Monthly Archives: March 2018

In a Dark House

It was the age-old story: one girl stuck in bed over winter break in an ancient sorority house. Sandra curled liked a shrimp under her layers of quilts and granny-square blankets and listened to the house creak with a sort of fascinated terror. Despite the coiled heater that split the room between her and Cindy’s beds, despite the layers of fabric and polyester batting and goose-down she could feel the cold leak in from every corner of the room. Snow pattered against the windows with every new gust. She had to wonder whether it was very much colder outside than it was in.

Cindy’s side of the room was as empty and neat as a magazine spread, her David Cassidy poster lined up perfectly to the edge of her nightstand. Cindy was a snowbird. Unlike other girls she hadn’t fled south of the equator for the break, she was in the Poconos. Imagining her skiing down a white mountainside sent Sandra into a coughing fit. It was, she reflected, pretty unfair to blame the other girls for being rich enough to afford getaways. Or having somewhere nice enough to go back to. It was all bad luck. Bad luck that she caught this from Brent, who was probably agonizing alone in his studio apartment across town. Bad luck that the blizzard blowing in made any potential trip to the store a trek like the Scott expedition. Just a series of random happenstance piling one upon the other until it weighted her chest like mucus.

Sandra hocked a little.

The house groaned like it was tired of the wind. Sandra didn’t trust a house this old. It talked too much. It sang when they descended the staircase for breakfast, it shrieked in the pipes in resentment of their hot showers, it hissed when they tried to start fires in the ancient chimney.

It would prove an unhelpful ally if she ever had to sneak away from anything…

Sandra sat on that thought and smothered it. She’d already had to endure countless jokes from the others as they packed and left, like she had any choice in the matter. She wasn’t becoming a cliche, she wasn’t—

There was a squeak and hiss as a faucet came on downstairs.

Sandra tried to force herself to breathe normally, because hyperventilating brought on a coughing fit. It was winter. Probably someone forgot to leave the tap on just a bit and the pipe burst. She would have a mess in the morning, but that was it.

The faucet turned off.

Okay. It was probably something that sounded very much like water flowing. Perhaps the scrape of a tree against a frozen windowpane, followed by the cool rush of wind. She wasn’t used to old houses. The sound she heard could just as easily be the crack of joists settling as someone creeping one by one up the stairs—

“Sandy?” The voice was young and female. “Sand? You still up?”

Sandra tried not to let her voice crack as she answered: “yeah.”

Miranda opened the door, poking her head in. Her long, blonde hair tumbled in like an afterthought.

“Man, you look like death warmed over.”

“Well, I feel fan-tucking-fastic, Randy.”

The girls laughed over an in joke.

Sandra spoke quickly to cover her relief. “Thought you’d gone already.”

“I was. I did. Came back because I forgot some things.” Randy looked over at Cindy’s side of the room. “Man, what a pigsty.”

“I wish she’d mess my side up sometimes.”

Randy clicked her tongue. “You should talk. The dud I got stuck with hasn’t said two words to me since she got here.”

“Oh right, you got the foreign girl, Svil…Svet…Svetlana?”

“Yeah, Svet-head only told me her grandma was coming over after the house mom left.”

“Grandma?” Sandra entertained visions of some old babushka creeping up the snow-crusted sidewalk.

“Yup. But get this, just a month ago she got out of classes because she said her grandma was dead.” Randy picked up one of Cindy’s magazines, thumbed through a bit, then tossed it untidily down again.

“That…that doesn’t sound right.” With effort, Sandra sat up. “Does she mean the same grandmother? Where is she, anyway?”

Randy shrugged. “Be honest, I thought she’d be bunking over break, like you. But I woke up one morning and she just…” Randy shrugged again. “Who even knows. Anyway, who invites their grandma over and then leaves?”

“Something I’d do if I could get away with it.” Despite the brevity, Sandra felt miserable. There was something here, something she couldn’t quite untangle in the flu-fogged depths of her brain.

Randy sat on the end of Sandra’s bed. “Anyway, kid, I’m checking out of here in a minute. You sure you’re okay? Got tissues? Water?” 

Sandra held up the ancient delft pitcher that was probably original to the house.

“Puke bucket?”

Sandra held up a mesh wastebasket. Randy laughed, giving her hair that little flip that drove the boys wild. “Far out. Well, don’t invite anyone inside and you’ll be set.”

As Randy stalked out into the hall again, Sandra called out, “wait, invite?”

“Vampires, baby.” Randy was shouting from the bathroom. “If granny’s up and around after her own funeral, it’s the only logical explanation. You think Tara will notice I swiped her toothpaste?”

There. That was the irreconcilable thing. Sandra tried to picture Svetlana. It was hard, the girl was shy and barely even spoke to the house mother. Had she ever spoken of her family? All Sandra could picture was the girl studying at breakfast while they chatted, white-blonde hair sheltering her face like an iced-over waterfall.

“Also, I think she ordered something for her granny. Some kinda food. Wark—Were—Wurdulak? She said ‘the wurdulak is on its way.’

“When did she say this?”

“Tuesday, I think. Right after she asked when I was leaving. I think she didn’t want to be alone when it came here.”  

“Weird.” Sandra frowned.

“Anyway, if someone buzzes the intercom, just ignore it. No one’s supposed to be here, right?”

Randy sang a Dolly Parton song as she rooted through the bathroom. Sandra took a drink of water, which had gained an unpleasant earthy tang from the pitcher. The pained half-consciousness that passed for sleep was setting in. She wanted nothing more than to take a dose of medicine and knock herself out, but couldn’t bear the thought of being unconscious if someone visited the house.

“Randy?” Did her voice carry very far at all? Randy still sang. Maybe she’d try again in a minute. She just needed to lie there and rest, just for a minute.

Like any good thief, Sandra didn’t know sleep had robbed her of time until it was over.

The house temperature had plummeted even more than normal. Utter black filled every window. Sandra woke with her whole body aching and her mouth dried from breathing in her sleep, nose firmly stoppered by mucus. She spluttered and coughed and tried to budge the obstruction, finally managing to gain one nostril’s partial function.

The boards between their rag rugs were icy. The space heater might as well have been off. Had a window broken?

“Rand—” Sandra coughed at the thinness of her voice. Something cracked downstairs.

Even sitting up took too much effort. The room swam and her back ached as Sandra threw off the covers and set one unprotected foot on the floor. Maybe Randy had turned the heat off before leaving, following force of habit. Dumb, but understandable. All Sandra had to do now was travel the cold distance to the thermostat and give it a bump.

Sandra stood and found herself falling backwards quickly. She grabbed on her bed and half-slid to the floor, where she sat in an untidy heap. She could not walk.

Hands numb with cold, knees aching in protest, Sandra crawled.

The distance from bed to door was the worst, until she had to cross the hallway. That was the worst, until she came to the head of the stairs. Gathering herself like a child going down a slide, Sandra bumped her way down to the first bend in the steps, where she could get a clear view of the front of the house.

The front door was wide open.

Panic overtook Sandra and she half-slid, half-tumbled to the first floor. Snow had blown in to dust the front hall, it crunched and squeaked as Sandra pushed her body against the door to close it. By steadying herself on the doorknob, she could just get up enough strength to throw the medieval-sized deadbolt that crowned the door.

How could Randy have left the door open? Turn the heater off, sure, a momentary oversight bred by weeks of routine. But to leave the door swinging wide open like that…and how long had she been gone?

Sandra peered at the den clock, which had stopped at 10:20. Great.

Well, at the very least, the door had hung wide open for hours. Anyone walking along the sidewalk could have seen it and come right in.

What kind of a person would be out walking in the middle of the night during a snowstorm?

Sandra tried to picture that and then quickly tried not to.

Get upstairs. Brace the bedroom door (the ceramic knob had no lock) and pray for the morning to come.

The tinkle of something falling in the kitchen startled Sandra. She crawled up the stairs two at a time, fear giving her a speed boost. There was someone in the house. No there wasn’t. But then what made that noise? Had Svetlana lied about going away, and just hid out until the others were gone? But if it was Svetlana, why hadn’t she revealed herself yet?

A metallic crackle made her hands slip on the last step. Sandra fell, chest-first, onto the old oak stairs. She was too winded to scream when the crackle sounded again.

“Hello?” The female voice drifted through buzzing interference. Sandra crawled elbow-and-knee up to the second-story hall, where the house’s doorbell intercom lay. “Hello?” The voice had a slight slavic tinge to it.

Sandra crawled to the intercom and hit the button. “Svetlana?”

There was a long, empty static as if the winter wind blew through the wires. “…yes.”

“Crap, I just locked the front door.” Relief flooded her. “I’ll be down to open it in a sec. You have to come up to my room, chick, it’s too damn spooky out here.”

Sandra was halfway down the stairs when she heard the low groan of a deadbolt bending out of shape, and a creak as if a massive amount of pressure were being applied to the thick oak door. She wondered, in her terror-scattered brain, how long the door would hold against the inhuman strength of whoever was outside. But in the long run, it didn’t really matter, did it? It would be weeks and weeks before anyone came back to the house.

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Spores in the Wind

There is a jaguar in the wilds of Nueva Andalucía whose spots correspond to a constellation of stars far beyond this world’s sky.

These are the words that came to Fabrizi Bello on a balmy day in May, roughly 1567, as he sat at his writing table. He produced almanacs for farmers and the like. Halfway through a paragraph on rye, Fabrizi had put his pen down and stood up. Stretching a little, he walked but a short ways from the table when he paused. Returning to his papers, he penned that sentence and the deluge of others that followed. He did not stop for another 15 hours. His wife Rina discovered him on her way to build the morning cooking fire. Vellum sheets bearing his minute cursive littered the table and surrounding floor. Fabrizi’s ink had run dry at some point and, rather than get up and walk the few steps to the supply cabinet, he elected to stab into his palm instead and use his own vital fluids. Attempts to drag him away ended only in Rina Bello’s head striking the table edge until she moved no longer. Fabrizi wrote until blood loss stilled his hand as well. The Bello household lay dormant until a cousin of Rina’s dropped by to borrow thread. By the time the city guard stumbled upon the scene, Rina’s cousin had absconded with the manuscript beneath her skirt.

There is a jaguar in the wilds of Nueva Andalucía whose spots correspond to a constellation of stars far beyond this world’s sky.

Pietro D’abo was sorting through a lot his firm had made a winning bid upon. He was looking for sturdy, little-used paper that would be bleached and made into palimpsests. Beneath two contracts and a recipe for cinnabar, he found Bello’s manuscript.  Pietro’s limited Italian carried him through the first paragraph, fascination through the rest. Only a third of the total piece had survived to grace Pietro’s hands, and he dedicated the remainder of his life looking for the rest. Over the next thirty years he would bargain, steal, barter, and trade for any information on the remainder. Once the Catholic authorities of the day caught up with him, the manuscript (minus a few pages) was burned beneath his nose. When given opportunity to renounce his ways just steps from the executioner, Pietro said only: “I am but a spot on the back of a jungle cat. Who the hell are all of you?”

There is a jaguar in the wilds of Nueva Andalucía whose spots correspond to a constellation of stars far beyond this world’s sky.

Konrad Dehmel worked as a typesetter for a print press. His eldest son worked as a punch-cutter, his wife as a woodcut artist when not caring for their younger children. All lived in a single room above the print workshop. Among a single month’s orders and contracts, he found a small sheaf of paper. He knew no Italian, he could barely read his own language. And yet, when his wife came into the workshop to fetch a chisel, she found him in a pile of discarded work orders with the papers in hand. He would say nothing but that he must be the one to set type for the book, fixating his whole attention on the pages. He forewent sleep, bathing, even food. The thing that finally stopped him was the sleeting bullets of melted lead type when the town grew paranoid about his leanings and set torch to the workshop.

There is a jaguar in the wilds of Nueva Andalucía whose spots correspond to a constellation of stars far beyond this world’s sky.

A single page turned up in London. The artist who found it painted a massive mural incorporating the words “jaguar”, “spots”, “stars”, and “beyond”. The mural languished in a country that had yet to even embrace the Art Nouveau movement, and the artist died of a laudanum overdose some weeks later.

There is a jaguar in the wilds of Nueva Andalucía whose spots correspond to a constellation of stars far beyond this world’s sky.

A newsboy to a Manhattan office found a photograph taken of the ill-fated mural, along with a single piece of paper bearing a single sentence in archaic Italian. Both were in his pocket when he leapt from the empire state building later that year. Examination of his apartment found endless stacks of paper, a vast treatise on jaguars, astronomy, pareidolia, and language.

There is a jaguar in the wilds of Nueva Andalucía whose spots correspond to a constellation of stars far beyond this world’s sky.

Victor Aguilar rose in the early hours of the morning, making himself a french press coffee. His flat overlooked the Plaza de Mayo, which served as a continual source of inspiration for him. Victor had been struggling with an idea, a short story of a man going through his late father’s belongings for auction. A chance glimpse at the muddy blue sky with its few remaining stars made the story sputter and die. Now he thought as he looked over the the plaza, a peculiar twisting thought that came to him as complete as if it had been written into his genes at conception.

He sat at his table and clicked his mechanical pencil until the lead came.

There is a jaguar, he wrote, in the wilds of Nueva Andalucía whose spots correspond to a constellation of stars far beyond this world’s sky. Like spores borne unto the wind, no idea is truly dead when one finds its echo across the universe.

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But Anyway

—like I said, I’m never going back there again. But anyway, did you hear about Claire? Mmm-hmm, keeled over in the middle of a manicure. Just like that, they said. Popped her brassiere in the process, couldn’t you just die? Janine says she said she stopped drinking, but Alice says she saw Claire sneaking one of those mini-bottles out of her purse. Can you imagine? Janine swears it wasn’t the booze, Claire just up and died with the most horrified look on her face, but Janine also swears Frank stopped sleeping around when she caught him five years ago so you know how much weight her word carries. Claire just started flopping around and frothing at the mouth, kind of like your mother that one time on St. Paddy’s’ day, but anyway—

Poor Claire just hasn’t been right since that thing at our old highschool, mmm-hmm. Dean humiliating her like that and all, I mean, couldn’t you just die? Where’s a woman her age going to find another man? And the scandal! Was anyone surprised when she started drinking again? Janine said it was something else, of course. Mmm-hmm. Said she went out to that old supply shed on the other side of the baseball diamond, came out shaking like someone just passed a death sentence on her head. Place is gone now, but Janine says she said there was something written on the wall in there, something that killed her in the end. Have you ever heard of such a thing? Like a cootie-curse, at her age! Alice was too polite to say it, but Claire had been going downhill all week and this was just the capper. Who cares if Dean jumped in front of that car, her social life was murdered right then and there (kind of like your mother on St. Paddy’s day, but anyway—)

Alice says there was someone living in that shed, mmm-hmm, some kinda bum who went around with their face all bandaged up. Whole neighborhood’s gone downhill since we were kids. Disgusting. They say the thing written on the wall wasn’t even english. Some whatsit—called it a wormword? So silly, have you ever heard of a word you can catch like a cold? But that’s what they said it was, written all nasty on the wall like that. And then right after that she finds Dean who jumps in front of the car like he’s chasing a leaf that looks like a $50 bill (again, like your mother.) Too neat if you ask me. I’ll bet their marriage has been on the rocks for ages and Dean just got tired of keeping up appearances—no I am not jealous! Can you imagine me next to that has-been in his little power tie? My Brett might have his ‘gentleman’s weekends” but he’s never humiliated me in public. And even if he did, you wouldn’t see me sneaking Shandies in a sunblock bottle. I mean, the scandal! Couldn’t you just die? ‘Head cheerleader marries quarterback, falls into the bottle.’ It’s worse than your mother with a snoutful, but anyway—

Claire had the sweats and shakes. Delirium tremens, just like my uncle Pete. He thought he had bugs crawling under his skin, used a chisel to try and get them out. Claire said her words burned her mouth, said it hurt her not to say the thing that made Dean jump in front of that car. Mmm-hmm, so terribly sad. When Sherryl started on menopause and kept screaming that the kids were leaving threatening chalk drawings on her sidewalk, that was the saddest old thing. But Claire was worse. The way she kept dribbling all over people just trying to help her, screaming that she was cursed. I know she said something nasty to Harold, that’s why he keeled over and had that stroke. Poor deluded Claire just thought it meant it was all real. It’s a scream, couldn’t you just die? She actually begged us to find the bum from the shed! Like we’d stomp through shantytown for her imaginary problems. I’m sure Janine felt very sorry for her, but if you ask me Claire just basked in the attention. First her husband dies, then she claims magic powers? Please. Next you’ll be telling me the scratch on that war monument isn’t from the night your mother went spinning down the main drag with a pickax she stole from the mining display, but anyway—

Shame about her. Mmm-hmm. Of course I’m sad, don’t I look sad? …damn botox. Anyway, it was a long time coming. She really started to lose her noodle towards the end. Said the wormword infected something, a phrase we use all the time. Called it her killing word. But when Alice asked her what it was, she wouldn’t answer. Clear schizocotic break, if you ask me.

Bitter? Of course I’m not. Claire lived her life however she lived. If she chose to end it as an embarrassment, that’s up to her.

…of course I don’t mind getting lunch. Again. Unlike Claire and all, we aren’t having money problems. Say, you two were close, weren’t you? Did she hint at anything? Some little hint that might let you know what she was talking about? No? All right, just dotting my i’s and j’s. She was clearly beyond help, but you never know…

Of course I didn’t visit her before the salon, when have I ever visited in the morning? And if I had, why would she tell me anything? Your imagination is running away with you. No, I’m wincing because of my sciatica, that’s always been a problem. I don’t have some wicked little wormwood burning a hole in my tongue. Imagine, me with magic powers. I mean, couldn’t you just die? Couldn’t you just die?

Couldn’t you just die?

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We Have Always Been The Smiths

Amelia opened the curtains. Bert, still in bed, squinted at his crossword.

“Come on,” he said, making a sophomoric grab for her waist as she passed by, “coffee can wait.”

“If the coffee waits, breakfast waits,” Amelia said, cinching her robe, “if breakfast waits, I wait. If I wait, Adam waits. If Adam waits, he’s late.”

Bert laughed at her impromptu poem. “Being late isn’t going to kill him.”

Amelia addressed him over her shoulder before she shut the bedroom door and left him to the crossword: “a man doesn’t understand these things.”

Amelia turned the phrase over in her mind as she passed down the hall, pausing to rest her fingertips on the doorframe of the spare room in a sort of caressing motion as she did every morning. Bert, when you got down to it, didn’t understand the intricate system put in place to keep life ticking just so. For all his good-natured affection, he really didn’t get it and by extension her. Yet somehow, as her mother would say, it all works.

She knocked on Adam’s door. A formality. The nine-going-on-ten-year old was awake and making his bed.

“Breakfast in 25,” she said, and took off for the kitchen.

Coffee for her and Bert. Fruit cereal for Adam. Multigrain toast for her. Microwaved turkey bacon and two eggs, post, for Bert. Their dining room adjoined the kitchen, a nook big enough only to hold a 5X5 wooden table and a wine rack.

Amelia set four places. Then she shook her head and picked the fourth setting back up.

Bert was up and doing his morning business, she could hear the water heater kick on as his shower drained the tank. The coffee’s digital clock read 7:37, 28 minutes past her prediction to Adam. He was being a drag-foot this morning, something he indulged in only every so often. Ascribe it to some shift in temper, some temporary caprice of a normally punctual boy.

7:38. She peeked in Adam’s door. The boy was still in PJs, bed unmade as he sat on the end. He did not look up at his mother, but at his cupped palm.

“Adam? Is something wrong?”

The look on his face startled her. It was a very worldly mask of despair for such a young boy.

“Mom,” he said, “I found these by my bed.”

She could see where he’d moved the mattress away from the wall, perhaps chasing a sock. The gap was filled with legos and bookmarks and a motley assortment of crumbs.

Adam opened his hand like a flower. A bolt of terror shot through Amelia, sourceless and directionless, left her feeling weak-kneed.

In her son’s palm were plastic earrings, the kind that were made to clamp painlessly on a young girl’s earlobes. Fake pink gems glittered from the loops.

“What were those doing by your bed?” she asked with a carefully constructed calm.

Adam just looked at her.

The sound of the shower door sliding open startled them both. As one, mother and son moved to scoot the mattress back to the wall, hiding the earrings once more in their secret cache.

 

Bert chewed with his mouth open. Mother and son ate in a tense silence, each trying not to let on that something was wrong.

Bert washed his bacon down with coffee. “Summer’s coming. What should the project be this year, hmm? Boat? Treehouse?” He set the mug down. “I got it. We should finally do something with that empty room.”

“Actually.” Amelia covered his hand with her own. “I was thinking, maybe we try for another child. I’ve always wanted a little girl.”

Bert snorted and tugged his hand away. “We’ve already got a boy, what more do we need? You don’t want to share your whole life with a boring old girl, do you sport?”

“Actually, I wouldn’t mind having a brother or sister,” Adam said quietly. He didn’t look up from his plate. “It gets lonely being by myself.”

Bert looked between them, incredulity spreading across his face. “Man, I just don’t get you two. What we’ve got here, it’s perfect. Three is the perfect number for a family. You’ve got the head of the house, the mother, and the heir. Enough cash to go around.” He shook his head as he took another sip from his mug. “Anyway, sport, I think I hear the school bus idlin’ out there.”

Amelia spoke quickly, silencing her son with a kick under the table. “Actually, I’m driving him to school today.”

“What? Why?”

“What did I say? If Amelia is late, then Adam is late…” she shot him a coy look.

Bert laughed and plunged a scrap of her toast into his eggs.

“Send him to school half-dressed. That’ll teach him.”

“A man just doesn’t understand these things.”

Amelia waited, motor idling in the station wagon, as Bert got into his sportier chili-red coup. Mother and son were bundled up against the lingering chill in the air.

Bert shut his driver’s side door and gave them a little wave. Amelia smiled wanly and blew a kiss. She put the car in reverse, foot on the brake, as Bert backed the car out of the driveway and rumbled away. Then she put it back in park, and they both got out.

Amelia wasn’t even sure what she was looking for. The closest thing she had to concrete evidence was the sick feeling in her stomach. She tore apart the mantel photos, looking for figures hidden by the frame, secret messages written on the back, anything. No. Just her and Bert doing a series of mundane things, eventually joined by Adam. Amelia stood looking at the ugly jade lamp Bert insisted on bringing into the marriage, fingers throbbing from prying picture frames apart.

What was missing?

What was wrong?

Her whole life semed ajar, as if something had been crudely subtracted and the hole left half-patched. Why did the thought of a girl-child awaken such a sick, sad feeling in her chest?

As her mother said, somehow it all works out.

How? How did it work? Sifting through the pages of her life, Amelia could recall no stirring declaration of her heart for Bert. She remembered his proposal. A vague joy, distant and unremarkable. Nothing more.

Amelia retrieved her bug-out box from the bottom of her clothes hamper (the one place Bert was guaranteed to never go) and flipped through it. Dirty love letters, a recipe for bloody mojitos (a drink invented with her sorority sisters) and jewelry she was no longer bold enough to wear. Beneath all that, pictures of old lovers. Men, with full heads of dark hair and kind eyes and sure hands. Men who looked almost nothing like Bert, with his balding pate and watery gaze( and neither did Adam, now that she really had time to think about it.) What had led her to chose him? Vaguely, she felt that she’d met him and fallen head over heels, but why? What enduring quality led her to marry an ambitionless man ten years her senior?

In the stack of photos, there was a snap of her on a picnic blanket with her college beau, David. The timer he’d used had malfunctioned, there was motion blur obscuring his face as he dashed to the blanket. The wind whipped Amelia’s hair as she laughed.

Amelia knew that picture. She had its sibling on the mantel.

Retrieving the snap, it was easy to see how closely they matched up. Her hair, now tamed by a scarf, was in the same style. The lighting was the same. The duck meandering in the background now stopped to nibble on bread.

But it was Bert at her side, not David.

Amelia clutched the photo as she mounted the stairs. The door of her son’s room was half-open. The boy himself was sitting on the floor, legs and arms wrapped around something she couldn’t quite see.

“Adam?”

He unfolded, still holding the object protectively. It was a vinyl bouncing ball, bearing a small pink horse in the middle of a star.

“Mom,” he said, “this ball.”

Amelia nodded. “I’ve seen it. It wasn’t hidden.”

“Mom, look at this ball. Does this look like something I’d want for myself?”

The realization brought a fresh wave of horror. She handed the photographs to her son. He studied them with a severity she had never before seen in him. He looked up. “What do we do?”

“We turn the house upside-down.”

 

The rumble of Bert’s coup died down in the driveway. His keys clattered against the door as he wrenched it open. “Hey family? I’m home.”

The rest of the house was dim. The only light he found was the den, where his wife and child waited for him. The floor was a collage of photos and small objects. Bert gingerly tiptoed through the mess.

“Whoa, did a tornado rip through here?” His chuckle died away when he saw the stony faces of his family. “What?”

“Bert, how long have we been married?”

Bert furrowed his brow. “…is this about the boat idea?”

“Answer me.”

Bert swallowed.

“Have we ever argued?”

“We don’t fight.”

“Let me rephrase that: have we ever had dissenting opinions? Have I ever been allowed that?”

Bert looked from her to Adam, who held his gaze without flinching. Bert looked away.

“What did I forget this time?” he asked jokingly.

“You didn’t forget. You just don’t think about these things.”

“Baby—” he stepped on something with a plastic crunch. He lifted his foot to reveal a girl’s play earring. He whitened slightly.

“I wanted a girl,” Amelia said flatly, “I’ve always wanted a girl.”

“We can have one.”

Amelia gave him a withering look. Bert was sweating heavily, tie doffed and wrung between his hands.

“I love you,” he said abruptly, “don’t you know how much I love you? My life was so much worse before I got you. And Adam.” He shot a wan smile at the boy, who had not shifted even slightly. “You’re the best thing to ever happen to me. And what we have, it’s good. Can’t you just be thankful for that?”

He began shuffling backwards, towards the mantelpiece. There the jade lamp clashed with every single piece of decor in the house. Amelia did not stop him.

“I can fix this,” he said slowly, “I can fix anything. Just let me—”

A toy ball bearing a horse inside a star, the kind a mother would buy for a small girl, flew across the room and hit the jade lamp. The lamp wobbled and fell to the floor, shattering into pieces. Adam sat back, empty handed, with a satisfied nod.

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Ink Sting

There are tattoo artists who are wizards of pigment, skin painters whose work is so beloved their subjects voluntarily tan their own skin after death. There are those who sculpt with white ink, transforming scars into masterworks of lace.

Then there was Juliet. Her mastery was not of the ink and tattoo-pen, but of her pets.

Juliet lived in a little village not too far from here. She was not an artist by trade, but an apiarist. Her hives were great house-sized mounds that only she dared approach. She sold no honey at the local market, the excess wax she burned without ceremony. They were unsalable because they were tainted with the byproduct of her real goal: the bees themselves.

By some unknown alchemy, Juliet had bred her bees to sting color. Her pets lacked the barbels that marked the death of other bees, so they could sting again and again with impunity.

The process for getting a tattoo was this: one made a reservation months to years in advance. Juliet would plant a special bed of flowers in the shape she wished to tattoo and train her bees to it again and again. One hive to one color, the next to another. When the time finally came she marked out a pattern on the customer’s body with a pheromone pen and trained the bees on the skin. Each session was spaced out by weeks so the subject would have time to recover from the venom.

Was it worth it? Juliet had her detractors, like any artist. They called her command of imagery clumsy, that she relied on novelty to make up for her lack of mastery. But she was popular enough to make a tidy enough living, right up until she died.

The first deduction of the scene judged her pets responsible for her death, for her corpse was swollen with stings and the scene reeked of pheromones. After a deeper examination, they found that someone had probably doused her in the concoction hoping the stings would disguise the knife wounds in her torso. 27 stabs in all. The motive of the killer was probably the deepest mystery. Juliet had her detractors, but no one who hated her enough to stab her 27 times.

Lacking closure, the case languished. Her cottage fell into disrepair. The bees thrived on, because no bear or badger wanted honey so tainted with pigments as theirs.

It was predictable that the bees would become a menace, unmanacled from their keeper as they were. But the shape this menace took was a surprise to all. The bees began clustering around a man who made salves and creams for the nearby market, a man who had always lived below suspicion.

It came trickling through the village’s gossip stream that he’d made overtures towards Juliet a time or two, though no one could decide if they were romantic or professional in nature. Perhaps he harbored a secret scorn that had led him to deprive the bees of their keeper. Perhaps the bees only smelled their own product, the wax he melted with various oils for his salves, and hated it. No one felt strongly enough to accuse him, or intercede when he became so plagued by the bees he was forced to wear beekeeper’s attire at all hours.

When he was found dead in a field a year after Juliet’s passing, no one could be sure if it was justice or mere happenstance. The only thing that was truly clear was when they rolled his sting-swollen corpse over, it revealed a perfect portrait of Juliet herself tattooed on his chest.

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