Archive for the ‘!What’s New!’ Category

The Genome is Greener on the Other Side

Sunday, August 6th, 2023

by Sarina DorieYumi

Nishida hooked one arm around the handrail of the train and scrolled through the latest research in genetics on her e-reader. The gritty floor underneath her cushiony work shoes pulsed with the momentum of the train’s motion. She kept rereading the same paragraph, trying to process the dense information, but it was in Chinese, and she’d never been good at foreign languages. Why her parents hadn’t enhanced her brain rather than her body, she never understood.

If there was one thing Yumi hoped she might accomplish in her career as a geneticist, it was the ability to undo genetic mistakes like those her parents had paid for. She just wanted to be normal, or some version of it.

Yumi looked like a caricature more than a normal person. To hide this, she sported a baseball hat to hide her pretty face and wore her blonde hair under a ponytail. A pair of loose shorts and a t-shirt covered up the unnatural proportions of her hourglass figure. It used to be so much easier to dress in layers of clothes with Oregon’s temperate climate, even in the summer, but with global warming, there was no way to keep herself hidden under a rain jacket or winter coat.

“Hey, that looks like it would be a lot easier sitting down,” a man in a business suit said, standing up. “Can I offer you my seat?”

“Thanks,” she said, as she slid into the seat. She kept her words brief and her gaze down in hopes of deterring conversation.

She carefully removed her backpack so it wouldn’t hit the lady in the Middle Eastern style headscarf sitting next to her. The veiled woman glanced up from her book, her eyes widening. She smiled and went back to reading. Or at least pretending to read while sneaking glances at Yumi from out of the corner of her eye.

Yumi would have liked to wear a headscarf and veil over her face like this woman, but if she did, she was afraid she’d offend someone like her friend, Amira.

“So, you a student? You studying for school or something?” the man asked.

Yumi let her gaze flicker upward. “Yes.”

She dabbed the sweat from her forehead, trying not to smear the makeup that dulled the fluorescent quality of the melanin in her porcelain skin. It was another side effect of the genetic modifications.

The man was middle-aged and sweating profusely in his business suit. “Wow, you have beautiful eyes. I’ve never seen such a vivid blue. Are they real?”

She knew he wasn’t just talking about the color. He meant the shape with a double eyelid her parents had coveted because it wasn’t the norm among Asian features. He meant her perfectly plump lips, heart-shaped face and unusual combination of Western and Eastern features that made her exotic.

“No,” she said quickly. “Contacts.”


It was easier to lie than admit to genetic modifications while it was still illegal to do so in the United States. Yumi pretended to read her e-reader. The lady next to her snuck another glance. Perspiration caused Yumi’s t-shirt stick to her, making it cling more than she wanted.

The business man said, “So, what school do you go to? Portland State or University of Portland? Or—”

“I’m sorry. I have a test. I need to study.” If she could have afforded a car with her meager grad school stipend, she would have bought one.

“Oh. Of course.” The man continued ogling her.

Yumi went back to reading. When the woman got up for her stop, Yumi heaved her bag onto the seat next to her. The train was still pretty crowded. She didn’t like being selfish, but she hated not knowing who might take that seat. Eventually she switched the bag to her lap when a stooped old man asked to sit down. He was so skinny and feeble, he staggered when the train took off before he could seat himself. She placed a hand under his elbow to help him sit down. Then she felt guilty she’d been hogging two seats.

Yumi kept trying to glean new bits of information from the text on undoing genetic modifications, but it was ten a.m. and it was already too hot to think, at least on the train.

Near the university stop, she put away her e-reader and slung the bag over her shoulder. The old man stood as she shuffled past him, tilting his pelvis against hers so she could feel his erection.

Anger flared up in her. She stepped on his foot with her gym shoe, causing him to give her some space. She rammed the backpack against his chest for good measure.

Her mother would have chastised her for excessive rudeness. She might have broken that old man’s ribs and failed in her duty to be respectful to her elders. But her mother hadn’t ever ridden the train. She didn’t experience what it was like to be trapped in an excessively beautiful body, either.

Yumi’s chest felt tight and her breathing labored. She tried to ignore the panic attack threatening to overwhelm her. She’d gotten through the hard part of the day; everything else would be easier from here on out. As she headed across campus to the science department, ringing started in her ears. She took the stairs up to the biology department to avoid being stuck in an elevator with other people. By the time she reached the fourth floor, a tunnel swallowed the periphery of her vision. She made it to the bathroom where she locked herself in the handicapped stall and sagged against the wall. She gasped for air and sobbed.

Yumi sat on the floor and would have remained there for a while longer, but someone tapped on the door.

“It’s just me, sweetie,” Simon said. “Unlock the stall so I don’t have to crawl under there.”

Yumi stared at the hot pink shoes under the door. It took a long moment for his words to register and she giggled at the ridiculous image of her friend squeezing under. She unlatched the door and Simon plopped down next to her, all two hundred and fifty pounds of him. He opened his arms the way she wished her mother still did and hugged her. It was so nice to be near another human being, and one who she could trust not to grope her.

“How’d you know I was here?” Her voice sounded rough and gravelly.

He waved a dismissive hand in the air, the sparkles in his hot pink fingernail polish catching the light. “Ethan said you looked upset when he said hi to you.” She didn’t even remember seeing him. “So when you didn’t show up on time, I started checking bathrooms. You know me, I just can’t mind my own business.”She pulled away and hit her head on the toilet paper dispenser.

“I’ve got to get to the lab or else Dr. Brandl will think I’m a flake.”

“No worries. She’s in a meeting this morning. Are you going to tell me who molested you this time? Was it the same guy from the party?”

“No. It wasn’t anyone you know. It was on the Yellow line.” She had tried carpooling as undergrad, but that had ended in a car accident when the driver kept staring at her rather than the road.

“Well then, let’s get up off this icky floor,” Simon said. “Bathroom stall chic was so last year.”

Simon pulled her to her feet and dusted off his spandex pants. His form-fitting attire bulged in places Yumi’s mother would have found disgustingly unflattering on his overweight frame. Yumi envied that he was so comfortable wearing whatever he wanted. She’d never been able to do that.

She didn’t feel comfortable until she got to the lab and changed into a pair of long, loose pants, an oversized turtleneck and an extra-large lab coat. In the air conditioned lab, the layers felt perfect. She was the youngest grad student at twenty-one, and one of the few students who bothered with a lab coat. This one was so large, it looked like it might have once been Simon’s.

Yumi put on a pair of glasses she didn’t need, but she liked because they made her look more like Dr. Brandl. When Yumi entered the lab, Simon was already at work with his latest guinea-dog experiment.

Miranda lifted eyes from a microscope, her gaze raking over Yumi’s face. “Hello, Yumi.”

“Good morning.” Yumi bowed her head, then when she realized what she was doing, she forced herself to stop the Japanese gesture. Had she looked more Japanese, she suspected people would have found it endearingly multicultural. As it was, they usually thought she was mocking them, or in some cases, being submissive.

Rand waved to her without looking up from his computer. One nice thing about Rand was he never paid anyone much attention, even her. Numbers were far sexier to him than people. Ethan tried not to stare, but he was still pretty new and snuck furtive looks. She looked around for Amira, but she must have been teaching the professor’s class.

“Still fighting the flu?” Miranda asked a little too cheerfully.

Yumi nodded. “Getting over it.” That had been her excuse for not coming in the last few days. And in truth, the panic attacks had gotten pretty bad every time she thought about riding public transportation to work.

Miranda smirked. “Sure it’s just the flu, not too much partying?”

Yumi pretended she hadn’t overheard the comment. If only she were so lucky that she could party and spend her time the way normal students did.

“Be sure to check out Subject 231 before you get to work. The progress of the fifth leg is coming along ahead of schedule,” Miranda said. She didn’t even look Yumi in the face as she spoke. She stared at Yumi’s chest like the only part of Yumi she could see was breasts. Sometimes women made her feel like more of a sex object than men.

Yumi headed over to the rat cage. “Do you mean Pinky or Mochi?”

Miranda rolled her eyes. “I don’t know your pet names for them.”

Yumi stooped over the cage. It was Mochi who was doing well. Tumors still covered Pinky’s body. Yumi reached in and cradled his quivering form in her hands. Sometimes she felt like a white lab rat in a cage called life.

Miranda placed her hands on her hips. “You know Dr. Brandl doesn’t like us getting attached to the subjects. It makes it harder to stay objective when you humanize them.”

Her gaze flickered to Yumi’s chest again. Was that what people did when they saw her—categorize her as something inhuman so they could treat her however they wanted? Perhaps she would be a better scientist if she could see Pinky as an object—as a subject.

She stroked Pinky one more time before returning him to the cage.

Yumi was already exhausted. She hated coming in to work after a panic attack, but riding the train from her parent’s home was better than living on campus with all the drunk, obnoxious college students wandering around at night. She shivered and pushed the thought away.

Experiments waited. Yumi sat down at her computer and ran the gene splicing simulation to refresh her memory of where she’d left off. Dr. Brandl’s research on genetic modifications as a preventative to disease was years ahead of anywhere else in North America. But there was a limit to how much they could do without stem cells. After Oregon had passed “A Heartbeat is a Life” bill, their research had been drastically set back. Dr. Brandl was already talking about taking a position in Canada. She’d told Rand and Simon she couldn’t continue research without them and intended to hire them wherever she went.

Dr. Brandl hadn’t said anything to Yumi. Nor would she if Yumi didn’t get her butt in gear and prove to Dr. Brandl she was an asset. After two hours of data entry and analyzing statistics, Yumi went back to reading Chinese research.

It was difficult to concentrate. Yumi fantasized that if Dr. Brandl worked in China, where her parents had gone for in vitro genetic modifications, she wouldn’t have to work within the ethical parameters required in the United States. Of course, Yumi didn’t think she could live with herself if she experimented on living human beings like the Chinese were currently doing. She didn’t want anyone to go through what she had.

“Hey, you want lunch?” Simon asked. He hunched over her station, glancing at the screen.

Yumi shook her head. She continued puzzling over genome sequences.“Are you sure?” he lowered his voice. “It’ll just be you and Ethan.”

She glanced at Ethan, who busied himself with feeding the cage of white rats in the corner.

Yumi squeezed her friend’s hand. “I’ll be fine.”

Fifteen minutes later, Ethan set down a protein bar next to her keyboard. “I pressed the button for chips on the vending machine and this came out with it. Thought I’d see if you wanted a snack.”

Yumi wanted to believe her coworker was better than everyone else out there, but she suspected this was a ploy. He was trying to flirt with her. Even so, she plastered a polite smile on her face like her mother had taught her. “Thanks. I’ll save it for later if I get hungry.”

He kept staring at her face, so she looked away.

She said, “I should get back to work. These genomes aren’t going to solve themselves.”

“Yeah, me too. Are you going to get dinner later?”

She crossed her arms. “Don’t you have a girlfriend?”“Yeah. Oh, no, I’m not trying to hit on you! I thought I’d see if you want to come with Julia and me.”

Yumi turned back to her desk. She hated being rude. Her mother would scold her, but she’d learned this was the only way to keep people at a distance.

Ethan sulked his way over to the other side of the lab. A minute later he called out, “I wasn’t trying to hit on you.”

“Uh huh.” There was no way she was eating that protein bar now.


By dinner, Yumi was ravenous. She headed to the cafeteria with Simon and Amira. One of the lights was out in the cafeteria, and wouldn’t you know it, that was the only one where seats were empty. At this hour, her face would glow bright like the moon, even with a thick layer of foundation.

She scooted into the booth next to Amira, diverting her eyes to avoid the stares.

Amira grabbed a wad of napkins and placed it in the center of the table. After living in America for ten years, Amira had stopped wearing her hijab, mostly because she said the headscarf interfered with her bicycle helmet. Today she wore a skirt three inches above her ankles, something she only did at work. She was pretty in an unassuming way, and if there was one feature on her face that fascinated Yumi more than any other it was her unibrow.

Yumi would kill for a unibrow like that.

No sooner had Yumi bit into her hamburger than she looked up and accidentally made eye contact with some eighteen-year-old who looked stoned. He swaggered over, “Hey, I’m an astronomy major. I couldn’t help noticing what a heavenly body you have.”

She sighed. She shouldn’t have taken off her lab coat, but she hadn’t wanted to get ketchup on it. Even in an oversized turtleneck her breasts looked like balloons compared to her tiny waist.

“Aren’t you sweet! Thank you, dear,” Simon said. “If you want to come back to my place later, I’ll give you lesson with my telescope.”

The kid’s jaw dropped as he looked from Yumi to Simon and Amira as if noticing them for the first time. “No man, I was talking to her.”

“Were you? Fortunately for me, friends share. How about I scoot over and we all get to know each other.”

The kid stalked off. Yumi tried not to choke as she laughed.

Amira gave Simon a high five.

She was halfway done eating when Ethan wandered over with a young woman. She was a bottle blonde and wore a heavy coat of makeup to hide acne scars. Ethan draped an arm over her and Yumi could tell he really liked her. It made her feel bad about earlier.

The young woman’s smile faltered as her gaze came to rest on Yumi. Yumi didn’t like to stereotype, but she had a feeling Julia would be like Miranda, too jealous of her physical appearance to see her as anything other than a threat.

“Hey guys, this is my girlfriend, Julia.” Ethan introduced each of them. “Mind if we join you?”

This was one of those moments that Yumi’s mind kicked into what she considered high speed survival mode. She wanted to say no, but for reasons of social etiquette, the correct answer was yes. She didn’t want Ethan to try to sit next to her, but she didn’t want him to sit across from her and stare at her the whole time either.

“Why don’t you pull up a chair?” Yumi said. She looked to Simon. “You can make room for Julia, right?”

While Julia and Ethan shared a plate of nachos, Julia snuck glances at Yumi.

A man in a basketball jersey walked over to their table. He hugged a basketball to his hip and smiled at Yumi. “Hey, um, every time I see you look up at me, your face glows. I think we have, um, chemistry. I thought I’d see if you want to go to a party with me tonight.”

Yumi shook her head. “I’m sorry. I didn’t look at you.”

“Yes, you did.”

“I’d go to a party with you,” Simon said. The athlete laughed uncomfortably. “I’m not a homo, man.”

“You’re right, you’re probably a Neanderthal. But if you have any friends who play for my team, send them my way, hon.”

Julia looked from the athlete who headed out the door and back to Yumi. “There’s something weird about this lighting and your makeup. It makes your face look like its glowing.”

“It is kind of angelic.” Ethan laughed, but stopped when no one joined in.

Julia looked from the tight smile stretched across Simon’s face to Amira’s crinkled unibrow. “Um, did I say something wrong?”

“I guess I must be spending too much time in the lab. I’m radioactive.” Yumi laughed.

Amira stole a French fry from Yumi’s plate and dipped it into her hummus. “Just tell them. It’ll be easier for both of them if you do.”

It wouldn’t be easier if they reported her parents. Then again, this wasn’t Japan, and they weren’t the scientists who had conducted the experiments.

Yumi took in a deep breath and spun off the Cliff Notes version of her life. “I’m a genetically modified human being. Like you see in the news from China, but my parents wanted me to have Western features. They left Japan when they decided it would be safer coming here than getting caught.”

“So you really can’t help being beautiful?” Ethan said a little too breathlessly. Julia elbowed him. “Oh, that sounded corny, didn’t it? I didn’t mean it that way. I just meant, you aren’t wearing makeup to look pretty, it’s natural.”

Yumi nodded.

Ethan’s gaze turned pitying as he eyed her baggy turtleneck. “That’s why you dress like a homeless woman?”


“I think Yumi has a nice sense of style,” Simon said. “It’s very scientist chic.”

“I mean, oh, I just put my foot in my mouth again. I mean, you aren’t trying to dress sexy.”

“I don’t understand why you don’t do something with your beauty, like enter a pageant or become a model. You could make so much money,” Julia said.

Yumi shook her head. She doubted Julia could imagine what it was like to be harassed by strangers and stared at constantly.

“Some of us like Yumi for her mind,” Amira said. “In my country, women keep themselves covered so we don’t have to be judged by our appearances.”

Julia snorted. “Then why aren’t you covering yourself right now?”

Yumi could feel the tension building. In her culture, direct confrontation like this was rude. She glanced at Simon. He leaned forward with interest. A woman with short hair at the booth behind Simon and Julia kept trying to catch Yumi’s gaze. She walked past the table, flashing Yumi a smile. Yumi pretended she didn’t see.

Amira waved a hand at her button up blouse. “I can choose how I dress here and I don’t have to worry about my safety.”

Julia lifted her nose into the air. “Well, Yumi can choose how she dresses, too. If she put on a burqa she wouldn’t have to worry about being objectified, and it would be more compassionate to everyone around her who has to look at her.”

Ah yes, another Miranda complex.

Yumi’s voice came out a whisper. “I wouldn’t mind trying a hijab if it wouldn’t offend you, Amira.”

Amira looked to her in horror. “You’re an American. It would be a step back in women’s rights. You shouldn’t have to dress that way.”

Simon sighed overdramatically in the way he did when he wanted to diffuse the tension. “You girls are so lucky to have this problem. No one objectifies me when I go to a club no matter what I wear.” He patted the shirt stretched tight across his abdomen.

Yumi laughed at his attempt at humor. “The grass is always greener.”

The woman at the next table walked over. She leaned in a little too close to Yumi. “Hey, don’t I know you from biology 401? Aren’t you yummy?”

Yumi forced a smile. “I think you mean Yumi.”

The woman chuckled. “Yeah, yummy Yumi. I was thinking—”

“Do you realize you’re treating me like a sex object?” She thought about Miranda who only saw her as breasts and her mother who treated her more like a doll than an adult. Yumi turned to Amira, her voice strengthened by decision. “I want a hijab. One with a niquab to cover my face. Can you get me one?”


For the first time ever, Yumi felt liberated. She wore a purple khimar which covered her head and fell to her waist and matching niquab to cover her face so that only her eyes showed. It was hot and stuffy on the Yellow Line train, but no one groped her. People snuck glances and most gave her a wide berth. A regular who usually tried to strike up conversation with her on the evening ride muttered something about “filthy Muslims,” not even recognizing her. Yumi wondered if she’d traded being one kind of pariah for another, and yet . . . this was a choice, whereas her appearance had never been.

The real problem came when she walked through the door of her parents’ house and removed her shoes. She knew she should have called out in greeting, as was the etiquette expected of her in a Japanese home. But she had hoped to slip by the kitchen to her room down the hallway where she could change. Her mother dropped the knife and half the onion she was chopping and she shrieked.

“It’s just me, Okaasan,” Yumi said.

“What have you done to yourself?” her mother asked in Japanese.

Yumi pulled Amira’s clothes off and raked her sweaty hair out of her face. “Relax. I just wore it so no one would grope me on the train ride.”

“We didn’t modify you so you could hide your face! We did this so you could have a better life than your father and I had, people always judging us because we weren’t attractive. Why can’t you be grateful for what we gave you?”

Yumi studied her mother’s plain face scrunched up in rage. This conversation would be like the rest. She bowed. “I’m sorry, Okaasan. Please forgive my impertinence.”

“You aren’t sorry. What next? Will you dye your hair and wear brown contacts after all the money we spent on you? Do you know how much that gene modification cost us? We’re still paying off the debt.”

Yumi switched her tactics. “I don’t wear the scarf inside. Just in the sun to protect my skin so it stays fair. You know how I burn.” Lying to her mother felt wrong, like speaking a foreign tongue. Only, if she was going to fix her problem, she was going to have to learn to harden her heart to guilt. She added, “I’ll let everyone see how pretty I am at work or school. Just not outside in the sun.”

“Oh.” Her mother turned back to the cutting board. “Don’t let your father see that thing. He’ll think you’ve converted to a different religion.”

Yumi bowed. Tomorrow she would remove the khimar and niquab before she entered the house.


Yumi felt like a weight had been lifted from her shoulders. Thanks to her khimar and niquab, she didn’t plan on putting on foundation until she got to work.

As she stepped onto the train, the woman in the headscarf she’d sat next to the day before waved her over and scooted in so Yumi could sit down. Yumi hesitated, afraid she’d been recognized from the day before. To her horror, the woman spoke to her, in what sounded like Arabic. Yumi shook her head. “I’m sorry, I speak English.” She didn’t add, and Japanese.The woman went on in English, unperturbed. “You’re a student at the university too? Are you new? I don’t think I’ve ever seen you before.”

Yumi kept her eyes down so the stranger wouldn’t see the color of her eyes. “We probably ride the train at different times. What’s your major?” She tried to keep the questions rolling so the other woman wouldn’t find out the truth—that she was a fake.

As soon as she paused to take a breath, she asked Yumi’s name and introduced herself with a name Yumi tried to repeat, but couldn’t pronounce.

“What mosque do you go to?” the woman asked.

“Um. . . .”

The woman’s eyes narrowed. “You aren’t actually Muslim, are you?”

“Well. . . .” Yumi thought fast. “I’m trying it out.” Not a complete lie. She was trying the clothes out anyway.

“Trying my religion out? You either believe in the true faith of Islam or you don’t.”

Sweat trickled down the back of Yumi’s neck and it wasn’t from the warmth of the train. “I do believe the true faith.”

“Shiite or Sunni?”

Yumi swallowed. She stood up to leave. “Sorry, my stop is coming up.”

“You aren’t Muslim. What is wrong with you?”

“I—I’m not. I just, excuse me.” Yumi ducked and moved farther down the aisle. The woman glared after her. A man stuck out his foot and tripped her. He muttered a remark about terrorists. She stood next to the door and rushed out when it opened. It wasn’t her stop, but she exited the train anyway. She would be late again. No time for makeup. She would have to apply it during her lunchbreak so her face wouldn’t glow in the evening.

As she waited for the next train under a shady tree, a car drove past. A passenger threw a cup of coffee at her, yelling profanities that came and went like a kamikaze Doppler Effect. She shrieked and jumped back. The shock of the burn subsided into a dull throb by the time the next train arrived. Amira’s scarves were ruined, but so far, this was a better day than the previous one.

She made it to the lab right on time. Rand waved to her from his computer without looking up like he always did. Ethan took notes at the rat cage.

Amira came out of the professor’s office with a stack of papers she’d been grading. “How’d the hijab work out for—oh, habibi!” She looked Yumi up and down.

Yumi removed the headscarf. “No, really, it was great. I’ll buy you a new scarf if you’re okay with it.”

Ethan held one of the rats in his hands. He stroked the little guy on the head. “Hey, Yumi, Amira. . . .” He shuffled his feet. “I’m sorry about dinner last week. I think Julia went a little too far. But I guess some good came out of that conversation. You found something that worked for you.” He looked the coffee stain up and down. “Sort of.”

Yumi stared at the rat. “Is that Pinky?” His tumors were receding and a lump protruded from his side, resembling the start of another foot.

Ethan chuckled. “Yeah, it looks like Dr. Brandl is wrong. You can still get results even if you don’t see them as objects—err—subjects.”

Yumi forced a smile. If only that were true for all people.

Julia stopped by the lab as Yumi studied diagrams of Pinky’s gene splices. She pretended she didn’t hear Julia’s squeals of enthusiasm over the results of Ethan’s work. How she envied Julia and Ethan. She could never get close to a man like a normal woman did or have a relationship. All the men she’d tried to date had acted sex crazed, and she’d given up.

Despite the train and coffee incident, Yumi continued wearing the headscarf and veil. Over the next two weeks, more people behaved with increasing hostility over her attire. The worst of it was when man groped her at her train stop. Her panic attacks returned.

The one good thing in her life was Pinky. She recorded the growth of the rat’s extra leg. She felt a kindred connection with him, seeing the way the other rats shunned Pinky.

Ethan wandered over to where she stood at the cage. “Do you notice Pinky acts different than the other rats?”

She lifted Pinky from the corner. “He’s all alone.” She cradled him against her chest. Today was the kind of day she needed a hug too. As far she could tell he didn’t act different. It was like he was invisible to the other rats. She wouldn’t mind being invisible at times. At least to the right people.

“Yes, but why? Is he depressed?” Ethan checked something off in notes. “Does it have something to do with the experiment? Do you think it’s time to dissect?”

“No!” Yumi said, more forcefully than she meant.

Miranda looked up at her from across the lab.

Yumi lowered her voice to a more professionally clinical tone. “I think we should wait longer. We could start with a blood test.”

Yumi ran some tests. The results for the leg growth were going as expected. She saw no signs of depression. Something was going on with the hormones, though. She tested the other rats. Hormone levels were normal. The next set of tests revealed Pinky wasn’t creating pheromones. The others were. Yumi examined his genetic markers and found the mutation. With meticulous documentation, she recorded the deviation and ran simulations on how to best remedy it. Pinky shouldn’t have to suffer from unintended side effects like she did.

Out of curiosity, she examined her own DNA. What she found was her pheromones were off as well, only in the opposite direction. She examined the other rats and found they had heightened levels of pheromones as well, not as extreme as hers, but it was still there. That meant something was happening during the gene splicing process that made subjects hypo or hyper attractive. Elated she’d been the one to find this, she typed up a report for Dr. Brandl.

Dr. Brandl called her into her office the next day. The older woman sat at her immaculate desk, Yumi’s report in hand. She stared at Yumi over her bifocals. “I want to commend you for what you found. We previously overlooked this in our initial tests. Tell me, why did you conclude the results would be the same in humans with genetic modification?”

Yumi swallowed. “I tested myself.”

Her words hung in the air for a long moment.

Dr. Brandl leaned back in her chair. “I see.” Her gaze raked over Yumi. “You’re originally from China?”

“Japan. My parents lived in China for a time.”

Dr. Brandl sighed. “Did they get caught?”

“No. They moved here to avoid incarceration.” She pulled at a hangnail. “I didn’t ask for this life. My pheromones aren’t normal either. I would like to be able to help people out there avoid these kinds of genetic mistakes.”

Dr. Brandl nodded. “We can’t publish our findings on you without getting your parents in trouble, but we can publish what you found in the rats and hypothesize it would be the same in humans.”

“Do I have permission to see if I can remedy the symptoms in Pinky—err—Subject 246 with additional gene splicing?” If she could solve Pinky’s problem, she could solve her own.

A smile tugged at Dr. Brandl’s lips. “Pinky? Which one is the Brain?”


They both laughed. Dr. Brandl removed her glasses. “I say go for it.”

Yumi stood.

Dr. Brandl smiled. “And, Yumi, good job. You’re an asset to the team.”


Over the next few weeks Yumi recorded Pinky’s progress. She returned his pheromones to a normal level. She applied the reverse process to Mochi to decrease his level of pheromones to a normal balance to make sure it would work in reverse. It did.

Maybe she had a chance of impressing Dr. Brandl enough that she’d take Yumi with her to Canada.

Her next step was to experiment on herself. It wouldn’t be unethical like what they did in China because she was a willing subject, though it would be years before she’d be able to publish the results of this experiment so that it would benefit others. And if she was going to enhance her genes to change her pheromones, she could give herself any feature people found unattractive.

Yumi thought of Amira’s unibrow and smiled.


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Sunday, July 30th, 2023

by D’vorah Shaddai

Constantinople 1349

Blood. That is how it began and how it ended. Covered in blood at birth. Covered in blood at death. And in between, blood too. Women waged war birth by birth. Men waged it in muddy fields body by body. One to rip babies into being. One to reap them. It was no different for Leo. He bloodied his mother coming out of her and had been bloody ever since for the glory of Rome. He was a noble, a second son, but not offered to the church because the Empire had needed men to bleed for it, first for a civil war with the fate of a nine-year-old heir in the balance, second for a Pyrrhic victory against the Genoese meant to rebuild the navy. Though it had leeched more from Constantinople’s coffers than it had put in.

Leo’s father made a good match for his son with Theodora, and there was a happiness in it. She had already born him three children, two daughters, and a healthy son. Now a second son was here. But each time, as she pushed them into the world, they took a piece of her with them. Like shaving the skin off a fruit, she diminished. She had been churched and was still in her confinement in the tower, but Leo was permitted to visit her. The room was like a womb itself with ruby-veined marble, cloistered and smothered in heavy tapestries, tallow burning on every ledge. It smelled of women in here, of blood alien to men, of nests and dens, and secret things Leo was happy not to know.

“I am condemned to spend my life waiting outside this door.” Leo rapped his knuckles against the oak frame as he stepped inside. He was not yet gray, but his face was already starting to solidify into the carved lines that drew the boundary between youth and old age, mapped with accumulated worries and uncertainties, forged by a life of blood and war.

Theodora lay in a tangle of blankets, dirty blonde hair with a willowy frame. She was fixated on the cradle nearby, tearing herself from it only when she heard her husband. Her moss green eyes shifted over him, a dim light came on, a painful flicker that grieved him. It was a reminder of what once blazed there.

“How are you feeling, Thea?”

“Tired.” She sighed, the sound a miserable wheeze, life weary. “I want to go home. It’s a prison here, and your son knows it. He cries.”

“It won’t be much longer. Just until you’re feeling better.”

“That’s what the sisters said last time, and they kept me confined in here for well over a month until our baby was baptized and given the name of a saint.”

“This time you can choose the name of our son, my jewel.” He leaned in and kissed her pale forehead.

“Then he’ll be Antonius, named after your father.”

“He was always fond of you.”

“He was fond that I could bear you children, but he was a kind man, too kind for war.”

“Yes, he was.” But Leo wasn’t. He was there with the rest when they pitched burning bales of hay onto every warehouse and wharf on the coast of Galata. He’d seen the girl run out, a little thing, flopping around like a rag doll set on fire. She was his daughter’s age.

“How are the children?” Theodora smoothed her corn silk hair over an ear, the spill of it washed out against her white sheets.

“They miss you.”

“I miss them.” Her eyes slid over him. “And you.”

“If I could stay with you in here, I would. But the sisters won’t allow it.” He sat down beside her.

“You would regret that.” She wrinkled her nose. “The food is as flavorless as the conversation.”

“You would be enough of a feast for me.” He smiled.

“And that is why they wouldn’t allow it.” Her eyebrows shot up. “No-no, would that I were out there with you but never you in here with me.” Her voice was low and soft, and each word wounded her, carving a fresh cut into the meat beneath the skin.

“Would that Christ permit me to share your burden, Thea.”

She lifted her eyes to him. Her face, once full and flush with life, was now so pale that the intricate blueness of small veins beneath were visible at her cheek, her temple, and even traced a web along her eyelid. The thin smile on her lips was for him but pained. Theodora had been melancholy, and it was worse with each child, but today she thankfully appeared to appreciate his presence. Constantinople was losing everything slowly, and so it was at home. She was now like a deflated puffer fish flopping around on the broken and burnt shore of Galata.

“I should go.” Leo looked her over. “You need your rest.”

From the cradle came a gurgle, then a shriek, long and primal.

“I’m unlikely to get it. He is always crying.”

“He has demands to make of the world. It’s a good sign. I’ll call the wet nurse.”

“No-no, he needs me. I’m his mother. I am better today. Let me feed him.”

“You don’t need to exert yourself.”

“Please, Leo. The sisters always call for the wet nurse, and I just want to hold him, feel him latch on and drink, the way any mother would.” She winced as her son’s cries racked over her, such a big noise coming from such a tiny throat.

“Of course, you do.” He stroked her cheek, the feel of it a snow drop pressed between pages. Then he reached into the crib and cradled his wailing son in his arms. “Christ, he is a large one. Lungs made for bellows. He’ll be barrel-chested.”

He turned from his wife, rocking his squealing son back and forth in his arms, making shushing noises through his teeth, the way his mother must have done before she bled out during his birth and shushed no more. The baby started to quiet, cries becoming half-hearted, surging briefly, like an old man reading a book who found his place again only to lose it. Leo looked down at his son, this small stranger, this new life, who had sucked so much vitality from his wife, and yet, the boy was a blessing, a second son to ensure the family line like his father. He was miracle enough. The cost for more was too high. Leo would see an apothecary and find the right herbs to dampen his virility. No more children, he told himself. She could risk no more.

Theodora eyed the muscular curve of her husband’s shoulders as he cradled their son. Perhaps this was the fate of women, to stare at a man’s back while life ran out of them. “That’s how I first saw you, your back to me while you prayed in the Hagia Sophia. Our fathers had arranged for us to have a chaste glimpse of each other in the sanctity of church to bless our marriage. When I saw you turned away, I thought you must be so ugly, and they had me first lay eyes on you in church so I wouldn’t scream.”

“And was I ugly?”

“Very.” She managed the barest whisper of a smile. Theodora thrust her frail arms out, anxious to hold her baby. “Give him to me.”

Leo hesitated to put the boy in her arms. She was already so thin, wasted, a parched tree drained of sap. He could not help but feel he was a doctor delivering leeches. “Here, Thea.” He placed the pudgy-faced child into her arms. The boy already had a few golden curls.

“He has your eyes. Just like I first saw them, no meanness of the world in them. Before all the war.”

“There were a lot of befores before the war. But there is only one after.” He stroked her cheek with the back of his knuckles. “The Rus, they have these little dolls, Rusalka dolls they call them, because barbarians have no imagination.”

“That is why they are barbarians.” She laughed.

“Inside each doll is a smaller and smaller one. And I…” He wasn’t entirely sure where he was going with this, how to put it into words, that she felt like a Rus doll herself.

“Didn’t you bring one of our daughters such a doll once?”

“Yes. Once. For Demetria.”

“You’ll make a barbarian out of the girl.” She gave him a mock look of disapproval, then unlaced the front of her white dress, and a bare bosom the color of river stone slid into view. She cradled her son, bringing him to her nipple, a small and faded rosebud, faded like the rest of her. The baby jerked his mouth away from her, his cherub lips glistening with drool. He let loose a short, desperate cry. “Why does he do this?” She frowned. “Act like the milk is curdled? Am I so spoiled?”

“No, never. He’s just not hungry. Maybe he’s wet?”

“He goes at the wet nurse like her breasts are bursting with honey. He’s never turned her down.” Theodora brought the baby to her nipple again.

The boy wrenched his face away, balled up his gangly, little fist, and punched her in the breast.

“Ow! Did you see that? He hit me. He senses it. I’m soured. You were cheated. You married a woman and got a ghost.” Her head tilted down, eyes trapped somewhere in the forking tongues of red marble.

“I got a jewel. That’s what I got.” He lifted her chin and traced a thumb down the corner of her mouth. “He’s just tired, and you need your rest as well to regain your strength. That’s all.” Leo gathered his shoulder cloak about himself. It was embroidered with the Roman eagle, that futile affectation, as if the symbol of a bird could bring back the glory of ancient Rome any more than he could give his wife her strength back with platitudes and paltry advice. He was powerless in this as he had been in other things like the day he’d watched a flotilla of Genoese take out the navy from shore, and he knew somewhere in the broken bodies the gulls pecked at was his father.

Antonius wailed hard, the apples of his cheeks red with his rotten fury. His body shook with sobs.

“I’ll get the wet nurse.” Leo lifted his voice to be heard over his screeching son. “Then you can both sleep.”

“Yes, yes. Bring her.” She hugged her baby to her chest, murmuring pleas for him to stop crying. But once so started, his tears were near as impossible to end as the Fourth Crusade that had devastated Constantinople over a century ago.  

Leo stepped outside to find the wet nurse, a woman with barrel breasts in a loose chemise who was fetchingly lacking a tooth. He hurried her, anxious to get back to his wife. He could hear his son even at a distance. Little Antonius screeched worse than before, making sure all of Constantinople knew he’d found his lungs for the first time. Leo was standing just outside his wife’s door again, as he had too many times before, when he heard it. The abrupt silence like steel in his hand sliding out of the cooling remains of a man on a wounded stretch of beach. Silence. Nothing but silence. Just that. He threw open the door.

“He’s finally sleeping, Leo.” Thea kissed her baby’s head, and when she did, his neck shifted, hanging down at an impossible angle, a stick about to break off a tree. Her brow wrinkled in confusion. She tried to right his small head, but down it went again, sagging and sad.

“Thea…” Leo stepped forward, mouth wide.

The wet nurse screamed and cupped a hand to her lips. She scrambled for Theodora and wrenched the child from her. “Dead!” She cried, rocking the baby. “Oh, the little love.” She held the poor, dead thing, screaming and wailing over its limp body and collapsed to the floor.

“No-no, he’s resting. He’s just tired. Give him back.” Theodora reached for the wet nurse who shrunk away. She stared at the dead boy a moment, his tiny broken form, his golden curls that would never grow into a full crown. “Listen, Leo, do you hear him crying? Still crying?” She studied her hands. “He needs me, my sweet boy, my Antonius.”

“I need you.” He kept his eyes on his wife because he could not let them settle on the empty eyes of his still son. This fresh loss warred for a place with those that came before, each a fishhook gutting him to hollows. “We will grieve, and you will get better.” He reached out in desperation.

Theodora stretched her hand out to her husband and—

“Dead! God, dead! The little lamb…” The wet nurse cried out.

Theodora yanked her hand back. “No, I can hear him. He needs me.”

Leo’s fingers brushed against hers as he tried to catch her. He almost had her.

“I’m coming, Antonius!” She wrenched the bluing body of her son from the wet nurse and dashed out of the room, thin and wan, but with sudden vigor spurred on by the phantom cries haunting her ears. She ran up the spiraling steps of the tower.

Leo rushed after her, arms and legs moving slower, body and mind conditioned for speed on the battlefield, but sluggish to catch up to the events taking place at home, the crumbling of a world, the dying of a son, the sickening of a wife. He caught up with her at the top of the tower. What remained of Constantinople’s grandeur surrounded them, a city spun from gold and crumbling marble lucent with ghost lights. Theodora stood near the edge, framed between the battlements, their son stiffening in her arms.

“Thea, my jewel, come over to me.”

She rocked her baby, quieting what could not be made more so.

An owl swooped down behind her screeching like a baby as it lit upon some vole below. It had golden eyes like those fires in Galata.  

She turned to the edge. “I have to stop his crying.”

“No! Please, no!” Leo rushed forward, banging his knee on the battlement, blood blooming against his white tunic. His hand came down where her shoulder had been. Too late.

She hadn’t so much as jumped but slipped over the edge, a pale streak of silk, white and gold chaos. He didn’t even see her face, just her back, the curve of it like a swan’s neck swallowed into shadows, her baby tight in her arms. She remembered him at the first. He remembered her at the last. Like a stone, she dropped, the way those stones did onto the homes and shops of Galata. Unlike them, she didn’t scream. There was no sound. Nothing at all until her body broke on the bridge below. Blood. That is how it began and how it ended.

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What Goes Around

Sunday, July 23rd, 2023

by Adrianne Aron

Who could have imagined that young Emiliana, a business student in El Salvador, would one day be working as a gym teacher in California, and would decide at age fifty to write her memoirs —in English? Her memoir-writing group meets in a handsome wood-paneled room on the fourth floor of the Mechanics Institute Library in San Francisco, reached by a spectacular spiral staircase that snakes up the interior of this landmark building. Today, as her fingertips touch the curved banister and her feet make their way up the marble steps, her mind contemplates this week’s writing prompt: “Change.”

How much can change in thirty years’ time! The country you live in, the friends you tell your secrets to, the language your children speak, the kind of work you do…

And the things that don’t change? She was contemplating those, too, as she climbed the steps: the things impervious to change, that don’t expand or contract, that don’t fade or wither; that remain indestructibly faithful to themselves. What about those things? In her head, on a looping filmstrip, certain things reappeared in their exactitude, held in their track by a perverse memory guard. A voice, for instance: an intonation, a spoken phrase; a recurring dream that for thirty years plays and replays a single moment in time, the time the colonel ordered her husband out of the car.

She was walking through the university parking lot, toward Miguel, who was waiting for her in their old Toyota. A man dressed in military uniform stood next to the car and told Miguel to get out. She saw the door open. Miguel got out. Then the colonel pointed a finger at him and barked an order: “YOU: Step this way, I want to show you something.”

Miguel stepped over. The colonel raised his pistol to Miguel’s forehead.

The brains of Emiliana’s beloved husband went shooting through the air like exploded melons. His brains. Like when they killed the Jesuits that same year. The war of the terrorist government was a war against thinking.

Over and over in an endless loop, for thirty years she has been re-living the terror, those exact sounds, that precise moment. Her memoir, this testimonio, would preserve the truth of her immutable point in time, to embed it securely in the historical record, never to be lost in the great wash of change that threatens to rewrite realities.

Atop the well of the spiral staircase is a bright dome that resembles an eyeball. From time to time as Emiliana glances at it during her ascent it seems to be glancing back. On the fourth floor she will look over the banister at the coiled steps that wind up the steep grade from the landing far below. The distance is so great, a pendulum could swing in it while the earth rotates, proving as the saying goes that what goes around comes around.

The pages she wrote for today are about her life in El Salvador. Her fellow memoirists already know she went to college in the States, did some graduate work, got a credential, and started teaching when her daughter was old enough for pre-school. They know that her choice of physical education as a major had to do with a love for the martial arts, and the Chinese-immersion pre-school for Katy had to do with her marriage to Ben, the immigrant from Shanghai she met in an ESL class. School, family, life as a refugee: she’d written about those things. Today her fellow writers would hear for the first time about El Salvador—the fear and the sorrow, her brother’s detention and torture, her mother’s violent death. They would hear about Emiliana’s first eight months of widowhood, spent in hiding after the murder of her husband Miguel. She wrote a whole page describing that indelible filmstrip in her head. “YOU! Step this way…” After thirty years of being unable to talk about it, she was writing her testimonio.  

Clutching the pages torn from her heart, she climbed the spiral staircase, looking up now and then at the dome that lights the interior of the long white cylinder. From the fourth floor she will be able to look straight down into the void, to the inconspicuous piece of marble flooring at street level. She often thinks of how much her dearest Miguel would have loved the drama of that staircase. He was a student of architecture.

Emiliana used the restroom on the fourth-floor landing. When she came out, a stocky man in a leather jacket was chatting in Spanish with a woman on her way in to clean the facilities. Emiliana stepped over to the banister to enjoy her favorite view again, the vertiginous drop to the lobby, four stories straight down–splat. She was close enough now to hear the cleaning woman congratulate the man for his nephew’s award in a chess tournament. “Forget chess,” the man said. “The kid should be playing war games for real. Like me. Military: Atlacatl Battalion. Trained at the School of the Americas.” He laughed. “Been here since ’90.” In English he added: “Special-entry visa.”  

Emiliana froze, too stunned to move. She couldn’t see his face. But she knew the voice. She had been hearing that voice, trembling to it, for thirty years.

She stood at the banister that protected the winding steps from the long, treacherous drop. Such a long drop…  

The cleaning woman was in the restroom now. Only the eye of the dome was watching.

Emiliana the gym teacher took a deep breath and slowly exhaled. She flexed her strong muscles. There were thirty years of tension wound up in those muscles. She braced herself at the rail, glanced down into the void. Her throat felt like she’d swallowed rust. But she was able to speak, she knew exactly what she needed to say.

She pointed a finger at the man. “YOU! Step this way,” she barked, “I want to show you something.”     

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The last five cigarettes

Sunday, July 16th, 2023

by Mariana Busarova

Adel did not like smoking. She did not like the cigarettes. No. She felt closer to Antoan when she was taking a cigarette. It was a strange and surrealistic feeling. There were so many memories in her head. They stood there and filled her heart with grief. She fumbled into her purse and got her cigarette box. There were only five cigarettes in it. She would never smoke after finishing them. She would never touch a cigarette again. And she would bury her sacred memories for Antoan deeply in her mind. She would never turn back here, in this bar. It was their bar.

She would leave him to rest in peace.

Adel rolled the cigarette between her thin fingers and closed her eyes. She remembered how he was fiercely pulling at the cigarette and was half-closing his dark, almost black eyes. There was a delight in them. She remembered the little wrinkles around his eyes. They were there because he loved smiling. Antoan also loved to make her smile.

– Do not mind my words – he said once – I have a bit strange sense of humour. Sometimes it is maybe blue.

Antoan’s face was hidden in the smoke. His crooked smile was so unique. He was a unique man. First, she thought he was shy, no matter whether he was the centre of the company, telling spicy jokes and teasing. Once he sat down near her, here in this bar, and all night he was asking her if he was too boring.

He did not bore her. That night imprinted in her mind. It was the start of their common future life. The time they were together was so short but so luscious. It was like a sparkler. Like fire. Like a bonfire for their hearts.

Because of Antoan, she left her boyfriend. 

– You leave me because of this ugly man of no account! He hasn’t even a penny in his pocket, Adel! – said her former boyfriend with contempt. 

– No – she answered – I leave you because you do not notice me!

– What are you talking about, Adel? We go out together every weekend!

Yes, they were together and at the same time, there were thousands of miles of distance between them. 

– It is all over a long time ago – Adel said – I am just a beautiful trophy on your lapel! I am out of this insignificant role. 

After that Adel and Antoan became a couple. Lovers. Friends. They loved each other strongly. She felt so well with him. Her soul was whole. It was true he was not well educated. He didn’t have much money but it was not so important. The most important was they had love. They lived well. Adel had a little apartment and they shared it. She also worked a good, well-paid job. Antoan worked in the building construction business but had a bit harsh character. It was happening to separate him from his employers because of a sharp remark or a kind of disobedience. He used to beat with “windmills”… These things did not matter between him and Adel. Antoan was not a lazy bagger. He succeeded to gain enough to cover their expenses. They had enough also to go and get some drinks in their favourite bar. Usually, they were making pleasant trips around the towns and villages near the sea every weekend. Adel had a little car and she was a good driver. She was squeezing with her tiny “Peugeot” through the narrow streets near the shore. Antoan did not want to drive at all.

– It is a long story – he said, when she asked him – And rather sad.

After that, he gulped loudly as if he needed to gain strength to continue.

– Some years ago I hit a boy. He was on a walkway. My hand hurt extremely… I was exhausted then but it is not an excuse.

– And the boy?

– His leg was broken. He recovered, but I still have nightmares, my love! What would happen if I had killed him? I cannot forgive myself for such a thing. Driving is not for me. I am too absent-minded!

Those words closed the topic. Adel drove the car and organized their little lovely trips and Antoan did his best to finish his following order and finance it.

Adel rolled once again the cigarette between her elegant fingers. It was like she was afraid to fire it. One cigarette less was diminishing the reasons to come back here.

She heard a crack of a lighter and the sound dragged her out of the daze of memories. Adel stared at the little fire and lightened the cigarette. The edge burst with fire in a sharp red. She breathed out quickly the cigarette smoke and some curly clouds floated around her nose. They memorised her for Antoan and the passionate way he was smoking.

– I love the little pleasures in life, Adel – said he once – We do not have to abandon them. We, the people, are weak creatures. We are also sinful. These tiny sins are part of us.

Adel raised her face and gazed at the owner of the lighter. He was tall and swarthy. His eyes were bright and warm.

– Do I disturb you? – his deep-toned voice suited him.

Adel sucked on the cigarette, thinking about what to say. During these nights, devoted to Antoan and her memories, she used to give a curt refusal to anyone’s attempts to get close to her. The man in front of her did not look like he is looking for a flirt. Yes, he was staying close to her, but in his eyes, she sаw first of all sympathy, not a hint of desire.

– I don’t know what to answer – she said finally – I do not need company.

– Yes, it is obvious – he nodded – I just decided you don’t have a lighter because you hold this cigarette for about fifteen minutes.

Adel smiled.

– You observe me for so long?

– You are beautiful… I am just saying. It is a fact. You are also very sad, lady! The pain is like an aura around you.

– I am sad. It is true.

Adel pointed to the chair next to her.

– You may sit down if you want.

– If I disturb you…

She shook her head.

– I would probably need this lighter again – she said.

– Good. I am Antonio. Antonio Silvano – he introduced himself.

A shudder went through her whole body. Fate was making jokes with her! Suddenly she felt sorry that she invited him to sit down. She breathed loudly and bit her lip.

– What is the matter? – asked Antonio.

His eyes became darker.

– Did I say something wrong?

– No – a tear rolled down her cheek and held on her chin.

Antonio quickly gave her a paper napkin.

– I upset you somehow… Sorry!

– It is because of your name – she whispered – Me, I am Adel… Your name remembers me of a man who was very close to my heart – her voice was so hushed that he hardly heard her words – I loved him so much, but I lost him. Not today or yesterday but I miss him so, so…

– Sometimes time does not matter, lovely and sad, Adel. Never is enough long ago – said Antonio – Would you like something to drink?

– A glass of rose wine – she answered.

Antonio offered a bottle of wine with two glasses.

After that, she retold him about the other Tony in her life.

– You know – started Adel – Sometimes our life is a sequence of miserable circumstances. When all went wrong, you ask yourself – but if I? If I have made another choice? Maybe then everything would come to another end? – she stubbed out her cigarette in the ashtray – Oh, my God! A whole year passed, and I feel like I have made just a blink, and here – all this time is gone! I feel like this year has never happened to me. I have nothing to remember. Just sadness – Adel took the fourth cigarette and bent her head down to the lighter Antonio held – One day before I lost him, we went for a little walk in the forest. It became rainy, and unfortunately, I slipped and sprained my ankle. It hurt so much, and I could not bring Antoan to his work the other day. He needed some machinery and a ladder. He had to go there and finish his work. He had given a promise, and he insisted on holding his word. Yes, he was this kind of man! I insisted on taking the car. I persuaded him to drive my car. Maybe I had to set my teeth, no matter the pain in my leg, and drove him to work! The evening, when he was turning at home, someone pulled him out of the road, and the car slipped into a ravine. He had a brain injury. I was talking and talking until he was lying there in the hospital, but he did not wake up. Probably he did not hear even a word. A month after that, he faded away. I lost him, no matter how much I loved him. 

– I think he has been hearing your words, Adel.

– How could you know?

– We are not just bodies. Our souls matter. He has been there, listening to you. He has understood all you have told him, but you know well – not everything is under our control. Just a few things are. About eventualities – what can we do? It wasn’t your fault that your Tony died. That person who pulled him out of the road was guilty. 

The bottle with rose wine was empty. In the box, there was just one lonely cigarette. 

– I have to go to the graveyard, to be with him… to bring him some cigarettes. I smoke just because I want to remember him. I have just a single cigarette in the box, you see. I am going to finish with this bad habit on his grave. 

-There are just a few hours till dawn – Antonio said – Would you like to make a little walk together? I know, many hours passed after midnight, but I do not feel sleepy.

-You got me drunk and now you are kidnapping me? – she gave him a little smile.

-Yes, I am taking you with me and you do not have a reason to deny my proposal – he also smiled – I am taking you away from all self-recriminations and grievous memories. Maybe my name will give you good luck.

-You think fate gives me another chance?

-Might be. Probably fate gives you a sign that life has to go on. It is a cliché, but what else to do?

In the morning, in the graveyard,  Adel said “A Dieu” to Antoan. The tip of her last cigarette flashed in scarlet red and died out.

One other Tony waited for her in front, on the alley.

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Natural To Fly

Sunday, July 9th, 2023

By Nancy Cook

Everything was pretty quiet downtown, it being Sunday and all. My head was in serious need of a caffeine fix and I was craving a muffin, or anything with sugar. I’d just been to a meeting where a guy had been agonizing because he’d had a relapse, whimpering about how he didn’t have desire enough to stop. Sometimes you just ache to be up there soaring with the planets, he said. Yeah, I thought, I’ve been there.

So I was considering this a little later as I rounded the corner on 8th Avenue, when out of the narrow sky between hotels there came a blast. It rained glass. A taxi’s tires crunched the fragments like they were ice. Up above I could see someone falling, really fast. Arms outstretched in a dive. Then, like a quarter, the body flipped, and it dropped face-up. Just like that it was on the pavement. Broken. Dead.

Police brought efficiency to the scene. I was the only witness, or so I was told. I did what I could. “You’ve checked his room?” I asked. “Maybe someone else was there. There might be a weapon, or a note,” I told them. “A reason or a clue. Who called you? What could break that window? Did someone want to hurt him? Don’t you care? Who is he?”

“Ma’am,” they said, “what we have here is an apparent suicide.”

The man was draped with a heavy cloth, like a lone piece of furniture left in a storage warehouse. They painted a huge ring around him, neon yellow, right there in the middle of the street. Outside that circle, free to be scavenged, were a plastic hotel keycard, sunglasses, and two fine leather shoes facing opposite directions. 

I waited hours for the coroner. A couple times I thought to call a friend or maybe my sponsor, but it seemed a sacrilege to break into the atmosphere like that. Sunday foot traffic inched by. Most people were hush-hush, but one guy, maybe showing off for his woman, said kinda loud, “It’s unnatural to fly.”

But hawks fly, don’t they? And angels. Kites, bats, years. And junkies.

Finally, a sterile van came and wiped the roadway clean. See-through plastic gloves lifted a stretcher into the back end of the anonymous wheeled coffin.

Nothing got reported on the news. I checked the precinct the next day; the report on file revealed only what I already knew. No name. Not a hint about who the guy was. Not one.

Faceless man, I don’t know your story, but you didn’t die alone. In those seconds – was it five? Or thirty? – I felt with you an intimacy greater than I’ve ever known.

We flew.

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Blood Curse

Sunday, July 2nd, 2023

by Muhammad Musa

On a stormy evening, a cab scrambled through the streets of Manhattan. The wet road didn’t seem to trouble the driver. The four o’clock looked like an hour after dusk. The periodic thunderclaps indicated that it was gonna take a while to calm down. The cab screeched to a halt in front of the 20th precinct. The passenger appreciated the pace and granted a hefty tip to the driver. A black lady in her early thirties emerged from the vehicle. The outfit and the lack of umbrella or raincoat told that the weather wasn’t as rabid when she had taken off. The cabbie screeched off as soon as she was no longer his responsibility. She held a plastic file on top of her head and rushed to the main gate. Fortunately, an officer was waiting for her with a spare umbrella. She gladly accepted it. Not much damage had occurred to the file.

“I guess Dorian isn’t as heartless as they say he is”, she spoke to the African American officer escorting her inside. The officer chuckled. Something in his laugh gave up that he begged to differ. Well, he was the one standing in the storm, waiting for a woman he had never met.

“So, what’s this about, Jeremy?”, she tried to strike up a conversation with the guy. He was shocked to hear his name but then he saw his ID dangling around his neck. He wanted to avoid any interaction with the woman who had caused him to stand in the rain for half an hour.

“Cap didn’t tell me nothing. He just ordered me to receive you. That’s about it”, he responded with a shrug. They made the rest of the walk in silence. The precinct looked deserted from the outside but the inside was another story. The officers scampered around the center with paperwork to be processed. A number of them waited on couches with apprehended suspects with their hands cuffed behind their backs. The suspects glared at everything with sheer hatred. There was little doubt that they would burn the place down to the ground if given the narrowest opportunity. The officers responsible to get them over with did not look thrilled with the company as well. A tattooed suspect was hurling all sorts of profanities at the officer responsible for his arrest. The officer took it with a “Yeah” every now and then. It only infuriated the guy even further. The only thing common between the two sides of law was that they were all soaked. And of course, the janitor was pissed.  Lieutenant Jeremy led the lady through the labyrinth of corridors to a room that stood out from the others. The plaque said, “Captain A. S. Dorian”. The Lieutenant slightly opened the door and announced her arrival.

“Send her in!”, a rough voice was heard from inside. Jeremy motioned the lady to step inside and she did. The Lieutenant disappeared. Captain Dorian extinguished his cigarette and stood up to welcome her. He looked in his fifties and wore suspenders to make his pants cling to his plump frame. There were no facial hair and the head was bald except for the crescent at the back.

“Detective Gloria Henderson! You haven’t aged a bit!”, he exclaimed and reached out his hand. “But you have!”, Gloria responded and shook his hand. Dorian chuckled. “Still the fox in the guise of a sheep”, he whispered just loud enough for her to hear it. They had a lot of catching up to do. They hadn’t seen each other in almost two decades. It started from kids and family, and ended on cholesterols and diabetes. Both of them seemed to enjoy it until Gloria remembered that she still had no idea why her friend from the past had called her from miles away on such a short notice. Surely it wasn’t for nostalgic purposes, she thought.

“So, is everything alright? You sounded troubled on the phone”, Gloria tried to revert to the matter at hand.

“Yeah! Yeah! Why I called you, yes!”, Captain was back on track. “Sorry I called you so far from your precinct. You remember? The shitstorm at the Reverend Orphanage?”, he added. Gloria remembered the events too vividly. It was one of the first cases assigned to her and everyone else in the department happily let her take it. The most scarring series of events that made her question everything she believed in. Gloria saw a burning orphanage in front of her as her ears filled with distant screams of despair and a group of children, blackened by the smoke, stared up at her. Their eyes asked all sorts of questions she wasn’t ready to answer.

Gloria snapped out of it. “Yes. The senior most nun jumped to her death, the orphanage burned to the ground a day later and we were left with a dozen orphaned children to scatter around into different orphanages. Did I miss anything?”, Gloria responded and gave away that she still wasn’t at peace with it. Dorian sensed her uneasiness with the memory. She was staring into nothingness every now and then. He was starting to think if he had made a mistake hauling her into this.

“I was thinking that you worked on the case so …”, the captain tried to soften the impact.

“It’s fine. What changed?”, Gloria rushed him to the point.

Dorian was slightly relieved. “Umm… You remember the siblings? The brother and sister?”, he asked. He had assumed that the two had left a mark in her memory and right he was. Her eyes widened as soon as she heard about them. They were the strangest children she had ever met. Not one thing about them was ordinary. Mere memory of them gave her the creeps. She managed a nod.

“The sister is waiting for you in the interrogation room”, Captain Dorian spoke. It hit Gloria like a truck. She wasn’t ready to see any of those children let alone the ones she dreaded the most. Her feelings transformed and she felt pity for them. She shook her head in disappointment. It wasn’t a rarity to find an orphanage child who ended up a criminal. But Gloria would totally throw something at his face if he had made her come through a storm to tell her that.

“Shoplifting?”, she asked.

“It’s about the orphanage. She wants to tell what actually happened”, Captain responded ready for an onslaught. The calm on her face vanished.

“Come on! You were my superior officer. You could have taken care of it yourself!”, she erupted, “And it was thirteen years ago! She was just five back then. What could she possibly remember accurately?!”, she added.

“She asked for you by your name. It wasn’t my decision. And the few things she told me before asking for you, were precisely what I found in the report”, Dorian explained. He wanted to get this over with. Gloria wasn’t the only one who suffered the toll of that terrible event. He was the superior officer and playing “Too mature to feel anything” was half his job. “I know you want answers too”, he added. Gloria sighed.

She gave in. “Is she still Abigail? Or…”, she asked.

“Yeah, she never got adopted but her brother was taken in by a wealthy family. We don’t know if he is still Cody or not though”, Dorian responded and handed her a file that contained every recorded fact about the orphanage and the children. Gloria’s feeling of pity grew. What further pained her was the fact that the person who relocated her and stayed in her life for only a week or so, was the only person the kid trusted to call. Thirteen years! And she still didn’t have anyone to trust. Dorian was restless to take her to the interrogation room. Gloria agreed.

They entered the observation room behind the two-way mirror. A table and three chairs occupied the dimly lit colorless room. Abigail looked sleepy perhaps because of the endless waiting she had to pull herself through. The officers deducted that she was doing well by what she wore. A black leather jacket that looked right off the mannequin and so did the torn jeans. Half of her hair were dyed pink. Everything about her looked expensive. But when it came to the person wearing those things, she looked defeated.

“Where did you find her?”, Gloria asked after staring at her for a while.

“We didn’t. She found us.”, the Captain’s answer bred more questions than answers. Gloria gawked at Dorian then the file. There was absolutely nothing helpful about Abigail or her brother in the file. Every orphan had some sort of background or history but when it came to those two, Nothing. Not even a surname. The file only stated that they were found asleep at the door of the orphanage a year before it burned to ashes. Gloria gathered up some courage and abruptly left the observation room to get down to business.

As she entered the interrogation room, Abigail had no trouble recognizing the police officer who took care of her and her brother on one of the darkest nights they had seen. She sprang up to her feet and hugged Gloria. Gloria was caught off guard but she hugged her back eventually. They both took seats at the opposite ends of the table. Gloria didn’t want to skip the pleasantries. “Thirteen years huh?”, she muttered. Abigail nodded. “Your brother?”, Gloria asked.

“Haven’t seen him in years. He got adopted and we were separated”, Abigail responded. Gloria didn’t know where to head now. Abigail came up with an assist. “I … wanted to talk about the orphanage”, she spoke.

“The fire?”, Gloria asked, trying to get it as specific as possible.

“Yeah and everything that led to it”, said Abigail. A few cogs turned in Gloria’s head. She remembered the Nun that jumped. The girl caught Gloria’s eyes widen and she added, “Yeah, that too”. Dorian stared through the mirror trying to make sense of things.

“So, you know who did all that?”, Gloria questioned with a confused gape.

“Well, I was the one in the middle of it so …”, the girl spoke. Gloria gave her a puzzled look.

“I don’t know if I did any of it but I may have caused it”, Abigail added. The look of confusion on Gloria’s face didn’t seem to diminish. “I think I am dangerous. I need to be put under watch or more lives will be lost”, she continued with panic in her tone. She was begging to be arrested. Gloria was having all sorts of thoughts now.

“Baby, you can’t claim to have done all that without any evidence. Do you have anything to back your confession?”, She fired. The look on her face had changed. She had seen teenagers trying to get arrested to hide from creditors but pulling a burned down orphanage and a dead nun into it, would be the most heartless crap she had ever seen. Abigail could see it on her face that she wasn’t buying it.

“A group of girls bullied me at the school. Three of them have died and I wanted them to die. You need to believe me!”, Abigail pleaded. Gloria was suddenly more invested.

“When?”, Gloria asked.

“Last week”, she replied. Gloria rushed out of the room and Dorian met her outside with the answers. She asked Dorian about the deaths. He admitted that Abigail was right about the death of three high school girls in the past week and they went to the same school. Gloria was thoughtful.

“But one drove into a tree, one fell off a ladder and one took a bath with a toaster. Two accidents and a suicide. None of them looked suspicious”, he added. “Not even the parents reported anything”, he continued. Gloria rushed back into the interrogation room and Dorian reclaimed his spot on the other side of the mirror.

“One suicide and two accidents?”, Gloria rhetorically inquired. Abigail sighed.

“The cheerleader regularly practiced her act where she jumped from the ladder and all the boys gathered to watch her. I wanted her to die in front of them. The rich brat was too proud of her convertible sports car. Her gang once shot paintballs at hobos. I wanted her to die in that car”.

“The suicide?”, Gloria asked.

“I hated her the most. She was the worst of the lot and the strongest. I wanted to show everyone how weak she was. At some points I just wanted them all to die but I didn’t wanna kill them. Yet they are dead anyway”, added Abigail. Gloria was thoughtful for a moment but declared,” Still no evidence!” after a few seconds. Gloria was starting to think if the long trip was for nothing. If that was the case, Dorian was going to get a piece of her mind. Dorian was also losing all interest in the matter. He suddenly sensed that something was off. Then it hit him that Abigail was staring directly into his eyes through the mirror. He moved to the side but her eyes followed his. He charged into the interrogation room sweating and panting.

“What the hell are you!?!”, he shouted at Abigail. Gloria was stunned. Abigail calmly stood up to deescalate the situation and he flinched.

“I just want you to believe me! I am unintentionally hurting people around me and you just witnessed that I am capable of unexplainable things”, Abigail implored. Gloria stared at Dorian, looking for some explanation. “She can see through”, he whispered, panting. Her shocked gaze shifted to Abigail who looked genuinely sorry to alarm them. Dorian took his time but eventually collected himself.

“But how?”, asked Dorian, still hoping to wake up any time soon from the nightmare.

“My Mother. I inherited it from her”.

“How can you be so sure?”

“I remember very vividly what she told me”.

“But you were only four when you were left at the orphanage!”

“She made sure that I never forget whatever I heard from her that day”, the girl explained.

The room was silent now. Both the officers had given up trying to make any sense of it. They sat speechlessly at one end of the steel table. Gloria felt shiver run down her spine. She would have never been that scared if it weren’t for Dorian’s state when he entered the room. Both of them were trying to figure out a suitable course of action. The Captain left the room and returned, a moment later, with an audio recording device.

“Go on, start from the very beginning. I wouldn’t mind adding something to the empty file of yours”, Dorian spoke as he placed the device at the center of the table. Gloria looked at Dorian, bewildered.

“Don’t tell me you have something better to do. Besides, there’s a storm out there. You’re gonna have to wait anyway”, Dorian convinced Gloria and he didn’t need to try too hard. The thunder claps were clearly audible inside the building. It was going to take a while. “What harm could it possibly do?”, she thought to herself. When they settled at the table, Abigail started to speak.

“My mother’s name was Edna. Can’t remember the surname. She was born in a small village in Slovenia. She belonged to a respected family with a rich history. The family had a tradition of inbreeding. No family member was allowed to step out of the village. When she turned fifteen, her parents let her know about the supernatural powers the family inherited. They helped her control it. Everyone in the family was gifted in some sphere of powers. She had the power to influence people’s minds. Her parents devoted more time to her training than any of her siblings because they understood the threat her powers posed”.

“But how did she end up here though?”, Dorian cut in, irritating the other two occupants in the room. Gloria glared at him.

“I was getting there”, Abigail spoke again. “When she was twenty, a traveling circus visited the village. All the villagers swarmed to watch the shows. She was also among the audience. They had never watched a circus before. To them it was nothing short of magic. The blinding lights, the music, the fireworks, the acrobatics, it all bought the entire village. One of the most applauded acts was the magic show. A young magician with a long coat and a top hat picked volunteers from the crowd. My mother was one of them. Everyone got lost in his acts but she got lost in him. The feeling was mutual. They met after the show and she decided to run off with him. The circus stayed for a week before moving to other cities and when they did, Edna vanished with them. The magician kept her as his assistant. They moved across Europe for a year until a contractor offered the magician a chance to move to the USA. He offered him a contract for ten years. He accepted the offer without any hesitation and moved to the states with Edna. They both loved the country”, she continued.

“If they moved legally, we might get something from the immigration office”, Dorian spoke up again.

“I doubt it”, said Abigail. “He got the gigs as promised and money started to flow in. Edna was living her best life. The two got married. It all went well until the contractor vanished from the face of the Earth. Money went scarce and the magician slipped into depression. He started drinking. Mama now had two children and a drunk to look after. She started working as a maid. Things turned bitter when he started to throw his hands at her but she convinced herself that it was just a phase and it would pass. It only grew. Slaps became punches. One night, she couldn’t be home early for her daily beating so he took it out on me. Mama took one look at my black eye and I saw her face change. She didn’t need any enchantment to make me remember the beating or what she looked like when she dabbed my eye with a warm cloth”, she added.

Dorian’s phone buzzed. It was a weather alert. “Holy shit!”, he exclaimed. He showed videos of floods in different states and cities. Cars were seen floating. People had pulled out their boats to help their neighbors. “What’s the status in NYC?”, asked Gloria. Dorian shuffled in his phone, trying to look for the answer. “I wouldn’t call it a flood but it ain’t a beautiful day either”, he responded.

“Sorry, you go ahead”, the Captain said as he saw the look of distress on Abigail’s face. She sighed. She doubted if the two were even trying to believe her.

“Mama started thinking of doing something about it. Still she hoped if it would pass. One day, he came home drunk and enraged as always and yanked Cody up in the air. Cody could barely walk. Mama decided to intervene. She succeeded in freeing Cody but not before taking half a dozen or so blows. He called her everything nasty that came to his wasted mind and ambled to his room. My mother and Cody cried for hours. It was after a while that she realized why Cody wouldn’t calm down. His right arm was limp. Something snapped in her that day and she fell silent for the next few days”, Abigail continued his testimony. She zoned back into the interrogation room and found the two officers listening to her story wide eyed. Their faces comforted her that at least they were lending her an ear.

“Do you remember his name?”, Gloria managed to ask. She was trying to pick every actionable piece of information to put this story to paper, if it proved to be worth it.

“I remember hearing mama call him Seb but I’m not sure”.

“Your house…”

“Some project in Detroit. Can’t remember more than that”

“What happened after Cody got hurt?”, the officers tried to bring her back to the subject.

“He got run over by a truck right in front of our house”, Abigail resumed. The ease with which the girl spoke of such events, made both the officers rather uncomfortable. Gloria walked out of the room. Dorian waited for some explanation that never arrived. There was a brief silence in the room. Dorian asked her to resume.

“Police came and tried to make sure if Mama was able to keep us fed and clothed. Mama tried her best but couldn’t convince them. My black eye gave them wrong ideas. The cops took all three of us to the police station where they asked me the same questions ten times. They kept asking if Mama had hit me while I kept negating and crying. One of the cops hinted that we could be snatched from our mother. I had no idea what they were doing to Mama”, she continued. Gloria burst through the door with a freshly printed paper in her hand. She threw it on the table in front of Dorian and he examined it. It was the summary of a hit and run case near a project in Detroit. The victim was a Balkan illegal immigrant. The truck driver swore in his official statement that the victim was drunk but all alcohol and narcotic tests came back negative. No living relatives were identified. There was nothing found in his pockets except for a harmonica with “Sebastian” engraved on it but the engraving was deemed not enough to be used as identity. Dorian’s eyes widened as soon as he read the name. He glanced at Gloria and she gave him a knowing look. He looked back at the paper and found the date. Less than a year before the siblings were found outside the orphanage. Abigail was oblivious to the contents of the paper. The interest of the two officers in the testimony had significantly grown. 

“What happened at the police station?”, asked Dorian.

“I was sitting alone in the office of the captain, when mama arrived with Cody in her arms. She sat us both in the car and drove off”, she resumed.

“A car? Didn’t the police take you guys to the station?”

“Yes, they did. We drove away in a patrol car”.

“And nobody stopped you?”

“No”, replied Abigail. Her each word was making Dorian more and more confused. He sighed.

“So, she had no relatives or friends in the country. Where was she headed?”

“Nowhere. She kept on driving for hours and took us to a beach. Cody and I were so happy. She brought us something to eat. We spent the rest of the day on the beach and the night in the car. Since we had a car now, I insisted that we go somewhere new. She agreed and took us to Disneyland”, she went on. Dorian had so many questions. Edna shouldn’t have the money to afford it or to drive all the way there. And that much drive in a patrol car would have definitely raised some suspicions. He decided to let her speak on. “We spent a day there. It was the best day of my life. Suddenly I woke up in the car and we were still at the beach”, she added, expecting a shocked reaction. She received it. The two officers were sure they had misheard her. Dorian was about to confirm what he had heard when his phone buzzed. It was a call from a detective who wanted to speak to him urgently. He expertly handled it and asked for a minute. He hung up and sat there silent.

“That bully group of yours, did it have an Amy Silverton?”, he asked after a long deliberation. The response was a knowing “Yes”. He sighed. “Guess who just got nailed!”, he added.

“Did it involve her father and his temper?”, Abigail asked perceptively. Dorian’s eyes widened and he was starting to feel scared. He wasn’t sure what to feel about all this. All his life he had been trained to believe in facts and logic. The Abigail matter was beyond all that. So, his head decided to stick with fear. Gloria on the other hand was stranded between fascinated and straight up confused. Abigail decided to break the silence.

“As I stepped out of the car, I looked back and saw my brother fast asleep. Mama came running at me and I was trying to put together the words when I snapped back at Disneyland. I spent hours there trying to find a way out. The place where I spent the best time of my life just a few minutes ago, turned into hell for me, knowing that it was not real. The rides, the costumes, the blinking lights laughed at my face”, she spoke and the officers listened, staring at the walls. She continued, “I eventually woke up back into the parked car at the beach. Mama was in the driving seat. She saw me troubled and tried to comfort me. I cried inconsolably and pleaded that we drive away from here. She eventually gave in and drove off. We were going to her parent’s or so she said. She drove for hours on end. We crossed multiple toll booths. I had never visited them. She stopped every once in a while, at drive-throughs and hot dog stands. The long trip left me drowsy and I passed out. Hours passed and the car kept moving. I woke up and found myself back at the damned beach. It was dark outside. I jumped out of the car. Mama was just outside the door. I ran head first into her. She held me in her arms and comforted me. She was crying and so was I. She put her head on my shoulder and wept her heart out. I was walked back to the car and she promised to take me somewhere safe. I didn’t believe it. She caressed my head and told me everything as she drove off”.

“Your father?”

“Yeah. She made him see that he was walking inside the house when in reality, he was on the road. She explained how her abilities worked. She could make others see what she wanted. She told me all about her past and the ‘ever-remembering spell’ she put on me. I can almost hear her speak right now”, she added.


“It wasn’t a spell. She could make someone remember or forget something”, she responded. “When she was done, she tucked me in with my brother. When I woke up, I was relieved that the beach was nowhere to be seen but neither was mama. Cody and I were surrounded by nuns. They asked us a lot of questions. I couldn’t answer one of them. They took us in”.

“The nun that jumped. Anything we should know?”

“She used to beat the children every time they dropped a spoon or woke up late. Eventually, me and my brother ended up at the longer end of the stick. I hated her with every cell in my body. The night she died, I was in her office on the top floor, waiting to receive a beating. I kept glaring at her as she was freeing herself before she dealt with me. The only thing she enjoyed in her job. She stood up to get to the toilet. I knew where she wanted to go. I closed my eyes and imagined the way to her toilet. At that point, I didn’t even know if I had inherited it. I just wanted to know what it would feel like. In her mind, she turned right for the toilet but in reality, she walked straight into the window in front of her. That’s the only time I have consciously used my powers”.

At that point, the two officers just gaped at her telling the corrupted fairytale. None of them wanted to believe it but the accounts and events were too consistent to ignore. “About the fire, I hated the place but I had no hand in that”, she added.

“What did Amy used to gloat about?”, Gloria dragged her back to business.

“Her father was a thug. Ran with some biker gang. She used him to intimidate other girls and their boyfriends. He even beat up a few of them”. The pattern was simple enough. Gloria didn’t need to ask more.

“If this is some sort of a prank. This is a good time to shout ‘sike!’ and go home”, Dorian butted in.

“I am Dangerous. I don’t know how to stop it. I didn’t want those girls to actually die. I just fantasized about it and it happened”.

“Didn’t your mother need to be near the victim for her powers to work?”

“Yeah. But I guess my crap works from a distance too”.

Captain Dorian pressed a button on the recorder and motioned Gloria to have a word in private. They both stood up and walked to the end of the room with the double side mirror. They spoke in a hushed tone.

“You believe her?”, Gloria warily asked.

“I believed her the moment she saw me through the damn mirror. The kind of shit she claims to be able to pull off, she just might be hearing us right now”, Dorian responded.

“She may be an adult but we risk bloodbath putting her in jail with people looking for trouble”, said Gloria.

“Yeah. We can get her to a mental asylum. Maybe they’ll find some way to numb it”.

“I guess. None of this will stand in front of a jury. We’ll need to skip the paperwork”.

Dorian agreed. The lights flickered and a thunderous gunshot pulled their attention away from the interrogation room. It came from the reception area. Captain was ready to go and check it out when more gunshots followed. He looked back at Gloria and the girl, wondering if they had also heard the ruckus. He found Gloria with a gun in her hands aimed at him. 

“What in the…!?! Put down the fucking gun!”, he shouted and unholstered his own pistol. Gloria was bewildered and pleaded with the captain to holster his gun with her empty hands in the air.

“I won’t warn you again! Put the gun on the ground! Now!”, Dorian yelled even louder than the last time.

“What gun!?! You gone mad or something!?!”, Gloria snapped but all Captain Dorian saw was a woman he brought here as his friend, pointing a gun at his head with an emotionless face he could barely recognize.

There was no weapon on her. Her handgun lay dormant in her purse that sat on the table. The kind of supernatural things Abigail had been telling them, made Gloria suspect her hand in this. She looked at the girl and found her looking genuinely puzzled and scared. The commotion outside the interrogation room grew tenfold. It sounded like a full-scale shootout like in the westerns. Gloria figured some gang had pulled off the attack to free some prisoners.

“Last warning! I WILL shoot!”, Dorian gave the final ultimatum.

“For the last fucking time, I don’t have a …”, Gloria’s response was cut short by Dorian’s gun going off. Abigail gasped loudly. The bullet kissed Gloria’s arm. She dashed to her purse, dodging Dorian’s bullets. She pulled out her handgun, took a shot in a single fluid motion and ducked behind the table as she took the shot and found Abigail there, screaming with her hands on her ears. The chaos inside the interrogation room stopped. The two crept out from behind the cover and found Dorian bleeding from his throat on the ground, gurgling in his own blood. He looked scared beyond comprehension. Gloria instantly regretted pulling the trigger. Her best friend who had been a mentor to her, was dying by a bullet from her gun. She rushed to help him. It was a lost cause. He let out a few strained coughs and fell limp. Her legs felt cold. Abigail swore and pleaded that it wasn’t her but it was all but a distant echo in Gloria’s head. She couldn’t stop staring at Dorian’s lifeless body leaking what looked like gallons of blood. His white shirt was barely recognizable. A shotgun shell pulled Gloria back to reality. She grabbed Abigail’s hand and escorted her, with both of their heads down, to the control room that was in the basement. As she grabbed Abigail’s hand, she felt her arm burning and she remembered that she had just been shot. The control room hosted a dozen LCDs that displayed the feed from the numerous CCTV cameras around the precinct. The room was also the closest room with a gun locker so it made two reasons for Gloria to head there. Lucky for them, the stairwell was just across the corridor. They ducked and ran to it. There was no gunfight in the corridor but Gloria decided against taking any risk.

The room was deserted as Gloria had expected. The officers deputed there were probably in the firefight at the center of the precinct. She darted to the LCD that displayed the live-feed from the area. It was a bloodbath. Corpses were scattered as far as she could see. She gasped and stared in disbelief. The cops and the suspects were all butchered. There were no signs of any survivors. Her vision blurred as her eyes welled up. The scene looked dormant. Shots could be heard through the microphone on the camera but they were coming from the other rooms. She snapped out of it. She wanted answers. Gloria rewound the feed to get to the point where it all started. She saw herself walking through the officers and suspects, being escorted by Jeremy. She fast forwarded it. What she found left her with more questions than answers. An officer pulled out his pistol and shot a suspect being held by another officer. No question, no warnings and no hesitation. The officer looked frightened. It all went south as soon as he shifted his aim to another officer. As he was downed, another officer had an itchy trigger finger. It went on until there were none left to put down the hostile ones. She put the screen back to live-feed and nothing had changed. If she was to get out of here alive to tell the story, she was going to have to fight through the last of the gunshots. Gloria instinctively looked at the gun locker and found it open. The officers deputed there had left in a panic. One shotgun stood idly in there. She grabbed the first aid kit sitting on top of the locker. She placed a makeshift bandage on the wound on her arm. Gloria left the room with Abigail and the shotgun.

“Stay down and close to the walls!”, Gloria said as she led the way. They slowly reached the center. The gunfight had stopped. No survivors, as she saw on the feed. The two navigated through the corpses and made their way to the door. The two warily emerged out of the building. Gloria wondered what she was going to find outside. It was dark now. The rain hadn’t stopped. In the flash of the thunder, she found the first sign of life since Dorian bled out. A young pale boy wearing a gray hoodie glared at her. Gloria clutched her weapon and looked for quick movements. The boy’s emotions changed as soon as he laid his eyes on Abigail. Abigail’s initial response was of surprise but soon she was fuming with rage. She marched right at him and smacked him across his face.

“It was you!?!”, she yelled.

“Nice to see you too sis”, he responded sarcastically as he checked if his lip was bleeding.

“What the fuck did you think you were doing!?!”

“Hunting elephants! What does it look like? I’m busting you out”, Cody erupted. Gloria spectated the weird exchange, wondering when it would start to make some sense. Abigail gasped as if something had been revealed to her.

“The girls at the school. It was you, wasn’t it?”, she inquired and Cody offered a proud smirk. She was furious. She started hitting him on his chest. The blows didn’t do much to the boy. “I didn’t need your fucking help! I was trying to avert all this”, she yelled. He was confused and to some point, irritated by his sister’s ungratefulness. He caught a glimpse of Gloria staring at them and asked, “Is she friendly?”. He raised his open palm and aimed it at her.

“Stop! Don’t you dare!”, Abigail shouted and pushed him away. Gloria felt dizzy and blacked out.

The next day, Gloria woke up in a hospital and as soon as she did, a nurse dashed out of the room. It didn’t take her long to remember why she was there. A minute later, the Chief of NYPD and the DA sat across from her, waiting for her to get ready to be questioned. The chief didn’t look particularly pleased. The DA warmly approached her.

“How are you feeling?”, he kicked off the conversation. She nodded.

“How long was I out?”, she barely managed.

“Four hours tops”, the DA did all the talking on the interrogator duo’s behalf.

“Remember anything?”, he added. Gloria sighed and slowly shook her head. The DA was the more tolerant of the pair. The Chief wasn’t having any of it. He sprang to his feet.

“For fuck’s sake woman! An entire precinct is wiped out and you’re the sole survivor. I want some fucking answers! Who killed my men!?!”, the Chief erupted. Gloria wasn’t shaken. She kept staring at the wall in front of her that had framed pictures of flowers and fruits, unintentionally ignoring the glare of the Chief.

“Why don’t you start with the CCTV footage?”, she spoke after a long silence. The Chief sat back down with a shake of his head. The interrogators weren’t amused with the answer. She couldn’t place why. The DA read it on her face.

“The tapes are blank”, he politely informed her. Her dizziness faded away in an instant. No words could come out. There was no other way to prove what had happened. All those lives lost would fade away as an unsolved case in a forgotten manila file, she thought. All the brave officers, her friend Dorian… Dorian! It dawned on her.

“The audio recorder! Dorian recorded it all!”, she exclaimed. The Chief’s interest spiked. The two interrogators looked at each other questioningly. The Chief hastily pulled out his phone and ordered the team on the crime scene to search for it.

She sat up and felt a restraint on her wrist. She was shocked to see her hand cuffed on the railing of the bed. Before she could say anything, the DA explained.

“You are the lone survivor from a shootout that killed dozens of officers. You were found unconscious outside the precinct with a shotgun on your lap. Fortunately for you, the shotgun didn’t seem to have been fired so you are fine on that account”, he enlightened her. “But that’s not the case with the handgun we found holstered on you. The sooner we find out where that bullet went, the sooner you’ll be out of our crosshairs”, he added. He motioned the Chief and exited the room. Gloria hoped against hope that something would spring up out of thin air to prove her innocence because she knew exactly where that bullet went and it was only a matter of time before the cops were acquainted with it as well. The Chief stood up after a long and thoughtful silence and approached her.

“I’m sorry if I sounded harsh but Dorian and I go way back”, he tried to explain his pain on the matter. “I’ll give you a moment to gather yourself, then I expect some answers”, he said as he picked up his coat and hat, and walked to the door.

“That fucker would have fought like hell if he hadn’t left his gun in his office” he added and left.

______________The End_______________

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The Best Barista in a Time of Spiders who are Addicted to the Rush of Caffeine

Sunday, June 25th, 2023

By Cate Covert

I am TSgt SpecOps, Joseph A. Mangione. My friends call me Jam.

I had finished my re-up ACDUTRA (active duty training) just before the accident, ready for the sixth SpecOps assignment of my career.

If my cornea surgery hadn’t failed, I never would have agreed to the laser replacement for my right eye.

The laser was non-lethal, but I had to sign a waiver. S.F. docs ordered me to keep it covered unless I used it so I don’t blind anyone.

There was that psych eval and six weeks of post-op counseling. Space Force had to sign off because it was their invention–plus I agreed to be their test monkey because I’m their property, and I had no choice.

Now, I’m indefinitely inactive. The VA sees me for free, for what that’s worth. I have received a monthly stipend since it happened on the job. The money isn’t enough for anyone who doesn’t want to live out the remainder of his half-seeing life in his parent’s basement.

It turns out I wasn’t cool with the basement, and there was this after-market laser add-on—just point and shoot, using my brain: lethal and barely legal.

I needed the money, and since I couldn’t ride anymore, I cut my losses and sold my Ducati Multistrada V4 motorcycle—a present to myself with my sign-on bonus and a quarter of a year’s pay.

I couldn’t get a job. Nobody wanted a laser-eyed freak on the assembly line, vet status or not. My visual acuity was gone without a second eye – my sense of space and perception was off.

But the laser is “smart;” if I can lead a target with my good eye, I can shoot it—no problem with my aim.


I stopped by the coffee shop to grab a triple-shot espresso and unexpectedly found my new life’s calling.

Jamie was serving. She kept looking around and shaking her head. I asked her if everything was okay (as if I could do anything about it if it weren’t).

She whispered, “Spiders. A new wave just arrived from down south. I’m supposed to serve them and stay out of their way: Treaty and all. But I’m afraid. I’ll quit if they start any more trouble in this store.”

She straightened herself up and said, “What’s it going to be this morning, Jam?”

Chuckling because she finally got up the nerve to use my nickname, I smiled and said, “Make it the usual triple, and I’ll have a maple bar—to go.”

As she started my order, I thought about the Spiders—a derogatory term. Space Force issued me a copy of the treaty with humans that the Space-Invader-ish off-worlders recently signed, though who can read their thin scrawl? They might as well have drawn an “X,” but now they have rights? Unacceptable.

Webs were a public threat; the Treaty explicitly prohibited Spiders from building them in places within 1000 meters of any human. O.V.U.M. (Offworld Visitor Unity Management)—the Space Force’s special Inspectors and Guards—team acted as enforcers. Their job was to arrest and euthanize any spider found violating the Treaty with web-play. O.V.U.M tolerated most other actions in the interest of peace.

The Spider drones were the worst economic threat, looting us with impunity. These slave-class workers would burn a large-ish hole through an outside wall and line up to loot the bulk coffee bins; each would scoop the roasted beans into the bags on their legs until they could barely move. One left, and the next one crept forward to repeat the process. They were steady and in no hurry.

The Masters – now they were a different problem. They were male and female. The males were easy to spot—weak, smaller than the females, about three feet tall. They were mainly passive and nonviolent, but they were the worst coffee addicts: sometimes purchasing as many cups as they could carry (in multi-drink holders) but remaining able to walk.

I couldn’t blame them since they became short-timers once they reached “bachelor” status. Still, I could think of better ways to prepare for making my new bride a widow than to get drunk. Spiders got high on caffeine, so they were supposed to return to their nests before consuming it. Occasionally a male would start drinking on his way out the door and cause a scene. If an O.V.U.M. officer were present, the spider would receive a citation or a compulsory ride “home.”

The Spider queens were dangerous and often arrogant, though I don’t know what they thought they had that humans didn’t—besides a poisonous, fiery jet stream, eight disgustingly hairy legs, and webs. They were four feet tall, give or take, and they had to maneuver to get into the restaurant door—weird but elegant in a shivery kind of way.

Sometimes a queen came into the store to browse the lineup and choose her mate before he got his coffee. No self-respecting male resisted since he would die in shame on the spot. It was better to go, spawn the next gen with his new “wife,” and become their dear departed dad; at least he would retain his dignity in the yearly memorial.

I heard Jamie gasp and turned to see what she was looking at. A queen had just picked up an unfortunate prospective mate out on the sidewalk and started to drag him off when a second queen must have objected.

The first queen dropped her groom and faced the challenger. It was an oddly quiet, quaking fight – a standoff for the time it took the injured male to drag himself away on five legs.

Suddenly the first queen emitted a loud screech and started throwing webs at the second, who wasn’t having it and returned fire. A human passerby didn’t run away fast enough and got tangled in a web, causing the first queen to try to withdraw—she must have realized her mistake.

The entire lineup of males broke up in the melee, and some had run off, unnerved by the graphic reminder of their impending doom.

The second queen took advantage of the first queen’s hesitation and grabbed a male spider that had just emerged from the door of the coffee shop. She tried to haul him off, but the human hanging from her backside kept screaming.

I jumped into it, figuring it was better to do something now and suffer the consequences later. I yelled for the last male spider to clear the doorway, and was right behind as we exited the shop. He cut left; I cut right.

The first queen was halfway down the block; I ran to the front of the second queen and yelled, “Stop where you are, or I’ll shoot!”

“Human,” she croaked angrily. “Do you feel like burning today? Get out of my way. I am within my rights to carry off my mate!”

I boomed, “Not with that man you’re dragging behind you! I said Stop!” But she didn’t. That’s when I shot her with my laser and killed her. The pool of muck that poured from the queen’s rapidly deflating abdomen threatened to drown her accidental human captive, so I burned the web that held him and dragged him to safety.

By the time an ambulance arrived, we had quite a crowd. An Inspector asked me six times to repeat my story, and I finally got fed up and went back into the coffee shop, where Jamie was standing by the door, unsteady, with a pasty look on her face.

“You okay?” I moved closer in case she fainted.

“I quit,” she shivered out the words just as the manager walked in.

“Hey! You can’t quit!” The guy didn’t seem to notice all the mess on the sidewalk in front of his store.

Jamie walked out.

The manager lamented, “She was the last applicant for the season! Those damned spiders, how’s a guy supposed to make a living with them robbing us blind and causing scenes?!”

Inspector walked in and handed me a slip of paper. “You’re activated.”

“What?!” I grabbed the paper. There was a number to text. I was to report to Space Force HQ the following day at 0800.


It turned out that Spiders were most likely to misbehave or break the law when drunk, and because of some new fines imposed for public disorder, the coffee shop was the perfect honeypot to weed out those caffeine-addicted-treaty-breaking multi-legged horrors without fear or reprisal.

I had to register my upgrade—those guys probably made a killing off the resulting government contract—and got back on the payroll.

So, here I am, moonlighting, with the permission of the Space Force. And that’s how I got the job of O.V.U.M. Peacekeeper—a barista in a coffee shop—making the world safer from caffeine-addicted off-worlders known as Spiders, one latte at a time.


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Meet the Finalists for the 2023 !Short Story Contest!

Saturday, June 24th, 2023

including an image of our authors’ favorite chair– a tradition.

Stories post every Sunday through August.
Fan Voting begins August 20th.
Go straight to the Contest.

Cate Covert hails from sunny Idaho, U.S.A. She has been telling stories since she could talk. Cate has been a Christian pastor and teacher for 25 years, speaking, teaching, and writing bible class curricula. She is a gardener and amateur herbalist, plays guitar and piano, and loves baking bread and making beaded jewelry. Most of all, Cate Covert loves to engage her reading and listening audiences. You can read her frequent inspirational writings, poetry, flash fiction, and humorous stories at Cate Covert on or her Inspirational essays and bible studies at Pastora Cate’s Corner on Substack

Muhammad Musa is a lawyer by profession and an avid fan of fiction regardless of the genre. Whenever his day job gives him an inch, he can be found reading lesser-known fiction books or writing his heart out. Musa finds peace in solitude and often finds his best ideas in a land of his own.

Nancy Cook is a writer and teaching artist currently living in St. Paul. She serves as flash fiction editor for Kallisto Gaia Press and also runs “The Witness Project,” a program of free community writing workshops in Minneapolis designed to enable creative work by underrepresented voices.

Mariana Busarova lives in Bulgaria in the Eastern part of Europe. She has written prose and poetry since she was a child. She publishes mostly on free Internet platforms and her own Facebook account, usually in Bulgarian. Some months ago, she started writing on in English because she wanted a larger audience for her pieces. She is married with two children and works as an accountant.

Born and raised in St. Louis, Missouri, in a home without books, Adrianne Aron is co-editor and chief translator of Writings for a Liberation Psychology, a collection ofessays by Ignacio Martín-Baró, one of the Jesuits murdered by the Salvadoran military in 1989. Pedro and the Captain, her English translation of Mario Benedetti’s acclaimed play about torture, has been performed on the London stage. A book of her essays, Human Rights and Wrongs: Reluctant Heroes Fight Tyranny, won the Sunshot Prize for Nonfiction, and her short fiction has won awards from New Millennium Writings, Writers Digest, Able Muse, the San Francisco Writers Conference, and the Jack London Writers Conference. Adrianne lives in the San Francisco Bay Area, home of many thousands of Central American refugees. 

D’vorah Shaddai haunts Florida and is often haunted herself by the distant past, which is not so distant in terms of our common humanity. She is fascinated by tales of antiquity, spooky stories, and wild yarns. She holds a master’s degree in creative writing and also holds cats whenever they deem her worthy. D’vorah is currently composing a dark fantasy novel set in the Eastern Roman Empire. Find her at

Sarina Dorie has sold over 200 short stories to markets like Analog, Daily Science Fiction, Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, Fantasy Magazine, and Abyss and Apex. Her stories and published novels have won humor contests and Romance Writer of America awards. She has over eighty fantasy, science fiction, mystery, romance, and humor novels published, including her bestselling series, Womby’s School for Wayward Witches. By day, Sarina is an art teacher, artist, belly dance performer and instructor, copy editor, fashion designer, event organizer and probably a few other things. By night, she writes. As you might imagine, this leaves little time for sleep.
You can find info about her stories and novels on her website. Sign up for her newsletter to hear the latest news:

Garth Upshaw lives in Portland, Oregon with his fascinating wife and three less-fascinating but still fairly interesting chickens.  His work has appeared in Clarkesworld, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and other fine venues.

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Finalists Announced for the 2023 !Short Story Contest!

Thursday, June 22nd, 2023

That’s right, we’re live.
Go straight to the Contest, here.
Also, there will remain a link in our Retro Navigation Panel,
somewhere around here,

Meet the Finalists will go up this Saturday, the 24th.
And our first story will publish Sunday, the 25th.

Enjoy, Lovers of Literature

Go straight to the contest.
Contest Guidelines.

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Judging Update for 2023 !Short Story Contest!

Wednesday, June 7th, 2023

Dearest Lovers of Literature;

Our long-term contest judge Suvi Mahonen has had to withdraw from judging this summer’s contest. Our judging process remains the same, with now three judge votes instead of four.

Judging Process:

Our contests are judged by a three Judge Panel, with two weeks of online Fan Voting counted as an additional Judge vote. 
In the event of Judge Votes and Fan Votes being equal, the fan-vote becomes a tie-breaker.
One Grand Prize vote counts as two Runner-Up votes.

Meet the Judges:

Glenn A. Bruce, MFA, was associate fiction editor for The Lindenwood Review. He has published nine novels and two collections of short stories. He wrote Kickboxer, episodes of Walker: Texas Ranger and Baywatch, and was a sketch-writer for Cinemax’s Assaulted Nuts. His stories, poems, and essays have been published internationally. He won About That’s “Down and Dirty” short story contest and was a two-time finalist in the Defenstrationism annual short story contest. He has judged film contests, art shows, and short story contests. He was the final judge for Brilliant Flash Fictionin 2015 (which has included one of his stories in their first print collection) and currently for Defenstrationism (2016-2021). Glenn left 12.5 wonderful years of teaching Screenwriting at Appalachian State University to concentrate on fiction.

Lady Moet Beast, the Beast From Southeast. What can’t be said about this interesting lady? Godmother of D.C. Rap, multi-genre lyricist, producer, poet, musician, writer, singer, actress, and the list goes on. Performing live since the age of 5, determined to be heard, adored and admired, Lady Moet Beast has performed all over the U.S. for the past 25 years. Not your average HipHop Femcee she has grown along with her husband obtaining her own band The Cruddy Crankerz, Beast & Monster Ink,  Drama City Records/Draztick Measurez., Cruddy Rite Publishing, Cruddy Rite Radio, Monster Graphix, and Lioness Filmz. Lady Moet Beast has set a lot of trends from green dreadlocks to hardcore femcees in Washington, D.C. and abroad.

Aditya Gautam is a writer from India who believes very much in the power of fiction beyond entertaining—for instance, in throwing people out of windows. Among the many things he loves in this world are roasted peanuts, the sound of rain, thick books, toy trains, and weak sunlight. 
His short stories and poems have been published in Singapore, the USA, and the UK.  A speculative short story by him was included in the Best Asian Fiction Anthology, 2018 by Kitaab, Singapore. Most recently, he has been published in the June 2020 issue of The Bombay Review. 

Guidelines for the !Short Story Contest!
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