The Geese and the Gift

“This story is about a high school aged boy in a rural town, who loses a friend to suicide and how his loss affects his life.”

By B (Anonymous)


I remember sitting on one of those rock-hard wooden benches at the Methodist Church in town on a crisp November morning. I was sandwiched tightly between two people I didn’t know. He sure had a good turnout, I thought to myself looking around at all these people squeezing together neighborly for my late friend, Thursten. Several gentlemen leaned against the wall in the back of the chapel, sacrificing their seats so that their wives and children could sit comfortably. I think that that, was the only lovely thing I’d seen since I’d arrived. Everyone whisper’s drew out into silence as Thursten’s father took the floor. He was holding an earthy looking ceramic vase near his heart with pain in his eyes.

“This morning, my family and I left our home with heavy hearts full of grief for our beautiful son Thursten. Thursten used to love geese. As a boy he’d chase them around the pond at my parent’s ranch in Jordan. In his teens they became his favorite game to hunt. The Canadian geese should be long gone at this time of year. However, this morning, my family and I were enlightened by the sight of a flock soaring over our house. We needed a sign that our boy was okay,”

It didn’t matter if this was a heavenly effort to show the family that Thursten was safe and at the end of all his suffering, or a mere coincidence. The story stuck with me. I listened, captivated. I wept, sniffled, and most of all, I believed.

It had been 10 months since the funeral. My last year of high school was supposed to spill over with drunken keggars in the mountains, epiphanies, good vibes, and ultimately the graceful finale to my boyhood. When Thursten died he took that rite of passage from me, or more so, enabled me to take it from myself. I decided being alone was better than forcing myself to smile or laugh with my friends. I didn’t want to hurt them during this time of reminiscence just because nothing was funny or worth my smile anymore. I created my own lonely existence. Now that life was plain and season less, and weekends came and went. I could blame no one but myself and I didn’t care enough to blame in the first place.

In the months following Thursten’s death, I spent most of my time at school in the welding shop. I had three bumpers and one sign to finish by myself after Thursten left. His designs were intricate and hard to understand. This made all our projects nearly impossible to finish without him. Then again, I never thought I’d have to. After school on week days, I continued to work at my uncle’s body shop as I did before Thursten’s passing. My mind was so clouded, I was shitty and slow at everything now. My uncle never said a thing about it but I know he wished he could fire my broke ass. On the weekends, I didn’t have Thursten’s expert blueprints to fuss over or any cars to climb under so I spent a lot of time on the back of my horse, Lucy. We never ran, or even trotted, we just walked for miles and miles until the stars and moon were all that lighted our way. It was then, when the darkness and emptiness of the night matched my insides, that I thought of Thursten the most.

I thought back on all the early mornings he’d drag me out of bed to go hunting.

“Get the fuck up Tuck, there’s a big ole flock of Canadian geese out by the south end of the lake! Let’s bring em’ home boy!” he’d yell, busting through my bedroom door at four in the morning.

“Come on, get the hell up you limp sac, I already saddled up Lucy and Ruger’s all ready to go.” Thursten only hunted on horseback. As a matter of fact, he only hunted on the back of his favorite horse, Ruger. Who according to him, was the best and fastest stud in the county. He was trim, dark, and pissed energy, just like Thursten.

I remembered all the times Thursten would sneak just enough of his dad’s Jack to fill this old, nasty canteen he carried everywhere. I remember him pulling me off Beau Harvey the quarterback, when I drank too much of the stuff one night at a keggar.

“He’s not worth the bloody knuckles Tuck. Fuck Baleigh too man, if she wants to be with that meat head over you, she’s just not fuckin’ right man.” Thursten swore a lot, but his words were never wasted, at least not to me.

Thursten never slept. He’d pick me up from the body shop after work most days and we’d drive late into the night. After so many nights like that our parents quit calling the cops. Thursten always wanted to talk about life, or some big idea he had. He always had something to say.

“Everyone should ride horses, hunt their own meat, work for every penny, and pick their woman up at the door! Don’t ya think Tuck? Hell, I’ll never conform to all these modern day, horse shit ideals. We’re pioneers man! We gotta go out and make our own destinies just like the men before us.” Thursten knew all about history, and math. Hell, he knew a lot about everything but he never did his homework. He said it was a waste of his limited time. He was right.

I sunk into the driver’s seat in a foggy trance. I fiddled with the keys for a moment before turning over the engine in my pickup and speeding out of my driveway. I was apprehensive heading down the long dirt road that connected Thursten’s place to mine.

I had so much time to anticipate the day I’d walk into that beautiful house and give my gift to the parents of my fallen friend. I couldn’t control my tears, even after so much time and training. I’d made them a memorial in the shop class that I used to share with Thursten. It was a cross made of Ruger’s horse shoes. It had three steel geese flying in a circle around it, with hand painted beaks. It took me three tries, three weeks, and three geese to perfect. I was proud of it at first, but I couldn’t bring myself to deliver it for a long time. After all, I didn’t expect a mere object to heal them, or make them cry less at night. I didn’t expect it to impress them either. It was just a piece of art and could never compare to the things Thursten made. I only hoped they could look at it and be reminded of how loved their son was. I wonder if it would make them cry more wishing their late son knew that.

Class was always less painful with Thursten. He was always goofing off, sporting that bright white smile and contagious high pitched giggle. Not even Mrs. G could get mad at him, even when she caught him chewing dip in the shop once. Boy he ran like hell, giggling the whole damn way. G gave up eventually. She always did with Thursten. I guess he was just too bright to be angry with.

I called before going there. His mother met me at the door with a smile that was noticeably forced, and tear drops hanging in her eyes. I stepped into their house with high ceilings. Thursten’s hunted animals were mounted elegantly on the walls. I’ll never forget shooting my first buck with him and packing it out on Lucy. He guided me to the perfect shot, made me be patient. I would’ve never hit it without his help. He was so good that way. I was forced to take a bite of the heart because according to Thursten, it was tradition and I couldn’t trample tradition. When I finally did he just laughed and laughed at the sour face I made and called me a girl.

It smelled crisp and warm inside, like fall in there though it was August. My house smelled like lawnmower gas at this time of year. His father slipped out from the kitchen. He stood emotionless, locked up, like a sealed safe. The rumor around town was, he hadn’t cried since the funeral when he told the story of the geese.

“This is for your family. It was the best way I knew to pay my respects. These are Thursten’s horseshoes. He left them at our ranch a few years ago when we went hunting,” I said nervously, with a lump in my throat for the tears that begged to follow.

“Thank you so much Tucker. It’s beautiful. We’ll put it right above the fireplace. It will be treasured forever, as will our Thursten,” His mom smiled at me with light and tears seen clearly in her eyes.

“Thank you son,” said Thursten’s father running his fingers across the geese. His face was still blank.

For a moment, I felt Thursten there with me, as I gazed at a picture of my handsome friend hung above the window in the kitchen. I felt his blue eyes staring directly into mine and then past them, into my heart and soul. That photo was alive for a moment. It broke me in two knowing someone so beautiful eliminated himself on purpose.

“I remember it clearly…”

By Tea Rainey


I remember it clearly, the bone chilling cold that could steal the very life essence of mortal men. That’s not to say that I’m immortal, but rather I had a clear grasp of my own mortality. I ignored the cold and held my body firm and still as the time ticked by.

            Time is a strange thing. We as humans cling to it almost as if we could grasp it like it was some kind of entity. I remembered a time when I would have done the same thing, desperately reaching for each second as it ticked by, wanting so badly to hold those single moments and never let them go, never let them fade into the memory of whatever higher power steered us towards our own inevitable bitter ends. Why do we always chase things that we can never hold or control? Why do we cling so bitterly to ideas that we can scarcely understand? The answer has always eluded me, even now.

            But in that bitter cold, I held an almost ethereal understanding of it; I could almost touch what I had never before even considered, I felt as if all time had stopped for me. It hadn’t really of course, but it was important none the less. It made me realize just how far we as a people will go just to make amends for time that has long since passed. I remembered the moments clearly as if they had only transpired moments ago, rather than years.

            I lay on the roof covered in snow, I had lain there for hours as a storm spewed its contents onto me.  I didn’t bother to clean myself off since the snow would give me camouflage that I was much in need of. The chill was the most memorable part of that endeavor, although it didn’t register to me at the time. I couldn’t face the cold because it had become a part of me in every sense of the word.

My motives were far from good, indeed, I would most likely be counted among the demons many believed to infest earth. I would be seen as evil and abhorring something to shun in society. I had long since resigned myself to that fact especially since I would never regret nor change my course of actions.

            I waited never recognizing the signs of passing minutes and hours. They meant nothing to me anymore. The only thing that I cared about in those moments was a man riding in the back of a black Mercedes. He was a powerful man full of greed and hate, never understanding the consequences of his own actions. It occurred to me that he had a similar perception of time to my own. What could ever hold a deeper meaning when you had nothing but yourself to live for?

            I heard the faint whispers of tires as he rolled up slowly. He was the first to arrive at his arranged meeting. If I remembered correctly he was here to buy drugs or something else among the immoral and illegal lines. He had enough money I was sure he could buy anything his black heart desired. But there was one thing money could never afford, and that was time. This particular man was running out of that luxury.

            I twisted and turned the dial on my scope pinpointing the very spot that held the most clarity for the shot. His blackened window was held perfectly in my sights. I waited patiently knowing that he would soon step out. It was in his nature to do the idiotic and mundane. Not to mention his drug lord had finally showed. Just when I thought the man was going to chicken out his door opened and he stepped into the open.

            I had been waiting for that very moment for over a year, but to see his face again was torture. His ice cold eyes held nothing and could even be called soulless. His black hair was trimmed short and neat along with his beard. His face was all hard lines and angles hollowed out almost savagely from extended drug use and alcoholism. He would have been handsome, he used to be handsome. At one time I could have liked him, but he took something valuable from me and I had no choice but to return the favor.

            “Take the shot Echo.” Her voice whispered to me almost sweetly. I could hear her like soft music floating on the wind, blessing my ears with her fading song. I looked to my side and saw her outline. She was tall, standing in at about 5’9”. Her shocking red hair fell about her face and shoulders in an untamed mess that could never be controlled. Her green eyes were electric and full of life and mischief. She was wearing her favorite outfit consisting of old faded blue jeans and a loose fitting blue blouse to contrast her hair.

She was different from me I was two inches taller with frosty blond hair and eyes to match. She was all warmth where I was nothing but ice. My hair was straight and hers always held a wave. If we were compared I had to wonder if we would be seen as opposites. She put her hand on her hip and tilted her head at me.

            “Come on Echo you’ve waited so long… Why wait now?” I blinked slowly as she beamed a smile at me. Was she crazy? Time was nothing now, what was a few more seconds?

            “Quiet, Fox,” I whispered to her as I turned back to my sights. I heard her laughter like ringing bells that were so soft you couldn’t help but yearn for their melody to return.

            “Take the shot.” Again it was that whisper that was so faint, so tangible. It didn’t have a beginning and it didn’t have an end. All it did to me was make me more aware of the seconds ticking by. It made me yearn to hold still that time when she spoke to me, and hold her voice in my heart as I continued to do the unthinkable.

I aligned the cross of my scope onto the man’s head as he walked up to the drug lord. I had to wonder if he was as painfully aware of the seconds that floated by as I was. He had lived for some forty odd years, and now his time was up. If he had an hourglass that indicated his life he had only a few kernels of sand left. If I were in his shoes I would be desperately grasping those last seconds and pulling them to me in an effort to prolong my own life or even go backwards from that very moment. I had hoped that he would feel that same exquisite pain that I had. But he cared for no one, so I couldn’t give him the torment that I had gone through. The only thing I could give him was an end. I wanted so badly to call his name so that he could look into my eyes and be hyper aware of his own doom. I wanted him to see his end, to grasp it even before it struck him. I could even go as far as to say that I wanted him to suffer a little before he expired. But I couldn’t be choosey, and I couldn’t wait any longer.

            I took a deep breath, losing myself to the numbness and my own experience. The gun leveled and stayed perfectly still. My finger almost of its own accord pulled the trigger. But in that moment a body guard of his lunged and blocked my path taking the bullet for his master. Laughter echoed all around me as my sly Fox taunted me. I cursed under my breath loading my rifle again. The man was running now, they were all running. But they could never run fast enough. Time was on my side because I had no concept of it. They could run, they could walk, and hell they could even crawl it made no difference. The only change was that I had to work harder to reach my goal.

            I followed him with the sights and when the feeling that always accompanied a perfect shot lit up my veins and my senses I pulled the trigger again. Blood exploded as another guard went down. But this time the brutish man’s body wasn’t enough to save his master. The blue eyed villain fell. He was wounded, but not dead. This would not do. But I had to turn away from him to end the drivers who were desperately trying to escape me. While I wanted to be a better more moral person and let them live I couldn’t jeopardize my mission. I killed them all.

            When I was finished I looked back to the man who had taken everything from me. While still alive I could tell he was coming close to his end. I stood and brushed myself off. I wanted to be a little more up close and personal for this last bit. I turned and began to make my way off the roof. The snow fell softly and quietly around me, and there was no trace of my elusive Fox.

            I made it to the bottom and stood in front of him. His sharp eyes pierced me down to my hollow soul.

            “Am I graced by the all famous Echo? What a shame you’re nothing more than a girl.” He gurgled sarcastically. I didn’t move a muscle as I kept my face cold and distant. The fact that he knew my nickname was irrelevant.

                        “Randy Cochevski.” I said it with the most venom I could muster. Even as he bled out he still managed to make me feel soul crushing pain.

            “Tell me why you decided to kill me, and maybe I’ll let you leave this place alive.” He held his chest and began to shake as the seconds took their toll. I almost laughed.

            “Even if you didn’t it would make no difference to me. Death and life hold no more meaning then day or night. If I live for ten more minutes or ten more years I could care less.” I said it softly as if the words actually meant something to me. He scowled at my words.

            “Then what? Were you hired?” I didn’t understand his need to know. Maybe it was every dying man and woman’s wish to know just why it was that their lives were draining from them. It wouldn’t do me any harm to give a dying man his last wish. Perhaps then he would regret his actions for the first time in his life.

            “Do you remember a year or so ago when you broke into a home and attacked the people who lived there? Two girls, barely on the cusp of womanhood. Do you remember what you did?” I asked. He smiled, his blood stained teeth making me sick to my stomach. But I stood firm none the less.

            “As I recall I was looking for something, and those two girls refused to give it to me. I took this precious little red headed one and… What did I do again?” He cocked his head as I was dragged back into those terrifying moments.

            He held her hair back from her face as he drug a knife down the side of her cheek. Blood followed the cold steel blade like the tail of a falling star. Tears stained her face as she shook with sobs begging me to help; she begged anyone for help. He kept asking over and over again for the location of a stash. I didn’t understand what he was asking for, we had only just bought the house. But with our lengthening silence he grew angry. I wasn’t sure if he decided that he had miscalculated or if he just wanted to leave nothing but pain and misery in his wake.

            He asked one last time and if I had known the consequences of our silence I would have crafted a lie or told him to take me instead. But we both cried and denied any knowledge of his stash.

 I remembered clearly what he did next, I would never forgive, I would never forget. As I cried and struggled against the arms of my captors he took that cruel blade and he sliced it across my love’s neck, cutting deep and without mercy. She let loose a strangled cry and fell to the floor clutching her wound desperately. At that point they let me go as sirens began to wail. They all disappeared like ghosts as I crawled brokenly to her side.

            I picked up her weak form and clutched her head to my chest. I screamed and wailed as she slowly began to relax and cool in my grasp. I looked down for one last moment as that wonderful spark in her eyes was extinguished. I remembered so vividly wanting to snatch time into my greedy fingers and tear it apart, I wanted to hurt it, I wanted to hurt everything. I wanted to stop those seconds permanently and rewind them so that I could take her place or even save her from those monsters. But no matter how desperate I was I couldn’t stop it, the seconds stole her away from me and there was nothing I could do. From that moment on I lost myself, and I lost my sense of time and mortality. She was my beginning and my end.

I came back to the present and stared down into those crisp eyes. I felt a burning hatred rise up. No matter how long had passed, he had taken away from me everything I had ever held close to my heart. If he got to play god with our clocks of life then I would too.

“Randy your time has ended. May the gates of hell open wide for your damned soul.” I pointed the gun right at his head. His eyes widened for a millisecond and shock crossed his face as I pulled the trigger. His head rocked back violently and then he was gone. He was over. I could finally continue my work without having to worry that he would find and end me.

I turned away from the gory scene filled with red snow and silent wails. In front of me stood my Fox, all sass and beauty. Her smile was as I always remembered.

“Echo you did it!” She laughed. Her red hair waved gently in an unseen and unfelt breeze. Her eyes glinted with joy and something else I couldn’t quite name. I let all the tension out of my body, releasing a sad sigh.

“That’s right Fox we did it. We can continue on.”

“What now Echo?” She asked. I began to walk by her with grim determination. As I did so her form shimmered and was gone.

“Now my lovely Fox, we continue down the list.” Once again I became nothing more than an echo, appearing only when I wanted to, and always being nothing more than a ghost among ghosts. I was nothing and yet I was everything.

Keep Up the Good Work

By Wyatt Sarrazin


Everything is dark I can’t remember how I got to this place and it is hard for me to think as my head feels like a freight train is rushing over it. The sounds of the florescent bulbs humming above me go silent. Things begin to make sense as eyes try to adjust, but a blindfold covers them. The material that composes the blindfold is course and saturated with what I hope is the remanence of someone else’s blood, but I feel that it is my own.

The back of my neck is cold as the blood has yet to dry, but I feel that it has stopped pouring out of the back of my head. I feel woozy as my sense of smell hits me first. The first smell that I recognize is that of my own blood. The next is even more recognizable: it’s the smell of oil, gasoline, and the other fragrances combined together that tell me that this is my shop.

The next thing that I feel is the cold steel barrel of a hand gun on my forehead. I get a glimpse of the cop issue 9mm Beretta out of a small hole in the blindfold, but this is all I can see. Everything else is blurred.

Another gun’s hammer is pulled back in anticipation; it is most likely a .38 revolver. Another sound that I can hear is the squeaking of the chair that I’m in as well as another about three feet away from me.

The seconds tick by, but I feel as if each one lasts an eternity. I slow my breathing as I try to rationalize what has happened. I start to assess my situation, but it looks bleaker the more I think about it.

My body hurts all over and my hands feel stretched. I assume that they are zip-tied behind the chair that I am in. My hands feel as if they could easily slip out of their bondage and I begin to do so.

My blindfold is lifted away as I gather more information about my surroundings. I was indeed in my shop, with my tools and interments hanging all around and the florescent lights began to hum again. My eyes were wide open, but the singular blinking of my elides betray my sight, light and darkness become one in the same as the humming disappears again.

The three men in front of me are all completely different from one another and yet so very similar in their goal to kill me. Each man also holds himself up differently than the others.

The man with the revolver could almost be mistaken for homeless man, with his tattered clothes and worn out shoes; he stood unsure of himself and his own actions. His revolver was new and shiny as if it had just been cleaned and oiled. His face is well groomed and the hair upon his face is clean but seems poorly kept. The sheer look of terror was plain upon his face. I assumed that this was most likely his first job, as he looked fairly young and his hand shook ever so slightly as he tried to keep from dropping his hand canon.

The man with the Beretta aimed at my head was also well groomed, but he was clean shaven and wore comfortable street clothes. It could easily be seen that he was an off duty cop. He pointed the gun with both hands with such authority that when he switched to using one hand he seemed even fiercer as his hand was as steady as a surgeon’s.

The man sitting directly in front of me was a completely different matter. He was also well groomed and clean shaven, but in a way that showed he paid a good sum of money to look the way he did. He wore a gray three piece suit that presented his wealth with addition of the silver cufflinks, tie clip, and Rolex on his left hand. In his right hand he wielded a black and gold switchblade that gave me all the information I needed.

As the blade came forth from its mechanical sheath I realized these guys were part of the Bratva, Russian mafia. I hadn’t noticed, until now, that each of the men had a tattoo the symbolized their brotherhood. Each tattoo was unique and displayed their rank.

The man with the knife was definitely in charge and had the neck tattoo to prove this. The two gun wielders both had ink on their arms. The younger had one on his hand and the cop on his forearm, as to be able to conceal it when presumably needed. However both were rather new initiates as the redness and irritation around the skin of the tattoo exhibited.

All of this occurred as the leader spoke to me, but I had not been listening to his words, or even acknowledged them until now. I ignored his constant mumblings as I had finished contemplating my plan with what I assume was half a lifetime from over. My hands had slipped free from their bondage and I could now see and I could immediately fight.

The cop sent up his gun wielding hand in order to send the butt of the gun on a collision course with my forehead. That was his final mistake. The worst was the negligence of small group to not tie my legs to the chair. This is when I stood up.

I grabbed the cop’s forearm and proceeded to break it over top of his newly minted tattoo. His pain caused him to fire the gun in the direction of his comrade who did not know what to do. Two shots were let out before I stopped him. The first glided through the air and placed itself into the wall that was now directly behind me.

The second bullet’s paths also lead it to the wall also, but made a detour through the brain cavity of the young gangster, splattering the wall red. As the second shot was let out, I took it upon myself to remove the slide from the top of the gun my hand was now on. The thick heavy piece of metal quickly found its home in the jugular of the man who once wielded it. The blood spurted out onto my hand and the side of my face. The two lifeless corpses fell to the ground, before their leader could do anything.

The man proceeded to thrust himself forward, knife first, but to no avail. The blade intended for my abdomen never made it to its destination. I rerouted it to the eye of its owner with a quick break of ulna and wrist in unison. The chair and body in it fall back to the floor, with my own on top of them. The man was barely hanging onto life as his mouth moved but no words were vocalized. I notice the clock as the second hand seemed to finally moving after stopping in place.

The humming of the florescent bulbs returned to my ears as well as the words of the man in front of me. “So you’ll have those reports by Monday,” He said in mumbled tone. The man in front of me is small, too small for the clothes he wears. He looks like a child in his father’s suit. The constant clicking of his black and gold painted pen irritates my ears as I keep imagining stabbing him through the neck with it.

A homeless man across the street is being hounded by a police officer to move along as he gathers his only possessions in life. My boss has called in another complaint to remove the vagrants from his sight. The small well-dressed man sits behind his desk as I try to listen to his words, but I zone in and out as the humming sound above increases getting louder and louder in my head.

Once again I start to imagine killing him this time by grabbing his fancy tie, tightening it around his scrawny neck, and throwing him headfirst out the window. I know the short fall from the two story building probably wouldn’t kill him. I hope that it somehow would with the smashing of his puny head on the concrete below. These thoughts bring me back into the present.

I can’t help but to continue staring at his neck and the ghastly mole there on. The long black hairs protruding out form strange shapes. The fake Rolex on his wrist blinds my eyes as the glare of the sun reflex off of it. The watch is also too large for him as it slips up and down his wrist as he makes short hand gestures.

I try to countdown the seconds until he will be done, but I get lost in thought again wishing for this all to be over. The clock seems to stop again and the hands start to move backwards. I blink trying to hold each one for as long as I can. The only sound I hear is that of the humming florescent above.

The man in front of me has finished speaking and looks to me for some sign that I have understood all that he has said. I nod to him even though I haven’t been listening. He ends his speech with the normal “get back to work” and an unsatisfying “keep up the good work.”

 

“There was a bright flash…”

By Roberta Irving


There was a bright flash, and then the world went dark. All the light simply disappeared. One moment, the sun was out in a clear afternoon; the next, there was only darkness. Even the lights of buildings had gone out. I remember that terrible day in the city of Merriweather. The streets, just a moment ago full of the usual noise and bustle, suddenly went quiet. No one moved. No one made a sound. What could you do when you could not see a thing?

The silence only lasted a few moments. I suddenly heard a panicked scream from a distance. It was that scream that made everyone else panic and try to run. Several bodies rammed into me and it was all I could do to keep from falling over and getting trampled. There were shouts all around me. People trying to locate their family through voice and words. It was useless, though. All that could be heard was the loud murmur of several people shouting at once. There was no hope for calming this crowd.

Suddenly there was a high-pitched sound that came from the sky. It drowned out everyone’s voices and turned everyone to silence. Then, a loud, booming voice filled the air.

“Humans,” it said, “We are terribly sorry for any inconvenience you may be facing right now. It seems that the Light has gone out. We are currently in the process of restoring the Light, so in the meantime, please try to refrain from making any movement. This will minimize any harm done to yourself or others.”

While everyone had finally stopped moving, there were still murmurs. What the hell was going on? How could all the light go out, just like that? Surely the sun and stars could not just short-circuit in an instant, could it? And who – or what – was that voice?

“Ah,” the Voice came back. “I understand you have several questions regarding this issue. This event has never happened to you before, nor have you heard of anything like it. Unfortunately, we do not know much of the problem ourselves, so we ask that you continue to hold out a little longer. Nor do I have the ability to tell you who we are. We will explain more once the Light comes back on. We are deeply sorry for any inconvenience this may cause. Do not worry, though; the Light will come on shortly.”

There was only more confusion to this response, but people were silent. The Voice sounded like some sort of businessman or representative. Did this light he was talking about refer to all of the light in all of the universe? How could it simply just go out? Were the people – or things – the voice was representing, responsible for this? I reached in my pocket, and pulled out my iPhone. I felt around it until I found the home button, and pressed it. Nothing. Just a few minutes ago, it had been on full battery. How could every single source of light disappear so quickly, with no warning?

As I continued to ask myself what was happening, the light suddenly returned. It was blinding for a few moments, so we had to shield our eyes. Once my eyes had adjusted, I looked around. What I saw was shocking. So many bodies that had been trampled. When everyone began running around in a panic trying to find their family and friends, many had fallen and been stepped on by the masses. I could not help but to gag at the sight of the carnage. Many who were still alive felt the same way as they struggled to reunite with their family members and identify the bodies of those they knew. To put it simply, it was a great tragedy.

I could not tolerate the destruction all around me. I had to leave. I did not have anyone who was close to me, so there was no need nor purpose to try to identify bodies or join others. I began to walk through the streets, not even looking at the people around me. It was in an abandoned alley that I turned in to that I saw a mysterious figure. It was someone in a long black cloak with a hood. He had his back turned to me, and was hunched over, muttering something under his breath.

“Hey,” I said to get his attention. I do not know why I needed it at the time, but something told me it was important. The figure, startled, turned around. The first thing I noticed was the eyes. They were golden and cat-like. When he took off his hood, I was the one who was startled. His entire face was that of a cat.

“Uh, hello,” he said, awkwardly, as if he rarely ever talked to anyone. Understandable, since it would be hard not to stand out with the face of a cat. But then I realized that his voice sounded familiar.

“Wait a minute, you’re that Voice guy, aren’t you?” I asked, “Care to tell me what the hell is going on?”

“Actually, I do not know what happened. When it went dark all of a sudden like that, I could feel the tension of everyone here. I could feel that tension grow into all-out panic. Then I heard the shouting and running, and I knew then that if I did not do something, many people would get hurt. So I projected my voice into the sky, to make people stop what they were doing. I had to come up with some sort of explanation, and fast. What I said was really the first thing that came to mind. I was not really thinking of how weird it would sound later. Oh, yeah! That reminds me…”

I looked at the creature’s hands. In them, he had a small spherical device. The device lit up, hovered over his cupped hands, and then zipped away into the sky. Then, the creature began to speak again. “Again, so sorry for the inconvenience, but we are too busy figuring out this whole light thing to give you any more information about ourselves. In fact, we may not have time to give you any explanation any time in the future. We are now disconnecting. Goodbye.”

“What about me?” I asked. “What makes you think I can keep your secret? How can you possibly expect me to believe anything you say, much less trust me?”

“That’s easy,” he replied, “because anyone you tell about me will think you are simply fabricating a story, your own ideal of what just happened, or that you have simply lost your mind. No one would believe you, no matter what. And if you think you can bring me in as evidence, you are sadly mistaken. It is not difficult at all to get out of a tough situation. So really it is in your best interest to keep quiet about this. In fact, it is most likely in both of our best interests that we never meet again. So long!”

And with that, the cat creature placed his hood back over his head, and disappeared. Fast guy. Too bad I never got the chance to learn his name.

I Saw Your Demise

By Samantha Blaine Stewart


There was a bright flash of light, then the world went dark. The darkness spread across the land, shrouding everything in shadow and fear. Civilization attempted to run, to escape the flood of black that swallowed every inch of the surface. All civilization was destroyed by the wave of darkness, leaving no one left behind. Buildings toppled, canyons collapsed within themselves, roads cracked and sidewalks eroded. The inky black force demolished everything in its path, erasing all the signs of life, making the land as barren at the day it was first created.

Ah, the creation of the world. Now that was true beauty. The shaping of the land and the giant pools of water. Carving out parts of the land, picking them up and placing them upside down somewhere else. I had never had so much fun before. I had a sketch to begin with, of course, but having one mass of land to put mountains and valleys on got very boring. Breaking the land and moving each piece apart by way of water seemed like a very good solution to that dilemma. I had wanted variety back then. I wished for certain places to be hot and for some to be freezing cold. I wanted dry places and places so wet that it may feel like you drowned on land. There were so many things that I had planned, and many of those I accomplished. I made mountain ranges high enough to touch the wisps of clouds and oceans so deep that no one would ever find the bottom. I carved out valleys and canyons that would become treasured many millennia later. One of my more entertaining accomplishments had to have been the placement of all of the trees.

Oh my, the trees. Funny story actually; the the many different species of tree that populate the world were completely trial and error. Looking at the pine trees dying in the rainforest and the palm trees withering in the mountains was heartbreaking, but very educational. Boy did I have egg on my face when I finally figured out where all the trees went. It felt like that was something I should have known how to do. It’s not like they give you an instruction manual for that type of thing. Well, for any of those types of things. It was lots of trying and failing for me. With the animals, plants, and terrain, everything was completely guess work.

I will admit, because of that fact, I had some pretty huge screw ups, one being the platypus. I knew that having a mammal that laid eggs was wrong, going against every rule I had set for myself up to that point, but it was just too cute to get rid of. Of all of my mistakes, the platypus was not my biggest blunder. The cactus seemed like a good idea when I made it, but it slowly became obvious that it served no purpose, unlike all of the other plants, so I considered destroying it. Fortunately for the non-sentient organism, it eventually housed a few species, forcing me not to rid the planet of the prickly plant. There a few other creatures, mostly fish, that do not have a discovered purpose yet. I know what they are there for, of course, but I would not want to spoil it for you. They live deep within the ocean, where no man can reach them. I’m still not entirely sure why I made the oceans so deep in the first place. Back then, I may have been find of the mystery that the dark depths could hold. Even these were not as much of a mistake as other creations.

My biggest mistake, to date, can be summed up in one word: man. For al of you excited feminists out there, reading my story in the distant future, I am not simply talking about human males. All of the humans on the planet were the worst mistake I ever made. Don’t get me wrong, at first, I loved you all. I loved you so much that I had given you everything that I possibly could. I gave you life and sustenance. I even gave you companionship. For a long time after I made you, everything was going just fine. You were making amazing advancements, going further than I had ever anticipated. You all created marvels and fantastic creations that may have rivaled my own, had most of them not been so mindless.

Some of your creations really tickled my fancy though. The Pyramids and The Great Wall being two of my favorites. I watched you create these marvels, brick by brick, sweat dripping from your tanned brows while dark red blood seeped through cracks in your overworked hands. As I watched, I watched in pure awe of you. When I observed you building these beautiful structures, I was once against reminded of the reason that I created you all in the first place. After I crated the canyons, mountains, trees and animals, I was out of ideas. Deep down, I knew that there had to be more; things I could not think of on my own. That’s where you came in.

Making you, I was very particular about your level of intelligence for a few different reasons. I needed you to be intelligent enough to think for yourselves, enough to be able to advance yourselves and create as much majesty as the world was capable of. You could not be so intelligent that you ceased to see my word as law. That balance was not easy to achieve. When I finally got it right, though, that was one of the most incredible sights I’ve ever seen.

Watching you, my precious little children, walking, talking, interacting and creating was one of my proudest moments. I cared for each and every one of you just like you care for your own children. I was sure to include those feelings. I wanted your children, your children’s children, to understand and feel a love as powerful and profound as the love I feel for all of you. Like all parents, my children made me laugh, smile and cry more than I ever had. Like every other parent… I was also doomed to be disappointed in you. In all of you.

All of this destruction, all of the devastation and death, is your doing, I do not think I could be more appalled. You took your lives and you wasted them. You flourished in your will and your wit, but in following the path you chose, you ruined everything. All of you worked together to not only destroy yourselves, but everything beautiful in this world that I gifted to you.

Time after time, I gave you warnings, telling you that change had to come. I willingly sacrificed the few in hurricanes, tornados, volcanoes, and earthquakes for the benefit of the many. And it was all for naught in the end. No matter how many warnings I sent you all, you continued on your path of utter destruction. Once I realized I could not deter you from your horrid ways, my next hope was that it would be over quickly. I hoped beyond all things that you would put an end to all that I had created swiftly, merely because I did not think I could stand to witness a slow demise of all products of my love and devotion. Again, you would not fail in disappointing me like you failed in everything else.

The day I first noticed the product of your lives on my beautiful planet, I was very confused. My creation had almost looked exactly the same, day after day, since the day I crafted it. The fateful day that I began to realize the mistake I had made, my realization hot me because my beautiful sphere of light and life had changed. It was not exactly a big change in any way, but like the attentive parent I pride myself in being, I noticed the change. A yellow-green film of… filth covered my once blue and white beauty. This filth, what you all termed “pollution” was a result of your dirty, rotten, trash-filled way of life. You created materials and found resources that poisoned the air and tainted the waters. Looking back to my realization… I would have preferred that you had just stopped there. I could have handled you merely making the water and air dirty, but the destruction you caused after that was… so much worse.

You fought amongst yourselves. You raped, pillaged, and killed one another while I could do nothing but watch. Year after year, I watched on as you waged war amongst one another because of your differences. I made some of you look different than others because I wanted a variety of beautiful creature upon my planet. Even though you were not all the same, I made you all perfectly. Yet, because of this, you began to despise one another. You turned on each other like rabid dogs because you couldn’t see that you are all the same.

Some of your more sinister creations cane out of this time of hate and destruction. Guns, rockets, tanks and bombs were your answer to the problem you concocted in your own mind. Shootings, mass murder, suicide bombing was how you fought against diversity.

One invention, above all, created more destruction than all the others. The atom bomb. To this day I still can not figure out why the small few of you, or any of you, thought this was a wise choice. You created a weapon of mass destruction, and for what? So you could eliminate your brothers and sisters. So you could gain power over those who should have been your equals. Watching you create it, I knew I could not stop you. I simply had to sit back and let you make this horror, hoping that you would come to your senses and stop. I hoped you would see how dangerous it was to tamper with life and death in this way and cease walking this destructive path. Once again… I would sit and be disappointed.

You made the bomb, and for years I had to sit and worry about the moment that it would be used. You still fought each other, but your weapon laid dormant. The more it sat, the more your civilizations worried about it. The more they all worried, I could see them becoming more agitated about the idea of certain organizations having the most destructive weapon ever. Because of that, more people started creating them as well. Seemingly overnight, every organization and country had created and was in possession of a bomb. Before the third war of the world began, I knew that it would be the most destructive.

I didn’t, however, predict that it would be the end of my beautiful creations. The fighting started, as per usual with you humans, but everything escalated so quickly. The fire fight was no longer enough to satisfy the blood lust that you had obtained over your years of change and growth. You stopped invading the territories that you assigned to yourselves and others and stayed in your place. At first, I had just thought, with a sense of relief, that you had grown tired of fighting with one anther and had stopped the war. I was once again mistaken.

The bombs were deployed without thought or remorse. You had deemed other lives less valuable than others and decided, without guilt, to end them. All of you wanted the others to die so you could triumph. That, in the end, was your final mistake. Every nation that had possession of a bomb sent it out. Explosion after explosion decimated civilizations and countries. By the time the last bomb dropped, every other area had been destroyed, and with that final contact with the ground, it was all over.

There was a bright flash of light, then the world went dark. The darkness spread across the land, shrouding everything in shadow and fear. The last of civilization attempted to run, to escape the flood of black that swallowed every inch of the surface. At this point all civilization was destroyed by the wave of darkness, leaving no one left behind. Buildings toppled, canyons collapsed within themselves, roads cracked and sidewalks eroded. The inky black force demolished everything in its path, erasing all the signs of life, making the land as barren at the day it was first created.

I should have known that this would happen. I should not have given you the intelligence to create such a weapon. I should not have given you the capability to feel, to hate. I should have stopped you back when your destructive path began. I should have saved you from your own wrong-doing.

I saw your demise, and it was my fault.

Starry-Eyed

By Tala Fehsel


He was the first one to notice when the star appeared.

“What?” I asked distantly when he told me to hold still and I tried to slap him off; at the wrists, at the elbows, as he cradled my face.

His palms were rough and his fingers smoothed back my hair across my temples. “Hold still!” He peered in to look at me with the critical eyes of a mother inspecting a stain on her son’s white cotton t-shirt. “Christ, stop squirming.”

I stopped, obediently, and waited as he studied me.There was a tiny glint of blue reflected in his eyes as he tilted my chin, shook my head from side to side, shaded my brow and took it away again.

“What is it?”

He stepped away, scratching his head. “It’s weird. There’s a…” He struggled for words to shape with the tip of his tongue or a gesture to draw in the air with his fingertips, his rough hands. “A light. In your eye.”

His tone was reluctant, like he didn’t want to say it. Didn’t want to see it.

But he couldn’t walk away when it shone in the dark like an LED and he couldn’t shut it off no matter how many of my buttons he pressed and pressed with his rough fingertips and it never flickered.

“Not a cataract,” the eye doctor said, baffled, and said he’d get me in touch with a specialist.

I shrugged. It didn’t bother me. It was only a tiny star. No more than a glint.

He kept trying to find me doctors, but I made him stop. It was starting to be useful. It had grown bright enough that I didn’t need to use my phone when I was digging for my bra underneath the bed or wandering into the kitchen for a late-night snack.

“This isn’t a joke!” he shouted when I told him that. His voice cracked. “It’s unnatural, can’t you see that? Who ever heard of a light in someone’s eye?”

“It’s a star,” I told him vaguely, elbows on the bathroom sink as I stared into the mirror.

It was definitely brighter. The pupil around it had grown to match, like a little piece of outer space for my star to nest in. It was so bright that it hurt my other eye to look at it.

“It’s embarrassing!” he shouted and told me I had to wear sunglasses when I went out to buy groceries.

I liked my star. I didn’t want to hide it.

The sunglasses worked for a couple days, but the darkness seemed to encourage it. It grew brighter in the filtered light until it shone through the tinted lenses, pale and white and phosphorescent. When I closed my eyelids, now, it shone through them too. You could see all the little veins and arteries all red around it, like when you put a chicken’s egg on a lightbulb.

I couldn’t say it helped my vision now. Not that it was too bright—shadows were creeping in around corners, like we’d gone back an hour on daylight savings time. Then two hours.

Night began appearing in little places, little patches of shade, just unswept crannies or the back of my closet or the cupboard under the piano. I began seeing stars there, too, just like dust or little pinpricks.

The doctors came and went and talked about my miracle—it was warm now, too. Not hot, like a real star.

It was my star. It was warm like I was warm. Ninety-nine-point-nine degrees.

We had to turn off the heating in the house. And then the lights. Wasting the energy was pointless now.

He told me it had to go, or he would, and grabbed my shoulders. I could feel his rough hands dimly through the fabric but I wasn’t listening anymore. My space was expanding. I’d turned my eyes on a deeper void than that—my eye was all star now, just pure light in a little pocket universe right in my socket.

When he left, they called me blind.

I could no longer perceive the walls and corners of their world, I couldn’t feel the air conditioning or hear their voices. I was far beyond.

I was dust and asteroids, I was rock and ice lost in infinite cold, I was swirling gas and meteors. I saw comets streak down the cheeks of the galaxy like salt water and I saw suns burst like raindrops on pavement, ripples absorbed by the fabric of space. I saw where stars are born and where they leap after their creation, dripping like tears from the eyes of the universe.

My poor star. It would never know its own kind.

For the first time I reached up past the warmth until it was hot as fever and touched where my eye should have been, gently, let it burn me like candle flame. It felt like it hesitated.

I cupped the high ridge of my cheek and waited ‘til it followed my fingertips, flowing and dribbling like mercury, until it sat in the chalice of my palms. It was cool. It was still.

I stroked it along where I imagined it would have temples and and wondered, for the first time, if my hands felt rough to a star.

 

 

Angelfish

“Started this piece a couple years ago: what happens when a seduction goes surrealist.”

By Tala Fehsel


“Well, aren’t we all dressed up and fancy!” the muffled voice came from behind the door as the woman on the other side unlatched the deadbolt.

Russ quickly pulled his hand back from where he’d lifted it to knock, uncomfortably aware of his employer’s scrutiny through the peephole. “Well, yes,” he admitted, smoothing down his slacks and tightening his grip self-consciously on the bottle of cheap white wine he’d picked up at the gas station before driving over. “I didn’t have time to change after work.” He shifted uncomfortably. There was sand in his shoes just from the walk from the parking lot—here by the ocean, it was to be expected.

When his boss had approached him earlier in the day she’d insisted he come in the afternoon—he’d had to clock out early to make it here in time at all. She supposedly had a conference in Minneapolis she had to prepare for. “Can’t afford to be playing around so close to the deadline,” she’d told him over the phone, lowering her voice. He’d practically been able to see the furtive dart of her eyes and the wry curve of her lips as Monica toyed with the phone cord. “What’re you doing this afternoon, Connors? I got an opening if you want to…mm. Get together. Just for a bit.”

Russ hooked a finger into his damp collar and loosened it, swallowing. He wasn’t sure what he’d been expecting when she’d given him her address. She was an executive, after all—he should have known he wouldn’t be following his GPS to an inner-city suburb. Still, he’d felt his heart start to sink the moment he’d caught that first glimpse of the coastline from between towering condominiums. Why here? The cool, salt-tinged breeze that greeted him when he stepped out of the car was a stinging slap to the face. Nothing could have stripped him of his confidence and anticipation for the evening so effectively.

Distantly, the voices of wheeling seagulls echoed like crying children.

“Aw, I’m just playing with you, Connors. Come on in! Glad you found the place.” Monica’s unfiltered voice finally emerged, along with a sun-bleached slice of her face, as the door swung open. She left it open, dark hair swinging behind her. “Well, what do you think? Some location, mm?” No formalities—the wealthy woman didn’t waste much time bandying words.

Yvette wouldn’t have liked her, Russ thought as he followed obediently after the black-haired woman. He closed the door behind her, trying to force his ex-wife out of his mind. He couldn’t help it—since the divorce, Monica was the first woman who’d shown any interest in him. How he—of all people!—had managed to catch her attention he wasn’t sure. He’d been grateful at the time. Now, with her standing before him throwing the curtains open to show off her million-dollar view of the turquoise bay, he felt weak at the knees for a different reason.

Monica turned, raising a brow and surprising him. “Cat got your tongue, Connors?” He tried to find his voice to answer, but she grinned suddenly instead, misunderstanding his silence. “I know. Breathtaking. I always wanted a room with a view when I was growing up.” As she talked, she moved in closer to him, snaking out with a slender hand to caress his chest. “Always loved the ocean.”

It was what Russ had been expecting, but for some reason his eyes were fixed on the open window, on the ocean, on the ripening orange sky as the sun wound closer to the horizon. The light turned her into a shadow, a featureless silhouette against the portrait of seeming tranquility behind her.

Come on, Russ urged himself suddenly, Snap out of it.

“Yeah. Great,” he managed to force out and she drew away. He caught a glimpse of her face and the moment of uncertainty that passed across it before it was replaced by amusement.

“There’s better views, though,” she said, arching a brow as she turned away from him. She shut the window, flipping the latch to lock it. The faintly audible chatter of the beachgoers and barking of dogs in the surf vanished with it, leaving them standing in uneasy silence. She dusted off her hands and crossed the room, towards the kitchen, plucking the bottle of wine out of his hands. “C’mon, I’ll pour you a drink. You all right, hon’? You’ve barely said two words since you got here.”

“No, no, I’m fine,” Russ said quickly, suddenly anxious to reassure her. His fists tightened in anger at himself and he rubbed them on his slacks, taking a deep breath. Calm down. Don’t mess this up. “Just—I used to love the sea too. It… surprised me.”

Monica returned from the kitchen, holding two glasses of white wine and a second bottle. “Surprised you?” She passed him one and beckoned him towards the living room. He trailed after her helplessly. She too was wearing the same outfit she’d been wearing at work that day, albeit barefoot and minus the blazer. He could see where she’d kicked off and left her heels after getting home—they lay discarded beside her desk, which was drowning in a jumbled nest of paperwork.

Apart from the desk, the apartment was surprisingly clean; all dark wood and attractive houseplants and flickering holographic flames in the fireplace. There was an enormous fifty-gallon aquarium in the next room along the far wall. He glanced into it as he passed, but apart from the vibrant corals and anemones within, it seemed to be empty.

“It’s just plants.” Monica’s voice surprised him and he turned to see her seat herself with a flourish in a leather armchair. He sat down uneasily as well, across from her and the tank. “Used to have fish too, but they can’t handle the water around here. I pump it in straight from the ocean to keep the pH balance right.” She swirled her glass and sipped from it, blue eyes never leaving his.

“Really? That seems a little ironic,” Russ said, glad that there were no windows visible from his seat. He was happy to have something else to look at. Here, in this room, he thought he could get himself together again. He could pretend that they were in the office, in a hotel, anywhere but looking over the place where he’d once run and laughed and built sand castles on the shore with his little girl.

Monica shrugged. “Hell if I know why. Nothing lives here.” She swirled her glass again, lips pursed as she stared into it.

“Oh, really? Isn’t that dangerous?” Russ struggled to keep focused on her. It was alarmingly difficult even as she stood up and seated herself again next to him.

He could smell the wine on her breath as she leaned in, brushing a dark strand of hair away from her eyes. “Danger doesn’t stop them. Doesn’t stop anybody from living here, even with the drownings like they are.” He could feel her body heat through his slacks. He turned wordlessly to face her. “What can I say? I live on the edge.” It was like they were having two different conversations.

Come on, move! Russ was frozen—his boss’s words, not her presence, had paralyzed him. She leaned close to him to brush a brown curl out of his face and the fragrance of her perfume washed over him, but somehow all he could smell was salt on the ocean breeze.

What’s wrong with me? He’d been so lonely since Yvette left, since he lost his family, since the accident. Monica’s fingers slipped down past his ear, cupping his chin for a moment.

A pang constricted his heart for a moment. An image of a little pink plastic bucket, brimming with seashells, made him close his eyes.

When they opened again, Monica was watching him. She set down her glass and stood up. “Connors—Russ. Look, you all right? We don’t have to do this, you don’t seem like yourself.”

His throat was dry. He swallowed. “I’m just tired,” he finally said, voice a little raspy. “It’s been a long day. I’m not feeling too great. I… maybe I should go.” God, you idiot! Was he really giving up something he’d dreamed about for months because of something that had happened years ago? I have to move on! Yvette had moved away and built herself a new life. She wasn’t about to forgive him.

“Maybe you should,” his employer agreed reluctantly, pulling away. “Monday blues? Hope it wasn’t something I said. Hell, I was just—”

He’d stopped listening. Something far more compelling in the room had caught his attention. Something was moving in the tank. It was barely visible, but his eyes were drawn to it. “What’s that?” he asked, interrupting her completely so that she fell into a startled silence. He pointed.

Monica leaned in, squinting. Her dark hair tickled his ear, but Russ ignored it. “Where?” she asked doubtfully. Russ jabbed a finger at the aquarium. It was becoming clearer as the gold-tinted light from the sunset passed through the glass—“There’s a fish,” he said, suddenly sure of what he was seeing. Monica shook her head. “I don’t see anything. Connors, maybe you should get some rest—”

“I can’t believe it,” he interrupted her again, leaning forward in fascination. Another one caught his eye—there was more than one inside. The water and glass were both so clear that it seemed almost like its occupants were swimming in the air instead. “They’re transparent,” he murmured, leaning closer. “I can see their bones—why do they glow like that? Are they like moon jellies?”

“What the hell are you talking about, Connors? You got—oh goddammit.” The high-pitched electronic trill from a nearby phone receiver suddenly startled them both. Russ jumped, elbow bumping the tank. The sting of a mild electrical pulse tingled through him and he jerked back, clutching it and breathing hard. The phone rang again. Monica stood up, placing an uncertain hand on his shoulder. “It’s probably about the conference. I gotta take this call, you gonna be okay here for a sec?”

“Yeah,” Russ said. She seemed unconvinced and he tore his eyes away from the tank. “I’ll be fine. Go take the call.” She hitched her mouth to the side, unwilling, but her hand slipped away from him after a moment and she reached for the handset on the side table.

She answered while walking briskly away towards the kitchen. “Monica here. Hm? Aw jeez, Schmidt, you’re kidding. Didn’t you get my memo? I told the registry to finish it up last night. Son of a bitch—” her voice faded out, leaving Russ alone with the tank of fish-shaped specters.

The tinted orange light from the window cast glimmering highlights across the now-visible school of ghostly fish, lending faint white outlines to shapes that suggested what they might once have been. There were more than he’d thought: a koi, wraithlike whiskers trailing—a lionfish with tattered, gauzy fins a halo of spines—a remora lost without its predatory companion.

“No eyes? How do they see?” he wondered out loud to himself. The blank sockets were strangely sobering. If they had any organs at all, in fact, he could see none—only the stark shapes of their ribs like picket fences with faint, gossamer skin bundled about them. They must be almost invisible without the right lighting. Amazing! His eyes wandered to the shape of one small angelfish, whose gossamer fins peaked above and below her bony body like sails on a ship. Monica must have had them all this time without knowing. They must have come in with the water from the bay.

“No wonder you’re all skin and bones if she never feeds you anything,” he muttered to himself, trying to shift his eyes away from their troubled ones and feeling in his pockets for crumbs. His thumb and forefinger closed around one and he rolled it between them meaningfully. “I wonder…” Russ glanced guiltily over his shoulder. Monica was still arguing with her client in the kitchen.

I don’t think she’ll mind. What other reason would they be so interested in him all of a sudden? He reached out a hand to lift the cover. As he’d suspected, several of the ghostly fish rose with the movement of his hand and circled, restless and shark-like, at the surface. “Here you go, little guy,” he whispered. His hand lowered itself a little further. A slender creature with a razorback tail gaped hungrily just below where he’d pinched the morsel, and he brushed his fingers together a little to release it.

As he did, his fingers skimmed the water.

“Ach, ye’ no-good scunners, catch her bearings!” bellowed a white grizzly of a man where he stood, granite and unmoving, at the freighter’s prow. “Get the cargo amidships ‘afore we break aground, and put some damn muscle into it!”

Water splashed, dousing the hatch below deck with salty brine. The shine of the ocean all around them was indistinguishable from the gleaming reflection of rainwater coursing across the deck. Dark, scattered figures of men scrambled to and fro like ants.

Russ planted his feet and heaved at a crate, one of his fellows seizing the other end so that he stumbled. His boots could find no purchase on the slick floorboards. “C’mon!” shouted the other man, face hidden as the ominous creak from the vessel’s prow grew louder. “Don’t mess around! Skip says he’ll have all our hides if we don’t—”

He was cut off as, with a reverberating crash, the freighter lurched. They braced themselves, sailors toppling left and right as seawater gushed across the splintered hull, but as Russ stumbled back he felt the backs of his knees strike the handrail. Another seizure shuddered through the deck. For a moment, as he felt his feet float free of solid ground, everything was strangely calm.

“We’re breached!” the bearded captain was roaring, voice somehow finding its way to his ears even as he fell, “Save what you can! Into the dinghies—”

Russ struck the water like a slab of cement and arched his back with a cry of pain lost in bubbles. Ice-cold waves closed in over his head with a triumphant clap. Cold and darkness seared his flesh, tossed his ragged form, and yet—even after his lungs had long since crumpled—there was no breath. No relief—no escape. Something was weighing him down. Strange, how the panic only set in after he’d watched his own body sink into the depths.

            Russ’s hand smacked against the cover as he wrenched it back, breaths shaky. It hurt, but the sting was nothing compared to the vivid slice of memory he’d just experienced. His blood pressure was a mindless roar in his ears like that of the raging storm he’d just lived through. Except he hadn’t lived. He’d… well, he’d died. Himself, or someone else?

“Connors? All right in there?” Monica called, receiver pinned between ear and shoulder. She directed her voice back to the phone “Sorry Schmidt, my houseguest is making a racket. Yeah, just had him over to—hey, don’t waste that!

            Russ’s fingers had curled around the neck of the second wine bottle she’d left on the side table. The ghostly fish continued to watch him, immobile, suspended in the water. Fish. Fish didn’t live through what they’d showed him—there was something else in there. Something that had been trapped for a long time beneath the waves. He had a feeling he knew what they wanted him to do—a feeling he knew what he had to do. Sweat broke out across his brow as his grip tightened. What am I doing?

There was a crash. Monica stuck her head out from behind the counter just in time to see the cheap bottle of wine break harmlessly against the glass, showering the hardwood floors with glittering shards. The ghost fish did not scatter, as one might have expected. Mute, fins fanning, they watched.

What’re you—aw, Christ, Schmidt, I’ll have to call you back.” Monica dropped the phone and rounded the counter with a curse. She slipped in the puddle of spilled wine, wind-milling her arms to keep her balance before righting herself. “Are you all the way out of your damn mind, Connors?”

Russ dropped the jagged neck of the bottle with a clatter, a kind of hysteria setting in. He looked around wildly and seized a footstool, staggering with it. “There’s people in there! Spirits or something! he managed to get out, swinging the stool. It rebounded off the reinforced glass harmlessly. Spirits of the drowned, he thought, and his stomach lurched and knotted as if it was full of iron.

“They’re what? Stop, stop! What the hell’s gotten into you?” Furious, she grabbed his arm and tried to pull him back—he fought her, struggling towards where the squadron of blank-eyed skeletons mutely observed their struggle. She dug in her heels and hauled uselessly on him but he waded on until he was back at the aquarium.

“Stop it!” Monica yelled, “Stop! Are you out of your damn mind?The light over the tank toppled into the water and sparks sizzled around it, but the ghost fish only glowed brighter.

He slapped his hand against the glass and felt the shock of electricity cut through it, shifting in waves beneath his skin. Russ gritted his teeth and pushed harder. Through eyes watering from the fumes of the alcohol, he saw the place where his splayed fingers touched the glass. The ghostly fish had clustered around it. The charge intensified. He heard Monica’s breath hiss out behind him and realized that even she could see them now, but stubbornly enough, neither of them let go. He closed his eyes.

A single gauzy spirit slithered through the glass between his fingers.

It rested for a moment, fragile as a butterfly newly emerged from the cocoon, on the back of his hand. It fanned its misty fins slightly as if to test the air before takeoff. Russ recognized it as the one he’d been feeding before. The ghost fish felt like a trickle of water itself, cool against his skin. He stared at it. Monica’s fingers were wrapped tighter around his bicep than a blood pressure cuff, but he could hardly feel it. Come on! All his concentration was focused on the tank.

Spirits abruptly gushed from the place his hand met the glass, swirled in chains of silver up his forearm. They passed, phantoms, through the skin and tendon of his hand and splintered off his shoulders, clinging tight to their savior as if he were their only coral reef in the world.

He distantly heard, not felt, Monica let go as she shouted something about water. He was already beyond the physical touch of reality. He found himself transported once more—

“Cut it out, you guys!” Russ heard himself give a nervous laugh, swatting away someone’s hand. He was a teenager, bare feet stinging on the steel-ribbed dock. The girl crossed her arms, tossing her blonde head haughtily, and Russ found himself doing the same. The atmosphere was light, sun searing the beach golden. Other teens lounged in the shade of striped umbrellas along the shorefront.

“Aw, Chels! Why’d you wear a bathing suit if you weren’t gonna jump in with us?” one of the boys asked, dark brows knitting together. He combed his fingers through his wet, dark hair ruefully. “You’re such a buzzkill sometimes, you know that?”

“I’m not a buzzkill!” Russ—or was he Chelsea?—protested hotly. “I just don’t want to! It’s not hot enough yet to jump in.”

It was a lie. Russ could feel the sunburn on her shoulders, the heat radiating from the surface of the dock, her dry lips. There was a cold sweat on the back of her neck.

“Oh, come on!” a taller youth said with a chuckle, grabbing her around the waist from behind. Russ felt his arms pinned to his sides and struggled, surprisingly ineffective. “Anyone believe that story? I think little miss Chelsea needs a little motivation!”

“Put me down, Tam!” The demand was ignored. “Put me down right now! Jory, do something!” Her voice rose, shrill, as Russ felt them stagger forward in the tall boy’s arms.

The dark-haired teen from before made a little sound of protest and stepped forwards, looking uneasy. “Dude, maybe we shouldn’t—” he started.

“On three!” Russ’s captor was already sing-songing, hoisting the struggling girl up in his arms as if he was about to carry his new bride across the mantle of their new home. The other stragglers clustered around, chanting. “One—”

Jory pushed one of them aside, angrily. “Two—“ Still shouting and struggling, the girl reached a desperate hand out to him. “NO! I CAN’T, I CAN’T SW—”

“Three! In we go—!”

And again Russ hit the water. It was shock this time, more than cold or actual impact, which paralyzed him. She kicked her legs desperately and clawed at the liquid, fingernails catching in mottled seaweed. Her head breached the surface, gagging and sputtering, before gravity dragged it below a second time. He was blind—Chelsea’s eyes were squeezed shut, blocking out all light, all vision. There was a disturbance in the water, a cold current that swept past her skin even as she flailed, sunk, and her lungs screamed for air. Her eyes flew open in surprise as someone grabbed her hand—even in the murkiness, Jory’s face was easily recognizable. He kicked his legs strongly, pulling her back towards where the midday sun still touched.

Something hauled her back and jerked hard on his arm like a rubber band. Russ felt a pain at his ankle and they looked down—a thickly-braided strand of seaweed had wrapped itself around her foot. Jory tugged uselessly on her hand as she lashed out with her leg, desperate to free herself. The knot only pulled itself tighter. Russ’s chest was burning. They couldn’t keep this up—her limbs were sagging—the seawater fire in her lungs—a stream of bubbles escaping Jory’s mouth as his lips shaped ‘No!’ and her weakening fingers slipped away from his—

           “You idiot, what the hell did you do?” Monica was screaming. Water was gushing across the floor of the apartment, pooling from around the soles of Russ’s feet. It welled up from the woodwork, from the walls—it filled the empty vases, slopping clear as crystal against table legs. He glanced at it, but the tank was still fully intact. This was coming from somewhere else. Memory? It poured in, a monsoon that lapped at the man’s knees, rising with the intensity of a flash flood.

“What the hell?! There can’t be this much water in that tank!” His employer was swishing her way backwards across her flooded living room, putting as much distance between herself and the orbiting system of ghost fish around the brown-haired man as possible. “Are you happy now?!”

He’d fallen to his knees, water creeping to his shoulders, racked by the imprints of death after death, drowning after drowning, a hundred times trapped beneath the surface of that which had consumed his life. There was no escape, no escape, no escape—

His surfboard buckled under him and his knees soon followed. The two of them were tossed into the air as he slipped, the board tossed high by the crest of the wave. The man himself fell in a tumble of seafoam and tangled limbs. Nothing out of the ordinary. This must have happened numerous times before, but this time as he pitched back, his dazed eyes focused on the board being pushed down at him from above. It struck him in the gut along the long edge, the ocean’s force behind it. He felt something break in his chest and collar. The pressure in his head exploded as the surf surged over him and drove his head into the bottom like a hammer drove a nail—

He’d been borne up by the swelling water, now lapping hungrily at portraits on the walls. Russ couldn’t hear Monica anymore—whether that meant the waves had pushed her to a different room or whether she’d met a fate not unlike those of the ghost fish, he couldn’t know. What have I done? He wondered. There was only a few feet left of air between the top of his head and Monica’s ceiling—

Panic set in as the water suddenly seemed to be pulling at the snorkeler’s legs. It dragged her backwards, sucked her greedily into its undertow. It was as if the sea had spotted her, an unwanted speck, and simply meant to vacuum her away. The water drained from the shorebreak, which had seemed so close only moments before. Terrified, she fought to swim back towards it, but the riptide was too powerful. It was not so much deeper than her head, out here—just deep enough.

Russ’s body came back to life and he struck out instinctively with both arms, sending clinging spirits reluctantly scattering. The motion was slowed within the denser liquid as if time itself was winding down. His heartbeat throbbed, a scratchy motor in his ears driven by fear. He hadn’t expected this.

Well, what were you expecting, Russ? he wondered, kicking out with his legs. The man rose clumsily to the surface, kicking off his shoes as he did. He tread water, wavelets lapping at his chin as he gulped in the air he knew from the memories he’d experienced to be all-too-precious. A sick guilt had descended on him. Don’t panic. He couldn’t panic, or he’d sink. He seized a cast-iron light fixture in both hands, holding himself barely above the apartment’s rising tide.

Russ cast his eyes about for his employer, blood pumping from adrenaline. “Monica!” he shouted, tilting his head back as the water crept up his collar another half-inch. “Monica, where are you?”

A faint cough, a sputter, and then—“I’m here!”

His fingers slipped and his head plunged under. For a moment, he lost her. Then his gaze finally touched the corner of the dining room where the woman’s silhouette was illuminated against the window where she clung against the torrent, fingertips anchored in the curtain rack. It was an eerie parallel to when she’d stood before it not ten minutes ago. Cool, collected, latching it shut against the evening breeze. That image had since been submerged entirely. Inky hair fanned out around her shoulders in a halo, a cloud of night. The lacy curtains wafted gently around her like fairy wings.

The window. The wings. He could see the ghost fish beginning to track him like bullets through the deluge, swirls and eddies bright as stardust. If he did not first drown in the literal sea gushing in from a place far between, he would soon drown in the agony of their shared experience. He’d been left weak and reeling only from what he’d lived through so far. Perhaps a death like Monica’s was more merciful. After all it was, at the very worst, only once…

No. He kicked his feet and burst back to the surface for the third time. He drew in breath, steeling himself for the plunge. He’d failed, out on the beachfront three years ago when his little girl had fallen into the water and never came back up. He’d failed when he’d run for help instead of for his daughter. He’d failed his company, failed his wife, failed his family—she wasn’t going to die too. Neither of them were—not at the hands of the ocean, anyway.

I know what I have to do…

With a deep breath in the last inch of oxygen the room could lend him, Russ dove. He stroked, cupping water between his palms and pulling himself through its depths with eyes fixed on Monica’s form. The water distorted the light from the window, bathing her in wavering orange. I’m coming…

Something cold seared at his shoulder. Russ didn’t have to turn his head to know it was one of the ghost fish, their ranks reassembling. There was that sickening rush of projected thought—The ice underneath his boots cracked ominously. His eyes widened as with a snap like breaking bones, the jagged fracture drew itself across the frozen canvas. Sheets of ice toppled in on themselves as he fell into the frigid waters below and beat desperately at the shelf that closed in above his head, the alarmed shouts of his friends a faint echo in the back of his mind—

Russ shook it off with a great shudder, forcing his arms and legs to keep stroking, to keep fighting towards Monica. He could see her fingers slacken and her arms release. The water must have reached the ceiling by now. Slowly, like a drifting feather, she began to fall.

He threw himself forward, feeling his knees skim the top of the submerged leather sofa and using it to push off from. More and more fish had clustered around him, skeletal and haunting. As their stories clamored for attention he fought them off like dreams, like nightmares, focusing on that single point of light. Waves crashed along the rocky shoreline, seabirds circling high overhead with cries of anguish, the scent of brine and seaweed a heavy musk in the air—

Russ forced it away. Bubbles were escaping Monica’s mouth, eyelids fluttering closed. “I’m coming!” he wanted to cry out to her, but could not. He reached out for the woman with a final kick, fingers almost brushing her slowly sinking body. There were plenty of lifejackets on board that day, but when Garrett’s father offered one to him he laughed and waved him off, beer in one hand. It was a sunny morning when he stepped onto that—

He tore through the vision again and grasped belatedly for her wrist, seizing it. He braced his feet against the windowsill itself and pulled her up, head locked underneath his elbow with his other laced around her ribs. “Don’t you die, dammit!” Russ wanted to curse, wanted to cry even as he struggled to bear both of their weights. Monica was immobile and floppy in his arms and his lungs had begun to burn from the exertion and strain, a feeling somehow a thousand times more real in his own body than when he’d felt the telltale signs through the others. Not ten minutes ago she’d been seated beside him, warm and lithe, white wine sweet on her breath—

Another remembrance surged as the herringbone patterns of the ghost fish streaked across his vision, settled like flies across his body. The labored breathing of scuba equipment filled his ears, along with a slow beeping, growing louder and louder. Hadn’t their guide said something about a reserve tank?– No! The brown-haired man fought against it, struggling to hoist Monica back towards the enormous window that looked out over the bay. It was their only chance. His head throbbed from the pressure, lungs stretched tight and aching like skin across a drum. If he could just get it open again…

Russ’s fingers stretched out, bumbling and clumsy, for the latch—

Everything was big through the eyes of a child. Adults towered, skyscrapers in a city of sunscreen and swimsuits as the toddler obediently tagged along in the shadow of who one could only assume was her father. Russ had a plastic purple sand pail clutched in one chubby hand, which he was swinging with great pomp. There were seashells scattered at the bottom of the bucket like an assortment of candies.

“Daddy?” she piped, running to keep up with the man. Her bucket of seashells jangled merrily at her side. Her little voice was questioning. “Daddy, if I spend a sand dollar, will the mermaids come?”

It was as if someone had stabbed him in the stomach. His fingers strained desperately, fumbling the metal clasp. Monica was slipping beneath his other arm and he tightened his grip. Was it already too late for her? For them both?

Something had caught her eye a little way into the shallows. It looked like another seashell—but this one was different, bigger than the others. She slowed to a trot, curly brown head turning. She was mesmerized—especially by the color. It was a pale pink, just like her swimsuit. “Keep up, Katie!” her dad reminded her without looking back, but the name—the voice—sent chills of horror down Russ’s spine.

The world was beginning to darken around the edges, the glimmering shapes of the ghostly school fading out to little more than pinpricks of light around this last sight, this last hope. The latch. If he could just get it open—if he’d just run a little faster that day at the beach—

There was water rippling around her ankles where she stood, feet bare against the slimy rock underfoot. The algae felt funny between her toes. She tugged hopefully at the shell, which was half buried in a pocket of sediment. It was even better than a sand dollar—it was like a whole crown, all for herself! She squatted down to pry further, the tide lapping across her knees as she yanked at it.

            “Katie! Come back from there! There’s a drop-off, it’s dangerous!”

            She looked up, startled and frightened at her father’s shout. She hesitated for a moment. What if he was mad at her? Was she going to get in trouble? She pouted, stubborn, and wrenched again at the shell. She would be like Ariel in the Little Mermaid with her very own seashell crown atop her head. Why was it stuck so fast?

Seawater trickled down Russ’s cheeks. Or were those tears?

“KATIE!”

Her pail splashed to the side with a clatter, dumping its load as a wave rocked against her knees. She slipped on the algae-slathered rock, pitching backwards with a little cry of shock. She could barely open her mouth to scream before salt water rushed in to fill it, filling her ears, her eyes, her nostrils. There was no rock beneath her feet. Panic rose, screaming within her. She could not hear the shouts that Russ remembered, she could not see Russ himself as he dropped his bag and ran for the water.

The last thing the little girl saw as she sunk were her seashells, tumbling like a rain of flower petals from the upturned purple pail.

The window burst open.

Russ braced himself against the windowsill as the ocean roared out from behind him. How it didn’t carry the two of them with it as it surged, erupted from the eighth-story window in a tidal wave of sheer power, he couldn’t know. All he knew was holding on for dear life, crushing Monica’s waist with his left arm and the window ledge with his right. Thousands of misty droplets coursed from the opening as the geyser emptied itself into the sunset, shattering like stained glass.

It left behind two very wet, bedraggled human beings, water still spilling in a waterfall from the window ledge around their bodies.

“Monica?”

She gagged and he quickly released her—the woman hauled herself up on hands and knees and vomited, bedraggled black locks a greasy curtain in front of her face. “You’re dead, Connors,” she rasped, hacking. Shuddering racked her form as she wiped her mouth with the back of her hand, limbs trembling where she knelt. “The hell.. just happened. My house. You’re so. Dead. Ugh.

Somehow, Russ knew she was wrong. Blessed oxygen flowed into the man’s cramped lungs as he breathed in, reveling in all the scents, all the sounds. The dogs barking along the surf, the people on the street. The marvel of that breath was something he would never forget: the promise of life.

He looked up—now that the water had stopped, the ghost fish were back, streaming past the two of them in currents and eddies of swimming, silver-boned bodies. The last dying rays of the sun struck them in full for the first time as they flitted through the air like hummingbirds, cloaking each skeletal form in light. A koi—a lionfish—a remora. They streamed from Monica’s open window like butterflies, soaring their way into the peach-brushed clouds. His heart lifted a little—they, too, had been saved. There was hope out there for them. For him.

As Russ Connors settled back on the windowsill to sit and watch the glimmering display, something brushed against his face. He lifted his chin in surprise as the little angelfish flitted once, twice about his head. Astonished, he cupped his hands and the creature settled in them, gossamer fins gently fanning. She brought with her no dizzying rush of memory. Only a quiet sadness. Forgiveness.

For a moment, they both were still.

“Go,” he whispered, and felt her brush, feather-light, against his lips before she too fluttered from his fingertips and was gone—streaking her way not down, but up.

Poppyseed Muffin

” This story was relatively easy to write. It actually started coming to me on Tuesday when the Options for this assignment were being explained. It bothered me that I couldn’t write it down at the time, but I made sure to keep the idea in my mind until I could. The waiting room in the story is loosely based on one in Bozeman Deaconess, which I spent time in when I was younger when the artery in my dad’s leg collapsed and had to have a stint. He turned out fine, but I imagined what would happen if he hadn’t, and wrote this story. “

By Shiloh Miller


You sit quietly in the empty room, not really aware of your surroundings. You know you should be feeling something, pain maybe or grief, and that you should cry but you just can’t. The tears won’t come. You feel numb as you look up at the ceiling. There’s a T.V. mounted in the corner of the off white room, tuned to some midafternoon talk show. You turn your head to look at the clock on the left side of the room. It seems to tick slowly, each movement sounding so loud, almost booming as if it were giant and daunting in the quiet room.

You fidget a little in the chair, its wood frame creaking and the floral patterned cloth shifting uncomfortably under your weight. You get up and drag yourself to the elevator at the end of the room. Your body feels heavy like lead and just lifting your arm to push the button is a big effort. The bell dings as the door slides open, almost echoing through the room and you step inside. Soft music plays as you ride to the ground floor.

There is a small food cart set up near the entrance to the building, warm smells and steam drifting from it. You walk up to the cart and the guy behind it smiles at you as you pick up a poppyseed muffin. In the brief moment when your brain actually becomes conscious you consider buying coffee, but decide it would be a bad idea because it would give you jitters and just stick to the muffin. The guy behind the counter gives you your change and looks pointedly at a small plastic jar with a paper “Tips” sign taped to it. You shove all your change in it, not even caring that it was twenty bucks and a few quarters, and turn away as the guy stares at you in astonishment.

You get back in the elevator, sit back down in the empty room, in the uncomfortable chair, and unwrap your muffin. It’s golden brown with little black seeds and you stare at it intently. Your stomach growls, but you can’t really bring yourself to eat the muffin, so you pick at it instead, nibbling little pieces like a mouse. You try to pick each little seed out of the muffin, but it’s impossible and you put the muffin down and stare at the T.V. for a while. Your brain is so numb that you can’t really comprehend what’s happening on the screen so you just watch the shapes move on it like a handicapped chimp. A nurse walks by and you turn to look at her for a moment, only registering that she’s a nurse, not thinking about where she’s going or what she might be able to tell you.

After a while the nurse comes back, but she doesn’t stay and you don’t really care anyway. No one has told you anything since you arrived there a little after 3am. Your mind is reeling and memories flash in front of your eyes.

Dad is holding you, when you were about 5. He holds you tightly, but not too tight, as he swings you in circles while laughing and smiling. You’re riding on his shoulders so you can see above the crowd to watch the parade, the colorful floats and dancing horses filing past you. “Hey, buddy!” He calls, coming home from work. You smile and run to him, hugging him tightly. You’re 12 and the two of you are walking up on the hill you always hike on, looking for shed horns from deer. He’s delighted when you find one even though it’s just a little forked horn and there’s only one. You come home on your 14th birthday and he’s horrified to find that Mom has taken you to get your ears pierced. You punch him in the arm and tell him he’s being a baby. He curls back in mock pain and horror, never actually feeling your feeble punch. He’s too strong and tough for that. He sits in the 2nd row of the gym, watching as you receive your high school diploma. His face is beaming with pride. He visits your college dorm for the first time, cracking a corny joke about how messy it is.

You can’t imagine life without him. Your eyes begin to close and you fall asleep. When you wake up it’s a little after 2pm and the nurse is gently shaking your shoulder. When you turn to look at her she clasps her hands in front of her and looks down at you sadly. “I’m sorry,” she says. “He passed away just a few minutes ago. There was nothing the doctors could do.” You look down at the ugly carpeting and blink. Your brain is still numb and you haven’t really processed anything yet. The nurse sits down in the chair across from you with her hands in her lap. You sit there and blink for a few more seconds as your brain begins to click on and the words she’s just said make their way deeper into your mind.

Not just your mind, the words start to make their way deeper into your heart, your very soul, until they strike your center. With a wail like that of a wounded animal you fall from the chair onto your knees and tip over, curling into a ball. You clutch your chest and squeeze your eyes shut. It hurts; it hurts more than you’ve ever felt before. It’s like you’ve been impaled on a spear while at the same time a little black hole has opened in your heart and is slowly sucking up little bits of your soul. You roll with agony, wailing again as the nurse shifts her feet. You kick the table next to your chair and the muffin falls to the floor and bounces up to your face. You grab it, squeezing it tightly until crumbs fall from between your fingers. Mom comes rushing into the room, back from her phonecall and trip to the grocery store to get medication for her allegies. Despite being in a hospital, no one can give her anything to stop her nose running and her sneezing. She begins to weep and holds you tightly. A baby cries from one of the other waiting rooms. Finally…your tears come.

 

It’s been several weeks since your dad passed away. You see him in everything, every room of your house. The landlady has lowered your rent out of kindness, since you now have only one source of income in your house. You sigh and go about your way, scouring the Help Wanted ads for a job. Mom asks you to go get groceries. You get your keys and head out. You go through the list, putting only the necessary items in your cart. You stand at the checkout, staring out the big windows at the front of the store. A display nearby catches your eye. It’s a stand with a big sign that reads “Muffins.” You walk over to it as the cashier finishes scanning your items and pick up one of the prepackaged goodies, bringing it back over to the checkout line. As you place it on the conveyor belt, the cashier quickly picks it up and scans it. The monitor above her register reads “Poppyseed Muffin.”

 

 

She’s Alive

​” The late at night drunken rambles of a twenty-something going through a quarter life crisis. “

By Mikey Athearn


She disappears when she least expects it. In the calm, quiet moments of the morning she feels herself fade away. There is nothing to ground her. There is nothing to keep her in the moment. She is beyond herself in these moments. She is transcendent. She is nothing. In the pale light of almost day she breaks apart. There is no longer a burning in her flesh. There is only nothingness. In her deepest soul she craves those moments. She needs them to survive. “I am nothing.”

She stands in the middle of her empty apartment and laughs. She laughs for the lovers she left and the lovers she lost. She laughs for those who are dead and those who are soon to die. She is hysterical. Her laughter breaks through the still nights and wraps around her. The laughter is her only comfort. It caresses her skin and kisses her damp eyes. She laughs harder at the tender touches. Her sides ache and her breathing is haggard. Still she laughs. She laughs for her past and laughs at her future. She laughs for all of the times she cried and for all the times she felt helpless. The laughter hurts which makes her laugh more. She is only laughter. “Let me tell you a joke.”

She never gives her love out gently. It has to be torn from her like a piece of flesh. She fights it at every turn and grins when it is finally given. Her love is not a good thing. It is a promise of future pain. Her love is a disease that eats everything alive. It is chaos in an emotion. It is a quiet poison in the night. Her existence revolves around turning her love into an ugly beast. It is the reason for death and the reason for her life. Her love is not pretty. “I love you.”

She feels it burn inside of her like a disease. The pain is unbearable but it is the only thing keeping her alive. She hates herself. She hates everyone around her. The world is spinning so fast and she cannot stop it. She has lost control. Her feelings aren’t her own. Her thoughts aren’t her own. Her heart beats but she feels nothing at all. She cries out, hoping that someone will hear. There is nothing. There is only her hollow voice in an empty room. She prays for death but hopes for life. Her existence is at an impasse. “Sometimes I feel like letting it all go.”

It starts in her chest, like the prelude to a panic attack that will never come. It grips her heart and injects itself into her bloodstream. She feels it spread throughout her body, taking over everything that she is. The feeling is complete; the need to destroy something so utterly that it can never be loved again. She stares at her reflection in shattered glass and sees the breaks on her own face. It is ice through her veins and fire in her eyes; the bile on her throat and the venom on the tip of her tongue. The moment is pure, primal, serene, disgusting, terrifying, beautiful, and consuming. That is the moment when the mask is gone. Her essence is on the surface and it calls for blood. “I feel like doing something destructive.”

She wants to rip her heart out of her chest. She wants to hold herself out, bleeding and naked, for everyone to see. She wants to scream and force people to look at her. Her heart is not pretty. It is dark and small. It has many cracks and bleeds at the slightest touch. Her heart is who she is. She wants it gone. She wants someone to finally see that she is slowly dying inside. Her heart is shrinking. Her heart is breaking. Her heart is in her hand and she wants nothing more than to crush it in her grip. “It wasn’t that important in the first place.”

She cries late at night. In the calm moments when no one is awake she lets herself go. There is nothing holding her back. She has nothing to hold onto. She is hurt. She is pain. She has betrayed those she loves and has lived selfishly. She doesn’t regret it so she hates herself more. She cries until she laughs. She has turned her back on everything she loves. It feels like ripping out her soul. She would do it again for eternity. “I am the worst thing that could happen to you.”

It is finally the day. She cuts her hair and burns her bra. She stops shaving her legs and wears short skirts. She runs through fields naked and screams at the top of her lungs. She fucks who she wants and stands up for herself. It is the day where she no longer cares. It is the day she lets go. It is the day that she is whole. It is the day she tears her heart from her chest and throws it at everyone. She is finally free. “I can no longer be touched.”

She doesn’t want someone to die for her. Dying is final, complete, absolution, an escape. If you really love her, live for her. If someone holds a gun to your head and asks where she is, don’t refuse to tell them and die. She doesn’t want that. Smile at them, then kick them in the shin. Tell them the wrong address. Give her up. Just don’t die for her. She can never love someone who dies for her. There is no point in loving someone who is dead. “I want to be alive.”

The Picture of Health

” A short story featuring Pestilence of the four horsemen and a trip to the hospital. Sometimes a chance encounter changes the entire way a person works. “

By Devan Petersen


Pestilence was leaning outside of a small town hospital with the hood of his sweatshirt drawn up so that his face was mostly hidden. He was zeroed in on his cell phone screen, and hoped that his appearance would deter any curious mortal that would have the misfortune of trying to talk to him. Well, not misfortune quite. Pestilence was one of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Not your average day job sure, but being a living legend had to be done by someone. Pestilence wasn’t exactly sure which to call himself—to be honest if asked for a label he’d probably wrinkle his nose and grumble something along the lines of “middle child” before he decided he was legendary or anything of the sort.

That meant that the sibling younger than him got babied, and the two older than him never let him forget they were older. That was a fallback of working centuries in “the family business”—which, actually, wasn’t really even a business. Not officially. See, he and his siblings weren’t supposed to be out and about until the world was ending. They could do small stuff to stir things up—or to get the bigwigs “upstairs” to pay attention. Where upstairs was, Pestilence didn’t have the foggiest idea. Or even who the bigwigs were—he’d been traipsing around the planet since before humanity and had never heard from them or seen them. Death swore she’d met them before though, and the family just didn’t go against the eldest. Everything they did was supposed to end at her after all.

Pestilence scowled and peered at his phone. She had been sending him text after text all morning. He half wished she had continued to have her aversion to technology—the eighties had been filled with her complaints about the new wave of human invention but now she couldn’t pry herself from her iPhone.

TO: Pestilence

FROM: Death

Pesti, make it something good (:

Pestilence clicked the back of his teeth with his tongue. He wanted to respond for her to get off his back—Pestilence had been cooking up disease since the old days. That’s what he did, touched people, made them sick, waited til’ they wasted away and let his sister swoop in and take em’ off. Humans kept evolving with their immune systems, which meant he had to stay on his toes and make up something new to keep them scrambling.

TO: Death

FROM: Pestilence

whatever.

He pushed his phone into his pocket and slipped inside the hospital. Clean white walls rose up around him, fluorescent lights buzzed overhead. Pestilence sniffed and rubbed at the end of his nose, dodging the people filtering by him. More for their own sake than his, he didn’t need what he had pieced together this morning spreading through people who were healthy. That got them on their toes too fast. All it took was a touch, a brush of shoulders or fingertips and they’d be bedridden and possibly visiting his sister before their time.

That was what happened though, he figured—after all, he was a Horseman. On his heels road death and destruction, and the day that the world ended would be his day of triumph. He and his brothers—they would rid the world of the sickness that plagued it’s surface. Death told him that when that day came his touch would be healing, that it would be curing the blight of the human race by helping the others to get rid of it. A purging.

To be honest the idea terrified him. It made him recoil in horror of himself, but there was an order to things and all had their place and nature. He wasn’t any difference, he was Pestilence and he would do what he had to in life.

Not a person glanced his way in the hospital, and that was what he was used to. He glided by doctors and nurses with barely a glance—Pestilence didn’t have anything big in the works at the moment. Sometimes his older brothers got bored, and he set something out that had the mortals running around like dimwitted animals. They were easy to scare, when it came to sickness. It reminded them of their mortality.

“Are you lonely?” The question almost fell into the white noise backdrop that was the conversation in the hospital—Pestilence was used to that. People hear spoke, talked to one another in dreaded tones and quiet concern. The question wasn’t so out of place, what was out of place was the small boy stepping into his path with a frown, “Hey—are you okay?”

Pestilence stared—he wasn’t, and never had been, the sort that would draw the eye of a person in public. He just looked like a slightly sick teenager, a little too red around the eyes and nose, a little too pale—and he certainly hadn’t been acting lost. People passed him by, because maybe some tiny part of them could feel that stopping near him was a terrible idea.

They didn’t just… talk to him.

“You looked kind of sad,” the kid continued a little nervously. He had a gap in his teeth, and his hair was sticking up in a way that suggested he hadn’t brushed his hair. There was an old camera dangling from his neck, one of the ones that spat the photo out directly instead of needing to be printed later. The boy was bouncing from foot to foot nervously, his brow furrowed, “So I thought, ‘hey, is that guy okay?’ and decided to ask. So, are you okay?”

“Er, yes,” Pestilence frowned and drew back from the child automatically. He wasn’t who he was here for, and he ought to not be drawn into a conversation with him. Still part of him longed for more—was that so much to ask? When a single touch of his fingertips destroyed things so slowly? He didn’t think so, maybe that was selfish, but it hovered there in his chest. A want for something just a little bit more. “I think—you thought I looked sad?”

“The way my sister does sometimes,” the boy frowned and rubbed at the end of his nose. “She’s lonely too, I think. People at school don’t talk to her much—Mom says she’ll get over it, girls just go through that kinda thing y’know?”

“It’s important to her though,” Pestilence said quietly. Death was too busy with teenagers if you asked Pestilence—he usually dealt with the very young and the elderly. People who had either only just tasted what life could be or had had their fill. The ones in the middle always made him uncomfortable—he didn’t mind cutting it off at the beginning or near the end, but it seemed strange to do things right in the center.

“Probably,” the kid frowned as though troubled. “She doesn’t listen to me though.”

“Siblings do that,” Pestilence found himself saying distantly. He was suddenly vividly reminded of the Swine Flu epidemic, and his brothers chanting—“C’mon Pesti, when was the last time you did anything big? The Bubonic Plague?”—like Yellow Fever had just been a breeze, it wasn’t his fault that he’d piqued in the sixth century.

“How come?” the child asked.

“I don’t know, that’s how mine act. They don’t listen, that’s a sibling thing,” Pestilence shrugged his shoulders.

“But I listen to my sister, so not all siblings do,” the child pointed out with a grin.

“Yeah but most of them don’t,” Pestilence said, feeling nettled. The child didn’t seem to notice, he trailed after Pestilence as he tried to walk away. Pestilence huffed, squaring his shoulders.

“Are you here because you’re sick?” The kid was leaping to a new topic faster than Pestilence could keep up—that’s right, humans were always go-go-go. He’d forgotten that, it was an unpleasant thing to deal with in person. He liked to stop and think about thinks, to stare and wonder at the complexities of the universe around him. Still, he allowed himself a sort of cough of laughter.

“No, not really. Business mostly,” Pestilence found himself unconsciously shoving his hands into the ragged sweater he wore. The boy looked interested, he’d made a mistake and he knew it the instant he saw those eyes light up.

“Like a job?” the kid asked, swinging around and almost bumping into Pestilence. The being pulled back with a scowl, letting the child dodge around him as he skipped over linoleum. “But you’re my sister’s age and she’s too little for work.”

“I’m older than your sister,” Pestilence snorted.

“How do you know? Do you know my sister?” this kid was beginning to drive him crazy. The child seemed too energetic for his own good, swinging around in place and holding both arms out as though he were an airplane. Pestilence had to press his back against the wall to avoid touching the little boy.

“Why are you here?” the Horsemen asked, the kid stopped abruptly.

“My mom cut her hand,” the boy wrinkled his nose. “She got lots of blood everywhere, but we came here to fix it up.”

“So they just let you run around like wild?” Pestilence rolled his eyes.

“It’s boring,” the kid complained. He perked up, “Can I come with you?”

“No,” Pestilence’s response was flat—the last thing he needed was a mortal tagging along with him when he started to spread a disease. The boy’s lip pursed out, and he looked petulant for a few moments. Like he was about to cry, Pestilence moved past him carefully. The kid made as though to grab for him and he jerked away.

“Do not touch me, got it?” Pestilence felt his throat close up when the kid stepped closer to him and he stepped back again. The child meant it playfully, he could see it on the kid’s face—mortals were open books. This, to him, was nothing more than a game. The last thing Pestilence wanted was to get the boy sick—he’d been a pain but it was refreshing to get to talk to people every now and then. Even a ridiculous mortal. So he snapped, “Seriously, don’t.”

“How come?” Goddamn what was with human kids and their questions? Humanity had too many questions, their inquisitive minds ought to have been quelled. Pestilence briefly, and with a good deal of irritation, wondered if he could make a sickness that would stop that. A sickness that dulled that human instinct to ask questions one after the other.

He couldn’t explain why, not exactly, but the idea suddenly made him a little sad.

“Because, I—when I touch things they just, get sick. You know, like I’m contagious,” he surprised himself with the lie, but even more with the bitterness that tinged his tone. For all their faults, he thought that humanity was beautiful, and he could never touch it. Even staying as close as he was to the child at that moment was dangerous, wasn’t it? A single step and a touch, and that vibrant boy would be sicker than he’d ever been in his whole life. Pestilence curled his lip, suddenly disgusted with himself. Was this what his siblings longed for? The attention his sister so craved from the mysterious people that he didn’t even know existed—they destroyed things, and all for what? The approval of faceless people that were as substantial as wisps of smoke.

“Like, cooties or something?” The kid snorted, “Those don’t even exist!”

“Tch, cooties,” Pestilence rolled his eyes. “No, it’s more as though everything living that comes into physical contact with me meets a terrible fate. You understand?”

“That’s why you’re sad?” The question caught him off guard, and he stared at the small boy. Humans, who could get riled up over a few fevers and yet were quick to turn their noses up at hints of other more obvious sickly danger. Humans, who asked too many damn questions and stuck their noses in the business of others since the time they could form coherent sentences—they were damned perceptive. Always searching, thinking, dissecting the world around them. It was admirable, beautiful, and terribly breakable.

“Yes,” he finally replied. The boy frowned at him for a moment, before turning his large camera around in his hands and pointing it at his face. He beamed at the camera, tooth-gap showing, and clicked the shutter. The flash had Pestilence blinking and rubbing at his eyes, and he jerked back automatically when the boy’s hand extended toward him. The kid was shaking something, a photograph, and he held it toward him with a tiny smile.

“My dad gave this to me, so I could take pictures whenever I wanted! It’s not as nice as a hug,” the boy’s eyes were large as he extended his hand toward Pestilence. He was beaming at him, his solution came with a child’s simplicity. It was just a matter of this, “Still, you can keep this if you want. That way you can hold onto something and it won’t get sick.”

Cautiously Pestilence took the other end of the picture. The boy’s fingertips were close to his own, he could have brushed them so easily. It would have been a simple leaning forward, just a touch of the hands. He didn’t realize until he exhaled as he pulled the polaroid out of the child’s hand that he’d been holding his breath. The kid beamed at him again, expression mimicking the one in the photo.

“Thank you,” Pestilence peered down at the picture. The kid nodded, and then he was pelting down the hallway. An insignificant conversation likely already placed in some dark corner of his mind—years later, when Pestilence’s older brother met him, he probably wouldn’t even remember that moment. To him, who could touch nothing without it turning hideous, it meant the whole world. Pestilence pocketed the small picture and smiled.

The phone in his pocket chimed and Pestilence pulled it out with a frown. Impatient messages riddled the screen, he had texts from War and Famine as well as his older sister now. After a moment he clicked open his younger brother’s, frowning at the text in place.

TO: Pestilence

FROM: War

dude pesti u kno that deedee’s starting to stomp around rite?

like she’s peeved as heck man what’s taking so long?

she said she texted u like 5ever ago

Right, the mission. The thing, he had to go find a person in the hospital and make them sick. How much time had he wasted, talking to some kid? He suddenly wondered what War would have done in this situation—his hot-headed little brother who enjoyed watching mortals tear one another to pieces. Pestilence shouldn’t have stopped to talk to the kid, he shouldn’t have stopped at all. He had a job to do, after all.

TO: War

FROM: Pestilence

you guys are so impatient.

Pestilence replied, and after a heartbeat added, “also I’m telling Death you called her “Deedee” again” before he stalked down the hall toward his destination. The picture was still in his pocket, a gap-toothed boy grinning from the glossy square. He wondered those glittering eyes would judge him, if he continued on his way.

He pushed the door open, some young man was sitting on the bed with a nasty dog bite. Animal infections were good places to start with disease—they made nice building blocks for an outbreak, and it was easy enough to twist the infection to a mutation. Make something airborne and people started dropping like flies.

The guy didn’t notice him—people never did. They weren’t supposed to, not like the kid.

Pestilence frowned as he edged toward him, before pulling the picture out of his pocket. There was a reason, wasn’t there? For the kid to have seen him, to have stopped him—of all the mortals that could have crossed his path it was that child.

With a loud huff Pestilence turned and headed out of the room. He wasn’t sure what he’d tell his siblings—what excuse could he possibly come up with when he didn’t know why he was leaving himself? There was nothing to be said, Pestilence just knew he couldn’t bring himself to touch that man. He couldn’t make him sick, not with that picture in his pocket.