Issues /  / Fiction

Consider this: a bald woman breaches the barriers set up by the zoo, by the system of the zoo wherein it is required there be bars in order to prevent just this event.

Consider the tiger: Siberian, asleep, one massive paw resting over bridge of nose to block sun from eyes. Asleep and sun-blocked until the smell of a bald woman breaches his dreams.

The smell of the bald woman: skin, and blood, and disease. Consider that, because the tiger suffers—here, in the zoo, and in the way that any living creature is bound to suffer—he is more keen to the suffering of others. Has grown, surrounded by the sound wolves make for their dead, the ripple of pain that calls the moon. By rhinos, ramming their horns into thick walls of rock, into each other’s creased gray faces. By the sleeping body of his mother, her gruff and pleated snore that rose and fell with no particular rhythm, by which he’d always slept. Until the snow came, and she grew slow, and sleepy, and cold, and stopped licking him behind the ears. And he nudged her with his nose, wanting milk, and she did not wake up, and he tried again, and she remained still, and her tongue hung purple from her mouth, and his throat cramped and began making high, tight, thorny guffs, and they came for her body with cloth and with metal and then she was gone. How quickly her big body disappeared.

The bald woman’s body as she runs toward him is small, and quick.

The tiger’s body, that night in the snow. So heavy. The snow pulling him down, his thick fur coming off in patches. The wolves keened, the monkeys chittered, the people oohed, ahhed, pressed their faces to glass. He waited for someone to bring his mother back. The tiger waited, and waited, and waited.

The bald woman is running. He is still waiting.

Medicine, small hands, needles in his hide, like bee-stings, shooting cold pain through his bones. They thought he was sick. He grew and his sisters were moved into other cages and then he was alone and people brought him meat but all he could taste was blood. The river smelled like blood. The grass. The snow.

He is still waiting.

The undertone of the bald woman’s smell—thick beneath the tiger’s nose—is blood. Blood blood blood. But the bald woman’s blood is new blood, different blood, desperate blood, with its own kind of body, with hands that reach, with bared teeth, flashing. The smells she makes are low, and scratching and the tiger feels them beneath his fur, and his skin, into his bones. They are begging for something. They tug at the tiger. They lick and scratch at him behind the ears, wrapping their hugeness around his jaws and prying them wider.

The tiger. Big body. Big teeth. The tiger also suffers. From grief, and from entrapment, and from hunger. Endless hunger. They toss rabbits into his enclosure, sometimes a deer hide, but it is never enough. He tears through small bodies, spindly legs, and feels emptier than when he started. Hunger snakes through his big, endless belly, and his throat. It makes low tones in his stomach in the dark, where he shivers, and licks his lips, and waits.

He is always waiting.

The bright red of the bald woman’s gown, as she runs, is a flare. It is a warning. It is an invitation. She is so close he can taste the chemicals of her need—sharp and acidic—on his lips. Her blood is so loud and it sparkles and it howls. He is lonesome. He is starving. He has waited, and waited, and waited. Of course. Of course he obliges her.

* * *

This thing called the genuine heart of Sadness. Bodhichitta. The bald woman had it. Had studied it, in texts, when she’d needed to. In the small marigold-colored Pema Chödrön book she kept in the bathroom. Bodhichitta. She’d traced the word a hundred times with her fingertip. Soft spot, like after heartbreak. Fontanel of the heart. Thought it would go away when she went away. Thought she might not feel her own organs so acutely in death. Thought they would become a collection of particles, like the rest of her, no different from droplets of water in a river. Thought she would join that river. Thought she could return to herself this way, by leaving herself.

Before all that, when her fontanel heart still pounded, distributing clean blood to working organs, she hadn’t yet become the bald woman. She’d been the mother, and they’d taken her breasts, before they made her bald. First the right, then the left. She’d nearly become the one-breasted woman. Cyclops-tit. They’d all laughed about it around the dinner table. Her daughters snuffling quietly, pretending to think it was as funny as she did. They were too young to be convincing. Better, more earnest copies of herself. Stirred the beef bourguignon on their plates but didn’t eat it. She’d spent all day with The New Essentials of French Cooking, stew pots, pearl onions, meat. Wanted to show them she was still alive, still their mother, still capable of elaborate things. She cracked herself up. She still had all her hair. Wouldn’t need to lose it, yet. It was boring, all of it, really. Nothing new, nothing a million other people hadn’t done before. How dull. How incredibly quotidian was her disease.

Would have cyclopted herself. Begged to keep the one. Covered it tightly with her hand like the doctor might reach out and twist it clean off if she didn’t protect it.

Doctor said if It went in one It stood a good chance to go in the other, that’s just the way. Said it to the mother in her examination gown on a cold metal table. The gown: blue paper, almost the texture of a Japanese lantern. She could have glowed under the right sort of lamp, iridescent which chemicals.

Two to One to Zero. Baby-head heart. She didn’t need the organs; they all felt vestigial.

And then, months later: It danced its blooming, thriving tango straight to the vagina. Hers. Her vagina. Such a coarse, moist word. No one liked to say it, even think it. A word spoke to stun. A million euphemisms. Pussy. Twat. Cunt. Box. Yoni. Punani. Her body was rejecting its womanhood. Squamous Cell Carcinoma. Ridiculous name. Like some secret chapter of a Sorority. The Squamous Cell Carcinomas. A cheerleading team. A softball league. A dance group. Birth canal cells, deciding ten years after she’d finished giving birth to turn their backs. To rebel.

The word they used: “debulked.” They would “debulk” her of the thing widening inside of her, setting up separate meta stations of growth and attack. She’d read that women kept the fetal cells of their children in their bloodstreams for decades. Thought of this often, that when her daughters teen-aged—started twisting away from her towards drugs, sex, as all daughters do, as she did—she’d still get to keep them, as they were. Their cells. In a place no one could reach, not even her.

But, as it happened, there was no part of her unreachable. So, they carved out all her proof. Like pumpkin flesh, they scooped away their healthy cells, their baby cells. Her mothering. Scooped out that word from all their mouths.

Cyborg-vagina. Filling Station. Ha Ha, she joked with her husband, who did not laugh. He’d married a woman, and he would be left with something sexless, shapeless, hairless. Like one of those dogs she’d seen shivering in the park—weird, papery skin, no fur. Ugly, alien. He’d be left to care for her as she grew backwards, into baby state, again. He’d always wanted a third and she’d said no. Difficult pregnancies with the first two. Bed rest for months; hardly carried them to term. Had to trick them into staying put by moving as little as possible. Tedious months lying on a couch. There would be more months on a couch, now. What would be at the end of it this time? Blank. More couch. Nothing.

And, then, soaking up the map of her body like a sponge, it found her cervix. Then, the tubing poised above, flared out to either side like wilting tulips. Then the ovaries. That glut of eggs, gone obsolete. Ping ping ping, like a pinball It flew. She wondered what would make her still a woman. Wondered what that word even meant. Realized she could emerge as anything, after. She didn’t know. Didn’t know what she’d be left with. Felt her Bodhichitta shivering, soft as pudding in her chest.

* * *

The bald woman’s body. Confetti shreds of flesh. The tiger licks his chops because they are coated in her and he doesn’t want to lose a single drop. The moment after the bald woman’s body meets his jaws is total stillness. Only a moment, before the screaming begins. Big, hot sun. The pavement shines like metal. Harder than it was before.

The screams are horror screams and they are big and wet and he hears them at the back of his ears. But he is so busy, licking and eating and shredding, trying to reach the center of her, to make sure she is not wasted.

Children, he thinks, scream worse than the hyenas, who keep him awake at night for no good reason and leave him anxious, pawing the earth until he tires himself out. The screaming surrounds the tiger and he doesn’t want it and a barbed roar leaves his throat, and then another one. It feels good to speak so clearly. It feels good to shake flesh from bone while the people back away, shoes covered in the bald woman’s blood. He likes the new looks on their faces, because it means they are finally watching him, and his tiger danger, and his tiger anger, and his tiger pleasure, and the blood in the snow, and the blood in his mouth. Before, they had seen only the stories they’d told themselves: that his cage made them safe from him. That he was trapped. That he was fixed in place, eating their food and drinking from the streams they’d built him, and that these things kept the tiger safe, too. But the tiger has known a long time that no one is safe from anything. And now, they all know it, together.

Think of the body: a messenger. Not to be blamed. The tiger’s body is a home he’s never fully lived in. A home that always felt too big for his own desire, that he never properly grew into. His sisters, he heard, were sold to another place, far away. They’d separated them early because they’d been afraid of what he’d do. After they’d taken his mother, his head felt like it was trapped, permanently, in a cone. His eyes went wiggly and dark, his vision tunneled. He hurt his sister, once. He did. She’d lost an eye, because of him. But it was only because he couldn’t see where he was going or what he was doing. Everything was blurred and dangerous, and when she nibbled him one day, playful at the back of the neck, he’d snarled and swiped. He saw the blood on his sister’s cheek, mottling her whiskers, and it made him think of the snow, and how he longed for it. It was the last time he’d seen his mother’s body. The grass soaked up his sister’s blood, but the snow would have held it on display, like rubies. Before the moon came up, big men in big rubber suits with shields and pistols took his sisters and he was alone, with the hyena cries and the hot dirt.

No one had ever really seen the tiger. They’d seen his bigness and his sharpness, and they’d missed everything else. But with the bald woman’s flesh in his mouth, he is a portal, an entryway, an entire universe beyond fur, and concrete, and children with chocolate smeared across their lips. His jaws become curtains into another room. Diaphanous swaths of fabric, and the body. The body, of course, goes missing. The body always goes missing, the body, the cage, the body. The tiger’s ribs swell to accommodate the bald woman’s body in his body, so he and the bald woman are stacked, held inside each other.

He wonders if there is any part of her still aware. He wonders what his body feels like to die inside of, and how long it will take to digest her, and how long he will get to keep her inside of him before she is something new again. The tiger feels safe with the bald woman’s death inside of him; he feels alive. He feels, for once, important.

She is mostly bone. The wide of her armspan. The center of her chest glowing like moon-snow, making every frozen thing glitter. He is still the tiger, but with the bald woman inside of him, he knows everything now. Everything she knew. This is what it means to digest her. He wonders if he will be rewarded, somehow, for helping her escape. Extra deer hides. A wider river, full of fattier fish. He licks his paws and puffs his chest and shakes blood from his whiskers. His heart ticks, ticks, ticks in his ribcage.

Alarms roaring. Men. Rubber suits. Gleam of metal. The sun is so hot on his back. Maybe they are coming to return to him all that they have taken.

The gog-eyed visitors crowd his cage, mouths agape. They are waiting to see the fortune of their lives in relief. They are waiting for what happens next.

* * *

The bald-woman-mother is stunned by memories, here, in the River. The River is the only way she can think to describe what it is that surrounds her. And perhaps—the mother considers—this is how it feels to be in the womb, too. Awash in amniotic fluid, drinking and eating and pissing and shitting by dint of who-knows-where, because it’s everywhere. Because you are cradled by everything. And it’s calm. And you’re undisturbed by wondering, or by needing, or by asking for more. There is nothing more to ask for.

The mother is scattered in the great flow of it all, but feels her body sometimes, whole, like one giant phantom limb. None of it quite makes sense. The rest of the time—when she is unaware—is almost like sleeping. Like a painting made by a child in therapy—great islands of dislocated color, surrounded by white.

She remembers her daughters sleeping, as infants. Her first, always, pressed into one corner of her crib, thumb in mouth, face almost pained. Her baby the total opposite. Slept directly in the center of the crib, laid out like a corpse. Hands folded over her chest. Always, somehow, on display. Ready to be viewed in some preserved version of perfection. Sometimes, the mother would pad into the neighbor’s garden in dark middle-of-night to pull a fat blood-red rhododendron from their fastidious patch, stick it lightly between her sleeping daughter’s hands for her husband to find when he checked each night, nearing morning, but still too dark to earn that name. He’d always slip back in bed amazed. Another one! he’d whisper, pulling her tight to him at the waist, breathing his sleep breath into her neck. We don’t even grow those whatever-you-call-‘ems!

He was always ready to be amazed. Ready for the miraculous. Would press articles into her papery hands—stories of women who’d “beat” it, like it was a sporting event they’d signed up for, trained months to compete in. She read the articles, and felt small, and tired. She’d never been good at sports.

And after years on hiatus, after her body had already begun to devour itself, she returned to her little dalliance with the flowers. She missed it—that time, the ease with which her body used to move. Started creeping again, barefoot, into the dirt of the neighbor’s garden with her shears. Returning with her hands full. Even when moving around in her own skeleton felt like being stabbed, she did it. She was still alive. It was the most living thing she could think to do. A ghost, she reasoned, could linger and hover, but not touch, not grab, not uproot a beautiful thing, laced so resolutely to the earth. The neighbors saw what she was doing, but they never asked her to stop. Knew she wouldn’t be thieving off them much longer.

Back at home, taking small, careful steps, she tracked dirt across the tile floor of the kitchen, as she used to do. Still wanted to leave a trail—to see that her body could move, and drag, and track something, anything, across space. It was worth it, climbing the stairs, pausing at each one for more breath. Worth it to kiss her daughters again as they slept—teenagers now, their dreams thick, impermeable cauls, impossible to penetrate. Worth it, to kiss them on each cheek, on their foreheads, sticky with hairspray or gel or a misplaced rim of Manic Panic. Worth it, to catch her breath, nestled against the warmth of her husband’s hale, hairy, muscular back, how it dipped into two clefts just above his bottom, beckoning her like curved fingers to nibble him there. The delight of his flesh. His solidity. His aliveness. And then, his face, after he woke and found his daughters, blooming again after so many years. He never stopped checking on them in the night; always had to know they still breathed.

She’d never told him. Never. Until days before the Event at the zoo, with the tiger. In bed. He’d wept into her neck. Said he always knew it’d been her, with the rhododendrons. Said he wished she’d never told him. He’d liked it better, them agreeing on some magic they both knew wasn’t magic at all. But, no. In fact, it had been magic—those nights so long ago, and more recent—sometimes terrible and hard, the not sleeping and the swollen leaking breasts and the weird hormonal fugue. But wildly thrilling all the same. That same thing pretty much everyone in the world does at some point. It didn’t matter. It was theirs. It belonged to no one else, could be defined by no one else and in no other moment but those moments. Waking and sleeping and dreaming and breathing and eating and doing the normal things normal humans do in the space of their own completely magical air.

* * *

Blood, ricocheting through the air, through the slats in the cage, splatting onto the faces of children and their parents and everyone else who didn’t-see-it-coming.

It is not the tiger’s fault, but he knows her daughters will blame him. They will blame the bald woman for her selfishness. For her disease. They will comment on the suffering she has caused—on the blood drained from their faces the moment they returned from the snack bar, giggling and full of hot dog, to discover their mother’s bones, stripped of flesh, and the tiger, licking blood from his paws. They will always blame the tiger. They will not know to blame the power plant near the bald woman’s hometown that shot poison in gauzy spumes into the air throughout her childhood. They will forget to blame the bad water coming from the faucets or the influx of nuclear waste just over the state line. They won’t think of the laws in their state barring her from a quiet death—why would they? They will blame the tiger because the tiger has big teeth and big hunger. Because the tiger cannot defend himself. Because the tiger is easy target.

The sun is huge against his back. A mammoth eye, shooting beams of heat-light into his eyes, into the thickest parts of his fur. He was almost blinded as she slid through the bars of his cage. She’d looked more alien than human. She asked him to take her apart, and he did, and it was simple. Everyone watched, and then they came closer. The tiger was giving everyone a story to tell the rest of their lives. They wanted the best view. He wanted the meat. He wanted to be full of her.

How quickly she disappeared in his mouth. How nicely her bones, cleaned of flesh, clicked against his teeth. How he sat, licking his massive paws, after, and how good it felt to be full, and clean. How they forgot he was an animal. Part of a tribe, from which he’d been long separated, by death, by sale. How they forgot she was. Fair game. How they’d never considered that she’d had a life, so many moments before this moment. Had hair, and parents, and a past trailed behind her, all of which she collected in her arms like field daisies as she ran toward him and asked him to return it all to her, whole, and he said yes, yes, yes.

* * *

Different memories, older memories. Her stint as a topless dancer, when she dropped out of college. Nineteen. Her hair, dyed flame-red. The trick she’d do with her tongue and the stems of maraschino cherries. Where she got her nickname. Grenadine. Swinging her glittering tassel-tits in the faces of men, crowded around tables or pressed up against the padded bar before the stage. She hadn’t been great at it. Could never quite get enough velocity to her swing. The other women treated her like a little sister. Loved her. Braided her hair as she sunk into their laps after a shift. 2 a.m. and drunk on loose bills, wadded into their purses. She was tiny and clumsy. Kept the job six months because she couldn’t bear to leave these women. It was an old joint, out in the suburbs—the other dancers were mature women. Had children. Had loose bellies and tired breasts, kind eyes. Great at their jobs, though. Loved those men up, let them press their old hairy noses right into the center of their tasseled titties and just dig on in.

She was a kid to them. Another baby. Playing dress-up. Never asked her why she was there and not somewhere else, somewhere with younger girls and stockbrokers as clientele. She was where she was meant to be. Landed there because she’d been there, as a kid, with her own old man.

Her dad. He used to plant her at a table in the front section of the building, where there was a restaurant, with a box of crayons and a legal pad. Everything doused in grease, even the tablecloth. Waxy. Warm. Wood paneling on the walls and lamps with pull chains on every table. Paintings of moose and other forest animals everywhere. Bric-a-brac and nick-nacks, clutter. Almost seemed like the kind of place you were meant to bring kids.

He thought she’d be too young to know what was going on. Five years old. Said, Don’t leave this table, Shnoogie, ya’hear? A million nicknames. He already had a whiskey in his hand, ice-clinking. Had his leather jacket on. She’d loved the way it smelled. Spicy and raw. Got her own leather jacket as soon as she could afford it. Started drinking whiskey as a teenager and stuck with it, too. Worshiped her dad. Thought him the bee’s knees. He was. He’d kissed her forehead, said: I’ve just got to do a thing, Little Bee. Back before you can say Mississippi a thousand times.

It was the last thing she heard, singing through her ears, before she slipped herself between the slats of the tiger’s cage and began to run. She was running toward her father’s voice. Whiskey and leather and hunger and big arms and steak in a cast iron pan, hollandaise, wax and pomade, dark rooms, baseball statistics in neat ballpoint, butter-yellow legal pads. Back in time. Toward wall lamps and pull chains and moose heads and leather and healthy body. Back before you can say Mississippi a thousand times. Mississippi. Mississippi. Mississippi. Mississippi. Mississippi. Mississippi. Mississippi. Mississippi. Mississippi. Mississippi. Mississippi. Mississippi. Mississippi. Mississippi. Mississippi. Mississippi. Mississippi. Mississi

* * *

The tiger remembers everything about these next moments. He knows he will die because this is part of the order of things, because he has followed his own animal order, because this is how disorder works.

He has swallowed most of the bald woman’s flesh when the shot is fired from a distance he can’t measure, because bullets exchange distance for speed, and everything is slow now, and so quiet, and because he’s still engaged in his meal. An act of grace no one can tabulate.

And time—like she does—stretches, stretches, holds him in her mouth as he holds the bald woman in his belly, her bones at his feet, as he waits for that oblong bite of steel to spiral through the air and graze his ear, and then another one, and another one, until the one that comes and pulls the sun from his fur, the solidness of his flesh from the ether.

* * *

When she was born, and introduced to light for the first time.

His mother’s long tongue between his ears.

The blur of her mother’s breast.

When she lay in her crib, watching soft things sway above her, curtains rise and fall, golden light peeling in and dissolving, later, into a deep, hazy blue. Her babyhood swaddled around her head.

His sisters as they watched him emerge into light and wet earth, deciding what to do: kill him or keep him. They kept him. They let him live.

The family dog, spotted and long-furred, licking at her cheek. They put him down at the end of summer. He was too old for joy but he still attempted it. It made them sad to look at him.

Before she was born: her parents. Whiskey, beads of ice, a dive bar outside of the big city. Her mother’s hair, frizzy enough to resemble a halo in the neon of a Coors sign. Her father, hulking and soft-eyed. Both of them weak-kneed and dead-broke and drunk.

Gunpowder making clouds and hot shouts above his mother’s head.

Her father’s truck, parked by the river. Soft backseat, cracked leather, a tuft of stuffing peaked out.

A tundra. Snow and blue and cold. His mother’s eyes, flashing as they grabbed her. A net.

Summer bugs, making their frantic noises. Cattails dipping their heads low. The cracking of metal, gunshot, fireworks making glitter in the sky.

A sharp thing whizzing into the wet dark, embedding itself.

In his mother’s belly, he grew eyelids and fur.

And there she was, the very first moment of her, before she was anything. Just a collection of cells, uncertain yet if they would stick.

A low hum, a snap, everything shifting, the taste of milk at the back of his throat. Everything gold. Everything tumbling. The tiger—a drop in the ocean. The whole ocean. Salt-buckled blue.

He misses the ground. He misses sleep. The bald woman rides his back, hair down to her ankles.

A glittering curtain. A flash of breasts. A man’s voice, hollering. A tinkling sound. His paws, so tender. Everything lit up.

The bald woman and the tiger: knitted together.

The rushing ocean, a billion tiny droplets. Borderless. Full.

Kate Weinberg


Kate Weinberg was born and raised in Baltimore, MD, and currently lives in Austin, TX. Her story, “Goating”, was published in Copper Nickel’s Spring 2022 issue, and she is recipient of a 2021 grant from the Elizabeth George Foundation, as well as fellowships at the Community of Writers and the Vermont Studio Center. She earned her MFA in fiction at UC Riverside in 2019. You can find links to other published work and illustrations on her website.
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They say she pulled The Baby out from the ground with her bare hands.

They say she made a deal with the devil, or Jimmy Page.

They say she fed The Baby the blood of all the neighborhood’s mothers—those who could mother at least.

They say she drank coffee while pregnant.

They say she gave birth at home, or in a birth center, or the forest.

They say she co-slept with The Baby.

They say she was crazy, depressed.

They say it was hormones.

The beginning is just a story. A story of life and then sudden death. Not an uncommon story.

They say after The Baby died, The Mother picked the small body up and had the feeling that two tectonic plates were colliding inside of her—The Baby’s tiny, wrinkled hands thick with rigor mortis; its one tooth peeking out from between little blue lips open in a forever O; its high-pitched hey-lah cry echoing in the silence between them.

They say The Husband wanted to compost The Baby. But holding The Baby’s body in her arms, skin the softness of fallen rose petals, The Mother couldn’t imagine the thought of The Baby breaking down into a thing she wouldn’t be able to touch her lips to.

They say she wanted to hold The Baby forever.

They say The Husband would’ve done anything to get her to let go of The Baby. The Body, he called it.

They compromised, buried The Baby in the backyard under the cherry blossom tree where their first fetus lay. Later The Mother would wonder if it was the power of their two baby essences mixing together that did it. At the funeral though, she just kneeled there, her body inordinately still.

They say she didn’t even cry.

The Husband leaned against the fence across from her, his face dirty, his white t-shirt stained brown, his wet eyes shifting between the shovel and his hands.

They say The Mother went out to the tree every day, sprawled her body in the dirt trying to touch the earth that by association was touching the small body buried below. She listened for the rooting around of a worm tangled in the roots, for the scratching together of miniature insect legs, for anything alive. But she only heard the whoosh of cars and the town’s resident homeless woman screaming about the things that had been taken from her.

But then, on the twelfth day, The Mother heard a soft muffle.

At first she pulled back, sure she was imagining it—the pitch so perfect, the tone so exactly The Baby’s. She brought her ear back to the ground pressing the side of her face against the sharp, red pieces of mulch. And then she screamed into the earth.

Hey-lay, The Baby screamed back.

The Mother tore at the ground. She did not, as she’d been so certain she would, uncover some super-mother power and find herself able to lift the ground in one fell swoop. She had no such power. Maybe because she wasn’t a mother anymore.

She crouched low and dug, and when she finally reached the plain oak coffin The Husband had built to hold The Baby’s body, she tore at the lid, the soft skin beneath her nails staked with soil and black beetles and bits of roots, blood dripping from her fingertips. But The Husband had nailed the coffin shut. As if he knew.

Some people say he did.

The Mother shimmied the coffin from the grave and brought her teeth to the lip of unfinished oak like it was a package of animal crackers. She felt the crack of a tooth, but she didn’t stop, just grabbed and bit, her palms and lips splintered and bleeding, tears streaking the dirt on her cheeks. Until she finally screamed.

And then she was silent. And so was the coffin.

She cradled the coffin, hugging it to her chest, trying to wrap her arms around it entirely, certain that if she could, everything would be okay.

They say she had weird thoughts like that. Illogical. Psychotic.

Sick, they say.

Just as she was ready to surrender, to widen the grave for both their bodies, she heard the scratching of baby nails on wood. She let out a gasp and stood gripping the coffin to her body, the heft of it pressing into her still separated abs, her still swimming organs.

She tore across the yard to the garage, typed in the code, and when the door opened, she saw it: her great-grandmother’s tarnished green butterknife lying next to the tin of beeswax she’d used to finish The Baby’s crib only weeks before. Placing the miniature coffin on the workbench, she picked up the knife jamming it between the fault lines of the box and pried, the knife bending under the pressure. She had an urge to hit the coffin against the cement floor, but The Baby was still inside.

She pried and pried until the coffin crashed to the floor, the cover cracking open. They say The Baby tumbled out, silent, its body face down on the concrete floor, one hand raised above its head as if in greeting.

The Mother couldn’t even do that right. She couldn’t even catch her own baby.

They say she crouched beside the crumpled figure shocked by how new The Baby still appeared, the flesh only just beginning to bloom. She shimmied her hand beneath The Baby’s plump belly, the soft plush of fat pressing into her fingers, and lifted the featherlight thing in her hands. She almost dropped The Baby when she saw its face—eyes wide, searching, mouth open in a smile, its single tooth gleaming and pearlescent beneath the yellow glare of the fluorescent lights. It cooed, and The Mother pressed The Baby to her, its face buried in the softness of her neck.

They say she felt the tiny tooth press against her skin before she let The Baby latch on.

Jaclyn Eccesso


Jaclyn Eccesso is a writer based in Colorado. “The Bad Mother” is from her in-progress collection of linked short stories, We, The Mothers, which centers on postpartum mental health and the ways in which women (particularly mothers) are often silenced. “The Bad Mother” is her debut publication.

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I haven’t been able to get in one since. You never really think about that kind of stuff, you know, right after a tragedy. Especially on that day. How could I possibly make it about me? But it’s always the small things that stick with you, isn’t it? Those little routines that make up a life … those are the things you remember.

Well of course I miss them. I miss them terribly. But that’s not the point. It’s narcissistic, maybe, but it’s true. I can’t help it, anyhow. “Being honest about your feelings isn’t mean,” my ex used to say. The truth is I’m cursed by it—really, I am. I used to take hot baths every day. It’s what I looked forward to when I got home from school. Being submerged in a tub was my most profound comfort as a kid.

They helped me cope with home life. They represented a world that was my own.

Because when you say you’re taking a bath, nobody questions you. You can stay there long enough for the world to start separating from what’s within.

That’s the thing. I hate it when people pity me because of how my parents died. Because nobody understands what I actually lost that day. In at least one way, losing baths was much more tragic than everything that happened to me as a kid.

The bubbles that surrounded me. The crackling sound that soap bubbles make when they cling to your skin as you enter the water. It was the way the hot water tickled me when I put the showerhead under the water and how when I switched the flow to the faucet, the sound of rushing water drowned out the world. Sometimes, the hot water felt frigid on my feet, and for those brief moments when I went under and held my breath, I was finally able to enter my own world, away from them, behind a locked door.

When I was underwater, I swear it was like … the sound resembled the actual sound of silence. And that’s what I miss the most. And I know they died, and I know it was tragic, and I know I should feel worse about it, but losing my nightly bath ritual is kind of why I’m here now, isn’t it, talking to you?

Growing up, they were always busy. They worked downtown like almost everyone else in the area. I’d always get home before they did … they had a lot of late nights with colleagues, merger meetings, drinks with clients and whatnot … they were being supportive parents by making money at the expense of abandoning me.

No. I never had a nanny. It’s a good question. It’s probably because they were cheap. I don’t know why they thought it wise to let me come home alone and run a bath from age eight onwards.

My dad used to say it built character.

Oh, for sure. Even at eight years old, I understood what the dinner-table tension was about.

Yeah. She would always have a few drinks after work to dull the pain. And then she’d panic and realize she’d forgotten about her son. Is there anything worse as a kid than a mother’s guilt? She’d come home frantic and feeling guilty because I was home alone, so she’d cuddle me. But too intensely, you know?

Make me sit in her lap and stuff.

Extremely uncomfortable. And it made me more distant, which just made her drink more, and so forth.

Because she knew my dad was fucking his secretary—he was a caricature of a Wall Street guy—and she knew I knew she was a drunk.

Well, we weren’t a happy family.

Cliché stuff, like having dinner together at night, throwing the baseball around in the yard. I don’t even play baseball. But you know what I mean. Or like baking cookies or learning how to ride a bike—the usual stuff.

He was a merger and acquisition guy; my mom was a lawyer representing assholes like him. He wasn’t—well, no, yes, he was. He was an asshole.

Okay. My dad was an asshole. So was my mom, for that matter. But can you imagine when I try telling that to people after they know what happened? It’s sacrosanct. My dad almost went to jail for embezzling millions of dollars from some poor saps who trusted him. And guess who got him off even when she knew he was fooling around? I mean, goddamn. Anyway, I didn’t come here to talk about my parents, okay?

Well, I mean, it is. But can we get back to the baths?

That’s what I’m here for, isn’t it?

Well, yeah, of course, because it was their home, their bathtub, their son…but no, it’s not about them. It can’t be. See, the bath was my time to forget about them. When I was in that water, I was happy to be alone. I got away from all the yelling and the arguing. In there, the house was silent. I could finally just be. All the weeping, moaning, late-night phone calls, yelling … it was exhausting—infuriating even—and I wanted to get out.

You wouldn’t believe me if I told you. You’ll think I’m exaggerating. You’ll think I’ve changed something to fit into an alternative reality to get a more comfortable idea of what I experienced that day, like some coping mechanism to deny what occurred. You’ll call it a delusion of grandeur. But I’m saying all this so you can get me taking baths again, right? Because that’s what I want: to step into a tub again without feeling horrible, empty.

Solitude instead of loneliness. Yes. That’s what I lost. It’s what I’m after. And it may sound selfish and insensitive, but in terms of my life? How I’ve come to understand that day? Well, I think of it as a different kind of tragedy.

They had a big fight the night before, yelling at each other about not being around enough. Amazing, really, how oblivious they were. I was sitting right in front of them for two hours. They didn’t ask me how I felt, not once. It’s comical. They referred to me as “the child.” “You’re the child’s mother! You should be here with our son!” my dad said. And my mom: “You’re supposed to be a role model, not some coked-up adulterer.” And so this went on for two hours, and I remember sitting there wide-eyed like all kids do, trying my hardest to get them to notice me without looking like I wanted them to, you know? Like hide-and-seek or something. But they were the ones who were hiding. I was their son. I fell asleep at the dinner table at some point during the yelling. Earlier that day, a classmate had told me a stupid story about his mom making him eat his vegetables. Do you know what I would have done to have my mom care about what I ate? I was always the kid bringing extra Dunkaroos.

I started crying. I had to be taken out of class and calmed down. I mean, think about it, to hear this kid complaining that his mom cared. It crushed me, absolutely crushed me. Anyway, I was asleep at the table, my parents drinking and talking about me like a plant that needed watering. By the time they realized the subject of the conversation was asleep at the dinner table, it was past midnight. And I remember I couldn’t fall asleep because they kept yelling all night.

The last time? Yeah. He dropped me off at the bus stop fifteen minutes before the bus arrived. That’s how busy he was: he couldn’t even afford to wait with his son on the curb.

In one way, I believe that’s exactly right. That’s precisely why he died: he couldn’t even wait with his eight-year-old son for fifteen minutes at the bus stop.

Well, if he’d waited, he wouldn’t have been in the tower when it got hit. He wouldn’t have been there at 8:45 a.m. or whenever it was. He would’ve been late for work, and he would’ve seen the plane hit, and he would’ve stayed on the ground, and he would’ve survived because he would’ve been a good father. And no, I’m not sorry: as terrible as it sounds, it’s how I feel. I can’t help but think that being a better dad would’ve saved my father’s life. So that was the last time I saw him, speeding away in his black Audi.

It was a beautiful September morning, and I was waiting at the bus stop, and I remember thinking: “I can’t go to school and hear about other kids’ parents wanting them to eat their green peas,” or whatever. So, I returned home and waited for my mom’s BMW to pull out of the driveway. She always went to work just after my dad.

She saw me. She fucking saw me. And she just waved and kept driving. I ran inside and cried for what must have been hours.

Who was going to tell me? Eight-year-olds don’t turn on the news. They don’t listen to the radio.

I made my lunch and played Legos for what must have been eight hours. I built a whole town—police station, fire station, post office, and the electric train my dad had promised to help me build many times. I made a home, too, at the end of the block. There were these sleek, flat concrete roads you could connect to form intersections. There was also a little marina made of blue cloth—I guess it was a harbor. I spent all day on it—those Lego manuals aren’t easy; I was proud—and then in the evening, by the time my parents got home, I was already in the bath, floating in the hot water. I ignored the ringing phone because I didn’t care. I didn’t hear the doorbell ring because I kept dunking my head underwater. I kept refilling the tub, staying in there as long as possible. Anything to avoid seeing my mom or dad—I hated them. But of course, secretly, I was waiting for them.

I knew something was wrong when I realized how pruny my fingers were.

The neighbor. He found me in the bathtub and pulled me out. His eyes were puffy and red, I remember.

The South Tower. She tried to make it down but wasn’t fast enough.

The guilt of hating them, and then being told it’s not worth hating them because they’re gone.

Having my only sanctuary taken away from me. I was just a kid.

Fucking baths. That’s what I lost.

Samuél Lopez-Barrantes


Samuél has lived in Paris since 2010 as a novelist and literary tour guide. He teaches creative writing at the Sorbonne and hosts the Paris Writers' Salon with author John Baxter. In 2022, Samuél bought back the rights to his debut novel, Slim and The Beast (Inkshares, 2015) and has published his second novel about history, memory, and the Nazi Occupation of Poland independently in Paris (The Requisitions, Kingdom Anywhere, 2023). After years in the music industry with his indie pop band, Slim and The Beast, Samuél realized the importance of artists being able to retain rights to their work. You can find his latest work on Substack, an equitable publishing model: and can purchase his two novels via his website.

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The night air was electric. Jacob arrived in his long black overcoat and spent several minutes struggling to take it off in the entryway. Beulah and Nigel (who had arrived an hour early without the wine) were sitting on the couch and Nigel’s black hair dye was dripping down the back of his neck. Father’s curses came crawling out from under the kitchen door. It didn’t matter that the heat was on too high because the heat was always on but also because the night air was electric and we all felt we might explode at any minute. The heat was just preparing us. The heat was just preparing us.

Jacob slouched into a chair. A bubble of silence came to rest on the table between us. Ingmar leaned into it: “Remember when Grandma used to live upstairs?” He grinned. “She still does,” I said. Ingmar’s face as he leaned back wore a mask of fury. Behind it: who knows?

I turned from him and there stood Hortense in the dining room doorway. All eyes were on her. She milked the moment with her long thin fingers woven together at her waist. Finally she called us in and we filed behind her in the wake of her dusty floor-length gown.

Father stood at the head of the table, hands on the table, shoulders hunched. Lise set the massive covered silver dish in front of him and slipped away. We all slumped into our chairs. A moment—another, a deep drawing of breath—and father lifted the lid. The bone-in ham sighed out a little vapor of steam. It rested heavily on the plate. The light was perfect. The ham was quiet, as were we.

It was too much for Father. A teardrop slid down his nose and then it all began like last year and the year before. We rode a wave of weeping around the table. I tucked my chin and let my tears fall on my folded hands. Beulah’s sobs next to me were theatrical but sincere. I could see Father’s shimmery reflection in the silver plate before me: still hunched, head bobbing in lament above the ham. A wail from Jacob and a curse: “For God’s sake I can’t take it anymore!” I couldn’t help him. I couldn’t see anyone help him. But someone did.

The kitchen door opened on its squeaky hinge. Lise was back. Only Lise could save us. Lise with her musty apron, her spit curls, her sensible shoes slid around the room towards the old man, who could barely stand. She covered the ham to protect it from his dripping tears. She slid the platter to the edge of the table, then lifted it with her thin frail arms. It looked impossibly heavy. I thought my heart would break. She backed away towards the door, Beulah sighed beside me, and I knew we would survive.

The door squeaked closed as Lise and the ham vanished. Father sat. Another year ended.

Ben Black


Ben Black's work has been published in Best Microfiction, The Southampton Review, New American Writing, Wigleaf, Harpur Palate, and The Los Angeles Review. His stories have been finalists for the Calvino Prize, the Vonnegut Prize, the Prairie Schooner Book Prize, and the Fairy Tale Review Award in Prose. A graduate of SFSU's MFA program, he now teaches English and creative writing in the Bay Area and is also an Assistant Fiction Editor at AGNI magazine.

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Things have changed. I no longer punish myself with small but persistent discomforts. Gone are my intentional hangnails and the too-large boots that rub my skin. When it’s cold now I wear coats instead of sweaters; when it’s chilly, sweaters instead of t-shirts.

Every morning I write my list on the whiteboard on my door and every evening I cross things off. I am able to cross most things off most days. I tell myself, steady on, Avital. Just keep going, Avital. And I do, I steady on and keep going. They’re talking about dropping me down to three therapy sessions a week, down from five, since I’m standing on my own a little better. I do stacks of worksheets for homework. Behavior Analysis Chains, Wise Mind charts. I do quigong breathing and meditate with an app.

Every session, Dr. Call-Me-Sandy asks me if I’m ready to talk about what I saw. Every time, I answer no. No, not yet. She makes a note.

My apartment is small, but it’s neat. I don’t know who pays for it but I’ve been encouraged to think of it as mine. I guess it’s entirely possible that it is, legally, though I doubt it. I don’t know if I am allowed to own property; then again, I don’t know enough about the law to say whether it’s legal to keep me from doing so. I know I have a neat gray couch with a colorful throw blanket over it and a coffee table. I have a double bed with several sets of sheets, which I change weekly, or more, if I sweat or urinate on myself in my sleep as a result of dreaming too much. I wash them in a well-lit laundry room in the basement. I have a little kitchenette with three cutting boards and one chef’s knife and one steak knife and a few other dishes and pieces of flatware. I stock the refrigerator and cupboards myself once a week, it’s one of the tasks on my list. I have a bathroom with a shower whose water pressure is middling but consistent and a place to put my medications in their time-release daily compartments. I even have a mezuzah on the door jamb. I’d asked if that was okay when I moved in, and they encouraged me to think of the apartment as mine. I don’t kiss it when I leave or enter, but it felt unnatural not to have one, so they let me pick one out and helped me drill it to the wall. I do not know what it is or for what purpose it is meant or why I feel I’m meant to kiss it when I leave or enter, only the name of the object and that I was supposed to have one on my door. When I use the chef’s knife or the steak knife I lift it from a magnetized block. I was made aware that they’d be notified when I removed either knife from the block and when I returned it. I consented. So I am able to cook for myself.

I have a closet full of clothes and I’m certain that some of them preceded this place; that is to say, I brought them here with me, and I do not have to be encouraged to think of them as mine. It’s hard to say. Sometimes things from before are fuzzy. When I have a new memory, I write it down in the blue notebook they gave me. It’s a process, Avital. One day at a time, Avital. The blue notebook is for memories. The red notebook is to record instances when I return to negative habits. For example, when I bite at the scars around my cuticles, or feel the desire to, I note that down. When I walk from my bedroom to my bathroom and rap three times at the neat drywall of my hallway because it feels urgent to do so, or feel the desire to, I note that down. That’s the red notebook. The colors are not meaningful. I was given any number of choices. They could have both looked the same, but I chose this. Blue for memory, red for habit. When we discussed the exercise, I asked Dr. Call-Me-Sandy if these two things, memory and habit, were not the same. She’d shrugged. “In a way, yes. But in another way, significantly no.” I feel that an alright day is when I have to write in both, and a good day is when I have to write in the blue one only. My therapist thinks that’s a good assessment.

I wake up this night in tangle of sweat soaked sheets, sit up, and vomit into my hands, though only a little. I march to the bathroom and flush the evidence away, wash my hands and shampoo the ends of my dry hair that fell into the bile. When the vomit smell is mostly gone, I return to my room, sit at my desk, flick on the light, and pull my blue notebook to me. Opening to the next blank page, I write down all the things I remembered from my dream, and which I do feel are real, true memories:
• The pop pop of pomegranate seeds crushed between my teeth. The burst of juice. Red stain in the lines of my palms.
• Something soft prickling the backs of my arms. Mown grass? Buzzed hair? Buzzed hair.
• The fact that I prefer to keep my fingernails short.
• A low rumbling sound, like a train approaching but not a train approaching. Petals scattering.

I close my blue notebook and put it back in its place on my desk. I open my red notebook. I write down:
• Desire to punch right arm with left fist
• Desire to restrict sleep, despite physical exhaustion
• Desire to hold fingers momentarily in small flame (tealight or similar candle)

Then I close my red notebook and replace it next to the blue. I stand to change my sheets to one of the extra pairs I keep for this purpose. Before I do, I scratch my nails through my hair. It falls to my middle back, and though I don’t often have the opportunity to see a mirror, I feel that this is how it should be. I wonder, though, if there is a nail clipper in this apartment, or, rather, whether I own a pair of clippers. I wonder why my apartment doesn’t have a mirror. I go to the whiteboard and write, in big blocky letters which I know are mine, GROCERY LIST REQUEST: NAIL CLIPPERS. After a moment, I write POMEGRANATES beneath that. Then I put down the marker and go to bed in cool, clean sheets.

When I wake, I begin my day as I have since I came here, I guess. I remember coming here, I do. It’s all that came before that I struggle to piece together. I get up. I use the toilet, wash my hands, and brush my teeth. Today’s pill compartment opens with a pneumatic hiss and I take my medications with water from my other cupped hand. I make my single cup of instant coffee and scramble my two eggs on the induction stove. I note mentally that I have only half a carton left. I have gotten into the habit of noting down most of the details of my day down to the smallest minutia. It feels important. I’ve also been told it’s important, hence the notebooks, the whiteboard, the lists I make in therapy and the lists I make for therapy homework. Pay attention, Avital. Mind everything, Avital. Avital, can you recall? And then what happened, Avital? On and on.

I clean my dishes. I neglect my rubber gloves and turn the water very hot. After the two short minutes it takes to tidy from breakfast, my hands are bright red and stinging. I dry my fork and know that I will have to write this down. I press my screaming hands to my cheeks. The touch is deceptively cool. My skin is hot. It doesn’t feel hot. My hands abruptly become alien. I peel them from my clammy face and look down at them, and they don’t make any sense. Then the faux-marble countertop ceases to make sense. Then the tile under my feet, my feet on the tile. It’s a feeling. It’s an ache running along the edges of my muscles, or between them, where you could slide a knife between tendon and tendon if only it were sharp enough. Those empty spaces which aren’t spaces at all, they ache.

I take a breath. I count five things I can see, four things I can feel, three things I can hear, two things I can smell, one thing I can taste. The last: the roof of my own mouth, weak coffee already fading from my awareness.

Dr. Call-Me-Sandy lets herself in at the usual time, and I am waiting in my usual place on the grey-beige couch. Her smile is warm. It is always warm.

“Good morning, Avital. How are we today?”

In answer, as ever, I say “Alright,” then hand over my notebooks. She goes through the red one first, licking her thumb and leafing through to the newest written page. “So. One thing I’m seeing here is the desire to engage in negative behaviors—the desire to self-harm. The desire to act obsessively.”


“But not the action.”

“Yes. I mean, no. Not the action.”

She nods. “I think that’s wonderful progress. It may not feel like it, but it is. How do you feel about that?”

“It’s good. It helps to write it down, I think,” I say. I watch her face. Her expression changes very little; it rarely does. Even then, when it does, it shifts into one of a set of standard expressions she wears, which I assumed must have been practiced as part of her training. Small proud smile (upturned mouth, slightly squinted eyes); expression of sympathy/concern (flat mouth, wider eyes), expression of deeper concern/worry (downturned mouth with lips biting each other plus slight nodding motion); listening, waiting, or neutral expression (no tension in mouth, slightly widened eyes). Again, the cataloging. The attention. It’s only that I see her nearly every day.

“That’s good. You should be proud of yourself, Avital. Are you?” Waiting expression.


“That’s good. I’m proud of you too.” Small proud smile. She opens the blue notebook to the newest written page. She reads. She looks up. “Very interesting.” Neutral/Waiting expression.

“I keep thinking about the pomegranates,” I confess.

She nods. “Yes, often it is the sensory detail which returns to us most strongly. Like this one about grass or hair?”

I suck in my cheeks to chew on them, but I don’t chew on them. I’ll note it in the red book after our session today. I wanted to talk about the pomegranates. The way the taut surface would split between my teeth. I want to know if that really happened, confirm if my mouth could ever contain such an explosion, or if pomegranate, like mezuzah, is another word I am assigning meaningless sensation to. Dr. Call-Me-Sandy’s face is still neutral/waiting, and based on prior experiences I know she will continue to steer me away from this area.

“Hair, I think. In the moment, I wasn’t sure, but definitely hair.”

“Writing our memories down can help us make sense of them in that way. That’s great, Avital.”

“Yes. It’s helped me. Writing things down. It helps me make sense.”

“Talk to me more about this memory of the hair. It seems important—I mean, from your reaction to this conversation. That’s just what I’m picking up from you.”

I want to talk about the pomegranates. I can’t remember what they taste like, not really. “You said everything I remember is important.”

Expression of sympathy. “Exactly. We’re trying to piece together more of who you are. To set you back on the path towards success. You’re exactly right—remembering this is important.”

I feel as if I have lost track of something crucial. Like there is something I forgot to write down. “Yes.”

“So. The feeling of somebody’s hair on your arms. Like your arms are around them?”

I think about this for a second. Close my eyes and try to grab at the scrap of memory. I snatch an edge. “Like they’re laying against me. Or on me. Or something.”


I open my eyes. Dr. Call-Me-Sandy’s expression is alien to me. It is very much like her expression of sympathy/concern, but her eyes are narrowed, and she carries tension in her mouth. It is a small difference, I suppose. But they told me to pay attention. “Who?” she says again. “Who is it leaning against you?” Her pen is poised on her yellow legal pad.

“The … the person with the buzzed hair.”

“I know, Avital. Who are they, though? Can you recall their name? We’re trying to reconstruct this memory.”

“I don’t know. I don’t remember. I’m sorry, Dr. Mills. I don’t remember.” Guilt fills me. I want to pinch the skin between my middle and ring fingers. I want to hit my knee until I kick by reflex.

“You can call me Sandy, remember? We’re friends, Avital. Okay. Do you remember what this person looked like? A physical description? A description or a name?” There’s a pause. “I know it’s hard. So much of this has been difficult for you, Sandy, and you’ve been so strong. Can you try?”

I close my eyes again. I clench my fists very tightly, and my nails, which I now know are too long, dig into my palms, producing a small amount of pain. I allow this. Later I will record it in my red notebook. I think. The weight of somebody’s head on my arm. Hair so short it had structure under my hand—I pressed down and it pressed back. A hand on my chest. A note pressed into my hand. Heat on my arms when I burned the note as instructed. A whisper in my ear. Heat on my face. I cannot recall the shape of the mouth whispering.

I open my eyes. “I’m sorry. I don’t remember what they look like.”

“A name, then. Avital, I need a—” she pauses, takes a breath as if we were doing a grounding exercise. “I’d really like to hear a name.”

“I don’t remember. I’m sorry. I don’t remember.”

Her mouth and hands tighten a bit, then her face smooths back down to more familiar contours. Expression of deeper concern/worry. “Don’t apologize. We’ll get there some day. I’m proud of you for trying.”

“Thank you.”

She taps her pen against her legal pad. “Okay. Are you okay if we move on?”

The pomegranates, I think. They’ve told me that I can say anything I want to in therapy. That I should, in fact, that it’s best for me to be completely honest. That I need to notice my thoughts and feelings, notice and list and report them. Usually, I listen. I have listened and noticed and listed and things have changed. “Yes, that’s fine.”

“Good, very good.” Neutral/waiting. She taps her pen once more against the legal pad. “You know what I’m going to ask.”


“Are you ready to talk about—”


Worried/sympathetic. “Extra quick today.” I only shrug. “And you know to write down any new memories from that night, right? So we can discuss them?”

“I haven’t had any new memories from that night,” I say. It’s true. The memories I have, I have had them since I woke up, hollow in the head. I haven’t been instructed to write down what hasn’t been recovered, so I haven’t written these down. The blue notebook is for new memories, they told me. New pieces of the puzzle.

I don’t have much, anyway. I remember something descending like a swarm of bees. Firelight and loud noises. Slamming a door shut. I remember running. I remember that something stopped me.

“Alright, Avital. I’ll let it rest for another day. I’m sorry we couldn’t get there together today. I know that whatever happened that night is weighing on you. Talking about those experiences could help you, and I promise that I’ll help you unearth them. You’ve come so far. Soon you’ll be able to tell me everything, okay? That’s a promise.”

Later, when I am alone, I will write in my red notebook:
• Desire to scream
• Desire to scratch open skin of thigh with too-long fingernails
• Desire to puncture body generally; create more openings in body wherein self can escape self

I’ll record it all. That’s a promise.

I clear my throat. “There’s some things I’d like to add to my grocery list.” I hand over the paper. Pomegranates and nail clippers. “My nails—I remembered I preferred to keep them short, so when I go to the grocery store later today, I’d like to buy clippers.” Dr. Call-Me-Sandy glances at the sheet of paper. Sympathy/concern.

“I don’t think that’s such a great idea, Avital.”


“In fact, I think—yes. I want to be honest with you, Avital, because this relationship, our relationship—it depends on honesty. I think we ought to roll back the grocery trips for a bit. Somebody will handle that for you. The desires to go back to old bad habits? And our session today—insisting on talking about somebody whose face you can’t even remember. I think it’s better if you stay put for a little bit, alright? We moved too fast. You need to stabilize more.”

I say nothing. My lungs feel empty. I nod at her.

Small proud smile. “Good. I’m glad you’re able to make sacrifices for your health. You’re what’s most important here.” She stands and puts her pen away. “If you want, I can bring a manicure kit to our session tomorrow. A self-care day is a great idea, Avital! Very proactive. I’m proud of you.” I nod.

When she lets herself out, the lock clicks behind her as it always does.

Night. I dream
again. My dream: ants in a line carrying me up my leg pass notes hand to mouth they carry me into a hole in me set me down a room hollow inside the hollow of my body then we we are inside my body parquet floors and big windows and full of downy heads scream wetly in my ear if the borders of me were open and permeable if my shoulders pressed against many shoulders then we’ll be able to be able if our movements are detected then we’ll go to ground if we speak we burn the encrypted line if they find us then we scatter if they take me promise me you’ll run Avital I am screaming at a kingdom of ants I am a kingdom of ants If they take me then you run My teeth are burning paper my hands are prickly with thick red hair

I wake. I have urinated on myself in my sleep. I remove my soiled clothing as well as the soiled sheets. I clean myself and then I clean the rubber mattress with two different kinds of soap which I have for these two purposes. I put on fresh clothing and change the sheets. This room has everything one needs inside it. I’ve been told to think of it as mine.

When the dirty sheets and sweatpants have been shut away behind the laundry chute, when all is clean and ordered, I return to my room, sit at my desk, flick on the light, and pull my blue notebook to me. I open to the next blank page to record my dream. The pen makes a bead of ink on the paper. Neutral/waiting. I close the notebook without writing.

I bring my fingers to my mouth. I bite my nails until I feel them crack between my teeth. I methodically tear off each overhang down to aching red quick. I spit the remnants onto my desk. I spit ten times. I look down and list them in my mind: ten wet things waiting, jagged and mine.

Blake Chernin


Blake Chernin is a Jewish writer who is extremely from New Jersey. She received her BA at Muhlenberg College and her MFA in Creative Writing at Purdue University. She is a Pushcart Prize nominee and an AWP Intro Journals Project winner, and her work has been published or is forthcoming in Iron Horse Literary Review, Dish Soap Quarterly, and elsewhere. twitter: @bcherns

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“This is where people come to die,” Autumn said to herself, surveying the party from the top of the stairs. Knots of yowling young men mingled with waifish, makeup-caked girls who possessed an air of self-importance-cum-neurosis, nameless amid the thumping blare of music. Just tipsy enough to be a bit beyond herself, she slowly fingered her throat, feeling its pulse, tapping her clavicle in time with familiar lyrics. Looking for her friends, Jaleel and Gwen, she rubbed her eyes, stiff in their sockets from the overly-bright morning’s field hockey practice. She still had on her hockey tartan, and a blue and white striped, long-sleeve polo. A headband held back a profusion of soft black hair.

Below, a lean guy, in jeans and a stark white t-shirt, walked out of the bathroom, blonde hair, a kind of controlled chaos. With a half-cocked grin he met Autumn’s eye, but never stopped moving. She thought, hot enough, when suddenly a friend from her hometown threw her arms around Autumn.

“Got your eye on that one?” she whispered, pointing down at bathroom guy, “Look, it’s trying to think.”

Why do people with bad breath always want to tell you secrets? Autumn wondered this to herself, and stepped back from the girl.

“School keeping you on your toes?” the girl asked, squinting into her drink. “You allowed brandy on those fox hunts?”

“No brandy – the scent distracts the hounds,” Autumn said, smiling.

“You should have gone to the people's republic of Rutgers with me,” the girl said, blowing Autumn a kiss, and wandered away, her speech trailing off amid a warm alcohol glow, “but no English butlers there…”

Autumn peered back downstairs, as bathroom-guy grabbed a cup of beer from a broad-shouldered bro with tragic ears. They shook hands with comedic vigor, so that bathroom-guy spilled beer over his boat shoes. Autumn smiled a slightly gap-toothed smile, and catching her eye again, he nodded to her.

Looking away, she had the sense that she had forgotten something, but could not think of what. She took a couple steps away from the banister to try and jog her memory. Turning, she noticed two pairs of shoes, toe-to-toe, peeking out from beneath a window’s closed carmine curtains. As she passed by she caught a snatch of giddy whispering, like the distant ripple of radio voices. She glanced back over her shoulder, finally seeing her friends, Gwen and Jaleel, but they only waved and turned back to speaking with others Autumn could not see. She slipped now between shoals of talking bodies, trying to make themselves heard above the general din. She struggled at times, knocking against shoulders and hips.

She tried a heavy door at the end of the hallway, but it stuck, and when it finally gave, she lurched into a small, low-lit crimson office. In a corner, an aquarium retrofitted from an immense 1960s turntable-top television console, occupied by numinous blue mollies and puffers, threw an uncanny ultramarine tincture over the room. Autumn stood before a diminutive round end table, which played host to a lamp assembled from an obsolete Atari system. She turned it on, pulled out her phone, and dialed Andrés’ number. It only rang out. She wandered over to the darker side of the office and peered out from a Palladian window at underdressed citizens enjoying the chill air. The sun sat low, crowding thin clouds that rested atop a miniature American flag which waved perfectly from a blue Bronco’s antenna. She lost herself in the little head-swim of bourbon’s effects, the geese barking, and the city’s forest of steeples. In the distance foundry fires ghosted the river’s mudflats, even in late daylight.

As she stared out at the world and ran a forefinger along the rim of her uneven bottom teeth, a hand slipped around her waist from behind, and gently squeezed her stomach, pressing her to a firm chest. The cologne was familiar. She closed her eyes, laid her head back against his clavicle, sighed, “Andrés,” and squinted up at him.

A guy who looked like he’d drive a cargo-van with a stained mattress in the back stared down at her; some sad country’s national treasure. A sullen teen’s bad older-man phase. Bathroom-guy looked different up close, and reeked of booze.

He cleared his throat, “So, you play field hockey.”

“Yeah,” Autumn nodded. “What about you?”

He slid down onto a couch and patted the cushion next to him. Autumn slumped down next to him and put her feet up on a coffee table.

“Oh, I’m out of school. Just kind of seeing where things go. But I played baseball. So…

I kind of noticed you eyeing me from the top of the stairs, I think.”

“Oh, you know, I was just surveying the whole scene. I don’t really fit here. You might have caught my eye for a second.”

He put his hand on her cheek and she froze. “You’re very pretty,” he said, but there was a slur to his speech.

“Thing is, I have a boyfriend. In fact he’s supposed to be here any minute.”

“Oh, so you just go around making eyes at strangers even though you have a boyfriend? I wonder if you really do have a boyfriend.”

Then he tried to kiss her, but she turned her head and he left a small wet spot on her cheek.

“Look, you’re a nice guy, but I really should go.”

“See, I’m over here and you’re over there. And now we’re just moving a little closer together.”

He began to tickle her, and she found herself disarmed, squirming across the coach, onto the floor, and suddenly he was wrestling with her, intertwining his legs with hers, pushing her arms up over her head, and his alcohol breath was overwhelming.

“What are you doing?” she asked.

“I’m just messin’ with you,” he said.

He loosened his hold on her and she stood up.

“I need to go see if my boyfriend is here.”

“Right, your ‘boyfriend,’” he said. “You know, you’re a real game player. Let’s play a game. Wrestle me and if you win, then you can go see about your ‘boyfriend.’

“No, I think I’m done. But thank you.”

She turned to leave, but before she could he was vigorously cranking her arm up and up behind her back, so that she was forced to bend forward in an attempt to relieve the pain, driving her ass into him. Smoothing his wild hair with a free hand, he chuckled, and as she gazed back over her shoulder at him, he said, “Stay right here with me.”

Her mouth made an ugly shape around silence.

She wanted to drop to the floor and back-kick him in the balls, like she had learned in Krav Maga. Raise her heel, peer over her shoulder or under her arm at the target, and send her whole leg backward in a straight motion; the heel and toes pointed, poised downward as much as possible when striking the assailant’s junk.

What will mom say? she wondered. ‘Autumn, there is always an alternative route to confrontation. That’s what being an adult is all about. When are you going to learn that? And maybe if you had made yourself appear less available…What will people say, honey? How will they see you?’

‘You showed impeccable judgment, sweetheart,’ Dad would say, once mom leaves the room. ‘You have to stand up for yourself – it’s all a person has.’

Bathroom-guy growled, “I’m not in a good mood, anymore.”

“Maybe you’re hungry.”

“I wouldn’t mind eatin’ you for dinner.”

She felt nauseated. So, this is happening, she thought. She was slipping away before this guy, his hair slicked flat to his head now from nervously smoothing it, but still a little flare of length at the back. She looked down at his hands – well manicured, she thought. He had probably had this in mind a long time, she thought, maybe he’d been watching me, casing my dorm. Some wanna-fuck he saw across the quad, she thought. ‘I’ll untie her little package – have her. No need to look any further.’ His friends with dicks for brains probably told him, ‘A little young, homes.’ And his pasty ass would have said some of that, ‘If there’s grass on the field’ shit.’ Can you imagine a woman saying that? ‘Lil Tommy’s pretty cute, Nina.’ ‘Molly, girl, he’s young enough to be your brother.’ ‘Well, if there’s grass on the field!’

“What a beautiful girl,” he whispered too close to her ear.

“May I help you?” she said, staring back. He’s really digging, she thought, the forehead, the eyebrows. Then she screamed out, and he let fly hard, swinging laughter.

The skin around her left eye stung from where he had just hit her, crowding out her sight, but she chuckled to herself.

“Don’t laugh at me,” he yelled.

Even when he had belted her she was pretty sure his eyes were on her tits. Then she heard herself hoof, and her stomach felt, in an instant, like it did across a day of crunches at field hockey practice. She wondered if he had been drawn to her because of the skirt she wore, then wanted to hit herself for thinking that.

Her thoughts were spinning. He doesn’t have a plan, she thought. He’s done this enough times he doesn’t need one. It’s etched into his little bird’s brain. He was trying to make an impression from the start. And I’m going to be late for study group. Fucking Gwen and Jaleel will love that. Never hear the end of it. But you don’t want to be too smart, she thought, people only like smart from a distance.

She was starving, but not hungry. Was she afraid? Fuck, her brain burned trying to think. She had told Gwen, she would only stay an hour at the party. School tomorrow. One hour. They are oblivious, she thought. I am letting this happen. But he might get bored and leave, she thought derisively. Or maybe he’ll bow slightly before he tears my panties off with kingly grace.

He probably had a patter, she thought, ‘Don’t be afraid, little thing. Breathe a calm breath. I’m a pleasant surprise. You’ll get to know me. I’m a chance worth taking. Just because you didn’t see this coming doesn’t mean it won’t be a great time.’

He’s captivated by me – big hunter, searching for his quarry, she thought. Andrés, in this situation, would be of help, even though her mother had said that he was, “Built like a shirt on a hanger.” And when Autumn told her that she first met him at a showing of Prussian Empire-era wallpaper at the Cooper-Hewitt, her mother only asked, “Can you be that bourgeois and survive Washington Park?” But, Autumn thought, he ran off that thick-necked skinhead outside of the Bad Brains reunion show at The Living Room.

Her brain wouldn’t stop speed-ruminating.

Andrés provide disruption? Sure, she thought, but retribution? Breaking on the wheel? Waterboarding? Her mind raced. She thought, this guy probably grew up in a home where you had to take your shoes off in the “mud room” before you went in. Divorcee dad, Pat, on the pleather couch, watching the Bruins or NCIS, hand in a bowl of ridged potato chips. Proud little Johnny on the honor roll and popular, but wished he didn’t play baseball, or wished he was at least a little better at it. Two men charging around the house in their socks and briefs. He’ll probably get a job as a teacher; coach girls high school softball. A little legal ass smacking.

Coming back to herself, she realized that he was taking his shirt off. This is not acceptable, she thought. “You really hurt me, dick rag.”

Autumn wasn’t sure if he would hit her again, knee her, or maybe try to take her to the ground. Knock her out. This party was the kind of place he could just throw her over his shoulder, traipse through the soused crowd, booming music and smoke clouds, his face a wreck of laughter, and everyone would think it was a great gag.

He slid his hand past her tartan skirt’s waistband and into her turquois panties, while with the other hand he pulled her down by the hair. But she punched him hard in the groin with a free hand.

His body buckled, saying, “What the fuck?” but didn’t let go.

So Autumn drove herself bodily forward into him to relieve the residual pressure of his grip on her hair. At the same time, she defended her face against a potential punch. She brought both hands up and, with a burst. Slammed them sharply down on his grasping hand, crushing his knuckles against her head.

Eyes narrowed and hair askew, he tried to rise up, but before he could, she bent forward severely at the waist, as though making a deep bow. She regained control of her movements, creating pressure against his wrist, not far from snapping it. He dropped to his knees. As he did, she shot backward to stretch his body out awkwardly. Then she front-kicked his gaping mouth. Before he could blink, she clouted him again with a kick in the nose, painting her sneakers with a Basquiat of bodily fluids. All those years of training were paying off, she thought.

She stood staring down at him a moment. She breathed hard through her nose, feeling the ache in her knuckles, and cheek. Then she ran to the Palladian window, sliding it quickly open and thrusting her head out, panting. Rain brought up the grass and soil smell as her eyes followed a killdeer cutting noisily across the bright sky, so that slowly they loosened their hold on the horizon, and her shoulders slackened.

When he raised his head several seconds later, she turned back to see a deep confusion wrinkle his forehead. As his nose whistled with labored breathing, it discharged blood trapped in slicks of clear snot. His cheek and chin were a crimson plaster, and strings of spit hung from a blubbed lip. She loomed over him, taunting him, hardly able to hear her own voice through the ringing in her ears.

Above him, the aquarium’s prodigious magenta octopus clumsily galloped across the tank’s white pebble bottom, and looking up, he asked no one, “Why’m I ohn thuh fluh-oor.”

He crawled toward his shirt and the door, seemingly unaware of Autumn’s presence, and she blew past him.

Wiping her face clean, Autumn stopped at the top of the stairs, eyes sprinting from island to island of crowds below, but didn’t see Jaleel or Gwen anywhere. Then she davened back on her heels, blinking up with a dumb, bird-shot shock, and thumbed her split left cheek which petered out a bloody little puddle. She felt shrunken, out of practice being a body. Walking down the steps was like trudging through mud; as though her shoes might be sucked from her feet. Near the bottom of the staircase, she curtsied to an oblivious group gathered there. She fingered her cellphone. She thought of Andrés, and of getting an Uber.

Now, she was threading a path through hot bodies, and out the backdoor, then, not sure why, she was running, full speed, across the back lawn, into the sun-split woods, and through a creek which plashed at each step as she stomped bathroom-guy imaginary face. He shoes became soggy. But it felt good, and she screamed out, taking in a little of the air’s cold burn as she ran. She felt okay, but also saw what could have been: herself splayed flat, him thrusting lamely at her, the stupid pain of it, her hair balled in his fist.

She stopped a moment, and her shadow seemed to jog on before her. Listening to rain drip from the leaves, she bit at her lower lip, amid the wet smell of redbuds that stretched their branches awkwardly out like bare and lazy arms, her legs twitching with a deep need to pee. Then she sprinted across the woods’ moist cushion of decay, the trees evaporating, soon, telephone poles seemingly sinking deep into hard earth. And nothing then, but herself, racing on, and a river far off.

Sitting, finally, in the backseat of an Uber, Autumn was winded. Bits of leaf and twig decorated her hair and clothes. The driver was quiet, so she closed her eyes as the blocks slid by, and when she opened them again she felt markedly less brain-addled. In slow traffic, brown tarps passed, rippling in the wet wind over an encampment of forty or more tents under I-95, sporadically encircled by stands of flimsy, orange construction fencing. Two men in unstrung, moth-holed sweaters, and ramshackle ball caps, stood at an entrance to the encampment, one with an enormous tree limb in-hand, the other with a bit of pipe in his belt. They watched as two others, similarly dressed, chased a weedy young man down the sidewalk.

At the next stoplight, a sun-bleached cardboard Michelin Man waved to her from the bleary front window of a derelict gas station. Before it sat a U-Haul truck, perched on a jack, and topped with piles of scrap metal. An ornate pink and purple tag had been graffiti-ed over the side of the vehicle, but Autumn could still make out the image of a giant walrus, its one visible tusk having been morphed into a penis, under the header: “Venture Across America: Maine – A Hidden Ice Age Land Revealed.” Salvage spilled from the back door – ancient Apple Macintosh monitors sat under a crush of lamps, ceiling fans, cords, wires, and exhaust pipes. Sitting below the walrus, a woman tended a small, fold-up grocery cart, packed with an oil-stained, blue, nylon sleeping bag, which cradled a baby, whose arms waved up erratically. The woman pushed her cart out and back, out and back; head down, then up, licking lips, squinting into moonlight; head back down again.

Further along the block, high up on a brick wall was spray painted the phrase, “No meth. No redneck shit.” As the cab neared Andrés’ house, the weekly message on the sign in front of the A.M.E. church read: “Here hopelessness and crime have been converted into business – where need exists money follows. My house shall be called the house of prayer; but ye have made it a den of thieves. – Mat 21:13”

Autumn tipped the driver and snuck into Andrés’ house, where she crawled into bed with him. Soon, his hand grasped Autumn’s tawny throat loosely, her head and arms thrown back, fingers gripped his bedpost. The broad, blue headband with white polka dots, her skirt and shirt had fallen to the floor and lay beside a pair of her long, red-ringed, boys tube socks. She wore a tank-top, a pair of his underwear, and no bra. Kissing him, she twisted her legs around his, writhing steadily, lips parting in a quiet sigh that revealed the gap in her teeth and a slight overbite.

“Andrés, do it,” she whispered, and his hand tightened hesitantly on her windpipe. “You should…” she began, but the pressure behind his palm and the grip of his fingers cut off her words, her legs stiffening, mind swimming toward a river’s soft bottom, eyes falling shut. A few seconds later, they shot open, and she rolled over abruptly, flipping the boy, so that he ended up beneath her, her sharp knees digging into his thighs, her hands at his throat, laughing.

Wriggling free, he said, “I still don’t know how you ended up breaking the guy’s nose.”

“You want to hear about how I sent my sweet gnarly bear claw through his nasal cartilage?” She was beside him now, propped up on elbows. “Oh, the blood. Man!”

“You’re making this up, aren’t you?”

“That’s a shitty thing to say. Not at all…It was a reality check – that I could make a guy bleed. Like bleed.” She shook her head. “I know what he did happens all the time. But how the hell does someone learn that shit? Like, ‘Yup, gonna go hit up this college party, I’m just gonna grab a little one and tell ‘er she’s gonna like it, ‘n’ look fine doin’ it. That’ll get things started. Just like dad always said it would.’ How does anyone change somebody like that?”

She stopped to think a minute, staring at the Bolivian flag hung on the wall above her, and Andrés ran a finger down her spine. “Someone should’ve just taken his ass permanently out right there,” she began, but was interrupted by a fingernail tapping vigorously at the bedroom door.

The person at Andrés door could have just been his older brother, Ernesto, but he froze, then eyed Autumn, saying nothing, before he bolted from bed, snapping up a pair of shorts. He was still getting them on when he turned to say, “You can’t be here.”

She only stretched out on the bed, and sighed. “I don’t care about your mom not liking me. She drives a fucking Crown Vic, Andrés, and thinks Reagan was a saint,” she said with a sharp smile.

He stood worrying the desktop with his pointer finger. A patter of patiently spaced blows

fell upon the door, and he knocked a quantum chemistry textbook to the floor. “Andrés. Andrés?” his mother’s thin, saccharine voice came through the door. She wasn’t going to stop.

Having stretched a t-shirt over his arms and head, he shuffled over to his dresser, pulled a lighter and joint from the drawer, and lit it. Autumn’s brow wrinkled in puzzlement.

“She’ll think this is what I’m hiding…” He puffed hard at it, trying to produce some smoke. “She cares way less about this than having a girl in my room.”

She gazed at him across unfocused space that made him seem thinned to a whisper.

The knocking had let up, for the moment. Autumn stood from the bed, and sashayed to the bedroom door. Putting out the joint and throwing it onto the cluttered desk, Andrés lunged, grabbed her. He desperately mouthed something incomprehensible through clenched teeth. Then he pushed her down into a pile of laundry at the foot of his closet door. He put a finger to his lips. He looked like a lost child. She saw his calf muscles tense and twitching.

Finally, he spoke again, in a strained unnatural tone, “Get into the closet.”


All at once, knocks fell, quick and haughty, followed by still silence. Then, came the now raspy female voice, “Boy, I got clean laundry for you. Open the damn door” Then mumbling.

“Is she praying the rosary?” Autumn snickered.

But he only looked at her like a man shot through the cheek. He fumbled to pick up a small remote, hit a button, and chopped and screwed hip hop blared out. He turned back to her, thrusting his head down toward her face, “Where then? Where’re you gonna go, and what am I supposed to do?”

She reached out.

“Don’t pull any of that Krav Maga shit on me,” he said, and pulled her up with clammy, languid hands.

“What kind of man are you?”

He pushed past her, kicking dirty laundry free from the closet door, and kissed her unresponsive lips, her hair warm against his cheek. And sticking a foot out behind her, he shoved her, again. She tripped backward into the dark, cramped closet. She flushed, her lips drawn back. She closed them, looking away.

“Please!” Andrés hissed ridiculously, and shut the door as she glared up with narrowed eyes. “What can I do?” he pled through the closed door,.

The closet’s dress shirts and slacks swung absently on their hangers above her. She was embarrassed for Andrés; embarrassed by him. The bedroom door lock clicked free and there were unintelligible voices. Autumn raised her voice, competing with the music and the argument on the other side of the closet door, but it was no use. They couldn’t hear her. Then, through a lull in the music, came the distinct sound of a fitted sheet being jerked from a mattress, and gazing through a crack at the door jamb, she could see the woman inspecting the bedding in slats of sunlight that filtered through the blinds. From the way Andrés’ chest moved he was fighting to contain his rage. His mother dropped the sheets.

“Mom, I’m 21-years-old! What are you doing?” Autumn heard clearly.

But the woman only snatched a pair of her son’s underwear from the floor, sniffed them, threw them away, and fell to her knees, searching beneath the bed.

“You’re crazy,” he said, quietly drawing out the syllables.

Autumn shook her head, rested it on her teepee-ed knees, ran hands along slender feet, and began finishing her story, “I should've just taken his ass out right there. Like, ‘Oh, you feel like a lil assault? Okay then,’ and just, I dunno, violated him, extra-judicially, or some shit. No easing into it; no mercy. Just goin’ for it. Right there in front of all his people.”

There came the sounds of footsteps nearing, and a little hand battle at the closet door’s handle.

Adam Day


Adam Day is the author of Illuminated Edges (Kelsay Books, 2024), Left-Handed Wolf (LSU Press), and of Model of a City in Civil War (Sarabande Books), and is the recipient of a Poetry Society of America Chapbook Fellowship for Badger, Apocrypha, and of a PEN Award. His work has appeared in the APR, Boston Review, The Progressive, Fence, Kenyon Review, Southern Review, and elsewhere. He is the publisher of Action, Spectacle.

paper texture

“Derived from the Greek tópos meaning place, it’s an abstraction, a literary motif, a concept utilized in algebraic geometry.” – Laura Tate in a 2019 interview with Metropolis

* * *

The world appears stranger and stranger these days, but no significant events have occurred. There are no more natural disasters than usual, the economy is depressed but alive, and time progresses at its regular steady jog. Instead, it is Laura’s eyes that are changing rapidly.

Inside the sterile white walls of the ophthalmologist’s office a doctor posits, Wet degeneration occurs much quicker than dry, and you’re only forty-eight so it isn’t age related. Initially, the softening of Laura’s surroundings went largely unnoticed, change gliding into the cracks of her life like an obscuring mist. Autumn leaves melded into one indistinguishable sienna, hazy street lights illuminated nothing. Strangers became figures which became shadows. Then an unmistakable symptom—the shocking realization that suddenly, at age forty-eight, the world had become unknown.

Dr. Karageorgiou is younger than Laura and handsome, she thinks. Looking directly at him she can only really make out thick, brown eyebrows, a full head of hair, and the glint of a little gold earring. His hypothetical good looks make her reluctant to speak honestly—an attempt at maintaining some dignity in a plastic exam chair where her feet dangle off the edge. Dr. Karageorgiou explains her degeneration as they wait for the eye drops leaking yellow trails down Laura’s cheeks to kick in. There’s blurriness and trouble in low light. Straight lines might also appear distorted to you, he says.

Her not-so-straight lined blueprints had caused chaos. Once a lauded young architect, Laura Tate designed the country’s most celebrated constructions. Her signature style of dramatic geometry utilizing modern materials ushered in a “budding Greek Revivalism in American architecture” (cover spread of Architectural Journal 2004, quote displayed beneath a photo of Laura with cropped red hair tucked behind her ears, less worry lines behind thick tortoiseshell glasses, a cream linen set that was both expensive and difficult to keep unwrinkled). Even if one didn’t know her by name, they knew of smooth white columns and glass archways, of tall ceilings and evenly spaced windows. Entire cities were bound by her symmetrical influence.

Recently, an estate in Newport was constructed at an eighty-six degree angle. No one caught the discrepancy until decorators filled its cavernous rooms, unsettled to discover that chairs didn’t fit flush against the walls. Cézannes hung forward, frames heavy and swaying in the slightest cross breeze. The breaking point occurred when an heiress rented the compound for the summer. She stormed out in the dead of night after sleeping in the upstairs bedroom, because laying in her tilted bed felt like “getting strung up by her ankles” (Placed Journal, 2018). The incident caused whispers—raindrops stippling the water before the true downpour—a highrise in construction had to be scrapped for safety concerns. Even more recently, lawsuits about developmental oversight threaten Laura’s reputation. Sloping marble countertops and treacherously uneven staircases close in on her, a thick overlay of confusion and bad design.

But when reviewing her plans, she sees nothing wrong.

There’s a fatty buildup in your central field of vision, the doctor tells her, but occasionally you should have better clarity around it. Some days, Laura’s degeneration all but vanishes, her sight returning to not-quite-normal. When she wakes up to sharp contrast, she feels a lightness in her chest that propels her through the day. She completes crossword puzzles and reads pill bottles aloud for fun. But Laura—once practical and assured—has become mercurial, her mood souring with the setting sun. At dusk she takes time to memorize the layout of her apartment. Most days everything is crooked, clouded. Another Thursday of blurred shapes and their unpredictable sounds.

Dr. Karageorgiou recommends they begin treatment immediately. He calls into the pharmacy requesting Vitamin C, E, zeaxanthin, lutein, zinc, copper, more metals. Informs her that during her next appointment, they will insert a small needle into the white of her eye. With this, Laura Tate is prescribed with tiptoeing through her mid-years, peering around that fatty mass and experiencing life in the periphery.

On the train ride home, she reads an article on her phone, enlarged to 2X font. A man sits next to her, his movements too quick, too jolting. He’s staring at her. She can sense something wrong out of the corner of her eye. She scans the same sentence over and over, knowing the other passengers are doing the same. Everyone's unacted attention is on the man. It scares Laura. Not the vision loss, but the lonely feeling in a crowd; of what you can find lurching in the corners of your eye line.

The morning after her appointment in the strange, dark hours of dawn, Laura wakes before her alarm to the feeling that she is not alone, mind alert though her body still half dreams. She lays on her back and opens her eyes, newfound peripheral vision catching something in the corner of the room. Anxiety blooms in the stale overnight air. She realizes the feeling is not her own—it emanates from the indigo smudge sitting atop her dresser. At least it seems to be sitting: thin, elongated, dangling legs. Against the deep walnut wood dresser and a gray wall, the smudge appears as a shadow or a mirage—a shivering outline of nothing at all. Yet the dresser drawer spilling its contents—a shirt sleeve hung over the ledge as if still containing an arm—this is visible, comprehensible.

Laura rubs her useless eyes with fists until she sees flashes of light and green veins spread into green splotches. The shadow’s soft lines hint at shoulders, a roman nose, the whisper of short hair, but still flit away from her consciousness. Hiding. Watchful. The next thing she’s aware of is waking again to the chime of her seven a.m. alarm. She must have fallen back to sleep. Minutes later while upright and brewing coffee, Laura gazes off into the distance, fingers tapping rapidly on granite countertops. The shadow is a forgotten thought, lingering like a question at the tip of her tongue.

* * *

Laura arrives at the city’s public library with the intention of briefing Stanley on her medical diagnosis. Stanley is her closest friend, a sixty-something year old archivist whom she met while working on her last project—a reading room situated within the library’s historic stacks, lauded as “a feat of classical expression designed for today’s modern world” (Archreview, 2018). Final plans built before everything went sideways. She heaves the heavy wooden front door open to meet the familiar smell of old paper and fresh sawdust, teak and an open window somewhere on the first floor. It was this comfort that made Laura insistent that she be on-site for the room’s construction, even if it just meant delivering an extra box of nails. Heading towards Stanley’s office, she skims the wall’s marble inlay with her fingertips and wonders: did she cling to one sense knowing another was failing?

Stanley’s office is a wide glass box attached to the rare book room, this way he can keep one eye on some tattered Antonin Raymond books while tabbing through an excel sheet. Behind a desk of ephemera Laura doesn’t bother bringing into focus, Stanley jumps up at her arrival, hurries over to embrace her as if they hadn’t gotten coffee yesterday morning before the appointment.

“So, was the doctor as handsome as he looked online?” Stanley asks, holding Laura out by the shoulders. She removes his hands and shifts his body slightly to her left.

“There,” she says. “Your face looks like a Picasso when you stand so close in front of me.”

“You’re evading the question!”

“He’s handsome and it’s horrible. You never want a younger man leaving voicemails about your medication schedule.”

Stanley leans on his desk and sighs—perhaps dreamily, perhaps in sympathy. Laura has been struggling with deciphering meaning now that she can’t read subtle facial expressions. Social cues weren’t her strong suit even before the eye issues began. Confused and often frustrated, she kept most people at a distance, dismissing any details she didn’t understand. Now this lack of detail is thrust upon her. Stanley always bridges the gap of half-understanding by telling Laura exactly what he’s thinking.

“So what’s the prognosis, Love?” he asks, using a pet name to convey a rare sincerity. It’s an unspoken code they’ve come up with since Laura stopped being able to detect the irony in his eyes. She observes the frayed edges of the room instead of Stanley.

“They want me to start photodynamic therapy next week to slow the changes,” she says, “and I’m on so many meds I’m going to need one of those weekly pill boxes. There was something else,” Laura pauses. Tries to remember what else that happened in Dr. Karageorgiou’s office, or maybe afterwards. Then, the right corner of the room shifts slightly, as if staring at the wall through a clear object—almost the true image, but not quite. The indigo shadow from early this morning rushes in, flooding the hallways of her mind.

“This morning I woke up to something sitting on my dresser,” Laura blurts out. “It was nervous, like it didn’t want me to notice it.” When she finishes telling Stanley everything, she feels drained, halls sodden. She worries at his silence.

“Do you think, maybe, it was early,” Stanley hesitates, “and your mind was just filling in the blanks? What you couldn’t see?”

“Maybe…” Laura reluctantly agrees, “but it had a feeling too.” A tinge of disappointment tickles in her throat.

“Let’s just see if it’s there after treatment starts,” he says. “If your third eye’s still open after that, I’ll refer you to my psychic.” His buoyant tone has returned but Laura thinks he’s being serious.

“Fine,” she says, before pushing their conversation towards lighter topics—attractive doctors and new sunglasses. Laura sits in a bulbous leather chair and Stanley behind his desk. Soft, wordless jazz plays in the background of their chatting. Stanley receives an urgent work call—some kind of archivist emergency—while her own phone shows two missed calls from the ophthalmologist’s office. Laura mouths goodbye and closes the door gently behind her. Swipes the voicemail notifications away on the way to the reading room located in the main hall.

Laura lingers inside her finest creation. At the center of an echoing rotunda stands Coeus in Bronze. The Titan’s arm extends towards heaven—clouds of blue stained glass—as if in inquiry. Though the statue is obscured by the mass in Laura’s vision, she takes in the concentric shapes huddled around it—marble and teak desks curl prostrate towards his unseen body, bookstacks peek from behind pillars that stretch upwards past the second and third floor balconies. Even the wood grains wriggle towards Coeus, trapped under lacquer like ancient organisms preserved in amber. Beyond the reading room’s central loop lies crevices hidden from Coeus’ watchful eye. It is the only project Laura has ever included useless, secret geometry in. Architects often worry about unintentionally creating liminal spaces in their work, but Laura believes they contribute something much needed in a library—a corner of one’s own, all but invisible to a passerby. A corner to feel bodily, aware, transcendent. She retraces her steps to find her space, relying on muscle memory and counting column bases.

Laura turns down one stack, then another, another. Halt. She notices it because the corner is on her left side—her good side—and because it is occupied. She grips a shelf to steady herself, not daring to turn completely. Doesn’t want to spook the delicate green hue, pulsating like a lung. Laura trains her eyes on the thick book in front of her, uninterested and unable to read its spine. Her pupils quiver to bring her left side into focus. The shadow shakes slightly, mimicking her. Or perhaps, transfiguring. Laura blinks. The shadow is now a figure, which now has the sloped shoulders of a woman—faceless, but with an uncanny expression that’s teasing, deceitful, gone. It seems to say, I see what you cannot.

“What is it?” Laura says to air, to slippery nothing. A library patron’s heavy, concrete step shuffles by and he averts his gaze, as if to give this woman talking to herself privacy. Laura’s eyes sting with frustrated tears, which reminds her of the sting of a needle. She hurries back towards the entrance, pushes through the heavy wooden door, and returns to the crisp air of a blurry world.

* * *

Several days of vitamins and pills do nothing to stop the shadows dancing in and out of sight. At the same time, the Design & Interiors section of The Northeast Review publishes a short article detailing Laura Tate’s recent failures. The ophthalmologist's office continues to call, urging Laura to return for a follow up. To be observed is exhausting. She wants to catch the elusive forms in action, wants to know what they see. How they evade so completely.

Her neck cramps from glancing over her shoulder every minute, so Laura bridge poses in her living room, having moved the glass coffee table and the marble sculpture and the single potted fern. She meditates for hours with eyes open wide, unfocused on a single point, aware. Her tactics escalate to mild public displays, but by now she’s used to attention. “Laura Tate jogs backwards around her neighborhood!” (Curbed 2019). True, and she wears expensive oversized sunglasses made of concave mirrors which she read somewhere that though images appear flipped, the lenses may help with convergence. The figures do not reveal themselves, even as she turns her world upside down.

Laura jogs three miles to the library. Her glasses now fog during morning runs; warm skin against cold air. When she enters heel-first, mirrored lenses show her same reading room, only wavering. Less in focus, less planned. The room is not quite a room. Its teak desks separate into a light spectrum, reflecting back the green of rolling hills; the glow of reading lamps flicker like far-away houses on the hillside. The people who live there are asleep. They dream inside simple clapboard homes—not overly considered—because sometimes what a house holds is more important than how it is constructed. It is an intimate place, sure, but it’s also a practical one. This scene is swept away by a whirlpool that spins around an epicenter: the same peripheral shadow that sat on Laura’s dresser, now posing like a Greek Titan set in bronze. As the shadow pulls full lives into its vortex, its indigo deepens until it is the color of midnight, until grassy valleys and dense forests form a mouth, which insinuates lips, which might be bowed into a knowing smile. They take each other in through all the ways either perform the act of “looking.” It is this Anti-Coeus in this non-room that plants the seed of an idea that eventually, hopefully, may sprout into a blueprint.

Drawing up blueprints is now different for Laura. For one, she can’t use her old program due to contrast issues. Her laptop is also the exact width of what she can’t see. Apparently, the mass obscuring her vision is the size and shape of a 15.4 inch Macbook Pro. Instead she drags her massive drafting table into the middle of her living room. The glass coffee table and sculpture and plant still shoved in the same corner they’ve been in since last week. The table legs get caught on a yoga mat and she kicks it away, then sighs at the realization she now must memorize this chaotic new floorplan. She unravels a seven-foot scroll of bond paper and clips it to each corner of the table on her left. Facing the wall, Laura holds her arm out at a ninety-degree angle. Draws lines from the corner of her eye. To an observer, it may appear as if she’s not looking at all, just using her steady hand and sense of scale to sketch out the lines of a door, a hallway, a closet. But she is looking, in a way. Her touch is light—wisps of pencil strokes overlap, undercut. The afternoon light streams in through the window and shifts as the sun retreats. Shadows pace the walls in the changing light. Laura presses down harder on her pencil to retrace and solidify her ideas. But not all. Windows remain open, their markings faint and unsure. Thresholds between rooms have yet to be delineated.

In the end the blueprints are not blueprints at all, but instead a vague interpretation of what a building can be. There are lines. Some perfectly straight—a happy accident—but most not. Often there is nothing drawn at all, just a messily scrawled window. Perhaps Laura will finalize in building stages, but for now, spaces remain open and subject to change, hazy like the figures of her Thursday vision. She has set out to create a space that lends itself to the figures that evade her. Each room will hone the flitting feeling in her stomach that makes edges clearer and expressions readable.

Above the non-plans Laura Tate writes in block letters: TOPOS.

* * *

Laura sits in the waiting room of the ophthalmologist's office, distracting herself with a tattered gossip magazine, its colors bright and loud, its text undecipherable. It has been two weeks since her initial appointment with Dr. Karageorgiou, which is one week longer than he wanted to begin her treatment. Laura’s planning had been interrupted by yet another phone call in which the office informed her she had a follow-up today at nine-thirty AM. They even sent a car to pick her up. In some ways, it felt more like a kidnapping than concierge service.

“Laura Tate?” a tech calls out. Laura stands, smooths her trousers, and heads back to the exam room. Dr. Karageorgiou is already at his desk, rare for a doctor. It must say “flight risk” somewhere on her file.

“Hello Laura, good to see you again,” he greets breezily. She perches herself on the edge of the exam chair, back straight, feet still planted to the floor. He explains the procedure in detail. Laura hears blood vessels, hears numb, hears delaying. Then there’s a shift on Dr. Karageorgiou’s right. If he notices the way her focus goes slack, eyes staring at nothing, he doesn’t let on. Laura’s peripheral vision takes in a violet shadow. Its edges harden and curve like polished amethyst, ribbons of light weaving between a torso, shoulders, the idea of a face. If Laura tells her doctor about the woman standing next to him, he might be able to medically explain the figures pulling at her consciousness. But in doing so, she would be aligning with the world as she once knew it, clinging to a solid existence she no longer feels a part of.

“Doctor,” she interrupts.


“I am not going to continue with treatment.”

“Laura, there’s bleeding behind your retina. A lot of patients get nervous about the injection, but we numb the area so you won’t even feel it. If we don’t treat this immediately, you could risk further vision loss,” he says.

Laura doesn’t respond.

“Which we can put off for years,” he adds.

“It’s not the needle,” she says, “I just don’t want all of this. You said yourself that if it’s already this advanced, there’s no guarantee therapy will work.” She returns to the statistics they’ve discussed and the years of treatment and the bottles of smooth and colorful pills rattling around in her bag. She tells him she’d rather learn to live with her vision as it is.

This is not the full truth, but it is most of it. The eye doctor with perfect vision might be staring at Laura like she’s insane, but she wouldn’t know, since his expression is hidden behind the fatty mass. He continues with several more reasons for treatment after Laura has made up her mind.

“If I really can’t convince you, you’ll need to sign DAMA forms before you leave. I don’t need to be sued,” Dr. Karageorgiou says, gathering his charts.

“I know about being sued, you don’t have to worry about that,” she says, now famously a woman steeped in legal trouble. A resigned laugh from the doctor as he holds the door open for her. The front desk gives her seven forms to sign and initial before once again, Laura is thrust into the outside world.

* * *

The following September finds Laura leading a group of builders with a keen eye for entropy. Included in the job listing:

Seeking builders for non-traditional construction. Must be theoretically good at math.

Those she hired raised eyebrows at plans that jumped around the page and measurements written out as unsolved equations. Some quit. Unnamed sources commented, the lady pays well, but at what cost?

In the end, many agreed to the project because if there wasn’t a “correct” way to do something, there was really nothing to screw up.

It’s half past four and caged construction lights illuminate the morning mist. A group of stoic and weather-worn faces hover over steaming travel mugs, perched at the edge of open truck beds, scratching solutions in the margins of their plans. A faceless foreman gives an overview of safety procedures and potential hazards before letting Laura speak.

She stands before them, cropped red hair still tucked behind her ears, the long hem of her work pants dragging through sawdust. Laura is able to see the workers in her periphery by training her eyes on a flood light. Pools of silver flash and expand like supernovas while the people at the edges become clearer, albeit pulsating. She introduces a few ideas, thanks them for being there. They stare at her expectantly, likely because they want an answer to what this thing even is. She continues,

“Keep in mind that a place is a place because of the thing it contains. We are here for the thing itself—for what lies inside of these plans. Do not attempt to fix what’s broken. You don’t need to solve any problems. I trust all of your guts. Let’s begin.”

A chorus of work boots set out to begin what is now a highly anticipated and elusive building. Journalists want to know exactly what it will be and how long it will take. Laura ignores their calls for interviews and gleefully assists the builders, pouring concrete foundation and lopping curves off the top of drywall.

A building in process: at the center of a cylindrical foyer, the gnarled trunk of a goliath olive tree explodes through the floor, twisting up past where the eye can see. It will bear fruit once a year, the fruit only reachable from what will certainly be an unlevel roof. Wide stuccoed hallways slowly, imperceptibly become narrower, until one’s head grazes the ceiling. One may find that their walk slowly bends into a crouch. Laura’s walnut dresser sits at the end, displaced and waiting. Intersecting walls never quite meet, forming narrow gaps between rooms. The endless corners, upon Laura’s insistence, are rounded and sloped like red clay canyons. If one follows the edges and counts the columns, they can find a hidden alcove with a low chair to exist in.

With each room added, Laura’s vision feels more refined, her shadows comprehensible. Running, ducking through hallways, she no longer feels as if she’s chasing anything. She spots one to her left. More figures rush alongside her, darting in and out of the gaps, shrinking, then growing impossibly large. They change the colors of the walls like a playful sunrise projecting itself over a landscape.

Laura has decided that the building will never end, extension after extension, hallways leading to more hallways. What it becomes, however, is a surprise to everyone, including herself: an unsettled house built for the periphery. A home to the feeling of its corners. The figures accompany her, keeping her open to the unknown. Together, their topos.

Jess Gallerie


Jess Gallerie is an optician and writer from New York, whose work has been featured in Bruiser Mag, HAD, Spectrum Literary Journal, and Defunct Magazine, among others. They are an MFA candidate at the University of South Florida and the managing editor of Saw Palm: florida literature & art. Currently, they're working on a cli-fi novel about a grocery store at the end of the world.

paper texture

In the livestock of interesting characters somewhere in India, one stood looking at himself in the mirror on a fine Monday morning. He was pleased with what he saw. His muscles worried him but only because they did not exist. He was called Spideroid.

Outside, the sun was milder than usual and the cars in a good mood, jaunty on a jammed road. Rummy—the street dog notorious for his angst—was moaning melodiously, not growling as if engaged in a drunken brawl, not hard-staring at frail old men, not lunging at little children.

Spideroid wore his sling bag across his back and gulped down a glass of milk before knocking himself against the shoe cabinet by the door and tumbling onto the living-room carpet in one long graceless motion. His mouth brushed against the Big-Bazar clearance carpet, soft fur catching in his milk mustache. He locked the door, watching the elevator. Two minutes. Five. Then he said Come on man, and took the staircase. If he missed this bus, the next one was only after an hour. Paying extra to stay in a building with an elevator was great, but only if one ever spotted it. He must plan a meeting with his many roommates to discuss the elevator situation.

No empty seat on the bus, its insides as full as a freshly stocked refrigerator. One leg on the footboard, the other on something gooey, he held the bars of the back window tightly, and felt content. Life was as good as it could be, given everything the pandemic had unleashed for those like him. As the bus marched into the city centre, with him commandeering it, he noticed them now: Spideroids like himself, of all shapes and types, squatting on pavements, running after buses, mongering knife sharpeners, nose cleaners, teeth fixers, and every other ware that he thought obsolete. Assiduously performing jobs that asked for too much and offered too little in return, jobs that sucked the laborer’s blood for nourishment. He watched them with a mix of many feelings—pity, disgust, empathy, anger—and for a brief second he experienced complete clarity. He was not and would never be one of them. He was a class apart, or at least will be in the future (he desperately hoped). He was headed toward something monumental.

He closed his eyes, returning to his happy film: his well-rested body nicely dressed, in a big car leaving a big office heading to a big house.

Everything is his future was going to be big.

After the bus broke down in a far-flung neighborhood, Spideroid commenced a hike to work, buying an egg roll from a bakery on the way. Boss said he ate eggs every day for the pro-ttean, which through furious internet searches Spideroid found to be protein. He decided he needed the protein too. At the bakery, he saw other Spideroids hurriedly puffing the first cigarettes of the day, exchanging comforting glances. Office ID cards hanging around their necks in perfect noose loop knots. Once in a while, one of them spoke and the others looked very interested. Spideroid knew the conversation, the elaborate webs they were weaving around each other as safety nets, dancing the frenzied tarantella they believed would cure ancient illnesses.

Boss wasn’t in yet so Spideroid decided he could continue working on his social presence this morning. Five new people had followed him on X, the total count finally scaling three digits, up from the piddly 97 of last night. Upgrading to a catchy handle (rockstar underscore buddy) had worked, as predicted by the internet coach. The office air conditioner was in full blast and soon Spideroid was muttering to himself, bloody whoever doesn’t own an air conditioner is a rat, a bloody rat. Spideroid knew he will not be a rat. His future would be suffused to the brim with icy-cool air.

* * *

In the afternoon, after Spideroid snagged an early spot in the cafeteria lunch line, he saw his great friend, a Spideroid just like himself, fidgety at the tail end. Join me man, Spideroid said. His great friend, timid and bashful, smiled and shook his head. Spideroid insisted. The great friend skipped to the head of the line. The two Spideroids embraced as if they had met after decades. Lunch looks good today, they said to each other. I plan to eat so much. I might just go for a second helping. A third even. It felt good to be around another Spideroid, to let your guard down. Both felt the shivers of a vigorous appetite returning.

They loaded their plates with everything the buffet had to offer and exchanged bountiful smiles. The great friend even whistled a soulful tune to himself. They had not even made it to their chairs when his great friend’s boss called him to handle a customer complaint. But, Spideroid said, you have not taken even a single bite. Eat something at least? The timid great friend smiled and rushed back to his desk, abandoning the entire uneaten lunch. Spideroid felt a sort of anger rising up to his chest, a sort of fury choking his throat, but he banished the feeling, combined the lunch plates and ate it all.

While washing his hands Spideroid observed he was almost out of the peach-milk hair gel he kept on himself at all times. He spooned into the little jar a few drops of water, certain the resulting mixture would last his hair another week. Crafty much? he said to the person staring from the adjoining washbasin. The person shrugged, looking away. Apropos of nothing, Spideroid felt the urge to tell the person about his father. He cleared his throat and began: My father had forty-eight jobs in his lifetime. He got one job and lost it and got another one and lost it and then he got another one before losing it too. It just went on and on. My mother reached the peak of her anxiety every evening, distressed it would be the day my father had lost the last job that would ever come his way.

Free of supervision, the seven of us spent those evenings doing some very vile things in the streets, although I could never get myself to be too vile because of how innocent my mother looked sitting there in the kitchen bracing herself for terrible news, pulling out strands of her hair one at a time, until she was fully bald three days before her thirty-fifth birthday.

I think it was somewhere during that time I decided I would be what she always wanted my father to be; and since all I knew in those days was that my mother wanted my father to hold one fixed job, I decided I will get one fixed job and hold on to it with my dear life.

Other than that, my only dream was to own a Vespa because our neighbor at that time owned one. He looked so serene riding the pressed steel unibody on the potholed streets, feet snug on the flat floorboard, the front fairing guarding him from the dusty wind.

Spideroid was lost in thought for a few moments, images from his childhood rushing at him like punches from a little baby, not forceful enough to bruise the skin but causing a physical shock nonetheless. He yanked himself back to the present.

And that is the thing about childhood, he said. Things that affect us deeply become our silken cobwebs, splotched forever in damp corners of our minds. Any effort at clearing the clutter is a bloody joke because spider silk is five times stronger than steel.

Spideroid paused now, out of breath. He inhaled loudly, studying the person at the adjoining washbasin.

I think I might faint, the listener said.

* * *

In the Performance Review, in front of the entire team, Spideroid’s boss, his nostrils flaring as if he was having trouble breathing, asserted that Spideroid was an idiot of the highest order who needed sales tips from the new employee straight out of college. Then, as if the point was not clear enough, boss picked up a pile of papers, walked up to Spideroid, and threw them at his face. Learn to do your job or I will hire somebody else who will, he said.

Spideroid closed his eyes and he was back at school on that day in fifth grade when trying to pluck a mango from a skinny branch, he had come plummeting down. Splayed on the wide-spreading fibrous root system, his first reaction had been to make sure nobody had witnessed his humiliation. Two friends hastened over but Spideroid swiftly stood up, brushed the back of his shorts. Inside he wanted to sink in the ground and disappear. Outside, he snorted and smirked. Back home, alone, he looked at the blue lesion running from the base of his left buttock to the middle of his thigh and struggled to feel an emotion, any emotion.

Now, he felt impaled, a dartboard at which the entire office’s sharp looks had been flung. He kept his head down, only because it was the only thing he could do. He tried hard to smirk, bloody boss is at it again, bloody bastard always catches me, bloody my rent is due bloody, but all he felt was a gloomy vagueness. In the collection of emotions he was taught to feel by his parents, his uncles, aunts, friends, cousins, neighbors, in the collection of emotions he had passed on to his siblings, friends, cousins, neighbors, there was one he thought he should be feeling now: anger. But the emotion he really felt was the one passed along in the blood of his lot, the emotion he saw on every face he closely knew: fear.

He did not want to lose his job, he could not lose his job. If he did, he had nothing else. The mother he was doing it all for was long dead, but there were two sisters. There will, hopefully, be a wife, a few children, a small sanctuary away from the fear and the papers tossed at close-range.

If Spideroid had lifted his head now and looked through the veil of shame, he may have spotted the other Spideroids in the room, their pitiful faces sorry for him. But he did not, even after boss had returned to his seat, branded two other team members fools of the highest order, pointing his index finger at one of them for so long the pointee had cried. Spideroid could not focus on anything, his mind was the wreckage left behind by funnel-shaped monsoon clouds.

What shook Spideroid out of the reverie was a loud thud.

Now what happened was that the review was taking place in a first-floor meeting room and like all Spideroids he was sitting in a corner, close to the wall, trying to be as invisible as possible. But a few others, facing the window, jumped up in alarm. The next moment everyone was jumping. And then the boss was jumping and exiting the room. The office was swaying with murmurs. People were dashing out of the building. So although Spideroid had himself missed the thud, it succeeded in jolting him to attention. He followed the crowd.

* * *

Outside, heads were tilted up, fingers pointing to the dangerous ledge on the terrace that seemed to invite those already on the brink. Most faces in the crowd were yet to decide what expression to wear. Someone was calling the police helpline and saying bloody they never answer bloody. Spideroid heard a rumor that some bystanders had fainted and been carried away. And then he saw it.

Under the orange light of the setting sun, splashed flat against the parking lot asphalt, was the source of the thud. Spideroid knew who it was, instantly. Not because of the thick lake of blood congealed around the head, as if afraid to venture further, not because of the head awkwardly cracked open like an imperfect walnut, not because of the odd angle of the limbs self-conscious in their own tragedy, and not even because of the pants folded at the seams in anticipation of rooster tails of mud during bad weather. Spideroid knew who it was for a much finer reason, one he could never spell out, even to himself. He wondered if the customer complaint had been too challenging to handle, if the irate customer had cussed across the world, threatened to get his great friend fired from his job.

Spideroid knew what he would do now. He would sigh and get back to the office. Anger will latch on to his mind and try to draw life out of it like the suckers of an aggressive octopus. Guilt would sap his energy. Dejection would leave him feeling like a glass shattered into a thousands of pieces. Then, he would give up, exhausted, hoping to be deal with his feelings sometime in the future.

Spideroid waited for those reflexes to take over, for his feet to carry him inside the building, back into the invisible corner of the meeting room. But the reflexes never did take over. Instead, something strange happened. The scene before him rose like a fully formed creature and hit his bloodstream, as if it were a little white pill with the power to unhinge a grown man. He felt his nervous system slow down. He looked up at the ledge. No silky residue. He looked around at the other Spideroids in the crowd, already in retreat like an army pulling back to occupy easier-to-defend ground. Then, among the crowd, he saw his boss. The narrow-waisted wasp like man was shaking his head, as if disappointed by the wasted time, the wasted labor. Call somebody, the boss said, somebody from his family. Where did he live? What was his name? Spideroid felt his body going from relaxed to fight-or-flight, his breathing hard, legs shaking, his mouth scraped dry. He wanted to beat his chest and cry out loud. He wanted to scream his real name and ask everyone to scream it after him. He wanted to glare at the others in the office, in the meeting rooms, at the coffee machine, everywhere, glare right into their eyes and tell them he would not sit in a corner against the window anymore. He wanted to hear the texture of his voice mixed with the rumble of the road and the hum of the parking lot and the soft unheard growl of the bodily installation splayed in the parking lot.

* * *

But he was a Spideroid, the lowest class of citizens, the ones selling their labor to live, the ones dreaming of a future sanctuary built on the rubble of past privations, rejections, losses. The pill washed out of his system as soon as it entered it. He knew that all he wanted to say and do had already been said and done, but inside his body, silently, signlessly. The cry had been cried, the name had been screamed and now the groan was being performed, heavy in his chest. His heart raced as if it were the musical accompaniment.

All the other Spideroids had left the scene. Through the tinted windows he could already see some back at their desks.

As the crowd thinned out, he left the spot too, to walk in the opposite direction of the office building as his mind held two contrasting thoughts together:

1. Something had shifted inside him.

2. Although he was walking towards the bus stop today, tomorrow he would question the decision. In fact, he might begin to regret his action any second now.

But for now, Spideroid wanted to hold onto the shift for as long as he could. So he kept walking.

* * *

At this moment, if you asked Spideroid if he was going home, he would laugh. He would look at you and ask you what is home. Or he might say yes he is going deep into his burrow. He might smile and say see, that’s the thing with spiders, they can thrive and live in almost any place: on the edge of the oceans, on plants, under rocks, in trees, in caves, and even over the water. He would tell you that an estimated one million spiders live in one acre of land, so it was a blessing he shared his burrow with only five.

* * *

This time, Spideroid easily got a seat on the bus. The scene played in his mind over and over: overworked Spideroids picking the twisted body and hurling it into the ambulance. Who else would volunteer to undertake the cleaning job after death finished its dirty business? Who would wipe the blood off the asphalt so the wheels of boss’ cars stayed pristine?

This time when the bus sputtered to a halt, Spideroid rolled up his sleeves and answered the call to action. He united with the other Spideroids to push the beast off the busy road, then squatted with them on the pavement to share a cigarette.

Spideroid laughed as he remembered his parents, the original Spideroids. He remembered his uncles, aunts, friends, cousins, neighbors, and everybody he knew closely or would ever know, because this was the lot of his class. Together they made a massive spider army that stretched to all the corners of the country and powered it from within. They were here, there, everywhere.

So the next time, when you think about where they live, the better question to ask would be: where don't they?

Astha Gupta


Astha Gupta is the 2023 winner of the Marguerite McGlinn Prize for Fiction, a semi-finalist for the 2023 Marianne Russo Novel-in-Progress Award and a finalist for the 2021 Porter House Review Editor's Prize. Her writing has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and the PEN/Robert J. Dau Short Story Prize, and received support from The Hambidge Center, The Sundress Academy for the Arts and The New York State Summer Writers Institute. She holds an MFA in fiction from the University of Massachusetts Amherst where she was an MFA Fellow and won the Deborah Slosberg Memorial Award in Fiction. She lives with her family in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

paper texture

Sex and the City fucked me up. I had watched the original when it aired, and then all of the episodes again almost a decade after. They should’ve stopped at the original. Maybe if they had, all of this could’ve been avoided. But it was a pandemic, and then a holiday, and then another holiday, and Mark and I were not sharing a bed anymore. To prepare myself for the reboot, and to wash away the sting of a Sex and the City, without Samantha, I got myself ready by rewatching everything, and the three movies. By the time I got to the reboot, there were no hot baristas around to stop me. If that show was any smarter, I would’ve shit marbles, but instead I celebrated on reddit and twitter and EyeSquared as I wrote about each episode starting with the premiere, which I remembered watching as a virgin in high school. You would think that somewhere out there was a barista that might’ve checked in on me, but instead I got all of this free swag from Korean cosmetics brands who thought what I was doing had real potential. I was too weak to fight them on it. As someone who worked at a museum, I should’ve known better, but to make a long story short, that’s how I ended up in therapy that afternoon in Mid-Town. The therapist Dr. Fujimoto was blah like all of the rest, but the important thing was what happened after the session. I was crying in, ew, Golf Wang sunglasses (that a barista from Abraco had left in my Fiat), when I noticed an ad, on a payphone, for some website called Deng Xiaoping. It said: “Trial for Women 40 and Up.” I almost wanted to throw up, and then accidentally did a little bit from my nostrils on an e-scooter. Further investigation revealed that what I had stumbled onto was an early roll out of some startup out of DUMBO, backed by Peter Thiel, who was just on my crossword puzzle last Sunday; the participants for this study had to be women, later on it said the trial would be opened up to ALL GENDERS, and to find out more I could scan the QR code. Now there was a moment where I genuinely thought that something so available to everyone was truly desperate, but then I remembered that I had just walked out of another therapy session, which was costing me thousands of dollars, and if there was anyone on this planet who was desperate, it was probably, ew, the over forty, still-doing-cocaine, Asian girl in Uggs. I scanned the code, and a website popped up with user-experience that would make any girl in New York cream a Haagen-Dazs bar. I thumbed to the bottom of the screen to see who had designed it, and saw that Kirkley Studios was the creative agency behind the build out of the site, which meant that whatever this top secret Deng Xiaoping experiment was, Kirk Kirkley, a designer, who I had gone to school at Cal Arts with, and was now married to one of the girls from GIRLS, not only knew about it, but believed in it.This would prove important later on, so don’t forget it. I typed an alias into the box, and then my sister’s real birthday. Immediately, three glossy photos popped up, each more strategically masculine than the next. Please don’t forget that Mark and I were sleeping in separate rooms. The first one, who they called Lance, had that carved, headless torso shape you see in museums. The second, Elio, yeah, I know, curly hair, a slightness that made you want to wrap a gun around his shoulders while he dangled a cigarette on stage. And then the third, oh the third, the-third, the-third — oh — John. Well you might already have some idea where we’re going. He was like a painting of a barbarian come to life, bold and in your face with pearly white teeth, sharp as candy corn, and that hot chocolate skin. I pressed John so hard that the next question might as well have come from my finger. It was a simple prompt communicated by a butterfly.

Are you attracted to one of these men?

Oh please? One of them?!

Rank the following characteristics in order of most important to least important.

1. Face — 2. Legs — 3. Arms

Did you notice that all three of these men were without a belly-button?

I clicked no, thinking it was a joke. But when I saw the three men again, as they flashed across the screen in bouncy five second intervals, starting with John, I indeed saw what the helpful butterfly avatar had pointed out. None of them had a belly-button. None of them had a belly-button. Then another question popped on screen from John. Here’s what it said:

Would you like me to make a dinner reservation?

I thought, that was fast. Then I thought, Kirk Kirkley, are you playing a prank on me? But the truth is I hadn’t seen Kirk since his wedding to Zosia. I had no idea whether or not they were going to have babies.

I clicked YES! letting the butterfly know that I was ready to move on to the next screen. Unlike the prior screens, this took about twenty seconds to load. When it finally did, and this I found rather cringe, the empty space was highlighter pink, and on the page was a headline for a dinner reservation that very night, that very night, at Balthazar.

* * *

Mark only left his "man cave” three times throughout the day. Once in the morning to chug his oatmeal (he needed to do this on the stove for some reason). To get the mail, around 4pm, and then one last time to give me a peck on the cheek when I got home from the museum. No matter what time that was, he would come out of his “man cave” in a bathrobe and force us both to do it. There was a bathroom and a microwave in there, so he could do everything else he wanted to, like a prisoner on that Showtime show Homeland, with internet. I was conflicted, to be in such a torn state on a school night when I had to be at the museum at 8am to stage a new show featuring the drawings of Caren Plish, was unlike me. I couldn’t get John out of my head though. Sure he was cute, my meat head, I was already coming up with nicknames for him! Ew. But I was curious. I decided to go home at the end of the day like I normally do, let Mark come out in the bathrobe for our touching-thing, and then take the next ninety minutes or so to clear my head with a vinyasa class.

I popped into the restaurant at a quarter past eight in my yoga pants and my hair as messy as a tornado, and had to look pretty hard to see him, all the way in the back, looking like an FBI agent against the wall, in his purple khakis and gold chain — but the first thing he said made me back up. “Carissa?”

“Mina,” I said.

“I ordered you a drink, Miss Mina. I hope you like vodka.”

I told him it was fine.

“John,” he said, as he pulled my chair out. “You’re going to love the salad.”

He smirked and looked down at his plate of seared tuna.

I said, “I got to be up early.”

“Sit,” he said.

I looked at him sheepishly. “How did you know to come here?”

He acted like it was a stupid question.

I acted like I didn’t know why.

He removed a sleek black folder from his maroon backpack, and a print out with the answers from the questionnaire was in it.

“So, what, they just pay you to show up to whatever?”

“It’s a long and boring explanation.”

I laughed, and then I took the seat across from him.

“What if I hadn’t requested you?”

“Then I wouldn’t be here."

Eventually he explained that the dating service was in beta stage.

“So, they’re like a concierge?”

“Exactly,” he said.

John was as masculine as any man I had met since my semester abroad in Florence, and certainly more man than the nothing-burgers I had been chat-rooming with on the couch during my Sex and the City marathons. “Are you real?” I said, halfway through the rabbit, half kidding, half dead-serious. John was defanging the head and sucking his way through its just-killed mouth to get to the gums, which he said were the least appreciated “tendrils” of the animal. “You know how I told you I worked in restaurants, Miss Mina?” I felt old feelings rising from within. “You’re a sex offender?”

“Worse,” he said, slightly lowering his voice, …"banking.”

When I was younger in age, I might’ve been offended by the way John was going about his business, but his adorable little face flushed so innocently, like a fox peeking out of the branches after the first snow in a children’s book; that I really felt for him. I put my fork down, which still had a shred of meat stuck to its tongs, and said. “Let’s get out of here.” I won’t go into the details other than to say it was a first date.

* * *

I washed my stomach with an orange peeler that night, which one of my readers swore was bottled in biodegradable glass. Another had DM’d to ask how it was possible to devote so much time to a vapid group of middle aged TV women. Her bio had all manner of strange acronyms, and almost all of her posts were quotes from famous authors. There was one post pinned to the top of her stream that I had seen before on another bio, but I couldn’t understand why. All anyone did anymore was watch TV. John and I saw each other two more times that November. There was enough of a spark between us that we started to talk about holiday plans. He was sweet enough to invite me to Mississippi to visit his family for Thanksgiving, but it just felt weird given how one sided things between us had been up until that point. “What if we stayed in the city?” I said. I couldn’t believe the way it came out of my mouth, exactly the way I wanted it to.

John stirred the beef stew he had been working on since that morning and smiled.

It came over me all at once. I went right up to him by the stove, and started to unbutton his purple khakis. He didn’t flinch, not that I would’ve been able to control myself. I prepared, pulling my hair back like Angels in America, took a deep breath, and then my mouth hit a wall, flat like the surface of a pool. I wanted to cry, but before I could my underwear was in a crumple at my ankles, and I had forgotten everything, numbed to the point of oblivion.

God bless the holiday season; we did the things I always said I was going to do after I read Cheryl Strayed. The Rockefeller Plaza, carriage riding beneath the fresh powder; John even took us to Toys R’ Us, pretending I was his little princess at FAO Schwartz, just like I was visiting New York for the first time as a little girl. I felt like the star of my own Netflix romcom, and when I think back to that week, even now, after everything, my face gets youthful and puffy. Unfortunately, as things tend to happen in our grown-up world, real life and online life came crashing into each other like two waves in the ocean. I’m just grateful to Krishna or buddha or my parents or whatever that we had those few special months DRAMA FREE before everything exploded.

The reader, I guess, had seen us window shopping on the Upper East Side; we needed something to keep us warm because of the cold spells, and I had just read about these thermofusion ear warmers. The reader must’ve been there, either in the restaurant or more likely gawking outside of the windows like a desperate WEIRDO. Boy did she have her radar on. I think I even saw a drone, though John said it was a hawk.

After those illegal videos captured by the dear reader came out, we began to get scrutinized. Eventually I got a DM from one of my most loyal readers asking in the subject line if I was dating someone who was dickless. I really felt weird about opening it—John’s privacy and my privacy was O2 to our relationship; I just couldn’t resist the learnage. All it did was cause a shit storm. Part two. Things were weird with us that night. We knew that everybody was talking about us. We were trending on like three or four different platforms, including EyeSquared TM. I mean, we said the right things, but I think John knew that I had said some things about his masculinity behind his back. It hurt me that he would assume that I had slandered him but it hurt me even more that I had. We were so close to saying I love you to each other that I didn’t want anything to mess it up.

“I swear to Buddha and krishna that I don’t care.”

John cracked a fresh walnut against his crotch and sprinkled it into the salad. It was a stressful day, he was feeling queasy for dropping more money than he should’ve on a new apron and chef knife for his mis en place, but said he was finally making the leap to working in actual kitchens like his hero Anthony Bourdain would’ve wanted him to do.

“Have you thought about how you’re going to quit your job?”

He didn’t want to talk about the logistics anymore, and I went home with blue balls for the first time since we had met.

Mark gave me a peck in the kitchen and then went back to his room. How long has that blue light been there, I thought. There was this sliver of Poltergeist-like light under his door in the “man cave.” I glued my ear to the door and listened. I don’t know what took over, but like some Jackie Chan, I kicked it open, and saw Mark sitting on the carpet, surrounded by microwaves, playing what the hell in goggles. Somehow I was able to get to the toilet, where I wrote the next day’s newsletter in a flush of inspiration.

Kirk Kirkley was kind enough to take the train to the little Polish bar in our neighborhood. He was showing me pics of their son. “What’s his name again?”


I was confused.

“It’s Scandinavian for eagle.”

“Is Zosia Scandinavian?”

Kirk put his phone away without answering me. I told him why we were meeting, hoping he might clarify some of the gaps in my understanding of the project. “It’s been a while since I worked on that job. What do they do again?”

I looked at his teeth, as if this man had never known fear. “They’re a dating service,” I said.

“A dating service?”

I went into hush mode. “You know, for dickless guys?”

He clapped twice in rapid fire, and then one more time, making a scene. “Great client,” he said. “Great, great client.”

I was relieved.

He sat back in the booth and began to think, fondled his nose ring, then frowned. It seemed like he was trying to make a lie, but when he started up again he looked offended. I suddenly felt like he could read my thoughts.

“Not everyone needs one,” he said.

At first I wasn’t sure what he meant, but then I felt judged. I told him that I agreed, but somehow he didn’t believe me, and it landed weird. The next day Kirk-fucking-Kirkley was all over EyeSquared TM, and then the mainstream news, talking about how I was a Neo-liberal feminist MAGA queen upholding the patriarchy. That made it back to John, and next thing you know we’re having an early dinner where … he wanted to talk about our future.

“So you’re breaking up with me?”

“You have your blog, your audience, your theories.”

“I don’t need a guy to have a dick, okay! I don’t!”

John shrugged. He pecked me on the cheek.

The next morning I was on the fire escape, and I started to really lose it. His profile status had been changed to available. It was clear, too, that in the two and half months since we had met, the company had grown—there were far more Johns in the margins than there had been before, spitting replicas who all wore the same purple khakis and gold chains. The available ones had green dots beside their names, the green dots outnumbered the red ten to one. I’m not sure what came over me. Maybe it had something to do with being treated like a science experiment. I knocked on Mark’s door, and when he said come in, I swung it open like I had been waiting to do it for years. Before long, he was untying his robe. At first it kind of shocked me, not just because it was Mark’s, but because it had been a long time since I had seen one. It was bonier than how I had remembered it. Weirdly thin. It didn’t take long though for me to get immersed. After thirty or so seconds, which still make me sick, I did the only thing I knew would prove to John how much I really cared about him. After a few bites, when it finally cracked, I picked it up with my left hand and threw it in the trash where it landed with a crunch in a batch of shrimp shells, never to be seen again. Seventy-two hours later I was hired by Deng Xiaoping. John has been our number one seller at the company by a wide margin for over two years. My biggest accomplishment since getting here? Easily the recycling program.

Allen Landver


Allen Landver is a bi-lingual writer, poet, and filmmaker living in Los Angeles. Recent publications of his writing include Black Warrior Review, Litro Magazine, and The Los Angeles Review. He is at work on a novel and writes the newsletter BASKETBALLWEATHER.

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Only $40.

From the side the mask’s eyes look pigeon-empty, but head-on they are a raptor’s enigmatic palantírs. The wearer peers out through an open beak. The bad lighting offers the illusion there’s no one inside, as though the sweat has reached singularity, animated the hollow suit into an eldritch horror. Acid yellow mittens. Flaccid fuzzy triangles imitating feathers droop from the elbows like a cowboy’s buckskin fringe.

The listing has only been up half an hour.

You cannot wait to buy it.

In the gas station parking lot, the guy seems eager to be rid of it, though he counts twice the two 20s you’ve given him. Packers ballcap, corporate quarter-zip for an HVAC company, cigarette unlit on his lip, he could be anyone’s uncle. You ask him where the costume came from and he looks as though you just propositioned him with a pegging.

“I made it.”

“What for?”

“To wear.”

You absolutely want to ask more but his pickup has out-of-state plates and a gun rack, and he’s already handed over the goods stuffed inside a single black trash bag. He’s clambered back in before you can say thanks.

At home, a miracle: the costume does not stink. It doesn’t smell like anything. Not a high school baseball diamond dugout. Not the packed showroom of a furry convention. Not the musk of a garage-cum-mancave. Not even the dry cleaners.

It’s a bit baggy but it fits. You feel like the pilot of an anime mechsuit. You await your invitation to the Avengers. You post a picture, armored such, on Facebook with the caption, “fit check mothercluckers” and delete it after fourteen minutes and zero likes.

You take it out on the town because winter is here. The salt and snow soak the edges of the feet, so you turn back, cinch the handles of a plastic takeout bag THANK YOU THANK YOU THANK YOU around each ankle. A car honks. An old woman with her grocery cart startles at the sight of you. People laugh. You wave and keep on trucking. The cold does not touch you, struck dumb by your poultry insulation. You do not sweat, even on the uphills.

The activity opens an appetite within you, and you trek to McDonalds. It is too late and the dining room is closed. In the drive-thru, you wait your turn between two SUVs. You order a twenty-piece nugget meal and arrive at the pay window before you realize your error. No wallet. The window worker laughs, shakes their acned head, and waves you through to receive your meal, on the house. Now this is power.

You take a seat on the exit sign next to a dirty snowplow mountain. Though hunger has not absconded, you cannot lift the mask to eat. Everyone is watching, waiting for the reveal. Be this human or apparition? You can’t be the one to break their hearts. Pressing a nugget between your beak does not slake, stopped by the black mesh that masks your identity. Three seagulls lurk at the edge of your vision. Dump chickens. You toss them the golden fritter and they squawk, squabble, feast. You leave, the audience’s disappointment singeing your spine.

As you retreat, you make sure no one sees you keying into your building. Only in your studio apartment of solitude can you strip the fake feathers off. Now you are soaked, though the costume remains clean, save a bit of grease spackling the mitten-tips. After a shower, you sleep the sleep of the drunk and dead.

* * *

It becomes a routine, then increasingly erratic, after you spot the duo armed with camera and microphone lying in wait. You swerve out of sight, and lose them in the side streets, and later see yourself gracing the local news, like a cryptid caught on film, fuzzy and frantic. They interview people who call you their hero, who call you a crackhead. Phonecam footage abounds. There you are, unrecognizable, refusing offers for hugs and high-fives. You hadn’t noticed that the mask seems to be smiling.

One morning you try and turn your alarm off, but find your phone screen unresponsive to your mittened hand. You do not recall going to sleep inside the suit, though it makes sense in the dead of winter when the radiator is all the way across the room. You dress for work, and turn the helmet so that it faces the corner.

A coworker shares the news clip in the team chat. They don’t know it’s you. They can’t. Yes, they’re nice enough, but you never know how people will react when you tell them who you really are. Catered lunch from the local Indian buffet. Chicken biryani. Suddenly you aren’t hungry. Nibble a soggy samosa the size of a softball.

You research vegetarianism but it seems hard.

At the farmer’s market, you are a minor celebrity. A spirit passing through a rural village portending a bountiful harvest. There are flowers whose color comes off at the touch, bottles of homemade spicy mustard sampled in paper cups with pretzel sticks. And then there are the eggs. Cartons piled high like bricks in a wall of potential protein. The woman running the stand looks like your grandmother. She doesn’t speak to you but smiles, and produces from her sleeve a single perfect egg.

You find a free scrap of pavement, nestle the nascent orb between your plastic-bagged feet, and squat over it. Everything comes into focus, like a dream where you are no longer just the projectionist. This is what you’ve waited for. There is nothing else for you to do but wait.

A steady flow of customers patronize the stand, taken in by your presence as makeshift mascot. Gradually the bulwark of cartons shrinks. Whenever anyone asks about you, the woman smiles and winks.

A child investigates, stuffed into a snowsuit that starfishes its little limbs, hood pulled tight over its tomato cheeks. It reaches out a mitten, and you wait for the parent to pull it away. The mitten brushes your beak, and you recoil, fall back. An inhuman noise escapes. The child cries and is whisked off.

Standing up you find your shattered charge slicked across your rear and the ground. You’ve never known a defeat so complete. At last, the egg woman speaks.

“Come back next week and I’ll have another for you.”

But you do not come back the next nor the following week. You put the costume away and wonder why you wasted $40.

* * *

Soon it’s spring and you are getting a haircut. The radio plays Bruce Springsteen and over a rattling guitar, he delivers the saddest news you’ve ever heard: The chicken man? In Philly? Yeah, they blew him up last night. His house too. You hold back tears while the stylist is silent.

Life improves on occasion. You take a summer class on philosophy at the local college. The professor tells the room full of fuckups and assholes about the great Babylonian Philosopher Zirrat, who aspired to live as perfectly as a rooster. He ate only grains and seeds, took many lovers, and began every morning by screaming at the top of his lungs.

You ask what he screamed.

The professor looks puzzled.

“He just screamed.”

“Like in pain?”

The professor gives that amused epiphanic half-nod as he understands. “No no, the records of that time indicate that it was a cry of pure ecstasy.”


“Ahh, a good philosophical text could be composed entirely of that single word. Perhaps you should try it out yourself and see if you can embody the answer.”

You feel very cheated. When you look up Zirrat later you cannot find anything and stop going to the class.

* * *

The cold returns and life gets worse. None of the people you’ve approached and invited to participate in your Zirratian experiment have agreed to become one of your many lovers. A couple say it sounds like a cult. After your first attempt at an ecstatic morning cry, your neighbor knocks on the door to check on you, and you’re too embarrassed to try again.

You don the costume once more. Tie the dirty bags of plastic gratitude around your feet. Slouch out into the world and walk the nights away.

On the local subreddit, someone posts a picture of you next to the title card from Peter Jackson’s The Return of the King. No one questions that it’s specifically a chicken costume. You do not feel triumphant. At the farmer’s market, the egg lady is gone.

You scan the internet for your own sightings. It’s a big enough city that they aren’t infrequent. Some places you recognize, others you don’t. Then the chicken man is at a club, rubbing elbows with blissed-out dancers. The chicken man is doing shots of tequila. The chicken man is grinding up on a pole.

You sit the mask across from you and ask if it’s been going out on its own. The mask frowns, crestfallen at the implication of infidelity. Of course, you’re just being paranoid, solipsistic, and narcissistic. You’re not the only chicken man. Yet you have no desire to commune with your clutch. What would you all talk about anyway? Would there be a need beyond language? Would you all awake in the same bed the next morning, equivalent crows of ecstasy burbling from your gathered throats? Would you double-dutch in the park while envious pigeons looked on? There goes the neighborhood.

You message the guy who sold you the costume and ask if he ever made another.

He asks if you want your money back or something.

You say no, you want your childlike sense of wonder back.

He blocks you.

You hunt. In all the places you were once unlikely, you seek the others like you. Sometimes catch a glimpse of an errant felt feather, a red crest flopping out of sight. At the movies, the laundromat, the library. If they’re seeking camaraderie, it isn’t with you. Or maybe they’re afraid that if everyone knows there’s more than one chicken, they won’t be so special. No free drinks or nuggies. Safety in insularity.

You stop going to work. Sleep in the suit. Shower in it too.

When you talk to yourself, who are you talking to?

The other sightings stop. You don’t accuse your second skin again, and the truth hangs, slack as the twine between two kids’ tin can telephones when they’ve run out of whispered secrets. You are only each other’s.

One lonely night it is snowing, and you have been walking a long time when a cloud of redolent smoke heralds a coup of college kids coming your way.

With terrible glee they cry out, CHICKEN MAN. They give chase when you run, and this will be your last mistake.

They will tackle you, and when the helmet tumbles off will they be surprised to find your long hair beneath? Éowyn screaming: I am no man. Will they pick you up and apologize and swear they thought you were just one of the guys? Will they place the mask back over your head and swear themselves to secrecy like the civilians in Spider-Man 2? Will their violence induct you into their acceptance?

You never learn the answer. They hit you. The mask comes off and takes your head with it. Rolls away from your body, down the slope. Stops at the foot of a concrete staircase. You’re left staring up, the moon clasped between the felted points of our beak.

Carl Lavigne


Carl Lavigne is from Georgia, Vermont. His work appears in LitHub, Guernica, Joyland, and disappears in direct sunlight. He holds an MFA from the University of Michigan; sometimes he sets it down.

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Sit up straight. Eyes and ears on me. Now hear this, gents: First Sergeant called me into his office this morning. So I walked across the LSA to get there, hot as balls out today. A hundred twenty friggin’ degrees, but anyway, I bet you already know what he had waiting for me on his desk. He told me, “Go on and take a closer look, Gunny. See for yourself.” I picked it up because he told me to. I have to do what he says just like you have to do what I say. Anyway, I held it up to the light and I thought I was dreaming at first. I have a lot of dreams, gents, but this was the real McCoy: I was holding in my hand a water bottle, not partially, but completely full of urine. That’s right. A piss bottle. But you already knew that since you’re the fuckers who filled it. And from the looks of things, y’all need to hydrate more. I looked closely before setting it back on First Sergeant’s desk. Hydration inspection failed. Drink water, assholes. How can your piss be so yellow it’s nearly brown when you had to empty a water bottle in order to fill it back up? But I digress. You’ll be interested to hear that it wasn’t even our company first sergeant who found it—them I mean, since there’s significantly more than one bottle of urine. It was our company commander who discovered what you’ve been doing. That’s right, fuckers. The captain went in while y’all were out on the flightline and she found the—well, as she called it, an assembly of piss bottles stashed under your cots like no one can walk a hundred yards to the head. A hundred fucking yards. Your first mistake is that y’all thought you could keep a secret from the captain and then gossip like a damn knitting circle. Why do you think she was snooping around in the first place? Those of us who work in the company office have ears. The captain heard the rumors herself, from you, precisely when y’all thought she wasn’t listening. This bewilders me, gents. Piss bottles? Really? How big of a collection were you trying to build? Oh, you think that’s funny, jackwagon? Stand the fuck by. We’ll get to you in a minute. And the rest of you too. In just two days I’ve gone from enforcing the acceptable timeframe for wearing beanies—not during the damn daytime for anyone who forgot—and now we’ve moved straight on to clandestine urinations in the hooch? Boy, I’m not sure that this isn’t a dream. Somebody fucking pinch me. Maybe I should be grateful it’s only piss bottles and not a portable meth lab. But seriously, you motherfuckers would rather piss inside the tent with everyone watching? Pretty weird, gents. Weird shit. Any of you smart ones ever take a sip from the wrong bottle by mistake? You ever spill that shit on yourself when it’s dark in here? Yeah, right. Piss bottle motherfuckers. What would your families think, your wives, your kids? That’s what your punishment should be if we’re being honest, telling your families who they’re really related to. But no, you know what? This is between me and you and I take full responsibility. I’ve failed you, gents. You know what I told First Sergeant? I said, “First Sergeant, I got ‘em.” And then I went to the CO’s office and said, “Ma’am, don’t worry. I got ‘em.” And what do you think she said? What do you think? She nodded and told me, “Yeah, I’m good with that,” and she didn’t question what I meant. Sometimes the officers want us to explain how we’re gonna thrash your asses to make sure there’s no hazing going on, but not this time. She doesn’t seem to find bottles filled with human urine to be particularly funny. Imagine that. I told her, “Roger that, ma’am,” and now here we are. I’ve failed you, but I deserve a second chance, don’t you think? So we’re going to try this again. You’ve been OFP—on your own fucking program—long enough. Daddy’s been away, but he’s home now. We’re switching over to my fucking program. So here’s what we’ll do. You’ll go to work, do your twelve hour shifts as usual, you’ll come home and wash your nasty bodies, hit the rack, do whatever the fuck it is you do at night while wearing your beanies during the authorized time to do so. Then when you wake up, you’ll spend the first two hours every morning field-daying this damn hooch till it’s spotless. NCOs will supervise, got it? Inspection ready, you understand me? White. Fucking. Glove. I don’t give a shit if we’re in Afghanistan. You’ll do it every day until I get tired, check? And every Friday morning we’ll do a health and comfort inspection so I can see what you’re hiding inside your disgusting foot lockers. You think I was joking about meth labs. We’ll fucking see. I got a stack of page-elevens to hand out like blank checks, motherfuckers, and I’m not worried about what makes your asses comfortable. Clearly, you’ve already taken it upon yourselves to be comfortable. NCOs, your asses live here too; don’t think you’re not on notice. Platoon sergeants, you’ll take care of this trash and report back to me, got it? We’ll have a duty posted up, one Devil Dog on duty for each tent at all times to keep an eye on your disgusting friends. We’ll go back to firewatch like it’s boot camp again, so you’ll each get a damn logbook and I expect there to be logs logged in it. And you’ll clean out the inside of all of those bottles the CO found too. Every last one. You think I’m playing. We gotta recycle when we can, gents, save the planet and all that trash. One of you NCOs can get the Toyota keys from me and take the bottles over to the recycling center. Otherwise, we’ll play some games. Try my ass and you’ll see. I still struggle to grasp it, gents. I’m mad at you, but I’m more mad at myself. That’s called a paradox. Google it. You’re wondering, now what? Shit. Like I said, I hoped I was dreaming this morning. I have so many dreams, gents. I barely know what’s real and what isn’t these days, the world is so fucking backwards. Every night I dream about this war, you know. Every damn night. But nothing about running around like Rambo or taking out Bin Laden’s ass. No guns or anything. It’s more like dreams where I’m buck naked with my nuts hanging out. I’m standing alone and there’s a curtain, and on the other side is a stage and a theater with an audience. I don’t know how I know there’s people in the theater or how I know the dream is about the war. I just know. It’s a fucking dream, gents. So, I’m behind this damn curtain, nothing on my body, not even a tattoo. I know the curtain is going up soon and I know a spotlight will flip on, and I know I’ll be the only thing to look at because there won’t be anything else on the damn stage. And then those things happen. The curtains draw up and there I am alone, naked in the spotlight like I predicted. And everyone is watching. It’s mostly the same every time, except sometimes I just stand there and cry until I fall through a trapdoor, or sometimes I run around holding my arms parallel to the deck, steady like airplane wings. Sometimes I flap my arms like a bird. Then I start flying until I wake up and find myself in another dream where I know I’m dreaming, and then I wake up from that dream, and then again after that. It goes on like this. Every night I dream about waking up from dreams. All night. They say it helps to be a heavy sleeper.


The faint smell of gunpowder was one sign that the grunts had done their job. The poges had not done much in comparison, even by their own estimation. Earlier in the evening, the grunts cleared a hot LZ to make way for a helicopter to pick up the poges and fly them back to Camp Leatherneck with their precious cargo nets. The grunts gathered in the dark near the crumbling perimeter wall of a traditional mud house, which at some point during the many years of this war had been abandoned or commandeered. The grunts, unlike the poges, would not go back to warm beds tonight. They sat together near an Icom radio sputtering at low volume, cupping their gloved hands over cigarettes to hide their orange glow from Taliban snipers. The night was as dark as it had ever been, not even the sliver of a crescent moon, and totally silent except for the fuzzy static voices coming from the radio, but no one was really listening to that.

“Shit dude,” one of the grunts whispered. He held his cigarette to his lips, inhaled smoke, and blew out a cloud of it. “Darkest I’ve ever seen it.”

“For real,” came the nearest answer.

The words made it to the ears of Lance Corporal Jonas, a conscientious and inquisitive young marine among the poges. He heard the grunts complaining about the dark, so he stood up to go and help them.

“Jonas, hey,” whispered one of the poge corporals as his subordinate walked away across the dirt yard. “Jonas. Ah, shit.”

“Goddamnit, not again,” muttered one of the junior marines, for it was too late to stop Jonas, who quickly reached the grunt platoon and spoke up.

“Here you go,” he said. He wanted to help the grunts see in the dark, so he turned on his flashlight. The poge squad watched from the other side of the yard in horror as Jonas was suddenly enclosed within the individuals of the grunt platoon who stood up to surround him. His flashlight cut off after someone ripped it from his hands and there was a scuffle in the dark. The poges heard utterances of do you want to die asshole and stupid as hell motherfucker and dumbest piece of shit I’ve ever seen in restrained, but furious whispers.

“I’ll slit your goddamn throat if you keep fuckin’ around like that,” someone said before finally shoving the flashlight back into Lance Corporal Jonas’s hands and pushing him toward the squad of landing support marines. He sat down near his squad and checked his flashlight.

“They took my batteries,” he said, but no one answered. A few of his friends inched away to physically distance themselves as they waited quietly for the inbound helicopter. The other poges hoped Jonas would give them a break and just go to sleep or something, but in their hearts, they knew it would never be that easy with him.

A few minutes went by and then the grunts and poges heard footsteps outside the wall. A gruff, older marine walked into the yard and ordered everyone to stand up as a second, taller marine emerged from behind. The grunts and poges stood up and gathered in a school circle around the tall marine who kept his kevlar helmet on as he addressed them.

“Good evening, gents. For everyone in LS, that is everyone in the landing support platoon who does not know me, my name is Captain Grim. Just here to—you know. Just here to keep you informed. I wanted to let everyone know that at this time the bird is inbound from Camp Leatherneck. So, that’s your ride back—landing support platoon’s ride back that is. The inbound bird. Excuse me. They should be here in about ten—I think ten, fifteen mikes or so, right Gunny? Something like that. And then we’ll get you on your way. Not the grunts though. We still have work to do. Um, so then—we, the rest of us will complete the remainder of the op according to this morning’s briefing. Ooh-rah, gents? Wow it has been a long day, ooh-rah? Is it tomorrow yet? Geez. Anyway, what questions do we have? What’s on your mind? Anything at all, gents. It’s okay, Gunny, we have some time. Right? Yes, right. We’ve got ten to fifteen mikes.”

“Excuse me, sir. I have a question.”

“Excellent. So, it’s pretty dark tonight. Wave your arm so I can see where you are, please.”

“Right here, sir. Over here.”

“Okay, there you are. I see. Okay, Marine. Okay, you don’t—you don’t have to keep waving. I see you. What’s your question?”

“How much longer before the bird gets here, sir?”

“Oh. Um. Ten to fifteen mikes is what I was told, good to go? I think I said that already, didn’t I? A couple of times actually.”

“Yes, you said that already, sir. Sorry, sir.”

“Hey, no worries, just making sure we’re clear. Anything else? It’s okay, Gunny, we’re good. We have time. Anyone? Any other questions, gents? Anything. It’s your duty to ask me a question if you have something on your mind. We’ve got nothing but time. Ten to fifteen mikes.”

“Excuse me, sir. It’s me over here again. I have another question.”

“Okay. Good do go, Devil Dog. But can I ask who that is? I don’t know who’s who in your platoon. I don’t think I’ve met any of you yet. Give me a name to go on.”

“Lance Corporal Jonas, sir.”

“Jonas? Nope, doesn’t ring a bell. Definitely haven’t met you yet. Good to meet you, Lance Corporal Jonas. What’s your next question, hard charger?”

“Was your mission tonight a success, sir?”

“Absolutely yes. Fuck yes. We were—I would say we were successful, without a doubt. Right, Gunny? Yep, that’s what I thought. Absolutely. That’s as much as I can really—well, that’s as much as I can say at this time since we have to secure your platoon’s egress before we’re back on task, I guess—I mean, obviously we couldn’t have done it without landing support’s—well we couldn’t have done it without your . . . support. Logistics is good to go in my book, good to go? Us grunts need you as much as you need us. Right? We can’t just shit out our own bullets, ooh-rah? Someone has to keep us loaded up. My brother-in-law’s a logistics officer, see what I’m saying? So I kind of have to say that anyway, but—I mean, um. But it’s also true. Empirically, I mean that it’s—I mean. You know what I mean.”

“I have another question, sir, if that’s okay.”

“Send it.”

“So, when we take into account the current date in the calendar year, sir, and also accounting for our position in the earth’s eastern hemisphere, which direction is north?”

“That’s a good question. Lance Corporal Jonas. That is a good question. Okay. Well, let’s—okay. It really is about as dark as I’ve ever seen it tonight, so we’ve definitely got some stars. Makes this easier. Uh, hold on. Okay, right there, see the one I’m pointing at?”

“I think so, sir.”

“Well, okay just—that one. Nope. That one. Okay? The one I’m pointing at.”

“Yes, sir. I see the one. Thank you, sir.”

“North. Right there. That’s what you meant, right? Does that answer your question?”

“That’s what I meant, sir. Thank you, sir.”

“Alright, motivator. Absolutely. Always glad to be of help. Any other questions? Anything at all, gents.”

“Me again, sir. I have another question.”

“Anyone else? Just kidding. What’s your question? We have at least seven additional minutes for questions. It’s okay, Gunny.”

“How long have you been in the Marine Corps, sir?”

“Um, I graduated from OCS and signed my commission about six years ago. Thereabouts. Does that answer your question?”

“Yes, sir. Thank you, sir. Why did you join the Marine Corps, sir?”

“Don’t you need my permission to ask me another question?”

“Oh shit, I mean. Excuse me, sir. Sorry, sir. I didn’t mean—”

“It’s ok I’m just messing with you again. Can you repeat that?”

“I asked why you joined the Marines, sir.”

“Sure. Thank you for asking. I wanted to make a difference. I wanted my family to be proud of me and all that mumbo jumbo. I wanted—you know. I wanted to be proud of myself for being a part of something bigger than myself, for making an impact beyond just . . . myself—you know. What about you, Devil? Why did you join? My turn to ask you something.”

“Free college, sir. If I can ask another question, sir, what do you recommend studying in college if I don’t reenlist?”

“You might need to email someone for more on that. That’s what I did. You should—I mean you should choose whatever gets you a good job if that’s what makes you happy, ooh-rah?”

“What’s a good job, sir?”

“Hmm. Just full of good questions, Lance Corporal Jonas. Let me see. Being a dentist is a good job. Being a pharmacist. A lawyer. A veterinarian. That type of thing. Imagine yourself wearing a suit and then work backwards from there. Does that make sense? No worries, Gunny, it’s okay. We have at least five minutes for questions. Any more, gents? Yes. What’s your question, Jonas?”

“Where did you go to college, sir?”

“I went to Penn State, so I know how to party, ooh-rah?”

“Ooh-rah, sir.”

“What did you study in college, sir?”


“I have another question, sir. Do you know how high a helicopter can fly?”

“No. I do not.”

“Thank you, sir.”

“And speaking of—well, sounds like that’s the bird closing in. Sooner than expected, right Gunny? Anything else, gents? Any last-minute questions before it gets too loud for me to hear you?”

“I have another question, sir.”


“How do I know if I’m a good person, sir?”

“You’ll know when you die.”

“You hope I die?”

“No. I said you’ll know when you die.”

“I can’t hear you, sir.”

“The bird’s here, Devil Dog. Time to fly.”

John Milas


John Milas is a writer from Champaign who lives in Urbana. He authored The Militia House (Henry Holt, 2023), which was longlisted for the Center for Fiction's First Novel Prize and selected for Roxane Gay's Audacious Book Club. His short fiction has appeared in The Journal, XRAY Literary Magazine, Wrath-Bearing Tree, and elsewhere.
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We two, alone for years, come together for the first time in a bright field on the edge of the world, as the dome of the sky turns above. You—not an old man yet, with thinning hair. Me—not an old woman yet, with graying braids brushing my shoulders. A crescent of lake embraces us. A rim of dark trees shields us.

We dance around each other, touching only with our eyes. Yours burn with longing. Can you sense the same in mine?

On the blossom-studded grass, I gather my dress of ribbons around my ample lap. You lower yourself to one knee, forearms braced against your raised thigh as though ready to spring up. Your body is ropy with muscles. I reach towards you, wanting to clasp your cold-looking fingers in my soft palms.

You do not accept my touch. Instead, you raise your hands to your open mouth and bring forth an object, which you proudly place into my outstretched hands. It’s not what I expected, but I set it in my lap. It’s heavy, with a rough surface. A dull red brick. You wait for my reaction. I smile. I have to admit it is well-made, and I am astonished that you can formulate something substantial so quickly. You point to the features you are proud of: the sharp-cornered insights, the solid arguments. As I weigh it on my palms, you hold out your hand. It is yours, and you would like it back.

I want to give you something in return. I inspect the ribbons on my dress and select one that complements the color of your creation. I wrap this satin strip, still warm from my body, around your brick. You hold it in your palm like a small animal. Your eyes close as you unwrap and allow the pink silk to run through your fingers.

Your cheek bulges. You set down the brick and put your hands to your mouth. A breeze picks up the streamer and, unnoticed by you, it flutters away. Another brick is in your hands. You show it to me eagerly. This one is ochre. It is equally well-made. I choose a contrasting color this time, a clear green, and wrap it around the dull yellow surface.

But you have already produced another, so large it requires both your hands. I offer you my wrapped gift, and you clutch your large, square, gray block. I can tell that you are proud of shaping such an impressive item. Your eyes dart from your new accomplishment to my beauty. Carefully, you set down the gray brick, nudging it towards me with your toe.

Again, you unwrap and stroke the ribbon, but with less interest this time, for you are examining my reaction to your latest creation. You toss the green away just in time to catch a new item from your mouth.

I select and wrap as fast as I can to keep up. You’ve taken off your shirt and I notice, on your sweat-slicked chest, a jagged scar. How old the wound? Once I return each brick, you lay them in place, carefully fitting them to create an even, attractive wall around you. My gifts waft in the wind. Some disappear over the lake. A few have been caught on branches.

By the time the sun descends behind the lake, I have one ribbon left. The field is no longer bright. Your enclosing wall is high enough that I can see only your head, now completely bald. I stand, naked in the sunset, shivering as the breeze blows over my creased skin, holding my last streamer. With thirsty eyes, you peer over the top of your wall. I step towards you. The irridescent band glows in the darkening air. Do I want to part with the only one I have?

You stretch out your hand. I hesitate. Your arm trembles. Quickly, I lay my loveliness over your palm. Standing within your barricade, you smooth it against your cheeks and over your lips. Eyes closed, you rub the ribbon slowly, cautiously, over the scar on your chest. Flinch as though it burns. Toss it away.

Your mouth widens and stretches until I think your skin will crack. A new brick emerges—large, flat, shining. A door?

You kneel, lift your newest creation, and fit it into the space above your head. You are invisible to me now, although I can hear your labored breathing.

My braids, now white, hang down my back. Tears fill my eyes, drip down my breasts, drop from my nipples, and form a rivulet at my feet. Knees creaking, I inch away from you. A loon’s laughing call mocks us.

A crash. I jerk around. You have thrown off your roof, which lies cracked on the grass. Perhaps you heard my sob. You kick through the bricks, step out, and facing me, unfurl your arms. I’m ready to walk into your embrace.

Your eyes slide past mine to follow my luminescence as it drifts towards the dark trees. Noticing the intense colors of my other discarded offerings caught in the branches, you stride towards them purposefully.

I watch your quest. We both know those old ribbons are out of reach. I continue on my way, reach the lake and, plunging in, swim in sorrow toward the horizon.

Jyotsna Sreenivasan


Jyotsna Sreenivasan's new book is THESE AMERICANS, a collection of short stories and a novella published in 2021 by Minerva Rising Press. It is a bronze winner in the Foreword Reviews INDIES awards. An earlier version of the novella was a finalist for the PEN/Bellwether Prize. Her novel And Laughter Fell From the Sky was published in 2012 by HarperCollins. She received an Individual Excellence Award from the Ohio Arts Council for 2022, and was selected as a Fiction Fellow at the 2021 Sewanee Writers' Conference. For more information about Jyotsna as well as other writers who are children of immigrants, check out

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As they lowered her casket into the ground, Melissa pushed away the other voices to listen to her family talking about the weather, the beautiful flowers—daisies, no doubt—and anything other than the reason they were gathered on that familiar hill during the early days of winter.

It wasn’t that she was mistakenly buried alive. She felt dead. But her awareness of those above her remained intact in much the same way that a rotting leaf holds on until the very last autumn wind whisks it away. She tried to memorize the small buttery sounds of her only child Amber, but her eyes grew heavy. Her heart, severely cracked, rested against her broken ribs.

Each patch of rocky dirt startled her as it hit the top of the plywood box. The shadowy light dimmed with each thunk.

Was that Thomas crying? He’d been distant the last time they talked, so consumed with his own troubles that he no longer had room for hers. He didn’t want to hear about the voices again and didn’t share her worry that Amber was in danger of inheriting a horrible legacy—he had the luxury of a relaxed approach only because he had never heard the voices himself.

“Can they hurry up,” her daughter said. “I’m nervous.” Amber had always been a bit loud but Melissa missed the soothing way her words could cut through almost any other noise, keeping her grounded in where her daughter was most of the time. She already missed her giggly laugh.

Was mother there?

Melissa forced open her eyes, begged her heart to stop ticking in her ears, and pressed her palms against the sides of the box.

“Yes, please. Hurry up,” she said to herself and collapsed against the grain of the cheap wooden box.

She could just see her mother holding an embroidered handkerchief up to her eyes, dotting away false tears and holding her breath until the disturbed grass was back in its proper place over Melissa’s grave. Choosing her words with exacting care, so as not to be seen as saying the wrong thing.

Then, Melissa heard her mother’s voice, “Amber, it’s not good to be buried with the ghosts you’ve created and it takes a bit of time to seal the cracks so everything stays put.” Melissa imagined her mother not looking at Amber but still managing a hand across her chest to keep her from falling in. Dirt on a funeral dress would never do.

She could imagine her gripping Amber’s hand and pulling her back from the side of the opening, then leaning close and whispering in Amber’s ear, “knock it off.”

Or were the words real?

“Be still and quiet.”


“Mother, please stop it,” Thomas said. “This is hard enough.”

“We’ll get ice cream after and we’ll all feel better,” her mother said. “Two scoops.”

Melissa could taste the nuttiness of butter pecan on her lips. Her heart fought against stopping and this time she didn’t mind. At first, a faint flutter like the wing of a beetle stuck on its back trying to right itself.

She was changing her mind. She needed to get out of the box, wanted to hold her daughter’s face in her hands. Pull her away from her mother. Offer her more than ice cream.

Another loud thud of dirt landed above her.

As complete darkness set in, it became harder and harder to keep her eyes open. A mist formed in to the shape of Amber’s face. Her round eyes a soft blue-green, like sea glass. Her lips in a permanent pout.

“Is she really alone now,” Amber asked. “No more voices?”

“Don’t worry honey,” Melissa’s mother whispered. “It is over now.”

Verses of “The Old Rugged Cross” crept through the dirt like roots threatening to hold her down, wind around the box and keep it closed.

Melissa felt like a person who wanted to be saved from drowning but got pushed further down instead. She’d found the relief she’d always sought but the ghosts she’d encountered along the way would never let her rest. Her heart seized a final time. The voices that had carried her to the grave faded out of earshot, upward through the cracks toward the outstretched hand of her daughter.

Ellen Weeren


Ellen Weeren's work has been published by the Saturday Evening Post, the Kenyon Review (KRonline), Fractured Lit, Liars’ League NYC, the Hong Kong Review, Crack the Spine, Stonecoast Review, and others. She's the recipient of the George Mason 2019 Outstanding Graduate Student Award (MFA Fiction), the Porches Writing Fellowship, the Dan Rudy Fiction Award, the Marjorie Kinnear Sydor Award in Literary Citizenship, and the Kenyon Review’s Novel Writing Workshop Peter Taylor Fellowship. TripBase twice recognized her blog about living in India as one of the top 10 best travel blogs.

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