Feed the Cat

I could describe to you the events that led to me standing outside my former friends-with-benefits’ apartment at nine in the evening, but that is one humiliation I’ll spare myself. Don’t think me some lovelorn stalker. I had a key, of course. And instructions. Sergio asked me to look after things while he was out of country. I agreed to do it because doing so would prove how little I cared, whereas if I refused it would have indicated that my desire for him was too great to form even a casual friendship.

Such were the mental gymnastics I put myself through as I turned the key in his front door and took off my shoes in the entryway.

The place still smelled like him, felt like him, tasted like him. Those insufferable prints still hung on the walls to either side of the hi-fi (no television, not for him) and air plants clustered every available surface.

The only new thing was winding around my ankles and making an attractive purring sound. Sergio had refused to get a cat while we were together, said they were all the drain of children and twice the mess. Well, it looked like my leaving had rattled him more than he cared to admit. I scratched the agreeable creature between the ears and felt a bit of smug triumph.

First order was the air plants. Sergio was an avid collector; his instructions for their care would have filled a book if he could be bothered to write it down. He would never admit it, but I was the only human being on earth who he could trust with his extensive verbal inventory. The cat slithered around my ankles, making each step perilous.

Of course Sergio had not mentioned his new pet, nor had he left instructions on where the food or his bowl was. I was forced to go through cupboards like a common burglar. I found that he had eschewed plates and bowls for a new shallow trencher that served the purpose of both, that he had finally carved his compressed brick of darjeeling to the last hockey-puck sized lump, and that he had painted the shelves without bothering to put down liner paper. I’m sure you’ll notice the absence in that sentence.

The landline rang, and I nearly tripped into the glass conversation table when the cat darted across my path at the exact wrong time. The caller ID was no one I cared about, and I cursed myself for getting worked up.

The succulents in Sergio’s study were listing in their pots, their sandy soil had been scattered and used as a litter box. No doubt Sergio had some newer, fail-safe system that he hadn’t bothered to implement properly before leaving. That had been our relationship in a nutshell, him leaping ahead and leaving me carrying the luggage.

But I wasn’t bitter.

As I stepped out to fill the watering can, a toppling vase nearly brained me. I looked up to find green eyes winking at me from the depths of Sergio’s tallest shelf of collectibles, ten feet off the ground. The feline was a remarkable acrobat; Sergio himself had to resort to a painter’s ladder to reach that spot.

As the pitcher filled, I searched some more. I found his copper mugs, green patina eating the rims. Beneath the sink his all-natural cleaners with all the scrubbing power of weak tap water. His emergency stash of condoms (expiration date showed last year.)

The cat came musing up to my outstretched hand, turning on the charm. I let it tickle me with its whiskers. It was the friendliest thing I had seen in this apartment since I’d left in in a huff so many months ago.

Damp seeped into my sock.

Somehow the watering can had fallen at an angle, now it overflowed onto the counter and down to the linoleum at my feet. I watched the spreading puddle almost idly until I saw the water nearly touching the still-plugged-in electric kettle. I could have cleared a cyclone fence with my leap as I shut off the water. The cat disappeared once more, and I was left to wring out Sergio’s microfiber mop in the dirty sink.

Something speared into my heel as I stepped from the kitchen. I held my foot and saw the floor now littered with broken trinkets, the upper shelf cleared. I cracked. I texted Sergio, editing and re-editing my message so many times it sounded almost nothing like what I wanted to say.

WHERE IS YOUR CAT’S FOOD was my weak attempt at a missive.

As I pulled glass splinters from my foot, I heard a thumping sound and a muffled mew. I looked up at the window to find the cat blinking benignly at me from the other side of the glass. Sergio lived on the seventh floor.

The air was frigid as I heaved open the window, my hands almost froze to the thin concrete apron that ran the length of the building. The cat sat a comfortable distance away from me, curled into itself. I could just barely graze its paws with my fingertips if I leaned all the way out the window. The cat retreated.

I looked down at the ledge and then up at the cat. Truly, if it wanted to it could walk right back to the window and into the safety of the apartment. But there was frost clinging to the ledge and such a long drop beside me and the cat was so tantalizingly close that I thought I could just grab it up and be done with it.

As I half-clung, half-crawled to the cat, it edged away from me. I found a piece of ornamental brickwork and pulled myself fully onto the ledge. Favoring my injured foot, I gathered in a crouch for one final rush.

My phone buzzed in my pocket. As I glanced down, I felt pressure and four sets of nail spikes driven into my leg as the cat leapt past me. I overbalanced and then I was in the air.

Seven stories for a person is not seven stories for a cat. I lived, barely. I broke my fall (and other things) on the way down to the ground, landing spine-first on a filthy pile of snow. Looking up, I could see the cat peering down at me from the window, curled up picture-perfect like something out of a Christmas card. My phone had survived impact in my pocket. The last thing I saw before I blacked out was the cracked screen and a reply text from Sergio reading, simply: I DON’T HAVE A CAT.


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Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds

Word came down from the northern camp that someone wanted to speak with Morgan. Someone who knew him.

To Morgan the notion was as alien as the concept of a hot shower or suddenly bursting into song. His days had long since encompassed the sun, the sea, his little flotsam shack, and not much else.

Deandra asked him how he felt about it. Morgan liked to play with her little daughter Lucy as she walked in the shallows gathering periwinkles. The tide made a seething sound as it lapped the shore, due to the many bits of glass that washed in on it. Deandra wore leg protectors.

“I don’t know,” Morgan admitted. Lucy was climbing up a jagged bit of rock, he held his hand up as if cushioning her with air.

“Must be nice, having someone know you,” Deandra said wistfully. The periwinkle in her hand extended eyestalks; she sucked it right out of the shell without looking away from Morgan.

“Depends. My pop was out on the east coast, he’s gone. I can’t think of anyone who might have a burning need to see me.”

“If it is someone you’ve missed, will you leave?” she ducked her head. In many ways, Deandra was like a child. It protected her, as Morgan’s own coping mechanisms protected him.

“Don’t see why.” Morgan hupped to the girl on the rock. “Come on, Lucy goosey.”

Lucy giggled and jumped, landing squarely in his grip. She had never seen a goose. Like most children born after the cataclysm, her corneas were clouded and her skin had a texture like sharkskin. Lucy rode on his shoulder as Deandra carried her harvest bucket back to camp. They stepped around other shanties, other shells constructed of bits of debris. A woman lugging a tub asked if anyone wanted her wash-water. Another woman with hair the color and consistency of steel wire raised her hand. Morgan guessed she would use it to wash but no, the second woman drank it in great, gasping draughts. Morgan didn’t blame her. They were all thirsty. Above them the sky, even in the day, was studded with a thousand pinprickles many times more sharp and beautiful and terrible than the glass in the sea.

“Lucy’s birthday is today.” Deandra fidgeted with her bucket. “I…have some things. Pretty shells. Smooth glass. James said he found some wire, he could do something with it.”

Morgan could sense the unspoken question in her words. “Well, it’s no birthday without a candle, right?”

Deandra smiled, dimpling one cheek.


The visitor was waiting at his shack, dressed in a rough collection of scraps of fancy cloth. It was Christine, his late wife’s sister. Morgan spared a moment of thought for Kelly and the shape she had taken in his life, another life. He felt a pang in a place he had thought totally atrophied.

Christine was one of those performance criers. She demonstrated now, getting up a good head of steam before Morgan had set one foot in his hut.

“Morgan, I…” She made a series of wails. Morgan encompassed her in a hug he didn’t really want to give until her sobbing subsided. Strong emotion made him uncomfortable now. It seemed like frivolous excess. There was no audience for tears, not anymore.

He was allowed egress from the hug.

“You look well,” he said because he had been told that was what people said in these situations.

Christine sucked in a sob. She had found eyeliner somewhere. It wasn’t waterproof.

“Becky heard you were living here. We thought you were dead.”

“Likewise. How…how is everyone?” He didn’t mean for conversation to be so stilted, it was just conducted in a language that had nearly gone extinct in him.

“Mom’s dead. Aunt Midge. Jerry, you remember Jerry? The rest are okay.” Christine gave a gasping breath. “Oh god, it’s so good to know you’re alive.”

Was it? To Morgan, it was a fact as unremarkable as the wetness of water or the red tinge to the sky. “You too. I’m glad that…I’m glad you’re glad.”

Christine grabbed his hand in an iron grip. “You have to come back with me, we have to let the family know you’re alright.”

Morgan felt the strongest emotion he’d felt in a long time. It was discomfort. His conscious mind had dulled to a gray sleepwalk, and now his former sister-in-law threatened to drag him into new, painful colors. He retrieved his hand. “It’s really okay, Christine.”

But she was shaking her head. “You don’t understand, it’s better in our camp. We have nice things.” She produced a serving spoon, silvery with a scalloped handle. It looked like the ones at the hotel where he’d married Kelly. Christine deposited it in his hand and closed his fingers over it, as if bestowing some great secret. “We’re working on rebuilding. We could have power any year now.”

Morgan looked at her bright cloth coat. She had rouged her lips as well, he could see where she had bitten it away.

“While I appreciate what you say,” he said slowly, “I really can’t come with you. I live here now. You live there. That’s how it is.”

Christine stammered, mouth flapping open in a bloom of sickly pinks and reds. There were sores on her tongue. “How can you say that? How can you live without family?”

Morgan had no words for that, so he shrugged. “I’d like you to leave.”

“What if I don’t?” Once upon a time, in a different world, Christine had been a lawyer. You could see it now in the squaring of her posture and the set of her mouth.

Morgan shrugged. “I’ll leave then.”

He turned around. Something caught ineffectually at his coat, but it could just as easily have been the mutant seabirds for all he knew.


Lucy’s birthday party was down in the dell. Just beyond the bright circle of faces was the sea. A few bodies turned on the tide. Morgan looked at the glass that filled the water. In a few decades the glass would be worn smooth and the beach would be pleasant to walk. Perhaps he would live long enough to see it. That was hope enough for him.

“You’re here!” Deandra’s grin showed her underbite, which she was shy of. Morgan kissed the side of her head. For the birthday girl, he produced a scrap of Christine’s monstrous coat. James had twisted the wire into a daisy. The old woman who lived in a cottage made from broken slate had braided Lucy’s hair.

“Didja meet up with your folks?” Deandra asked.

“Sure. Had a nice time.” Morgan bent low and picked Lucy up to toss her in the air.

There was no cake mix, so they mounded sand. Lucy’s candle was a scallop-handled spoon that winked the light of the sun. Instead of Happy Birthday, Morgan sang Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds. Lucy laughed and clapped and looked as happy as any child had ever been. Morgan bent low and whispered in her ear, just as the red sun slipped behind the horizon and the thousand seething points of the sky throbbed in celestial radiation.

“Make a wish,” he said, “blow it out.”

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Le Masque Blanchâtre

The three surviving reels of Le Masque Blanchâtre reside in a vault of the Cinémathèque Française, and with good reason. The film has been lost, found, dropped, stolen, set on fire, eaten, and buried underground. The fact that any of the highly flammable nitrocellulose stock remains is nothing short of a miracle. But why is this film so frequently targeted for demolition?

Because it holds the dubious honor of being the only known film adaptation of The King in Yellow.

The film itself is not the only “lost” element. The director Louis André disappeared in Vichy France in a suspected political assassination. Greta Ors, at one time set to be the European Louise Brooks, made only one other film before dying of a morphine overdose. Jean Fleuret, cinematographer on every single André production, was one of the film’s first detractors when he kidnapped the reels just before the aborted premiere. Similar tales of woe afflict the assorted cast and crew; if a film can indeed be cursed then you could find no better candidate than Le Masque Blanchâtre.

The production itself was no stranger to misfortune. Plagued by setbacks, mishaps, and funding troubles, the fact that the film was even finished is a testament to the sheer doggedness of its director. Even before reading the infamous play, André was a man possessed by his own ambition. Yvette Andréyor called him “a nightmare of a man” after contracting pneumonia on the set of his historical biopic Alexandre. But once he laid hands on the mythic text, he was a man bewitched.

Little remains of the shooting script, but a vague summary can be pieced together from scraps and secondhand references. The film expands the role of a nameless courtier who delivers news to Cassilda towards the end of the first act that causes her to run shrieking into the empty streets. Filmed entirely from his perspective, all the established beats of the first act are there, from the return of Cassio from battle to the preparation for the bal masqué. Other, murkier elements from the second act are hinted at. One screen direction calls for Cassilda being shot “[…] through a kaleidoscope of mirrors, her hollow-eyed image retreating in all directions until there is nothing left but the empty face of the glass.” From costume orders we can infer that the bal masqué took cues from Rococo design with a sleek modernist flair. Of note is a single edict, two words dashed off in André’s increasingly manic handwriting: “no yellow!” Greta complained that her role(which combined elements of Cassilda and Camilla) required hours on end of “lying…beneath a great fish tank as they filmed me through the water.”

These snippets do two things. One: they paint the picture of an ambitious shoot filled with offbeat techniques.

Two: they make almost no mention of the plot at all.

The play itself is quite infamous for its disjointed format; the banality of the first act almost farcically belying its infamous (but never summarized) second half. André took it one step further, eliminating nearly all spoken dialogue from the script save for a single exchange near the end, the famous “mask” dialogue shifted from the first act to the final.

Had it survived its own premiere, it most certainly would have been revered as a masterpiece. But alas, dissent built even as early on as the editing suite. Fleuret wrote in his journal “[the film] has changed him. He is no longer my beloved Louis but a beast with wide, staring eyes and no heart. I fear his ambition may doom us all.” These two cryptic statements are the only clue as to what led Fleuret to kidnap the film and attempt to incinerate it. He succeeded only in destroying the final reel and was taken to jail laughing that he had “lessened that monstrosity’s taint on the world.” Indeed, without its final reel, Le Masque Blanchâtre could never be screened for the general public. André would attempt smaller private screenings, leading to the incidents listed in the opening paragraph.

André was a man broken in the years after. He never attempted to film another movie, but spent his remaining days carting the surviving reels around, screening for whomever he could. It is rumored that this is what led to his disappearance in occupied France, lugging around canisters of “entartete kunst” was practically signing his own death warrant.

The film eventually resurfaced after the war. André did not.

The film was available for private screening up until 1988, when a film critic ate 23 feet of the second reel. Time and wear will diminish the remaining film, as no attempts to preserve it have gotten past the fundraising stage. Le Masque Blanchâtre languishes in the safe, the greatest unseen masterpiece in the world.


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In Pursuit of Red

Illustration provided by the excellent Bill Draheim

The story of China’s first true red glaze is a well-known and probably apocryphal tale: a rooster wandered into the vent-holes of a royal kiln. The smoke from its cremated body starved the fire of oxygen, creating the first recorded instance of the fabled “ox-blood” glaze. The emperor was struck by the color and demanded more. The potter did all he could to replicate it but in the end, despairing, flung himself into the fires of the kiln. Thus was ox-blood obtained.

That is where the tale, apocryphal or not, ends in most tellings. But there is a further chapter that is not often repeated. For there was another potter.

This potter rivaled the man who flung himself into the kiln, coveting the color that dripped red from the funerary pots. Now ox-blood was all the rage in the imperial court, and so this potter set out to replicate it. After careful examination of the circumstances around his rival’s death, the potter concluded that human sacrifice was needed.

In the country there was no shortage of beggars, vagabonds, orphans, human detritus that would not be missed. The potter’s first experiment buckled under his enthusiasm; too many bodies stacked like kindling put the fire out. His next attempt, a single beggar, yielded only three ox-blood specimens.

The potter’s mania grew like a rash. In his haste to fill the kilns, his craftsmanship became sloppy and haphazard. The potter began insisting he heard a voice coming from the kiln itself, the cracks and pings whispered to him over the sleepless nights he fed it with firewood. The kiln he had was not enough. He must build a more magnificent kiln, one that bit into the hillsides like a dragon. The potter dug and plastered and bricked until his fever dream was made flesh and the dragon-kiln stretched 2½ li into the surrounding countryside. He had servants fill the kiln to bursting and, as the last man delivered the last cup the stack, he bricked up the entrance and set fire.

They say the heat from the kiln boiled a nearby lake. They say the agonized wails of the servants reached the capitol. When the potter cracked open the kiln, he found half the pieces were ox-blood. Not good enough.

The potter continued his experiments until the country was stripped of passer-by. With diminishing outside influence, the potter grew deeper into his mania. No longer content to speak, the potter claimed the kiln beckoned him with shapes in the fire, indicating the next sacrifice. His eyesight dwindled as he stared deep into the white-hot belly of the kiln, pots exploding from the thermal shock each time he removed the spy-brick. Each new setback only strengthened his determination. He finally made his most audacious claim to date: he would deliver to the emperor an entire kiln-full of blood red pottery. Audacious because if he failed to deliver he would forfeit not only his but the lives of every single member of his family.

The allotted interval passed. Officers of the crown set out to the pottery works to find the compound devoid of all life. Curious and malformed lumps of clay occupied the stands that should have held elegant vessels. The officers followed a large patchwork bloodstain to the rear of the compound, where the last bit of motion remained.

The kiln had been bricked over not with stones but skulls. The potter complained that he could not yet make the delivery as the kiln would not reach temperature, sightlessly tossing log after log into the cold firebox.


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Roach Farm

Sea monkeys. Ant farms. Butterfly cages. The ephemera of childhood hobbies I’m sure every red-blooded American kid is well-versed in.

I didn’t get an ant farm or a butterfly cage or a plastic tank with a pack of freeze-dried brine shrimp. I got a roach farm. A 5X7 terrarium of scuffed and yellowed lucite, a packet of dirt, and what looked like a shiny brown cigar.

My dad made a joke of it. “If you can take good care of it, then we’ll think about getting you that slug.” Then he’d laugh and take another drink of Schlitz, thrilled by the weight of his own humor. Like I did with most of his jokes, I played as if it were said completely straight. I set up the box on my dresser top, dumped out the dirt, and set the small brown stub gently within. I had no idea how roaches lived, aside from the popular conception of them as a kitchen nuisance, so I littered the farm with the usual wildlife furniture: a bit of bark, some lichen, and a small, flat rock. Then I left it to its own devices.

My father would needle me about the farm’s progress (“have they learned any tricks yet?”) so I looked up roach facts to parry his derogatory jabs. I learned a single roach can live off the glue from a postage stamp for a week, that a roach can live without its head for up to a month, that their tendency to seek out warm, dark spaces has led to them occasionally found lodged in people’s ears because they lack the ability to back up. Like so many of my father’s attempts to discourage me from a subject, it only led me into deeper fascination.

I can remember rolling out of bed one morning and noticing the cluster of tan dots in the cage. My roach children had finally hatched.

And God help me, I found them precious.

I remember I put my hand inside out of some childhood petting impulse. They scurried under the shadow of my hand to hide, and a pact was born between us. I had to defend them now, I had to keep them warm and fed and alive because they had sought shelter with me.

In many respects they were the perfect pet for me. A cat might have lashed out in fear, and gotten its brains bashed out for the trouble. A dog might have tried to defend me, leading to more brutal treatment for both of us. But the roaches? When my father would rage and scream I would sit on the bed with my cage and we would be quiet together. I could empathize with them because I understood the urge to retreat into some small, dark space when something bigger came at you. My father pronounced the both of us disgusting. When he forbid me from setting foot in the kitchen over some imagined slight, I would sneak out at midnight and steal food for the both of us.

My roaches grew into shiny brown oblongs. They would preen themselves under my care, fussily cleaning their antennae as I held them in cupped palm. I liked to think that they were the neatest, best-kept insects in the world. I read in ancient China that they kept crickets in special cages. Had anyone kept roaches? Perhaps I was the first.

The end came in painful hiccups, rather than one fell swoop.

My father upended my cage, hissing in disgust as my pets scurried away. He beat me for putting my body in between his slippered feet and their retreating forms.

My mother, the new owner of a rather painful collarbone fracture, could no longer keep up with the housework. No amount of shouting on my father’s part could rectify that, and the house grew ankle-deep in trash.

Finally the day came when my father drove us from the house, dribbling and screaming in an alcoholic rage. Perhaps at another time, we would have come back. Lord knows we had already gone back too many times before. But by the time we reached my aunt’s house, the money felicitously ran out. No one in her family would spare money for us to return to our abuser’s den, so we remained happily stuck.

Since my mother was the sole breadwinner, the utilities were shut off one by one. The phone was the first to go, so we were spared the rants that cropped up with each new injustice. I can imagine my father raging in that house alone. Sitting in the dark as the electricity shut off, piling on blanket after blanket as the heat went. Would anything have changed if we went back? Even now, with the wisdom of hindsight, I doubt it.

It was a year and a half later that someone knocked on our door. A policeman with hat in hand, saying he had grave news for us. A former neighbor had called for a wellness check because my father hadn’t been outside for weeks, and there was a terrible smell welling up from the house…

I can imagine my father simplifying his life after we left. Leaving the house only to get food and drink, piling the filth up in a nest around him to further buttress his self-pity. I can imagine him making a fort of blankets in the living room next to the bucket he used as a toilet and a battery-operated TV.

I can imagine my pets. My roaches, stranded in the filth of that house. Growing. Feeding. Breeding. I can imagine their fear as winter set in. How they would seek out the one source of warmth left in the household, nestled in a crusty shell of blankets with a snoring mouth gaping open in invite…

My mother let the city arrange a burial. My father had no family left to wonder why his funeral was closed-casket.

I don’t think of my father much anymore. His memory is a vague, unpleasant smear on my mind that I have no wish to revisit.

I think of my bygone pets. How all they had really wanted was warmth and safety. How they must have been terrified in those last few moments, unable to turn back, unable to fight the press of their family’s bodies as they were forced into every dark, wet cavity available to them.

And, God help me, I find them more precious than ever.

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Rare Animals

The antelope mount by the door didn’t look like a real animal. Its face had cartoonishly lengthened proportions, gave it a slightly melancholy cast.

“Hartebeest,” Prender said, just beyond Victoria’s left shoulder. The jump took a few years off her life. Vic accepted the glass of sherry he proffered to slow her pulse.

Prender waved at the mount with a now-free hand. “Bubal Hartebeest to be exact. Fine specimen. Done by a king among taxidermists.”

Vic’s smile showed her teeth and nothing else. “Fascinating. About the position I’m interviewing for…”

Prender took her by the elbow and steered her deeper into the room. The green carpet patterned with eight-point stars crackled with static beneath her feet. “How about this one? It’s not as good as the Hartebeest or even the Honey Creeper, but it’s still fine.”

Vic cleared her throat, stalling. “What a funny penguin.”

“Not a penguin. Great Auk. And here—” He maneuvered her to a skeleton in a glass case. “Stellar’s sea cow. Couldn’t get a mount, so this is the next best thing.”

Vic made a noise in the back of her throat. Prender led her through the room, past mounted heads with horns shaped like lyres, javelins, and sickles. He showed her a soft kittenish mammal that made a pang in her chest. He even took her hand and made her pet a stuffed zebra whose stripes seemed to fade to brown halfway down its body.

Prender stopped mid-sentence and said, “this upsets you.”

Vic made vague noises and looked to the ground.

“I get it. You’re a good person. I checked out your CV. That’s who and what I wanted, Victoria, a good person.”

“For what position?”

Prender swigged a sip and cheeked it, swirling it like mouthwash. He rested an elbow on a small, foxlike wolf mounted mid-snarl. “I’m very proud of my collection, as you’ve probably guessed. I add to it whenever I can. But the flavor has worn off a bit, you see. I’m digging the same wells but not getting as much oil.”

Vic nodded along.

Prender passed his finger over a carnivore’s tooth. “I want a challenge. Man subjugated all the best beasts long ago. What’s left are pale facsimiles of the real thing. Can you imagine a dairy cow facing down an Auroch?”

Vic shook her head earnestly. She couldn’t because she had no idea what that was.

“I have found a way to make do, though.” Prender sidled over to a glass-fronted cabinet of skulls and leaned his elbow against it.


“Oh,” Prender vaguely waved his hand. “I’ve had to recruit from other areas. The poorer nations. Ghettos. Employment agencies.

Vic stared at him, slack-jawed.

“You’re not drinking your wine.”

Vic set the glass down on a table made from an elephant foot. “Mr. Prender, I am not at all sure of the position you want me to fill, but I can tell you right now that I don’t think I qualify at all.”

Prender did not say anything for a long moment. “You’re a good person.”

Vic looked searchingly at him for a moment, before shaking her head and turning to go. Halfway across that starry carpet, she fell. Her legs cracked. Her screams became brays as horns bloomed from her head. A horrible, rashy burn flared all over her skin as she grew fur.  Struggling to breathe, Vic shook as Prender straddled her prone body.

“Yes,” Prender said, brandishing a ceremonial knife, “you’re a good person. That’s a pretty rare animal in today’s world…”

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A Haunting

He did not know how or when it began, but Peter realized over the course of many months that he was reluctant to go home at the end of the day. The excuses grew naturally out of real needs and wants: they were out of milk, he wanted to catch up with an old friend, traffic delayed him. But the excuses wore thinner and thinner. It was on a Tuesday, when he was looking at his reflection illuminated by the last rays of a sinking sun in the blacked-out window of an empty shop, when Peter finally came clean to himself: he truly did not want to go home.

But why?

He spent many days gnawing at the question. He was not tired of his wife, Nina. Their daughter Shannon did not treat him with open hostility. He had no reason to believe the two-story colonial gingerbread he lived in was haunted.

…but he paused on that thought.

What was a haunting but an unfriendly, unwelcome habitation? And, truth be told, when he came home without any family to greet him, he felt himself the unwelcome guest. He was haunting his own house.

Peter laughed. How could he haunt his own house? His paintings on the walls, his aftershave sharing the sink rim with Nina’s antiperspirant, his daughter’s growing heights notched into the dining room wall? True, his family was what made the house his home. But he belonged there, just as much as anyone.

Peter parked the Cheverolet in the driveway and stared up at the dim windows. From this angle, they had a cant that made them resemble unfriendly eyes. The front knob would not accept his key. Peter struggled with the lock, fighting down a growing dread.

“Peter?”  Nina parked and spilled out of her sedan. Shannon pried herself from the passenger side under the bulk of the dry cleaning. Nina stepped primly up the front walk, drawing her key like a sword.

“Door trouble?”

“I guess.” Peter’s face reddened. “Maybe we should call a locksmith.”

The knob accepted Nina’s key without complaint. The door practically fell open. Nina cast a critical eye to Peter’s key. “Maybe we should make another copy.”

Peter mumbled something.

The house was a cold blank until she hit the hall switch and suddenly they were transported to their home, with the ship-rope rugs on the bare hardwood floors and a photo of his grandparents hanging just above the shoe rack.

It would have been too easy to forget about it once snugly confined in the bosom of his family. Nina chattering over pasta, Shannon practising steps in the hall. Peter sat in a snug chair that had survived through college and felt very much at home.

But he did not forget.

“Maybe we should get a dog,” he said later that night. Nina, in bed with her magazine, gave him an aside glance.

“Who’s going to walk it? Shannon is full-time this semester, and I don’t have the kind of mental space for an animal.”

“I was just thinking, you know, when I get home, the house is so empty…” the reasons, so concrete in his head, slipped from his fingers. Nina put a small kiss just above his eyebrow.

“Oh Peter,” she said, in a tone that could have been pitying or contemptuous.

He embraced the time away from the house. He went to work and spoke with colleagues and lived. He was a person who belonged in the world. As long as he kept away from the problem, there was no problem, right?

After a few rounds of pool, long past dark and the point where Nina should be home, Peter received a text. He pulled over and let the cold screen light the car.


Peter parked askew in the driveway. His hands were shaking. Above him loomed the house, dark and disapproving as a tombstone. He sat in the car. How late was late? He could stay in the car, play it off like he’d just got home when they arrived. He thumbed through a paperback under his dome light. He played spider solitaire until his battery ran low. He ran the heater until his head hit the back of the seat and someone was suddenly rapping on the driver’s side window.

“Peter?” Nina’s voice was alarmed. Peter killed the engine. His wife and daughter gazed concernedly through the window. Flushed red, he tried to play it off.

“Late. Must’ve fallen asleep.” The dashboard clock said near midnight.

Peter got out of the car and stretched. Nina was not budging.

“You’re starting to worry me, Peter. You’re staying out later and later, now…this.” She indicated the car with her hand. “What are you afraid of?”

“Afraid?” Peter laughed.

“Daddy, come on.” Shannon looked at him through dewdrop-thick glasses. “You keep coming home late, and you won’t let us leave the house without you.”

Their gazes were sterile pins. He was being dissected. Nina shook her head.

“Come on,” she said, grabbing his arm and turning him around, “use your key. Go in. There’s nothing wrong.”

Peter tried very hard to make his legs bend, tried not to fight them as they pushed him up the walk, but he couldn’t make his body obey properly. The dead front window glared at him, showed him a room cold and empty and unwelcoming. He needed them to go first, to purify the air with their laughter, but they were behind him and pushing.

“There,” Nina stopped. “Key in the lock. You can do it.”

Peter fumbled with the keys. He dropped them twice. Nina was less than amused. The lock stuck, refusing to accept the whole key at first and then refusing to turn one way or the other. He looked to the girls for help. Nina nodded impatiently at the door.

The lock snicked open like a sudden jeer. Peter had to shove the door to get it moving. The front hallway was cold and dark.

He looked back. Nina nodded again. After you.

Peter’s footsteps carried reverb. He walked down the front hall, dark and strange to him. He couldn’t even remember where the hall switch was as he felt along the wall.

“Okay there, I’m…in.” He could bring himself to say ‘home.’ Where was the damn switch?


He turned back. The hall was dark. There was no door.

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Gilly, Or A Boy and His Tadpole

The tadpole was the size of a man’s thumbnail and colored a blue so dark it was almost black. The other tadpoles were all yellow-green and many times its size, American Bullfrog larvae. Ethan had paged through his junior nature guide three times and still hadn’t found anything remotely resembling the newcomer.

He dipped a sycamore twig into the water, disturbing the surface. The bullfrogs fled, but the blue tadpole curled curiously up to it. Ethan lifted the stick from the water. The tadpole came with it, flattening to the rough surface. Out of the water its blue shone iridescent. Tilting the stick this way and that, Ethan studied the little passenger. The tadpole had no visible eyes and its fins were transparent, bordering on invisible. He had never seen anything like it, and it woke some protective instinct in him. What if one of the bigger tadpoles ate it?

Ethan decided to run home and fetch a jelly jar. The tadpole would live on his windowsill, fed with lunch meat until it had grown. This plan lasted to the point when Ethan opened his front door. Bombarded with homework, chores, do this, do that, Ethan’s world ceased to include the pond. He remembered only a little bit, just before drifting off that night.

It may have been the next day, it may have been three days later when he got back out to the pond. Too little time, surely, for all the bullfrog tadpoles to mature and hop away. Yet the little pond was empty.

No, not empty.

As Ethan dipped a stick into the water, the strange tadpole swam up via a series of curlicues. Ethan smiled. The tadpole seemed to be thriving with the lack of competition. Now it was the span of Ethan’s hand and a brighter blue. Ethan squatted. The extra sandwich he made was shredded into the water, where the bread soaked and sank. The tadpole touched nothing. What did it want? Ethan regretted not hedging his bets with PB&J.

A lone bullfrog tadpole ascended to mouth the surface of the pond, dimpling it. Like a shot, the blue tadpole was upon it, circling it. The bullfrog tadpole seemed to disintegrate. Ethan’s eyes popped wide. That was the best thing he’d seen in his entire life. He watched the strange tadpole swim somewhat forlornly around the now-empty pond. What would it eat now?

Ethan had an idea. Uncle Henry had a feeder pond in his cattle field. In an afternoon’s work of splashing and coaxing, he got the tadpole into one of his larger sand buckets. With many careful steps Ethan brought the tadpole to its new home, upending the bucket and disturbing the minnows.

Ethan was not able to visit every single day, but was pleased with the progress nonetheless. The tadpole grew larger, features became more distinct. Unlike the poor bullfrog larvae, the strange tadpole had visible gills. Not behind its head, like a fish, but all along its body. Ethan decided to dub it “Gilly.”  Gilly still did not have even vestigial eyespots but bore a mouthful of sharp needle teeth.

A week after introducing Gilly to the pond, Ethan ran into his uncle on the worn cattle trail. Uncle Henry had on his fishing waders and elbow-length rubber gloves.

“Whatcha doing uncle Henry?”

Henry grunted. “Some kinda Snakehead got in the feeder pond.”

“Uh-oh. Is it dangerous?”

“Well, I wouldn’t go sticking fingers in there any time soon.”

“I won’t, sir,” Ethan said. He turned right back around and went home. He grabbed a 3-gallon bucket and the aquarium net. Gilly took much less coaxing this time, perhaps he had learned that buckets meant good things in his future.

Ethan’s mother never allowed him to swim in Redtail pond on account of all the scrap metal lying on the bottom, but she let him fish up the shiny silver sticklebacks (provided he let them go afterwards.) Plenty of room, plenty of food, and water so clear you could see all the way to the bottom. For a moment after being dumped out, Gilly hung on the surface of the cold water before wriggling away as if burrowing through the liquid.

It was not even a week later when Ethan, bearing his lunch bag to another session by the water, stumbled upon a teen girl kneeling beside the pond and sobbing. A woman had a hand on her shoulder, other hand pressed to her mouth as if to hold in an ugly sob. At their feet was a bloody and torn dog’s leash.

“…I don’t understand,” the girl was saying, “he just went under.”

Ethan crossed to the far end of the pond to eat his sandwich.

The pond was no longer a haven. Ethan saw a man sitting by the dock with his jeans rolled up to the knee, everything below his right ankle bloody and raw. Missing pet signs bloomed from every telephone pole.

Ethan found his father in the workshop.

“Pop,” he said,” could you fix my wagon so the sides come up?”

His father tapped his knee. “How far?”

“Half again.” Ethan held his hands out to indicate height.

“Sure. Hey, what for? You havin’ a teddy bear parade?” his father needled. Ethan said nothing.

They were able to build a sort of crude extension from boards fitted and nailed to one another. Ethan waterproofed it with a block of his mother’s canning paraffin. Crude, but it held.

Redtail pond had sprouted a shiny new “no swimming” sign on its shore. Ethan rolled his wagon to the water’s edge. He found a good-sized stick and slapped the pond surface.

A bit of moving debris caught his eye. Gilly surfaced, shedding the colors that had led Ethan to mistake it for a clump of weeds and a rock. Gilly was now the size of a duck. Black cilia frothed from his gills. His mouth opened up half the length of his body, disclosing myriad white fences of teeth.

Ethan knelt. “Hey Gilly.” Did the tadpole understand speech? He seemed to grin knowingly as he tread water. “This little pond is getting too dangerous for you. But don’t worry, I’ve got a plan.”

He rolled the wagon down into the water. Gilly cooperatively swam over the lip of the wagon, which by some miracle held on its rough passage back to shore. Water sloshed over the edge, so Ethan covered it with his rain slicker.

On the road from the pond, he ran into two Fish and Game wardens bearing dip nets.

“Go home, son,” one of them admonished. Ethan nodded.

Rolling the wagon over grass and gravel, it took what seemed like forever to arrive at his destination.

“Here we are,” he said, pulling off the slicker, “the lake might have bad fish in it, but there’s plenty more places to hide.”

Gilly eagerly butted the walls of the wagon. Ethan knelt, feeling silly about how wet his eyes were.

“Sorry I can’t see what kind of frog you turn into, buddy. Make lots of little tadpoles, okay?”

He rolled the wagon into the lake.

Gilly swam out fluidly, working his entire body like a paddle. He hung blue against the sandy bottom of the lake before shifting color and vanishing. Ethan remained kneeling, cuffs sodden and cold. He was sad, but it was a satisfying sad. It felt like the end of some kid’s book: A Boy and His Tadpole.


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The Image of the Goddess

Photographed by Ned Daughtry(deceased)

“The Treasures of Nepal,” was what they titled the museum show.

Trouble was, the goddess was from nowhere near Nepal. It had been gifted to Prithvi Narayan Shah along with a monkey’s head carved from mammoth ivory and an articulated golden cobra, both now lost to time. The idol itself was rediscovered in an oil jar, wrapped in a twist of red cloth. The lead archaeologist proclaimed it an image of the goddess Lakshmi, an error which persisted even to its life as a museum piece. Testing found the figure to be a mixture of copper and some unknown, slightly radioactive metal. Examination under a microscope showed that the idol did not bear the scrape of tool-marks, nor bits of matter left from the moldmaking process. It was as if it had grown organically into the image.

The idol was nested in a display case next to a gold tilhari and a Newar headdress. Three days before the museum’s opening, a curator noticed verdigris had spread from the goddess to its cellmates. The other ornaments were removed for cleaning. The goddess stayed.

By the opening night of the show, the verdigris was as plentiful as moss and grew indiscriminately on any surface. The glass from the display cases was left off for the night, the blistering panes stacked beside the tilhari and headdress and all the other things that had caught the strange corrosion. The curator hid green, flaking hands as he introduced Frederick Horton, the speaker for the night. Horton went around the room, describing each piece after a surreptitious shake to rid it of green dust. When it came to the goddess he palmed it like a coin, thumb rubbing over it as he spoke of Thakuri kings and trade routes. In the photos that survived the evening, he sweats through his tuxedo jacket.

Halfway through a rehearsed speech, Horton began to trail off. He seemed confused and rubbed his forehead with his free hand, leaving a green streak. He spoke of plateaus that receded from every angle, of metals that could be grown like a seed, of the true first kings of Kathmandu. By the time he was removed from the podium, he was screaming about the images of Hindu deities not being of multi-limbed gods but a depiction of beings who squatted spiderlike over multiple timelines. He died ranting in the ambulance. His teeth were orange and his skin contained impressions of his clothing fasteners as if he had been exposed to a low-grade radioactive pulse. What guests were left at the museum would complain off and on of health problems for the rest of their lives, most notably a green discoloration of gums and other soft tissue. The idol disappeared sometime between Horton’s collapse and subsequent hospitalization. It has not resurfaced since.

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If there was one consistent nightmare to my childhood, it was this: Legends of the Eastern Coast, page 12, plate 2. The Wreckers. I can’t tell you what horrors that etching awoke in my young soul, those vile people with their sneering grins and makeshift weapons. They didn’t wear buccaneer finery, didn’t fly the jolly roger or drink rum. They were land pirates, my grandfather explained to me, a thousand times more terrible than any scurvy dog I had come to know. He would dissect the scene for me, sickle-moon fingernail hovering on each crucial point of the illustration. Here is the signal fire they lit in mimic of a lighthouse. Here was the cargo that drifted to shore once the ship ran aground on the shoal. Here were the living crewmen, being set upon by countless devil-tongued hounds. Here were the wreckers coming with wicked knives and clubs towards the survivors—

I lived in terror of them. I had never even been in a boat or visited the east coast, yet they awakened some kind of ancestral fear in me. There was something so unusually cruel in them that struck me, even as a child. I imagined myself on one of those boats, seeing the friendly signal of a fire only to wind up sinking. Lighting out, terrified, for the shore and the arms of my fellow man, only to be beaten and stabbed for what was in my boat. It could be hay. It could be a weary head of soldiers back from some military action, worthless as cargo. What then?

My mother finally saw to it that the book wound up on one of his higher shelves. If I stood on his stepladder, I could graze the spine with my fingertips but I could not pull it from the shelf. It could not get to me.

I grew up and married. Traveling along the highway one night, my man at the wheel, I sat in the back with the safety belt buckled around my swelling belly. Our child. My cargo.

My husband leaned forward and squinted out the windshield. “Someone’s had an accident.”

Four words I will never be able to forget.

I pulled myself up so I could look over the seat. Far ahead, I could see the red gleam of road flares. The silhouettes of people did frantic jumping-jacks while lit from behind with that hellish glare. It woke something in me.

“Keep going,” I murmured to him. “You can’t help.”

“Nonsense. I think I’ve got my kit back there.” He was rummaging on the seat beside him, that loving fool. “And there’s that trail blanket.”

I don’t know if we hit something, or if something hit us. I know the car flipped over, because I woke with the seatbelt pinning me in place. I had been crying before I woke up.

I screamed my husband’s name. He, too tall to wear the shoulder belt comfortably, was in a heap in the driver’s seat. He wasn’t moving.

“Hello? Is there anyone?”

Talking was difficult. “Yes, we’re here! My husband— he’s—”

The driver’s-side door groaned open. The beam of a flashlight stabbed my eyes, made me turn away.

“You alive in there?”

“Yes! My husband—”

He groaned in his heap.

“Get him!” I sobbed with relief. “Get him out, he needs medical attention.”

“Now just hold on, little lady.” The man’s voice was slow and drawled and in no hurry at all. “We’ll get him out, then we’ll come for you, all right?”

“Yes, good, fine, just get him.” I squinted, but I couldn’t see beyond that bright light. Someone grabbed my husband under his arms and pulled him slowly from the car. The light did not move.

I don’t know how long I sat there, blood running to my head, light blinding me, but the quiet let me think. Had I heard sirens? I didn’t remember. How much time had elapsed since we’d crashed?

…why had we crashed?

I started hyperventilating.

There were no swirling red and blue lights, no radio cracks from a squad car. I was visibly pregnant. Why weren’t they more concerned about me? The way they’d hauled my husband from the car seemed more likely to injure him further.

I could hear subdued conversation from somewhere outside the car. I could feel my child within me stir as if he, too, was full of fear.

The back hatch creaked open, spilling our cooler and picnic blanket and a million other little things I had yet to clean out of it. I bit my lip to keep from screaming.

“Little lady, you still in there?”

My face felt inflated. My vision began to tunnel.

After a long silence I heard them rooting through the pile of our things. Murmured snatches of conversation: “….that ain’t…less than….don’t even…”

“But the car’s nice!” Someone burst out shouting, only to immediately be shushed.

I squeezed my eyes shut and let my body dangle. Let me be dead, let me be a worthless corpse.

Headlights flooded the car interior. From behind. An engine idled. I could hear the soft murmur of one of those men, a lilting tone that soothed like a lullaby, as he tried to keep the driver from getting out.

“You’re all alright here?” Someone called over.

I screamed. They scattered. Maybe the driver had a gun. Maybe they weren’t ready to put up with even slight resistance. But when the real emergency crews came they only found two cars, mine and my savior’s, with my husband stabbed quietly to death on the pavement not far from us. No lights, no other cars. Just the stubs of the road flares guttered down like the embers of a signal fire on some distant beach.

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