A Trope I Would Like To See Consigned To The Deepest Level Of Hell

Today in: TROPES THAT ARE BAD

Mentally ill parents portrayed as abusive/abusive parents portrayed as abusive BECAUSE of their mental illnesses.

Hi! I’m a mentally ill parent!

I have generalized anxiety disorder, severe depression, OCD, and probably other things that have not been diagnosed. I also have an eight-year-old daughter. Despite what fiction might have suggested to you, I’m not a horrible abusive monster. I’m–all things considered–a pretty decent mother. My daughter is happy and secure and she knows she’s loved. She is provided for and safe.

But if you go by fiction, you’d think I was for sure the antagonist in my daughter’s story. Mentally ill parents are rarely ever portrayed positively–instead, their mental illnesses are used as a reason behind their abusive behaviors, providing a sort of gross shorthand for the author. A character’s mother is depressed so she is obviously neglectful; a character’s mother has OCD so she is cruel and demanding; a character’s mother is bipolar so she is nightmare; and on and on and on.

Look I’m not saying every single parent with mental illness isn’t abusive. Some are! But so are parents without mental illnesses. Mental illness doesn’t inherently explain abuse.

It’s important to send this trope to hell because so many mentally ill people are parents, or dream of becoming parents someday. It would be nice to see myself represented, not as a cruel abusive monster but as a parent–one who tries their best, makes mistakes, and does what they can to love their children and keep them safe.

There are days I feel like I don’t deserve my daughter because I’m mentally ill. There are days I feel like I don’t deserve her love, or her trust. Seeing parents with mental illnesses ALWAYS portrayed as monsters just increases these feelings. I want parents like me–and future parents too–to be able to see positive representations of themselves. I want people with mental illnesses to know becoming a parent IS a possibility, and that their mental illness isn’t any sort of indication that they are abusers.

 

REVIEW: HAMMERS ON BONE

I read this back in January, but I’m (slowly lol) trying to move my Goodreads reviews to my blog!

Hammers on Bone (written by Cassandra Khaw, published by Tor.com)

FOUR OUT OF FIVE STARS 

CW: this book contains graphic depictions of violence, body horror, & children in dangerous situations.

THIS BOOK

THIS BOOK

I sometimes have trouble articulating what about the Lovecraftian aesthetic I so enjoy because my hatred for H.P. Lovecraft is unmatched. Stephen King gets close sometimes, to broaching cosmic horror in the right way, to making up for the lack of humanism in Lovecraft’s universe. But this book gets it so on the mark it’s incredible.

Cosmic horror is disgusting. It should be. It’s all the sinew and tendons and bones and viscera of life tossed about without regard to meaning. It’s all the effluvia that builds matter but without sense to it, without need for sense. And this book gets that so well…the writing is made of polyps and blisters and pus and it’s AMAZING. But what this book does is even more than perfecting tone: Lovecraft’s problem was he had no idea what human beings even were, let alone how to write them accurately or affectingly. Cassandra Khaw, however, does get human beings. She gets the space left open by Lovecraft–between cosmic indifference and the immense, inscrutable, self-flagellating yet pathetically persistent human will and that elevates the genre.

I want more of Khaw’s worlds because she is a master at crafting them. I highly recommend this book.

 

REVIEW: THE STRANGE CASE OF THE ALCHEMIST’S DAUGHTER

My first official review here! I recently finished THE STRANGE CASE OF THE ALCHEMIST’S DAUGHTER (written by Theodora Goss, published by Saga Press) and I was incredibly impressed so we’ll start off very positively!!

 

FOUR OUT OF FIVE STARS

Ok I’m going to be incredibly enthusiastic here: I LOVE THIS BOOK.

Like. I love it SO HARD.

I LOVE IT.

I want more in this universe. I want more of this series immediately.

MONSTER GIRLS! MONSTER GIRLS WHO LOVE AND PROTECT EACH OTHER AND COME TOGETHER TO STOP A SOCIETY OF MEN WHO TREATED THEM AS INHUMAN LIKE I LOVE THIS

I mean I could offer criticisms for sure. This book is set during the Victorian Age and while it does challenge many of the gender norms for the era (and even has characters questioning their own genders) I don’t feel like enough was done to challenge the racist notions that held so much sway. Although it’s meant to be written as an adventure novel, some  of the words used are somewhat harsh: a character refers to “wild savages” without challenging this notion, for example. So I would urge caution on that front, definitely. The cast is also not very diverse…while they’re all women, they’re all white women. I hope this is addressed in future additions to this series, as I think the racialized notions of the era can be closely tied to the sort of “scientific discoveries” undertaken by the villains.

Still, there is immense value here. THIS BOOK is the kind of book we need more of it. We need books about girls have adventures together, girls being friends and confidants, girls who are feminine and girls who aren’t, girls who are bold and girls who are shy, girls who are allowed to make mistakes, girls who are allowed to be all sorts of different things. THIS BOOK HAS SO MANY GIRLS HAVING ADVENTURES and I can’t stop screaming about how much I love it.

Like the girls in this story are so well-rounded, so well-defined, and they MAKE SENSE. What they do, how they think…it all makes sense within the context of the story and the period in which it is set. ALSO THERE IS LIKE 0 ROMANCE WHICH IS MY FAVORITE THING EVER TBH. No one is distracted by irritating boys being gross. The most important thing to these girls is each other and that’s so special I can’t get over it.

I hope there are more books coming because I am sad that I’m finished with this one and I need MORE IMMEDIATELY.

When You Don’t Like The Thing Everyone Else Likes

aka my biggest fear.

well one of my biggest fears.

I have a lot of fears.

Anyway.

I don’t ever want to be the contrarian who doesn’t enjoy things specifically because other people enjoy them. I hate the idea that popularity is an indication of a thing’s lack of value…mostly because that always seems to come with a very superior, holier-than-thou attitude that I generally can’t stand.

But this weekend I had the sad of experience of legitimately not liking something a lot of other people really like.

I tried to read “A Darker Shade of Magic.” Everyone had recommended it to me and the description made it sound like all of the things I enjoy. Fantasy! Multiple worlds! Magic! Kick-ass girl characters!

I made it to 40% before I had to stop.

If you could see my face right now it’d be very, very sad. Because I wanted so much to like this book! I wanted to be part of the love for it! I wanted to appreciate the art and discussion!

But. I. Couldn’t.

I couldn’t care about the characters. The settings were interesting but I couldn’t bring myself to care about them either. The pacing & plot were slow and again…I just couldn’t care!

So now I’m sad.

Maybe I’ll try again with the book. Maybe it’s my state of mind, or maybe some planet is in retrograde and that’s why I couldn’t bring myself to like the book.

Has this happened to you? Have you just…not been able to like something that is generally, near universally acclaimed?

A LIST OF ALTERNATIVES TO STEAMPUNK

I love steampunk of course but it seems like that’s the only era that gets retrofuturistic makeovers in fiction. The Victorian era is interesting but when we have the whole scope of history in front of us, I feel like we should expand our imaginations!

  1. Byzantine!punk: after the fall of the Western Roman Empire, the Byzantine Empire began its ascension and expansion. Byzantine art, culture, and aesthetics are fascinating & underrepresented in worldbuilding!
  2. Moorish!punk: Al-Andalus was a glittering center of light and learning in Medieval Europe; the Moors ruled the Iberian Peninsula & imparted their architectural style that gave us wonders like the Alhambra. A Moorish version of Europe, of the future, is something I would read countless books about tbh.
  3. Venetian!punk: submerged cities, canals, an empire built on trade, saints, cathedrals, and more. Like “Casanova” (the Heath Ledger movie I can’t help but love) but with retrofuturistic innovations…so much possibility here!
  4. Baroque!punk: after the Renaissance transformed Europe, after the Protestant Reformation began, Baroque emerged as an emotional style of art, architecture, drama, and culture that attempted to stem the stern tide of Protestantism. Bernini is one of the most well-known Baroque sculptors…that aesthetic would be fascinating to explore in a fantasy setting!!
  5. Impressionism!punk: granted I’m not quite sure how you’d world build with this, but the dreamy, near-abstract aesthetics of Impressionism deserve more attention in fantasy

What sort of aesthetics or historical periods would you like to see more of in fantasy?

The Dead of the Plains

AN: Another former one-shot that now lies waiting for more. I’m bad at keeping things short. 

Content Warning: contains material suggesting sexual harassment and violence 

The Dead of the Plains

 

I

           He could see her, haloed, robed, with the blue-green sunlight pouring in through the stained glass window; she had that nervous, questing look of the coastal cities, of a person who’d never once been confronted with so much space, open and rolling, tinted, translucent, behind the Pioneer Maiden. And because he felt charitable he approached her, his shoes squeaking on the high-polished marble floor.

“You look lost,” he said to her and she started at his voice.

“Oh. Dr. Marion. I didn’t know anyone else was here.”

Of course she knew who he was. Everyone did. He’d made this school relevant.

“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to frighten you. I just couldn’t help noticing you admiring the window.” The Maiden was one of the Seven Saints of the university– they’d broken ground here over three hundred years ago, made sure to bless this place with the courage they carried in their blood and bone and as the dead, they protected the school and its inhabitants.

She stared for a moment. Her face was cut hard, like most coastals–as if the sea had worn them down, leached the softness from them until they were just angle and bone covered by a thin breath of skin. Then she allowed a small smile. “It is beautiful. But I was mostly trying to figure the weather though. It changes so frequently out here and without much–”

He chuckled, cutting her off. “Oh yes, it’s something you have to get used to.” He looked over her head, out through the window. “Takes a while to get right. It looks like it may hail later today. Do you live on campus?” He supposed she was pretty if he looked at her right, but appearance wasn’t the point. They didn’t get many coastals out this way–usually only the scholars who couldn’t work molecular energy or any of that other atomic nonsense they got into back there. The earth-science oriented always made their way to the plains, doubly distinct–unlike their brethren back on the coast and certainly unlike those who’d grown up here. Outsiders. They were interesting. And not much piqued his interest anymore.

“Yes,” she said. “In the Barrett Building.”

He looked back at her. “You’re one of Dr. Elliott’s students?”

She nodded brightly. “Oh yes. She’s the reason I came out here, her work is absolutely groundbreaking! Even the best coastal programs don’t have her sort of experience on staff. I was really lucky she accepted me for the two-year program.”

A small stab of annoyance. He kept his face smooth though. Kept himself from frowning. Groundbreaking he thought with a bitter little internal laugh. Groundbreaking indeed. Now his interest was piqued even further.

“Only two years, huh? Then what?”

She gave him a curious look. It was almost…guarded, but then again a lot of the coastals looked that way. Careful and reticent. He figured it was the sea that’d turned them soft. “Well then I’ll go back home and finish up at–”

“Well maybe we can change your mind in the meantime,” he said, winking. “Ever done any work in hydrocarbons?”

“Not really,” she said. “Just in history you know?”

Another stab of annoyance. Did she know who he was. Did she really know?

“I suppose you need some experts out your way then,” he said. “What’s your name? You obviously know mine.” He gave her conspiratorial grin. “I know it’s gotta be hard, coming here. Unfamiliar. It’s always nice to make friends, right?”

That same guarded expression. More noticeable now. Like shutters slamming closed behind her gray eyes. Nothing at all like the locals, who were always so open and willing, who’d grown up knowing him as an expert, a savior with the advancements he’d made. A real pioneer, like the ones in the window. He’d grown bored of the fawning, he told himself. The coastals were more of a challenge and he loved a challenge.

“Sure,” she said after a long moment of quiet. “I’m Anna Markham.”

“Pleased to meet you,” he said, holding out his hand. She took it briefly and then stepped back, glancing out the window again, her forehead creased in concentration.

“Well it might get rough out there…do you want me to give you a lift back to the dorm? I’m nearly done here.”

She tilted her head. Considered. “Oh no, that’s all right. I have to go to the library anyway. But thanks for the offer. I appreciate it. I was very nice to meet you.”

And with that she turned and hurried off, her heels clicking on the floor.

He watched her go.

*

            The coastals didn’t like automobiles much. Dr. Marion supposed it had to do with their crowded cities, their ridiculous reliance on trains and subways. Out here, if you didn’t drive you weren’t worth your weight in grain; the space was such that it needed to be tamed. And whenever Dr. Marion felt off, he drove.

It did indeed begin hailing, just a bit after sunset. Dr. Marion left his office locked behind him and hurried out to the lot, relishing the harsh cold air and the sharp icy sting as he crossed the uncovered concrete expanse. He got in the car and keyed it on, the hydrocarbon combustion gutting and humming beneath him, a good rush of power. He thought for a moment about what he wanted–and then considered the next best thing.

A few moments later he pulled up in front of one of the apartment buildings where the junior faculty lived. He parked along the curb, leaving the car running so the heat wouldn’t sputter out, and he cut through the weather veil, heading for the sheltering overhang. At the front desk he asked if Dr. Littleton was available and waited in the dimly-lit lobby as the desk clerk (a student on work-study of course–the university had to best use its resources after all) patched a call through. In a moment the student turned back and said that Dr. Marion could go right on up.

Dr. Mitch Littleton was a former coastal. He still had the accent too, noticeable as he welcomed Dr. Marion into the apartment: flat and non-rhotic, reserved and cautious. They didn’t like emotion much, the coastals. Dr. Littleton worked in the Astronomy department, which was one of the reasons Dr. Marion had made the effort to cultivate him; Dr. Marion did enjoy his outsiders, after all.

And Dr. Elliott headed the Astronomy department so, perhaps, a bit of foresight had gone into Dr. Marion’s calculations.

“I hope I’m not bothering you,” Dr. Marion said as Mitch handed him a wheat-beer.

“Oh no, not at all. No plans.” He sat down on an old, beat-up leather chair and leaned forward, his light blue eyes nearly colorless in the overhead light. “Is it still storming?”

“Yes. In fact, that’s why I’m here,” Dr. Marion said, grinning. “D’you wanna go for a ride? I did promise I’d take you, the next time the weather turned.”

He could see a flicker of nerves spark through Mitch’s pale eyes and Dr. Marion took a sip of beer, waiting.

“Well, uh. Sure, yeah. Why not.” Mitch stood up suddenly, as if he needed to force himself into motion. “Thanks for offering.”

“No problem,” Dr. Marion said, putting down his glass. “It’s my pleasure.

*

            His father had told him once about the dead–the ones that’d gone first, to mow the plains down into submission and wrest from nature what humans deserved. They still walked, Robert Marion had told his son, those pioneering corpses. They’d sown the land with their blood, they’d made the wheat grow and they’d written storms in the sky. When asked where they’d come from, Robert Marion hadn’t known. It was so long ago, after all. But everything–a wide sweep of his arm–the universities, the roads, all of that–was because of their courage. And the dead especially loved the roads because their descendants could take them at impossible speeds, burning fuel behind them as they raced the weather.

“Remember that.” Dr. Marion did remember, he’d always remember. “Drive like the dead do, boy. Go fast as you can. This is ours, after all.” Another wide sweep. “This is ours.

*

            Once clear of the university, Dr. Marion pushed down hard on the accelerator and the engine responded. Beside him, in the passenger seat, Mitch Littleton’s strained face grew paler and paler as the road screeched beneath them. Dr. Marion laughed out loud, the sound mingling with the hail as it pounded hard on the glass and steel. He looked over at Mitch, enjoying the man’s obvious fear. There was nothing like this in those cloistered cities, clinging to the sea and messing around with careful science–they didn’t burn anything out there and they sent their refuse to the plains universities where men who knew what the world owed to them like Dr. Marion could break them down. Reshape them into something worthwhile, a pioneer, someone unafraid of the road and the rain.

“Watch it!” Mitch’s voice came high and clear through Dr. Marion’s triumph.

“Oh it’s all right, don’t be scared.”

No,” Mitch said in an oddly forceful voice as Dr. Marion pushed the car faster. “No, there’s going to be something, the air–”

“Stop it, there’s nothing out here but the dead, nothing else would dare–”

STOP THE CAR.” Mitch’s words bellowed against the hail, the rubber singing, the combustive roar and out of surprise more than anything, Dr. Marion hit the break, the car hydroplaning across the slick road and nearly sliding into the flooded road-side ditches. In a flare of anger Dr. Marion turned on Mitch, snarling at the younger man and his foolishness.

“What the hell was that about?” he demanded.

“Look,” Mitch said, calmer now.

Snapping his head back to the dash window, Dr. Marion squinted. Out of the hail stepped the largest stag he’d ever seen–a twelve-footer at least, antlers spanning the entire width of the road. It stood still in the wash of the headlights and with a muttering hiss of fear, Dr. Marion realized if he’d hit it, he’d be dead. The stags were built like stone–and some of the farmers said the big ones–the really big ones–weren’t stags at all, but ghosts of creatures killed a long time ago. And then above the beast the sky flared blue-white, like a blown transformer but they had those underground out here. Dr. Marion turned again to Mitch, who was tracing an arc with a shaking finger.

“What the hell–” Dr. Marion started again.

“Dr. Elliott was right,” Mitch muttered, more to himself. “They do respond to electromagnetic disturbances. Atmospheric even, the solar wind–”

“Stop it, that’s just a bunch of coastal nonsense,” Dr. Marion snapped.

Mitch turned to look at him and shrugged. The space between them had shifted somehow, the weight balanced in a new configuration. Dr. Marion didn’t like it. With much more vitriol than he wanted to show, he forced the car into a sharp turn and started back to the university, the stag glowing in the rearview much longer than it should have done.

*

            Dr. Marion dreamed about his father impaled on the massive antlers of a stag while the sky exploded in white light and a hundred thousand shambling corpses collapsed to white dust as a shockwave thick as concrete swept across the plains.

*

            It was the girl. Anna Markham. Her guarded grey eyes. Her dismissal. The fucking coasters. She’d refused him once. Well. It wouldn’t happen again.

*

            In the Energy department lounge Dr. Marion found a few of his hydrocarbon colleagues huddled over a newspaper. Coming in to see what the fuss was about, he realized it was the leading publication from one of the larger coastal cities. Dr. Elliott’s photo glinted in silver on the front page and the headline read EXPERT PRESENTS FIRST RELIABLE MEASURE OF SOLAR WIND FORCE.

“What’s that nonsense?” he asked.

Dr. Avery glanced over her shoulder. “Pet project of the Dean bearing fruit, I guess,” she said. “They’re happy about it over in Astronomy. A real party from what I heard.”

“She’s a fraud,” Dr. Marion said, sneering.

“Maybe. But they like her back east,” Dr. Carron said.

“Well that’s no surprise. They love their ‘experimental science’ out there. Solar wind is just a hypothesis, after all. There can’t be a reliable measure.”

“She keeps getting press like this, the Dean will want to expand the department.” Dr. Avery put the newspaper down on a nearby table and turned to look at Dr. Marion. She frowned. “Are you all right? You look pale.”

Dr. Marion pushed past her and didn’t reply.

*

            Halfway through his graduate seminar, Dr. Marion was feeling himself again. The students followed him with undivided attention and obvious admiration as he corrected a few equations. They were all plains locals–broad-faced and wide-eyed and friendly, with their honey-drawl accents and their well-practiced, well-supported mathematics. They’d grown up with oilman heroes, with the pioneering dead, with fast cars sudden storms and empty roads and land rolling out into forever. Dr. Marion chided himself internally for letting some little nobodies ruin his day; Mitch Littleton, Anna Markham, Dr. Elliott–they were from an inconsequential place; they were a scared people putting blind faith in bad science.

Eleanora Watts–one of the most promising graduates and a pretty girl with long blonde hair–sat up front. Dr. Marion watched her particularly–he’d been playing with her on and off but she wasn’t much of a challenge. She welcomed his overtures with her big-hearted laughter and gentle eyes. He’d grown bored of bedding willing students but perhaps it’d be just the thing to remind him of all he’d accomplished. Of all he was worth. So when the class ended he asked Eleanora to stay back for a moment so he could discuss her semester project.

“I was meaning to come see you about that anyway,” Eleanora said, grinning. “I was talking with some of the girls at the card club and they had some interesting things to say. So I thought it’d be worth looking into.”

“You and Violet?” Dr. Marion asked. The card club was one of the small student social houses on campus, usually reserved for the young women so they wouldn’t be too much temptation for the men.

“Well, yes, Violet was there too, and Rosalyn and Marietta but there were a few newcomers! Four or five girls actually, they come from the east and they’re fascinating. There’s so much I didn’t realize about the sea and from what they told me, in terms of energy resources it might be an interesting expansion–”

“No,” Dr. Marion said. Much louder than he meant it. Loud enough that even friendly Eleanora took an uncertain step backwards, forehead creased. Dr. Marion cleared his throat. “Sorry. I mean, I don’t want you to waste your time on dead-ends, Eleanora. They’ve got their priorities mixed up, the coastals. All that salt, I suppose. We need to keep our feet on the ground.” He gave her a winning grin.

“I suppose,” Eleanora said, still frowning. “You know…they said a few other things too.” Her voice was strange then. Unfamiliar. “It must be very different there. The way…the way they spoke about women and men and…” Eleanora trailed off and shrugged. “I suppose I’ll have to visit someday. Is there anything else, Professor?”

“No,” Dr. Marion said, his jaw clenched. “No, that’s it.”

And with a quick wave she turned and left the room.

*

           That night Dr. Marion went to visit his father’s gravesite. As a former Fellow, Robert Marion had secured his final resting place on university ground–the same cemetery that held the Seven Saints’ remains. Robert Marion had stayed buried though–Dr. Marion had looked, had waited, but his father seemed to be taking his sweet time in returning. The dead go fast, Dr. Marion thought, the first thundering strobes of a headache flaring behind his right eye. The dead must go fast, to claim and keep. Where are you, Father?

“Ah. I thought you’d be here.”

The voice came sudden and unwelcome. Dr. Marion turned to see Dr. Liesl Elliott standing at the cemetery gate, her arms crossed against her chest. She was a tall woman, her close-cropped grey hair neat against her high forehead. Quite unattractive.

“Can I help you?” Dr. Marion demanded.

“You know, we do mostly sea burials back home,” Dr. Elliott said. “So much land devoted to the dead…a very different sort of custom.”

“The dead gave themselves to tame this land,” Dr. Marion said, with as much venom as he could muster. “We keep them in it because they come back.”

“How do you tame a land, Dr. Marion?”

“You make it give to you what it owes,” he said. This woman was certainly dense. “You make it surrender its treasures. Its coal and oil and what it can grow for us, the space for roads and spread-out cities. Its industry. You make it give you that and then it’s yours. And if you do it right, you come back. Because even in death the land is ours.” The words weren’t all his–some came from snatched memories of Services his father had taken him too, invocations to the dead, the pioneers, the Saints.

Dr. Elliott’s face remained impassive. A silence stretched between them as the wind picked up and clouds grew toward the west, a massive dark bank of thunderheads.

“The weather is very odd here,” Dr. Elliott said. “I suppose it has to do with all the fuels you burn.”

Dr. Marion glared at her. “I thought your specialty was space, Liesl.”

She gave him a quick, sharp grin. “Well you have to see the sky to study space, Matthew.”

Anger rose in him with such a fierce and sudden heat he wanted to hit her. She didn’t seem to notice. In fact, she was still grinning.

“I would ask you to stop frightening my students, Dr. Marion.”

He couldn’t make words come he was so enraged and with a quick nod, Dr. Elliott turned on her heel and left him alone with the dead.

*

            Dr. Marion waited outside the card club closest to Barrett House. Sure enough, a little past midnight, a group of girls emerged, chatting and laughing happily. He noted some of the plains girls were wearing their hair up like the coastals did and the anger that’d set root in him since his conversation with Dr. Elliott bloomed like bile in the back of his throat. He watched the girls–most of them went left toward the Hydrocarbon dorms but three of them kept on, straight ahead, to Barrett House. He saw Anna Markham among them, a bit shorter than the other two, their harsh coastal accents undercutting the nearing thunder. A wind had picked up, hissing around the buildings and blowing detritus down the slick-wet campus roads.

He followed the girls toward Barrett House.

“The weather here is ridiculous,” one said. “They don’t even bother to chart it!”

“Well how could they, since it’s all their poison making it this way.”

“Don’t say that where they can hear you,” Anna Markham’s voice floated toward Dr. Marion. “It’s a religion to them here. The oil and the earth and their precious bones. I cannot wait until we get to go home.”

“Soon enough. Dr. Elliott is almost finished with the cycle. Then we can get out of this hellhole.”

“Oh did you hear about Dr. Littleton?” Anna, again. “He saw one of their stags! One of the remnants, from back when they bombed this place to flatten it. He said it was terrifying, but it definitely responded to the meteorite’s presence so that’s another path worth following.”

“How’d he catch one near here?”

“He didn’t. That hydrocarbon professor took him out on a drive. He said that was more terrifying than the stag.”

“I’ve heard such awful things.” The girl’s voice shuddered, dipped under the wind a bit and whatever she said next was lost.

“Yes well. Soon enough,” Anna said. “Finally we’re here.”

They’d reached the Barrett Hall entranced. Hurrying away from the pool of light that  bathed the dorm’s entrance, Dr. Marion hid back in the shadows as the rain finally broke and the wind moaned through across the deserted campus.

*

            Dr. Marion waited for Mitch Littleton and when he saw him exit the Planner Building he fell in step beside him.

“Oh, hello,” Mitch said. He smiled. “Thanks again for the ride. It was really interesting.”

“No problem,” Dr. Marion said, surprised at how normal his voice sounded. He’d been consumed with the thoughts of the dead–they were eating at him, those shambling bones. His father absent still, but the rest, the saints, the pioneers (the bombers the bombers the bombers) had dragged their bare-bones fingers across the wetwork of his brain and stayed lodged. He needed to do something about it because of course–that was how the plains worked, you did things you didn’t let the sky or the earth or the sea tell you what it needed. You told it, you tamed it, trained it, burnt it, hollowed it–and now these arrogant coastals were daring to invade, daring to spread their weak nonsense. Well. Dr. Marion wouldn’t allow it. “I actually have been meaning to talk to you. Did you leave a fountain pen in my car? I found one and I know it’s not mine.”

Mitch Littleton frowned. “I may have. I lose them all the time.”

“Well I’m parked just over here if you’d like.”

“Oh wonderful. I hope it’s the one I think it is, I brought it from home and I’d hate to have to send for another.”

Dr. Marion motioned to the lot. It was late and half-empty, most of the undergraduates gone for the day and only a few graduates clustered outside the academic buildings. Dr. Marion had parked as far from any hall as he could and he kept up a stream of inane chatter with Mitch, barely aware of what he was saying. When they got there, the sun had disappeared behind a thick black tide of clouds, low and muttering. Green flashes arced between them.

“Let me unlock it,” Dr. Marion said, reaching into his pocket and then as quick as he could, before Mitch could think or react Dr. Marion hit him as hard as he could in the face. Mitch stumbled back, pale eyes wide in shock and Dr. Marion hit him again, knocking him fully down this time, the crunch of nasal bone against his fist a sweet, soothing sound. He hit him a third time, a fourth, a fifth–and then he grabbed Mitch and dragged him into the car, propping him up in the front seat. Dr. Marion started the engine, a flood of force and life and power flooding through him, the wild strength of the dead and the land they’d tamed. Throwing his head back in a wild laugh, Dr. Marion peeled out of the parking lot and headed toward the open road–west, into the clouds, the green flare of lightning.

II

            It took a while before Dr. Mitch Littleton came around but when his head cleared enough for the pain to set in he realized that Matthew Marion had forced him into the car and was now careening down the empty road at a nearly impossible speed. It was like Dr. Littleton could feel the atoms of the car vibrate, could feel the contrasting forces pushing them together and pulling them apart.

            Oh thank God they never figured out how to use Uranium out here Dr. Littleton thought hazily as he tried to figure out what to do next.

All around the car the storm shrieked and roared, lightning–green?–arcing and tumbling between the clouds and spiking down from the clouds to the burnt earth below. All of this godforsaken wasteland was ash–they could grow their wasteful crops on a blanket of poor soil barely cloaking the destroyed land but it was all just an exercise in arrogance. The food they produced was tainted by what their precious dead had done and most of what they ate was brought in from the coast anyway. Dr. Littleton hated this place but it was worth his two years here–the new dean was intent on starting a Solar and Wind Department to access the few resources they had left here and Dr. Littleton and Dr. Elliott and the students wanted to do what they could to help. There weren’t many people who wanted things to change but there were enough to start. All that stood in their way were the fanatical holdouts like Marion.

            Marion. Dr. Littleton chanced glancing to the side. The man was driving with a wide grin, the muscles in his jaw pulled tense and working, his thinning hair damp with sweat and his right hand–the one he’d used to hit Dr. Littleton–was swollen and bruised. The green light flickered again. Solar, Dr. Littleton realized as he fought back against the pain. It’s not lightning it’s a solar. That means–

He felt the pull in him, the way the atoms pushed and rearranged beneath the sweeping magnetic flares. What had survived the destruction here had become new and frightening. Massive stags and fierce wildcats and herds of hybrid cattle waiting at the fringes for the first sign of weakness from the humans. And now the solar flare, the green rush of space-light singing through the storm, calling for an evolutionary response. The latitude here is perfect Dr. Elliott’s voice cutting through the haze of pain a perfect observation point. It’s ironic isn’t it, that this might be the beginning. Here, in this awful place.

“You’re awake.” Marion’s voice was uneven, jubilant, cruel. “You’re gonna pay, you goddamn weakling, you invader. You and all of your kind, coming here thinking you know this land, you know what’s best. I’ve had it. This university is mine and I won’t let you pathetic creatures try and transform it into some backwards seaside outpost!” He practically screamed the last word, pulling hard on the wheel to force the car sideways. Dr. Littleton slammed against the door, keeping quiet, waiting. Waiting.

“Don’t have anything to say for yourself, do you?” Marion laughed again, a desperate terrifying sound. “You and that girl and your fucking precious Liesl Elliott.”

“What girl?” Dr. Littleton found himself startled into speech.

“Anna Markham.” The words were shrouded in a thick veil of rage and hatred.

             Anna? “What’s she got to do with you?”

“She refused me. She started this, talking to my students, treating me like some sort of…of…fool. How dare she. You all need to be taught your fucking place.”

Dr. Littleton’s fear bloomed now into a messy panic. Oh God if he can get to her–

Anything Marion might do to Dr. Littleton was nothing compared to what he wanted to do to Anna.

              The worst of the men here treat women like they’re second class. Like they’re just another resource to be used and squandered. Dr. Elliott had warned them all about that horrid practice. The worst of the men will think nothing of trying to take as many girls as they can, do what they want. You must always be careful. You must take care of each other, and if you can, take care of the local girls too. This isn’t their fault.

And if Marion was allowed to return, he’d go after Anna.

Dr. Littleton closed his eyes, trying to shut out Marion’s rage, trying to focus as hard as he could on the movement of solar magnetism and the receptors, tried to do what Dr. Elliott had said could only be attempted if they met with real danger–tried to call the ravening revenants of this blasted place, tried to tell them as sure as he could through the shared universality of structure, of molecular movement and the symbiotic relationship between the earth and the sea, the sky, and every living thing breathing on or above or beneath–Dr. Littleton called, a ringing thundering clamor in his ears and then–

What the fuck!?”

Mitch opened his eyes.

The stag again. Maybe even the same one, standing in the middle of the road and it had something–Dr. Littleton could barely process it before Marion slammed hard on the brakes, the tires screeching in protest as he lost control of the steering and they careened sideways, the car sliding off the road and coming to an unsteady stop half-over a deep, rain-filled ditch. The water, Dr. Littleton noticed in one of those strange moments of clarity that come right in the middle of panic, was slicked with rainbow trails of spilled oil.

Marion turned, his face contorted with rage but Dr. Littleton avoided another blow and managed to land one of his own, slamming Marion up against the door. Marion collapsed beneath Dr. Littleton’s pressure and he pressed his advantage, hitting again and managing to get the door opened so he could push Marion out of the car entirely.

The stag still stood in the middle of the empty road, its expression steady.

Almost…interested.

Marion struggled to his feet.

“You have no idea what you’ve just done,” he said, spraying blood and spit as he screamed. “You have no idea!”

But of course, Dr. Littleton had every idea of what he’d done. He looked over at the stag again, at what he’d seen before.

Hanging in tatters from the immense antlers.

Dr. Littleton felt the whirl of magnetic light flare and flash overhead, pulling at the hairs on his skin, singing in tune with his own molecular hymn. The stag must have felt it too, must have known what Marion was. And slowly it started towards him, the ruins of a shriveled human arm in weather-stained cotton falling from its antlers like so much dust and air.

*

                The Electromagnetism seminar was fuller than usual this semester. Of course, it was the last one before Dr. Elliott and Dr. Littleton went back to the coast so the students wanted to be sure of getting a chance to learn from them. The Dean had promised more scholars would come soon, more solar experts and even some wind-farmers he’d convinced to come up from the barrier island research stations that stood between the coastal cities and the wider sea. Anna Markham was spending her last semester as a teaching assistant for the two professors and Dr. Littleton had to hand it to her–she’d gotten quite a few girls to sign up for the course, pulling away a good chunk of the Hydrocarbon consortium. One of the girls–a smiling, good-natured student named Eleanora was staying a whole extra year at school so she could change her concentration.

Afterwards, as always, Anna met with Dr. Elliott and Dr. Littleton in the office.

“Well I think this will go nicely,” Dr. Elliott said, her sharp face breaking into a sunshine-bright grin. “Your mother is especially pleased, Anna. And can we offer our congratulations for you to pass on to her? First Consul is quite an honor.”

Anna nodded. “Of course, she’ll be happy to hear it. I don’t think she ever forgave you for getting your doctorate before she did.”

“And did she mention the diplomatic mission?” Dr. Littleton asked. “I understand if it’s classified.”

Anna laughed. “She knows better than to tell me state secrets. She got confirmation a few days back.”

“Even better news,” Dr. Elliott said. “Now would you two mind finishing up in here? I have to meet with the Dean.”

Dr. Littleton and Anna waved her off and she shut the door behind her.

“You didn’t say anything to her,” Anna said after a moment of quiet.

“No,” Dr. Littleton said, glancing out the window. The sky was low again and heavy with clouds. “I don’t think it’s worth it. Do you?”

“No,” Anna said. “No, it’s…it’s better left a mystery I think.”

“Some of the diehard oilmen are saying they saw him…along with the other dead.”

“Maybe they did. Who knows. I don’t think…it matters, really.”

“No, not anymore.”

They stared at each other again and Anna grinned, looking down at her hands, a flush of color rising along the sharp ridge of her cheekbones. “Thank you, by the way.”

“What for?” Dr. Littleton asked.

She looked up again, met his gaze, her eyes the gray-green of home and shrugged. “You know.”

Dr. Littleton nodded once, then matched her smile.

“Let’s get started on this paperwork or we’ll be stuck here all night.”

 

Cosmicists

AN: Another project that started out as a short story until I decided I wanted to do more. I think that’s…sort of a theme? With me attempting to write short stories? Anyway here’s the short version that maybe someday will become something longer

 

The Cosmicists

They’re looking for someone named Geno.

Lesha waits less-than-patiently while Bobby and the old man go at it, teeth gritted, bared, and the air sizzle-singed between them. Lesha doesn’t know the old man well, only that he came over from Cuba in the fifties and apparently fucked a bunch of movie stars but Bobby seems intimately aware: he keeps hissing about vaults and breaches, half-assed code words because Bobby’s not up for creating a whole new language. That’s the problem with the low-level Cosmicists, Lesha thinks–their ambitions aren’t near developed enough to support their ideals. And the higher-ups take advantage of that.

Anyway, Geno. Evgeni, apparently? Lesha doesn’t have a last name. They’re in some cloister-like living room of a small dusty house in Palmdale and Lesha can smell the wick of the world burning outside in the sun-white air. The house–as far as she knows–doesn’t belong to the old man but its owner owed him a favor before Transposing and so here they are, free from listening ears because what fucking entity in its right mind would care about what goes on in Palmdale?

“He does it wrong,” the old man says, slamming his fist on a beat-up Ikea coffee table. He and Bobby are sitting on the sofa, not looking at one another as they fight. Lesha’s curled up like a cat in a moss-green reclining chair, waiting for Bobby to finish his business so they can go after this Geno–whoever the fuck he is.

“There’s no wrong,” Bobby spits. “That’s the whole problem with all your old-school bullshit. There’s no wrong!”

“You’re uneducated,” the old man says, artfully superior. “There was a way once and it did not die out when the papers were burned. It is still the way, whether you admit it or not. And Geno–he is the opposite. He is the–” the man pauses, thinking. “The miasma. The effluvia. He is all the waste and none of the matter. Stay away from him.”

Lesha frowns, picking threads. The old man tries to lace his words with venom–he does very well–but Lesha works in the Underneath after all so she knows deflection when she hears it. The old man’s warning Bobby but he’s protecting Geno. He thinks making Geno into a monster will force Bobby away but he doesn’t know Bobby very well.

“He’s in trouble,” Bobby says, voice low. Bobby never yells. He hisses and curdles and spits like a burning log but he never yells. “The flesh-bags back in LA–”

“That’s just what they told you,,” the old man says. “Your priesthood back in Los Angeles.”

“You have no idea what you’re talking about,” Bobby says but of course the old man does. Because the flesh-bags couldn’t take down an architect but just the mention of them get Bobby going, even if the threat is invented. And Bobby is right in his rage because after all they murdered his brother and then ate the body right in front of him.

“I was there in the beginning,” the old man says.

Lesha is getting annoyed. “Where is he?” she asks, breaking the cadence of the argument and the old man turns to look at her with such shock Lesha wonders if he ever registered her presence in the first place. He stares for a long time, convincing himself she is real. Lesha doesn’t like it; she doesn’t like the familiarity of his gaze.

“What have you to do with this?” he demands. As if he knows her. As if she’s part of some subset that she knows damn well she isn’t. She’s singular.

Lesha narrows her eyes. It’s way past time for this to be over. She stands up and the room seems to shrink around her, the bones of the house turning gelatinous, molding to her and the sun overhead the cruel smirk of white sun: the old man’s mouth opens once and his face collapses in on itself, a weakness broached beneath the skin. All the air sucked out of the empty spaces.

“Fine,” he wheezes.

Lesha lets the room go.

Bobby doesn’t look at her but she can feel his relief. It roils, curls around him, smears like charcoal across the rise of his cheeks.

The old man gives them the name of a road near the Air Force Base. Bobby’s face flickers into a frown.

“That was closed down–”

“You’re uneducated,” the old man repeats.

“Come on,” Lesha says. The old man can’t lie to her. The road is there and so is Geno. “We’re done.”

Bobby closes his mouth and stands up to follow her out of the house.

*

Lesha and Bobby drive from Palmdale to North Edwards. The route is very nearly a perfect right angle: CA-14 to the vertex in Mojave and then taking the ray onto 58. It’s nowhere country, it’s government county, it’s lights-in-the-sky country. Conspiracy Land. Small stories made explosive by limited worlds. Lesha stare out the window into the white-blue and the dust.

“You didn’t have to,” Bobby says after they get onto 58.

“It’s fine,” she says. “He wasn’t going to give anything away otherwise.”

“Yeah but,” Bobby turns to her and squints like a movie star. “I know you don’t like to.”

“I don’t like to when it’s not my choice,” she says.

Bobby nods, turns back to the road. “That was your choice?”

“Of course,” she says. “What are you gonna do when we find him?” Because that hasn’t been decided yet. It couldn’t be decided in LA where the walls and the ground and the air and the atoms and all their particles have eyes and ears and pulpy listening wetness. Hell they didn’t say Geno’s name until they’d stopped in Ravenna to get the old man’s address. They’d met with one of Bobby’s Unformed allies who’d coughed up the info and it’d asked–with its glottal murmur–what they were looking for. Bobby didn’t dare lie to the Unformed, who’d saved his brother from what the flesh-bags had planned so he’d said a guy named Geno. some rogue architect. And the Unformed had flashed its strange iridescence across what you’d call its face and formed a glob of a word: evgeni.

Yeah. him.

So then in the car on the way to Palmdale Bobby’d explained to Lesha: the Cosmicist hotshots needed all the architects accounted for and if Bobby found this rogue then they’d pay him off big time and they’d cut loose some chains too. Lesha was in on it because she was bound to protect Bobby but she wasn’t ashamed to admit she was curious on her own. A rogue architect. You didn’t see many of those. It was worth it to ride along. But now in test plane country they can talk as freely as can be hoped on this plane of existence and Lesha wants as much from Bobby as he’ll give.

“Get him to come to LA,” Bobby says.

“If he’s rogue he won’t want to,” Lesha says.

Bobby squints again. It’s a habit he’s picked up from his dad. “Then we make him.”

Which is where I come along Lesha thinks. “They want him alive though, right?”

“Of course,” Bobby says.

“What kind of alive though?”

“Useful.”

The sentient kind then. Good to know. “And you don’t know anything else about him?”

“Not really. Just what the higher-ups gave me.”

“This some kind of test?”

“Like a rite?” Bobby asks, raising an eyebrow. “Yeah I guess. I’m half-in because of my mom but you know…they don’t do things halfway.”

Lesha nods, glances over at Bobby. He doesn’t do it for her even if he were available but she likes him. Before, she hadn’t ever thought men and women could just like each other, without all that messy shit rearing up and vomiting all over the sentiment. But maybe she’d watched too many movies. She knows what friend means, far and away from anything else and Bobby’s her friend. That’s good. That’s a good thing. Friends are better than lovers.

“Almost there,” Bobby says. They drive beneath an overpass and there’s an unmarked road branching off from the highway, so unused and dust-eaten it might not really exist at all. Bobby turns and overhead a plane hums in low, giant gray against the white, its immense guts churning fuel and spitting a dull muted roar as it puts down its wheels.

*

The dusty road goes nowhere until it ends at a fifties-looking motel, sticking strange out of the desert like a mutant bloom. There’s all the nostalgic trappings: atomic-age neon wrapping words INTERSTELLAR MOTEL in garish red and underneath VACANCIES in black words on a white face. Two stories with a red railing set around the second floor and blue doors interspersed with sun-occluded windows. There’s a cafe too, where the office seems to be and Bobby pulls up in front. The lot’s fuller than Lesha imagined, cars dust-blanketed and ticking hot.

Bobby and Lesha go into the cafe. Checkerboard floors and space-age tables, chrome and red leather. Designed before the world realized that the future would be a hell of a lot uglier than the bombs promised. Lesha and Bobby slide into a booth and Lesha scans the room: three men, two women–the two women sit together at the bar, talking in low murmurs; a man sits by himself at the end, a few seats down from the women; two men sit at a round table in the middle of the floor, one old and one just barely not a teenager.

A waitress who seems mostly human appears. “What can I get you?”

“Just coffee for me. Black. Lesha?”

She winces a little because Bobby used her name. His expression is untroubled, as if he doesn’t realize and she frowns, glancing at him before turning to the waitress. “Burger. Rare. Nothing but the bun.”

The waitress nods and moves off into the ether. Lesha needs to have a quick talk with Bobby now, in the quiet, because he should know better about her name, throwing it around carelessly among strangers.

“Bobby,” she says but he doesn’t respond. She frowns

“Bobby,” Lesha repeats. He looks vague, distant. “Bobby!” not caring how loud she is now because he doesn’t hear her and she’s starting to get a little scared. “Bobby!”

Stop it

The voice comes through the liquid and Lesha turns so fast her bones crack. No one’s looking at her but she can feel the attention of the two women focused on her, laser-precise and just as dangerous. They’re both youngish, one white and one black. Dressed in muted grays and greens, heads bowed together like they’re praying.

What the hell is going on?

You’re being worked into the pattern. And the laser-focus shifts to the man at the end of the bar, who’s toying idly with his coffee mug. He’s…he’s gotta make us all make sense or else whatever it is in here will tear us apart. What are you?

Excuse me?

We’re beyond niceties at this point, huh?

Lesha shifts uncomfortably. Bobby has that same vague look, and now he’s shredding one of the napkins he’s pulled from the sleek space-age silver napkin holder.

Guess so. My mother was a seed. My dad was a librarian. That’s a very bare-bones way of describing it but Lesha doesn’t feel like getting into more detail. I don’t think there’s a term for the offspring of that particular match.

No but maybe he’ll make one up another shift of focus to the man at the end of the bar.

I don’t need him to do that Lesha says, nettled. Is he the architect?

The architect?

An architect Lesha curses her own stupid mistake.

Yeah he is. You’re the hitman then. Hit woman. Whatever you’d prefer

We don’t want him dead

No but you’re not here because of what you want, are you?

They don’t want him dead either.

How nice of them

What the fuck are you two if you don’t mind me asking? Lesha of course has a pretty good idea but she wants them to say it. She wants them to have to answer. She keeps staring at Bobby but nothing she knows how to do can break him out of whatever the architect’s doing. No wonder the higher ups in LA want this guy–he’s spinning his own worlds here and that’s fucking atomic territory. Forbidden knowledge.

Star children of course. So’re they the attention now on the older man and the teenager. We’d been wandering and we found this place. Didn’t realize what it was.

 What is it?

A battery. A venus flytrap. Whatever you want.

Lesha wants nothing but to to be out of this nightmare. She stands up and finds herself almost gasping with relief that she can move and she crosses the hypernaturally still air to where the architect sits. Geno. She’d expected a white guy but he’s darker–Latino, probably, like the old man and that makes Lesha wonder but she’s not going to pluck that thread now. Geno glances over at her, gives her a mildly surprised grin. He has a nice-looking face: broad and a bit like a bush-league boxer’s but still nice-looking.

“Hi,” he says. “Are you gonna kill me?”

“No,” Lesha says, sitting down. “What are you doing to them?”

Geno frowns a bit. He reminds Lesha then of a kid who sat in the backseat of her eighth-grade science class–they’d all thought he was blowing off the whole thing because he never opened his mouth, never looked anything but gently confused until he disappeared one day and they learned he was really some kind of super-genius who’d been whisked off to a private school in Berkeley: Lesha had understood then– his confusion wasn’t because he didn’t get what the teacher was saying–his confusion was why any of it had to be taught at all. Why everyone else didn’t just know.

“I made this place,” Geno says, gesturing vaguely. “Because I knew my uncle’s guys wanted me to come home. But then people started showing up and I didn’t know what to do. They were people who…who needed help, you know? Who needed a place to stay to…” he frowns.

“Recharge?” Lesha offers.

“Yeah!” Geno grins, eyes bright. “Right. But when they came in I had…I had to make them fit or else…or else they’d be hurt I think. I don’t know why it’s not working on you but I guess it doesn’t hurt you either, so that’s good. Your friend though–if I just let him go I feel like he’d explode. He knows my uncle, doesn’t he?”

“Probably,” Lesha says. “We’re here to bring you back to LA.”

Geno sighs, looks down at his big hands. Lesha notices his knuckles are scabbed up pretty bad and there’s older bruising underneath the raw wounds. “I don’t want to go back.”

“Yeah I figured,” Lesha feels so out of her depth that it almost calms her. She doesn’t know what to do or if there’s anything she can do so she’s pretty much immune from making a mistake, isn’t she? Go on your gut. That’s a human thing. Instinct, voices from the bowels, some strung-out connection to a harder way of living, where dangers were easier to spot, where the wordless voices in your brain were easier to hear. “But I have a feeling if you don’t come with us then the next ones they send are gonna be worse.”

“You’re not worse?”

“Am I?”

Geno looks at her. “No, you’re not worse. You’re…you’re very singular, aren’t you? I don’t even have a word for you. I don’t have a reality for you. Maybe that’s why I can’t weave you into the pattern. And why it doesn’t kill you.”

“Sounds good to me,” Lesha says because as far as she knows she is a singularity but she never understood what that might mean in regards to the architects. The Cosmicists. And a small prick of worry threads across the skin of her neck, a flicker of dark in the corner of her eye that she’d never seen before. They sent Bobby here to bring Geno back. The miasma. The effluvia. All the waste and none of the matter.

Go careful Lesha hears one of the women’s voice hum close to her ear.

Yeah, I think I gotta.

Geno sighs and his face falls into a sadness that Lesha can’t describe, can’t plumb with words or understanding. He looks like a god who’s creations have started killing each other. Then he stands up and all around them reality wefts it weaves in and out and in and out, countless adjustments and too fast to process and then in a blink it stills and the air is heavy again, dust-scented and the cafe still exists but it’s drab now, decayed.

“Hey!” Bobby’s voice from the booth and then his head and shoulders as he jumps to his feet. The man and the teenager look like they’ve just been hit, staring stunned around them. The two women turn in unison to look at Lesha and she looks back at them, memorizing their faces. The black woman mimes a salute and the white woman winks.

Bobby barrels over, all electricity, ready for a fight. Lesha puts a hand on his arm. “It’s okay. It’s okay.”

Bobby frowns, stars from Lesha to Geno. “This is him?”

Geno stands up. “You got me.” He holds up his hands in a mock prisoner’s prayer, waiting for the cuffs. “I’ll come quietly.

*

In their El Segundo digs the Cosmicists have a huge chart on the wall, like one you’d find at an eye doctor’s: big letters on top and then rows of smaller and smaller and smaller until it’s almost invisible. It’s a hierarchy because regardless of what Bobby told the old man in Palmdale the Cosmicists do have a way of doing things or, at least, a ladder of privilege–at the top is THE COSMOS because that’s the goal of course–the divine order, the blood-and-guts of all that is, the holy shitpile. And then the architects and the wrecking balls, folks with their hands all wet in the pulpy mess of matter. And then the newcomers: star children who bloomed in the desert, the dead woken up with space seeds growing in their skulls, the messengers come like god-eyed prophets. And then the humans who do their work the slow way: librarians, teachers, contractors–the hopefuls who believe enough servitude will get them elevated. And then the lowest, the Unformed and their cousins, things that aren’t pretty to look at, the real cosmic mess that the Cosmicists all profess to love and yet can’t stomach.

Bobby’s in the human muck: a contractor by trade although he’d been something else before the flesh-bags had eaten his brother. The flesh-bags of course aren’t on the eye-chart: they don’t deserve the space as the order goes.

Lesha isn’t on there either.

They wait with Geno in the antechamber, a room painted black around the chart and dotted with stars in phosphorescent paint. The floor is black too, giving a vertiginous endlessness all the more disorientating because it’s so obviously false. Inside the inner office Lesha can barely hear the higher-ups’ murmurs but she’s sure nothing good is going on. She keeps thinking about what Geno said: you’re…you’re very singular aren’t you and that damn chart: THE COSMOS.

The door opens.

There’s the woman in charge, a young big-haired big-boned beauty queen who–as far as Lesha’s heard–is the most powerful wrecking ball in Southern California. There’s Geno’s uncle, a big Ukrainian man named Andriy who isn’t an architect or anything special at all as far as Lesha can tell but he must have money. And then there’s an actual architect, an older woman with an utterly blank face–empty eyes and still mouth and not a wrinkle or pull to hint at any expression. She’s like an egg with a person painted on its shell. Lesha doesn’t look at her long. She keeps focus on Andriy.

Bobby stands up in a respectful show but Geno doesn’t move.

“Thank you so much, Mr. Martinez,” Andriy says to Bobby. “We knew we could count on you.” He shifts his attention to Geno. “Please, Evgeni. I don’t know why you felt you had to leave but we mean you no harm.”

Geno shrugs.

“You’re necessary for our expansion, nephew.” He’s talking like some medieval patriarch and with his neat white beard and severe blue eyes he might as well be. “For our success. The flesh-bags are growing vicious you know. We need you.”

Geno shrugs again.

Andriy sighs like a martyr and turns to Lesha. “Ms. Turner I thank you as well for your part in this. Thank you for keeping Mr. Martinez safe. Now. Perhaps you will excuse us for a moment? Mr. Martinez, you may follow us back into the office so we can discuss initiation rites.”

Bobby glances over at Lesha. Squints. He looks too much like his father when he does that but Lesha gives him a small smile and he follows the three higher-ups.

When the door closes Geno turns to Lesha and he looks sad again, so horribly sad Lesha can’t bear meeting his eyes.

“If you don’t run now they’re going to lock you up,” he says in a flat voice. “It’s why they wanted me back. You don’t fit their order. And they think I can use you to make a better one. They don’t want you dead but-” he lifts a hand to say they might as well.

Lesha wants to ask even Bobby but she knows better.

“Go to my father’s,” Geno says.

Lesha cocks her head, her heart hammering against her ribs. She knew this. She knew this was coming. She knew.

Even Bobby.

But of course he was never bound to protect her. Of course.

“Where?” her voice is a harsh whisper but it doesn’t tremble.

“In Palmdale,” Geno adds.

Oh. Oh yes. Of course.

Geno forces a smile. Lesha forces one back. And then she leaves the painted universe and stumbles back into the dirty white Los Angeles sun.

*

Lesha’s mother is still alive but she went home which doesn’t help Lesha very much because the human hooks her father inserted into her mother’s space-meat bind Lesha to this planet tighter than gravity. Lesha’s father is dead. He died years ago, long enough so Lesha’s memories of him are entirely fairy-tale in texture, glowing and soft-edged and smelling like cheap plastic toys. But before the man died he made good on his debts and the singular daughter he’d helped make was bound to protect the son of a squinting failed actor named Javier Martinez.

*

The old man in Palmdale isn’t surprised to see Lesha. He lets her in and locks the door behind him and Lesha can feel a veil settle around the house–faint and pricking at her but she can’t see the whole of it, the weave of it. And she remembers this is Geno’s father and Geno is an architect without precedent so the old man must be something special too.

“You were talking about me, weren’t you,” Lesha says as she sits down in the moss-green chair. “All the waste and none of the matter.”

The old man sighs. “Did he tell you my name?”

“No,” Lesha says.

“Gonzalo,” he says. He sits down with a groan and holds out his wrinkled brown hand. Lesha pauses but takes it. Shakes.

“Didn’t make much of an effort to keep us away from your son,” Lesha says. She is not thinking about the higher-ups in LA marshaling resources, directing their grunts to find her. She is not thinking of Bobby in his initiate’s robes with stars tattooed on the palms of his hands.

“I knew that if you failed, they’d send worse.”

“You knew Javier Martinez.”

Gonzalo sighs. “Javier wanted to be good. But he didn’t care what he was good at, you know? That’s a dangerous man.”

“My father bound me to his son.”

Surprisingly, Gonzalo smiles. “That’s what Javier believed, yes.”

Lesha frowns. “What do you–?”

“Come with me,” he says and he stands, walking into a narrow hallway with walls painted an almost black blue. It’s constricting, claustrophobic but it’s different from the antechamber in the Cosmicists’ office: less false, somehow, as if this is really an alleyway of nothingness, a place between creation. It takes longer to walk to the end than Lesha imagined it should and she remembers this man is Geno’s father. Finally they do get to a door, painted a cheery Van Gogh-yellow and Gonzalo pushes it open.

Lesha stares, all words and all thoughts that can be arranged and ordered into words rushed into a howling storm, a great and horrible scream of a song of a prayer, all the rawness that beauty drinks from all the terror that builds the dark all of it at once and she hears Gonzalo beside her:

“My friend,” Gonzalo says, “who Transposed and thus offered his body to the engine that is the universe left me this home because I did him a service. I burnt the papers that spoke of the old way, so Andriy and his cronies couldn’t read them. But Andriy invented a new truth, one that required collapsing his sister into the smallest point of existence and drawing the immense power from her moment of non-being. His sister. The mother of my son. And so when my friend asked for a second service I did it without question because it would hurt Andriy: a child who must be believed to be part human. A librarian he knew, who would be willing to claim her.”

Lesha cannot process the full weight of what Gonzalo is telling her. She’s still staring without words at the awful wonder writhing and burning in front of her.

“Your birth,” Gonzalo says in a soft voice–somehow still audible over the churning whorl and warp– “was a seed planted in the most fertile soil. A breath in an open hand. Your birth is that. You came from here and if they knew they’d want you more than they do now.”

“What…what is it?” Lesha asks. The colors are colors she does not know, she has no words for. The shapes and forms have no reference point in her brain they’re creating themselves new and new again, over and over and the voice, the voice is a roaring endlessness a small whisper, it’s enough to fill every corner of existence and yet it breathes here in the bedroom of a nondescript house in Palmdale.

“That,” Gonzalo says, motioning forward, “is the miasma. The effluvia. All the waste and none of the matter.”

Lesha finally turns. She’s crying. She can’t remember the last time she cried. Her palms burn as she feels Bobby’s tattoos, a hundred miles away. “But…” her voice is hoarse and sharp as broken glass in her throat. I came from there. “But…but it’s beautiful.”

Gonzalo grins and in his eyes she sees Geno, she sees the sadness and wonder.

“Exactly.”

*

The Interstellar Motel still stands in the desert, faded and dusty but real. Gonzalo and Lesha pull up in Gonzalo’s old Buick and the two women are standing in front of the cafe, speaking quietly to one another. When they hear the car doors click closed they look up and when they see Lesha they both grin. They are star children which means they are the left-behind babies of wanderers who chose to wear human skin for a piece and thus they wander too.

“You’re still alive,” the black woman says, looking relieved.

“I’m still alive,” Lesha says. There is a humming in her brain now, a single sweet note that’s awful too because everything beautiful is both.

“And the architect?” the white woman asks.

“Still alive. But we need to get him back.”

The two women nod. “What about your friend?”

Lesha does not allow herself to feel betrayed. After all she’d been a lie to him–the whole time. She’d had no bond on her and yet; and yet they were friends. They were friends. But once you get the rites then you’re a different level on the cosmic chart. A different person.

“He’s one of them now,” Lesha says.

The women nod. “So what’s the plan?” Like they’d known all along.

Lesha glances at Gonzalo and he nods. Grins. Sweet, sad–all at once, the ache and joy of being.

“We upend the order.”

The women smile and they go back into the cafe and Lesha and Gonzalo follow, shutting the dust-streaked door against the low red smear of sun.

 

 

 

Flash Fiction #1

AN: I’ve been attempting to actually create some flash pieces. This is an attempt that I liked too much to keep short so I’m working on expanding it into something longer. But I wanted to share the flash version of it.

Flash Fiction #1

This world, the worlds beneath it, behind it, the ten-thousand worlds spinning their gold light against the edges of night: Eddie Castillo walks through them like a cat on a fence.

Richie O’Brien meets Eddie on Krakow Street in Elizabeth, beneath the concrete roots of the Goethals Bridge; Eddie picked the spot. Says it’s liminal here, beneath the shudder-hush of traffic. Neutral. Richie isn’t sure he knows what Eddie means, but he doesn’t argue.

“You got what you owe?” Eddie asks in his crooner’s voice.

Richie nods, digs in the pocket of his coat, hands Eddie the envelope.

Eddie considers Richie, squinting. Like he’s looking for something written on Richie’s face. “Sometimes they don’t wanna come back.”

“She does. I know she does.”

Eddie puts the envelope in the pocket of his beat-up leather jacket. He’s smooth; he’s shadowy barrooms, scratchy lyrics sung about backstreet prophets, underlit stormclouds, the city in the river. When he grins at Richie his face ripples young and old, monstrous, sweet and sad and hungry.

“Ok then. C’mon, I’ll take you through.”

*

They take Richie’s car to the Roman Catholic cemetery across from Newark Liberty; planes rise and land like a pulse, breathing jet fumes, diesel fuel, the smoke up over where the harbor waits sick and black. Eddie presses a finger to his lips: don’t talk, kid, they don’t like when you talk. Richie follows, the parking lot abutting the cemetery buzzing, hive-busy and strange against quiet rows of the dead. So little space in this tangled mess of arteries and nerves, gotta bury our dead, gotta give the airport people a place to park, gotta refine the earth of its minerals and we gotta breathe too, somehow. Planes rise and land, a heart monitor, lungs opening, closing.

Eddie stops in front of a stone with a Celtic cross worked into it and even Richie can feel the alien humming here, how it’s different from the rest of the night;  Eddie’s backlit by an electric glow; steel framework rises from the ground across the narrow road, wires fused, the hiss and shriek of air breaks and Eddie’s made of all of it, the pulse, the smooth white office-park facades, the mottled gravestones, the parked cars, the wetwork of jets. Richie figures it’s how he walks so easy between worlds.

“Here,” Eddie says, kneeling down. Richie does too, wet earth against his jeans, grass smelling sweet as open places. Around them the pulse quickens like every goddamn plane is taking off at once, a heart-attack heart rate, an immense exhale and Eddie’s glow fucking brightens, intense as a spotlight, the air thick in Richie’s throat like it’s water, like it’s solid, like it’s fucking burning plasma, all states of matter at once and Richie feels like dying, like he’s dying in some goddamn wormhole filled with impossible light but there’s Eddie beside him, solid and the realest fucking thing in the world.

“That her?”

Eddie’s voice, calm through the flare, the heartbeat pressing on every edge of Richie’s knowing. Richie grabs on to Eddie–the realness of his shaking fingers scrabbling on Eddie’s leather jacket and for a second Richie doesn’t understand the question until he looks up and sees his sister standing in the center of all this breathing light.

“Yeah,” Richie says. Talking hurts here, like he’s spitting out hot coals. “Jenny.”

Eddie nods. Stands up. Richie stays low, empty and terrified now that Eddie’s out of the range of his fingers what if I get lost what if I get sucked in what if I don’t wake up what if what if but then Eddie’s back, holding Jenny’s hand and Jenny’s eyes are big–too big–in her hollow face, her saint’s smile curling bright as it did when she was a kid. She looks like old photos of their ancestors, black-and-white wraiths praying Ireland wouldn’t kill them too.

“You ready?” Eddie asks Jenny.

She nods. I knew it. I fucking knew she wanted to come home. Richie hasn’t seen her in eight months. He’d imagined her dead so many times it became a fucking catalog in his head, 1001 Ways To Die in Fucking North Jersey, but then he’d met Eddie and he’d started hoping again.

Eddie leads Jenny to Richie and the three of them huddle down together like kids making plans; Richie feels the wet earth again, the grass against his hands, the night hushing and humming at its usual cadence. A plane roars up into the air, headlights spread like moth wings against the never-really-dark sky and there’s Jenny, curled up, shuddering. Richie feels like he’s been hit by a fucking train, but there’s also a sweetness in his head that’s never been there before, a new bright chord of sound and light.

“Jenny.”  His throat still hurts like it’s been grated. “Jenny.”

She’s sick-looking but still her. “I’m sorry Richie,” she says, sounding as raw as he feels. “I’m sorry. I couldn’t…with Mom being sick…I had to…I’m so sorry.”

Eddie holds both his hands out. Jenny and Richie each grab one, he pulls them up. Connected like that Richie feels like they could channel the electromagnetic soul of this place, explode brighter and hotter than any nuclear bomb. He drops his hand, afraid, but Eddie turns, grins. “I don’t usually ask for a follow up,” he says, his eyes lit wild. “But I think the three of us should get together again. After you two have had some time to catch up. What about it?”

There’s a hundred things Richie needs to tell Jenny: Mom’s dead, Dad’s fallen down his dank vodka well once more, all the necessary doomsaying but for just this moment they can think about the future, about Eddie and the pulse throbbing around them.

Through them.

Together, still with cut mouths healing from the grating scrape of whatever world they’d come through, Jenny and Richie say “sounds good.”

Saints of the Raritan

AN: I wrote this piece a few months ago and I’ve been sitting on it ever since. I feel now that I’d rather see it as part of a larger work rather than on its own but I’d like to share it here as it stands. 

Content Warning: violence, death, self-harm, religious imagery

 

Saints of the Raritan

 

Frankie came home near 10:30, loud as a thunderstorm; Jimmy didn’t even look up from his phone when the back door slammed and heavy footsteps trod across the kitchen linoleum. As Frankie crossed the living room the air filled with a quick flare of gasoline fumes, strong enough for a minute to make Jimmy feel like choking but then the scent dissipated, leaving a dream-taste somewhere in the back of Jimmy’s throat.

“She’s asleep,” Jimmy said, still not looking up.

Frankie didn’t respond but when he took the stairs at a much lighter volume. Jimmy listened. Frankie’s bedroom door shut with a soft creak instead of staccato slam so at it must not have been too bad of a night for him.

A news alert popped up: FOUR DEAD IN THREE CAR PILE-UP ON DRISCOLL BRIDGE. Jimmy stared for a moment then sighed and turned his phone off, slipping it into his pocket. He stood as quiet as he dared and slunk into the kitchen, still smelling phantom wisps of gasoline; he grabbed a beer out of the fridge and cracked the top off with his keychain, waiting.

Right on time: a piercing scream erupted from upstairs.

Jimmy took a quick swill and put the bottle down, the cold condensation stinging the palms of his hands. He hurried upstairs and the screaming grew louder as he got closer, a balloon of sound pushing against the edges of the night until Jimmy thought the pressure might force a puncture somewhere.

Frankie’s bedroom door popped open and he slid out.

“Christina!” Jimmy’s voice came loud and clear, sounding way too much like his dad’s used to. He knocked on the purple-painted door at the end of the hallway but all he got in response was more screaming.

“Christina!” This time Frankie joined in, his rough sandpaper growl of a voice making the name sound almost threatening. Like a curse. Still more screaming, even louder now, and again Jimmy felt like the noise could push through, force the air to rend into some unholy opening. God, if Frankie sounded like a thunderstorm the screaming was a goddamn category five hurricane.

“Christina, we’re coming in,” Jimmy said. He turned the knob, pushed the door open.

Dark, thicker than normal–gasoline again, but more than that, more than fumes–a choking wreathe of invisible smoke, the acrid spit of burning rubber, a metallic scent that settled right in the pit of Jimmy’s gut and the fear of course–always a hush of fear that coiled inside of him, a wrought twisted thing digging rust into his spine. He was always afraid of her for the briefest blink of time, terrified of the dark and her right in the middle of it but then Frankie flipped on the light and as always, the fear dissolved leaving only a burning shame that it had existed in the first place.

In the bed: a teenage girl, black hair knotted and tangled with sweat, back arched, mouth open and screaming like an ambulance siren, thin fingers curled into cat’s-claws, digging into the pale skin of her distorted face. Jimmy moved forward slow and careful, gently grabbing her wrists, pulling her hands down and away.

“Wake up honey, come on,” Jimmy said. Even in the faint blue light from the hall he could see dark gouges in her cheeks, stains under her fingernails.

“Come on, it’s all right,” he said.

She convulsed beneath him, her scream cut off into a clotted-sounding cough.

“It’s just us,” Frankie said. “Just us.”

She stilled. A second later her eyelids flickered and a flush of red erupted against the broken skin of her face. She opened her eyes, pupils so wide the iris-ring of soft brown was swallowed whole. Frankie flicked on the light and in the yellow glow she looked ruined. Dead. Her pulse throbbed against the skin of her neck.

“It’s ok,” Jimmy said, sitting down on the bed and letting of her wrists. She dropped her hands down and Jimmy had to keep himself from wincing–he was always afraid she’d shatter right in front of him.

Christina took a deep, ragged breath. Then she shuddered.

“Four people died,” she said in a ragged voice, wrecked from screaming. She sounded like Frankie–of the three of them only Jimmy had inherited their father’s smooth Sinatra tenor; Frankie and Christina had voices like their mother, as if chain-smoking was a genetic trait.

Jimmy nodded, pulled his phone from his pocket and showed her the news update. She propped herself up to read it, her skin slick with blood and sweat, the blue light glowing stark against the scarred-up ridges of her cheekbones. She looked like a kid you’d see in a charity commercial: huge eyes in a hollow face, thin mouth, lips bit raw red and scabbed.

She handed Jimmy his phone back. “I knew it. Just like I saw. The angel…” she stopped, took another deep breath. Her eyes were full of tears now, and she wiped her face with the back of her hand. “Can you go, Jimmy? Please? I think…it’s gotta be tonight and I’m…” she shuddered. “I’m so tired.”

“Of course I can,” Jimmy said, standing up.

Frankie sunk down on the bed, taking Jimmy’s place. “What’s he need this time?” he asked, and when he spoke the gasoline-tasted sparked in the back of Jimmy’s throat again. It was why Christina knew better than to ever ask Frankie to go.

Christina sighed, closed her eyes. “Candles. Mom’s candles. From the closet in her bedroom, on the third shelf. On those silver trays.”

“Got it,” Jimmy said. He checked a quick glance Frankie’s way but Frankie’s face remained impassive. The gasoline scent grew stronger, filling up the space Christina’s scream had vacated. Jimmy thought about saying something but decided against it and he walked out of the bedroom, shoving his hands in his pocket to keep them from shaking.

*

The Battaglia boys knew all about miracles.

Fifteen years ago: Francis and James Battaglia. They looked just like they were supposed to: oil-slick hair and roman noses, angel-bowed lips, heartbreak eyes, the usual. Peak New Jersey in their tight white tanks and loose jeans, skin sun-smeared, grease already already their fingernails from weekends in their dad’s shop.

That was when the first miracle happened. The baby. Loretta Battaglia, forty-five years old and told by every doctor from Brooklyn to Philadelphia that she’d never carry another child bringing a big-eyed little girl into the world: a weak thin bird-like creature that barely had the strength to cry at first. And Frankie and Jimmy had known then, known something–not love, not yet, because they were fifteen and selfish little monsters but something, a kind of fierce and unexpected devotion because this little baby wasn’t just a baby she was a miracle and miracles had consequences that could ripple on out into infinity if what the priests said ended up being true.

The second miracle came six years later. The car accident. A drunk driver cutting across all four lanes of the Driscoll Bridge, pinning the Battaglia car against the guardrail–just a few inches of concrete and steel keeping it from falling into the filthy currents of the Raritan below. No one could live through a wreck like that. Loretta and Sal Battaglia certainly didn’t. But lo and behold, a six-year-old girl in the back seat, terrified but completely whole and unharmed, big prophet eyes staring up at the green exit sign over the smoldering ruins and screaming incoherently about angels.

Frankie was twenty-one; he got the shop. Jimmy dropped out of Rutgers as quick as the paperwork could go through to go help him. But it wasn’t just the shop, although neither of them ever said it out loud. Miracles were like cluster bombs; they didn’t explode once or twice but endlessly. You had to be there to dampen the fuse, chase away the divine, keep the unwilling vessel whole. Christina hadn’t asked for any of it. That was the goddamn point. She was a sixteen-year-old kid who liked bad hair bands from the 80s, a kid who loved cats and Impressionism and comic books. A kid who saw angels that tore her brain apart from the inside, asphalt-winged angels made of rust and bone.

*

They were done cleaning up by the time Jimmy made it to the bridge. Whatever traffic had clotted by the accident had managed to untangle itself and there weren’t many cars on the road. Good. The wreck was on the northbound side, not far from where the bridge ended and smoothed back into highway. Jimmy put on his hazards and pulled off onto the shoulder, sliding across the front seat so he could get out on the passenger side, away from the few cars that hurtled past–blurs of light and exhaust that streaked by like dirty comets.

He had the candles in the footwell and he took them out carefully; his mother’s devotional candles, gaudy high-colored images of holy men and women stuck on the plastic around the wax. Loretta had bought out whole stores; there were so many St. James and St. Francis candles Jimmy thought they’d last for a century but he knew better than to use those. This time he’d grabbed two St. Judes, a St. Michael, and a St. Anthony. He’d asked once if they’d meant anything–if the saints themselves were the important pieces or not–but Christina hadn’t known.

They were all made of yellow wax. Jimmy grabbed a lighter from the glove compartment and knelt down on the edge of the asphalt, the wet earth damp through his jeans. He arranged the candles in a tight cluster, lit them one by one and said a quick Our Father just for good measure. He didn’t know if it’d help but it sure as hell wouldn’t hurt. Then he stood up, looked at the exit sign hanging overhead, refracting headlights as cars hushed by. He stared, his gut knotted up in a rush of rage and regret and doubt…they had Christina trapped in their impossible fists, didn’t they. Invisible beasts. Not for a moment had he doubted her visions but for the first time he felt anger like bile rise up the back of his throat because why. Why the goddamn hell did those monsters have to nest in his sister’s brain, why her, why some poor little kid who couldn’t even go to school anymore–why not him?

“Show me,” Jimmy said in his crooner’s voice. “Come on you bastards, let me see you. I’ll bring your candles, I’ll say your prayers. Leave her out of it, huh? Show me.

Nothing. Nothing at all. Just the traffic hush and the candles sputtering in the barest whisper of a warm breeze.

*

Frankie was maybe cursed. Jimmy hadn’t ever really thought about it much because of Christina’s miracles and because Frankie wasn’t the kind of guy to ever be open about what went on inside his head. Frankie had come first, after all, the first Battaglia (the first failure Jimmy’d thought once, drunk off his ass at a party at Rutgers, two girls sitting on either side him. Frankie wasn’t a girl and I wasn’t a girl so we were the failures that made Christina and the girl next to him had asked if he was okay. Jimmy hadn’t really known) and there had to have been some magic there, some worked-up hope and then bitter disappointment.

When he got home from lighting the candles Frankie was still there; that surprised Jimmy. Frankie was so rarely home; when he wasn’t working he was driving and then maybe he’d stop in to sleep or eat or if Christina needed him or something but Frankie wasn’t Frankie unless he was behind the wheel. In the dark of the living room Frankie looked monstrous for a moment, standing against the paneled wall, next to a paint-by-number Jesus one of them had done as kids. Jimmy paused in the doorway, the whole room thick with the scent of gasoline and waited.

“She went back to sleep,” Frankie said in a rough whisper.

“Good,” Jimmy said, feeling like there was more–something indefinable waiting in the dark between them, a spark lit in the fumes. Jimmy didn’t know how to talk to Frankie; he never had but now, for the first time, it seemed to matter. And he didn’t know why.

Frankie cracked his bruised-up knuckles.

“Next time I’ll do it,” he said, his words like cut glass. Jimmy imagined they hurt Frankie, when he forced them out.

“Sure,” Jimmy said. He didn’t believe him but that seemed unimportant.

Frankie paused, shoved his hands into his pockets. “I gotta go out again,” he said.

Jimmy cocked his head. Frankie rarely announced his coming and going.

“Okay,” Jimmy said. What else–? Because there had to be something else. The air was so thick with Frankie’s highway ghosts that Jimmy felt his own breath clot at the back of throat, rough and waiting.

Frankie nodded once and then walked across the living room, past Jimmy and out into the dark.

*

Christina got up early the next morning. She looked awful; her skin stretched wan and taut over the bones of her face, scabs crusted where she’d dug her nails in last night. But she smiled at Jimmy as she walked into the kitchen and she poured herself a cup of coffee.

“Stunt your growth,” Jimmy said, looking up from the invoices he’d been reading. He found running the shop easier than maybe he’d imagined it would be; Frankie and the crew did most of the actual car-work; Jimmy liked numbers, liked organizing this small space of a strange world. Their father had been the same way; quiet in chaos, looking down charts and lists like they were poems or fairy tales.

“I don’t think I’m gonna grow anymore,” she said, quirking up the corners of her mouth. “Thanks for last night.”

Jimmy lifted his own cup in salute. “Anytime, kiddo.”

“Frankie still out?”

“Yeah. You know him.”

“I guess,” Christina said. She chewed at one of her fingernails. “I dunno. I feel like you’re the only one I really know. Or ever will.”

“Don’t say that,” Jimmy said, frowning.

“You’re like dad was,” she said in a small voice. “You’re like…I dunno. A rock. A bridge. Something like that.”

Jimmy sighed. “Nah, I’m just me. You’re just you. Frankie’s just Frankie.” He didn’t have the right words to explain what he meant. “We’re just…us, right?”

Christina shrugged. Drank her coffee and watched Jimmy work. When she finished she glanced out of the window over the sink. “Jimmy can you take me to see Mom and Dad? If you’re not too busy?”

“Yeah,” Jimmy said, putting the papers back in their manila folder. “Yeah of course. Now?”

Christina nodded. “We won’t tell Frankie, he doesn’t like us going…being around all those dead people, right?”

“I dunno,” he said. “It’s hard…to know what he likes.”

“He likes us. I guess that’s all that matters, huh?”

Jimmy smiled at his little sister. “Guess so.”

*

They never made it to the graveyard.

Their parents were at Saint Mary’s, in South Amboy–not too far from Parlin–but halfway there Christina went into another fit, her eyes wide and frosted-over white, her fingers digging into her skin. Jimmy’d swung to the side of the road, his heart knocking against his ribs, his breath caught in his throat as he grabbed her wrists and pulled her hands away from her face. Somewhere–somewhere close–sirens came screeching to life, an all-too-human wailing in time with Christina. Were there candles in the car? Jimmy didn’t know, could they turn around and go back? He didn’t even know where they had to go, where the accident was, where the angels were waiting.

“Christina!” Jimmy yelled, the traffic hushing around them. “Come on talk to me, tell me, tell me what…what to do!” Blood poured down her wrecked face like those crying statues of Mary and Jimmy felt within him a rage some complete he didn’t know how to swallow it down. Why her? Why the fuck is this happening to her? And for a moment his vision flared–like the white of the sun at its hottest, a wreathe of light and shadows against it, immense twisted shadows unlike anything Jimmy knew how to describe–

“Route 9.” Christina’s ragged, broken voice cut through Jimmy’s vision. “Parkway Overpass on Route 9.” She took a deep, shaky breath.

“Do we need candles?” Jimmy asked, his own voice somehow solid and steady.

“No,” Christina said, trying to wipe the blood off her cheeks. “No. I’ll be enough.”

Oh honey no you won’t Jimmy thought, his eyes burning now, his throat tight and caught around a thousand things he wanted to say. You won’t be enough for them. They’ll swallow you whole.

*

Jimmy pulled into the parking lot of a transmission place within sight of the overpass. Beyond the white fence, the first green of the season sprung to wild life in the tangled mess of forsythia bushes and low scrubby maple trees. Jimmy could see the accident: two SUVs; one had tried to change lanes without looking and thrown both onto the shoulder. Traffic was knotted to a surly standstill while cops and EMTs milled around. Christina stood against the guardrail, as close as she dared. They didn’t need the cops coming in and interrupting. Jimmy leaned against the hood of his car, waiting.

She knelt down on the glass-strewn asphalt, her head bowed. The EMTs were cutting into one of the SUVs, the one that’d been hit and the flashing emergency lights reflected in the shiny twisted metal of the wreck. Someone’s dead. Someone’s dead in there. They might not even know it yet. Christina meanwhile had reached into her pocket, pulled out a rosary that’d been their mothers. Her lips moved against it as she prayed, her voice drowned out by the traffic, the shouts.

Where are you? Jimmy glared up to where the Parkway forded Route 9, traffic backed up from the exits. Where are you goddamn monsters? He pushed his hair back, rubbed his hand over his face and swallowed hard, trying to clear his throat. His phone rang and he pulled it out. Frankie.

“You there?” Frankie’s voice was harsh against the receiver.

“Yeah, we’re here,” Jimmy said.

“She okay?”

“Not done yet,” Jimmy said.

“We gotta do something.” Jimmy could hear traffic noises in the background and wondered where Frankie was calling from. “We can’t…look. I’m…I’m gonna call someone. Father Diaz. Remember him?”

“Yeah,” Jimmy said, surprised. “Yeah, ‘course I do.”
“I’m gonna call him,” Frankie said and he hung up just as Christina collapsed onto the asphalt. Jimmy hurried over to her, picked her up as gentle as he knew how and laid her down across the backseat. They weren’t moving for a while, not until the traffic let up and Jimmy imagined the angels waiting, infused by whatever it was they wanted from Christina, hovering over the accident like a pair of fucking vultures. Her turned, look back at Christina. She was curled up into herself, so small and pale, shivering and muttering a little.

It’ll kill her Jimmy knew. It’ll fucking kill her.

Like it killed Mom and Dad. To make her…into this.

He put his head down on the steering wheel, warm from the heat of his hands. He didn’t know he’d been crying until Christina woke up and put a small, shaking hand on his shoulders and then he made himself stop.

*

Jimmy woke up the next morning with sun streaming in through the half-closed blinds and a dull throb pushing against his right eye. Frankie was there too, standing in the corner of Jimmy’s bedroom, staring at the corner book shelf.

“What the–?” Jimmy demanded, startled. “What’s wrong?”

“Nothing,” Frankie said. “It’s time to go.”

“What?” Jimmy asked, sitting up. His muscles felt raw, worked-over, like he’d been beaten. He rubbed a hand over his face, trying to clear his vision but when he opened his eyes again the morning was still blurred at the edges. Frankie looked rough–dark bruises blooming across his cheeks, a deep cut just starting to heal on his jaw.

“I asked Mrs. Janowski to keep an ear out. Come on.”

“Frank what the hell are you talking about?”

Frankie looked over at Jimmy. “The appointment, remember? I asked you to come with me. I can’t say it right, on my own.” He jammed his hands in his pockets, dropped his eyes to the scuffed-up hardwood floor.

“Appointment?”

“With Father Diaz.”

Jimmy pinched the bridge of his nose. “Oh yeah, right. Yeah. Sorry. Ok. I’ll be ready in a few, ok? Did you tell Christina?”

“Yeah, she’s ok. She’s painting.”

Jimmy nodded. “I could go you alone know. You don’t have to.”

Frankie glared at him. “I made the goddamn appointment.” His voice was rougher than usual, like all the cords in his throat had near rusted through; it’d been maybe a week since Jimmy had seen his brother in sunlight and he’d forgotten how angry and delicate Frankie could look. Frankie was like Christina in that–slim and half-wrecked, always on the edge of shattering. But of course, Frankie wasn’t any miracle so Jimmy didn’t worry about him as much. Whatever magic Frankie made when he was out alone, whatever demons he raised when he drove, whatever clung to him in ragged tatters, ghost-fumes of gasoline was a mystery to Jimmy.

At least it didn’t have anything to do with angels.

*

 Jimmy drove the quick distance between their house in Parlin and the Church of St. James in South Amboy. They’d gone with their parents as kids but they hadn’t kept up much with it after the accident; still, Frankie had seen it as the best option. Christina’s school–back when she had gone to school–was at St. Stanislaus’ in Sayreville but Jimmy and Frankie knew better than to ever go to back there for help. After what they’d done to Christina, Jimmy would rather burn that place to the goddamn ground.

Father Martin Diaz met them out front. He looked almost the same as Jimmy remembered him–big, broad-shouldered guy who seemed much more like a boxer than a priest. His hair was greying a bit but his broad face still looked young and bright, somehow glowing even above the neat black of his vestments. He reached out, shook Frankie’s hand with both of his and then did the same to Jimmy.

“Please, come.” He led them inside.

They’d had the funerals here of course. Jimmy didn’t want to think about that. Instead he took in the waxy-white Easter lilies, the faded painted figures of Mary and Jesus stationed in the nave, the blue and yellow light filtered in through the stained glass windows. Father Diaz motioned for the brothers to follow him back into a little office where he’d pulled out two folding chairs from the basement. Jimmy sat but Frankie remained standing, his hands in his pockets, looking pale and uncomfortable.

“I’m glad to see you two again,” Father Diaz said. “I’ve thought of you often. And your sister. Your parents were good friends, very good. Tell me. How is she?”

Jimmy didn’t have to ask who he meant, but Frankie spoke before Jimmy could.

“She’s why we’re here,” he said in a gutted whisper. “We need help. We need to help her.”

Jimmy looked over at Frankie, wondering about the urgency in his voice.

Father Diaz frowned. “What is wrong?”

“You know,” Frankie said, staring down at the floor, scuffing his shoe against the faded linoleum. “You talked about it with our mother. You know, right?”

Father Diaz didn’t respond, but his frown deepened.

Frankie closed his eyes, shook his head. “Jimmy,” he said, barely audible. A plea.

“The angels,” Jimmy said, looking at the priest.

“Your mother mentioned,” Father Diaz said, steepling his hands and meeting Jimmy’s eyes with a direct, unblinking stare. “She didn’t know. Christina was young then. Six or so. Loretta wondered if, perhaps, she should see a doctor–she worried about brain tumors, psychological problems and I told her of course. Of course she should seek medical answers, but if none were present then–” he stopped, took a breath. “Then we must think about what to do. What I might be able to do. Before she died, Loretta told me–they’d gone everywhere they could. All sorts of specialists. I don’t know if you remember–”

“We…we knew she went to doctors. But not why,” Jimmy said, the same sick rise of guilt blooming in his gut as he remembered the self-absorption of being young–how he and Frankie had been able to turn away from whatever it was their parents had seen in Christina.

Father Diaz nodded. “Well she said that…that there was nothing wrong with her at all, so perhaps…there was something to what she saw. What she sees?” He waited and Jimmy nodded once, in confirmation. “Ah. So it’s continued.”

“It’s gotten worse,” Frankie said, raw now. Angry. “She can’t go to school anymore. She can barely eat. Sleep. Nothing. She…she rips herself to shreds. We gotta…do something about it but–” he stopped, pushed his thin hand through his hair and stared down at the floor again. “She can’t carry it all alone. It’ll kill her.”

And Jimmy knew what Frankie really wanted to say. What he wanted to ask. Why he’d made this appointment in the first place.

“We need to see them too,” Jimmy said, staring at the priest.

Father Diaz met Jimmy’s eyes and nodded. “Yes. Of course you do.”

*

Late afternoon settled uneasy, with a ridge of clouds coming up in the west and a muttering wind that pushed through the budding tree-limbs, hinting the unsteady atmosphere was fight-ready. Jimmy and Frankie sat on the back deck, watching Christina paint. She’d started six years ago, trying desperately to get everything in her head out somewhere so she could sleep again. It hadn’t helped but she still seemed to take comfort in it, although her paintings were anything but gentle. She painted the angels as best she could–horrifying things, Jimmy thought, twisted and broken, like a car wreck wrapped around a semi-human form but huge and and hulking and entirely inhuman. Jimmy watched the latest one take shape, a thing of rust and asphalt and darkness cupping a candle in its steel-tipped claws. The eyes had a sick dim glow like half-dead headlights, cracked and fogged.

“So how’d the meeting go?” Christina asked, trying to sound casual.

“We made a decision,” Frankie said, leaning back on an old rusted deck chair. “Jimmy and me.”

“And?”

“And we want to see them too.”

Christina put down her brush. “No.”

Frankie looked at Jimmy.

“Yeah,” Jimmy said. He felt the old picnic table creak beneath his weight as he shifted forward. “Yeah, you can’t do it alone. So Frankie and me, we want to help. We want to spread it out, you know? So it’s not just you.”

“You guys have jobs. You have Dad’s shop. You…you guys shouldn’t have to have…this.” Her voice was hiss, a sharp whisper. She jabbed her finger at her painting, her big sick eyes dark now against her paper-white skin. The red trenches her fingernails had dug in her face stood even starker as she paled.

“Neither should you,” Jimmy said. “You didn’t ask for Mom to pray you into existence.” His bitterness surprised him, the words tasting like bile.

Christina blinked. “That’s not…”

“That’s not what? What happened? ‘Course it is. Father Diaz knows. Ma wanted a girl and she reached out for whatever…whatever might wanna listen and then she had you. That’s not your fault. None of this is. So let us help ok? Let us see them too.”

The wind picked up, pushing damp dead leaves across the dead grass. Spring might’ve been coming but it wasn’t there yet.

“I don’t even know if you can,” Christina said. She looked at her painting, her eyes fever-bright. “I don’t know.”

“There’s gotta be a way. Father Diaz said he’d help.”

“No,” Christina said, still staring at the dim-headlight glare of the nightmare she’d worked on canvas. “No, it’s not…it’s not his god.” She took a ragged breath. “I don’t know if it’s god at all. I don’t want you two to get hurt. You’re all I have.”

“That goes both ways,” Frankie said, his jaw locked tense and tight, his hands curled into white-knuckled fists around the rusted chair-arms. “It’s gonna tear you apart if you don’t let us in.”

Between them passed a quick current Jimmy could only intuit, rather than feel. He knew the air around Frankie and Christina was crackling with whatever magic made them and his only thought ran: please let it leave me enough of myself to keep them safe.

“Okay,” Christina said, looking down at the water-stained deck. “Okay. Frankie. Tonight. Drive us three to the river. I’ll…I’ll try.”

*

Christina’s angels seemed willing to keep Frankie alive. Jimmy hadn’t driven with his brother in years because Jimmy knew no one wants to bring along company when they pray. But Frankie hadn’t changed much, whipping down 513 through a rain-choked midnight, his eyes narrowed and furious, speeding through red lights and yet never did Jimmy feel like Frankie might lose control. Frankie spent his rage on gasoline, burning it up inside of him as he pushed his red Chevy through countless near-misses. Jimmy sat up front beside Frankie, watching his brother’s face, the wrecked topography of it looking like a starved saint’s. Frankie hadn’t said much at all since the afternoon. He’d gone out for a while and come back bleeding, his knuckles swollen, bloodied, maybe broken–Jimmy knew better than to suggest Frankie getting them looked at.

They both look like Mom Jimmy realized, catching Christina’s eyes in the rearview. They both look like she asked god for them. Any god.

And Jimmy?

He wondered for a moment what his father thought about the miracles. Sal Battaglia had never said much one way or the other but he’d watched, hadn’t he? And Jimmy could make his voice as calm and sweet as his dad’s had been.

Frankie pulled into the Middlesex County Fire Academy’s parking lot. They’d have to walk the rest of the way, through the dark wet earth toward the river. It was poison country here, the runoff of factory waste and thick smoke fumes settling into the currents; they didn’t speak as they hurried across the access roads, ducking from the wide sweeping lights of trucks as they hissed and screeched their way from the steel yard and oil holdings back toward the highway. Jutted tangles of rusted metal clawed free of the mud and Jimmy grabbed Christina’s hand to keep her from tripping. A sick dread spiked through his gut, feeling how close her bones were to the skin but she held on tight to him, warm against his own work-rough palm. Frankie pushed ahead, the scent of gasoline clinging to him like a thick shroud and Jimmy though there was just the barest hint of a glow to him, a yellow luminescence that looked like distant headlights tearing through a low heavy fog.

They tripped over the train tracks and there the Raritan waited.

“Now what?” Jimmy asked. Christina was drenched, her black hair streaming down her back and Jimmy took off his Rutgers sweatshirt and gave it to her. She held it close but didn’t put it on.

“You have to go in the river,” Christina said, her teeth chattering. “You have to submerge yourselves. You have to die and then…come back.” She wiped her face and her voice hitched. “Please don’t die. Please.”

“We won’t,” Frankie said, and he reached out, grabbed Jimmy’s hand in his. There was a throbbing beneath Frankie’s rough skin, a pulse that drowned out his brother’s heartbeat and Jimmy thought oh they’re both magic, just like Mom was and I gotta be like them to save them. I gotta become them so I can keep them safe. Frankie’s grip was tight, almost painful, but Jimmy didn’t flinch.

“Come on,” Jimmy said.

They waded through the thick mud, the marshy limbo between land and river and the water wasn’t nearly as cold as it should’ve been. Jimmy could taste the thick brackish waste as he and Frankie made it waist-deep into the current, the poison, the metallic refuse, the thin coppery spike of blood at the back of his throat. Frankie’s hand was still tight around Jimmy’s and he paused, looking over at him.

“You gotta burn it off,” Frankie said in a low voice, barely audible above the river and the rain. “You promise? Come with me.”

“I promise,” Jimmy said. He hadn’t realized until his voice caught thick that he was crying.

Frankie nodded once and smiled. He let go of Jimmy and dived under the water. Taking a deep breath, filling his lungs with the dirty wet night air, Jimmy dove too, following his brother beneath the water.

*

Frankie and Jimmy Battaglia submerge in the river
and they don’t die, they breathe in the brackish
streams until their lungs are more water than tissue,
all the screaming impulse of blood burned away in
cold and poison, and this, then, is where they should
die but the river doesn’t allow it; the river knows
only how to survive-

they emerge coated in the river’s skein, great glowing
immensities sparking the air between their fingertips,
brave brothers, o, and their sister in the sick poisoned green

her big prophet eyes wide and unblinking to the asphalt angels,
to the factory fumes and the rattling comfortable
traffic hum, their miracle sister in the accident glow

watching above the bridge-span and praying

let them see, let them see, let them see the river the road that doesn’t know dying let them know the awful magic Mother worked to keep them safe to bind them and their deadly strength that I became their patron saint, seeing the angels so my brothers would always come home make them holy now in your dirty river-mouth make them holy and let them see, let them see, let them see.

*

The air was cool and slick as metal on Jimmy’s tongue. He stood dripping wet, Frankie’s hand in his again, staring up at Christina as she stood by the railroad tracks, her thin body glowing white and her eyes as bright as headlights.

Frankie turned to Jimmy.

“Did it work?”

“I dunno,” Jimmy said.  “Let’s go see.”