I am what I believe.
I believe in eating oatmeal out of a mug,
the breathless moment before raindrops fall,
the song that makes you laugh every time you hear it,
the technique of ignoring people you don’t want to talk to by reading ostentatiously,
the subtle art of misspelling the word “the” and not realizing it until
you’ve already turned the essay in,
in dancing because you can, not because you want to.
In staying up too late because sometimes books aren’t there in the morning,
and in waking up early just to stare at the ceiling and dream on its blank canvas.
I believe in tears.
I believe in lies that slip from a friend's lips like black snakes,
coiling on the ground, hissing silver fangs dripping with poison.
Why do they always aim for the heel?
I believe that the sky cries because its clouds are too thick with pollution,
that the moon hides its face from humanity once a month because
it’s afraid of the dark.
I believe in moths, drawn to light and doomed to die because of it;
in stories with no end and life with no beginning;
in magic and laughter and childhood sun that lasts forever but
only in that dusk between dreams and the brutal shrieks of the alarm;
and in cycles of stars that streak the sky with ribbons of light
even when the spaces between and below are dark and cold and empty.
I believe in contradictions,
in ravenous seas and the tender eye of the storm,
in twining caverns and skies unending capped by skidding cloud palaces.
I believe in humanity,
that we are a contradiction just as violent and inscrutable and beautiful
as the stars and planets caught in their never-ending dance through an endless void.
I believe in humanity,
because otherwise I will become a hermit.
And yet, I still don't believe in myself.
I break myself.
I've lived lifetimes, grown to love people and places and finally I've found a purpose... but then the light dims and the pages won't let me in, and I'm alone again.
I kill my darlings in an unceasing search for perfection, all the while knowing that perfection is in itself an imperfect construction born of capitalism and clockwork machinery. I beat my brain bloody over the things I don't want to do, stop myself from doing what I dream of, because if I'm not being productive then I'm worth nothing but... if I'm not happy now, when will I get to start?
I break myself to fit in, to stand out, to cram myself into molds that were never built to accommodate the human body and to tear them open when they don't feel right. I pick through the shards of myself as my hands start to bleed. I'm looking for something, anything, but all I can find are pieces of my own distorted reflection.
Maybe we're all just three-dimensional mosaics, shattered pieces hanging suspended and glittering in the void. Maybe we fit together, not edge-to-scraping-edge but with a small abyss between us. Are we even built to swirl slowly in constellations, gleaming in the light of our neighbors, outermost layers of raw edges glinting protectively? Is this the only way to survive the collisions, the abrupt transition between self-absorption and outright war? Is this even living?
I am recursive destruction, looping back onto myself. I break myself so I don't break others.
What would happen if I just... let go?
I break myself.
Have you seen this boy?
The flyers are plastered so closely to the telephone pole that their edges bleed into each other, fraying in the wind. Hollow-eyed children, bleached by the sun, seem to stare into the woman's soul as she walks past.
It's always been a sad town, thinks Gretel. From the first time she saw it, holding her twin's clammy hand from the safety of the backseat, she'd known; this is a place that crushes happiness into powdered sugar, dissolves dreams like cotton candy in a hurricane.
Her heels click steadily over the cement, missing a beat here and there as she navigates over debris and around the stubborn prickers that insist on reaching to the sky from every gap in the sidewalk. The wind whips her skirt into the nearest clawing plant. She turns to untangle herself, hissing at the sharp pricks on her hands and the new holes in the dark fabric, when she sees it.
"Don't leave us here," Hansel cries. All Gretel can do is watch, tears pouring down her face, as Stepmother rolls up the windows. Hansel is banging on the car now, his hands still smeared with chocolate from the sweets Stepmother gave out to keep the children quiet. "Please-"
The old, blue-green car lurches forward, sending Hansel stumbling into the street. He doesn't make a sound as his hands scrape the pavement. As she drives away he stays on all fours, tears and snot dripping off of his face. All Gretel can do is stare after her, blinking away tears as she's blinded by the sun's glare off the back windshield.
It's not the same car. Gretel pulls herself out of the memory, yanking the fabric of her skirt the rest of the way out of the bushes for good measure. The holes at the hem are noticeable now, but that's fine. This skirt used to be her favorite-- the deepest sable black, deep pockets and an adjustable waistband, matching perfectly with her good white blouse.
That blouse is long gone, just like Hansel.
Gretel passes another pole. This one has a little boy's face on top, maybe seven or eight. His hair has a cowlick in the front, freckles shining dark on his cheeks as he beams his gap-toothed smile at the camera.
If she had been able to make posters, would it have helped? If she had gone to the police office when she first realized he wasn't right behind her? If she had had a picture to show people, if she had asked "have you seen this boy?" with an actual photo of him, would anyone have answered differently?
Gretel feels her throat tighten, her eyes burn. She can't breathe. Almost there. Her right pocket feels heavier, somehow.
She passes by the intersection where she lost him without looking. It's as though his ghost is still there, her eight-year-old brother begging to look through the window at all the brightly colored candies even though they couldn't afford dinner that night. Why, why, had she walked away without taking his hand first? Why hadn't she been just a little more patient?
The next block passes by in a blur of faded sepia memories; first with her brother, stealing what food they could, sleeping in whichever corner was darkest, then those three days of frenetic searching. Have you seen this boy? Another sepia door slams shut. She jumps.
She slips her hands into her pockets, feels the paper in her left hand and the metal to her right. What was that address again? She checks it, leaving a new batch of sweating fingerprints on the threadbare scrap of paper, then puts it back in her pocket.
The house was probably painted a deep mustard twenty years ago, but now it's a lightly caramelized pastel. The door is candy-apple red, red licorice where it's been chipped. Gretel takes a deep breath, puts her right hand in her pocket, and rings the doorbell.
The woman who answers looks like she was born old. She grins at Gretel with three teeth the color of butterscotch, wrinkles crinkling behind her glasses, spun sugar hair desperately clinging to her mottled skull.
"Would you like some candy?"
Gretel takes the gun out of her pocket.
It was a dark and stormy night, lit only by intermittent flashes of blue-white lightning and their reflection against the sea's writhing surface. Had the wind not been so strenuous the water would have been a perfectly glossed mirror of blues and greens, marred only by the occasional patch of floating wreckage and the rippling wake of a ship with a black flag. As it was, those details were lost in the blurred edges of the driving rain. Furious waves pounded what remained of the Merry Blue, seemingly angry that the majority of the vessel had already sunk and was even now descending ponderously towards the sea floor. The storm seemed determined to punish every piece of flotsam left of the ship, heedless of the child clinging to a barrel's top and the sailors' desperate attempts to grasp something, anything, that might help them float.
The child seemed oblivious, rain and tears streaking down its face indiscriminately as it peered in the approximate direction of the Storm's Wrath. If the child had been less shellshocked it might have found irony in the name. As it was, it only knew that its home was sailing away.
It heard the cries of drowning men as they fought for the few pieces of flotsam large and buoyant enough to offer some hope of survival and shied away from them, glad that the angry men were too far away to pose a threat. The child had been jettisoned after the battle, tossed overboard just far enough for safety but close enough to hear the souls it had condemned.
Why, why had it told the captain what it saw from the rigging? It knew what the crew were about, knew that they were starving for blood and riches. They hadn't had prey in weeks-- of course they wouldn't care about the risks of the approaching storm.
The child pressed its face into the rough wet grain of its barrel, heedless of the splinters and small cuts that had already started smarting in the brine. Closing its eyes, it tried to block out the memories. It still cowered from the shouting among the tall men as they stomped around on deck, felt the phantom of the captain's blood painting its face, heard the chaos as half protested the violence and the others clamored for more.
It had thrown itself over the captain, trying to wake him up, small hands slipping in blood and the storm's first spits of rain. Until that point the child had lived five, maybe six years-- death was something whispered about but never confirmed. It had asked a crew member, a large, nice man who sometimes bought it sweets, and he said death was just a different kind of sleeping.
But the captain didn't wake up. And the child, shaking with anger and grief and confusion, had thrown itself at the murderer.
Now the child clutched the barrel tighter, closed its eyes, and waited for that different kind of sleep.
I Have a Gecko Named Anxiety
Would you like to meet him?
He's about the size of an adult golden retriever. He lives in the corner of my brain, lounging on a particularly stout, low-hanging branch. The tree, of course, is covered in vines and flowers, merging with the side of my skull. It's hard to spot, though... no, you'll want to ignore that library, you'll get lost for days. Yes, that one too. Straight ahead, around the fire pit (don't jump in, you won't escape unscathed) and over that bridge. Yes, it looks rickety, but it'll hold your weight. There you go, over the Chasm of Eternal Falling and to your left. No, don't stop. The rustling in the ceiling is most definitely not due to giant arachnids. They're friendly, I promise. Hang a right at the human-sized, mummified, dying creature and... there! You've done it. Do you see him now?
You can move closer, if you want. He sleeps most of the time, emitting little croaks and grumbles while his stubby gecko tail coils around and around that branch. Just don't wake him up. When he wakes up... well, it gets messy. He doesn't like people, so maybe just stop a few yards away. Don't make a sound. He doesn't like syringes, either-- the last time he saw one he screamed for about three minutes straight before passing out.
Well, of course he screams. What else would he do? Can't you feel it? Every time he makes a sound, it translates to a draft of anxiety. When he's asleep, it's a gentle breeze. When he's awake and babbling, everyone within range is about to burst a blood vessel from excess adrenaline. When he inhales deeply, though, you really have to worry.
Of course you'll know in advance. He's part chameleon, so he'll flash some warnings. The last time he sensed a social interaction he turned a putrid combination of pumpkin orange, olive green, and a particularly violent shade of violet. Then he'll take a full minute to inhale-- see that odd-looking patch on his throat? He expands it just like a frog, then screams like one of those videos of a screaming goat until the air runs out.
Terrifying? Him? I suppose, maybe... no, I don't see it. He's a silly, simple creature. Just like one of those little yappy dogs that barks their heads off at the slightest provocation. In fact, it's hard not to laugh when he screams, because, well... he gets such a strange, cross-eyed look, and you can see all the way down his throat. Yep, straight down the gullet. And his tail goes straight and his knees lock. Once he got so panicked he fell out of the tree. He was so shocked he stopped screaming-- although he also got the air knocked out of him, so that may have helped.
How can anyone be afraid of a silly screaming gecko? That's all Anxiety is, after all.
You know you want to.
Come closer, see
my translucent tendrils waving
in the current.
I was once living, like you.
I knew fire and pain
as my molecules collided
I once served a purpose.
I held energy in place,
with these tempting jellyfish arms.
Come closer, little one.
Let me wrap your neck in my love,
fill your stomach with my bulk.
I want to feel,
to be alive once more,
to serve my purpose,
before I drift for eons
in hot, dead seas.
Hide and Seek
"Are you playing hide and seek?"
The humanoid figure hiding in the shadows jumped, then turned to face the little girl in her pink dress. "No."
"Can I play?"
"No. Go away, kid."
"You don't look busy. You look like you're hiding in a corner."
"I'm not. My foot is stuck."
"Do you want help? I can go get--"
"No!" The mysterious figure nearly pops out of hiding, lunging towards the child, before they catch themself.
The girl's eyes glazed over, and her lower lip began to tremble. Very quietly, she said "Oh."
"Sorry," the figure said gruffly, retreating back into their corner.
The stranger visibly softened. "You were right. I am hiding."
The girl's transformation was immediate. "Why? For how long? From who?"
"Proper grammar. You should say from whom."
"You didn't answer my question," said the little girl petulantly. She very nearly stomped her foot on the ground, then remembered that only babies have temper tantrums. She settled for a seething glare, directed at the hazy figure in the shadows.
"I haven't had time to answer your torrential downpour of questions. Psst--" Hearing someone's approach, the little girl ducked into the same small alcove as the unidentified stranger. They let out a soft "oof" as the child's elbow catches their ribs, but otherwise remain perfectly still.
A woman's strident voice slowly grew loud enough for the hidden pair to catch identifiable words. "So then I told him, 'She's no good for you!' "
"Is that right?" a second voice replied.
"Mmhm. I looked him straight in the eye, and I told him--"
The other woman gasped. "You didn't."
The first voice cackled gaily. "I did! I told him that his lazy, no-good, harlot of a wife didn't hold a candle to me."
The second woman nearly fell over in excitement. "What did he say?"
The little girl craned her neck to try and catch the last of the conversation, but they were already too far away to hear. "Are you hiding from them?"
"No. Would you move? You're crushing my-- ow! -- spleen. Thanks."
The little girl climbed out of their hiding spot, brushed herself off, then solemnly proclaimed: "You have a spider on your head." The figure uttered a muffled shriek, then flailed briefly, batting at the air. The little girl watched, giggling. "I lied. You're funny. Whom are you hiding from?"
The stranger brushed themself off, attempting to reassert their dignity. "Now it should be who."
"That doesn't make sense," the little girl whined.
"Neither does your persistence."
"You're mean. I'm gonna go tell my daddy about y--"
The figure stopped the child mid-sentence with a hand clamped over her mouth and a harsh whisper. "Wait! I'm sorry."
Muffled by the hand, the girl asked, "You are?"
"Yes. Please don't tell anyone, but I'm looking for someone."
"Promise you won't laugh?"
"Nope. But I won't tell on you. I'm a good secret keeper. I haven't told anyone that Mummy likes the gardener, or that they..." The girl trailed off, perhaps realizing that she'd just negated her own point. The stranger, slightly better lit now that they were halfway in the hallway but still completely unremarkable, blinked twice in surprise before remembering their objective.
"Fine. I'll tell you. But you can't tell anyone." The little girl nodded frantically. The stranger leans in close to the child, whispering loudly in her ear, "I'm looking for my pet frog."
The girl giggles. "I won't tell. What's his name?"
"His name is, um... Frog. Can you go outside to look for him?"
"Okay, but didn't you already look there?"
"He hops really quickly, and he likes the outdoors. Please? If you find him, then we can play hide and seek." The girl quite literally started vibrating with excitement at the prospect, entirely forgetting the improbability of finding a small pet frog in the middle of three acres of forest.
"Yes. But you have to find him in the next seven minutes, or the deal's off."
When the last of the little girl's footsteps had pattered away into silence, the unremarkable stranger turned back to the wall, set a timer, and walked casually down the hall. They left through the front door with three minutes to spare, whistling a melancholy tune.
Girl in Red
I fixed her. I made her better, painted her pretty silk skin in red with my favorite silver brush. I drew her a necklace of garnets, dark red drops gleaming against her throat. I posed her on her bed, sunset paint against white-grey-blue patterned canvas.
She is my gift to you. I position her limbs, fingers splayed daintily, pale eyes staring past me into the distance. A rose spirals open in her hands, its yellow-orange-mauve contrasting with sharp reds and blacks, palest peach skin and light cool tones in the background. I paint silver into her skin. A thin thread of ink runs from the corner of her left eye, corrupting the image. I leave it; I want art, not perfection.
I sign my canvas, as I have always done, in the same paint. Sweeping curves, flourishes. Of course I use a pseudonym. Artists must maintain their mystery. Just in time, too, as I hear your sirens calling in the distance.
You're almost here. It's time to get your gift. It's time for me to go.
One by one, the officers file into the bedroom, grim mouths slashing through their faces. The last one in, a detective, sees the body on the bed and curses.
The girl's throat is mangled by multiple shallow, jagged cuts. A yellow, withered rose was pressed into her hands, thick thorns embedded in her palms. A tear had dragged mascara down one side of her face.
On one white wall, fingerpainted in rapidly congealing blood, are the words "help me."
Dear Ms. McAllen,
I wish to hire you.
The terms of our contract are as follows:
1. I, Gork, will require the full use of your body for one "year", or one rotation around your star. This period will begin once the contract is signed by both parties and will not end until the period reaches its aforementioned end, or circumstances force an early departure.
2. You may set limits for my use of your body, including but not limited to:
a) serious injury and / or death
b) acquisition and atrophy of muscle memory
c) diet, general health and fitness
d) interactions with others of your species
3. You will disclose any health / safety information pertaining to your body, monetary assets, interpersonal relationships, and potential connections to the Irish mob.
4. You may provide your price at the start of your service. The going rate for hosting is 3.531 metric tons of pure Ag (what humans call "silver"). Any more than that and payment will be delayed by up to 239 years, to account for shipping delays and cross-galaxy traffic.
I'm flattered? I think? Your proposal took me by surprise. Why me, specifically? How long have you been stalking me? Are you a parasitic alien or a creatively named serial killer?
Of course, with payment like that, you don't really have to answer those questions. My answer is yes! Yes, yes, yes! My medical history is enclosed, as are my demands and limits. My answer is, however, conditional upon your response to this question:
Why? Why do you need a human body? I have a lot more questions, but I can ask those in person.
I look forward to your response,
Dear Ms. McAllen,
I want to crawl into your skin.
I want to know what it is to feel your hair pricking at your eyelids in the middle of the night, to hear the particular timbre of your voice as it resonates up the jaw and into the ear, bypassing the air in favor of something private and vibrating and loud. I want to warm your hands with a mug of your favorite tea, burn your tongue on it as we watch the rain dash itself hopelessly against the windowpanes.
Does it hurt, when you stretch your arms up above your head? When your knees go snap-crackle-pop every time you stand up?
I see the smudges on your glasses, and I want to clean them. I see the ragged edges of your nails (oh yes, you can't hide that habit from me) and I wonder what stressor makes you worry at them.
I am small, fragile, ethereal. I am tentacles and wavering light and tentative connections. I need a body that hates and destroys and loves, without fear of being crushed underfoot or microwaved into oblivion by your star. The close one. What do you call it... "sun"? I need a host. Something unbreakable that crashes through the world.
I want... I need, to wrap myself in your skin. To use you as protection, transportation, and a somewhat less alarming interface with which to interact with others of your kind.
In short? My dear Meghan, I want to live.
I'll see you in three... days? Is that what you call the rotations of your planet? How charming.
Wrap up your affairs. I'll see you soon...
When are you coming?
I’ve been waiting
Remember your promise?
You said you’d find me.
No matter what.
You said death would never part us.
But you haven’t come back and it’s
So cold and the light's dimming.
Where did you go?
I’m running out of blood and I’m trapped
in the dark
with that scurrying thing.
The Thing that snapped your neck like a twig.
You’re still a dark shape slumped on the floor but
you’re not here anymore.
Please come back for me.
You promised you would.
I don't want to die alone.