2018 FLASH SUITE Contest now open

September 9th, 2017

We are pleased to announce our

2018 FLASH SUITE Contest

only on defenestrationism.net

 

Submissions now open

until October 25th.

Winners announced MLK Day (US) which is January 15th.

 

Be sure to surf through our other exciting and exclusive content:

Disability Narratives, but one part of Voices of the Disenfranchised.

Multi-media content, such as the Zoo Illogical Gardens

 

 

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Winners of the 2017 !Short Story Contest!

September 5th, 2017

This is not a subtle contest.  This is a contest of sudden change.

 

We are proud to present the winners of this summer’s contest.

The judging panel was completely divided, with very little overlap.  The fan voting had three clear winners, but only tied-up the overall winner.  It ultimately came down to a tie-breaking vote by the owner, Paul-Newell Reaves.

 

Now, the winners–

 

Fan Voting:

with 19% of Fan Votes, Bearcat

with 20% of Fan Votes, Delocation

with 23% of Fan Votes, Blank Faces

 

Runner-ups:

Delocation by Andrew Livingston

and

Blank Faces by Jess Costello

 

And our Grand Prize Winner:

Bearcat by Lisa Clark

 

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Hacking Mobility: Able-bodied Prescripts of Mobile Games and How Gamers with Disabilities Cope

September 3rd, 2017

by Deborah J. Brannon

Pokémon Go: short, punchy, prescriptive. It’s the perfect title for a game full of short, punchy battle creatures meant to be played on the go from your mobile device. This megahit mobile game lit up the Summer of 2016, getting kids and adults alike out of the house and on the way to better health and social interaction – well, so long as you are able-bodied. Otherwise, Pokémon Go becomes Pokémon No.

As of 2015, an estimated 12.6% of men and women in America are disabled, which translates to just under 40 million people (and just over 2 million are veterans)[1]. Per Cornell University’s Disability Statistics website, there is no universally accepted definition of disability – but their statistics rely on the Nagi framework, and a disability is ultimately a condition that impinges upon one’s ability to fulfill roles and expectations that are socially expected.[2] These statistics, therefore, cover a wide range of disabilities, including those from birth or calamity, physical and psychological: those who are blind or deaf, those with mobility impairments, those with social anxiety or crippling depression, those with chronic pain or degenerative conditions, and more.

Let’s backtrack a bit, and get down to basics. Mobile games – meaning games playable via a personal portable device  – are video games. Video games are games, and games are – what? As José P. Zagal summarizes in Ludoliteracy: Defining, Understanding, and Supporting Games Education, that is one tricky question with as many answers as there are scholars. In the end, Zagal chooses to go with Jesper Juul’s definition and we’ll do the same here:

“A game is a rule-based formal system with a variable and quantifiable outcome, where different outcomes are assigned different values, the player exerts effort in order to influence the outcome, the player feels attached to the outcome, and the consequences of the activity are optional and negotiable.”[3]

Games, of course, are much more than the form they take – from sports to video games to board games, games develop societal bonds, teach us to think critically, help us learn to strategize, and open the way to understanding each other better. One could argue that the key value of gaming is connection to each other, and participation in society. (Like any human pursuit, gaming has a divisive and dark underbelly, but that’s a journey into misanthropy, sexism, and bullying for another time.)

Gamers with disabilities’ human social needs don’t just vanish (or never exist) in the face of disability, even when the challenges to meet those needs are set to Expert or Nightmare mode. For those people who are unable to get out much (or at all), who live with conditions that keep them chair-bound or bed-bound, or who have to ration their energy as an incredibly limited resource – for those people, games can be a lifeline. Particularly video games with online features that foster social interaction: friendships and relationships can grow out of massive multiplayer online roleplaying games (MMORPGs) like World of Warcraft or Final Fantasy XIV, existing friendships can be maintained through co-op mode in games like Overwatch, and you can remain a participant in the cultural zeitgeist through online social communication about the latest titles. Not to mention, when video games are accessible, they remove physical barriers by taking place in a virtual world. As musician Nissa Ludwig (diagnosed with a progressive metabolic disorder) put it when discussing Rock Band: “It’s a place where you don’t lose your social skills. … I have the opportunity to be a human being and not be judged by what I look like.”[4]

Of course, this egalitarian engagement with video games only happens when the gaming equipment and interfaces are accessible. There are some excellent leaders in technological customization benefiting computer-users and gamers with disabilities today – hardware such as the Jouse allow mouth-control of a PC[5], while software such as Tobii Dynavox allows you to control your system with your eyes.[6] Then there are modified joypads to accommodate fine motor difficulties, footpads for those missing an arm or arms, voice recognition software, screen readers, and more.

These innovations definitely help gamers with disabilities, but some hardware manufacturers and gaming developers don’t make it easy. It’s challenging to create highly customized peripherals for consoles in the face of so much proprietary technology, and screen readers can’t work with programs or websites not built to accommodate them. (Major games store and hub Steam is not accessible to screen readers, locking players with visual disabilities out of a major center for video games.) That’s before you even get to the video games themselves, and run down the following accessibility checklist posed by Robert Kingett:

“Have caption customizations where deaf players can have captions in a font that they want to have. Make your HUD’s customizable so visually impaired players like me can change the map size, the radar size, the crosshair size and shape, have assist, control mapping options, different control styles …”[7]

These considerations have often either not occurred to game developers, or been waved off over budget concerns – too much time, too much trouble, for too few people. That’s changing, thanks to gamers with disabilities advocating for themselves, and the incredible support and efforts of charities like SpecialEffect and AbleGamers, and resources like AbleGamers’ Includification as well as  Game Accessibility.[8]

One of the more socially-engaging and publicly visible new areas of gaming is mobile gaming – video games on a smartphone or handheld device that travel with you. You play them on public transportation, in the bathroom at work, while waiting in a doctor’s office or even while on a meandering walk. Mobile games have hacked time, byte-sized addictions wrapped up in a candy-colored, ad-supported glow.

Some mobile game developers have been responsive to gamers with disabilities, most notably PopCap’s quick actions to add colorblind options in Bejeweled and Peggle. There are also hardware developers like Oded Ben Dov, who created the Sesame Enable, a touch-free smartphone that can be controlled via head movements. With such responsive gaming support, gamers with disabilities have been able to play their favorite puzzle games or Angry Birds. However, other types of games have proven resistant to accessibility requests – such as augmented reality gaming.

AR mobile games map to the world around you, bringing game elements into the real world using your smartphone as its visual gateway. Games of this type usually require the player to be mobile, tracked by GPS, and to arrive at specific geographical locations or cover a designated distance.[9] Prior to 2016, the most popular titles of this type were Zombies, Run! (an adventure game to energize your jogging workout) and Ingress (a sci-fi strategy MMO played out as a real-world overlay). Both titles required mobility and travel in physical space, and neither title really broke into the mainstream. (Ingress came closest with several hundred thousand downloads from various app stores.) AR mobile gaming was a fringe player at the edges of mobile gaming – until an exciting Pokémon Go appeared!

Combining augmented reality with one of the world’s most popular gaming franchises catapulted AR gaming into cultural relevance: as reported in Polygon back in September, Pokémon Go has been downloaded over 500 million times. In the weeks after its release in July 2016, you couldn’t miss seeing Pokémon Go on the news, or seeing hordes of players in city centers. Everyone was talking about catching them all, or getting out of the house and engaging socially (some in the face of autism[10] or social anxiety and depression), or Americans finally committing to exercise[11], or the dangerous activities encouraged by the game – like trespassing, muggings, or potentially fatal falls.

What you didn’t hear about in widespread mainstream coverage[12] were the enormous accessibility issues within the game: advancing in Pokémon Go requires the player to capture creatures that virtually spawn in real-life geographical locations. You must be within a certain proximity to capture the Pokémon – which could mean climbing a steep hill or navigating other areas not accessible to those using wheelchairs or other mobility aids.[13] Another game mechanic requires you to hatch Pokémon eggs, and you must walk anywhere from 2 to 10 kilometers (measured by the in-game GPS) to do so. The proximity map mechanic worked against gamers with disabilities as well, proving too vague with its footprint visual estimates of distance for gamers to gauge how much travel finding a certain Pokémon required. Even the basic mechanic of holding up your phone to target a Pokémon, then swiping with your other hand to throw a Poké ball creates barriers for players who have tremors or other challenges with fine motor skills.

Luckily, gamers are a clever and creative lot. It didn’t take long for a series of hacks to pop up, targeting Pokémon Go’s mapping and capturing functions. Crowdsourced maps and independent apps that revealed Pokémon locations were available within the month[14], while gamers realized just as quickly that a car moving slowly enough registers with the game and counts toward egg-hatching. Other enterprising souls experimented with attaching their phones to their Roomba or turntables (or ceiling fans or dogs!) to see if that would count toward egg-hatching steps as well – results varied.[15] Another gamer affixed his smartphone to a drone, streamed his smartphone screen to his laptop, and captured Pokémon from the skies while sitting still. Still other players figured out how to spoof your GPS location and trick the game into letting them capture farflung Pokémon. They’ve even developed methods to do that without jailbreaking your phone, integrating joystick and teleporter features with the game to let you move around while not actually moving around. “Another brilliant hack is this 3D-printed case that helps you aim your Poké balls.” Admittedly, many of these hacks were created by able-bodied gamers who don’t need the help to get ahead – but you can’t deny that some of these tricks leveled the playing field for gamers with disabilities who were otherwise barred from a game so many of their peers were playing.

There’s no reason an augmented reality game should exclude gamers with disabilities; Niantic and other games developers simply need to offer gameplay customization and alternatives that allow gamers with disabilities to play fairly. For example, Diane Murray of Spoonie Living points out one alternative for the mobility issue:

“For Pokémon Go specifically, it would be great if there were alternate play modes that didn’t require so much movement, but also didn’t break the game’s balance …. One I can think of off the top of my head would be an integration with Google Street View that would allow players to take a virtual walk to look for Pokémon and hit up Pokestops and gyms. This could tie into the egg-hatching problem, as well, with miles ‘walked’ in Street View being treated as miles walked in real life.”[16]

Gamers with disabilities don’t want to cheat; we want the tools to play fairly – if differently – alongside everyone else. If necessary, we’ll use hacks and tricks to keep up with the crowd.

Or we won’t. Niantic, the developer behind Pokémon Go, has taken a hardline stance against “cheating,” which encompasses many of the workarounds gamers with disabilities have used to enjoy the game. Within several weeks of release, trackers were shut down [17] and Niantic began banning players for using mapping apps and GPS spoofers, among other TOS violations. Ana Mardoll, a gamer with scoliosis, spoke to Motherboard in September about being permanently banned – she understands Niantic’s action, acknowledges she broke Pokémon Go’s terms of service, but also points out: “… it would be nice if they could not ban disabled people for finding work-arounds… Shutting out disabled people from major cultural phenomena like this helps no one and hurts a lot of people.”

The only recourse once you’re permanently banned is to appeal to Niantic directly for reinstatement, with no guarantee of response or stated response time. Interestingly enough, their automated ban appeal acknowledgement email include the following text:

“Our goal is to provide a fair, fun and legitimate game experience for everyone.”

That would almost be reassuring to gamers with disabilities, if it weren’t for Niantic’s deafening silence to appeals for accessibility. Not only have multiple requests for comment gone unanswered, but Niantic’s already criticized spotty communication with the playerbase has completely ignored our questions and concerns about accessibility. In fact, since Pokémon Go’s release on July 6, 2016, disability has been mentioned exactly once on Niantic’s blog:

“This morning I went to the park and WALKED for 30 minutes. Now, keep in mind I use either a cane or walker to get around and walking is very difficult for me. I am usually embarrassed about this. But I found today people don’t really see that. … They don’t point and laugh at the disabled old woman hobbling along slowing them down. They SMILED at me and made the sun shine just a little bit more. Thank you for this wonderful new game and a new lease on life.”

This anecdote was provided by Kelly in Findlay, OH, per Niantic’s blog, and was posted without comment by Niantic on September 13, 2016 – just nine days after Motherboard ran the piece on Ana Mardoll being a gamer with disabilities permanently banned from Pokémon Go. With that timing – and in the absence of any further word from John Hanke and his team – it’s hard to read the above anecdote as anything other than a weak defense. “See!” it seems to say. “Some gamers with disabilities are playing just fine, and they’re happy about it!”

Niantic, I’d like to redirect you to your own words: “Our goal is to provide a fair, fun and legitimate game experience for everyone.” Are you reaching that goal by banning players like Ana Mardoll? Is that the message you’re truly spreading when you don’t even acknowledge accessibility requests?

I’ll go ahead and answer that for you: No. No, you’ve really dropped the Poké ball on this one. You better pick it up before all us gamers with disabilities get away. 

Footnotes

[1] Consult the Disability Statistics.

[2] See “Definition of Disability” in Cornell University’s Disability Statistics website FAQ.

[3] See “The Game, the Player, the World: Looking for a Heart of Gameness.”

[4] From “For disabled, video games can be a lifesaver” at NBC News.

[5] Read more about the Jouse as “A fascinating technology allows this disabled man to play video games by using his mouth.”

[6] “Eye Control Empowers People with Disabilities” at Abilities.com.

[7] “I’m A Disabled Gamer and This is My Story,” published at IGN.

[8] Polygon has excellent coverage on this movement from 2014 in “Why Game Accessibility Matters.”

[9] There are a number of titles for handheld game consoles such as the PS Vita and Nintendo DS that don’t require extensive mobility and largely avoid this issue: see games like PulzAR, Table Ice Hockey, Pokedex 3D Pro, etc.

[10] See The Mighty’s coverage with “Pokémon Go Gets My Son With Autism to Play Outside” and “The Upside of Playing Pokémon Go as a Person on the Autism Spectrum.”

[11] “Did Pokémon Go get Americans to exercise? The research says yes — but not for long,” via Vox.

[12] Happily, some outlets did cover the accessibility issue – such as The Daily Dot and Polygon.

[13] Kotaku covers the depressing experiences of some wheelchair users attempting to play the game in “Pokémon Go Can Be Depressing For Fans With Physical Disabilities”

[14] Polygon has the rundown on these map hacks in “These Pokémon Go maps will show you exactly where to find Pokémon.”

[15] Most of the aforementioned egg-hatching hacks are outlined in the following Trusted Reviews piece: “Pokémon Go Hacks: 8 clever ways to hatch eggs fast and catch ’em all.”

[16] From “How Pokémon Go is creating a barrier for gamers with disabilities,” published at The Daily Dot.

[17] Per Kotaku’s reporting in “Pokevision And Other Pokémon Go Trackers Shut Down For Unclear Reasons.”

Resources

Eime, Rochelle M., et al. “A systematic review of the psychological and social benefits of participation in sport for children and adolescents: informing development of a conceptual model of health through sport.” International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity 10.1 (2013): 98.

Granic, Isabela, Adam Lobel, and Rutger CME Engels. “The Benefits of Playing Video Games.” American Psychologist 69.1 (2014): 66.

Hanke, John, et al. Niantic’s Blog. Niantic, Inc.

Juul, Jesper. “The Game, the Player, the World: Looking for a Heart of Gameness.” Level Up: Digital Games Research Conference Proceedings, edited by Marinka Copier and Joost Raessens, Utrecht University, 2003, pp. 30-45.

K. Lisa Yang and Hock E. Tan Institute on Employment and Disability. Disability Statistics. Cornell University.

Zagal, José P. Ludoliteracy: Defining, Understanding, and Supporting Games Education. ETC Press, 2010.

 

 

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Final Voting for 2017 !Short Story Contest!

September 2nd, 2017

The final days of fan voting for the

2017 !Short Story Contest!

are upon us.

 

So have your voice heard,

before it’s too late!

 

Winners will be announced,

Labor day Monday (US),

September 4th.

 

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Exciting News for 2017 !Short Story Contest!

August 24th, 2017

Welcome to defenestrationism reality.

 

Well, all votes are in from our Judging panel, and they completely disagree!  !Hoorah!

 

This is great and exciting news.  With such a split from the judges, Fan Voting becomes more important than ever.

 

So rally all your friends, supporters and internet junky acquaintances– because you, of course, dearest readers, never spend your working hours surfing the web– rally them all to vote for the

2017 !Short Story Contest!

only on

defenestrationism.net .

 

 

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The Collector

August 13th, 2017

by Gustavo Bondoni

 

“Mr. Stanlow, do you have a second?”

The millionaire art collector stopped just outside the door, turned and smiled at the reporter.  He hid his surprise that they’d tracked him down so quickly, but it just went to reinforce that things happened at lightning speed in the internet age.  “Of course. How can I help you?”

“Have you heard about SuperEdie?”

A note of sadness crept into Stanlow’s voice.  “Of course.  I suppose the entire art world has by now.  A terrible tragedy.  She was a true star, of course, but more than that, that’s a terrible thing to happen to anyone.”

“Did you know her well?”

“Probably no better than your average reader.  I’d met her once or twice.  Before you ask, yes, she looked remarkably like Edie Sedgewick in person, which is why she cultivated the persona, I guess.  She seemed like a good person – but I was just a collector to her, a means to an end.” He shook his head.  “I guess my days of collecting SuperEdie are over.”

“Do you have any idea who would want to do a thing like this to her?  It was such a brutal murder, a lot of people are speculating that she might have been involved in something illegal.  Do you know if she was involved in drug dealing?”

“As I said, I didn’t know her all that well.  I saw her at a couple of parties, and that’s it.”  He paused for a second.  “Having said that, the parties were what you in the press would call ‘wild’, I guess.  I’m a bit too old for that kind of thing, but I can imagine how a young girl could get involved a little too deeply with a supplier.  Although if I had to guess, I’d look for a jealous lover – she was beautiful, and she lived life to the fullest, so I’d start there.”

“Were you her lover?”

Ah, thought Stanlow, this guy was from one of those papers.  But he knew how to deal with that kind of thing.  “As I said, she was a bit out of my league.  I think you should be looking for Hollywood actors, not sixty-year-old men.”  He winked at the reporter.  “Money can only get you so far.”

“Nut you have the biggest SuperEdie collection in the world.  Maybe she chose to express her gratitude for your patronage.”

“Sadly, no.  My motives for stockpiling her art are purely financial.  I pride myself on being able to spot superstars in the making.  Buying when no one else is is a good way of getting a good price.”

The reporter nodded.  Everyone knew that Stanlow had gone from penniless immigrant in the early nineties to art magnate twenty years later thanks to a golden eye for talent.  Focusing on a few young up-and-comers, buying low and selling high, had netted him an eight-figure fortune.  “Too bad they all seem to die so young.”

Stanlow shrugged.  “The stars that shine brightest often burn out the quickest.  Think of Hendrix.  Or, in the art world, think of Keith Haring.  If he were alive today, maybe I’d have had the opportunity to buy his art.  Even Warhol survived his youth only by the slimmest of margins and because his would-be assassin had little talent for murder.  From what I’ve seen, artists lead pretty disorganized lives.”

“So, do you know who the next big thing will be?”

“Now that would be telling, wouldn’t it?”

“And what would you say about the value of SuperEdie’s work now?”

He nodded sadly, even though this was the question he wanted.  “In my experience, this kind of thing turns artists into immortals.  You should see a big rise in SuperEdie prices.”

“You should make a killing.”

“I only wish the opportunity didn’t arise.  I don’t really need another few million, and not having any new SuperEdie art to look at will be a terrible loss to the world – and to me personally.”

He saluted the journalist and got into the waiting car, a dark blue Mercedes-Benz limousine.  Stretched, of course, but not obscenely so.

His driver, as always, had the partition lowered.  A silent partner in his business, the man was also about to become rich due to the demise of the young artist.

“Hello Walter.”

“Hi Boss.  They asking about SuperEdie?”

“Of course.  It’s the only thing we’ll hear about for the next few days.”

“Poor girl.  She was just a wisp of a thing, it almost makes you cry,” the driver said. 

Stanlow smiled inwardly, thinking how sentimental streaks seemed to arise in the least likely of places.  “She was beginning to slip.  Her art wasn’t what it once was. In a few years, no one would have been buying her stuff, and our collection would have been worthless. I blame the cocaine.”

“I suppose you’re right.  I really wouldn’t know about that sort of thing.”

They drove in silence for a few minutes.  There was a small gallery at a strip mall where an unknown artist from Peru was making her first big exhibition.  He’d seen her stuff, and it spoke to him.  Perhaps she wouldn’t be the next big superstar, but it would be worth betting a few thousand dollars on her.  It only took one of those small bets to pay off, and the early work would be worth millions.

“Are you going to offload her art tight away?”

“No.  Remember what happened last time.  When Carlos died, we sold everything too soon.  We’ll wait six months.  We should get spectacular prices then.”

The driver nodded.  “I guess you’re right.  Reckon we lost a few million last time.”

“You lost a few million.  I lost tens of millions.  We won’t make that mistake again.”

The driver nodded.

But Stanlow wasn’t finished.  “And Walter?”

“Yes boss?”

“Next time, could you make it look like an accident?”

“Sure boss.  Whatever you say, boss.”

 

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The Hunter

August 6th, 2017

by Isabella Hernandez

She hungered. Day in and day out, night to night and screen to screen- she repeated the search. By the hour, by the minute, by the second her fingers flurried names across the familiar keys. In her head they made a chant, a cult gathering. She could recite their crimes with hateful glee. A pedophile for one, in fact for another too- in fact wasn’t the first one also into fucking animals? Yes, yes they were she recalled with pain. That one had her hunt cast first, always first.

Who cared if she had been exposed for it before? The Hunter would prowl and pace, stalk, slink, wait with bated breath. Fangs bared and tongue salivating; the Hunter would seize the fantasy of tearing out her throat to restore her heart. The Hunter could feel her pulsing neck between her teeth, taste the gushing metallic blood quenching her thirst. It passed effortlessly through the pixels of her dimly lit cell phone screen (The latest iPhone before they put that cheap Seven shit into production- she liked to say). Memories painfully clawed their way to the surface as she savored this daily bread. Like daggers or a nail chiseled in by a hammer, came the photos of drawn underage girls spreading their puffy, growing vaginas- hair tousled and their eyes brimming with shame.

Then there were naked women taken in public with nothing but a leash round their necks as they were made to bend over into a dog bowl; their exposed asses and taints free to be imposed on all. It made the Hunter choke, the blood in her veins to boil. Her jaw chattered and burned furiously, her glazed over eyes bursting with red and big as saucers. An iron taste flooded her tongue; she recalled the incident involving the desire to stick in a fetus between a human and a bee up a woman’s uterus. Suddenly she violently lurched forward, clutching her stomach- careful to move her thumb away from the taunting follow button. The rising slivers of bile infected her throat; her tongue tied to plead her brain to stop. This prey was guilty, so guilty.

Slowly, the Hunter shifted her eyes once more toward the screen. A report droned to life in her mind; above the chaos of haunting imagery. The prey’s habits hadn’t changed, neither had her adamant lack of self-awareness. A walking contradiction, she had maintained the lure of accepting all and defending children. The Hunter wanted to dryly laugh in horror at the irony. Despite her efforts however, the sound did not come out. Instead there came the usual nauseating pit of sickness in her gut.

On slimy hands and feet it swaggered up her innards, around her organs, and up her spine. From head to toe her body rattled and her head buzzed. Clear as pain came the comforting fantasies. She’d corner the bitch in her home, her lumpy, malformed face (This type tended to be the ones typically responsible for these sorts of things, the Hunter thought plainly. It was always society’s diseased undesirables who couldn’t see what they truly were.) would drip and slobber tears down her uneven skin. In this manner, she would gaze up at the unflinching Hunter; her drooling mouth pleading in earnest for her life. A self-proclaimed Christian, her trembling sausage fingers would clasp into a motion of prayer. Begging and screaming, crumpled on the floor into a sniveling ball, she would helplessly watch as the Hunter’s unfeeling stare coldly brought down a metal bat to her skull.

The echoing contact would be slick and ring in one’s ears (Just the same way those young girls pussies were meant to sound, the Hunter’s mind added-). Over and over the bat would rise to fall. Wham! One strike for deceiving the Hunter. Wham! Another for her false friendship. Wham! Yet another in the name of justice. Wham! Wham! Wham! It was cathartic, the tangy stench of blood, the shrieking, the moment the prey fell silent, the grey spongy brains that spilled out with the ease of tomato sauce, the caved in bits of bone-

Softly there came a pitiful whimper that penetrated precisely as a surgeon’s scalpel. It scraped around her brain through her ears; the fantasy shattering like glass into fragments. Looking over as she sat in her spinning chair (age had torn it to shit along with her twirling), she set down her phone. Limping through her open doorway, the Hunter’s face softened at the sight of her small, lanky dog. His whiskers were all but gone, grey fur dyeing his once brown face a silvery white. With his wounded gait he soldiered on as far as the second chair before her scratched dresser.

His head was hung and his face long as he lumbered toward her feet. He whimpered again, looking up with big and beady brown eyes. In the rear, his right hind paw hovered stiffly in the air; the rest firmly planted on the dingy floor tiles. Nervously and with a pang of grief the Hunter asked,

“What is it old man? Wanna sit with me?”

The dog wagged his tail half enthusiastically in response. Giving him a gentle smile, she stood and bent over to lift him. Planting a kiss between his pointed ears, she rested him on her lap. Cradling his torso sized frame, she gave him another flurry of kisses. Tenderly she touched his wounded paw, releasing it as he recoiled. Shivering, he licked his thin lips and stared at her acne splattered face. Patting his head, she coddled the dog as if he were a newborn. Her youthful voice oozed concern, wobbling as she slowly rocked the chair back and forth.

“I know it hurts, we’ll take you to the hospital tomorrow morning ok? No jumping in the meantime and you should be resting more than walking.”

The dog turned his face away and adjusted himself in her clutches. Lazily he curled up, staring quietly into the air.

 

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Delocation

July 30th, 2017

by Andrew Livingston

The universe has walls, but not the kind of walls you’re probably thinking of. They’re more like the walls of a plant cell than the walls of a building. They enclose the universe’s working parts, they give it some temporospatial rigidity, and they’ve got membranes in place to control what comes in and what goes out. Don’t act all surprised about that last part; first of all, such transfers are rare, and also the physics of it eventually all balance out. If matter or energy comes in, the demands of equilibrium usher something else to the exit.

Which is what began to happen sometime toward the end of May or the start of June. Whatever it was that entered our universe, it represented the matter and/or energy equivalent of roughly two-thirds of the three-story corner townhouse of a certain human being in suburban North America. This person happened to be named Sal Fenster, who was, aside from being a townhouse owner and retired schoolteacher, was a collector of antique keys, an amateur complaint letter-writer, and had since childhood suffered from a recurring dream of being a child on one end of a seesaw, watching helplessly as a giant approached and pushed the other end with one colossal finger, sending Sal flying. The entirety of Sal’s existence was a series of astounding coincidences, but the same was true of everything else.

Anyway. The universe’s equilibrium maintenance selected approximately two-thirds of Sal’s townhouse for displacement. The choice was at random, from among nearly infinite candidates. The selected portion was not the upper two floors of the unit or anything respecting the unity of human perception, though. Technically, the chosen chunk of matter and energy extended from about three meters beneath the building to two above it, sliced right through the townhouse’s interior, and reached out about three more meters into the thin air on two of the building’s sides.

This chunk included the side of the unit that faced an adjoining vacant lot. Sal’s desk was in the center of the second-floor living room, facing out on it through a sizeable window. Sal appreciated the vacantness, feeling that it promoted in some indescribable way the writing of complaint letters and the examination of antique keys. It facilitated a pleasant unpensive vacantness of mind as well, now and then.

Once the inscrutable laws of the universe’s equilibrium had made their selection, the process of removal began immediately, albeit slowly. There was no change in spatial relationships between matter that was to remain and matter that was soon to depart, at least not in ways that any human being could detect. Great changes were taking place in the underlying structure of the universe nonetheless. A pore in the membrane between IN and OUT aligned itself with that unfortunate chunk of Sal’s townhouse and the surrounding air and soil.

Sal felt an unfocused strangeness wash through the interfacing points of body and mind. Sal did not think much of it, though; old age could do—and had done—far worse. It wasn’t even unpleasant, like the arthritis’s groans whenever there was a drop in atmospheric pressure. Just strange. That’s an unsatisfyingly vague description, yes, but unfortunately there aren’t better words for the sensation in any human language, because anyone who experiences it does not have long as a member of a speech community, so there’s never been a lasting lexical need for a term describing the feeling.

What was really happening beneath the surface of the observable was simple enough: the chunk of matter and energy, now at the cusp of its exit point, was being engulfed or encased. It was rather like a molecule about to be pushed out of a cell’s membrane, ensconced first in a vescicle to allow its passage.

Sal was sitting at the desk, trying to concentrate on penning a letter to the manufacturer of a brand of plastic ballpoint pen that displayed an unacceptable tendency to lose its flimsy plastic clip whenever, as Sal put it, ‘one so much as looks at them slantwise.’ Had Sal tried to go to the staircase at the other end of the room, or even to so much as look in its direction, a sort of distortion and misdirection would have impeded any such efforts. But Sal made no such efforts.

However, once a particular turn of phrase had turned itself to Sal’s satisfaction, a glance upward and out the window revealed an impossible sight and demanded a much closer look. Rising to protesting feet, Sal shuffled to the window and confirmed, without perhaps totally believing, that the scene was more than a mere trick of the corner of the eye.

The vacant lot had been replaced by vacant nothingness. Out the window, the barest suggestion of grass ended at the abrupt point where it met…nothing.

To be clear, this type of ‘nothing’ is not like the medium of deep space, which contains sparse wisps of hydrogen with the barest hints of helium even in its emptiest reaches. The type of ‘nothing’ that Sal looked out on was not black. Close both eyes in a dark room and you may think of what you “see” as black; close only one eye, and what do you see out of it? Nothing, or at least a form of it. What Sal saw combined this aspect of nothingness with a sort of grey-purple static that rioted at the edges of Sal’s vision and receded when focused on. It was ontologically terrifying and also frightfully beautiful to behold.

The view through the window faced out of the pore in the membrane of the universe. With no frame of reference to measure by, there was no visual indication that the bubble of matter and energy was growing ever closer to the point of no return. But Sal, transfixed by this final incredible sight could nonetheless feel a final, gentle push that sent the two-thirds of a townhouse and its sole occupant soaring free, for one eternal contextless moment.

 

END

 

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Lost in Defenestration

July 23rd, 2017

by B. Craig Grafton

 

Judge Hauptman was here to decide whether or not to extend the temporary restraining order in the matter of State vs Somebody. The judge couldn’t pronounce the Defendant’s last name. To her it was unpronounceable and even unspellable in English. So Judge Hauptman, being a practical person, chose to address the defendant simply as Ahmed, his first name, which of course was much easier to pronounce. The same held true for Amina his wife, the complainant. The defendant’s attorney was William, Americanized from Wilhelm, Schlick. And the State was represented by Ms Elwinne Fenster. Both of those names the Judge had no trouble at all spelling or pronouncing.

Judge Hauptman sat up high on her elevated bench looking down upon the attorneys and their clients below her. There they all sat, each at their own table, in a respectful silent manner, just the way she liked it. She then glared down at both attorneys and gave them her trademark scowl warning them that she wasn’t going to put up with any nonsense from anyone here today. Then she began.

“I have been informed by the bailiff that the complainant now wishes to withdraw her complaint. Is that correct Ms Fenster?” asked the judge.

“Yes Your Honor. She wishes to withdraw her complaint.”

“And the reason?”

Ms Fenster rose from her chair so to emphasize what she was about to say.

“She dearly loves her husband and doesn’t want him kept away from his family this holiday season. She wants him home with herself and their child. After all it is Christmas Your Honor.”

How many times had she heard that one before. The man beats the woman to a pulp but she still loves him. Forgives him. Wants him back. And as to the Christmas card, well it always got played this time of year.

Judge Hauptman stared at the complainant who sat there and fidgeted, trying to make herself comfortable, best she could that is, her crutches propped against the table, her right leg in a heavy looking cast and splints on some of her fingers. Judge Hauptman closed her eyes and shook her old gray head side to side in disbelief.

“What say you Mr. Shlick?”

Attorney Schick knew enough to keep it simple. Never volunteer anything more than necessary.

“That’s fine with us Your Honor.”

Judge Hauptman looked at Amina, obviously in discomfort,  picked up the file again and re-read the doctor’s report for the umpteenth time. She didn’t know if she could go along with all this.

“It says here in the doctor’s report that her right leg is broken in two places and she has broken bones in her hands plus multiple bruises Mr. Schlick. All of which is quite obvious to this court. I don’t suppose she did that to herself did she?”

“It was all a misunderstanding Your Honor.”

“Misunderstanding?”

“ Misunderstanding. She didn’t make the baklava the traditional way like his mother did in the old country. He might have overreacted a bit Judge.” That was an understatement and a mistake to say the least as to both statements and Attorney Schlick knew it, the second it left his mouth. The judge jumped all over him.

“Over reacted a bit! I’d say he overreacted a bit all right counselor! Threw her out of a second story window! That’s way overreacting in my book and everyone else’s book too. You sure you want to withdraw the petition Ms. Fenster?”

“If I could speak to my client a minute your Honor.”

“Go ahead counselor. We have the translator here if you need him.”

The translator was there because English was a second language for Amina and Ahmed. Both of them had learned some English and could get by with some broken English but they still had trouble understanding some times. Didn’t pick up on all the nuances of the English language. And sometimes they pretended to understand when in fact they didn’t. So rather than be embarrassed and have to ask the speaker to repeat himself, they just kept quiet.

Ms Fenster, Amina, and the translator huddled. After a few minutes the huddle broke and Ms Fenster spoke.

“Your Honor my client really does want her husband home. Little Ahmed their son is just beside himself and can’t understand why his daddy isn’t there. My client keeps on making excuses to him but the boy still cries himself to sleep every night. Amina truly loves her husband and forgives him and in her condition she really could use his help around the house now.”

How pathetically ironic that is thought Judge Hauptman.

“What say you Mr. Schlick?”

Attorney Schlick had to refrain himself from saying “I couldn’t have said it better myself Your Honor,”  But instead he came up with the usual, “I believe that the best interests of the family are paramount here Your Honor. It’s in the best interests of the child and all concerned that my client be home with his family this holiday season.” He always played the family card whenever possible.

Just then Ahmed grabbed the translator by the arm, spun him around and had a somewhat loud and heated conversation with him.

“Mr. Translator what was that all about?” asked Judge Hauptman when they were finished talking.

“Your Honor,”  he replied. “Ahmed does not understand why he is here. He says that in his country a husband can remove a wife from the home if she does not obey him and do as she is told. His wife did not use his mother’s recipe when making the baklava. She defied him and tried some other recipe. In his country he would not be brought before any court for this.”

“Well you tell Ahmed that he’s obviously not in his country anymore and that this is his country now and in this country the law does not permit a husband to throw his wife out a second story window if he she doesn’t obey him. He’s lucky he didn’t kill her and that he’s not facing a homicide charge instead of a request for a restraining order against him.”

The translator took Ahmed aside and repeated in just a few words what the judge had said.

“Ahmed now understands what he did Your Honor. That he can’t throw his wife out a second story window like that and he will not do it again. Your Honor he just wants to be home with his boy.”

Not with his wife thought Judge Hauptman, just with his boy. Doesn’t call him his son. Calls him boy as if he were an object, a possession, like his wife.

Judge Hauptman looked again at Amina. Her colorful dress, babushka, rosy cheeks and short round stature gave her that warm earthy peasant look. Yet her face remained so sad, so forlorn, her big brown eyes begging the judge to grant her request.

Judge Hauptman too was a wife, a mother and thus sympathized somewhat with Amina. That Amina could use the help around the house in light of her injuries went without saying. Maybe letting Ahmed come home was a way for them to patch up their differences and get things back to normal. It was definitely best for Little Ahmed. Maybe Ahmed does deserve another chance. After all if Amina is willing to give him one, why shouldn’t she give him one. And she felt sorry for them both because they were refugees who had been granted asylum here in America because they were on the wrong end of a gun in their country. And now in this county they were minority persons, like herself. Oh well it is Christmas she thought and sooner or later the Christmas season would be part of their lives here, and especially so for Little Ahmed. So because of all these sympathies and against her better judgment Judge Hauptman gave her okay.

“Okay Mr. Translator tell them both this. I’m dismissing the petition for the restraining order. Ahmed can rejoin his family but if he ever throws his wife out a second story window again and appears before me, he won’t be facing a restraining order, he’ll be looking at jail time. Tell him that and make it very very clear to him what he can’t do in this country.”

“Yes Your Honor.” The translator again said just a few words to Ahmed and then told the judge that Ahmed understood even though Ahmed had said nothing in response to what the translator had just said. Judge Hauptman noticed this.

So then she asked the two of them, without benefit of the translator this time, if they understood. They both looked at the translator who nodded his head yes and then they both answered “yes.” Then she asked if they needed any clarification or if they had any questions. Both answered  “no.” Again after taking their cue from the translator. The judge took note of this also.

Attorney Schlick and his client were the first ones out of the courtroom. Attorney Schlick always made a point of being the first out the courtroom when he got a favorable result just in case the judge changed his or her mind or something else came up that was overlooked. The others soon followed.

So this time Amina made the baklava for the holiday season the same way as Ahmed’s mother did and they even put a tree and exchanged presents, all for the sake of Little Ahmed. They were back on the track to happiness.

Until January third that is when they were all back on track in court again on a second restraining order request.

“The parties have been sworn. Call your first witness Ms. Fenster,” instructed Judge Hauptman.

“Thank you Your Honor. The state calls Amina,” and here Ms Fenster butchered the pronunciation of Amina’s last name and then began her examination.

“Amina please tell us what happened on New Year’s Eve three days ago.”

The translator repeated the question to Amina. She answered and the translator relayed what she had just said.

She said, “They went to a new year’s eve party at the neighbor’s across the street. She told her husband not to drink the punch as she was told by someone there that there was alcohol in it and as you know their religion prohibits the drinking of alcohol. But Ahmed said that when he asked the host, Mr. Svenson, if there was alcohol in the punch  Mr. Svenson told him, ’Oh no there wouldn’t be any alcohol in it, no not on New Year’s Eve.’  Ahmed didn’t know that Mr. Svenson was joking and believed him and got drunk. Then at midnight everyone started kissing everyone. They were told that this was traditional and customary here in America and it was okay for them to do this. But her husband must not have understood and when Mr. Svenson kissed his wife, he got mad and drug her back home, broken leg and all.” The translator stopped.

“Then what happened?” inquired Ms.Fenster.

The translator did his job again and repeated the question to Amina and then repeated her response.  “At home he got even madder and violent with me and threw me out the kitchen window.”

“What’s this with the windows again Mr. Schlick,” interrupted the judge. “Didn’t your client understand from last time, no more throwing people out of windows.”

Attorney Schlick shrugged his shoulders.

“You know Ms. Fenster?”

Same response.

“I know Your Honor,” volunteered the translator taking responsibility.

“Well, what is it then? huffed Judge Hauptman.

“Your Honor Ahmed understood from last time that you didn’t want him throwing his wife out a second story window. That it was too dangerous. So he thought it was okay to throw her out a first story window. You only said second story windows weren’t okay.”

The attorneys stifled their laughs, almost that is.

Judge Hauptman lowered her head, closed her eyes and again shook her head side to side.

“Here’s what I’m going to do,” she said as she raised her head. “First, Mr. Translator, you’re fired. Second I’m continuing this matter until we get a new translator. Until then the defendant is to remain in custody. I don’t want anything else to get lost in translation.”

She paused and then added,  “Or in defenestration for that matter either. Like someone losing their life.”

 

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Blank Faces

July 16th, 2017

by Jessica Costello

 

Three horses stood guard around Plinkett the monkey during the night. The stuffed animal smiled sweetly, and his outstretched arms and fuzzy belly seemed just right for a hug, but Ellie learned years ago that the monkey was able to turn your own dreams against you if he wasn’t guarded. Now that Ellie was eleven she didn’t quite believe that anymore, but she still felt safer at night if Harvey, Roland, and Prickers stood guard at night to make absolutely sure there was no mischief.

Ellie took the time to show her appreciation with a quick pat on each of their heads before she tossed them on the bed. Most mornings she didn’t have time for that – middle school came much earlier than she was used to, and sometimes she didn’t even have time to comb her hair – so it was very important to show her gratitude when she could. It had to be jarring for the horses, who just a few months ago were stroked and thanked every morning before school. Ellie hoped that they understood.

“Comfortable?” she whispered to the horses as she struggled with her training bra strap. She was long past expecting a response from them, but she still needed to ask. She felt a little bad: two of the horses were on their sides, one on its back, and all were scattered on her bed. Plinkett the monkey sat upright on a tiny pillow on top of Ellie’s dresser. His tail curled so perfectly, like the inside of a snail shell, and his arms were opened wide to show off his plump, fuzzy, belly. Ellie hesitated, only one leg pulled through her jeans, then she crawled to her bed and lined the horses up in a row on her pillow. “Anyone else need fixing?” she muttered to all the fuzzy faces piled at the front and back ends of her bed. She hadn’t spoken to them at normal volume in years.

They were all content, which was good because she didn’t have quite enough time to rearrange them. Plinkett was by himself, and Ellie did usually prefer to keep him next to a good influence, like Sunshine the lion or Mouthy the kindly hippo, but he would just have to sit by himself for awhile. Mae, her best friend since the third grade, was supposed to come over soon. Maybe Ellie could move him then. Plinkett smiled at her and his tail curled up so prettily.

Mae came at ten-fifty-seven, three minutes before she was supposed to. Ellie was still tossing her dripping cereal bowl in the sink, but three minutes early was better than an entire half hour, which used to be the case back in elementary school. Mae tapped on the front door, unaccompanied. Her mother didn’t walk her to the door anymore; at some point in the last few years, she and Ellie’s mother decided that they didn’t have enough in common for foyer chit-chat.

“Hey, Mae!” Ellie’s mom said. “Oh, I love how your name rhymes. Hey Mae hey Mae hey Mae…”

“Heh, yeah,” Mae said. She chuckled politely.

Ellie heard this from the kitchen and hurried to the front door, where she saw her mother cornering Mae between the couch and the nearest window. Ellie grinned too wide, panicked with embarrassment.

Hey,” Ellie said. “Mae, wanna come up to my room?”

“Sure, yeah.” Mae did a very good job of sounding casual, but as soon as Ellie’s mom left the room Mae mouthed thank you over and over again.

Mae lay back across the width of Ellie’s bed and kicked off her shoes. In one hand she held Tommy and Pinky, her two stuffed cats, by their tails. They were far from the paper bag full of dolls she usually brought, but it could still be fun to play with just two. Ellie and Mae would just have to orchestrate a smaller game, was all.

“So what d’you wanna do?” Mae asked. She tucked her cats on the pillow in between the snoozing horses. “I saw the funniest video yesterday if you wanna see it.” She rolled over to face Ellie full-on.

Ellie stiffened. “I, uh. Sure,” she said.

“What’s wrong?”

“You’re…wearing makeup.”

“Oh. Yeah.” Mae dropped her eyes to the polka-dot printed comforter and shook out her hair. “I’m just trying it out. Figured I’d practice today before I go to school with it.”

“Why.”

Mae shrugged. “’Cuz I’m a girl?” she said.

“So?”

“I wanted to try it. What does it matter?”

Mae’s eyelids looked thick and dark from the slashes of black eyeliner and globs of superblack mascara. Ellie touched her own hair. Strands of it were still wet because it hadn’t finished air drying yet. She never bothered with blow dryers because she hated the way they burned her neck if she held them in one spot for too long.

Mae stood up. “Come on, let’s watch that video,” she said. “Or play a game or something. You got that new Life where you can use credit cards, right?”

“Yeah.”

“Let’s play that.”

But Mae’s voice sounded different. Ellie couldn’t tell if it was higher or deeper or just annoyed and brisk, but something was off. “I actually think I want to play with the dolls,” she said.

“You always wanna play that,” Mae said.

“So what?”

“Let’s play something else. We can play with the dolls later.”

“Why don’t you want to now?” Ellie asked. “And we can do Life later?”

Mae groaned. Her strawberry blond curls bounced as she leaned her head back in exasperation. “We play with them all the time. Why don’t we just do something normal?”

Ellie looked at Plinkett, his arms still outstretched and devious smile as inviting as ever. She looked at the horses, snuggling with the cats, and at Mouthy the hippo in her flower apron. “It is normal,” she said. “We’re just playing.”

Mae sighed. Her curls fell in front of her face, and she wiped her nose with the back of her hand. “All right,” she said. “Yeah, let’s play dolls. I only brought two though.”

“That’s okay.”

They kneeled on the floor, hunched over their stuffed animals: Ellie held Mouthy the hippo in one hand and Plinkett in the other. “Mwahaha!” Ellie screeched in the high-pitched voice she used for all her dolls. She bounced Plinkett up and down to make it clear that he was the one speaking. “Finally! After years of experimenting I’ve perfected the art of making your nightmares come to life! No one can stop me!” Ellie paused, waiting for Mae to jump in. She was looking between the cats, each in one hand.

She stepped Pinky forward. “I can!” he said. But the voice was deeper, less enthusiastic.

Plinkett said, “Oh you think so, do you? I’ll show you, cat!” Ellie wiggled the monkey’s tail back and forth, marking the beginning of making nightmares come to life.

Instead of reacting to it, Pinky lunged. “Ahh!” he shrieked. Or, Ellie assumed he was supposed to shriek; it sounded more like a moan.

“What are you doing?” Ellie demanded.

Mae stopped the cat midair. “What?” she asked.

“He’s making the nightmare come to life! You can’t just make Pinky jump like nothing’s going on.”

She expected Mae to become indignant, to say something like I can make him do whatever I want, how do you know he’s not more powerful anyway? An argument over the logic of the game, the way their games often ended. Instead, her mouth made a little o shape. “Is that what he was doing?” she asked.

“Yes,” Ellie said. “What else?”

“I dunno, I thought you were just making him twitch or something.”

“No, I said I was gonna be doing the nightmare thing.”

“Yeah, sorry. Sorry, I missed that part.” She started moving Pinky through the air again, but Ellie put Plinkett down. Mae stopped. “What’s wrong?” she asked.

“Maybe we should just watch that video or something,” Ellie said. It wasn’t fun playing dolls if Mae wasn’t going to do it right. Her apathy was infuriating, and more than that, Ellie felt odd as the only one putting effort into the game.

Mae immediately brightened up. “Yeah?” she asked.

“Yeah.” She placed Plinkett back on the pillow. She considered tucking Mouthy next to him, but decided that the game was enough time with other dolls for the monkey. Mouthy went on the pillow with the horses.

They watched the video, along with others. They played Life for hours, then they went through the list of Ellie’s board games and video games. They talked about Ms. Teitell, their homeroom teacher, and about how odd it was to have homeroom at all and getting used to lockers and switching classes and carrying their books around. They did not talk about how Mae spent most lunch periods sitting with her new friends from Band. They did not touch the dolls again, except when Mae picked hers up right before she left. Ellie watched, saying nothing as Mae pinched the cats’ tails between her fingers like it wouldn’t hurt them. Mae waved goodbye and Ellie waved back, but her hand dropped as soon as Mae got into her mom’s minivan.

“That makeup looked pretty silly, didn’t it?” Ellie’s mom said to her.

“It was dumb,” Ellie said. “She doesn’t need it.”

“Although I guess everyone uses too much makeup before they know what they’re doing,” Ellie’s mom continued wistfully. “I remember when I was thirteen, I thought I looked great in bright, bright blue eyeshadow. She’ll figure it out.”

“She shouldn’t,” Ellie said. “She doesn’t need it.” She went upstairs to her room, careful not to stomp on the stairs or slam her door, so her mother wouldn’t feel compelled to follow her and talk it out.

Ellie went right back to Mouthy. The hippo had a thin squiggly line of a smile, a pink and yellow floral print apron, and a bell in her belly that still sort of jingled when shaken around. Ellie was past imagining comforting words of love and support from Mouthy, but just the look of her, the feel of her fading skin, was comforting enough. Mouthy was the kindliest stuffed animal in the bedroom. Ellie hugged her tight.

She spotted Plinkett from between Mouthy’s little humps of ears. “Don’t look like that,” Ellie mumbled. “You got played with more than the rest of them.” But he looked exactly the same, of course he did. Still, it was infuriating. Mouthy’s smile was comforting; Plinkett’s was just insolent. In one motion Ellie rolled Mouthy off her lap, stood up, and slapped Plinkett down on the ground. “It was better for you than the rest of them. I played with you. I didn’t get to play with any of them, but I played with you. So stop looking like that.” She stopped. It wasn’t his fault – he didn’t have the chance for anything to be his fault. Ellie picked him up and ran her thumb up and down his fuzzy belly. She laid him down next to Mouthy – a good influence and good company.

Ellie, however, wandered to the bathroom mirror. What did Mae see that made her want makeup? Did Ellie have it? Her shoulders were slumped; she straightened them. Her hair was a chestnut brown that family members constantly told her they were jealous of, but it was thick and unwieldy. No comb had ever tamed it, but whenever she went to get a haircut the stylists over-compensated by making it too sleek and straight. She had acne, especially around her jawline, but who didn’t? It wasn’t worse than anyone else’s. And she didn’t have glasses, which was good. Ellie leaned in closer for the best part. Her eyes were green with little spots of brown – iris freckles, she called them –  and she loved them more than any part of her body. She tried imagining them with Mae’s thick black eyeliner and mascara, or her mother’s blue eyeshadow. She shuddered and took a step back. No, makeup would only ruin her eyes. But even with that conclusion, she continued to scrutinize herself.

Her shirt. Nothing was wrong with it – it was just a gray, medium, unisex Beatles t-shirt. She never really listened to the Beatles, but she liked their smiles and suits and haircuts that no boy ever had anymore. “But unisex means a boy shirt,” Mae protested the first time Ellie wore it to school. Mae started distinguishing between boy and girl clothes by shape, not just color, just over the past summer. It was starting to make a difference to her because girl clothes framed her body differently than boy clothes. Ellie had asked her mother what that meant, but the only answer she got was that it would start to matter to her pretty soon, too.

But Ellie decided that, besides maybe her posture, she looked fine.

She thought she looked fine when she got ready for school the next day, too. Her shirt that day had Harry Potter’s glasses on it. Also unisex. It was her favorite shirt because Harry Potter was her favorite book, and that was that.

Before she left, Ellie made sure to place Plinkett beside Sunshine the lion: Sunshine was another good influence, which would hopefully prevent Plinkett from becoming too bitter about the day before.

Mae was still wearing makeup at school – the exact same thick black that made her entire face alien. Ellie tugged on the collar of her shirt, her favorite shirt. But she couldn’t help but watch as Mae shrugged off her own sweater to show off a frilly tank top that was cut so low Ellie could see the tops of Mae’s breasts, which had just recently graduated from the training bra to a 32A. Mae faced Ellie. “What d’you think? My mom would only let me wear it if I wore a sweater over it so I had to wear one to school, but I think it looks so cute by itself,” she said very quickly and breathlessly.

“I like it better with the sweater.”

Mae frowned. “You think so?” She sounded crestfallen. She fidgeted with the tiny straps on her shoulders. The bell rang, so Ellie only nodded silently. Mae hugged herself, and to Ellie’s relief draped the sweater over her shoulders. But halfway through the period it was off again. 

Ellie got home, dropped her backpack at the foot of her bed, and laid back for just a second. She was spread across the width of the bed, facing the dresser where she situated Plinkett and Sunshine. She saw them. Their paws were touching. They were holding hands. She scrambled off the bed and bent down in front of them, hands on her knees. Ellie scrutinized the lion and asked, “You made him good? How’d you do that?” Although that didn’t seem right; Plinkett’s smile was still twisted, mocking. There was something off about Sunshine, too. Sunshine was supposed to be happy, and the lion in front of Ellie only looked smug and contemptuous.
“You’re with him now, aren’t you?” she asked. Sunshine’s smile was crooked. Ellie tucked the monkey and lion at the foot of the bed, their arms overlapping.

Ellie checked the other stuffed animals in the room. They were okay – it was too late for Sunshine, but not for them. Ellie collected Mouthy; Ernest the hedgehog; Harvey, Roland, and Prickers the horses; and Quackers the duck, and sat down with them on the floor. She considered one doll after another, then picked up the hedgehog. She focused on his smile, on his comforting plushiness, and took a deep breath:

“Help, everyone! My plants at home are growing out of control!” she made Ernest screech. He ran to the group, bobbling wildly.

“We don’t have time for that,” Quackers honked in the exact same voice. Ellie only had one voice for all her dolls; usually Mae was there to add variety. “This morning I put just one foot in the pond and there were waves everywhere! There shouldn’t be waves in a pond!”

Ellie paused, assessed the remaining stuffed animals, then picked up Mouthy. “I can’t believe it! When I tried baking cookies, the oven got hot all on its own! It would have burned the house down, but just when I thought about how badly I want it to turn off – it stopped!”

“Do you…do you think we have superpowers? Maybe I have control of plants, Quackers has control of water, and Mouthy can have control of fire!” Ernest said, bouncing up and down.

Ellie stopped. She forgot about the horses and what their superpowers could be. But she was constructing the entire story alone, and three heroes was already a little too much to work with. She put the horses aside.

“Superpowers? Don’t be silly!” Quackers exclaimed. He paced up and down, up and down, bobbing frantically. But then…he stepped in a puddle! It was such a little puddle – only the size of one of Ellie’s folded up socks – but as soon as his webbed foot touched it, it went wild. It swelled up and waves were everywhere. Quackers yelped and jumped as high in the air as Ellie’s arm could make him go. The duck landed directly on his giant, round backside. “Guys, I think we may have superpowers,” he panted.

“That’s what I said!” cried Ernest.

“What good things can we do with our powers?” cooed Mouthy. “We have to do something good with them!” She didn’t bounce like the others, but instead dipped up and down like she as bowing a lot, because she was too calm and motherly to bounce around.

We should stop bad guys!” hollered Quackers.

“There are no bad guys here. Everyone is nice,” Mouthy protested.

“MWAHAHAHAHA!” Ellie scrambled across the floor and grabbed Plinkett from the bed. “You superdolls have met your match! It is I, Plinkett!”

And Sunshine!” Ellie snatched the lion without thinking about it, but then the good superdolls all cried Oh no, not Sunshine! and she stopped. She could have made him a good guy if she wanted to, since she was in control. They were just stuffed animals. But she couldn’t, not really. It didn’t fit. When she looked at him she couldn’t get past his twisted smile. No, it wasn’t right anymore. Sunshine was a bad guy.

That night she hugged Ernest, Quackers, and Mouthy tightly as she slept, while the horses kept watch over both Plinkett and Sunshine. It took Ellie a long time to fall asleep. Plinkett under guard was a common sight ever since she was little. Sunshine was new. Ellie didn’t cry, but she stared at the pair for a long time, processing.

Since she spent so long staring instead of sleeping, she didn’t hear her alarm when it first went off. It rang and rang, but eventually gave up and fell silent. Ellie’s arm was still draped over the remaining good dolls. It was her mother knocking that woke her up. “Ellie?” she said. “Are you getting up?”

Ellie’s eyes snapped open. “Coming, coming!” she said, leaping out of bed instantly. She threw herself together with a speed she could never possess when waking up on time. She left the guard around Plinkett and Sunshine, but since there was now double the mischief that might have been for the best.

Ellie and Mae were walking down the hall from homeroom to history, which was no longer called social studies, when Mae said, “D’you want some lip gloss? I just bought it yesterday,” From the front pouch of her backpack she produced a delicate glass vial. The liquid in it was some sparkly shade of pink that didn’t exist in nature. Sparkly. Mae unscrewed the gold cap with slow, deliberate twists, using only her fingertips to do the job. She dabbed the stuff on her lips with an applicator that looked like something between a nail polish brush and a Q-tip. She dipped it back in the bottle while smacking her own lips, then held the brush-thing out to Ellie. Ellie grimaced.

“Oh come on, what’s wrong with it?” She rolled her eyes and twisted the cap back on just as slowly as she took it off, as if she just enjoyed the motion.

“I just don’t like it.”

“Why not? What’s wrong with it?”

“The color.”

“It’s champagne.”

“Yeah. I don’t like it,” Ellie said. She fished her own tube of chapstick from her pocket and smeared that over her lips.

Mae looked dumbfounded. “You’re using cherry chapsick!” she said. “That colors your lips too, you know.”

“I don’t mind this color,” Ellie said. Then she added, “There’s no sparkles.”

Mae sighed. “C’mon, grow up. Sparkles are pretty,” she said.

“No they’re not.”

“What’s your problem?”

“Nothing, what’s yours?”

“I don’t have a problem,” Mae said.

“Well, cool, then,” Ellie said.

“Cool.” Mae reached behind her and slipped the lip gloss in her bag. Ellie tucked her chapstick into her pocket. They walked the rest of the way in silence.

The horses changed. Ellie felt it as soon as she closed the door to her bedroom. She didn’t need to look at their faces – none of them smiled anyway – but all three manes bristled.

“You’re not afraid of the horses,” she whispered to Sunshine. “You did this.” She didn’t want to touch the horses – their hair looked so scary and hostile. One was on its side, having abandoned its post. The other two faced her. Their black eyes flared at her; their heads were lowered like bulls ready to charge. “I’m sorry. I should have let you rest. I should have let you be superheroes. I’m sorry.” But it didn’t matter. The guard was gone.

Ellie pulled the last three stuffed animals onto her lap. “Are you guys okay?” she asked them. “You’re all right, right?” She studied every face, the curve of every smile. “Yeah, yeah, you’re okay.” She kissed every one of them. She looked at their faces, still happy, still loving.

The dolls sat on the table with her while she did homework, squeezed on her lap during dinner, and snuggled in bed with her that night. Her mother said nothing about it, but Ellie would have kept at it even if she was prodded: Plinkett and Sunshine would not be given any opportunity to get at her dolls. The next morning, the three dolls were packed in her backpack along with her books and sandwich. Absolutely no opportunity.

But when Ellie got to school, the threat of Plinkett and Sunshine felt much farther away. The stuffed animals took up so much room in her backpack, and when Ellie walked down the hallway she could hear Mouthy’s jingling belly right behind her. She couldn’t push them to the bottom of the bag, because that would upset them and turn them against her. But sitting in homeroom, surrounded by an entire class of kids who all wore themselves the way Mae did, embarrassed her just a little. She tugged at the collar of her Beatles shirt, although she didn’t like it quite as much when she couldn’t see Ringo’s smile.

The bell rang, starting homeroom. Ms. Teitell, a rhino-ish woman who doubled as their last period English teacher, tapped the board for attention. “Okay everyone, please take out your planners and make a note that the Thanksgiving food drive is November fifteenth. I’m letting you know almost a full month ahead of time so you can make sure to get food in.”

All around Ellie, tired kids dutifully dug planners from backpacks to jot down the date. Ellie stared at her desk. She could feel Ms. Teitell’s eyes burrowing into her, but she pretended she couldn’t. Her fingers tied themselves in knots on her lap.

Everyone get this date down,” Ms. Teitell repeated. Ellie’s face heated up tremendously, but she didn’t bring herself to move yet. “Ev-er-y-one-uh,” Ms. Teitell said pointedly. Ellie sighed. She hunched over, kicked her backpack in between her legs, and unzipped the smallest bit she could, but Mouthy’s belly blocked all the books there. She nudged the hippo over, which opened the backpack more. The opening grew wider when she searched around Quackers’ wings and Ernest’s cumbersome spikes. Her backpack jingled. Ellie froze, looked up. No one paid attention to her. No one except for Mae, who knew the jingling and whose eyes popped at it.

“Oh my god,” Mae breathed.

Ellie yanked the planner out of her bag and shut it as quickly as she could. Mae gawked. She kept at it, eyes bugging, head shamelessly turned toward Ellie, for all of homeroom. Ellie hugged herself. Her breathing was a forced even and her eyes were on nothing but Ms. Teitell and the pages of her planner. Her feet clenched her backpack so it couldn’t move and, more importantly, couldn’t jingle. But for twenty minutes those black-lined eyes were on her. Were right beside her. Mae was the last one out the door when the bell rang, following Ellie’s back with her gaze.

Mae sat across from Ellie at lunch. Since they started school Mae had been having lunch with her friends from Band more and more often, but this time Mae plopped herself down at Ellie’s empty table and stared at her without shame. Her mouth hung open so wide that Ellie squirmed. “What?” she asked.

“Why would you bring your dolls to school?” Mae said.

“None of your beeswax.”

“Don’t say beeswax.”

“Why not?” Ellie demanded.

“You just shouldn’t, trust me.”

“But why not.”

“Because you’re not five years old, that’s why the hell not,” Mae snapped.

Ellie twitched. Mae, too, seemed surprised. She leaned back a little and blinked slowly, looking without focus past Ellie’s head. But she quickly recovered.

“I’d rather say beeswax than…what you said,” Ellie said.

“What, hell?” A smile crept over Mae’s face.

“Yeah.”

“Maybe you should go back to elementary school then,” Mae said. “God, I can’t believe you brought your dolls to school.”

“So what?” Ellie said. “I wanted to. You wanna look like a – a prostitute, I can bring my dolls to school.”

“Excuse me?” Mae said coldly. Her smile was gone. “That’s what you think?”

“Yeah, it is. Actually, yeah. Yeah. You changed.”

“Yeah, we’re in middle school now so I grew the hell up,” Mae said. Her face burned so red it made her champagne lips look white.

“Stop saying that! You don’t have to say that word.”

“Yeah, but I want to. Hell. Hell hell hell hell.”

“You’re just mean, you know that? Is that part of growing the heck up? Being mean and wearing makeup that doesn’t even look good?”

Mae laughed, and the laugh sounded twisted. “You think I’m mean?” She stood up with her lunch tray. “Go bully some fifth graders. That’s where you should be.” She marched off to sit with her Band friends, who had been glancing over at the table and muttering.

Ellie’s throat clogged up. Her stomach hurt bad, like someone drove a spoon into her gut and stirred it around. It started off small, but rapidly crescendoed. She tried to endure it, tried to at least ease the lump away, but it stayed solid. Mae seemed fine, chatting with those girls, meanwhile Ellie’s eyes were glassing over. And her stomach. She clutched it, but that did no good. Her innards churned. She rushed to the bathroom, positive she would sob or vomit or both.

Ellie held in her crying until the lock was in place. The vomit never came, but the tears attacked her. Loud, retching sobs echoed around the bathroom and snot gushed down her face. She tried, she tried to calm herself, but every time she managed to pause for a second the agony in her stomach returned. It came in waves, retreating for a few seconds just so it could feel fresh and terrible when it returned. She collapsed onto the toilet seat. The pain stopped when she did that, but then it came right back.

“You okay?” said an anonymous voice on the other side. Ellie didn’t answer. What she did do was unzip her backpack with a shaking hand. Finding the dolls took a second because they were pushed to the bottom by books, but she found them. And when she did touch them she hugged them greedily, rocked them, cried into them, leaned back a little to look at them.

“Oh…No,” Ellie moaned. “No…” She rocked them. She kissed them. It didn’t matter. She let them be crushed while she went about her day, let them listen to her say everything she said to Mae. Why would they want her?

Mouthy was the worst. Her smile was already an unsteady line, but that was always an endearing detail. Now it was warped into a grimace. The colors of her apron clashed with each other. Her bell trilled sullenly, like Mouthy the hippo had swallowed a dying fairy. Ellie rang it over and over and over.

Somehow the sound sobered her, even though she couldn’t stand looking at the face. Maybe it was just time passing, and the way all crying had to stop at some point. Ellie’s sobs became wheezes and her wheezes became hiccups. She placed the dolls back in the bag, one by one. She wiped her face. She exited the stall. The lump was gone from her throat, but the pain in her stomach persisted. Ellie hobbled to her next class wincing and gasping, but not crying.

Mae didn’t look at her once. That was fine. All of Ellie’s attention focused on swallowing groans. The pain seemed to spread: it seeped from her stomach into her back and thighs. She breathed through her nose, hoping that the feeling of air passing through her nostrils could distract her.

“Ellie?”

Ellie opened her eyes, even though she wasn’t aware of closing them. Mrs. O’Reilly, the algebra teacher, stood over her.

“Sorry,” Ellie gasped.

“Maybe you should go see the nurse,” Mrs. O’Reilly suggested gently.

“Huh?” Ellie said. Was her suffering that obvious? And with horror she thought: did she groan? Did she cry again, but this time in front of everyone?

“You’re…bleeding,” the teacher whispered.

Ellie looked down. Blood. In between her legs – blood. She looked back up at Mrs. O’Reilly, eyes wide.

“The nurse will have a change of pants,” Mrs. O’Reilly said.

“It hurts.”

“They can help with that too. Come on, it’s okay.” She guided Ellie out of her chair and handed her her backpack. The room was silent.

The nurses did have a change of pants, but they couldn’t stop the pain. “You need Tylenol for that, and we’re not allowed to give that to you,” one of them told her. Ellie let herself cry again, just a little, just until they called her mother. They gave her a heat pack until her mother arrived, but all the heat did was make her queasy as well as hurting. The nurses knew this, but applied the heat anyway because that was all they could do. Ellie closed her eyes, opened them, laid down, walked around, but nothing helped. Nothing even dulled it. Her mother arrived with a hug already prepared. Ellie went home.

“Here you go sweetie,” Ellie’s mother said, dropping a single children’s Tylenol into Ellie’s palm. “This will help.”

“Thanks.” Ellie was curled in a fetal position on her bed. She gobbled down the pill without waiting for a glass of water.

Her mother stroked her hair and made vague cooing sounds. “Do you want your dolls?” she asked. “Where are they?”

“Backpack.”

Ellie’s mother found them and handed them over. “I’ll leave you alone,” she said. Ellie nodded. Her mother kissed her again and then left. Ellie waited a second after the door was closed, then hugged Quackers, Ernest, and Mouthy tight against her chest.

“Please just be good for a little bit,” she begged them. “I know you’re mad at me and I get it but I really, really need you.” She looked at their faces. They were still twisted.

Ellie closed her eyes and took shuttering breaths, trying to let the vibrations of her breath calm down the welling tears. She looked at the dolls again. Their faces weren’t warped, but they didn’t smile either – they were neutral, but neutral was something. She snatched Sunshine and Plinkett from the foot of her bed. Sunshine, too, was at a bearable neutral place, but Plinkett was the same as ever. He was evil – he brought nightmares and turned goodly dolls against her – but Sunshine! Sunshine was okay.

An urge dragged Ellie out of bed. With Mouthy in one hand and Sunshine in the other, she crouched on the floor:

“We have to escape from the volcano!” Sunshine screamed. “We’re not away from Plinkett yet!”

“But I – can’t – move,” Mouthy panted. “I’m so tired.” The hippo bent in half at the stomach to emphasize this.

Sunshine bounced over to her and tossed her on his back. “We’re not out yet! We can’t stop! Come on, we’re almost there!”

“You can’t carry me, I’m too heavy!” Mouthy said. Ellie winced. She got off her knees and sat on the floor, legs crossed and back hunched.

“Nothing’s too heavy for – for a lion!” Sunshine was supposed to shout those words to the wind, but instead they came out a groan as another wave of pain shook Ellie.

Ahh…” she said. Her breath came out in short bursts through her nose; she dropped the dolls in order to clutch her stomach. They lay on the floor, their faces blank and impassive; they didn’t seem to care if they were played with or not. Ellie left them there to crawl back into bed. Maybe later, she thought. Maybe later.

 

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