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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

Muriel decided to be bad.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Why are you just bones, Chip?”

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

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

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

“I’m sorry,” Muriel said.

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

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

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

“Was the message all words?” Muriel asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes!”

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

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

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

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

“Listen…” Chip said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Why do you have wings?” Muriel asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

“Go away!” Muriel yelled at the noise.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A quiet trill made her jump. The lost notes!

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

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

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

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

CRASH! BOOM!

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Thanks, friend,” Chip said.

“You’re welcome,” Muriel replied.

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

*

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

“Grandma?”

“Yes, dear?”

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

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

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


© 2020 by Merc Fenn Wolfmoor

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


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MUSIC VIDEO DRILLDOWN #9: Radioactive by Imagine Dragons

written by David Steffen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

written by David Steffen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ana bellows, “I hate clothes!”

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

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

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

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

“You didn’t look.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

Ana says, “Heights are bad luck anyway.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Ana,” Daddy calls. “Stay near me.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Are you alright?”

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

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

“Daddy, no!”

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“She was your wife?”

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

“Oh, that’s terrible.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

What he needs is a win.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Daddy asks, “So you found it?”

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

“Your mother didn’t do that, Ana.”

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

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

Ana gazes up at her father with glossy eyes.

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

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

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

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

Daddy calls, “Mrs. Weiss?”

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

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

“It’s just a family short of a home.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


© 2020 by John Wiswell

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

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

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


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

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

written by David Steffen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

DP FICTION #63B: “Synner and the Rise of the Rebel Queen” by Phoebe Wagner

The Greyhood Gang created the boards to escape the guards. The Gallows Hand Gang modified the design with runes, potion washes, and badass art. The last gang, the Blacksmith Bitches, put the boards to their true purpose: rooftop raids on the rich.

It went like this. Rich folks live at the highest points in the city, up on the sea cliff and in these walled gardens that we only get let into to weed and harvest. As the city spirals downward, so does the wealth. The royals always say the gods will let the money trickle down like rainfall, but the only thing that slides down is their sewage.

The gangs have always been stealing to make meat, but usually the goods stayed in your alley. Everyone else, well, that’s the city for you. We’re not all touchy-feely neighborly like the hunters and farmers at the edge of the Woods. The boards changed that because you had to go to the Greyhoods for the best wood, the Gallows Hand for potions, and those two had to work together for the best wheels—part wood, part crystal. We made the bolts, the bearings, the mounts and the grips from thin metal shavings stuck on top.

We knew our secret wouldn’t last—playing peasant was in fash that year. A noble sees some street kid kicking flips and offers to buy the board for his son. Offers more gold than that kid ever going to have again. Then another noble’s son gets jealous, and we got servants scavenging our secrets or palace craftsman offering to purchase them.

But the three gangs said no, collectively, and began to bargain. That’s where the Bitches got the name, after the nonhuman blacksmiths’ union. A bard reported that the king called them the Blacksmith Bitches after the union appealed to him. Anyway, we bargained to be let inside. Our boardmakers would only be allowed to produce for the royal families—no stealing secrets.

But that didn’t mean we wouldn’t be stealing.

A request came next sunrise.

We entered the castle while each gangs’ best cartographer followed by rooftop and shadow-way. We felt their eyes even keener than the guards’. They’d chalk the best lines for escape. Then it was up to our master riders to make the escape happen. We would be seen, no doubt of that (the heads piked outside the wall mouthed yes), so it would come to speed and darkness.

The queen’s aide took us to the princess’s room. Us grubby gutter-gangs, standing in the towers that cast shadows over the sweaty backs of our parents, our siblings. We—the leftover kids of makers and farmers and prostitutes and cart-drivers and shit-shovelers—requested by the castle for something more than to chuck a spear or the noose.

When the aide knocked in a rappity-rap that anyone could tell was secret, the princess peeked through. A smile split that fey face. She swung open the door and stuck her fists on her hips.

“I’m ready.”

Leather trousers stuck from her fluffy skirts, and she’d bound her feet (incorrectly) in peasant wraps with the double-thick saddle soles. A silk handkerchief wrapped her windless-weaving hair from her face.

The aide fidgeted. “Princess Sydney, these are—”

“I know who they are! Everyone does!” She pointed at each of us and rattled off our names and gangs: Cyclops riding for Greyhoods, Litch riding for Gallows, and Jett riding for the Blacksmith Bitches.

We glanced at each other, the guilt worse than the Devil’s Tavern shit-stalls. We’d cracked jokes over pipes and brews about the snotty princeling who’d scream “off with their heads” the first time he cracked his bum. This kid . . . seemed better than that.

Princess Sydney waltzed into her rooms the size of a whole slum street. The aide closed the door but stood beside it.

The princess looked around our slouched, fidgeting forms, then leaned in to whisper. “Call me Syd. Only they call me that.” She rolled up her sleeve and showed a mark traced over and over with black ink, the retraced design blurring at the edge where it seeped beneath her skin, a kid’s attempted tattoo. A cross with curled horns growing from the angles. A half-orc rebel, like us, had been burned at the stake. The king, this girl’s blood, claimed the half-orc had killed a guard during a robbery. Really, we were just illegal. All the halfers. Half-elf, half-human, half-scale, whatever. Anyway, the cross and horns had become the downunder’s symbol, whether you were one-drop or pure. Being poor meant you couldn’t be pure because the gods only cursed sinners to the slums. Ha.

But this princess had a symbol hand-drawn on her arm that would get her some sort of lash, even if it was just with the tongue. We glanced at each other, then motioned her to lower her sleeve. She looked at us with a pixie grin, then her eyes flickered to the boards. She caressed the nose of Sleepeater as if the board were a famous sword.

We nodded at each other. Let’s do this.

Some of us taught Syd while her watcher settled into a chair with a book. The rest of us perused the room of the little rebel. We wondered what this would mean, if the next ruler might help us. But she was so young, so impressionable. She hadn’t seen the downunder, seen what she might one day help.  Heard of us, yes, but we were the brags told at the tavern beer-dippers and by the bards entertaining over trash fires. We were the parentless, the death-defying, the hungry-but-running, the riders of Sleepeater, Killcount, Bloodless, Firestorm, Dragonwing, famous in the downunder as the royal sword Bloodsoaked. Except that sword drank our blood, and all the other poors who sold broad shoulders for the army’s bread ration and the flour-oil money sent home once a month. Our boards, they gave something real, even if it was only hope.

Tonight would change what we could give.

Syd learned fast. Already, she could glide. Her board was sewage, but once we assembled a new one, she took to the quick turns. That pixie smile never left her face.

We wondered about it in whispers or looks when she laughed like gold coins spilling into a pool. Yeah, not cat-slit eyes, no pointed ears, no ghost-wings. But didn’t mean she would pass the one-drop test or the priests’ fervor exams. Being a princess would save her, but not the board bums that led her down such a path.

We named our boards to keep us and our friends safe. And, when we inevitably broke our necks riding the roofs (or the guards got us), someone else could pick up the board, or another just like it, and Dragonwing would still fly, Firestorm darting just ahead, grinding sparks. Sleepeater would wake the guards with silly jumps rattling their roofs and sometimes their helmets. Killcount would kill it on the biggest drops, so high all the downunder witnessed. Bloodless would never fall.

What would happen if we put a princess on a board?

Same thing that would happen to any twelve-year-old. She would fall.

She flipped her board into her hand like we always did. “I want to smoke a roof!”

We told her, not yet, little slick. She rolled her eyes when we said she needed to ollie first and hopped onto her board. One shove, and that princess proved she could get air. Still not tuned to the board, she stumbled on the landing, but rolled into her fall just like we would have taught her. Her watcher didn’t even look up from the book.

So, we made her a roof. Piling furniture against one wall, creating a few levels, a ramp. Any of us, burly street drippings that we were, would be too heavy so we couldn’t test it, but sometimes you didn’t get to test roof lines before you carved. We lined the ground with pillows and bedding. It felt good to tramp the silks and linen with our dirty grip-boots.

Syd climbed up two dressers. We’d created a drop to a long table (the legs balanced on chairs for height). The other end, a ramp went up to a bookcase. From there, she’d drop to a smaller bookcase, then another smaller one, then to another table. She’d have seconds to react. Most roofs were easier than this rickety thing.

She knew it, too, but we said if she could master this thing, then she could ride.

We helped her cast a sight line, plan each jump, catch, footstep, drop. She fell, of course. Didn’t land the first drop onto the table, the board skidding from her feet.

She climbed right back up. Again, again, again.

When king’s guard came to spear-nudge us out, she’d completed the first half but couldn’t quite figure the transition from off her board, run the ramp, then jump into the first drop.

With the guards nicking our heels, she winked. “See you soon!”

That pixie grin sent us wondering again.

We made the raid that night. Sleepeater and Dragonwing took the headline and we followed the leader, mirroring their jumps and drops. We scored big and didn’t lose a spark of gold or blood. Our favorite merchant waited on the other side of the waste grate back in the downunder, and we passed him the wares. Our stuff sold wild outside of town in the cities of living revolution. Here, found owning a piece of royalty, hands and heads went chopped.

Of course, our faces became the new guard graffiti, papering the taverns and community houses. Downunder, nobody turned us in, but we couldn’t go back to finish Syd’s lessons. Smart kid like that already knew she would get us for only a day.

*

For the next year, we kept it cool around the castle. The king outlawed boards, which made it popular as dragon scales among the nobles for a hot second. That royal score had fed plenty and the city had many other pockets of wealth. We emptied them.

Some of us fell. Dragonwing’s rider went to surf the stars with a split skull. Sleepeater landed in a net and never left the guard barracks. Killcount broke both legs dropping off a wall, but they came back even stronger with a young rider whose brother had been hanged for looking at a royal wife. Just the kind of burn Killcount needed to brave those gaps.

Once our faces had bone-bleached off the walls, we planned another castle hit: an anniversary celebration with no fear of revolution from blow because the King held a feast for the whole city. Can’t blame them—when you can eat, you eat. But we still had a chance to grind some tops.

We scored and went straight to the old sewers to cache it until the right merchant came looking for dictator-era jewels.

Except as we ramped into stink, we counted a thirteenth rider. Like us, she wore all black, a scarf around her face, a hammer-battered skull cap. She kept up on the roofs, but it was the ramp into the sewer-dark where she stuttered. Just the slightest hesitation before she pushed, like the first time skating a new roofline.

We circled up at the first turn, riding over her head on the slick stone walls. She braked and flicked her board into her hand. Jagged red spelled “Synner” on the belly.

The Y clued us, and when she tugged down her mask, that same pixie grin waited. The princess looked older. A scar curved over her jaw. Her legs had thickened with riding muscles.

You can’t be here! we told her. A princess gone missing would be assumed kidnapping and ransom, would mean the raising of the downunder, murdering the most capable to destroy another generation that maybe would have said no. She didn’t know what payment she required.

“No, no, it’s okay. I covered my tracks. My double is posing.”

Your double?

She thumbed the scar along her jaw. “I’m not princess enough for the people, according to my father. She looks the part, even if she’s just my half-bastard-sister. She hates it as much as I do. She told me it was time.” She dropped her board and stepped onto it. No longer the wobbly girl we gave lessons to, she turned fluid, riding the board like driftwood on the river. “I can’t do much up there. You can make me something else.”

We looked at each other. Dragonwing and Sleepeater ollied their acceptance immediately. They spoke for their gangs, the Greyhoods and Gallows Hands, but the rest of us wondered what one more sinner downunder could do.

We explained that we didn’t need more bodies but leaders. If she showed her face right now—might as well break our boards.

She flashed the belly of her board. “Then make it a rumor. Make me something more. When they check on me, it will just be my sister Kess. They won’t know the difference. Never have.”

We huddled up. Dragonwing and Sleepeater hadn’t changed their stance, but we wondered at the choice to gamble another young life. We took the big air each night because what else did we have to live for—rat meat and cricket grain? But this kid, she might be something.

With us, she’d just be a criminal.

Some argued we’d run more dangerous lines than this at a younger age.

Others agreed and said who were we to stop her, a bunch of halfies with scarred-up knees.

The Blacksmith Bitches held the deciding vote. They held their turn.

Show us you’re serious, we said. Prove you’ve thought it through.

She turned that pixie grin. “I was hoping you’d say that.” One shove and she parted us, clattering up the sewer ramp. Sleepeater followed, with a few Greyhood runners flanking, but the rest of us waited. We had loot to sell and mouths to feed.

The news came later, with sirens. Due to the king’s sizeable collection of mounts, his stables had been moved just outside the first level, and the shit was raked into a runoff that led straight downunder. With Sleepeater’s help, they’d carved up the barn roofs, panicking the guards and slave mounts, but Syd dropped to the gate, showed her face, sent the guard scrambling to give her the royal treatment, then vanished into the barns. Syd opened all the stalls, then Sleepeater clattered the roof, sending all the mounts rushing.

By the end of the night, the horses, griffons, dragons, wyverns, minotaurs, centaurs, and dire wolves had been absorbed into the downunder. The king’s men came with the royal pedigree papers, with lists of markings, but we did our job well. Only a handful were stolen again.

When Syd rolled into our park, still shit-stained and beast-smelling, we couldn’t help but welcome her.

Then we waited for it to get worse.

We stayed low, skated our traditional paths in the downunder, never crossed out of building’s shade or sewer’s shadow. Not until a little thing happened did we believe Syd, not until her double stood beside the king at an announcement about “schools for the children” shite. Not until we knew we had a secret on the king—his royal child had escaped.

Synner unleashed on the middle-castle dwellers and the nobles: breaking into a speciesist grocer, surfing through the upper-castle farmers’ market, thieving a child-beating blacksmith. We skated flank, let her face forward, let that board leave a trail. We tagged the hits with Synner, but one of the best paint-magickers turned out a stencil (her shadowy face bleeding into the top of her board, name on the belly), and princess propaganda went wall-to-wall.

Some worried the king would see, but some said, yes, that’s what we needed. If she wanted a true revolt, he’d know. All the downunder knew her masked face, and most suspected her heritage, so whispered the crows. Somebody would take it kingside.

So it happened. We were staying low, keeping the boards hidden, after a big hit on a shop selling slave-diamonds. The guards had chased us all the way to the sewer head before we lost them in the stench. Wild riding, we’d been drunk off it, but knew enough to relax. Breathe it all in. A week later, Synner went out with Killcount and Firestorm just to land a few tricks, grind a few gutters, so the downunderers saw us safe and laughing.

Maybe someone knifed us, maybe it was fate. The guards hit so hard the three boards were caught up in the wave. Riders went down, but the guards took Syd, of course. That’s how we knew their goal. A good rebel, she kicked her board into the fearful crowd.

A new Synner picked it up.

She held the board above her head. She screamed with half-scale metal: “To war!”

We rode the way of revolt.


© 2020 by Phoebe Wagner

Author’s Note: This story was inspired by my love of Dungeons & Dragons, skateboarding, and revolution.  In epic fantasy, the tiered city is such a staple that it seemed a waste to only ride skateboards on the streets rather than the roof tops—what a perfect ramp! Because I knew revolution would be a key aspect of this story, the first person plural voice came with the  characters. 

Phoebe Wagner holds an MFA in Creative Writing and Environment and currently pursues a PhD in literature at University of Nevada, Reno. She is the co-editor of two solarpunk anthologies: Sunvault: Stories of Solarpunk and Eco-Speculation and Almanac for the Anthropocene: A Compendium of Solarpunk Futures. When not writing, reading, or grading, you can find her kayaking the nearest river. She can be found on Twitter @pheebs_w or at phoebe-wagner.com


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MUSIC VIDEO DRILLDOWN #6: She’s My Man by Scissor Sisters

written by David Steffen

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

The film this week is She’s My Man by Scissor Sisters, about an epic and violent battle between a couple at a restaurant. Fair warning: the film does depict quite a few acts of domestic abuse. As well as the title implying a stance about gender roles that some may prefer not to delve into.

And if I had to change one thing about this film it would be the title, intentionally misgendering a woman because she is aggressive. I think it’s done for a laugh, but I did not find that funny. If I didn’t enjoy other aspects of it greatly I might not have recommended it at all.

The film starts with a couple, a man and a woman, seated across from each other at a table at a restaurant, chatting (we can’t hear what they’re saying) and enjoying each other’s company. This mood does not last long as apparently he says something that offends her, and she responds in anger, visibly shouting “What?!” with a wave of her arms. I got the impression they are no strangers to sudden fights breaking out, apparently having been together for quite some time and having come to accept them as part of the relationship.

The film is a series of escalations in this fight. She escalates the fight by throwing her napkin at him, which they are soon sending back and forth as quick as a tennis match. Soon they both escalate the fight simultaneously by both reaching for the surprisingly large knives in their table settings and dueling over the table with them. He collects all of the plates and she dares him to throw them. He does, and she dodges the first few, and catches plates in both hands, her teeth, and between her feet and throws these back at him, hitting him with every one, and she breaks another thrown plate in mid-air with a karate chop.

Although she has shown incredible physical abilities, we start to see her more supernatural powers next as she doffs her jacket and sets it flying across the room to punch her man in the throat, leaving him gasping.

The waiter comes out with new plates and she throws one of them as well and the waiter makes a heroic dive to retrieve the plat before it impact. He manages to hit her for the first time with the remaining plate, and then she really flies into a rage. When the harried waiter arrives with a new covered platter he places it and retreats before she throws that, but the man launches the platter into the air, spilling the lobster out of the platter, and makes a super-human jump to catch it and launch it at her; the claws catch her long hair and sever it at the shoulders.

One of the restaurant staff picks this unfortunate time to deliver the check and she splits him half up his torso with her bare hand, and moments later cuts the chef clean in two. Finally she delivers the coup d’etat by using her magic to compel her jacket to hold him still while her severed locks of hair strangle him until he goes limp. Once he is lying on the floor she makes a show of regret and she picks him off and carries him out of the scene while they seem to chat cordially again.

Before I get into examining the plot and themes further, I would like to mention that what made this film remarkable to me was not the plot or the themes, but the practical special effects on display here. The legs of the two characters on the screen are clever puppetry performed by black-clad puppeteers who are often entirely visible against the black background of the scene. In addition, anything thrown or moving of its own volition in the scene is also operated by puppetry. The most impressive part, in my opinion, was the man’s jump to reach the lobster–the scene takes what looks like a 90 degree camera “bullet-time” style camera rotation from horizontal to looking directly down on the scene, but as far as I can tell the camera is stationary throughout the whole film and any apparent movement is actually the set and characters being moved instead. In this case that included all of the surrounding tables being lifted off the ground by more of the puppeteers and rotated 90 degrees while the actors did their best to hold the same facial expressions and upper-body position except for the rotation. It was really quite impressive! Many of the special effects, especially the stick-thing legs, look kindof weird, but I was really impressed by it and the surreal look of it was very appealing.

As for the subject matter of the piece, it depicts a very serious subject (domestic abuse) in a light that seems like it’s meant to be aiming at humor–if that’s the intent I think it misses most of the time. While I enjoyed the film, much of that had to do with the awesome special effects, although when she cuts the kitchen staff into pieces with her bare hands and they manage to get themselves off stage under their own power that was darkly humorous. But overall it is a very hard film to recommend to people because of the “domestic abuse as humor” angle.

Somewhat tied into that, I find the title of the film makes me wonder what the filmmakers were trying to convey: “She’s My Man”. I’m not sure if they’re trying to say that she is the more “manly” of the two because of her determination, physical prowess, and aggressiveness, asserting dominance in the relationship through her abuse, in the role that stereotypes dictate is the man’s to hold, a woman holding a role defined by its toxic masculinity?

I’m not sure. But, even if it’s hard to recommend without knowing if the person I’m talking to has a history that involves domestic abuse, the practical effects in this are really extraordinary!

(Next up in the Music Drilldown series will be “Foil” by Weird Al Yankovic)

DP FICTION #63A: “Everything Important in One Cardboard Box” by Jason Kimble

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

Max found the box that fit absolutely everything when he was clearing space for Roderick to move in. They had agreed he’d pare down to a single bookshelf, so he drove by the local rental place and bought a half dozen boxes.

By the end of the first round, he’d cleared half of one bookshelf. There were still three and a half more he’d committed to losing. He had enough to start filling boxes, though, and he could use a mental break from the triage.

Max knelt on the super shag and sorted. Hardcovers he only ever bought from the remainder bin by the register. That’s where he met Roderick.

Remaindered just means something big and fancy got overhyped and under-delivered.” Somehow Roderick made derision feel exotic. Enticing.

“Or the people who love it couldn’t cover the cost?” Max said. He felt pinned under the amber of Roderick’s gaze. He didn’t know yet that Roderick’s eyebrows didn’t have a high natural arch, that he was just always judging you.

Roderick shrugged wide shoulders sheathed in stretch cotton.

“I say if you value it, you find a way to pay what it’s worth.” As Roderick’s knuckles brushed the back of Max’s hand, he felt worth more than he had in a long time.

Max stacked the hardcovers — biggest on the bottom — in the box. He could have sworn that alone should fill it, but there was at least half a box empty, so he must have been wrong. Wouldn’t be the first time.

It took one coffee, two drinks, and one dinner date for Max to give up on the remainder bin. If he couldn’t afford the price, he didn’t want it enough, now did he? Roderick wasn’t fond of the oversized trade paperbacks that took their place.

“They’re all over the place.” His corded forearms wrapped around Max from behind. “I mean, they’re a mess, all different heights and widths and what’s the point of a book shelf if it looks like a junk drawer? It should be precise. Crisp and clean.”

Crisp and clean. Like Roderick. Even when he was trying the scruffy look, he trimmed his stubble every morning to the perfect length for defining his jawline. Max didn’t mind the rug burn he got when they kissed, because kissing, and the rash on his shoulder, reminded him where Roderick rested his chin, the way the bruises on his upper arms reminded him of Roderick’s strong hands.

“Artistic integrity?” Max offered. “This was the way they wanted to present them, so—”

Roderick shook his head.

“Everybody’s got a vision,” he said. “A visionary shapes the world instead of letting everyone else do it for him.”

The trades were a more challenging puzzle to pack, but Max eventually found himself satisfied that he’d not wasted any space in the matrix he shaped atop the hardcovers.

Still half a box to fill. And he’d been so certain this time.

The low-end paperbacks had been in milk crates to begin with.

“If you’re going to keep them, you gotta show off what you have.” Roderick was naked, idly sorting through the crate. His sweat smelled like warm cinnamon and chamomile. Max never smelled like that when he tried Roderick’s cologne. Then again, he always washed it off right after because Roderick hated people touching his stuff.

Roderick’s brows arched past their usual curve, which meant he was judging extra hard.

“These don’t even have front covers,” he said.

“That means they’re well-loved,” Max said, wrapping his arms around Roderick’s bicep and snuggling in.

“It means they’re out of shape and ugly,” Roderick said. Max pulled the sheet up over his belly.  “Or stolen,” Roderick continued, leaning onto Max. He was solid and heavy, but Max found the weight of him comforting. “You know that scam, don’t you? Bookseller tears off the cover for a return and gets a full refund. They’re supposed to get rid of what’s left, but they keep it, the greedy little shits, and sell it ‘used’ to some guy thinks he’s getting a bargain. But I guess if you have them on a shelf, no one can tell since the spine’s intact.”

Max bought the shelves the next day.

The paperbacks slid off the oak (Roderick never would have let him live down pressboard) as well as they had slid on. Max set them in the box, spines up, in an effort to save space. But when all that was done, the paperbacks still didn’t fill anything. Well-creased titles stared up from the bottom of the box. Just as more books did when he cleared another row. And, emboldened, two more. Max picked up the box, which had heft but nothing close to an entire bookshelf’s worth.

He smiled and started tossing books in at random. He kept out his treasured LeGuin and Butler, since after Max’s fangasming, Roderick would notice if they disappeared. Otherwise, he stopped worrying about what went in the box, because it all fit. When he was done, he scrawled his name on the side.

He went to shove the box into the back of his closet, but the floor was already covered with unpaired shoes and old t-shirts and a bin of ratty notebooks, all thrown in the dark when Roderick turned up his beautiful Roman nose at them. Max opened the box and dumped everything in, then slid the cardboard home. That night, Roderick practically swooned.

“I thought we’d be fighting about this for weeks,” Roderick said. Roderick was a big proponent of moving forward. Evolving. Never live in the past, he liked to say.

Max shrugged and smiled and took advantage of Roderick’s alacrity to get him to wear his chaps when they had sex.

The other boxes he’d bought from the rental company didn’t seem to work the same way, so Max exercised their no-questions return policy and got his money back.

Max never told Roderick about the box. Not when Max agreed to clear his old Robot Army toys from the wall shelves so Roderick could use the space for his orchids. Or when they got a plasma screen after Max … lost his balance … during a discussion and cracked the screen on his old tube television. Definitely he didn’t mention it when Roderick insisted a few tiny blood drops from Max’s split lip meant they should replace the quilt his grandmother made.

Expired medication. Cosplay that didn’t fit anymore. The 10,000 piece jigsaw puzzle of Ani-Han Hero Team. Boxed.

The apartment was clean and bright and organized and unblemished the way that kept Roderick content, and Max didn’t stress losing anything because it was all in the box in the back of the closet if he ever needed it.

Max blamed himself for not realizing that, when everything Max had that Roderick didn’t like was finally in the box, the only thing left for Roderick to consider was Max. Cut as Roderick was, Max was never cut enough. He couldn’t box himself, though, and much as he tried, he couldn’t change himself enough to make Roderick happy living with him.

There was more room in the bathroom after that, without the extra gauze and butterfly bandages and the concealer Roderick helped him find that smoothed everything out so you almost didn’t notice bruises, even up close. Max packed away Roderick’s detritus so he wouldn’t have to remember. He couldn’t bring himself to throw any of that away, but he didn’t want to see it anymore. Never live in the past might be a good philosophy, after all.

In the end, it seemed better to move than to stay where he was; he couldn’t seem to pack enough away to really, finally forget Roderick.

Part of Max wished he could pack the whole apartment in the box, so he could pull it back out and live in it again when he was ready. Every roleplay system told you, though, that you couldn’t pack a space inside a space. That was just madness.

There was still plenty to take, and the box held it all. Max had to be a touch more strategic this time. He didn’t want to unpack everything all at once, so he made sure that the main cookware and a few dishes and his toiletries and work clothes were on the top, over everything else. He worried for a moment what might happen if his cologne leaked in transit, but the cardboard seemed to hold scents as well as it did everything else. Had a decent vapor barrier, to boot, so he could take his time washing whatever might need washing on the other side.

Unfortunately, Max wasn’t quite as good at strategic packing as he thought. Once his clothes were out at the new place, he realized he needed the steamer. When everything had been on hangers, and without Roderick to cock his head and ask if it was really good enough, Max hadn’t used the steamer much. Between the folding and the odds and ends piled on top of his clothes, though, even Max noticed how unsightly things were.

Max knew he’d packed it. He’d packed everything. It’s just that he was also certain it was one of the first things he’d thrown in. So much for not everything at once.

Out came the clothes that might fit when Max finally went back to the gym and the bullet blender he was planning to start using and the never-opened sliders he’d intended to attach to the couch feet at the old place for the hardwood. Max hefted the stack of not-all-expired coupons and lobbed a half-empty sunscreen onto the stack of ratty beach towels.

His keys fell into the box as Max’s hand wrapped around the steamer’s handle, because of course they did. They clattered through the layer of baby gates bought for a dog he never brought home. Max swore.

He’d been planning to make copies tomorrow. Max didn’t want to dig any further, but he figured it was a better option than going to the landlord. She’d already given him the side-eye when he showed up with just the one box and some stray furniture. It didn’t sting nearly as badly as Roderick’s disapproval. Still, Max decided to pull out the gates, grab the keys, then slide the gates back into the box and be done for the night.

Except moving the gates shifted the decorative boxes the keys had landed on. Another jangle. Another thing to pull out. And again, when his old cookware that lost its Teflon slid and scooped and dumped the keys down yet further. He tossed aside the curtains with the broken cords. Started yanking things out faster so he could be done with it, but then he was knee deep in winter scarves, sifting after the muffled clink of metal.

They were Roderick’s scarves. Roderick loved scarves. He wrapped his neck in stripes and chevrons and houndstooth and even one with polka dots. Winter opened up a long, woolen set of new decorative options for the world, so Roderick always welcomed the snow. Max rolled each one neatly again and laid them outside the box. The last — a black one with a single, thin pink stripe — he used to borrow from Roderick when he wanted to cover his own neck. It had wriggled one end deeper into the morass. Max had to pull much harder to free it. He worried that the wool wouldn’t come back from the stretching, but as it slipped loose, a flash of metal caught his eye. He looped the scarf around his neck and forgot about worrying.

Max pushed aside the boxer briefs, steadfastly trying not to think about how well they fit Roderick. He tossed aside the chaps. Roderick had only worn them three times since he bought them for him, anyway.

The keys kept eluding him. Max pulled out his phone and tapped the flashlight on as he sifted past every patterned sock in as many color combinations as Roderick had been able to find. Grabbed handfuls of dried Valentine’s Day and anniversary bouquets. Flipped over the frames with pictures of them together. The first time Max went skiing, when he learned how to fall instead of crash. The beach, where Roderick always took on an enviable bronze and smelled like coconut and Max prayed he wouldn’t himself turn into a lobster because every hit hurt worse on a burn.

Max couldn’t tell now if the metal sound was frame or keys as he clattered past pictures of Roderick’s nephew and sisters and the time his mom visited. Accidentally crushed one of the bulbs on the wreath Roderick’s aunt sent him last Christmas. So much stuff, all of it sliding and tilting the wrong way every time Max got close. Until he found the watch.

The third anniversary is supposed to be leather, but given how uninspiring Roderick found the chaps, Max bought a watch. It was a classic windup, the not-kid-stuff kind of retro Roderick could enjoy. The band was the leather bit: custom cut and tanned, hand-stitched. Max had paid extra to get M + R burned into the strap.

The spring wound down long ago. Now, the band was loose. The box did well to keep out moisture, so Roderick was relatively preserved, but time ravaged a body even inside a dry box, it seemed. Roderick’s skin had taken on a sallow tone that made it hard to see the bruises on his neck, but Max could still make out where he’d wrapped the curtain cords. When Roderick’s strong hands throttled him. When the price lurking in the dark sluicing in from the edges of Max’s vision had been a price he wouldn’t pay.

The key ring was hooked on Roderick’s bony thumb. Max picked it up gingerly, afraid to break off a digit. He wasn’t sure he knew how to mask a break on someone else.

Something about the atrophy made Roderick look colder, even wearing that soft sweater Max wanted to lay down and snuggle against. Max took off the scarf he’d draped on himself earlier. Gently wrapped the slightly-stretched black wool with the thin pink stripe around the saggy skin at Roderick’s neck. It covered Roderick’s bruises as well as it had Max’s.

Max cupped Roderick’s cheek in one hand, kissed him on the forehead, and climbed back out of the box. Holiday decorations and picture frames and socks and scarves and underwear and the broken curtains all fit back in the box where they belonged. Where they would always be at hand if Max needed them.

He closed the lid and carried the box upstairs. Slid it in the back of his new closet like he’d had it in the old one. Out of sight was almost like out of mind. One step away. Eventually Max would be ready to move on completely, he was sure.

Not quite yet, though. For now, he thought it best if he steamed the wrinkles from his outfit for work in the morning and called it good. Roderick never could stand to see Max wrinkled.


© 2020 by Jason Kimble

Jason Kimble left the tornadoes of Michigan for the hurricanes of Florida, because spinning air is better when it’s warm. He lives there with his finally-legal husband. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Cast of Wonders, Escape Pod, and Speculative Masculinities. You can find more of his nattering at processwonk.wordpress.com or by following @jkasonetc on Twitter.


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DP FICTION #62B: “On You and Your Husband’s Appointment at the Reverse-Crematorium” by Bill Ferris

You place the urn carefully onto the examination table. The doctor opens the lid, takes a peek inside, sniffs a little. He nods, like he’s evaluating a new blend of coffee, then dumps half of your husband’s cremains into a big metal mixing bowl, the kind they had in the restaurant kitchen you used to work at. He uses a large copper whisk to mix in a bottle of purified water.

Your eyes scan the renovated warehouse where the doctor has set up shop, which doubles as a Pilates studio at night. You ask how many times he’s done this before.

The doctor stops whisking and cracks open a soda can. He says he’s performed this procedure literally dozens of times. Several droplets of Diet Mountain Dew splash into the mixing bowl, but the doctor appears unconcerned. You look for reassurance in the form of laboratory equipment, all of which looks state of the art, judging by the assortment of alembics, vials, and tubes on his table, and the size of the 3D printer, which has been whirring since you arrived, churning out a neon-orange human skull. (The Pontius Pilates T-shirts sold at the front desk also appear to be tastefully designed and a flattering fit.) The doctor resumes whisking, mixing in three cups of plaster of Paris and most of an already-open box of baking soda from the break-room refrigerator. He adds the last of the cremains to the cremixture. With each stroke of the whisk he counts aloud, thirty-eight, thirty-nine, forty. You don’t want to over-beat the batter, he says.

The 3D printer stops, and the doctor remarks on its perfect timing. The skull is the last piece of your husband’s new skeleton. He picks up the skull and examines it like Hamlet pitying Yorick. Think fast, he commands, tossing you the skull. You drop your keys to the table as you grab for the plastic skull. You bobble it, but manage to clamp your hands around it before it hits the floor. The doctor laughs—what fun! You nod as your blood pressure de-escalates out of hypertension. You carefully hand your husband’s skull back to him as he makes the “gimmie-gimmie” gesture. He then wheels a gurney out from behind a curtain, upon which rests a plastic skeleton rendered in lemon yellow, except for the collarbone and left shoulder blade. He had run out of the yellow resin, the doctor says, and used the next closest color to finish up. The hues clash, but God willing, you’ll never see your husband’s candy-corn-colored skeleton again anyway.

He jams the skull onto the spine in a manner resembling, both in physical strain and amount of cursing, the time your husband replaced the front axle of the Hyundai. A loud click makes you think his plastic spine has snapped, but the rapidity with which the doctor extends his hand toward you for a fist bump suggests the skeleton is officially ship-shape.

The doctor startles, realizing he almost forgot an important step. It’s the third important step he’s almost forgotten, but who’s counting? You hand him the Samsung Galaxy Note 7 smartphone that will serve as your husband’s new brain, which will regulate all bodily systems, including the Briggs and Stratton lawnmower engine that will be his new heart. You were up all night loading photos of you and your husband, the honeymoon, the house, Max the doggo, and your vacation to Colorado that one time into the special Dropbox folder labeled “FRIENDLY_FILE.” You also sprung for Spotify Premium and loaded it with playlists of his favorite songs. And for good measure, you pirated Seasons 1-5 of Game of Thrones. The doctor snaps the brain into place, plugging the USB cable into the complex system of wires that snakes through and around the skeleton. Several times he pauses and rewinds a YouTube tutorial on how to wire a drone helicopter to make sure he’s got things right. The doctor sees you looking and reassures you that he’s done this literally dozens of times.

Now it’s time to add the chicken wire. Wrapping it around the bones like he’s taping a sprained ankle, he explains the wire mesh gives the new flesh something to grab onto, like patching a hole in drywall. Most importantly, it functions as a cage for the skeleton. Did you know we’ve all got a spooky skeleton trapped inside us that wants to escape? You point out that this skeleton is plastic. The doctor shakes his head–a well-made skeleton knows it’s a skeleton, ready to burst out of at the first sign of weakness. You can find no fault in his logic; they can do amazing things with 3D printers these days.

The doctor secures the chicken wire with a bag of zip ties from Home Depot. He then grabs a drywall knife and scoops a big pile of the cremains mixture onto the wire-encased right shin. He mentions his patent-pending skin formula is completely full-moon proof. You ask what happens on a full moon. The doctor beams—NOTHING, thanks to his secret formula! His hunched-over posture of concentration reminds you of the tattoo artist when you and hubby got matching pinup girls with the word “LOVE” inscribed underneath. The doctor draws several occult-looking symbols onto your husband’s chest with a chopstick you’re not sure is unused. You decide not to remind him of his promise to re-create the tattoo.

By the by, the doctor wants to know how your husband will be spending his time once he comes back to life. There’s lots of red tape about reasons for reanimating a loved one. For instance, valid reasons include appearing as a surprise witness at a murder trial, spending one last Christmas with the fam, or firing their loathsome successor at the family business. Activities such as acting as a human shield, digging their own grave, or being the patsy in an elaborate jewel heist are strictly verboten (though for jewel heists, the role of “the brains of the outfit” is acceptable). You respond that your husband is dead, isn’t that reason enough? You miss the conversations, the cuddles, the creature comforts of living with your best friend. You can’t cope with your husband’s death without him, and yes, you know how crazy that sounds. The doctor nods—moving on is a lot harder for the living than the dead.

The doctor positions several oscillating fans next to your husband, and invites you to join him outside for a smoke while the new flesh dries. You confide to the doctor that you feel like you should stay there with your once-and-future husband, but part of you doesn’t want to be alone with this mound of corpse batter. He says that’s a perfectly natural response. Also, could he bum a smoke from you?

The mixture has dried, and the doctor tells you—and these are his words—it’s time to turn and burn, baby. Or perhaps he was talking to your husband, and you’re not sure which makes you more uncomfortable. He grabs a series of electrodes connected to a thing, licking each one like it’s a postage stamp, and attaches them to your husband’s new flesh. The doctor dons a pair of heavy rubber gloves, a welding mask, and a lead vest. He then hands you a pair of safety glasses you wouldn’t trust if you were making a homemade birdhouse. When he tells you to stand back, you backpedal behind a reinforced shield wall at a velocity that will leave your muscles sore for two days.

Before he throws the master switch—one of those oversized red buttons labeled “easy” they sell at Staples for six bucks—the doctor rattles off the safety concerns you’d already learned from his website, but which he’s required by law to mention again. For example, your husband will go out looking for those responsible for his death. You reply that he was killed in an unsolved hit-and-run accident. The doctor winks and points at your husband. He knows who did it. Oh-ho-ho-ho, he knows.

The doctor asks if you have pets. You mention your corgi, Max, whom the doctor advises you to give away. When you protest, the doctor purses his lips and puts a hand on your shoulder. In his gentlest voice he tells you that, two weeks from now, one way or another, the dog won’t be living with you. This information was not on the website, and you mention, rather forcefully, that Max had been your husband’s dog and without him you couldn’t have held it together, and it would’ve been good to know he couldn’t stay before you started this process. The doctor thanks you for this constructive criticism. You ask the doctor if anybody loves him enough to reanimate him after you strangle him to death. He laughs and says yes, his credit card company. You don’t know what to say to that.

The doctor asks if you have any final questions. Just one, the one you’ve been dreading, the one about which the website was very vague—will your husband still be capable of love? The doctor’s face contorts to one of revulsion as he tells you no. You only meant to ask whether your husband could still feel love as an emotion. He chuckles, relieved, saying the answer to that is also no. All his favorite sports teams? Hubby hates them now. He will harbor a deep, unspoken resentment toward all living creatures, and you especially. Maybe it’s because you disturbed his rest, or you dragged him away from Heaven, or who knows what. Your husband won’t really know, either. He’ll probably lash out at you. He might say something passive-aggressive while watching TV. He may lift the car over his head and hurl it at you. He might start a petty argument for no good reason. This is all perfectly normal and expected. While you will be legally responsible for him, he still has his own will and desires, and he’ll want more out of his new life than reliving his old one; the dead are, by necessity, better at moving on than the living.

The doctor asks if you still want to go through with this. His face shows none of the mirth he’d exhibited up to that point. You pause, contemplating how easily you could tell your friends the doctor turned out to be a flake. You could walk away and keep your dog with nothing lost but your deposit. Well, that and the idea of seeing your beloved’s face again. And he would still be your beloved, no matter what the doctor said. You give the final okay.

The doctor presses the button. You’re half-expecting lightning to course into your husband’s new body, for him to let out a monstrous growl as raw animal life surges into the waiting vessel. What actually happens is much less dramatic, more like a vibrating massage chair; you hear the muffled ringtone of your husband’s Samsung brain, like when your iPhone slides between the couch cushions.

It takes a minute or so for your husband to boot up. The skin starts to move, then all at once, it sucks inward like a vacuum sealer, forming the contours of your husband’s face.

He rises. The doctor had warned you about the eerie red light that now pours from your husband’s empty eye sockets, but you can’t really prepare yourself for the first time you see a living, breathing monster. The doctor corrects you—the scientific term is “abomination before God,” which his lawyer has assured him is very different, legally speaking.

Your husband looks at you. You go weak in the knees—his loving gaze always made your knees weak, but this is different. He opens his mouth, and the light pours forth from there as well. Oh, God, it’s weird. His voice sounds delayed, like he’s speaking to you via satellite from somewhere far, far away. OH HEY. I MUST’VE. DRIFTED OFF FOR A. BIT. But at bottom, it’s his voice, and you throw your arms around him. He freezes. The light inside him intensifies, redder and redder, so bright you can hear it. He puts his arms around you. For a moment, you think (hope?) he might crush you, but he does not. He pats you on the back a couple times.

Tears overflow from your eyes. You want to kiss him, but you don’t dare, lest that red light enter your body. You just tell him how much you love him and how you’ve missed him and you can’t believe he’s back, and so on.

The terrible red light now glows through his flesh. DID YOU. WATCH GAME. OF THRONES WITHOUT. ME?

You shake your head and wipe the tears away. You were waiting for him.

He shrugs and the light subsides. WHATEVER YOU. WANT, BABE.

You scoff at the doctor’s notion that the dead are better at moving on than the living: you’ve moved on from the very concept of moving on. You forget about the life you may have had as a family of one. You forget about the dog, for what living creature can compete with nostalgia in (mostly) human form? You can sit on the couch with your sweetie again, or a reasonable approximation thereof. The doctor was right, it’s the little creature comforts that make life worth living, as long as you don’t think about it too hard.

During your reverie, your husband had started to strangle the doctor. You put your hand on your husband’s shoulder, and at your touch he releases his grip. The doctor gives you a thumbs-up to show he’s okay, this happens all the time.

You smile at your husband. It’s time to go home.


© 2020 by Bill Ferris

Bill Ferris writes mysteries, fantasy, science fiction, and horror. He has published several short stories in literary journals, and writes an advice column at Writer Unboxed designed to help dilettantes and hacks learn nothing whatsoever. When he’s not typing words into a thing, Bill develops online courses at an organization his lawyer advised him not to name. He has two sons who asked not to be mentioned in this bio, but Elliott and Wyatt forgot to say “please.”


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DP FICTION #62A: “A Promise of Dying Embers” by Jordan Kurella

It is a long way down to the sea. A long way down, and treacherous. But I must make this journey today from my uncle’s castle, carrying his bones. I must make this journey, both for my uncle’s bargain, and for my own.

The way starts in the morning, when the frost’s sheen at the top of the mountain wants to blind me. This is the first obstacle of the day, to avoid the harsh winter sun as it shines against the rocks and the meagre grasses that dare peek out in my uncle’s deadlands. A place where I am one of the last living things.

One of the last living things still holding on.

I cradle his bones in my right arm, as my left one is the one that will need to hold the rope. The rope, this high on the mountain pass, which is now slick with frost and will become wet under my warm, living hand. The frost will fall off the rope as the seasons change down the mountain, as it will become warmer later.

The Mountain of Three Seasons carries its intent in its name.

I carry no weapon with me. I wear no armor. This is important, both for my task and for my uncle’s promise. I know I will find weapons later, down by the sea, in the cave that I seek. I know that armor has collected there, and gold, and bones.

And a dragon.

Or what is left of one.

The mountain path is narrow and sheer. The winds whip and whisper my death down below. They promise me things. They promise me, “Itta, no more loneliness.” “Itta, no more pain.” But I know these are lies. I know how my uncle lived.

I know that his pain did not end upon his first death.

So the wind’s whispering and promises go ignored as I travel down, down, down the mountain pass. I grip tight to the rope, grip tight to my uncle’s bones; my chill visible, my breath visible. Then less visible. Now invisible.

As I am now in spring.

*

It was spring when I came to live with my uncle, some ten years ago. I came from the lowlands. From the burned lands. From lands which will now be forever warm. Because dragon fire upturns not only treasure, but family.

My uncle welcomed me into his castle with a hand so cold, I thought I would never be warm again. His touch was like anticipation—it made my heart flutter, made my eyes grow wide with wonder. My eyes that took in his tapestries on every wall. Tapestries of unicorns and of knights and of dragons that hung so thick they made my boots whisper on the stone.

But I did not whisper. I turned to him, precocious as I was, a girl of seven. I turned to him and I asked, “Uncle, why is your hand like ice?”

“I am a ghost, my dear Itta,” he said. “I have been a ghost for many years.”

I was too young to be shocked by such things then. Too small to think the answer odd.

“How did you die?” I asked.

“Magic,” he said. “And I am kept here by magic, magic that I will teach you, and magic that you will help me do. Would you like that, my dear girl?”

Again, too young to disagree, I nodded. “I would, Uncle. Yes please.”

A young girl wants only to please her elders, after all.

What he taught me was how to read from books whose pages smelled sweet and were fragile in my fingers. Books that held stories of dragons, and the fighting of them. Then stories of old mages, and how they fought dragons, and then stories of powerful maidens and their own battles with the beasts.

Some three years later, I brought eggs to a boil for my supper.

“Would you like to kill a dragon, my dear Itta?” my uncle asked.

“Am I going to learn to kill a dragon, Uncle?” I asked back.

“Yes, my dear,” he said. “That is exactly the reason you are here.”

*

The reason I am here is to travel down the mountain, as the rope becomes wet, simply wet beneath my fingers, now that winter has gone. The reason I am here is to deliver my uncle’s bones to that cave by the sea; the cave holding such treasure, but I do not want this treasure. I want the dragon who keeps it.

I travel to this cave as the sheer pass tries to show me other promises. Crocuses here. Forget-me-nots there. Three daisies clinging to a rock, what a pretty thing they would be as a crown on someone’s head.

But this thought is a trap.

I seek no crown.

The daisies whisper to me. “Itta, Itta,” the daisies say. “Come, come and take me. Place the bones here. Surely they are too heavy a burden. Surely they are too heavy for you.”

This is another trick of the mountain pass. To unbalance me, to make me forget my promise to my uncle, to forget my task. Forget all it is I am meant to do. Without this task, I have no future—only my past. Only what I was.

So I say nothing to the daisies; I ignore their request. The path stretches longer and thinner out in front of me, and I must go. I hold fast to the rope as I look ahead. Look ahead into summer, where I will wander into tall grasses. Where I will follow the grasses as they lead to the sea, clutching my uncle’s bones tight to my chest. Hold them with my sword arm, my fighting arm, now holding my uncle close.

As I have every day since his death.

Every day since I refused to bury him.

I walk into summer, and pass through the tall grasses whose seeds tickle my nose, tickle my skin. My body writhes and twitches, but I do not drop what I carry. I cannot. I carry too precious a thing. I understand that.

I understand that all too well.

“Itta,” the grasses say, “lay down here with us. Stay a while. Look up at the bright beautiful sun. Let it warm you.”

But I do not. I will have a lifetime to look at the sun. I will have a lifetime to remember the feel of warmth upon me.

*

The days were warm when I learned the name of the dragon I was meant to kill. She was called Nomathstep and she kept a cave by the sea. A cave filled with the bones of wizards and knights, with their swords and their staves, with gold stolen from the villages she burned. Soon, after that meal of eggs and that talk of dragons, my reading went from stories of maidens killing dragons, to books on the anatomy of dragons, mages’ treatises on what sort of magic to use on a dragon, and, finally, what sort of sword a girl like me should wield.

For seven years, I knew I was to learn to kill a dragon. So every day, for seven years, I took a sword in my hand to practice what I’d read. I practiced against air. I practiced against tapestries of dragons. I practiced with visions of the stories of Nomathstep. Stories of her fire, of her fury, of her golden eyes. All this time, I caught my uncle watching me from his spellrooms. Rooms I was not permitted to enter. Rooms that felt like anticipation; simply being near them made my heart flutter, made my breath catch.

In all that time, in all that training. I never learned a single spell. Still, I kept my uncle’s castle clean, kept myself fed with eggs and chicken and wild onions. I never saw another person my age, never saw another person at all. But the stories, they continued to arrive. Through my uncle, through the books left in my own rooms.

And each night, like every night, my uncle asked me, “Are you ready yet to kill a dragon?”

And each night, after training, after chores, I answered, “Perhaps tomorrow.”

And then my uncle said, “Then tomorrow, I will teach you magic.”

But he never did.

Because.

Because my uncle was in love with Nomathstep; he did not want her to die.

I knew this in the way my uncle spoke of the dragon. In the way he spoke of her beautiful red scales, of her fathomless golden eyes. He often muttered about her in his spellrooms late at night when he thought I was not listening from my own room below. The castle crags were deep and no longer good for keeping secrets. My uncle muttered about her voice, how it was like to singing. He muttered about the feel of her scales under his hand, smooth, and silky, and warm.

I knew by all these utterances that he was in love with her.

I knew then what I had to do.

One day. Because love is greater than revenge.

*

Today I am walking to a cave by the sea. I have walked down the Mountain of Three Seasons, and now I must cross the sands under the hot, hot sun. The heat scorches my tongue and my throat. My hair, once drawn up away from my face, has fallen limp against my cheeks. Sweat trickles down my arms, down my back, pools in my boots. But I have not felt the heat I seek yet. I know this.

I know the real heat is yet to come.

I clutch my uncle’s bones close, my sword arm easily bearing the weight. But my sword arm aches for something else. For that sense of anticipation, for the chill of my uncle’s ghost when he stood near me. That ache will not leave, wherever I go. Whether in my uncle’s deadlands, or wherever my future takes me.

But this I know, with my promise to him and the one I make today, my uncle’s days of heartbreak are over. His longing. His curse. His sense of betrayal. The curse remained only until final death. And now that day has passed. And now his pain has ended.

The sands climb up to meet me, dunes rising higher and higher on the way to Nomathstep’s cave. This is what one does for love, so the stories say. They traverse the impossible, they ignore the lies and promises of others, walking toward the one they know is true. The one they know is their heart. Even when that heart is dying.

Even when that heart was pierced long ago.

My legs tremble like the tall grasses of the mountain’s summer. My lips shake like the winds of the mountain’s winter. But I carry on, on toward Nomathstep’s cave for the promise, the promise I made to myself, on the day I found my uncle gone. The cave mouth beckoning closer, ever closer to Nomathstep’s home.

*

The cave was where Nomathstep killed my uncle after an accord. The two of them had reached an impasse: that neither of them could continue to go on dragoning and wizarding as they had been, without further harm to the general nature of dragons or wizards. At the time, both of them had beating hearts, both of them spoke with heated words.

Nomathstep asked my uncle, “Is it in your nature to simply kill a thing for being what it is?”

And my uncle asked her back, “Is it in your nature to bargain?”

They spent two weeks in Nomathstep’s cave, talking, discussing, sharing food. They spent two weeks among the bones of those that meant to slay her, clad in their armor and robes, swords cast aside, gold and jewels piled high below them. My uncle remained, alive… for a time.

In the meantime, the villages went unlooted and unburnt. In the meantime, my uncle’s work went undone and untended. However, the two of them reached a different accord. They grew closer, far closer. So close that my uncle wrapped himself underneath Nomathstep’s great wing, and she held him gently in the crook of her claws.

They stayed like this for days, for many days, until my uncle finally said, “I will have to kill you, you understand.”

“And I, you,” Nomathstep said back. “And then will you leave me alone?”

“Of course,” my uncle said. “But I will kill you first.”

But as he tried to stand, as he tried to gather his staff, Nomathstep was faster, closer.

She went first.

She cursed my uncle to a death of loneliness on top of the Mountain of Three Seasons. And then, as the story goes, she pierced his heart with a burning claw, the same one that had held him close. The same one that had cradled him so gently. He died then and there, forever and forever banished to the castle on top of the mountain. To a death of loneliness —for many, many years.

Until I arrived.

The stories say that Nomathstep herself died of a broken heart some months later. That she’d refused to leave from her cave, refused to eat or to drink. Refused to pillage or to burn a single thing.

She went against her dragon’s nature.

And a dragon going against her nature dies.

*

Nomathstep is still dead when I arrive at her cave and she stirs. She opens one dead golden eye, no longer brilliant, no longer shining. Her red scales are shedding, coated in a film of salt, claws dulled and pitted, heart no longer able to warm the cave. She is blinking at the sunlight off the sea as I stand against it. And when she sees me, she rises to her full, terrifying height.

She fills the mouth of the cave, her yellowed, broken teeth baring down at me. Her dead eyes narrowed. A bellows of breath upon my face.

And she says, “Who dares disturb my last dying days?”

Oh, and I do tremble. I tremble as I hold my uncle’s bones in front of me. I do tremble in my lack of armor, with my lack of a sword.

“I am Itta,” I say. “Of the Mountain of Three Seasons. I bring you the bones of the wizard who lived there, who died there.”

Nomathstep takes a step back, her chest rattling with the effort of her undeath. She lowers her snout to me, sniffing me. My heart is so afraid, it tries to escape through my fingers, my throat, my stomach. The heartbeat is so strong, it rattles me, shakes me.

“You smell like him,” she says. “Like anticipation.”

Now her voice is like singing, melodious and mournful, as she lays down upon her pile of treasure. She lifts a wing, her lips cracking into a smile. She beckons me with to her a claw, her dead golden eyes kinder now, gentler now.

“Come, Itta of the Mountain,” Nomathstep says. “Bring my love to me and rest a while, so that we may remember him.”

The cave smells like dust and memory, like hot metal and decay. I settle down onto pile of old robes as she holds me in the crook of her claw, as she folds a flaking wing over me. I lean into the cooling embers of her heart. I know now that Nomathstep is truly dying, I know it by the rattle of her sigh as she holds my uncle’s bones between us.

*

My uncle’s bones are two of his femurs, six fingers, and what remains of his skull. I found them myself, found them one morning when I arrived in the kitchen to make tea. I found the bones resting on the table, at the place he always sat waiting for me. Waiting to ask if I was ready yet today to kill a dragon, and I would answer every day: perhaps tomorrow.

Every night, I would hear his heartbreak from his spellrooms.

My uncle was truly dead; ghosts born of heartbreak only live so long.

This I have learned, in all my reading, in all the books that smelled of sweet or leather. In all the books that felt like velvet or Nomathstep’s scales in my hands. But what I did not learn, in all my books, was how to grieve for a ghost. Was how to take what remained of my uncle and cry for him, to do what he would have wanted.

To do what I would have wanted.

So I took the skull and the femurs and the six fingers. I wrapped them in a small dragon tapestry. I tied them neatly with twine. I refused to bury my uncle. I could not. As lonely as my uncle’s deadlands had always been, I was not ready to be alone.

My uncle had spoken often of the path down the Mountain of Three Seasons. The winds that whispered death, the tricks the flowers played, the promises of the grasses. And finally, the death of the sun. He said he tried to follow the path several times, but he could not make the journey himself.

I spent fourteen days in my uncle’s deadlands, carrying his bones. Fourteen days of loneliness, fourteen days of chicken and eggs and wild onions. All these days with no conversation, with my heart pierced over and over in my chest. All these days, I knew I had to walk the path myself. That I had to take my uncle’s bones to the dragon that he loved. To Nomathstep.

I had to end the curse.

This was my promise.

I had to end the curse and begin my own life. To save Nomathstep from her own heartbreak, to return the bones of the one she loved. I must save myself from the same, from heartbreak. I must cease cleaning an empty castle, one no longer haunted. Cease haunting the castle myself with my own wails and moans. A new life for me would not begin until I left my uncle’s deadlands; it would not begin until I put his bones to rest.

Until I saved another from his fate.

Saved both of us.

*

Both of us spend the afternoon watching the sun it passed into evening, then into night. Once darkness falls, Nomathstep stirs. Her wing cracks and shakes as it pulls away from me; her heart no colder than it was some hours ago. When she speaks, her voice is that same mournful song, but her breath is no longer that bellows. It is a kind heat, a summer wind.

“You are a good girl, Itta,” Nomathstep says. “You are a very good girl.”

“I know,” I say.

“You would make a terrible wizard.”

“I know this, too,” I say.

“But you will make a dragon very happy one day,” she says.

“Maybe,” I say.

“You will.” Nomathstep smiles then. She stands and reaches out with one of her dull and pitted claws. “I will take what is mine: the man I love. You will take what is yours: this cave.”

I offer her the tapestry, the tapestry containing what remains of my uncle. She takes it and holds it in her claws with the kind of gentleness as I have only imagined in books, in stories. The very sight of it makes my heart sting with tears.

“You will make a dragon very happy one day,” she says. “But only the right one.”

And then Nomathstep, love of my uncle’s life, terror of all the land, leaves me in this, my cave. And then she flies out, out over the dark, dark sea.

*

It is a difficult way to my cave by the sea. A difficult way, and treacherous. I have slain many dragons who have tried to claim what is mine, many dragons who tried to take, rather than bargain. But one day, the right one will find me. This was Nomathstep’s promise. One will find me, and we will share her legacy, and all that she left behind.


© 2020 by Jordan Kurella

Jordan Kurella is a queer and disabled author who has lived all over the world (including Moscow and Manhattan). In their past lives, they were a barista, radio DJ, and social worker. Their stories have been featured in Apex, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and Strange Horizons Magazines. You can find them on Twitter @jskurella.


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