K-Ming Chang / 張欣明

Apocalypse Movie

City’s got no more of us. Asked A-ma and she said it’s because the government’s got a van to take people like us out of the city. Can imagine it: black vans with windows tinted green like bug eyes, all those bodies stolen away like women in wartime. The way bigger countries clean up for the Olympics, apparently. Learned this later. Typhoon season now and the rain hisses like gasoline. Imagined my spine as a wick and ran home faster. At home, asked A-ma where our women were taken, she said the countryside. Flanks of fields with knives growing downward like root vegetables. Hoped where they were the rain was not hurting. Hoped maybe it’s the sea where they take them, not too hot and no government. Waiting for them: a big boat to cross out the horizon, a big boat to slip farther, farther out with each jerk of the tide. I wonder who pulls the water like a pelt. Like difficult birth. Centuries of our bodies crowding the prow like rows of teeth. If our people found another island, an island they were not born on, they could do anything they wanted, like go naked or gamble. Could steer themselves to an iceberg or better, never land at all. Just go in circles around the planet, yearly like rings in a tree. Gege says, that’s dumb they have no food but he doesn’t know that’s the point. Read that a ghost plane is a plane that loses oxygen but keeps flying, but all the people inside die off. Eventually, a mass grave in the sky, bodies that would never have to ground. Imagined the plane drifting out and out like a balloon released, Gege asking what was I smiling about. Remembered that a typhoon was coming and herded in the grandparents, dried A-gong’s warm soft head like a sac of mosquito eggs. A-ma made the soup, cold with dates and tasted like urine.


This river has a habit of clearing itself like a throat. The waves hacking up phlegm, leaving a gum around our ankles. It’s summer and A-ma’s listening to the radio outside, far from the bank because she doesn’t like wet things. Legend goes, she refused to hold me when I was born until the nurse double-washed and double-dried me of all the jellied birth fluids, blood and brine. Gege was born dry as a nut. We have rhyming names and we try to ignore this fact. The water stings like sweat. A-ma reminds us every day that our grandfather was born here in this river, but I can’t imagine someone like him being born at all, his two fists popping out before the rest of him.

It’s like the Japanese legend: Momotaro, the hard boy born from a split peach, a sword in hand. But the only village-terrorizing monster he would ever kill is us. A-ma has taken to saying things like, children are like doors, you should be able to slam them shut when you want, that means you. I shut. I count the hinges on my body, all the ways to pronounce please. A-ma’s become a Christian again, says the more we take the river into ourselves, the cleaner we’ll be. The water’s jellied with mosquitos so none of us know what she’s talking about. When we drink the water, our bellies bloat and our shit shines with worms like pearls, a braceletful. A-ma says we should go soon, river’ll wipe us of our scent so we can run better. We said from who and she said Nihonjin. Sometimes it’s The Chinese and she hides from us by playing dead. Then she forgets she’s not actually dead and we have to roll her over and show her our faces until she remembers. She says everything in Yilan creole, which according to The Missionaries is 70 percent Japanese, 30 percent Atayal. Endangered Language Project says we’re 80 percent endangered and A-ma grunts, says I’m an idiot melon if I don’t know 100 percent of people are 100 percent endangered. Yesterday, Doctor Hsiung said my A-ma’s lost 50 percent of her brain already. What does that mean, I ask, and he says it means her mind is just the rind. The melonmeat inside is already swallowed. Gege says that’s what happens when we get older, our brains backslide down our throats and every time we swallow, another memory goes on loan. Our memories are the maggots we pluck with chopsticks from the ruby stump of A-ma’s leg. It was amputated sometime during the war when an American bomb bastardized the hillside but it never healed. The stump fills with a jam we spoon out and lift to our lips and pretend to eat sweet, yum yum yum. It makes A-ma laugh. She says she remembers the bellies of those American planes, pulsing like clam meat, how much she wanted to scrape them from the shell of the sky and swallow. In some countries the sky is not survivable. We bring A-ma her husband’s old war medals. She only smiles if we tie the blue ribbon around her neck, if we help her read his certificate: Empire of the Rising Sun. The ribbon’s so worn it’s the color of canceled weather.

A-ma doesn’t tell stories about the sky anymore or about the bone in her thigh that was smashed to feathers. Instead she tells us a story about the sun, about the Tayal chief who blindfolded himself with a strip of his own skin in order to shoot down six suns and leave only the seventh one living. Without him we are charcoal, A-ma says, without him we are pyred. What piece of his skin did he wear, I want to know. A-ma says of course it was skin from his ass because that’s where he had extra. She says a long time ago we had tails and that’s what he cut off, his tail, and out of respect for the chief, the rest of us snipped off our tails. I say that doesn’t explain why I was born without a tail. It should be hereditary I tell her, because it’s not the wound that’s passed down, it should be the tail. Severance is inheritance says A-ma. Some people pass down what they have and some people pass down what they’ve lost. That’s why we are born with our tongues embalmed like wicks in the wax of our throat. It’s because a long time ago someone cut out our tongues as punishment. For what, I say. A-ma says why is for the weather. Questions are the gutters of the mind she says, and mine are full of mud. I swallow, swallow.

Gege and I after rubbing A-ma’s leg with a grease-rag: sweaty. We watch apocalypse movies pirated by my cousin from Kaohsiung who drives a seafood delivery truck and is now shaped like a fish blade. He is the kind of skinny that means I am generations of hunger in one body. We are impressed by this and in exchange for the bootlegged movies we feed him what we can find. He can swallow whole green guavas. He can eat shark teeth, a done lightbulb. From a monk he learned how to digest light like a tree. He calls this photo-sin-message. It means that as long as the sun feeds him through the windshield, he never needs to eat or take a break. One time he drove for six days straight and kept himself awake by holding a lit match between each of his fingers while driving. When they singed he swerved.

Gege and I watch movies where the world is ending because of many things, like the ocean rising to our chins, tucking us in like a bedsheet, and sometimes storms that make A-ma flinch because she thinks it’s playing outside our house, and also from deadrisen who eat their own brains. Gege says ha, I told you so about the brains. But those people aren’t grandmothers, I say pointing at the screen. And they’re not swallowing their brains, it’s more like munching, and Gege says okay but in the end it’s the same. Their memories metabolize into violence. They are slow but they don’t bleed and every human promises each other that they will shoot whoever is bitten. I ask Gege, would you kill me? And he says, probably, if I had a weapon. A-ma is listening and she curtains the TV screen with a bedsheet and says don’t watch don’t watch don’t watch. She says back during the war our grandfather made her swear, if the Japanese enlist me to fight for them, slit me right here. A-ma points at her own oystered throat. We don’t ask if she did it. She wears his war medals around the house, around that throat, and says cut it off me cut it off me off me. Gege and I want to continue watching the movie so we duck beneath the bedsheet and watch close-up with our lips on the landscape and all the humans in the end are turned, emptied of eyes. A-ma killed ducks for many years, slitting their throats to bleed the meat. We broth the bones and pour it into the river to feed our dead. At home A-ma is wielding her needle and thread, the medals in her lap. We watch our movie with the sound turned off so she doesn’t shroud it again. A-ma has mended those medals many times, wincing every time the needle butts through the ribbon and into her skin. She deliberates on each stitch and says words we don’t know, like names the river gave itself before it was named. We know it’s punishment she’s performing. His neck, his neck, she says, why didn’t I. She labors the needle through her finger and the floor flickers with blood, scales on a fish. We pack mud onto her finger and drag her blood out of the house like luggage. When the needle breached through her finger, A-ma said here is what I owed you, no mercy. 


When our grandfather walked backward out of the war without hands. When our people are thrown into vans. When the canefields singe like hair and afterward we find bones in the dirt, bracelets of our remains. When we eat guavas and swallow the seeds like broken teeth. When A-ma, though she’s a hundred years old, grows her hair fifteen inches and sells it every six months. She says have you ever seen hair like mine, dark and virgin, not like the hair that’s been dyed brittle as fish ribs. Have you ever seen hair like mine like masts you can sail with, so thick the wind stalks it. Hair like mine is a mare’s. You can’t bridle it, you can only straddle and ride it. Make a night of it. I brush it out for her, unknot it from the top of her head every morning. It’s so long now I can walk with it to the door. I can tie it around my waist and walk circles around the house. In the fields our women walk the rows of cane. It reminds me of praying, bobbing belly-up in the fish heat. Bones in the dirt, they dazzle. Crowns and crowns of us.

The hair-seller lives at the corner and she sells a kind of cream made of limes and mare-fat and acid that bleaches your nipples and knuckles and the roots of your hair. Inside her house, hair hangs from hooks on the ceiling like butchered beasts. A-ma sits in the woman’s kitchen and gets her hair severed, that river I unloose every morning, that dark I wade waist-deep. I watch the woman’s scissors, the kind used for snipping tendon. Blades beaching against A-ma’s neck: I watch to intervene. But the woman shears only the hair and it makes a brittle sound like bone breaking. For years I thought that when hair is cut, it falls white. But A-ma’s hair is the darkest of the shades hanging from the ceiling. The woman gathers the hair into a broom. It’s good hair she says, thick enough to crochet into a whip. I want to duck behind the curtain of it, count constellations inside it.

A-ma goes home and starts growing again. She says it’s her job to sit all day very still so her hair will grow back thicker and longer, hair that can harness hips and slug rivers in the throat. We leave her to the shade, to her shampoo made of ash. In the dim while A-ma is growing, Gege and I continue watching our bootleg movies even though they cut out halfway and halt on images of women screaming. Gege learns how to pronounce the titles, the credits, the names of the actors. He tells me, Apocalypse means the world is ending which means people are going extinct. I say that happened already. A long time ago A-ma told us this story. When the military came, all the women in the mountains hanged themselves with their own hair. Good hair, A-ma says, doubles as a noose. Grow it at least as long as your life. The soldiers tried to cut the women down, but the hair transformed into snakes and even now farmers are afraid of the snakes in these trees and buy big white dogs that bark at the branches at night.

Gege says it’s more fun if we think maybe those women became brain-melon eaters and that they, like us, chop the rinds and salt them to eat in a salad. When I was little and saw all the hair hanging in that woman’s house, when I had to bat the strands out of my face to see where A-ma would kneel, I thought all hair was farmed from trees. A-ma, I said, how do we give this all back. A-ma and her neck now exposed and slick as a rind, walking without the weight of her hair: she said to me don’t worry, it grows back. That night I dreamed all those hanged women grew back in the fields, sweet-spined as cane, and that we have to cut them down one by one in crop rows, our mothers our mothers our mothers.

My hair is the color of bathwater. It sprints down my back and I hack it off, throw handfuls of strands at the trees. I decide I don’t want to wear it as a weapon, my hair. I decide I will be like those movies and outlive disaster. The plots are always about how to survive as the last people on earth. Gege and I laugh at the characters. We gild the screen with our spit, laughing so hard, because we are the last of our language and we know loneliness. We don’t have to pretend it. In the movies, people live underground in the dark and eat out of cans. A-ma says that’s how we used to live when we were hiding from the seven simultaneous suns, before the first hunter shot all but one down. They should all thank us, A-ma laughs, pointing at the TV screen, her hair fingering into a grip. Say thank you for shooting your own suns and saving the seas from evaporation. Say thank you for your sacrifice.


In 2004, the newspaper headline said Yasukuni Shrine and the Double Genocide of Taiwan’s Indigenous Atayal. First genocide: the beheading of Taiwanese Aboriginal people, all males over 15. Second was marching them into the Japanese Imperial Army, sending them south to kill for their killers. The usual things happened, too: new language, new fruit salads, new life expectancy. A professor saying: because they were likely to die, they did. Next slide.


Legend goes, my grandfather was raised so soft that he didn’t know the color of blood until he saw his family killed. Before he died, he once tried to wear a slab of meat as a coat. After the dementia, he started eating with only his left hand, and we could never get him to show us his right. It was permanently curled like a wisp of smoke. Our new game was to ask him what he was holding, and every time he’d answer differently: a kumquat, a Japanese sandal, a wire doll. A-ma spends his veteran’s pension on a new kitchen, this one metal instead of wood. Nothing can burn it down. A-ma who taught me that knives sharpen themselves if you use them enough.


I start every morning by holding my thumb to the sun because I like to see the color of my own blood staring back at me. Gege’s plucking stones from the riverbed to put in the stone-dish on top of our toilet, which is for our Fengshui. The number one thing that’s bad for Fengshui is daughters, according to A-ma. She makes me kneel to the Virgin, makes me recite the names of the land: tang-ow no ke, kinus no hanasi, zibun no hanasi, kangke no ke. Tang-ow no ke, kinus no hanasi, zibun no hanasi, kangke no ke. I remember when A-ma and I danced barefoot in the wooden kitchen to Kangding Love Song, the cigarette smoke she lashed to my back. Look, she said, I’m borrowing the clouds. My knees sour on the tatami mat. I’ve been still for so long it feels like my bones have pickled in the flesh. Gege in the next room is rattling his X-Box, says goddamnit, the heat gets in everywhere. A-ma says, pray for our release. A-ma screaming in the next room, says someone is cutting off her head, someone is melting down her eyelids for spare bullets. Says, cut me to pieces so they can’t take me all away.


On the news today: Aboriginal woman claims to have given birth to a severed head. LIVE birth video will play at 11. Miss Taipei got plastic surgery. Last seen in Dongqu with a handful of men and an eyeful of clotted blood. It’s true, then. She got her nose raised to a curb, her chin down to knifepoint. We haven’t decided if we hate her for it, just that she ordered two orders of chickensteak and three of those soft sausages the size of pinkies. A-ma says to change the channel but forgets there’s only one. So we put in the movie, the new one from Hong Kong where everyone fights with knives but there’s never any blood. Where is all the blood, A-ma asks me, and I say I don’t know. I think maybe they’re like the scarecrows we prop outside in the fruitfields, the ones dressed in our clothes. The birds bomb off their limbs and we pull blonde hair out of their torsos. Gege says, you two idiot melons, there is no blood because there is no wound, it’s all fake. Even the knives. But A-ma leans close to the screen, so close she’s tonguing the glass, and says it looks real. So real I can see the shadow of the blade scorched onto her face. Gege says it’s made of rubber or retracts on impact. But A-ma keeps watching with her eyelashes combing the light, saying I’m looking, I’m looking, pause when I tell you to. Now. We pause, and the screen seizes up. A man in white is stabbing a man in black and the knife has reentered the torso. A-ma says okay, maybe there is no real, but if you look close enough, there must be a hole in one of those bodies, a hole to dilate around our heads like a halo, to blood this beginning.

K-Ming Chang / 張欣明 is a Kundiman fellow, a Lambda Literary Award finalist, and the winner of a 2019 Pushcart Prize in poetry. Her debut novel Bestiary is forthcoming from One World/Random House in September 2020. More of her work can be found at kmingchang.com.




Laurence Klavan

Penn Grows Up

Janie didn’t know what to think when she saw Albertine’s text. She hoped it meant that Penn was better than when they broke up, when she broke up with him. But maybe she was being self-aggrandizing: who was she to have pushed someone over the edge merely by ending a relationship? That was giving herself way too much credit. Still, Penn had gone to pieces when she told him it was over; he’d always been high-strung but this was something else, a kind of collapse—and wasn’t that why she’d ended it in the first place, because it was too hard for her to cope with his way of being, his way of feeling? It had started to infect her, too, damaging her grades and her relationships with her friends and family. And since Penn was privileged enough to have been treated—genetically modified in vitro to age slower and not get diseases to which he was naturally prone—it was liable to go on so much longer. He would be an adolescent for so long, if she didn’t end it now, when would she? Would she ever?

           Janie was a practical, working-class person, and she had had enough drama, that was the long and short of it. And now this text from Penn’s mother (from whom Janie secretly suspected Penn had inherited his instability) sent her back into the whole disaster.

           If Penn was better, wouldn’t he have told her so himself? No, it wasn’t his way to apologize—not because he was insensitive, because he was always so far into his emotions that he didn’t have the distance to know what he was doing was wrong. Anyway, that’s why Janie thought it plausible that Albertine was doing it for him.

           “Could you come see him?” the text had asked.

           Guiltily, Janie answered, “Yes.”

           When she came by the house, there was no one there—no one else, for Janie assumed that Penn was upstairs in his room. This was where behind closed doors they had first slept together—and done everything else before sleeping together—while his parents were out. Janie assumed that Albertine and Rudolph (which was what they always insisted she call them) knew what she and their son were doing in their home. It was another way to coddle and control him, she figured, since that’s what they always did. Wasn’t that why they’d paid to prolong his life in the first place?


           Janie called upstairs meekly, because there was a horror movie aspect to this (empty house, staircase, etc.) that freaked her out. As she ascended, she thought of all the times she had made this climb with Penn and how excited she had been, anticipating what they would do once they reached his room and closed the door. Yet today, Janie felt not even nostalgia, nothing beyond obligation, and that meant that she was really and truly over him.


           She stood before his door, which was half-closed, as if (she hoped) he was making progress, was halfway to entering the present and leaving the past. Maybe she could pull him all the way forward or just carefully and encouragingly follow behind him, as you would a child learning to walk. She pushed the door completely open. Either it was lighter than Janie had recalled or she’d pushed harder than she had to, for it went fast and hit the wall loudly enough to make her jump.

           It awakened Penn. He reared up from the sheets that kind of covered him (he was only wearing shorts). In the dark room, he squinted as the light poured in, spotlighting Janie on the threshold. He’d been crying. In his sleep? With his face buried in the bed, while conscious? Janie couldn’t tell. There was a weird fissure in the wall at fist-level: Had he punched it?

           Janie only knew from the expression on his face (shock, dismay, disappointment, rage) that Penn was not better but much worse and that Albertine had wanted Janie to take him back, and that showing up was the dumbest thing Janie could have done, for there was no way that she would do it. It wouldn’t have worked, anyway.

           “It wouldn’t have worked, anyway,” she told Albertine and Rudolph later. Janie had waited downstairs for them to come home, had left poor Penn without saying a word. Maybe he’d believed he’d imagined her; she hoped so.

           “You can’t know that,” Albertine said, agitated (as she was so often about so many things, Janie thought).

           “Look,” said Rudolph, ever the appeaser (Janie thought), “he’ll just go away as he is, that’s all.”

           “What do you mean, go away? Where?” Janie had no compunction about interrupting or even seeming rude, since they were no longer her boyfriend’s parents or—as she had post-first orgasm imagined them—her future in-laws. She had never respected them much in the first place.

           Albertine turned away, obviously to avoid answering. Since he was both more stable and more repressed (Janie thought), Rudolph replied, “Never mind.”

           Janie stared at the two older people. Penn had never said anything to her about going anywhere.

           “This was your idea,” she said, rage building. “You two just want to get rid of him, since he can’t seem to…shape up! And you thought that I could maybe whip him into shape before he went, so you wouldn’t feel too bad, that I would do your dirty work, like, like…” Later, she thought it was like cleaning a car before you sent it off a cliff. But she couldn’t think of the comparison then, had been too wound-up.

           “That’s enough,” Rudolph said, sounding a bit angry, which would have been like an explosion for anyone else and meant he was guilty. Good! Janie thought.

           He ushered her out of the house, while Albertine walked from the room, never looking back, done with Janie, accepting that she’d erred in asking her to come or expecting her to help. Janie stewed about it, stuffed in the communal car that Rudolph had somehow called (probably with a gadget he’d installed in his head; he was such a control freak, he surveilled people for a living, she thought, stewing). Still, before she was dropped off, Janie cried, hiding her face from the other passengers. She remembered Penn’s tormented expression, suspected that she might never see him again or at least not for ages. He would have so much time to suffer. It wasn’t his fault: he had too many years to be this age.

Janie was wrong: Albertine and Rudolph hadn’t been sending Penn away to silence him or to make things easier for themselves. They were sending Penn away to make him better, because they couldn’t bear his being so unhappy (Albertine couldn’t, anyway). Because they knew there were risks in their plan, they’d hoped Janie might prevent them from doing it, make it unnecessary, or allow them to amend the plan and make it less extreme. But Janie had failed (this was how Albertine saw it), so they had no choice but go ahead.

           Penn was not going away on a study program or what used to be called “Spring Break.” He was going to have an internship on the Floater-X Space Station owned by the billionaire Seth Lupus, to whom Rudolph had sold a security system, discounted enough to secure a free room for his son. Penn was supposedly there to help researchers do space-centric drug research, but really he would be given an unapproved experimental drug Lupus Labs was developing. Tranquelle would allow Penn to age forward and back at will in order to stop his persistent adolescence. It would be an automatic way to end or reduce the pain of his feeling so much.

           “We have no idea what side effects the drug’s going to have,” a worried Albertine had told Rudolph when they first discussed it. “Because no one does.”

           “They’ve assured me it won’t be so bad,” Rudolph said.

           “Of course they’re going to say that!” Albertine nearly yelled. “Because they’re paying for it. And I assume we have to sign a pledge not to sue?”

           Rudolph shot his wife a look which said she was right. Albertine slammed the bedroom door on him.

The Floater-X was a Transit Habitat, an inflatable research and living area connected to a Space Station. It hovered in a libration or La Grangian Point, halfway between the Earth and the Sun or the Moon, where the gravity of the two bodies neutralized each other and allowed for a stable parking space for spacecraft. In space, crystals of proteins used in medical research could be grown bigger and better, and that’s why they studied up there.

           Penn had always felt suspended between his parents:  the force of their fields had created a weird stability for him, dependable and precarious at the same time. (Was his current crushingly emotional condition a way to favor his mother’s side? Or was it a desperate attempt to pull away from her—even if it meant bashing himself against a wall, as it were? Or was it just adolescence over and over? It was unclear.) Once he was on the ship, above Albertine and Rudolph, above everyone, Penn felt more secure. If nothing else, he was too self-conscious before strangers to sob and scream as he had been doing all day on Earth. Penn was supposed to help the researchers, do their errands and anything else they asked.

           “Here,” one of them said on the first day, casually handing him a specimen to bring somewhere.

           Penn suspected they thought him a dilettante, the rich son of their billionaire boss’s friend, which he was. In any case, he did as he was told, took the beaker of slightly warm, vaguely bubbled liquid. Was it someone’s piss? Were they laughing at him? He moved down the winding corridors of the floating lab, the gravity artificial, as he feared was his own new sense of being stable.

           His sleeping area had a bunk bed but elite guest that he was, no roommate. So that night, Penn alternated restlessly between the top and bottom beds, again feeling that he was halfway between mother and father or domination and submission or some other pairing outside and inside himself. He wept only late at night and then into his pillow, where his saltwater was absorbed by organic and hypoallergenic cotton, the way the sea is absorbed by the sand. He had no idea how long he was meant to be there, hovering above; he hadn’t thought to ask. Then he heard a soft thump at the door.

           It sounded like someone had tossed something. And, in fact, when Penn rose to open up, he found a palm-sized package wrapped in white linen with a red bow curled cruelly by a scissors. As he opened it, he tried not to disturb the fragile covering, but his shaking fingers shredded it, and the bow crumpled to dust like an old pressed rose. Inside he found a little box which held a bottle of pills marked Tranquelle.

           Penn assumed they were to help him sleep, but there was no one in the vicinity to ask. He faintly heard the fading motor of a scooter (the halls were wide enough to accommodate one), but maybe he had imagined it. It couldn’t have been from the scientists, could it, for they had seemed to hate and resent him? Unless it was a peace offering?

           There was a small round blue pill and a larger, oblong purple pill. Directions folded into nearly nothing instructed him to take one at a time. Penn took the blue.

           Soon it forced him into sleep, placed unconsciousness over him like an extra blanket he didn’t want. He was being suffocated, that’s what it felt like, the way spies in old movies were by handkerchiefs soaked in “choloroform.” Fighting, he shook his hands, which looked suddenly smaller, but he was no match for this power, whatever it was.

           Penn couldn’t move, was paralyzed like a newborn baby who can barely lift his head and must sleep on his stomach, so as not to choke. He found he was crying—not because he was still at the mercy of his emotions, as he had been when he’d arrived, as he’d been after breaking up with Janie, because he was doomed to adolescence—because, yes, like a baby, he’d messed himself and shit the bed. Luckily, Penn was on the bottom bunk, so his waste couldn’t seep beneath him, soiling two mattresses. Could no one hear him crying out to be changed? Would no one come and clean him?

           Penn discovered that he was not completely incapacitated, not yet absolutely the infant he feared he’d been turned into by the pill. He could still flip himself over enough times to leave the bed and land upon the floor.

           There, on his stomach, he struggled as if strait-jacketed across the tiles. He aimed for the pill package which he had left upon the room’s only table. Panting, propping himself up on his elbows, Penn was able to nuzzle the bottle off the surface with his nose. At last, he sent it pinging and then rolling upon a rug, where he stopped it with an extended right foot. He managed to kick the bottle close to his mouth where he fumbled with his hands—which felt tied together as if with rope—to open it. The purple pill popped out like a tiny, tortured turd. Penn licked it ever closer until it came between his lips and he chewed it into non-existence. It tasted like licorice, toothpaste, and dirt.

           Lying there, Penn felt his stomach disturbance subside. Power began to return to his limbs. He stretched on the floor like a breaststroke swimmer. Then he found himself shuttle past normalcy into something more negative.

           If the first pill had induced infancy, this one caused rapid aging: His heart pumped past adolescence to adulthood and then, terrifyingly, beyond that, like a subway shooting by stations with a psycho at the wheel. Eventually, at high speed, Penn’s heart approached old age and the end of the line. It started to slow and slow until he could barely feel an occasional beat. At last, he waited for any beat at all.

           Only a persistent banging on the door kept him conscious. As he slipped into insensibility, Penn felt a mask placed over his mouth and his body being lifted. Was he ascending even farther into space? Was he on his way to heaven?  No, because he still smelled his own feces, which meant he was human and alive.

           “Can you save him?” a young woman asked.

           “We’re going to try.” This was a man.

           “My father will know if you don’t.”  It was an unpleasant promise, and so (Penn thought later) the perfect way to propel him into darkness.

Penn awoke looking into Blamey’s face. Of course, he didn’t know it was her, didn’t know yet who this young woman was.

           “What happened?” he asked.

           “You lived,” she said.

           Only now did Penn remember the events of the night before: how he had gone from infant to old man to almost-corpse in the space of several minutes and two different kinds of pills. When he turned his head, Penn saw he was in a hospital bay, a makeshift convalescent area on the Floater-X, hooked up to fluids pumped into the veins of his hand.

           The young woman hovered above him as they both did above the Earth. She had a stark, seemingly self-administered crew cut that clashed appealingly with the blemishes covering her face like constellations. They suggested she lived in a universe of her own, and that’s how she acted, too.

           “Was I operated on?” he asked.

           “Nah.” She sat on the edge of his bed, not caring that she bumped him. “They just waited for it to wear off.”

           “For what to wear off?”

           “Tranquelle, that stuff you took. That my father sells. Or will sell, if he ever gets it approved. You were given samples. You’re not the best commercial for it, almost dying and all. I’m Blamey.” She mimed shaking the hand paralyzed by tubes.

           “Janie?” Not the same name as his ex-girlfriend!

           “Blamey. My parents have such a hostile relationship, they named me after it. Anyway, I’m pretty sure I’m the only one on Earth named that. The only one in the universe now.”

           Penn noticed that she wore the same kind of wrist tag as him. Her last name was Lupus. That meant her father had employed his father. It also meant something else.

           “What are you in the hospital for?” Penn’s energy was starting to fade.

           “Same as you,” she shrugged. “Still being seventeen.”

           So she’d been treated, too, Penn thought, given this “gift” of longevity by her parents. Blamey began receding then, shrinking in size, as if his ship was blasting off from her planet. The last thing he felt before becoming unconscious was Blamey’s warm and callused palm laid upon his brow, as if checking his temperature or blessing him or both. Soon he was in the dark again, and not surrounded by stars.

Penn was awakened by an elbow being jammed into his ribs. When he opened his eyes, he saw Blamey again, this time up so close she was a blur. She was not sitting but lying by his side.

           “Here,” she said. “Have some.”

           She displayed a plastic bag, the kind that held food or beverage condensed or frozen for the trip. She raised it as you would a canteen, and he opened his mouth to receive what was offered. The liquid came out in beige bubbles, and Penn had to chase them with his tongue like a dog to swallow. He tasted what he thought was liquor, possibly Scotch, he was no expert. Then Blamey grabbed the bag back and chug-a-lugged more confidently, the solid droplets rolling one after another as if on an invisible chute down her throat.

           With her head tilted back, Penn could see long strips of scarred tissue there, like highways of unhappiness (he was already drunk and so grandiloquent). No simple suicidal wrist slashes for Blamey, he thought: with her, everything was big time.

           Penn saw her scars pulse and subside, yet Blamey had stopped drinking. Small balls of tears were escaping her eyes and floating into the air or whatever was the atmosphere. They marched past Penn’s face and drifted around the room (he was the only other patient). Soon there were too many to count.

           “What’s the matter?” he asked.

           Blamey looked at him, her eyes expelling more clear bobbing balls. She couldn’t say and only mouthed the answer: “Seventeen.”

           Penn understood and his tears joined hers. All of them hung in the air like a bouquet of bad feelings before popping one by one. Penn realized that the artificial gravity had been eliminated or repealed or whatever you did with artificial gravity. Or was it just the liquor that made him see things this way?

           Like him, Blamey was the embodiment of what used to be called adolescent angst. Both he and she would be trapped in this condition for who knew how long?—it would seem like forever—and they had recognized each other after barely being introduced. Both were now suspended above everything, sensing and suffering.

           Yet unlike other people—Janie, Albertine and Rudolph, even Penn himself before he came aboard—Blamey celebrated this state. She apparently believed that her excess of anxiety, anguish and excitement was a form of euphoria, something that placed her above other people, even if she was in agony. So it felt when she reached over and kissed him, pressed her tongue into his mouth as if to deposit herself in him. Soon he did the same to her, Blamey holding and stroking his face as he penetrated her mouth and drew back. They became each other’s time capsule.

           Suddenly, they were bubbles, too, floating in the air, levitated by emotions so many and so uncontrollable they gave Penn and Blamey buoyancy. Their clothes were floating, too, as they removed them, sailing above the hospital beds like birds—no, as if they were underwater, Blamey’s large breasts, Penn’s long, swollen penis suspended, moving in slow motion as their parts brushed against and by each other. Blamey pulled his erection as if it was a lever that opened her and everything else, directing him inside her, completing their sense of being the same. Then their tears were joined by the white balls of his semen as they disengaged, both spinning like the zits on her face, the stars in the sky, the air or whatever was this atmosphere filled with extended adolescence.

Blamey let Penn sleep it off. Then she badgered him awake again. It was night by now, and everyone else was asleep—though it didn’t matter, the boss’s daughter could do as she pleased. They flew nude from the hospital to a lab where Blamey kept the lights off and mounted Penn on a swivel chair, after tying his hands down with gravity straps. Gripping the chair’s arms as she fucked him, Penn screamed something incoherent when he came, too excited for words. Afterwards, she wound herself around him, hugging him to stay grounded. Penn’s hair, which was long, slithered as if at the bottom of the sea but Blamey’s hair was too short to move at all.

           “I’m so happy we met,” she said.

           “Me, too.”

           “You’re the only one who wants this like I do. My father tried to give me Tranquelle, that willful aging junk your parents gave you. But I said, get lost.”

           Penn heard this with unease. He hadn’t known that Albertine and Rudolph were behind his drugging. He wasn’t sure how he felt about it, so he stayed silent. Also, he wasn’t sure if he wanted what Blamey wanted. Yet he wanted Blamey. So he continued not to speak.

           “There’s a different drug onboard that’s also not approved,” she said. “Minora. This one works. And the approval is just a matter of time.”


           Blamey nodded. She scrambled for the drawer of the desk by their side, pressing in a security code. Penn realized she had not chosen this lab by accident. Had she even come onboard for this very reason, to get this pill?

           “Here,” she said, and now there were two pink tablets in her palm.

           “What does it do?”

           “It will officially keep us this age forever.”

           Blamey hadn’t hesitated with the answer, hadn’t hedged or pretended otherwise. Before he could respond, she’d passed him a pill.

           “Can you take it without water?” she asked. “Or should we go get some from the kitchen?”

           Now that his sexual fever had subsided and morning was on its way, Penn felt weird flying around the ship naked. Yet that wasn’t the reason he paused.

           “I can do it without water,” he said, answering just the practical part of her question. And now that he’d said he could take it, Blamey assumed that he would. She had been waiting to share this way of life, this intensity for eternity or at least until the day way in the future when she died. Did Penn want it for that long, too, want it never to end?

           As he was considering it, Blamey placed a Minora on her tongue. It stuck on the end, which she wiggled at him. Then she pulled it in, shut her mouth and swallowed. She made an “it’s nasty” face before she shrugged the taste away, accepting it as a rite of passage she was tough enough to endure.

           “Okay, big boy,” she said. “Your turn.”

           Penn couldn’t act, stunned by his own fear. He was reminded of that play he had been assigned in school about teenage lovers where the girl thought the boy was dead and killed herself but the boy was still alive, or something. The expression on his face—which he realized later was begging her forgiveness—told Blamey all she needed to know.

           Blamey’s own expression wasn’t angry or sad. She simply pulled the pill from Penn’s fingers, and squeezed his hand once before turning. He realized: she would do this without him; with him it would have just been less lonely. Leaving balls of tears behind, Blamey flew away, as the naked, crying and coming teenager she wished always to remain.

           Penn sat there for a while, also naked yet still tied down. He was surprised that he wasn’t made broken-hearted by this, as he was by everything that didn’t make him aroused. He sensed that this new equanimity signaled the start of a new phase, the advent at last of growing older. He managed to free himself.

           That day, Blamey had the ship turn around and make the months-long trip back to Earth. She had given the captain a new order, or at least Penn assumed she had, for nothing else made sense. They dropped him off alone when they arrived.

           As he disembarked, Penn caught a glimpse of her mingling with the others. Blamey glanced at him once, with fondness and regret. It was as if she were helping someone older cross a street, performing an act of mercy for an elder.

Six months later, Albertine died. She suffered a heart attack, which had not been prevented by the pills she took to avert such an event. It was as if her anxiety was so great there was only so much a medicine could do. Or maybe everything—no matter how prolonged or forestalled by surgery and drugs—always came to an end, anyway.

           Not long after, Penn was invited to lunch at a local diner. Having heard about Albertine, Blamey had come looking for him, using directions from her father.

           Penn noticed that the restaurant’s lights had bleached out and made her blemishes imperceptible. Or was she wearing makeup? Or had they disappeared on their own? Blamey’s hair was growing out, too: Penn secretly felt she’d been more striking with the buzzcut that made her resemble that movie character who got burned at the stake, he couldn’t remember her name.

           Of course, being burned alive by their ages had been what linked them aboard the Floater-X. Now Penn had begun to cool, as it were. To his surprise, so had Blamey.

           To begin with, she’d changed her name. “Why, she wondered, “should I represent my parents’ recriminations?” She’d become B., because the letter was almost but not quite at the beginning of things, just like her.

           “Not bad,” Penn said and kept his doubts to himself. Knowing Blamey—B.—involved not saying everything he thought.

           Her behavior, too, had begun to calm. She was no longer flailing and flying around, not just because she was back on the Earth.

           “What happened to that other drug?” Penn asked. “Minora? I thought you were going to be…” He meant to say, seventeen forever, but she cut him off.

           “Snake oil,” B. said, using an archaic expression that had survived. “But that won’t keep my Dad from marketing it.”

           Penn nodded, surprised—not that the drug hadn’t worked—that she accepted its failure and what it meant for her future.  Their timing for moving on had turned out to be the same. Yet what would they make of each other when they weren’t both on fire?

           “Look,” B. said, “I’d like to keep knowing you.”

           “Me, too,” Penn said, quickly. Before this moment, he hadn’t been able to admit his loneliness, even to himself. Was it losing his mother, whom he so resembled? He wasn’t sure. Impatient tears fell from his eyes like dogs released from cages in a race. B. reached out and held his hand—hers was still callused and still warm—until he stopped. Penn blinked out what he felt would be his last tears for awhile, then dried his cheeks with the back of his hands.

           “Good,” she said. “Now let’s wolf this down. I really want to sleep with you again. Let’s get started.”

           Penn nodded. Feeling human, alive, and no longer so very young, he signaled the robot server for their check.


Laurence Klavan wrote the novels The Cutting Room and The Shooting Script, both published by Ballantine. He won the Edgar Award from the Mystery Writers of America. His graphic novels City of Spies and Brain Camp, co-written with Susan Kim, were published by First Second Books at Macmillan, and their YA fiction series, Wasteland, was published by Harper Collins. His story collection, ’The Family Unit’ and Other Fantasies, was published by Chizine. He received two Drama Desk nominations for the book and lyrics to Bed and Sofa, the musical produced by the Vineyard Theater in New York and the Finborough Theatre in London. laurenceklavan.com




LaToya Jordan


The first time I birthed a blood baby it plopped to the tub floor and slid to the drain, trail of red staining the porcelain. I didn’t know what it was. It looked like a chunk of canned cranberry sauce. It wobbled in the shower spray, too big to be washed away. I pressed my big toe against its smoothness and smashed it down the drain in pieces.

The third time it happened, I picked up the thing to examine it, turning it around in my hands, soft and squishy like an overripe plum. “Keep me,” a voice said. I slipped and almost dropped it. I turned off the shower thinking the water was playing tricks on me. Trevor wasn’t home, so it couldn’t be him. “Keep me,” the squeaky voice said again. There was only this bloody blob in my hands. Sitting naked on the tub’s edge, I looked for a mouth. No arms or legs, no mouth or face, but its voice vibrated in my hands; it was all heart. “Keep me,” it pleaded.

I grabbed a towel, raced to the kitchen, and got a dessert bowl from the china hutch. I’d been saving the silver basket weave patterned dishes for a special occasion. After 12 years of marriage, I thought we’d have more things to celebrate. I thought there’d be children and chipped china. I wiped dust from the bowl with my towel and placed the blood baby gently in. I set the bowl on the windowsill that got the most sun. 

Every month a new blood baby came to join her sisters. The oldest lost her luster and shriveled to a burgundy-black pea. The youngest was silken, wet. I organized them around the bowl by birth date, a blood-baby-stages-of-metamorphosis clock. Trevor shunned the window, passing it with eyes focused on the floor or body glued to the opposite wall. Avoidance was his coping strategy.

I found joy in sitting by the window talking to my blood babies as they aged and withered. Sometimes we sat in silence. Sometimes they said sorry on behalf of my uterus. Sometimes I’d teach them songs we’d sing together in harmony, but I loved hearing them call me Mama most. Once they became crisp pebbles, I returned them to the earth, buried in our small backyard beneath a circle of smooth stones.


The doctor said I had abnormal growths called fibroids, but I heard fruit. One, a plum, another a grape. My uterus became a small orchard. I gave thanks to its inhospitable environment for sustaining fruit. I signed up for Your Baby’s Fruit Size This Week emails and learned a plum is the size of a 12-week-old fetus. I’d never made it past the blueberry stage with my pregnancies, but my fruit continued to grow. Plum became orange, grape became plum. They drained me as they grew. I craved blood, going from well done to medium rare red meat. I told the staff at the steakhouse near my job, “The baby likes steak!” Then grapefruit, then orange again. Out of breath walking up the stairs, stars in my eyes when I stood up too fast. Then honeydew melon, then mango. Strangers gave me their seats on the subway. I gladly sat down while rubbing my belly. 

My weekly baby-size email said I had heartburn, frequent urination, trouble sleeping, and my internal organs were being squished. It also said my baby could hear and its kidneys and liver should be fully functional. I wondered if Honeydew and Mango heard me when I groaned in pain. Did they feel responsible? My doctor said they were dangerous and had to be taken out. I woke from surgery with a flatter stomach, a new scar above my pubic hair, but no fruit, no babies. In online groups, no amount of calling fibroids fruit made people like them—they were always monsters. But I miss my little monsters and how they showed me what a pregnant body would look like on me.


My mother used to say to me, “Never throw your hair in the garbage because birds will find it, use it in their nests, and you’ll have headaches for the rest of your life.” As a child, I’d picture pigeons pecking my brain like worms. After cornrowing my hair, she’d put the little bundles of shed hair in an ashtray and light it. I’d watch, mesmerized by how the hair sizzled, quickly becoming ash. 

After the doctor said I couldn’t have babies, I began leaving gifts for the birds in our backyard. It feels good to have my own ritual now. My hair is perfect for nests, soft and coily, dark brown to easily blend with other nest materials, a few wiry grays for strength. During the week, I gather hair from my brush or finger detangling. I put the strands in the same bowl by the window my blood babies spent their short lives in; Trevor still avoids that window. By the end of the week, the bowl has sprouted. On Saturdays, after Trevor leaves to coach football, I scatter hair mixed with twigs and birdseed on the grassy section of our small yard. 

After the hair is spread, I sit in a lounge chair on the patio, sip chamomile from a silver-lined teacup, and wait. Two tiny birds I call Kiwi and Tan have been coming for birdseed for a long time. They like the hair, taking pieces in their beaks and flying up to the top of our towering London planetree. Their nest is hidden by leaves and branches, but I know they’re pleased with my gifts because they leave me trinkets near the feeder: feathers, ribbon, small colorful beads, a keychain in the shape of a house. It feels good to know that something beautiful can be made with my body. When the pain comes, it’s not a headache, but sharp beaks at my belly, pecking at my already mangled uterus. There’s still life inside me.  


LaToya Jordan is a writer from Brooklyn, New York. She is the author of the poetry chapbook Thick-Skinned Sugar (Finishing Line Press). Her essay, “After Striking a Fixed Object,” is listed as “notable” in Best American Essays 2016 and her writing has appeared in Mom Egg Review, Literary Mama, Poets & Writers, The Rumpus, Mobius: The Journal of Social Change, and more. LaToya received an MFA in Creative Writing from Antioch University, Los Angeles. She is a mother to two amazing kids and wife to an English teacher. Follow her on Twitter @latoyadjordan.




Carson Faust

Faces and Darkness Separate Us

I. Bloody Mary

It was the white God’s day of rest. That did not stop Vantrilla Friendly from sending her daughters out to fetch water. Vantrilla sat before the mirror every morning and pulled the strands of silver from her long black hair. She woke at dawn with her husband Carlisle. As he spent the morning working in another man’s field, she avoided all light that didn’t reflect from the glass. When she cooked biscuits for breakfast, the curtains in the kitchen were drawn. When she swept the living room, she would move between the patches of sunlight.

On days when the South Carolina sun beat on the fields and brought Carlisle’s skin from russet to red, she sent her daughters out to the well to bring water home. That way the light would not touch her. The light would not darken her.

Her three daughters. It was their fault. The lines in her forehead deepened and the rings around her eyes darkened and her hips widened every time she thrust one into the world. Vantrilla grew more tired every year since she pushed the first one out in 1905. Never thought she’d feel so haggard by age thirty-four. It worsened every day.

Her own mother had worn age with grace. Even when Mama looked like leather on her deathbed, her chin was high and her eyes glimmered. Vantrilla did not inherit this poise. Every line, every wrinkle, every gray hair weighed her down. If avoiding sunlight was the only way to fight, then that was what she was going to do. It wasn’t about beauty. No. It was about control. She couldn’t control how people saw her, but she could control how she saw herself.

Mama had worshiped the sun, like all of her mothers before her. In the stifling heat of summer, they would all dance for the Green Corn Ceremony. For the corn to grow, they had chosen to wither. Vantrilla refused to wither as they did, and the crop still grew. They were foolish. All that time in the sun made their skin so deep that when the white folk came around with their pens and papers, they marked them all down as Negro. As Vantrilla’s people lost their dances, their stories, all they had were the words that were written on those papers. That were written by people who knew nothing about them.

Vantrilla knew that Carlisle thought she was sick. Because she refused to leave the house when the sun shone. She knew that if he weren’t so beaten down by the end of every day that he would’ve taken a lover by now. If he believed in a hell, he would not be afraid to burn there. He burned all day long. Even if he had a lover, there was nothing for Vantrilla to do, just as there was nothing he could do to bring her into the sun.

The girls were old enough to do all of the work outdoors now. They had aged her enough already, so those tasks became theirs. Eliza was the eldest, almost a woman now. She carried the two largest buckets in, her cheeks flushed and dark. She was always the first one to return, long and lean like Vantrilla. Letha, though she was the youngest, usually was back second. She was nine and still got away with carrying only one pail of water. Rosalie was short and thin like her father. Carrying two pails was more of a strain for her.

With the water Eliza brought home, Vantrilla would wash the floors and boil corn for supper. The water Letha brought in would be for drinking. Much of it would be saved for Carlisle for when he came home. With the water that Rosalie brought back, the whole family would bathe. Vantrilla bathed last. Sat in the tub that she had lowered Mama into in the months before she died. As the water rippled, twisting the reflection, her face looked like Mama’s.

Rosalie made sure her sisters stayed awake past dark. After she was sure Ma and Pa were asleep, she took a candle from the kitchen drawer and the box of matches she had hidden under her mattress and the three sisters snuck into the bathroom. If Ma found them with matches, they would be in a lot of trouble. Not because the fire was dangerous. She didn’t care about that. She cared about how much the matches cost.

“I still think this is a waste of time.” Eliza said. She had the biggest bags under her eyes.

“We have to get up so early tomorrow, Rosalie. We got to do this tonight?”

“Haven’t you always wanted to see a spirit?” Letha asked. She was more excited than she let herself sound. Just as she was on the walk home from the well, when she planned this with her sisters. “Cousin Will said he saw one when he did it.”

“Cousin Will might be our dumbest cousin,” Eliza said. “And that’s an accomplishment with how many cousins we got.”

Eliza always joked that she couldn’t crush on any of the boys because they were related to all the boys. It was more truth than joke, though. Just about everybody left in Four Holes looked about the same. “Come on, it won’t take long. Y’all just scared.” Rosalie knew she had them now. Eliza was too proud, and Letha wouldn’t want to feel left out.

Finally, Eliza snatched the matches and lit the candle. As brave as Eliza pretended to be, she wouldn’t say the words. Letha and Eliza both looked at Rosalie. Rosalie did it, heart pulsing, but still only three faces flickered in the mirror. The closest thing to a ghost was the smoke from the candle after they snuffed it out.

yraM ydoolB .I

The mirrors’ eyes are open now. The girls stood before them in yellow candlelight. The tallest one had her arms crossed, waiting for something to happen. The smallest looked terrified, her face somehow chalky and dark. The middle one, they could see most clearly. Her face and body were wider than the other two. She was hardly taller than the smallest. She was the one who held the candle. The one whose voice they had swallowed.

Mirrors all talk to one another. Much like all rivers flow to a larger body of water, mirrors all flow to the same place in the end. The mirrors in the house watch them, all together. This kind of sight can grow. They see through the light reflected from windows and water. When the girls peer into the black eye of the well, the black water looks back.

The mirrors watch as the mother’s hair goes from black to silver faster than she can pluck. Her hair and skin lighten until she is pale and colorless and beautiful. White as a ghost. They watch as the father’s body breaks—his eyes become glossy, his back twists, his hands become raw. Their eyes are hungriest for the girl that woke them. They watch her grow. How her breasts and belly swell. They watch her weep after the well takes the smallest sister. That black eye holds that girl’s body forever and her rot poisons the water.

They hold the things that can’t be reflected. Each mirror holds the smallest sister’s face. Her dark body. When the mother passes, her body thin and white as bone, they take it from her. They put the dead mother and daughter in every corner of the room. The girls wanted to see ghosts, so they give them. The little girl’s dark body, ugly as it was, was perfect for hiding in shadows. The dead mother’s body—with its long arms and legs made pale and elegant by death—was perfect for reaching, for clawing. There is skin that gives back light and there is skin that takes it in. Skin that takes it in, like all things that take but do not relinquish, becomes impure.

II. Bloody Mary

Grandma Rosalie looked in mirrors even though she couldn’t see anymore. Back when Ariel used to visit Grandma Rosalie at her old place, her attention always turned to the mirrors. Now her grandma was staying in their guest room. Her eyes were getting bad, so Mama took care of her. Well, Ariel helped too. Mama stayed home with Grandma Rosalie on days that Ariel worked day shifts at the 4-Mart, and Ariel was her caretaker at night when Mama worked longer shifts at the hospital in Ridgeville.

Ariel liked their nights together. Grandma Rosalie told her things that Mama wouldn’t. She told her about Mama when she was a kid, how she used to get in all sorts of fights with the boys at school and how she’d spend half of her recess in the nurse’s office. She told Ariel about the way Mama used to carry around her doll, Little Opal, all weekend. She talked about how badly her daughter wanted to be a mother. And she talked about Ariel’s father, a white man named Earl Riche, and how he walked out on Mama when she told him she was carrying his child.

There wasn’t a single picture of Earl in the house. After Grandma Rosalie told her about him, she looked through every drawer and book and photo album. Nothing. Ariel had gone sixteen years without hearing more than a few words about her father, so any knowledge Grandma Rosalie had, she devoured. The stories distracted from Grandma Rosalie’s mirrors too. Ariel remembered how the mirrors in Grandma Rosalie’s old house used to scare her, and that was a feeling that never really went away. It was a feeling that was getting worse lately. Ariel covered the mirror in Grandma Rosalie’s room while she ate up her supper downstairs.

Ariel stayed as far from those mirrors as she could. It felt like something was moving underneath the sheet. Like something was moving underneath Ariel’s skin.

Ariel took Grandma Rosalie upstairs after they finished their chicken and biscuits. “Can you please take that sheet down, Ariel?” Grandma rocked in her chair, knitting by touch. She stared right at the mirror.

“How’d you know I covered it even?”

Grandma Rosalie let out a dark laugh. “What good is having a mirror when you can’t even see yourself? That’s how you think, ain’t it?” Grandma Rosalie knew just how to make Ariel feel bad. Blind old bat had a knack for it.

“Fine.” Ariel pulled the sheet down and felt a rush of heat.

Grandma Rosalie was quiet for a bit. They listened to the cicadas screaming outside. “You see her too, don’t’cha?”

Ariel looked toward the mirror, waited for her grandma to speak again, afraid to speak herself. There was a shadow in the mirror that didn’t belong.

“I can’t see a damn thing, but when I look in the glass, I can see her. Clear as day.”

Mama and Auntie Eliza had told Ariel about little Letha. She died young. Auntie Eliza could talk about it, but Grandma Rosalie never really got over it. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“I know you’ve seen her too. Just like my sister. Just like your mother. You can try to deny it, like they do, but it’ll only get worse.”

“Come on, Grandma. It ain’t real.”

It wasn’t real, and neither were the nights that Ariel dreamed of eating glass and woke tasting blood. And neither were the nights that Ariel caught glimpses of a red moon in the silver when the moon was supposed to be white. And neither were the nights when Ariel’s reflection was not her own, but a dark girl drenched in water. It was water. It was water, wasn’t it?

“She is.” It felt like Grandma Rosalie could see Ariel for the first time in years, the way she was looking at her. It made Ariel’s head feel light. “Ghosts are. You just don’t have any of your own yet. I’m sure mine will get passed along after I go.”

That’s when Ariel understood. That’s why Grandma Rosalie was finally telling her. That’s why it had been getting worse. Grandma thought she was going to pass this along. And she thought it would happen soon.

“You’ll believe it when you see it. And you will.” Grandma Rosalie said. “Just know that ghosts can’t hurt you. But they can try like hell to make your hurt yourself.”

yraM ydoolB .II

Call them Mary, if you must. Call them what you will. Those things that watch all people from behind the silver of mirrors. Some call these things Mary Worth. Some woman, some witch, unable to bear children. Covered in blood. Red from head to toe. Mary fashions Rosalie a ghost of her own. Little Letha Friendly, too young to bear children, and red from head to toe. Her skin, the same color of what lie beneath it. A monster in her own right. All she lacked was the blood, so the mirrors put the spirit into blood.

Rosalie becomes a mother to Esther, Esther becomes a mother to Ariel. The blood gets passed along, and so do the ghosts inside it. The silver eyes watch, in the glint of the scalpel, as Ariel is pulled from the womb. They watch as the doctors with lily-white skin, as lovely as the flower itself, cut Esther’s parts so she will never be a mother again. This unclean mother in sterile surroundings. She needed to be cleaned from inside out. Hollowed out. Nothing could be done about her skin, but the doctors stopped that darkness from spreading.

Esther did not want this, of course. She smiled as Ariel grew in her belly. She filled shoeboxes with little bibs and booties that her mother knitted. She kept them in her bedroom closet, next to her music box. She had a journal full of names. Names that she practiced saying with her daughter’s name. She did not want this, but it is for the best.

She weeps when the doctors tell her. She weeps in the bathroom while her infant sleeps in her crib. While Ariel toddles from room to room. After Ariel leaves for school. After Ariel takes the car to work. Esther clutches her belly as it aches for what it cannot have.

The mirrors can haunt her too. Show her little red babies. They have eaten the light of so many faces, there might as well be one for every name on Esther’s list. Their memories are exact. They drink Esther’s sweet tears. Just because they reflect a face twisted by sadness doesn’t mean they are not smiling.

III. Bloody Mary

Five years pass, and Grandma Rosalie passes with them. Three more years pass, and in them, Ariel falls in love with a man named James. Then nine months pass, and Ariel brings her daughter Elsie into the world. Mama is overjoyed when the doctor places Elsie in her arms. Mama always told stories of mothers that never got to hold their babies, whose babies were given to other families before they even stopped screaming. Mama cries happy tears that drip onto Elsie.

“You forget how warm babies are.” Mama says.

Helpful as she is, loving as she is, Mama nags. She nags that Elsie doesn’t have any siblings. Elsie is already five, Mama says. She needs a brother, a sister, she says. One that’s close to her age. She needs someone to walk through life with, to grow with, to protect and be protected by. But Ariel doesn’t have time for another kid, or money for that matter. Even with all Mama’s help, it’d be too much of a strain. Ariel works sixty hours a week at Ridgeville Clinic. James taught math at the school during the week and worked as a line cook at Hop’s Diner on the weekends.

Ariel and Mama hang the clothes out back, letting the afternoon sun pull the moisture from her linens and scrubs, from Elsie’s Sunday dress, from James’s trousers and button-ups, from Mama’s blouses. When the sheets sway in the wind, Ariel thinks of the sheets that she once used to cover Grandma Rosalie’s mirrors. She thinks of the girl she often saw in the reflections of shadows. She thinks of how much that girl looked like her daughter.

“You’re a wonderful mother, Ariel. Elsie is a beautiful girl. I don’t understand why you don’t want another child.”

“Want has nothing to do with it. We don’t have the time.”

“I’m here. Elsie is easy to watch. I can handle another baby. Wouldn’t be a problem at all.”

“I appreciate you looking after Elsie. But I don’t appreciate the meddling.”

“I just want Elsie to have what you didn’t.”

“I have plenty, Mama. It’s you that didn’t get what you wanted. No matter what I do, I’m not going to be able to give that to you.”

Dollhouse mirrors are always a little imperfect. They warp things in a way that real ones don’t. Strange that the doll has nothing inside of it but air. Elsie could squeeze the head with her little fingers and it would collapse, distorting the doll’s face, warping it into something uglier, something less familiar. Strange, too, that the the doll is so pale. Mommy’s skin doesn’t look like that. Elsie’s isn’t either. Though her skin is a little closer to color of the doll’s. Elsie notices the way that skin lightens for that instant when you apply pressure. Just a little bit brighter, if only for an instant.

Elsie knew her body wasn’t empty like the doll. She knew she was full and heavy. But the first time her skin comes apart, the first time that bright blood stains the world, she is not ready. She is playing. Running back to her bucket of chalk. She falls. She does not cry though. The strawberries inside her body paint the sidewalk, her hands. That prickly sting runs down her leg, like blood. And then through the rest of her body, also like blood.

yraM ydoolB .III

We are not cruel, nor did we ask for this. This is not our fault, but we are truthful. We are not the water, but the light that bends over it. We did not push the girl into us, she is not part of us, but we hold her. Yes, we were part of the scalpel, but we did not cut the young mother. Yes, we drink the water that flows from you, but we are not the reason you weep.

We have followed you through eighty years of blood. We have swallowed your kin. Once the water has been tainted, all you can do is pull up rot from the well.


Carson Faust is a queer writer, and an enrolled member of the Edisto Natchez-Kusso Tribe of South Carolina. His fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in TriQuartely, Waxwing Magazine, Foglifter Journal, and elsewhere. He currently lives in Minnesota.