John Abbasi

Angel Hair

A decade filled with drought followed by rain found us in a super bloom. Wild Canterbury bells, fields of poppies, hillsides sprayed with weightless mustard. These hills, soft colorful mounds, housed us – the hungry, the greedy, the jealous, the idolaters. We were like water collecting in a gutter, flowing down an irrigation ditch to our home: the freeway.

Months before, on the cusp of my new life, I’d been on my way home from my nine-to-five, weaving through pockets of traffic. Bearing through the syrupy stop-and-go, I saw a sedan lose control. The man in the white sedan slammed his brakes and swerved. He hadn’t seen the wall of traffic in front of him. I felt my grip instinctively tighten on my wheel, my heartbeat picked up, and I felt that thrilling lurch of my stomach, like it had dropped out of my body.

I caught myself grinning in my rearview mirror as he screeched from behind. I cranked my head around to watch the sedan swerve and fishtail and skip up onto the hillside. The tires cut through the tall grass and weeds, leaving deep scars as the sedan man tried to get more out of his locking brakes.

At the top of his arch on the hillside, as the white sedan made a sinister turn back toward the onlookers, rubberneckers, well-wishers and malevolent gawkers, I could just make out the features of the man behind the wheel. He had a small tuft of curly hair atop his balding head. His beady eyes stared out, almost expressionlessly. Only his brow, slightly furrowed, as if he was just concentrating on the day’s next challenge. Another email, another spreadsheet, a final report. His pinstriped oxford shirt was buttoned all the way up, tie knotted tight like a choker. His neck wanted to burst from his collar.

The white sedan careened, needle-point, through the menagerie of cars, trucks and motorcycles, perfectly missing each one (mine by mere feet). It slammed into the cement center divider of the freeway. It was the single loudest sound I’d ever heard.

The explosion shook me as the metal gave way to the pure physics of it all, crunching and contorting. The sedan man disappeared in a cloud of shattered glass and a puff of smoke. I rolled down my window and inhaled, at which point I was struck by the acrid mixture of burnt rubber, gasoline and smoke. As I inhaled further, taking in the aromatics of the crash, my nose was filled with something more. It was a sultry aroma of some crustacean broth. Strained crab, shrimp, or maybe langoustine?

While the dust settled, I exited my car and found the wreck of the white sedan replaced by a large bowl of lobster bisque. The sedan had become a perfect giant bowl. The man had become the soup. I peered over the edge of the bowl. The savory crustacean smell filled my nose. The pastel pink broth steamed, a single lobster claw floated in the center. A bright green garnish lay sprinkled on the surface. Traffic began moving again as people lost interest in the scene.

I dunked my hands in the sedan man’s soup, and I felt his indifference for his job. He’d been entrusted as the general manager of an office supply distributor. It was a stagnant, gelatinous blob of a company, so violently plateaued in the cut-throat ecommerce landscape that the sedan man wished he could just walk away from it. But alas, his mortgage. I scooped the soup and it pooled thick in my hands. Chunks of lobster lay under the surface. I tasted it. It was seasoned to perfection, the lobster fresh as any.

Along with the lobster, I tasted the sedan man’s resentment for his wife and his longing for their youth. Each sip of the thick broth, each chunk of crustacean, held unique flavors and textures associated with the man’s life.

I scooped the lobster claw from the middle of the bowl, my shirt and tie dunking in the soup. I cracked it open and extracted the meat. It tasted of the exact lobster bisque served at the sedan man’s wedding. I devoured that memory, though I wasn’t able to relate to the distinct aftertaste. Something between nostalgia and despair. I tossed the hard outer layer of claw shell into the fast lane.

Before the sedan man, long before that lobster bisque, when we were still in a drought, I’d been sitting with my fiancé, Nadine, having a bowl of clam chowder. It was a Friday.

I’d been in love with Nadine for five years. We’d been in a relationship for three. It was that Friday, with the chunky chowder sprawling between us that she’d told me it was over. We’d cancel the wedding, find separate places, tell our family and friends over the ensuing weeks.

Nadine was a thin, regal egret of a lady. Her delicate neck craned to the side, turning her face away from me, as I had no response other than tucking into my clam chowder.

“I can’t even look at you,” Nadine said.

I filled my wide-mouth spoon with more chowder, bits of clam and potato. The soup warmed me.

“This is typical you. Eating your soup and pretending everything is fine instead of dealing with it,” she said to the wall.

I loved her too much to stop eating my clam chowder. How was I supposed to deal with her stomach pain? Her unpredictable blood sugar? Her over-active kidneys? I couldn’t keep up with each diagnosis, each prognosis. I’d always wished I could take each ailing piece of her in my hands, whisper it some soothing song and give it back to her new.

All I could muster in real life was, “I’m sorry,” and “I love you,” and “Don’t worry, they will be able to treat it and it will go away.”

Her eyes stayed on that wall. I continued eating the clam chowder.

“You know, I’ve always given everything a real shot. Not just with us. But everything. I really commit myself to,” said Nadine.

It was this strange insecurity of hers that she needed to try everything. She didn’t just have one hobby, she had fifty. She always claimed to give her all to those hobbies and interests, which resulted in a novice-level skill or understanding at best. She wasn’t really good at anything, and I loved her for that. I never understood why she felt the need to foreground her unyielding drive and effort with everything. In times when I’d pointed that out, it would spiral into a huge argument. I’d grown to know better, for the most part.

Nadine looked at me out of the corner of her eye as she continued, “But you, I have no idea what you love. What you are passionate about. And you have nothing to say. Name one thing that I haven’t given a real shot to?”

“Trumpet,” I said through a mouthful of chowder.

I felt her gaze slowly turn to me like the headlights of a runaway truck. “I can’t fucking believe you would say that.” Her voice rose. People turned our way in the café.

Nadine had always been a fan of jazz. Or at least she wanted to appear to be a fan of jazz. It fit with some vintage image she wanted for herself. Some impossibly cool, earthy persona she’d crafted on her social media. She liked Miles Davis, which in truth was not very unique. Who didn’t like Miles Davis? But Nadine thought it was very cool of her. She wanted to play the trumpet like Miles. She’d picked it up for several months and really committed to it in signature Nadine fashion.

When she’d invited me in the room to hear her practice (as if I couldn’t hear it from any room in the house), I listened to her labor through a basic B-flat blues scale. When she asked me how it honestly sounded, I responded, “Less bugle, more bray.” She’d thrown her trumpet, mouthpiece and all, javelin-style from the balcony. It landed in the neighbor’s yard. When they knocked later, trying to return it, we didn’t answer the door.

After I’d mentioned the trumpet in that café, she spiked her engagement ring in her untouched clam chowder, swept up her coat and stormed out. I imagined the waitstaff finding the ring in the soup later. I imagined they would make up a whole narrative for the poor cuss that meant a surprise proposal with that ring in the soup. Maybe he was too nervous to ask, they’d say. Maybe he found out she doesn’t like clam chowder and he’d come back for the ring. Maybe they weren’t meant to be.

After the lobster bisque, I knew I couldn’t return to work. I couldn’t sit there and tap away at my keyboard when there was so much soup to be eaten. The rain would come and go day to day, and the super bloom was just starting to renew the earth around us. People rediscovered that nature was just on the other side of their windshield. They went to the hills and trampled flowers and snapped photos. I avoided those popular hills and made my home on the spots where weeds and blooms flourished alike. Between the spectacle of flowers, the wet roads, the smartphones and the increased number of people on the roads, there was plenty of soup.

At first, I was alone, sitting atop a hill overlooking the freeway. The breeze sent wildflowers atremble across my shins. The sun sat high in the sky, and I made a mental note to remember sunscreen the next day. I ignored the calls from work. I silenced my phone. Migrating butterflies dizzied past me.

I heard screeching tires. These were different than the sedan man’s. Each screech was a shorter, higher-pitched punctuation to a small pickup truck rocking like a boat from side to side. It had been clipped by another car at just the right angle. It flipped. Other cars swerved and braked. Mild fender benders all around. In the center of the mess was the flipped truck, transformed into fatty pork ramen.

I’d run down the hill and hopped the barrier onto the freeway. I’d been lucky to be on the side of the wreck. When I arrived at the edge of the large ramen bowl, I regretted not seeing the driver pre-soup. I made another mental note to get binoculars. The driver had made a beautiful ramen.

I inhaled the deep smell of the tonkotsu broth. My mouth watered. Sliced bamboo shoots and seaweed floated on the surface. They were distant memories, happy ones. The driver with family. I submerged my hands in the steaming broth and filled them with the thick noodles. They were a complex tangle of the driver’s most forlorn memories. There was a distinct inability to interact socially with people; in school, at work, during social gatherings. I nibbled on those lonely ramen noodles, unable to fully undo their tangled depth.

People from the small crashes gathered around and watched me feast. I submerged a large egg under the noodles hoping its interior would firm up a little in the heat. After a minute, I almost went headlong into the bowl trying to recover that egg. It was hard to tell just by its outer texture what part of the driver it was. As I bit into it and the still-loose yolk poured forth, I realized two things: I hadn’t let it sit long enough, and that the driver had a nagging case of conjunctivitis. The egg was the driver’s sick eye. No help, I’m sure, to his or her social status. The yolk stained my shirt and dripped down my forearms.

I rounded to the bowl to access the fatty pork. It became clear very quickly how ill the driver had been. The hunk of pork was a severely-ailed gallbladder. It had been full of gallstones at the time of death. As I bit into the rubbery pork, I chewed through phantom pockets that contained leftover impressions of the stones. That gallbladder must have been like an overfilled bag of marbles.

Stomachs turned, mouths watered, interests piqued under the midday sun. I ate until I felt a gluttonous bloat in my midsection.

I went home intermittently, to shower and change every few days. Soon the electricity would be turned off. Same with the water. I’d be evicted after a month or two of missed rent. I didn’t care. All that mattered was the hunt for soup. At night, I slept out under the cold spring sky. I’d listen for crashes, but I didn’t have as much luck during the night. Something about the fresh air and the cool grass and earth lulled me right to sleep.

The days when there were no crashes were the worst. I’d be left shaking in hunger. I had a taste for nothing other than soup. I wasn’t the only one. I’d noticed others gathering on the hillsides, patrolling for signs of edible fatalities. At first, I thought they’d come to see the flowers. But as soon as another massive accident occurred, I wasn’t the only one who raced through the tall blooms to receive my post-mortem communion.

I’d arrived at a giant bowl of phở. A basic rare steak with onions and cilantro. The driver had been distracted by her phone. Her erratic driving caught my eye. I watched her from a distance with my binoculars. Her head bobbed up and down from her phone screen to the lane in front of her. The crash was only a hundred yards or so up the freeway from my spot on the hillside before I made my way down.

I noticed a woman across the giant soup bowl from me in a white linen dress. She wore her golden brown hair like a halo. The simplest hunger spread across her face. She bit the corner of her lower lip as she eyed the lean raw meat splayed across the surface of the soup.

We met eyes and both knew we’d have to flip the noodles and sink the raw meat slices in order for them to cook in the beef broth. We readied our hands just above the steaming surface. My palms grew clammy from the heat. We nodded simultaneously, never losing eye contact. On that nod, we submerged our hands in the hot broth. We gripped the web of thin rice noodles.

The noodles were slippery, each one hard to hold on to. They were the driver’s lost thoughts—the important memories that had seemingly come and gone, but really lived somewhere in the back of her mind. She’d meant to call her mother after her aunt passed away. She’d forgotten to make that call after her shift at work. She’d meant to write to her brother, who was in prison, but it had been almost three years since she had remembered. That noodle slipped in and out of my fingers several times. Another strand slipped through my grip, it was her grandmother’s gravesite. Each year, she’d meant to visit and leave flowers, but that anniversary just wouldn’t stick in her mind.

The woman in the white dress and I flipped the noodles with a single enormous heave. The beef broth sloshed over the rim soaking my socks.

After a minute or two, the rare steak slices were fully cooked. We fished them out, one by one. The first I got hold of was the driver’s varsity tennis game that she’d competed in almost a decade ago. It was a state championship. She had an early match point at 40-love and ended up blowing that lead. She lost the match. The next slice of beef was her tennis racket rapping hard against her own knee as she approached center court to shake her opponent’s hand after the match. The ensuing slices of beef were her father’s reaction after that game. I consumed her father’s screaming in her ear and the racket slamming against her shoulder blades and back of her legs. I looked across the bowl again to see the woman in the white dress eating other parts of the driver’s failed tennis career and raging father-coach.

After we’d finished eating, the woman in the white dress followed me up the hillside. We sat amongst the tall grass, weeds and flowers. We relaxed under the setting sun. She didn’t speak, and I certainly wasn’t interested in any conversation. It was nice to have some company, though, after so long. We quietly watched the cars along the freeway. Headlights came on as the sun disappeared. The brake lights glowed red in each direction as evening traffic slowed to a trickle.

That night, she lay with her head on my chest. She casually moved over and laid her head right in the middle of my chest. I silently accepted this. I liked the weight on my chest and the way her head rose and fell with my breath. It reminded me of Nadine. There was a time that we lay like that after having made love. Etta James or her latest fancy would play on her record player. I would look at Nadine during those times, really look at her, and she was unlike anyone else. I’d feel like the luckiest person around. She’d lie there listening to my heartbeat.

The first sign that Nadine and I were not going to make it came a couple years into the relationship. She was sick and had stayed home from the office. I decided to take a sick day along with her, to help her feel better. She insisted that I go to work, but I told her that I’d rather be home sick with her. She thanked me and told me how good I was to her. That was the thing about Nadine. One minute she’d be great at telling me about what a spineless fish I was, and the next she would be grateful for how I treated her.

I went to the market down the street and picked up everything I needed to make chicken noodle soup. Later that afternoon, we sat down and ate together.

“This is the best chicken noodle soup,” Nadine said, “I love how many vegetables you put in here. And I love—”

“Angel hair noodles. I know; I always remember you saying that your mom made it this way. The angel hair soaks all the way through and gets soft with the broth. You love that,” I said. I loved knowing the things that she loved.

“I slept with someone from work.” Nadine took a big mouthful of soup.

“With who?”

“Why does it matter who?”

“It matters,” I responded. I’d been to her work functions. Karaoke nights and Christmas parties.

“Can we please not be so petty here? Are you seriously asking me this?” Nadine replied. She’d put down her spoon, leaning it on the side of the bowl. She raised her eyebrows at me, arms crossed.

“I’m seriously asking you. Who was it?”


“Tony? Isn’t that one of the warehouse guys?” I knew who Tony was. He was a big guy, frame like a refrigerator. He drove a forklift in the warehouse. Nadine worked in the offices upstairs. I wanted her to say his name again, to describe him in some way. I wanted to hear some affection in her tone, so I could bathe myself in it and feel even worse.

“I’m sorry. I actually am. The last time it happened, Tony and I agreed that it should be the last. It wasn’t fair to you. To his wife,” Nadine explained.

I swirled my spoon around, wrapping the soft angel hair in a lump. I thought about Nadine and Tony making a decision together and it made me sick.

“The last time? How many times was it?”

“Only six.”

“You slept with Tony from the warehouse six times. You slept with Tony the forklift guy six times? How do you even find time to do that?” I asked.

Nadine rounded the table, stopping at the back of my chair. She leaned over me and put her arms around my neck. She whispered for me not to be upset. It was over she said. Tears fell from my cheeks into the bowl of chicken noodle, and she made some joke about extra salt in my soup. I always liked to remember her crying in that moment too but she didn’t. She held me, and I gripped her arm with one hand and ran my other hand through her soft hair.

When the woman in the white dress and I woke up, there was a small group who emerged from the various patches of tall grass on the hill. We were all waiting for the same thing. I felt the warm sore spot on my chest where her head had lain. I motioned for my new friend to follow me to my car parked on the nearest freeway off ramp. She joined me on the hike down. We exchanged nothing more than our names; hers was Lucille.

I drove us to my apartment. I offered her the shower. There was still some of Nadine’s old body wash, shampoo and conditioner in there. I dug through an old drawer and found a few pieces of Nadine’s leftover clothing. Lucille’s white dress had become terribly filthy after her days out on the hills coupled with whatever broth she had encountered before we met. I left her some options on the bed. After her shower, she came in the room only wearing a towel.

When I returned from my shower, I found Lucille in Nadine’s grey cable-knit sweater and old light-wash Levi’s. I remember going to the record store with Nadine when she wore the exact same pairing of top and bottoms. She’d asked one of the guys at the store for a rare Gábor Szabó vinyl. When he said that they hadn’t come across that album in years, her day was ruined. She insisted on asking another employee, to no avail.

The pants, in truth, fit Lucille much better, but there was still something strange about seeing someone else in Nadine’s clothing, someone else in our place. Lucille threw her hair up in the same loose bun she’d worn the day before as I tried to shake the image of Nadine in those clothes.

I dressed and we headed back to the hills. It wasn’t long before another accident occurred below us. A large lumber truck’s load fell off its flatbed and crushed a small hybrid car. A group of ten or so, including Lucille and I, descended upon the wreck. Some combination of fresh lumber and sawdust filled the air, mixed with the distinct aroma of onion soup.

We cleared the wood beams off the wreck and found a steaming bowl of French onion soup. The truck driver screamed to us, asking if the man in the hybrid car was alive. Lucille shook her head. I told him he could gather his lumber and be on his way, or join us in making the most of the situation. The truck driver sobbed and collected the smaller, salvageable wood beams.

The rest of us gathered around the bowl and each received a burn from the soggy baguette slices floating atop the soup. We’d experienced hot soup before, but never this hot. The man in the hybrid car had clearly gone through some trauma. We waited a couple minutes until it cooled down to a manageable temperature. We pulled pieces of the soggy baguette and stringy melted Gruyère. The bread was the heavily-burnt roof of the man in the hybrid car’s home. He and his family had lost their home in the hill fires back when we were still in a drought. The melted cheese was the countless photo albums they lost in the attic. I chewed through baby photos of his children, tee-ball games, birthdays and anniversaries.

We all wanted more broth, so we counted to three and lifted the bread from all sides. We were all flooded with the memory of the hybrid car man’s flaming roof collapsing upon the rest of the house, the devastation and destruction. The middle of the baguette sagged and crumbled back into the soup. The broth was sullied by the fallen roof of bread. I wasn’t able to fully appreciate the onion, garlic, bay leaves and thyme in the broth. I couldn’t tell what other parts of the hybrid car man’s life was in the soup. The fire and the destruction of his house overshadowed it all.

By the second week, too many people had come to take communion with the various freeway soups. The crowds had become overwhelming. We’d barely had room around the bowl to take in a cold, smooth gazpacho of a woman with sickle cell anemia. When we saw a queue form in the slow lane to get to a bowl of borscht leftover from yet another overturned truck, we knew it was time to head farther down the freeway.

Lucille and I headed for the coast. We stopped along the hills when we could see the ocean close on the horizon. We breathed the salty beach air and waited amongst the tall wispy reeds for the next sign of soup. It wasn’t long before we saw two cars collide. One car slammed into the back of another at the point where the traffic had just slowed down. We ran down and hopped the cement barrier alongside the slow lane. The people had pulled off to the shoulder. They were exchanging phone numbers and insurance information. They turned and stared in confusion at Lucille and me. No soup.

I asked if they were okay. They nodded. Lucille smiled. We slowly backed away and hopped back over the barrier onto the hillside. We laughed about our mishap, but we went to sleep with no dinner. By midday the following day, we were feeling the effects of hunger. Lucille said she was dizzy. My stomach and head hurt and the sun didn’t help. I suggested that we find a café or some local diner. Lucille shook her head. She said we’d still be hungry for soup. There wasn’t anything like it. I knew she was right.

As the sun set on the horizon, turning the sky and sea alike to fiery orange, we heard a godsend of twisted metal below. We held hands and skipped down the hillside like children on Easter. In the dead center of the five-lane freeway, we found a large bowl of albondigas. The beef broth made our mouths water as we surveyed the brilliant colors across the soup. Carrots, potatoes and cilantro floated on the surface. Meatballs bobbed here and there.

As we ravenously tucked into the soup, we found a legacy of the driver’s family illness in the vegetables. The carrots, thick and firm, were his father’s liver disease. Each bite sent a wave of abdominal pain or fatigue or nausea through us. The potatoes were the mother’s diabetes. Each bite a starchy pinprick of blood glucose testing or brief blindness in our right eyes. The cilantro was the brother’s depression. Scattered bits of helplessness and hopelessness. A citrusy self-loathing and malaise. The driver didn’t know of his brother’s mental illness until shortly before the crash. He longed to help but didn’t know how.

We scooped up the meatballs and were overwhelmed by the wonder of how a single family could be filled with such a variety of illnesses. The meatballs, tightly packed with rice, were a series of spinal tumors that the driver had recently been diagnosed with. Each bite was filled with the meaty weight of finding out that they were inoperable, their positioning too sensitive, too crucial. Each granule of rice was a fleeting feeling. Disbelief. Denial. Despondency.

The next day, we decided to move farther down the freeway to where it ended. We moved along the side of Pacific Coast Highway. We wanted to see the ocean and take in the salty breeze. We wanted to find more soup. PCH was known to be the host of many fatal crashes.

We watched surfers and swimmers dot the shallow tide. Children and parents were muddled along the shoreline. The beach scene wasn’t so different from the hills we had come from, with their colorful blooms blurring at a distance, as if whisked there by a paint knife.

We watched a head on collision occur under the early evening sun. One of the cars careened through a guardrail after the initial impact and fell off the cliff side of a narrow portion of the highway. The car had become a soup bowl mid-fall, its contents spilling, wasted on the rocks and sand below.

The other car sat in the middle of PCH, a large bowl of chicken noodle soup. I was overwhelmed by the smell and appearance of the soup as it resembled the exact soup I’d made Nadine. Chopped celery and zucchini. Chunks of chicken breast. Angel hair.

The soup was warm in contrast to the coastal chill. The broth revealed that the driver had a rare case of phenylketonuria. Maple syrup piss, is what people called it. The body wasn’t able to break down certain proteins making the driver’s urine take on a sweet smell. Though the broth was as savory as any that I’d made for Nadine, there was a hint of that maple syrup, if only in our minds.

Well after the clam chowder, while we were still in a drought, as she was leaving, Nadine ignored my pleas to sit down and talk it out. She packed her things and told me that it was her final decision. There wasn’t anything I could do. In that moment, I was left with the taste of chicken noodle soup in my mouth. The thoughts of Nadine and Tony from the warehouse sat at the forefront of my mind. I winged her jazz records out the window. Shattered vinyl shards littered the sidewalk.

At the bowl, I watch Lucille fill her fists with soft celery and broth-soaked zucchini. The simple pleasure it brought her to sustain herself with soup was a gift. It was some base-level happiness I wished I could feel again. I watched her scoop handfuls of noodles. She feasted on the unspooled spaghetti of amino acids. They were proteins left by the driver, finally broken down into gossamer strands after a lifetime of suffering.

That evening, Lucille and I sat on the beach watching the waves as the light all but disappeared. A nearby bonfire burned, sending the smell of cedar across our noses. We sat shoulder-to-shoulder. Two girls, maybe in their late teens, sat on a beach blanket a few yards away from us. One laid across the other’s lap, her friend running her fingers through her stringy beach hair. We dozed there on the sand, listening for the sound of soup.


John Abbasi is a fiction writer from Southern California. He holds an MFA from The Rainier Writing Workshop where he completed, Darling, his first collection of short stories. He values invention over convention in his writing, focusing his craft in magical realism, fabulism, and surrealism. His work has appeared in Prism Review and Hoot Review. As he builds his writing portfolio, he teaches Intro to Prose Writing at the University of La Verne and works in marketing as a creative copywriter.




Dara Passano

The Circuit

Raj had few standards and was therefore rarely out of a job, or out of love. When he lost his position as a dental hygienist he went straight to the morgue. He had experience digging into people’s rotting mouths; he figured dead bodies would be a cinch.

He was not entirely wrong.

On his first day, the morgue manager, Chita, showed him how to identify and set aside the up-cyclers—the horizontal inheritances that were useful to keep. The gold teeth, the undamaged bullets, the hair ties, and so on. Chita had locks past her shoulders, and she liked to decorate them with the hair ties of the dead.

After that, it was a simple matter to drain the corpses. The muck went straight down a hole. A switch of the needles and tubes, then clean, astringent preservatives replaced the bodies’ inner funk, plumping them back out and smoothing their deathly creases.

The only tricky bit was the insertion of the tracking device, but even there Raj caught on right away.

“You’re a natural,” said Chita, as Raj made a perfect, parallel incision between two ribs.

Raj forced the scalpel into the tough muscle of the heart and the tracker slipped in. It was a slim chip, about the size of a thumbnail. They checked the monitor to make sure it was working. Then they sewed the skin back up.

“So many bodies,” Chita liked to say, “but never the right one.”

The sun had cracked along the horizon. It was time to go home.

The morgue was only open at night. In his interview, Chita had told Raj this was a precaution against accidentally embalming a vampire, but mostly it was because of Bill, Chita’s plus-one. A few years ago, when Bill was working the night shift, Chita had switched the morgue to nights so they could see each other more. When Bill got laid off, Chita had kept the night hours so they could see each other less.

“You not been to bed yet?” Chita asked Bill when she got home.

The early sun blazed in the windows. Bill sat with his knees spread in front of the big screen, empty crisp packets at his feet, headphones on. Chita knew better than to interrupt a game but he might at least make eye contact, let her know he had seen her come in. The trash can was overflowing with take-out containers and stained paper towels.

She was too wired to sleep. She had never done well with the sun. You told yourself it was up there in the sky to help you see but really it was there to blind you, to block out everything that was not itself, to hide everything that was beyond.

She climbed onto the fire escape and threaded a new line of lights through the rail. These ones were lemon-colored, with glitter. When she turned them on, they looked like a chain of gemstones. She heated a lavender pillow in the microwave and plonked it over her eyes. The bed smelled sour. She took two sleeping pills.

When she woke up, Bill was still at his game. The coffee press had broken weeks ago and she kept forgetting to replace it, so she made do with instant—black, because the milk had spoiled.

“I’m going for a walk, babe.”

Bill did not react. Maybe he had not heard. Chita planted a kiss on the back of his neck and left.

News vans were humming outside the park entrance. Chita bought a warm pretzel. She had never seen the place so crowded, especially on a weekday. A school day.

“We will not give up until our demands are met,” blared a loudspeaker, and Chita remembered: the children’s strike. So it had finally reached their city.

She watched the children muddling themselves into formation around the piddly municipal pond. Some were grinning and some were serious. They held hands tightly, sealing their ring. The news agencies took interviews. Was it more inspiring, Chita wondered, or terrifying, to know you might have a whole lot of life left ahead of you?

When Raj got home that morning, his wife was waiting for him. She had baked cinnamon bread.

“For when you wake up, honey, not for now. You shouldn’t eat so close to bedtime.”

“But bedtime is breakfast time.” Raj cut himself a thick slice. “Why aren’t you at work?”

“I’m just running over now. Would you let the plumber in?”

“Sure. Hey, where’s my kiss goodbye?” 

But the wife had already left. Soundlessly. She had a way of rotating the doorknob so the door closed without a click. Raj did not know why, but this unnerved him. Maybe one day he would mention it to her.

It was afternoon when the doorbell woke him. The sun was having a last gasp before starting to set. Raj munched cinnamon bread and rootled in the fridge while the plumber clanged the pipes in the basement. It was time to put a lunch bag together and get ready for work.

“Hey, buddy.” The plumber poked his head into the kitchen. “I think we’re good to go. You wanna come down and check? Make sure it’s the way you want it?”

Raj descended slowly. The basement steps sagged and popped beneath his weight.

They called it a basement but it was really a cellar, a hole dug into the earth and left just as it was, open and raw. The floor was mud and stone. Pipes ran along the ceiling. When trains went by, dirt dribbled down the walls. Raj thought of it as a dank clot of trapped energy that drained the vitality from the rest of the house.

The plumber gestured for Raj to stand on an “X” marked out on the floor with electrical tape.

“I’ve numbered them so you know which way to strike.” He held up a toy-sized hammer, silver-headed, the sort of adult plaything you use for making jewelry and miniature clocks. “You can hit as hard or as soft as you want, it won’t change none. So long as you follow the numbers it works. Ready? Okay, here we go.”

Raj crossed his arms.

The plumber was tall enough—or the ceiling was low enough—that he could reach the pipes without a ladder. He struck a fat pipe, quickly crossed the room and struck a thin pipe, walked two steps to the left and struck a rusty iron pipe, and so on. Each strike started up a vibration that the next strike picked up and carried before passing on to the next. Thirty-six strikes in all. The plumber did it three times without pausing, to amplify the effect. One hundred and eight strikes. The basement was a vortex of sound.

“Does that work for you, buddy? This what you wanted?”

Raj wiped the tears from his cheeks. “Yes. Do it again.”

The season died a little more but not many people joined it. Work was boring. Chita and Raj sprawled in the morgue office, waiting for death. Raj scrolled through his phone. Chita made maps. Her software regularly pinged the trackers so she knew where they were and if they were active. She showed Raj the constellations of bodies they had embalmed so far.

“Looks like a flamingo. Wait, why’s there a corpse way out there? The beak.” He pointed. “There’s no graveyard there.”

“Some rich guy buried his mother under an apple tree.”

“Is that legal?”

Chita swore and shut the computer down.

“Everything okay? We’re not missing any bodies, are we?”

Raj liked everything to be okay. He got nervous when things were not okay. That afternoon he had pretended not to know that the wife was cheating on him, just so as to keep things okay with her, and with himself. He had booked them on a river cruise to celebrate his new job and the tickets were non-refundable.

“We’re missing some bodies but they didn’t get lost. They just haven’t died yet.”

“I’m not getting you. I thought the trackers were so we could watch out for grave robbers.”

“Did I say grave robbers?”


“I might have lied about that.”

Raj waited.

“I can explain.”

Chita reached into the neck of her sweatshirt and pulled out a long beaded chain.

“It’s like this, like my necklace. Let’s say we changed a bead of it. Now, maybe you think no one would notice; that a single bead doesn’t matter. But one bead, more or less, would change everything. One bead, more or less, and the weight of the chain would be different, the length would be different, the color scheme would be different. I would feel heavier or lighter and maybe, because of that, I would feel sadder or happier and that would make me treat people better or worse. But here’s the thing, no one knows how many beads a necklace should have. No one knows the right placement of colors and the right kinds of beads, and anyway the perfect necklace for me is not the perfect necklace for you, and the perfect necklace for me today may not be the perfect necklace for me tomorrow.”

“I’m still not getting you.”

“What I’m trying to say is, we’ve no idea how to arrange things so they’re perfect. But perfection is possible. And if you can manage it, if you can channel the energy around you in a perfect loop for just an instant, then you can sublimate.”

“Sublimate what?”

“I’m still figuring that part out.” She stuffed the necklace back into her sweatshirt. “But I know there has to be a chain. You have to close the circuit. Like when you have a string of lights and one bulb goes out, the whole chain goes dark, and the only way to fix it is to find the busted bulb. You replace that bulb and the whole string lights up again.”

The first time Chita made a ring, it was an accident. Literally. A charter plane crossing the mountains went down in a blizzard and crushed its seven passengers—a famous dance troupe—into the ice. Come spring, they were found in a single knot.

The rescue team dropped the bodies at the morgue and Chita lined them up on parallel slabs. They were a mess. Chunks of flesh had been torn away from every corpse and frozen again to all the others, so instead of seven bodies Chita had seven body-quilts. Even their organs and bones were jumbled. Forensics identified the former dancers, more or less, using dental records, but they had to pin the toe tags into soft matter—a shoulder, an eye—because the bodies had no toes.

Chita took a break halfway through the embalming to make herself a hot drink. Filled with half-frozen bodies, the morgue felt even colder than usual. She was rinsing out a coffee pot when a classical piece came on the radio. There was a rustle behind her. She turned and saw that the pins, which had been stuck in at haphazard angles, were now pointing straight up. The ID tags were extended in the same direction and they were fluttering.

Chita set the coffee pot down. If she were wise, she knew, she would go home and open a bottle of whiskey.

Instead, she passed along the slabs, waving her arms in search of a breeze or a string or a ghost, but all was still. The morgue had no drafts and the doors were shut. The song ended and the radio went to commercial break. The tags dropped. The pins slumped.

Chita knew she had discovered something important but before she could figure out how to make use of it, the undertakers took the bodies. The families held separate funerals. The corpses were buried in different places. Two went abroad and one was cremated. The dance troupe’s link, their essential and eternal connection, was broken. Their vision died and the world’s quantity of joy, potential and actual, decreased.

When a man went into a rage and murdered three girls the following month, Chita knew—no matter how much Bill laughed at her—that last year’s blizzard was to blame. A single cremation had increased the devil ratio.

One icy morning, a family crashed their car on the way to church. Everyone died except Tipper, the six-year-old, and she was in hospital in critical condition.

“A magical number and age,” said Chita to Raj. “That’s probably why she didn’t die. We might need her. Let’s visit the death bed.”

Tipper was tiny. Her arms were no wider than the tube down her throat. The doctors had stapled her together but she had yet to wake up.

“She’ll never last,” said Chita with confidence.

“Poor girl,” said Raj. “Everyone who loved her has died.”

If only, Chita would later think, he had been right. It would have made things so much simpler.

But while they were looking down at Tipper’s cocoon, listening to the machines beep and smelling bleach and latex because there were no flowers to smell because no one had brought any because everyone—they assumed—who cared about Tipper was dead, a woman with a cotton ball for hair strode through the door. She set a take-out cup on the bedside table and plunked herself into Tipper’s visiting chair. She pulled out a ball of knitting.

“Who’re you?” asked Chita.

The woman paused to count her stitches. “Who’s asking?”

“A friend of the family.”

“Friend, my foot. I never seen you before.” She hit the nurses’ call bell. “This child has been through enough, you go on and be perverts someplace else.”

The doorway darkened with incoming nurses. Chita and Raj dropped their business cards and left.

“Why are you worried about this?” Raj asked as he drilled holes into an old white man stained with greenish tattoos. “If she dies, they’ll send her here, and we’ll add her to the circuit. If she doesn’t die, then it wasn’t meant to be, and we move on.”

Chita yanked at her hair. “You’re so naive.” She was seated cross-legged on one of the slabs, drinking a latte and not even pretending to help Raj with the embalming. “Who do you think is keeping the world organized, huh? The fairies or the undertakers? We have responsibilities.”

Raj put the drill down. “Are you saying we should kill her?”

“I’m saying there are bigger issues at stake. She’s just one person, and not even a person but a kid. She might grow up to be a psychopath, or even a banker. This might be her one and only chance to make a positive contribution to the world.”

“So you’re saying we should kill her.”

“I’m saying we should convince her to contribute.”

The end of their shift coincided with the start of the hospital’s visiting hours. The old woman was already in Tipper’s room when they arrived. Chita cursed herself for having agreed to stop on the way for breakfast burritos.

“Well, if it isn’t the visitors that nobody asked for.” The woman purled.

“We just want to see how she’s doing.”

“Nurse said you’re a couple of undertakers.”

“Not in our free time.”

 “If you waiting for my girl to pass on, you got a long wait.” Her knitting needles clacked.

“She’s not ‘your’ girl though, is she? I bet you’d never even met her before.”

“Don’t matter. Her mother was my cousin’s closest friend and that makes her my girl now, I’m the only one left.”

 “Tipper,” Chita leaned over the bed, her hands on the place where the girl’s legs should have been. “Follow the light.”

“Incredible,” said Raj, while they waited to be seen in the emergency room. “Did you know a knitting needle could be so sharp? It almost went right through your arm.”

“We might have to kill her outright.” Chita’s skin was shiny with sweat. “The hospital’s not going to let me back into that room. It’ll have to be you.”


“And take the old woman out while you’re at it, eliminate any possible loose ends. We can’t have loose ends. One loose end and the entire circuit is compromised.”

Raj went home in a thoughtful mood. He liked Chita. He respected her. He would like to be helpful to her. But he would also like to not go to prison.

After the wife had gone to work, he went down to the basement and hammered the pipes according to their numbers. Round and round, they vibrated and sang. He stood on the X and felt the vibrations echoing in his chest. He would have liked to have called a friend and talked it through, but there was no one to call.

He drove to the hospital. The old woman had fallen asleep in the visitor’s chair. The sky behind the window was flat, unbrushed, and grey; an urban color unbound by season and time.

Tipper’s eyes had sunk into their sockets but the nurse said she was past the critical point; that as of that morning she was, for the first time, more likely to survive than she was to die—which made no sense, because the only thing we are all most likely to do is die.

Is she lying, wondered Raj, or does she know what Chita knows?

He took note of entry points and exit points. When the old woman woke up, he invited her to a cafeteria lunch.

Bill was watching video clips on the internet when Chita got home.

“Check this out.”

He pulled her down beside him. Chita wormed herself under his arm. He was watching a clip of six people having a moderated discussion about relationships. Are you sabotaging your love? Is there a way to cohabitate mindfully? The actors debated. The clip ended.

“That was some conversation, right?” Bill shuffled to the kitchenette.

“What do you think about what they were saying?”

He laughed at her. “We just watched it. I don’t need to watch it again.”

Chita rifled through the pizza boxes. There was one slice left. The cheese was a cold, solid block. “Grab me a beer too, will you?”

“Sorry, there’s only one left.”


“Shouldn’t you be sleeping?”

“Yeah, I’m sleeping.” She dropped the half-eaten slice and slammed the bedroom door behind her. Freezing rain rattled against the windowpane. The black-out curtains made her feel like she was in the box, like she was one of her dead.

“Babe.” She poked her head into the main room. Bill was on the internet again. More videos. “Hold me, please? Just while I fall asleep.”

“I’m watching something.”

“Ten minutes.”


She waited for him to look over at her. He did not.

“If you’re still awake when this is over, I’ll come in,” he relented. “But I can’t do ten minutes. I’ve got stuff to do. Maybe five.” He bit into the pizza she had left behind.

Chita got into bed and stared wide-eyed at the dark. Her legs were restless. The bedsheets were messy and loose; like lying on top of a pug. Slack skin, rough and stinky, puddled over her arms. She sprang to her feet and tucked the fitted sheet in well and tight. She brushed her teeth. She massaged her temples. It had been twenty minutes.

“Is your show done yet?” she called into the living room. “Bill? I still can’t sleep.”

“Fuck me. Can’t you cuddle a pillow?”

Chita pulled on a pair of jeans. She threw the pillows onto the fire escape, into the icy rain, and lifted Bill’s car keys.

The nurses did not see her slip by. Chita got into the bed and took Tipper in her arms. She kissed the girl on her forehead, her nose, her wasted cheeks, and her ashy hands. She held her and sang a lullaby. Then she affixed a strip of clear packing tape to the girl’s mouth and another to her nostrils. She switched the heartbeat sensor from Tipper’s finger to her own. She held the girl for ten minutes, fifteen minutes, twenty. She held her with love.

She was punching the elevator call button when the monitor alarm went off. The nurses rushed to Tipper’s room. The elevator dinged its arrival.

Chita did not feel triumphant. It was more the sensation of a piece fitting into place; of the wind passing more quickly, more efficiently, over a smoothened world.

She threw the packing tape into the municipal bin in the park. It had stopped raining but the sky was still grey. The children were wearing raincoats and wooly hats and shivering. Their ring around the pond was wavering but they still kept their strike. Chita ate a pretzel and took deep, cold breaths.

That night was busy. There had been a spate of influenza deaths. Chita and Raj took their lunch on the roof to get the stink of the chemicals out of their noses. The icy rain had turned to snow. They watched the flakes turn and tumble through the lamplight, glittering like corpse teeth.

“Poison?” asked Chita, as she rolled a joint.


“Well played. Old women are famously choke-able.”

“They haven’t brought us the bodies yet. Should we be worried?”

“Nah. They’ll keep them in the hospital freezer for a couple of days to do the autopsy. It’s standard when the cause of death is questionable.”

Raj almost dropped his sandwich. “Questionable but explainable, right? Like, natural death explainable?”

Chita took a hit and passed him the joint, the first puff tight in her lungs. “Relax,” she croaked. “Take your medicine.”

Raj obeyed. His eyes watered. “Do you love anyone, Chita?”

“That’s a weird question. Where’d that come from?”

“Do you?”

He squinted through the snow at her. A fleck of marijuana was stuck to his lower lip. She reached for the joint but he waved her hand away. She watched, eyes hungry, as he took another drag for himself.

“I love in the intransitive verb way,” she said. “Like, I-love-period, I-love-full-stop.” He passed her the joint and she took the last pull, killing it. “If you ask me,” she continued, expelling the smoke with a cough, “that’s the better way to do it. Just loving, without needing a love object for that love.”

“So, no.”


“Don’t you have a boyfriend?”


“So, you love him.”

“No, I live with him. I blame him for shit and he forgives me for shit and that way we take care of our mutual insecurities and we can get on with things. Life works better when you have a partner. I think love—like the way you’re talking about love, kissy-face love—would just mess our lives up.”

 “I don’t love the wife either.”

“Of course you don’t. You’re not discriminating enough. Kissy-face love means you love one person, just one, and everyone else can go fuck themselves. You’re too nice a guy to be in love.”

“Thanks, I think.”

“I’ll take that apple if you’re not going to eat it.”

“Trade you for your candy bar.”


Three days later, the bodies arrived. The old woman and Tipper. Chita was so excited she broke out a new bone saw. Raj insisted Chita be the one to place the trackers.

“Are you ready?”

“I’m ready.”

“Should we turn out the lights?”

“Yes. Wait, no.”

“Yes or no?”

“I don’t know.”

“What do you think will happen?”

“I have no idea. Do you?”

“No idea. It could be the end of the world.”

“Or the beginning of a better world.”

“This world’s going to suck until all the people are gone.”

“So maybe this will be the end of us.”

“And the beginning of perfection.”

“This is the god moment.”

“It’s the god moment.”

They held their breath. Carefully, moving both hands at once, Chita dropped a tracker into Tipper and a tracker into the old woman. Right in their chest cavities.

Nothing happened.

“Maybe we need to sew them up first.”

They sewed the skin neatly. Still nothing happened.

“Maybe we need to bury them.”

They released them for burial. One week later, when the bodies were in the ground, still nothing had happened.

Chita and Raj sat on the roof of the morgue with bowls of ramen. They were too upset to work. The bodies were piling up downstairs.

“The link is incomplete,” said Chita. “That’s the only explanation. We have to keep looking.”

“Looking where? And how? Did you ever consider you might need to include every single person in the whole entire world, both the ones who have died and the ones who are living? We’re wasting our time. I should go back to cleaning teeth.”

“Every circuit has sub-circuits. We are looking for a sub-sub-sub-sub-sub-circuit that includes all the people who were ever connected in some specific and important way during their most recent lifetime.”

“It’s impossible.”

“No, it’s not. Come on, look around you.”

Chita swept her arms out and turned in a circle, her head thrown back. There had been more snow. Drifts were climbing up the walls and swallowing the lamp posts, joint by joint.

“Hey, watch out. You’re too close to the edge.”

“This town is tiny,” cried Chita. “It’s static. People don’t leave it, they never leave. They sit here and they sit here. Everyone who was born in this town is buried here, or will be soon.”

“That’s not true, people leave. I’m going on a cruise, for example. The wife and I are going on a cruise.”

“You’ve been saying that for months.”

“Well, I’ve had to push the date back but that doesn’t mean we’re not going. The tickets are paid for. If we don’t go this year, we’ll go next.”

Chita brushed the snow from the ledge and leaned over, her tongue out to catch the drifting flakes.

“Before you started up here, I was the only one on staff. Did you know that? That means every tracker has either been placed by me, or by you with my supervision.”

“Please get away from the edge, you’re making me nervous.”

She held her hands in prayer position before her chest. “Raj, I am the missing link.”

“No, you’re not.”

“You have to promise you’ll add me to the chain.”


She jumped head-first.

Raj removed Chita’s hair ties and slipped them into an envelope. He had thought to give them to Bill as a keepsake but Bill did not come by to see the body and say goodbye. No one came.

Raj felt regret that Chita had died but he was not sad about it. This lack of sadness was a huge relief. It meant he had not been particularly attached to her; he would not have to jump off a building too.

It took a great deal of skillful slicing to place the tracker in her heart. When Chita had hit the pavement, her ribs had shattered. Her heart was in pieces. Raj eventually managed to lodge the tracker in one of the larger heart-chunks. He tested it, located it on the monitor, then stitched her back together.

He waited. Nothing happened. It was depressing.

Raj called the river cruise company to confirm a berth for the following week for one person, just one.

He was steaming down the center of the Rhine when they buried her. There were no mourners, it was just Chita and her box. The ground was frozen. The gravediggers had to light fires around the grave to thaw it. Slowly, with numb fingers, they lowered Chita in. 

The moment the earth was re-sealed, Raj knew.

The sun wavered. He saw it. He gripped the ship rail and watched the sky dim. The sun was still there, he could see it, but now the moon shone too, and the stars.

Then, he felt it—he felt the circuit connect. He heard the snap as it came together.

A snap and a flash, then every light in every heart in every creature in every place lit up at the very same moment.

“We did it,” he marveled.

The river was rising. The cruise ship heaved.

“Chita, we did it!”


Dara is the author of The Guardian UK’s Confessions of a Humanitarian series. Dara’s work has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize (2018, 2019) and the Best of the Web (2018) and has appeared in the The Southern Humanities Review, The Apple Valley Review, Ruminate, Arcturus, Meridian, The Tishman Review, Typishly, The Manzano Mountain Review, Thought Catalog, Crack the Spine, Points in Case, and elsewhere. Dara lives out of a suitcase that is most often in sub-Saharan Africa. Find Dara on Twitter (@DaraPassano) and through the Word Link Literary Agency.




Feliz Moreno


She was staring at the carcass of the dead spider that had been glued to the wall for a week as she scrubbed the rim of the toilet. It had become habit to spend a few minutes each morning wiping Telicho’s shit from the toilet seat, picking the pubic hairs from where they had wedged themselves under the lid. She would then inspect the handlebars jutting from both sides of the toilet, installed so that Telicho could keep her balance as she sat. Then she would clean the faucet, then the door handle.

When she finally sat down to use the now-clean toilet she couldn’t stop staring at the dead spider. She had killed it one evening after she had found it dangling over her shoulder as she was peeing. It was a ghost spider, white with eight legs that stretched from its body like skeletal fingers. It was fall, so the spiders were everywhere —on lamp shades, in window sills. Resting on the tablecloth of the dining room table like they were dinner guests.

Months ago, a spider egg had hatched, the little baby arachnids flinging out everywhere like streamers. Miniscule parachute soldiers. She would lie in bed, watching an OJ Simpson interview and the spiders would crawl onto the television screen, into OJ’s eyes and across his mouth as he told the camera that he did not, in fact, kill Nicole. They would float down onto the salmon-colored rug and crawl into the dirty laundry that was piling up on her floor.

She bought bug spray. The 100 percent toxic kind, because she would much rather get cancer later in life than have tiny baby spiders crawling all over her, into the crevices of her body as she slept. The thought gave her chills.

When Fidelia found the bug spray under the kitchen sink she put it out in the garage. It was unsafe to keep toxic substances in the house, she chided, it will make your tía sick. Telicho is already sick, she thought, but said nothing. She could not talk back to her elders; a good niece would never talk back. So, she continued to crush the spiders when she found them falling from her hair.

 She asked Telicho if she was finding spiders in her room, too. Telicho shook her head no, turned to Fidelia, who was putting herself through nursing school from the money she earned as Telicho’s part-time caregiver. Fidelia wiped the crumbs from the kitchen counter and said no, she wasn’t finding any spiders.

Of course Fidelia wasn’t finding any spiders, she thought, she was only at the house in the daylight. Fidelia came on the weekdays to cook and clean for Telicho, to take her to doctor’s appointments, to trim her gray hair and sweep the discarded locks from the kitchen floor.

Telicho could not do these things for herself anymore. She could not hear the doorbell when the delivery man left the packages of insulin on her stoop, could not rush down the stairs to greet the delivery man, could not slice the package open with a knife and place the insulin in the fridge so that it wouldn’t spoil. She could only take the stairs carefully, one by one by one, greeted only by the walker she kept at the bottom of the steps. Telicho could not see the mold growing on the bread on the kitchen counter, could not see the symbols on the buttons of the television remote, couldn’t read the words on her favorite magazines anymore. Telicho couldn’t see these things and couldn’t smell anything since the car accident fifteen years ago that damaged the pre-frontal cortex of her brain. Not the onions Fidelia sautéed for dinner, not the flowers cut from the garden outside and placed in a vase on the kitchen table.

Telicho couldn’t smell the essential oils—lavender, patchouli, peppermint—that her niece blended to ward off the spiders. She dabbed the oils along the cracks of the windowsills after Fidelia had gone home for the night and Telicho had retired to the TV room. She floated through the house touching the oiled cotton swab in corners of rooms that hadn’t been touched in years.

That smell is giving me a headache, Fidelia complained the next day, hand to forehead. She couldn’t think, couldn’t breathe, couldn’t do the homework for her nursing program. The smell had crept outside too, had settled on the porch and permeated the garden. Fidelia wiped the oils from the edges of the windows, removing cobwebs and dust in the process. Do not do that again, Fidelia scolded Telicho’s niece like she was a child, not a twenty-year-old who was afraid of spiders.

She flushed the toilet and stared at the dead spider carcass gummed on the wall above the toilet paper dispenser. She washed her hands, listening to the tapping of water rushing through old pipes. She had stopped using the toxic spray on the spiders, the non-toxic essential oils. Each time she found one scurrying across the room or swinging from its silken thread like an eight-legged Tarzan, she swatted it. And she had stopped sweeping the bodies away, stopped scooping them up with old grocery receipts and tossing them in the trash. The house was starting to look like a spider genocide had happened here, bodies collecting in the corners of each room.

But Telicho could not see the ghost spiders, and they did not reveal themselves to Fidelia. Only her. She stared at the dead spider again and decided she would leave it there just a little while longer. She was waiting for someone to take notice; to confirm that it was, indeed, fall, and there were, indeed, spiders invading the house, creeping in at the seams, searching for warm places to die.


Feliz Moreno earned her MFA in Creative Writing at the University of San Francisco. She is working on a story collection about a young, Mexican-American woman who became the first felon of Orange County in 1889 after protesting the railroad company. Her work has appeared in The Acentos Review, Longreads, Apogee, Vestal Review, and Watermelanin Magazine. She is the Managing Editor of the VIDA Review and currently lives in Oakland, CA.




Monica Macansantos

An Unexplained Kindness

Anxiety was always good for business. For Gabriel Arguelles’s new clients, many of whom were his parents’ age, he was a source of calm; a young, fresh-faced agent who had been too young to witness the carnage that took place on the streets before Marcos declared martial law. To them, he was a baby-faced businessman who was unburdened with memory, who grew up not knowing what to fear. He’d offer them a seat before his desk, and their stiff shirts gave off the sickly scent of starch and sweat as the leather chair cushions creaked underneath the weight of their bodies. All of them glanced over his head, at the sunlight pouring through the window behind his desk, and he could sense in their wistful smiles, in the way their eyes twinkled in admiration as their gaze fell on him, that he was their golden boy. And he knew that when one is making a sale, one mustn’t refuse to be the person one’s client imagined one to be.

They’d open their mouths, tell him that a friend, or a neighbor, had spoken about life insurance plans, and make a coy, giggling reference to their age as they adjusted their ties and touched their salon-styled hair with wrinkled, ringed hands. As he asked them about their families and the ages of their children, their eyes would wander off to the window behind him, to the view of the street below. They would think of their homes, their families, the possessions they could never give up, the lives they sought to protect. One of them feared that a mob of Cory loyalists were on the brink of burning down their town and stealing their possessions. “You’re probably too young to know this,” said a man who came into Gabriel’s office one day as he folded his hands in his lap and gave Gabriel a wrinkly, condescending smile. “When you were a kid, there were teenagers picking fights with the PCs at every street corner. If Marcos didn’t proclaim martial law, this country would’ve descended into civil war.”

Gabriel was their younger self, the self-assured, confident teenager who hadn’t seen enough of the world to know that evil existed, and that bad things could happen to anyone. He didn’t have to tell them his story when they supplied one for him. He listened to them and gave them what they wanted: the promise that everything would be fine.

When he came to his office on a Tuesday, well into the week, he realized that only half of his colleagues had bothered to report for work. As he strode toward his glassed-in office at the end of the fluorescent-lit hall, he saw the few remaining were gathered around a large stereo, normally used for office Christmas parties and karaoke sessions. Their branch manager had pulled this out of his office the previous day, when word had reached them that a group of young officers had defected from Marcos’s military and were now hiding out in a military camp in Manila. Gabriel had a report to finish and a secretary to rein in. He had no time to listen to a gravelly voice from some apartment in Manila telling Marcos that it was time to go.

His secretary, Mrs. Magbanua, had drifted away from her desk in front of his office and was standing near the stereo, right next to Miguel, an underwriter who occupied the office next to Gabriel’s. The report he had asked her to type up concerned a fire that had gutted a downtown restaurant where he sometimes brought his wife. He couldn’t imagine the owners setting it on fire intentionally, since their business wasn’t showing the usual signs of bankruptcy. The tablecloths were always crisp and white, the champagne glasses were crystal clear when held to the light, and the waiters were friendly, attentive, and well-dressed. It was the type of place that made you self-conscious about your table manners, and held the subtle promise, beneath its domed ceiling, that one could always change for the better. The Continental was a restaurant that one never thought would meet a fiery, untimely end, and Gabriel’s line of work depended upon that reality. Although things happened that were beyond anyone’s control, there were certain measures one could undertake to insure oneself against such losses.

He approached Mrs. Magbanua, a mousy, gray-haired lady who had been working for the company for more years than he had, and whispered into her shoulder, “You can listen to the news after finishing the report.”

This made her jump, and when she turned to face him, she placed a hand on her heart and said, “Hijo, you almost gave me a heart attack. You shouldn’t sneak up behind an old woman like that.”

The others turned to him, their fury washing over him in waves.

“Come on, man. History’s being made, right at this moment, and all you worry about is a report!” a junior underwriter said.

Miguel leaned against a desk as the radio blared, and said, “Cory has just been sworn in.”

“Did you vote for her?” Gabriel asked.

Miguel raised an eyebrow. “Why, didn’t you?”

Gabriel was about to blurt out, “I didn’t vote this time, it wasn’t worth it,” but both of them were soon shushed by their colleagues, who leaned towards the stereo as they listened to the widow’s speech. In a voice so forgiving and feminine that it failed to convince Gabriel of its newfound power, Corazon Aquino spoke of how justice could only be served once democracy was restored. She couldn’t have been speaking of anything but the justice due to her husband, the leader of the opposition who was gunned down at Manila’s international airport upon his return from exile. But others, including his mother, believed that the term “justice” as Cory used it, extended to their loved ones who were languishing in jail. In the Philippines, blood ran thicker than water, and people could only feel the sorrow of strangers in relation to their own personal tragedies. This was why Gabriel avoided discussing the snap elections with his mother, or even with his wife. No matter how he felt about this housewife who had no background in politics and ran on the flimsy platforms of justice and freedom, her loss hit too close to home.

Gabriel’s boss and a small group of agents erupted in cheers. His officemates were celebrating their dissent in public—just a few weeks ago, no one would’ve admitted out loud that they had voted for Cory.

“Your mother will be pleased,” Mrs. Magbanua said.

“You should check on her,” Miguel said. “At the very least, you could invite her down here.”

“I haven’t seen your mother since she went into her office,” Mrs. Magbanua said, touching Gabriel’s sleeve. “I thought she’d come down here to listen to the news with us.”

“She’s probably just busy.”

Although she was his subordinate, Mrs. Magbanua had a way of putting Gabriel in his place. Slipping an arm around his and leading him away from the radio and towards the door, she said, “Now’s not the time to worry about work. You tell her that, ha? No one’s going to go after her if she doesn’t get any work done today. Same with you.” She released his arm and gave him a light push towards the glass door.

On the second floor, Aurora Arguelles occupied an office where filing cabinets were arranged in a neat, gray expanse across an entire wall. She was listening to the radio, its volume switched on low. Her frosted-glass door was open, and Gabriel knocked before peering in. He saw the silk shawl thrown across her shoulders, and realized, as he caught a glimpse of the diamond-set pearls dangling from her earlobes, that she had dressed her best. A transistor radio rested on her desk, words and static rising into the air like insects taking flight. She held a pen in her hand, its tip resting on a ruled line of an accounting book as she listened.

Lifting her head, she said, “Cory was just sworn in.”

“So I heard downstairs,” he said, resting a hand on the doorframe. “How are you?”

“Fine. I thought I could get some work done today but here I am, listening to the radio.”

“They’re doing that downstairs. Nobody’s working today.”

She put down her pen. “I never thought I’d see the day.”

He laughed. “People aren’t that afraid anymore, I guess.”

He stepped inside and took a seat in an empty chair beside the window. The same commentator from downstairs was now telling Marcos jokes, some of which Gabriel had already heard in recent weeks.

“It feels so strange,” he said. “I never thought a President could ever step down.”

“They’re supposed to, you know.”

“I’m just wondering why everyone wants him out now, when they could’ve done this long ago.”

“Everyone gets tired of being scared.”

“Do you think Marcos will really leave though?” Gabriel asked. “He has the support of the military, right?”

“That’s why I can’t stop listening to the news, even though I have so much work to do,” his mother said, leaning back in her chair. “Just one misstep, and we’re through.”

“Everyone downstairs is talking about Marcos as if he were gone already.”

“I can understand their excitement. I can’t wait for this to be over myself.” She folded her hands over her lap and stared at the radio. “If Cory succeeds, then Carlos is coming back.”

He glanced outside her window, at the tranquil waters of Burnham Park’s man-made lake. There were no rowers that day, no tourists coming up to their mountain town from Manila to disturb them with their uncouth laughter, their far-reaching, spitfire Tagalog. Perhaps they were in the streets of Manila that day, leaving the inhabitants of Baguio in peace while placing themselves under the illusion that they themselves could make history while the rest of the country could only dream of catching up with them.

His mother rose from her seat and switched the radio off. “I was prepared to be disappointed by these elections, and I’m still preparing to be disappointed by her if she fails to keep her campaign promise,” she said, sinking into her chair.

“Have you decided where to put Carlos if she gives him amnesty?” he asked.

“I’m afraid of having him stay at our house.” She fixed her eyes on her desk. “I know it wasn’t his fault for what happened, but just because your father can’t talk anymore, doesn’t mean that he’d enjoy living under the same roof with your brother.”

He would’ve been surprised if his mother hadn’t drawn out a plan in the weeks leading to this.

“I need your help in this. I can’t do this alone anymore.” Her eyes were fixed on him, steadying him in a pool of guilt.

Was there a possibility that Marcos would refuse to step down, that these crowds would lose hope and go home? He had been around for so long, the thought that he would even consider leaving was odd, to say the least. Gabriel understood why people wanted Marcos to leave, but he wasn’t sure if he was ready to see Marcos go. The man had been such a permanent fixture in his life that he felt an odd sense of loss at Marcos’s pending departure. He couldn’t yet imagine life going on without Marcos—and his life, somehow, would’ve been quieter if he didn’t have to worry about Carlos returning, and reopening old wounds.  

“It’s the least you can do, Gabby.”

He hadn’t foreseen his brother’s return, which was why he hadn’t bothered to prepare for it. It wasn’t as if he felt nothing for his brother—it was just that he feared that meeting Carlos again would do more harm than good.

“Your brother isn’t a criminal.” His mother rose from her chair and paced behind her desk, gripping her sides with her veined hands. “Stop treating him like one, Gabby.”

“All right, all right,” Gabby said, raising his hands in surrender. “I’m sorry. I just never expected that this day would ever come.”

A lone sedan trundled down the road, and the cathedral’s bell rang clear as Gabriel escorted his mother outside the office’s glass doors and down its stonewashed steps, into the bright and empty main street of Baguio. They walked side-by-side, past barbershops, the ice cream parlor of his youth, and a shuttered department store. He almost felt as though this so-called revolution was being waged inside homes and offices, or rather, inside the radio transmitters that people in this city gathered around, as they listened to faceless voices chanting “Cory, Cory!” through radio static.

Dainty Restaurant remained open for business, and his mother chose a booth near a wooden staircase. They allowed a genial silence to overcome them both as they took their seats and ensconced themselves within the hum of conversation that rose from the tables around them. As they ordered bowls of beef wonton soup, Gabriel glanced over his menu and spotted two underwriters from his office seated at the bar, who grinned at Gabriel and formed Laban signs with their fingers. Behind them was a transistor radio, turned to the church station. Two middle-aged waitresses hovered near the radio, arms folded, mouths pursed in concentration, as the Cardinal called upon the faithful to flock to Camp Crame in Manila and protect the brave soldiers who had dared defect from Marcos’s troops.

“Sometimes I wonder whether your brother defected too early, or whether the church should’ve stepped in earlier,” his mother said as she went over her menu.

The dining hall teemed with old men hunched over linoleum tables, their eyes darting to the radio behind the bar. After their waitress took their orders and pushed her way through the maze of tables and chairs towards the swinging kitchen door, he turned to his mother and said, “It seems like the entire city’s in here.”

“All the men, you mean.”

“I’m sure there are some women in here,” he said, looking around. He spotted a group of young women in office clothes hunched around a table near the street, laughing over a joke, and a pair of elderly women in their Sunday best at a smaller table near the bar, going over sections of a newspaper in between sips of coffee. While the young women in the first group seemed unencumbered by worry or doubt, the old women of the second table were in no mood for celebration.

“A woman is leading this revolution,” she said. “They should all be out here.”

Their orders were served. Piercing a wonton with his fork and drawing it out of his soup, he said, “It would be a shame if she turns out to be a terrible president. I guess that’s what her advisers are there for.”

His mother sighed, picked up her spoon and said, “She’s going to be better than Marcos, that’s for sure.” She ate her soup with deliberation, every spoonful seemingly a punctuation of thought. Gabriel devoured his wonton soup, allowing his own hunger to overcome him as the air around him buzzed with the energy of unfinished business. Chewing the last of his wontons, he watched her reach the bottom of her bowl with her spoon, bok choy leaves pooling around the spoon’s tip like seaweed. She saw him watching her, picked up a fork, and brought a leaf to her mouth.

“I was worried you wouldn’t eat your veggies,” he said.

“I don’t know what I was doing,” she said, speaking as she chewed. “I just kept drinking my soup.”

“You were at it like a machine.”

“I must’ve been very hungry,” she said, bringing another leaf to her mouth.

“You’re just nervous,” he said. “Don’t worry, Ma. We’re safe here.”

She sighed and said, “When were we ever safe?”

He hadn’t noticed that the volume of the radio had been raised, and that within the radio’s speakers, a crowd was praying the Hail Mary, their voices gaining fervency as they found solidarity in its recitation. He had been convinced, at first, that the chatter around them had grown louder, and realized, as he lifted his head, that the dining hall had grown silent around the sound of the radio. Everyone was listening to the radio, even his mother. A group of female voices interrupted their silence by lending themselves to the chant, and he saw that it was the two old women with newspapers spread before them who were merging their voices with those men and women who prayed in the streets of Manila. Soon, more people joined in, even his mother, and he found his own mouth moving in unison, his own voice finding safety in the company of others.

“Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with you, blessed are you amongst women and blessed is the fruit of Thy womb, Jesus.”

The young women sitting near the entrance were getting up from their seats, some peering out the window, some rushing towards the door. The faraway sound of drums did not silence their voices, but carried them outward, into the streets. Gabriel rose from his chair as the band drew closer, filling the walls and abandoned tables around him with its inexorable, onward march. Their waitress nudged her way through the crowd at the doorframe and rushed into the street, and the crowd thinned as they followed her outside, laughing, cheering as the city high school band marched past them, their street clothes allowing them to merge with the crowd that moved down the street in their wake. He followed his mother as she got up from her seat and ran into the street, and before she could lose him, he placed a hand on her shoulder and said, “You sure you’re joining them?”

“Why not?” she asked, her voice betraying annoyance and surprise. She turned away from him and stopped at the edge of the sidewalk, her face turned towards the Philippine flag that flapped in the wind as it led the band towards the bottom of the street. His eyes followed hers, towards the gold-tipped flagpole, towards the hands that held it aloft, and he spotted a familiar head of gray hair, a familiar, beak-nosed profile. He hadn’t seen Paulette’s father in years, and had avoided that house on General Lim Street, whose nooks and crannies were as familiar to him as those of his childhood home, ever since he had heard of Paulette’s death.

“Ma, stay right there,” he cried out. “Don’t move.”

She turned to him, her eyebrows furrowed, her jaw clenched. “Who are you to tell me what to do?”

“What if they start shooting?”

“Then they should kill us all.”

She stepped from the sidewalk and into the crowd. He had no right to grab her—people were watching, and he was afraid of what they’d think, what they would do to him if he opposed the mob. No longer were they praying the rosary, and they now chanted the name of the martyr’s wife as though her name could deliver them to safety. With their hands they formed L signs, the first letter of the word Laban, fight, the battle cry of the opposition. His mother fastened the edges of her shawl against her chest with one hand, and with the other hand she formed an L sign. He could hear her voice above the crowd when she yelled, in a voice that quavered in its jubilation, “Cory!”

He pushed through the crowd that had massed near the edge of the sidewalk as his mother moved farther away from him. A helicopter hovered in the cloudless sky, rumbling in the distance as the crowd’s chanting swelled to fever pitch.

“Ma!” He yelled to her, as the helicopter began its slow descent. “Ma, get back here.”

The crowd’s chanting eased as windows shook in their frames and the ground beneath them vibrated. The helicopter’s beating wings drowned out the voices of those that dared raise them as it hovered close. The Philippine flag that had led this march, held high by Paulette’s father who wouldn’t budge from where he stood, flapped in the wind as the mechanical beating above them measured their heartbeats and stilled their thoughts.

Get out of here, Gabriel wished he could yell at the procession. Marcos isn’t gone yet. What are you waiting for, proof that his bullets can kill you?

The crowd stood still, their silence anticipating death. The helicopter’s hatch flew open and a cloud of yellow, the color of the opposition, escaped into the sky. Like snowflakes, bits of what looked like yellow-colored paper floated and dispersed through the wind, and some closed their eyes and shivered in fear as confetti landed upon their heads. Streaks of yellow brushed across the sky as the helicopter swerved down the street, sending down more plumes of yellow paper. Like a bursting dam, the crowd erupted into cheers. A man in goggles peeked through a crack in the helicopter door and flashed the Laban sign as the crowd’s cheering swelled into a roar.

A woman grabbed Gabriel and sobbed into his breast. He raised his hand to pat her slender shoulder, not sure whether she needed his reassurance. There was relief in knowing that their lives hadn’t ended, but why did it have to happen today, of all days? Surely there had been a reason for all those years of waiting, for all those sleepless nights and the lingering fears that his family wasn’t off the hook, that the constabulary would come knocking on their door on a quiet night, just when they felt they were safe. Even as an adult, he remained cautious in his friendships, in the opinions he chose to share. Surely there was supposed to be some form of reward for all those years of careful living.

The woman parted from him, wiped away her tears with the back of her hand, and laughed. “It’s over, it’s finally over,” she said. “I can’t believe it.”

“Neither can I.”

He suspected that the crowd that danced and laughed and embraced that afternoon were merely testing the boundaries of their newfound freedom, and that they’d soon settle down and return to their quiet lives in which such celebrations of freedom were unnecessary. He himself would return to his job, to the life he had built with his wife, to the child that slept in her crib, her yaya sleeping in a separate room, ready to help if she woke her parents with her cries in the middle of the night. As he walked down the confetti-littered streets, past grandparents hoisting their grandchildren up and college students dancing shoulder-to-shoulder, kicking up their legs and singing “Auld Lang Syne”, he wondered why he didn’t feel the same lightness that would allow him to share their joy.

His mother wasn’t too difficult to find. She stood on the sidewalk, teary eyed, forgetting to brush off the bits of confetti from her hair or clothes. He was nowhere to be found in the dream she was having, where her desires were granted in the form of paper strips that bore the answers to her wish, that his brother be freed. He placed a hand on her shoulder, and when she blinked, he said, “I didn’t expect this at all.”

“This is the happiest day of my life,” she said, drawing him close. “If only your father were here with us.”

“You can tell him all about it later.”

The old man could neither speak nor lift a finger, and even if he could make sense of this day, as his wife would describe it to him later that night, would it cure his body and free him from his chair? His father’s eyes would light up in anger when Gabriel least expected them to—when his mother teased him about how his grandchild, Isabella, took after him, or when Sandra touched the handles of his wheelchair, turned towards the living room window, and said in a honeyed tone, “Isn’t it a wonderful day?” It was their kindness that would kill his father, for kindness was a consolation prize given to the incapacitated when they could no longer rise from their seats and feel the chill of the earth on their skin or the sound of their voices in the wind. Telling his father about what had just happened today would only break the old man’s heart, if it hadn’t been broken already. His body had surrendered before the battle had been won.

“I’m not just happy for Carlos. I’m happy for us, for you and Sandra, for Isabella,” she said, touching his hand.

“It’s a new day,” Gabriel said, trying, as best he could, to agree with her.


Monica Macansantos holds an MFA in Writing from the Michener Center for Writers at the University of Texas, and a PhD in Creative Writing from the Victoria University of Wellington. Her work has recently appeared in failbetter, WSQ: Women’s Studies Quarterly, TAYO, Another Chicago Magazine, and takahe, among other places. She has also been awarded residencies at Hedgebrook, the Kimmel Harding Nelson Center for the Arts, Storyknife Writers Retreat, The I-Park Foundation, and Moriumius (Japan). “An Unexplained Kindness” is the opening chapter of her in-progress novel, People We Trust.