DP FICTION #57B: “The Train to Wednesday” by Steven Fischer

Charlie Slawson sat alone in the transit station, watching a set of empty train tracks and wondering why the train was late. Truth be told, he hadn’t known until just then that temporal trains even could be late. 

He looked around the underground station—its old, brick walls lined with gaudy digital displays, advertising exciting trips to next year, next century, and beyond—before noticing a man stepping onto the platform from a little door beside the tracks. He wore navy blue coveralls and a tall pair of work boots. His close-cropped, grey hair was half hidden beneath a faded baseball cap.

“Excuse me,” Charlie called. “Any idea when the train will arrive? I think it’s running late.”

The man stopped and frowned, then walked over to the bench. “You sure you’re in the right place, son? Which train are you waiting for?”

Charlie nodded and motioned to the marquee above the tracks. “Train to Wednesday. Just like it says.”

“Hmmph,” the old man grunted. “Wednesday’s never been one of our peak destinations. Especially not a Wednesday that’s just a few days away. What’d you want to do a thing like that for?”

Charlie turned the tablet in his hands so the old man could see the picture on the screen. That day, years ago, when Dad took him fishing out west of Cambridge. The first time he’d ever been to the train station. 

Dad tried to keep the trip going every year after Charlie left home, but life got busy, then they drifted apart. Charlie had always assumed they’d have time to catch up later, but he would give anything to have that day back, now.

“Your father?” the man asked.

Charlie nodded. “His funeral is this Wednesday.” He thought of the tearful video message he’d received this morning from his mother, his siblings already bickering in the background over funeral venues and seating arrangements. 

It was foolish, all of it. It would make no difference to Dad if the memorial dinner served chicken or beef, or if the service was held at the church on High Street or Main. What Dad would have appreciated was more time with his son, but Charlie hadn’t given him that. And no memorial, however perfectly it was planned, could do a thing about it. 

More time at home would just mean more time to feel guilty. More awkward conversations with distant relatives, more photographs and memories, more reminders that Dad had always been there for him, but he hadn’t done the same. 

“I loved my Dad,” Charlie said. “Even if I wasn’t the best at showing it. I wouldn’t miss his funeral for the world, but I’d just rather skip all the mess in between.”

The man nodded and fished a hand into his coveralls, coming up a moment later with a small, silver pocket watch. Inscribed on its cover was the looping infinity symbol of the Temporal Transportation Administration. 

The man opened the watch and tilted it so Charlie could see. Dials and arms littered the watch face, twisting together in an intricate dance that Charlie struggled to make heads or tails of. The man tapped the glass faceplate and made a sound which fell somewhere between a chuckle and a sigh. 

“Well would you look at that,” he said. “Seems you’re right. Train should’ve been here at least thirty seconds ago.”

“Is that normal?” Charlie asked.

“Nah. But it ain’t unheard of either.” The old man bit his lip. “These tunnels have been around almost as long as I have. Every once in a while the track is bound to run a little slow.”

Charlie looked down at the screen in his hands and sighed. “Okay. Any idea how much longer it’ll be?”

“Doesn’t work like that.” The old man shook his head. “A little hiccup on the other end might mean just a few extra minutes here, or it could mean a few days, or more. No way to tell without heading down the tracks and finding where the train is stuck.”

“Christ,” Charlie mumbled, staring down into the empty tunnel at the end of the station. “Is that safe?”

The old man shrugged. “Life ain’t safe. But there’s no reason it should be especially dangerous, provided we’re careful.” He turned and started to walk towards the tracks.

“We?” Charlie asked.

“Course.” The old man climbed down onto the railway and motioned for Charlie to follow. “Any extra delays stack up real fast down the line, so once we get her going again, the train won’t stop until the next station. You’ll have to board wherever we find her.” 

“You’re joking,” Charlie muttered, glancing down at his dress slacks and new oxford shoes, then at the puddles and mud waiting for him beside the tracks. 

Then he thought of his father, and the nightmare the next two days would be without him. He grabbed his briefcase and jacket and hopped over the edge of the platform.


Charlie tiptoed along the rail line, as close to the man and his flashlight as he could manage. Above their heads, aging brickwork dripped water and something much darker in thick, black droplets that clung to the floor. 

“You sure it’s safe to be in here?” Charlie asked. “These walls don’t look like they’re holding up so well.”

The old man grunted in agreement. “Been around a long time. It’s a wonder they’ve held up as long as they have.”

Somehow, that didn’t comfort Charlie. “Why hasn’t anyone bothered to replace them?”

“Ha!” The old man laughed, then turned back to face him. “When are you from, son?”

“When?” Charlie asked, shielding his eyes from the beam of the flashlight. “Don’t see what that has to do with anything.”

“Course you don’t,” the old man replied. “Because you don’t remember when they put these things in.” He patted the brick wall with obvious affection, then turned down the tunnel and started to walk again. “It ain’t just something you can go and replace. Takes a lot of time, and a lot of lives to dig a set of tunnels through spacetime. To pull the two apart so that you can move through one by moving through the other. It also took a lot of problems to make men and women willing to take that risk. Problems that you couldn’t just hop on a train and skip.”

Charlie grimaced. He wasn’t skipping the problem, just the mess. “So how does this work?” he asked, hoping to change the subject. “Aren’t we traveling back in time?”

The man laughed again, like Charlie was a child. “Course not. Trains can only go forward and so can we. Can walk down the tunnel as long as you want, but you’ll never reach a previous station.”

“And what if you managed to get outside the tunnel?”

“Wouldn’t want to do that.” The man pointed his flashlight at a pool of ink-black liquid. “The tunnel’s old enough here that some of the outside’s dripping through. All you’d find out there is a big sea of black.”

“Unless you found another tunnel?” Charlie asked.

The old man shrugged. “Suppose so, but you wouldn’t last that long. Just the tunnels and trains that can survive in the void.”

As they walked down the tracks, the dripping grew more frequent and louder, until the darkness spilled from the walls in neat little rivulets. 

“Careful now,” the old man muttered. “Better keep your feet on the tracks and avoid them puddles altogether.”

“Otherwise?” Charlie asked.

The man’s voice was stern for the first time since they’d met. “Otherwise I don’t know, and I don’t want to find out.”


The train was near wrecked when they finally found her. That much was clear the moment the old man’s flashlight beam fell onto her engine’s crumpled exterior. 

“Well that doesn’t look good,” Charlie managed to mutter.

The man shook his head and wandered closer to the engine. He pointed his flashlight down onto the ground, stepping carefully around the small, black stream which poured from the brickwork where the train had collided with the wall. The engine was lodged halfway through the wall itself, the only thing plugging a massive hole to the void.

The old man crouched beside the damaged tunnel and ran his hand along the bowing stone. Little waterfalls of thick, black liquid flowed from the brick around the sides of the train, pooling into a narrow brook which ran both ways along the tracks.

“Well?” Charlie asked. “What do you think?”

The old man grimaced. “I think we’ve got a big problem to deal with.”

Charlie looked at the line of train cars behind him. Aside from the engine, the rest of the train was largely undamaged. Passengers milled about inside, uninjured, pressing their faces up against the small, dark windows. A woman in a floral dress and an ancient-looking hat leaned her head out of one of the passenger car doors and began to climb down the emergency ladder. A young, mustachioed man in a charcoal-grey suit followed closely behind.

“The train doesn’t seem so bad to me,” Charlie said. “Just needs a new engine, probably.”

The old man nodded, then noticed the couple exiting the train. He wagged his finger like a grandfather scolding a pair of children. “And what exactly do you think you’re doing?” he called.

A guilty smile crossed the woman’s face. “Just coming to have a look. Maybe see if we could fix whatever’s the matter.”

The old man sighed and dipped a finger into one of the pools of black. The liquid crawled quickly up his hand, until he withdrew it from the puddle. He held his arm in the air a moment before pressing it against the edge of the train. The blank, dark space where his hand had been simply passed through the metal as if nothing was there.

He fixed the couple with a glare. “And what exactly are you going to do about that?”

The woman’s smile vanished and she mumbled a half-hearted reply.

“Exactly,” he replied. “Now you two get back inside and close that door, and let the experts handle this.”

Charlie chuckled. He certainly didn’t feel like an expert.

The old man frowned at him, then pulled a small, silver rag from his coveralls and wiped his hand clean. The black which had coated his palms seemed to simply fade into the fabric. “It ain’t the train that I’m worried about. This wall gives any further and the whole tunnel will be swimming in the black. Station too. Maybe the next station down the line. Nothing to stop it moving forward once it reaches that point.”

“Christ,” Charlie muttered. “What can we do about it? I imagine there’s someone that we’ll have to call?”

The old man glanced at his pocket watch. “No time for that. It’d take ‘em at least as long as it took us to get down here. But we can start by getting this engine out of the way.”

“What?” Charlie asked, feeling the knot in his stomach tighten at the idea. “The engine is the only thing plugging the hole. If we pull the plug, the entire tunnel will flood.”

The old man shook his head. “Don’t work like that, kid. The tunnel isn’t any happier about it being broken than we are. Given the chance, the hole would seal itself right up. As is, the train’s the only thing keeping it open.”

He pointed at the spiderwork cracks running through the tunnel wall. “It’s like a knife in a wound. Might bleed worse for a minute when we pull it out, but the longer it’s in there, the more damage it does.” 

The cracks seemed to grow even in the short time the man spoke, new drips and defects popping up around them. “Well that’s easy then,” Charlie replied. “We just put the train in reverse and pull the engine out.”

“Mmhmm,” the man replied. “Provided she’s still working.”


Charlie sat in front of the train’s aging control board, horrified that humans had ever trusted their safety to technology so primitive. Although digital networks had replaced the engineers running the rails decades ago, the engines were built in a time long before then and still sported a panel of manual backups, littered with dials, levers, and other relics of the past. Charlie glanced over his shoulder at a small, dim screen that showed a live feed of the passenger cars. Come to think of it, most of the train’s passengers were relics as well.

Out the cabin’s small side window, the old man stared at Charlie and gave him two thumbs up. He’d stayed outside to make sure the hole sealed shut, his hands full of minor patching equipment which Charlie was entirely sure would be insufficient if actually needed.

Initially, he thought he’d gotten the better end of the deal. But now that he was inside the engine room, with only inches of glass separating him from the horrible emptiness which stared back through the front windshield, he wasn’t so certain. The darkness in front of him swirled and writhed like a pile of living shadow, feeling and squirming its way towards the cracks in the tunnel wall. Charlie couldn’t see it, but he felt it. Felt it the same way he felt this might not end well. But what choice did he have?

He could climb back outside the engine and tell the man he’d had enough. Walk straight to the station and wait out the rest of a painful week at Mom’s. That wouldn’t be so bad. It’d be tearful and frustrating, but certainly not deadly. 

But it had taken nearly an hour to walk this far down the tunnel, and there were no guarantees the wall would hold long enough for him to get back. Besides, if the man was right, and a spill on this end of the track could creep into the future, who was to say he’d make it to the funeral at all?

At the end of the day, those thoughts didn’t matter. The only one that mattered was of Dad, standing on the train platform all those years ago, bending over to pick up a piece of crumpled paper from beside the trash can.

“Never walk past a mistake, Charlie,” he’d said, his quiet, certain voice rising over the sound of the station’s bustle. “Not when it’s in your power to fix.”

Dad had lived his life by those words, and Charlie would be damned if he couldn’t live up to them, especially today. It was the least he could do.

“Alright, Dad,” he muttered, staring down at the large, red lever on the control panel. He glanced out the window and gave the man a thumbs up in return, then threw the lever into reverse. 

Behind him, the engine whirred to life, rumbling and shaking as it struggled to throw the massive weight of the train backwards. Charlie gripped his seat and stared out the window at the man beside the tracks, but the train didn’t move.

The man shouted something that Charlie couldn’t hear, but he knew what it must mean by the waving of the man’s arms. Turn the engine power up. Charlie nodded and spun one of the dials to full. 

The knot in his stomach tightened even further as he felt the train start to shift backwards. Its metal walls screeched and scraped against the brickwork as it pulled itself back from the hole. Then, just as soon as it had begun, the train slammed to a halt.

“No, no, no,” Charlie mumbled, spinning dials left and right. Despite his attempts, the train wouldn’t budge. Outside the window, the man motioned madly for him to kill the engine, rushing out of the way of a sudden onslaught of black liquid. 

Charlie stared at the river and raced through his odds. A portion of the wall must have broken loose as he reversed, lodging itself behind the rear wheels and holding the train in place. The void was coming in, even if he stopped the engine. 

He looked at the growing stream of black with mounting certainty. Even if he stopped now, it would be enough to flood the tunnel. The only chance to stop it was to get the engine out, so the hole could close. 

Through the windshield, the void tumbled over itself with anticipation. Nothing but black in its horrible depths. Nothing but black…and was that a streak of silver?

Charlie stood up from his chair and pressed his face to the windshield, struggling for a better look. Somewhere below, in the sea of emptiness, a small line of silver glimmered brightly. Charlie traced its path until it ended in a box, so far below it only looked like a little dot. 

But it wasn’t a dot, of that Charlie was certain. In that moment, he knew it was a train station—some other year, some other century, lingering in the darkness below. 

It was a train station, and he had a plan.

Charlie sat back in his seat and took a deep breath, then one final peek out the small side window. The black stream had grown into quite a torrent already, pouring both ways down the tunnel. The old man still motioned for Charlie to stop the engine, but he was standing pressed up against the opposite wall to avoid the darkness as best as he could. 

Charlie tapped a small red button on the dashboard, feeling a clunk behind him as the engine detached from the rest of the train cars. 

“Alright, Dad,” he muttered. “I’ve never been one for walking anyways.” With that, he gripped the engine’s lever and shoved it towards the waiting void. 

The engine lurched forward with a tremendous screech, and Charlie turned around in time to see the wall snap closed behind him and the world vanish from view.


The engine crashed through the station ceiling some time later. How long, exactly? Charlie wasn’t certain, and he doubted he ever would be. It felt as if he’d spent no time at all in free fall, and yet it felt as if he’d spent his whole life. All he knew was that he was happy when the collision threw him forward against his restraints and he was suddenly staring into someplace bright and living again.

The moment the engine came to a rest on the empty platform, Charlie unclipped his restraint and scrambled to the door. He climbed awkwardly out of the twisted, tilting vehicle, prepared to shout at any bystanders about the need for evacuation. Instead of spotting a stream of black liquid behind him, however, he noticed that the engine had fallen straight through the ceiling, which had, indeed, sealed itself right up behind him. 

The few commuters on the platform stared at him with surprise, but not dismay, until a middle-aged man wearing dark blue coveralls shouted at him from a across the platform. 

“Hey! Hey you!” he called. “What the hell is going on?”

Charlie stared at the brightly colored baseball cap atop the man’s head and smiled. He ran across the platform and wrapped the man in a tight embrace.

“What do you think you’re doing?” the man grumbled, shoving him away with a confused frown.

“What year is it?” Charlie asked suddenly, catching sight of the posters which lined the station walls. He remembered seeing them years ago.

“Oh Jeez,” the man muttered. “Don’t tell me you got yourself lost somehow.”

Charlie felt the knot return to his stomach as he shook his head and grabbed the man by the shoulders. “No, no, no. You don’t understand. I just need to know the date, or at least the day of the week.”

The man stared at him for a moment without answering, but Charlie already knew the answer. On the tracks, a train was waiting, its doors preparing to close. Inside, a young boy and his father were too busy staring at the fishing guidebook they’d brought along to notice the commotion outside.

“Wednesday,” the man muttered, but Charlie was already running towards the train.

© 2019 by Steven Fischer

Author’s Note: I spend most of my life waiting for moments. Counting down the days to big events like graduation, or the minutes to small ones like the end of a shift. Too often, I’m so busy looking forward that I forget to look around, and I find myself wishing later I could have those moments back. Time-travelling trains might make for fun scifi, but even in fictional worlds time only moves one direction, and in real life you can’t cheat your way around that. 

Steve is a resident physician in the Pacific Northwest. When he isn’t too busy cracking open a textbook (or a patient’s thorax), you can find him exploring the Cascades by bike, boat, or boot. His stories have appeared in places like F&SFGrimdark Magazine, and Flash Fiction Online, among others. You can read more of his work at www.stevenbfischer.com, or find him on twitter @stevenfischersf. 

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DP FICTION #52A: “The Ceiling of the World” by Nicole Crucial

This is important. When Margaret moved to the city, you see, the office she worked in was on the top floor, five stories up. The train took twenty-five minutes to travel between Bleek Street—where her office was—and Swallow Avenue—where she lived. She took a room in a basement, and that basement room was ten feet below the ground, and through the eighteen-inch windows at the top of the room, daylight filtered in. The reassuring whisper-hum of the underground trains tickled the soles of her feet every few minutes. 

She’d kept hearing the city was growing. She figured, that’s where the jobs are—so she’d moved there. And yes, it was true, there were all kinds of jobs. You could be a copywriter, or a production assistant, or a construction worker, or pharmaceutical saleswoman, or a waitress at a fancy restaurant, or a waitress at a cheap diner, or a mail woman, or a graphic designer, or a barista, or a zookeeper, or a city planner, or an executive assistant, or a plumber, or an engineer, or a nail technician, or a food truck driver. That was part of the excitement: the possibility. The city was big enough for anything, bold enough to swallow anyone and spit back out a well-adapted spider monkey to climb the skyscrapers. Folks moved with an animal grace through the streets, stepping lithe around the potholes and trash, extracting quarters from their pockets without fumbling when the homeless people jangled their coffee cups. 

She’d liked the office with the view—the bumpy horizon of skyscrapers, historic and glassy-obsidian-new; the obstructed but beautiful sky; the surrealist haze that lingered and that was equal parts factory, cigarette, and vape shop. She’d taken the job at the office with the view without really knowing what the job was about. It had something to do with spreadsheets and calendars. It didn’t much matter what she did. 

“Every morning I walk out of the train platform, and I look straight up and can hardly take my eyes off the ceiling of the world till I walk inside the building,” Margaret told her mother. 

The five-story building was a walkup, and Margaret didn’t mind. She hummed in the stairwell, failing to count her steps. 

This is important. She was distracted and dying to be enchanted. So it took her a while to notice. 


One evening Margaret came home and descended the stairs to her basement alcove. Her legs were powerful now, after a few weeks of climbing those five stories, the stairs to the subways, this path to her bed. 

At the bottom, she put her foot down, expecting the tile floor. Instead her pump found the slick edge of another worn stair. She stumbled, barely caught herself on the railing in time to avoid a face plant.

Strange, she thought. 

“These godforsaken shoes,” she said to her mother on the phone. 

The light falling from the high, squat windows seemed a little dimmer. 


She noticed, eventually, that where once she’d only been able to hum her favorite Johnny Cash song’s chorus three times while claiming the stairs at work, she now could almost finish a fourth repetition. 

Outside the gilt-edged windows in the historic office building, the construction workers and cheap diner waitresses and engineers looked a little smaller. 

“Nothing is ever finished, is it?” said her boss, dropping a stack of papers on Margaret’s desk. 

The factory-cigarette-vape shop haze shimmered outside the windows.

This is important—or rather, it’s not. In the evenings, when she got home and eased her heels carefully over the unexpected last step into the basement, Margaret could not have told you what she’d done all day. 


She noticed the clock more now. How the quiet, stuffy minutes in the train seemed to stretch out between the stops, unfurling, leisurely, absent-minded. When she looked up from the sidewalk, the edges of buildings hemmed the once-unbounded ceiling of the world, the perspective making them narrow dramatically toward the sun. 

Mail began coming in bins, directed to the “6th floor.” 

“Should we change our address on the website?” asked Margaret, who, she remembered in this moment, was in charge of such things. “Facebook?” 

“What do you mean?” asked her boss. He pointed to the website open on her computer—6713 Bleek Street, 6th floor. “It’s always been the sixth floor.”

Margaret read every address on every piece of mail backward, from the bottom line up, to be extra sure that her brain wasn’t automatically filling in a number. Still, the number 6 made her bones feel brittle, fragile. She was glad she took the 8 train home.


In her basement room, which she swore now sat two steps lower into the ground, she heard the train passing the wall directly next to her bed. Strange. It didn’t seem like sinking two steps should bring her bedroom latitudinal with the train. 

But, you see, she liked how the rumble had moved from under her feet to level with her chest as she faced the wall at night. It began to feel like the gentle but deep vibrations of a snoring lover, perched next to her under the sheets. 


On a Thursday night, she went out. The bar she ended up at was three blocks from her heightening office, a puzzling intentional mix of hole-in-the-wall-dive and classily dim-lit, marble surfaces.

She sat alone at the bar stirring a gin and tonic until some man decided she looked lonely enough. It was an accurate observation. He settled into the stool on her immediate left.

“Where are you from?” 

It was a question no one had ever asked in her hometown. 

She gave its name; added, sheepishly, as one was supposed to do if they hadn’t been raised in the city: “It’s just this little town. I moved to the city a few months ago.”

“Oh? What for?” he said, rolling the tiny straw from his drink between his thumb and forefinger. It was not a frenetic motion—it was something unhurried. 

This was where she was supposed to say what her job was, or admit she had attended an expensive university here. Even though she knew this, Margaret found that the question clotted in her ears, plugged her throat. 

“I work on Bleek Street,” she said. She was changing the subject; the man did not know this. 

“Oh—I work two blocks over.” He held her eyes. Margaret noticed, startled, that he’d looked her straight in the eye for their whole conversation. 

He smiled, a toothy, guileless, out-of-place smile. As if the proximity of office spaces were a serendipitous coincidence, not the rational result of two people wanting to drink after work and not wanting to take a train across the ever-widening midtown expanse just for that. Margaret stared at him, the pads of her fingers dripping condensation on her glass. She felt as if she were on the train again. Trapped in the split second of darkness and encroaching bodies in which she feared, irrationally, that she would never get off, that this was eternity. That the moment would never end, or if it did, that it would never leave her. 

“Have you noticed the buildings?”

“The buildings,” he repeated. 

“They’re… growing.” 

“Growing?” He leaned closer, placing his palm on the stool that separated them to steady himself. 

Strange: a stool, separating them.

“And sinking,” Margaret continued, unable to stop herself. “And moving further apart. The train takes longer. The underground sank deeper.”

He tilted his head. 

“Buildings,” he said again. “Growing.”


In the coming months, her office changed its address from the 6th floor to the 7th, then the 8th, 9th, 10th. It remained a walk-up. 

Four more stops appeared on the train between Bleek Street and Swallow Avenue. The stairs leading down to Margaret’s basement room added a platform and doubled back in a second flight, and she had to crouch while descending in darkness. No more light reached her from the small windows. 

She didn’t see the man from the bar again. He’d entered his number into her phone and texted himself from it—a process that made her wrinkle her nose, but remain silent. But when she looked in her messages later, the conversation had disappeared. All her conversations had disappeared. 

Above her, the trains whispered and hummed. The vibrations fell on her as gossamer-light and chilling as spiderwebs. 


When she called her mother, the line rang indefinitely. She didn’t pick up; no robotic voicemail came to save her from the anxiety-adrenaline of waiting for the next ring, the silent begging for a dial tone.

Margaret waited for almost an hour, letting each ring saw on her nerves as if a nail file on a piece of string. 

“I miss you,” she said between tones. 


“I met a guy,” she tried. It felt hollow and she was glad, for a moment, that there was nobody on the line. She shook her head, hung up, and redialed: a clean slate. 


“I read a poem once—”


“—something about, you know, city as lover.”


“Like how people are home.”


“Um, okay, that’s not important.”


“This is important.”


“Do you remember when I was little?”


“And I counted the cracks in the ceiling—”


“Every night before I slept.”


“There were seventy-seven.”


“I can’t find cracks to count anymore.”

After that, the phone stopped ringing. Only the laden, breathing silence of a receiver, depositing soundbytes into some irretrievable void. Maybe at least the phone company was recording. It comforted her to think that somewhere her voice was frozen, trembling over the syllables in “seventy-seven.” Finally a number that couldn’t change. 


A growing city requires all kinds, devours all kinds. Margaret passed the storefronts, caught the job classifieds in her periphery as she handed the morning paper to her boss. You could be an instigator, or a message, or a cookie tin containing only buttons, or a nosejob critic, or a law, or a grocery store mapmaker, or an Internet hoax, or a governess, or a pushpin collector, or a pocket square, or a bottle, or a ringbearer, or a liar, or a mathematician, or a lying mathematician, or a butterfly effect. 

That was part of the excitement: the possibility. The city was big enough for anything, bold enough to swallow anyone. Something about a primate with a prehensile tail. And you see, these days, you really needed to climb, and you really needed that extra limb to hold on with. There was nothing to do but climb. There was nothing to do but be swallowed.

Margaret did something with spreadsheets and calendars. It didn’t much matter what she did. 


On a Monday morning, six months after Margaret moved to the city, she stepped onto the sidewalk after a three-hour train ride.

She looked up at the ceiling of the world. She hadn’t been able to sigh about it to her mother for six weeks. Above her, a tiny misshapen circle of sky and an edge of blinding sun peeked from the encroaching gargantuan skyscrapers. The sky was more brick than blue now.

Margaret opened the door in her office building. She took a deep breath. 

She began the climb. She did not hum, because she knew if she did, her voice would give out on the way up. She failed to count her steps. 

She was distracted and enchanted to be dying. 

This is important.

© 2019 by Nicole Crucial

Author’s Note: I was living in New York City for a summer internship. Unsurprisingly, I felt like a very small and young and alone person in a very big city. Unlike other places I’d lived, New York only seemed to get bigger with time—not smaller—and I thought, what if that was literal? This piece was a way for me to work out my loneliness and frustration, the disappointment with myself and with the environment I was in. I’ve since gone happily back to living in and writing zany, semi-magical fiction about the South.

Nikki Kroushl (writing as Nicole Crucial) is finishing up her senior year as a student of various dark arts (one of them creative writing) at the University of North Carolina Wilmington. She writes fabulist fiction and self-indulgent personal essays. She is far too enthusiastic about planners, punctuation, pasta, caffeine, and Instagramming her cat. Read more of Nikki’s work at nicolecrucial.com.

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DP FICTION #33A: “When One Door Shuts” by Aimee Ogden

The whole family wants to know when Mia is going to walk through the door, but no one has asked her about it. No one will.

The front door of Mia’s parents’ house is painted emerald green on the outside, off-white on the inside, with a knob contrived to look like real brass. No one has opened it for six months. Mia hates that door, has hated it for its full half-year of disuse. Ever since the front door of every house on the street became a portal into death.

Or a portal to somewhere else, at least. But it’s the dead who walk through from the other side. The Garcias’ stillborn little boy was the first one to come back, crawling through their open door as a fat, cheerful one-year-old. George Bojanek, who died of a heart attack three years ago in May and who was buried in the military cemetery at Fort Custer, strolled through one day. None of them have anything to say about where they’ve been and how they came back, certainly not the one-year-old and not old George and no one in between.

The doors are a mystery, but the trick of operating them is not. All it takes is someone opening the door from the inside of the house and walking out. And disappearing forever. Dead, Mia supposes. A cosmic tit-for-tat. But no one knows where George Bojanek’s elderly mother-in-law is now, and the Garcia baby certainly can’t tell what happened to his mother’s little niece.

The doors are almost all anyone can talk about these days, though their voices drop when Mia walks into the room. Yes, the doors are inscrutable, but to Mia they’re also infuriating. She visits her parents’ home as infrequently as she can, preferring to keep to her own apartment in her own town, where the doors are just doors and the only expectations hung on her are that she will arrive at work on time and get things done while she’s there.

But whenever she parks on the too-familiar street for a visit, she has to walk around and enter the house through the garage. When the postal carrier rings the bell to announce a package, it means finding shoes and making the tedious trip around. And each time Mia finds her mother standing in the doorway of Allison’s room, pretending to close the door as if she hasn’t been standing there staring into the darkness for hours, she has to pretend she didn’t see as she walks past to the bathroom.

It’s Allison’s room now, and it always will be. Once, it was Mia and Allison’s. For fifteen years, it was. Mia has had the privilege of having her own room, elsewhere. A series of rooms. A dormitory, a studio apartment. Briefly, a roomy space in Lee and Amanda’s attic. White walls, blue, gray. Her scenery has changed; Allison’s has stagnated in three static shades of pastel green with white geometric-patterned curtains, ones that fifteen-year-olds must have considered the very height of style. Softball and Science Olympiad trophies still line the bookshelves. No dust. That much at least is different from how it was when it was still Mia’s room too.

Mia goes into the room sometimes, when she thinks her mother isn’t looking. She’s not certain it would start a fight, but she’s not certain it wouldn’t. She has as much right to be here as anyone. It was her room too, once. And it’s not as if Allison is here to object. She sits on the bed, rumples the spread. Thumbs through the copy of 1984 on the nightstand. Allison liked to say it was her favorite book, though Mia was certain she never actually read it. She flips to the first page and reads: the clocks were striking 13. She slams it shut and throws it back into its place. It slides to a rest against the white plastic base of the bedside lamp.

Sometimes, often, Clayton is downstairs, playing video games with Mia’s younger brother Brandon. Like Allison’s bedroom, Clayton is a relic left untouched in the wake of her passing. If Allison were still here, Clayton certainly wouldn’t be. She would have outgrown him, like she would have outgrown those atrocious curtains. Someone should have outgrown Clayton, because he doesn’t seem to be aware that he ought to have outgrown himself at some point in the last eight years. At least he’s of more utility than the sepulcher of a bedroom. Brandon likes him, anyway, and he’s nice to the kid. And if Mia’s parents aren’t going to discuss the fact that Clayton was the one driving the car that night, then Mia certainly won’t broach the subject herself. Mia was the one who didn’t insist Allison wear a seatbelt. She was seventeen minutes older, and thus, her sister’s keeper. Nothing to keep anymore, except a silent green room and an old boyfriend with male pattern baldness.

There are pictures of both of the twins in the house—all three children, with baby Brandon making his debut during Mia and Allison’s second-grade year. It’s a polite fiction, the window dressing on the household’s grief. No one has ever come to the library in Rochester where Mia now runs the children’s section. But every year, the whole family makes a pilgrimage to Ann Arbor to visit Allison’s first-choice college and med school.

On her birthday—their birthday, Allison can keep their childhood bedroom but not this, not the entire day—there is no party planned, no bright-colored envelope waiting in the mailbox at Mia’s apartment. She bakes her own birthday cake using a box of Betty Crocker mix, as she’s done the past seven years. She adds extra butter to the store-bought frosting to make it taste more like the stuff her mother used to make. No candles. They seem like a waste. She leaves the finished product on her kitchen counter, untasted, before she heads over to her parents’ house for a silent, miserable Saturday afternoon. She’ll go out with her coworkers next weekend: Tobin, who runs the circulation desk, has a birthday at the end of the month, so they’ll split the difference. It’s oddly reassuring to share a birthday again.

She lets herself in the side door using her key. She’s had the same one since she and Allison were old enough to come home from school alone. Her key ring has changed, but the locks have stayed the same. Most things have stayed the same in this house. Mia wonders what will happen when Brandon graduates and goes to college.

Her footsteps are light on the peeling linoleum of the mud-room. She leaves her shoes under the bench, where no one will trip on them. Where no one will wonder what kind of shoes Allison would have been wearing today.

The grade door closes silently behind her, and she ghosts through the house in her stocking feet. She peruses the contents of the fridge, peels back the lid on a container of cold spaghetti, thinks better of it. Her mother might have plans for lunch already. In the basement, Brandon and Clayton shout at their football player avatars on the big-screen TV. There was a time when Scott, her own high school boyfriend, was just as much a fixture in the house as Clayton is now. She hasn’t spoken to Scott since graduation. What is he doing today? She can’t imagine him playing video games with a teenager. In fact, she doesn’t want to imagine him at all. Too hard to think of a life that’s not chained in orbit around that single day. She drifts upstairs instead.

The door to her mother’s room is cracked open. Not far: just far enough for Mia to catch a glimpse inside as she comes up the stairs. She can see her mother, facedown on the floor. Shoulders twitching in great silent sobs. Fingers twisted into the rug.

Eight years. Eight years of this. Mia remembers a class trip when she and Allison were nine, to a petting farm on the other side of the freeway. One of the chickens was missing feathers, open sores mottling its head and sides. While the girls stared, another hen strolled over and lit into the wounded bird’s neck with its beak. “Why did it do that?” Mia asked, and the farmer shrugged: “They just can’t let it alone.”

A break in the smothered sobs. Mia’s mother looks up from the cradle of her arms. Her fingers slacken on the much-abused rug. Her stained eyes meet Mia’s. A flicker of recognition, of contact. And Mia wonders: was this an accidental intrusion on her mother’s private pain? Or was the whole scene staged for Mia’s benefit? Is this just another pitstop on the nearly decade-long guilt trip Mia has embarked on?

And does it matter?

Even in nothing but socks, Mia’s heels bang on the wooden stairs. She likes the sound. For so long, she has tried to be a silent presence in this house, neither seen nor heard. An unassuming hitchhiker on the long road to nowhere. It feels good to make noise. She is here. Let them remember that.

Someone calls after her—Brandon?—but too late. Her hand closes on the doorknob; her wrist twists. She looks back over her shoulder. Brandon’s face, too pale, just behind her mother’s shoulder. Just behind him, Dad, close-mouthed and frowning. Her mother’s arm is outstretched, but as Mia turns, it falls back down to her side.

No turning back now. That would be a cruelty to all of them.

Mia closes her eyes. Time to go.

The front door opens, and Mia steps through.

And into the foyer of her parents’ house.

For a moment, disorientation shakes her. This isn’t right: she should be gone. But everyone is still standing there, silent and staring, just as she left them.

But no, this is not the same smothering sameness Mia has acclimated to. This is not her family’s house, not exactly, not entirely. Not the same family she left behind when she walked through the door. Her mother’s arms are still by her sides, but they come up now, and Dad grabs onto the wall for support. Brandon sits down on the stairs. “Mia,” her mother breathes, and when she tries to say it again, her voice shatters.

Mia takes an uncertain step forward, looks back at the door she came through. “No!” her mother cries, and Mia turns just in time to be crushed in those strange, familiar arms. Brandon wraps around them both, his threadbare teenage pride tossed aside for the moment, and both he and their mother are weeping, and Mia doesn’t understand why until Scott comes up the stairs.

She hasn’t seen him for five years, not since senior year, when they parted ways to different colleges and different lives. She’s never considered what her life would have looked like if she’d hung on to her high school sweetheart. Having Clayton around was always enough of a souvenir of those days. “I thought I heard … ” He looks as if he’s seen a ghost, and of course, he has. “She did it,” he says, and that word, she, hangs over Mia like a cold shadow.

All Mia’s mother can say is how much she’s missed Mia, and she tucks the hair behind Mia’s ear: an uncertain, familiar gesture. They want to show Mia the house, and she lets them. They emphasize the sameness, the house as museum or mausoleum, but she already sees it: every untouched crack in the linoleum, all the foot-worn carpeting.

Somewhere during the tour, Brandon ducks out. He returns with a birthday cake from the corner store, a packet of multicolored candles, and a lighter. While Dad is digging in the farthest reaches of the freezer for a theoretical carton of Moose Tracks ice cream, Mia excuses herself to the restroom.

There are no bathrooms on the first floor, and given the choice of basement or second story, Mia moves upward. There are pictures on the walls in the staircase, as she’s used to seeing. Just like she’s used to, the family history depicted there screeches to an abrupt halt: smiling pictures of the twins, baby Brandon, suddenly stop in the girls’ junior year of high school. The final picture on the wall is as familiar as a reflection, and just as strange: a high school graduation photo. But of course, the face under the tasseled black hat is Allison’s, not Mia’s.

The bathroom is at the end of the hall, but she stops first at the only closed door. It opens at her push, and she leans into the doorjamb as she looks inside. No sports trophies here, only hand-made picture books and a third-place ribbon from a high school poetry contest. On the bureau, a dog-eared copy of The Fountainhead. Mia grimaces, turns her face into the doorjamb. The walls are green and the curtains are patterned in geometric black-and-white. She wonders if she will have to sleep here tonight. She looks over the bookshelves: there is no copy of 1984, not that she can see.

She closes the door quietly, but she wants to slam it.

Mia uses the bathroom, splashes water on her face. When she comes down the stairs, the family is waiting for her, with Scott in anxious orbit. They sing “Happy Birthday” to her. She eats cake and freezer-burned ice cream. No one asks her what has happened to Allison, and she does not tell them.

© 2017 by Aimee Ogden


phhfhrs4gkAimee Ogden is definitely not six angry badgers in a trenchcoat. She enjoys baking, reading comics, weightlifting, and digging cozy burrows. Her work has also appeared in ShimmerApex, and Escape Pod. You can keep up with her on Twitter or at her website.





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DP FICTION #31B: “The Entropy of a Small Town” by Thomas K. Carpenter

I gave up the memory of my first kiss to fix the carburetor. It uncoiled from my mind like a constrictor that’d just figured out it was strangling a steaming pot of chicken soup, or the way an unclasped belt loosened and released a pair of tight hipster jeans from some skinny hips, maybe even Osmond’s.

Sitting in the attached garage surrounded by smudged grease, crumpled car parts, and a snot-filled rage that oscillated between “No, I’m fine” and “What the hell does any of it matter” I pictured that kiss as it slipped free.

It’d been awkwardly delivered by a girl in seventh grade, behind Hamilton Elementary School, where they parked the buses they didn’t have the funds to fix anymore. Her name was Abby Silver. She’d kissed me with open eyes and rubbery lips, and whispered my name, “Phillip?” as she pulled away.

Eventually, I couldn’t hold onto it and the memory became an object I couldn’t describe, like being told a word in an alien language and trying vainly to picture it. The first time I traded a memory, I tried to cheat the reaction by writing it down in exquisite detail first. Afterwards, it was like reading someone else’s diary, someone who knew you, but somehow in your small town, you’d never met. It gave me the uncomfortable feeling my life was being observed and recorded. I never tried that again.

When I looked back to my oil-stained hand, covered in little black cuts from torn steel, the carburetor looked solid and whole like a frozen gray heart. Even the dirt had been cleansed from its skin and my fingernails were angry dark crescents against it.

I was about to fix the radiator, crushed like a wad of spent tissue paper, when the screen door from the kitchen wheezed open. Osmond’s mother backed in with an arm full of laundry, untidy hair spilling over her lumpy black dress. I escaped out the side door before she saw me.

I headed towards the center of town, following signs of the accident. Using a memory from when I went to the water park forty miles away with my parents only to find that it’d closed, I uncurled the stop sign, putting it back into its stiff policeman’s pose, which only reminded me of Osmond’s father, red-faced and shouting in a world full of “No”. I ran from that corner, forgetting that I’d been trying to hold onto a memory, which one, I didn’t know, before it obliterated.

My physics teacher, Mr. Anderson —a puffy-eyed well-known bachelor who wore pink Hello Kitty! socks most days —had once explained that the second law of thermodynamics stated that entropy always increased.

The laws of entropy explained why life was always so complicated. Whenever Osmond and I skipped class behind the gym, he would smoke cigarettes and talk about whatever new band he was into, while I admired his pale, lean arms sticking out from an ironic Ramones t-shirt with expertly cut off sleeves. If either one of us was having a bad day, which was most of them for Osmond, we blamed it on entropy.

Why did Osmond’s dad drink whiskey and yell at him at night? Entropy. Why had the Grizzly Bears sold out on their latest album? Entropy. Why did there always have to be so much physics homework? Entropy.

The last one was all me, and a bit of a lie. Mr. Anderson was why I’d considered a career in physics and had even applied to MIT, his alma mater. But Osmond and I didn’t share any classes and I never had anything to really complain about, so I’d made it up.

But entropy couldn’t explain how I could exchange memories to fix things. By the second law of thermodynamics, I shouldn’t have been able to put things back to how they’d been before. Giving up the memory violated the law as much as the fixing did, because that made it like it had never happened.

When a cherry red Camaro drove past me on the way to the Quickie Mart, I used the epithets they hurled at me, ones I’d heard a hundred times before in this small town, and fixed the cracks in the sidewalk. I repurposed my memories so quickly, their insults burnt up on contact, like an icy rain falling into a hot fire.

I always wondered if the Streets Department ever noticed that the sidewalks and roads were in better shape than their age would indicate. Maybe they thought a concrete faerie was protecting its realm, and maybe it was.

When I got to the old oak tree that Osmond’s light blue Chrysler Dynasty had crashed into last week, I clasped my hand over my mouth, smelling the leftover oil and grease I couldn’t quite scrub free, and trembled like a knife thrown into the dirt.

Black skid marks stained the gravel-speckled street, turning to raw earth as the tires had hit the grass. The whole scene looked like a giant had punched the tree, dragging its Neanderthal knuckles through the dirt as it swung. Little bits of plastic were imbedded into the tree that had a crack wide enough to fit my hand snaking up the trunk. Already, the leaves on the north side had withered, curling up just like I had to do each night to get to sleep.

Fixing static objects like stop signs and carburetors was one thing. They were frozen entropy and maybe fixing them rearranged the atoms enough to satisfy the second law of thermodynamics. But living, growing things were another. They were entropy in motion, constantly changing and updating themselves.

I thought for a while about what memory would be strong enough to fix the tree. It would have to be something that went down to the core of who I was. I studied myself for clues: jeans so tight they looked painted on, a belt I painted gold because the stupid Sears here didn’t carry the kind of clothes I liked to wear, an aqua linen buttoned-down shirt.

The first memory I toyed with trading was the time Osmond and I were sitting on the picnic table someone had hauled out to Knoll Point, when we talked about my ability. I’d shown him how I could fix things, putting a broken pencil back together as proof. He asked if I could fix people. He had a hungry, vulnerable look about him. I tried to kiss him, but he pushed me back. It wasn’t like we hadn’t kissed before; we’d been having steady make out sessions for the previous month since we’d got drunk on cherry wine and I made my move.

“Can you fix people?” he asked again. “Can you fix what’s in their head?”

“What do you mean?” I asked in a throw-away voice, clutching my hands into fists.

He shifted on the table then, hands and face flinching in a syncopated dance, mouth jawing at the question he wanted to ask, but settling on the one that actually came out.

“My dad. Could you make it so he wouldn’t care?” he asked eventually.

I was so mad at the time, I didn’t even answer. I pulled out a lighter that we used for making cozy fires in the rock-lined pit, flicked the flame to life, and held my hand over it.

“Tell me you love me,” I demanded as I lowered my palm onto the flame. The pain bit into my hand, nerve endings searing and turning to black smoke. The outer layer of my skin cracked, black with char. My muscles jumped and flexed, ready to lift my hand free of the flame.

“I need a powerful memory to fix it,” I said through gritted teeth, imploring him with my face, constricted into a hideous mask to say the words.

“I love you, Phillip,” he said, his mouth opened into a wide circle of horror.

When I pulled the flame away, he grabbed my arm and turned my hand over, recoiling from the damage. Tears squeezed out of his eyes as he tenderly tucked my hair behind my ear.

I felt like such a bitch for tricking him like that, but I was mad at him that he didn’t love me like I loved him. I repaired the third-degree burns on my hand, with a memory I no longer remember, but it wasn’t what had just transpired between us.

When the flesh was knitted and whole, Osmond pulled back, and changed the subject to what we were going to do after school. Either I was a such a good actor that as I explained I thought I was going to go to Cal Tech to study architecture that he believed I traded away that memory, or that he was so wrapped up in the question he’d wanted to ask that he didn’t notice. Either way, that was the only time he’d ever spoken those words to me.

I left the old oak tree in the state I’d found it, realizing that if I kept trying to fix everything in this little town, I’d end up an empty husk of patchwork memories. Put enough holes in my past and eventually the lattice would collapse.

Hamilton General Hospital was only two blocks from the site of the crash. I snuck around the nurse’s station, using a guy rolling a rack of food trays with what seemed like a thousand quivering bowls of Jell-O as my shield.

Osmond was alone when I entered, his family had left for the day. His eyes were sunken and the mask over his mouth looked like something you’d see on an alien spacesuit. The tubes and wires turned him into a puppet that no one had bothered to animate. Only the faint mist of breath against the mask indicated he was alive.

I was sitting on the chair next to Osmond holding his hand when his father came in. He was wearing his Sheriff’s uniform. His jaw pulsed with an anger that made my eyes flick to the gun at his hip.

“I told you, you’re not welcome here,” he said, puffing up his chest. “You did this to him.”

I was glad there was a bed between us. Not glad, maybe frightened. Frightened of what I might have done if I’d been in the chair on the other side.

My lips hardened into knives, thin blades dripping with venom. “I wasn’t the one driving his car. Drunk.” He blinked. “And if you so much as touch me, I’ll tell every newspaper in the county about what happened.”

Osmond’s Sheriff father actually reeled on his feet as if I’d punched him right in the mouth. His knees buckled and his face went through contortions of thought as if he were walking across hot coals.

Osmond and I had been making out in his light blue Chrysler Dynasty when his father had found us. There was no question to what we were doing, Osmond’s hand was down my pants when the flashlight burned into the car.

His father had yanked me out, shouting gin-soaked curses. Osmond tried to defend me, clawing at his father like a wounded cat.

Osmond’s father never hit me, but I wish he had. Maybe then he wouldn’t have driven away in a drunken rage.

Osmond was shoved into the passenger seat, and the Dynasty spat gravel in every direction before fishtailing down the road, leaving the Sheriff’s truck idling by the side of the road with the door open and the lights on. I shuffled back into town, puffy-eyed, and came upon the wreck after the ambulance had already left.

The airbags had deployed, but the passenger side of the Dynasty had slid into the old oak tree and Osmond’s head had hit the glass so hard the concussion put him into a coma.

His father sank into the chair across from Osmond’s lifeless body and sobbed into his huge hamhock hands. When he finished twenty minutes later, he didn’t look up, and said these words as if nothing had transpired before: “I just want my son back.”

After the Sheriff left, I placed my other hand on Osmond’s and squeezed.

The funny thing about entropy was that as chaotic and destructive as it sounded, it was quite life-affirming. A static Universe was just a button of unreleased matter. A flower that couldn’t bloom was dead.

I placed my fingertips on his temples and summoned the memories of Osmond and I together: the way his smile twitched when he was thinking of me, his lean hips, laughing at the jocks sweating on a hot August day in their football pads, the taste of mint as he kissed me, skinny-dipping in Miller’s Creek before we both knew, the glorious burning entropy of the night sky as we lay on a blanket on Knoll Point holding hands and whispering to each other as if we might disturb the heavens.

Just as I was leaving the hospital room, the boy who’d been laying in the bed was awake. His brown eyes locked with mine as he pulled the mask down.

“Phillip,” he said, his tone imploring me to stay.

“You’re Osmond, right?” I asked, one foot in the antiseptic hallway.

His eyes flickered with confusion, twice, as if the first time wasn’t enough. He looked at the bed and the medical equipment which brought signs of recognition.

“Yes,” he said, his lips curling into disappointment. “Have a good time at Cal Tech.”

“How did you know I was going to Cal Tech?” I asked, stunned and trying to remember why I’d come to the hospital in the first place. I guess it was because I went to school with Osmond. I probably had a crush on him, though I’d never let him know it.

He looked around the room as if he was trying to find a script to read from.

“I guess I heard you mention it in class,” he said, dejected, which confused me in turn.

“Well, have a great life,” I said, and left the room.

I thought I heard something that sounded like, “I love you,” from his room. I hurried back in, my heart beating like a thunderstorm, hands and face tingling with electricity.

“What did you say?” I asked, breathless.

Osmond paused for a moment before saying, “You, too.”

The words dropped unceremoniously from my lips, “Oh, thanks.”

I left Hamilton General Hospital with the nagging feeling I was forgetting something. I’m sure it had something to do with leaving town in a few months. Maybe I was a little disappointed that I was almost eighteen and I’d never had a first love.

But that’s okay; I’m a flower bud buzzing with entropy. Someday I’ll bloom, and it’ll be glorious.

© 2017 by Thomas K. Carpenter


Author’s Note: A couple of different scenes sort of grew together in my head as I was contemplating the idea of trading memories for magic.  The first was the protagonist cradling a greasy carburetor.  I didn’t know why at the time until I had the scene with the lighter come to me on a run (I get my best thinking done when exercising).  The rest just snowballed from there.


author-photo-tkcThomas K. Carpenter writes in a variety of genres including: post-cyberpunk, historical fantasy, YA dystopia, alternative history, steampunk, and contemporary fantasy.  His short fiction can be found in Ellery Queen’s Mystery MagazineAbyss & ApexGalaxy’s Edge, and other publications including this one.  The Alexandrian Saga, his best-selling alt-history series, has reached readers worldwide, while his current series, The Hundred Halls, is a cross between Harry Potter and Supernatural at university.  The first four books of the series can be found on Amazon, starting with The Trials of Magic.



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DP FICTION #31A: “Strung” by Xinyi Wang

The red string around Mom’s ankle does not lead to Dad, and Dad doesn’t have a red string at all. But she makes him laugh with his head thrown back, and he makes her smile the way I do at Ria Ruiz, the prettiest and smartest girl in not just my class but the whole first grade—so they must be in love, no matter what the Old Man in the Moon says.

“I hope I’m like you when I’m older,” I whisper one night, as Dad tucks me in.

He smiles and lifts his brows. “Bald?”

I scrunch up my nose. “No. I mean I don’t want a string, like you. I don’t want the Old Man to tell me who to love.”

Dad looks down at his unburdened ankles for so long I nearly fall asleep. Finally, he presses a kiss to my forehead. “Sweet dreams, Weilai.”

I change my mind for the first time two years later, when my oldest cousin gets married to a golden-haired lady who shares a string with him. The red between them coils at their feet, pulsing as they exchange beautiful words about fate and certainty. My parents are still happy together, but what if Mom would be happier with the person on the other end of her string? And if a scant ring of red appeared around Dad’s ankle one day, would he leave? Would he want to?

It would be better, I decide, to have a string and love who the Old Man says you should. That way, there is no doubt. Only certainty. For the first time, I consider myself lucky to have been born in the Old Man’s domain, under his sky with his moon overhead—to have eyes that can see the intricate web of red unspooled all around us.

But when my string shows up in the middle of my third grade math class, it unfurls like wildfire and bleeds out of the room instead of to Neal Lang, who I’ve loved for three whole weeks. I bite my tongue to keep from sobbing, but fat tears leak out anyway because whoever the Old Man wants me to be with is not this perfect boy who made me a daisy crown and asked me to be on his kickball team. A steady chant of “wrong wrong wrong” beats against my skull. My vision blurs, but not enough to wipe the red from the corner of my eye.

Miss Sabrina calls my parents when I can’t stop crying on my times table, and Mom carries me out to the car even though I’m getting too big for it.

“The Old Man is not absolute,” Mom says when we stop for milk tea on the way home. She lets me put my feet up on her lap while we wait for our order, gently rubbing my newly-bound ankle. “He was wrong about me.”

“How do you know?” I confetti my napkin and pinch the insides of my wrists to stave off fresh tears. “What if your destiny is better than Dad?”

Her mouth smiles. “Who could be better than Dad?”

I swirl a finger through the pile of napkin scraps before me, then shrug. “What if.”

Our strings trail off into the distance, in parallel. They snake across the street, around an elm, and out of sight. Mom stares out the window as she says, “I have more faith in me and your father than I do in any distant old man. Don’t you?”

As I chew on a mouthful of tapioca pearls, I change my mind again. About wanting a string, a destiny. About trusting, so wholly, the will of an invisible stranger. What does the Old Man know, anyway?

Over the next twenty years, I will change my mind twenty hundred more times—sometimes from day to day, hour to hour.

Mom and Dad get divorced, and my faith returns. As they sign their papers at the dining room table, Mom’s string runs, as ever, away from Dad—a stark warning that they were never meant to be. So if the Old Man knew they were wrong for each other, he must also know who’s right for me. With that belief lodged firmly in my bones, I spend a summer chasing my string. Mom and hundreds of generations-old stories say it’s futile; no one has ever found their destiny by looking. But I still devote three sweltering months to the search, tireless even when the red wisping away from my ankle leads me in infinite figure-eights through town.

A year later, my cousin and his beautiful, fated wife split as well—so I abandon faith again and take Katie Nilini to junior prom, even though my string arcs past her without ever brushing her skin. She beams as we dance to bad remixes and worse ballads, and my heart pounds when she sticks her fingers into the chocolate fountain and smears the melt across my nose. I hold her gaze all night, not once looking down at the red that winds away from us.

But when I kiss her on Monday, between classes, I can’t help staring over her shoulder at my string—running down the hall and out the door, away from her and her lilac perfume. The Old Man knows best, or he doesn’t. Either way, I can’t stop thinking about that damned sliver of red.

In college, I date but don’t commit. Five or six weeks into every relationship, I cycle from ignoring my string to agonizing over the destiny waiting at its end. Guilt over those wandering thoughts quickly fills my chest, and I pull back from my partners with vague excuses and genuine remorse.

A few ask, beg, scream for real explanations—and I tell them the truth. I palm my ankles and talk all night about the ethereal red that streams toward my unknown destiny. About wanting certainty, but being helpless against doubt. About my parents, my cousin, and my ever-changing mind.

They listen until they believe, even though—born outside the Old Man’s land, beneath a different moon and sky—they can’t see red like me. I swallow thickly, each time, and ask if they still want me after hearing all that.

They never do, but I never expect them to. After a dozen cycles in three years, I start choosing to be alone.

I don’t date again until my final year of grad school, where I meet Aaron Lao. He’s a professor, with eyes that see like mine, and he has his own string that doesn’t lead to me. We agree from date one that this won’t be serious, because his faith in the Old Man’s wisdom has never fluctuated like mine—he intends to spend his life with his destiny, once they find each other. I’m just for now, just until then, but I still fall in love with him over midnight talks about Confucian principles in wuxia novels.

“You’ll be happier with yours,” he says a year later, when he finally meets his destiny. His brow is creased, and he breathes an apology against my skin when he kisses my ankle. If I ask him to choose me, I’m afraid he might.

So I don’t ask, because he needs certainty that he’ll never have with me.

But knowing that doesn’t soften the loss. I wake up missing him for months afterwards, and I begin to hate the Old Man and his strings. Some nights, I drink and stick my head out the window and shout at the moon. Once, I sink to my kitchen floor and take a knife to my string. It curls like water around the blade, enduring, and I only succeed in slicing open my palms and spilling fresh red across my skin.

Therapy helps. Not immediately, but with time. After a year of weekly sessions with Dr. Aimee Ping, I unlearn my habits of glancing at my string a hundred times a day, of crossing my ankle over my knee and curling my fingertips beneath the band whenever I can spare a hand. Of caring entirely too much about the trickle of red that plagues my periphery.

By my ten-year high school reunion, I’m close to believing that I don’t need or want the Old Man telling me who to love. Close enough that I go up to Neal Lang at the reunion. My string still doesn’t run to him, but I still tell him I had the biggest crush on him in third grade. He laughs with his head thrown back as we talk, and I can’t take my eyes off him when he ducks across the gym to refill my punch cup.

I stay in therapy, and Neal and I stay in touch. Daily texts turn into nightly calls, and we start thinking of ourselves as a couple. We stay long-distance and non-exclusive at first, which helps stave off the guilt that once squeezed my lungs every time I’d glance at my ankle, away from a loving partner, and wonder. I almost tell him, a hundred times over, about destiny, a string he can’t see, and the Old Man in the Moon.

But I imagine swallowing thickly and asking if he still wants me after hearing all that, and fear of history repeating drives me to say, instead, “I love you.”

To say, eventually, “Marry me.”

We exchange vows at his parents’ church, and move into a condo with my dog and his two cats. Red spills from our home and runs unerringly toward my supposed destiny, but I think on it less and less—once a day, then once a week, then rarer still.

But as much as I want to, and as hard as I try, I can’t stop wondering altogether. Sometimes, unbidden, my mind drifts along the red river flowing away from Neal and floods with the idea of destiny. A pang of guilt accompanies each of those thoughts, and they coalesce over time into a dense weight beneath my skin.

On our tenth anniversary, we sprawl out beneath the full moon in our backyard. I’m bloated with good wine and Neal’s love and my decade-old knot of guilt, and I know I won’t be able to stand again without shedding a part of that weight. So as he makes me a daisy crown, I tell him everything. I talk about a string he can’t see, a weight he can’t feel. I describe the winding maybe that I sometimes stare at when we’re having breakfast at the kitchen counter.

And when I’ve talked my voice hoarse, I force myself to add, “If this is a deal-breaker, I understand.”

Neal is quiet as he turns the finished crown in his hands. Stray petals float down his wrists, and the heat of shame and fear slide down my chest in tandem. Finally, he places the crown on my head and hooks an ankle around mine.

“It’s okay,” he says. “I don’t mind.”

My breath stutters. “How could you not?”

He shrugs, his shoulder warm against mine. “The way I see it, everyone wonders. Whether or not they’ve got a string to follow. Thinking ‘what if’ doesn’t mean you love me less. It just means you wake up every day and choose me.”

“And—” I roll onto my side to look him in the eye, my own stretched wide. “And it doesn’t bother you that maybe one day I won’t?”

“Of course not,” he says, like it’s obvious. Like it’s easy. “Because it’s just as likely that one day, I’ll wake up and not choose you.”

I turn back to the moon, quiet for a long moment as Neal’s words loop in my mind. The crown’s petals are soft against my forehead, and Neal’s ankle is a solid weight atop mine. My red string, caught between us, squirms free and cascades into the distance, bright and stark beneath the light of the moon. It pleads for my attention, presents me with a choice.

Neal is smiling when I close my eyes and kiss him on the mouth. I choose him again the next day, and the next.

As for the ones after that—that’s between me and Neal, and not the moon.

© 2017 by Xinyi Wang


xw_headshotXinyi Wang was born in Beijing and raised in Northern California. They studied Creative Writing at UC Riverside, then resettled in the Bay Area to drink mass amounts of milk tea. When they’re not reading, buying hats, or refreshing the same five websites for hours on end, they write stories and babble intermittently on Twitter @byxinyi.






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