Yellow suits April, with her tiny porcelain doll face, wispy blonde hair, and raspy voice. She looks so pretty in yellow. It’s a warm late summer afternoon. April’s yellow sundress flutters as we walk along the stone path through her mother’s vegetable garden. She’s wearing red plastic sandals that slap the path stones. Muscular tomato vines grow along the weathered privacy fence, with cracking red fists of tomatoes. Big zucchinis hang from a bamboo pergola like the legs of green giants. Things fly about, small dark birds and glinting insects; big blue flies knock into us; everything smells of tomato stalks and rotting tomatoes and snails.
Come, April says. Come with me. At the end of the path stands the peeling white garage with the broken door and its red roof softening like crayon in the sun. It’s cool in there, April says and takes my hand in her hand, waxy and warm. It is cool in the garage, but not that cool. It smells of gasoline and mown lawn. But there is no car. She shows me a red iron pump her father uses to pump air into the tires of his red bicycle. He rides the bicycle to his job at the steel mill about a mile down the road. My father used to work there. He worked there before the fire. We lived in a different house before the fire. I only remember it a bit, in little bits.
April and I play checkers. She beats me. She says that she never beats her daddy. I don’t say anything, but I think her father must be mean not to let her beat him now and then. What about your daddy? she asks. He died, I say, in a fire. That’s sad, she says.
She unfastens her right sandal, removes it from her foot, and shakes out a stone. Her foot is small and white and delicate. Her baby toe has no toenail. I smile at her. She puts her sandal back on, tightens the strap. We play checkers again. She beats me again. I don’t like losing, but I don’t mind losing to her. Winning makes her so happy. Do you miss your daddy? she asks. I tell her I don’t remember much of him; I was small when he died. I hope my daddy never dies, she says. We play checkers again. This time I win.
Her mother brings us lemonade. Her mother all bright and wearing white with red polka dots, red lipstick, white sandals, and toenails painted red. How you kids doing? she brightly asks. We’re fine, April says. That’s terrif, says her mom. That’s just dandy.
Mommy, April says, you know what I want? I want daddy to live forever. Aw, her mother says, that’s so sweet. I’ll tell daddy what you said, hon. Okay, now, you kids be good. I’ll bring snacks in a bit. Does your friend like peanut butter and jelly sandwiches? Do you like peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, little man? she asks me. I nod. I like them. I’m not hungry, but I like them.
Later, I tell April that her daddy will die one day. She stares at me with her small blue doll eyes; they look like little marbles. After a long moment she asks, Why would you say that? Well, everybody’s going to die one day, I say — but now I know I’ve made a mistake. The vibration between us has changed. I should not have said that about her father dying, no matter how true. I try to apologize, but she lowers her head and curls a hand to her mouth. Big tears drop from her eyes.
April, I say softly, I’m really sorry I said that about your father. But my words only make her cry harder. I’m afraid that if her mother comes out she will think I hit her daughter or hurt her somehow. I’m so sorry, I say again, but April makes a sound in her chest and points to the garage door. Out, she says. I want you out. Without another word I leave.
A week goes by and I don’t see April. I don’t try to call 0n her. I feel bad for what I said. I feel like a bad kid. I am a bad kid. I try hard to be good, but I am bad. My grandmother used to say I was born that way. She died. Now she says nothing. Then Mr. Ward next door tells me a dump truck hit April’s father while he rode his bicycle to work. He died immediately, Mr. Ward says. Poor bugger.
My mother goes to the funeral, but I don’t. She tells me it was very sad, almost as sad as my father’s funeral. Poor bugger.
I don’t see April for the rest of the year. Every day I think about her. I miss her. I miss her little face, her button nose, her small white feet, her blue doll eyes. I hear she’s gone to stay at her grandmother’s place for now because her mother is having problems. When I see her mother standing on her front porch she looks sad, so sad. Her eyes are dark; she’s lost a lot of weight. She doesn’t say hello to me. She doesn’t even see me. April must have told her what I said in the garage. Maybe she blames me for her husband’s death. I should have never said anything.
Angry with me once for talking back to her, my mother told me that I had started the fire that caused my father’s death. She said that I’d been playing with matches in the basement — after she had told me more than once to never do this — near a can of kerosene, and set everything on fire. Later she said it wasn’t true. But I believed her the first time.
Sal Difalco is a Sicilian-Canadian satirist and writer currently living in Toronto.
Eddie opened his eyes and saw a pair of greyish eyes staring back at him. Amidst his sleepy stupor, he failed to immediately recognize that they were the eyes of his boyfriend, Arno. His first thought, once he realized who was staring back at him, was about the reasons Arno could have to hover over him. His second thought was wondering why Arno’s mouth was duct-taped.
Arno gestured to Eddie, placing a single finger over his duct-taped mouth, and turned around to grab a piece of paper. He quickly whipped himself around again and held the paper up. In large letters, Eddie saw the words “Don’t Speak.” Eddie, thinking this was some sort of awkward or poorly executed prank, he yelled at Arno.
Jagged shapes materialized in front of Eddie’s mouth and flew at Arno, violently pushing him against the wall. Arno once again lifted the piece of paper and held it up. He pointed at it, reinforcing the message it contained.
Eddie ran over to Arno and hugged him. He could not help but let out a small whisper apologizing for his mistake. Eddie immediately suffered the consequences. He felt hundreds of little shapes in his mouth, escaping slowly and burning his lips and tongue. Eddie clenched his jaw and tried to stop himself from vocalizing anymore. Eddie ran his hands all around Arno, checking for injuries and breathed in relief after he found none.
He gestured for Arno to follow him and led him to the computer. It seemed that in his fear, Arno had not had the wherewithal to see if this strange phenomenon was happening anywhere else. He flipped the laptop open and backed away, afraid that the start-up sound may just slap him across the face. Much to his joy, it didn’t. He searched the first news site he could think of. Breaking news was highlighted and flashing in black and red at the top of the website’s homepage. It was an article. It stated that, in no uncertain terms, a global phenomenon was happening.
All around the world, apparently, reports were sent in, in the form of videos. One of the videos showed a spectator loudly marveling at the heads carved into Mt. Rushmore. Those shapes materialized, but from this person, who Eddie assumed was yelling, the shapes were huge. They knocked off the nose of George Washington; another showed the Coliseum being crumbled by a crowd of young men who had already decided to harness their voices to cause trouble.
Eddie couldn’t bear to continue watching the destruction and slammed the laptop closed. Arno gently rubbed Eddie’s back. Eddie could tell that Arno wanted to comfort him with his words, as he had frequently done in the past, and Eddie wanted that too. It pained him that he couldn’t hear Arno’s sweet, yet, lazy sounding voice dole out the wisdom that he needed.
Eddie decided that all they could do was to keep living as usual, even though that was difficult to do. Neither Eddie nor Arno could go to work. If the school in which Arno worked had still been in session, Arno might have killed all the children in an attempt to teach. Eddie was a public speaker by trade. His very livelihood depended on his voice, and, if he couldn’t use it, he’d be destitute. So, they confirmed by email that all upcoming schedules were canceled and hoped that this whole thing would subside.
But, despite their greatest hopes, the unexplainable weaponization of human sound continued. Day in and day out, Arno and Eddie kept passing notes, like schoolboys holding on to a secret that they daren’t share with anyone else, like Eddie did with his first crush. Back then, it was exhilarating. Now, it was exhausting.
For weeks they lived like this. They watched reruns of the shows they liked. They watched a bunch of old movies that they never had time to view. Then, the day came that they ran out of food. Their fridge was barren. All that remained was a semi-empty jug of milk and a bottle of ketchup. They decided to make the drive to the city. The closer they got to it, the more in disbelief they became. Entire buildings were toppled. Roads had been destroyed. But, like a canary in a coal mine, miraculously, the grocery store appeared pristine.
Walking in for them felt eerie. No one spoke. There were no pleasant ‘hellos’ or thank you’s,’ there was only the deafening silence that had plagued them for weeks. As they shopped, something stopped them in their tracks. The grocery store used to have music play as customers shopped. Now, the grocery store had replaced them with televisions, that would let its patrons know if anything urgent was being addressed. On those televisions, a vital address from the president began to roll across the screen. The president’s address outlined the mandatory changes that would sweep across the country.
ASL was now the official spoken language of the United States.
Speaking would now be considered a crime. Those who were arrested for the offense would be placed in a facility that would most likely withstand the power of their voice.
Eddie and Arno were dumbfounded. They wondered whether there was truly no solution to this situation. The next few years would prove that thought true. Movies and TV became a thing of the past. Those who tried to record them were jailed for public endangerment. The world, or the world that Eddie knew, became a slower and more friendly place. A place in which people’s feelings could no longer be voiced immediately. It became a world of text.
But, for any of the good that came about, there were plenty of negative aspects as well as well. Incarceration rates tripled. Protests for change could largely be ignored, and if they weren’t, more often than not, that meant that a building had been shouted down as a statement. The decrease in entertainment sales dealt a massive blow to the economy. Birth rates dropped, as no one could quite figure out how to get babies to be silent all the time. There were more newborn orphans than ever, as many children who were born had unknowingly killed their parents, or the parents simply realized there were not up to the task of risking their lives daily to raise a child.
For Eddie and Arno, things were mostly okay. Eddie had made and saved quite a bit of money from his career. It was enough to retire on, and that’s precisely what he did. But as comfortable as they were, alone in their middle of nowhere home, Eddie wished things had remained the same. He missed speaking in front of crowds, he missed the sounds of people. He missed the person who would whistle as they walked down the street. He missed the sound of ridiculous advertisements. He missed what he now felt was the most critical part of the human experience…having a voice.
Brian Byrdsong is a gay, black, bilingual writer living in Denver, CO. Originally from Georgia, he’s called Colorado home since 2010, when he moved there to attend the University of Northern Colorado. He has degrees in both Spanish and Communications. When he’s not writing, he enjoys playing video games with his partner and spending time with his cat, Mew. @arrythmicbyrd Instagram.com/arrythmicbyrd www.abyrdmind.com
Loneliness has transformed into electric-green cacti and short, spiny plants. Anxiety raises flowers that look vibrant and oily in the daylight. Restlessness enriches the earth, coloring flora with a spill of magenta, a blaze of orange.
In the end, fear evaporates entirely under the sun. It turns into the soil caked under her nails, the wet clumps that stick to her thighs and the back of her knees.
This garden takes terrible things and puts them to good use.
At least, that’s what she tells herself.
ii. When Jena is eight, her father picks her up from school and drives for two days straight.
He tells her it’s for the best.
Sometimes, he says, running is the only thing a person can do.
The farther they drive, the quieter she becomes. Tears dry to salt on her skin. Beneath their feet, the thunderous rhythm has become something dangerous.
In her mind, she disappears.
Jena feels safe amongst the shrubs. She can easily envision this sanctuary, and so she builds it. Trees and plants and birds sprout from the ground. They start as feathery buds with paper-thin roots. As their bodies take shape, her father’s voice thins into the breeze, his face hardens to bedrock.
Every time fear creeps in, her hands form fists. With the garden she can outrun it, outmatch it, and she barely has to wait before it subsides in the grass.
iii. Jena doesn’t know it yet, but theirs will be a life on the move.
It will start with a string of motels. Each one will be indistinguishable from the next, with their jelly-lit signs, the soap slivers that cut her skin. They will turn into a monochromatic blur of vending machines and scratchy sheets and stained walls.
Soon, she won’t be able to fall asleep without barks of laughter, or the drone of a generator. It will feel unnatural to sit outside the cramped design of a car. Most of her spare time will be spent in a garden that never changes.
Years will pass before she is home again, standing in a room that no longer feels like her own.
Alyssa Jordan is a writer living in the United States. She pens literary horoscopes for F(r)iction Series. Her stories can be found or are forthcoming in The Sunlight Press, X–R-A-Y Literary Magazine, Reflex Fiction, and more. When she’s not writing, she’s hanging out with her partner or watching too many movies. You can find her on Twitter @ajordan901 and Instagram @ajordanwriter.
I sat on the curb of the laundromat, squishing ants between my fingers, checking my phone every few minutes. Heat simmered in the asphalt parking lot, tangible and sticky, rose through the curb and my cut-offs, and the still air gave no relief – but at least the air and sky made me imagine I could be free, instead of sticking to the plastic chairs inside the laundromat, the heavy air perfumed with detergent, weighing me down like Dorothy in the field just outside of the Emerald City, bewitched. The trail of ants, immune like most non-humans to human tribulations, continued to wind through the grubby building, little specks of black on the gritty tile, occasionally detoured by a hairband gathering dust, by a crumb of detergent.
Before I moved to this neighborhood, to West Campus, I had a washer and dryer in my house, on the second floor. A shelf for the detergent. White bottles of bleach and periwinkle bottles of fabric softener. I would fold my boyfriend’s underwear neatly, into a Kon-Mari square, then crinkle it into a ball and shove it into his underwear drawer. I wasted a lot of time that way.
People began to leave the church across San Gabriel, tossing themselves through the thin wooden doors. It wasn’t a real church; it wasn’t a building that was built to be a church. Groups rented it out for swing-dancing or student group meetings or birthday parties. A mom and dad holding a baby in a mauve outfit and an older couple, white-haired, holding onto each other, picked across the uneven sidewalk to wait at the crosswalk.
In the other direction, crossing 24th, just one block away from Lamar, from the hill that rolls down to kiss it on both sides, from the no-left-turn sign ignored by students and state workers and bikers in their tight rubber uniforms, in this direction was a corner store. It had tried to fashion itself after the corner taquerias you could find off of Rundberg or North Lamar or Stassney, but this particular iteration felt tidier and less real. Its clientele consisted of students, mostly, who lived in the new high rise building that stood over the store like a bully with his knees on your shoulders, pinning you down, making you feel like nothing and like the most important thing. I always thought college students seemed to like that feeling.
Then the light changed and the traffic on 24th slowed to a stop and the students crossed from the corner store and the churchgoers crossed from the building-that-wasn’t-a-church, and a woman on a bike in a Jimmy John’s uniform flew through the intersection, platinum-haired, bright-haired, hair wispy at the edges but thick in the middle, the kind of hair you’d like to pull, the kind of hair you’d like to wrap around your wrists, tie into knots, and she stuck her tongue out, radical, loud, unapologetic, and she cut through the laundromat parking lot to avoid the light. She never once stopped moving. She rolled through the steaming asphalt and cut back across San Gabriel, and then probably to MLK and Nueces to pick up her next delivery.
She is an anarchist, marches with Antifa, covers her face during rallies. Some of them have automatic rifles slung across their shoulders, bobbing next to their heads like scorpion tails, but she holds the pole which lifts the Trump piñata above the crowd, throws matches. I can see is her hands, soft and brown, I want to feel the tips of her manicured nails dig into my wrists, pointy and orange. She has stuffed her hair into a skullcap, but I can see it spraying out against the nape of her neck like mist from a wave, crashing on a rock.
We live in a house, one of those wild houses with five bedrooms and six roommates, the guy who sleeps on the couch and pays fifty dollars in rent, the feral cats coming to the back door to drink water and catch spiders, the fundraiser parties for top surgeries, for bail, for car repairs. Her favorite drink is gin, an angry drink. Harsh. Leaves you with a burn, a headache. Painful and sweet, going down. She wipes her wet hands on her black jeans.
My phone alarm went off and I checked my laundry: wet. I hadn’t done the wash in months. It had been too hot. I had been too tired. I had collected piles of t-shirts and bras, the black pants I had to wear to work, the polo shirts stained with spaghetti sauce and wine. The smell of the laundromat unsteadied me, the room went dizzy.
Our room in the house is the smallest one. Small – but we don’t have to share. The central air isn’t connected to this room, so we leave the fan on, we rent a window unit from the Rent-a-Center next to the HEB on Springdale. Keep the door closed, so when we come home after our shifts, peel the red and black polyester away from our wet skin, we lay naked on our bed, right in the line of fire from the air blast, and I kiss the cold, hard tips of her toes like peanuts.
I like the delivery job, more than the waitressing I used to do. I like the bike, the heat, the sunshine. I like speeding through intersections, like puzzles, my body the missing piece. I like the hill down Windsor, where it crashes into Lamar and then recoils back into a different road, into 24th, where the students start buzzing out of apartments and corner stores and pubs, I like to imagine what they must look like from the sky. Ants, crawling toward an agreed-upon ending.
There weren’t ants in my apartment, but roaches, tiny roaches creeping up through the carpet, crawling through electric sockets. I lived in a furnished apartment around the corner, down San Gabriel. I cleaned the dingy windows, but no sunlight ever came in.
Robin Lanehurst grew up in St. Louis, MO and is currently writing from Houston, Texas where they live with their wife and a small menagerie of pets. They am white, neurodiverse, and identify as queer and gender non-binary. Their work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Coe Review, Apricity Magazine, The Scarlet Leaf Review, Re:Fiction, and More Queer Families.
She likes to pull out her pubic hair one at a time. She waits until a forest of spindly black vines has grown between her thighs, eagerly anticipating how strong each strand will be, how thick the roots will have become.
Little slivers of pain accompany the loss of each hair. She studies the water-encapsulated tip, the fibrous black strand. She would like to uproot other things. If she could, she’d start with all the people who have caused her pain.
Mostly, she’d like to uproot the people she hears about on the news, the ones who are sometimes women but usually men.
She likes to imagine her hand gripping a pair of tweezers, snapping the pincers open and shut—like a hungry alligator—before fitting the silver tongs around each of their heads, pulling them out at the root.
Each time she tweezes her pubic hair, the pain gets a little sharper. Her smile grows a little wider.
How nice it is, she thinks, to clear the debris.
Alyssa Jordan is a writer living in the United States. She pens literary horoscopes for F(r)iction Series. Her stories can be found or are forthcoming in The Sunlight Press, X–R-A-Y Literary Magazine, Reflex Fiction, and more. When she’s not writing, she’s hanging out with her partner or watching too many movies. You can find her on Twitter @ajordan901and Instagram @ajordanwriter.
She went in wanting the standard procedure, about 50 percent less body fat, no more skin on the eyelids, just lashes fluttering from the skull, and a sculpting procedure to get rid of every wrinkle, dimple, cellulite ridge, and blemish.
The red on her cheeks was washed clean, the red spots on her breasts and thighs erased. Her hairlines was brought forward so her blond bangs dangled close to the long lashes.
She also opted for the stakes driven into her heels to improve her posture and keep her spine straight. The gossamer gown they had given her, which at first clung to her every crevice and curve like a hug, now hung loose over a stick-like frame. She thought she could feel her ribs growing.
Her blood was thinned, her saliva replaced with perfume. Her ears were made smaller; her nose was removed. They cut off the tips of her fingers to make them proportional to her feet.
When it was all done, she put on a black, velvet robe and looked in the mirror. “You have to suffer for beauty” she mouthed, her thin lips pursed, her skin glowing neon blue.
She felt her ribs heaving as though they wanted to escape her body. She smiled, batting her eyelids, feeling the velvet on her tight skin. “You have to suffer.”
Addison Herron-Wheeler is editor of OUT FRONT Magazine, web editor of New Noise Magazine, and an avid sci-fi and metal nerd. Her first collection of fiction, Respirator, will be out in 2020 on Spaceboy Books.
Fate arrives in her mailbox. And with its arrival, a decision. Fate is a red matte lipstick, a special order that arrived for Nicole Masterton, the person who lived in 12A before Allie. Allie has lived in 12A for five months, and she still receives Nicole Masterton’s mail. Sometimes Allie takes the mail to the post office and leaves it. Sometimes she throws it away. The magazines and catalogs she keeps. She guesses Nicole must be a fashionable young woman with a formidable shoe collection.
She doesn’t generally open Nicole’s mail, except for she did open the heavy envelope, embossed, that turned out to be a wedding invitation. Allie doesn’t get invited to many weddings. The fancy envelope has been sitting on her end table for three weeks, the gilded RSVP card askew as if the person who opened the invitation to the nuptials of Sarah Jane Laux and Jeffrey George Bolingbroke couldn’t be bothered to hurry an answer.
Allie imagines Nicole waiting for a wedding invitation, wondering if she had been forgotten, if she should call and inquire, if she should just show up as if the invitation had arrived as expected. Or if she should be hurt, or angry. Allie has considered bundling it all back into the torn envelope – why hadn’t she used a letter opener? surely such an envelope warranted a letter opener? – and taking it to the post office with a murmured apology. Instead, the envelope sits there, silver-foiled and pretty.
And now Fate has arrived. Allie doesn’t think of herself as a red lipstick type of girl. But when Fate is delivered to your door, oughtn’t you to accept it? The lipstick is a good match for Allie. It complements her complexion. She wonders what Nicole looks like, if Fate looks as good on her.
Allie wears Fate on her lips and goes to Nordstrom’s. She walks through the women’s section, aimlessly trailing her fingers over the sale racks and she sees it, a dress red as Fate. A dress in her size, on sale so ridiculously low she’d be a fool not to buy it.
For two days the dress lays over the back of a chair, waiting, like the wedding invitation. But Allie has known since she held Fate in her hand that she was going to the wedding. She wants to see it, to see this wedding announced with such an elaborate invitation, sent to a woman with a chilly name like Nicole Masterton who buys a lipstick called Fate.
Inside the church it’s all flowers and tulle and crystal and candles. Extravagent. Allie doesn’t sit all the way in the back as she’d planned. Women with Fate on their smiles don’t sit all the way in the back. She sits on the groom’s side, looking on the bride’s side for someone who might be Nicole Masterton who surely came, who isn’t at home sad and angry, whose friends told Sarah Jane Laux about the lost invitation and she surely was sent another.
The ceremony is beautiful, of course. The bride could grace the pages of Vogue and maybe she does. Allie dabs her eyes, caught up in the couple’s first married kiss. She finds herself in the receiving line, and she hugs the bride, who glows with happiness, and she hugs the groom who says, “It’s so good to see you again, it’s been so long.” It has, she agrees, but he doesn’t really know her. She leaves a touch of Fate on his cheek. It’s ok, she brought Fate with her in the tiny purse she dug out of her closet from prom years ago (from prom! seriously!) and she’ll keep Fate with her all night.
Because of course she attends the reception. The tables are set with name holders. There are two tables for those who have not RSVP’d. Allie wonders if she’ll be seated near Nicole Masterton. She doesn’t catch all the names as introductions are made, but Nicole is not one of them. She gives her own name as Tiffany Smith and hopes she remembers it later, if necessary. When she’s asked how she knows the bride, she says she knows the groom, but it’s been a very long time, not since they were quite young and the blush that warms her cheeks at the lie makes her wonder if people will assume they were lovers. She imagines what it would be like to have been his first love. Someone clinks a glass and the happy couple kiss. Allie smiles with her Fate lips. The table she is at is far from the wedding table, this table reserved for those without reservations.
Allie leaves a mark of Fate on the cloth napkin, reapplies in the Ladies where every moment she expects to run into Nicole Masterton, whose invitation she usurped. Allie smiles at the mirror. Fate looks good on her. So does the dress of the same hue, the only one like it she owns.
She watches the couple’s first dance. She leaves traces of Fate on more than one champagne glass. It’s past 11 when she decides to leave. The reception shows no sign of slowing down, and Allie wonders if it will end at midnight or continue until the sun rises.
Allie walks past the cloak room, past the bathrooms on her way out the door. The groom emerges from the men’s room. “Wait,” he says to her. “Don’t leave yet. I’ve wanted to talk to you all night.”
Allie turns, smiling with Fate on her lips.
Epiphany Ferrell lives and writes on the edge of the Shawnee Forest in Southern Illinois. Her stories appear in New Flash Fiction Review, Third Point Press, Newfound and other places. She recently received a Pushcart nomination, and has a story forthcoming in Best Microfiction 2020. She blogs intermittently for Ghost Parachute and is a fiction reader for Mojave River Review.
Gregory was the only male in the Hadrick Women’s Mental Institute. He was a burly nurse of about six foot six, heaving several bowling balls worth of excess weight around his stomach, and in his fifteen years as a professional carer he had committed many crimes.
It was a normal day at the asylum. Gregory padded up the shiny white floors – so clean they were sticky – and he entered Gina’s room. She was in bed, duvet wrapped around her bare feet, cheek squished against an exposed mattress spring. Gregory poked her nose with his plimsoll. She sat upright and rubbed her eyes with her fists. She received the milk, the buttered toast and double the number of pills she’d been prescribed.
‘I can’t remember anything,’ Gina moaned. ‘Not even yesterday. Gregory, do me a solid, tell me what happened to me last night or, God damn it, I’ll end it all. Life’s not worth living if you can’t remember last night’s Yorkshire pudding.’
Gregory sniffed and shrugged.
‘What if I just stopped taking the pills Gregory?’’
‘That would just be stupid.’
‘Wild stupid. My vagina feels weird.’
‘I don’t… Need to…’
‘Something’s not right. Something’s been in it, I’m pretty sure. I need to know.’
‘Um? Forget about it?’
‘I’ve got a vibe, man, and I can’t let this one slide!’
Gregory decided not to indulge Gina any further and finished off the rest of his rounds. The other girls were maudlin, grey and placid. They ate the food that made them fat, and the overdose of pills that made them pliable. They didn’t struggle.
Visiting hours came, and Gina met with Jackie, someone she’d befriended in Hadrick a year ago. They sat by the expansive window, far away from reception, as Gregory was there analysing their every move, chewing on a soggy pencil rubber.
‘I broke into Gregory’s home. He has mother issues,’ Jackie whispered, ‘serious mother issues. He has shrines to her, pictures everywhere, dresses laid out on chairs and beds. He sleeps next to her ashes. He’s an acid freak too. That’s how we get him.’
An hour later, Jackie skirted around Gregory, eyes locked to the floor, and exited the building. Gregory turned his gaze to Gina, who was chugging on a cigarette in the smoking cage, peeking out of the corner of her eyes, sussing Gregory up, hatching a plan.
That night Gina felt the thick velvet fog descend upon her – the consequence of the obscene amount of pills she’d been swallowing. But tonight would be different. Jackie had slipped her some poppers and the pungent effulgent rocked her mind enough to stay alert through the night – with the added bonus of making her bowels a little more carefree.
At the strike of two in the morning Gina heard the squeaking of trainers on linoleum. In the light from the lamp by reception, Gina watched as Gregory bore down upon her singing ‘The Yellow Submarine’ and smelling of pork scratchings.
Gregory flung Gina’s duvet off her and drooled. He began to undress her.
‘Come to Matka, lovely baby boy,’ Gina said.
‘Matka?’ Gregory said, dumbstruck. ‘Mamma?’
‘Yes baby, don’t look at me, what we are about to do is shameful but nevertheless – we must. Our love shall be anointed.’’
Gregory stepped back and covered his eyes with his arm.
‘I want to mamma, so have I missed you. But I’m afraid. Can this really be true? No, it can’t be. Maybe I’m losing my mind. I am on a helluva lot of acid.’
‘If you can’t please your mother then who can you please?’
‘Please Matka, I’m very confused.’
‘Make love to me now, or may Beelzebub eat your soul!’
Gregory began to cry and, keeping his eyes shielded, stumbled out of Gina’s room.
The next day Nurse Fold gathered the girls by the sofas next to the TV and told them Gregory would be absent for a short while and she would now be in charge.
As Nurse Fold started to dole out the day’s pills, Gina made a beeline for her and smashed the tablets out of their containers causing them to scatter to the floor.
‘I dare you to pick them up,’ Gina said. ‘I dare you. From now on I’m in charge, otherwise I’ll expose you for letting Gregory get away with what he did to us.’
Days passed and the girls still refused their pills. They tuned into MTV and danced on the sofas. They smoked joints in the dining room and stubbed their roaches out in their mashed potatoes. Gina was high as hell and jumped onto her friend’s back like a footballer who’d scored a goal, and shouted, ‘You can’t stop us, we’ve got too much spunk in our veins! Knock us down, we’ll just come back for more!’
And then things turned religious. Many of the girls recited babbling scripture – making the sign of the cross after every sentence they spoke. A week off the pills and the fights broke out. Girls made weapons from toothbrushes and plastic spoons. They picked sides.
Then time stopped.
One of the girls killed a nurse. She slit her throat with a shiv. The nurse had refused to bow down to the girl who claimed to be the new messiah. In the hours that followed, before security bulldozed their way through the doors – blocked by chairs and beds -everyone, including Gina, quickly sobered and saw things clearly. They were nobodies. They had nothing, never did. Who could blame them for thinking they were gods, who could blame them for wanting to live large for once in their lives?
As Gina was tackled to the ground by security, she saw light sweeping through the hospital hallways – a kingdom of light. She’d never felt so alive and she knew life would never be so wondrous again. She was ready to go back on the pills.
Tim Frank specialises in the comic, the dark and the surreal. He has written a semi-autobiographical novel, Devil in my Veins, and is currently writing a sci-fi thriller novel.
“Oh, yeah,” said Maddy. “I made it into a drinking game. I drank every time she spoke.”
“She’s just so sexist,” said Kirby. “How can a woman be that sexist?”
“Hey,” she said. “We can do anything you can.”
We were in the Sic Bay. It was New York University’s unofficial student health center, which was preferable to the actual Student Health Center, because Kirby only charged for the weed.
Kirby was a grad student in the NYU School of Medical Technology. He was going to be a repairman for robot surgeons. “Until they learn how to repair themselves,” he always added.
He and Maddy lived in Rubin, a residence hall overcompensating with ivy so thick you could barely see the brick beneath its leaves. You could still smell it. Rubin was so infused with secondhand hops that, on a hot day, the bricks smelled more like loaves of bread. It was the cheapest housing on campus, because the antiquated structure couldn’t support central cooling. On a hot day, you were lucky if all you could smell was beer.
I lived in the Bobst Library and Computer Lab.
NYU had recently gotten caught up in a ponzi scheme. It was the Pyramide Inversée of the Madoff scandal, which no one liked to talk about, so of course, it history repeated itself. Tuition went up. So did housing. I lived en plein air for a while, but it was hard enough being homeless in New York City even before Central Parking paved over the green roof to make room for more cars.
When the Bobst Library closed in the small hours of the morning, I hid in the bathroom. The security guards never swept the stalls. They never policed their butts either, so there was always something to smoke while I waited.
I slept during the day, but it was a college library, so they were used to that. I woke up screaming, but they were used to that too.
“You should hire a bodyguard,” said Kirby. Even Maddy looked confused by the non-sequitur, and she got an A in Non-Sequiturs I.
“They don’t have that category on Craigslist,” she said.
“Not Craigslist.” He started pacing. “The dark web.”
After Campus Public Safety found out about the death threats, they did a few extra bike-bys of our building. Kirby said that was bullshit. Maddy said it was “about as useful as cupping a corpse.”
She explained the idiom, but that led to a whole new series of questions, including how long she had been Jewish, and what exactly went on when her people sat Shiva.
I raised my hand. “What’s the dark web?”
“The dark web refers to any website hosted on an anonymous network like Tor. It’s technically legal, in a read-the-fine-font sort of way, but the websites that exist on it are not. You can buy anything on the Silk Superhighway with enough digitally laundered currency. You remember that girl who sold her kidney to buy an iPhone? It’s always harvest season on the internet. People who view this item also viewed drugs, guns, and kiddie porn. You can even hire an assassin. The Unicoder will make it look like an accident for anyone who refers a friend. You’ve probably never heard of him, but he’s totally dark net famous.”
“No, Miriam,” said Maddy, without looking up from her phone. “We aren’t hiring The Unicoder. He only has two stars.”
I lowered my hand.
“I could be your bodyguard,” said Kirby. “For the right compensation.”
“Don’t be a pig,” I said.
“Would your parents pay for one?” asked Maddy.
“I doubt it.”
To be fair, of all the ways I could have disappointed my parents in college, I don’t think they had considered “starting a cult.”
The Gift started as a side hustle. Kirby designed it for me, and coded it in BASIC, despite my initial confusion and offense. He had three side hustles: App designer, Uber Driver, and sous chef, or as he put it: the real triple threat.
The Gift was an app combining witchcraft with psychology. The name was a reference to DEAR MAN GIVE, an acronym from the Dialectical Behavior Therapy module on Interpersonal Effectiveness: Describe, Express, Assert, Reinforce, Mindful, Appear confident, Negotiate. Gentle, Interested, Validate, Easy manner.
After the Gift went viral, I had to Urban Dictionary my own slogan. Apparently “Dear man, give,” was a versatile expression that could contextually mean any of the following: Yes, no, maybe, and exclamation of victory, a greeting, an insult, or a request for sexual services.
I started full-fidelity Dialectical Behavior Therapy three weeks after my first panic attack. Three days into first module, my parents took me off their insurance. I didn’t qualify for the university’s health plan, because I was taking less than twenty-four credits per term.
Anyone could be a witch, but their persecution (and prosecution) had always been a feminist issue. Early witches were just women who said “no” to men.
The Salem Witch Trials were mostly the result of misogyny (and hallucinogens). Although only twenty people were executed in Salem, compared to the scores of thousands in France, Germany, and England (the Spanish Inquisition had insisted that ordinary standards of evidence be applied).
In 1967, the Yippies levitated the Pentagon. (Hallucinogens were probably involved on this occasion as well.) During the 70s, W.I.T.C.H. (Women’s International Terrorist Conspiracy from Hell) and other feminist groups chanted slogans such as, “We are the daughters of the witches you couldn’t burn.” In 2017, a neo-W.I.T.C.H. group was formed for the Women’s March.
Historically speaking, the popularity of witchcraft tended to peak during periods of social unrest. The Cold War brought Wicca, Dianic Witchcraft, and cultural appropriation. The Orange Scare brought emoji spells, and more cultural appropriation. After they took our health insurance, it was only a matter of time.
The Gift went from seventeen downloads to seventy thousand overnight, and the hits just kept coming. Per day, I averaged fifteen autograph requests, thirty kiss requests, half a dead animal, and two marriage proposals. My death threat count had dropped to five. They were very flattering death threats too. Most of them only wanted to kill me so they could absorb my power.
I had everything I’d ever wanted, except for sleep.
“How did you do it?” Kirby asked.
I blew a smoke ring. “It must have been the deal I made on Craigslist. This guy had a listing under Mobile App Promotion, but he insisted we meet at the corner of 5th and Couch, at night. Instead of payment, all he wanted was a picture of me. What was his name? Ugh, I’m so bad with names, and he had so many.”
“That was one of them.”
Maddy blew a smoke dragon. “Your strategy seems to be working, Miriam.”
“Strategy?” I repeated.
“Your strategy.” She spoke louder, as if I was deaf or Siri. “Taking a break from social media.”
“Oh, that strategy.”
“The internet is calling it your vow of silence. You’re maintaining the air of mystery around the Gift. It helps that the only thing you ever post on Twitter are pictures of cats. Of course that won’t work forever. You may have to hire a ghostposter. Try to get the one who works for the Kardashians. I think they just won a Pulitzer.”
“I have a question,” said Kirby.
“Just one?” I asked.
“Is this all psychological, or do you actually believe in magic?”
I shrugged. “You can’t believe in nothing.”
Maddy snapped her fingers. “Enigmatic. Good. I don’t think you’ll need a ghostposter.”
“Of course I can,” said Kirby. “It’s called atheism.”
“No,” I said. “I mean, you can’t believe in nothing. There’s no such thing as nothing. Even in a vacuum, there are particles and antiparticles and they are inherently unstable, which is probably what caused the Big Bang, but we don’t know. We don’t know what happened before the Planck epoch. We don’t know why there’s no such thing as nothing. We don’t know why we exist, but we do, and we’re complex enough to question the nature of that existence. That implies inherent meaning. We may not know the meaning of life, but we can’t deny it. We are not an accident.”
Maddy snorted. “Speak for yourself.”
I ate dinner by the campfire light. I had started the fire all by myself. For kindling, I burned dry branches. For tinder, I burned dry leaves. And my hair, but that was an accident.
Dinner was a life hack for campfire-grilled cheese sandwiches. I didn’t understand why they were called life hacks when they were supposed to be easy. Hacking was harder than it looked. There were only two windows, one progress bar, and no time limit. And the progress bar turned out to be Kirby’s music.
Although to be fair, I almost started a forest fire.
I stayed in the Catskills until the new president took office. Then I turned around and drove west. I didn’t even stop to eat. Drive-thrus seemed safer. Of course, Taco Bell backfired since I had to stop three times after that.
I drove until we ran into water or Border Patrol. Then, like a Roomba, I did an about-face and drove in the opposite direction. Along the way, there were rest stops, supply runs, and open road. The white noise of the electric van’s fake engine. The white noise of the news.
It started small. In Texas, a woman was refused service at Starbucks because she had a pentacle on her shirt. It was Captain America’s shield.
Her case didn’t even make it to the Supremes, but it was a benchmark. Witches had separate bathrooms and water bottle filling stations. They even had their own schools, which were not as nice as Harry Potter led them to expect.
Maddy led the protests, so she was the first arrest.
The president repurposed several government facilities to serve as correctional camps. They were supposed to “provide a remedial setting for aggressive therapies,” and that was the PR version. The camps used aversion therapy, administering drugs that made people sick and then showing them tarot cards. The suicide rate was off the roof.
The Kardashians’ Pulitzer-winning ghostposter got herself sent to the camps on purpose. She managed to release some footage before “committing suicide.”
I wanted to help, but it was hard to get a Twitter account verified when you were a fugitive from justice.
I patted myself down before leaving the van. Wallet, phone, keys, knife, knife, knife, knife, knife. Drive-thrus seemed safer, but sometimes you just had to enjoy the supersized things in life.
Another old man was taking the ball pit too literally. The children were crying into their french fries— as if the sodium content wasn’t high enough already.
No one noticed when the Unicoder drew his gun. It was an antique revolver. A financial statement piece. Point and click.
No wonder he only had two stars.
“I’m going to sue McDonald’s,” I said.
“You wouldn’t be the first,” said the Unicoder.
I drew my athame. The ceremonial blade was traditional in design, double-sided and black-handled.
“You really think you’re going to do any damage with that little pigsticker?”
“Let’s find out, pig.”
He ruined the moment by laughing.
“Hey, I have a question.”
“Just one?” he asked.
“Why do you do it?”
He shrugged. “It’s a side hustle.”
“I meant Uber.”
“Oh.” The Unicoder blinked. “Easy to make it look like an accident. A lot of people refer friends. More than you might think…. Miriam?”
I had that feeling— when you knew there was something that you were supposed to be doing, but you couldn’t remember what. In this case it was breathing.
I was having a panic attack.
Lucy Mihajlich lives in Portland, Oregon. Her first book, Interface, was chosen for the Multnomah County Library Writers Project, where it appeared on the list for Best of the Library Writer’s Project 2017.
As she opened the hatch and slid out into the starry night, she heard a scraping sound behind her. She didn’t have to turn around to know who it was.
Marika had been avoiding Dante the entire time on the ship. Ever since their breathless encounter in the ship elevator, the one Marika had pulled away from, Dante seemed to be stalking her around every corner. At night, she locked her door, waiting as quietly as possible until she heard his footsteps fade down the hall and disappear. She was constantly running.
But now, here in “the library,” their term for the spiraling vortex of levers that controlled the fuel tanks, there was nowhere to go, and Dante knew it.
He moved toward her, eyes flashing, and grabbed her arm. Even in her spacesuit, Marika felt he was seeing straight through to her naked body, then to her bones. She kicked herself away from the wall of the ship, her cord holding. Dante kicked off too, floating toward her, then grabbing both arms and pinned them to her sides.
Using all her force, Marika spun around and kicked hard, sending him flying further from the shop.
The tether broke. Immediately, the fear in his eyes turned to hopeless panic. He began waving his arms wildly, and then he started drifting soundlessly into space.
Calmly, Marika turned around and began her work on the controls. She ignored his silent screams, trapped in a pink bubble in the nebula they were floating in. She didn’t turn around to see his eyes begin to turn red or his veins bulge out, and she kept her gaze averted from the carnage that became his face as he died in space, just a few feet from their vessel.
She finished her work calmly, then floated over to his body and gave it a hard kick. It started to drift away. Her tether was extended all the way, and for a moment, she thought of following him letting her body drift soundlessly after him into the ether.
Then she slowly kicked off his body and propelled herself back into the ship. She landed soundlessly, crawled along the body of the ship, and reached over to open the hatch.
Addison Herron-Wheeler is editor of OUT FRONT Magazine, web editor of New Noise Magazine, and an avid sci-fi and metal nerd. Her first collection of fiction, Respirator, will be out in 2020 on Spaceboy Books.