Issue No. 14, Autumn 2015

Ganymede
Robert Esposito

I.

This is how I remember my brother Jacob at Festus Lake: burnt skin, like the clay of Greek pottery; ink hair, floating like seaweed when he pretended that mermaids drowned his scrawny frame; a tempest for a face, morphing from grin to scowl to chortling laughter that harmonized with the lake’s gentle push and pull of sand. This is my Jacob, with his tiny beak that he didn’t realize could unhinge and let forth sonorous siren screams. A temper like a Florida thunderstorm: umber clouds manifested from nowhere, temperamental and nasty, but ephemeral. Even as a baby, he had a rage that matched Achilles’. Mom would laugh about it as I changed his diaper: “He’s Irish and Italian – what do you expect?”

Yes, this was him – he had our mother’s fault of extremes: there was no happy, only jubilance; no sad, only sorrow. This was him: all bark and no bite; all flopping around in the lake like a fish, never wanting to leave until the moon reflected in the water. And even then, he would sit on the very edge of the shore, his heels dug into the sand as if willing himself to melt into it, always asking for five more minutes, just five more, Cameron, c’mon, five more!

At dinner in the cabin, Mom and Dad would ask Jacob about the beach, and he would tell them about the naiads he saved, the sea serpents he grappled with; about Big Foot, who he saw between the trees of Blackwood Forest. “Cam, we need to look for him tomorrow!” he would implore. “He’s probably tired and hungry and lonely!” All kids worried for others; they took the world to heart. Any poison or drug he touched leapt from his arteries to his tiny heart.

“Oh, what a wonderful imagination!” Mom would say. “Isn’t he just brilliant?

Dad would agree with a hearty laughed and pinch Jacob’s cheek until it flushed.

Before we fell asleep, I recited the Greek myths I could recall to him. I told him of Achilles’ insatiable fury after Patroclus was murdered at Troy; of Heracles and Hylas; of Zeus kidnapping Ganymede to act as slave and wine bearer, much to Hera’s chagrin. He must have enjoyed them, because for once, his speech slowed to a trickle, like a showerhead not fully shut off, instead of a waterfall.

***

I was at a party with Nora when I got the call. It was the first time in months that I choked down shot after burning shot of vodka in some stranger’s kitchen that Nora dragged me out to. I thought I imagined the vibrations on my thigh at first, and almost ignored it. “I’ll be back in a minute,” I said to Nora. I pushed my way through the kitchen crowded with drunken strangers to the back door. Winter’s hoary claws lacerated my cheeks.

“Hello?” My cheeks were already numbing, and the snow sucked the heat from my feet.

“Hey, Cam.” Dad. His voice sounded strained, almost, but I could barely hear him over the vicious wind. Snow came down around me like a veil; I could hardly see beyond the back porch. “Jacob got a reply from that college he wanted to go to.”

“Oh?” I sucked on my teeth; I sat in the snow by a violet bush; the wind halted for a moment. “Did he get in?”

“Well,” he said, “no. No he didn’t. But he’s fine, I think. He’s having a nap right now.” I shook the snow from the rose bush and the wind started up harsher than before, whipping snow into my face like a slap.

“Did he apply anywhere else?”

“No. Seems like he’ll be ending up at the community college.” There was a pause. “Which is fine! I’m sure he’s fine.”

Had I not been drunk, maybe I would have known not to trust him. But I was, and cold; I wanted to return to Nora, and forget that I had to work in the morning. “Tell him I’m sorry,” I said, which was the worst thing to say to someone when what happened wasn’t your fault.

“Oh, while I have you: are you coming to Blackwood with us this summer?”

I looked through the glass window to Nora in the kitchen, and she smiled at me. She stood under the light, as if her skin absorbed it all, dimming the rest of the room. “I don’t think so.”

Before I went back inside, I picked one of the violets that grew despite the snow and stuck it in Nora’s hair.

***

I was fifteen, with acne and books; he was ten, with no pores or worries. The sun bathed the land in light, creating a million tiny stars in the sand. He splashed around in the waters, calling out every so often. “Watch this, Cam!” he yelled, and did something underwater as if I could see him. He surfaced, water dripping like heavy tears from his hair and nose and toothy grin.

“Good job!” I called back, without looking up from Sappho’s poetry.

It was only when the water stopped splashing that I realized something was wrong. I looked up, and he was in front of me, his knee crooked to not touch the sand, and a trail of ruby leading to the lake. “Cam, I need a bandaid,” he said. “Some glass hurt me.”

I scooped him up before he could protest. I carried him from the beach to our cabin. He growled and snapped at me, his face twisted like a tornado, but I refused to let go. “I’m fine!” he said. “I’m fine, I’m fine, let me walk, I’m fine! I just need a bandaid!”

Mom and Dad agreed: just a bandaid. But as the sink rouged with his blood, pallor corrupted his clayish skin. “I’m fine,” he kept muttering. The storm was diminishing, and when he had none left in him, I carried him like a wounded pup to the closest ranger station.

He got three stitches and a tetanus shot. He didn’t scream or cringe or cry, but I could feel the pain in the way he formed a fist around my hand. If someone had been watching him, they would have thought he felt no pain.

***

When I entered the house, Mom took me aside. “What a pretty flower,” she said. She hovered her hand over the violet in my hair, as if afraid to touch it. Nora had put it there. “Jacob doesn’t want to go to Blackwood with us. Would you mind checking up on him every so often?”

Of course I agreed.

They were leaving in the morning, so they wanted to have a dinner to say goodbye for a month. Mom and Dad sat adjacent to me, and Jacob sat across from me. It looked like he had been sitting there for an eternity, like a painted pot in a museum, staring down at his plate. He occasionally picked up his wine glass and sniffed the bloody content, but never drank from it. The wind was gone from his face, as if it had never been there in the first place, and his jaw was more defined, jutting out like a sheer cliff. I noticed how strikingly white his skin had become, so pale against his seaweed-black hair: no longer burnt like pottery, but instead, statuesque white with specks of dirt, specks of freckles, like the decrepit sculptures of  Apollo. I didn’t know he had freckles.

“So Cam,” Mom started, and I tore my eyes away from Jacob. “Are you going back to Mongolia any time soon?”

“Turkey,” I corrected. She rolled her eyes. “I don’t know. I can’t get much time off from the new museum now that we have a new exhibit coming in.”

“You’re gonna become one of the exhibits if you keep at it there,” Dad said, and barked out laughter that Mom replicated.

I looked back at Jacob, expecting to meet his eyes, but he kept his eyes to the wine. I frowned at him – there was something on his cheek, something brown. I reached over and pulled it away. He didn’t even flinch. “What is this?” I asked. It was rough and ridged, almost like tree bark.

“Oh, I’m sure it’s nothing,” Mom said. “Oh, I’m so glad Jacob won’t be going away to that crazy college. Did you know they had a club for communism? That place was much too liberal for our sweet little Jacob.”

“Full of hippies,” Dad supplied. “All they wanted was the liberate the homosexuals and smoke weed.”

Jacob shrank. Where was the storm he was supposed to create? In the past, he would have conjured a tempest in the middle of the kitchen, even with just his eyes. But now he was a disintegrating monolith, sniffing at the bloody wine and then dropping it all down his throat. His marble cracked in jagged lines, and chunks fell to the floor.

While Mom cleared up the dishes and Dad went to watch television, Jacob looked at me for the first time all night. For a moment, he paralyzed me. It’s disturbing for a statue to look at you. “Nice violet,” was all he said, and he went to his room for the rest of the night.

***

After the sun retreated under the horizon, and the stars poked holes in the canvassed sky, sometimes I would take Jacob back to the beach with a telescope. It must have been after my second year of high school, which would have made me seventeen, and him twelve.

He lay down at my feet and started telling jokes he had learned at school. I searched for the Jovian moons, and almost instantly found Jupiter’s humongous form in the eyepiece. I laughed at his jokes at the appropriate spots where he paused, and I wish I had laughed more at the pure light spilling from his mouth. Jacob was a monolith of crystal in the sand; the light he spoke could have been mistaken as simply reflections of starlight, but I know its origins were his ferocious lungs. He was Apollo, alive.

“I found it,” I sad. One of the moons, against the dark backdrop of overbearing Jupiter. “Do you want to see it? It’s Ganymede.”

Jacob moved a bit, but he didn’t stand up. “Nah,” he said. “Just tell me his story again.”

II.

When I went to the house to check up on Jacob, he wasn’t in the kitchen, where cups were piled up in the sink; he wasn’t in the living room, where the ceiling fan circled listlessly; he wasn’t in any of the bedrooms. For a moment I paused in my old room, looking for something indescribable. Possibly some solid symbol of my childhood, an object I could pick up and measure and embraces; say, “Yes, this encapsulates my adolescence.” At my bookshelf, I ran my finger along the spines, leaving a trail of clean surrounded by accumulated dust.

I stopped at a gap in the books – it seemed like something was missing. Everything was organized by author’s nationality, and the Greek section seemed fairly deficient where once it thrived.

“Jacob?” I called out. “Jacob, are you here?”

There was no answer for a moment, and then a muted voice replied: “I’m in the bathroom.” I walked down the hall and paused at the door. He must have heard my footsteps, because he said, “I’m taking a bath. I have the curtains drawn; you can come in.”

I opened the door expecting steam, but the room was chilly. The black bathtub curtain was drawn from wall to wall, so I couldn’t even see Jacob’s face. Next to the tub was a book – something by Sappho, I saw, and I realized where my books had gone. On top of it was a glass of nearly depleted water, impossibly clear so that light barely refracted.

Jacob shifted in the water. “What do you need, Cam?” he asked, his voice limp, monotone. It was echoed, and each reverberation sounded emptier.

“I just came to talk.”

A hand reached out from behind the curtain, almost ghostly with how it moved and looked. For a moment, I thought I saw something brown on the underside, but it retreated with the cup too quickly. “About?”

“I have – Nora’s my girlfriend.”

The words had tumbled out of my mouth before I could think of the consequences. Jacob sputtered and coughed the first reaction I had gotten out of him in weeks. He kept coughing, and then silence ensued. The air in the room stilled, and I thought I could hear my heartbeat in my ears. I thought I had made a mistake. But finally, finally he spoke, and he said, “How is that supposed to help me?”

I couldn’t answer him with all the blood rushing away from my heart. I kept expecting him to say something else, to admit something, but we were silent, except for the quiet slosh of water, back and forth, like the miniature waves at Festus Lake.

“I’m so tired,” he said, and then started to make a nose that I couldn’t distinguish as laughing or crying. I heard the water in his cup slosh up again, and he coughed more. His arm jutted out from the bathtub, long and thin, the skin gripping dangerously to his ulna and radius, jagged points threatening to pierce through his delicate skin. And all along the underside of it, something brown, something rigid grew. “I can’t rip it off,” he said. “It bleeds if I try. It’s part of me.”

“What is it?”

His arm retracted. I heard him drink again, cough again. “Tree bark, I think.”

***

In the February of my last year of high school, there was a ferocious blizzard that raged for three days and nights. I was supposed to find out if I had gotten accepted to a college I had applied to, two hundred miles away. But the internet was down, and the mail was halted, so I was left with only prayers.

A week after the storm, a lone mailwoman appeared down the street, trudging through the knee-deep snow. I watched her trek up the street from a window, already dressed in a coat and boots. When she neared my house, I raced out to greet her. In her hands was a week’s worth of mail, but I cast it all aside for the giant letter: acceptance.

I made an angel in the snow, all of it melting around me until the green grass underneath shined bright. I melted into the snow, into the angel, and I only had wings for appendages.

Jacob’s storms came in vicious throes and paroxysms after that, always catalyzing in my presence. There were floods in the kitchen and thunderclouds in the bathroom. I never asked why. I was too afraid of the answer.

***

The next time I visited, there were still glasses in the sink, in the same exact position as last time. Beads of liquid clung to the bottoms of the glasses. I didn’t realize how inertia really worked until then.

In his room, Jacob was a lump under his covers. I didn’t see the sheets move at all. “Jacob?” I said, quietly. Goosebumps appeared on my arm – the room was freezing, much colder than the rest of the house. The window curtains were drawn, so that not even a trickle of light could warm it. I moved closer – he still hadn’t moved. “Jacob?”

He had the sheets drawn up to his forehead; all I could see was a tuft of his black hair, poking out from the very top.

I sat down at the edge of his bed. My hand hovered over the blanket, waiting for some movement, but nothing happened. “Jacob?” I whispered again. I pulled the blanket away from his face, and his eyes were shut and relaxed. “Jacob.”

All at once his eyes opened. His pupils enlarged, consuming his dark irises, and then contracted to pinpoints. I never noticed before how dark his eyes really were, dark enough that I could see a clear reflection of my worried face.

“What are you doing here, Cam?” he asked groggily. He didn’t move at all.

“I brought a telescope. I thought it’d be fun to look at the stars a bit.”

“I’m tired, Cam.” It looked like he had trouble keeping his eyes open, but it was only 9:00 pm. “Maybe another night.”

“Oh, c’mon. It’ll be nice!” He flinched when I raised my voice. “I just… For a few minutes at least, Jacob. C’mon.”

He sighed and rubbed the bridge of his nose, as if trying to rub away his freckles. I stared at his arm, and when he noticed, he shoved it back under the sheet. “It’s getting worse,” I said. “Shouldn’t you go see a doctor?”

“Whatever will happen will happen,” he said, and got out of bed slowly. I lead the way down the hallway, into the kitchen, and out the backdoor. He was still in his pajamas and barefoot.

“That’s a bit stoic,” I said.

He sharply turned his eyes to me, and for a split second, I could see a storm about to take shape. But it disappeared from his eyes so fast that I thought I had imagined it. Jacob sauntered over to the telescope I had set up and lay down next to it.

We were silent as I searched the vastness for something, but everything was gone. Even the brightest stars were dimmed to nothingness by the city’s lights; suffocated by the thousands of people trying to outdo the celestials. Twenty minutes must have passed as I searched in a futile attempt to find something to show to Jacob. “They’re there,” I told him. “The stars are there, I promise.”

“Cam,” he said, “just tell me Ganymede’s story again. I don’t care about the stupid stars.”

And so I did. I told him about the little Trojan boy cowering behind Zeus’ throne. He offered up cup after cup of sweet wine to the king of gods, all while Hera crossed her legs on her ivory throne and went on and on about those hippies stirring up trouble in Troy.

I ended up carrying him back to his bed; he had fallen asleep.

***

The summer before I left for college, Jacob and I decided to go camping in Blackwood Forest instead of simply sleeping in our parents’ cabin.

We explored the dense foliage of Blackwood. The canopying trees created a garden of twilight for us: Eden in shades, with berry bushes instead of apple trees; Hesperides in shadows, with sparrows instead of dragons.

I taught him which berries were safe to eat, which plants he could boil and make tea with. I taught him why moss usually grew on the east side of trees and rocks, why sap oozed from trees when they were wounded. He told me about Luke, who had been in his English class, who knew everything about Greek mythology. “He wants to study Greek stuff, like you,” he said. “You’d love him.”

When we were done hiking for the day, we would set up the tent and relax. Sometimes I would tell him stories, but mostly I would let him tell me jokes. I didn’t like to break the ringing silence of the forest, with its melodious birds and dinning bugs. Even Jacob kept his jokes to a minimum, apparently not wanting to defile the holy noises either.

Sometimes while we hiked, the light caught him and illuminated his frame. His hair turned to flames; his body became entrenched in shadows. He looked like a hero depicted on Greek vases, ready to destroy monsters and villains. But then Jacob stepped out of the light, and he was boyish again – young, with spindling arms and sticks for legs that could barely support him; with skin like plaster of Paris, seeming like it could never crack, that it would exist for centuries without a single blemish.

On the last night, we slept outside of the tent. We could barely see the stars between the trees, but we knew they were there, blazing and luminous, but fragile.

“I want to leave,” James said barely loud enough to break the din of the forest. “You’re so lucky. You get to get away.”

“I’m sorry,” was all I could think to say.

His jaw clenched and unclenched, as if he were chewing up storm clouds. He wanted to unhook his jaw, I could tell, and blow away the entire forest. He could raze every tree, if he set his mind to it, just so he could see a single star up there. He would reach up; he would pull them down; he would swallow the fiery denizens one by one, without fear. Jacob was dauntless.

But instead he swallowed the storm, and I think that’s where it all started. He swallowed the storm whole, and it festered in his stomach until it developed into this. “I know,” he said. “I’ll be fine. Just tell me the story of Ganymede again.”

I would have told him that story until dawn, if he asked.

***

From the beginning, I always expected a final, torrential storm that ripped up his throat. I wanted him to spew out thunder and hurl down lightning, give the explicit reason for it all. But when I entered the house on the third night, I felt change. The air was stilled, as if it were underground, and completely silent. Even though the air conditioner wasn’t on, goosebumps erupted on my flesh like volcanoes.

“Jacob?” I called out. My voice echoed back at me.

My feet guided me slowly through the house, into the kitchen. Everything was in a palpable stasis, and I had to push my way through the coldness. “Jacob?” I said, muted by the austere air. I knew he couldn’t hear me, but I imagined him in front of the refrigerator. Once, when he was only three or four, he had opened it and dropped egg after egg, one at a time, ever so slowly, upon the ground. At his feet, the yolk pooled, all the white congealed, and he glared furiously because we wouldn’t let him go to the park alone.

I stopped at his open bedroom door. From there, I could see into the bathroom, where Sappho’s poetry still sat dejectedly next to the bathtub. I wondered how he reacted to it. Did he scream at the ancient scribbles, feeling some inexplicable connection? Did he take it all silently, like he seemed to be taking everything lately? Even the bath water would not have crested over the ledge of the porcelain, like he loved to do when he was younger. “I’m making tsunamis!” he would yell, and I had to hold his wrist to keep him in place as I washed his hair. His tiny body would shift this way and that in the tub, imagining airplanes and speedboats. But the tub was empty now; the moment dried.

“Jacob?” I repeated, but I was no longer looking for him. I crossed the threshold of his room and stared at him in his bed. Blankets no longer covered him.

“I’m so tired,” he said, but his mouth barely moved. His lips and one of his eyes were the only things I could see on his face; the rest was covered by dark tree bark. He was being restrained, one moment at a time. Where had it started? “Cam, I’m so tired.”

I crossed the room to his bed. The bark pressed up again his face; curled hooks into the bed to lock him in; reached deep inside the cavity of his chest. I imagined them embracing each rib and reaching for his fragile heart. It covered up his freckles, and compared to the darkness of the wood, his lips appeared colorless. I didn’t know where to touch him to comfort him, so I sat beside him.

“Does it hurt?” I asked. I could almost see the bark shifting, starting to cover the other eye.

His one eye, all black, all ready to release a flood, met mine. “Like nothing else in the world,” he said. Would I have submitted to this, if I had stayed at home? “Why did you leave me alone, Cam?”

I didn’t have an answer.

“I thought that maybe reading about other people would help, but –” He started coughing, but couldn’t move his shoulders or chest. “I’m so tired, Cam,” he said. The bark almost completely covered his eye, forcing his lid closed. I wanted to grab his hand, but I couldn’t find it. I couldn’t grab the bark advancing over his eye – I would crush it. “I lost it. I lost the war. I never thought it’d come to this, you know? I thought at some point I would be okay. I kept promising myself that it’d get better, but I just couldn’t stand to wait.”

“Are you scared?”

He pursed his lips as the bark completely covered his eye. He was blind. “No,” he said. “Just tired. I’m so, so tired, Cameron.”

“Can I help you?”

The bark advanced over his mouth, threatening to reach inside of him. “Ganymede’s story,” he said, drawing towards his last breath. “I’ll be able to hear you.”


Robert Esposito is a freshman at The College of New Jersey and is currently a prose reader for The Blueshift Journal.

Issue No. 14, Autumn 2015

SLC Revolution
Mark Benedict

The girl takes a shivery breath. She exhales; her breath blooms in the darkness. Night had arrived like syrup:  dripping, oozing over campus, thin and translucent. But that was a while ago, back with her friends behind the dorms. Now it is more like hot fudge: thick, shrouding. She leans absently against the arbor’s vined post, then checks her cell phone for the time. He said eleven but already it is closer to eleven-thirty.

A sudden shushing. She turns breathlessly and looks down the long arbor corridor, expecting…what? A troll? A dragon? The campus isn’t magic but then again maybe it is. In the morning the autumn sunshine gives things a burnished otherworldly glow. But the shushing is just the wind, the vines. She laughs at herself, rubs her chilly hands together. Under the arbor, he said. But here she is and where is he?

The girl is eighteen but twelve doesn’t seem so long ago. The rush of years, yes, the tide of time: just when you get the hang of the playground, the playground is gone. Adulthood will claim her, soon. It will come for her like a mean old evil witch, broom-whisk her from campus to cubical. Her fists clench, she feels a sweep of sadness. Humdrum is a horror: the very devil. But maybe she can elude the witch, the devil, for a while. Put on children’s clothes. Hide out in the fudgy night.

A strange but delicious fact: the boy, a shaggy-haired sweet thing, isn’t even the only one that likes her here.  In high school, back in Indiana, they called her Freak Girl, because of the purple lipstick, the black clothes. It wasn’t cruelly meant, but it wasn’t strictly fond, either. Not that school was so bad, or that anyone actually disliked her, no. But it wasn’t a home. Here is different; everyone is freaky in some fashion, but they value freaks here, and distinguish between them. It’s finally paying off to be her.

Except the night is advancing. Where is he? Her mind turns, starts spinning out dark scenarios: boy was playing a joke, or boy simply forgot. That’s the twelve in her talking, she knows; she’s still easily discouraged. But still: where is he?

She tries to smile but doesn’t quite get there.

Maybe she’s a fool. Maybe humdrum will have her. Her teachers say she and her classmates will transform the world, but maybe that’s just a teacher’s wish? And what would that even mean in her case? But of course she already knows. She would first do away with all sickness and suffering, naturally, and then move on to the real change. A war of magic, a revolution to make life more enchanted. Maybe there’s a way to make summer dreams last all year? To make autumn magic last forever? If she could, oh, if she could, she’d conjure up a whole world of swirling sunrise excitement. If that means dragons and fairies, all the better. Real witches are better than metaphorical.

Maybe she’ll have everything. Or nothing at all. Maybe maybe maybe.

A crunching of leaves, a bristling of movement. There in the distance a shadowy figure approaches. It could be the boy. Or campus security. Or a troll.

At last she smiles. Her insides glow like butterscotch. No maybes, no more.

The year and her life will be magic.


Mark Benedict is a graduate of the MFA Writing program at Sarah Lawrence College. Recent publications include short stories in Bird’s Thumb, Catch & Release, and Swamp. Mark loves loves loves music. Camera Obscura’s My Maudlin Career and the Gaslight Anthem’s ’59 Sound are among his favorite CDs.

Issue No. 14, Autumn 2015

Ava
Rachel DiMaggio

Ava’s grandmother was a centipede. It explained everything: the way her flesh seemed to be always just a little cooler than it should, the way she could hear you cry out from a nightmare and be there, crossing the long hallway faster than anyone should be able to. It explained the bits of soil and foliage that speckled the hardwood floor every morning – tracked in from the nightly burrowing underground. Most of all, it explained the clicking.

Ava sat with her legs hanging off the bed, too afraid of what she would see to worry about The Man With Claws or The Empty-Eyed Woman that usually lived under the bed. They were something different. The rapid clicking from the living room was real.

She had lied again last week. She had dreamed a centipede towering over her, weaving as it stretched almost full length in the air. The clicking feet had been groping for her mouth to stitch it shut forever. The belly scales had been red hot to burn her flesh into a matching pattern. She had spent hours reading about the habits of centipedes and looking at their horrible photos in National Geographic since she first started to suspect. Grandmother had stopped clicking and appeared so fast Ava didn’t have time to take a breath after she woke with a scream. She asked what Ava was dreaming and then Ava lied and said she’d been dreaming about Empty Eyes.

She hit the pillow a few times, angry that her grandmother had forced her to lie by being a liar herself. Tonight there wouldn’t be anything left to lie about.

She crept to the bedroom door and eased it open so carefully it made only a hiss. Her feet were sticky with sweat as she crept down the hall past the golden glow of the nightlight, into the small span of darkness, into the flickering blue where the television cast its unreliable light. She held her breath as she peered around the corner in the living room.

At first Ava thought she’d made some noise, that Grandmother had heard and turned back into her normal shape as a person. But she had been so quiet, and Grandmother was watching television so calmly and the clicks were steady. In her wrinkled hands she held two pale shiny sticks, and they were twisting a length of red yarn into intricate loops.

“What are you doing?” Ava asked suddenly.

“Knitting a little cape for you,” Grandmother said, as if she’d been expecting the question. “Do you want to stay up late tonight?”

Ava nodded and sank into the couch near Grandmother, tucking her long nightgown under her toes and hugging her knees in embarrassment. Any of the other kids in third grade would have known that grandmothers didn’t turn to monsters. They made you cinnamon toast and the best oatmeal with maple syrup for breakfast, they gave you the cutest and most cuddly stuffed animals, and they watched history shows. Ava stole a glance at the knitting hooks and didn’t look away until she no longer felt like running away from the sound.

The cape was another of the strange pieces of clothing her Grandmother always made. She would look like one of the old-fashioned porcelain dolls with puffy, velvety dresses and black shiny shoes with dozens of buttons. The sweaters were always too richly colored, too luxurious, but Ava wanted to wear them.

After that, Ava stopped having nightmares in her grandmother’s house.

*

Ava didn’t like to remember herself being so frightened and stupid as a child. Eight years later and she still felt a tingle of humiliation when she thought of that night. She pressed her forehead against the taxi’s window, soaking in the coolness. Rain wavered on the glass, the wet pavement slipping along under them. Ava’s throat began to ache and she dug intently through her purse. Billfold, mini flashlight, two-year-old cell phone, coconut-flavored lip balm, and a key ring still full of keys she’d never need to use again. The key to her house, empty now since the furniture had been sold to pay for the funeral. The key to her school locker. The key to the garage. Mom’s car key, the only thing left of the little Honda that wasn’t bloody or shattered or crushed. The metal trembled in her grasp and she closed her eyes. Wet roads. Failed brakes. Closed coffin.

She let the keys drop jingling into the bottom of the purse and found a slice of cinnamon gum. She unwrapped it and the burning in her eyes slowly went away as she chewed. The taxi smelled like cigarettes and the driver’s fingers were twitchy on the wheel.

“I don’t care if you smoke,” she said.

The driver shrugged. Not a talkative man. She hadn’t minded at first, but now she was starting to feel uneasy with the quiet.

“How long till we get there?”

“Ten minutes.”

The monotonous pelting of the rain made it feel more like half an hour, but Ava still wasn’t ready when the taxi stopped.

Her grandmother’s house looked nothing like what she remembered. Other than the gold-painted mailbox, she wouldn’t have recognized it. She stood at the gate, feeling like a trespasser. After the taxi’s engine noise dwindled and she still hadn’t seen Gran at the windows or the door, she set her luggage on the ground and pushed the gate open. The rusty spring was stiff and she had to hold it open with her hip as she dragged the luggage inside.

The stone path, always neatly kept before, was slumped and blurred by unruly grasses and weeds. Ava hurried to the porch shelter and rang the doorbell. She waited as shuffling footsteps and a few indistinct words announced Gran’s approach.

“That must have been the quietest taxi in the world,” Gran said as she stepped inside. “I didn’t hear a thing.”

Ava didn’t remember Gran having a hearing aid, but she did now. It had been a while. “It’s fine.”

Gran gave her a tight hug and Ava felt eight years old again as a familiar scent rose from her cornflower blue shawl. Almonds and earth.

“Get your belongings upstairs. There’s a roast in the oven for dinner, and I even rented a movie if you feel like watching it.”

“Thank you.”

The suitcase felt heavier the closer she got to the top of the staircase and the wheels clipped the last few steps. The sloped roof and lack of sunlight made her room into a cave, and she smiled as she put the suitcase in the corner near the window. She changed into a dry sweater and went in search of a towel for her hair. The towel closet was empty except for some white sheets. She pulled them out to make the bed.

The sheets rippled to the floor and at first she thought they were torn up or cut. But it was more like a gleaming white ribbon, long enough to go from where she stood to the bottom of the stairs, maybe even to the kitchen. She piled it back onto the shelf and went into the bathroom. The sink was dusty, and the neon green plastic cup where she used to keep her toothbrush was still there.

Ava unfolded the hand towel; it was also furry with gray dust, and the sun had drained its color. She used the darker mauve side to pat away the rain. The faucet spurted tan water when she turned it on. Gran hadn’t been up here in a long time. Maybe years. Ava hadn’t been given the option to visit, but she still felt guilty.

Downstairs again to where dinner waited. Ava wondered if her days would always feel like checklists, moving from one necessary yet meaningless act to another. Mom’s propulsive way of going from work projects to study made sense. Passion motivated her. Ava reached into her mind for some kind of drive and couldn’t find one. Not hunger, not sleepiness, not desire. She existed.

Gran made a clicking noise with her tongue. “All that time on the road. You’re bound to be ready for some food.”

Ava forced a smile, feeling like a marionette with ugly, splintered features. She set the table as Gran asked, then poured them glasses of iced tea. Gran heaped a few slices of roast beef onto her plate. Way too much food. But hungry or not, she would eat it if only to thank Gran for cooking. She sure as hell didn’t want to end up responsible for making all the food. It actually smelled tasty, onions and other pungent herbs mingling in the sauce.

“Do you think you’ll be comfortable upstairs?” Gran asked. “It isn’t too musty up there?”

“No, it’s fine. I like the room. I couldn’t find a towel, though. Just a torn up sheet or something.”

“Lazy bitch,” Gran said.

Ava stopped cutting her roast.

“That woman from the cleaning service didn’t take it out,” Gran explained, her dark eyebrows diving down. “She knew it was her last week, she must have just ignored my notes. I asked her to stock the upstairs closet with towels and get rid of any junk. What does she do but tear up my bedsheet and leave it a mess.”

“I’m sorry. I’ll just toss it out.”

“Don’t bother. I have some towels you can take later tonight.”

Ava continued cutting, disturbed. Gran didn’t swear and she tended to be easygoing. She empathized, though. She’d been angry ever since Mom’s accident. Even the sound of the knife going through the meat was irritating. The serrated edge gritted as it went through tough sinew and scraped the plate lightly. She studied the bite on her fork. Pinkish middle, brown reticulated outside.

She ate as if she wanted food, tried to make the right sounds of enjoyment, hoped she paid the right compliment and thanks. The real test would be keeping it down.

*

Nighttime had been a real bitch lately. She no longer had nightmares but she often woke up with nausea. Her body wanted to starve and die. She didn’t blame it at all; it had been fed from earliest days by a woman who was now dead. Only natural it would try to follow her.

Still, when Ava found herself awake and sitting up with a familiar knot in her gut, she tried to fight it down. Not the first night at Gran’s. She dreaded the blast of bile in the throat. She’d have to brush her teeth twice to get rid of the taste.

She tossed and turned, paced the tiny room, leaned on the windowsill with her face against the glass, and finally had to sprint to the bathroom. She hit the light switch and the blinding bulb seemed to shatter in her eyes. The headache was instantaneous, yet it didn’t distract her from the sickness. Somehow she got to the floor before she passed out.

The cold tile woke her up. The light was no longer piercing her head like a skewer and she didn’t even feel sick. She scrounged in the cabinet for a thermometer, but it was wasted time. Her temperature was normal. So not the flu, probably stress.

Restless, she crept downstairs. A cup of milk would calm any residual nausea. She left the lights off and hoped Gran was a heavier sleeper than she used to be. She sat at the table with a cup of milk and sipped it.

The room felt smaller than ever, but she smiled. There were all the knick-knacks Gran liked, arranged like friends around each station of the kitchen. The ceramic family of pudgy bears squatted by the jars of sugar, flour, and oats. On the windowsill by the sink, a yellow goose made of glass and a copper wire frog conspired. Wooden cat silhouettes atop the fridge, a group of brass butterflies pinned to the wall near the stove. And on the wall behind her, the cuckoo clock. Ava twisted in her chair to see it, and just as she did it chimed the hour. The glass nearly went flying as she jumped.

It was 3 am. She let out the breath she’d sucked in, shook her head in relief. The little door opened and she waited for the little Dutch boy and girl to come out on their rails. It was a chase; first the girl in her blue and yellow cotton dress would emerge. Just as she disappeared the boy would make his entrance. At the final chime, they would meet in the middle to kiss, then return to their own homes.

But when the wooden shutter opened and the girl doll wheeled around, something was wrong. Her head had been broken off. Ava suddenly had a lump in her throat. Things got old, they broke. She wondered if Gran had saved the broken piece and if it could be glued back together. The headless doll went in tipsy fashion to its door and out of sight. The boy doll came out, as always, just too late. It stopped in the middle and this time the glass did hit the floor. The boy doll held a wooden, painted head by its blonde hair. His shirt – usually yellow and blue to match the girl – was smeared with crimson gore. When the mechanism jerked to a stop and the shutter slammed shut, blood splattered the wall.

Ava’s scream didn’t wake the dead, though she yelled her name and truly believed Mom would come to save her.

*

Gran didn’t make a big deal out of it and Ava appreciated that. She was to stay either in bed or on the couch and watch some television while Gran did the shopping.

“It’s just the stress,” Gran said. “Lots of people have night terrors after things like this happen. Now watch something funny and put some happy thoughts in your head. I’ll bring a pizza home.”

Ava wrapped herself in an orange crocheted blanket and lay down on the couch. She chewed a wad of spearmint gum and watched Gilligan’s Island until all the tension knots had eased.

*

After dinner, they went out into the garden. Threatening clouds made an early dusk, and Gran had to squint at the sage and basil to see if it was ready to be cut. She silently separated a branch and snipped it off with the scissors. Ava followed behind with a small wicker basket. Swiftly it filled with shiny basil leaves, sticky fronds of rosemary, and then plants Ava didn’t know.

“What’s that?” she asked.

But Gran didn’t seem to hear.

“What’s this one?” she repeated when Gran put the next cutting in.

Again Gran was silent. Frustration welled up in Ava like the nausea she hated. Was she

just supposed to remember everything from when she was little? There were a million plants in this yard. Gran turned her head and Ava immediately regretted her moment of annoyance. She wasn’t wearing her hearing aid. The most intense affection struck and Ava reached out and touched Gran’s hair. The old lines of Gran’s face resolved into a little smile.

“Remember how you used to comb my hair?” Gran said.

Ava nodded. “I remember.”

“It’s so brittle now.”

They continued harvesting the herbs and went indoors. Rain smacked the screen door as Ava pulled it closed.

Her evening was boring but nice. Long after Gran went to bed, she stayed on the couch watching a reality show rerun. Athletic men and women huddled near a campfire and ate undercooked meat, running the gauntlet between parasites and the mock execution they would face if they didn’t finish their trial meal. Ava chewed on the nub of a hangnail, disgusted but unwilling to turn away. The loser was marched away from the campfire and into the trees, her ropy, bleached hair gleaming in the green dark. The show executioner returned with her gear and the rest of the combatants swarmed it.

With a sigh Ava clicked off the TV. The cuckoo clock chimed as she passed the kitchen, but she refused to look at it.

*

It wasn’t the brightness of the moonlight that woke her, but the thickness of the shadows on the roof. It swarmed with black insects – legs askew as they gathered in clots, the twisting forms of centipedes making a rococo background. Everlasting loops of them, millions of specks swarming from the corners of the room. Her eyes burned with the effort to focus.

Usually she could will away the fear by making pictures out of the things she saw. Not tonight. Her pictures kept falling apart. A still-life painting decomposing to free the swarming life that had nested behind the canvas.

The kitchen was off-limits after the night before, so Ava went to the living room and pulled out an old family photo album. She flipped right to her old favorites. Gran in her wedding dress, standing next to a man whose smile looked like he had a toothache. He’d been gone long before Ava was born. Mom had been only twelve when he’d died of heatstroke.

The next photo she visited was the one where Mom was getting ready for prom. She wore a sea green dress, sleeves made of spumy white chiffon. Gran tied a ribbon around her waist. Years passed in the magic flip of a page. Cousins, aunts and uncles, friends she’d rarely heard of. Then the last photo of Mom and Gran together. They were sitting at a small table, playing cards. It was a summer party. Ava loved this photo because she could remember the things that weren’t captured in the scene – the string of tiny lights creating a half-moon around them all, the smell of crushed grass as she went up the path to the boulders. They had planned a hike to the rocks for the next day, but Ava had been too curious.

Mom barely noticed when she left as if to go up to the house. She circled back around the side of the small rented cottage and spied on the grown-up guests. They wore dresses with oversized flowers and khakis. Men and women alike wore sandals. Their feet weren’t smooth and pretty like her own; she hated the knots and chipped toenails and thick, dry yellow skin on their heels. Of course Mom hadn’t thought to invite any kids, and Ava turned away from the party and sought her own entertainment.

Though the path was winding and pitched steeply downward, Ava had no trouble. She liked the feeling of being almost off balance, the burn in her legs as she slowed her descent. Pebbles worked their way into her sneakers. The boulders were stunning and she regretted seeing them alone – almost. She touched the striations, felt the stiff ruffles of lichen and smelled the severe cool stone. After a while she sat down in the middle of the stone formation. Grass tickled her palms, the earth pulsed beneath. Under the soil things went about their lives. The whole outside world seemed to be trying to get in her skin.

She lost time. When she returned, the guests had gone. Lights glared on an empty scene. She went by the buffet table, but the platters had only a few pieces of sweaty cheese, smears of sweet pickle juice, and broken crackers. She went inside.

“Mom?” she called.

No one answered and Ava went further into the dark cottage. The room she shared with Mom was closed, and from within came a high-pitched and eerily repetitive sound. A thud rattled the floor under Ava’s feet.

“Mom,” she said again.

The hinges squealed and the doorway filled with light so consuming that Ava saw nothing as Mom grabbed her hand. They got in the car and Mom was speeding down the gravel road before Ava had time to buckle her seatbelt. Mom had a bloody scratch from the corner of her mouth to her chin. Her knuckles were red.

“What you heard was Gran crying,” Mom said finally. “You know how that man walks around town and talks to himself? And sometimes he’s scary and the police have to come? Sometimes people get old and – ”

“I know what dementia is,” Ava said, taking refuge in irritation. “But Gran was fine today!”

“She’s not, Ava. She’s sick.”

Gran had been hiding in the bathroom, terrified of the stranger she thought was breaking into the house. When Mom had gone in to talk with her, she’d lashed out, scratching Mom’s face and making her stumble.

They spent the night at a hotel halfway between the rental cottage and their home. Ava woke up in the night with a knot in her back and blood slick on her thighs. Mom had told her it would be happening soon, so she took a shower and changed into a clean, oversized t-shirt. She was so quiet Mom didn’t even wake up.

Phone calls followed. Mom tried to convince Gran to see a doctor and get medication. The one-sided conversations Ava managed to listen in on started with tears and ended with arguments. Until Gran got the help she needed, Mom decided, they wouldn’t visit. Gran was too much of a danger.

Ava closed the album. Gran didn’t seem dangerous now. She seemed distracted and deaf. Mom had gotten it wrong, or Gran had finally gone to the doctor and taken some meds. She felt bad for never trying to visit, but the topic had upset Mom so much it had rarely been mentioned. A queasy sense of betrayal hit her. Mom wouldn’t have wanted her to stay here. But if she’d known, if she could see Gran the way she was now, everything would have been normal again.

She was too awake and upset to go back to bed. Her stomach was tipping between sickness and hunger. Finally the idea of vomiting was worse than her reluctance to go into the kitchen. She just had to keep her mind off her dream of the clock and its murderous dweller.

Books were too demanding, too heavy, too permanent to enjoy ever since Ava had discovered how a car could crinkle like tin foil and snap out a life in a half-second. She hated the evidence of other people still making solid objects and putting their thoughts down in tidy order. Didn’t they know there was no point? If a car could be smashed, fences and walls of words could certainly be ruptured. Ava fantasized about a garden fork bursting through pages, slicing through the soft earth of the paper, black letters wriggling like maggots on the blades.

Gran had a bookshelf down in the cellar where she kept copies of old magazines, and Ava went downstairs, stepping softly so she wouldn’t make the old steps cry out. The light came on with a fizzy noise. The shelf was enrobed in cobwebs but Ava wasn’t afraid of spiders anymore. She chose a women’s magazine from the nineties. The light and meaningless titles made her smile. How To Know He’s The One. Horoscopes For Homebuyers. Seven Makeup Tricks For Younger Skin.

A thick subscription card and a piece of yellow note paper wafted to the floor. She bent to pick them up and froze. The words were fresh as the day they had been written and it was Mom’s handwriting.

“What did you find?”

Gran stood at the top of the stairs, peering down with a look Ava couldn’t interpret. She instinctively slid the papers back into the magazine and pinched it tightly closed as she went to the staircase.

“Just some old magazines.”

“Couldn’t sleep again?”

“No. I’m tired now, though,” Ava lied, anxious to get to her room and read the note.

“Nonsense,” Gran said. “You look sickly.”

Gran insisted Ava check her temperature. Ava sat on the couch with the thermometer poking beneath her tongue. Gran’s hearing aid was out and lying on the coffee table. Ava wondered how Gran had even heard her moving through the house. Her temperature was normal, of course, but Gran gave her a cup of orange juice to take upstairs.

“Just in case you’re coming down with a cold. Even if you’re not, you’ll feel better after you drink it.”

Ava pulled her door closed and sat on the edge of her bed. She sipped the orange juice and took a few deep breaths before looking at the note. It was probably just a grocery list, or a phone number for some long-ago friend. She read it twice, frustration building. It made no sense.

Creating visions, drawing life. Silver, wicker, dried werdestem, fear.

She looked at the back of the note for more but there was nothing. Her memory pushed forward the image of Gran staring at her as she handled the note. Concern or suspicion in her eyes, hunching over either to see beneath the dangling bulb or to grab the cellar door and yank it shut. She wondered if Gran ever saw her as a stranger for a second.

Ava finished the orange juice and put the note beneath the mattress. In a moment of paranoia, she pushed her suitcase in front of the door. Even then, sleep was slow to come.

*

Her dreams were getting bad again. She rarely woke completely, staying half-submerged in worlds where she was burning, being devoured by beetles, drowning. Sometimes Gran came upstairs and gave her a cup of tea that helped her sleep again, but it just made reality feel blurred and she stopped drinking it all. She poured it down the bathroom sink every morning to avoid hurting Gran’s feelings.

Two weeks passed. She hadn’t looked at the note again, but only because she had memorized it immediately. It whispered to her constantly. Silver, wicker, werdestem, fear. She tried unscrambling the letters but the words didn’t make sense together. Her lists were weighted with fever, weird, scream, wet silk. One afternoon when Gran went out to get groceries, Ava went to the cellar.

She put the magazines in a pile on the floor and went through them one at a time, hunting for yellow notepaper, blue ink, her mother’s youthful scribbled words. She went from 1992 to 1993, glossy photos like seasonal time capsules. Spring cleaning, Easter wreaths, flags and berries, swimsuit diets. She found the next note stuck in the recipe section.

Which is the coldest hand? The one around your throat.

How morbid for a teenager. Ava put the note aside. She found the next note in a Spring 1995 home decorating magazine.

She is not right. Sometimes she is almost deaf and sometimes she can hear everything.

October 1995: She hears better after bad dreams.

February 1996: She looks younger now.

After February there were no more notes. Ava searched frantically, forced her hand behind the bookshelf to see if anything had fallen behind it. She took the notes upstairs and studied them. She held them up to sunlight to see if there were any impressions from previous writing. She took them down to the kitchen and warmed them over a stove burner to look for invisible words. Nothing else revealed itself. She didn’t want them out of her reach so she kept them in her pocket, a thin shield against the dread that flared up unavoidably when Gran’s car came down the drive.

*

She hears better after bad dreams. Ava wanted to believe it was the lack of sleep putting such a reasonable sheen on those words. Gran never wore her hearing aid any longer; it sat in a blue plastic bowl near the keys.

The temptation to turn the house upside down changed places with an atavistic need to ignore her fear. Fear of going to bed and dreaming, fear of waking up from a pit of dreamless sleep and being nauseated. She was guaranteed one or the other. Her sickness always came with hallucinations now. The idea of explaining it to a grief counselor was laughable. Grief didn’t make you see hollow-eyed people, insects exploding from a sink faucet, blinding light around trembling and unidentifiable shapes.

The herbs were nearly all stripped from the garden now. A few verdant stems remained, but the dark patches of dirt were swiftly overtaking the greenery. Ava squeezed the handles of the basket tightly, but her question insisted on being voiced.

“Didn’t Mom have a friend that died when she was a teenager?”

Gran nodded, but continued her silent circuit of the garden. Ava wondered if it was too bad of a memory to be talked about.

“It was winter, right?”

Again the wordless nod. Shame pricked at her and she helped Gran finish the work without more prying. They went inside and Gran took the leaves and stems to the sink. Water hissed on stainless steel, like too many voices in Ava’s head.

“Sounds like you already know the story, Ava.”

“Only a little of it. Like it was really cold out and they think she got lost.”

“Your mother made friends with Chelsea at the grocery store. Miss Priss always wanted your mom to sleep over at her place – guess she didn’t like the country much.”

Gran’s voice dipped lower, quieter. Her words thumped one after the other like shuffling feet long past exhaustion.

“Chelsea McNamara. She was fifteen when she died. She was missing for six days. Your mom wanted to go out in the woods with the search team. But it was too cold. I couldn’t afford to get her snow boots to keep her feet from frostbite. They found Chelsea wrapped up like a mummy under the snow.”

Spooked by the image, Ava looked down at her nails. She tugged a hangnail free. When she looked up, Gran was staring at her, a stoic hardness in her eyes.

“They don’t know who did it. They don’t know why. Your mother had some very bad times after that. She was paranoid, took to locking herself in her room or the basement. It took two years of therapy before she could go a day without thinking someone was after her. I’m surprised she told you at all.”

Before bed, Ava studied the notes again. The weird notes were different now that she knew about Mom’s fear. But Gran had claimed the paranoia sprang from the murder. So why had the note-taking started months before?

She did what Mom always told her – she asked herself the question and slept on it.

*

The answer hit her with such hilarious simplicity that she laughed even before her eyes snapped open. It was a recipe. The silver-wicker note was a recipe. Ava reached out and turned on the light on her bedside table, then screamed.

Gran stood in the middle of the room, holding the cut-up ribbon of white sheet. She didn’t look like Ava’s scream had woken her. Maybe her dementia was back. Ava decided to help her downstairs and back to bed. But when she moved to get up, Gran lunged. There was no confusion in her eyes, only determination. She landed across Ava, gripping her throat so tightly that the blood immediately began to pound in her eyes.

“You haven’t been drinking it,” Gran said. “Or this wouldn’t be so difficult.”

Her hands were no longer those of an old woman – they were a monster’s hands, hard as claws.

*

The chill of the basement woke her. A sense of suffocating stillness stopped her from screaming. There was a musty taste in her mouth, and her jaw ached. She twisted her tongue out from under the pressure and the pleated texture immediately made the words wet silk flare up in her mind.

Gran had tied her to a chair in the basement, wrapped her up (like a mummy, like Chelsea, like a moth in a web) in the white ribbon thing. It had never been a sheet. How had she not noticed the pale silver stitches on the ends of the sheet and the glossy threads running through it? The silver stitches had shapes that were hard to follow – or maybe that was just her vision swirling.

From the corner beside the bookshelves, Gran approached. The swirls weren’t in her vision, they were really there. Dark spirals that reeked of almond and decay together. Gran spoke and Ava really heard her voice for the first time, stripped of false warmth, of any emotion except maybe triumph.

“You found your mother’s writings? Her little scribbles? I thought those were long gone. Thought I cleaned them all out of here, burned them all up on the stove.”

Ava worked her jaw side to side, trying to find that magic angle that would let the gag slip off.

“She was right – I never liked Chelsea. She tasted like chlorine and lavender. But she gave me back some of my color.”

Gran pointed to the wicker table next to Ava’s seat. She looked at a photo of Gran standing beside Mom and Chelsea. She had a thin streak of gray in her hair and insistent worry lines on her forehead, soft jowls starting beneath her jaw. The photo behind it was more disturbing. Gran and Mom again, years later at Mom’s graduation. No worry lines, no gray, definition in her jawbone and color on her cheeks. Mom looked too serious for a graduation.

At once Ava knew what must have happened at the vacation home. Gran had tried to siphon away Mom’s youth. She’d trapped her in the bathroom until Ava had called. She might have broken her concentration. Maybe she did save Mom’s life, at least that time.

Gran was putting leaves in a shallow, metal bowl half-full of glowing charcoal briquettes. The smell was like holiday dressing sizzling on top of thick blood and charred bones. Ava watched in wonder so strong it nearly overwhelmed her terror as the smoke and the dark tendrils laced together. Her chair became an island amid darkness. From across the room Gran was touching her, hands of blackness and acrid smoke brushing her hair back, caressing her cheeks and throat. Already Gran’s wrinkles seemed to be filling, her hair turning from stark white to a softer blend of brown and gray. From the corner of her eye Ava saw a lock of her own hair bleaching gray inch by inch. She screamed but the gag muffled the sound. The gray crawled up her hair faster, and her teeth began to feel wobbly in their sockets.

A burst of anger as she realized that Gran had been collecting the herbs for this rite for weeks – she’d helped gather them, blindly following Gran in her silent walk around the garden. That horribly cozy-smelling herb, with its underlying notes of iron, must be werdestem. She could almost find it amusing, these innocent items positioned around her. A wicker coffee table, a stupid ten dollar table from a kitschy shop. The locket Gran had worn since Ava could remember was only silver-plated. The only really genuine ingredient was the fear, whipped up nightly by visions that Gran had put in her drinks, in the stuffing of her pillow, in every corner of the house.

Her eyes were going blurry with cataracts and her hands on the arms of the chair were shriveling, liver spots spreading like a colony of inexorable mushrooms. She looked across at Gran and saw a vixen witch with wavy black hair standing over a smoking cauldron – and laughed aloud at the campy scene. She could almost hear the thrum of anxious violins. The thickened darkness around her wavered like a mirage when she laughed, and her vision cleared for a moment.

The crash of fear subsided with the upsurge of a wild idea. She thought of how many times Gran had done this and how inside she must be just like a worm-eaten pecan – her soul rattling in each new, youthful body. And this time Gran wanted to look like Elvira! Ava laughed again and this time the gray streak in her hair began to dissipate, leaving her original dull brown. The most boring brown, yet she’d never seen anything that made her happier.

Then her mouth was free, and then she squirmed out of the silk warps like a butterfly coming out of a chrysalis. Gran was hunching over the fire, one eye blazing with hate and need, one eye dead white. Her long black hair began to pale again, and she screeched, waving her arms above the smoldering leaves to stir up more smoke. The darkness was repelled by Ava now, drawing back and leaving lacy light behind. She took a step forward and the black swirls sucked back hastily. Her fear had diminished to mere caution and a sense of growing strength. She took the picture of Gran and Mom and Chelsea and smashed it on the floor. Glass burst and she laughed at the destruction like a kid knocking out a window, her joy a weapon and a shield.

The darkness swept over Gran in a sucking whirlpool, tunneling down her throat and shuddering all the way to the tips of her fingers and toes. Ava stepped past the rapidly aging husk and took the stairs two at a time. The basement door locked itself.

 

Ava went through the whole house and found a stash of Mom’s notes. Recipes for healing broken bones, broken hearts, and broken minds. Gran’s bedroom closet held a supply of alchemical ingredients, dried herbs, and fabrics so alive to the touch they must have cost a hundred dollars a yard. Ava collected them and put everything in her suitcase. She burned the recipes that seemed dangerous and organized the rest of them into a binder. Mom always said she’d be a good administrator.

The local paper ran a short obituary for their little-known citizen, dead of apparent heart failure, survived by her granddaughter – who was missing, assumed to be a runaway. By the time it was printed, Ava had hitchhiked halfway across the country.


Rachel DiMaggio writes dark fiction, runs the Freelance and Fiction website and blog, and has been privileged to edit several fiction and non-fiction manuscripts. In her spare time, she enjoys baking, playing video games, and watching horror movies. She and her husband live in Massachusetts, which is perfect because she is guaranteed to get a few snowed-in-with-hot-coffee days every winter.

Issue No. 14, Autumn 2015

The In-Between Parts
Anthony Rocco Messina

The man wakes up in the desert. The static crests and valleys of the dunes remind him of the ocean tides, yet he has no recollection of when he has actually seen the ocean, which one he is most likely to have seen, or what his own name is.

He slaps the creases of platinum sand off his jeans and removes his long-sleeved button-up, leaving only a white undershirt saturated with sweat. Something at his feet stabs light into his eyes. The man stoops down and finds a key half-submerged in the sand. Seeing nothing else on the ground, he pockets the key and starts along the road.

For a few miles the landscape offers nothing but sand and heat, but occasionally he spots a cactus or hears a distant bird and thinks, yes, I am a part of something.

           

When you were five years old, your sister was kidnapped. She was gone half a day in total. Some teenagers at the arcade lured her away while your mom was across the street buying milk. The teenagers, high on crack, had no real plan. They’d targeted her in a moment of frustration, thinking it might be fun or it might be profitable or it might, for one moment, satisfy all the things they had been unable to satisfy in their lives thus far. Eventually they panicked and couldn’t decide whether to demand ransom, kill her, or let her go. In their hours of sloppy indecision someone noticed something amiss—four teens and a child skittering down back alleys —and called the police. The thing is, your sister was kidnapped. Kidnapped! You may have been too young to understand exactly what was going on but you knew it was something big. Something that didn’t happen to just anybody. Your sister, kidnapped! When you started taking creative writing workshops in high school, your family told you it would make a great novel, the perfect movie. They treated it like the thing that made you special.  

And all you ever did was tell the story on a few dates in hopes of getting laid.

 

The narrow road, dusty and devoid of romance, gradually becomes draped in shadow. Afraid of being stuck in the desert at night yet knowing no other options, the man continues walking. Frantic whips of dust in the distance signal a vehicle traveling in his direction. He stands in wait. The vehicle idles on the road ahead, allowing the man to approach.

The cowboy in the truck, his hat stretching almost as wide as his shoulders, begins smacking his lips together as he waits for the man to speak first. It’s not until the fourth time the wet slapping resonates across the desert night that the man realizes the cowboy is composing a slow-building rhythm a single lip-smack at a time, an invitation to speak. But with no idea of where he has been or where he is going, the man cannot produce anything to say. He is even unable to come up with a joke or the name of a television show they may have both seen.

Content with the first movement of his composition, the cowboy rolls up the window and turns his gaze forward, preparing to drive off. The man realizes this is his only opportunity to ask for a ride, but is paralyzed by the idea that this is a journey he must complete on his own, that salvation is a thing to be achieved independently, and to receive assistance would somehow be cheating. This idea is accompanied by another, the thought that since he knows nothing about himself, any idea he has must be wrong. And panic overtakes him. The man lunges at the handle of the truck, slipping and falling against the side of the vehicle. A cold, hollow sound rattles out across the desert.

“Wait, please,” says the man from the ground. “I don’t know what to do.”

“Who does?” asks the cowboy.

He waits for the man to step away from the truck before driving off.

 

 

A standard shipwreck survival guide primarily contains instructions on how to obtain suitable drinking water, gather fish to eat, and use a rescue flare. It’s also not unusual to find a map of the constellations, story-making activities, tips for journaling, and blank, wide-ruled pages: suggestions on how to maintain sanity by keeping the mind properly occupied. The man does not know how he knows these things but he knows he would love to have one of those books right now.

The whispered footsteps of lizards scurrying across sand and the intermittent shriek of an owl replace the soundtrack of rustling wind the day had offered. He tries to remember things about himself: his name, career, hometown, ex-girlfriends, hobbies. Even fears and dreams. Since his encounter with the cowboy the man has found himself overwhelmed by loneliness.

He hears the prolonged whimpering of a wounded animal and walks toward it, leaving the road for the first time. The man walks over and down a dune to discover that the source of the sound is not an animal but a young boy. The boy tells the man that his rocket pack is broken, leaving him stranded in the desert. The man takes a look at the rocket pack, immediately recognizes the problem and repairs it in a few minutes. The boy hugs him in gratitude before donning his apparatus and streaking across the night sky.

“I guess it was that kid’s lucky day,” says a female voice. “A Mr. Fix-It who happens to speak Spanish all the way out here.”

The man turns to see a beautiful woman standing in front of the striated marble columns of a white building, the only structure in the immediate area. In his rush to assist the boy he must have completely missed sight of it until now.

“Was I just speaking Spanish?” asks the man, his legs stretching out in long strides until he stands with her at the entrance.

The woman nods.

“What is this place?”

“Don’t you know? It’s the library.”

She swings a door open onto a room so voluminous it would seem more like a sports arena if not for the books. Books from ceiling to floor. Spines of red, green, azure, dull Earth tones, and vibrant pastels. The librarian, standing in the foreground of this dizzying arabesque of literature, floats out in front of them like the focal point of a three-dimensional painting.

“You’re good with kids,” she says. “You must have worked with kids before.”

Yes, the man thinks, this must be who I am. I must be someone who has worked with kids.

The librarian stands patiently as he sets several volumes onto a table and works through them like meals. For breakfast Dickens, Steinbeck, and Twain. Afternoon tea consists of Salinger, Vonnegut, and Palahniuk. By that time he’s so fired-up he throws haymakers into the air and attempts to climb to the top row of the highest bookshelf. Thoreau settles him down. Whitman invites conjecture, Plath tears, and Hemingway some odd reassurance of strength and confirmation of futility in a world where everyone is full of holes.

Many of the books aren’t complete. A few pages have been clipped off the endless finale of Great Expectations, large chunks of Crime and Punishment have gone missing after Part III, and the dishonest weight of an edition of Ulysses reveals it to consist of only the opening chapter over and over again seven times. Other shelves don’t contain books at all, but DVDs of film adaptations, incomplete volumes of comics, portions of self-help articles, newspapers, travel guides for places he can say with some sense of confidence he’s never been to, and a deluge of hobby magazines covering everything from lacrosse to fly fishing.

As he continues his exploration, the man has the strange feeling that he’s not reading in the strictest sense, but connecting the dots, looking through photo albums of trips already taken rather than packing up and traveling anew. Regardless, every single text, from L’Engle to Updike, brings back something of a former self. Not a memory exactly, but a mood. A swirling, distant feeling of what it was like to be angry, joyous, and passionate, without being able to recall the things that brought him to those states.

“Is this all that’s ever been written?” he asks.

She laughs. “It’s all that you know of. But…” She pauses. “There is one more thing.”

In an unlit backroom no larger than a closet, she hands him a yellowing composition notebook. He rubs his fingertips across the corrugated cover, trying unsuccessfully to open it. A narrow padlock stretches underneath the print of the title, A Guide for Shipwrecked Sailors.

“Do you have the key?” he asks.

When she shakes her head, he tries the key from his pocket but it does not fit.

The librarian tells him it is closing time and leads him to the front door. He hesitates there for some time. He follows the curls of her hair with his eyes, the sharp angle of her cheekbones, and steals a glance at the curves of her body. The possibility of staying there with her had occurred to him the moment he discovered the place.

Smiling, he walks out the door onto a pathway that he also must have neglected to notice the night before.  Either that, or it didn’t exist at that time.

“Just keep going that way and you’ll come across a town in no time,” she says. “But, I have to warn you, there isn’t really much there.”

The man thinks back to all that he’d discovered that day, the travel memoirs, history tomes, and encyclopedia entries.

“Is there anywhere?” he asks.

As he thanks her for all her help the library door closes with a click.

 

You don’t know where you were when you found out your grandmother died, the exact words your mother used when breaking news of the divorce, or the precise circumstances that brought you to the top of that stone wall the day you fell off it and shattered your leg, but you can recall the name of the first girl you’ve ever slept with. It began with an A.

She, of course, was not the love of your life, your girlfriend, or even someone you knew all that well. She was looking for your roommate, he was out. She was calm, but you were so nervous you fumbled holes into two separate condoms and ultimately proceeded without one.

The next day your roommate and his friends laughed at you for cumming in her belly button and, also, for probably having AIDS. You laughed too and then consulted another friend for help as soon as you could get yourself away from those other assholes. He took you to a clinic. You learned what a “steel-Q-tip” was. You thanked your friend for letting you confide in him and for waiting while the nurse extracted the necessary blood samples.

You’re not sure if it was real, but from that point on you sensed a barrier of awkwardness between the two of you. You eventually lost touch.

 

The man finds a congregation of people awaiting him at the entrance of the town.

“Who are you?” the townspeople ask.

“I don’t know,” says the man.

“An artist? A plumber? An engineer? We could use an engineer.”

“I might be a teacher,” says the man.

“Perfect!” exclaim the townspeople.

The man works in the town for years. He finds his job tolerable, if not ideal, and enjoys the rural atmosphere the small town provides. Eventually he begins dating a local woman. He comes to learn that she also possesses a small, locked notebook and a key that doesn’t open it. They try each other’s keys in each other’s locks to no avail, but ultimately feel closer after the attempt.

The man has some trouble making friends, and whenever he does manage to find someone with whom he shares interests, it seems inevitable that this person will leave town, chasing some woman into space or riding a dolphin across the sandy plateaus. Perhaps this is why the man and woman spend most of their time together for many years.

He often tells her he will marry her, but one day he realizes he hates the town, despises his job, which has long grown monotonous and, while he still cares greatly for the woman, begins to question if maintaining her presence in his life is worth bearing all the things in the town that make him miserable. One day he puts the key in his pocket, picks up his notebook and starts again along the road. He feels terrible for leaving the woman, but knows she would never have come with him, her life in the town being too important to her.

 

You sit at a bar and recount an anecdote, a drunken encounter with the police from the days of your youth, and find several of the patrons laughing along with you. Now would be the perfect time to press on, to gather up all the things housed inside you and liberate them. Tell these people about your grandmother’s funeral. The time you thought you had cancer and drove three hours outside of town to consult a dermatologist. Tell them about how you missed your best friend’s wedding because you just had to backpack across Europe that summer. Tell them about the women you almost married—how many were there?—the graduate programs you’d given thought to attending—Really, a doctor? A pastry chef? An anthropologist? You?!—the grandchildren you don’t have, awards never won, decisions never made.

To this point life has been nothing but a series of moments defined by their relationship to other moments. The summer after high school but before college. The semester before graduation. The job you had before you moved out of your parents’ house and the one you started after you moved to the big city. The time before the time you lived abroad. Segues and buildups. Rest-stops before the plot points hook into the action. The in-between parts. Every moment of every second of the existence of everything dehydrated down to not what you thought, felt, or did but the things you chose to remember. Long after everyone’s gone home, you find yourself gazing into this mirror. Admiring this puzzle of yourself. Attempting to find meaning. And failing.

 

Many years of desert roads and small towns have found the man old and desperate. At some point in his journey he discovered his name, only to forget it again. He met his father, only to wish he hadn’t. Eventually, he began the career that apparently he had strived for since childhood, only to become nostalgic for his schoolteacher days after two years.

The man stops at a bridge and looks at the thrashing rapids below. Imagining his future as an endless lifetime of wandering and indecision, several more chances to search for something that cannot be found, he prepares to jump.

The man removes all his clothes. He is so cold he shivers. As he hugs himself to keep warm, his fingers slide over an aberration in the flesh over his solar plexus. Sure enough, there is a hole in the man’s abdomen as tall and wide as a coin standing on edge. On the cracked planks of the bridge, naked in the dark, the man fumbles through his clothes until he finds what he’s looking for in the pocket of his blue jeans.

He inserts the key and turns.


Anthony Rocco Messina is an MFA candidate in prose at the University of Notre Dame (2016). His work has appeared in McSweeney’s Internet Tendency and the anthology Taiwan Tales: A Multicultural Perspective (Lone Wolf Press).

Issue No. 14, Autumn 2015

"Listening to Inner Callings" -- Jennifer Lothrigel
Listening to Inner Callings
Jennifer Lothrigel

Mark Benedict is a graduate of the MFA Writing program at Sarah Lawrence College. Recent publications include short stories in Bird’s Thumb, Catch & Release, and Swamp. Mark loves loves loves music. Camera Obscura’s My Maudlin Career and the Gaslight Anthem’s ’59 Sound are among his favorite CDs.

Larry Blazek was born in Northern Indiana,but he moved to the southern part because the climate is more suited to cycling and the land is cheap. He has been publishing the magazine-format collage Opossum Holler Tarot since 1983. He has been published in The Bat Shat, Vox Poetica, Leveler Poetry, Five Fishes, Front, and Mountain Focus Art, among many others.

After a twenty year hiatus, C.M. Chapman returned to writing fiction in 2012. His first publication was in the anthology, So It Goes: A Tribute to Kurt Vonnegut. He also published in Cheat River Review and Dark Mountain in the U.K. He is currently developing a chapbook with Latham House Press and is a finalist in the 2015 Curt Johnson Prose Award in Fiction. His piece, “The Desolation Toad,” is part of the thesis collection he produced in the MFA program at West Virginia Wesleyan College, where he is graduating in August and has accepted a teaching fellowship.

Kelsey Dean spends most of her spare time stringing words together and training her hands to draw the pictures in her head. Her work can be found in several publications, including 3Elements Review, Glint Literary Journal, Neutrons Protons, and Arsenic Lobster. You can view more of her creations here: kelseypaints.tumblr.com.

Rachel DiMaggio writes dark fiction, runs the Freelance and Fiction website and blog, and has been privileged to edit several fiction and non-fiction manuscripts. In her spare time, she enjoys baking, playing video games, and watching horror movies. She and her husband live in Massachusetts, which is perfect because she is guaranteed to get a few snowed-in-with-hot-coffee days every winter.

Ray DiZazzo has published poetry and criticism in commercial and literary magazines, newspapers and books. Some of those publications include: Poetry Now, The Berkeley Poetry Review, Westways, Beyond Baroque, East River Review, Painted Bride Quarterly, The Road Apple Review, Invisible City, California Quarterly and others. He is the recipient of the Percival Roberts Book Award and the Rhysling Award. He is also a Pushcart Prize nominee. His work has been anthologized in The Alchemy of Stars, Burning with a Vision and Contemporary Literary Criticism. In addition, he has published three books of poetry: Clovin’s Head, Red Hill Press, 1976; Songs for a Summer Fly, Kenmore Press, 1978; and The Water Bulls, Granite-Collen, 2009.

Amy Durant lives in upstate New York and works as a copyeditor and social media editor for the Watertown Daily Times. She has a Bachelor’s Degree in Creative Writing from Binghamton University. Her poetry and non-fiction has been published in a number of print and online publications, and her book of poetry, Out of True, was published in 2012.

Susan J. Erickson has assumed the persona of a host of women while composing a manuscript of poems in women’s voices. Her poems appear in 2River View, Crab Creek Review, Museum of Americana, The Fourth River, Naugatuck River Review and Literal Latte. Susan lives in Bellingham, Washington where she helped to establish the Sue C. Boynton Poetry Walk and Contest. Her chapbook, The Art of Departure, was published by Egress Studio Press.

Robert Esposito is a freshman at The College of New Jersey and is currently a prose reader for The Blueshift Journal.

R.G. Evans is the author of the poetry collection Overtipping the Ferryman (Aldrich Press Poetry Prize, 2014) and the forthcoming novella The Noise of Wings. His poems, stories, and reviews have appeared in Rattle, The Literary Review, and Weird Tales, among other publications. His original music, including the song “The Crows of Paterson,” was featured in the 2012 documentary All That Lies Between Us. Evans teaches high school and college English and Creative Writing in southern New Jersey. rgevanswriter.com

A list of Allegra Frazier’s previous publications can be found at allegramfrazier.com.

Ashton Kamburoff is a poet from Cleveland, Ohio. His work has appeared in Toad, Blast Furnace, Flyover Country Review as well as other literary magazines. He currently lives in San Marcos, Texas where he is an MFA candidate at Texas State University.

Mary Kasimor has most recently been published in Big Bridge, Arsenic Lobster, Horse Less Review, Nerve Lantern, Altered Scale, Word For/Word, Posit, 3 AM, EOAGH, and The Missing Slate. She has three previous books and/or chapbook publications: Silk String Arias (BlazeVox Books), & Cruel Red (Otoliths), and The Windows Hallucinate (LRL Textile Series). She has a new collection of poetry published in 2014, entitled The Landfill Dancers (BlazeVox Books). She also writes book reviews that have been published in Jacket, Big Bridge, Galatea Resurrects, Poets’ Quarterly, and Gently Read Literature. She considers her work experimental—both her poetry and ink/water colors.

Jennifer Lynn Krohn was born and raised in Albuquerque, New Mexico, where she currently lives with her husband. She earned her MFA from the University of New Mexico, and she currently teaches English at Central New Mexico Community College and Santa Fe University of Art and Design. Jennifer is the poetry editor for Fickle Muses and a member of the Dirt City writers collective. She has published work in Río Grande Review, Prick of the Spindle, In the Garden of the Crow, Versus Literary Journal, and Gingerbread Literary Magazine.

Jennifer Lothrigel is a self taught artist. Her educational background in personal and spiritual healing informs her artistic work. She works intuitively, drawing on her environment and inner psychic landscape to tell personal healing stories. She often personifies inner aspects of herself as in these photos.

Jeffrey H. MacLachlan has recent or forthcoming work in New Ohio Review, Eleven Eleven, Santa Clara Review, among others. He teaches literature at Georgia College & State University. He can be followed on Twitter @jeffmack.

Anthony Rocco Messina is an MFA candidate in prose at the University of Notre Dame (2016). His work has appeared in McSweeney’s Internet Tendency and the anthology Taiwan Tales: A Multicultural Perspective (Lone Wolf Press).

Nkosi Nkululeko, poet and pianist, hailing from Harlem, NY, has performed his works at venues such as The Apollo Theater, Nuyorican Poets Café, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Senegalese-American Bilingual School, Lincoln Center and many others. He is a 2015 American Voices Award nominee and a Callaloo Fellow. Nkosi has been published in the Junior Scholars’ Schomburg Review (Volume 10, No. 1, 2012), and in the forthcoming issue of No Token and the 2015 anthology for great weather for MEDIA Press. Nkosi hopes to translate his human experience through text and sound.

Coco Owen is a poet in Los Angeles. She has published poems in Antioch Review, 1913, CutBank, The Journal and The Feminist Wire, among other venues. She has been a finalist in several recent book contests, including the May Swenson Poetry Award, and has a chapbook forthcoming from Tammy. Owen serves on the board of Les Figues Press in Los Angeles. Read more of her work at: cocoowenphd.com.

Rebekah Rempel studied creative writing at the University of Victoria. Her poems have appeared in the anthologies Force Field: 77 Women Poets of British Columbia (Mother Tongue Publishing) and Unfurled: Collected Poetry from Northern BC Women (Caitlin Press), as well as the journals Lake, Room, Cactus Heart Press, and One Throne Magazine. Her poems are also forthcoming in Prairie Fire and Contemporary Verse 2. Additionally, she contributed to the Written in Stone Project that displays poetry in a park in Dawson Creek, BC.

Meggie Royer is a writer and photographer from the Midwest who is currently majoring in Psychology at Macalester College. Her poems have previously appeared in Words Dance Magazine, The Harpoon Review, Melancholy Hyperbole, and more. She has won national medals for her poetry and a writing portfolio in the Scholastic Art and Writing Awards, and was the Macalester Honorable Mention recipient of the 2015 Academy of American Poets Student Poetry Prize.

Diane Unterweger lives in Wisconsin. Her poems have recently appeared in Gingerbread House, Naugatuck River Review, and Blast Furnace.

"Gemstone" -- Allegra Frazier
Gemstone
Allegra Frazier

Issue No. 14, Autumn 2015

"Villain" -- Jennifer Lothrigel
Villain
Jennifer Lothrigel

Autumn Feature, 2015
Like Mother, Like Daughter, Goody Proctor, and Valentine by Meggie Royer

Art
Watercolors by Kelsey Dean

Fiction
Ava by Rachel DiMaggio
Ganymede by Robert Esposito
The Desolation Toad by C.M. Chapman
The In-Between Parts by Anthony Rocco Messina

Flash Fiction
SLC Revolution by Mark Benedict

Poetry
Detroit: Belle Isle Bridge by Diane Unterweger
At the Dugout by Rebekah Rempel
Summer Shades by Amy Durant
4 Steps To Overcoming Your Addiction to Jazz by Nkosi Nkululeko
For the Love of a Cadillac and a Cousin by Ashton Kamburoff
It Takes Two to Tarot: An Abecedarian Romance by Susan J. Erickson
Trick-or-Treating (Tarzana, California) by Coco Owen
Saint Drama by Mary Kasimor
Reading the Cards by Jennifer Lynn Krohn
The Coco Man and Nine Hundred by Jeffrey H. MacLachlan
Snake Garden and My Father is a Cypress by R.G. Evans
Sloth by Ray DiZazzo
Ghost Dog by Larry Blazek

"What I See Is What You Get" -- Allegra Frazier
What I See Is What You Get
Allegra Frazier

About the Contributors

News Item #23

Dear Writers and Readers,

We’re holding a contest for a new header image! Our current header image is an altered version of Lillian Westcott Hale’s Portrait of a Girl (Agnes and Her Cat) (1917), known affectionately here as “Sideways Girl.” After much contemplation (and a few e-mail exchanges pondering whether “Sideways Girl” is too feminine), I’ve decided it’s time for a change. The winning image will replace “Sideways Girl.” A runner-up will replace the image that appears on our About page.

Here are the deets:

Imagine Rose Red Review as a tapestry. What does this tapestry look like? How does it reflect the works published here? What role does our muse, Rose Red, play? If this publication were an enchanted mirror hanging on a wall, what might we glimpse in it? If we were to step through this mirror, what would we find?

Our current header image has a resolution of 750×392; please use this resolution as a loose guide. (Too small, too large, or too tall likely won’t work.) Please send us 1-2 pieces of original, unpublished artwork and/or photography in .jpg format. This contest is open until November 1, 2015. Please submit your entries here.

Good luck!

Warm Regards,
Larissa Nash