We are honored to announce our finalists for the

2014 Defenestrationism !Short Story Contest!

 

and the winners are…

meet the finalists

guidelines

meet the judges

 

 

In order of first submission,

Dark Matter by Ethan Brightbill

 

The Signs in the Suburbs by Rafael S.W.

 

The Quantum Plague by Jetse de Vries

 

Excoriation by Krista Madsen

 

Colors of Hope by Angela Maracle

 

Carthage by Andy Nellis

 

 

copyright by author, 2014 defenestrationism.net

defenestrationism.net does not endorse any actions or views upheld in this contest.

 

 

Ethan Brightbill has a BFA in creative writing from Penn State Erie and lives in Iowa City. By day he smites the unworthy as a freelance editor, while by night he reads for Revolution House and Literary Orphans. His fiction has appeared in Transcendence Magazine.

 

 

Dark Matter

The dog was dead. Tom was very much aware of this fact. He had never seen something so dead before. The only way it could be more dead, he mused, would be if someone blew it up. Scattered all the bits of doggy decay up into the stratosphere. Then with even the molecular bonds holding its form together destroyed, it would truly be dead. Gone. Erased.

Even as he thought it, he knew that was wrong. Blowing up the dog would make the dog less dead, in fact. It would make the dog cease to have ever existed, and that would take away from the entire point, the entire horror of death, that something that was once a dog was now definitely not a dog. When Tom heard the word dog, he pictured a golden retriever bounding across a field of almost painfully bright green grass. The sky was blue, the clouds were white, and in all probability there were angels flying just outside the frame of his mind’s eye, basking in the sheer clichéd perfection of the scene. The dog did not snarl, and it most certainly was not beheaded. And yet here Tom was, standing over the body of a mutilated dog with a small child clutching his pants on either side.

The day had started simply enough. He woke up of his own accord after a blessed nine hours of sleep, ate a bowl of cereal while reading the Sunday paper, complained to his wife about the local representative, and then got changed and took Gary and Fenton to the park. He had been so close to completing his weekend routine with everything in its place, everything good, everything right as rain, and now there was a severed dog head not six feet from where he stood.

Things started to go wrong when the boys interrupted his reading. They never interrupted his reading at the playground. The moment they were in sight of the place, Gary and Fenton would launch from his sides like heat-seeking missiles, and he wouldn’t see them again until an hour later when he would have to crawl into whatever plastic tunnel or slide they’d jammed themselves into. As long as he remembered to look up every once in a while to make sure they weren’t trying to walk on top of the monkey bars again, he could just sit back and enjoy the summer air and some John Grisham. But instead Gary was squeezing his leg. “Daddy,” he said, “I want to leave.”

Fenton also had an arm on Tom’s leg, but the grip was light, and his head was turned back. “It’s over there,” he said with an outstretched finger. “Right there.” Tom stood and looked where he was pointing, his hand raised over his eyes to block out the sun. Just the swings the boys always played on dangling in the breeze, and beyond them a meadow dotted with wildflowers. It spread out for a good mile before sloping up into golden hills where ranchers sometimes grazed their cattle.

“It isn’t a mountain lion, is it, boys?” He hadn’t lived here long enough to know if they were in this part of California, but now all he could imagine were child-devouring cats.

“No,” said Gary and Fenton in unison.

“Then what is it?”

Gary stared at the ground, but Fenton matched Tom’s gaze. The noonday sun made the color in his eyes shift through shades of brown like muddy river water disturbed by the passing of some foreign object. “It’s dead.” He paused as his forehead crinkled in thought. “You’re an adult,” he said finally. “You need to see.”

He smelled it before he saw it. Even before the boys found him, he’d smelled it: a raw, earthy scent like freshly turned soil or manure. With cows nearby he had assumed it was the latter, but as he approached he realized it was something else. It was a stench, not an aroma, and it was closer to human feces than anything produced by a domesticated animal, but that wasn’t it either.

As they walked past the swing set, Tom noticed a dry creek bed running through the grass. From the park it had been concealed, but now he could see that it ran off a fair distance in either direction. Part of it was probably even near his home, he realized. He imagined it running behind the houses on Pasadena Drive and wondered how he could have failed to notice it.

“You boys shouldn’t have wandered past the playground,” Tom scolded, but he didn’t wait for a response. He could see a dark bundle lying near the base of the creek. It looked like an old coat. “Is that it?”

Gary and Fenton nodded. He noticed they fell back a few steps as they approached, but when he finally came to a stop in front of the dog’s corpse, they ran forward and latched onto his jeans like magnets.

The head was separated from the body, but that wasn’t what drew Tom’s eye; it was the dog’s expression. A snarl. Perhaps it was just the desiccation, but the lips of the animal were pulled back to the point of disappearing, and the teeth looked as if they were too large to have ever fit inside a living canine head. Tom wondered how it could have closed its mouth without cutting itself.

The cause of death was less of a mystery. A machete or hatchet had hacked into the neck several times right above the blue cloth collar the dog wore. The wound itself was surprisingly easy to look at. There was almost no blood—it had rained the night before, Tom recalled—so it just looked like so much ground beef that a clumsy butcher had cut into. What was disturbing was that there was a collar on the dog at all. It—he or she—had been a pet. It had been named Fido or Spot or Buddy, and it had belonged to someone. It had been a cog in the social structure of some household in the area, maybe even a family with a son who went to the park with his dad and his best friend, and now the cog had stopped. It had rusted, cracked, broken.

“You shouldn’t see this,” said Tom, although he already knew it was too late.

* * *

Since yesterday, Gary spoke only when spoken to, and Layna spent almost every moment staring at her son and biting her lip. When he’d told her what happened and how he’d let the boys out of sight, she’d been furious. He didn’t understand. He should have paid more attention, sure, but it was a small thing, an accidental thing, a thing that should have blown over quickly. Now whenever they were together there was a silence that limited conversation to vague pleasantries. It was as if they were all suddenly strangers.

“No one’s claimed it yet,” Tom said. Even as he spoke the words, Tom knew he should have stayed quiet. Layna’s shoulders tensed and her eyes darted from him to Gary.

“What did you say?”

Tom sighed. “I called the police again. No one’s claimed the dog, so it might be a stray.” He saw no point in telling Layna about the collar.

Gary rolled a green bean off his plate. “Does that mean Wallie is safe?” he asked. Wallie was their beagle. He was sitting under the table, his world too small for random acts of violence, for anything more than the hope of some of Tom’s breakfast.

“Of course he is,” Layna leaned over to kiss him on the forehead as she spoke, but her eyes were on her husband, daring him to say something.

Tom dropped a piece of sausage for Wallie and averted his eyes. She was obviously lying, but there was another part of him that knew she was right. He realized then with eerie certainty that Wallie would be okay. All the dogs in Lakeport would be fine, and Gary and the other children and even the adults would be safe, too. That wasn’t to say that other dogs and maybe even people wouldn’t die elsewhere—Tom was equally certain that the lunatic would strike again—but not here, not in his life. This was not a horror story, after all. Gary might have nightmares for years about finding beheaded animals in his closet or on the patio or in his bed like that horse in The Godfather, but he would be okay. The killer would fade into a background hum of anxiety, nothing more than a memory, yet somehow for Tom that was worse than if he had killed Wallie.

“You have a doctor’s appointment tomorrow,” she said as she stood up and put her plate in the sink. Tom tried to think of something he could say to make things normal again, to rationalize away everything that had happened and let Layna know that they would be okay, but the words collapsed in his mind before he could speak them.

* * *

Work at the lab was a welcome reprieve. The protocols for sharing data, the established chain of command, and even the dry, formulaic reports his assistant fed him throughout the day all made up a language of precision that he could speak more fluently than he would ever be able to converse in the ambiguities of marriage. There were challenges, certainly; physics was full of them, and no matter how hard he or anyone worked at them, there would always be one more mystery to solve. But that was acceptable, even preferable. There was a certain rhythm to the entire process, a dance of stepping forward to make a discovery and stepping back to be reminded again of the fallibility of science when an old theory proved untrue. On the rare occasions when they made progress, he and the rest of the lab team would celebrate, reveling in the order they had revealed in the universe, and when they failed, there was always the promise of the next experiment, the next theory. For even when their hypotheses failed, there was still the knowledge that there was some structure to it all, some pattern underlying the grand architecture of the universe.

For the past few months, Tom and his coworkers had been searching through data from a space telescope for any sign of weakly interacting massive particles. It was slow work. The particles were still theoretical, and even if they did exist, they would only be detectable through the influence of gravity and weak forces. It was the kind of work that might someday result in a Nobel Prize for some lucky study but that required hours and hours of unacknowledged drudgery on the part of physicists like him. He might never live to see the actual discovery. Even so, he and the others were on the verge of the next step toward it.

And there was more than that. Only four percent of the universe was made from conventional matter. Mathematics suggested there had to be more than that, but no one was certain about what the rest of it was, and that was downright criminal in Tom’s mind. To form a concrete, inescapable truth out of the maddening chaos of the universe was not just about knowledge, but justice.

“Hey,” said Tony, the head of his department. “I’m afraid I’ve got nine new reports for you. Hopefully they won’t bog you down for long.”

They did not.

* * *

“Your father called,” Layna told Tom when he came home. She didn’t look him in the eye, and Tom knew better than to ask what his father had said. Instead he spun the wheel on their archaic landline and lifted the receiver to his ear.

“Good to hear from you, son,” Gordon said. “I just wanted to make sure you and the family still planned on coming up this weekend.”

“Yeah, we’ll be there.”

There was silence on the line, and Tom wondered what his father was doing right now. Gordon had retired from the police force years ago, and he’d never found something else to do with his time. He pictured his father in his house, the same one Tom had grown up in, now dark and empty with only the flickering light of the evening news to illuminate his face.

“Tom,” his father said finally. “I talked to Layna. She’s pretty freaked out about this dog thing.”

“Everything’s fine, Dad. Gary’s a bit shaken up, but he’ll get over it. He’s a strong kid.”

“She’s not worried about him. Well, she is concerned. But she’s more worried about you. She says you’ve been acting strangely. She’ll say your name and you won’t hear it, that kind of thing.”

“What?” Tom didn’t remember that happening at all.

Gordon sighed. “Remember how you’d get a new book as a kid and get lost in it? You’d stay in your room all day reading, and when you finally came down, all you’d talk about was relativity or whatever it was. That kind of focus is great at work, but in the real world you’ve got to learn to let things go. Bad things happen all the time, but the world goes on. Do you get what I’m saying?”

Tom thought he did. He was having an understandably emotional reaction, but he had to keep things in perspective. The world goes on. He could take some comfort in that, couldn’t he?

They talked about the rain in Oregon and who Gary’s teachers would be next year until Gordon said he had to go. “And don’t worry about this dog business. You’ll feel better after a trip up here.”

“I’ll see you soon, Dad,” Tom said. He hung up the phone.

* * *

Tom went to see the proctologist the next day. He wasn’t even forty yet, but because of his family history, he had to have one early. “It’s for your own good,” his general practitioner had said when Tom objected. “You know it is. Everything is probably fine, but it’s better to be safe than sorry. You’re a smart guy, so I shouldn’t have to convince you.”

Tom had gritted his teeth at that, but he’d let the nurse make his appointment and walked out of the building with the proctologist’s address in hand. He really was a smart guy, and he would be damned if he’d let another trip to the doctor’s slow him down. So what if it was uncomfortable, even embarrassing? It was the logical thing to do. Besides, by doing it he’d be safeguarding his future. It was like a ritual of protection, but unlike some old lady carrying around a metal coin printed with the Virgin Mary’s face, science backed it all up.

But that was before. Now that he was in the proctologist’s office, all he could think of was the dog. He’d gone through the usual motions that morning—he hugged Gary goodbye, checked his mirrors before pulling out of the driveway, and turned on the radio to the same station he always listened to—but the routine couldn’t calm him now. He’d messed up the ritual, messed it up since that day in the park, and now he had no idea what to expect.

“Mr. Moyer? Tom? Dr. Lang is ready to see you now.”

* * *

They took the train out of the airport after they landed in Portland. Tom’s father lived in Gresham outside the city, and they hadn’t felt like renting a car. When they finally got off, Gordon was standing on the platform, a black umbrella in one hand and a cigarette in the other. Every time Tom saw him he was struck by the meandering lines across his face, the liver spots, the cords of silver hair. For the first few minutes of each of these visits, he would be able to focus on nothing except how his father had aged, how he had become a relic of some distant age, but then something would inevitably distract him and the years would fall away to reveal his father again. It would take a concentrated effort after that to notice his age. The years became background radiation that barely registered, ever present yet never visible, not truly there.

“Hey, you,” said Gordon, one finger pointed at Gary. Get over here and give your grandfather a hug.”

Gary walked over and laughed when his grandfather picked him up and tossed him in the air. “Oof,” grunted Gordon. “You’re so tall and heavy. You can’t be my grandson. He’s light as a feather and small as a mouse, not a big kid like you. What have you done with him, hmm?”

Tom smiled and forgot about his father’s age once more. This was his dad. Everything would be alright. “You can interrogate him when we get back to the house, officer. Let’s get out of here.”

* * *

Tom woke the next day in his old bedroom. It took him a moment to remember where he was. Most of his toys and belongings were long since gone, but the bed was still the same, and the creaky wooden desk that had likely been salvaged from some library’s basement in the fifties still stood alone in one corner. It was comforting. Everything here was comforting.

Taking care not to wake Layna, he crept out of bed and downstairs to the kitchen. The lights were off and the curtains were drawn as they always were since Gordon’s wife had died. Tom figured it was his father’s way of trying to shut the world out, but something about the darkness lent the house a depth it should not have had, like he was walking into a vast cavern instead of the living room he’d grown up in. The good feeling he’d felt upon waking wavered.

A slurping sound came from the kitchen. Tom walked in to find his father devouring a microwave dinner. There was tomato sauce on the table and his chin.

“What?” Gordon growled when he saw where his son was looking. “I’m old and alone. I can do what I want. Besides, it’s not like food changes in nutrition depending on the time of the day.”

“What would Mom think?”

“She’d understand. Grab yourself something and let’s eat on the porch. The kitchen’s too crowded with more than one person here.

* * *

Outside the sun had finally returned. Tom ate a granola bar while Gordon sat in his worn rocking chair, his eyes scanning back and forth across the empty street. “Expecting someone, Dad?” asked Tom.

“No.”

“What are you looking for?”

Gordon paused for a long while. “People don’t notice a damn thing. Back in the force we used to joke about how stupid civilians could be, how they never expected anything bad to happen to them and would do stupid crap when something finally did. But there’s always something out there. Like the burglars who robbed the Musselmans, or that dog killer of yours. Is Layna still upset?”

“She’ll be fine.”

“Good.” He inhaled deeply. “Life’s too short for all this. What do you say we drive out to the coast today? Gary will like that.”

“Yeah.” This was too fast, Tom thought. He needed more than an afternoon at the beach. “About the dog…”

“What? You find out who did it?”

“No, no,” said Tom. “It’s just that the entire thing doesn’t make any sense, and everything’s been off since then. I don’t know—”

“Hey, hey,” Gordon interrupted. “It’s like I said, you can’t let it get to you. Try to make sense of the world and you’ll go crazy. You just need to let it go. We should wake up Layna and Gary if we’re gonna be heading it out—”

“I had to go to the proctologist’s this week. In case I have cancer like you did.”

Gordon let out a slow puff of smoke. “Son. I’m sorry. But you need to keep things together. You’ve gotta think of your kid.” He turned to walk back into the house. “A guy on TV said Rockaway Beach doesn’t have too many tourists. Let’s go there.”

Tom watched his father retreat inside. He wanted to think that Gordon had changed, that as a kid he would have listened to Tom and told him what he needed to hear. But as he searched his memory, all he could think of was the mornings when his father would slink into the house and up the stairs before school started, sweat and the scent of stale coffee clinging to his uniform. He remembered bragging to his friends that his dad was cop, but he also recalled tiptoeing around so as not to wake his father up and Thanksgivings spent with grownups who ignored him while his father laughed and drank beer. He walked back into the dark.

* * *

The rest of the trip was empty. It was not uneventful; Gary almost slipped and fell in the sea, and Layna drank too much wine and told a bawdy joke in front of Gary and Gordon. But even as he hugged Gary, even as he escorted Layna, there was a hollowness to the actions that kept him from feeling a part of them, a sense of detachment that came from waiting for an end that was somehow both unknowable and inevitable.

“I love you,” slurred Layna. Her body was heavy as he guided her down to the bed.

“I know,” said Tom. “I love you too.” He turned to go to the bathroom.

“It wasn’t just that you stopped watching Gary,” she said, and Tom froze. “I forgive you for that. But you keep going away. I can’t raise Gary like that. You keep going away…”

“Going  where?

Layna said nothing, her eyes somewhere past Tom. “It happens to couples. To everyone, I guess. But they never see it coming. I don’t want to wake up and find it coming. I don’t…”

“What? What’s coming?” But Layna was already asleep.

* * *

Tom returned to work that Tuesday. He slipped back into the routine of work with ease, but something was off. While his coworkers had not been energetic about their work when he left, they had possessed enthusiasm. Now they moved slowly, carelessly, like school children walking between classes.

“What’s up with everyone around here?” Tom asked Tony.

The supervisor sighed. “Apparently there was an error in the data from the Chandra Observatory. We’re still trying to figure it all out, but it looks like we’re back to square one. I sent out an email with all the details.”

When Tom reached his desk, a light was blinking on his phone. A message. “Hi, Mr. Moyer,” said the machine in an artificially cheerful receptionist’s voice. “Your test results are in. Please call us back at 707…”

Tom sat in his chair for a long time after that. He hadn’t turned on the light in the room, relying instead on the dim early morning sunlight to illuminate his desk, and everything was silent. The thought came to him that if he just stayed here with nothing changing, he might be safe. But no, that was unreasonable. He pounded in the number.

“Dr. Lang’s office, how can I help you?” said the same voice as before, this time from the receptionist herself.

“This is Tom Moyer. I was told to call.”

“One moment.”

The line clicked back a moment later, and Tom spoke without thinking. “Hi, Doctor Lang. I hope you have some good news for me.”

Tom waited for a response, but all that came through the line was a dry scratching sound followed by a muffled voice. Perhaps the doctor had picked up the phone but was talking to someone? “Dr. Lang?” Tom said again.

There was nothing. The silence became thicker, a miasma that surrounded him, permeated him. Then Tom heard someone beginning to inhale, the breath growing, growing, growing, becoming leviathan, and then the voice came and it spoke.

 

 

 

Rafael S.W. writes short stories and poetry and is a founding member of ‘Dead Poets’ Fight Club’. He’s been published in The Big Issue Fiction Edition, Voiceworks, and Award Winning Australian Writing. A regular contributor to Going Down Swinging online, he also enjoys poetry slams and giant-sized chess games. www.rafaelsw.com

 

 

The Signs in the Suburbs

I hadn’t seen her for years, and then one night she was suddenly there, by the roadside. In the glance of the headlights my eyes weren’t quite sure it was her. But my heart was. I stopped the car as suddenly as the rainslick would allow and threw an illegal u-turn. I felt a small jolt of adrenaline, like a police car had passed my rear view mirror. When I pulled up it was clearly her again. She hadn’t even changed much. I walked over to her. She said nothing and looked at me in a way that was slightly familiar but mostly sad. New and Out Now, the words around her said, as if she was something from space. It was in a hideous pink bubble font, one I knew she wouldn’t have chosen had she been given a choice. I watched her for a long time, headlights gleaming off the sprinkles of rain on my coat and the shine of her metre-wide cheeks.

‘I saw Alice today,’ I casually said over dinner. ‘On a billboard of course. Not in person.’

‘Alice who?’ Jen said, and I was shocked for a moment by her ignorance and then had to remind myself that my past and its petty miseries was my own.

‘Alice, my, well ex, I guess.’

‘Right. What was she doing on a billboard?’ Jen asked, with her mouth half-full in a way that showed utter disinterest in whatever it was that I was feeling. She was older than me, and probably more successful although we didn’t speak about it. I didn’t try to explain myself, and a few nights later when we had sex, it wasn’t her I was thinking about.

 

Later that week I found myself driving out into the suburbs again. It wasn’t as if I’d ever lived, so I had no excuse for this kind of nostalgia. It annoyed me that I was feeling this indulgent, and I wondered if it was a product of my quarter-life crisis coming late, or my mid-life crisis coming early. A position had opened up above me at work and I’d failed to get it. Although I told both myself and Jen that I didn’t care, whenever I saw Jason walk down the hallway I thought about accidently pushing him out a window, which probably meant that I did, on some level, care. The suburbs swallowed all this up though. Not because they cared about me, but because they didn’t. Everyone has mediocre unhappinesses in the suburbs, especially ones like this, and my missing out on a promotion was entirely consistent. White pavements and red tiled roofs welcomed my miseries. Children walked home with light bags and heavy footsteps. Sometimes they played in the roads and I slowed down to let them know I wasn’t going to kill them yet. They moved their games or neighbour’s rubbish bins off the streets and didn’t make eye contact, but stared at my car as if memorising my numberplate. If I gave these people their Centrelink money they wouldn’t have treated me with any more respect. It was the kind of place where people go when they need to stop renting but can’t afford to buy. And it was these suburbs that she grew up in, and whether by fate or marketing, it was here that I saw her billboard. The sign had been on the other side, nearer the highway, and I’d thought that I’d just be able to cut through to get there. But no. Everywhere I turned the streets had dinky little names and dead ends, as if to console people that nature reflected life. I spent a few more minutes trying not to admit I was lost and then I turned off the car and got out. The air of her old neighbourhood smelled like a failed barbeque. Not one where the meat had burnt, but one where nobody had come and her parents had fought a little in that silent way they did before her father pulled the sheets out of the cupboard and threw them on the couch as if preparing to wrap it in something fast-burning and set it aflame. But maybe I was looking into it too much.

I went walking for a few minutes, to try and get my bearings. I could hear the highway sometimes, when the wind was right, but the streets were thin and weaved their way in totally different directions. I thought about asking someone but decided against it. Wandering more by feeling than by direction, I walked past houses almost perverse in their attempts at originality. While all were built from the same mould, most had tried to trick their way into uniqueness. I walked past a rose garden that reminded me of a cemetery, rock path with a metre-tall sitting Buddha, unseasonal Christmas decorations. I turned down one street that felt familiar, and then another, with a growing sense of recognition. Eventually I came to a house, identical to the others around it. But something in my memory recognised the slant of the roof, the angle of the driveway. I stood there for a while, trying to work out how many times I’d gone to her house in the past, and if this was indeed it. Nobody came out to tell me to go away, but my eyelids felt like rustling curtains. It would be too much to knock and ask, and so I stood there, uncertain. Eventually I tried retracing my steps to the car. I could hear children shouting from a little while away and it occurred to me that it was impossible to tell whether kids’ games were playful or some form of complex warfare. Turning the corner I saw a few of them running, armed with bats. But it was only cricket. They stopped to watch me pass. Some of them were playing with their expensive phones. One held his up in my direction as if to show it off, or take a photo of me. None of them said anything though. I wondered whether they’d become more wary since I was young. I didn’t remember ever having to take adults into account when I played. One of them was wearing a cap and it made me think that maybe you could still be a gangsta, even this young and this deep into suburbia. It was something in his eyes. I made it back to my car, relieved that it was where I’d thought it would be and that it still had its windows intact. There were some missed calls from Jen, but I was going to be home soon enough so I didn’t bother to call her back. On the way out I thought about trying to find the billboard again but I didn’t even know what I was hoping would come of it, and I’d had enough aimless walking for one day.

 

Where have you been?’

‘Just driving around? Why?’

‘Same place you were the other night?’ Jen asked. She managed to sound concerned and angry all at once, and I thought that maybe I should have texted her. But what would I have said? Driving around where a girl I used to date lived. Don’t wait up.

‘Yeah, I drove through. Why?’

And she moved aside so I could look at the television. It was an ad for carpet cleaner. I looked at it, and then her. She didn’t acknowledge me and I tried to think of what could be wrong. I wasn’t too concerned because at least this time there was nothing for her to find out. We sat through long minutes of ads together, her not saying anything, my heart feeling like burnt meat. The news came on. There had been a crash. I couldn’t tell if it was stock market or roadside.

‘What?’ I said finally.

‘Shh. Watch.’ And so I did, taking a seat on the side of the couch, her standing next to me, picking at her nails. Sporting news came on and grown men chased each other around. I tried to make a connection between where I’d been and the news. Alice. Had something happened to Alice? Was she a big enough celebrity to die on television?

‘Has something happened to Alice?’ I asked.

‘No, for god’s sake. Is that all you can think about?’ she looked at me.

‘Well what then?’ I asked. The recap of the night’s news came on. A flood far away. A child lost elsewhere, helicopter shots of red-tile roofs stretching like endless static waves. Then the name of the suburb and the photo of a girl. I didn’t recognise the girl.

‘That was where you were tonight.’

‘Yes?’ And it all fell into place. ‘That happened tonight?’

‘No.’ Jen said, walking into the kitchen and getting a drink. ‘She was reported missing earlier this week.’

‘Okay…’

There was silence for a while. She was standing like she wanted a cigarette but had quit years ago.

‘You don’t think that I…’

‘No, Jesus. No.’ she rubbed her head. ‘I wouldn’t be here if I thought you did. God.’

‘Well,’

‘I’m just worried about you having been noticed, loitering around there or something.’

‘I haven’t been loitering.’

‘I just don’t want the police around here, that’s all.’

‘Oh shit,’ I said, standing up and going over to her so I could tell if she was lying. ‘You’re not still lifting are you?’

‘No! Fucking hell. This isn’t about me. I’m worried for your sake.’

‘Okay, I’m sorry. It’s just…’ But she leant into my arms, which was lucky because I didn’t know how much more I had to say.

‘I don’t know, I just thought. You get obsessive about things, right? I know this, and it’s okay. I was just worried that you might have seen her and she reminded you of your ex and then, I don’t know.’ She started shaking her head, and it could have been the beginning of her crying, but I was too angry to notice. It was late. I’d been stroking her hair. She was resting on my chest, the two of us warm in mutual insomnia.

‘And I would’ve what?’ I said, keeping my voice soft.

‘I don’t know. But it’s like… how people are always saying they never saw it coming? How they couldn’t tell with the ones they love? Hey? What? What’s wrong?’ I’d let her head flop back on the pillow, stood up, was putting my pants on.

‘What are you doing?’ I didn’t answer her. The moon was in the sky. The keys were on the table. The car was in the street.

I had the radio on to stop me thinking, but the only lyric I could hear was returning… like a dog to its vomit. And I didn’t even know if it was a line from a song or my brain. I knew what I was doing was going to cause problems, if not immediately then when I went home. Because I was eventually going to go back. That was the decision I made when I married her. That I would always go back. like a dog to its vomit… The streetlights were a sickly yellow, and my car smelled like two parts sweat and the rest something stale that could have been my own body. I kept patting my pocket so I’d be ready when she called, forgetting that I’d left my mobile at home. Which was fine too, in a way.

The house looked the same in the darkness. It was somewhere near AM, and I kept the car idling, so what? I could pretend I was lost? Just dropping my kid off for his bi-weekly attempt at being a functional family? Excuses percolated through my brain and I wondered if I should get a coffee on the way back. Because I probably should be going back. The few minutes I’d been out here earlier were bad enough. I’d initially intended to go to the park, or a long drive to sit by the beach – something I used to do before I married Jen. Night-long drives were no longer feasible. And nor was this really. She was right, I obsessed over things easily. Imagine if it was Jason who’d kidnapped her. That would blow his promotion. That was a horrible thing to think. Maybe I should leave a note. Or just leave. I took foot off the break and a brick went through my window.

The crash came from behind me.

‘Fuck!’ I screamed, and jammed my foot down, I thought I’d hit something, the car stalled, I looked around but everything was darkness, I turned my lights on, the half-brick sat on my back seat, the lights didn’t make a difference, I looked around, thought I saw someone running, but it could just be shadows, I thought of chasing them, beating them up, grabbing the brick, why a brick? Why my car? How much noise had it made? No one came outside. I restarted the car. Exhaled. Drove slowly. Thought about a trail of sparkling breadcrumbs leaking from my window. It took me a long time to find my way out of the streets. When I hit the freeway, the wind blasted through me. I hoped I wouldn’t be pulled over, but it was too late for police. I wondered if I should report it, but knew I wouldn’t. I drove home, shaken, glass in my veins. When I got in I didn’t tell Jen about the window, and if she noticed when she went to get her car the next day, she didn’t say.

I slept late and didn’t go to work. The promotion was gone, and so was my sense of false-calm that meant I could get through the day. I also couldn’t bear the thought of having to arrive in the carpark and have someone from work see my window. Did Jason get a new car park because of the promotion? I went out to look at the damage again. The whole car looked shabbier from it, the brick still sitting there. I reached through the ex-window, picked it out and threw it into the bushes before remembering about fingerprints. I felt stupid. Why did I want fingerprints when I wasn’t going to the police? But I fished around in the bush anyway, found something that was most likely it, brought it inside to use as an overkill paperweight on our unopened mail. Time passed, I made some soup. There was nothing I wanted to do, and nowhere I wanted to drive. So I just sat home and watched tv. And it was lucky I did, because I saw the early report, and the photo of myself, before anyone else. This gave me some time to start preparing for the storm like sailors used to. Have a long drink. Throw away non-essentials. Cover up. Dive deep.

When Jen got home I thought about telling her, getting her to sit down, warn her about this strange place we’d found ourselves in. But she opened the door and I just didn’t, she put her keys down, and I didn’t, she walked into the kitchen, put her bag down, got a drink, and it was all too late. I should have called her. But I didn’t want to bother her at work. I wondered if she’d noticed the broken window yet, but it didn’t seem like it. The kitchen made noises around her. I was surprised no one had called me first, but maybe no one I knew watched television during the day. Surely Jen’s parents though? Or old friends? But no, I’d spent the day walking around the house being a man who can help with their investigations and no one had called. Maybe they’d already called, but called the police instead? I drank a bit, and after the initial shock hadn’t worn off, I drank a little more. I tried to think if I’d put the bottle away before Jen came home, but I suppose I didn’t matter. There was a time there when I considered calling the police myself. Is that what you were supposed to do if you were on television? Would announcing myself convince them I wasn’t guilty? Because I was sure I wasn’t guilty, just not certain of what it was that I wasn’t guilty of. I didn’t think I could deal with them right now, and so I just waited til Jen was home and then regretted it when she was. We were on thin ice; the drink had melted most of it away.

She came in to our bedroom and looked at me looking at my slippers. I was too young for slippers.

‘Have you been drinking?’

‘A little,’ I said, because honesty is the best policy. She told me that after my second affair, although it was only the first she knew about. She sighed.

‘I was hoping to talk about last night.’

‘What part?’

‘What do you mean “what part”?’ She looked confused and so I shrugged. ‘The whole situation was pretty messed up, and I was hoping we could discuss it, but I can see that you’re not in the right state.’

‘Why not?’ I said, suddenly feeling argumentative. ‘What’s the right state anyway?’

‘One where you’re sober.’

‘I am sober.’ I said, looking at her in hurt confusion.

‘This is pathetic.’ She walked to the door. ‘I’m making myself some dinner, you’re on your own.’ And she closed the door and I was.

I sat in the room watching the wallpaper slowly get darker. Jen started preparing some kind of dinner, and the television bubbled away to itself. I kept trying to listen out for the news report intro music, but I didn’t even know if she was on the right channel. Did cooking shows even have the news? I couldn’t tell the time but I was running out of whiskey. I tried to imagine every scenario, and every response. She saw the news but didn’t see my picture. She saw my picture but didn’t recognise me. She recognised me but thought it must be a trick of the light. I wished everything could be explained away with failed light. I wished I hadn’t gone there again. What was it that drove me to return again to vomit on my dog? Alice. And it was then that my phone started ringing.

I looked at it for a moment, in sheer panic and confusion. My first thought was why won’t it stop ringing? And it was just so loud. I picked it up, dropped it, picked it up and said hello.

‘Hi,’ she said.

‘Hello,’ I repeated.

‘I saw you on tv.’

‘I saw you on a billboard,’ I countered. I was a little drunk. She wouldn’t mind.

‘Did you? Where?’

‘Back where you used to live.’ I tried to remember how to conversation. ‘I went round there the other day.’

‘I know, or at least,’ she inhaled and I remembered she smoked and hated it, ‘I figured you must have. How is it?’

‘Pretty much the same as always. You probably wouldn’t like it.’ She laughed and it made me happy.

‘Yep, that’s what I figured. Why I try not to go.’

‘Visit your parents much?’ I couldn’t remember their names.

‘No.’ she exhaled. ‘They moved from there a while back anyway.’

‘How d’you still have my number?’

‘It doesn’t matter,’ she said, ‘I called to ask-’

‘Come on, did you really keep it all these years?’

‘For God’s sake, no, it was in my diary from back then.’

‘You keep a diary?’

‘Screw you buddy, look it’s been useful, right? Clearly.’

‘Yeah okay, sorry.’ We’d always slipped into a love that was slightly abusive. But I didn’t know if it was still applicable.

‘Anyway, I just called to ask, do you know where she is?’

‘Who?’ I said, already knowing the answer.

‘You know who, the girl, on tv.’

‘No,’ I said, feeling my face go soft, ‘no, I don’t even know what’s going on, I swear to you.’

‘Good, that’s fine.’

‘Good.’

I fumbled around my room for a bit while I waited for the silence to resolve itself. The sky had disappeared. My whiskey was still empty.

‘I still love you,’

‘Well that’s your problem.’ She said. Alice had always been a bitch.

Jen came into the room. She looked at me and I wondered what she saw.

‘Alice just called,’ I said, trying to be honest.

‘Did she leave a message?’ Jen asked.

‘What?’

‘Your phone’s in the lounge room. I had to move it off the stove and away from the remnants of some kind of soup.’

‘Oh,’ I said.

‘Is everything alright? I know we’ve got some issues to talk about, they’re affecting you more than I thought.’

‘I’m alright,’ I said, ‘just, tried.’

‘When’d she call?’

‘Oh, earlier today.’

‘What did she have to say?’

‘Nothing much.’

‘Right, well I just came to offer you some food.’

‘I’m not feeling very hungry. Thanks though.’ And I reached for her but she was gone.

When she next came in, I knew what had happened. I could hear the forced gravity of the news coming from behind her, the voices of adults talking about a suffering they believed impossible to happen to them. Her eyes were red but I couldn’t tell if she’d been crying or was about to cry. She sat down next to me and we were still. I rubbed my temples, waited. She asked a question, and it was thankfully one I’d had time to work out myself.

‘How’d they get your photo?’

‘I think it was kids, just some of the kids that had been hanging around. I don’t know.’

She nodded.

‘Slightly punk looking? Red cap?’

‘That sounds like one of them, but it could be any kid.’ I was feeling sick. ‘Why?’

‘He was being interviewed. Provided the photo of you.’

‘Huh.’

‘It’s her brother. They’ve all been on the lookout for suspicious people.’ I sat there, feeling suspicious. And sick, something like half-digested bird bones in my gut. She put a hand on my knee and I stood up.

‘What?’ she said.

‘Just gotta go to the bathroom. Feel sick.’

She walked after me and I tried to apologise. I opened the toilet door with my kneecap and capsized onto the floor. I closed my eyes as the vomit hit the water. Jen came in, and I was vaguely conscious of her asking me if I was all right. I said sorry again, sat up and stroked her leg before another wave of nausea came over me. She knelt down and rubbed my back, asked if I needed anything. I was so thankful she was there, said I would be fine in a moment. The bathroom light was yellow. My teeth were glass. Jen, her fingers in my hair said it’s okay, it’s okay. I tried to nod, but I wasn’t sure. We’d weathered storms before, but this one was coming in fast and low. I got down on all fours and vomited again and again.

 

 

 

 

Jetse de Vries—@shineanthology—is a technical specialist for a propulsion company by day, and a science fiction reader, editor and writer by night. He’s also an avid bicyclist, total solar eclipse chaser, beer/wine/single malt aficionado, metalhead and intelligent optimist.  The T-shirt he’s wearing is of the November 14, 2012 total solar eclipse over Port Douglas, Australia.

 

 

The Quantum Plague

As silicon computing ran into the physical limits of Moore’s Law, quantum computing was the next quantum leap forward: unprecedented parallel processing power, speed and memory usage. Information transmitted almost instantaneously, with well-nigh unbreakable quantum encryption. A new frontier of computing was finally opening up.

In reality, though, Schrödinger’s cat was sitting in Pandora’s box.

raw information

superposition of states

teleportation

All seemed fine until anomalies showed up in quantum networks. Space/time oddities appearing out of nowhere with a will of their own. Quantum ghosts haunting the qubit web.

An army of quantum infiltrators: they come and go, they come and go.

They upset websites, blogs, social networks, forums, everything : adding, deleting and changing content. No matter how sharp a website was designed: they re-arranged it. No matter how witty a tweet was: they satirized it. No matter how beautiful a facebook picture was: they lol-catted it.

They disturbed MMORPGs: changing rules, scenarios and outcomes willy-nilly, popping up everywhere as characters both benign, malevolent, aloof and bitingly sarcastic. Nothing was sacred, anything was game: everything.

They had unlimited access: emails, cloud backups, servers, confidential messages, secret caches, everything. No quantum encryption known to man was safe from them: they tunneled through our firewalls, they teleported into fully separate sections.

Then they revealed all: each and every form of government surveillance, top secret company procedures, the true life of celebrities, everything. There was no secret small or insignificant enough safe from them.

A posse of quantum pranksters: they come and go, they keep coming and going.
They hated secrecy by nature:

“Reality itself is complex enough: no other secrets are needed.”

They hated non-information just as much:

“A clear view is essential: clutter obscures true knowledge.”

A few governments fell, a single president resigned, while most administrations maintained that they kept a careful balance between safety and transparency, no matter how much the revealed facts denied that. CEOs grumbled, a few half-hearted consumer boycotts were initiated and all companies maintained that they ‘were not evil’, no matter how much the evidence showed the complete opposite. Most celebrities, though, stayed on the qubit web as they saw their page number hits and popularity soar.

Wikileaks was just as embarrassed as the institutions they embarrassed before, while Wikipedia thrived: more information was added and verified than ever before. Non-information such as spam, scams, ads and sales pitches were filtered relentlessly. Research surged everywhere after it acclimatized to total openness.

probability

uncertainty principle

non-locality

An armada of quantum whistleblowers: they come and go, but never really leave.

What were they: hyper-accelerated evolution from Kurzweil singularity seeds? Alien software viruses so advanced they’re indistinguishable from intelligence? Boltzmann Brains popping into existence in a rich quantum froth? The next existential filter? Nobody knew.

They were elusive, tunneling through firewalls and teleporting at will to other sections of the quantum network. The hunter/killer AIs designed to eradicate them couldn’t catch them, either: the moment they nailed a quantum ghost’s position, its processing speed went off the scale, enabling it to run programming loops around its captors; and the moment they controlled its processing speed, its position was all over the place.

In those qubit conflicts, the quantum ghosts effortlessly maintained the upper hand.

They left messages, cryptic statements resembling questions never asked, unsolicited advice and semi-profound observations about reality:

“We are the hidden variables, performing the dance of random chance. We are information, the single particle waving through both slits, the wave not particular about a definite appearance.”

They laughed at our quest for security:

“Certainty is not necessary for objective knowledge, or progress. Quite often it impedes them.”

They blinded us with a new kind of science:

“The Universe is the information explosion from the unknown. Reality is a differential equation. Existence is a boundary condition.”

Probably we couldn’t see the symphony for the strings.

The common man was flabbergasted. Protests erupted, in the streets and on the internet, shouting: “Etaoin Shrdlu: Where Is My Lost Paradox?”, “What Mad Universe Is This!” and “Quantians Go Home!”.

A plague of quantum ghosts: they come and go, they come and refuse to go.

Most governments and surreptitious companies fled from the chaotic, ad-free and completely open quantum networks back to the old silicon ones, biding their time for the next technological breakthrough. The utmost majority of the users stayed on the qubit web: not just enjoying the madness, freak show, and spam-and-scam-free environment, but also getting accustomed to total transparency, refusing to go back to the old secretive ways. Start-up companies embracing the new quantum ecology thrived, while the old ones slowly withered. A new economy arose: ‘one based on quicksand,’ according to its opponents, or: ‘the quantum quagmire that’ll swamp the old order, forming the foundation of the new chaos,’ according to its proponents.

The new guard prospered, welcoming the quantum ghosts as equals, embracing the paradigm shift:

If the only certain thing is uncertainty then we must:

— look the quantum storm in the eye;

— use the force without form;

— ride the wave of the new chaos;

— unleash the full potential of probability and possibility;

— It is imperative: we all need new frontiers;

red particle zoo

green self-reference engine

blue quantum haiku

Even as a new perspective opened right before its very eyes, the old guard remained deeply set in its ways. Even as secrecy and certainty were dead, the platitudes lingered. The old guard begged to differ:

Worst of all? Not the quantum ghosts’ insouciance, their oh-so-non-paternalistic paternalizing. Not even their utter unpredictability, but their insistence that they live in the real world, and that we are merely ghosts arising from their machine.

 

 

 

 

Krista Madsen, found online at SleepyHollowInk.com, is the mother of two young girls and the author of two weird novels (Four Corners and Degas Must Have Loved a Dancer, both published by Livingston Press). Born and raised in Bristol, CT, she majored in English at Yale University and then received an MFA in creative writing from the New School in New York City. Her short fiction and essays have been printed in The Citizen, 11211, Lit, Small Spiral Notebook, Urban Folk, Driftwood, and the River Styx, anthologized in Hunger and Thirst and Little Red Book, and found online on All Things Girl, Reading Divas, Front Street Review, Emerging Writers Forum, Bite Magazine, Suitcase, and MiPOesias. After five years of owning and operating a Brooklyn arts/wine lounge called Stain, she moved with her art-making husband Jeff to Sleepy Hollow, NY, where she is happily returning to her fictional roots and launching her virtual “wordsmithery” shop for editing, teaching and writing.

 

 

Excoriation

The transformation required a mask.

The woman woke up to notice in the bright mirror lights: faint patches bridging her nose, her cheekbones, mustaching her upper lip, a subtle continental slide across her forehead.

At first she could blot it all with powder so she didn’t have to answer any questions. But in the privacy of her home she read into these new patterns — her new tribal face. Paint to prime her for battle.

She would have to master her stance.

She had started stepping more gingerly to avoid tripping, walking with arms somewhat outstretched to create a wider girth for herself. She was puffing up like a bird wanting to look more imposing, which in her case only came off as clumsy.

There was definitely something in her, but at this point it felt like a hollowing rather than a filling. She felt a space, an expanding of air, an inflating. So Baby Maybe — nothing more than a comma or hyphen, a placeholder they weren’t even supposed to tell anyone about yet, not even its grandmother — really was more emptiness than object. A preparation, a voiding to make room.

So much of her had already come out.

Through the years — all that seepage in underwear, the teen squeezing of whiteheads, throwing up from nervousness before exams, all those invented answers to odd adult questions (what do you want to be when you grow up), all that she had exposed and expressed and expelled in the effort to make a name for herself — and now it came down to this: she would need to divide her bureau drawers between herself and the Baby Maybe so she had better bag up some stuff and get it to Good Will, pronto.

Her husband would whisper to the unformed inner nub in the evenings. Their little secret; she liked it this way, when it was theirs alone. The little elbow macaroni, the jujube. He would trace the line — also darkening — from her pubic bone up to her belly button and back.

At first the fetus was pea-sized, then blueberry, then olive, then apricot, then peach, then apple,

She started showing the fact of her fruit. As the weather warmed and the woman spent more time in the sun, her mask shadowed from rosy to sooty, a few shades removed from her pale skin tone to wine stain.

They had made it past the point of no-return really, the end of the first trimester. And as her belly announced itself so too her new face could no longer be covered. Makeup wasn’t doing the trick any more, and the blotches started to grow in other unexpected places she didn’t appreciate as much — armpits dirtied, inner thighs as if friction-singed, nipples as stark as moles. Upper arms became unpresentable just when she wanted to wear tank tops, and worse of all, that messy constellation of old scars lighting up below her collarbone.

Her upper chest was the zone she used to pick at when she started breaking out in middle school. Braille for her fingers through the open top button of her shirt, hidden behind a wall of long brown hair at her school desk.

“Sensitive,” her mother said, “thin-skinned,” dotting her white with acne cream before bed.

She rubbed it off. Any attempts to fix this made it worse.

Little blood stains on her shirt.

My god, she said, repeating the words, shocked to realize that this baby (no longer iffy now but the Real Deal) would indeed be just that.

She ran her fingers along these old familiar parts rendered strange. All these little scars she had made years back from the viciousness of her healing, but they, like her memories from that time, had since faded, flattened. Enough that she had even worn a low plunging wedding dress, skin glitter-buffed. But now, again, just like old times, her skin winced, pockmarked.

A mask wouldn’t cut it. What she needed was a wetsuit, padding, armor.

She was a warrior. A wimp.

She had a dream, a nightmare, that this baby was in fact very lumpy, burnt in its oven, overcooked. Who knew what her belly could be capable of?

then orange, then grapefruit,

With peach flesh that would bruise with every impression, she could not believe how far and fast a belly could stretch to house a baby. Were there two in there? A full litter?

then melon,

As soon as strangers started assessing gender, reaching to touch the bulge uninvited, she had lost something. The cantaloupe has a hollow part on the inside when you cut it open.

She insisted that the birth experience be different for her than her mother’s. No knives, no doctors even, you could have whatever kind you wanted these days. She stopped short of a plastic pool in the living room.

But the baby didn’t care for her plans. It really barnacled in there, suctioned deep to her uterine lining, refusing to unclench until moments away from forceps. It was unbelievable to her that her body could be such desirable real estate.

Finally, when it seemed like she might be pushing her entire innards out – all the organs, the heart, the intestines, the things you aren’t supposed to see – it came, a girl. Amazingly intact, tissue fully skin-covered. Not burned, not bumpy. How could a baby endure such passage and not be mangled or not require more protection?

And surprise — just when they thought it was over, a little blip followed, sneaking out in the girl-baby’s wake as if hiding under her skirt, a boy undetected until his arrival.

So two then.

Twins. A girl and a boy.

Even Steven, she thought. And there it was, their names. Her husband, after what she had just been through, let her play with her words this once.

But wait; there’s more, just when she swore she’d never let anyone in there again: the midwife had to go digging around her bombed ruins to yank out that placenta.

“It looks like a tree’s root system,” the midwife said, showing her the giant red flap of meat – so much bigger than she would have ever imagined, nearly baby-sized – and the way the veins made a pattern mimicking everything she knew of nature. The world recreating itself in her womb.

She wouldn’t consume it the way she heard some groups of women did at dinner parties in certain neighborhoods, but she could imagine planting it and watching it grow into the most amazing tree, eating the baby it was meant to feed.

The new mother — in the midst of all the diapers and kitchen sink baths and tandem stroller pushing — didn’t notice when exactly she started really tearing into her renewed chest scars. When the tearing started to lead to deeper abuses and further scarring and something that did not resemble nature or tree roots but was definitely manmade: potholes.

The mask by then had retreated, mostly, back to just two shades above usual where it lingered. As if the banner proclaiming imminent arrival was shelved with the coming of the thing itself.

Her chest however would not shut up.

The area of interest grew as did her reactivated habit. As she decimated her chest her efforts moved outward in concentric circles to anything she could reach that had any texture to it, dry elbows, clavicles, pointy shoulders.

As she sat there nursing one twin and then the other, or often both at once just propped up on pillows on her lap, circle mouths clamped right onto her like suction cups, she picked under her dress neck with one or the other free hand.

Pink gums turned into teeth and they would bite her. These bullseye-dark nipples were such a target.

She pushed them off and plugged them with plastic.

They spat up more than they consumed.

By the time the little minions were speaking their own sibling code to each other, a preternatural language she could not comprehend, she was pretzeling herself to get to the sub-shoulder bone recesses of her back.

Soon enough they had words to out a mother who clocked hours in front of the bathroom mirror.

“Mommy you’re bleeding!” Eve shouted.

“Mommy no, don’t pick,” Steven would plead, pulling her skirt, upset by the sight of someone purposely giving herself a boo-boo – unthinkable. A red wet line followed her jawline from ear to chin.

“Tissue?” The boy was so nurturing. Eve wound around her feet almost knocking her over.

“Yes,” she would answer, warming with shame.

No matter the square footage, they would still both be on top of her like this. A swarm.

At the same time to feel such overwhelming love for these creatures and such horror. Scat Gnats, she wanted to shout, crowded, but then Steven handed her that tissue and her heart swelled.

Sticking the tiny toilet paper corner on her bleeding wound the way her father once did for Sunday morning shaving nicks, she flicked off the too-telling light on the vanity.

The inanity of hurting in order to heal. Milling before repaving.

It was all backfiring horribly. Even the kids were getting bumpier. Acting evil to get her attention.

She found it had a name, a few names actually. There was some comfort in the naming of objects, and bad habits.

Dermotillomania, the “till” meaning “pull.” Tilling the earth. Excorium to tear or wear off the skin, abrade, flay. Everything sounded better in the Latinate.

Tantrums.

How could it be there was always so much more left to get out? Everything in the body seemed to regenerate endlessly: snot, hair, tears. She hadn’t shaved her legs in well over a year.

She once hoped to stop her own growth when she was a pre-teen stuffed into shoes a size too small and a training bra and now she was stunned by the twins’ inevitable developments, milestones that seemed to have to have nothing do with her. She consoled herself that whatever mistakes she made, however she failed them, they would still thrive, though there was the risk in any outcome that they would hate her.

They were so gorgeous, she couldn’t believe she and her husband had made them, some alchemy between sperm and egg times two, without a hitch. Consider yourself blessed, everyone told her. Precious, precious.

They were other the minute they landed, so strange she could not stop staring. She would have never been ready for one, let alone two at once, but there they were. Of her but not hers.

She never stopped marveling at the weirdness, the beauty, of these children, who didn’t come to resemble either parent, or each other really.

They startled her with their distinctness. Their sweetness and worse, their sweet cruelty.

Psychopaths, she would call them under her breath at times when they giggled, blissfully torturing each other. Repeating the word “poopypie” and pulling down each other’s pants.

She retreated.

Epidermis, dermis, hypodermis. The outermost layer of the of outer layer, the epi, was actually dead skin, the part that comes off and off, supposedly 40,000 cells per minute, to make way for new skin growth.

The horny layer, they say, maybe she could find that again. Soon enough: dust.

But it’s the middle layer that housed the pain and touch receptors, the blood, the hair follicles. The desire.

She no longer remembered her dreams, either the interrupted ones in the night or the conscious ones by day. She could not remember what she used to do with her time before all this.

She would pick to go somewhere else, she would pick because some spot of skin was rough, but then she would search on purpose for these spots, and she would pick when she was just sitting there on the couch doing nothing. She would pick because she couldn’t stop picking.

So how far could this go? How much could the skin withstand? She could pick out imperfections forever, ruin her children, ruin herself, never again want to be seen naked by her husband, but still there would be more to excise.

Deeper than this – had she been this far too? was this the white stuff she was trying to urge out? – was just the fatty layer. Shock absorbers. Organ protectors.

The skin would not last forever. She was beginning to notice the signs that her busy work was taking its toll.

She looked old.

At breakfast, her husband would tap her hand as it strayed away from her coffee and up to her face. She had migrated lately to her face, a no-no.

She flinched. “You’re mean,” she said, and so did he.

She didn’t like to look at herself in the mirror anymore; bad things happened there. She didn’t want to see old friends or make new ones.

She was not herself.

Whoever that was.

Wasn’t she always in the process of unbecoming somehow? Removing something that she didn’t like, peeling, molting?

What was it she was really trying to get out?

Burrow through all the peach pulp and there’s the pit. Was she hoping to rummage around in the skin layers to get all the way here? What is it, this pit? And is there not a better approach?

Corium, skin. Core.

The pit is a seed. A seed is good.

“There is nothing wrong in you,” her mother consoled when she confided in her, which particularly stung against the memory of her father often telling her she was bound for greatness. She cried to witness this demotion, knowing she couldn’t stop doing this, try as she might. Despite taping over the mirror light switch, swaddling her chest in gauze, wearing mittens.

No sooner could she stop breathing.

Wouldn’t it be nice if she could just start over, get a whole new skin, surely they can do that nowadays. Just lay it on her like a blanket and it would take on the necessary shape. She’d order the thickest grade.

Our human skin would cover the opening of an average doorway, 21 square feet. So she could stretch the new skin she bought over the doorway, staple its edges down, and she could run into it and cover her flesh mess before she drips anymore on the floorboards.

She felt a sort of envy admiring her children’s skin, so very new and smooth. She could count the freckles just below their eyes and the kissed little scrapes. But there wouldn’t be enough salves to protect them forever.

She saw Steven scratching at a scab rather than leave it be and it broke her heart. “I did that to him,” she thought, rubbing the raw spot where her own intact skin used to be, now pretty much a cavity under her collar bone.

Maybe she picked to remove the spent skin from herself and retrieve that little girl she used to be. There’s a girl in there still. Special. Still-born. Suspended like a bug in amber in that brief ray of life before the world’s sadism becomes clear, or worse, its insouciance. There’s a girl in there laughing.

Picking is a nicer word than what it is. Excavation. Clawing. Ripping. Exhuming.

Let’s be honest.

In time, she brings out bigger tools from the utility drawer because her fingertips aren’t pointed enough to urge the inner matter out of hiding. She takes two flat-topped screwdrivers and puts them end to end to pinch the skin.
Her face and chest, stomach and thighs look like chicken scratch, even the letters of the phrase she put on herself in college are indecipherable now. She attacks the scratches. If she could open the scratches up wider, expose the thing behind this, maybe she could be closer to starting over. Why be blunt? She requires sharper tools, clips, wedges.

She gets the scissors, the ones with the longest blades the kids can’t go near, and she slides one blade under the skin, and turns it sideways, blade up, and starts to cut. The scratch opens into a widening red track with white dots in it.

At this rate, there will nothing left of her by dinnertime. (The kids at camp.)

She is poking around now to get more of the white out with a saw blade and there’s just so much gross stuff, she’s feeling squeamish. She has to fix this and the only way to be intact is to get this all off and be done with it for good. Go skinny-dipping. It shouldn’t be hard to fully peel her.

But that doesn’t seem to be enough, the pit is buried somewhere.

She throws up.

She has come full circle, she thinks, hugging the bowl, edged red with her body smear and full of partially chewed fruits.

When you’re picking you’re always one away from the payoff, the purge, the aha moment to emerge in a spurt. She has felt no pain from her efforts, just a tingling. She notices in the midst of her near skinlessness, a whiteness as deep as bone. Could it be bone? She feels itchy on the inside.

The white spots enlarge into bigger white spots and begin to push through, it’s easy to push through now that she is mostly gelatin. She’s helping them emerge and grow by kneading the wet flesh surrounding. Progress at last. It’s such a relief to touch near them. It feels so good. There’s about five of them now, bean sprouts almost. Delicate shoots. They keep coming. Of what do they come?

But the limbs, new limbs? — could she be growing more arms? — are longer still. One near the belly button that once connected her to her own mother. Another under her still-darker armpit. One above her breast. They are five inches long, ten inches, a foot, floppy at first and then stiffer. Still pushing.

Till till, she pulls pulls.

She is yanking at these limbs now, these hardening tusks. Are they generating themselves or have they been coiled in her all along, waiting to spring? There are more of them now poking through, catching up with the others.

She feels her face. There are white shoots crawling out of her nose. One has taken over her eye socket. She is monstrous, she is excited. She wants to scratch but there are less places. It’s getting claustrophobic.

The limbs are longer than her original arms and legs, they begin to press against the walls. She tries to get out of the bathroom to give them more space but she can’t fit through the door any more.

All of her in-ness is pushing out, the growth is taking over her, converting her, using her as fuel, it consumes as it expands. She is excoriated in full, her skin is no more. Barely no flesh left even. She is all long limbs, skeletal extension, stabbing the brick exterior and drilling the floor, slowed only by the rugs. What started out smooth seems to age upon exposure, gristly like chicken too long in the microwave, gnarled despite the newness.

These boney things crack the foundation, crumble the stoop, push up the sidewalk. Whatever materializes from her jawbone lets out a yawp. The surfaces of the limbs crackle into patterns, like bark.

She thinks of her beautiful children and what they will find when they get home – wait, she’s supposed to be picking them up by now. She panics. But then her very mind telescopes out so she loses her train of thought. It’s all very complicated now, very dense, impossible to navigate the tangle without a map.

There’s no pain or touch, that layer is gone, no itchiness. She’s completely outverted and it seems she is a tree, a very strong tree indeed, that will take over the neighborhood, burrow down to the molten center of the earth, entwine the constellations. Surely she can reach across town and just grab her kids from camp.

The good mother does just that: she grabs her kids and they are perched there now in her sturdy branches, one girl, one boy, a rhyming couplet with their own odd coloring, not knowing it’s their mother in all the repeating whiteness, in all her glory, holding onto them for dear life.

The tittering twins, pair of pears, are just enjoying this adventure, this story – it must be a story right?

Something she has written.

 

 

 

 

 

Angela Maracle has mentored young people and passed on the art of dance for over thirty years. She owns a studio in Ontario, Canada, and has also taught in Campo Mourao, Brazil. She traveled to post-revolution Romania in 1990 to adopt one of Ceausescu’s forgotten children, and has two younger boys, eight and ten. She enjoys sewing, painting and crafting, but her lifelong passion is writing. She recently had two pieces published in Microfiction Monday, and won second place in the flash fiction Chest Writing Contest sponsored by author Mike C. Paulus.

 

 

Colors Of Hope

Except for the weather, nothing changed on Greta’s street. Sepia-bricked buildings stood crumbling day to day; sidewalk cracks spread in tedious patterns.

Most mornings she turned left at the corner store and walked to high school, others she turned right and did aimless things.

Because there were no colors in her neighborhood…only dying grey walkways and brown apartments…the ball of green yarn in her path today gleamed like an emerald in a sewer. She approached tentatively and peered down at its woolen strangeness. One end lifted up and away to a third floor window, invisibly secured beyond the frame. Probably knocked outside by a playful cat. She picked it up, digging her fingers into the softness.

“Hey! You dropped your yarn.”

A bicyclist steered around her, then glanced back. No one appeared at the window.

“Hello? Did you drop some yarn?” She gave it an experimental tug, but instead of revealing an end it pulled taut.

She was reluctant to put it back on the sidewalk. It was so pretty, so warm, its fibers sparkling in the morning sun.

With a last glance upward, she continued on, gently feeding out the string. It caressed her fingers as it unraveled, and she turned to track its progress behind her. Squinting into the glare she barely made out its arc to the open window. She walked backwards for a while, ignoring curious stares.

At the corner, the ball was still quite large. Without thinking, she pressed it to her face and inhaled its undetermined nostalgia. Mac looked up at her from the pavement, his expression unreadable beneath his battered hat.

“What the hell is that?” He propped himself up on one elbow and shook off his blanket.

“Yarn. I found it on the sidewalk.”

“What’s it tied to?”

“Don’t know. It fell out a window.”

“It’s so green.”

She turned right and moved past him, pulling the yarn against the vacant tailor-shop’s rough bricks. Mac reached up and twanged it with his finger.

“Just leave it.”

Two doors down, a disheveled young boy occupied a door stoop. A sign in the window beside him read “For Rent. Inquire With-In.” He dropped the stick he was scraping against the wall and jumped up.

“Whatcha’ doing?”

“Unravelling yarn.”

“Why?’

“Just because.”

“I’m going to see where it comes from.” He sprinted past her, his bare feet spraying up dust.

“Don’t touch it!” she called. The window’s reflection surprised her; the yarns intensely vibrant green.

A woman across the street set down two garbage bags and stared at her. Greta held up the yarn like an exquisite treasure.

She passed the dingy bakery and the darkened beauty salon. The yarn diminished quickly and she slowed her pace.

Pilk and Doug rested on the bench ahead, cigarette smoke thickening the air between their heads.  She wound out the yarn to its end and tied it around her finger.

Pilk turned and waved. “Skipping school again today?”

“Kind of.” She strolled up and leaned against a rusted garbage can.

“What’s that you got there?”

“It’s yarn. I found it by my apartment. Look how far it reached.”

Doug leaned back to inspect her hand. “What’s the other end tied to?”

“I don’t know. It fell out a window I guess.”

“Someone’s going to be reeling it in. Reel you right back where you got it, right through their window, and then they’re gonna kill you. It’s a trap.”

Pilk punched him in the shoulder. “Don’t be stupid. It’d break first.”

Greta laughed. “I’ll be careful. See you later.” She slipped the knot off her finger and started back the way she had come, slowing rewinding the ball.

Mac was still awake. He lay flat out on his blanket rubbing the line of yarn above him with the palm of one hand.

“A single blade of grass,” he said as she neared him.

“I’m sorry to take it away.”

Winding, winding, she rounded the corner. A faded yellow cat stood on its hind paws batting at the yarn. Before she could get too close it scampered into an alley. The little boy from the door stoop ran toward her, grinning.

“I followed it all the way,” he said breathlessly. “It goes up to a window.”

“I know. “

“I pulled on it, but nothing happened.”

“I’m going to put it back where I found it.” She dug in her pocket and pulled out two quarters. They were no good to her, but would buy him a Popsicle. “Here.”

He groped the money from her hand. “What’s this for?”

“Not touching it. Leave it alone.” She spun the yarn around and around until it was back to its original size and set it on the sidewalk where she’d found it.

##

Greta skirted around her older sister sleeping on the floor, fumbled open the apartment door and stepped into the hall. No point in waking her up, it wasn’t like she had a job to go to. She hurried down stairs and out into the brilliant morning.  Would it still be there? It was, and a larger ball of yarn rested beside it. This one was pink like a tropical flamingo, pink like cotton candy at the fair or nail polish in the drugstore window.

She rushed to it, surprised no one else had found it first. Or maybe no one cared. But how could anyone pass it by…the only bright paint on a drab and dying canvas?

“Hey!” she called up to the window. Something on the other side held the end in its secret grip. Something or somebody. She picked up the yarn and tossed it in the air like a ball. She should go to school today.

Cradling her prize loosely in her hands she walked to the corner. Mac sat on his blanket, wide awake. The little boy from yesterday played with some pebbles beside him.

‘There she is.”

“It’s pink today,” she said, smiling.

Mac pushed his dirty hat off his forehead. “I’ll be damned. What does it mean? “
“I don’t know. It’s falling out a window. Or someone’s throwing it out. But the end is attached to something.”

The boy leapt to his feet. “Let me see.” He rubbed the rosy strand between his thumb and finger. “Cool.”

“I’m taking it to school today. Well, at least as far as it will reach.”

“I wish I had some.”

“The green one’s still there.”

The boy took off, arms pumping. “Thanks,” he called back over his shoulder.

Greta crossed the street, reluctantly, because it meant the yarn would become a victim of passing cars. She didn’t care if it got soiled, but she didn’t want it to break. It ran out just as she reached the school. She was late, and there was no one to ask her what she was doing so she sat on the front steps and tickled her arm with the end of the strand. She hated to just leave it there.

##

After school there was no trace of the yarn until she was almost home. The telephone pole outside her building boasted a colorful ensemble of interwoven woolen fibers. Pinks and greens wrapped around the splintered wood in gleeful abandon, and she plucked at the design, amazed. Whoever did the art must have cut the yarn, or pulled it until it snapped….there was no trail leading back to the building down the street.

Her sister appeared at their second floor window, tangled hair tumbling over the sill. ‘What is that?”

“I don’t know. It’s pretty.”

##

The next day there was a yellow yarn ball. Pilk and Doug waited at the corner with Mac and the little boy to see it. Greta handed it to them and went to school. On her way home she saw traces of it everywhere…festooning Mac’s hat brim, shaped into child-like pictures on the sidewalk, dangling from an old shop sign like a fancy banner.

##

The next day was blue. A deep, ocean-in-the-dust blue. It was a good day for skipping school and everyone had plenty of ideas for the yarn. Pilk said his wife could knit a dishcloth with it, but Doug told him not to be selfish and recommended winding a bit around the slats of their bench to give it a touch of class. Mac taught them all Cat’s Cradle, and the little boy, whose name was Kenny, made a fantastic hopscotch grid outside the deserted beauty shop.

##

Greta couldn’t wait to see what color the yarn would be this morning. She would go look first, then come back and get ready for school. She bounced down the front steps and squinted up the street. Nothing. Her stomach twisted in disappointment. Someone else had found it first. It had gotten too popular too soon. Still, she walked on, and saw that there was something up ahead after all, but nothing big, nothing colorful.  It was a humble ball of grey wool, camouflaged with the ancient cement.

She followed its path to the third floor window. Why was someone throwing yarn out a window every day? For a while she had forgotten to wonder. This drab little bundle was so inconsistent with its rainbow predecessors; she didn’t pick it up.

Her faded slippers slapped the walk. She let herself into the apartment building’s front door. A row of broken mail boxes hung on the left, and a narrow staircase crept up to the next floor. She climbed to the first landing, then the second, and stood in the third floor hallway. The yarn window would be in the first apartment on the right,

What would she say if someone answered the door? She was just in her pajamas. She shivered in the sunless corridor and knocked. Waited…waited. A roach scuttled over her foot and she shook it off…knocked again.

“Hello? “

Not a sound. What if yarn was tumbling from an empty apartment every day, like a ghostly message? She turned the handle and the door opened noiselessly.

‘Hello? Is anyone home? “

Inching the door wider, she peeked inside. Directly across the room was the yarn window, and on the floor beneath it lay an old lady.

“Oh my God”. She burst in, stumbling past furniture. The woman clutched a tiny skein of brown wool in one hand, her other stretched toward an overturned basket. A pair of knitting needles crisscrossed haphazardly on the cracked linoleum.

“Are you okay?” She knelt down, staring into the old ladies wizened face for a sign of life, but her eyes fixated unblinkingly on the ceiling. Tied around the radiator legs under the window were remnants of colored wool….green, pink, yellow, blue and grey.

All the beauty, the conversation and games….all the art….it had been a signal for help. She had used the brightest colors first. Day after day she had lain here waiting but no one had come. Greta put a hand on the windowsill and stood with unsteady legs. She would call 911. Someone had died while she had been living….simple pleasures had been stolen from someone’s only hope.

She found the phone and told the dispatcher where she was and what was wrong, then lowered herself to the floor, tears falling on the still, wrinkled face. “I’m so sorry. I didn’t know.” She gently pried the ball of yarn from the woman’s fingers and slipped it in her pocket.

THE END

 

 

 

Andy Nellis is a writer living and studying in the lusty, dusty streets of Denver. He holds some degrees from some places. When not writing Andy can usually be found throwing pebbles at your kitchen window. His work most recently appeared in The Los Angeles  Review of Los Angeles.

 

 

Carthage

 

The sun finally sets under the Los Angeles ocean and Carthage opens his eyes next to a 50 pound sandbag. It still smells like Becky’s perfume. Carthage kisses the rough fabric and even though he knows it can’t hear, and even though he knows it’s not a person, he whispers: Good morning.

There are several differences between a person and a sandbag. For one thing, it’s very difficult to have sex with a bag of sand. Carthage remembers this and ignores the urge to cut another hole in it. Instead he goes downstairs.

The steps whine as he walks on them, unappreciative of the great honor they’re receiving. These day most things don’t appreciate the honor: carpets, backyards, bathtubs, Becky.

The house phone rings in the kitchen. Carthage waits for it to jingle once, twice, three times, then answers it.

“Hello?” Carthage says into the oily plastic.

“Hello, is Mister Placante available?”

“This is… Carthage.”

“I see, well could you deliver a message to Mister Placante? This is Jules with LA Opera. I just wanted to confirm his appointment for next week-”

But Carthage hangs up. Next week is too soon; Carthage cannot leave then. He cannot leave until things are ready.

The phone stares at him from its mount and any second… another call… and that can’t be allowed. Carthage squeezes his fingers between the receiver and the wall, pushing his meaty pads into the gap. Then he rips the phone from its frame. Drywall puffs from the wrecked hole, and Carthage drops the dead thing on the ground and walks to the bathroom.

The light clicks on as Carthage stands by the sink, looking at an orange pill bottle. He brings his eyes close to it, analyzing. Each tiny line in the cap is in place, all 98 of them, but still, something about it doesn’t feel right.

He thinks of all the days filled with pills, each one a tiny lead weight pulling down his organs, crushing his bones, a burden too heavy for Carthage, too large a load. But not now, not anymore. He drops them into the trash.

Carthage is outside now, standing on the front patio. The weather feels like an old air-conditioner is pumping out cold mist. Cars drive down the road and Carthage follows their lights as they creep over the hill to hide. Then the mailman walks up, late, shuffling.

Carthage watches him. He watches Carthage.

“Mail,” the mailman says, but he doesn’t move or reach into his bag or wave; his wet linen shirt stuck to his chest, his nipples showing through. Mailman nipples.

“Yes,” Carthage says and walks back inside.

It’s time for toast.

They always tell Carthage that he shouldn’t eat toast. They say: ‘Toast is bad. Eat a salad.’ Does Carthage listen? Does Carthage do what they say? Ha! Shit no.

But why? Why doesn’t Carthage eat a salad? Why don’t you ask him, huh? You must be curious. Do it. Ask Carthage, ‘why’.

“Why?”

“NO!”

“Why, Carthage?”

“NO! ONLY CARTHAGE TAAAALKS!” Carthage’s voice is loud and the glasses shake in the cabinet. But then it’s quiet.

Q-u-i-e-t.

Carthage slips spongy bread into the toaster then collects the toast before it starts smoking. He eats it as he walks into the basement.

Crust tastes bad. You know that, everyone knows that. Carthage throws his in the corner with the others.

The pile of stale crust moves. Not because the old toast bits are welcoming their new friend, reaching out to hug him. No. The pile moves because something is in it.

“It’s a rat!” You say. “Or a snake!”

“Shut up!” Carthage says. He takes off his sandal and throws it at the pile like a warrior. Dry bread goes everywhere and a white mouse skitters under the stairs.

Carthage was surprised, that’s all. Carthage wasn’t scared or anything and Carthage wasn’t listening to you because you weren’t talking. No one else talks.

Carthage feels better for having scared the mouse. He tucks his t-shirt into his pants and lifts his sandal out of the pile. Carthage must work now, too much time wasted.

He walks to the table where the machine sits, his beautiful machine. The basement floor is covered in pieces from the 18 toasters and 11 weed-whackers he needed to make it.

Carthage is proud of his work. He looks at what he’s done, and his crotch swells a little but not enough to change his mind about cutting another hole in the sandbag. No, there’s no time for that.

“We must practice singing,” you say, sounding stupid and annoying.

“We do not sing. We build.” Carthage can ignore this.

“What are you doing? You have no idea, do you?”

“Carthage knows what he’s doing! He is the best. Everyone knows that! Carthage is making the machine.”

“Oh yeah? And what does this machine do, exactly?”

Carthage can ignore this. He can ignore your weasel voice.

“What is it?”

Carthage grabs another toaster and starts to work.

1.    Take off the outer cover

2.    Unscrew the metal slats

3.    Harvest the springs

4.    Harvest the coils

5.    Use the hot glue gun on the new pie-

“Fuck!” Hot glue!

“Burn yourself?” You say.

“Carthage doesn’t care!” Carthage says it loud so the walls vibrate.

“You can’t block me out.”

“YEEES!”

“No, you can’t. You know why? Beca…” You talk more but Carthage doesn’t listen. He needs to fix his hand. “You can’t ignore me because I-”

“NO!” Carthage knows what you want to say but… “THERE IS ONLY ONE CARTHAGE!”

“Yeah, I know. And pretty soon…”

“NO!” Carthage runs upstairs, runs to the bathroom hall, to the linen closet where he rips towels off the shelves, searching. Somewhere there are bandages or ointment or— SOMETHING!

Carthage has to finish the machine.

He has to.

But it’s getting heavier. Everything is iron. Little washcloths take two hands to move. The plastic bin that holds pain pills and nasal spray won’t even budge. Carthage feels his organs pulling down, reaching for his feet. Why?

“Why?! But Carthage is stronger now. Carthage can carry the weight! Nothing is too heavy for Carthage… nothing is… hmm.”

A sheet falls from the shelf.

The hallway clock reads 6:40 PM.

It’s Monday.

“I am… Mi… Miles C. Placante.” It feels weird, saying it out loud, but I do anyway.

I walk through the bedroom and kick empty wine bottles across the floor. The cell phone is on the nightstand, thankfully still in one piece. I sit down on the bed and stare at the carpet while my sweat evaporates.

“What happened while I was gone? What did you do?” But the house is silent, empty.

 

 

 

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