…….Striding with purpose into his smallest but most carefully monitored laboratory, Adelmo picked a bit of microscopic lint off his pristine lab coat and flicked it away.
…….German by birth, Adelmo was fussy, demanding, and humorless. He was also a MacArthur Fellow, the recipient of a so-called “Genius Grant”, so his methods were rarely questioned. The lack of strict oversight or pushback from his leadership allowed Adelmo to take chances that other scientists couldn’t.
…….Under diffuse lighting, Adelmo checked each of the four chambers quietly burbling away. He was prone to checking in on his most cherished project at least twice a day. Observing the specimens and making verbal notes into the end of his pen, which contained a small micro-recorder, was like a meditation.
…….“Specimen One: progressing as expected. Specimen Two: temperature below optimal but not critical, faulty connector to be analyzed by Jorgensen later today. Specimen Three: growing faster than expected. We suspect genetics of the subject and will research the husbandry. Specimen Four: normal and on track.”
…….The spoken words fluttered up to the cloud where voice-to-text translated his words into a tidy lab journal app to be cleaned up late. He would review and clean them up later. But for now, he was awaiting a visit from a dignitary and everything had to be perfect. Over the past week, he’d driven all of his postdoctoral research assistants and his long-suffering administrative assistant crazy with meticulous preparations.
…….They muttered about him in the breakroom, not knowing that the building’s ventilation system carried their every sound to a certain place in Lab 2. There was a small X made of electrical tape on the floor to remind him where acoustics were the best.
…….Satisfied that the specimens were fine and the lab was spotless, Adelmo felt ready to receive guests. With that, it was to the “X marks the spot” in Lab 2 just down the hall where he headed next.
…….“I will be so glad when this day is over. Where are we going after?”
…….“Let’s do that Irish pub. The one over on Spruce.”
…….“That’s it. First round is on me.”
…….“Sweet, I’m going to need two, or ten, or—you know what, let’s just start with a round of Jameson. Doctor Frank has just about worn me down. Yesterday I actually drafted a letter of resignation. I was just so…done.”
…….Adelmo wrote a few notes on a crumpled piece of paper from his pocket. He knew the acoustics worked both ways and avoided the recorder pen while standing on the X. They called him Doctor Frank–meaning Frankenstein–for the exploratory and cutting-edge genetics work he did.
…….His postdocs often questioned his work, though the institution never did. He knew how to push right up to that vague gray line between scientific progress and a violation of ethics. The postdocs who questioned him soon went away. Scott was the voice of the letter writer, and Adelmo made a note in ballpoint. He didn’t need naysayers, not today. Not any day.
…….“Doctor Fischer?” said Melissa, with her characteristic sharp tone meant to snap him out of a reverie. “The guard at Mulberry Gate called. They’ve just passed security and will be at the door in ten minutes.”
…….Adelmo nodded. “Good. Tell Emily and Jasper to meet me in the lab.”
…….Adelmo scratched his chin thoughtfully. “I saw an email from Receiving that the new spectrometer is here. Tell Scott to conduct a receiving inspection. If all looks good, have him coordinate with Logistics to have it installed. They’ll know where it goes.”
…….“Very good,” Melissa said, spinning on her heel to exit. He liked Melissa. When she started, she had been sloppy and undisciplined, but he’d molded her into the perfect assistant. She could predict his needs and knew how to aggressively block his calendar. He wished he could have two more just like her.
…….Three enormous black SUVs turned the corner and lumbered up the drive. Paper signs marked three reserved parking spots, and in well-coordinated fashion, the vehicles parked then men in dark suits poured from the flanking vehicles. Major Brody Jones, chief aide to the general, slid out of the center vehicle and smoothed the front of his uniform slacks. With aching joints and an air of fatigue, five-star General Max Emerson emerged from the vehicle, found his footing, and strode with purpose toward the building’s front door as security flanked in around him.
…….“You watching the time, Jones?”
…….“Expectations are low.”
…….“What’s the kook’s name?”
…….“Fischer, sir. Doctor Adelmo Fischer.”
…….The general grunted with a nod as Jones opened the door to allow him to enter. “Welcome, General Emerson. Right this way.” Melissa said as she badged them into three different doors down the long corridor, noticing that at each doorway, one or two of the security crew peeled off and stood to the side. She’d seen her fair share of dignitaries, and this level of security meant the General was somebody important. She’d done research and had been unable to find any information about him, not even a press release when the Army made him a five-star. She called in a few favors with trusted insiders and still came up with nothing. The General was a ghost with good security; she had a pretty good idea what that meant.
…….Adelmo delivered a brief discussion of his research in a dumbed-down way for laypersons. He gave the General the same talk he’d delivered to a visiting class of eighth-graders last week. He had about the same level of respect for the military that he did for eighth-graders. Well, that wasn’t quite true. Eighth graders could still turn into something useful. Army generals were beyond hope.
…….“What you are about to see is highly confidential. This work is groundbreaking, and we need to protect it at all costs. Is that understood?”
…….The General fixed Adelmo with a hard stare and pointed to the stars on his collar, saying, “You think I’m a security risk?”
…….“What about them?” he said, pointing to the others in the room.
…….The General turned to his staff. “Only Jones and me—the rest of you stay here.”
…….The black suits nodded and took a step back.
…….“Proceed,” said the General.
…….Adelmo led the two men into his inner sanctum. Other than his own team, no one had visited the special lab, not even the director of his own institution. He was both excited and nervous.
…….“General Emerson, I’d like to introduce you to two very talented scientists. Doctor Emily Jorgensen and Doctor Jasper Schultz. They have been integral to this work.”
…….The General shook hands, saying, “Let’s get to it. I’m on a tight schedule.”
…….“Absolutely,” Adelmo said, then led the way to the area with four chambers.
…….“Is that a lamb?” the General asked.
…….“Yes, chamber one is a lamb, chamber two is a piglet, three a calf, and four a fawn. We found these species to be the best test subjects.”
…….“What exactly am I seeing here?”
…….“In rough terms, what you see is an artificial uterus. This clear sac is made from a polycarbonate blend that is both soft and flexible. The envelope is filled with electrolytes that mimic amniotic fluid. The balance of minerals in the fluid varies slightly by species, but we’ve become very good at tuning that in. The umbilical cord is attached to this specially designed mechanism that provides nutrition. These monitors regulate the environment. Movement is normal and exactly as the fetus would do in the womb. You can see the calf is taking practice breaths of the amniotic fluid. We’ve grown twenty such animals, which are thriving and virtually indistinguishable from animals born from a mother’s wombs.”
…….“Fascinating. And what about humans?”
…….“We see no reason why this wouldn’t work with humans, but as you know, the governance for human trials is quite rigorous. Approval takes two years to attain, at a minimum.”
…….“What if you had both the money and approval to begin human trials immediately?”
…….“It would depend on the expectations of the research, but I would have no problem beginning right away.”
…….Emily and Jasper glanced at each other, then at Jones, then down at the floor.
…….“Jones, why don’t you take these two outside and discuss schedules?”
…….“Yes, General,” he said, leading Emily and Jasper from the room. Once the door closed, General Emerson fixed Adelmo with a rheumy-eyed stare.
…….“Here’s the truth: the Army needs soldiers. Kids are no longer signing up in the numbers they used to, but it’s more than that. The Army supports the Space Force in their long-term missions. We’ve found evidence of life-sustaining planets well outside our solar system, far enough away that using current flight technology, a twenty-year-old would be an elderly man by the time they arrive. I want to outfit our ship with several of your gizmos. Through a third party, we’ve quietly bought a bankrupt cryogenics facility and taken ownership of a large inventory of embryos. We have enough embryos to create a whole army many times over, but we need a way to grow them. The plan looks like this: we outfit our capsule with these chambers and a few people to run these things. We have a rolling plan of growing new soldiers to be trained by the older humans, and they in turn farm and train the next generation. By the time we arrive at our destination, we should have a wide range of soldiers of various ages and training to support any hostile conflicts. If the planet is populated, we take it by force. If the planet is uninhabited, we build a colony. Your science fosters exploration. What do you say?”
…….Adelmo thought about it. “There are logistics to work out.”
…….“Money is not an issue.”
…….“For you, perhaps.”
…….“Let me have a few moments to discuss figures with Jones, okay?”
…….“Why don’t you and Major Jones use the breakroom? Help yourselves to any food and beverages you find.”
…….“Most accommodating. Thanks.”
…….“Certainly. Right this way.”
…….Adelmo shooed away his postdocs and sent Melissa to her desk in reception. Alone, he stood on the X and listened, scribbling notes and formulating a plan.
…….“I was prepared to be disappointed, but this is good,” said the General. “We need to lock this down. What do we have in our war chest?”
…….“Our line item from Congress looks to be 82 million, sir. We carried over 25 million. If the President signs the budget, we’re just over a hundred. We operate on sixty or so and can allocate as much as forty for this, but I suggest offering ten and seeing where this goes. If we spend twenty it would still be a bargain.”
…….“Let me see what I can do.”
…….“Say, Addy, let’s go back to your lab. I want to look at those chambers again.”
…….“Of course, follow me.”
…….The General closed the door behind them and got straight to the point. “Man to man, I can use this. What do we need to get to work?”
…….“Before we talk numbers, I need to show you another part of my research. It’s over here.”
…….“I just want to lock this down,” said the General.
…….“You’ll want to see this. Not even my assistants know about it.”
…….Adelmo took a key out of his pocket, unlocked the cover over a number pad, punched in a sequence, then used another key from a chain around his neck to unlock the door.
…….The sealed room inhaled as the door swung open. Adelmo turned on a light switch, and the General followed him inside. As the General looked around his eyes went wide.
…….“Using a similar technology to the artificial uterus, I am able to tweak the amniotic fluid in a certain way to suspend life.”
…….Under his breath, the General muttered, “…six, eight, ten… You’ve got a dozen adult humans in here. Who are they?”
…….“General, I think this technology might fit your plan. Imagine training a twenty-year-old Special Forces soldier, suspending them in my chambers, and releasing them exactly when needed. We grow your army inflight and use these chambers to preserve the best of the best to lead the fresh troops.”
…….The General looked from chamber to chamber. “You can reanimate them? Fully? With no decrement to brain or physical power?”
…….“No loss of memory or physical ailments?”
…….“No. It’s as if they go back into the womb in a suspended state and are reborn intact. Just as needed.”
…….“I have one last thing to show you.”
…….“There can’t be more!”
…….“Through here, General.”
…….They entered a room located in the corner that was the size of a small closet. There, under a focused spotlight, was what looked like an ordinary 3D printer.
…….The General looked at Adelmo with a shrug. “I know what that is, son.”
…….“Of course, but I am a genetics and matter specialist. I have modified this 3D printer. It will create anything you want.”
…….“I fail to see how this–”
…….“No need to carry food or water or any provisions when it can be created on the printer. There would also be no need to carry spare parts as this easily creates duplicates. Any mineral. Any metal. Anything. Only minimal resources are needed to feed the printer. It will transform, replicate, duplicate, and expand simple matter. For a flight as long and critical as you describe, I suggest three units, two running fully operational and one backup. General, you can transport already trained forces, create new soldiers, and feed and outfit them all in a space the size of this small lab. That has to be worth something.”
…….The General stepped backward into the room with the human chambers and ran tallies in his head. He tapped his fingers, adding and subtracting numbers. It was perfect.
…….“What’s it going to take to close this deal?”
…….“It won’t be cheap.”
…….“No, I imagine not.”
…….“Money, of course. But I need assurances.”
…….“Money, freedom from liability of any sort,” he said, nodding to the bodies in chambers.
…….The General’s face remained passive.
…….“And a Nobel. I’ll write up in what; you make the award happen. This year.”
…….“A lot of money, indemnification, and a Nobel. That’s it.”
…….“Pending negotiation of the dollars, Doctor, you have a deal.”
…….The two men shook hands and the General left.
…….Adelmo smiled to himself. He had found the perfect application of his life’s work.
…….He walked over to Chamber 12, the newest subject, and looked at the male human inside while devices pumped life-sustaining fluid.
…….“And you see, Scott? That is why you never question my methods. I am always right.”
…….Adelmo opened the sealed door, turned off the light, and turned back over his shoulder to look into the room.
…….Born with the eye of a writer and the heart of a story-teller, Karen Fayeth writes work colored by the Mexican, Native American, and Western influences of her roots in rural New Mexico and complemented by an evolving urban aesthetic. Now living in the San Francisco Bay Area, when she’s not writing, shooting photography, or painting, she works as a procurement manager for a research laboratory. Karen can be found online at karenfayeth.com
When I wear shorts, Ma says I look like an ungainly ostrich with my drumstick legs and my scarred, knobby knees.
…….“Stop running,” Ma shouts from the window when she hears my feet on the concrete outside. “It’s not feminine. You’ll wake the baby with that thumping.”
…….She believes girls should pursue arts because she’s a classical dancer. Earrings like inverted umbrellas swing from her ears; anklets tinkle when she walks.
…….My little sister, Choti, studies the ridges on my corrugated knees. She can see images in the scored remnants of injuries:arc of the moon, zigzag of lightning.
…….I can sprint faster than my classmate Amy who wears short-shorts, a red baseball cap on her yellow hair, and has legs like marble pillars.
…….When I beat her at practice, she says I won because her stomach hurt. “You’ll never win the actual race.”
…….After PE, she gives our teacher an open-mouthed smile so wide I can see the cavities in her molars. “Mr. Brown, I want to improve my speed. Can you help?” she asks.
Pa signs the permission slip for Sports Day. He drops us―Choti and me—at school, says he cannot stay because of work. I tell him I understand. I’ve learned to lie, saying one thing and feeling another.
…….We live in a two-room converted apartment at the motel, a perk Pa says comes with his job as manager. Our uncle owns the motel.
…….When we arrived from India three months ago, Ma said, “For this, we came to America? To live in a motel?”
…….Now she says, “For this, we came to America? To have you run in a parking lot?”
…….Ma’s smile has disappeared. She sleeps hours and still looks tired. “Having a baby is like having an earthquake in your body,” she says.
I jog in place to warm up.
…….Amy’s red baseball cap sits like a crown on her yellow hair.
…….Parents whoop and yell from the sidelines. They carry banners, balloons, placards, even pompoms. They hug and high-five their children.
…….Choti is my one-girl cheer squad. She jumps high and screams, “Go, Didi, go!”
…….When Mr. Brown sounds his whistle, I dash as fast as I can, mouth open, breath pumping.
…….I race―nose leaking, legs burning―until, out of nowhere, a baseball cap comes flying and hits my shin. I take a sidestep, wobble, then collapse into a heap on the track, skinning knees and elbows.
…….Amy’s way ahead.
…….“No!” I scramble, rise, ignore the bleeding, the throbbing.
…….At the finish line, Choti tells me, “That was Amy’s cap.”
…….The judges say Amy was ahead by a big margin. “There’s no doubt she won.”
…….Mr. Brown pats me on the back. “Now, now, this is about learning sportsmanship, right? Amy won fair and square. Go, congratulate her.”
…….At home, Ma looks at my legs, says, “You know why girls shouldn’t run? You end up with ugly knees.”
…….Choti applies antibiotic cream on the broken skin. “These will bloom into waterfalls,” she says.
Sudha Balagopal’s recent short fiction appears in Smokelong Quarterly, Split Lip Magazine, Pidgeonholes, Milk Candy Review, and elsewhere. She is the author of the novel A New Dawn. Her work has been nominated for Best Small Fictions, Best Microfiction, and the Pushcart Prize and is listed in the Wigleaf top 50.
Good morning, bleary eyes and bed heads and pajama tops. Are we ready to share a wonderful day?
Good morning, Melania’s blank screen. Hello, Melania’s dad, yelling at her to eat her breakfast.
Hey, there’s Thomas and his shirtless older brother in the background blending a smoothie.
Hi, Clare. That was a fantastic eye-roll when I mentioned we’d be doing another living room workout.
Whoa, look at Kevin’s fingers jolt that video game controller. It’s great to see your fine motor skills improving with all that practice.
Isn’t Justin’s effort exemplary? He submitted his post-workout assignment two minutes after class began.
Good morning, first graders, showing your loose teeth with soggy breakfast cereals and mushed eggs wedged in between.
Thank you, Rebecca, for boosting our creative brains as we imagine where those boogers are going after you’ve dug them out so well.
Shine bright, Evan’s mesmerizing green light that he’s pointing into the camera.
Hello, Mason. Way to unmute your microphone to make wet fart noises so that everyone else can join the concerto for the next five minutes.
Excellent teamwork, class, in playing a game of mute-unmute until I finally scream, “You have to turn your mics off!”
Good morning, third period. Hello, Harry’s babysitter, chowing down a Chick-fil-A sandwich. Does everyone see how her molars grind that chicken and buttered bun?
Hi there, Jackson. Are you drinking your chocolate milkshake again? I love the way you take powerful slurps before we start our warm-up routine.
Hello, shy Evan. I’m amazed at how comfortable you are expressing yourself on the chat, typing the Caillou theme song verbatim for all of us to read.
Haven’t seen you in a while, Mikayla. It’s wonderful to hear your mom telling someone else in the room that these worthless teachers drive her insane.
Keep playing, Clarissa. You are having quite the session with your dolls. I can envision all the magical worlds you’re building.
Good afternoon, second graders. Hey, John, that body slam on your brother was sensational. Great use of leverage and power in finishing TJ all the way into the floor. Oh, and clever comeback, TJ, the way you whipped those headphones like a cowboy lassoing a steer.
Jump away, Grace, doing backflips on your springy trampoline. We’re holding plank stands, but your tuck and landing were tremendous.
There’s Lucas again. Your third costume change is my favorite. The scary wolf mask with pointed ears and bloody fangs appear so real it made Christopher and Sophia cry.
Look at Tasia’s body control as she stares into the camera as if frozen in time.
Isn’t it cute to see Penelope chasing her shaggy dog around the house, trying to get her stolen socks back?
Good afternoon, fifth period. Hello, orange and yellow leaves and bright blue skies. It’s nice to see Sarah, Lacy, and Kensie having loads of fun playing tag across the playground equipment in Sarah’s backyard instead of joining our lesson.
Rest your eyes, Suzy. You look warm and cozy under fluffy covers with a stuffed bear tucked under one arm.
Watch out, Jason, walking a tightrope across the top of the couch. So dangerous and exhilarating.
Good work, Kyle, unmuting and telling the class you finished your push-ups. That book you’ve been reading at your desk the whole time must be so tantalizing.
Bon voyage, Sam, riding in the backseat of a car with trees whipping past the rear window. Are you going on an adventure?
Good night, disgruntled parent, with your lengthy email offering suggestions on how I can do a better job.
Good night, fellow teacher, asking why your students are leaving our meeting one minute early.
Good night, computer, running updates for hours and smelling like burning circuits.
Good night, empty wine bottle, shimmering in the grass under the moonlight.
Good night, pandemic PE class, thank you for sharing a wonderful day.
Greg Oldfield is a physical education teacher and coach from the Philadelphia area. His stories have appeared in Hobart, Carve, X-R-A-Y, and The Daily Drunk, among others. He also writes about soccer for the Brotherly Game and the Florida Cup and can be found on Twitter at @GregOldfield21.
…….On August 30, 1997, my father’s half-brother, Brian, died of heart failure after a surgical procedure that involved the right ventricle. It was a medical curse upon his birth, finally inflicted at the age of 16. His parents–my grandfather and his second wife–were more than devastated.
…….About four months later, I was born and given Brian’s name with the addition of a feminine ‘a’ at the end. My father meant to memorialize his brother, gaining a daughter amidst the loss. Passed on to me, the name became a totem for the person he was and the person that I would be.
…….On car rides, in my teens, I would dramatically stare out of the window and contemplate my existence as I watched passing objects leave streaked motion trails. One day my mind turned to Brian. Who was he, this half-uncle who originally owned my name? What was he like? What if he was absolutely detestable? With no one mentioning Brian, I didn’t feel comfortable asking. But even if he was unpleasant, he was still a person, and he still had my name.
…….In the summer of 2007–when I was nearing ten years old–I had met my grandfather for the first time.
…….“Where are we going?” my sister and I asked.
…….“It’s a surprise,” said my father.
…….This “surprise” filled my imagination with all kinds of wonders. I was sure that we were going to Disney World or something of the sort. Instead, we arrived at a tall townhouse where two old people–a man and woman–waved to us. This is your grandfather, Dad told us.
…….My new grandfather told silly jokes and hugged far too tight. You’re going to break my back, I’d say, and he’d only hug tighter. Was he making up for time lost? On his arm was a faded, black glob of a young man’s face, the same face that rested in a worn-out print on his wife’s sweater and on many engraved tchotchkes and portraits around their house. In those blurred images of their obsessive grief–ten years after his death–I met Brian for the first time too.
…….It wasn’t until I was 21 that I’d seen a clear picture of him. Mom and I sat on the couch with a box of her wedding photos.
…….“There’s Brian,” she said, pointing to the light-haired boy with plump, rosed cheeks.
…….I asked her to tell me the little she knew about him. He was a sweet kid, she said, he was shy, quiet. I said that I was relieved to hear that he didn’t suck, and I liked the fact that he was shy like me. He was sweet, she repeated and told me a story that took place in his mourning.
…….At my grandfather’s house–after Brian’s funeral–the family circled and wept while remembering his life. I laid in my mother’s womb as she sat around their broken hearts, kicking to remind her of budding life. My kicking tickled her, she said, and in this room of sorrow, she couldn’t help but smile. I wonder if my fetal existence somehow knew we’d be connected.
…….In 2014, when I was 16, I reveled in angst and 90’s grunge and had a bad case of teenage depression. I wore flannel, band tees, Doc Martens, and I oddly adopted the modern makeup trends–Kylie Jenner’s overpainted lips. In my head, I was a punk-rock badass who hated the world. But I knew that everyone saw me as quiet and sweet because of my social anxiety and adorable (abnormal) smallness.
…….That same year, after reading Kurt Cobain’s published journals, I rifled through our office supplies and found a notebook to pour my tortured soul into. On the dotted line, I wrote my name, and on the flipped side I penned “Rage Without a Reason.” My healthy and privileged life had no excuse for such anger.
…….Outside of this artificial need for rock-star profundity, I felt daily pains of self-loathing and loneliness in my depression and anxiety. After the terror of school–where I had no friends–I would run to my room and cry myself into a nap that lasted the day’s entirety.
…….In my journal I would write about wanting to die:
…….I honestly find no joy in living. I am a waste of matter. Why do I exist? I don’t deserve life. I’m not appreciative of it.
…….On August 9, 1981, Brian was born. Doctors said that he wouldn’t live past a year, but they’d switched the ventricles of his heart and he lived longer. He grew up coddled with delicacy, softened and spoiled by his parents constant fear of losing him. Was he scared?
…….Writing this, I finally asked my father to tell me everything he remembered about Brian. He started with his condition and his death. Brian couldn’t play sports or do certain things, said Dad, but he still could have fun. I prompted him to tell me about Brian’s interests and found that he liked basketball, cars, rap music, and watching movies. He was the 90’s teen I wanted to be with his boots, long shirts, and baggy jeans. He was a sweet kid, my dad said. He was sweet, Dad repeated, and he was about to get his driver’s license.
…….As a child, I would give myself new names in order to become the people that I would have rather been. It was more fun to be Scarlet or Miranda as opposed to Briana. I had known of my name’s origin, but I didn’t give it much thought. I didn’t put in the effort until writing this. Brian wasn’t a person to me then. He had no meaning and was only a ghost of someone else’s memory–a haunted eponym.
…….Now, when I’m anxious, I try to reaffirm my existence by telling myself my name and age. I am Briana Richert. I am 22 years old. I’ve never believed in affirmations, but saying my name aloud does something. Somehow in those letters, in the numbers of my age, my life is defined. Did Brian find solace in his name? Our name? He was Brian Richert. He was 16 years old.
Brian Richert’s Obituary
RICHERT, Brian P. August 30, 1997, BRIAN P. RICHERT, loving son of Dennis and Vickey Richert, dear brother of William, Dennis Richert III, Eric Smith, Tina, Kim, and Dennis Richard [sic] Jr. Also survived by many aunts, uncles, cousins, nephews, and nieces.
Briana Richert is a writer and filmmaker from Baltimore, MD. She has a deep love for stories and creativity, owning too many books and watching too much T.V. as a result. She is currently a graduate student in the Towson University Professional Writing Program.
…….My plane leaves at 6:00 a.m. It’s 2:30 a.m., the same time I woke up the past three mornings—no alarm needed. The meetings I’d flown in for started at 9:00 a.m. each day. The days usually wrapped around 5:30 p.m., 8:30 p.m. back at home, the time I’d be getting into my pajamas and watching TV with my husband. My body likes routines. My body isn’t happy now. My neck stiff, I sit up and stretch my arms. At least my not acclimating to the time change is paying off now with my early flight.
…….I snap on the bedside lamp. The hotel room isn’t bad, but it isn’t superb either. The carpet and curtains are a matching drab gray. The upholstery on the armchair, also in a shade of gray, needs a deep cleaning. The desk and dresser have the usual signs of wear—scratches, dings, and watermarks. The shower is nice, though. I adjust the water temperature. The white subway-tiled floor and walls of the shower are clean. The showerhead is massive and produces a high-pressure rainfall that I know I can lose time under, so I focus on the tasks at hand—wash and rinse, and rinse a little more.
…….Showered, dressed, and with my suitcase packed, I open the curtains for a last look at the city. The shower and the view—these are the high notes for this hotel. San Francisco stretches out below me. When I checked in, I wasn’t thrilled to be up so high—33rd floor—in earthquake country, but the view is something. The sun hasn’t come up yet, so I can’t make out the bay, but the city and bridge lights more than compensate for the night-obscured water and hills.
…….Fortunately, there haven’t been any quakes during this trip. Not yet, at least. Thinking there’s no need to press my luck, I grab my suitcase and do one more visual sweep of the room to make sure I haven’t forgotten anything.
…….The hallway is quiet. An ice machine hums. The elevator, which was slow and packed every other time I used it, is quick and empty now. I check out with no issue. The man at the counter says there’s no need to call for a car. He assures me there are cabs at this hour.
…….I stand inside the hotel’s entrance and look through its glass doors. A few cars pass by. No cabs, though. I step outside and look up and down the street. Homeless people, some in clusters, some slumbering solo, line the sidewalk in both directions. A homeless man shouts from under his stained blanket, “Go back to your country!”
…….I step back inside the hotel and launch a rideshare app on my phone. My driver, Alexei, will be arriving in four minutes. He’s right on time. When I wheel my bag outside, Alexei, an older man, gets out of the car, favoring his right leg. He doesn’t look well enough to be lifting things, so I tell him I can manage my suitcase, but he waves me back. Taking hold of my bag, he grips the rim of the car’s trunk with his other hand to brace himself and manages to hoist the suitcase up. I can’t help myself. I lean in to help.
…….He thanks me, his words heavy with what sounds like a Russian accent. “Not so strong now, but you should have seen me when I was your age.” He winks and closes the trunk. We get in the car, and he looks at his phone mounted on the dash. “To the airport?”
…….I tell him yes and give him my airline, then we’re off. We pass the huddles of homeless people on this street and pass more slumbering bodies—some lying down, others sleepwalking through drug-glazed dreams—on the streets leading out of the city. If I were down and out, San Francisco, with its beautiful year-round weather, would be where I’d want to end up too.
…….“I like driving at this time,” he says. “It’s peaceful.”
…….I agree with him. The highway is empty. We’ll make it to the airport in no time. I’ll be able to find something to eat, get some coffee, and have ample time to relax before boarding starts. Maybe I’ll even look for a new paperback for the flight. Being a nervous flier, I like to indulge in brain-candy-type books on flights, books meant to help pass the time, not necessarily to illuminate. My brain, having to reconvince itself with every bout of turbulence or loud mechanical whir that flying is safe, has no capacity on flights to learn anything new.
…….I look up and see Alexei glancing at me through the rearview mirror. I know what he’s doing. Him being a white man, I ready myself to answer his questions.
…….He asks if I had a nice trip. I tell him I did, and I wait. He asks if the temperature is okay. I tell him it is, and I wait.
…….People wonder when they see me, when they try to categorize me. Non-Asians see only Asian, but there’s something about me that makes them want to guess the type of Asian I am. Chinese is the most popular guess, followed by Japanese. I get Thai and Vietnamese too. Rarely does anyone guess the Asian half of me right—Korean. Asians wonder about me too. They wonder what sort of exotic white I might be. Maybe I’m a Spaniard or from Eastern Europe, they guess. When I explain my two sides to Asians, they seem happy to see themselves in me. When my white self is revealed to non-Asians, though, there is disbelief. There is doubt. There is only Asian me.
…….“You going home?” he asks me.
…….A veiled way of asking where I’m from. I nod, tell him I’m headed back to New York City, and wait for the usual follow-up question: But where is home really? He keeps glancing at me through the mirror. I know what he sees.
…….A white coworker, someone who called herself a friend, someone who knew of my mixed-race background, once described me as having black eyes and black hair during a lunch outing with other coworkers. I corrected her and said my eyes and hair are brown. She reminded me of my Asian background. I was the only person of Asian descent at the table. Everyone smiled at this woman’s reminder to me of who I am. I don’t know why, but I didn’t let it go. Usually, when it seems people are set on their definition of me, I laugh off their inability to see. I was tired, I guess. I told her that her eyes and hair were darker than mine, in fact. She told me that wasn’t possible. I asked her to hold her hair up to mine. Laughing, she complied. My hair was significantly lighter than hers. She was shocked. Everyone else was too. She asked me if I dyed my hair. I told her, “Yes—in the two minutes since you first said my hair was black, I dyed it.” Needless to say, we didn’t remain friends.
…….Asians make me feel proud to be Asian. Sometimes there’s even a gloss of jealousy to their smiles when they learn that I’m part white. Growing up, I tried to make non-Asians see all of me too. As an adult, I can rationalize why I tried so hard, why I still sometimes try. Whiteness is the ideal. TV shows and movies tell us so. Books tell us so. The way non-Asians treat my Asian mom tells me so. The way I’m treated tells me so.
…….Growing up, I wanted everyone to know that I was part of the ideal. I tried so hard to make them see. I still try, but not as earnestly. Asians see. Non-Asians, though, can’t shake their disbelief. Tired of the skepticism, I don’t offer up an explanation of me as quickly as I used to. I fight the constant urge to make them see. I make them ask their questions. I make them work to label me.
…….So I wait for Alexei to ask me where home for me is really, but the typical question doesn’t come. Instead, Alexei tells me how much he loves New York and how he spent time there with relatives as a kid. They lived in Brighton Beach. He loves Coney Island, he says. He asks me if I ever rode the roller coaster there.
…….“The Cyclone? No way,” I say, thinking maybe he’s one of the rare ones who doesn’t need to categorize me to feel satisfied. “Roller coasters are scary, and that one—I hear it’s so rickety. It’s like almost 100 years old, right?”
…….“Old might seem weak, but we are built strong.” He chuckles.
…….I laugh too. I wait for him to ask about me, but he continues reminiscing about Brighton Beach. Listening to him talk about the meat dumplings—pelmeni, he calls them—that his aunt used to make, I look out my window, and my eyes meet the driver of a turquoise pickup truck that is rolling by us on the highway. In this second, as the vintage-looking vehicle passes us, I register that the driver of this truck is a middle-aged white man with a red-hued face and gray eyebrows. In this second we share, he registers something about me too.
…….The truck slows until the driver is in line with my window again. The driver is looking directly at me. His eyebrows are pinched together and his face is turning an angrier red. He points at me, his finger stabbing the air. I snap my eyes forward. My mouth dries. My hands sweat.
…….“What is this man doing?” Alexei asks.
…….I close my eyes and grip my seatbelt’s shoulder strap. Alexei’s car surges ahead, then slows down. Alexei swears under his breath. “Crazy man,” he mutters. He taps his brakes. He switches lanes and wrenches his car back into the other lane. “Why is he doing this?”
…….What triggered this man, my racing mind wonders, but my heart is sprinting even faster, and my heart, with its rapid beats, measures the intense notes of the man’s rage and knows without a doubt why this man is doing this. Go back to your country! his furious stare screams. Go back to your country! There’s no room for misinterpretation. I know what he sees.
…….Alexei hits his horn. The man in the pickup lays on his and doesn’t let up.
…….“Ma’am,” Alexei says, his voice shaking, “maybe you can call the police? I don’t know what this man is doing.”
…….“Are we almost to the airport?” I manage to ask.
…….“Almost. But he won’t let me get into the lane.” Alexei slows his car down. Its horn still blaring, the truck slows down too, blocking Alexei’s attempt to get over again. “Maybe you should call the police,” Alexei repeats. “I drive. You call.”
…….This man is putting our lives in danger. Of course, I should call the police, but my head is still catching up to my speeding heart. While I understand with absolute certainty the situation I’m in, I can’t believe this is really happening. Shock, I guess, is what I’m feeling. I reach for my phone. The truck jerks into our lane.
…….“Ma’am?” Alexei pleads as he hits the gas to speed out of the way.
…….I nod and unlock my phone. Another car approaches us on the left. The driver hits the horn a few times, and the pickup truck races ahead, as if those short blasts of warning from an outsider, a witness, break a hex. Alexei sighs. I put my phone away, thinking I probably should still call the police, but my mind is reeling. Did we really just experience that? I can’t believe it, but I know we did. Alexei switches lanes, and we exit.
…….“Never in my years,” Alexei says.
…….I can’t speak. My Asianness is usually the cause of ignorant assumptions or curiosity. How many times have people thought I was lying or being rude when I said I didn’t speak Chinese or Japanese? How many times have people been amazed that I speak English so well? And math questions—don’t even get me started. This racism, although not subtle, has always stayed in the realm of ignorant politeness (even if feigned) before today. This racism was always something I could shrug off. This racism was nothing compared to the American Indian or Black experience, so who was I to complain?
…….But now? I take a deep breath. I can’t just shrug it off. Never has such fury been directed at me. I take more deep breaths to calm myself.
…….Alexei stops the car in front of the terminal. We get out, and I help him heave my suitcase out of the trunk. This is usually when I’d make a joke about how I need to stop bringing my whole closet with me. I can’t joke now, though. Alexei’s hands are shaking.
…….“I’m glad you were driving,” I say to him. “You really handled…that well.” His careful driving, I feel in my bones, saved us.
…….He nods and closes the trunk. He hesitates. A tear forms in his eye. He’s in shock too. It isn’t enough anymore. The thought persists. It isn’t enough anymore. It isn’t enough anymore for Asians to serve as caricatures for poking fun at. It isn’t enough anymore to remind us that we aren’t white. It isn’t enough anymore to shout at us to go back to our countries, even though, for many of us, this is the only country we’ve ever known. My eyes well. I don’t mean to start crying.
…….He hugs me and pats my back. “You are okay,” he says.
…….He squeezes my shoulder. “Everything will be okay.”
…….“Thank you,” I repeat, wiping my eyes.
…….His eyes glistening, he nods. “Just give me five stars, and we’ll call it even.” He laughs softly.
…….I laugh too. He gives my shoulder another squeeze and gets in his car. Seeing him drive off, I feel like I’m watching decency slip away. I tell myself I’m being overdramatic. I tell myself there are still plenty of good people in this world. I take another deep breath, wipe my eyes again, and roll my suitcase inside.
…….As I head to the luggage drop-off point, I’m asked if I speak English by a man trying to figure me out. An ignorant question or a dagger in disguise? After seeing the hate in that pickup driver’s eyes, how can I not think that the questions are meant to wound? I pretend like I don’t understand him and keep rolling toward security. I’m asked where I’m from by an older woman while I’m waiting for a stall to free up in the bathroom. Pretending I don’t speak English again, I look through my purse for nothing in particular. In the terminal, a kid laughs at me and mimics an Asian language—ching chong chang. The boy’s parents don’t rebuke him. They laugh and tug him down the corridor. The questions and mocking of Asian languages—all of this is not new, but it all feels more insidious now.
…….I refill my reusable water bottle. I look at the paperbacks on a newsstand display. Nothing seems appealing. I think to forgo my usual brain-candy, but it’s going to be a long flight with bumps and whirs and the turbulence in my own mind over what just happened. I need a distraction. I settle on a thriller labeled a New York Times bestseller. It has to be decent, I tell myself, if it sold so many copies. I buy the book, a coffee, and a bag of almonds. I’m far from hungry, but it’s a long way home.
…….I sit down outside my gate. I remove the lid from my coffee and hold the steaming cup under my nose. The good things—I focused on them before and I will focus on them now. The smell of coffee. My husband, who makes me laugh until it hurts. My parents. My siblings. My friends. The happy gatherings we have. Even this trip had its moments—we got the project done, and the view from the hotel was something to marvel at.
…….I blow on my coffee and carefully sip from it. Feeling calmer, my mind tries to rationalize things again. Maybe I’m overreacting. Maybe that guy was mad about something else. Maybe Alexei wasn’t as good a driver as I think. Maybe he cut the guy off and that was what triggered him. I think these things, but my heart knows what it knows.
…….A commercial for cold medicine ends on the wall-mounted TV by the gate. A news anchor stares into the camera with deathly seriousness. He tells us viewers that he has breaking news. A dangerous virus has been identified in China. The news anchor works in “China” as much as he can. Every fourth word, it seems, is “China.” Talking heads pop up and share the screen with the news anchor. They discuss the horrors of wildlife markets and how they must be the source of the disease. (The way they’re talking, it seems these markets are the source of all disease.) The images of the markets flashing across the screen are repulsive, but there isn’t anything appealing about the American industrialization of meat production either, I think. As I listen to them talk, I remember reading somewhere that the Spanish Flu originated in Kansas. Pig farms along birds’ migratory paths—key ingredients for a disaster.
…….Trying to remember what I read about the Spanish Flu, hoping that what I’m watching on TV right now is just hype, I breathe in my coffee and wonder if I should buy some more hand sanitizer before boarding the flight. I look in my purse. My hand sanitizer bottle is still a quarter full. I notice now that the man sitting across from me is looking at me. I know Asian—thanks to the TV, Chinese specifically—and disease are all he sees.
…….I sigh and close my purse. Sipping from my coffee, I don’t feel the usual urge to convince him that I’m not what he sees. I don’t need him to know that he’s got my Asian half wrong. There is no wrong. If we’re all the same in their minds, that’s fine with me. I don’t care anymore. And more importantly, I don’t need him to know that I’m half white. I don’t want to be associated with an ideal that can generate the kind of hate that the man driving the pickup truck showed me, the kind of simmering disgust I’m seeing on the TV right now. This man, his eyes darting from the TV to me, collects his things and moves to another row of seats. I sip from my coffee, thinking that’s fine with me.
Deborah S. Prespare lives in Brooklyn. She completed her undergraduate studies at Cornell College and received an M.A. in Writing from Johns Hopkins University. Her work has appeared in Menda City Review, Potomac Review, Red Rock Review, Soundings East, Third Wednesday, Valparaiso Fiction Review, and elsewhere.
…….I tilt my head as I read my mail. The shiny, metallic slip of paper glimmers with the engraved curly font. Last I checked, my list wasn’t empty yet. I still haven’t visited Earth’s oldest moon. It was the one that drifted off in a fit some eight billion years ago after hearing about the comet that was ordered to wipe out the dinosaurs. Rumors say it happily circles a newer planet now, with even stranger, dinosaur-like creatures. I hope to see that moon sometime before I transcend to the next life realm.
…….I’m currently in my fourth life. The third ended just over fifty-seven earth years ago, but my race doesn’t age like that of a human. My people, the Erids, keep the same agility and appearance throughout their lives, however many that may be, and can only die if killed by some kind of outside source. It’s not often that an Erid death is reported, but when there is, it’s usually by an awful explanation. We do not fall ill or die of old age. We simply pass on to another life realm, whenever time tells us. It’s easy to get lost in the never-ending orbital time, especially when the universe expects star scavengers like me to only send reports of newly-found solar systems once every ten years. Today, like most days, is my day off, and I won’t be doing anything. I’m sure I haven’t let the time slip by me though. I still have time to refill my bucket list. There are more things I haven’t even crossed off yet.
…….I’ve never seen Venus’s secret crater either. Every time the planet orbits its star, the crater grows a little bit deeper, like an invisible drill digging closer to its core. Not a soul knows why. It was first noticed in the Earth year 2428, about 200 years after the rise of Cthulhu. They say now, after one thousand years of continuous sinking, the crater is about 756 miles deep. The tour the Venetians offer stops at around ten miles, but I’ve heard that you can feel the warm air emitting from the center at that depth. There’s no way I need to refill the bucket list yet. I also have never been on a star hunt. An old neighbor, who has since moved from G. Eridani’s planetary system, once told me that he and a friend took their SkyJet to a nebula right outside the belt of dust disks and waited for a shooting meteoroid to zoom past. Once the object was in sight, they lassoed the rocketing debris clump with a galactic whip and soared off with it. I’ll never forget that look he had when he would stare up at the sky and relay the story to me. He reveled in the wonder and awe of it all. I want to experience that speed and sparkle. Once I ride with the stars, that feeling will stay with me forever. It’s been six lives since he went. However, he said his bones tingle from it every so often, reminding him of how unexplainable the tension was. How he thought he heard music play, like the star was singing as they glided along with it. God, how I want that.
…….I flip the card over. Cthulhu Will Catch You In The Fifth Life. I roll my eyes. The Astral Watch thinks they can wave around Cthulhu’s name like it will make something happen. Sure he is the ruler of the Milky Way, but the Astral Watch praises him like his decrees are gospel. He’s not a real god. He’s a fourth-dimensional jackass, but the biased galactic police force treats him as such. Even the imagined standard of time is measured by the cycle of the planet on which He slept. Only a few celestial citizens have seen this Old One since he rose from Earth’s ocean some thousand Earth years ago. He’s nonetheless been oppressing people with his law ever since.
…….The very idea of refilling a bucket list to be allowed to transcend to your next life is ridiculous. It was once automatic. You didn’t need to travel to your system’s capital, register with the Astral Watch for your next life, and submit your bucket list plans for approval. You automatically transcended and went on your way. I grieve for those who do not have the privilege of traveling easily to their capital space city. In the smaller, less fortunate solar systems, they have limited transportation and some systems don’t even have a capital. I’ve heard that the Astral Watch comes for the people who don’t refill their bucket list, and a handful of people claim to have seen the almighty Cthulhu himself appear at individuals’ households for failing to refill their buckets. Out of their fear caused by laying eyes on the galaxy’s king, they become some of his most loyal followers. I’m sure many citizens in various parts of the galaxy harbor the same thoughts as I, but we are all too afraid to say it.
…….H.P. Lovecraft’s description of the Old One is fairly accurate, or so I’ve heard. Posed as fiction to Earthlings during their ancient days, Lovecraft’s work describes the nightmares Cthulhu communicated with him through. It’s said that Lovecraft himself was chosen as a prophet to announce Cthulhu’s return from his oceanic slumber. From his face pour long tentacles writhing down to his chest like a castaway’s unruly beard, the cephalopod entanglement hiding where a mouth would be. He stands upright like most mentally-elevated beings in the galaxy and similarly shares the physique of a masculine human while standing five hundred times their typical height. Large leathery wings sprout from his back like a dragon, his wingspan blocking sun rays from small moons.
…….I’ll check my list again, but I know it’s not empty. I’m almost certain none of my items have expired. Carefully, I tiptoe over the ropes securing my rocking chair to the porch rails. When I’m slumped in the chair, I untie one of the ropes, so I’ll float around. Sifting through the rest of my mail (mostly junk), I glance up at the sky of my planet. Beyond the pink night clouds, spirals, and swirls of lavender stars dance, making constellations that differ every night. My neighborhood is primarily pink rock and dusty roads carved by the wheels of my Saturn Moon Rover 26. My nearest neighbors are at least six miles away.
…….I like the solitude. The cities of Planet XB-129 are too busy for my liking. Out here in the barren rocks, I can sit and dream of other worlds beyond my own. I can plan to finish my bucket list without the Astral Watch constantly banging down my door. They cause so many problems.
…….Just last week I heard on the news that the Astral Watch startled a citizen so badly that they flipped their entire language. I’m sure they’re still in the hospital for Chronic Backwards Dialogue Syndrome. Of course, the news then stated that the citizen was already suffering from the illness and that the Astral Watch had nothing to do with their flareup. I’m not into conspiracies, but it’s common knowledge that the Astral Watch controlsthe media. They hide behind the name of Cthulhu, the almighty being of our galaxy, and think they hold an ounce of power that can be loomed over the rest of us.
…….I shake my head and decide to change my internal subject. Watching the ever-changing rainbow of a sky, I’m reminded of what the Earthlings call “Trix Yogurt.” The strange delicacy made from the colors of clouds was apparently discontinued at one point in Earth’s past and resurrected by popular demand. To me, it tasted sweet and sour simultaneously while having a goop-like texture. I’ve never eaten anything wilder. That was on my bucket list trip of my second life. Visiting planet Earth and seeing how the Earthlings destroyed it was absolutely bewildering. I took my trip right before the items on my last list expired. They throw things into space like no one lives there, just like they did to their own oceans. Friends told me that Earthlings are the reason the “replacement happenings” started.
…….Refill Your Cosmic Bucket List.
…….I close my eyes and watch the words float in my mind as I rock in my drifting chair. I miss feeling the waves of the sea. I haven’t been near any bodies of water since they were spontaneously replaced by lakes of acid on this planet. We get our water from trading with other planets now. Hopefully, I’ll be able to empty my bucket list and refill it before more of our galaxy is destroyed by other similar replacement happenings. If Cthulhu doesn’t start giving a care about the wellbeing of the Milky Way and put a stop to the pollution problems, soon everything good in the galaxy will be replaced with its antithesis. I want to continue to experience the other pleasures of my planet, like the swirling sky, the soft pink ground dust and the floral fields of plants that only need the light of the sun to survive.
…….Taking in one long breath and exhaling, I tether my chair back to my porch. I walk back inside my house with my bucket list notice along with my other mail. In my observatory room on the top floor of my home lies my silver bucket. There is dust around the rim that indicates that I haven’t looked at the bucket as recently as I thought. Inside lies three notes, each stating a place I have yet to see or a thing I still wish to do. Picking up the cards, I review my scribbled handwriting. The backs of the pages are stamped with the official Astral Watch seal. I see the dates have expired… The dates have expired?
…….“Oh no,” I whisper in disbelief. It is too late now. Falling to the floor, the bucket clutched in my shaking hands, I check the clock built into the side. “No no no!” I shout as I bring the bucket closer to my face. “It can’t be!”
…….The clock hand ticks, getting closer to the end of its fourth circle. My fourth life. I have only a few seconds before they come for me.
Rikki Vinyard is an emerging author from Maryland and an active fiction editor for Towson University’s literary magazine, Grub Street. She is working towards her Bachelor’s degree in English at Towson University and hopes to continue to edit for other literary magazines and publishing companies. When she’s not writing wacky things she hears in her dreams, she enjoys playing Minecraft and being a mental health advocate. You can also find her on Twitter at @RikkiTikkiSavvi and on Instagram at @merridian.official.
…….You ever seen a wave of middle school kids just rushing to one place? It wasn’t a normal sight in the kind of middle school I was in. The craggy concrete would punish any victim that fell fast enough. The band-aid on my hand was a reminder of that. Yet when a football was brought around us, my aching hand was suddenly a distant memory. It’s not like we played the actual sport. Most of us couldn’t comprehend all the rules of football. It was more of a game of catch and tag, the person with the football was it, and thus the wave of middle schoolers targeted one person.
…….I was never the fastest kid around the playground. I was relegated to the middle of the pack, pushing and bumping into other kids on occasion. I had no chance of catching the guy in the front. He was easily seen over the crowd of 6th graders. He was so tall I couldn’t imagine he was in the same grade as me. He wore a black snapback with the NYC logo on the front, like most Brooklyn kids did. I left mine inside. I had a knack for losing it. Our thirty-minute recess went by pretty quickly, this one especially, and we were back in the main building stairwell. This crowded stairwell usually forced you to move, but this time I had a reason to stand still.
…….That same kid, tall, dark caramel skin just like mine, his hair kind of long by our standards, but in reality, it was short, dense, curly hair. Most of the kids our age looked the same. We had a dress code. Black pants and white shirt, usually polo styled, and honestly, he didn’t stand out. That is, he was probably one of the tallest kids in the school, and the look on his face—everyone looked a bit hardened, you had to be to survive here, but his expression—wasn’t an act of any kind. His brow had a natural furrow, his eyes open low, and his mouth called out to me. I stood there, looking down from halfway up the staircase, just standing there.
…….It was mostly confusion, but also shock, I hadn’t ever spoken to this kid before. He had his snapback in his hand, except it was torn. The brim was hanging off the corner of the crown by the last of its stitches, almost severed off. He said it calmly.
…….“You ripped my hat.”
…….I was confused. I remembered slipping on some things, but it wasn’t like I hadn’t stumbled before. I didn’t know if I did or didn’t, so I simply apologized.
…….“Nah you gotta pay for it. You ripped my hat.”
…….I didn’t know what to think. He didn’t yell, he didn’t curse, he was still around people, almost cordial, but you could tell by his look, a look that you’ve only seen when the men at the corner store would ask you to buy them a snack, it wasn’t really asking, rather it was a gaze that told me there would be consequences. So the soft sixth-grade kid who was standing halfway up the staircase looked down at the boy and said, “Ok I gotchu how much is it?”
…….“Thirty dollars, I need it soon” …….“Alright, man.”
…….But in my head, I knew I couldn’t get thirty dollars. I didn’t have a job, an allowance was something my parents didn’t even take seriously, they always said that an allowance was the house I was living under. I only said what I said because I knew I was scared. He knew it too. I just wanted to leave that situation. And after that, it’s exactly what I did, I turned around, and took my behind right up that staircase to my class.
…….Nobody in my class had heard the conversation. Part of me didn’t even take it seriously, I never saw that kid outside of recess, and even then it was rare at that. So I just let it go. No need to worry right? He was a kid, just like me.
…….A week had passed, and I hadn’t seen him. He was out of my mind. The music room was a commonplace I went to during lunch at times, my teacher was a bit harsh but loved music, and he put me on the saxophone, the tenor one. I had gone here to try out different instruments, play my tenor, or maybe talk to the other kids in there. Funnily enough, though, I was alone today. There was nobody else in the room. A tall kid and his friend walked past the door. Lo and behold, it was that guy again. This time his friend had mentioned his name, same as that one cat in the looney tunes, Sylvester.
…….“You got my money.” He was laughing with his friend while telling me this. At this point, I kinda took it as a joke
…….“Maaan I’m in 6th grade I don’t got thirty dollars.”
…….The laughter started dying out.
…….“Ask your parents or something, but you better have that money for me.” …….A silence. He smirked a little with his friend.
…….“Man, if you don’t get me my money… Imma shoot you.”
…….His friend was hysterical.
…….Maybe it had been a joke, maybe he wasn’t serious, but I know the look on my face expressed horror so much that his friend put his hand on my shoulder, almost like we were best buddies.
…….“You don’t believe this man actually about to shoot you right?”
…….“No Ima do it, get that money for me.”
…….They were both still there, damn near in tears laughing. Just laughing.
…….Later that night I was almost in tears too, I never thought it could go this far. The fear in me didn’t care about if it was a joke or not, all I could think about was the word ok, and how it started this all. The emotions I tried to hide from my parents caused so much stress, stress that trumped the embarrassment that came from telling my father. I still told my mother first. My face burying deep into her stomach as her hug was comforting me. A conversation I never thought would happen, I was telling my mom I was afraid to die, that I didn’t want to get shot. She was the best comfort I ever had, her warm embrace never failed to calm me down. Yet she called for my dad. To my surprise, he had empathized with me too. He didn’t get mad at the actions I took. He simply informed me on how to make it better. My parents were born and raised in Brooklyn. My dad in particular had a dangerous childhood. His fists were calloused ever since he was small, his attitude even more. He saw life go by before his eyes and when he looked at me, he looked at me in my eyes, into my soul, as if he was well too acquainted with this situation.
…….“Listen very closely,” he said. My tears dried as soon as he spoke. My hopes rose as his next words would surely solve my dilemma. “When you’re walking to school tomorrow, I want you to pick up a rock and keep it with you. Then if he presses you out, I want you to say this.” My eyes were wide in shock as I listened to his next words. “Say: You’re not getting any FUCKING money, then throw the rock at his head, and don’t miss.”
…….My mother said nothing. I couldn’t believe the words I was hearing. Throwing a rock at his head could surely kill, yet here my dad was, telling me to end this boy, and what was I to do?
…….At this point, there was no other solution. My parents wouldn’t dare pay that kid. This was my father’s tried and true method. To him, it was foolproof.
…….“Ok.” And that was all I could say. He made me repeat the phrase, and I’d be lying if it didn’t boost my confidence a little, but mostly, it was building up my resolve. There was no going back.
…….The next day in the cafeteria, Sylvester came up to me again. …….“So where my money” …….Suddenly, my mind echoed that phrase, knowing what would happen. I needed to steel myself, I was angry at the fact that I was scared, that this grief was caused by a hat, that I had let it go this long, and that there was no other option than this or being a snitch. My lips quivered, my voice a bit shaky, but I furrowed my brow, looked him in the eye, and mustered the deepest voice a sixth-grader could.
…….“You’re not getting any FUCKING money.”
…….He looked at me, then looked to the side, and chuckled. He moved closer toward me, almost to hide it in front of the cafeteria aids, and delivered a blow to my guts. It wasn’t full force, and I could tell, but my adrenaline flowed. I pushed him away and stood up then pushed him again. He didn’t try to fight back, but now the cafeteria was lively. It was now or never.
…….So I charged at him.
…….And then I got demolished. It happened so fast I couldn’t even tell you how it happened, except at one point I got launched into a lunch table. The cafeteria aids felt bad for me. I barely got questioned and got sent back to class. I couldn’t talk to anyone, the embarrassment overwhelmed me, but to my surprise, my classmates were just awestruck. Sylvester wasn’t just intimidating to me, he was known as someone not to fight. My classmates respected me for doing such a stupid act.
…….After that day, I never saw Sylvester again. Maybe winning that fight had worse consequences.
Isaiah Frederick studies psychology at Towson University. His passion is writing—especially poetry—and his goal is to immerse others in his work.
The aliens were disappointing. We expected spaceships and ray guns and creatures with heads the shape of lightbulbs. We got humans—some called them “humanoids” because it sounded more exotic—wearing trenchcoats glazed with wormhole debris. Mostly, they emerged out of storm-drains and toilets and computer screens.
Smiling, terribly affable, the aliens claimed that they too came from Earth. We groaned. What was human history but the story of earthlings invading other earthlings? How cliché. We were so tired of invading ourselves.
But there was one consolation. The aliens weren’t from our Earth, which made the invasion less of a repetition, more of a rhyme. Apparently, there were Counter-Earths: i.e., countless parallel blue dots that all occupied the same mesh of space-time. As one alien explained the matter: “It’s kind of like how ghosts might all inhabit the same blanket…”
They were storytellers. Or so they said. It was hard to verify. They didn’t utter an anecdote, let alone a nice zigzagging plot… you know, one of those tales that might score a nine on the Narrative-Richter scale. No, our aliens were far more interested in eavesdroppingthan beginning sentences with “Once upon a time…” The aliens propped their feet on our couches and binge-watched Netflix and Disney+ and took notes in tattered journals and said, “Look at the verticality on that cliffhanger!” and “What plottery!”
The invasion showed no signs of letting up. Week after week, aliens emerged out of manholes and chimneys and stained-glass windows and, well, anything remotely mouth-shaped.
Pretty soon, nations divvied up the aliens and even small towns got their very own extraterrestrial diplomat. It was all the rage.
Naturally, our native storytellers were a bit miffed. Their emotional pendulums swung from envious to desperate. Some well-known authors even broke into stranger’s houses, hid inside pantries, and crawled out when it was dinnertime, saying, “Greetings!” pretending that they too were bards from another dimension. These tactics were typically rebuffed with comments like, “False alarm, it’s just Stephen King…” or “Honey, stop recording, it’s only Joyce Carol Oates…again.”
But as time went on, we felt gypped. The aliens seemed to have no intention of regaling us with wondrous tales of adventure and heartbreak and derring-do. All they cared about was frequenting our public libraries and lounging in our movie theaters as they survived on a diet of Milk Duds and Pepsi and popcorn.
Our expectations plummeted. What began as… That year we made contact with aliens and the secrets of the universe unfurled like a cosmic flower… quickly degenerated into… That year aliens showed up and plagiarized our best-sellers.
We even thought about exchanging our aliens, but we could find no return policy in the collars of their trenchcoats.
Finally, as a last resort, we said, “Okay, well, what would these aliens say if they ever deigned to tell a story?”
Everyone had an answer. Pretty soon, contests sprang up and speculative fiction sold out like never before. As the aliens remained mum, we studied them like humanoid-shaped landscapes and sketched their stories.
“I bet this one comes from a version of Earth where some people work as ‘human cup-holders’ and accompany people on long drives, holding their beverages and discussing the weather and the meaning of life…”
“I bet this one comes from a version of Earth where you’re required to disseminate an instruction manual on how to ‘use’ you in order to prevent miscommunication and intimacy problems …”
The aliens encouraged us. They smiled and said “Well imagined!” and “Very possible!” For aliens, they were incorrigibly polite. It wasn’t long before they were packing up their belongings and staging a mass exodus, hopping into a variety of holes and warping back to their own worlds.
We said, “Wait, that’s it?! After all this time, you won’t even tell us a single story?”
They looked puzzled.
We said, “You’re storytellers… well, at least nominally… don’t you tell stories?”
They said, “We just did! Millions of them.”
We said, “No, we told those stories. You just sat there and posed.”
Again, they looked puzzled.
We said, “Look, just because nature abhors a vacuum doesn’t mean the vacuum should get credit for the story that nature tells.”
They said, “You know, that’s the oddest thing about this Earth.”
“You never give credit to the ghost-writers—the real ghost-writers—all those unsung voids and question marks and vacuums.”
“Sure, but what would those voids be without us?”
“What would you be without them?”
It was our turn to look puzzled.
The aliens took advantage of our collective head-scratching and said, “With us, all writing credits are attributed to bafflers.”
“Those which baffle.”
Before we could justify ourselves and offer a retort to all the other judgy parallel Earths in existence, the aliens leapt into nearby craters and disappeared.
We felt robbed. We felt accused. We felt chatty. It was like a big fat portal had been carved into our mental ice, and now there was nothing left to do but go fishing.
What did we catch?
Well, for starters, writing credits were dramatically increased. A single author became an absurdity. Authors like “the enigma of consciousness” were tacked on to psychology books, “the conundrum of antimatter” to sci-fi novels, “the riddle of attraction” to rom-coms. Cumulonimbus clouds and daffodils were finally given credit for co-authoring William Wordsworth’s poetry, while ideas like “god-complex” and “necromancy” were given posthumous billing for Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.
In short, the world felt more and more like a collaboration between inspiration and inspired, and we (as perhaps the most egotistical Earth in existence) became a smudge more comfortable with opening our mouths and letting out narratives and not fussing over who was doing the telling and who was being told.
Andrew Gretes is the author of How to Dispose of Dead Elephants (Sandstone Press, 2014). His fiction has appeared in New England Review,Willow Springs,Witness, Sycamore Review, and other journals.
They moved into the big old farmhouse on Friday, and on Sunday Evan Matthew packed a few soil sample jars and his pH testing kit in his backpack and went outside to meet the neighbors.
For a town with a population high of seventy people, it was surprisingly spread out. Their immediate neighbors could barely be seen from the house. To say this wasn’t what Evan Matthew was used to would be an understatement; the yellow townhouse in the city, after all, had touched its neighbors on either side, and from his window, Evan Matthew could see the buildings getting higher and higher, denser and denser, coalescing into the city center. In the city, you could know no one’s name and never be alone.
Somehow, he doubted that he’d remain anonymous in their new town.
He was halfway down the road when something darted out from behind a tree and swung a stick at him. Evan Matthew shrieked and fell, thankfully not landing on his backpack. The person stopped, holding their stick like a baseball bat. “Who’re you?” they demanded.
“Evan Matthew. Who’re you?”
“Fox. These are my places. You don’t belong here.” They peered at him with suspicion.
“Do so.” Evan Matthew got up, dusting off his pants. “I live there now.”
Fox looked back at the farmhouse, narrowing their eyes. “Really.”
“Really!” Evan Matthew crossed his arms.
Fox opened their mouth to say something else when someone called from the house ahead, “Andy! Come on!”
Fox’s eyes widened and they grabbed Evan Matthew’s wrist. “Come with me!” they demanded, dragging Evan Matthew off the road and into the woods.
Evan Matthew nearly fell as Fox leaped over logs and darted between trees with practiced ease, still gripping his wrist. “Where are we going?”
“Away!” Fox came to a halt in front of a small, odd fort. It was made of living trees and dead branches, leaves and clay, and had a small opening. Fox pushed Evan Matthew towards it, “Inside!”
Evan Matthew went inside. The fort was rather well-equipped, with the “floor” covered in leaves, a sleeping bag rolled up, a tarp by the opening, and a lot of junk scattered around. “What is this?”
“My place.” Fox crawled in, allowing Evan Matthew to finally get a good look at them. Their age was indefinable, but they weren’t much taller than he was; they had a grubby, freckled face and dark eyes. Their hair was tangled and tied into two short, low pigtails, the ends of the auburn hair bleached white. They wore an overlarge and…well-loved might have been an overstatement, sweater, dirty rainbow stripes reaching their knees overworn jeans, and bare feet. They glared at Evan Matthew, “You really live in that house?”
“Uh-huh. My- Agatha made us move. I wanted to meet the neighbors.”
Fox scowled. “Don’t bother. They’re assholes.”
“You know them?”
“They’re my family.” They said the word with great disdain. “So I come here instead, when I can.”
“What’s all that?” Evan Matthew motioned to the objects surrounding them—a brass cup and bowl, tarnished silverware, an old gas lamp.
“My collection. Ma said I was too old to keep it, and she tried to throw it out. That’s when I started coming here.” Fox tapped the lamp slightly. “I hate them.”
“I hate Agatha a little,” Evan Matthew muttered. “For making us move.”
Fox looked up. “What’s in your bag?”
“Cool.” They smiled a little, crooked and wary. “You wanna be friends?”
Evan Matthew blinked. “…Sure.”
“I’ve never had a best friend before.” Fox scrambled around in their collection, finally pulling something out. “Here. This is for you.” They shoved it into Evan Matthew’s hand.
Evan Matthew looked at it. A pendant swung on a tarnished chain; it was an odd, flower-like sun. “What is it?”
“Got it from the witch. It’s for protection.” Fox pulled an identical pendant from under their sweater, then dropped it back in. “If we’re gonna be friends, you gotta be protected from the bad stuff too.”
“Oh.” Evan Matthew put it on, tucking it under his T-shirt.
Fox looked pleased. “I’ve never had a best friend before.”
“I have. But…I haven’t for a while.”
From the forest came a shout. “ANDREA! WHERE ARE YOU!”
Fox tugged Evan Matthew’s hand and led him out of the fort, towards the voice. “If I go to them, they don’t find my hiding spot.”
The two pushed through bushes and nearly ran into an older teenager with curly hair the same shade of auburn as Fox’s. “Andy, there you are!” she said. “Who’s this?”
“Evan Matthew. He lives next door now.”
The girl’s brow furrowed. “I think Ma told me about that. Come on. You can bring your friend, but we gotta go home. Storm’s coming.”
Fox glanced up at the sky. “One sec!”
They darted back into the bushes. The teenager sighed. “Dammit, Andy.” She looked down at Evan Matthew. “Hey, kid. Sorry my sister dragged you into this. I’m Nami.”
“I’m not your sister.” Fox popped back out from the bushes. “I’m not a girl!”
Nami rolled her eyes. “Right. C’mon.”
Evan Matthew followed the two out of the woods and back up the road, on the way to the neighbor’s house. Nami walked with a purpose and Fox slumped behind her.
“So you live in the old Lockheart place?” Nami asked. “We thought no one would move there. Makes sense that it was a newcomer.”
“Why? ‘cause everyone’s already got a house?”
Nami turned, smiling mischievously. “Nah. ‘cause someone died there once.”
Evan Matthew startled slightly, almost tripping over a rock. “Really?”
“Well, not in the house.” Nami shoved her hands in her pockets. “On the property. The lake at the bottom of the hill.”
Fox scoffed. “No one died there, Nami.”
“That’s what Mom and Dad told you. You were too young. But it happened.” Nami’s sparkly green thumbnail poked out from her pocket; the polish reminded Evan Matthew of the girls in his class in the city. “Janice Evers drowned in the lake. It was in the city paper and everything, ‘cause she was with someone, and he went missing.”
Evan Matthew’s eyes were as wide as saucers. “How?”
“Nami’s bein’ dumb, don’t listen to her,” said Fox. Evan Matthew barely heard them.
“I mean, we don’t all the way know.” Nami kicked a rock lightly, sending it bouncing ahead. “Maybe I shouldn’t say. You’re what, eight?”
“You look eight. And I’m not supposed to say around Andy.”
“I am not listening and do not care,” Fox announced, having dug a dirty rubber band out of their pocket. “You can tell ‘em if he wants to hear.”
“Alright.” Nami caught up with the rock, kicked it again, and looked down at Evan. “The Lockhearts lived there before you did—like ten years ago. I think they lived here before the village was founded, even. But ten years ago it was Mr. and Mrs. Lockheart and their son, Lucas. He was, like, fourteen then. And you’ve seen the lake, right?”
Evan Matthew had, in fact, seen the lake. The bottom of the hill behind his new house was even muggier than the rest of the town, a perfect habitat for frogs and mosquitoes. He’d wanted to go down to catch samples, but Agatha had forbidden him from swimming. At first, he was disappointed—the heat was overwhelming—but as soon as he’d seen the cold, dark water, barely visible from the attic window, he’d lost all interest in going anywhere near that. Not even the lack of algae on the glassy surface tempted him.
Once Evan Matthew had read a Time article about a river in South America that was so deep, no one had successfully reached the bottom and the bodies of divers were never recovered. In his head, under the black of the lake, sat skeletons, the maw of a pit to the center of the earth. “Yeah, I’ve seen the lake.”
“Right, so you know what it’s like. Dunno how or why, but Lucas reallyloved swimming in that thing. He was a strong swimmer too, which is why—well, no one expected him to drown.” Nami picked up the rock as they reached it again, tossing it up and down in her hand. “He was nice. I remember, he was nice. I was just six, but he always offered to help me out with my homework, and Mom wanted him to teach me to swim—but I didn’t like the lake, so I kept pretending I was sick. Maybe she would have made me, eventually, if Lucas hadn’t disappeared, but he did. And even more than that, he did while teaching Janice to swim—which put Mom off swimming lessons forever anyway.”
“How did they die, though?” Evan Matthew demanded. He was paying no attention to the road. Even Fox, initially apathetic, seemed somewhat interested.
“Well, I don’t know. No one knows. He went down to swim with Janice and he didn’t come back.” Nami inspected the rock, holding it delicately between two glitter-green fingertips. “Janice’s little sister went to get her from the Lockheart’s, and Mrs. Lockheart went down to get them and came back screaming. Pretty soon the whole town was down at the Lockheart place. I was supposed to be watching Fox, but they were sleeping and I was curious so I went down and got there just as the police from the city showed up with an ambulance and the coroner. I remember I’d never met a coroner or seen an ambulance before. I was excited.”
“And they were both dead?”
“That’s the rub—they only ever found Janice. Lucas just disappeared into thin air. I saw the body under sheets. I asked Marlene Fairsworth’s son, after, because he said he’d seen her, all bloated and white and gross.” Nami shrugged. “I think he was lying about seeing the body, but that’s what it would have looked like.”
“But Lucas went missing?” Fox asked. Nami didn’t seem surprised or bothered that they had stopped pretending not to listen.
“Well, there were search parties for days and days. They looked everywhere; the woods are big, but they’re not really that big. Eventually they ruled that maybe he’d gotten stuck on something and never, uh, floated back up. The lake’s a sinkhole, you know—goes down and down, no one’s ever really been all the way down there.”
“Did they ever find him?” Evan Matthew asked.
“Nope.” Nami hefted the rock up. “They buried an empty coffin eventually, for ceremony I guess. The Lockhearts moved out a month later and no one’s been in the house since then. Not until you. That’s sort of just the village though, I think. We don’t get new folks too often—and no one already here wanted to move down the street, much less into thathouse.” She reached back and let go. The rock arched up, up, and off the road, into the woods where Evan Matthew couldn’t see where it landed. “You brave, kid?”
Evan Matthew was more than a little startled by the teen’s sudden question. “I—I hope so.”
“Good. If you’re brave, you might do okay.”
Fox and Evan Matthew were silent the rest of the way up.
“So you met the neighbors today?” Agatha asked, setting down a platter of something vegetable-y. “What were they like?”
“They were okay.” Evan Matthew frowned in dismay as Eden spooned a large portion of whatever-it-was onto his plate. “I mostly met their kids: Nami and Fox.”
Agatha tilted her head. “Marlene said the daughters were Nami and Andrea.”
“They don’t like the name Andrea. Or being called a girl. We’re best friends.” Evan Matthew poked at his possibly-food.
Eden smirked. “That was quick.”
“They decided it, not me. It happened fast.”
“Well, I’m glad you have a friend already.” Agatha was all smiles again. “You should invite them over sometime.”
“I don’t think they like houses. They like playing in the woods. Can I go play with them tomorrow?”
“Sure, if the rain dies down.” As if on cue, lightning flashed outside the front window and thunder rumbled over the village. “You’ll wear your boots, though.”
“Yessss.” Evan Matthew wiggled. He liked his boots, thick black Wellingtons that reached his knees, with orange rubber soles. They were good science boots. “Can I take my sample kit?”
“If you eat all your dinner.”
Evan Matthew looked down at the plate of could-be-vegetables and scowled.
That night, the bed which had seemed so comfortable the night before felt cold and unwelcoming. Evan Matthew burrowed underneath the quilt as thunder roared outside and rain threw itself at the house.
If Nami had told a ghost story, that would have been one thing—ghosts were scientifically impossible. People dying, though—that was bad luck. It would be easy to drown in the lake, if you were unlucky; if the lake was a sinkhole, Evan Matthew had read about sinkholes—how most of them were unexplored, opening to vast caverns below the earth, and how dangerous they were, how even experienced divers could easily get trapped in a cave and drown and no one would find their bodies. And maybe bad luck was real and it was in the house, in the lake.
It was nearly one in the morning when Evan Matthew finally fell into fitful sleep.
Eliza Hunt has decided that she won’t take any chances when it comes to giving her true name to the Fair Folk and heartily suggests you do the same. You can find her at lizard_hunt on Twitter, playtesting RPGs, and making pithy remarks.