Newest short story “How Many Centuries” is published!

At long last, “The House of Zolo’s Journal of Speculative Literature Volume 3” is here! I want every single one of you to download it and tell Amazon how much you love my 6000 word short story, “How Many Centuries”. 

If we get enough downloads, we’ll be ranked number one in the proto-feminist quasi-deconstructionist polypostmodernist anglo-Siberian science diction genre.

The Picklesauce Fantasy

There was no reason why the book should have been there, carefully wedged between the russet potatoes and yams, piles of tubers so dusty they looked like they had been lying there for a century. The book itself was a little younger, published in the early seventies by an independent publisher, Miller Brown Press. I paused my shopping cart, locked the wheels, and thumbed through the pages of the book. “Love and Faithfulness During a Time of Great Isolation,” the title read. Curious. Fortuitous. Auspicious? Whatever was the right word to describe an eerie coincidence. In my mind’s eye, I saw someone, maybe a disgruntled store clerk or shopping associate, slipping in and leaving the book for me to find.

My mother and father would have had completely different interpretations of this. My mother, for one, was always quick to believe in the power of a sign or a miracle. Even a penny on the sidewalk, if it had a certain year on its face, could be proof of some divine intervention. Once, when I was a little girl with pigtails, we were driving to our grandmother’s house during Thanksgiving break, and my mother stopped at a gas station for a mid-drive “rest and feast”. She loved that phrase, forever committed to the idea that if you said it with the right intonation, it would rhyme. “Rest” was using the bathroom, and “feast” was grabbing a weirdly flavored 75-cent snack from a shelf that hadn’t been restocked the since World War One had been called The Great War. That was my favorite things about gas stations on Thanksgiving road trips, those random discontinued snacks that seem like practical jokes on the American Consumer. Things like mustard flavored potato chips, or bags of pickles mushed like applesauce, the crazy, 9AM-gin-fueled fantasy of some divorced marketing whiz trying to add excitement to his achingly dull life. “You know how kids like applesauce? I’ll bet two month’s visitation rights that they love mashed up pickles you could eat with a spoon!” And of course, some secretary (whose only qualification was a high tolerance for harassment) clacking away at a typewriter so fast that her polished fake nails were splintering and shooting away from her keyboard.

It was at that gas station, with the Picklesauce (it’s nothing more than relish, right? Mashed pickles that you have to slurp with a spoon?) that our car broke down that one Thanksgiving. There we were, stranded a hundred miles from Nowhere and more than two hundred miles from Somewhere, when the Pakistani man who owned the gas station called out to his redneck buddy in the back garage to come lend us a hand. Neither the Pakistani guy nor the redneck spoke the other’s language, which gave the entire situation a chaotically wholesome feel, a multicultural Odd Couple, in which two middle-aged men in a truck stop gas station overcome their differences to price gouge exhausted families with mustard flavored potato chips. Fortunately, they gave us a decent rate on our car repairs, which amounted to nothing more than a replacement tire. My mother loved to tell the story, it was the quintessential example of fate and destiny converging. “I mean, what are the odds that our car would break down at the exact place we needed to be to get it fixed?”

On the other hand was my father, who thought miracles were only in movies, and signs existed only on street corners. My father had once made the mistake of replying to Mom’s story with a mathematical formula and statistics about cars breaking down. Math always ruins the mystery of miracles.

Was there any miracle or mystery to this flimsy book? I turned the book over, shifting myself to avoid getting clipped by the carts of other shoppers. “Love and Faithfulness During a Time of Great Isolation,” published 1973. Nowhere on the book did it specify what the great isolation was, and I couldn’t figure out if there was any particular historical context. Whoever had published this didn’t specify, just assuming that everyone that year would be familiar with whatever war or famine or sickness was going on around them. They say that one of the biggest problems historians have is that some events are so famous and so taken for granted that no one even bothers to write them down. If a volcano explodes next to your house, everyone assumes that historians will know about it, because it was obvious and affected your entire village, and even the sheepherder’s weird son— who once got his skull kicked in by a particularly angsty sheep, and can only make sounds when he’s hungry or when the sheep are running way— if even he remembers the volcano that burned the entire village, then of course none of us need to write it down, because we’ll always remember it. And whoever had printed this book was of a similar opinion. Nothing, in the foreword or back cover, gave the reader any clue of what was happening. I suppose I could just search Google: “What bad thing happened in the year 1973 that no one wrote down?” Back in a time of national innocence, of course, when bad events were so rare that each one was the subject of discussion for a whole year.

Someone behind me was politely tapping their shopping cart, trying to hint without causing a scene that I should stop reading and start gathering potatoes. I unlocked my shopping cart and rolled it down the aisle, hoping I wasn’t running over any small children as I flipped through the book. Page 57: “Many people have taken up casual romantic liaisons as a way to fill the lonely void. If this is you, ask yourself why you are so focused on alleviating the symptom of your loneliness instead of the root case?” Ok, so it was one of those books. Some self-help thing. Take a problem common to everyone, but make it feel so specific that the reader is convinced it was addressed exactly to him. My mother would have swallowed those sorts of books up, with her signs and symbols and cosmic coincidence. My dad would have been less enthused. For him, coincidence was not so much divine mysticism as mathematical inevitability. Of course now and then you’re going to see a penny on the street that has the same year that your childhood cat died. Of course now and then your car will break down, and the only person able to help is a gas station owner with a whole garage equipped for cars that break down. And of course, people who are lonely enough to buy a book on loneliness will feel that the book was written specifically to them.

Then I noticed it. Something not quite so miraculous as to mean anything to my mother, but not so common as to be dismissed by my father. On page 93, random letters had been filled in with pencil. (d…b…g…) Never two letters in a row, and the shaded letters seemed to be chosen randomly. I flipped through the rest of the book, absentmindedly pulling my shopping cart out of the way again, as some barrel chested and white-lichen-mustached man pushed past me. In the entire book, about a dozen pages contained filled in letters, like some child had used it to practice for an SAT exam. I glanced back up the aisle at the dirty mound of potatoes, wondering who left this there. I imagined some figure with an ominous black hat and a monocle or fake mustache, looking with increasing frustration for a book with secret code that had been picked up by a casual shopper. If this book had been hidden by someone, were they still in the store? If it was meant to be picked up by someone else, were they already here?

I was in the middle of something. I was in someone’s way. Not exhausted, exasperated shoppers, but agents and spies, people trying to communicate without anyone knowing, only to be interrupted by a curious shopper who wanted to try to make that candied yam and raisin recipe she had seen in the recent Buzzfeed article. This book had been purposely hidden between the yams and russet potatoes, dusty and piled up, with their wrinkled skins and pockmarks winking and laughing at me.

I had a few options. I could race home and try to decipher the clues. I’d solved medium-hard Sudoku puzzles and those only took about forty minutes, so maybe I could try my hand at the code in this book. Or I could put it back, and casually wait to see who picked it up. Or…

There was a pencil stub lying on the floor. My mother would have deemed it divine instruction, a clear prompt from the Universe, or God, or G.O.D., the Giza Ocular Dilation floating above the pyramid on the back of every $1 bill. My father would have rationally pointed to a kiosk with rolls of plastic shopping bags and a cup of carefully sharpened pencils for shopping lists. Or writing encrypted messages.

I took a fresh pencil from the kiosk, leaving the dirty pencil on the ground for the maintenance team. I spent a minute on each of the already marked pages of the book, filling in an extra letter or two on each line. Then I went to a virgin page, 73, and filled in thirty random letters (b…d…q…p…) with the quickly dulling pencil stub. I returned to the crevice between the yams and russet potatoes, and slipped the book inside, somewhat embarrassed by how excited I was. Was my life really so isolated that I got a high out of sabotaging a secret message between spies that I would never meet, that might not even exist outside of my overactive imagination? Was this who I had become? Someone who thinks it’s entertaining to play hypothetical pranks on fictional intelligence operatives? Or maybe I secretly wished to be caught, wanted to be a dangerous suspect, wanted to be waterboarded and beaten with crowbars until I broke down and confessed that I ruined their elementary note-passing routine not because I had blown their cover, but for the mere chaotic fun of it. Or maybe I hoped that there was a security camera above me, and that the person in charge of making sure that no one shoplifted potatoes would be compelled to watch my whole ten-minute drama, equally confused by why I had removed a book from the potatoes as by why I had put it back after scribbling in it.

“You’ll never believe this, dear,” the hypothetical security camera observer would say later tonight, walking into his house and taking off his suit and tie, because for some reason it’s the 1950’s. “I think I saw an American agent sabotage communication between two Russian operatives!”

“No, darling, you don’t say?” his wife, who is also his secretary, would reply, simultaneously pouring him a martini while transcribing the whole conversation on her typewriter. (Together they are writing a self-help book for people so lonely that they invent fantasies in which they thwart international espionage)

“She was standing by the potatoes at the store. No one else would have seen it; she must have been specially trained! She fished out some book the Russians were using to pass notes, changed the content of one of the messages, and saved our country from an impending plot by the Communists!” The store-clerk/self-help-guru would take his martini from his adoring wife/secretary, and will propose a toast to russet potatoes, mustard potato chips, and the American way.

My mouth was somehow both dry and slimy, as if I had just eaten an entire bowl of salty, vinegary Picklesauce. I was so on edge from the mission I had accomplished that I forgot to buy any groceries, and left my shopping cart where it stood, rushing out of the store and resolving to keep a pathetically sharp eye on the news for any stories about international spy missions being foiled.

Murder on the Uber Express: A Millennial Whodunnit

Of all the adventures in which I have had the white privilege of observing my good friend Sherlock Rents apply his liberal arts degree, the affair of the Uber Express oft springs to mind.

Mr. Rents and I were venturing to the cinema, a rather novel curiosity where a movie is streamed in a room full of strangers. I myself was averse to the idea, for, as it had been explained to me, the cinema did not let you pause the movie while your Doordash arrived.

But even though I was uncomfortable with the concept of watching a movie both in public and in pants, Mr. Rents convinced me. I suppose his therapist had done a more satisfactory job teaching him to set boundaries than mine. So we left our co-op at 110 Glutenfreebaker St, and hailed an Uber.

“I daresay,” Mr. Rents said, puffing mysteriously on a Juul he had recently confiscated from a minor, who was also his nephew.

“You daresay what?” I asked.

Mr. Rents’ voice-to-text interfaced dinged, and he shot me a wearied look.

“My bad,” I apologized, but it was too late. In his haste, Mr. Rents had accidentally tweeted “I daresay you deer say what” to the entire world.

I had just begun to write a blog about Student Loan Forgiveness, when a shadowy vehicle pulled up, its non-Prius exhaust pipe gently #me-too-ing the ice caps. Mr. Rents claimed the front passenger seat, which his therapist would have been proud of, and mine not so much.

“To the cinema!” Mr. Rents declared with the gusto of a tear-down-the-system Occupy Wall Street protester. (An older and rather gentlemanly reference, if you ask me)

As we drove away, we passed a boomer telling a homeless puppy to get a job.

Suddenly our Uber slowed without crashing, like the economy under a poorly set interest rate.

“What’s this?” Mr. Rents asked. Our driver didn’t respond; his AirPods were cancelling outside noise, much like his association with overpriced Apple products would one day cancel him.

“This is no mere Uber, this is an Uber Express!” Mr. Rents deduced quickly, after carefully examining the words ‘Uber Express’ on his smart phone.

A young woman climbed onboard. She was quite skilled at watching makeup tutorials. She wore just enough eyeliner to be empowering, but not so much as to harm the environment. She snacked on low-calorie frozen yogurt, and wore a lower-cut shirt.

“Damsel in distress?” Mr. Rents’ text made my phone buzz like the most expensive toothbrush I will ever own.

“Distress, fo sho. Or idk maybe the invisible pressure of being a confident yet acceptably feminine woman in a male-dominated Uber.” My message appeared green, because Mr. Rents was of Samsung, and I, Apple. Yet somehow we overcome our differences, in a way that would make Nelson Mandela effectively reblog us. 

Mr. Rents received my message, and his phone dinged loudly, because he never silenced it, because his mother had given him one too many vaccines as an infant.

As we drove, the girl pulled out a reusable coffee mug with one sticker that said ‘Co-Exist,’ underneath a vertical sticker that said ‘End Wars.’ The end result seemed to read

The Uber stopped again, and the plot thickened like a protein shake with a skin routine.

This next passenger was a man in a red ball cap with ostensibly xenophobic white lettering. He had a tattoo on his calf which read either ‘Pro-Life’ or ‘Private Prison 4 Lyfe’, or possibly both.

The girl with the coffee mug gasped.

Mr. Rents’ ears perked up, and he immediately sent me some savage memes. I put him on Do Not Disturb, and the therapist on my shoulder breathed a sigh of boundary-setting relief.

“Would you play some music?” Mr. Rents asked.

The Uber driver reached forward and play his own Spotify mixtape. As he did, the light of his phone illuminated a tattoo of a seemingly unnecessary semi-colon; it was on his wrist.

“Clue number five,” Mr. Rents messaged a group chat which he had just added me to. I left the group chat.

In that moment, our Uber driver announced to us that they were gender-fluid, but not in a way that meaningfully developed their character or furthered the storyline. Then the man in the red hat accused the driver of ruining his favorite restaurant franchise, Cracka Barrel.

The Uber stopped once more, and the final passenger joined. He was a racially ambiguous fellow with earring studs shaped like the Bitcoin logo.

Mr. Rents messaged me on Slack, even though I had muted him twice now. But his Slack was meaningful, prompting me to look at the destination on the driver’s GPS.

We were all going to the same cinema.

“Curious indeed,” muttered Mr. Rents into his Instagram story. “The game is afoot. The foot is an outdated and nationalist unit of measurement.”

As we passed the seventh consecutive Tapas bar, the man in the red hat suddenly groaned, and slumped forward.

“Is there a doctor in the house?” Mr. Rents gasped, feeling the man’s pulse after asking for consent.

“It wouldn’t matter, my startup doesn’t offer health insurance,” the man with the Bitcoin earrings lamented.

“Just as I surmised. This man’s chakras have been misaligned!” Mr. Rents deduced. He activated the flashlight on his phone, and in the bright glow we saw that the man’s skull was severely bleeding from a national epidemic of gun violence.

The girl with the coffee mug screamed, and sent several Tumblr posts to her followers.

“Murder most foul. But not as foul as the unregulated marketing of vape cartridges to minors,” Mr. Rents said between puffs of his nephew’s Juul. “Now, everyone must submit their alibis to my Doodle poll.”

No one answered him.

“Very well,” Mr. Rents said. “I will solve this the hard way. It couldn’t have been the Uber driver, because both his hands were on the steering wheel at the time of the murder.”

The Uber driver nodded along to the sick beat of his AirPods.

“We can rule out our Bitcoin-earringed friend, because I’d like to have just one case where I’m not accused of racial profiling,” Mr. Rents said.

The man with Bitcoin earrings nodded with appreciation, and became the first person of color to follow Mr. Rents on SnapChat.

Mr. Rents looked at me. “Watson couldn’t have done it, because murder requires a great deal of focus, and I know for a fact that his health insurance doesn’t cover Adderall. And the girl with the coffee mug is innocent because I recognize her as state-wide famous influencer marry_kate_68, who never commits murder unless a brand pays her to tag them in the obituary.”

“Who could the murderer possibly be?” I asked with trepidation. “And how did the gun go off without any of us hearing the shot?”

Mr. Rents puffed kombucha-scented Juul vapor with gravitas. “The second question is the easier of the two,” he said, with a complete mastery of comparative adjectives. “None of our favorite news sources have yet reported on the gunshot, so of course we were unaware of it. As to the first question, we must ask ourselves: what rationally minded individual would have the market incentive to shoot a man with a politically charged red cap?”

“I know!” the girl with the subversive makeup exclaimed. “Someone who feels disenfranchised by the American dream? Perhaps a marginalized person, or first-generational college student, or victim of systemic gentrification?”

“Tut tut!” the man with the Bitcoin earrings said. “I shall hear none of your thinly veiled racial profiling.”

The girl with the co-exist sticker repented of her ignorant remarks which were not intended to cause hurt, and canceled her social media platforms, resigning herself to a life of penitent reflection on her own privilege.

“Perhaps the gunman, gunwoman, or gunperson wasn’t politically motivated at all,” the racially ambiguous man with Bitcoin earrings hypothesized.

“Indeed! Remember when I texted you all, ‘Clue number seven’?” Mr. Rents asked.

“Ya, and i was going to reply but i got distracted lol,” I said, wondering glumly how many times I myself had been left on ‘Read.’

“Check the tattoo on the victim’s calf,” Mr. Rents shone his light onto the dead man’s leg.

“It said ‘Pro-Life’,” I remarked. “We all saw that when he first joined our Uber Express.”

“Wrong! It says ‘Pro-Lyft!’ The red MAGA hat was a red MAGA herring! This man is a Lyft customer attempting to infiltrate our Uber Express. But if you read Ars Technica, as I do, you’ll know that Lyft teams up with third party vendors to automatically terminate any Lyft customer who tries to switch riding platforms. You could say he was ‘lifted’ out of this world.”

“Murder most vowel!” I tweeted to both of my followers.

At that moment, an independent true crime podcast released an episode on the murder, featuring never-before-seen interviews with the victim’s closest influencers. As Lyft’s stock prices fell and consumers became aware of what happened, the fatal gunshot was finally heard.

“Like and subscribe!” Mr. Rents said, as our Uber Express pulled into the cinema parking lot. The man with earrings tipped the driver some Bitcoin.

“How did you know how to deduce all that?” I asked my friend in amazement.

Mr. Rents tossed his Juul in a recycling bin destined for a Chinese landfill. “The same way I know where to catch a predator: Elementary, my dear Watson! Under-funded, embarrassingly segregated Elementary!”


“Don’t go,” I whisper.

Bella blinks, already holding her key ring with the purple USB. “It’s snowing. Traffic’s going to suck.”

She looks out of my grandparents’ home, at the first flakes falling onto the street. They come down straight and fast, with the precision of a marching band in a bygone era, when men were men and everyone loved their country. On the wall opposite the window hangs the portrait of one of the last men of that world, who stares at the approaching snow with equals parts confidence and resolution. My grandfather would have gone into the snow without delay, winter boots hitting the ground like he was about to liberate an oppressed people from their godless dictator.

Bella turns away from the window, looks at me with a glum resolution. The keys are jangling in her hands.

“Sit.” I grab her wrist, my fingers clenching down on the sleeve of her red turtleneck. “My parents will be back in an hour. Stay for dinner?”

Her mouth twists hesitantly. “I told Greg I’d drop by tonight.”

My ears twitch as soon as I hear that name. We all know what happens if she visits Greg.

“Drop by after dinner. Greg can wait.” I tug gently, and Bella sits with me.

The couch has been here for decades, worn thin under generations of women and their eager suitors, while parents and aunts and uncles surveyed them carefully from the rest of the living room. Bella’s knees are pressed against mine, slits of pink poking out from worn threads. Our faces are close; the softest white fuzz sits between her eyebrows. She doesn’t know that I can see it; she would blush and immediately excuse herself to pluck it all off.

“Bella, come on. They’ll love to have you for dinner. Grandma’s making asparagus.”

Bella wrinkles her nose. The peach fuzz on her forehead ripples like frost on an overnight tent. It’s our own private joke: she hates asparagus, and I’m always trying to trick her into eating it.

Her keys jangle, and my eyes snap to her pocket. All I need right now are two things: her keys and her USB flash drive. If I can get those, everything will be fixed. But I have to time it perfectly.

Now Bella is standing up, walking around the living room, past half a century of my ancestry hanging on the walls. My grandfather, collar stiff and decorated with silver stars, observes us. He’s been on missions a thousand times more urgent than this. If he could only step out and help me. But he stays motionless, locked in the same instant forever.

“Wait, you forgot your jacket.” I say, walking back into the kitchen. This was a good move. I should have thought about the jacket before. Now Bella and I are at the kitchen table, brown with seven pale patches from years of plates sliding back and forth. The oven is blowing hot apple cinnamon air at us. I’ve got her hooked. She won’t be able to leave without staying for dessert.

Bella looks out the window. The first car is cutting through the snowy street, carving two black lines like giant garter snakes. The kitchen clock is ticking, counting down the moments until my family comes, and it will be too late for her to leave. It’s half past four, and the sky is going pink. It’s longer than I’ve ever kept her here, and I’m so close.

“Try it.” I’m pulling open the oven, setting a slice of steaming hot apple pie on the counter. She’ll have to wait for it to cool, and every second that I keep her from going out on that icy road, away from Greg, is a victory.

Bella sighs, and smiles reluctantly, knowing what I’m doing but taking the bait anyway. She digs into the slice, her spoon fogging up as it breaks through the crust. The recipe was Grandpa’s favorite, and how proud would he be to know it still lives on.

Bella’s keys jump into the corner of my eye from the corner of the kitchen counter. I walk toward them, turning on the faucet and talking loudly, keeping an eye on the back of Bella’s black hair in case she turns around. I talk about the week’s Chemistry lab, about visiting universities next month, anything to mask the sound of the keys as I collect them and store them in my pocket.

I win. She can’t leave. She’s safe.

Bella is telling some story, pausing between words to blow on the bites of pie. Her lips scrunch into a pink ring with every puff of air. But I have no time to think about that. I have my laptop out on the counter, slipping the purple USB into it. I’ve never been this close before.

She looks up at me from her slice. She has a piece of mushy apple on the front of her yellow blouse. Does she know I have her USB open on my desktop? I keep pretending to listen to her.

The clock ticks louder, its hands pointing up like a stick figure surrendering. I’m holding Bella’s keys tightly, opening files, pulling up photos of passports, one named Gregory March, the other Isabella Blake. Then I have the plane tickets open.

But I can’t make out the destination.

Read! Focus! But it’s just a jumble of letters. Maybe if I ask her? No, I’d give it away.

“Pie’s almost done,” my grandmother says, walking into the kitchen with Grandpa and my parents. “Mitts are in the bottom shelf, would you take it out?”

I’m about to take the pie out of the oven, when I hear a jangle at the front door. Bella has her hand on the knob, saying sorry she can’t stay longer but that the pie smells good.

How is she leaving? I clench my fists. The keys have disappeared. Somehow, Bella got them and she’s heading out the door. It’s the latest I’ve ever gotten her to linger. If I can just focus on what the plane tickets say—

But the USB is also gone. I’m staring at a blank screen. Grandpa is cutting the pie into eight pieces, and outside the snow is starting to fall.

I’m losing control. Bright light is bulldozing through the window of my cell, and my grandparents’ kitchen is already slipping away, as the ticking of the kitchen clock melts into a baton tapping on metal bars.

I push my face into my pillow, keeping my eyes clenched shut, hoping I can drift away from my cot and back to that kitchen, hoping this time round I’ll keep Bella from going to Greg’s and getting on that plane. This morning, I got closer than any time before. Maybe, if I just focus…

Invisible Gold

Her reflection is only inches below her nose. It stares up at her with puffy, unflattering eyes. She hates the way her eyes look: unpainted, naked, exposed. She looks unoriginal, bland.

The other girl, Kendall, is behind her, patting her back, urging her to release. It will be easy, Kendall promises. You just have to heave and let go.

But she can’t let go. Her knees are pressed against the floor, with only the thin layer of her pajamas to separate them from the cold tile. She grabs the toilet seat, knuckles as white as the porcelain they are clamping down on, and groans, clenching her stomach. But nothing comes out, except a strand of drool, swaying from her lips to the surface of the toilet water.

She swallows. The tangy echo of marinara crouches in the back of her teeth, and her tongue struggles to carve brown bits of meat from between her molars. Why did they eat so much, stuffing themselves until their stomachs were almost ripping open?

Kendall is still coaching the girl how to slide two fingers to the back of the tongue. Her fingers are bitter, which helps her to gag, but now matter how much she heaves…

Her chin is now slick with saliva, and she slips off her. Now she is sitting on the floor, staring up at the flickering fluorescent light.

When she closes her eyes, she’s back in the studio, bulbs flashing in rhythmic pulses, where she posed in spiked track shoes and a banana yellow sports bra. One leg was straight behind her, taut and lean, and the other leg was bent, her knee pushing up into the yellow cloth.

And her belly. She tried not to look at it, focusing her pretend gaze on a hypothetical gold medal in front of her and nine other imaginary Olympians. But she could still feel the ripples of skin, the rolls of flesh bunched and scrunched up. She had drunk only coffee all week; she would have drunk pure water but the caffeine help you piss out the extra water weight. She had nearly fainted on set, the camera flashes hypnotically dragging her weary eyes down. If only she had posed as a high jumper, her belly could have been stretched and smooth and lean.

Then she blinks, and she’s back in the bathroom, belly sticky and white and round, teeth full of marinara. Kendall is blurry and doubled, the two images of her face pulling together and sliding apart. Her belly is a thin strip of gold, winking between the rim of the jean shorts and a white tank top.

The girl’s groan turns into a dry sob. In the corner of the eye is the empty pizza box, limp and greasy, sitting between the yoga mat which is her bed and the laptop which is their TV. The sight of dry sauce and spare crusts makes her dizzy, and she wonders with revulsion how she could have thought it a smart idea to eat so much after a whole week of eating air.

Kendall’s hand is pushing toward her lips, offering a single white pill. The girl whimpers, brushing the hand away, despite assurances that it will loosen everything up. She’s had enough of pills. That’s all this past week was: coffee and pills to keep the pangs of hunger down.

Something is buzzing. Maybe the fluorescent lights, or her own skull. Her eyes crawl sluggishly to the side. Her phone is between her and the damp pizza box, buzzing with a picture of herself and a smiling woman twice her age. How she wants to reach out for it, stretch her arms towards the vibrating rectangle. She could hear the voice asking how her first week was, if she had an easy time moving in. If her roommate was showing her around the city, whether she had been in any exciting commercials yet.

But she leaves the phone. She knows her mother is excited for her, glad for her opportunities in a world she doesn’t quite understand. Her mother gets ‘lots of love’ and ‘laugh out loud’ confused, and thinks a thousand likes on a photo means you are already famous. She is supportive, but no matter how supportive she is, lingering in the back of her voice is the silent request to come home, to live a life of blue shirts and customer service, belly bulging not with desperate pizza, but the next generation, a babbling addition to family photos for phone screens. Back home is the smell of fresh dust, kicked up into the air by industrial combs, churning up waves of dirt clods and razor sharp spikes of golden straw. Here the air reeks with whatever is growing in the walls, keeping the air damp and the rent low.

The buzzing stops. The photo of the mother and the girl disappear into the cool black glass. Kendall pushes the pill once more, and this time the girl swallows reluctantly.

She sweats, and her skin prickles, and then she turns around, heaving what looks like vegetable soup into the toilet bowl. Water splashes up, and she releases again. Then she slumps, back trembling, hair falling into the bowl and dangling in her own gluttony.

Kendall is speaking in a soothing voice, pulling her back from the toilet, wiping her face with a towel and raking strands of hair behind her ears. She is gentle, careful to avoid tangling the hair in the girl’s earring studs.

Then all her hair is behind her neck, dripping down her own tank top into the back of her underwear. She is thankful for those pink pajama pants. The floor would be cold without them.

Her phone buzzes once more. She crawls over to it, seeing one more glimpse of her reflection in the dark glass before pulling up the most recent text message: I’ll try again tomorrow. Hope your first week went well! LOL

The Whatever Miracle

I was sixteen years old when it happened.

No one could believe it, brushing it off with a cynical ‘whatever’ just like Doubting Didymus, until they saw for themselves the hands with dark nail polish, stroking a young child’s bald head. Even then, some were still skeptical, but after the videos spread across their screens, after lines of people with wheelchairs, IV drips, and bags sticking out their hips gathered on our front lawn and got healed, then the world saw and accepted.

Was I surprised? I had been preparing for it my entire life. Since the first moment I had successfully prayed for the rain to stop, like the Tishbite, at that church picnic when I was three, I knew I had a special gift. But of course, I kept it to myself. I’ve read the stories. No sense in mentioning your dreams of wheat sheaves to your family. A prophet is never welcome in their own home.

So I waited. I studied the old stories, memorizing more than the rest of my Sunday School combined. The teachers told my parents what a brave little girl I was, and so smart and talented too. “Why can’t you be more like Naomi?” Other parents asked their daughters.

When Jaybelle was born, I was the only one who could get her to sleep without fussing, which was a miracle by itself. Only four years old, I could rock her in my lap, kissing her warm forehead and wiping drool from her sleeping lips. Was it any shock I, so tender and maternal, was cast as the Virgin in the pageant every year? Each December, families wrapped in mountains of scarves would stomp into our auditorium, shake the salty slush from their boots, and watch me rock the Messiah in front of the camels, the shepherds, and the three wise boys with cotton glued to their pimpled faces. I was the first Mary that could keep a real baby calm for the entire show.

As Jaybelle grew up, I taught her the same stories I had memorized, speaking of lions and floods and giant fish. The grown-ups noticed, and I made sure to speak loudly so everyone could hear what a responsible big sister I was. And I always kept an eye on the rain, waiting for the right moment to show the world what I could do.

I had hoped that Jaybelle and I could be a team. But she got distracted. While I volunteered at hospitals and drove the neighbor children to volleyball practice, she was off being the best friend of every boy in the sixth grade. I taught her how to apply tasteful make-up; she stole black lipstick from mall kiosks, thinking we wouldn’t notice the smudges in the corners of her lips. My parents tasked me with keeping her out of trouble. But this was a miracle I could not perform.

Then, when I was sixteen, it happened. The gift I had been waiting for my entire life. One of the families I babysat for, their father was rapidly dissolving into cancer, and I volunteered to sit with him. When I arrived, Greg Faraday was lying on the bed, eyes sunk like bruised peaches. Those forearms which had pushed the lawnmower every Sunday evening now resembled gas station pepperoni sticks.

I sat by his side, reading to him as I had read bedtime stories to his children for so many years. Then the door opened, and Jaybelle was standing there, showing more chest than shirt.

“Mom’s here. You have to come for dinner,” she said, before turning to the bed. “He looks like shit.”

I glared at my sister. “Don’t touch—“ I began, but Jaybelle was already approaching the man, brushing an eyelash off his withered cheek.

As her fingertips connected with his face, Greg Faraday’s eyes flickered, and he stared at the girl with the dark nail polish and black lipstick. He smiled.

The next Sunday, he was back to mowing the lawn.


The doctors couldn’t explain it. Our pastor could explain it easily, until he learned it had been Jaybelle, not me, who had done the healing. He dismissed it as a coincidence, and then resigned.

The next few weeks were a blur of hospital visits and interviews. The photo of her hands next to a child’s bald head went viral, and our house became a Mecca for sick people asking to be healed, with glowing screens ready to record. I warned her not to heal in front of an audience, because that just seemed wrong. She ignored me. The whole world saw her heal in her jeans, ripped at the knees. Reporters and aspiring tween YouTubers swarmed around her, asking how she had developed these powers of healing. She shrugged.

“And what about you?” A newsgirl leaned towards me. “You’re the older sister? You must be so proud of her!”

I pressed my lips into a tight smile. That was the last time a reporter ever interviewed me.

The clip of Jaybelle casually shrugging at the reporter blossomed into a meme, bouncing between phones with the hashtag #whatevermiracle.

And because my parents both worked jobs, they made me shepherd her, applying her stage makeup before each televised healing.

So. You’ve made it clear to me that my years of work don’t count. You chose her, that entitled, black-lipsticked bitch, to be the prophet of our generation? Fine. I’m done. I followed the rules, I did everything right, but I guess that just wasn’t enough for You. What kind of lesson is that going to teach everyone? I’m not going to pretend to understand it, and at this point, I don’t really care. I’d tell You not to contact me ever again, but maybe You and I were never talking to each other to begin with. Amen.


I slam the button on my stopwatch, and the woman stops mid-step, the green numbers above her head freezing at 0:04.

Only four seconds left in this woman’s life, plus the twenty minutes of suspended time on my watch, which is already counting down.

Usually, saving lives is pretty simple for me, because I always have enough real time: if I see a green Deadline with only a few hours above a person’s head, I can follow them, scout out their surroundings. By the point their Deadline reaches its last couple seconds, I can guess exactly what will happen to them, and prevent them from wandering into traffic or putting a ridiculously large piece of steak in their mouth. And if I really need it, I can make use of my handy stopwatch, which allows me to freeze time for up to twenty minutes once every day. 

With only four seconds left of real time, I might need to use the full twenty minutes of suspended time to guess how she’ll die. And the most frustrating thing? The woman appears as safe as can be. There are no cars coming toward us on this street, so there’s no way she’ll die in a car crash. She looks healthy (slim, tall, dark hair) so she won’t die from illness, unless she’s about to have an aneurysm. Not that I can do anything about an aneurysm. I’ve learned that the tragic way.

I check my stopwatch: Nineteen minutes left. 

I swear with the full force of my lungs. I’ve never seen a situation like this. I’ve heard from somewhere that 1.8 humans die each second, but I’d never thought I would actually encounter one right at the end. Until now the shortest time I’ve ever found on someone’s Deadline was thirty minutes for a bank teller. That was plenty of time to sip free stale coffee and wait for the bank robber to arrive.

 I guess I would see plenty of low Deadlines if I went to a hospital or elderly care home, which is also why I avoid those places. No sense in torturing myself visiting sweet, bald children who won’t even see the next episode of their favorite show.

I look at the air above the woman, but there’s nothing there, no floating piano ready to come unstuck and fall as soon as I run out of time. What danger could this woman possibly be in? With only seventeen minutes left, I have to think fast. I curse again, glance around the street, see about fifty other people frozen on the sidewalk. None of them have a Deadline anywhere close to four seconds, in fact, I can’t see any time lower than eight months. This means I can rule out a mass casualty like an earthquake or bomb.

Side note: a friend of mine (there are four others of my species who can see Deadlines and who all wear stopwatches) once saw a crowd of humans waiting at an airport gate whose Deadlines were all exactly forty-two minutes and thirty seconds. Gods above, that must have terrifying for him. Fortunately, he was able to puncture the tires of the airplane before they boarded. After he resumed time, the flight was canceled, and their Deadlines all updated to their individual, normal lifespans. That’s another thing: Deadlines don’t update while time is suspended. So even if I figure out a cause, I won’t know for sure if I’ve saved this woman until it’s too late to try another attempt.

Think! Maybe she’s suicidal? About to pull a gun on herself? I wish I can open her black purse or leather jacket to search her for weapons, but in suspended time, matter becomes hyper-fragile. So if I touch her, I might break open her rib cage, ironically guaranteeing her death.

Within only fifteen minutes left, I get as close to this woman as I can, studying every inch of her. I can’t see where she is looking, because of black and gold sunglasses that I can’t touch without shattering. But I can see tear streaks coming out from behind her glasses; clearly she was distressed about something when I suspended time. Is she in pain? Does she somehow sense her death is imminent? If only I had longer than four seconds to ask her…

Her hair, jacket, skirt, and high-heeled boots all look average. As an average, healthy, white female human in her mid-twenties, how is she mostly likely to die? Accidental injury, suicide, cancer… I had memorized the top ten causes of death for every race, age group, and profession. 

And then I see it: a black pea-sized object in the crock of her ear. When I notice the earpiece, the other clues jump out at me like popcorn: the bulge of her holster by her left hip, the shape of another weapon in her black leather boot. A spy, or some secret agent, scanning the crowd behind her expensive sunglasses. 

Leading cause of white female humans who also happen to be spies? Assassination.

And then my dilemma begins: should I prevent her death? 

I myself try to save as many human lives as possible, but I don’t want to abuse my powers by playing favorites in human wars. Soldiers kill each other, countries spy on each other, and as long as they’re not targeting innocent civilians or bystanders, I try to let humans be humans.

Does it pain me to allow humans to die? Yes, it torments me! Worse than the kiddy cancer ward. If there’s anything I hate more than being unable to save a human, it’s my heart-wrenching commitment to stay neutral. Because this secret agent woman might not be a good guy; she might be planning some terrorist attack next week, and if I prevent a law officer from killing her today, I might condemn hell knows how many innocent people tomorrow. So I trust police officers and soldiers to do their job. Even though it hurts. 

Now, the other four of my species each have different views about how to use our powers. One of the others always attempts to save whomever he sees in danger, no exceptions. He has suspended time just to sabotage the executions of hardened criminals, knowing he won’t be able to use his stopwatch for anyone until the next day. I respect his utter commitment to human life, but I think it’s a bit excessive.

Another one of us never gets involved, never touches his stopwatch for any reason. Lives a normal life, pretends to be a regular human, ignoring the Deadlines of everyone he meets, even his family. He even has a human wife, who, after a couple decades, will probably start to wonder why he never ages. 

And the other is known for going out of his way to cause mayhem: suspending time to vandalize cars, break open doors to locked banks. Once, a month ago, I saved a train full of people after he destroyed the tracks in front of it. It was pure luck I happened to be there that same day, and the only way I knew it was him was because the damage to the tracks had appeared silently and instantaneously. You can’t do that much instantaneous, silent damage without a stopwatch like ours. I was furious with him, so angry I might have killed him, except our species isn’t physically able to kill other.

And the fifth one of our species died just last week. Yeah, even though we can’t kill each other, and we don’t age and don’t have Deadlines of our own, we can die from external harm. He was the same one who once saved the passengers about to board the airplane. He was killed while trying to save American soldiers from a suicide bomber in what the humans call the Middle-East. I didn’t find out until I saw it on the humans’ news and recognized his face. Everyone else watching the news probably assumed he was human; we don’t look any different from humans. But there he was, lying next to the bodies he was unable to save. I can only imagine his fear when he saw everyone’s Deadlines counting down to the same exact moment.

But I have to get to the bottom of this woman’s identity before I decide whether to save her or remain neutral. She is not eating food, so she’s not in danger of poison. At this point, the most likely cause of her death will be a sniper shot. If she’s only four seconds from dying, the gun must already be aimed. 

I have thirteen minutes left, and I know how the woman is going to die, but not the direction the sniper is aiming from. I look at the buildings on the sides of the street. Thankfully this city doesn’t have buildings that tall, but I still won’t have time to search every room with an open window.

Could there be a laser? Even when time stops, light photons continue to move, otherwise I’d be completely in dark. And as I look at her face again, I see it: a pale red dot, sitting on her cheek. I stand front of it, placing my face right in the path of the laser, blinking as the flash of red shines in my eye. My eye will heal in a day; a fair trade for knowing the exact window where the sniper is aiming from.

Only eleven minutes left. I have to be exactly in the same position when time resumes as when I suspended it, otherwise I’ll die. So I run fast. Fortunately the hotel door is open, or I would have to break it. I run up four flights of stairs (elevators don’t work in suspended time) and I count the rooms until I arrive at the one whose window is seven from the left. 

I walk through the door, which crumbles. It’s not the first time I’ve taken advantage of hyper-fragile matter in suspended time, and I’m more than happy to pay damages to the hotel when this is over.

The sniper is at the window, dressed in plain clothes, with a gun case and ammunition on the bed. With only eight minutes left, I approach him. He is Caucasian, in his thirties, and his Deadline is about four years. I’ve never seen the man’s face. He has a phone out, with an unknown number, and an ear piece. I have no idea who he is calling; I can only imagine him saying “I’ve got her,” as he prepares to loose a bullet into the street below.

I glance into his bag: hundred dollar bills, bound crudely in tape. He’s a hitman; I know the secret agents of this country don’t earn raw money like that. On the bed is a folder; I don’t turn its pages yet for fear of damaging them, but I see a several photos sticking out, dated and with X’s on them. 

They are civilians, and some are young children. There is no room for neutrality today, and I breath a sigh of relief, anger, and justice as I stick my fingers in his aimed rifle, crumbling apart the hyper-fragile barrel and scope. When time resumes, he’ll be startled, he’ll scream, probably think he’s gone insane. By then, I’ll be back down by the woman, so I’ll have to run all the way back up here for a good old-fashioned chase scene.  

For good measure, I destroy his ammunition, his cash, and his folder of targets. As the papers are ripped to shreds, I see three things that startle me: 

A photo of myself next to the photo of the woman. My photo is circled in red ink.

A handwritten note, whose signature I recognize. It’s same man of my species who once tried to derail that train.

A logo on the front of the folder of an eagle with a crown, holding a snake in its talons. I know I’ve seen it before.

But I have no time to dwell on these three things now; I have only three minutes left to be in position, and it took me that amount of time to get up here. After this is all over, after I save the woman and arrest the hitman in real time, I can do more research on that logo. Maybe even uncover something bigger than the hitman: a conspiracy, maybe involving the one of my species who is trying to have this poor woman killed.

I run out the room, down the stairs of the hotel. With forty seconds left, I skid into my original place, breathing hard. As I stand, catching my breath, and waiting for my stopwatch to dwindle to zero, I see a puddle of water directly below the woman who I have just saved. I can’t believe I didn’t notice it before: in the reflection of the puddle I can see slightly up her skirt. On her thigh is a tattoo of a crowned eagle, holding a snake.

I feel a chill come over me. Is this woman connected to the hitman? Do they know each other? If so, why would he be pointing a gun at her?

As my stopwatch approaches zero, I suddenly remember where I first saw that logo: the footage of my friend and the suicide bombing in the Middle-East; one of the legs in the pile of bodies had the same tattoo on the thigh. After I arrest the hitman, I’ll have to ask this woman what’s going on.

My stopwatch is about to hit zero; I am safely in position, and I look at the woman, waiting for her Deadline, still frozen at four seconds, to reset to whatever a normal spy’s life expectancy is.

As time resumes, the noise of the city starts, and people continue their walks, unaware they have been suspended for twenty minutes. Back in the hotel, the hitman is noticing and screaming at his destroyed rifle. 

But the woman’s Deadline doesn’t update. It continues from four seconds to three. Her tears resume their roll down her cheeks. 

I stare in shock, wondering how the sniper could possibly kill her after I had destroyed his gun. Perhaps there is more than one sniper, to safeguard from a possible counter attack? Or maybe her death will come from a completely different source?

Her Deadline switches from three seconds to two.

The woman jumps, puts her hand up to her earpiece as if someone had shouted in her ear, and starts running– at me. I try to back up, but her momentum knocks me to the ground, as she pulls out what looks like a metal avocado.

Her Deadline turns from two to one just as she pulls out the pin.

The Stylus

The arena was filled with red mud and surrounded by seats carved from white stone. From above, it resembled a giant mouth, open and gawking hungrily at the sky.

In the middle of the arena walked an old man and a boy. The man wore a plain brown tunic, but the boy was clad in a tunic of purple and gold which collected mud with each step.

“And that, Ixonius, is what comes your way for not heeding me,” the old man said, squinting at the boy, who was trying to scrape mud from the hem. “Did I not warn you to wear clothes of the field?”

“I have no clothes of the field,” Ixonius grumbled, digging his fingernails into the fibers of the cloth.

“There was a tunic hanging in your closet. I told you this morning, and twice last evening, but you did not— Ixonius!”

The boy had given up cleaning his garment, and was now jumping up and down, kicking up gobs of mud wherever his sandaled feet landed.

“Ixonius!” The old man ran towards the boy, wincing as mud squelched through his toes, and seized Ixonius by the ears.

The boy screamed, tearing at the man’s knuckles.

“Release me— please, Artellus, release me—“

Artellus obliged, and Ixonius crumpled to the ground, now entirely soaked in mud.

“Rise up,” Artellus said. “Our time is slipping.”

Ixonius stood, holding his ears tightly. “The heat is choking me,” he whined. “Why can we not eat melons in my father’s house?”

“Heat builds up the man. Do you remember what our task is?” Artellus asked.

“No,” Ixionus replied, his voice strained and resentful.

“A shock for the ages,” Artellus said sarcastically. “We are here to wash out the quarters.”

“Do they not have slaves for that task?” Ixonius grumbled, as they resumed their walk.

“We do.”

“So why must I learn?”

“Because our city is a chariot. One day, gods smile on us, you will be king, and you will have to comprehend how every part of the chariot spins so that you may steer it.”

“For how many days will we do this?”

“In the arena? Only today. Tomorrow you will assist the men who thresh your father’s grain, and the day after, those who spin your father’s wool.”

“Why are we starting here?”

“So I can lock you in the quarters if you continue to babble like a goat.”

Ixonius followed Artellus in silence. Every few steps he tried to kick mud at the old man without being noticed.

“Who is that?” Ixonius asked. They had approached a man dragging a wheelbarrow.

“One of the slaves. How turns the sun?” Artellus called out at the man.

The man turned from the wheelbarrow, and raised a hand in salutation. “The sun turns slowly,” he replied.

“Did you fight today?” Ixonius asked.

The man looked at him. He had very pale eyes, as well as pale skin.

“No. I used to fight. Now I clean.”

“Gods above, Ixonius,” Artellus said. “The gods gave you eyes, do not waste them. This man is in the sunset of life. You think he is fit to carry a sword and shield?” He turned to the man. “Are the quarters emptied?”

The man nodded. “Indeed, Artellus. The quarters are ready for you to clean.” He pointed with his hand, and as he did, Ixonius noticed his other hand was missing.

“What happened?” Ixonius blurted out, staring at the raw stump of wrist.

Artellus scoffed. “How did the fighter come to have no hand? Use your imagination, young prince. Maybe a bird carried it away to feed its chicks. Or a rat from beneath bit it off.”

“You lost it in a fight…” Ixonius muttered. “Another fighter cut it off with a sword.”

“Claps for the young prince, wise beyond his years!” Artellus laughed savagely, striking his palms together. “And I thought your skull was filled with sand.”

“Fighters… can lose their hands?” Ixonius asked. His breathing had slowed.

Neither the slave nor Artellus answered the boy. Then Ixonius stared into the wheelbarrow, and heaved, the contents of his stomach rushing out onto the mud before him.

Inside the wheelbarrow was a body of a fighter, with skin tight and dry across sharp ribs. From his belly spilled his entrails, bulging like red bags.

“You are finally using your eyes,” Artellus said.

“They die. They fight and die.” Ixonius said to himself.

“What did you think happened in this arena?” Artellus asked. “Dancing? Jesters playing with wooden swords? The enemies of our city are brought here in chains to entertain the nobles. That man in there,” he pointed at the body in the wheelbarrow. “From the northern forests. Look at his skin. Pale. Like his.” Artellus pointed at the one-armed slave.

“You are also from the north?” Ixonius asked. The slave nodded.

“Come, Ixonius.” Artellus led the boy away from the slave and the wheelbarrow.

Ixonius took great care not to kick up mud as he followed Artellus.

“Why do the men of the north have pale skin, and the men of our city dark skin?” Ixonius asked, as they approached the wall at the edge of the arena.

“The sun shines brighter over our city. You have seen maggots under a dark log? It is the same with the men of the north. Pale as maggots. Pale eyes, pale skin, pale minds.”

“Pale minds?”

“Barley grows tall in the heat of the sun. So do the men of our city, and the buildings of our city. In the north there is little light, and therefore, little growth.”

They entered a door in the wall, and a wave of hot putrid air hit their noses. Ixonius gagged, but had nothing more in his stomach to spill.

“Take this,” Artellus handed a shovel to Ixonius.

Each room in the quarters was large enough for one fighter. Prisoners here slept and soiled themselves on the same floor.

The man and the boy shoveled one cell, then another. After hours, Ixonius stretched his back and scratched his neck, digging up sweat and loose skin under his fingernails.

“Can we return to my father’s house?” he pleaded. “They have cold baths, and fresh melon and ale—“

He coughed, spitting out dust onto the floor.

He thrust again, and his shovel struck something hard. Ixonius blinked, eyes stinging with the salt from his forehead, and reached downward.

It was pale green crystal, unlike anything Ixonius had seen before. It had been carved to resemble a woman, with such intricate detail on her face and fingers that no sculptor in the city could ever hope to imitate it.

“Ixonius! We must make haste!” Artellus coughed.

The boy threw the figurine in the fold of his tunic, and continued shoveling. They had been here almost half the day.

“The final room,” Artellus said, wiping dirt from his eyebrows and opening a door to the last cell.

Ixonius entered, and was about to thrust his shovel downward, when he saw something lying in the corner.

“Artellus,” he said.

“What are you bleating about now?” The old man bent down, his fingers examining what Ixonius had found. It was a metal shield, covered in dents from countless games in the adjacent arena. Artellus lifted it, and a wave of cool air blew from a hole beneath.

Both of them leaned towards the stream of air.

“Who dug this?” Ixonius asked.

“One of the fighters who slept in this room.” Artellus crawled into the hole. “It is cool down here. Wind from the outside.”

“To where does it lead?”

“Out,” Artellus said, his voice echoing from below. “Leads out into the street. We must report this. If a prisoner found this, he could fly out like a raven.”

“Will I get a reward? For finding it?”

“Perhaps a lighter beating for soiling your tunic.”

“Make way, I shall join you.” Ixonius lowered himself into the hole, and stood by Artellus. “Do you think they used it to escape?”

“If a prisoner had disappeared, the guards would have noticed when it was time to compete. They would have filled in the hole immediately.” Artellus laughed. “Escape was right below their filthy feet! Just as I said, Ixonius. Pale minds. Never even try to run free.”

“Artellus…” Ixonius murmured, bending down. “Someone has stood here recently. Fresh footprints—“

“So they are,” Artellus said. “But whose?”

Ixonius stood, examining the wall of the tunnel. “Is this writing?” he asked, as Artellus leaned in.

“One of the prisoners crawled down here,” Artellus said, tracing his fingers over the unknown characters. “Wrote on the wall. Look!”

Carved into the stone was a small shelf, which held a figure of the same green crystal, slender enough to serve as a stylus.

“A prisoner was down here, and wrote, but did not escape? Returned to his cell in time for the games?” Artellus asked. “Why?”

“Not just one prisoner. The writing is different. These footprints are varied. Different men have been down here, and carved words, and left this stylus.”

“But why?” Artellus wondered.

“You said that if someone escaped, the guards would discover the hold and seal it. Perhaps each prisoner who found this hole decided to return to the cell. To maintain the secret and allow the next prisoner the chance to escape.”

“That is— that is impossible,” Artellus said. “The men of the north cannot think for tomorrow. They are like animals! Eating, breeding, survival. If they saw a chance to escape, they would seize it.”

“But none of them have escaped, you said it yourself. Yet we know they have been down here.” Ixonius said. “And look—“ he held up the stylus. “This crystal does not grow in the city. They brought it with them. If they were like animals, how could they carve something so intricate?”

“Give it to me.” Artellus threw the stylus under his muddy sandal, and ground it against the stone until it was powder. “We are finished with today’s toil. We shall report this, and the guards shall fill the hole. The prisoners should have escaped when they found the opening. Pale minds,” he scoffed.

He climbed back into the cell and led Ixonius away from the quarters.

“I think a nice cold bath will be welcome.” Artellus said. “Cold melons and fresh ale. And tomorrow, the threshing fields. You shall be a wise young prince before the next moon.”

Ixonius didn’t listen. His hand was inside the pocket of his own soiled tunic, tightly wrapped around the intricate figurine from the northern forest.

On the Bed’s Edge

Old Man Horace rocked his chair, scraping it on the porch. As I walked up to him, I could see his face, splattered with brown age spots, and his eyebrows, white and wiry like toothbrush bristles. His eyes were almost shut. Other than his nostrils swelling and falling, he might have been dead.

I turned around. The rest of them: Rusty, Jacob, Terry, Mike, and Carl were waiting in the middle of the yard. Jacob’s bike was leaning lazily to the side, but Rusty’s was alert, ready to hurl itself down the road at the first sign of danger. Terry and Mike were smiling, waiting for me to wuss out. Carl had eyes round as apricots.

I leaned in towards Old Man Horace. At once I could see the rumors about him were false. He wasn’t a killer; he clearly didn’t have the strength to drag children into his house and eat them. He was a weak, frail old man.

But did frail mean harmless? There was something else that lingered in his eyes and the half sneer on his lips. This man knew things.

“My— my name is David Mathis,” I said. “You’re Mr. Bartholomew Horace.”

Old Man Horace nodded, his neck creaking like his rocking chair.

“Do… do you have time to talk?” I asked. My foot ached. Somewhere crossing his yard I had tripped on something, maybe a rock. “Can I ask you some questions?”

He made a grinding noise in his throat, a slow, rough cough like a weak engine. I turned back towards the other five. Only a week ago it would have been the other six, but now our friend Jeremy was out of our group, stuck at home.

“Um… Mr. Horace?” I asked. “I think you spoke to a friend of mine. Named Jeremy?”

Air blasted out of his nostrils like a horse. The right side of his face twisted into half a grin, while the left half hung loose on his face, like hot rubber sliding off a roof.

“Jeremy was here a week ago,” I asked. “Do you remember him? He came here in the evening. He hasn’t been right since. He doesn’t want to eat or drink, and his momma has to wash him and do everything for him. He hasn’t been to school, and he doesn’t speak to anyone, not even me. Did… did something happen to him? While he was here?”

Did you do something to him, I wanted to ask. Did you do something to Jeremy to make him sit and stare at his wall, not even eating unless his parents pushed the food down his throat?

Even as I was speaking to Old Man Horace, I was priming my feet, ready to run as soon as anything happened. I shouldn’t have been there, none of us should have. But that was the thing about Bartholomew Horace. The more our parents warned us to stay away from him and his creaking rocking chair, the more we had to know what about him was so dangerous.

Then his right eye moved. It swiveled in the cave of his socket, studying every part of me. It was an eye that could see every scar on my body, even the ones that had long faded away. His eye was pushing into me, peeling away each of my memories, going back year by year, like a mason undoing a house one brick at a time.

The other six— five— were shouting at me. They must have seen something I didn’t, or maybe they heard our parents calling. We were not allowed to be anywhere near Old Man Horace, especially after what had happened to Jeremy last week.

But I had to know. If I ran away from this porch, the question would have eaten me up. I had to know what Old Man Horace had whispered to Jeremy out of that sagging mouth, the words that had turned Jeremy from a boy who spent every day running around outside, into an empty puppet. I had to know, even if it meant becoming exactly like Jeremy.

Old Man Horace was still rocking. He had looked further into me than I could ever see of myself in the mirror. The rest of the boys were still calling. Even the wind, picking up dust in the red sinking sun, was whispering at me to get off the porch before Horace could speak.

Old Man Horace leaned forward, and I couldn’t resist. I had to hear what he had said to Jeremy. His lips were at my ear, his breath warmer than the breeze from the setting sun. The bristles on his chin and mustache scratched against my ear, and my head flinched.

Now he says it.

It’s in such a low voice I don’t hear it the normal way you hear things. It’s all whispers and breath. It doesn’t last longer than a couple words, and then it’s over. Old Man Horace is finished talking to me.

Old Man Horace doesn’t tell me what he told Jeremy. And he’ll never tell anyone else what he’s just told me. Old Man Horace tells each person something different. Somehow, when his right eye looks through you, he sees the one thing you didn’t want him to see. And when he tells you, you can’t get it out of your head.

The sun is there, but it’s less red, and less hot. The breeze stops, and sweat spills down my spine. Then I’m walking away from the porch, across the grass, yellow and crunchy beneath my feet. The others are looking at me, and from their faces I can see something about my own face is changed.

I try to smile at them, to make them feel less afraid. But Old Man Horace’s words have trickled through my ears into my jaw and hardened, cementing my cheeks in place. Even if I could smile, I don’t think I’d want to.

The feel of Horace’s breath and his bristles are still fresh in my ear. The other boys are asking what he said, but I don’t have the energy to answer. I try to get on my bike, try to swing my leg over, but I don’t have the strength. I just topple over to the other side. I try a second time, than a third, and on this last try, I scrape my knee open on the dirt. I leave my bike where it is. As I’m walking with the other five towards the edge of the yard, I see them: dozens of bicycles, balls, slingshots, an air rifle, packs of cards, tangled in the overgrown grass. That’s what it was that I tripped on while crossing the yard for the first time, another bike. But somehow I hadn’t seen them until now. I don’t even think the other five can see them.

Rusty makes up an excuse to leave our group. I can’t blame him. I wouldn’t want to hang around anyone who looks like me right now. The others spread out in different directions, taking different streets to their own houses. I know that Mike is riding in the completely wrong direction, but I don’t think he’ll turn back this way until he’s sure I’ve already gone.

I don’t know how long it takes to walk home, but I do know that I’m carrying invisible weights on my shoulders. I can’t tell anyone about them. The other boys won’t want to hear it, or they’ll tell me I was stupid to go to Horace’s house after what happened to Jeremy. And my own family… there’s no way I can explain what Old Man Horace told me, because it was about them.

Then I’m at home. I’ve been dreading crossing the step through the door; I know as soon as I do, everything Old Man Horace said will be proven true.

I come inside the house. Momma is laughing, bouncing little Eve on her knee. Maybe Momma gives a glance in my direction, maybe she says something, but her eyes are so locked on my baby sister that she can’t even see what’s happened to me. At least Jeremy’s mom and dad noticed that he had changed. At least they tried to feed and water him.

There are footsteps on my side. Mr. Hatfield walks past me, maybe he says hi. I can’t tell anymore. But he’s already siting next to my momma, and Eve, hugging them both, laughing with them. They barely even see me. They don’t need to see me. Old Man Horace was right.

The steps on our staircase don’t even feel real under my feet, and I wonder if I could float up to my room, a ghost in my own home.

Then I’m sitting on the edge of my bed, waiting for one of them to remember that I also live here. But Momma and Mr. Hatfield and their baby are all busy downstairs, and even though my ears have been numb since Old Man Horace put his lips to them, I can hear their laughter and contentment. Old Man Horace was right. And whatever he told Jeremy, I’m sure it was exactly right too.

Forrest Rain

Her knees burned, her spine pinched, and beads of sweat stung her eyes even worse than the scent of the vinegar. From her neck hung a golden chain with a small photo frame, also dripping with perspiration, so covered in grime that the face in the photo was invisible. But the grout on the floor was finally clean, white as the smile of a politician who had just gotten away with something.

Rosa stood, placing her hand against the sink to steady herself as the blood rushed from her head into her tingling thighs. Her eyes buzzed, blurred the bathroom, which was already fading in the pink evening sky. She shook her head, splashed cold water on her face, and gathered the sponge, rag, and vinegar into the cabinet below the sink.

Something caught her eye, a glass jar, hidden between a jug of ammonia and a plastic bag whose entire purpose seemed to be to hold other plastic bags. Her joints begged her to leave the bathroom, to go home and rest, but her curiosity won out. She was not proud of the habit, but she could not resist looking through cabinets and drawers, not snooping or invading, but exploring, learning the intimate details of the people who owned the double garages and pool-filled backyards that she cleaned and groomed.

Rosa held the glass jar up in the dusky light. It was filled with candle wax, and had a stubby black wick. There was a faded picture on its side, labeled Forest Rain. And over this label was handwritten ink, the words ‘peanut butter.’

Rosa’s eyebrows, still grimy from an entire day of scrubbing, bent curiously. The candle jar did not contain peanut butter, in fact, nothing in his house contained peanut butter, Dr. Rudyal had warned Rosa multiple times when he had first hired her, that if a single peanut or anything that even touched one entered his house, he would choke on his own swelling throat.

Rosa unscrewed the glass lid of the candle. Nothing happened. The candle wax didn’t smell like anything. Not peanut butter, and certainly not anything like the label Forest Rain.

Rosa thought back. Several weeks ago, she had seen a shelf full of candles in Dr. Rudyal’s home office downstairs, all of them shrink-wrapped and unopened. She had even once made a joke about the number of candles he owned, and he had become very flustered, telling Rosa he paid her to clean, not talk.

She reached in her pocket, pulled out a lighter. She glanced towards the bathroom door, which was locked and closed. Then she lit the candle.

Rosa inhaled, the smell of not just peanut butter, but a rich peanut butter cheese cake flowing through the bathroom, into her nose. She bit and chewed, it was as if pieces of nutty chocolate were sliding down her throat.


She started, and blew out the candle. The peanut butter smell vanished, and the candle wax itself was almost entirely gone. She had never seen a candle burn through wax so quickly.

“Rosa?” It was the doctor’s voice again. Rosa stuffed the candle into her pocket, made sure the rest of the bathroom was tidy, and walked down a polished wood spiral staircase.

“Yes, Doctor?”

“It’s getting late, and I have a dinner appointment. Would you be able to come back a different time to finish?” Dr. Rudyal said. There was also a young woman, blonde and airy,  sitting on the living room couch. She made a brief eye contact with Rosa, reached for a candle jar on the coffee table, and quickly stashed it in her purse.

“Sure. I’ll come back tomorrow,” Rosa said, forcing herself not to stare at the woman, who muttered a goodbye to the Doctor while leaving through the front door.

Rosa herself headed towards the door when her phone buzzed with a text from Marcia. “Carlos and the kids loved your cheesecake. Thank you!”

Included was a photo of a cheesecake, medium brown, topped with chocolate and peanuts. Rosa stared in disbelief, as a dim memory of baking the cheesecake over the weekend came back to her. Why was that recollection so dim? It had been this past Saturday, and yet… the only memory of anything to do with that cake had been in the upstairs bathroom, lighting that Forest Rain candle.

“Can I help you? Is the door not working?” Dr. Rudyal asked, approaching her.

Rosa turned to him, and gathered her courage. “Peanut butter cheesecake.”

His face twitched. “Sounds delicious. Unfortunately, I’m allergic.”

“No, I… I baked a peanut butter cheesecake over the weekend. But I’m having trouble remembering it. It’s not dementia, is it?”

Rosa laughed, and the doctor grimaced. “Hope not.”

“I hope not, too. It’d be hard to do cleaning while being treated for memory loss.”

The Doctor seemed like he was about to say something, then his eyes crawled down her body, into the circular bugle in her pocket.

“What’s that?” he asked.

“It’s nothing,” Rosa said quickly, reaching for the door.

Rudyal stepped forward, grabbed the doorknob before she could. “Give it to me,” he hissed.

Rosa didn’t move, and Dr. Rudyal forced his fingers in her pocket, pulling out the candle.

“Where did you get—?” he read the handwritten label. “Why did you take this?”

Rosa still hadn’t recovered from the shock of him grabbing her pocket. “I— why does it smell like peanut butter? And why don’t I remember baking my peanut butter cheesecake just last Saturday?”

The Doctor gripped the candle tightly.

“Well? You hate peanut butter?”

“No. I’m allergic to it. But I love it,” Dr. Rudyal said.

“How do you… how do you know you love it? You said if you even go near it you’ll die.”

“Literal peanut butter, yes. The memory of it can’t hurt me.”

“The memory…? Why does lighting that candle smell like my cheesecake?”

The doctor stared at the candle. “Almost empty,” he grumbled. He reached into his jacket and pulled out a hundred dollar bill.

“Take this. Don’t tell anyone about the candle. Go home, make another cheesecake. Then eat a slice. Then come back tomorrow.”

“Will I remember eating it?” Rosa asked, as the Doctor pressed the bill into her hand.

“No. But I will.”

“Tell me what’s in those candles. In your office. And the one that the woman took before she left. They trigger memories, don’t they? Of peanut butter?”

Dr. Rudyal laughed bitterly. “They don’t trigger— they are memories! And not just of peanut butter. Anything you want to remember. Your own memories. Other people’s memories. Vacations, dead pets. Better sex. Nostalgia.” He inhaled.

“Where do you get memories from?” Rosa asked. “The cheesecake… that was my memory, right? You took my memory because… because you can’t eat real peanut butter without dying, so—”

“I’m sorry,” Rudyal said. “It was just that one. I won’t steal any more of your memories, I promise. But if you want…” he shook the glass candle. “I’ll buy your memories from you.”

“I’m not giving you my memories.”

“What about other people’s? You clean a lot of houses. Access to a lot of people. It’s not hard to lift a memory, I can show you.”

“No.” Rosa threw the hundred dollar bill at him. “I’m… no. And I’m not cleaning for you anymore. I’m not going to tell anyone, but… just let me leave.”

“I’ll make a deal,” Rudyal said. “You gather memories for me, and I’ll get you the memories you want.”

“I don’t want… what memories do I want?”

“Anything. Surely there’s something, a vacation, a childhood pet—“

“Can you get memories of people?” Rosa held up her necklace, flashing a photo of a young boy with dark hair and a white smile. “Can you bring back people?”

Dr. Rudyal peered at the necklace. “Certainly. Do we have a deal?”


Rosa left the house, walked past the row of houses with double garages and swimming pools without even seeing them. All she could see was the photo in her necklace, and she could almost already the boy’s laughter, thick and rich as the peanut butter she had promised to eat for Dr. Rudyal.