Category: Stories

Two people

In in the morning she wakes up very suddenly, the dream caught painfully in her throat. She sits up and spits it out onto her hand. It is is small, soft to the touch, growing and shrinking to the rhythm of human breath. It leaves thin lines of blood and saliva on her forefinger and thumb, and on the sleeve of her pajama shirt, where she rubs it clean. 

The curtains are drawn. Her roommate on the other side of the room is asleep, face turned towards the wall. According to her blue neon alarm clock, palpitating intermittently in the dim light: there are twenty-seven minutes before nine, and so twenty-seven minutes before she must leave the bed, wash her face, and prepare herself for the day.

Sitting in a pool of white sheets, her knees at her chest, her arms over her bare, unshaven legs; she rolls the dream between two fingers, trying to commit the weight and texture of it to memory. It is heavy as a marble, heavy as the moon. Holding it feels like summer’s end strawberries taste. She closes her hand around it; she lowers her head.

In the dream, a girl she loved (loves? She’s given up on tenses) held her hand on a school bus. Much too real; never real enough. A dream’s life is early and fatal like one of early April’s milky snowbanks, an instance of tender, pink-hued cold shot through by sweaty weather. That girl’s doe eyes, her baby blue jacket, her fragrant hair; the illusion of warmth of her fingers spreading through her body like a criminal’s car moving out of sight, getting away. The heat of the dream stains her, slick and violet, smooth as butter and sweet as honey in her blood.

An unpleasant, painful expression sweeps across her face — and then, as always, she recovers. She swings her legs off the bed. She is getting older, and her dreams are getting smaller, and smaller, and smaller. I’m not disappointed, she says out loud, to herself, to the translucent, beating dream resting in the center of her hand. I’m realistic. And yet somewhere, maybe not anywhere physical and quantifiable, but somewhere: she is leaning over to the girl in the school bus, in the sunlight, and she is kissing her temples, the apples of her cheeks, her toothy, blissful smile.

It’s difficult for her to learn not to be bitter. She is still trying.

Eve

She names herself each time. She is Sphinx, once; her back to the door and a knife between her pink breasts. She is Rose, once; at the bottom of the lake, arms a circle around her head, blossoms in her green heart. Butterfly, then Beulah, then Beast. A prostitute, a priestess, a pirate. Her bodies are always perfectly formed, glowing and new as spring’s first bird, summer’s last moon; she is born with silver coins under her tongue, feet and hands like the opening lotus.

And yet, each time, she cannot help but feel displaced, formless, somehow, like a shifting tide, a faint memory owned by a fainter mind. It is as though certain parts of her were taken while she was still clay and never returned to her. As though she were Galatea, or David, and her sculptor had given her body unearthly beauty but the wrong weight, all cool grace and no substance, possibility becoming fantasy.

Often she tries to understand what she needs so acutely; in the dark, she closes her eyes and says to herself these parts of me that were taken, they are a little like the smell of apples, a little like the layers of the ocean, a little like the cure only touch can be. It’s like trying to remember a painful dream and she is never comforted. Apples, ocean, touch? She doesn’t want to be a poet; she just wants. Neither her thoughts nor her voice can give these parts that she is missing life, but none of her desires are stronger than their absence. No pain like that pain.

Whether she is Gelsomina on the rocks of Gibraltar or Mata laying seeds in the valley of the dead, she knows, in some blurred, quiet way, that she has arms and a mouth but no light, nails and teeth but no real eyes. A half-made spirit in a silken body; white-gray marble princess melting into the sand. She is the shape of a river after rain, spilling over its banks, losing blood to the dirt in bitterness. And yet — even when her waters leave her for the hunger of the trees, she is still the river, tied into the bowl of the earth and the breastbone of the heavens, and she will empty into the oceans of Aphrodite and the groves of Athena. She will come back, again, and she will take any body, any name, until she has what can only be hers.

HOROSCOPE PREDICTIONS FOR THIS MONTH

ARIES, TURN FERAL: You’ll be more domestic animal than humanoid; oily blood and salt fish will be more yours than maple sugar and liquid sunsets. You don’t just break hearts, you eat them. Everyone likes a little tenderness, yes? But they think love, and you’re thinking chewable.

TAURUS, BLEED OUT: That blue-black night when you accidentally drop your briefcase on the subway floor not once but twice, don’t you dare take the short-cut through the yellow wheat fields home. Those Capricorn boys don’t care for you, they will cut your hair with butterfly knives and sell your clothes to housewives.

GEMINI, SKIP TOWN: There’s a spot behind the burger joint, you know which one. When your Pisces mother kicks you out, walk the two blocks there and feel the onion-sweet, beef-thick air in the dark until it snags underneath you; pull, pull. The fabric of this dimension will dissolve at the acid of your palm and perseverance, creating a hole two feet across, into a new universe. It’s just big enough you to jump in headfirst. No, I can’t tell you if you’ll be any happier, should you go.

CANCER, ACCEPT IT: You’ve got no beauty, but you will be lucky. You ugliest, worthiest of queens: rise.

LEO, MAKE LOVE: If you’re going to kiss him, do it at the pulse point, the throat, first like a wolf then like a married man, and keep at it until he forgets his mama’s name. Good. Get a tattoo afterwards (might I suggest a lion? No? Too obvious? A dragon, then.) If you’re out looking for a quickie, consider picking up an Aries. They’re biters, though; beware.

VIRGO, DON’T GO SLOW: On the day the city floods, hike up your skirts and run. You can’t cheat Death, but you can beat him up, if you find and catch him unguarded (his favorite victim, a sweet-tempered, curly-haired Aquarius, was taken during a storm; so now Death sleeps during rain. All villains have something they’d rather never remember.)

LIBRA, WANT IT: But don’t say it, don’t touch it, not yet. Some things must be courted before they are killed. Wait. Soon you will sink your hands in, run your tongue through. A warning: wanting is a kind of cheating, sometimes, and even if you get away with it, that won’t make it worthwhile.

SCORPIO, SPIT: Onto the sidewalk, and then into the fire, before you start up your brew. Eye of newt is a little old-fashioned, how about the heart of a Taurus?

SAGITTARIUS, WRITE: Last month’s paycheck was cut in half, and your blouse will disappear from the laundromat (Leo looks better in it. Sorry.) It’ll be alright. Sit at your kitchen table, half-naked, and finish your stories.

CAPRICORN, BE CRUEL: You are hungry. So feed.

AQUARIUS, COME HOME: Count your wounds and gather your things. You gave it your best shot, but it’s time to call it a day. Don’t fall asleep on the subway; don’t run the risk of a Libra’s love. Your body is demonic, but never rotting; can the same be said of the side of the angels? Those bastards are falling, every which way.

PISCES, IT’S OKAY TO CRY: You’re still here, aren’t you? Yes. Yes. Yes, you are. Say it with me, and then repeat it: yes, I am.

Unedited Excerpts of the Very, Very Bad Novel I Wrote in November 2012

PAGE 69

It is a landscape of a song: greens and yellows, lulls like hillsides, crags and cliffs as notes strike and shiver, the sun in the mouth of a singer that would foretell their deaths. They listen, Henrietta’s weight shifting until their thighs are touching ever so slightly, and she can smell butter and wool and salty sweat and throaty, musky something-or-the-other (Roy). And suddenly the song has new associations. It’s not death, anymore. It’s a room in shadow, and sitting, and touch, and eyes closed and listening until the music is all gone and then looking up into someone’s face and smiling, smiling.

PAGE 27

And she shows them her hand-ax and tells them stories of golden robberies and nights spent under the stars, when they took from the rich and kissed the poor on the lips, and taking blouses from clotheslines and wearing scars like tiger stripes and battle wounds like lipstick, accessories after the fact, proof of living, of living greatly. And Henrietta grins and pokes fun at gang methodology, at the sloppiness of their structures, at the ill-timed plots and too-close getaways and Penelope rolls her eyes and asks are you jealous, do you wanna join, do you wanna be our planner, our strategist our bloody fucking timekeeper? It’s a joke but Henrietta says yes, yes, yes. And Penelope gets up and knights Henrietta the engineer with her ax, laying the handle parallel to her neck, just above the shoulder, and she whispers all hail Henrietta, general of the Lucky Dragons before dissolving into a fit of laughter.

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And then the universe will take them and remake them. The heart of a star out of bicycle parts, the viscous swirl of a newborn galaxy out of the body of the continents, a glimmering planet out of the red streaks in Henrietta’s hair when she stands in the sun, a square foot of space dust out of the curve of Toru’s cheek, a meteorite out of the plastic bags collecting at the bottom of the ocean. It’s barely any consolation at all, but it is something.

PAGE 91

There is lays, the barbed lattice, exposed, layers of blood peeling off, distance and days of time, draped over him, mixing in with milky warmth of his black eyes, drilling into a lifetime’s worth of wanting, understanding; all he’s been meaning to say, emerging, some maritime naked goddess stepping out of a grey-green pool, cautiously, purposefully, dripping, shedding. Henrietta listens to it all as though watching it happen, as though his loneliness occupied space in the room, as though it shifted the gravity of her world, pulling her in, unfolding before her (she wishes she could stab it, kill it, or else clasp it close, keep it safe, and the conflict grates against her, wound like a bond, a chemical link that not even a millennium on Earth could not destroy). He keeps going.

PAGE 100

“There’s one other bit, too,” She leans in. There’s a theory between his brows, a string of variables in the soft threads of his dark hair, a list of environmental factors hidden in the heart of his hands, where he shakes, like the newborn surface of the Earth separating, like the switch in seasons traced out in the swiveling of the sky, like the poetry that is a pustule rather than a prayer, it hurts and harms him, the way her eyes bore and search him; one last trial run, one run into the ocean, one final experiment. “One thing I haven’t said,” she continues, purposefully dragging it out. There’s a luxury in that: there is no time left for them, but she can keep him here, hanging on the edge of truth and pain (the pain that accompanies truth, the truth that gives pain its value, shaped in the form of her smile, crawling closer). Her fingers come up to his jawline.

PAGES 101-102

“What do you think it’ll be like?” He asks her, as she travels from collar to cuff, peeling away cloth. “Will it hurt?”

“No,” she says, reverently, “No. You won’t even realize it’s happening. One second you’ll be here, and the next you won’t be. Like falling asleep.”

“Falling asleep,” he repeats. “Will there be anything before? A flash of light, an explosion?”

“Oh, you’re so melodramatic,” she says, laughing. “That kind of stuff only happens in movies.”

He rolls his eyes. “You say that like you’ve been through this before, but even you can’t know exactly how it’ll go down.”

“I can make an informed guess based on evidence,” she says, arms curling around his neck. Now that time is going, it’s so much easier to make these movements, take decisions like pressing her toes to his ankle, her fingertips to his ribs (count them, count the bones from which you were made, the bones you now reclaim before the universe turns you both into dust, again). He smiles and the density and temperature of her heart increases by at least a thousand percent (pure mathematics) and she groans a little (I’m a goner).

“No,” she says, “it won’t be a big deal. It’ll be quiet and it won’t hurt.” If the universe hurts him, she’ll come back in the next one, she’ll tear it to pieces with her teeth, she’ll pin it to the ground and break its back.

The Last Three Days of Nissil And Henny, Part the Second.

PART THE FIRST

In the morning, Nissil and Henrietta go out for ice cream. The first three food carts are empty, but Henrietta spots a fourth in the park.

It’s on its side, the collapsible roof and poles in a muddied huddle, positioned and hit by the light in such a way as to give the illusion of wide shoulder blades and a tail, some kind of slow and shy prehistoric mammal. Henrietta is reminded of her family dog, a comically stupid Great Dane named Mario.

There had been an autumn evening a few years back when a thunderstorm had stranded them in a grocery store twelve blocks away from home. Henrietta had untied Mario’s lead from the door handle and sat next to the cashier while he padded in and out, sometimes stopping to lie in the rain before slowly returning, and then repeating the process again. His body, becoming progressively darker, quivered and shook, muscles distending and contracting on the pavement. His head would rise and swivel towards her, eyes invisible in the waning light. Henrietta had had to laugh. It was only twenty hours later, when she woke up to find him motionless on the kitchen floor, that she realized what those movements had been  – a death dance.

She walks towards the cart with her arms outstretched, hands out, just like how she used to approach Mario. The illusion remains in the folds and bends in the broken structure, the dirty fabric and the pools of still water, even after she smiles in sad surprise, her arms dropping to her sides.

The freezer is rapidly defrosting, flooding the compartments. The paper packaging is soft and soggy to the touch. Nissil sticks one arm inside the inside of the cart and, with his usual good-humored gumption and magician’s luck, finds one orange popsicle, still relatively intact. They sit on a bench, close enough that it’s clear they are together, but still too far apart for a casual observer to believe them to be intimate. Henrietta is wearing her dirty school blouse and a pair of bright yellow shorts, found underneath the hotel bed. Nissil has taken a concierge’s uniform jacket from a closet behind reception.

“You’re not going to be able to return it.” Henrietta says.

“I’ll put it back within 48 hours.” Nissil replies smoothly, unwrapping the popsicle. “I did say that, didn’t I? Here, have some.”

Henrietta takes a bite, chewing in a preoccupied way for a few moments before speaking again.

“I just mean, we’ve got, maybe, three days tops, and with all the stuff there’s left to do how could we go back and leave the uniform?”

Nissil rolls his eyes a little at her. “What stuff, exactly? What stuff have we got to do?”

Henrietta lets a minute pass, just so that he’ll mistakenly think she’s puzzled, that she is genuinely stumped. For the first time in days, she dedicates herself to a careful examination of her surroundings. In front of her lies a paved road, meant for bicycles, followed by a row of trees, one of which is a magnolia in flower.

“Good thing we didn’t miss magnolia season,” she says, just so he’ll think she’s trying to change the subject, that she doesn’t remember what stuff they should do in the last sixty or so hours of their lives, “that would have been so unfair.”

Nissil nods. His grin is so thankful that she almost decides not to say anything. Henrietta touches his shoulder like one does piano keys: consciously, with purpose, but gently, very gently. His face, she notices, is trembling very slightly. He continues to smile at her and once again she recalls Mario, half a day from death, sitting in the rain, turning to her with dark eyes.

She looks out at the magnolia, watching for some movement in the branches that she can interpret as a divine message, a decisive, godly signal. Like a child she tells herself if a flower falls from that tree, I won’t say anything. A minute passes. Henrietta takes the half-eaten popsicle from him, flings it into a trash can and stands up.

“Come on, Nissil. We should get to the hospital before noon.”

Only Children, Part One of Two

The farm grounds are always empty the day after the sky lantern festival. Anthony stares out at the lie of the land, the shape and swell of hillocks and wet fields. For these few hours in the year, he is completely alone. The part-time boys, those lads continually slipping up and letting loose heifers into haylofts, they’ve run off with buttery, peppermint-smelling schoolgirls. The carpenter has been collecting them all morning, shining kerosene lamps on bright-eyed children in forested areas, cutting short elopements inspired by the glory of last night’s lanterns. He brings them to attention with a few prods of a pitchfork, and in the instant between the end of their dumb, warm solitude and that harsh reintroduction into the biting air of the ugly universe, the carpenter catches in their faces the pathetic and raw look of true love.

Beddington is normally in charge of lecturing the dimpled and disgraced couples in the front room of the main house, but even he has pulled a disappearing act. Anthony had found his uncle in the spare bedroom behind the greenhouse around midday, wrapped around a soft and supple milkmaid. Her ankles, hanging off the bed, were marked with the crenulated imprint of woolen socks. Beddington had one hand in her fair hair.

The landowner and maid have an understanding, put into practice only once yearly. Unbeknownst to them, Anthony is well-aware of the liaison, and though he’s not sure if he approves, he goes above and beyond the nephew’s call of duty to protect them. Every year, a week or so prior to the festival, Anthony gathers the farm boys in the barn and terrifies them with legends concerning a greenhouse ghoul, coated in constrictive vines and red lilies. For days afterward not even the carpenter will enter the greenhouse, something Anthony’s uncle thinks is indicative of spiritual approval (“even ghosts want us to be together” he whispers to her in the corridor). Beddington and his home-grown, milk-fed inamorata are convinced the gods are looking after them.

Though they lie now in flagrante delicto, there is no chance of detection so late in the morning. All of the farmhands have long made for neighboring villages. They are visiting their Ma and Pa, or buying confectioner’s sugar and cake flour with their holiday bonus. The postman has come and gone, bearing the usual: advertisements for this fertilizer or that brand of halters, and a love letter or two for a Beddington employee. Anthony and the carpenter, who open the mail together, observe the former with more distaste that the latter. Beddington’s is a dairy farm and has no need for fertilizer nor halters, but both men  have been contaminated with a secondhand appreciation of adolescent desire and the sickness that inevitably accompanies it. Sometimes they make brief corrections to the letters, usually purely grammatical but recently varying into stylistic territory (“how terrible, ‘love’ and ‘grovel’ do not rhyme”).

It is Anthony’s eleventh consecutive year at Beddington’s. He does not stand much taller than he did at fifteen, and the core of him conserves most of the same traits, including the prodigal memory that made him a brief county legend. Though this particular knack is what convinced Beddington to hire him, Anthony often wishes he could remember less.

For example: Anthony can recall, with an easy accuracy and perfection that mortifies him, his first and last sky lantern festival. In his mind’s eye, there he is, a barely pubescent kid, standing in line to collect his wages from the overseer. Pockets heavy with coins, fodder for wire and lights, there he is zipping across plots and over fences. They arrive in time to set up the preparations: tables dragged from townhouses and lain in the square, piled high with cretonne and oil paints, smart girls in pantyhose standing beside them, leaning against beaus and balustrades. The farmhands tighten wire and curl it around their wrists, shaping it into perfect circles. Anthony remembers holding the fabric down while the ladies put wax pencil to paper and draw for hours, dots and curlicues framing pastoral scenes and red barns. Fermented juice is passed around, leaving the artists tipsy and giving way to drawings considerably more risqué than the township is used to, filled in with warm orange pastels and off-set with pink lace. Anthony had refused all drink and so his recollection of the hours that followed is considerably clearer than that of his compatriots. At midnight they’d gathered up the lanterns, like mothers picking up children, and carried them to a nearby field. Standing in the grass, they struck matches together and lit the candles tucked into the wire chassis of the lanterns. For a moment nothing happened, and they all felt silly, gussied up as they were in their best and brightest, holding out greasy paper trimmed with ribbons and copper. Then, slowly, as though uncertain and unhappy to be leaving home, as though they were only cautious and frightened children, the lanterns began to rise, trembling. There was no wind, and no moon, and for once adolescents looked up at the night sky and thoroughly ignored the stars. They stood rooted as the lights rushed up, in a sudden gush of longing, towards the timberline and, from there, to the heavens. Watching them go, aligned perfectly in what seemed like a divine order, Anthony was sure he’d found God.

It was not until later, when he had jumped over the fence and was nearing the Beddington property, that he began to think differently. In the darkness he only noticed the blood by the time his boots were in it. The outline of her grey silhouette quivered, and her head was flat on the ground, turned towards him. Anthony remembers that her eyes had been open, and for a few seconds a lantern floating just overhead illuminated the silky whites and red-ringed pupils. Anthony can’t recall, for the life of him, the interval between those eyes and his dragging his uncle Beddington from the sleepy milkmaid’s arms (“what, slow down, hey, let me put on my – hey, hey, Anthony!”). It seems cruel to him that those minutes should have been erased, but not those that came immediately afterwards: running across the grounds, thump, her huge black-white back and maw, filled with wire, Beddinton’s “oh damn”. And his own hands, the ones that carried the rifle.

The Last Three Days of Nissil And Henny, Part the First

It’s interesting how unpreocuppied he is with her naked body. In fact, he seems more interested in the contents of the medicine cabinet, entertaining himself for the better part of half an hour. He laughs softly at the oddly shaped containers the hotel management stocks, the ugly lime green complementary shower caps, the plastic toothbrushes that crack like eggs at the least pressure. Every so often he’ll find something of note, most often personal items left by the previous occupant of the room. There’s a bottle of prescription pills labelled “Metadate CD”, a pack of half-empty menthol cigarettes, a deflated pink balloon and a severely outdated map of the region, marking the city limits as they were before the construction of the railway.

“A flighty, lonely female tourist,” Nissil says, looking closely at the photograph of open heart surgery on the cigarette box, “let’s name her Belinda.”

“Hardly,” Henrietta says, lifting one arm out of the grey water. She wags a finger at him, still hurt by the little attention he is paying her, “Belinda sounds too much like the heroine of a soap opera. A Belinda wouldn’t be staying in a musty hotel in the fall, unaccompanied.”

“Unaccompanied? You think so?”

“Absolutely.” She puts her hands on the rim of the bathtub and peers outward, trying to get a good look at the washbasin. “I see no can of shaving cream, no disposable razor. Belinda’s leading man was not with her.”

“Poor Belinda,” Nissil muses, “all alone, pretty Belinda!”

Henrietta scoffs. “Hyperactive, clumsy Belinda. Tragically abandoned by her don Juan.”

“Hyperactive?”

“Metadate is ADHD meds.”

“Really?” He considers this information, lips pursed, nodding slowly. It’s the exact same expression he had worn when she had told him she loved him, exactly four days prior. He sits down on the yellow linoleum floor, back against the wall. In another era, they could have been a boyish sailor and his heartless mermaid inamorata. Though, in all truthfulness, Henrietta is not beautiful enough to pass an otherworldly creature, and it is she who has pursued the distant clear-eyed babe. It pleases her, this reversal of roles, to think of herself in the white and blue mariner’s costume, one finger under Nissil’s chin, keeping him from leaving with the tide.

“How’d you know that? That ADHD business?” He asks suddenly. Henrietta is quiet for a few moments. In one swift movement she rises from the bathtub and wraps herself in a powder blue towel. She arranges herself on the toilet seat. She takes her time answering him, fetching Belinda’s forgotten cigarettes and takes a pretend puff.

“My sister used to take them.” She says finally. My sister: these words come easily and painlessly. She is conscious, however, of the specter they bring with them. In her mind’s eye Noreen takes shape, considerably vaguer than she once was, but important parts still intact. There are the dark blue eyes Henrietta did not inherit, the cropped hair and quick smile. Not even the knowledge that she has only three days left lessens the power of Noreen’s memory.

“Oh. Oh, sorry, Henny.” There’s Nissil’s face. He’s standing up now, pulling the cigarette from her hand. Does he worry she’ll actually go ahead and light it up?

“What are you apologizing for?”

“I made you remember.”

Now she laughs bitterly. “Naw. I’m always remembering it.”

Nissil pulls a hand towel from the rack and begins drying Henrietta’s dark hair. His touch is soothing and purposeful, fingertips reaching the nape of her neck, those spots of her skull where she is most vulnerable. It is this quality that first drew her to him: this insistence that springs forth from that awful aloofness sometimes, this persistent desire to care for the upset and needful. She remembers how, in elementary school, he’d stopped during a physical education run and helped a fallen classmate up. Henrietta, who begrudged the other girls their prettiness and stellar grades, Henrietta, who sought approval but found it difficult to dole it out: she found him impossible to understand. She was possessed by a need to hurt him, to test his unnatural capacity for compassion.

Underneath the towel, her voice rises, soft but angry.

“Maybe it’s a good thing we only have three days left. What really is the point? It’s a relief. Now I just don’t have to off myself, the universe will do it for me.”

He stops. She waits for him to cry “Henny!”, but the reprimand does not come. Fearful, she pushes the towel away from her face and looks at him. In the mirror opposite them, she can see a reflection of his swimmer’s back, hunched over her, covering her almost entirely. His shoulder blades are twin icebergs protruding from the huge expanse of muscle, quivering slightly.

“Sorry.” Now it is her turn to apologize for making him remember.

“Shush,” he says, shocking her once again with the speed and sincerity of his forgiving heart, “it’s alright.”

He finishes up and, after folding up the towel and returning it to its place (an exercise in futility if there ever was one, Henrietta thinks, but she says nothing) leaves the bathroom. She hears him lie down on the king size bed and turn on the news.

“Is he still gone?” she asks.

“Yeah.”

She goes to him, still only clothed in the towel. The hotel room is exactly the sort of place she’d wanted to spend her last days: sparse, containing only that which was was essential to her life, a category that as of four days ago includes the sixteen-year-old Nissil Easterly. Her school uniform remains piled on top of his button-up shirt at the foot of the bed, next to both their shoes, shined so carefully by him that morning. She can still recall him, seated on the beige carpet floor, undoing the knot in the laces of her dress shoes, face in shadow despite the yellow light coming in from the open windows. His presence there had seemed strangely fulfilling, marking her like the imprint of a hand on a polished surface.

“Henny, look at that!” he cries suddenly. The screen has gone dark, remaining in that condition for a few seconds before they hear the sounds of a camera coming back to life. Seated in the previously empty anchorman’s chair is a young girl in a yellow blouse, hands folded neatly on top of the table. She is around their age, smiling broadly. Henrietta’s eyes widen, and one hand goes to her mouth.

“Christ, is that…is that Faktorowicz?”

“It sure is.”

“So that hotshot Dahlia took my advice, huh. Fancy that. Good for her.”

As if to acknowledge the compliment, Dahlia clears her throat and jumps into the broadcast, hands curling into firsts on the table.

“Good morning, Juniper! This is the Daily Morning Newscast, and I’ll be your darling host, Dahlia Faktorowicz. Today is Monday April 7th and we are seventy-two hours away from the Apocalypse.”

Henrietta rolls her eyes. “How very melodramatic, Faktorowicz. She loses points for that.”

/ˈælfə sɛnˈtɔri/ Part The Fourth

On the third day the question of the bell arises. That morning Mina had brought over a baker’s dozen pamphlets detailing the touristic marvels of Mirana Seaside: seasonal dunes, salt marshes, sandspits. Dahlia’s lips curl and pucker with wonder at the glossy blue photographs and lovingly-written captions (“The birthplace of thousands of seagulls”, “Turn to page 7 for the story of the last frilled squid, dead at Red Point”). Mina is as enamored as Dahlia, hurriedly encircling places to visit with a felt tip pen. But the beaches and tide pools they encounter on subsequent day trips provide a reality different to the one in the bright booklets: littered with bottle caps, chalky rock strata burned through by acid rain, piles of phosphorescent fishing nets, and, in a secluded corner, the puzzling remains of a purple Volkswagen minibus, so far eroded it’s impossible to determine its age, but looking for all the world like a close cousin of the dethroned Greek shipwrecks sinking into the Black Sea.

“Didja know, princess,” says mermaid Mina with three fingers dipping into the hazy waters of a pool, “that there’s a difference between wreck and wreckage?”

“Nu-uh! They’re synonyms, silly.” Spitfire Dahlia retorts in her mother’s most hoity-toity tone.

Mina looks over at her disdainfully.

“Naw, I’m joking, joking. What’s the difference?”

Wreck is used when the structure is still recognizable. Wreckage is used when it no longer is.”

“Huh. Is that right?”

“Yeah, yeah.”

Dahlia returns to her inspection of the rotting pier. The sky is a perfect white, and all around Dahlia lie colorless barnacles and deep green algae like shredded party streamers. The wood creaks and sighs as she steps on it in her cobalt Mary-Janes , exuding sweet-smelling water. It’s cool and very quiet. Only Mina’s clumsy humming breaks the spell of the tense waves and brittle landscape. Dahlia licks away the last taste of that morning’s orange juice from her lips, staring out at the featureless ocean. A few minutes pass before she notices the carcass immediately to her right.

“Oh great Gods!” she cries. Mina comes to her side, as close as possible without touching her. She follows Dahlia’s gaze and finds the bird. It is lying on its back, head turned to one side. Beginning at its throat is a clean gash, making its way through its miniature organs and tissues before tapering off midway. The insides have swollen and cracked in the heat, bursting out and bubbling up. Blood and yellow plasma has been soaked up by the boards and the wing bent back.

“Wreckage.” says Mina.

“The deathplace of thousands of seagulls.” says Dahlia bitterly. “Jeez, this is awful.”

“Princess, you ain’t kidding.”

“I’m going home. I just, oh jeez, this was supposed to be nice. I’m going home, dammit.”

“Wait. Hey, wait a second.” Mina has her hand on Dahlia’s bony shoulder. “Hey, listen.”

“What?”

Mina eyes her closely. “Okay. Well. Have you ever heard of the bell?”

FOR YOUR READING PLEASURE:

PART THE FIRST

PART THE SECOND

PART THE THIRD

Summer Gods

Midday finds her in front of the stove, frying two eggs in butter. Even with the windows open in the kitchen, it’s hot enough to justify idleness, not that she believes she requires any justification. She’s been reveling in childhood pleasures all morning: full glasses of milk, improvised calisthenics on the balcony, handfuls of chocolate-filled breakfast cereal, hours seated on a stool in front of the small television in the bedroom. Inspired, she removes the cushions from the sofa and discovers, with her characteristic, unpreocuppied joy, the web of copper rods that form the chassis. She’s enchanted by the idea that the things around her possess a structure and core she knows nothing about. Armed with this knowledge she marches about the grounds, collecting pocket radios, glamorous floral hair pieces, tubes of ancient lipstick, golden picture frames and other mysterious, valueless elements of her life. In the living room she plops down onto the floor and begins taking them apart, one by one, dumping the dissected remains in the brown paper bags she packs her husband’s lunch in. Occasionally she encounters something she likes – a soft, tactile on/off button, a cut-out from a food magazine behind her wedding photograph, several spring green circuit boards including the motherboard from a computer case found next to a dumpster outside. Lifting it up for closer inspection, she’d been shocked by its appearance. With its miniature saffron towers, thin silver lines and bright blue background, it had looked like an aerial view of a seaside town to her. She’s more overcome by this revelation than she had been, nearly half a year beforehand, by the two red marks on her pregnancy test.

The last item in her pile is a VHS tape she’d located at the bottom of her husband’s filing cabinet. It’s not labeled, so she assumes it’s useless. He has a habit of placing white stickers on important items and writing wordy, sometimes poetic (in a junior high school way), descriptions on them. Since childhood he’d nursed a great infatuation with the video camera, producing stack after stack of tapes, each with their own sticker. She often amuses herself by rearranging them into geometric forms, stopping to read what’s written on each one. “Neighborhood barbecue ’02, minute 2:46 features Tubby Theesfeld falling off the trampoline”, “High school prom, please excuse the awful tie”, “View from ambulance ’99 (broken ankle after slipping down the stairs of the gym)”, “The train that runs all night on New Year’s Eve”, “I can’t help but get excited by windy days”.

She’d initially picked up the nameless tape with the intention of dismembering it, but now she stops. She crawls on over to the television, popping the tape inside the VCR and pressing the buttons on the player experimentally in the dim light, until it clicks softly and begins to whirl. Sitting on her haunches, she watches curiously. There’s no sound, not even her husband’s playful cry of “Action!” The image appears one chunk at a time, letting her analyze one bit before slowly producing the next. There’s a column of data on the right hand side, small white numbers followed by units of measurement: centimeters, frames per second, decibels. A triangular shape with a cut-off top, like the skirt of a young girl, appears, and it is only when the white and gray contents of the triangle reveal themselves that she realizes what the tape is.

It’s a copy of the ultrasound. Undoubtedly it must be a copy, since she’d destroyed the original. She had ripped it to shreds and set it alight in a trash can, while he watched from the porch, arms crossed over his chest. The memory of the burning of the ultrasound is clearer in her mind than that of the ultrasound itself. All she can recall is that she’d been in a bad mood the day of the visit, furious with morning sickness and the strange new shape and texture of her body. Her husband had held her sweaty hand but not looked at her, cooing over the screen with a delight that was foreign to her. She couldn’t remember it doing anything of interest. Had it really squirmed like that, distorting the picture, rolling and slipping around in placental fluid, a solid mass deep in her gut, beating and bare? She feels heavier now than she ever did while pregnant.

She removes the tape and, flipping open the cover, puts two fingers on the black magnetic tape. She keeps them there briefly before changing her mind and reaching for the tube of dark lipstick. She considers writing “I’m sorry”, but there’s no one left who would accept her apology. “Baby” sounds too cutesy. In the end she writes nothing. She gets up, the tape under her arm, and washes her face in the sink. Then she picks up all the things she has taken apart and carefully puts them away.

Opium Den, Part The Second

Sometimes I go to a concert with the usual pilgrims. We sit in line for hours, licking lipstick off our teeth. In square formation, lying on raincoats, we lean in towards each other, hair held in limp buns, swapping confidences. Some boys and girls abandon the front and trade spittle, fingertips playing along the fault lines of the sternum. Eyes done up in black and pink, showing off thighs and purple braces, we are a sight to behold.

When it is finally time we run as though chasing down foxes, winding through the back of the open-air auditorium.We push and tug at sleeves, blitzkrieg time baby, nabbing a central position from the enemy. Backs to each other, brothers and sisters, we’ll protect you. We’ll make it as close to the music as we can.

It’s hot, sweet Jesus, it’s so hot. Packed in tight, molded into the contours of strangers, breathing in foreign fluids. The weatherman had predicted precipitation and we await it like dogs for masters. Oh it’s raining, is it? Strobe lights color us neon and gold, a modern, a glossy spin on mini dresses and striped sweatshirts. We let the rain fall upon us, we lap it up like beasts digging into the heart of a deer, sucking up blood thick as honey. I swivel on my heels in time with the bursts and crunches of the stereo. We are a mass of a thousand plebes matching their heartbeats to the thump of pulpy paganism, running down our throats.

I imagine you somewhere in the throng. Maybe you’re eyeing a girl’s glittering make-up, maybe you’re even sticking your hands up her armpits and thrusting your nose into the artificial perfume of her yellow hair. That lavender was created by a chemist off the New Jersey turnpike. That waxy glow on her cheeks is factory-made, processed and standardized, spun up in a Petrie dish like candyfloss. The first thousand to wear her chapstick were a generation of white guinea pigs, engineered to be quiet in battery cages and docile under the microscope. But still you bare your teeth and her breasts underneath the skylights.

It’s a game of will. The hours pass and concert-goers feed on the vision of a singer they’ll never share anything with. There’s nothing substantial in their relationship, but still they feel that shortening the distance to the stage will bring about fresh closeness. It’s a tenderness they transmit through screams and whoops, feet pounding against the tarmac. But how could you hope that a few transient hours would bear fruit? There’s no way he’ll ever spot you in the crowd, absolutely no way your eyes will meet and he’ll fall instantly and irrevocably in love with you. How dare you even think of such a thing? Famous boys don’t care for your sort, dear, famous boys would be wasted on your bland looks and personality. I can just imagine the both of you seated on a tartan-print sofa, looking away from each other, thinking of other things. He’d be thinking: what a mistake, what a mistake it is that I’ve made.

Somewhere you’re letting your hands stray underneath the elastic hem of a girl’s jeans. The extraordinary only ever love the extraordinary. What a fool. What a fool I was, to ever think otherwise.