Byron seemed very happy after that. 

I had not realized he cared that much about the competition.

*

Sept 16

Saw Eli today at The Daily Rind. He winked as he was leaving, but if he thinks I’m going easy on him just because he’s charming, he is WRONG. I was dying to know what he’d ordered, but Mrs. Papageorgiou flatly refused to tell me what he’d bought, citing the sacred trust of the cheesemonger, which is not a real thing. I was trying to cajole the answer out of her when Byron walked up behind me, looked Mrs. Papageorgiou in the eyes, and whispered, Didn’t she want to tell us? I rolled my eyes, but suddenly, she was reciting the name of every cheese Eli had ever bought, including two new imported varieties from Oaxaca and the Swiss Alps. So much for the sacred trust. I ordered both and a couple goat cheeses, too. When I had finished paying, Mrs. Papageorgiou suddenly snapped to attention as if she’d just woken up. It was weird. She didn’t even remember what I’d ordered. Maybe she’s been sniffing the Vieux Lille again.

*

Sept 18

Had a sub in World History today as Mr. Rabinowicz was out. More people in town have gone missing. Maisie and Archita said it’s a bad sign, but as I said, who wouldn’t want to leave this town?

Beatriz said to make sure that I come home before dark, and I told Mom that her girlfriend should mind her own beeswax but, speaking of beeswax, what were their thoughts on cheese with honey? Mom said to focus on improving my grades and getting home earlier. Beatriz yelled, “Never give in! Never! Never! Never!” from the living room. Mom responded by humming the theme music from Gallipoli. I am at a crucial moment in my preparations, yet I am beset by mockery. 

I asked Maisie to come over for more taste testing, but she said she’s doing some project at her uncle’s carpentry workshop and can’t make it.

*

Sept 23

Byron insisted on walking me home from the library. I was going to refuse, but The Mysteries and Molds of Modern Cheese is a heavy book and clearly Byron has nothing better to do. As we went, he asked me what I thought had happened to the people that had gone missing. I told him the only thing that was missing was a secret ingredient to ensure my victory.

We walked in silence for a while, so I decided to be polite and ask Byron about himself. He muttered something about everlasting torment. Then he looked into my eyes and said he yearned for someone who “walked the waters like a thing of life,” and didn’t I understand? I did not understand. Was this a religious thing? Also, did he think Eli had figured out what I bought from Mrs. Papageorgiou? What did he think Eli’s strategy would be? Byron seemed frustrated for some reason. After that he stared off into the distance, which was great, because it meant he stopped talking. When we finally got to my house, I relieved him of my copy of the Mysteries and Molds of Modern Cheese. I thought he’d follow me inside, but he just stood there in the doorway like a tragic fondue.

*

Sept 24

Eli sat next to me in bio today. I told him he’s going down. He grinned and said he’s a lover, not a fighter, but he had big plans for beating me. I told Eli he could bite me.

Byron, who was lurking behind us, got all riled up for no reason whatsoever and bared his teeth, which looked surprisingly pointy and sharp. Hm…sharp makes me think of Limburger. Perhaps that would go better with the honey?

*

Oct 4

While we were going over our bio homework, Maisie said that eight people are now missing. She said she’s going to find out what’s happening. She glanced at Byron, who simply glowered at her and then resumed staring out the window, mumbling poetry. I don’t get why Maisie is so interested in someone who spends all his time brooding. I said it was definitely not a gouda situation. Maisie didn’t even laugh! Not one giggle. It’s amazing that we have been friends for so many years when she has absolutely no sense of humor.

Eli, who was sitting two rows up, did laugh, though. I said I didn’t appreciate him making fun of me and he said the thought had not o-CURD to him. The jerk. How dare he try to out-pun me! I told him I will have him know that I have a grate sense of humor and as for the competition, there was no whey he would defeat me, ah HA! He laughed at that, too, but I suspect it is a strategy to make me go easy on him. Only ten more days to go, though, and he shall taste the Roquefort of defeat.

*

Oct 9

I have flaky, delectable goat cheese that is the perfect balance of salty and sour. I have local honey as gold as the trophy I am destined to win. I have sourdough baked by my own two hands and my secret ingredient. Also, I have the support of my friends, all of whom I badgered into coming. Byron also invited himself along. God knows why.

*

Oct 14

In the face of defeat, one must be a stalwart mozzarella. 

Eli should remember that because

I AM THE STATE FAIR GRILLED CHEESE CHAMPION!

My honey lavender grilled goat cheese on sourdough won! I have a blue ribbon, a small trophy, and eternal glory. Mom said she’s just glad to have her kitchen back. Eli got second place, which was a gift certificate to the Daily Rind. He took his defeat surprisingly well. He came over and gave me a big hug and when his arms wrapped around me I felt like grilled cheese on the inside, which I told Maisie, who said it is not a romantic simile. We were getting ready to go to a celebratory dinner when Byron pulled me aside, stared deep into my eyes, and started to speak. Everything got strange and foggy, which was when Maisie grabbed me and dragged me away. I barely remember it. I’m turning into Mrs. Papageorgiou.

*

Oct 16

In bio, Eli came over to congratulate me again and said my grilled cheese sandwich was the best he had ever had. I know a declaration of love when I hear one. I kissed him right then and there. We’re going to Homecoming together!

Maisie says it’s strange that I’m dating Eli, but I told her we were bound to have a cheesy ending. Maisie did not even smile. I asked her if she was going to the dance with Byron, because she seems totally into him (which is sad, because he is very dull, though of course I didn’t say that because I am an empathetic person). She said no, Byron was interested in me—which was a shock, because he never showed any signs of it, boys are weird—and anyway she’s skipping the dance to go stake something out.

*

Oct 30

I love Eli Barajas and my soul is brie, all rich and melty. Homecoming was surprisingly fun. Byron did not go. No one has heard from him since right before the dance. He stopped coming to school, too, and apparently isn’t coming back. It is probably because I broke his heart. I am sure he will recover eventually. Byron has his immutable destiny and a valence or whatever it was.

The Klappenhoffer mansion is for sale again. Maisie seems quite pleased about it, but won’t say why. She invited me to come by her uncle’s workshop on Friday to see her woodworking projects. She’s very into sharpening and sanding things these days. I’ll go to be supportive, even if she is getting a little obsessive. Fortunately for her, I am a very understanding friend. I actually had hoped to be with Eli that night because I wanted to go to the observatory for the full moon, but he says he’s locked into some monthly family thing. I said I understood, because it is good to be magnanimous when one is the State Fair Grilled Cheese Champion.


© 2022 by Amanda Hollander

2160 words

Author’s Note: I was talking with a writer friend who had years earlier written a dark, haunting zombie love story that involved a grilled cheese analogy. We joked that you could give me the same assignment—monster romance with a mention of grilled cheese—and it would go haywire. The next day, I woke up with a cheery and clueless teenage character in my brain chattering away about grilled cheese sandwiches while some hapless immortal lurked nearby, darkly pining, and the rest is this story.

Amanda Hollander is a writer and opera librettist in New York City, where she resides in the company of a cat, who has recently entered the dowager empress phase of feline life, and some barely enduring succulents. Amanda has published stories in the Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction and Daily Science Fiction. She does, alas, suffer from lactose intolerance, and as such has enjoyed this foray into dairy escapism.


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DP FICTION #85A: “The House Diminished” by Devan Barlow

The house diminished every morning. Lately, it had been during sunrise, as if shrinking from the warmth, and not from the fearsome house echoes.

Clea woke when it was still dark out, and made herself a breakfast of toast and blueberry jam. There wasn’t much bread left. There’d once been a jar of strawberry jam, which Clea much preferred to blueberry, but it had been in the back of the fridge, and that had been part of the diminishing a few days earlier. When she’d relocated the supplies the day before, she’d placed a bag of dried apricots in what had once been the linen closet. Those would be tasty, but she felt compelled to eat things that needed the fridge while she still had them.

How much longer would she have to wait?

There were still four mugs in the cabinet. She remembered times when they’d all been in use at once, clustered on the table, a mirror of those who drank from them.

Today Clea chose the red mug with a floral pattern. Gaby’s. She filled it with coffee, but when she reached for the container of honey, her hand hit only solid wall. She frowned. Apparently the night had included its own small diminishing. That happened sometimes.

There was nothing else left to put in coffee, which meant it was too bitter for her, but she sipped it anyway.

A quick series of sounds interrupted her silence, and she started, spilling coffee onto the sleeve of her comfortable green sweater. She pulled the fabric away from her skin, hissing at the heat, and went to run cold water on the burn, only to find the sink half the size it had been the day before. The cool tap water, when it came, was thin and unwilling.

She wasn’t bothered about the stain. Who would see it but her?

The sound came again. Knocks on the door. It would just be one of the house echoes, hoping for new prey. Easy to ignore.

Clea’d been the only one left in the house since the end of the summer.

The heat had gotten less reliable lately. She had on two pairs of socks, and a scarf wrapped snug around her neck.

She hadn’t thought her friends would make her wait this long.

*

It had seemed the perfect solution for the four of them to rent the house together. They’d all been close for so long, and they’d all been looking for new living arrangements.

Clea had been relieved when it all came together. The four of them had moved everything in on their own, accompanied by a playlist of favorite songs from musicals they’d seen together and plates of the chocolate-ginger cookies Rae baked when she was stressed.

Living with her friends, Clea was convinced, would bridge those moments when she feared the spaces between them were too large. Moments when she missed a cue, or didn’t think to include herself, or worried her exclusion was deliberate on her friends’ part.

It was easier with these friends than it was with nearly anyone else, which was the result of time and risks and choices on both Clea’s part and theirs. She was so grateful for her friends but still, sometimes, she worried.

It helped, sharing the house. Their contrasting schedules meant Clea normally got enough time on her own to feel centered, and plenty of time with the others to feel connected.

At first.

No, it still helped. They were still close. This was temporary.

Their friendships were strong enough to make it through this.

*

The house echo knocked on the door a third time.

Clea sipped at the now half-empty coffee, its flat bitterness pushing weakly against her tongue, and started toward the door. She wouldn’t open it, but the echoes were kind of fascinating to watch. The remnants of houses long-diminished, reduced to nothing but thick air and sinuous, flashing images of the homes they’d once been.

The front hallway was nearly gone, reduced to a sliver. She winced as her already-bruised hips bumped against the walls. The ceiling was a little shorter, but unevenly sloped, so, as usual, she didn’t notice until it rubbed against the top of her head. She ran her fingers through her hair, wondering when she’d washed it last. She’d been rationing the last bottle of shampoo, which made her feel both silly and sensible. The remaining space of the hallway widened a little, directly in front of the door, and the window next to it was still there.

She paused, just before looking through the window. She hadn’t seen another person since Gaby was taken by the diminishing. When was that? There’d still been milk in the fridge.

The house echoes were always trying this kind of thing. All they needed was an open door or window. They craved the comfort of another being made of rafter and railing.

Clea missed being able to have the windows open.

The house across the street from them had opened the door to one of the echoes. Gaby’d been watching at the time and had sworn the house had opened the door all on its own, though none of the others had believed her.

*

In the eight months between moving in and the start of the diminishing, the house had always kept the four of them safe. Even when lightning struck the property next door, even when half the houses on the street needed their roofs repaired after a hailstorm, this house had been untouched, and they’d been grateful.

The worst part of the house was the heat. It worked, sometimes, though they were all convinced the temperature was never actually the number on the display.

There’d been a lot of nights of the four of them around the kitchen table, draped in sweaters and scarves as differently-scented steams rose from each of their mugs.

It was getting colder, and Clea was the only one left.

*

She still hadn’t looked out the window. Would the house echo knock again?

She was fine. The house was much condensed, but the plumbing still worked and the heat was no worse than it had ever been. The coat closet was still there, and she was relieved to find another scarf inside, rich purple and soft, which she wrapped around her shoulders.

Between the four of them they’d had six can openers, which had stopped being funny after the first diminishing took one. She’d scattered the remaining five around the house along with the food supplies. She’d placed pads and bandages in every room.

It couldn’t be much longer.

And she knew better than to open the door to the house echoes.

*

It hadn’t been a big fight.

It had just been… everyone’s jobs, and everyone’s exhaustion, and the noxious cocktail of the two. That could lull anyone into unwanted isolation, snappishness, not thinking through their own boundaries or those of their friends.

Rot, hidden too deep in the house for anyone to see. Like the fear that made the houses diminish.

Susan had been the first one to say something, and they’d all agreed to a Saturday morning spent together. For food and conversation and shoring up their connections.

They all put it above work and workouts and errands and the weird news stories about collapsing houses. All of them were conscious that something precious was at risk.

The night before had been the first time Clea had slept well in a while.

That morning, the house diminished for the first time.

Susan was gone. The outside wall of her bedroom had moved inwards, cutting off all but a few inches of her bed and all of her.

Clea, Gaby, and Rae clustered in the kitchen after seeing Susan’s room. Everything was out of true.

“I can’t do this.” Gaby muttered, storming outside. She’d then started taking measurements, tape measure shooting out in all directions like the strikes of a skilled swordswoman. Writing everything down in the small blue notebook that lived in her purse. Desperate to defend them not with steel, but with facts.

*

“The houses are terrified.” Gaby said the day after the diminishment took Rae.

Gaby’d been opening and closing the refrigerator for three minutes without taking anything out.

The house echoes were getting more frequent, pulsing silently against the outside of every house in view. In response, Gaby explained, the houses grew smaller, shrinking from the reminder of their already-lost kin.

“But I don’t think,” she squinted, again, at the solid wall where the bowl of leftover chicken soup had been, “the house is trying to hurt us.”

Gaby didn’t explain anymore. Said she needed time to think.

Three nights later, she was gone.

There’d been three nights between Susan and Rae. Another three between Rae and Gaby.

Three mornings later, Clea woke to find the wall near her bed had drawn closer, slicing off the bottom corner of her bed and one of the slippers she’d left on the floor. The remaining half of a slipper lay overturned, purple and fuzzy and looking lost.

*

“Is anyone in there?” Another flurry of knocks, and someone yelling.

Clea bit her lip, finished her coffee, and turned back toward the kitchen. Once the sun rose and the day’s diminishing was over, she needed to redistribute the remaining food around the house. She did this every day, to lessen the chance of a single diminishing taking all her supplies.

She’d realized Gaby was right. The house was still keeping them safe. Their house might be as scared as the others, but it wouldn’t abandon the four of them.

Besides, her friends had promised they’d never leave her behind.

Here she was safe. She only had to wait for the others to come and get her. They would, eventually. The house would enfold her.

Things would be easier soon.

She had so much to tell them all once they found her.

The knocking came again, fast, overlaid with a wary voice. “We figured out how to hold off the houses!”

The front door of the house burst inward, and Clea placed her hand against the nearest wall.

The sun rose, and the house diminished.


© 2022 by Devan Barlow

1700 words

Devan Barlow’s fiction has appeared in the anthologies Upon a Thrice Time and 99 Tiny Terrors, as well as in Lackington’s, Abyss & Apex, Truancy, and Daily Science Fiction. Her fantasy novel An Uncommon Curse, a story of fairy tales and musical theatre, is forthcoming. When not writing she reads voraciously, drinks tea, and thinks about fairy tales and sea monsters. She can be found at her website https://devanbarlow.com


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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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