The Day It Rained Rats

Joseph lived on a farm. His eyes were the same faded denim blue as the sky, his skin was the white of the weathered silo wood, and his hair was the dark gold of wheat stubble left in a field. He had lived on the farm all thirteen years of his life and knew all the moods of it. Often, he could tell by the color of the sky at dawn how the day was going to go; If it would rain, if something had got into the chicken coop, how many visitors they would have. It seemed no significant trick to him, so he never devised a language with which to discuss it. He felt this deficit sorely the day he woke up and the sky was crystal.

What did that mean? Even in his own head, he struggled to define it. The sky had a peculiar crackling quality to it almost like a lightning storm, but not quite. The air tasted like a tornado, yet none of the animals in their pens had the telltale restlessness that preceded such storms. The sky simply wasn’t right, and he couldn’t explain how or why.

So he didn’t.

The day was unremarkable from sunup to about two-thirty. Ma and Pa and baby Sadie went to town to see about some business. Uncles Carl and Curt, identical save for Curt’s bristled-straw mustache, were left on hand to mind everything. Joseph did what he normally did: weave in and out of chores to grab the odd lonely moment where he could be by himself. Instead of whittling or playing marbles, he put his ear to the sky. The atmosphere had turned an innocuous blue, but the air still tasted wrong. Earthy. Like the ground after a lightning snap.

Uncle Curt was on the roof chasing one of the chickens back to ground-level. Carl had availed himself to replace the rope-winch to the well and had Joseph on standby to hand him tools. It was all so shockingly normal so when the change came it was as sudden and terrible as a thunderclap.

Carl tied a quick blood knot as a stay and grunted as he got up from a sitting position.

“Awl’s in the house,” he said, ambling across the yard, “lent it to your daddy for his leather.”

Joseph followed not out of duty, but simple inertia. He floated like a fishing bob behind his uncle as they met Curt, walking perpendicular with a chicken under one arm.

“‘Bout to get the mallet,” Curt said. Carl grunted.

The brothers parted, Carl to the house, Curt to the coop.

“S’funny,” Carl began, “I ever tell you—”

Whatever anecdote he began was lost, never to be found again. A meaty thud of impact reverberated across the farm yard. As one, uncle and nephew turned.

Curt stood angled oddly, as if frozen in the middle of a dance. He held his arm in one hand, face ashen grey.

“Okay,” he said, spitting. “Oookay.”

His right shoulder was oddly lumpy and grey. No. As it began to move, Joseph realized the impact had been the sound of a rat hitting his shoulder. The rodent lay draped over the dislocated joint, no bigger than a loaf of banana bread. Whatever height it had fallen from had stunned it momentarily. The moment was over almost as quickly as it began, when the rat righted itself and screeched. Joseph got a flashbulb impression of mad black eyes and yellow teeth before it buried itself in Curt’s shoulder, screaming.

Carl unfroze. He drove the boy before him with a firm hand, saying, “go on, get,” as he shoved Joseph towards the house. They reached the safety of the porch as another rat screeched from the sky to wind up denting the hood of the old Ford truck. They gaped as the rodent shook off the fall and scampered away.

From the safety of the front steps they watched Curt make it halfway across the yard until another rat beaned him on the head. He’d been tearing at the rat who’d been tearing at his shoulder, now his hands fell away and he dropped to one knee. The rat that bounced off his head scampered to his ankle, followed by three new arrivals.

Curt looked up just once, making eye contact with Carl. Carl nodded grimly and shoved Joseph inside the house.

Curt only screamed towards the end. Carl wouldn’t let him look outside, but Joseph still heard the battered sound of Curt’s throat trying to make words, along with the desperate slaps as he tried to beat them away.

Carl was breathing heavy. Perspiration formed a mustache on his clean-shaven face.

“They just bounced,” he said, not to Joseph or anyone alive. “They fell outta the damn sky and ain’t even dead!”

The tin roof of the farmhouse became a deafening drum, continuous gong sounds echoing through the house as rats hit the metal. Carl went to great aunt Sadie’s sewing desk and got some cotton wool for their ears and then put Joseph to work barricading doors. The icebox went in front of the back door. The china cabinet before the front. One window was broken by a sideways-sleeting rat that Carl threw out by the tail, he nailed the tea-tray over the hole.

Joseph stood at the second-story window in his parent’s room. The rain had been going on for an hour, now the fall of bodies was cushioned by the other bodies. A fat carpet of rats swarmed the chicken coop. He could hear the cows in the pasture, bellowing as they swatted fruitlessly with their tails. The barn cat was nowhere in sight, but more than likely a loss.

Carl came into the room panting and perspiring. “Damn fine thing it isn’t raining cats and dogs right now,” he joked thinly. He noticed Joseph and waved. “Come away from the winder. Nothing worth seeing out there, anyway.”

The daylight turned black as the inside of a cow’s stomach. Storm clouds deposited rat after rat on the dusty ruin of the farm. The air smelled thick and sharp, the earthiness turned to the smell of a rat’s den. Joseph imagined the clouds roiling with all the debris that comes with rodents; perhaps a musky rain of rat’s piss would fall on them next.

Carl deposited Joseph on the settee and looked at him hard. “I don’t like your eyes, boy.”

Joseph turned robotically to look at him. “Ma and pa. Baby Sadie.”

Carl failed to hide his dismay quickly enough. “I’m sure they’re fine. Lots of buildings downtown, good hard brick.”

They both knew it was a lie.

The rats knocked out the single line that ran to the farmhouse, so they had supper by candlelight. Leftover beef, new potatoes that grit in their teeth, and stale biscuits. Joseph saw an upside-down cake his mother left in the icebox and said nothing. Carl kept up a regimen of bright, brittle conversation that did not succeed in drowning out the screech of rats.

“I’ve heard of fish rain afore,” he said, cotton wool all but muffling his voice, “frogs one time, too. Up in Heckville. That was in your great-grandad’s time.” His hands shook as he sawed the meat. He cut the webbing between his thumb and forefinger and swore through a gritted smile.

“You’ll see, Joseph,” he said as he swaddled the cut with a cloth napkin. “A little rain like this is nothin’. Not at all. Probably just some tornader pick them up from elsewhere. Nothin’ at all.”

Joseph sat and watched his uncle with dry eyes. Part of him had cracked and fallen away when the first rat fell. His uncle’s desperate babble washed over him like a weak tide. He smelled the crackling odor of the sky and heard the rats and felt nothing.

Joseph would have liked to sleep in his own bed, but Carl dragged him into the cellar. There amidst the damp and the jars of preserves, Carl spread a single quilt over the both of them.

“You’ll see, bluebird,” he kept repeating. Bluebird had been his nickname for Joseph a long time ago. “You’ll just see.” What Joseph would see and what it would do, Carl did not say. He only repeated the phrase over and over.

The cellar floor was hard under his spine and Carl had only thought to bring one pillow. Somehow sleep found Joseph. He cracked an eye open at dawn.

The air smelled…normal. He could smell the color of the sky as clearly as he could see from the kitchen window that it would be the same flat blue as any other day.

The farm was in tatters. The dirt of the coop was churned up, not even a feather left. The rats had gnawed a hole in the silo and gorged themselves. In the pasture, only the metal tags from the heifer’s ears remained. Of the rats there was no sign.

Carl woke with a start when Joseph touched his arm.

“It’s clear. We can go now,” Joseph said.

Carl dithered an hour before he could even bring himself to look out the window, but once he did he fell into a manic frenzy of packing supplies. Though he swore they would return, Joseph watched him pack the government bonds and great-grandma’s golden brooch, along with every stitch of cash they had in the house.

The yard was empty of birdsong. The click of the front door closing echoed against the outbuildings. Carl gripped Joseph’s arm tightly as if he were blind and the boy was guiding him and set off down the long dirt lane up to the county road, a sad concrete tongue more full of potholes than cement.

Long hours they walked in the blistering sun. They passed other farms, other empty houses. Carl jumped every time something shifted. Joseph’s eyes were dry as he tracked the sun. The sky was bruise-purple before they came upon another sign of life: an old Chevy sputtering down the track. Carl dropped their burden and waved, screaming and yelling. The car kept on coming right toward them. A sharp smell hit Joseph’s nose.

“Y’see bluebird? It all works out.” Carl was chanting. He waved.

The impact of a fallen object shattered the windshield, sending the car drifting into the wrong lane before it collided with a fence pole and stopped. Both uncle and nephew held their breaths. There was a long, still moment before they saw movement from the car’s cab; but it wasn’t the injured driver or even a sky-born rat. It was a thin tabby cat that extracted itself from the crater before neatly grooming its tail.

“Bluebird,” Carl said meaninglessly as impact thuds started up all around them. “Oh, bluebird.”


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Swallow’s Tallow, or: Hubris Deferred

They called the place Hillport, because it was exactly that. It was a port built on a hill, a cityship that clung to the sea-rock like an ugly whelk. Save for one gravel causeway that was the city’s only lifeline to the shore, the city was an island unto itself, building up layers of architecture over the generations. At one point it had been a seafaring city, but their fishing practices left much to be desired and now the bay around them lay as bare as the face of the moon. Struck by such ugly serendipity, they sidestepped the obvious conclusion and invested themselves elsewhere: tallow. The city rendered the tallow from butcher’s blocks for miles around, with such skill and industry the smoke from their fires painted the sky black at times.

They called the place Hillport, but that was not the proper name. The given name to the rock on which the city was built was Swallow’s Crouch, owing to the little birds that flitted in and out of the seaside caves on the far side of the island. The birds were the only thing left uneaten within arm’s reach of the city, owing to their nests being build on sheer cliff-sides (and sometimes on the ceilings of sea caves) that no man-made ladder or crook could reach. What they ate was anyone’s guess. The cityfolk hated the chattering they made and set out poisoned bait, perpetually untouched.

What makes the swallows remarkable is the very thing that kept the city alive. Tallow. The fat from animals does not entirely burn up in a fire, you see, and year-round tallow frosted the roofs and windows of the town. The swallows daubed the fat into nests and by some unknown alchemy the fat became hard as stone in the sea air.

The city of Hillport grew rich, because tallow was quite valuable. The rosy fat from a bull, the white bounty of a whale’s skin, the delicate oils necessary for perfume making, Hillport traded in them all. They grew wary of hubris, because they had grown so skilled at dodging consequence. So when a stranger came along at low tide, picking his way along the sharp rocks, they knew they looked at no mere man. They hauled him up in chains, scraping him against the sheer cliffside until his scholarly glasses broke. The city’s Autarch was unamused at the sight.

“I suppose you’re here to warn us of some great calamity,” he said, “or to beg us to mend our ways.”

“I am not.” The young man reeked of sea mud and his features were raw from scraping against rock. He proffered one of his books. “I am a man of the sciences. I’m taking stock of this countryside. I heard about your swallows from another town.”

The Autarch snorted. “Do you think me a swaddling babe? You’re here on some divine errand, here to hold a mirror up to our city.”

“No, no!” the man protested, throwing a few books at the Autarch’s feet. Pen-and-ink sketches of seabirds and snails spilled out. “I only want to see and to know! Your city is entirely your business, I care only about the swallows.”

The Autarch put a hand to the ripple of flesh at his chin. He prodded a book with his toe. “The swallows?”

“Yes.” the man smiled in relief. “I only care about observing them. So unique are they, I’ve never found a bird like them.”

The Autarch nodded. “That sorts it, then. You’re here to find the true nature of the swallows, and once this purpose is fulfilled they’ll depart. And once they’ve departed on their own terms, some calamity will befall the city.” He nodded to a guard. “See to it that he meets an unglamorous end.”

The protesting young man was pulled from the Autarch’s chambers and to the city square, where a vat of tallow had been heated to the smoking point. In he went, and afterwards they strained him out in bits. No reason to waste good tallow.

The Autarch waited for some sudden, symbolic comeuppance, but none came. The young man did not appear in the smoke of the rendering fires, his bones were tossed unceremoniously into the sea and that was that. That year they rendered five times the fat they normally did, and every inhabitant of the city grew rich with tallow.

Every inhabitant.

It was not that year or even the next, but a brief enough interval of time that certain folk could make the divine connection if they wished, that the weight of the swallow’s nests pulled Hillport in half. The city cracked and slid into the waters, the sea hissing as it was deluged with hot fat. The rock lies bare today, even the swallow’s caves are now deserted, but globules of fat still roll on the tide, some say. Impacted and magicked by sea, they are hard as ice.

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The Dangerous Adventures of Mutt & Mike

I can paint you an exact picture of where I was when The Mutt & Mike Thanksgiving Special aired, even though it’s identical to countless other Saturdays from my childhood. I was sitting at the dining table at an angle so that I could still see our old two-dial Magnavox, shoveling sugary cereal into my mouth. My mother worked the night shift back then, so she was still snoring away on the pull-out couch. I could describe the rip in the wallpaper from when I tried to put up a tent in the living room. I could tell you how many pillows we had (five) and how the birdcage at the window held not a bird but a yellowed peperomia, that the front curtain was not a real curtain but an old sheet from my bed bearing characters from an old scifi show.

But of the cartoon I can tell you so little, so very little.

Mike was a pink blob, Mutt was yellow. The background was cyan, maybe. They lived in a house, or perhaps a formless void that was the home of so many other cheap cartoons. It’s a blur. The cartoon left a vaguely pleasant film on my mind, like the fuzz the cereal left on my teeth. I’m not sure what compelled me to get down from my chair, push in the tape that was mainly used for recording Night Court episodes, and hit the record button halfway through the special. The end result was that a whole 28 minutes and forty seconds of Mutt & Mike was preserved that day due to my childish interference.

And it should not exist.

The lost media wiki has no entries on it. I’ve dipped my toe in forums that call its existence a hoax, a delusion, an attempt to spread viral advertising for some upcoming movie. Promotional stills have been dissected by internet experts who call a matter of pixel blurring hard proof.

I’m not the only one who’s seen the show. Believe me, I would be only too happy to chalk it down to a misremembered event, if not for the others. A user calling himself xXterrytoonsXx claimed to have fifteen of the first season’s episodes and made plans to upload them to youtube. He ran into increasingly high hurdles as his video capture equipment broke down, as he accidentally damaged some tapes in the process. The vlogs he released in-between upload attempts showed his deteriorating state. He slurred words, mumbled, moved increasingly like a broken marionette as his coordination went. His last contact with the outside world was a badly-misspelled plea for a competent video editor and then…silence. Not one of the thousands of internet sherlocks were able to dig up a family or even an acquaintance. He had never even answered one of my messages begging him to respond.

I check my email first thing: 94 new messages since I checked before falling asleep four hours ago. Angry missives from trolls who want to see the tape. Skeptics quizzing me on exact details. People who claim to have seen Mutt & Mike too and want to reach out to me. Those are the hardest to deal with. I want to share this with someone else, I want to commiserate with other people, but I’ve been through it all before. These people are the wooden horse left by a retreating army. Once they’ve breached my defense they’ll start asking if I remember this or that, and can I describe this scene exactly, trying to loot the cursed treasure of my memory.The concept of people who want to contract a virus on purpose is entirely new to me. I say this because Mutt & Mike is exactly that, a virus.

My mother gave me the tapes when she moved down to Florida with her husband. Most of our TV things had been damaged in a flood, only this little box had remained snugly upstairs because it held the auxiliary remotes. I received a whole lot of tapes with nothing but Night Court, Murphy Brown, and THE tape bearing my childish scribble. I couldn’t make out the words I had written down so long ago, deciding to plop it in my VCR/DVD combo. Maybe if I hadn’t been so eager to hold on to the past, none of this would be this way. I could have gotten the solo DVD player, or just dumped the tapes on a thrift store. I popped the black plastic lozenge into the mouth of my VCR instead. Halfway through Harry Stone’s legal antics, the picture changed. Familiar and garish colors filled my screen and I was transported back to our old apartment for a brief moment.

I woke up four hours later to a blue screen and a screaming headache. I had urinated on myself.

Before he fired me for failure to show, my boss had often told me I always seemed like I was searching for something. When I was on the phone to clients, my eyes didn’t go off into the middle distance but glanced around me seeking something or someone. I didn’t seem like I’d be happy, he said, until I found the thing I was looking for.

Was Mutt & Mike that? God, I hope not.

Why don’t I dispose of the tape, you might ask? I’ve thought hard about it, believe me. VHS tapes are practically engineered for self-destruction anyway, wearing out with each successive viewing. I’ve thought about eviscerating the tape’s guts and pouring acetone over them. I’ve considered fire, hammers, even the garbage disposal. But…

And this is where I get stuck. I don’t know why I stop there every time, but I do. I look at this plastic rectangle and realize I am the only person in the world who has this. My hands stop and my body fails and my mind goes blank. It would be very easy to attribute this all to the tape but it’s me. I know it’s me. I want to look away. I can’t.

I haven’t gone outside in a while. I get my groceries online, have them delivered. I have triple locks on my door and a doorbell camera. Multiple threats on my life, you see. Some people are so eager to see the abominable they feel entitled to it. As if I’ve stolen something of theirs. I didn’t even know. I stumbled into a TV forum, innocently asking if anyone had heard of this cartoon. My head was still buzzing (perhaps I had hit it in the seizure) and all I wanted was to make sense of my situation. I didn’t know. I’d take it back if I could.

One of the more threatening emails I’ve gotten pledges “you can’t keep this secret forever.” And they’re right of course. I know I am not enough to hold it back. I am Pandora, and each night as I lay in bed I feel my fingertips burning with curiosity. Perhaps, the worm whispers, perhaps it’s not as bad as all that. What if I’m wrong, just this time? What if this has all been a dream and I’m simply choosing to stay here?

Back then, on that Saturday, I had no notion that things would ever be anything but the way they were. That we would lose the apartment and that television. That I would wind up sleeping on that pull-out couch with two step brothers that came too quickly and too close together. That my mother would lose job after job, that I would relinquish the last of my childhood in a misguided effort to ease her suffering. Perhaps the cartoon knew all this, knew I would push myself to revisit that time, knew I had never abandoned that moment despite the years.

Perhaps I really am insane.

The tape sits on the last table left in my apartment. As my savings go, I must sell off the other furniture, but the table must remain. And the television. And the VCR. And the electricity to run them both. And who knows, some day when everything has been sold that can be sold, when I can no longer keep the bills at bay, I will take that black rectangle and put it into its slot and hit play. I will watch the bright shapes bounce across the screen, I will hit all the same beats one last time and just…let it be the end.

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“Daddy, is grandma in heaven?”

Megan had the window seat. The blue glow of the sky outside the plane sucked the warmth from her skin. Her eyes looked too big in her face.

“Of course.” Just one of many uncomfortable exchanges Dwight had fielded during their journey. He had expected and prepared for it.

“Because mommy said she’s down below.”

In the ground or in hell? Dwight stopped his tongue short from asking that. He’d have words with Susan when they got back. “Grandma’s in heaven, right next to grandpa. We’re just going to see them put her earthly body in the ground.”

“Oh. But then her ghost flew up?” Megan explored her nose with an index finger.

Dwight captured it and pulled it away. “Her spirit. Honey, did mommy say anything scary to you?”

The girl’s eyes strayed to the window outside. “No.”

“Because sometimes mommy says things without thinking, and I want you to tell me when that happens.”

Megan continued looking out the window. Petulance or fear of her father, he couldn’t fathom which.

“Do you remember your cousins,” he said, hoping the change of subjects would distract her. “Clyde and Emmy and Robert?”

The girl was looking deep into the clouds. “When people die in plane crashes, what do their ghosts do?”

Dwight bit his lip thoughtfully. “Did mommy say we were going to crash? Did she talk about plane crashes with you?”

“No. Just wondering.”

Dwight sighed. She’d never implicate her mother, not ever. “Well, sweetie, planes hardly ever crash. Do you know we’re safer up here than we would be in a car down there? Cars crash all the time.”

“Yeah, but you can live through a car crash.” Megan hadn’t moved her eyes. “Anyway, you didn’t answer me. Where does your ghost go when you die on a plane?”

Christ, how morbid. But she wasn’t wrong. For a moment Dwight couldn’t stop his brain from exploring that scenario, what the black box would say when it was found. If it was found. He forced himself back to the moment.

Spirit, Megan, ghosts aren’t real. Your spirit goes to heaven just the same as if you…on the ground.”

“I don’t think so.”

Dwight growled, then caught himself. “Mommy is very mean, sometimes, Megan, and she’s very sneaky about it. If she talks about sad things while you’re in the room—”

“Mommy doesn’t talk about spirits. I’m talking about it.” Megan seemed more estranged to him the longer she gazed out the window and the blue sky gazed back at her, the light and unnatural  stillness making her look like the pupa of something alien to him.

“So all spirits go right up to heaven?”


“Are we in heaven?”

Dwight jumped slightly. “No, baby, why do you say that?”

“‘Cause there’s a spirit out there.”

Megan’s blunt little finger pointed out the plexiglass window to the clouds that surrounded the plane. The sun was beginning to descend; by the time they reached the airport it would be night. Right now the sky was a play of light and shadow, and Dwight almost said to his daughter that she had seen a cloud shaped like something and spun that off into an anecdote about finding shapes in clouds to coax her away from her morbid turn of mind when a small swirl of activity caught his eye.

For a moment something had curled, ribbonlike, in the corner of his vision. For a moment something had moved not like a bird or a cloud or another plane but something that hunted underwater, something fast and fluid.

Dwight craned his head at the window, over Megan’s protests that he was squishing her, and panned the limited view the porthole afforded.

Nothing. Nothing and nothing and nothing.

Dwight shifted back into his seat. “Baby, that’s not funny.”

“It wasn’t a joke. I saw a spirit.” Megan was puzzled. “Why aren’t they shaped like people?”

“How was it shaped?”

She drew a descending curlique with her finger. Dwight gulped.

“The gulf stream—sometimes clouds—” he looked out the window again. “Almost nothing flies at this height, honey.”

“I know. Just spirits.” Megan turned to the window again. She scrunched her face up. “I wonder if it’s angry. It was moving fast.”

Dwight realized his finger was hovering over the call button and pulled back. “Honey, your imagination—”

“There’s another one!” The girl jumped up in her seat, excited. A passing attendant gave them a benign smile. Dwight returned it, sliding down slightly in his seat.

“Megan, honey, lower your voice.”

Megan’s face pressed hard on the window. “Two. Three! Dad, there’s a bunch.”

Other people were looking over at them, a mix of irritation and exhaustion. Dwight turned to yank the window shade down and caught movement. Something cloud colored and textured but moving like a leech swimming through a muddy stream. Dwight pressed his face so hard against the window he cracked his forehead.

“Daddy!” Megan shifted against the pressure from his shoulder. Dwight was aware she was talking, aware of her discomfort, but could not spare space in his head at the moment.

The clouds boiled and burst in small increments as a smokelike wraiths seesawed through their particulate mass. They were too quick to take in details: no faces, no limbs, just white blurs.

They were no longer the sole witnesses to this miracle. A woman 12 seats up the aisle burst into a scream. A man behind them pounded on the glass as his wife snored on his shoulder. Through the eddys of panic, the attendant waded, making motions of appeasement with her hands.

The plane began to rock. The ‘fasten seatbelts’ sign lit up.

Ladies and gentlemen, this is your pilot,” the intercom burbled. Dwight’s hands were shaking as he tried and failed to fasten his daughter’s buckle. “We seem to have hit a minor patch of turbulence, nothing to worry about, but you will need to buckle up.

At the head of the aisle, an attendant demonstrated proper fastening etiquette. It was ignored in the anarchy. People were screaming, vomiting, seething with all the angst of a mob that had nowhere to go. Dwight found it harder and harder to breathe with every successive lurch. He chanced a look out the window and then fumbled for his airsickness bag. The plane’s wing was circled with serpentine bands the same color as the clouds. Most of the passengers stopped screaming as the plane’s flight evened out, some gasping thanks to various gods. Dwight felt no relief. He watched the clouds sink beneath them further without fully comprehending what was happening. They had stopped shaking, didn’t that mean the pilot had regained control? Senselessly, he put his hand to the glass and tried to wipe the tendrils from the plane wing.

“—can’t, I mean, we won’t stop climbing.” the intercom screeched to life, probably from the pilot having bumped up against it. “Don’t touch the comms until we can figure out what’s wrong.

Some people mumbled prayer. Some screamed theirs out loud. Dwight looked over them, deaf and blind from panic.

“What’s going on?” he asked no one in particular. “Where are they taking us?”

“That’s easy.” Megan sat stoic, blue light deepening on her face and making her eyes look black. “Heaven.” In the window beyond her face, stars began winking into view.

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The Little Stranger

With the way things ended up, you might have expected Lucy Sullivan to kill her mother on the way out. They thought her a stillbirth initially, shocked by the sudden resurgence of heartbeat at 28 weeks. But no, Lucy was born at 6am on a Thursday, 8 pounds 5 ounces, to Dolores and Danny Sullivan. Ghost pale, even then, with hair that turned invisible in strong light. Dolores wanted to name her Angelica for obvious reasons, but Danny put his foot down for the first and last time in his marriage and the baby was named after his mother. After that there were no arguments, no disagreements. The house belonged to Lucy, and everything  and everyone in it. One look from her melted even the most contrary heart. The other girls in school would secretly snip locks from her blonde-white head to keep as lucky charms, snipping more and more as the hair from their own heads began thinning mysteriously. The Sullivans had no end of babysitters, which turned out lucky because they were prone to frequent bouts of colic that left them bedridden. With a townful of attention, their daughter thrived.

It was a mystery. On paper, Lucy was an unremarkable student. She never quite learned her times tables, grammar continually eluded her. Yet Lucy was provided enough to pass every exam by sympathetic hands, some belonging to the school staff. Lucy was not stupid, they could see it in the blinding brightness of her smile and the inquisitive tilt of her head. She simply needed more help, fragile creature that she was.

The Sullivans lasted until her sixth year, and then they died in a house fire. As the story went, Dolores had fallen prey to a wasting sickness and, in her weakness, had failed to right a fallen lantern. The townsfolk could see the sorrow behind Lucy’s smile, the cornflower blue of her eyes. Fostering was a fierce competition, it was only by pulling rank that the town pastor won. His own children had long since grown, he and his wife’s house sat empty and neat as a museum. Lucy made it live again, if not with the melodic sound of her laughter then her constant stream of visitors. Everyone in town found excuses to come visit the orphan in her new roost. The pastor’s only visitors were his children, who noted more and more grey in their father’s hair as months went by. Their concern went unvoiced. Who cared if the old man walked with a stoop now, or that his wife was too weak to manage anything but peas-and-barley porridge? They took care of Lucy with the fervor of a saint, and that was all that really mattered.

The pastor keeled over mid-sermon one Sunday. Visitors to his house found Lucy weeping at the foot of his wife’s bed, the hearth and the woman both stone cold. Edward Murray, the richest man in the county, swooped in. His only son needed a wife, and so he paid for Lucy’s boarding school. Four years tuition wasted on a girl who came out knowing no more than when she came in. That was enough for Murray. His son, John Davis Murray, was joined in holy matrimony to Lucy when he was twenty-seven and she the tender age of sixteen. The marriage lasted a year.

John Murray, on his deathbed, swore his wife the sole heritor of everything he owned in the world. His chest collapsed from coughing and his striking auburn hair went grey, but it only made stark contrast to the pale beauty of Lucy, sat at the foot of his bed, embroidering. Inherit she did, but only a token sum once Edward Murray’s lawyers got hold of his will. Edward became ill shortly after his only son’s passing, ranting about his son’s widow and turning himself into a pariah among the townsfolk. In the scourge and scandal, Lucy remained unblemished as a rose petal.

Care of the girl became a civic concern. Let it never be said that the townsfolk left such a tragic orphan to the poorhouse. Lucy moved from home to home, borne up by many hands. The town paid into a pension for her care as she turned nineteen, twenty, twenty-one years old. That year a blight struck the crops, a grey mold that shivered with the wind until the fields looked full of smoke. With the last of the town’s coffers they sent Lucy to the city, to a convent of some repute. She never reached it. A rich stranger’s eye caught on her white-gold hair and suddenly she was in society, where her lack of education mattered as little as dandelion fluff. She was engaged to a playboy who raced cars in his leisure time, widowed again when he fell asleep behind the wheel. She became a companion to a factory heiress, inheriting some of her nicer jewelry when a social disease the girl contracted turned septic. Lucy rose up the ranks buoyed by tragedy. There was always room in the heart for such a victim of circumstance, you see. Her smile was unweathered by despair, her eyes clear and blue and free from messy tears.

When something really, truly happened to Lucy, it came as quite the shock. She had spent years teetering on the edge of illness, but now she fell well and truly sick for the first time in her life. The prognosis was grim.

“You’re pregnant,” a doctor told her.

Lucy’s face was flat as a tombstone. “That can’t be.”

“I’m afraid so.” The man’s handsome face smiled at her, for her. “I’m sure you and the father must be delighted.”

“You don’t understand, this can’t happen. This mustn’t happen.” What color remained in Lucy’s face drained. “Not to me.”

The doctor held her as she fell into hysterics, called for laudanum to calm her when he couldn’t. Lucy spent the last months of her pregnancy in a hospital bed, alternating between fear and denial. Her white-blonde hair thinned and her veins showed dark under her skin. Nurses pulled double shifts at her bedside, fearing for their pretty young charge. Straps were installed after the poor girl clawed at her stomach in a bout of hysteria. Despite every reassurance that her child was healthy and in fact thriving in the womb, Lucy’s fear could not be assuaged.

On the day of the birth, Lucy made one last plea to the doctor before she was wheeled to the operating room.

“Please,” she said. Her gums had retreated from her teeth and her eyes threaded with veins, her white hair nearly gone from her head. “I’m not meant for this.”

The doctor, who had fallen deeply in love with her despite her fading appearance, clasped her hand tightly. “Don’t worry, I’ll do everything in my power to make sure the baby survives.”

Lucy died on the operating table. Cardiac arrest from the strain, they said. The babe was delivered; ten pounds, seven ounces. Hale and healthy. So healthy, in fact, that it was the sole survivor of the influenza outbreak that leveled the infant ward the next day. The baby was given the name Victor, and he cooed charmingly as he was introduced to his new adoptive family. His mother, a barren woman past her prime, openly wept at the story of his circumstance.

“I promise you a long and full life,” she told the little one.

Victor smiled.

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The Serpent’s Smile

Long ago, when the land was young and strange, a tribe of people lived in rough huts in the foothills of this place. They lived in the hills because of the great water serpent.

The great water serpent was a fearsome beast many times larger than a man. It spoke as men did but had a cruel and cunning intellect. Worse than its intellect, though, were its eggs. The serpent had laid eight of the things. When the first one hatched, it produced waters that drowned everyone living below the flat plains. Each subsequent egg hatching sent the waters higher and higher until only the hill people were left. They knew the last egg would drown them as well, so they pleaded with the strongest man to do something about it.

The strongest man was only that, a man. He knew he could not best the great water serpent in combat, its hide was too tough for even the sharpest spears. But perhaps the snake’s cunning had rubbed off on this last tribe of men because he came up with a sly plan to steal the egg. After luring the beast from its lair and swapping the egg out with a mound of packed ash and animal dung, the man and his companions rolled the egg to the village. The serpent noticed the deception after returning to its lair, however, and set off across the hills fast as a whip crack. The serpent reached the village just as they closed their sacred gates, carved from the only wood to survive the past floods. It stood outside the gates and lashed its wicked black tongue but could do nothing.

“You must think yourselves very cunning,” the serpent said, “but how do you plan to keep the egg?”

The tribe’s strongest man knew the snake’s cunning and shook his head. “We will not tell you. Go to your lair, you great beast. This is the age of men now, and there is no room for monsters like you anymore.”

The serpent pressed a great golden eye to a gap in the fence. “You think you have tamed the whole world with this one action? Mark my words, I will be back for your people.”

The serpent slithered back underground. The people buried the egg in a sacred spot, and a small lake formed in the depression.

In the people’s minds, the story ended there. But it didn’t, not really.

Many generations later, that man’s descendant was the headman of the tribe. The land had changed drastically since those days. People came from far and wide to live in the hills and valley, people who had never seen a serpent as long and dark as a river. The hill people lived in homes that had not changed much over the many generations, while their new neighbors had air conditioning and lawns like little patches of green on a quilt. Though the headman lived in the largest house in the village, it was still a house as poor as his neighbors.

Change came in a long, black car that wound through the dusty hills like a trickle of water. A man from the city stepped out, suit black as fireplace soot. This city man wanted to build a dam at the mouth of the forbidden lake. He brought plans and photo mockups and written testimonials and spoke for hours to the people. But the village headman turned him away, saying the people had no need for a dam.

The man came back the next year. He brought gift baskets full of trinkets and a toy for the headman’s son. He spoke of social growth and small town die out. The headman turned him away.

The third time, the man brought an engineer with him and spoke of hydroelectricity and improvement. The headman saw some of his people swayed to the idea, but still banished the city man.

In his fourth visit, the city man asked, “why are you so dead set against building at that particular spot?”

The headman chose his words carefully. “That is a place mapped out by our people in long ago times. It is a place of misfortune. Calamity would befall our people if you dug there.”

The city man visited the site with the engineer and came back all smiles.

“Well no wonder you don’t want me to build there,” he crowed, “there’s a large underground gap right about here—” he tapped the map right at the spot the egg was buried “—where limestone eroded away over centuries. I’ve spoken to my engineer, and we have several workarounds.”

The headman declined and sent him on his way.

A drought built among the hills, each year hotter and drier than the last. Dust became such a menace the people walked with cloths over their nose and mouth. Crops withered despite their best efforts. And every time, the city man sounded a little more persuasive.

“You’ll forgive me for this,” he said, producing a water bottle frosted with moisture, “but it’s so darn hot out there.” And he drank it loudly, glug glug.

“Your people are in a time of need,” the city man said between frosty sips, “your irrigation techniques aren’t enough.” glug glug. “But this new dam would fix all that. You could have water whenever you want, and a whole slew of other things too.” glug glug. “With the money you get from the city for use of the hydroelectricity produced by the dam, you could send every one of your children to college.” glug glug. “This place is so dry. Don’t you think it deserves a drink?”

And the headman sat in his home where the only air conditioning was the occasional breeze, and he looked at his wife with a scarlet cloth tied around her mouth and nose, and he looked at his children who were small with famine. He watched the city man’s adam’s apple bob with every gulp, glug glug, and he felt thirst parch his body as if he and the village were one and the same, glug glug, and suddenly the waters were a welcome thought.

The headman agreed. Perhaps not right in that moment, but he agreed.

Plans were drawn up and materials hauled from far around until the dam stood tall and sturdy-looking in the sun. The sacred trees that had survived the floods so long ago were uprooted for construction. The people smiled as they irrigated their crops and walked around without face cloths. The headman sent his children away to a school with a good reputation with the money they received for electricity generated by the churning turbines within the dam. The people prospered as they one had.

Then one day, something shifted underground. Something cracked and broke. Half the dam stayed sturdy, the other sank fifty feet. Water spewed from the fissure until the bricks were sent flying out like comets.

The dam broke.

Water deluged the hills. It drowned the people living in the bright modern city below, the farmers that lived in the land just above that, but most of all it churned under the people of the hill tribe, who had been first in line for the water’s path of destruction.

And somewhere, a man in a serpent-black suit smiled.

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Night Light

It’s hard to sleep.

I have chronic migraines. The slightest hint of a glow sets off this piercing tone in my head, which makes my eyeballs throb in their sockets, which makes my jaw clench until it aches, which makes my scalp pucker and bristle, on and on in a domino effect. You can imagine the work I had to do to eliminate light from my room. No electronics. Blackout curtains. I even wear a sleep mask for good measure. It worked.

Until the street light.

I rolled over one night and found a new needle of agony driven into me. Bright, halogen-white light leaking through my blackout curtains no matter how I adjusted them. Even turned to my other side with my sleep mask firmly tamped down, I could still see it or imagined I could. The glow shuttered shortly after sunrise, and I managed to catch a few winks out of sheer desperation.

After too much morning coffee, I walked up and down my street, trying to determine the position of the usurper. If I could find the culprit, I could call the city service number on its base. Hours later, I despaired of any solution. None of the street lamps were positioned closely to my house (and this had been a selling point for me) or at such an angle that I could easily see it from my window. It looked like another night of agony for me, and it was.

I didn’t even try to sleep, but it didn’t lessen the pain. I tried pushing the curtain aside, but the deluge of light shot through me like a bullet and I had to fall back. I had seen flood lights with less wattage. What possible bulb could the city be using in the lamp?

I admit, I must have sounded like a raving madman on that service line. I was out days of sleep, and my already fragile nerves were shot. I think I begged them to come and take the bulb out because the light was too sharp. I sat on the porch sipping endless rounds of coffee until the city worker came out. He looked sideways at my disheveled appearance, but walked me through the plan nonetheless.

There were six lamps in my neighborhood block, he said, three on my street, three on the street behind my house. He brought out the block blueprint and talked about light pollution, power saving, and many other topics I was too exhausted to untangle. It was nearing sundown and he held up a hand.

“Now watch,” he said, “and see if you can tell me which one shines in your window.”

One by one, the bulbs flickered on. Orange. The same dull sodium orange that shone from every other lamp in the city.

I thanked the worker for his time and walked home. The second I closed my bedroom door behind me, the light returned. Of course.

Even with my prescription sunglasses, I could not determine the source. It was as if the light was a solid block against my window. What’s more, I found something else as I pushed the curtains aside. Despite the harsh power of the rays, I noticed the vase on my desk did not cast even a thin shadow. Nothing did.

So now I sit here, sleepless. In the diffusion around my blackout curtains, I can see the light staring into me relentless as an x-ray. The source, purpose, and means of it are all mysteries I have given up on. I no longer fear that it will keep me from sleep.

I fear the day I will be able to sleep, and what will happen then.

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The Fishermen’s Bend

The old man sat on a barrel of salt pork with his head bowed as if in prayer. A checkerboard with a game half-played sat on the pickle vat in front of him. Dust cemented the pieces in place, not one of the men filling the general store had posessed the courage to challenge him to a game in years.

The old man was known as Murphy. No one alive could tell you if it was surname or given, as it was preferable to know as little about the man as possible. Though each man who owed livelihood to the sea relied on him, they crossed the street when they saw him shamble by.

Murphy was a master of knots. Age had tightened the muscles and chords in his hands until they were knots themselves. His shoulders were stiff as stone in a monkey’s-fist formation. His hair was a tangled mass no brush could brave. His mouth was a blood knot puckered in the worn fabric of his face. He alone brokered a seat in the store, which was packed to standing-room only by fishermen. They gave him a healthy berth.

Murphy opened eyes as sharp and grey as the sky outside. “You be wanting something?”

Which was a considerable outburst from the man.

“Tide’s going out,” one man ventured. He hid among his fellows when Murphy’s piercing gaze combed the crowd.

“Tide’s going out,” another man said. Paddy Keane, a meaty giant of a man who had sired a healthily crowded family. He commanded a crew of six men and did not flinch at Murphy’s gaze. “Time for leaving is past gone. What do you say?”

Murphy grunted and swallowed a load of phlegm. “Not today. Maybe tomorrow.”

The men grumbled. Paddy crossed arms sinewed as steel cable.

“Seven days, we been waitin’. Seven days the market’s asked for fish, and we’ve said no. Seven days we have hungerin’ babes and you say an eighth?” He stepped up to the barrel and set his hands down hard in the fossilized checker game. “We’ve had it, old man. I’ve had it.”

Murphy eyed the new contender. “Piss off, Keane. I knew your father when he were in short pants. You don’t frighten me.”

Paddy stood, retrieving a billhook from his belt. As the men made another empty space around him, he pulled an oilcloth from his pocket and set to cleaning it.

“I don’t frighten you? You don’t frighten I, either.” The metal sounded like a finger rubbing the rim of a wine glass as he polished it. The surface was dulled from years of beating pollock  and flounder into submission. “You haven’t been out on a boat in years. You’re an old wive’s tail, you are. I’ll kill a black hen at sunrise before I ever believe in you.”

The store had fallen achingly silent. Outside, the wind made the wooden shingles creak. Murphy scanned the store and found a crowd of faces turned to the ground.

“You set your hat with him?” No answer. “Who taught ye the knots every sailor needs to know? The hitch that stoppered your backstays? The secret fishermen’s bend that calls truce with Neptune?”

“I’ve not seen a new sailor in a hen’s age,” one man timidly spoke up. He did not shrink before Murphy’s gaze either. “I’ve seen you sit here and run up credit with the store, but I haven’t seen you school anyone.”

“Your son. Or his son, maybe.”

“I’ll teach him.”

The crowd began muttering assent, reeling out their own anecdotes in defiance of the old man.

Murphy stood from his barrel, and the talk fell away.

“It doesn’t take a sailor to read the wind,” he said, “and it doesn’t take a brave man to start a brawl. I say no-one sails.”

Paddy broke out in a rolling guffaw. “How will you stop us, eh? Will you knot the air?”

Murphy, faced by a wall of derisive faces, sat on his salt-pork throne. “Watch me,” he said.

His swollen hands suddenly became like water, years melting away as he moved his hands in a graceful dance. The men could practically see the bight in his hands being twisted and looped this way and that. The sky outside darkened as the old man muttered and sweated and worked his fingers on empty air. Finally, he let his arms fall on the checkerboard and pushed his breath out in a long sigh.

It was a long while before one of the men said, “he’s not moving.”

Murphy sat, sharp upright as he ever had, dead at the pickle barrel with his eyes staring straight forward at nothing. Paddy grimaced and rolled his lids down with the palm of one hand. They sprang open again.

“Ghastly. Get the sawbones.”

The men piled out of the store on their way to the town’s doctor/coroner. It was only then that they realized the wind had sucked in like a heavy held breath. Above the cove where their boats lay on pebbled sand, helpless as fish without the tide, above the tarpaper shacks where their families burned fires to keep away the sea-chill, above their very heads was a maelstrom that roiled in a thick knot of clouds that spanned the width of the sky.

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The Diabolical Book

The bookmaker sat on a blanket in the open air market. His front teeth were worn to nubs from gnawing at linen thread. His hands were deeply callused from generations of papercuts. He alone merited the shade of the market’s lone tree, for he could not afford a canopy.

His ears picked up the tap of shoes arriving at his blanket. The old man wiped patiently at a book. Nine times out of ten, footsteps approaching meant merely he was an oddity being observed.

The stranger spoke: “you are Prindl, yes?”

“That is what most call me.” Prindl’s face tracked the root of the voice, tilting like a sunseeking flower.

“You are blind?” The stranger sounded oddly delighted. The mild scent of tobacco hit the bookmaker’s nose. Nothing else. How odd.

“Too many nights working over tallow candles.” Prindl straightened his charges, running his hand over covers as if caressing sleeping children. “My output is not what it once was, but please take your pick.”

The stranger did not hesitate a moment before saying, “you have nothing that strikes my fancy here, my good man. I have a special order in mind.”

Prindl grimaced. “I only make custom books on rare occasions now. Please, I’m sure what you want must be here.” He proffered a red leather-bound Octavo volume.

“In truth, nothing of what I want exists in tangible form.” The stranger squatted on his heels. His shoes creaked oddly, as if his feet did not fill the soles. “I have need of a book to write in. I have many things to write.”

“Suna near the entrance is a journal-maker.” Prindl was irritated now. “Complete with pens. Her wife makes the pretty marbled endpaper. Those should suit you.”

“Now now, not every record is a journal. This would be massive.” The strangers voice had a kind of charm that picked at one’s head. “May I at least tell you of the book I want?”

Prindl said nothing.

“It must be a volume of nearly infinite capacity. Therefore the spine would have to be a core of 360 degrees. Each page must be as thin as you could get it, and fold out to another, even thinner page. No cover would be needed, of course.”

Even in the daylight, Prindl grew cold. “No such book can exist. Here—” he pushed a maroon volume forward. “A birds-nest binding, very popular with lovers back in my youth. The pages are good rag linen.”

“That won’t do, I’m afraid.” The stranger was mildly amused.

“Well then here—” Prindl picked more books up. “A ladder binding. The cover is dolphin leather. Gurt the embosser did the interior before he died. Anything you’d see on the market now is his son. Or how about this?” He held up a small, sleek quarto. “Tuck-fold binding. The cover itself could be a writing surface.”

“My man, no other book will do. No other artist will do. I’ve asked around, and only you seem to possess the skill I need.”

Prindl frowned. “A circular volume is…blasphemy.”

“I didn’t take you for a believer.”

“And I’m not…save for a few select areas. This is one.”

The stranger clasped his hands together. They were covered in kid leather gloves that squeaked oddly. Prindl had to wonder at the shape of the man, like a profane volume bound in plain leather. What did the other bookmakers see, he wondered?

“It goes without saying your reward would be handsome.”

“And it goes without saying that I am old and earned my right to be contrarian. Goodbye, sir.”

Prindl stood and limped to the refreshment stall, not waiting on his potential customer.


The next week’s market. Prindl sat on his blanket. His hands were puffy with the sting of errant pinpricks. His sightless eyes wept with exhaustion. His hunched back ached as he sat on a cushion he’d brought from home.

There was the lopsided creak of a familiar set of shoes approaching.

“God damn you,” Prindl said without preamble.

The stranger, at least, had the good manners not to laugh. “I told you I chose you well.”

“You knew my curiosity would not let me rest.” Prindl stifled a yawn. “You didn’t ask around, did you? I was your first and only choice.”

“Curiosity is about the only reliable thing with people, I find.” The stranger’s body now carried the scent of lit tobacco. Nothing else. No meat, no eau de cologne, not even a hint of body odor.

“I have not even begun work on the signatures, I cannot find satisfactory material for the spine.” Prindl held up his shaking hands. “I know I am not up to the task. No mortal hand is. But I cannot stop.”

“Your reward will be handsome.”

“What good will handsome rewards do me in my grave? This book will be the end of me before I end it.”

“Ah, well put.” The stranger’s smile was evident in his voice. “Most folk don’t even get to that level of reasoning. They can only calculate the measure of wealth offered them. Do you know, my man, that for every ounce of surplus there is a slightly larger amount of deficit offered? One of the unsung rules of the world, I’m afraid.”

Prindl sweated. He had come late to the fair, and some beggar had taken his spot in the shade. “You won’t be back.”

“I will not need to collect the goods in person, no.”

“Neither will I.”

“Well, ask yourself this.” The stranger squatted before Prindl. With his fingertips, Prindl could pick out the leather tip of a shoe, collapsed and empty as a glove. “Were you fulfilled sitting here, hawking books as all your talent fled your fingers? Perhaps not a dozen men in the history of the world have had your skill.”

Prindl retracted his fingers. “It wasn’t fulfillment I was chasing here.”

The stranger laughed. It was a merry laugh that beckoned you to join in. “You have it by the right end. Goodbye.”


After no one had seen his blanket at the market for weeks, the other book sellers and binders and printers began to worry. They had always looked out for Prindl, of course.

Prindl, being a taciturn man, kept his home secret, but it did not take the world’s best minds to figure out the small shack leaning up on the fore side of the derelict paper mill was his.

Prindl lay on the floor, posed as if he still intended to fetch just one more thing from the workbench. His tools were scattered around, along with the skeletons of half-formed books he had abandoned.

On his bench was a strangely ellipsoid globe that rustled with the passing breeze. It was a circular book bearing hundreds, no, thousands of pages from a spine that sat like an apple core in the middle. If it was one or two signatures shy of completion, they were unable to see before a stray elbow knocked the globe from the bench and it plummeted right through the floor. Such weight, they said, was unheard of for a book, and a few uncouth figures joked that the book probably punched a hole right down to hell.

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Thirty Rules for Dating Our Daughter

  1. You will be chaperoned always. No exceptions.
  2. Do not touch her bare skin.
  3. She eats only what we give her.
  4. If she is cold, do not offer her your jacket. She cannot be warmed.
  5. Do not pick at the stitches. Her voice is not for your ears.
  6. You sacrifice your time to us from now on. Your waking hours are no longer your own.
  7. There will be no photographs, etchings, portraits, video recordings, or any other attempt to reproduce her likeness.
  8. Sometimes she will go away and return with the blood of some small animal on her face. It is on you to clean it.
  9. Her hair must be brushed every day.
  10. Her teeth must be picked every day.
  11. Her nails must be clipped on the hour.
  12. Don’t cry. The salt of your tears is harmful.
  13. Other women, even those in your family, are now forbidden you. Walk veiled through the town.
  14. Daylight is a privilege. Privileges can be revoked.
  15. Tell her you love her, right now.
  16. And again.
  17. Her eyes can no longer stand sunlight. You must smoke the glass from now on.
  18. At times, her shadow will gain features and make sounds. It is on you to burn it back.
  19. There will be a yearly toll. We will instruct you which animals to bring.
  20. You cannot go back. Not ever.
  21. If she shows you the pit in her chest where her heart once beat, do not stick anything inside it.
  22. You cannot mourn the man you once were.
  23. If you ever feel the urge to flee set in, remember: we can only dig one hole.
  24. Occasionally you will bleed. It is because she cannot, and you must provide for her.
  25. You are her sustenance now.
  26. You will love her, even as you begin to hate her.
  27. You will love her long after the spark fades.
  28. You will love her long after your body withers to dust.
  29. Your love will be a flower sprouting in a sea of black sand.
  30. If you even manage the miracle of children, this list will be passed on to you.

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