Content note (click for details)Content note: loss of loved one, implied abuse, trauma, child abandonment
After the sky got sick, I made a new Mommy from the vegetables in our fridge. Now, the sky’s always yellow like dried mustard stains, whenever I wipe dust away from our downstairs windows and look outside. I used to see people out there, everyone shaking and shaking.
Vegetable Mommy had tomato cheeks. Big and red, like the ones we were supposed to have on our pizza. A crawling thing from the walls bit Vegetable Mommy’s tomato cheeks. Yellow seeds slid down her lumpy, white cauliflower face.
I look in the bathroom mirror. It’s what I do when I need someone to talk to. I tell myself I heard those seeds falling into the bathtub water. Plip. Plip. Plip. Like Disney princess tears. Vegetable Mommy’s shriveled black olive eyes are behind me, always watching from the bathtub where I made her. The water kept her fresh for a while.
“Stay here. Don’t go outside. Don’t open the door.”
That was the last thing my real Mommy said, before leaving. No one came, though. Phone and computer don’t work. There’s just me.
Though one time I did dream about Daddy’s face hanging above me like he was the Man in the Moon. His breath still smelled sour and rotten.
Mommy promised we’d never see him again. I don’t want to call her a liar. But…
Vegetable Mommy doesn’t say anything to me.
The corn silks of her dress peel back, showing shriveled-up kernels like the mummy’s skin in that movie I snuck out of bed to watch with Mommy.
“Close your eyes and sleep, baby boy.”
She never knew I opened my eyes a teeny-tiny bit and saw everything.
I used to put on my bathing suit, even when my legs got too skinny and I couldn’t pull the drawstring tight enough to hold it up, and get in the tub with Vegetable Mommy. The water comes up to my tummy and reminds me of how I’d stick my fingers in soup Mommy made to see if it was ready to eat. She’d put ice cubes in to cool it down. In the tub with Vegetable Mommy, I’d bring Mommy’s pink and purple razor to shave white growths from her sweet potato arms and legs.
Until I pulled too hard and cut into my thumb. The split skin hurt real bad, like it’d never heal. I rubbed blood across Vegetable Mommy’s face, trying to make it look the way Mommy’s lips did when she smiled at me.
Black spots cover Vegetable Mommy’s smile now and I don’t have any way to fix her. The vegetable drawer’s been empty since I made her. All the snacks we got from the grocer, chip bags, cookie sleeves, any cans I could break open, everything’s gone. Lights and machines don’t work anymore. So, the fridge food’s bad. Makes me sick to even smell it.
The creeping and crawling things inside the walls took everything else.
Vegetable Mommy’s lettuce hair droops down. No longer green, but a mud brown. Still, there’s enough crunch when I take a bite. Not slimy, not like how I thought she’d be.
Mommy was right. I do like these vegetables once I finally try them.
I go slow, hoping I remember to say good-bye this time.
Baby carrot fingers pat my cheeks and I wonder if my real Mommy’s still out there. I wonder if she tried to make another me. What did she use? And how long did she wait before she gobbled me up?
Author’s Note: This story was originally written for a weekly writing assignment in Richard Thomas’s Contemporary Dark Fiction class, where the prompt required creating a story intended to make the reader cry. Things…got a little weird along the way.
Patrick Barb is a freelance writer from the southern United States, currently living (and trying not to freeze to death) in Saint Paul, Minnesota. His short fiction appears in Humans are the Problem, the Tales to Terrify podcast, and Boneyard Soup Magazine, among other publications. In addition, he is an Active member of the Horror Writers Association.
Content note(click for details)Content note: abuse
The week I moved into my old family home, the brick one that sat like a triple-layered cake at the end of the street, I spent each day and into the night repainting every wall. Mint living room, yellow bathroom, pink bedroom. I chose gaudy colors that would have sat like a bad taste on my mother’s tongue anytime she thought of it, were she alive. Colors that felt like touching sunshine.
It was strange to stand in my childhood bedroom as a woman who was starting to find her first gray hairs when the light hit her head just so in the bathroom. It wasn’t like going back in time, exactly, but like finding embarrassing photos of yourself. I looked at the walk-in closet and could almost feel the clothes brushing the top of my head from all the times I hid in there with a flashlight and book on nights when I wanted to muffle the sound of my mother’s clarinet floating up through the house. My memories of nighttime, even ones that didn’t involve the house or my mother, always carried a sharp echo of that instrument. It wasn’t the sound I’d hated, but the dread that each note might be her last. The final trill always led to a fearful silence.
She’d left me the house in her will, and with its mortgage paid off, it was a bigger and better place than I could ever hope to afford on my own. I couldn’t resist the illusion that I could transform it and make it mine, but so far I felt naive for thinking repainting would be enough. I left my old room, newly pink from yesterday’s efforts, to enter the room I’d put off until the end. Every day I’d painted until I was too drained to carry on, and then left to pass out on an air mattress in the apartment I was leaving. I didn’t want to stay in the house until it was finished. But the apartment lease was up and I only had her room left to refresh.
I stood over my mother’s bed, which was still covered with her garden of pillows that were only there for decoration. She would have been furious to know that her death wasn’t some dramatic crescendo; that it had no flair. One unmarked evening a few weeks ago she fell asleep like any other night and just never woke up. The boring nature of it delighted me. I lay on top of the covers and smiled up at the ceiling. I thanked God that I hadn’t been guilted into a hospital bed visit where she would have taken my hand in her wrinkled claws and sent me off with one last conversation that felt like a slap in the face, desperate to have the last word. Instead, she’d simply died.
Despite living in the same city, I hadn’t seen her in years. Family friends and neighbors cheerily asked me about her in grocery store aisles or when I was in line to drown my popcorn in butter at the movie theater. We don’t talk much, I’d tell them. Hell has a bad connection. I liked watching them fumble with the words like they were a squirming cat they didn’t know how to hold. They might laugh nervously or sometimes sincerely, but across the board, they all seemed to study me for a sign of which of the two of us was in hell.
After resting in her bed, I began to paint her eggshell room forest green. My arm was tired, but the up and down movement of the paintbrush was soothing. Avoiding this room until the end made it feel like the cathartic cherry on top. With each stroke, I painted over her with the deep color of trees, of summer days at the park with my dad that I could barely remember outside of the blurry shape of happiness, like watching a family video. Green dripped onto her jewelry box and I made a note that I’d need to take nice photos of the contents to sell. I was going to sell everything of hers, except for her clarinet, which I’d thrown away first thing in the neighbor’s trash bin.
I spent the whole day in that room in a sort of trance. In an odd, sleep-deprived moment as I looked at myself in her dresser mirror, I painted over it too until I disappeared under the dark square. When I finished, I collapsed on the bed again, paintbrush still in hand, and the next thing I knew, I was opening my eyes with the heaviness of having fallen asleep by accident. The darkness was unsettling, and I had the strange urge to turn my body and make sure there was no one sharing the darkness with me. I turned my head slowly and was relieved to find an empty bed. Still, I got up quickly, dusted myself off from my mother’s death spot. She was getting to me without even being there.
On my way out the door, a childhood habit moved through me unconsciously, and I looked toward the dresser mirror. Growing up, I was usually crying when I left my mother’s room, and since she tutted at me for being an ugly crier, I often checked my reflection on the way out to see if she was right. But this time, there was no reflection, just self-created blankness.
I was worn out from the day but didn’t want to fall asleep in my own sweat and grit. I headed to the bathroom at the end of the hallway and turned on the shower head, then ran downstairs to grab towels from the properly labeled moving box. When I got back to the bathroom, something felt off. Steam pressed against the mirror and I could feel the heat, so it took a moment to realize what was missing: I couldn’t hear the water. I peered into the shower and watched the stream of water pummel into the bathtub, but it made no noise. Rather than being paralyzed by this fact, it put me into erratic motion.
I moved naked through the house with paint splotches like bruises on my body, looking almost pagan. The floors didn’t creak beneath my feet, not even the loud spot I used to tread so lightly on to avoid waking my mother when I was up past my bedtime or running away, only ever making it a few blocks before I snuck back in and returned the supplies to their rightful spots.
I went downstairs and into the kitchen, and there was no hum when I opened the fridge. I wandered the house knocking on cabinets and slamming doors and every action was met with nothing but stone cold quiet, as if I weren’t even moving. It gave me the unnerving thought that there was no way to know if there was anyone or anything around each corner or hiding behind doorways or even stepping right behind me, far enough to not leave their breath on my neck. I thought about how I’d woken up in my mother’s old bed with the feeling that I was not alone, and how much easier it would be for a thing to slide to the ground and under the bed if I couldn’t hear it move.
Once I’d had enough of testing sounds that never happened, I slipped into a bathrobe and ran out the front door without even closing it, my feet brushing against hushed grass. There was no wind, no whoosh of a car even as I watched one drive by, no suburban choir of dogs. I ran in circles in the yard, senselessly thinking that enough speed might jumpstart noise. I was grateful that it was late, and the neighbors were hopefully asleep. The same neighbors who used to see my mother and me on weekend walks when I was young and would tell me in chirpy, “adult” voices that my mother was a saint for all the work she did for the neighborhood association, and how I was lucky to have such a strong person to hold down the fort in a single-parent household.
At the time, I thought maybe they didn’t notice how I was skittish as the bunnies they captured in their front yards so they wouldn’t nibble on their gardens. I used to stand in front of those metal traps and consider setting the rabbits free, even going so far as to check each house window for spying faces, but I never went through with it, just like I could never commit to running away. And maybe the neighbors didn’t notice that the “darling” outfits my mother dressed me in were always long sleeved, even in the baking summer. To this day, I gravitate towards long sleeves, even with nothing to cover, because she used to tell me that my arms and legs were fat and that was the real thing worth hiding. Over time I realized it wasn’t necessarily that the neighbors were ignorant, but that it was just easier to keep their eyes moving and mind their business. Despite the way they treated my mother like queen bee, the neighborhood was nothing like a beehive. Too many closed doors. Better for the neighborhood.
It suddenly occurred to me that many of those neighbors were probably gone, whether by death or relocation. I’d moved into an old home and an old neighborhood that had very little trace of my past left, and yet, I still managed to feel like I had willingly walked back into the rabbit trap.
I gave up on the front yard and ran out into the street, where I suddenly heard my feet thump against the sidewalk, as well as a late-night sprinkler taking care of a neighbor’s lawn. I got on my knees and leaned my head against the ground to take a moment to revel in the weird whisper of summer bugs and a faraway ambulance cry that rang like sweet music right then and there. If I hadn’t felt so exposed, I would have stayed there all night until the birds sang the sunrise into being. But I knew I had to go back to the house.
When I re-entered, I closed and locked the door behind me with relief, but then felt my heart plummet as the door didn’t make a click. I stayed still and realized that being back on the property meant I was back in the void and the kind of emptiness I always associated with outer space. Upstairs, the silent shower was still running. I got into the bathtub and sat under its stream, but I didn’t scrub with soap or wash my hair, just let it run over me.
The new bed I had ordered wouldn’t arrive until the next day. I had planned to sleep in my childhood twin bed that was still there for some reason, my old bedroom untouched like my mother’s shrine to what she considered better times, but when I wearily got to the doorway, I imagined twisting and turning myself onto the floor and made my way to my mother’s room instead.
I got under the covers on what would have been my father’s side. My damp hair left a mark like a lake on the pillow. Even though I tried forcing my eyes to stay closed and my body to calm down, I started to cry, and it felt good to see the pillowcase getting wetter, as if proof in this muted landscape of what I was feeling. I opened my mouth and screamed into the house, into its guts, feeling my jaw get sore and my throat get hoarse without a single sound ever touching the air. I started to project things into the gaping silence. I became convinced that if I turned around, my mother would be right there, or at least some part of her, able to exist through pure spite and disgust of me. I turned as much as I dared and could see something in the dark. Maybe it was her, maybe it was just the dark wearing itself like a costume. I decided to close my eyes and bury my head in the pillow.
And yet, despite the crushing sensation of silence, the way it pressed down on me like so many years of built-up hatred, I could not shake the imagined sound of that damned clarinet echoing against the walls. Once it started, I only prayed that it would never stop. The shape in the bed, whether my mother or a nightmare, would move as soon as the music ended; would take the bell and the barrel and the keys and the mouthpiece to turn my body into a score only I could hear.
Sarah Fannon is a graduate of George Washington University’s Honors English and Creative Writing program and she continues to live in the DC area. Her work is featured in SmokeLong Quarterly, Dark Moon Digest, Divination Hollow Reviews, miniskirt magazine, The NoSleep Podcast, and the LGBTQ+ horror anthology, Black Rainbow. You can find her on Twitter @SarahJFannon and Instagram @ampersarah.
I needed a break. I needed silence. I needed to hear the sound of my own thoughts. Not the endless monologue of shuttle systems status, mixed with memories and declarations, all emitting from Father’s broken mind and body.
In our little space cruiser, it is still but not quiet. Father’s labored breathing, punctuated by coughs and chokes, surrounds me as he struggles to stay alive without the cruiser’s medical emergency program helping him. My heart pounds in my chest, shakes me with every beat. My breathing is quiet and slow, a whisper in the cold thin air.
Reaching out to Father, I place my hand on his chest. Even through his spacesuit I can feel his heart, fluttering but persistent. Still alive. Still working.
Our helmets are off. Our breath collects in fog in the space between us.
Just go on like this, I think. Go on until his heart stops. Without him running the shuttle, I will succumb to the cold and lack of oxygen and surrender to the star-filled void around us.
I consider it, again. I have considered it every time I have disconnected Father. And I reach the answer I have reached every time I have considered it.
No. Not yet. Keep hoping for a rescue. Keep living.
I switch the medical system back on. Alarms sound as it realizes Father’s condition and injects drugs through the dermal patches.
Father gasps, audibly, as his body is slammed back to stability.
After I reattach the careful tangle of wires connecting the shuttle’s control system to the interface cap fitted to his head, his voice echoes through the shuttle’s speakers.
“Son. Son. You should not disconnect me. I have told you this before.” He is scolding me, but he is also afraid.
“Yes, Father. I know. I am sorry.”
“Checking system status.”
The litany begins, his voice droning like prayers.
“Internal temperature 4.17 degrees. Rerouting ambient reactor heat to cabin.
“Oxygen concentration 11.64 percent. Scrubbers operational, 37.94 percent efficiency. Estimate normal mix in 8.05 hours.
“Eight point zero five.
He slowly sighs. His mind has found an unexpected road and is running down it in pursuit of a memory.
“You were five. We still lived on Earth, but had decided to leave for a mining homestead in the asteroid belt. There was nothing left for us on Earth, in our cardboard shack in the South San Francisco favela.
“We wanted to have one special moment. We splurged and took you to the little Golden Star Amusement Park in the Sunset. You always wanted to go there. You were enchanted by the Dragon rollercoaster. You rode it over and over, until you were sick to your stomach. Even then, you cried when we left for home.
“Home is mining asteroid (142823) 2026-MC13. Estimate distance to home 1.8598 million kilometers. Estimate distance to Ceres 1.8528 million kilometers. Estimate velocity normal to solar system 24.931 thousand kilometers per hour. Time since accident 42.190 hours. Estimate probability of distress signal reaching Ceres Station 3.14 percent.”
Father’s monologue of shuttle status and random memory continues, but the summary is always the same. Our shuttle is damaged. My father is damaged. My father, through the interface cap and the rewiring to the shuttle components that still work, keeps life support barely running. The emergency medical system keeps my father barely alive. We are above the plane of the solar system, on a constant vector away from both home and from Ceres, with no way to change that fact.
We are adrift in the void, with my father’s voice as a constant reminder of the darkness of our situation.
A simple trip. A shuttle run back to Ceres headquarters. Printer stocks, hydroponics supplies, reactor fuel, necessary in-person meetings with the corporation.
When I was young, I loved the Ceres trips. Not just because I could see, in person, friends who I only knew through my virtual classrooms. Not just because at Ceres in the open habitat we could walk and run and play without pressure suits constraining our movement.
I loved the trips because they were joyous times with my family, together, without my parents working hard at the mining operations or me buried fourteen hours a day in schoolwork and lessons and mandatory exercise. On the shuttle, we sang songs, listened to music, played games, laughed. Mother told me stories about the stars, myths and legends from her childhood. I listened in wonder and joy. We were a real family, like the ones I read about on the chat boards or saw on the video streams.
Mother died in an accident when I was fourteen.
Life was never the same. Quiet melancholy replaced chaotic joy. Father and I buried ourselves in our work. I took on mining responsibilities along with my schoolwork. Father and I communicated only in data points – status, machines, daily production, shipments, coursework. On the Ceres trips, we traveled in silence. Prayer music played non-stop on the journey. Father controlled the shuttle with the interface headset, eyes gazing into a virtual display of shuttle information, status and control that I could not see.
On these trips, our only conversations were arguments.
“Father, you should add me to the shuttle control interface so I can learn to fly the shuttle and manage the systems. I can help with the burden.”
“You are too young.” His voice, which he routed through the speakers while controlling the shuttle, was always too loud.
My anger came easily. “I’m seventeen! I have top marks in my coursework. I maintain the mining robots. I can run a shuttle.”
“You are not ready.”
“Then let me go to university on Ceres, in person, so I can get my next degrees.”
“You can not leave for university on Ceres!” His anger took longer than mine, but it always arrived, in an explosion that blew static through the speakers.
After that, silence again, staring out the small portholes at the stars until we arrived at Ceres and went our separate ways.
We had already done our arguing when the first meteorite swarm hit. Small enough it didn’t register on the long range sensors, but still large enough to badly damage the shuttle. It didn’t help that our shuttle was old, second-hand, and in need of more repair than we could afford. Mining life is perching on the perpetual edge of disaster, grinding out as much profit as possible for the corporation to which we were indebted.
Father was outside assessing the damage when the second, larger, swarm hit. His screams echoed through the communications link, followed by gasps and whimpering mixed with the pattering of meteorites on the hull.
Somehow, I dragged him through the airlock and inside.
Somehow, I hooked him up to the emergency medical system, followed the prompts and gave him drugs to keep his heart beating and his lungs moving.
Somehow, he survived.
“Son. Are you?” His voice was soft, and weak.
“I’m alive, Father. You are too.”
“Still intact, obviously. But there was a power overload. It burned out the main computers, stellar navigation, the engines, everything. We’re on minimal backup on all systems.” I had checked everything I could check, without command access. It was all ruined.
“Saw communications array. Ruined.”
“We are doomed, Father.”
“No.” The force in his voice surprised me. “We can live. We can rewire the shuttle. I can control basic life support systems. I will give you instructions. You will do the work.”
That was the first day. Father giving instructions or suggestions, me breaking and making connections throughout the shuttle. By the end of the day we had the headset interface wired into basic life support: heat, oxygen, water reclamation. We had enough to keep us alive for perhaps a week. We had a chance.
But we were also adrift. Based on the last sensor readings, and celestial sightings, I calculated we were now pointing away from the plane of the solar system. The final burst of the dying engines had sent us off course. We were moving away from anyone that could save us, farther and farther every minute.
Father, injured physically and mentally, monitored all the critical systems. By the end of the first day he was already reciting shuttle status and making connections with whatever memories were welling in his fractured mind.
“Oxygen scrubbing at 61.34 percent efficiency.
“Estimate 1.1838 million kilometers from Ceres, based on position of reference stars.
“Stars in the sky, above home.
“The first day we arrived at the asteroid, you were angry because we had left Ceres. We took you outside to the surface and showed you the stars. We told you their names, traced their constellations, recited their myths. For hours we did that. You loved it.”
“Yes, Father. I still do.” When I was angry, or frustrated, I would go stand on the surface of our asteroid and get lost in the stars and the stories.
Now they were a threat. They scared me.
“I’m sorry, Son. I’m sorry we are in this situation. I’m sorry I kept you at home. I’m sorry for everything.”
“Three days, fourteen hours, fifteen minutes since the accident,” my father recites.
“Estimate 3.1983 million kilometers from Ceres.
“Water purity 78.11 percent. Supply tank 7.32 percent.
“Water. Flowing in a river.
“When your mother and I were young and courting, we took a camping trip to the Red River to see the Silver Falls. From high above us, glistening water fell over a cliff, through the sky, pounded into the earth below, and flowed away into the river. So much power in water. On the asteroid I dream of that much water, cascading across our small rock.
“We don’t have enough water, Son. We will not survive.”
Father is sad. Depressed. Each hour he seems to sink further and faster into a vast dark place, like the vast dark void around us.
“Hold on, Father.” I try to say this with hope. “There is still a chance someone will find us.”
“There is no chance. We are dying. You are dying. It is my fault. All my fault.” He cries. Tears pool against his face, sobs echo from the speakers. Not even when Mother died was he this emotional. This despondent. This lost.
I am anxious, jittery. I don’t know how to comfort him. I don’t want to turn him off any more. But I can’t sit here. I need to move.
“Father, I am going outside. I will walk the shuttle.”
No answer, just more tears and sobs that batter at me as I make my way through the airlock and to the outside.
Outside I turn off my communications link, engage the magnetics in my shoes, and stand on the shuttle’s skin. The stars are infinite in their numbers all around me. I pick out the constellations. The Hunter. The Judge. The Wanderer. They stand, silent. I ask for answers but get none.
I walk the shuttle’s hull. My breathing falls in time with the force of my steps, echoing inside my suit. Sol burns before me as I round the shuttle. Beckoning. Taunting. Smaller and smaller with every second.
We are doomed. We have no thrust towards Ceres. We have no communications. We are running out of clean atmosphere and clean water. Our food is gone. The magnetic couplings on my boots are the only thing keeping me from floating away.
I could release the couplings, disconnect from the umbilical, push off from the shuttle, and drift away. Become one with the stars and the myths.
Push hard enough from the correct location and the shuttle might be directed, so very slightly, towards the solar system. Father might be found. He might even stay alive.
I could do it.
But in those moments, before the end came, Father would be alone. I can’t leave him alone. I am all he has. He is all I have.
I must find a solution.
Walking brings me to the communications array. A tangled nest of wires and equipment, shot through with holes from the meteorites, burned in places from the power overload. Could something useful be left? There was so much work to keep Father alive, to reorganize the shuttle to keep us alive, I hadn’t thought of the possibility.
I poke and sort through the tangle, find enough of the transmission antenna to send a signal. We would need a way to direct and focus the signal, to push it towards Ceres. A reflector. But the meteors tore off the reflector.
Panels from the shuttle’s hull could make a reflector. Without the need to heat and oxygenate the shuttle’s interior, just our suits, we’d have more power to boost the strength of the signal. Vent the atmosphere before removing the panels and we could even get a slight push towards Ceres.
This is a dangerous idea. We would be exposed to the frigid dark of open space. We could die.
If we do nothing, we will die anyway.
I turn on my communications link, to the sound of Father, panicked, crying.
“You are not alone, Father. I am here.” I make sure to sound confident, raise his spirits somehow. “Father, I have an idea.”
Father’s space suit is too far damaged to provide any resistance against outer space. Over his objections, he will take my suit and I will wear the backup suit. Carefully, I trade suits. Bruises, dried blood and sweat coat his body so I take some time to clean him off. I try not to hurt him any further as I dress him in my suit.
Briefly, I must disconnect him from the shuttle controls. During this time I work as fast as possible to keep him from getting too cold.
When I get him fully in his suit and the interface headset reconnected, his voice nearly bursts from the speakers.
“Son! It was so dark. Are you ready?”
“Yes, Father.” The backup suit is a tight fit but it will work for our purposes.
“Preparing systems for the signal burst. Diverting ambient reactor heat to the suit umbilicals. Cutting air recycling to only the suit umbilicals. Atmosphere mix at 10.11 percent oxygen. Begin reconstruction of the communications reflector using shuttle panels.”
Outside, our last air hisses out as I drill holes in the hull on the opposite side of where we think Ceres is. I hope it helps.
The work to build a signal reflector is slow and tedious. I only have two charged batteries, and a handful of tools. I use them as little as possible, and do anything I can by hand. It is difficult work. Sweat gathers inside my suit faster than the dehumidifier can pull it out. Pools of water collect on my face and I have to shake my head to try to move them away. My muscles ache and I am tired.
Father talks to me throughout. Status, memories, an endless loop.
In the last four days, he has said more to me than in the preceding three years. Even though it is a monologue more than a conversation, I somehow find it comforting. A connection.
Finally, we have a crude antenna and a signal reflector. The reflector is pointed in the direction of Ceres, our last hope against the vast void of space.
Back inside, I strap into my seat. Father is a small man in a small spacesuit. The moisture in the shuttle air has frozen onto everything including his face panel. I brush ice and dust off the face panel. I’m not sure if he can see me, but I smile.
“Father, we are ready.”
“Beginning power diversion to transmitter. Transmitting distress signal burst. Cycle one.
“Transmitting distress signal burst, cycle two.”
Now that I am not working, the cold invades my suit and I am chilled. I am tired, and ache from the effort of the work. The suits will keep us warm. How long, we don’t know.
“Transmitting distress signal burst, cycle eleven.”
Pieces of a constellation of stars appear in the gaps in the shuttle’s hull. The Dragon, twisting, flying, burning those that threaten its home.
“Transmitting distress signal burst, cycle twenty-seven.”
I am so tired. It is so cold.
The void calls me with stories and dreams, and I go to it.
A light in my face. The dull sensation of someone poking my chest.
A woman’s voice. “Hey, hey. Wake up now.”
Breathing deep, my lungs burn and I cough. There are tubes in my nose, gusts of warm air tickle my throat. I smell antiseptic, sterilizer, and behind it the hint of rusted metal, dirty oil, people.
I’m on a spaceship. In a medical bay.
I am covered in metallic blankets. My arms and legs are stiff and barely move.
“Stay still there,” the woman says. “I’m still running a warming cycle on you. We just got you back.”
Cracking my eyes open, I see a small black woman with short grey hair.
“Where,” I say in a croaking voice. My lips and throat are dry and rough.
“Naval cargo cruiser Morning Glory. Your distress signal was received and we were closest.”
“Your father is dead. The meteorite damage. The cold. He didn’t make it.” She lays a soft hand on my forehead. “I’m sorry.”
I shake as the reality of his death washes over me. I knew it was likely. It still hurts. The empty place that was my father’s presence in my life joins inside with the hole my mother left. I try to cry, but I am so tired and sore I am reduced to slow, simple, whimpering.
I want to know where he is. “Shuttle?”
“Your shuttle is in a cargo hold. Your father is there, too. The crew made a coffin for him, from a cold storage container.”
“Later. Right now, you need to rest. We’re mid-run right now, but we’ll be at Ceres in two days.”
Warm liquid crawls up my arm. By the time it reaches my chest I am very sleepy. The medical bay is quiet. The click of machines, the doctor humming a tune I don’t know. There is no voice, no status, no constant presentation of statistics and danger and possibilities and concern.
I miss it.
When I awaken I am stronger and can move. I demand to be taken to our shuttle. Officers take my statement as they guide me to the cargo hold. They confirm what was stored in the shuttle’s logs and compliment our ingenuity, our bravery, and my father’s sacrifice.
They leave me at the shuttle. Broken and tattered by the meteorites and by our disassembly, it looks small and helpless in the large hold of the cruiser. It is a wonder we survived.
Next to the shuttle is a small metal box, military logos on both sides. My father’s coffin.
I want to see him.
I crack open the coffin. Cold gas escapes and condenses in a fog.
I wave it away until I can see Father. His expression is peaceful, even serene.
I place my hand on his chest. It is frigid. I don’t care.
“I am alive, Father. The signal was received.”
I don’t know what to say. I know he will not respond, but I keep waiting for him to talk, to tell me the atmosphere status, the water recycler status, an ancient memory. Anything.
Nothing. Because he is gone, isn’t he?
Tears come freely and I sink into a hard calm place that is sadness.
Like a bell in my mind, his words about the stars, his first memory after the accident, call to me. I close my eyes and my own memory comes back, crisp and clear.
“I remember that night, Father, the first time you showed me the stars from the surface of the asteroid. Space was so big. The stars were infinite and uncountable. I was so small. But I knew that as long as you held my shoulders I would be safe.”
More memories come, a cascade of moments with him and with Mother.
“The first Ceres run, after Mother died, we rode in silence. I stared out the window at the stars, remembering Mother’s stories. We both grieved, in our way. Our only conversation was when you offered me the rest of your meal and I took it. I remember that moment, that one connection. I treasure that memory.”
I talk to my father for hours, in the large hold of a large cargo cruiser. I tell my father stories of him and Mother and me and our life, during the entire journey back to Ceres Station.
Author’s Note: I was doing some free writing to a prompt of “ghosts on drugs”, and when I typed “I’m trapped with the ghost of my dying father on a dying spaceship whose drugs are the only thing keeping him alive” the story just took off from there. I “hit a pocket”, as I like to say, and ended up with a story that had special meaning to me.
When Jeff Soesbe isn’t writing stories, he writes software and simulations for subsea robots in Northern California. Jeff’s stories have appeared in Abyss & Apex (upcoming), Factor Four, Andromeda Spaceways, and Flash Fiction Online. Jeff is a graduate of the Viable Paradise Writing Workshop (Elevensies!). This is Jeff’s first professional sale (woohoo!)
So I’ve been at the dog park going on three hours now, and even some of the newbies have started looking at me funny.
I’m used to it, though.
I long ago got written off as one of the crazies, so far as the regulars are concerned. Every park has a couple—the folks who show up and stand around without a dog. You get your share of wary glances that way. Cold shoulders, too. Dogs that attempt to say “hi” get whistled back before you lay what must assuredly be a filthy, covetous hand on them.
Me, I’m tolerated because I scoop the poop. (If there’s one thing dog owners hate, it’s the clean-up). So long as I make the occasional circuit, I avoid drawing the ire of the dog park mafia (also known as that clutch of busybodies who fancy themselves the place’s executive steering committee). Every park’s got its own version of them, too.
“Which one’s yours?”
That from an obvious newbie, who’s sidled up. Some of the regulars try a wave-off, but she doesn’t notice.
“Oh, I’m just maintenance,” I assure her, with a waggle of my industrial-grade scoop.
Which isn’t actually true. I do have a dog in the park.
She can’t see him, though.
Neither can you.
Hank’s a shepherd mix. Maybe seventy, seventy-five pounds. Sleek, pale coat and gorgeous green eyes. A big softie with a fondness for belly rubs and sloppy kisses. I grew up knee-deep in dogs of all sorts, and he’s by far the most loving I’ve ever come across.
Judging by how he carries himself, he was probably five or six when he died.
Yeah, my dog’s a ghost. I adore him anyhow.
Hank and I, we’ve been joined at the hip just shy of four years. Almost from the moment I hit town.
We met in this very dog park, in fact. I was living in one of those shoebox apartments right there–shade your eyes a bit and you can make out my old window. The locale probably tells you pretty much everything you need to know about my prospects (dim), my bank account (low), and my general level of cool (nonexistent) in those days.
It was August. One of those weeks when the mercury hovers around 85, even long after the sun’s set. I was trying to master the art of sleeping without air conditioning, and I wasn’t doing so well.
Then came the howling. Low and wistful. Heartsick.
I was the only one who heard. The only one who could hear it, I think.
Back then, I had more than a passing acquaintance with heartsick and wistful, you see. Heck, I probably could’ve spun a dirge of my own without too much prompting.
In short, I spoke the language.
Anyhow, I went to the window, leaned out, and glimpsed a pale form wandering the park. And, as though he felt the weight of my gaze, Hank came to an abrupt stop and stared up at me.
Just like that, he was my dog.
The newbie points out her own precious angel, a terrier of some sort. He’s got some game (if not much grace), but he’s no Hank. Still, I nod and smile and tell her how wonderful he seems. That’s the delicate etiquette of dog moms: Your dog is the best dog ever…and so’s mine.
Meanwhile, Hank has started a rumpus.
Except for me, he goes unseen and untouched by the world. But animals can still sense him somehow. So, as he drifts among them, dogs tense and huff and growl. Finally, the boldest of them, a pug, lets out a high-pitched squeal of a war-cry and charges.
The others fall in, and it’s on.
Hank loves being chased—loves any excuse to run—so this works out fine.
The esteemed members of the dog park mafia just gape, no doubt wondering what the heck’s gotten into their mutts. Because to them, to the newbie, to everybody but me, those dogs are chasing air.
By the time Hank’s done a full lap, the hunting party’s probably doubled in size. Hank’s opened up a bit of a lead, but nothing insurmountable. He knows when to slow a step or two so the pack doesn’t lose interest. How to get them falling all over themselves to be first for a nip.
Second time around, he lets the pug close the distance. Inch by inch, until its snout dips into reach. Those stubby legs pump for all they’re worth. So close. Sooooo damn close. It does a little leap, like it’s about to bring down a gazelle… and Hank abruptly swerves and passes right through the chain link fence that encircles the park.
Like smoke. Without so much as a whisper.
The pug faceplants. The other dogs scrabble to avoid it, and that causes a pile-up of its own. The hunting party makes a brief, furious protest at this flagrant violation of the rules. But Hank just waits them out across the fence, tail wagging and tongue lolling.
What can I say? He’s always been kind of a rascal.
When he finally does slip back through the fence, though, a sliver of ice pierces my heart. Because it’s a real struggle. Locking down the smoke or mist or vapor—or whatever it is—into the familiar shape of my dog takes just about everything he’s got. A minute or so later, he remains fuzzy. Extra ghost-y.
It’s not supposed to be like that.
But it has been for a while.
“Poor baby,” murmurs the newbie, who’s still at my elbow.
I blink at her, until I realize she means the pug, who’s just taken another tumble.
I’m no mystic. My only brush with the unnatural has been my dog, and believe me, I’m fine with that. So whatever insights I have are my own, pieced together through trial and error.
Here’s where we’re at:
Hank’s shedding his essence. Each day, he’s a little less substantial. A little less there. And if he exerts himself, like that bit at the fence, then we’re talking Double Jeopardy, where the scores can really change.
So the sun’s shining, the breeze is warm, and the sky’s so blue—so gorgeous—you’d swear some old master had taken a brush to it.
Oh, and my friend’s dying.
All over again.
Hank comes limping over—like an old dog; no, let’s be honest, like a very old dog—and curls up at my feet. Wisps of smoke (or vapor or mist) drift about him. Drift from him. In a second, they’ll fall away, carried off by whatever wind steals the dead.
If he doesn’t push his luck, he’ll recover some. I think he will, anyhow. He has so far. Not all the way, though; never fully. You don’t need to be a mystic to realize that. We’ve cleared the top of the bell curve, it seems, and it’s a slope from here on out.
The newbie’s chattering to me about something. I’m nodding along but not at all listening. Instead, I’m weighing things in my head. I had a plan when we left home this morning. A good one, I thought. One that made sense.
Only now I’m reconsidering.
“Don’t you think?” asks the newbie.
That’s the trouble, I nearly tell her. I think way too much.
Hank helps with that.
The thinking, I mean. The overthinking.
He’s got a bit of a nose for rumination. I start to fret, he goes and gets into trouble. The good kind. The kind that tends to have me flat-out laughing before I’m done untangling it. (Ask me about “Hank and the Great Granny Brunch—with the Squirrel in the Open Air Café” sometime.)
That’s what we’ve been doing since I realized what was happening.
Getting into trouble. The good kind.
We have a list, you see. Hank’s favorite places. My own. Plus, everywhere we hadn’t gotten around to. And we’ve been working our way through it, top to bottom.
We’ve raced the waves on a long, beautiful stretch of beach. We’ve hiked miles of canyons and mountains and gulches. We’ve gone deep into the forest and high into the hills. Out into the desert. Back through towns and cities and lonely stretches of highway.
Now we’re here. Where it all started.
Not because the list is done. Not because it’s anywhere near done. But time has grown short, and it just seems right to circle around to the beginning.
To let Hank run. To let him run as fast as he can, as long as he can.
We’ve been at the dog park going on three hours now, and even the other dogs have started looking at me funny. Because, I think, they can scent what’s coming.
They can tell I’m about to turn tail.
If I whistle, Hank will follow.
Together we’ll limp out the gate and live to fight another day. Well, I’ll live. Hank will… Hank will keep going the way he has. For a bit longer. All I have to do is take him home and keep him out of trouble.
That’s my new plan. My better plan. See, I can talk a big game about running and going out in a blaze of glory and all that, but when it’s actually time to follow through…
I’m a coward.
I want my friend. Just a little longer.
Just one more day, just one more moment.
So I start to turn, start to whistle.
That’s when I hear the first of the shouts.
Like I said, Hank goes unseen and untouched by this world.
Just so long as he keeps his distance, mind you.
Ever had the feeling somebody’s tip-toed over your grave? That’s what Hank stirs when he passes through a warm body: Gooseflesh that won’t quit and a shiver that runs head to toe. I don’t let him do it to folks, as a rule. Even before it got to be difficult, it was rude and scary.
So of course he’s gone and done it now.
With the dog park mafia.
He cuts right through their midst, setting them jumping and shouting. Chairs get tipped, coffee goes flying. It’s pandemonium, it’s bedlam, it’s pure beautiful chaos.
And Hank loves every second.
He comes flying past and gives me a look.
No more fear. Now we run.
“Hold this,” I tell the newbie, and hand her my scoop.
No way can I keep pace with him. I don’t even try. It’s enough I’m in this, I figure. That I’ve cast aside caution and common sense.
I throw out a hand, and the thick smoke coming off him curls about my fingers. It’s cool and dry. Then it’s lost on the wind. I might be laughing. Hard to tell, since the baying of dogs drowns out all the other sounds. Of course Hank wasn’t going to let them sit idle, not during his last run.
His last run. Oh Christ, I let that thought loose, and it burns, stings, chokes me.
Only for a second, though. Once Hank realizes I’ve joined the rumpus, he drops back and circles me happily. Jumping, nipping at my heels, nudging me to go a bit faster, if you please. I lead him in leaps and spins with a nod here, a gesture there. Even when we’re not serving up acrobatics, my arms are in motion, my hands slicing the air. I can only imagine how this looks to the mafia, to the newbie, to the whole damn world.
I don’t care. Not a bit.
We round the park’s borders once, twice, nearly a third time.
Smoke’s thicker now. I can look at Hank and see dirt and patchy grass right through him. He’s slowing. White fur threaded with strands of oily, awful black. I want to cry out, but I haven’t the breath.
This is happening. This is happening now.
A rush of air. Like there’s a sudden vacuum, like it’s being filled in. No sound, though. No hiss, no roar. Maybe just a whimper—my own. The smoke sweeps across me, searing my eyes. When it’s gone, when there’s nothing but a few wisps, I can see once more.
There are dogs. Dogs of all shapes and sizes.
But no Hank.
I stumble then. An ugly fall, flailing, all hands and knees. Palms stinging and shirt stained. When I manage to lever myself partway up, I realize I’m weeping.
I’m sobbing too hard to make much sense out of anything. But I can hear people circling. Wary, faux-concerned, whispery voices. Call an ambulance. The police, maybe. Somebody ought to do something. The sooner they do, the sooner things can get back to normal. The sooner everybody can forget this.
A cry—red, wet, and raw—rumbles in my chest.
It’ll find its way to my lips in a moment.
Before it does, a hand touches my shoulder.
To my surprise, I don’t flinch, don’t snarl, don’t swat it aside. Instead, I blink as I squint up at the shadow that’s fallen across me. It’s the newbie. She’s still got my scoop.
She draws a breath. Her lips part. She’s going to say something comforting… and utterly stupid. I know it. Something about how everybody slips and falls, about how everything’s going to be just fine. I’ll scream then. I will. And it will be ugly and awful and —
“I saw him,” she says, and lets the scoop drop away before lifting me gently into her arms. “I saw him, and he was beautiful.”
And the wind stirs. And something brushes my cheek.
Brian Winfrey has written everything from ad copy to magazine articles to fortune cookie messages. When he’s away from his keyboard, he’s likely to be found somewhere along I-40, in search of yet another roadside attraction. Otherwise, he lives in Los Angeles with his wife, two dogs, a ferocious cat, and far too many books.
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.
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.”
(n) A sincere, though ultimately futile, effort to make right a wrong. Always involves books.
This. She didn’t mean to. It was a mistake.
1. (v) To get up from a position of repose.
2. (v) To become evident or apparent.
Time to get up. You arise from the bed, drifting, almost floating, toes straining down to reach the ground, arms flailing a bit for balance, before you thump-settle back into place.
Shake your head. Yes, that was odd. Still, you’ve forgotten about it by the time you’re dressed. Just one of those things.
(v) To be in the right and proper place, to fit in.
This is your home. Obviously. You feel it in your feet, the way they settle on the floor when you get out of bed. Just so. You feel it in the air. You crack your neck and stretch and just know. That’s how it is.
(n) A disguise to help someone or something blend in, a way to pretend that you belong.
The landscape shifts constantly, adjusting. For you. It’s subtle — a tree moves here, a car is further down the street and a different color there, and the sky is the exact shade you like just when you need it to be. You don’t notice it, consciously. You’re not meant to, after all. The back of your mind sees it, though, notices the effort, and relaxes. Yes. This is right. This is home. This is where you are meant to be.
There is a tiny part of you that thinks maybe the curtains should stay the same color, even if you do regret them two weeks after putting them up. That sometimes wonders, if just for a second, why the spice jars never run out of your favorite things and marvels at just how nice the neighbors are.
It’s easy to ignore.
1. (adv) Near
2. (adj) Dear
3. (v) To end
“I’m sorry, only close relatives are allowed after visiting hours.”
1. (n) The material included or addressed in a book, a movie, or a dream.
2. (adj) In a state of simple peace.
1. (adj) In the present. Right now.
2. (n) That which pulls you along in a given direction.
On a quiet city street, a man walks just in front of a woman, feet crunching in tandem on sidewalk snow. Suddenly, she speaks, her voice very clear in the cold morning air.
“Last night I dreamed I got pulled out to sea, and then there was a storm. I was trying to stay above water, but the storm was doing strange things to the waves. They started turning to glass and ice all around me — planed crystalline pieces splashing and curling up and crashing near me. It was beautiful, honestly. I felt so guilty, though. I couldn’t tell the difference between the glass and the ice, and so many things I touched were broken or melted as I scrambled to keep my head above water. I felt like I was breaking everything beautiful around me.”
He can’t help himself. He turns to the stranger in the blue peacoat behind him, who’s just shared this private little moment, and says, “You were only trying to stay alive.”
But now she’s moving past him, headphones on, looking down at the phone in her hand. The conversation wasn’t with him. “No, I woke up first. Sure. Sure. See you later.”
This is happening now.
(n) a tool for discovering meaning.
The truth points to itself.
1. (n) One who experiences a dreaming state, usually while asleep, moving through a world of ideas.
2. (n) One who yearns or wishes for something not in evidence.
“So, what do you think happens to the people in a dream?”
“You mean in general, or… what?”
“Like, when the dreamer wakes up, right?”
“God, you’re in a philosophy class aren’t you? Friends don’t let friends sign up for philosophy courses.”
“I’m not, actually. And there’s nothing wrong with philosophy! I just… never mind. It’s stupid anyway.”
“Oh, don’t be like that! Hey, where are you going?”
(n) An illustrative item.
White sheets, shadows stretched across them, and a prone form in the bed. There are monitors, beeping. Clear plastic tubing runs down from an IV stand, is taped to a bruised hand. Her closed eyes are not moving. She is lonely. She will be gone, soon. And then?
1. (preposition) Belonging to
2. (preposition) Because of
3. (preposition) Concerning, about
4. (preposition) In support of
Dictionary For Dreamers.
(v) To lose memory of something.
Evidently there was an accident. It was nothing to do with you. Should I send another book? I am inclined towards apologies.
1. (adj) Kind, tender
2. (v) To pacify
You are holding a leaf, turning it gently by the stem in the autumnal sunlight, watching the way the colors shift across its surface. Red. Orange. Green. Brown. There’s a whole year in your hand. You run a fingertip along each of the veins, being careful of the brittle edges, and then you place it — just so — back on the leaf pile where you found it.
The ground ripples as you walk away.
1. (n) Where the heart is.
2. (v) To return by instinct, back to the heart.
“Do you hear that?”
“Like someone crying, right? That is so weird.”
“Yeah. I thought I heard someone say ‘I just want to go home’ and then it started.”
“Did you leave the television on upstairs?”
“No, I’m sure I didn’t. I’ll go check, though. See if you can figure out where that’s coming from.”
“I can barely hear it now. What am I supposed to do, look under the couch and inside the fridge? There’d better not be anyone crying in there. Well now I can’t hear it at all. Hello? Are you coming back downstairs? Where’d you go?!”
1. (v) To fill someone with an urge to create
2. (v) To breathe in
You are all my muse. Exhale.
1. (v) To connect or link things together
2. (n) The seam or place where things come together
The handle of his favorite mug broke this morning when he grabbed it out of the kitchen cabinet. A handful of handle made him laugh a little, and now he sits at the kitchen table, superglue at hand, preparing to patch things up.
But first, he can’t help but touch the broken bit, exploring the gentle topography with his index finger. It reminds him of losing a tooth as a kid — it feels raw and exposed and he winces in sympathy, but still he probes the place which used to be whole, and now there’s a hole instead.
He’s surprised by the remnants of glue on the mug — how many times has this happened before? How could he not have noticed, or did he just forget? Surely it will be as good as new soon, though. Surely.
1. (v) To end life. To cause death.
2. (v) To put an end to a process.
Example: How soon is soon?
1. (v) To be in a horizontal state, resting.
2. (n) Untruth.
“Are you all right? You need to lie down or something?”
“No, I’m fine.”
1. (n) A polite form of address for a young woman.
2. (v) To fail to touch, to not make contact.
3. (v) To notice the absence of someone or something.
“Miss? Excuse me, miss? You can’t sleep here.”
“I can’t miss this connection.”
“Did you miss me?” (Yes. Yes. Yes.)
(n) The mind, moving, moving, moving
When you can’t sleep, and you’re staring at the ceiling in the dark, listening to all the little noises that seem so loud. You’re tired. You need to sleep. You know this. But you resist the temptation to check the time and roll over and try counting backwards, or maybe flexing your toes one at a time under the sheets, and feeling the thud of your heartbeat just so, interrupting your thoughts. Not that you’re thinking of anything. No. Just the sleep you need. Well, and maybe that thing you want to write, and now there’s a list of things half growing there in the space behind your eyes, disjoint and fragmented. If you manage to drift down into restlessness, the list will precipitate through your dreams, to-dos and phrases and fragments of numbered items settling in to the nonsense you think of as dreams, held together loosely by the tenuous threads of story your mind insists on imposing.
It’s OK. Let it go.
1. (adj) Having the interior accessible
2. (v) To cause to be receptive
“I can’t get this damned jar open.”
“What’s in it, anyway?”
“I don’t know. Could be anything. Beets. Confetti. Time. The stuff you keep in jars, right?”
“The stuff you keep in jars maybe. Here, give it to me.”
“I really think we might have to break it. It’s so stuck.”
1. (n) A substance deposited from a solution.
2. (v) To cause something to happen.
She stands in a snowy field, trees stark inked lines on the horizon. She’s young, in a warm blue peacoat, too-big hat sliding down over her eyes. Her mittened hands turn upward to the sky, gathering snowflakes, and then she presses them together. A sheet of white paper shifts from between her fuzzy palms to the ground, compressed from the crystals falling from the sky, and she opens her hands to the heavens again. And again. And again. The pages accumulate around her legs, piling up, faint and shadowy words smearing the white as the light fades.
She finally turns to look at you, but you’re gone.
1. (v) To give something life.
2. (v) To make something move faster.
Something is behind you, something dark and dangerous. You dare not look back. The hallway stretches ahead and behind, shadowy, the walls turning in ways that don’t quite make sense, as you run. Your steps quicken, and you can hear, far away, something rhythmic and mechanical. You move toward the sound.
(n) No. I’ve been defining reality for too long. Look up ‘gentle’ instead. That’s a nice one.
1. (v) To begin, as one does, at the beginning.
2. (v) To jump a little, in surprise.
3. (n) The beginning, where one begins.
I’m sorry. I don’t remember now. It’s been so long, and I’m tired.
1. (n) Opportunity
2. (v) Change direction
3. (v) Change state
“Go on, sweetie, it’s your turn now.”
The woman pushes the child toward the swimming pool. She takes two stumbling steps forward, bare feet on hot concrete, and then stops. The water shimmers, like glass, like ice. The orange waterwings are too tight on her arms, and there are too many people, and her tummy hurts, and it smells like chemicals and other people’s ambition. She turns and runs away through the crowd, past the too-long legs of her mother, back into the cool echoing darkness of the locker room. She just wants to get away. She isn’t watching her footing, on the water-slick tiles by the hard wooden benches and sharp metal lockers.
The world holds its breath.
(v) To be foundational, the cause of something.
It’s not a lie if it’s everywhere, if it’s underneath everything. Right? So why do I feel so guilty?
(n) One who sees more, though they may understand less.
The ladybug crawls along the back of your hand, having been liberated from the windowscreen. You’re looking closely at its spots, and the closer you look, the more there seems to be to see. Finally, you look away, half laughing. It almost felt as if something were looking back at you, from that infinite fractal regression of spots on spots on spots. You put the little insect outside, on a leaf.
1. (v) to arise from sleep, to stop a dream.
2. (n) A funerary vigil
“I’m sorry, but she’s never going to wake up. There’s nothing we can do.”
(n) A rock fragment differing in composition and origin from the rock or crystal enclosing it.
How did things get so strange? There aren’t enough books to make this right.
(pronoun) The person being addressed.
You never saw her. You were nearby — physically or conceptually — and were drawn in. You think this is about you, but that doesn’t make you vain. It has been. Mostly. About all of you. Go on now. Turn the page.
Author’s Note: I’ve always been a semi-lucid dreamer, exploring weird dream worlds half aware and with an overwhelming sense of responsibility for the things happening in the dream environments. I had a dream one night wherein I earnestly tried to apologize to everyone I met, but nobody ever quite understood what I was saying or why. I woke up thinking I needed a dictionary to apologize properly, sat on that idea for a few days, and wrote this story shortly after.
Cislyn Smith likes playing pretend, playing games, and playing with words. She calls Madison, Wisconsin home where she enjoys the company of three cats, some humans, and an assortment of cool bacteria. She has been known to crochet tentacles, write stories and poems at odd hours, and gallivant. She is occasionally dismayed by the lack of secret passages in her house. Her poetry and fiction have appeared in The Best of Electric Velocipede, Strange horizons, Star*Line, Remixt Magazine, and Flash Fiction Online.
Rose looked at her niece. “What isn’t always there?”
“The room next to mine. It’s not there all the time.”
Rose regretted her willingness to babysit that night. She had only said yes because her sister had finally decided to move closer to Rose. It would be a good thing to get to know Kelly who she hadn’t seen since Kelly was just a baby. Her sister had lived so far away for so long, moving not long after their parents’ death. This was Rose’s whole family now, after all.
Kelly was quiet, much less buoyant than how Rose expected a nine year old to act, rarely saying much more than a word. The three of them went out to dinner the first night after the move and the kid had just sat at the table staring at her plate of pasta. Perhaps, the move was tougher on her than she was letting on.
Rose assumed the night would be easy; the kind that every babysitter wants where the kid just keeps to herself. So this sudden unfathomable statement seemed extra odd. Was the girl going to start exhibiting stranger behavior? Or could this be leading to some sort of prank?
“You mean the guest room?” Rose asked. Kelly’s bedroom was on the outside of the house so it only had one room bordering it.
“No. Not the guest room. That’s always there.”
“Then, what room?” Rose tried not to sound annoyed. She didn’t like riddles. She’d never liked them. Her mother, a professor of mythology, had always told riddles to her and when Rose inevitably burst into exasperated tears, her mother would try to explain the answers. But the answers always made even less sense than the questions.
“The one on the other side. Sometimes there’s a door to it and sometimes there isn’t.”
Rose stared at Kelly. Kelly didn’t seem like the type to make up fantastical stories. She seemed almost too boring, neatly coloring within the lines of her drawings of tiny houses with curly-smoked chimneys. It was the kind of drawing children made in advertisements featuring perfect families.
“Is the room there now, Kelly?” Rose asked.
Rose peered up at the ceiling. They were in the living room which was directly underneath Kelly’s room. “Well, let’s go find out, then.”
It had to be some kind of odd game. Rose could never tell with children. She hadn’t had much experience with them. Not since she had been one at least. Kelly nodded and they walked up the stairs and then down the hall to Kelly’s door. Rose opened the door slowly. They both looked inside. The room was as it should be. Bed. Stuffed animals everywhere. No door. “No room today, huh?”
Kelly looked at the opposite wall with the window that looked out onto the garden. She shook her head, satisfied that there was nothing. They went back down and had ice cream, playing Monopoly until Kelly’s bedtime. Rose let Kelly win. She wasn’t a fan of Monopoly and so she rarely ever played it, but she knew that it was never fun to lose.
Rose sat reading in the living room. It was past ten and her sister would be back any minute. Then she heard something from upstairs. It sounded like music, the same type of music that her parents had played at Christmas when Rose and her sister were little. Her father had taught music and sometimes told the stories behind the songs. Rose used to imagine the musicians making songs blossom out of pieces of sound like the magic trick where a magician placed a seed in dirt and then it burst into a tree. So the stories of frustration and the time that it took to create music always disappointed her. She longed for music to be sudden in its creation.
Rose walked up the steps and then down the hall to Kelly’s room. She gently opened the door, peeking inside. Kelly was asleep in bed. On her wall was a door. Rose blinked. It was still there. She tiptoed up to it, a mahogany door with a golden knob. It looked a lot like the door in her grandmother’s house, the one that led into the cinnamon-scented kitchen. Her grandmother had been an amazing baker and Rose still remembered the taste of the pinwheel cookies that she made—the perfect blend of salty butter cookie with a ring of super sweet cinnamon and walnuts. She had stood on tiptoe to steal the cookies off the high shelf her grandmother kept them on. The music came from behind the door. Rose reached out, but heard her sister driving up. She turned away at the sound and then turned back quickly. The door was gone. She never thought that she was a suggestible person, but, maybe she was now.
Rose went downstairs and chatted with her sister for a few minutes. “Yes, everything was fine. I’d be happy to help again, anytime.”
A month passed and Rose began to forget about the door. It had been a silly trick of her mind. One night her sister called and asked her to babysit again. She agreed.
She spent the first part of the night helping Kelly with some math homework. Rose liked math. It always meant something and every problem could be solved. As she and Kelly were eating cookies and milk, as a reward for completing all of the questions, she asked, “Kelly, have you ever gone inside that other room?”
Kelly looked up. Her eyes were wide. She nodded. Once, quick.
“Why do you look so worried?”
Kelly looked down. “I don’t think I should have. I don’t think my mom would like it.”
“Well, it’s our secret.”
Kelly looked back up, smiling.
“What was it like in there? Was it nice?”
“Well…It was filled up with all these…Well, they were things I’d lost. A doll from years ago and my mouse that ran away. The room was so big; there was room for so much more. Shelves and shelves.”
“Was there music playing?”
Kelly looked surprised. “Yes. It, well, don’t tell my mom but it was this song that my dad used to play when we went for drives before…Before he left…It was so nice. But…” Kelly stopped to study her glass of milk, cookie crumbs floating up to the surface like dead fish.
“Well, I think the room, I think, it didn’t want me to leave, it wanted me to stay, to keep me safe and tucked away.”
Later, Rose tucked Kelly into bed. Then she read, only she wasn’t really reading. She was waiting. She listened but didn’t hear anything. She went up the stairs and then down the hall and opened Kelly’s door. Kelly was asleep. There was no other door. Rose sighed and went back downstairs.
Rose spent the next few days hoping that her sister would call and ask her to babysit again. She wanted to see the door again. She needed to know that it really existed or that it didn’t. She didn’t like the not knowing. She never had. When her father was in the hospital, the doctors didn’t know if he would wake up. Her mother was gone already and she overhead the police saying that he was the only surviving witness if he recovered to testify. So much was contained in that “if”. Rose kept wishing to know one way or the other–would he wake up or would he also be gone? Then she’d gotten her wish and hated herself for being foolish enough to make it.
One night the phone rang and she answered it on the first ring. She was already set to say yes.
It wasn’t her sister. It was the police. They spoke quietly, matter-of-factly, icily. There had been an accident. The curvy road and the rain and the moonless night.
Rose went to the station, to the morgue, and she looked at two tables. Cold tables. Two sheets pulled back. Two faces and she gave them each a name, saying the words aloud. She said the names without thinking and then couldn’t call them back. To name them made it real. They had been her whole family, she wanted to tell someone. The coroner or the police or anyone who would have understood. Can a family be reduced to one person? Was there a word for that?
Rose went to her sister’s house. She didn’t think about it. She just knew that was where she had to go. When she stepped in, she almost called out from habit. Then her voice caught in her throat and she thought that the words might be choking her.
She heard music. She went up the stairs and then down the hall and opened Kelly’s door. It wasn’t as it should be. There was no one asleep in the bed. The room was dark, drained of something that she couldn’t quite place.
There was the door. Rose walked up to it. She pressed her ear against it and could hear the faint sounds of music and voices and laughter. Rose reached out, closing her hand around the golden door knob. She gently turned it. Rose opened the door and stepped inside to see what she could find.
Chloe N. Clarkis an MFA candidate, baker extraordinaire, and amateur folklorist. Her work has appeared in Abyss & Apex, Supernatural Tales, and more. She is currently at work on a novel about stage magic.