Categories
Fiction Issue 4

[JANAE CARTER]

Crowning

Shyla picked up yet another dirty pair of underwear from the floor, taking care not to wake the sleeping child nearby. Never had she thought she would become that parent. But Rodney’s room had become so messy that an odor was starting to settle in. Ashley would be back home early the next morning and she could only imagine how upset he would be to come home to a house that actually smelled.  

“Wow, Mom, seriously?” Dawn was standing in the doorway giving her a disapproving glare while twisting her light brown, wavy hair around her finger. Shyla hated when she did that; it reminded her of the catty, popular girls she went to high school with.  

“What do you want me to do? It stinks in here.” 

“You could at least make him help you.” 

She’d actually tried that, but the eight-year-old had become more of a hindrance than a help, so she decided it was best to do it herself after he went to bed. She was about to say this when she realized she shouldn’t have to explain herself to a fifteen-year-old. 

“It’s a school night—go to bed,” she barked. Dawn rolled her eyes and walked away muttering something under her breath.  

She looked around the room. Not perfect, but good enough. She was tired herself and had to be up early to pick up Ash from the airport. She turned out the light and was about to walk out of the room when a commotion from Rodney’s bed stopped her. He was hyperventilating and thrashing around in his sheets. The first time she witnessed him having a night terror it had terrified her, even though one of the social workers had warned her that they were very common in children who went through foster care. Now she knew he would quickly quiet down and not even remember it in the morning.  

She sat on the edge of his bed and shushed him gently as she tucked him back into his sheets. Sure enough, in a moment he was dozing peacefully again. She didn’t leave him right away. She rubbed his back for a minute and then she couldn’t exactly explain why she did what she did next.  

She lifted his head from his pillow and eased herself further onto his bed. She sat cross legged, and half lifted, half dragged the child onto her lap. It was a bit more difficult than she’d thought it would be, for such a skinny boy he was heavier than he looked. She tucked his arms on top of his stomach and cradled his head in the nook of her arm. His legs were too long for his feet to be wrapped in the blanket and poked out of the swaddle.  

Shyla rocked back and forth and hummed. She looked up slightly panicked when she thought she heard a noise from the hallway. She didn’t want one of her daughters to walk by and ask what she was doing. The obvious answer seemed to be that she was trying to capture something she missed. She had never been able to rock and cradle him as a baby as she had done with her daughters. She bent her head so that it rested on top of his and took a deep breath of his scent. She loved the way he smelled, fresh as a child should. She missed the soft scents of childhood on her daughters. Nowadays there was only the pungent artificial smell of whatever Victoria’s Secret or Bath and Bodyworks perfume they were using that day. 

The soft scratchy feel of his hair against her cheek reminded her of her father. When she was a young child, long before her father had gone bald, she remembered running her hands over the short, cropped coils of his hair. A year ago, when she first showed her father a picture of Rodney, he laughed and said she finally had a child who looked like her. She laughed it off and pretended it didn’t bother her. But it did, much like the jokes her family had made about her marrying a white man in the first place. Now she intertwined her hand with Rodney’s and looked at where their skin met. It was true that they were almost the same complexion, but the similarities stopped there. Still, when she was out with Rodney, she was never mistaken for being his nanny as she often was when her daughters were young.  

Rodney hardly ever let her get close enough to sniff the top of his head. Anytime she tried to hug him he would worm his way out of her grip. She often worried that even after a year, he hadn’t bonded to her, but she only had girls before so maybe this was normal for boys. Every weekend when she picked him up from soccer practice, she couldn’t help herself from surreptitiously looking around to see how the other boys greeted their mothers. She pressed a final kiss onto the top of his soft head and gently eased herself out from under him and back onto his bed. He barely even stirred. 



Early the next morning, Shyla sat in her car watching the rain pour down the windshield. She craned her neck over her shoulder, trying to spot Ashley in the stream of people with suitcases exiting the airport. Almost everyone carried a large umbrella that obscured their faces and made it even harder to spot her husband in the crowd. She couldn’t help but feel a bit anxious surrounded by cantankerous taxi drivers on all sides. She’d tried to time herself so that she wouldn’t have to wait long but she had been waiting for fifteen minutes already. She sighed and looked at the clock again. At this rate, Olivia would have to get Rodney and Dawn out of bed and ready for school. Olivia might be able to wrangle Rodney, but she knew Dawn would push back at her older sister’s authority. She was ripped away from her thoughts by a rapping on the passenger side door. She breathed a sigh of relief and unlocked the door so that Ashley could get in.  

“Hey, hon, how was your trip?” She didn’t really need an answer. The deep, dark bags under his eyes told the whole story. They both awkwardly leaned over the center console for a quick kiss. Ash leaned back in his seat, pushed his damp hair back from his forehead, and closed his eyes. “Too long.” 

“Well, do you feel closer to your co-workers after all the team-building exercises?” 

“Not really.”  

“What kind of stuff did you do?” 

“You know, camp-like stuff.” 

“Did you have okay weather? It rained here almost the whole time you were gone.” 

“We didn’t get any rain.” 

“You know, while you were gone—”  

“I’m sorry, I’m just so tired. I’m going to try to sleep until we get home ‘cause I still have to go into work today.” 

“Yeah, sure. Let me turn up the heat.” Shyla wasn’t sure whether he actually managed to fall asleep, but they didn’t talk for the rest of the ride home.

As they walked through the front door, Shyla was pleasantly surprised to see that Dawn was fully dressed, had her bookbag packed, and was finishing her breakfast.  

“Where’s Rod—" she started but stopped when she saw him standing on a chair by the door ready to pounce on Ash. Ash saw him too but pretended to be surprised when Rodney jumped on his back. 

“Augh!” He howled in mock surprise, before flipping the screeching Rodney over his shoulder, pinning him down to the floor, and tickling him until Rodney was crying with laughter.  

“Ash, don’t get his school clothes dirty.” She knew she was, once again, being the wet blanket. But she didn’t want him to show up at school with his clothes wrinkled and streaked with whatever was on the kitchen floor today.  

“Ah, he’s fine.” Ash pulled Rodney to his feet and patted him on his back. “Go get your bookbag, bud.”  

If there had been time for her to change Rodney’s clothes, she would have, because Olivia seemed to think it was okay to send him to school in cargo camo pants and a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles shirt. She decided to just be grateful that he was ready to go on time.  

“Who’s taking us today?” Olivia grabbed her own messenger bag; she decided at the beginning of the school year she was too old for a regular bookbag now. 

“I’ll take you on my way to work.” Ash grabbed his car keys. “Hurry up, bud.” Rodney giggled as Ash gently pushed him on the back of the head to hurry him out of the door. 

By now, the rain had stopped, and the sunlight was pushing its way through the clouds. Shyla watched the four of them file out the door and grimaced at the sight of the overgrown lawn. “Ash, when are going to—" 

“I know, I know. I’ll do it tonight after work.”  



At two o’clock Shyla was waiting outside in her car once again. This time to pick up Rodney after school. Olivia and Dawn were involved in so many clubs and extracurriculars that they didn’t come home until Ash was coming home from work. Rodney didn’t have soccer today, which meant that it was just the two of them for the rest of the afternoon.  

“Hey, bud!” she said cheerily as Rodney got into the car. “How was school?” 

“Good.” Rodney looked out the window and waved to a kid walking past the car “Is that a friend of yours?” 

“Yeah.” 

“What’s his name?” 

“I don’t know.” 

“How is he your friend if you don’t know his name?” 

Rodney just shrugged in response. Shyla glanced in her rearview mirror and saw Rodney’s friend hug his mom before he climbed into the backseat of his car.  

“Can we get a dog?”

“What?” She found herself caught off guard as she closed the front door and dropped her car keys into a bowl in the entryway. Rodney never initiated conversations with her.  

“Because I’m all alone after school before Dad and ‘Livia and Dawn come home. If I had a dog, I’d have someone to play with.”  

“You’re not alone. I’m here.” She regretted it as soon as she said it. She knew what Rodney said next would probably hurt her feelings, even if it was unintentional. 

“If we got a dog, he could eat the grass, so dad wouldn’t have to cut it.” 

That response caught her off guard and she laughed. “Dogs don’t eat grass, only cows and sheep do.” She walked over to the window and looked disdainfully out at the front lawn.  

“Oh,” Rodney sat down at the table and ate the yogurt she had given him. He looked very thoughtful as if he were trying to come up with another useful skill a dog could offer.  

Shyla knew Ash meant well, but by the time he got home tonight, he wouldn’t be up to mowing the lawn, especially since it was getting dark earlier and earlier. She pulled on her old sneakers that she used for garden work. 

“Rod, sit there and don’t get up until you finish your homework.” Rodney pouted. “When you’re done you can go watch cartoons.” 

Shyla went out to the garage and pushed the lawnmower out onto the front lawn. She hadn’t operated one in years. When she was young, her mother made her mow the lawn on occasion, so she wouldn’t grow up to be “prissy.” The cool weather made it easier than when she was a kid mowing in the summer heat. I’ll just do the front lawn, she thought, and she gave the motor a couple of tugs and started pushing it across the lawn. She finished in a little under an hour, but it barely felt that long. She looked around with a sense of self-satisfaction. I still have another hour or two before it gets dark. Might as well trim the edges, too.  

She hummed happily as she moved around the fence.  

“If we got a dog, and robbers broke into the house, the dog could eat them.” 

She turned around and raised an eyebrow at Rodney. She hadn’t even heard him come outside. “That’s a good point. But dogs don’t eat people either. But a dog could scare intruders off.” 

“So, we can get a dog?” 

“Maybe.” 

Rodney grinned, clearly proud of his efforts of persuasion. He leaned against the fence and looked around the yard. “I thought Dad was gonna’ mow the lawn.” 

“Dad’s really busy. I thought I’d help him out.” 

“You did a good job.” 

Shyla put the trimmers down for a moment and turned around to grin at him. “You think so?” 

“Yeah.” Rodney pointed at the trimmer. “Can I try?” 

“I don’t think so.” 

“Why not? I’m big enough!”  

“I know, but it’s not as easy as it looks.” She looked down at his crestfallen face. “You could help me out if you weeded the flowers.” 

Rodney looked as if he were considering the proposition for a moment. 

“Ok.” 

“Just make sure you grab it near the bottom, so you pull out the whole root.” 

Rodney nodded, knelt in the dirt, and got to work. Shyla watched him out of the corner of her eye as she worked. He seemed to be having fun playing in the dirt as well as pulling the weeds.  

When she was finally done, she put the mower and trimmer back into the garage just as Rodney pulled up the last weed.  

“I’m done!” He proudly marched up to her. She decided not to tell him he’d pulled up some flowers and plants too. 

“You did a good job, bud!” She rubbed his head affectionately, but he scowled and ducked out of her grasp. Today it didn’t bother her as much. She didn’t even care he’d caked his good sneakers in mud

“I’m hungry. Can I go inside and get some cookies?” 

“I’ve got a better idea.” Even though it was only fifty degrees outside, Shyla’s face was damp with sweat. “Let’s get some ice cream.”  

Rodney looked at her as if she were about to play a practical joke on him. “But it’s pretty close to dinner.” 

Shyla shrugged. “One cone won’t completely ruin your appetite. Anyway, you’ve earned it.”  

Rodney tore off down the sidewalk without even checking to see if she was following. 

He was much slower on the walk back, carefully licking his cone so his ice cream didn’t fall.  

“You’re very meticulous with the way you eat your ice cream.” 

“What’s that mean?”  

“It means you’re very careful.”  

“You have to be careful. If you lick it the wrong way, the ice cream might fall off the cone.” 

“Is ice cream your favorite dessert?” 

“Yup, my mom used to let me eat it every day for dinner. My real mom,” he quickly clarified. Shyla tried not to take this to heart. He didn’t say it with any amount of malice but instead matter-of-factly.  

They reached the house at the same time that Ash was pulling into the driveway and getting out of the car with the girls. Rodney seemed to forget his careful ice cream cone eating strategy and ran towards the house to tell his sisters about his day.  

“Dawn! Livvy! I got ice cream and you didn’t!” 

Ash frowned when he saw the front yard. “You didn’t have to pay the neighbor kid to do the lawn. I told you I was going to get to it.” 

“I didn’t. I did it myself.” 

“I helped!” Rodney shouted while jumping up and down for emphasis.

“That’s right Rodney did the weeding.” 

“Great job, Rod!” Olivia held her hand over her head and Rodney laughed while trying to jump high enough to high-five her.  

“C’mon let’s get inside, it’s getting dark.” Ash poked Rodney in the back to prod him towards the front door.  



Shyla was on such a high from the afternoon that she barely even noticed how quiet Ash was throughout dinner. Later that evening, Rodney was in bed and the girls were shut up in their own rooms. After she finished cleaning the kitchen, Shyla peeked into the den to see what Ash was up to. He was laying back in the couch recliner in front of the television. She went to the kitchen to grab two beers before joining him.  

“Thought you might want one of these.” She settled down next to him as she passed him his drink. 

“Thanks.” Ash took a swig but didn’t say anything more. Shyla turned her attention to the TV to see what her husband was watching. 

“Baseball? I thought you had lost interest after the Cubs didn’t make the world series?” Ash shrugged. 

“What’s the matter?” She pressed. “Nothing else on?” 

“No, not really.” A commercial came on and Ash flipped absent-mindedly to the evening news. Shyla got caught up in a story about parents protesting the curriculum at a nearby school and didn’t hear Ash’s comment.

“What?” She tried to turn towards him while still listening to a mother complain about tone-deaf history lessons in the local middle school.  

“I said you didn’t have to mow the lawn today.” 

“I know, you already said that. But I wanted to. And anyway, it was getting embarrassing.” Right after it came out of her mouth, she realized it was probably the wrong thing to say. “I just meant I was trying to help you out.” 

“I don’t need you to help me out with the yard work.”  

“What’s the big deal, I thought I did a good job.” 

“Yeah, no it was fine.” Ash seemed to be trying to adjust his tone. “Just in the future, just let me take care of it.” 

“You always say you’ll take care of it, but it sits undone for weeks.” 

“Hm,” Ash said nothing and crossed his arms over his chest. 

“What is the big deal? I didn’t even mind. With Rodney, it was even kind of fun.” Ash still said nothing “Just tell me what your issue is, and I won’t do it again.” 

“The issue is…” Ash groaned and dragged his hand down his face before turning to her to answer. “Do you realize how it makes me look to the neighborhood to have my wife outside mowing the lawn?”  

A heavy silence hung in the air for a moment until the words sunk in. She connected the dots and couldn’t help but let out a brief guffaw. “That’s it? That’s why you’ve been sullen all evening? Because you didn’t want the neighbors to see me mowing the lawn?” 

“You don’t get it. The things you do are a reflection of me.” 

“Ashley, that’s ridiculous.” 

“Never mind. Forget I even said anything.” Ash picked up the remote and started channel surfing again.  

Disgruntled, Shyla got up from the couch and wandered into the kitchen. She absentmindedly dropped her empty bottle into the recycling bin and leaned against the counter. She stared down at the floor until her eyes got blurry and her feet faded in and out of focus. Moving without any real purpose, she hurried past the entryway to the den and went upstairs. The doors to both of her daughter’s rooms were shut and she could hear top 40 music blaring from behind Olivia’s door.  

Rodney’s door was open though. She leaned on the doorway of his room with her eyes drifting, not focusing on anything. She was pulled out of her daze when Rodney thrashed from one side of his bed to the other. His little round face was pinched up together and his lips were just barely forming words. This wasn’t a night terror. It seemed to be a run-of-the-mill bad dream. A moment later his face relaxed and his mouth dropped open as he sank deeper into his pillow. With a defeated sigh, Shyla walked into his room to throw his clothes from the day into his laundry hamper. She picked up a sock and looked around for its mate. She caught sight of it in Rodney’s bed, right next to his head.  

Disgusting, she thought to herself as she reached over Rodney’s head to grab the sock. As she drew her hand back, Rodney grabbed her wrist and held it against his chest, hugging her arm like a child might hug a teddy bear. She passed the sock into her other hand and tossed it into the laundry hamper. She looked down at him for a moment and smiled before trying to extract her arm. But as she tried to move it, Rodney grasped it even closer and flopped onto his stomach. Deciding to give up, Shyla dropped to her knees beside the bed. She could stay there until Rodney rolled over again and let go.  

But he didn’t let go. Not for fifteen minutes. Her knees started to hurt so she tucked her legs under her and sat on the floor. Five more minutes passed, and she could feel the strain in her lower back. She tried again to extract her arm, but as she did so Rodney frowned and started to whimper in his sleep. She tried to readjust herself to be in a less painful position but no matter how much she squirmed she couldn’t stop the bedframe from digging into her side. She resigned herself to the fact that she would have to take ibuprofen for her back in the morning before putting her other arm on his bed and resting her head on it. She tried to forget about the aches in her back and instead concentrated on Rodney’s hot, sticky breath warming the crown of her head. 

[about]

Janae Carter is an emerging writer based in the New York metropolitan area and a recent graduate of Adelphi University’s M.F.A. in Creative Writing program. She tends to write in a variety of fiction subgenres but most of her recent work has been realistic fiction pertaining to human relationships, particularly concerning women and girls of color.

Categories
Fiction Issue 4

[IVAN DE MONBRISON]

The following flash fiction story is translated from its original Russian, which is below.

Out of the blue

You’ve made nightmares. Now you are awake. You get up from your bed.
You put on your pants. You put on a shirt.
You leave the room where you slept, and in which there’s just your bed.
A cat slept with you, but stays on the bed and watches you leave.
You go to the kitchen.
You take a big knife.
You go to another room where a total stranger is sleeping.
You stick a knife in his back.
You strike several times.
You wait.
Suddenly he stands up with the knife stuck in his back and starts to laugh.
He leaves the room.
He also goes to the kitchen and makes himself a cup of coffee.
He sits down at a table.
You watch him drink coffee without saying anything.
You look at his red blood, flowing from the wound to the floor and forming a red puddle there.
You leave the kitchen, you close the door behind you.
You walk through the dark apartment.
You leave the apartment.
You go down the stairs leading to the street.
Here you are, outside, it's dark.
There are two or three stars in the sky.
The buildings are almost black.
There is no one outside at this time.
You walk ahead of you on the sidewalk, without thinking about anything,
and silently you disappear into the night,
like a ghost.

Как гром среди ясного неба

Тебе снились кошмары.
Теперь ты проснулся. Ты встаёшь со своей кровати.
Ты надеваешь штаны. Ты надеваешь рубашку.
Ты выходишь из комнаты, где ты спал, и в которой у него только твои кровать.
Кот спал с вами, но остается на кровати и смотрит, как ты уходишь.
Ты идёшь на кухню.
Берешь большой нож.
Ты идёшь в другую комнату, где спит незнакомый тебе мужчина.
Ты втыкаешь нож ему в спину.
Ты стучишь несколько раз.
Ты ждешь.
Сразу он встает с ножом, воткнутым в спину, и начинает смеяться.
Он выходит из комнаты.
Он также идет на кухню и делает себе чашку кофе.
Он садится за стол.
Ты смотришь, как он пьет кофе, ничего не говоря.
Ты смотришь на его красную кровь, течет из раны на пол и образует там красную лужу.
Ты выходишь из кухни, закрываешь за собой дверь.
Ты идёшь по темной квартире.
Ты выходишь из квартиры.
Ты спускаешься по лестнице ведущая на улицу.
Вот ты на улице, темно.
У него две-три звезды на небе.
Здания почти черные.
В это время снаружи никого нет.
Идешь впереди себя по тротуару, ни о чем не думая, и бесшумно исчезаешь в ночи.
Как призрак.

[about]

Ivan de Monbrison is a poet and artist living in Paris born in 1969 and affected by various types of mental disorders. He has published some poems in the past.

You can tip Ivan on Paypal: demonbrison@gmail.com

Categories
Fiction Issue 4

[SAMUEL EDWARDS]

The Trunk and The Tragedy

They say elephants never forget. And that’s why Herbert was perfect for the lead role in John Lancaster’s amateur production of Romeo and Juliet. 

John Lancaster had been directing stage-plays for the last fifteen years or so. His acting career had been short-lived; his menacing gaze attached to a height that barely scratched five feet landed him a spot on the BBC’s flagship police drama of the time, starring as a mean-spirited police sergeant that clashed with the lead characters. But life imitates art, and a short temper and aversion to following orders made for uncomfortable working conditions and left co-stars in tears. He discovered he was much more comfortable behind the camera, and found a second chance as a director for daytime soap operas, barking orders like an overexcited Jack Russell. Eventually, John Lancaster switched from television to theatre. He completed a short stint on the West End, where critical acclaim greeted him but pressures of fame proved too much, before he moved north to the tiny village of Swillington, hidden amongst rolling green fields and tweed flat caps. 

His work as director took him all around Yorkshire, from youth clubs to church halls, high schools to outreach centres. Aided by the country air and finally tasting good gravy, his once fiery persona began to dissipate, and John mellowed with age. He took to drinking gin with breakfast. He fell asleep listening to podcasts on woodworking. He tipped his postman a crisp twenty pound note every third Thursday of the month, without fail. He wore socks with sandals and cardigans with corduroy, and when it rained he would stroll by the canal, humming Broadway show tunes to sheltering ducks. 

If people found him odd or eccentric, they didn’t say. John Lancaster welcomed Yorkshire into his heart, and Yorkshire responded in kind. His gaze was less menacing these days and more wistful; he could no more shout and bellow than he could sprout wings and fly, and though his directing style softened he still squeezed the best out of his actors. His reputation was unparalleled and his work much beloved. The only critic for miles who seemed impervious to his charms was Helen Yates, the entertainment and arts writer for Aberford’s local paper, the town a stone’s throw from Swillington. Helen was not one who doled out praise lightly; she could find fault in a Faulker, the blemishes in a Beethoven, and the mistakes in a Michelangelo. She had yet to give one of John’s productions a good review. 

As Summer receded and Autumn arrived, bringing with it darker nights and an invasion of pumpkin-spiced flavour novelties, so also did it mean the start of auditions of John Lancaster’s latest production, the great Shakespeare tragedy Romeo and Juliet.
 
Shakespeare was going to be a challenge. John Lancaster had been merciless in his previous selections, and the amateur actors amongst the village of Swillington had risen to every challenge presented to them so far. Tears had been shed during the closing act of Death of a Salesman three years ago; the entire audience had been on their feet and singing during the big numbers of Grease two years before that; and more than one audience member had fainted from fright during the creepy, unsettling performance of The Woman in Black the year before. Poor Alfie Woodward, the milkman with a lisp who lived with his ailing mother, famously wet his pants during one jump scare and had to leave the theatre. The whole village heard about that one. 

But Shakespeare was a step up. And this wasn’t going to be one of those modern-retelling versions. None of this replace-the-swords-with-guns nonsense, or update the dialogue to mention Instagram and Starbucks and cut out all your thee’s and thou’s. No, this was going to be a classic all the way, featuring all the Capulets and Montagues, teenage angst and untimely deaths that it was famous for. 

The auditions took place on stage at Swillington Town Hall, with John Lancaster sitting a few rows back drinking herbal tea and taking notes. Juliet was cast quickly. Only one woman in twenty miles had the acting chops to play her, and that distinction went to Susan Hendricks, the pastor’s daughter with big blue eyes and a heavenly voice. The other roles were filled as the evening went on. Some were by regulars in John Lancaster productions, like Tommy Blake the seasoned ironmonger who was cast as Tybalt, and Keiran Frost the pub landlord for the local down the road who would play Friar Laurence. There were newcomers, like there always was, such as Liz Hirst the nursery teacher with more freckles than she knew what to do with, who was cast as Rosaline, and little Simon Dean, who looked like he was still in primary school and got his mother to drive him to the audition, but when he took to the stage he was one hell of a Benvolio, it left John with no choice but to cast him. 

Soon, only the lead role of Romeo was left unfilled. Many men came and auditioned, and all came up short. Either they didn’t have the heart, or the passion, or they simply stumbled over the dialogue. 

That was when Herbert strode in. Herbert was twelve feet tall, his skin was grey and wrinkled, and his tusks were a dull white. The room shook with every step he took. His trunk swayed with mindless abandon, and his tail flicked arbitrarily. He came in through the front door with as much ease as a human would walk through a spider’s web, and with as much oblivious force. Sure, he wasn’t exactly what John had been looking for. An elephant would surely be nobody's first choice for the lead in a 17th century tragedy, John would be the first to admit that. But there was no denying that he nailed the audition. It wasn’t just the fact that he had memorised all his lines before he had even got there, and delivered them succinctly and flawlessly. It was the passion. The intensity. Have you ever looked into an elephant’s eyes? The amount of emotion they can portray from the merest squint, from a trembling lid, from a maddening glare, is unparalleled. 

John cast him on the spot. 

Swillington became a circus after that, and John Lancaster the ringmaster. The tabloids soon got hold of the fact that an elephant had been cast in John’s latest production, and reporters from all over the country flocked to Yorkshire with reckless tenacity for pictures and interviews. Cameramen and news hosts lined the streets, small car parks became packed with camper vans and trucks from TV studios. You could barely turn a corner in the village without some freshly preened news anchor shoving a microphone in your face, looking for a sound bite. John couldn’t go anywhere without a trail of vultures clicking at his heels, and the public park opposite the town hall where rehearsals were held became a campsite filled with tents and tourists. Helicopters circled the village day and night, the sound of propeller blades ceaseless against the tranquil calm of a restless county. 

An abundance of pop-up stalls selling elephant themed novelties and knick-knacks seemingly appeared overnight, along with bus loads of tourists eager to buy whatever cheap accessory was thrust under their noses. All it took was one afternoon of heavy rain, and Swillington was awash with elephant raincoats and umbrella handles in the shape of a trunk. Business owners, eager not to get left behind in the wave of easy commerce, jumped on the bandwagon wherever possible. Keiran Frost, the aforementioned pub landlord, changed his establishment's name from The Three Hens to The Thirsty Elephant, along with a large colourful sign that hung outside that residents decried as “tacky and garish” but nonetheless attracted plenty of attention from camera-toting tourists. 

The atmosphere in rehearsals themselves was not much better. The stage had to be reinforced to support Herbert’s weight, and the balcony set where Juliet would call from had to be raised significantly; the scene lost some of its impact when Romeo could merely raise his trunk slightly and reach his Juliet. The costume department was aghast when they got Herbert’s measurements, and proclaimed the costs would be sky high. Leading lady Susan Hendricks found it difficult acting opposite such a large mammal, and struggled with stage presence whenever the two were in a scene together. 

That wasn’t to mention the animal activists who swarmed the streets whenever rehearsals were underway, chanting and protesting loud enough to hear from inside. They screamed of animal abuse, and as the days wore on the choruses of discontent morphed into shrieks and bellows fueled by anger and self-righteousness. It wasn’t long before the protestors were joined by a sub-sect of religious fanatics, a sanctimonious group spurred on by a pompous need to poke their noses into where they weren’t needed. Their main issue, they claimed, was of the kiss between Herbert and the pastor’s daughter Susan Hendricks, and the implied bestiality. Turns out even an implication was worthy of protest. They held up handmade signs with catchy slogans, declaring Dumbo + Bimbo = Sinful Mumbo Jumbo. The two groups of protestors, despite being unified in the objection, were at unease with each other, both thinking the other group were ‘whack jobs’. Their chants were discordant and inharmonious, and both groups steadily increased in volume to attempt to one-up the other. 

Despite all this, Herbert acted with the utmost professionalism. He was never late to rehearsal, he knew all his lines, and when the peanuts were passed around he left enough for everyone. 

John Lancaster had been worried Herbert’s newfound fame might get to him, but the mighty mammal was a beacon of modesty. Herbert crept in through the back door, deactivated his Twitter profile, and declined an appearance on The Graham Norton Show. 

Eventually, in late November, it came time for the Opening Night. Tickets were sold out weeks in advance. Ticket scalps preyed on the weak and needy, and prices were exaggerated to extortionate amounts. Those lucky enough to acquire tickets for the first performance arrived in the most exquisite and glamorous clothes; the men strutted in their suits and tuxedos, and woman pranced through the front door in silk dresses and long, fluttering gowns. A red carpet had been laid down on the steps leading to the entrance. Champagne was served on arrival by waiters. Swillington Town Hall had never seen such ritz and glamour, at least not since Noel Edmonds hosted the Great Yorkshire Cabbage and Cauliflower Best of Show competition in ‘84. 

As the seats filled up, John Lancaster peered out from behind the great curtain to look at the assembled audience. A few faces jumped out at him; Swillington’s Labour representative Tom Phillips, in a suit made entirely from tweed; one half of the Ant and Dec pairing, although he couldn’t tell which was which; Alfie Woodward the lisp-laden milkman and his mother, sitting side by side and deep in conversation; and a small assortment of animal activists whom John recognised from the cluster of protestors that dogged his rehearsals for weeks, but who were now poised in eager anticipation. John also noticed Helen Yates sat on the front row, his old nemesis from the entertainment and arts section of Aberford’s local paper. She was in her late fifties, wore crow’s feet for make-up and dressed exclusively in pant suits. Her pen and paper were sat on her lap, her eyes transfixed on the empty stage. John gulped. 

Backstage, there was an air of nervousness amidst his actors. He sensed trepidation and excitement in equal measure. Susan Hendricks was pacing back and forth, practicing her first monologue under her breath. Keiran Frost was shadow boxing as he went through his lines. Simon Dean was playing a handheld computer game with his headphones in, and Tommy Blake was hunched over the bin clutching his stomach. Herbert, however, sat in silent contemplation. John made eye contact with him, and Herbert winked. It was then John realised, everything might be OK after all. 

The lights dimmed. The audience hushed. The curtain raised. Showtime.
 
John snuck out from backstage and watched the performance from the audience side. It was an old habit, seeing the opening night from the spectator’s viewpoint, and it was one he stuck to no matter what. John watched his baby come to fruition for three hours. Most of all, he watched Herbert. He was transfixed by his star, and so was the crowd. Herbert moved in ways that should have been impossible for a creature five and a half tonnes; he spoke in a way that seemed impossible for an actor with a face full of ivory. This was Herbert’s night, and everyone was merely along for the ride.
 
It was, frankly, a masterpiece. The applause was deafening, and as the cast assembled for the curtain call and bowed gracefully, there wasn’t an audience member not on their feet cheering. John Lancaster was surprised to find a tear rolling down his cheek, and he flicked it away before anyone could notice.
 
The house lights came on, and the crowd began to disperse. Before John could escape however, he spotted Helen Yatesa striding towards him.
 
“We have to talk about the elephant in the room,” she whispered to him, her eyes narrowing. 

“Yes?” 

“He was amazing!” she almost exploded. “You’ve got a star on your hands there, John.” 

Afterwards, when the audience had long gone and the rest of the cast had returned to their homes, John Lancaster and Herbert sat outside on the town hall steps. John puffed on a cigar with gentle abandon. Herbert drank from a pitcher of vodka and cranberry juice, his trunk hanging loosely by his side and taking little gulps. 

“You’ve really opened my eyes, Herbert,” John said, between puffs. “Before you came along, I would have scoffed at succeeding in this. It felt ludicrous. It seemed impossible. But you proved them all wrong. Swillington and Shakespeare… Who would have guessed it? Next year we’ll tackle Midsummer Night’s Dream. There’s a donkey with your name on it.” 

Cigar smoke drifted into the night, and they looked up at the stars. 

“I feel like I see the world in a different way now,” John continued. “Things aren’t just black and white, you know? There are shades of grey.” 

Herbert nodded, and John knew he understood.

After that, life returned to a sense of normalcy. The production ran for another three weeks, and by the end they couldn’t even fill all the seats. The Thirsty Elephant was renamed back to The Three Hens, the garish sign taken down. The media circus that swarmed the village had gotten wind of an albatross studying for his law degree in Oxford, and they moved on. 

Later, John received word that The Walt Disney Company was interested in signing Herbert to a contract. The movie and media conglomerate was going to send out acting scouts and wanted to meet with him immediately. John called for Herbert, and on a balmy Winter’s eve, they sat around John’s kitchen table and discussed the future. 

“Herbert, I have news. Disney have been in touch. They want to make a deal with you.” 

Herbert said nothing for a long time. He stopped eating from the bag of peanuts he had been grazing on, his trunk frozen solid in the air. A look of anger, disgust and, yes, fear almost, was spread across his face. Finally, he looked John dead in the eyes and said: “Work with a Mouse? John, you really don’t know me at all.”

[about]

Samuel Edwards writes silly words and foolish stories, all in a vain attempt to be respected and adored. Please don’t hold it against him. He has a Bachelor of Arts Honours Degree from the University of Leeds, and is studying for a Masters Degree in Creative Writing. Samuel writes mainly to impress his pet cat, a feat he will never accomplish. Previously published in Vestal Review, The Birdseed and Flash Fiction Magazine, among others. Tweets at @Sam_Edwards1990.

Categories
Fiction Issue III

[COREY DAVIS]

Go Forth, Christian Soldier

The first night, Drew comes home on foot at a quarter past three. Calvin and Madeline Dunn awaken to the sound of their son’s key in the front door, the security alarm chiming its thirty-second warning and then silencing at the competent touch of his fingertips on the keypad. For a split second, Madeline feels a surge of joy, of special pride.  

Unlike the other college-age children of the ladies in her Bible study and her garden club and her walking group, Drew hardly ever visits for anything less than a major holiday, and, even then, he is home for a day of festivities and gone the next, and, even then, he never drops in unannounced, he never surprises his parents. His brother Ben is the same, firmly rooted now in Sacramento, job-secure, married, raising Cal and Madeline’s first grandchild. The Dunn boys are lovers of independence, young men smitten with the lives they have built for themselves with their own two hands. So, for that initial split second, Madeline finds herself brimming with unmitigated delight.  

He drove there straight from Nashville, Drew says as he sits on the edge of the couch in the living room, his head in his hands, his knee bouncing frenetically. He left his car in a field on a backroad outside of town and walked the rest of the way home. He is scared, he says. He is sorry, he says. He tells it in that order: fear, then regret. As his trembling voice forms these words, Madeline sees a sudden vision of the past, of a little boy padding into she and Cal’s dark bedroom, reeling from a nightmare, tearfully penitent for asking once again if he can burrow under the covers between them and know peace.  

“Son, what on earth are you talking about?” Cal asks him, glancing with terror-wide eyes at Madeline. She meets them, feeling as if she is in a strikingly realistic veneer of a dream.

Drew swallows hard. He speaks a name in a whisper, “Hallie.”  

Hallie: his girlfriend coming up on a year now. Madeline has met her twice—once during Family Weekend on campus, once at Thanksgiving brunch in that very house. Hallie: a dark haired girl with slender, balletic limbs and a softly-twanging voice, a pre-law student to Drew’s artistic focuses. They were on a hike or a picnic or a canoeing trip—Madeline suddenly cannot register which her son says it is—in the state park near the university. Something happened. There was a comment, an insult hurled. There was an argument. There was a shove, a glancing blow. There was a struggle. Something happened. Something happened.  

A short while later, Cal and Madeline are leading their son up the attic steps. They are clearing space amongst the storage bins to make a pallet of blankets and pillows for him on the plywood floor.  

“Thank God it’s not summer,” Drew says, chuckling a bit, as he watches them. “Or it’d feel like a furnace up here.” 

An impulse that Madeline doesn’t understand jolts through her, and she suddenly wants to slap him, she wants to strike her child. Instead, her gaze bores into the shadows muddling the corners of the attic. Her gaze bores into the plastic tubs that hold the baby clothes of this boy here and his brother before him. 

“You get some rest now,” Cal says to Drew. “It’s all going to be okay. . . it’ll all be okay.” Madeline does the unthinkable when they return to their bedroom. She grabs her phone and checks the news. She scans for her son’s name. Nothing comes up. Drew isn’t yet a suspect. Hallie hasn’t yet been declared missing. The world is still ignorant of it all. For the rest of the night, she and Cal sit up in bed and stare in silence at the curtains faintly glowing in the moonlight. Then Cal begins to mumble his thoughts to her in a nervous, hungry voice. They have two days, he wagers. Maybe three. Drew said the place where it happened—the place where he left her—was deep into the park, but he hadn’t been sure how deep. When the police find his dorm room empty, the next place they will look is this house, Cal says. That’s why they need to act fast, to plan quickly and thoroughly. Does Madeline remember the cabin Cal’s father left him in the Davis Mountains, near the Mexican border? Does Madeline remember Cal’s old half-junked VW Jetta idling in the lot across town? If he pays his buddy Gary—the mechanic, Madeline, remember?—to work out the engine’s kinks, then it could run good as new again, it could run all the way to Texas and beyond.  

Then Cal whispers, “Where are you going?”  

Madeline doesn’t look at him as she shoves her feet into her slippers and thrusts her arms into her bathrobe sleeves. “Backyard. I need some air.” 

He lurches halfway out of bed. “Let me come with you.” 

“I just need a minute, Cal.”  

The razor edge on her voice makes him falter, and she hears his soft, paranoid call trail down the stairs after her: “Well, come right back in, okay?”  

On her way through the dark stagnant house, Madeline detours into the dining room, swipes one of the cloth napkins from its place setting, and slips it out of its decorative ring. Then she steps out onto the back patio. The cold night air, the wind testing the bare trees, the muffled roar of semis skating the distant freeway—it all accuses. 

I am his mother, she thinks. But is this her plea for mercy or her means of justification? Abruptly, she clamps the napkin over her face and stuffs it in her mouth, wailing. She does not know whose death she is crying for.

The next day exists in a stupor. After only a few hours of transfigured life, there is a routine in place that has already grown mindless: Cal and Madeline bring up food to the attic, they bring up water or coffee or cans of Coke, they bring down the bucket Drew uses as a toilet, they bring it back up empty and freshly cleaned. 
In between these tasks, Madeline can barely move herself to stand from the couch. But Cal cannot bring himself to stay still. He calls Gary, offers him a generous sum to expedite the Jetta fix-up under the guise that he needs it ready before the weekend so he can enter it in a car show. Gary informs him that it will still take at least a day or more to obtain the correct parts. Meanwhile, Cal takes Drew’s cell phone into the garage and smashes it with a hammer. Just to be safe, he smashes Drew’s smartwatch as well. He kicks both compromised devices into a storm drain on his afternoon walk through the neighborhood.  

The thought of action makes Madeline feel lightheaded, so that, when she climbs the attic stairs and sees her boy’s face rise up from his pillow, sees the glare of his glasses and the tousled spikes of his hair, she finds herself almost breathless at his smallness. He is so childlike that it hurts her bones. Then she blinks, and his familiar bedhead resembles a bramble of thorns, the matted fur of a wild animal. All of a sudden, his bright smile is a cave to her, his teeth stalagmites.  

How could he have done this in anger? she thinks. He is so gentle. He is so sensible. Still, despite her confusion, she cannot help but feel relieved. Anger: it was all just an accident, an unforeseen rupture of emotion and control. That’s what he said anyway, the night before: I didn’t mean to do it, I didn’t mean to do it, over and over again. And as they held his shaking body on the couch, she and Cal answered: We know, we know. Over and over again, like the response in a litany.  

Anger. A better sin than malice. A better sin than premeditation. But lying? Deception? Is this a better sin than the admission of an unforgivable truth? 

Drew says, “Thank you, Mom,” when she hands him his dinner on a tray. He does not say, “I took Hallie out there to kill her.” He does not say, “I liked killing her.” He does not say, “If you tell the police, I will kill you too,” although an intrusive voice in Madeline’s head reminds her that he could, that any previously inconceivable violence is now freely capable of coming out of his mouth. 

That night, Cal takes a sleeping pill. He offers one to Madeline but she waves him away. “I’m going to ask Drew if he wants one,” he says lowly, as if ashamed, and leaves their bedroom. A few hours later, while he snores beside her, Madeline gets out of bed. She takes the napkin from the dining room table with her again and cups it under her chin on the back patio, as if to catch an impending flood of words or vomit or blood. She thinks of Hallie—her limbs twisted, her hair tangled with mud, the skin of her throat or her chest or her stomach bruised with Drew’s fingerprints—and this makes her stomach lurch. She thinks of Ben, if she should call him in secret, confide in him or confess to him, beg him to come home. But even if she does, she knows that Drew will probably already be gone by the time he arrives. And she and Cal have not yet allowed themselves to voice the underlying truth of Drew’s coming departure: that if he runs and makes it, if he succeeds, they will never see their son again.  

Madeline balls the napkin into her mouth to scream and then immediately stops. There is a light at the fence to her left, not ten feet away from the patio. She almost mistakes it for a firefly, a rogue survivor of the winter out for some night air. Then the light fluctuates tellingly, dimming and intensifying again as it is pursed between wine-red lips. There is a woman smoking a cigarette against the fence, her trench coat arms spread out to either side of her, resting along the top of the white pickets. She’s out there in the dark, but Madeline can see in the faint moonlight that she is tall, rail-thin, and dressed in business-casual attire, as if Madeline’s backyard is simply a resting spot on the woman’s walk home from working late at the office or having a drink with her colleagues at the bar down the street.  

Madeline lowers the napkin from her face, hurries to the light switch by the patio doors, and flicks on the spotlights affixed to the roof at either end of the house. The woman neither winces nor moans at the sudden brightness; she isn’t drunk. Her hair is dark, Madeline can see now, and it’s arranged in a billowy yet disheveled updo. Her eyes have dull purple circles underneath them; she is tired. 

So am I, Madeline thinks, and even smiles a little. Tired women attract tired women. We must be homing devices for each other’s weariness.  

The woman watches Madeline watch her before taking another drag of her cigarette. “You, uh, you pray out here in the dark?” She blows smoke against the sky and shrugs. “Private. Quiet. Seems like a good place to do the deed.” 

Madeline doesn’t tell the woman that she has prayed every single moment of that day, that she prays in her eyelids when she blinks, she breathes in prayers and then breathes them back out in short panicked bursts, she swallows them gummy and tasteless so they can sink like stones in her stomach. Without words and without voice, she asks for things of which she has no comprehension. She asks for things which are not human and which can never be.  

The woman jerks her chin up at the house, at the shingles on the roof. “You know what you’re going to do?” 

Glaring at her, Madeline wrings the napkin with both hands until the very fibers must be crying out for mercy. I will steal the world’s forgiveness and heap it upon his head. I will wash him white as snow myself. I will help him to live. I will let him go.

“Honey, I didn’t ask what you want to do, I asked what you’re going to do.” The woman crosses one ankle over the other, her stylish black trousers rustling. “What you’re really going to do.”  

Before she knows it, Madeline has stepped off the patio and is charging through the dew moist grass toward the woman, clutching the napkin in her fist like the handle of a whip. The woman appears to be unconcerned. All she says is, “I’m not here to cause you pain.”  

It makes Madeline stop. She can feel her heart booming, and she can see her breath vacating rapidly into the cold. There is a chance that she will break down in front of this woman, this stranger. The threads of her composure are threatening to unravel.  

“Go ahead, sin,” the woman says. 

Madeline stares, mouth agape, prayers leaking out. 

“Forsake your child.” The woman takes a drag. “Do it.” The night is terribly silent in her pauses. “Permission granted, if that’s what you need. Sin.”  

Madeline closes her mouth and contorts her face into a snarl. “Get out of my yard,” she says, then stalks back to the patio, turns off the spotlights, and goes inside the house. 

The next evening, Hallie’s picture is on the news. There is live footage: a shady, leaf covered grove; a forest backdrop against which a reporter’s voiceover recounts information; a shot of the entrance to the state park and a mess of police vehicles, like toy cars abandoned by a toddler in a sudden stroke of boredom. 

Up in the attic, Drew’s face fills with fear for the first time since the night he came home. “They found the body,” Cal tells him in a short, gruff voice, and Madeline wonders why he does not say, “Hallie’s body,” or “her body.”

“Then we gotta go now,” Drew says, crouching under the low ceiling, folding up his pallet with a wild urgency.  

Not us, Madeline thinks before she can stop herself. Just you. But, still, it’s been us this whole time, hasn’t it?  

Gary dropped the Jetta off that afternoon, not even three hours before, and Drew leaves for Texas in it under the cover of night. Calvin and Madeline do not stand in the driveway and wave. They do not even watch from the window. They turn off all the lights in the house and sit beside each other on the couch, stock-still, unable to bear even accidentally touching knees. 

“They’ll come tomorrow morning, you know,” Cal says. Madeline supposes he might as well have said, “The world will end tomorrow morning, you know.” 
At seven A.M., they let the police into their home. Outside, the sun is high and burning like ice. A cordon has been erected around their front yard. Officers in uniform idle in their driveway while news vans and media personnel and curious neighbors crowd in the street beyond the police tape.  

Mr. and Mrs. Dunn, do you have any idea where your son Drew might be? 

No, they both agreed to say the night before. They have not seen him. He has not been home since the start of the semester, and they have not received a phone call or text from him since the past weekend.  

Are you both aware of what has happened to Hallie Clemmons?  

Through her own mask of numbness, Madeline hears Cal feign ignorance: “Oh my goodness, no—oh my goodness—are you sure it’s her? I can’t believe this . . . I can’t—wait, you don’t think Drew had anything to do with it, do you?” 

The police ask to search the house, and Cal acquiesces. Every square inch of the attic has been sanitized anyway, purged of any trace of their son. They spent the whole night cleaning and burying and burning, and Madeline is so exhausted that her hands are tremoring, although the police seem to mistake this for shock. 
She remains in the living room while two policemen follow Cal upstairs. A female officer stays behind, and Madeline can feel her hovering nearby. Sunlight trickles in through the curtains, and it looks so beautiful, so heavenly, that she almost forgets to breathe. 

“Mrs. Dunn, you don’t look well,” the female officer says. “Do you need some water?” Blindly, Madeline feels for the officer’s hand, grips it, and pulls her toward the kitchen herself. “Do you have any children?” she wants to ask, but she cannot speak. Please God, are you the mother of anyone? Are you the mother?  

She guides the officer to the back of the kitchen, to the computer desk where the junk mail is piled. There is a map tacked to the wall above it, colorful pins marking vacation spots and road-trip destinations reached. Madeline hears the softened footsteps of her husband and the two policemen wandering the bedroom above. She feels liquid running down her face, so she must be crying.  

The officer says something, but Madeline doesn’t register it. Her unsteady hand traces the veins of the map westward and then down to a browned bruise, an aberration on the smooth topography of the earth. 

She is on her knees now, and she feels the officer’s calloused palm cradle her cheek, and she knows that she is both the servant and the traitor, and she understands that she is not crying, she is bleeding. 

[about]

Corey Davis is a young, emerging writer from Jackson, Mississippi, and an honors graduate of the University of Mississippi, where her fiction work won the Ella Somerville Award and the Evans Harrington Creative Writing Scholarship. Her fiction and poetry have also appeared in Goat’s Milk, MudRoom, Brave Voices, and more.

Categories
Fiction Issue III

[BRIAR RIPLEY PAGE]

HELP! MY BODY IS CHANGING!

A Guide For Young People

What follows is the transcribed text of a crumpled-up pamphlet found caught in a street gutter near Ipswich, Massachusetts. The pamphlet was printed in black and white on cheap paper, using a small, single-spaced serif font. It also contained clip-art illustrations of fish, frogs, mermaids, and the Creature from the Black Lagoon. It did not list its authors, and its origin could not be traced. Attempts to visit the website alluded to in the pamphlet turned up a 404 error message.


If your family member, friend, doctor, or trusted member of the clergy has handed you this pamphlet, CONGRATULATIONS! That means they have noticed, or you have confided, that your body has begun to undergo some very exciting changes! Though these changes may seem confusing, embarrassing, and even scary at first, we hope to help you embrace them, understand them, and stand tall with pride. Only very special people are lucky enough to have the experience you’re about to embark upon— an experience of COMPLETE TRANSFIGURATION from one form of life into another!
             
Let’s begin with a few frequently asked questions:


01. WHY IS THIS HAPPENING TO ME?

A combination of genetic and environmental factors have caused your body to begin its transfiguration. The exact gene sequences in play are complex, and still poorly understood. They may be inherited from one or both parents, or, in rarer cases, they may spontaneously arise through mutation. Some recent studies (using the information gathered via programs such as 23 and Me) indicate that up to 2% of the North American population has one or more genetic abnormalities correlated with the transfiguration process. Obviously, the actual instance of transfiguration is far lower: current estimates place it around 0.001%, meaning about one in one hundred thousand individuals will metamorphose at some point in their lives.

However, these individuals aren’t evenly spread out. In some parts of the country (and the world), transfiguration is completely unheard of. On the other side of the spectrum, one small New England fishing town boasts a whopping 38% transfiguration rate!  

 This means it is likely that the genetic abnormalities must be present in specific combinations, and an affected individual exposed to one or more environmental “triggers”, in order for transfiguration to occur. Everything from diet to childhood trauma to in-utero exposure to heavy metals has been proposed as a potential trigger, but the truth is, we don’t yet know why some people with these genes transform while others do not.  

And the larger truth is, it doesn’t matter why it happens.  

There is nothing wrong with you. There is no way to stop you from being what you are. Do not let others’ ignorance persuade you to think of yourself as a tragedy.  


02. WHY IS THIS HAPPENING NOW? 

Most people begin to change between the ages of 20 and 30. However, the process can begin as young as twelve and as old as fifty! As mentioned in the previous point, no one is sure exactly why it happens, or why the point of onset varies so widely.  

If you’re having trouble processing what this means for your future, or for the life you’ve already built, counseling can be very helpful. A list of highly recommended, affordable professionals in all 50 states can be found on our website (www.friendsofthedeepones.org).  


03. AM I GOING INSANE?  

You probably feel like it! The brain is just another part of the body, and your entire body is undergoing massive shifts in form and function. Most people report some temporary psychological distress: mood swings, bizarre dreams, insomnia or hypersomnia, even mild visual and auditory hallucinations! These will pass.  

You will come out the other side feeling more stable and secure than you’ve ever felt before. Your senses will all be sharp and clear, your mind no longer muddied by human socialization and human prejudices. You will be no more insane than a snail, a shark, a squid, or an albatross.  


04. CAN I REMOVE MY FACIAL SCALES OR COVER THEM WITH COSMETICS SOMEHOW? 

Plucking your scales will cause painful wounds that may become infected, and the scales will grow back anyway. Covering scales with makeup can induce hives and rashes; we don’t recommend it. You cannot hide for long.  


05. WHY DO I LOOK SO DIFFERENT “DOWN THERE”?  

When your transfiguration is complete, you will have a fully developed, fully retractable penis; a likewise retractable ovipositor; internal testicles, a vagina, ovaries, and a uterus. You will be able to perform any sexual/reproductive role with any partner you choose. For protection and streamlining while swimming, your genitals will fold into the sealed pouch between your legs when not aroused. The pouch may look like an abscess or unusually large, inflamed sore in early development; this should not last more than a few months.  


06. DOES THIS MEAN I’M GAY? 

If you want to call yourself gay, sure! If not, don’t worry about it.  

If you’re invested in identifying as exclusively “heterosexual” or “straight”, you’re going to have to let that go. There can be no straightness where there can be no pretense of binary sex, where there is no hierarchy of gender, where everyone is considered an aberrant freak by the untransfigured masses.  


07. WHAT SHOULD I TELL MY FRIENDS AND FAMILY?  
  
Be honest. Tell them you are changing into a new creature. Tell them you are not as once you were. Tell them you are entering into a life of wonder and glory. Tell them they shouldn’t mourn you, or fear for you. Tell them you will still love them, even if you must part ways. Be sympathetic but firm. Tell them you are sorry about their distress, but it is not your problem. Tell them that if they try to stop your transfiguration, or detain you, they will fail. And they will be your friends and family no more. And they will feel the sting of your needle-teeth and venomous spurs.  
  

08. HOW CAN I FIND OTHERS LIKE ME?  

If you’re lucky, you already live in an area with a prominent transfigured community. Find out when and where they hold support groups, community meetings, and swimming competitions. If you’re too nervous to participate at first, just show up and introduce yourself to one or two of the regulars.  

If you’re in a more isolated (or landlocked) area, try our website’s forums and mailing list (www.friendsofthedeepones.org). We can even set you up with a one-on-one “digital mentor”!  


09. IS THERE SOMETHING I CAN DO TO MAKE MYSELF CHANGE FASTER?  

Your enthusiasm is charming, but unfortunately, the transfiguration process cannot be hurried any more than it can be halted. Like human puberty, it proceeds at a different pace for everyone. Be patient. Eventually, you will become the creature you are in your dreams of the deep water.  


10. AM I STILL GOING TO BE “ME” WHEN I’VE CHANGED ALL THE WAY?    

Are you the same person you were when you were a child? If you did not undergo transfiguration, would you be the same person you are right now in ten years? Time alters us all, no matter what. You will have all your memories. You will have many of the same likes, dislikes, and personality traits. If you are very attached to dwelling on land you may even choose to continue with a similar lifestyle, although we do not recommend this.  


11. WILL I LIVE FOREVER?  
  
No living creature is immortal, save arguably certain single-celled organisms. You will still be vulnerable to violence, accidents, some diseases, and the increasing problems of ocean acidification and pollution.  

However, if you avoid all these hazards, you can expect to live a very, very long time.  

 —-  

THE TRANSFIGURATION PROCESS TIMELINE: WHAT CHANGES YOU CAN EXPECT, AND WHEN  

The first signs of incipient transfiguration are sleep disturbances, dreams of the ocean, and an itchy, persistent rash on the face, neck, shoulders, and back that does not respond to topical treatments or antibiotics. Extreme thirst and a distaste for bright light may or may not accompany these symptoms.  

The next stage, which can occur within months or after several years, comprises gradual hair loss, bulging eyes, and a grayish or greenish cast to the skin, especially in areas where the rash is present. At this stage, some cases of transfiguration are misdiagnosed as hyperthyroidism. Once the skin has taken on its gray/green tone, changes usually proceed in the following order:  
  
2 WEEKS-- 2 MONTHS: Development of scales on the face, shoulders, &c. Formation and thickening of webs between fingers/toes. Formation of translucent, retractable membranes over eyes.  
  
2 MONTHS—8 MONTHS: Development of gills on neck. Genital pouch begins to form. Genital growth begins. Loss of typical human teeth. Loss of original eyelids.  
  
6 MONTHS— 2 YEARS: Webs between digits are fully formed. Gills are fully formed and functional. Venomous spurs begin to develop on ankles and wrists. Carnivorous teeth grow in.  
  
1 YEAR— 4 YEARS: Genital reformation complete. Venomous spurs are fully formed and functional. Hair loss complete. Spiny crest on head/back may or may not develop.    

1.5 YEARS— 5 YEARS: Transfiguration complete. Transfigured individual feels strong instinct to take to the sea. Transfigured individual comes home.  

 —-  

HOME
  
The transfigured are amphibious, and can live on land indefinitely. But lingering in the air is bad for the skin, bad for the bones, bad for the heart.  

Typical humans may tolerate the transfigured; they cannot ever understand them. They feel an instinctual revulsion towards those with scales and gills. Few can fully overcome it. Even parents often turn on their children, and siblings on their siblings, and spouses on their spouses. Some are merely rejected, left to complete their metamorphosis without shelter or support. Others are beaten, institutionalized, subjected to barbaric “medical treatments” that do not and can not make them “human again”. Each year, a few are murdered. Cut down before they have a chance to crawl to the water and breathe it in.  

Relocate to a coastal region while you retain the ability to pass as a typical human. Driving a car with fully webbed hands and feet is difficult, and taking a plane or bus in an advanced stage of metamorphosis is risky for obvious reasons. Once you dwell within sight of the ocean, nature will take its course.  

When you have grown into your final form, when dreams and your flesh call you to the ocean with every pulse of blood and every footstep, you should go as quickly as possible. Only suffering waits in the world you’ve known.  

 —-  

YOU WILL BE LOVED  

We can promise you this. We are waiting with our gray-green, shining-scaled arms outstretched. We are waiting for each and every one of you. We see the beauty in your eyes like lemons protruding from too-small sockets, the beauty suffusing clear and painful venom, the beauty of black needles in gum and nailbed. We are legion. Our bone houses, coral houses, garbage and rot houses are all for you. All for us. We’ve made places no primate can reach. We’ve set a table down in the dark, and we are each of us the guest of honor. 

Don’t be afraid. Let the changes fall upon you like a wave upon the shore. Let them sweep you out to the secret places where we wait.

[about]

Briar Ripley Page is the author of Corrupted Vessels, a queer, surreal Southern Gothic novella from swallow::tale press, and Body After Body, a self-published ero-guro dystopian novel. Their shorter work has appeared in places like Moon Park Review, beestung, and the Blood Orange Poetry Tarot. Briar’s online at briarripleypage.xyz.

Categories
Fiction Issue III

[JEN SCHNEIDER]

On Uniformity

How Many / More Coffee / Table for __ / Sharing Charge of __

We were uniformed but not uniform. Black, elastic-waist khakis with white button-down tops. Some waists stretched wider than intended. Others belted and twined. Top buttons always locked. Ties on top. Trademarked socks – cotton with a hint of odor-proof Lycra - on bottom. Restaurant policy. Not only food was plated. Each detail of our being regulated. Nets on hair. Lacquer on nails. Gloss on lips. Image always everything and the proprietors imagined much more for themselves than a 24-hour diner. They envisioned royalty. Breakfast reigned supreme. Eggs Benedict always on the menu. Oversized milkshakes and bottomless cups of freshly brewed coffee. Even as the town shuttered, first due to curfew, later due to economics, the orange neon lights would blink O.P.E.N., beckoning mouths of all makes and models. The establishment depended on us as much as we depended on it. Heck, we all have mouths to feed. And we all need hands to feed them. Clean them, too. Each of us also regulars - most with 2.2 kids, give or take the decimal, and two primary desires - enough cash to buy beer on Fridays and enough in the bank to make rent on Sundays. Despite our conformity to restaurant policy and census trends, we were privy to sharing meals but not much more. Wes tucked our private lives in restaurant issued lockers as soon as our shifts started. None of us ever dreamed of a life driven by menus and daily specials, especially when there was nothing much special about it, yet our days were tallied and clocked by plates and platters. We were on the clock, just like the diner’s recipes. We focused on the regulars. We knew them all by name, but never addressed them as such. Privacy paramount. Sir. Doll. Mam. Hon. We reused salutations at a pace that rivaled the kitchen staffs’ reuse of utensils. The refrigerated pasta salad and coleslaw, too. Sprinkle fresh parsley on top and serve with a smile. Scrub off hardened residue and serve up squeaky clean editions of our best selves. Always. The customers addressed us as mostly Miss, though most of us were or had been married at least once. Some more. Even D, who swore off the institution of marriage, had a small diamond placed on her left ring finger last Christmas. A small bruise on her right shoulder a few weeks later, but none of us talked about that. Like the Thursday special of unknown meat and the contents of salad bar tub 2. We didn’t know who was stealing Coke from the dispenser. Also didn’t know who took the last eclair. It could have been any of us. May have been all of us. Everyone eats. Had we known, they would have been exterminated and terminated - effectively immediately. Like ants in the dishwasher and mice by the garbage. Always one post away from extinction. Facebook posts. Anonymous phone calls. 1-star Yelp reviews. Roaches and poaches, too. We worked for tips, depended on them not unlike the way M depended on N, her husband of forty years, to order. Later cut her meat. And not unlike the way N depended on us after her passing. He’d come in each morning at 7. For the No. 2 - two eggs and toast. Sometimes a side of bacon. M would not approve. And the day’s news. Not unlike the way the men in suits depended on morning coffee - caffeinated, of course - and the way the mothers with toddlers depended on crayons and cartoon placemats. We’d clean messes of all sorts. Coffee. Milk. Chicken noodle soup. Breakups. Despite the paper napkins, most would cry. Our customers were just as much our babies as the platters. Most Mondays, V would come with H and his wedding band. With J and a ringless finger on Thursdays. Bread deliveries. Daily news. TV steamed and streamed over apple pie. Last February, management instituted a pooled tip policy. None of us knew what to make of it. Felt like gambling and we weren’t gamblers. Except B, but he barely worked so none of us would bet on him. Until the day he tipped off cops and they arrested our shift manager for fraud. She had been taking a cut - a hefty slice (what we’d term a double) - of what was legally ours. Law enforcement had filled our booths for years. That day, we felt as if they framed the vinyl seats. The shift manager managed everything. Including us. Everyone eats.

In Blue Button Downs and Khaki Bottoms

We were uniform and uniformed. Navy blue button downs and khaki bottoms. Collars closed. Most bottoms sewn of over-indulgent elastic at the waist and under indulgent cotton at the ankle. Our mandatory white coats both unifying and artificial. We came from as near as two blocks over to as far as two bus lines and a freeway drive away. Shift workers charged with dispensing tiny pills with powers far beyond that of any of us - of anyone. A few wore glasses – tortoise shell, red ovals, double strength readers. Others favored contacts – hard and soft lens. Extra saline always on hand. None of us had 20-20 vision, yet all of us saw much more than we’d ever admit. Our patrons included cheerleaders on birth control and young wives on hormones. We were trained not to ask questions, but reading was second nature. Policy, too. Charged with imparting information on side effects, we walked an invisible line – one that required we balance both affect and effect. We peddled Neosporin for kids with stitches. Cover-up for bruises. Make up far more significant than gender-neutral lifts. We were magicians who made the visible invisible. Sleights of hand everywhere. Kids on Gilenya. Men on speed. Experimental trials, too. All of us more knowing than we’d ever wish to know. Like the 53-year-old male (121 days until his next birthday), with one wife, three kids, and an alcohol induced penchant for Pepto Bismol. Untreated liver disease. Secret stashes of cigarettes. Medically and mentally documented. Typically, customers – we never called them patients, though many tried our patience – would pick up what had already been ordered. None wished to be there. Not new Dads who needed baby diapers. Not old Dads who needed adult diapers. We were schooled in everything baby. Teething tricks, diaper rash balms, Neosporin ointment. Everything old, too. Excessive gas, incontinence, and sleeping aids. Sleep the greatest opponent of all. We were schooled on acne treatments and over treatments. Forced to ID addicts and convicts – pre and post lawful abiding status. Like the 60-year old woman with a still good back who used her dead mother’s name to buy narcotics for back pain. Mostly we waited. For meds and Mondays. Deliveries of Juicy Fruit gum and Diet Snapple. T preferred Peach. B fancied Raspberry. Each of us counted the minutes for our turn to retire. To the breakroom. Plastic bags, paperbacks and paper sacks unzipped and unfolded on the metal table. The wall clock watched us as we listened to Days of Our Lives, The Price is Right, and NPR. M would covet the thermostat. P would covet M. M preferred 68. P, 65. We never knew who would emerge the victor of the day’s war. Not sure any of us cared. We came armed with cardigans and extra Ts. A. favored silk scarves. Blankets and besties under our stark white lab coats. Sized Small to Triple XXX. We were the same. We spent our shifts in service, but service never ceased. Sometimes, on quiet nights, we’d grab a bag of jacks from the toy aisle. Sometimes marbles. Pinky balls would have been fun, but too risky. We knew where the cameras were. Knew they were always on. Controlled by corporate. Our phones a lifeline. Especially for times there was a ruckus at the front. We’d pull down the metal grate – orders – to protect the meds – not us – and dial 9-1-1. We had a special button, a code system between the store’s front and back. Other than the hold-ups and the f-ups, the front of the store got all the love. Unless you count Viagra, which we were responsible for. The front had the Cola and the Russell Stover boxes. Closest to the Hallmark aisle and the Sudoku books. Not to mention the Maybelline and the Cover Girl. Our own uniforms – face and fabric - not gracing any covers. Hair style specifications, too. All hairs tied and tucked. FDA rules, corporate would say. We never could prove it. Only found increasing grey. Proof of purchase reigned. No proof, no refund, we’d say. On repeat. Like the clock’s minute hand. We all had theories - why someone would return a half-used box of condoms; a half-empty bottle of OxyContin; acne cream. None of us really knew, all of us knowing.

[about]

Jen Schneider is an educator who lives, writes, and works in small spaces throughout Pennsylvania. She loves words, warm welcomes, and winter (along with the other three seasons). Poetry is a perfect complement to all of her interests. Poetry is also a perfect sounding board for her many questions. She is a Best of the Net nominee, with stories, poems, and essays published in a wide variety of literary and scholarly journals. She is the author of Invisible Ink (Toho Pub), On Daily Puzzles: (Un)locking Invisibility (forthcoming, Moonstone Press), and Blindfolds, Bruises, and Breakups (forthcoming Atmosphere Press).

Categories
Fiction Issue III

[SUMEDHA SENGUPTA]

Dear Dependant

Nikhil had dozed off while reading an article in the newspaper. He held it spread open with both his hands as if shielding his tired eyes from the slanting rays of the afternoon sun. Meera was sitting on the chair next to him, humming a tune in a low voice. The somewhat dissonant tune had sounded familiar to him, but he soon dismissed the idea of finding any sense in it, and he trailed off into the warm arms of afternoon slumber.  

The droning melody eventually dwindled and he started awake as the sudden silence gripped his heart with a sense of impending doom. He felt her heated gaze turn towards him.  

“Nikhil, could you tell me where Nikhil has gone?” she demanded, her eyes wide with earnest concern. The bizarre dichotomy of the sentence was long lost on her, and the heart-wrenching urgency in her voice demanded an answer.  

“You don’t know what you are saying.” his reply was sharp, in the desperate hope that the curt answer would serve as a levee to the floods of her confused imaginations.  

“But you don’t understand, he was supposed to take me home!”  

He had tried and exhausted every answer he could give to that question. Had he tried reminding her that she was talking to Nikhil himself, she would’ve jeeringly insinuated that he was the one descending into senility. On the other hand, if he just lied through his teeth to assure that ‘Nikhil’ was just on his way home, she would simply dismiss him in disbelief.  

In fact the ‘Nikhil’ within the quotations, was the object of his nightmares. 

Nevertheless, he was aware that he needed to tread lightly because Nalini, the woman who usually took care of his wife, was on a holiday. He decided to let the air, heavy with her stinging question and his leaden silence, settle down on his shoulders. And somewhere within him, he hoped that she would forget about the silence too as she had forgotten about most everything else.  

Nikhil had spent fifty years with her. In those years, he never had the chance to witness her round eyes buzzing with curiosity. He had once brought home a second-hand computer because he wanted his wife to use the device for writing stories and maintain her daily logs-something to keep her busy. But far from utilising it, she gave up on the fancy gadget merely days after. The device had since occupied a corner in their bedroom, quietly sitting under a thin film of dust. It had now become the mammoth monster of the room, riddling her mind in the middle of long, dreadful nights. No, she never had a lot of curiosity. In his mind, she would always be content with the clickety clack of the weary old typewriter, and the loud whirring of the ancient sewing machine.  

Yet here he was years later, grappling with the consequences of her unquenchable, gut-wrenching curiosity that now questioned his identity.  

“But where did Nikhil go? He was supposed to be here with me!” She insisted, her rising pitch echoing from the drawing-room walls. There was nothing he could say to make her believe that he was long past the point of playing hide-and-seek.  

He had always been aware of the fact that she was dependent on his protection. Perhaps that was the reason her eyes were accustomed to search for him.  

Amongst them, there was an unspoken rule that she would be the one taking care of the house, and he would be the provider. The hand-drawn line had never been challenged by anyone in fifty years. She had weaved herself into a cocoon of solitude- brewing tea, washing utensils, and keeping the house clean. In return for the neatly starched shirt every morning, and the fish curried to perfection, he diligently sat behind his computer all day at the office and crunched numbers to bring home a wad of cash at the end of each month. That was the only thing he remembered doing in his youth. Except, once in a while, he would take off to the hillside, or the beaches, and she would reluctantly accompany him. He once asked her where she wanted to go, and she simply shrugged in reply. But one thing he had figured out about her was that she preferred the deep ocean to the hills. Perhaps she had always been scared of scaling heights. He could tell because every time they packed their suitcases, she always chose her favourite saris when they were going to the beach. The hills only ever got to witness her in grey and beige.  

She had spent fifty years adjusting to his wishes and whims. Not even for a moment had she wanted to become independent- financially, or otherwise. He always wondered how she could be okay with the idea of being wholly dependant on someone else, but even with all his zestful curiosity, he never attempted to ask. 

He could hear the curses she muttered under her breath. She was currently livid that Nikhil had left without telling her, and she was desperate to go home. 

Home— 

The home they had resided in for half a century, was painted in a bright shade of yellow and the curtains drawn over the windows were moss green, a shade that had reminded Meera of the curtains in her father’s hospital chamber. The armchairs in the living room were dressed in garments she had crocheted, and there used to be a giant vase standing in the corner that was hand-painted by her. The tall shelf standing against the wall was stacked with books that reminded her of the fields in Bangladesh, a few crystal showpieces, and a doll that crashed cymbals when someone wound the key. 

Now the walls were tarnished, and the vase had broken. The floors were unkempt and most of the books had been destroyed by termites. He wondered if that was the reason that it had stopped being ‘home’. If he even dared to ask where ‘home’ to her is today, she would fumble like there was gravel cutting against her tongue. Yet, she wanted to go home.  

He feared that she would wander off into the streets alone searching for ‘home’, and then she would never be able to find her way back without him.  

“I would like some tea” she announced after a while clearing her throat. The sudden calm in her voice made him jump out of his reverie. He folded the newspaper that he had been futilely holding open, and just for a moment, he sat still trying to ascertain that the calm wasn’t a hoax. 

“I would like some tea,” she repeated, “Can you even hear me?” 

In an instant he braced himself to call out for Nalini. The responsibility of brewing the tea had shifted to yet another woman now, no questions asked. A moment passed before he realised that he was the one responsible today. Making tea wasn’t rocket science, he repeated in his mind. 

The small, poorly lit kitchen had always been Meera’s turf. It was as if the aroma of coconut oil braided in her hair, was incorporated into its walls. The steel containers of Masala were lined up in a way that it felt like he was steering through a maze- a labyrinth he could never fully decode.  

He never understood how she had spent most of her life enclosed within this box. But every time her odd experiments of mixing and matching condiments yielded something delicious, her eyes used to light up as if she hadn’t been enclosed at all. As if, she was the most curious being on the planet. 

But just a few months back while she was frying fish, the shawl draped on her had caught on fire. She would not let go of the shawl, no matter how hot it was outside, or how much he pleaded with her. Nikhil vowed to himself to never let her near the flames again. It had almost taken physical force to keep her away from the kitchen. But with time perhaps the disease had taken away her memories of the kitchen as well, just like one day, it will take away her memory of her own reflection in the mirror.  

He fumbled to look for the saucepan in the small cabinet beneath the sink. A large heap of utensils tumbled down, crashing on the floor. He scuffled to put them back together and ended up breaking the plastic handle of the pressure cooker. In midst of all the hullabaloo, he almost missed the sounds of shuffling feet that rushed towards the scene of this ludicrous misadventure.  

She stood there, arms akimbo, utterly confused at witnessing the old man wrestling with a pile of stainless steel.  

“Err, I was just trying to make tea,” he mumbled without looking at her, “Hopeless, I am!” A light of understanding spread over her face, and it almost felt like a distant dream.  

“We keep the saucepan outside, you know,” she said pointing towards the utensil kept upturned on the granite slab. The present tense that she used in her sentence, rang in his ear like an oddity, and he almost wished that it had been true.  

“Seems like you never managed to teach me anything after all, Meera,” a small smile crept on his lips.  

“It’s not my fault, Nikhil”, she muttered under her breath, “You were always quite dependant on me.” 

She helped him gather the cinnamon, milk, and tea leaves, and gently explained the process as if she were teaching a child. And Nikhil carefully clung to every word she uttered. After all, it might have even been the last time he could depend on her. Just one last time, he told himself, and then he would be her ‘home’. 

She stood leaning against the doorframe, quietly looking as he poured milk in the tea. And suddenly, it struck her— 

“But Nikhil, where did Nikhil go?”

[about]

Sumedha Sengupta (She/Her) is a student and writer residing in New Delhi, India. She was the only Asian writer to be shortlisted for the Margaret and Reg Turnill Short Story Prize, 2021. Her work has appeared and is forthcoming in Twist&Twain, The Livewire, Ayaskala, and more. On a good day, she can be found obsessing over chemical reactions, painting contorted faces, or listening to classical music. One day, she hopes to discover something extraordinary!

Categories
Fiction Issue 2

[LARRY SHI]

Sandstorms, Dust Storms / Ghost of Lin Zhi Cun

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[about]

Larry Shi is an avid sixteen year old writer from Fremont, California. When he is not taking spontaneous naps throughout the day, he is constantly thinking of ideas and daydreaming away. He credits his participation in the prestigious California State Summer School for the Arts (CSSSA) as his spark for his writing portfolios. His work has been recognized as a National Gold Medal Winner in the Scholastic Art and Writing National Contest, while his work has also
been published in numerous literary journals and magazines, including the Stanford Anthology for Youth. In his free time, Larry loves to play tennis with his friends and play percussion and the piano.

Categories
Fiction Issue 2

[JESSICA WANG]

PRAYER

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[about]

Jessica Wang is a sixteen-year old girl from New York. She is the founder of the literary magazine Ice Lolly Review. Her work has been recognized eleven times by Scholastic Art and Writing Awards and she is a Scholastic national medalist. She has also won some local writing
contests. Jessica has some work in Skipping Stones, The Telling Room, and The Weight Journal. Her advice is to calm down and to have a Snickers because you’re not you when you’re hungry.

Categories
Fiction Issue 2

[CHRISTOPHER CASCIO]

Shane

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[about]

Chris Cascio’s fiction, nonfiction, and artwork has appeared in Sand: Berlin’s English Literary Journal, Longridge Review, Peregrine Journal, The Southampton Review, The Northern Virginia Review, Gulf Stream Magazine, Mikrokosmos, Litro USA, and elsewhere. His story, “Outbound,” was nominated for a Pushcart Prize in 2017.