skim milk – jack orleans

skim

Marie met back with herself after quite a long hiatus. She was sitting in the den, reading the paper and letting tendrils of smoke vine up at her wrists. She met back with herself after she decided to take up gardening and collecting old National Geographic. She met back with herself after realizing that she wasn’t the one she needed to escape from. She met back with herself after she dumped all the pills in the toilet, and swore not to reach down and take them one-by-one, dry them off, and save them. She did that to two, swallowed one, felt half, and let the rest go.

She was reading NatGeo after stepping inside to make tea. The magazines looked like an attempt to get back to the land. In it there were glossed pictures of African women and Siberian native men, seemingly happy, seemingly without knowledge of more intimate pleasures. The most she’d seen is pictures of a few factory workers—some Soviet, some Chinese—stepping out for cigarettes, or drunk after hours. But even the cigarettes looked otherworldly. Between the fingers of people that weren’t her, and in a place she couldn’t be, the cigarettes looked healthy even. Like Chinese Coke, bitter and more bubbly, less sweet. Like Russian Kvass; healthful for fun. As for the tribal folks, the most there was a shaman taking the strange brew, which looked less like fun and more like duty.

Marie thought of what a mistake it may have been to throw out the pills. How, they swam down the pipes and tubes in a moment of peace, and how she might wish she wouldn’t when times became less easygoing. And in some ways she was right to sense that she in the future would be scolding of her in the present. That thought alone brought some tension, some punctuations in ease. She tried to lose herself from it, hiding between the glossy pages, under people who knew better, and beside them as close as possible without kidding herself. She put down the magazine to grab a beer from the fridge. The cigarette in her hand had fizzled out, but it was burnt enough to even think about relighting it. She came back to the magazine with a pint glass of stout, watching the black middle get sandwiched between two shades of foam.

She took small bird-like sips of it, now cautious of anything that feels good. A substitution couldn’t be on its way already. Anything that feels good; enemy. But she kept sipping it and tumbling through the rest of the pages, looking for an answer after having found the camaraderie. She put the issue away and grabbed another from the magazine holster beside the armchair she sat in. This time, the ‘67 issue. It felt heavy, and a bit too holy to not have a few more sips of beer and a cigarette beforehand. She wanted to read it, but wanted to enjoy herself, so she huffed the cigarette until the ember was longer than the ash and took one huge chug of stout. She took a deep breath and opened to the contents. In it was an article: Skim Milk. The title reeked of incredulity. Invitation by title alone compared to the others that started with ‘how’ or ‘when.’ It described the end of the Civil War one-hundred years later.

When soldiers returned from battle, they also returned with morphine addiction. Those who’d survived survived with a slow illness, rather than quick ones. Even if they’d not been killed or severely maimed, they still returned for carvings for the good stuff. To which, they were either put in asylums, or slowly died from the addiction. A doctor treating them had grown infamous for his advice: “to treat morphine dependence, the afflicted should make in their regimen a cup or two daily of skim milk.” Meanwhile, people who went to him still had the disease. The skim milk didn’t save anyone. In fact, drinking skim milk doesn’t even cure calcium deficiency. But they drank the skim milk, still used morphine until death or cold-turkey.

She looked through the myriad of pictures of soldiers trying to stand still. They did a good job, but the slump rest just beneath their eyes. Their pupils were the size of pin-pricks, and for good reason. Eyes like that make the light dim. They maintained their rowdiness in candid shots. Gathering around a small table playing dice, drinking, smoking on pipes. They were distant, unseen, clouded in sepia and scuff marks on the thin glass panes that served as film. They looked like they did, everything normal, just with the weight of morphine resting on them. Everything they did or could do, they would have done. But they hunched over, going about the day-to-day, but weighed.
They didn’t stop drinking skim milk. Even though it didn’t do anything, they didn’t stop drinking the skim milk. They may have died from overdose or stress, but earlier that day they most likely drank a heaping cupful of skim milk. And they didn’t ask themselves why. It didn’t help, but it didn’t hurt. Her interest grew into it, looking glued to the article. She finished her cigarette so she could read more, and the beer was making her woozy. So she clasped the magazine in both hands and tried to dive in.

She couldn’t understand how a doctor—someone who’s in the business of help—could suggest something so bizarre. She couldn’t understand the logic. It wasn’t perfect but they had methods for every other thing. It wasn’t perfect but it was better than years before. It can’t be perfect but it’s always better. She thought that that sort of advice would’ve been outgrown by then, after the war, after most of history. She couldn’t understand it, but also didn’t mind going for a glass of skim milk.

hourglass

Jack Orleans is a Denver writer whose work has been featured in Birdy Magazine (‘Nobody Leaves,’), SUNY Hopewell’s literary journal, The Finger (‘Edward III’), and Suspect Press (‘Orchid’). He has also published a photo-essay in Stain’d Magazine (‘Paris Syndrome’), and an essay is forthcoming in Litro. Jack can’t seem to fall asleep. He takes the bus late to have coffee. While taking the bus, he’s happy until someone fucks up on the bus. After, he’s happy but with caveats. He knows that he’d be awake regardless of having had coffee. He prefers to be awake and alert over awake and tired. He just doesn’t know what he wants, but it better involve lots of undeserved perks or skymiles. 

Photo/Ceramics: Tom Crew

acheron – robert boucheron

acheron.jpg

At five o’clock, Arthur Lothbury put on a gray felt fedora, inserted a fresh white handkerchief in the breast pocket of his jacket, and stepped out the front door for his daily stroll.

The town was a cluster of brick and frame dwellings of the 1800s. Located in a hollow, on a railroad line that was no longer active, it had three churches, a dozen shops, a post office, a school repurposed as a senior center, and a white-columned filling station with a porte cochère. At the center, where two main streets crossed, the town hall boasted a mansard roof and a clock tower. The tallest structure in town, with a face on all four sides, the clock tower rose above the trees like a sentinel.

Arthur kept the clock tower in view, though he was unlikely to get lost in the town where he was born. He generally walked for exercise, but this afternoon he dawdled. His gaze wandered left and right. It was early spring, still bleak but mild. Buds swelled on the trees. Cold weather had delayed them. Slanting rays of the sun lit the quiet streets. No one else was about, which was odd for the end of a weekday.

He stopped to examine a flowering shrub that overhung a picket fence, as though eager to escape. The yard was unkempt, in a town that was proud of its gardens. How could such a thing happen? Who lived in this house? He knew many neighbors, but not all. In retirement, he was losing track of changes in the population.

This house must have a tenant, someone who did not care for the place. A deflated ball and a broken toy lay on the weedy lawn. Rolled newspapers littered the porch, dusty and yellowed. Maybe no one lived here.

Arthur moved on. It was an effort to put one foot in front of the other. Yet the day had passed in idleness—light housekeeping, some reading, an hour at his desk paying bills, a letter to a relative. What had he done to be worn out?

A single man with many friends and few responsibilities, he ought to enjoy this stage of life, an endless stretch of leisure. But contentment was elusive. He urged himself to walk faster. Chin up and eyes peeled! At any moment, a friend or stranger was likely to cross his path. He would need to say something cheerful, a word of greeting. But the town was deserted, as if Arthur had missed an order to evacuate. He looked straight ahead and spurred his flank. But his feet dragged.

Coming to an alley, he stopped to peer down its length. He seldom walked in this part of town. He knew it like the back of his hand but not this alley. It bordered the railroad track—that was the trouble. The sun trembled on the horizon. The alley was already in shade. Lined by sheds and fences, it promised things of interest—an old wagon, a gnarled tree, a forgotten bicycle like a sketch of lines and circles.

Arthur strolled down the middle, over gravel and grass. The alley was long—he could not see the end—and growing dark. He tried not to scuff his shoes. He hoped he would not step in a puddle. Not a living creature met his eye, not so much as a sparrow. Then a small shape shifted. A cat crouched a few feet ahead.

Cats lurked all over town. Some allowed him to pet them, some rolled at his feet, and some fled. This one stared coldly. Whoever said that cats were curious? Another step, and the cat disappeared, perhaps through a hole in a fence.

Dusk came on. Was it so late? Arthur looked around and did not see the clock tower. How long had he been walking? He had left his watch at home. Was this a blind alley? To turn around would be an admission of defeat. Despite fatigue, he pressed on.

The alley ended at last in a building with a passage through its ground floor. It was now night. At the far end of the unlit passage was a gate, with open space visible through the bars. Should he enter? What if the gate was locked? He was too tired to retrace his steps. Go forward and hope for the best.

The passage was empty. Beyond the gate was a street. He grasped the gate and pulled. In the hollow space of the vaulted passage, the rusty hinges groaned. Arthur flinched at what sounded like a voice, the drawn-out syllable “woe.” Arthur stepped through the arch, and the gate clicked shut. On impulse, he tried it. Locked.

The street was built up on one side. The other was open to the railroad. Arthur had not been here for years. Shops were closed or boarded up. The pavement was cracked and littered. He wanted to sit, but where? A short distance away stood the old train station, abandoned. A light burned inside, the only light in this gloomy wasteland. He trudged toward it.

A low rumble made itself known. The earth shook. The rumble grew and grew to a roar, until it was unmistakable. A train! Arthur reached the platform as the train arrived. In a stupor of exhaustion, he watched it slow. It looked like an excursion train from the century before, an antique restored to service for a single run. It screeched to a stop, a door opened, and a stair dropped at his feet. Where was the conductor? The side of the coach bore a name: “Acheron.”

Was that the destination? Arthur grasped the metal railing and climbed aboard.

hourglass

Robert Boucheron grew up in Syracuse and Schenectady, New York. He worked as an architect in New York and Charlottesville, Virginia, where he has lived since 1987. His short stories and essays appear in Bellingham Review, Fiction International, London Journal of Fiction, Porridge Magazine, Saturday Evening Post, and other magazines.

Photo: Adam Bixby

over the flood – terence hannum

flood

Black water and a reaper over the flood. Emery’s drone glides above the shallow layer of floodwater, past the towering hulls of the collapsed harvesters rusting in the shallow mire and over the collapsed barns with their decrepit rusted silos. Flying over tens of thousands of acres of what would be soybean or durum along this new contaminated shallow. Over the submerged stele erected to mark the passing of generations. Flying adjacent to the electrical poles, whose bases gleam obsidian and silver in the encroaching formation of salt and bitumen.

Standing on the island she built, watching the machine vanish out over the brine in Emery’s daily routine of assessment she monitors the cracked LCD screen in her crusted white hands. On the screen the fields of black water over the hectares of fallow flooded fields, broken only by horizontal glitches, lead out to the lines of pipelines that carve the outer reaches of the ancestral land, where a crew of workers swarm over the busted lines. Bakken, Enbridge, Plains, all were lines she approved continuing her father’s initial infringement on the massive farm land.

She calls the drone back over the acres to her house, her father’s house, which sits marooned behind a sand bag fortification in the middle of a new noxious sea. The drone lands in the dry ditch between the rampart and her home. In the cracks of the sand bags the black salt water forms ashen crystals like hell shadow.

 

Resting the rusted barrel on the top of a sandbag, Emery places the scope of the rifle up to her eye and aims towards the declivity of the highway. A black Ford F350 rests by the side of the road, where men from VTB Bank tumble down from the highway with a johnboat.

The flat bottom aluminum craft glints in the grey sun as they paddle towards her, disturbing the coagulated surface of the black water. Guns aimed away, like a hunting party.

In her scope a bag of money sits on the transom.

A man waves. She doesn’t wave back.

A large drone flies overhead surveying the waste for one of the companies.

“Emery.” The man shouts as she crouches in the pit of the hardened bags, not hiding, aiming the Mossberg at them, “We have the payment.” He says holding up the bag.

She pushes a small black raft attached to a tether out towards the visitors. The man places the money bag on the raft, steadying it with his hands to keep it from capsizing. He goes to push it back to her.

“No,” she says, muffled in her strange voice, standing up, brushing off flakes. The man jumps back slightly in the boat while the other men behind him look away from her, their guns across their chests in the johnboat. She gently pulls the tether, encrusted with fine salt crystals, towards the sand bag fortification.

Watching the men leave in the wide bruise of the afternoon, the bag of cash feels like lead in Emery’s hand.

The darkness inside the home is further reflected on every surface. Emery steps over these growing formations, her reflection bouncing off of the flat facets. Towards the center of the home, yawning where the broken tiles give way through the floor, through the ground, is a pit. Deep inside the hole, encrusted with the sinister sheen of bromide deposits flecked with the fading white of salt octahedrons Emery lowers the bag on a long oil stained tether with her leprous hands. Letting the bag rest on top of another bag of money.

 

Standing outside the home before the crystal wall, Emery holds the remote for the harvesters that loom as gray shadows in the rising mist. With the remote she tries to restart them, they light up blue logos like halos in the fog, but the light sputters off. The useless behemoths fall deeper lowering their idle threshers further below the flood. She curses herself before her grandfather’s home, and his father’s home, she feels failure seep into her like poison.

Out in the fields there are no more pea shoots, no more red-rising wheat, just the harvest of black connate brine rising at its own pace clinging to electrical poles, harvesters, anything and building sinister lattices of calcium and lithium. The spillage will never stop, the wastewater from each pipeline surges and presses against the island she carved out of this dead black lake solidifying with glints of radium in the mineral crystals.

Another black drone glides overhead.

 

Up on the highway Greystone surveyors take test samples, their heads dotted bright red with construction helmets. Emery thinks back to her studies in Agricultural Science at North Dakota State, and how ill-prepared she was for these intrusions her father started with the first exploratory ventures to strike oil that failed but brought the companies to their door with their money to let their conduits cross the land. How, after her father’s funeral she saw the first discolored vegetation brown and dead. Greystone brought her a cistern, they always had a solution in the aftermath of destruction.

 

Back inside the home, she thinks of making a meal but stands before the corroded mirror by the door. The mirror is a marled silver that still displays the growing white lesions that contort her face. She runs her dry crusted palms over the hard growths and raised silver spikes that cover her face and encrust her hairline with white mutations. She does not cry at her own appearance. She can see its progress, enveloping her left eye in a dull prismatic vesicle that spawns new pieces across her spectral face.

She goes to her bed and lays amidst the salt powder and inching crystals on the sheets. She tries to sleep as the night crushes down around the house, envisioning a time when the tide will subside, absorbed into the ruined earth when she can dig her own grave next to those before her.

It is not a dream, because she does not sleep.

 

Later, Emery goes out in the darkness, no more teams haunt the dark highway, no drones streak the sky. There is just the lamentable silence of the black expanse, glinting soft green iridescence below the surface.

She watches over it all, a lonely watcher over the flood.

cropped-dead-bird-clip-art.jpg

Terence Hannum is a Baltimore, MD based artist, musician and writer. His novella Beneath the Remains was published by Anathemata Editions, his novella All Internal was published this year by Dynatox Ministries, and his novelette The Final Days will be published in 2019 by Unnerving. His short stories have appeared in Burrow Press, Terraform, Queen Mob’s Tea House, Lamplight, Turn to Ash, SickLit and the SciPhi Journal.  (www.terencehannum.com)

Photo: Danny G

RATTY or the errands end – meredith counts

counts

An homage to Edward Gorey.

Their dad was running errands in town and insisted that the kids come along. They had been to the dry cleaner to drop off Wraddey’s dragon suit to see what could be done about the ink stains. They’d been to the butcher for sausage, the hardware for tacks, and the place that sold glow-in-the-dark soda. It wasn’t that their dad wanted their company, Wraddey thought, so much as that he remembered what a mess they’d made last time they’d stayed home unattended. Weeks later their father complained he still found marshmallow in crevices about the house, and he wasn’t happy that Wraddey had pasted over every reachable inch of her room with the funnies.

In the backseat of the station wagon, Wraddey felt so bored that she might disappear into the seat, that’s how sick of things she was. Her big brother Egor elbowed her to get her attention. As she reeled back to sock him for touching her she saw the stranger wading through the high piles of snow. Wraddey liked to fight her brother, but it had been a long and relentlessly dull winter. Both children were so hungry for something out of the ordinary to happen that the fight melted away.

“Do you see…?” Wraddey started to say.

“But who…?” Egor asked.

Wraddey shushed him.

Teetering through the dirty snow on the side of the road, whoever-it-was wasn’t wearing a coat or boots, but was cocooned in yards and yards of fabric. Every bit of the person was wrapped up, and except for a purplish brown velvet, most of the wrappings were clashing patterns. No nose or wrist or eyeball, no feature to be seen. As the car passed, the kids turned to keep looking.

“Huh,” Egor said.

“Wow,” Wraddey said.

“Huh?” said their father from the driver’s seat.

The person grew smaller through their wide rear window. Then they turned into a parking lot and the strange person was out of sight.

Their dad ran in to check on a watch he was having fixed. The kids waited in the car, admiring the neon line drawings of jewels in the window of the tiny shop, and listened to the radio. From her seat in the back, Wraddey put her feet up on the center console. Egor kicked Wraddey’s boot and started to scold her.

“Dad wouldn’t let you–“

“Shut up. Look!.”

“I’ll tell him you’re putting your – “

“Shut up and look, Eeg. Who is that?”

The stiff figure crossed the jeweler’s parking lot. Wraddey wondered out loud if they were walking backwards, the way she did when it was windy at the bus stop. Maybe that’s why they were going so slowly, why their knees didn’t bend.

She waved but the figure didn’t respond. It wasn’t possible for Wraddey to tell if she was unseen or being ignored. But you know how being ignored can stoke your interest.
Their dad returned, satisfied and whistling. He was old-fashioned even as far as fathers went – he wore a watch, their car didn’t drive itself, he whistled to an actual FM radio station. Then he whistled a song that wasn’t the song on the radio, then he whistled through the people asking for donations to the radio station. At one point Egor started whistling, then Wraddey tried too though she’d never quite got the knack of whistling (she was only eight) and their father told them to cut out all that racket.

They passed the strange person up ahead one last time. Even from a distance, the scraps and scarves and sheets covering the covered up person didn’t look homeless. From elsewhere, maybe, but not weathered.

Then their always steady, never-impulsive father was in such a good mood that he impulsively swerved over to the side of the road, rolled down the window, and offered that fascinating bundled-up person a lift.

The person was tall, and bent sideways to peer into the open window. The head, scarves on top and scarves on bottom sandwiching huge blue blocker sunglasses in between, seemed to nod. Their father leaned across the passenger seat, opening the door from the inside so the person could climb in.

They lived near a prison and never picked up hitchhikers, let alone wobbly mysterious persons wrapped up like fragile treasure with no single centimeter of skin to be seen.
The figure sat tall in the passenger seat, head skimming the roof, looking forward. Winter air flooded the car, for the person hadn’t closed the door after climbing in. Dad stared at the person. The person stared ahead, making no moves toward the door or otherwise.

“Um, allow me, I guess,” their father said, exiting and going around to close the door.
Wraddey giggled. Her brother belted her for it, but their father’s guest didn’t seem to notice.

The car filled up with the smell of an apple orchard past its season and also of mothballs like at their aunts’ house and wet wool and something like cheap warm cheese.
Dad asked “So where can we drop you off?” but the person only looked forward, so Dad filled the car with chit chat.

“Cold enough for ya?”

“Been a hell of a winter.”

It was a chattering sort of aimless talk, their dad was filling silence and gaining no answers. The children kept a very close eye on the stranger, but they offered no response. Not a word.

“Yes, sir-ee.”

“Where’d you say you’re headed?”

Nothing.

Their father was unsettled. He couldn’t tell if the person was stupid or deaf or dangerous, or scariest of all – silently judging him to be not worth a response.

“Are we, uh, headed in the right direction for ya?”

From the backseat, Wraddey thought she heard a faint scratching sound.

“Well, uh, say, we’re close to home. We can drop you off there, or, uh…” He paused for a moment, then finally said “Would you like to come in and warm up?”

The person’s head fell violently downward. The one harsh nod sent a puff of that rotten apple smell into the cold air of the backseat.

Impressive! Wraddey thought. By ignoring their father, the stranger had bullied him into an invitation inside. They hardly ever had a visitor. If someone did come over, it was in sensible parkas and those visitors had faces.

In the driveway the person sat stone still again, so that father told Egor to go around and open the passenger side door and let “their friend” out.

“I can do it!” Wraddey yelled.

She was closest, but moreover she wanted to be the one to do it.

While father went ahead with the dry cleaning bags to unlock the door, Wraddey opened the passenger side door to let the stranger out. Both feet swung out together like the tines of a tuning fork, then they found purchase on the snowy drive and the whole body lurched up and out. Wraddey said “follow them,” pointing to the guys, followed, watching closely. Wraddey followed the tiny footprints in the snow that looked more like a deer’s than a person’s.

In the house, the stranger clomped over to the davenport and sat, imperiously, down.

“Make yourself at home,” father said with some sarcasm.

The stranger didn’t even look at him.

“Maybe I’ll, uh, put a snack together then?”

The figure nodded that violent nod.

Feeling he was being had, the children’s father disappeared into the kitchen, searching for some unstale crackers for their silent guest. Wraddey thought that she was going to try the stranger’s approach the next time she wanted something.

Egor stood shuffling by the door in his thick winter socks.

Wraddey sat down on the couch next to their guest.

“Hello,” she said, in her soft voice.

It was only when she reached out and laid a hand on its leg that the figure jerked around and pointed its head at her. When it raised its arm, Egor knew it was going to pull his sister’s brain out through her nose, but the arm stopped short. It didn’t strike Wraddey but hung in front of her, inviting a shake.

She accepted, taking the end of the arm in her own hand. Around where a wrist should be, she felt a tassel. She felt it between her thumb and forefinger. She couldn’t help it. She pulled.

It was the end of a scarf, which came off the stranger’s arm in a great spiral, like the curly paper wrapper of a China marker. Under the scarf was a folded blanket, which Wraddey unfolded, the stranger oddly kicking one leg out but not moving the rest of its body at all as its arm was revealed to be not an arm really but two thumb-thick sticks stabbed into a withered apple where an elbow would be. When Wraddey peeled off another layer, leading to the abdomen, the smell of rotten apple grew stronger.
Then when she pulled a hank of Pendleton plaid from under the collarbones, two shocking things happened. First, the head, still pointed at her, tipped clean off and landed on the floor with a thump. At the neck was a pair of broken sticks, and when she wrenched one out it uncovered the chest.

There sat a large rat, in a wicker sort of ribcage, concentrating hard and pulling at the levers of its failing body with all four feet and tail.

“Oh!” Egor yelled in disgust, for he was becoming adult enough to be wary of rats.

“Oh!” Wraddey repeated, in a different way, because she was a lover of animals and it wasn’t the ugliest rat ever, not really, and it was so clever.

“Oh?” Their father said, coming from the kitchen with a platter of finger foods. Then he bellowed, and dropped his cargo, dehydrated apricots and wheels of sliced summer sausage bouncing on the heirloom carpet.

“Tssss!” Shrieked the rat, pointing his ratty face this way and that.

Then it leaped out of its seat in the rib cage, neatly landing on its hind legs.
Another ancient apple fell out of the body, landing with a muffled plop in the piles of shed fabrics.

The rat looked directly into Wraddey’s eyes. It cocked its pointy head toward the door, and Wraddey nodded.

Wraddey took the rat by the paw, helping it out of its wrecked body. She slipped her feet into her boots, grabbed her coat, opened the door and vanished with him out into the cold bright day.

Her family watched from the big picture window, the girl and the large rat, running through the high snow, past the station wagon, down the driveway, down the road, never to return. Over their years together Wraddey and the Rat travelled and saw amazing things. They rebuilt it’s human body better than ever, using common kitchen implements Wraddey was able to produce a more convincing gait and her fingers could tie much sturdier knots that an animal could. What the rat lacked in terms of getting its protegee into college it made up for with adventure. With it’s keen sense of smell the two never went hungry, and after a year of trust building the rat would give up its wrappings on cold nights so that Wraddey could use the fabric as blankets and the rat would cozy up into her chest, it’s fast rodent heart beating twice for every single beat of hers.

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Meredith Counts has an MFA from the Fiction Writing Department at Columbia College Chicago. Now she’s studying archives at the University of Michigan. She’s had work in Traverse, Portage Magazine and Quail Bell Magazine. Her story on poet Jim Gustafson and Detroit Tigers baseball, originally published in the Detroit Metro Times, was named notable by Best American Sports Writing 2018. She’s always loved Edward Gorey.

Artwork: also by Meredith Counts

the psychoaffective realm – kesi augustine

window

“The first thing which the native learns is to stay in his place, and not to go beyond certain limits. This is why the dreams of the native are always of muscular prowess; his dreams are of action and aggression. I dream I am jumping, swimming, running, climbing; I dream that I burst out laughing, that I span a river in one stride, or that I am followed by a flood of motorcars which never catch up with me.”

Now
Bedstuy, NYC, 2016

He lays alone in his cramped apartment. Tipsy cars are his soundscape. The yellow of a streetlight hits his dark skin like the promise of rainbows to come.

In bed, one of his legs dangles outside of his covers. The other cradles underneath. An army of sweat marches down his spine.

When he finally falls asleep, his face is a frown.

In Dream, he is walking down an alley. Blunt in mouth. Not knowing from where he came, or to where he goes, he walks.

Suddenly, he hears a familiar crescendo of footsteps behind him. The rattling of nuts and bolts.
He spins around on his heels, briefly seeing the world as a blur of pink and purple.

He stops.

The creature crouched in front of him is part flesh, part metal. Its boxy muscles are boulders. Black voids of eyes. Its chest heaves in and out with each calculated breath.

This creature is an old program, but a stubborn one. The newest creatures can morph into the subconscious. Embody the beliefs that roam in the shadows of the colonial subject. A model citizen at terrorizing Black people.

But this old technology still patrols Dream streets. For many, its physical ugliness cannot be stomached. It can catch and cradle them in their choking itches of fear. Suck the optimism from their hearts. Render them worthless.

“We meet again,” the creature howls, its voice a synthetic sound bite of virus. Its teeth, digital chips. The tone, a caustic, racist disgust. “Motherfucker.”
This time, man and creature draw their weapons. He manifests a sword. The creature, a laser gun. Something of a different dimension. The gun fades in and out of materiality.

It shoots.

In a split second, he makes himself jump. He wields his sword and brings it slashing through the fleshy part of the creature’s neck. Just as he has practiced. Night after night.

The creature drops dead.

He clutches his stomach, feeling warm blood spurt into his hands.

He laughs viciously like the thunders of a torrential downpour.

“There are maleficent spirits which intervene every time a step is taken in the wrong
direction, leopard-men, serpent-men, six-legged dogs, zombies—a whole series of tiny
animals or giants which create around the native a world of prohibitions, of barriers and
of inhibitions far more terrifying than the world of the settler.”

Then
Montgomery, Alabama, 1964

He lies restless in bed, both legs under the covers. Surrounded by an army of toys. A GI Joe. Cars. Even a teddy bear, still.

There are protests outside of his window.

“Mama,” he cries. Shaking. Still seeing the shadows of ghouls pressed against his eyelids. Still hearing their demonic squeals of joy. Still feeling the bony fingers pressed around his throat. The sensation of waking up with a choke.

She comes in.

“Again?” she asks. Weary.

“They’re everywhere,” he says. “I can feel them in my sheets.”

She places glass of water on his nightstand. To swallow the spirits. Then, a hand on his forehead. To soothe the imagination.

“Make it stop,” he cries. “Please, Mama. I’m scared.”

She sighs, seeing a white bubble of light surrounding his black body. Whispers a protective prayer. Feels his body for knots. Soothes the mysterious scratches.

She says, “It’s not real.”

“It feels real!”

She sits on the edge of his bed. Wipes the sweat from his brow.

“Stay centered, baby.”

Shouts seep into the room from between the drapes.

“Someday, you’ll know how to push those fears away,” she whispers. “You’ll learn how to fight back.”

“During the period of colonization, the native never stops achieving his freedom from
nine in the evening until six in the morning.”

Quotes are from from Franz Fanon’s “On Violence” in The Wretched of the Earth (1961).

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Kesi is a writer and a teacher of literature and creative writing for teenagers and adults. Her writing has appeared in Winter Tangerine, USA TODAY, on the New York City Subway, and in collections like haiku narrativo and ancient futures. Kesi received her Ph.D. from NYU in 2018 and wrote her dissertation on Black writers who are working to correct the lack of diversity in children’s literature. She lives in Queens, New York. You can find her at kesiaugustine.com

Photo: Teddy Kelley

affection/affliction – andrea dreiling

x-ray_of_paratype_of_paedophryne_amauensis_(lsumz_95002)

She sat on the torn sofa and finally glued the last bone in place.  She would write on the black, cardstock backing with white gel pen when she labeled the different bones.  Just like in 5th grade, when her whole class received owl pellets, each containing a single mouse-skeleton to reassemble.  After everything she had been through over the last year, it felt good to pin down what was left of it and label it in clear, scientific terms.  Who knew, maybe as time passed, she would grow fond of the display.  Maybe she would hang it on her wall and imagine flesh for it.  She had a memory attached to each bone, a story to write for them…

 

Innominate

 

In a split second they become so obvious, the two things that I realize.  The first is that I’m pregnant, the second is that I don’t know how it happened.  I hook up with the same couple of people sporadically and I hadn’t been with anyone for a long time.  Through the bathroom window the sky bares its teeth at me. Loneliness calcifies.  I could tell someone else but I’m not sure I can pretend to be happy about it, or if I even have to.  I remind myself that my body is well equipped to handle this.  I thank my wide hips.  What if I never love it?  What if it’s not even mine?  When you try to find answers where there are none, the nature of the task drives you mad.  You know you will lose even before you know that you will never stop trying.  I become a caged animal.  I try to escape because I knew I can’t.     

 

 

Sternum 

 

I grew up Catholic and left the church without regret.  I imagine the people I knew as a teenager and what they would say if they knew me now.  I imagine the way they would touch the rose gold crosses hanging around their necks, as if to remind themselves that they are not like me. I would ask them, Couldn’t there be a second Mary Magdalene to usher in the second coming?  I would ask them, Do you think you can have an immaculate conception even if you’re not a virgin? Why not? Besides, those celibate preachers had us touching the lean skin between our breasts while we murmured the son during every mass.  What could they teach about a woman’s body?

 

Mandible

 

All food has become tinny and dry.  I struggle to take care of myself, I couldn’t feel less maternal.  I call my friend Atticus, the King of Last Night.  We get drunk together.  It is horrible and necessary.  I play the pinball machine at the back of the bar where my face becomes a distortion rolling on the surface of the silver marble.  I remember how my mother ate so much liver when Oli, my baby sister, was born.  So much liver, I can feel its grain between my teeth now.  I clench them to crush the sensation away and wake up in one of my nightmares.  The one where my teeth are crumbling with such violence that they are choking me, making it impossible to tell my mom, who’s on the phone, that my teeth are crumbling.  My teeth are crumbling, and it’s all blood and bone falling into the bathroom sink.  One of the fragments becomes lodged in the bar of soap.

 

 

Metacarpals

 

In my inertia I stay in my tiny apartment, forgetting that my future child will take up space.  If I could, I would scratch a new home for myself in the face of the Earth.  I would wear my fingers down, leaving all ten fingernails inside the tunnels I create, burrowing.  The overripe drip of the summer sun will go on without me.  The flowers, rooting far above my reach.  When the bathroom door is open, I can see every corner of my apartment from the couch in the living room.  In the winter, when the window’s always shut, the dust moves in accordance with my breath, my movements; I like it that way.  If I ever left, I would crawl to the center of the Earth, as far away from heaven as I could be.

 

Sacrum

 

The lonely pregnancy is an anchor dragging me to the bottom of the ocean.  In the silence every word is amplified, every interaction a raggedly inhaled breath.  I visit Anne, a friend from college.  She will have kids someday soon, it is written in her five-year plan.   I sit on her couch gingerly, worried that the leaden weight of my body could break it; like I could crash, tailbone first, into her cellar.  If I relax for even a second, I could come undone.

 

Metatarsals

 

When men stub their toes they howl like baby wolves.  They revert to childhood somehow, or pull their yelps from some layer of their ego that exists without expectations.  They forget that they have to be tough.  It makes me feel closer to them when I witness it.   I also have toes that are often stubbed, and I don’t howl, but I pinch up my face, and sit on the floor and take a moment to revel in self-pity.  If someone is in the room with me, I expect them to ask if I’m ok, even though we both know that a stubbed toe is both ok and not ok at the same time.  At any rate, there is no cure for a stubbed toe. But there is a remedy, which is to momentarily lose yourself in the pain, to howl, or pinch up your face, to sit on the ground and be asked if you’re ok. I stub my toe on Anne’s coffee table when I stand up from her couch, preparing to leave.  She does not ask if I’m ok this time, she is too worried about the other parts of me.  A toe is just a toe.

 

Vertebrae

 

I try to go to a yoga class for the first time in my life, a special one, just for pregnant women.  Compared to the other expecting mothers, I am made of ash.  I do not glow.  I follow along during meditation, trying to roll a ball of light up and down my spine.  It should float gently, a paper boat on a placid lake, but it does not work this way.  Instead, I feel my ball of light swirling violently down towards my abdomen.  My bulbous belly wants to capture the light and snuff it out.  The last of my hope drains through an umbilical cord, I leave the class quickly, before anyone can ask me when I’m due.

 

Ribs

 

Starla lives in a world populated by possibilities.  I don’t know where I met her, I pulled her from the twilight.  I’m endlessly thankful for her company.  Starla’s the only one I can stand to be around as I head into the seventh month of my pregnancy.  We smoke herbal cigarettes and contemplate the possibility that I am carrying a baby pterodactyl.  At times I could believe it, because whatever is in my womb seems intent on pressing against my ribcage, winging its way up into my chest cavity as though my belly is not enough for it.  I suspect that what I have to give will never be enough for it.

 

Skull

 

The contractions come on all at once, as though someone is wringing my guts out like a sponge.  Something is wrong and I know it right away. I call no one but a taxi.  At intake I give all the wrong answers. They just started? And they’re how close together?  It’s like the nurses want me to make sense of it for them.  Finally, I’m taken to a hospital room with horrible yellow wallpaper- the color hurts my eyes.  I feel everything, including something beating against my pelvic wall.  The small fists turn to claws and it is pulling apart my flesh- burrowing its way out.  My screams are disembodied and go unanswered by the nurses.  My distended belly button opens-a new eye.  Finally, some doctors rush in, but they freeze when I rip back my sheet and show them the hole in my stomach that is opening up.  Inside I’m just black, no blood.  Whatever is pushing out of me is doing so without the benefit any natural lubrication.  It’s dryness scrapes through every inch of my insides and I pass out- missing my pillow and banging the back of my head against the wall.

 

Humerus

 

I’m dragged from my sleep by a blood pressure cuff squeezing my upper arm.  The nurse that is taking my vitals will not acknowledge my consciousness.  Hey… I begin but she cuts me off, The doctor will be with you shortly.  An IV drip runs into my other arm, just above the elbow, I bend my arm to feel the catheter burrowed into my vein.  I realize now, that I should be cradling a baby, and for the first time I really want it.  I want to look into its filmy eyes and rest it’s clenched up fist against my chest.  Hey, I want to see my… The nurse whisks out of the room before I can finish my sentence.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Scapula

 

I arrive at my apartment with the bundle of dead matter that the doctor forced into my arms.  No one had an explanation to offer, the only thing they would tell me was that my health was stable, that I could go home.  I toss the prescription for Valium that the doctor gave me into the trash. The fear and anger and confusion is a rubber band stretched to breaking point between my shoulder blades. I can’t breathe or sit. I try to take a hot bath but I sink to the bottom like a petrified piece of wood. I finally unravel the blankets to look at the dusty heap inside: a ball of yarn made from human refuse, hair, teeth, nails and bones.  I sink my fingers into the repulsive mass and begin separating the bones from the hair.

 

Wishbone

 

As I complete the gruesome task, I find myself hoping that there is a wishbone amongst all the tiny bones and filaments.  I know that most creatures don’t have wishbones. It doesn’t matter now if the wishbone would have caused a deformity.  The child didn’t have a life to live, deformed or not.  If I found a wishbone, I would set it aside- the only bone that I would not glue onto the black, card stock backing.  I would grip both sides of the wishbone myself, so that my wish would come true no matter which way it broke.  I would wish for a baby, a soft, living one filled with the novelty of breathing. I would close my eyes and pull.

Appendix:

n

Andrea Dreiling is a writer and artist from Denver, CO.  She has been featured in literary magazines like Teeth Dreams, Birdy and Stain’d.  Follow her shenanigans on Instagram @dread._ofbunnycauldron. 

the washing machine sang – jane-rebecca cannarella

dollhouse

All of the appliances in Jen’s apartment sang. In her grown-up home with central air and functioning gadgets, she’d asked me to watch her mature cat — mature as in mellow, not aged – while she was away on a trip, like the ones actual adults take. “A mini getaway.”

It was the day after her departure. As the sun changed the sky into soapsuds of color, the washing machine glittered upon start, spin cycle, and finish. A jaunty sweet song like the plastic teeth of a Fisher Price record bleated at the end. Matt and I had been watching a TV show about magicians and were startled out of a static reverie. Matt ran a hand through his long dark hair and said the machine was probably singing the song of its father, which sounded very theatrical.

I’m going to put the songs of washing machine forefathers on a playlist, or at least put the task of making this playlist on my radar– just like how paying my loans is on my radar, and not taking every single emotion so seriously is on my radar, like how getting quarters to take my laundry to the laundromat on 43rd and Chestnut is always on my radar.

While the washing machine sang, I turned the sound up on the TV to drown out the lullaby. I ran my own hand through Matt’s dark hair.

My appliances don’t sing, but I don’t have any modern-ish appliances to begin with–not even a microwave. People always ask how I live without a microwave. I say something cavalier about using the oven, but really I just eat food that is cold or raw. I don’t care – I honestly don’t care – until sometimes I do, like when I’m staying at Jen’s and everything is merry and melodious. Even her microwave twinkled music as I made ready-to-eat chocolate mousse from a power packet I found in her cupboards along with her leftover milk – not even past its expiration date. I marveled at the microwave’s friendliness. My envy is not contained in small ways, it is the flow of the chocolate-y pudding under a silver skin that forms on top after staying out too long.

Throughout my stay, I drank all of the vodka in the freezer. The refrigerator beeped because I kept the door open too long, pouring from the bottle into my mouth, glugging like a fish. In the freezer, there was an ice cube tray she’d bought that didn’t just come with the place. I have never thought to do that. Buy an ice cube tray. Hers was rubber and blue, and the ice popped out easily, and I envied that too.

***

A day earlier, before she left, Jen had bought us cheesesteaks and cheese fries and we’d drank too much. Jen put away the leftovers but chucked the fries because “fries aren’t good reheated.” The next day, with her gone, I lay in her bed in my underwear watching reality TV on my phone. I ate the cheese fries with my snail fingers, having fished them out of the garbage. Matt said he couldn’t show up until later, so I waited. Sometimes I called, “pss-pss-pss” for her cat to come out and join me, but he never did. He never even made a sound.

The only things that make noise in Jen’s home are the robots.

***

Then later, Matt came over, and there was the music of the appliances. And we had pizza, and new fries, and magicians on TV, and really bad sex. We tried our best, but he wasn’t hard, but we attempted to do it anyway with limited success. And when it was all over, I apologized, and he left, and I took out the load of laundry from earlier and replaced it with the soiled sheets. I cleaned the apartment. The washing machine happily launched into a song to announce that the sheets were clean. I thought about Matt’s joke from earlier, about the washing machine’s father’s song and it made me angry. Where do we learn how to commit to pain? It’s pointless to kick a washing machine because it doesn’t get your hurt – it’s too busy making music to feel anything.

***

I wondered who has loved just like this before in Jen’s grownup space. With computers as companions and even a faucet that chimes – are all trysts here mechanical? Or do hers turn out better than mine? Does love look better when you’re an adult who has their shit together?

I pulled the sheets out: a blue piped one, a bird patterned one, the white pillow cases where, earlier, I’d found a long strand of Matt’s dark hair and felt like even that feathering touch made the entire pillow unclean. I assume Jen’s love is more meaningful, made under the watchful eyes of tender electronics. The bodies she invites into her home power down to melodies of automata, consecrated with the sweat of responsibility.

Then, since there was no machine for folding laundry, I became the robot. And since I was the robot, I felt like I should sing. I hummed while collapsing the bedding into pleats, while fitting fresh blue sheets onto the mattress. Jen would be home in a day and then I’d be back in my non-harmonious, appliance-less shithole of an apartment.

I never could find her fucking cat anywhere.

 

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Jane-Rebecca Cannarella is the editor of HOOT Review and  Meow Meow Pow Pow Lit.  She was a genre editor at Lunch Ticket, as well as a contributing writer at SSG music. In her spare time, she is a candy enthusiast and cat fan. 
She received her BA and M.Ed from Arcadia University, her MFA from Antioch University, and attended Goldsmiths: the University of London and Sarah Lawrence College. When not poorly playing the piano, she chronicles the many ways that she embarrasses herself at the website www.youlifeisnotsogreat.com. Her chapbook of flash/prose-poems, Tiny Thoughts for Tiny Feelings, was published by BA Press, 2002 in 2011 – which she concedes is confusing. 

holes – hillary leftwich

holes

They lay down on the bed, his head inside her chest. He thinks of how a heart is like an engine, if the oil runs out it will seize. He saw a broken engine at his mechanics once, right after their daughter Lily disappeared. See that? The mechanic said, pointing a socket wrench at the hole. If you don’t check your oil, that’s going to be your engine. That’s going to be his heart. Too many cigarettes, too much booze, and love tethered then clipped. She slips him inside of her, asks if he wants it faster. He answers in heavy breaths. When the shaking subsides, she doesn’t touch him. They fall asleep and wake to an Amber Alert on his phone, flashing like a neon sign. He shuts his eyes and dreams of a little girl stolen. The girl is in a car with a man speeding down a curling highway. The trees lean in on either side of the road, straining to see inside. The man tells the girl the engine sounds funny, and if she isn’t careful he’ll bust a hole right through her heart. He hands her a gallon of strawberry milk and she drowns herself in pink, erasing her face. The man whistles to the music on the radio as he drives, the trees in the rearview mirror folding like two dark wings.

When he wakes up, the dog outside is barking, the coffee machine is grumbling, and she’s gone, a hole on the side of the bed where her body used to be.

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Hillary Leftwich currently lives in Denver with her son in The Murder House, a registered historical landmark and notorious 1970’s flophouse. She is the poetry and prose editor for Heavy Feather Review and curates At the Inkwell Denver. In her day jobs she has worked as a private investigator, maid, repo agent, and pinup model. Currently, she freelances as an editor, writing workshop instructor, guest instructor for Kathy Fish’s Fast Flash Workshop, and writer. Her writing can be found or is forthcoming in print and online in such journals as Entropy, The Missouri Review, The Review Review, Hobart, Smokelong Quarterly, Matter Press, Literary Orphans, Occulum, and others. Her book, Ghosts Are Just Strangers Who Know How to Knock, is forthcoming from Civil Coping Mechanisms/The Accomplices in October of 2019.  Find her online at hillaryleftwich.com and on Twitter @hillaryleftwich

Photo: Fancycrave

struck horse – ron burch

Struck Horse

Coal-black mare. Solitary in the darkened field, its crooked, broad teeth grasping green strands. Gray clouds heaped upon one another, a thunder inside, one strike, two strikes, the mare on its front knees, slow-motioning as it tilted on its side, thick muscles shaking as the large body smacked the wet earth, mouth open, singed, a thin drift of smoke rising from the trembling haunches, tongue out, eyes wide.

A lone farmer ran through the field toward it, yelling its name. His green hat flew off in the rushing wind that embraced him with arms of rain.

The farmer dropped knees-down, wrapping his long arms around the mare’s head, its eyes all white. Spittle dribbled out of its agonized mouth.

“Please,” he pleaded, “don’t die.”

The horse rested in his arms, breaths like unanswered questions. The eyes returned to their normal state, the eyes of the mare meeting the eyes of the farmer, firmer breaths as the farmer’s hands stroked the dark horse head, until the mare asked, “What the hell just happened?”

The farmer, astonished, stuttering, “You, you, you were struck by lightning.”

The horse, whose name was Mare, leaned back its large head, the nostrils flaring, “Did you just talk to me?’

The farmer, more astonished, “You talked to me first.”

“Holy fuck,” replied Mare. “I guess I did.”

Once the miraculous had been accepted by the farmer, his immediate thought was, naturally, commerce. With this in mind, the farmer approached the mare who declined his offer of public performance.

“I wouldn’t like that at all,” she said.

“It’s no different than the conversation we’re having now,” the farmer protested. “You just have it with other people.”

The mare neighed in response, saying, “Other people may not be as kind as the farmer.” The farmer laughed.

“Nonsense,” he said, “I’ll be with you the whole time.”

Using his phone, the farmer recorded a short video of he and the mare discussing the weather while standing in the farmer’s north pasture. The video lasted less than 30 seconds and the mare completed three complete sentences and expounded on what she believed tomorrow’s weather was going to be like – crappy again. The uploaded video went viral, making the major social media sites, with ongoing arguments from the viewing community as to whether it was really a talking horse or not.

To confirm, the farmer and the mare were invited to one of the national televised morning shows, followed the same day by visits to two late-night shows. One of the late-night shows had on what they were calling a “Talking Horse Expert,” some guy dressed like a country rube with a straw hat and a pitchfork, a joke until Mare unmasked the man as someone knowing nothing about contemporary farming. The actor dropped his pitchfork realizing that the horse was actually talking.

Mare’s fame exploded. Her likeness was put on coffee mugs, t-shirts, plates, and hundreds of other trinkets. Even her own calendar. Crowds greeted her at the events she attended whether it be the opening of the local county fair to television shows. She was even asked to do the play-by-play for the national horse-racing derby, which she turned down, citing that she believed that humans racing horses for money was wrong. The derby representative, a stern, pasty old man who was a local politician, complained to the farmer, who apologized but felt the same way.

She didn’t understand why she had to do a dog-food commercial. “I don’t even eat dog food,” she said. “Do you?”

The farmer shook his head and said that it was just for the money. Mare complained that too many humans only cared about money. The guy holding the boom said she didn’t know any better because she was only a stupid horse. Mare cantered over to the boom operator, backing him up against the wall and said that if it wasn’t for humans and their slaughter of innocent animals to feed their overweight, smelly bodies, that this world would be a much better place.

You could hear the hum of the background lights.

They finished the shoot but the atmosphere was tense. As the farmer led out the mare, she said to him, “I’m only telling the truth.”

The farmer nodded his head. “I know.”

Later, that night, someone leaked a shaky video of Mare’s comments from the commercial. The comments were excoriating, and the farmer didn’t see the need to tell the mare about it. This was bad press and perhaps, the farmer considered, that they had made enough money to live happily for a number of years.

In the living room of the farm house, where Mare was now living, he told her it’s time to retire.

“Thank god,” she replied and nuzzled his neck as she once did when she was much smaller.

They still had one more talk show to do and decided together that it would a great way to say goodbye. The farmer would say that the mare woke up silent again, and she would merely stand there while the camera pushed in on her face.

Minutes before she was to go on live television, the farmer couldn’t find her in her assigned dressing room. He asked a couple of the people backstage if they’d seen a horse but nothing. He heard a shot – he knew it was a shot – he was a hunter, he knew. He ran toward the direction and out an emergency exit. A white car pulled away. She was on the ground behind the building, crumpled across two parking spaces, her body broken on the cement dividers, her mouth bound with white rope, her blood, from a gunshot, pooled around her mane. He held her still head in his arms and even as the grief broke across him, he refused it, so it would feed him for a long time, never letting him forget.

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Ron Burch’s fiction has been published in numerous literary journals including Mississippi Review, New World Writing, PANK, and been nominated for the Pushcart Prize. His novel, Bliss Inc., was published by BlazeVOX Books. He lives in Los Angeles. 

Photo: Erin Dolson

silence – annette freeman

silence

I was criticised by any number of people for what I did to the old piano. When my sculpture was exhibited at the gallery — all dismantled frames and twisted strings and bereft keys — I was criticised. Oh, yes. People at the Opening drew in shocked breaths and waggled their champagne glasses. The word desecration was used; also destructive and obscene. Obscene? I’ll tell you what’s obscene — having to put up with someone who is supposed to have moved on. My sculpture was large and it used most of the innards of the piano in a constructivist-style thing intended to reference a mound or hill. Like a burial mound. I even included an ironic plastic rose on the top, a dirty pink thing, to reference a wreath, but I don’t think the art lovers at the opening got that. They certainly mourned the piano, though.

“What did you have against that poor piano?” a tipsy art-type in an old-fashioned bow-tie asked me. He’d gone for whisky.

“How long have you got?” I replied, and sipped my champagne, leaving lipstick on the glass, blood red, which is ironic also, since the death of the piano was under discussion. In all truth, it wasn’t the piano itself that had earned my ire, but its former owner. I’ll tell you what happened and you can judge for yourself if I was justified in dismantling the thing.

When I moved in with Simon I kept my studio in the inner city. His place wasn’t far away but it was an upscale building, one of those new apartment blocks. They had CCTV cameras everywhere: didn’t want any undesirables, deplorables, muddying the terrazzo floors or shooting up in the shrubbery. You wouldn’t have thought that such a new build, where a year or so earlier there had been only a depthless mud-hole gouged into the land, could harbour any wraiths from the past. But my theory is — and I have reason to know — that the wraiths preserve their longevity by attaching their icy tendrils to objects, and objects can be moved around, as was this blighted piano. Simon told me that it had been a family piano for decades. In fact, it was an old wooden-framed thing, out of date and untuneable. Were you imagining an elegant baby grand with a rosewood cabinet? No, this was an old upright, scratched from many moves, barely playable. It had candle sconces screwed to its front. Candles! How long ago did people play the piano by candlelight? The dark ages?

I shouldn’t make flippant remarks about the dark. That piano and I were to share some sombre times. Simon and I had been together for about a year when I moved in with him. I was sure he was my soul-mate. I still am, and if he ever forgives me — or, as I prefer to think of it, understands me — I think we could be happy. If you notice an edge to my voice while I’m telling what happened, it’s because of Simon. When he found the piano gone, and I told him what I’d done with it, he went into a funk. He refused to come to the Opening at the gallery and so he hasn’t seen what a far, far better thing it has become. Those critics who could stomach the dismemberment have been raving about it. My agent is fielding offers. I have hopes that it’ll go to Abu Dhabi.

Simon goes away on business trips often, mostly to the US, for a week or two at a time. He packs a couple of his sharp suits into a folding suit bag and jets off to do whatever international-finance-types do. As for me, I’m a night owl and often come home late from my studio to the empty terrazzo-floored lobby of the apartment block. I rarely run across anyone from the other apartments. It’s an echoey lobby; there’s not much in it except a couple of Eames-replica chairs that I’ve never seen anyone sit on. There are security cameras with red cyclonic eyes staring down from the corners of the ceiling.

The old piano was an incongruous piece of furniture in Simon’s place, interior-decoration-wise, so naturally I asked him about it.

“It was Eliza’s,” he said, as if admitting something he’d rather I didn’t know.

Eliza was his ex. They hadn’t been married, exactly, unless you count that hybrid Buddhist-Hindu-hippy ceremony they went through in Kathmandu. Then Eliza was lost on the trail while they were hiking to Tengboche. Lost, as in never found. Almost certainly she went over the edge of a ravine into the Dudh Kosi and her body swept away downstream, though it was never recovered. Simon spent a long time hoping. That whole incident was years ago. He’d had two or three girlfriends between Eliza and me. But still he’d dragged the piano on at least two moves that I knew of. It sat against the wall of the living room, looking across at the Léger print on the opposite wall. It seemed to me to be constantly watching us as we lounged in front of the TV, or drank cocktails on the balcony, or slow-danced on the rug, listening to jazz. It appeared to me to disapprove of jazz.

Simon told me, when I pressed him, that the piano had first belonged to Eliza’s great-aunt, a spinster who’d lived in Melbourne and had gone to India as a missionary. Apparently she was revered in Eliza’s family. That was in the days when proselytizing was applauded. The great-aunt was musical. She played not only the piano but also the violin. That was all that Simon knew about this ephemeral person from the past, the musical missionary, Eliza’s relative. The piano was then bequeathed though Eliza’s relations — aunt, cousin, father — until, as each of them died, it eventually settled on her. She played, quite well. I’ve heard her. She favours eerie things, like Messiaen — at least that’s what I thought it was when I heard her. Yes, I’ve heard that piano play on many nights when I was alone in the apartment. Did I mention that we were on the thirty-fifth floor? An aerie. It was as if angels were malevolently plucking harp strings where they had no right.

All of this sounds fanciful, I know, and to start with I thought so too. The first time I heard the playing it was about 2 AM. I got up and marched out of the bedroom switching on all the lights. But the notes merely faded at my approach and so I assumed that I was imagining the whole thing. But the playing in the wee hours went on, only when Simon wasn’t there, of course. Obviously it was meant for me alone. I was targeted. I took to leaving all the lamps on in the living room but it made no difference. The music still woke me — and the lamps went out.

Naturally I told Simon what was going on. I tried to convince him to get rid of the piano, maybe pass it on to another of Eliza’s relatives. He actually said that he wanted to keep it in case Eliza came back! She has come back, I said grimly. Then he went all solicitous on me. He said I was just having some residual delusions. I wasn’t long out of rehab. When I met Simon I was doing far too much junk for my own good, and it was he, bless him, who’d got me into a program. Now I was clean, off the stuff, and my work was blossoming. I owe Simon so much. He’s the love of my life.

The night-time playing continued sporadically, always when I was alone in the apartment.

“Get rid of it, please!” I was begging him now.

“Sweetheart, it’s in your head. I can’t let it go. It’s my only reminder of Eliza.”

“Can’t you just keep her photo or something?” He laughed.

“Sure, but what if she comes back and I don’t have her piano? It was her most precious possession.”

That was the second time he’d said that about her coming back. If she came back, where would that leave me? This point didn’t seem to concern him as he stared across the room at the piano, and I saw in his gaze some past in which I had no part. My first impulse was to remind him that Eliza was pretty certainly dead, and so not coming back for her piano, but I stopped. Of course she was back, as I’d told him the first time we had this conversation. I couldn’t get through to him.

The playing went on. It was creeping me out. One night I changed tactics and tried spying unseen on the piano. I put my eye up to the gap in the bedroom door, which I’d left ajar. But when I looked the playing stopped abruptly. I thought I saw something slip out the front door. I definitely heard a click as the door closed. This wraith came in the front door? It didn’t happen like that in stories.

After the next night of ghostly playing, I went down to the security booth in the basement carpark. I knew the guys there; I often spoke to them when I parked my VW Beetle — they liked my car. I asked if we could take a look at the CCTV footage of the lobby from the night before. I told them I thought I’d heard noises around 2 AM, which was true. We had to go backwards and forwards a bit, but we found it. It was eerie to watch: a long stretch of silent emptiness, the cameras watching creepily, pointed at the lobby doors, the lift, the fire stairs. Twice, figures of other residents crossed the floor, silent footsteps, silent arrival of the lift, silent opening and closing of the lift doors. Then, finally, a figure emerged just as silently from the fire stairs door. The guys were amazed — “that thing’s alarmed,” they said. But no alarm sounded, there was just the CCTV silent soundtrack. The figure was frustratingly indistinct. I was sure it was female, but the security boys argued about that for a while.

“It’s wearing a cap.”

“That’s a skirt, for sure.”

“Or trousers — can’t tell. It’s not clear enough.”

The footage had been clear enough earlier to recognise the legitimate residents. We stopped and started it but we couldn’t get a better picture. The figure disappeared as silently as it had come. We didn’t see the lift arrive, but we could see the illuminated floor numbers marking its ascent from the lobby, then stopping at Level 35.

After that I dismantled the piano. I took out its guts and moved strings, hammers, felts surreptitiously to my car bit by bit. I prised off all its keys with pliers and took them away, keeping the lid on my work so Simon wouldn’t notice what was going on. It took a while, I can tell you. Of course the playing had to stop then. I thought about leaving the empty thing there, just a carcass with its ridiculous candle sconces. But two things changed my mind. The first was the imperative of the work — as I brought these infused and laden objects together in my studio I saw that they needed more bulk, the bulk of the piano cabinet, the wood, the structure. And more detail: the pedal, the hinges, and those sconces. The second thing that prompted me to completely dismantle the piano was the final occurrence of that eerie Messiaen, playing in the silence of 2 AM, despite the keys and strings being entwined in my studio two suburbs away.

At the Opening, an art agent came over and asked me about the piece. He was wearing a dishdasha and a keffiyeh. I smiled winningly.

“What is the piece entitled?” he asked.

“I call it ’Silence.’

“And what is that strange smell it emits?”

SBGS December

Annette Freeman is a writer living in Sydney, Australia. She was born and raised in Tasmania, which she suspects is reflected in her writing in ways too mysterious to analyse. She has a Masters of Creative Writing from the University of Sydney, the support of a terrific writing group, and boundless respect for a fine sentence.